Sunday, September 30, 2007


OK, so I'm a dummy when it comes to social science research methodology and you probably know all about this already, but just in case you, like me, are trying to catch up...
A sociogram, also known as a friendship chart, is a diagram used to analyze the social makeup of a group, e.g. a class of students. The methodology was developed by developed by the psychiatrist Jacob Moreno. Video:

Thanks to Terry for pointing at this.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I've been syndicated

BlogBurst I received an invitation from BlogBurst to syndicate the feed of MicrobiologyBytes. After doing a little digging, I decided to accept and to allow the feed to be syndicated. BlogBurst claims to supply content to networks such as Reuters, USA Today and Fox News, and I guess it can't be any worse than having my content stolen by the scrapers (although that does seem to have become a little better recently, perhaps Google tweaked Adsense).

BlogBurst does have a revenue sharing program, although it's based on an interesting model (golf - the PGA leaderboard!) and as I write about science, I'm not expecting to see any money out of this.

I also just picked up my first unsolicited blogging gig from a publisher, so I guess this is a big day :-)

Many eyes

Nemerteans I was just checking an obscure page on Wikipedia (don't ask, it's a frog thing) when I spotted some vandalism. By the time I had logged in, it had been fixed. Encyclopædia Britannica? No thanks.

Friday, September 28, 2007

VLEs, PLEs and TLAs: An Experiment (Update 28.09.07)

Although the last collaborative experiment I tried via this site was not a success (the only responses I got were from colleagues I bullied by email), that has not put me off - I'm trying another one! This time, I'm going to try to write the first draft of a paper. Over a period of time, I will construct the draft here. It won't appear instantly, but will evolve over some time, hopefully with significant input via comments from readers of this blog. I hope Stephen Downes and Tom Haskins, who have written and thought a lot about PLEs, will contribute. I hope those involved with the OU Open Learn project will contribute too. And I hope you will contribute.
Please feel free to link to this page from your site so we can enroll as many participants as possible in this experiment, especially those who have knowledge and experience of these systems.


VLEs, PLEs and TLAs: An Experiment

According to Wikipedia, a virtual learning environment (VLE) is:
a software system designed to help teachers by facilitating the management of educational courses for their students, especially by helping teachers and learners with course administration. The system can often track the learners' progress, which can be monitored by both teachers and learners. While frequently thought of as primarily tools for distance education, they are most often used to supplement the face-to-face classroom.
In contrast, Wikipedia states that personal learning environments (PLEs), are:
systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning. This includes providing support for learners to set their own learning goals, manage their learning, manage both content and process, and communicate with others in the process of learning.
This paper will attempt to compare the affordances of VLEs with the nascent idea of PLEs.

Institutions like VLEs because ...
Learners also like VLEs because ...
PLEs are preferred by ...

Martin Weller: At the risk of plugging my own book (Virtual Learning Environments: Using, Choosing and Developing Your VLE. Routledge; New Ed edition, March 2007), I'll say what I've said in that:
Institutions like VLEs because:
i) they correspond with institutional procurement practice.
ii) They can point to something definite and say 'that's elearning covered.'
iii) They have a central system with which to integrate their systems. This is a massively complicated task and one the PLE world hasn't really engaged with.
iv) They can guarantee a level of provision to students.
v) They can standardise staff development programmes.
vi) They can centralise support for students and staff. This is not possible if everyone is using a different tool.
vii) You can standardise content, format, interaction and information broadcast if you have one central system. For example the discussion after the guest lecture will be in the forum. We will distribute marks via the noticeboard. All lecturer's notes will be in Powerpoint and uploaded by the end of the week to the course area. This is very difficult if you have a plethora of channels and tools.
I used to be anti-PLE but I've come round to their way of thinking in a web 2.0 world (one's blog with its widgets or Facebook page with its apps becomes a kind of PLE). But I still don't think they've addressed some of the issues above, particularly iii to vii, apart from pushing the responsibility back to the individual. There is a big debate to be had about to what extent it is HE's role to provide these tools (and teach the related skills) and to what extent we provide freedom and flexibility. More on affordances another time!

