Bear with me. This story starts with a journey.
25th April 2017, 14:30: Bristol. It was a Tuesday. I was heading home from a meeting. There is a Train Service provider in the UK called CrossCountry Trains. They have a fleet of trains with LCD seat reservations. The seat reservation system downloads all the reservations to each train in the fleet. Our journey begins with my having boarded a train where not all the seats were reserved, a small blessing on this service. So what do the LCD seat reservations say when the seat in not reserved? Well, there was time, I remember it well, when they would say “Seat Available”. But on this journey it says “Reservable en-route to Glasgow Central”
25th April 2017, 14:30: somewhere North of Bristol. The Train Guard is checking tickets. (Actually this a Crosscountry service they do not have guards, the Train Manager was checking tickets).
Upon checking of my ticket, I lean back against the antimacassar and address the train manager.
“This seat is available?”
“May I reserve it for my journey?”
“Can you do that for me?”
“No, you have to go online.”
I am fortunate, I have a device and I have data, it is easy to find the website, and after a brief check through the details it appears that these seats are bookable as “10 minute reservations”, i.e you have to book them at least 10 minutes before boarding.
At this point I am on a train, I have found a seat that is NOT reserved and I am sat relaxed for my journey. Importantly we are already moving – my journey has begun.
The Train Manager is coming back down the train.
“Excuse me I have some questions”
So it transpires that I might have sat in an unreserved seat, but someone further up the line might book that seat 10 minutes before we get into the station, and I will be asked to move. The Train Manager made the point very clearly when I said that is hardly fair that I will be forced to move.
I also pointed out that whilst I went online it told me I had to use an SMS, a text message to book the seat. Imagine reading the page below on a small screen.
As some of this was unfolding on Twitter, a passenger sat opposite me decided to chip in:
I decided to book the seat, by text message, by pretending I was getting on at the next station. I was sat at a table seat, for ease of working. I sent the text, it sent me a message, with my reserved seat number. In an “airline” seat (which are cramped and dreadful for working with a laptop).
I mentioned it on Twitter to @crosscountryUK and they responded:
This was disappointing.
Still, if someone reserved my seat, I did have the fallback of the other seat.
I sat for a while. @ZebsMattz and I exchanged a few words like – “if they have the data why not build an app to book the seat you want” or “why not give the train manager the ability to book the seat”.
I sent another text message using the same code.
It sent me another seat reservation.
At no point in this process btw did it as for my ticket reference.
I sent another text message using the same code.
@ZebsMattz looked me and asked “what are doing?”
“I’m trying to book the seat I’m in”
At this point I have booked 7 seats. I sent another text message using the same code.
“Cut, Paste, Send, Repeat”
I booked around 20 seats in that carriage. I may have been feeling good about this. Other passengers hearing what I was doing started watching their LCD screens to see if I reserved their seat – it was like some weird train seat lottery.
Eventually the message came through that no seats were available, I think I had reserved over 20 at that point. I may have mentioned it on Twitter.
So this was a bit of fun on a boring journey.
But as I sat and reflected on it I started to realise where this applies to the Next Generation of Digital Learning Environments and why we aren’t, why we shouldn’t be, driven by technology.
The old reservation system, for all its faults, worked well. You get on a train, the seat is not reserved, you sit in it. Even when the seat said “unreserved until xxx” at least you knew when you would have to move.
But at some point, and I am conjecturing, someone said “hey, cool idea for the technology we have….” And the 10 minute reservation system using the web, and SMS, and the onboard system, was born. (I am not even going to go into the fact that you have to go online to get a code to send a text and the way that disenfranchises so many people).
In the old system, you found an unreserved seat and sat in it.
In the new system, you find a seat that is “reservable en-route”, you sit in it, work quietly, or nap or read a book, and then at some station further up the line someone gets on the train and says “that’s my seat”.
In a world where we have too many awkward situations already, we do not need to build systems and processes that create more.
Over on the Design and Exclusion Blog Ethan Zuckerman said
All of these social media systems at their heart, depend on human beings interacting with one another in productive and interesting ways. And it drives me nuts that we hire the engineers first and never the anthropologists.
The Jisc Codesign Challenge around the Next Generation of Digital Learning Environments identified a lot of new tech, and new tech approaches, we selected some ideas around what we might prototype. But next month, May, we start a major piece of work looking at the behaviours of people in these environments, and in their physical spaces. As we move forward and start looking at some of our prototype tools and start working with institutions around what is possible we are underpinning that work by looking at motivations and behaviours. We recognise that tech is only part of the picture when we look at Next Generation Digital Learning Environments, we know we need to understand more about the people in and around them.
We need to think clearly around what we want from our systems and what we don’t. We do not need more awkward situations.
If you are managing, deploying, participating or teaching in any online learning, what are those awkward moments? Has someone been sitting comfortably, and then been, metaphorically, told that is not their seat? Are you putting layers and barriers in that don’t need to be there? These are some of the challenges we need to consider.