Tom Haskins categories of PLEs emphasize the flexibility of PLEs over VLEs:
  • Tiny: limited to a research project
  • Elongated: lifelong
  • Deep: mental models
  • Infinite: reflective
I wonder if there are additional/alternative PLE classification schemes out there I have not found yet?

28.09.07: I'm currently rethinking this project after reading more of Tom Haskins writings on PLEs. What can I add?
Tom says: A PLE is not a content management system. A PLE must provide context and meaning.

How many videos does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one if the video is Common Craft's new video, Light Bulbs in Plain English:

But HowTo videos seem to be Meme Of The Week, with a rash of new sites springing up at Graspr, SuTree and 5min. Mostly, these sites are disappointing, either being so thin on content that they're not worth visiting in their own right, or failing to support various browsers or platforms. So a more intelligent approach was taken by Tony Hirst in constructing the How do I... instructional video search engine based on Google's custom search engine tool.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Martin's Big Blog Experiment

Which one is Martin Weller Martin Weller is conducting a blogging experiment on his blog at The Ed Techie. In a series of structured, distributed blog posts, he is discussing The Future of Content while mentoring three new bloggers, Ray Corrigan, Patrick McAndrew and Will Woods.

So far, while the conversation has been fascinating - join in - and I have learned two major things:
  • It's useful to interact with a number of bloggers using different platforms. Wordpress is a joy and encourages me to comment. Blogger and TypePad are irritating and discourage commenting. If the overheads were not so high, this experience would have made me consider moving this blog off Blogger, although to be fair, Blogger has improved in the last year and apart from commenting, now has reasonable usability.
  • I hate the long format, information-dense posts in this series. They just don't fit in with my blogging day. The power of blogging lies in microchunking content, not in scrolling screens of consciousness. Jakob Nielsen was wrong about long format content on the blogosphere (I'm letting Martin off the hook at present because this is an experiment) and David Weinberger was right about microchunking.
Update: Stephen Fry has come up a name for these long, rambling posts: blessays. And his latest post is even more rambling than the last one. Great content, wrong format. Either blog Stephen or write a book! Even better, I'd listen to a Stephen Fry podcast, if, as a professional performer, he's into giving content away.

Google buys stake in Burma

Burmese mBloggers are using Facebook to keep one step ahead of junta. If you want to stay up to date, log onto Facebook , search for Burma and subscribe to the RSS feed.

Of course the Junta could have seen this coming if they had watched Peter Gabriel at TED talk about the human-rights watchdog group WITNESS, which distributes digital cameras to ordinary citizens so they can document injustice and abuse. Video:

Now here's the interesting part. Google is battling Microsoft for a stake in Facebook. With Microsoft and Google's record of protecting human rights in China, what happens then?

Google Analytics - Beyond Average

I've always known that Google Analytics is a powerful tool, and I've run it on this blog since the outset, but I've got to admit that I'm usually confused by all except the simplest analyses that the reporting system delivers. So the Google Analytics Playlist on YouTube was very welcome to me. Most of the content comes from the Google Conversion University event on August 1st this year, but for me, the most interesting talk was Non-Ecommerce Sites: Beyond Averages by Avinash Kaushik. Here's the video:

Following Avinash's advice and checking the Visitor Loyalty section of the Analytics reports shows some interesting information about you guys. This site gets a lot of drive-by hits, mostly driven by, but filtering those out by getting away from the heavily skewed averages tells me the following:

Analytics Loyalty: Ignore the drive-bys and concentrate on the people who visit repeatedly.

Analytics Recency: Even the repeat visitors tend to visit every day.

Analytics Length of Visit: Some of you guys spend some time reading what I write, which is nice.

So thank you all, and I hope you'll enhance this site further by taking part in the content poll I've just started.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Space Invaders

Space Invaders Thanks to Chris for pointing me at this piece in THES about students and academics clashing in virtual spaces. The article reports on a JISC study and says that:
Students regard the virtual world as a place for entertainment, socialising and information-gathering. Young people seem to take the view: This is our space, don't invade it.
which is what I said at ALT-C and part of the reason I cut back on the Facebook thing recently.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Microsoft and Google in bidding war for Facebook

War This had to happen. Now it's getting interesting.

Outsourcing UK Education

Outsourcing Back in May, I wrote about WizIQ outsourcing education from the USA to India. Now outsourcing has arrived in the UK. For £49.99 a month Letts Educational is offering an unlimited round the clock support service for GCSE pupils, using tutors based in India. Tuition is currently offered for maths and science, and communication occurs through text, voice and interactive whiteboards.
Concerned about plagiarism, the UK examining boards have already slashed the amount of assessed coursework at GCSE, so this is unlikely to make much impact in that respect. How long before UK undergraduate tuition is outsourced to India?


Sketchcast looks like an interesting idea, allowing you to annotate an audio recording with a simple animated sketch and embed the result in a web page as a Flash player. If you had the right subject, I'm sure this could be very useful, although I'm not convinced that for most topics, the same information couldn't be conveyed quicker and easier in a simpler format. Anyhow, watch this demo and then try it out for yourself:

Monday, September 24, 2007

Life after Death by PowerPoint

Many years ago I had a colleague who spent years developing a hilarious "How not to give a presentation" presentation. In those distant days, the talk was based around slides, and as far as I know, he never updated it for the ppt generation. I always figured that I should do this, but I never got around tuit. But this video is pretty close to what I would say:

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Special One

The Cement Garden Ever since I stumbled across The Cement Garden when I was a student, I have known he is The Special One.

I missed out on Atonement, just couldn't finish it for some reason.

Around Amsterdam, I was beginning to wonder if he was losing it (or maybe it was just me), but recently, Saturday was his best ever I thought.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Students are appealing

peel The National Association of Head Teachers says that increased online marking of A-level papers could be linked to rising numbers of inaccurate exam grades.

Of course, it isn't. The increased incidence of detection of inaccurate exam grades is due to the fact that more students are appealing against the announced grade.

There is no penalty for making an appeal, (other than an insignificant administrative charge), so game theory says that unless you are awarded an A*, you're stupid if you don't appeal. Exactly the same process is happening in higher education where the incidence of online marking has not changed significantly.

Students and accreditation bodies are now engaged in prisoner's dilemma where there can only be one outcome.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Weapons of mass distraction

Dangerous place to live, Leicester.

Why people stop blogging

blogging Brian Heys responded to a comment I left on his blog a few days ago with a reflective post on why people stop blogging.

My take on why people stop blogging is: because they have no reason to blog.

That's not as dumb as it sounds. When I started my first blog experiment a few years ago I did it because I felt that I should. I had suspicions that blogging could be a useful educational tool, but I was far from sure. So I blogged. It was hard work. I got no feedback. After a few months I stopped, because I had no reason to continue, and blogging is work. Hard work. Precious time when you could (and possibly should) be doing something else.

Around 18 months ago, I found a reason to blog. The initial impetus was a group project to promote a new course. The project was both inward looking and outward facing. It was a new (to me) approach to an old problem: bums on seats. I had found a reason to blog. I soon saw that the approach could be applied to other problems. Soon, I had three blogs, then four, currently five. I couldn't stop blogging.

Back in the day when I was a keen but not very good squash player, I "enjoyed" getting thrashed by better players then me (and hated occasionally losing to people who were not as good as me), because by enduring the humiliation, my game improved. When I started blogging again, I found I was being coached by people who were better bloggers than me. Better writers. Better thinkers. People who gave me more and more reasons to blog.

Now, not only can I not stop blogging, I can't stop encouraging other people to blog.

And having read this post, you're one of them :-)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pirates Everywhere!

Pirate flagYarr! September 19th be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and those scurvy dogs at Google have released a broadside at Microsoft with the release of Google Presentation, which completes the Google Office Docs suite of free online applications. Presentation can importing PowerPoint files, export HTML files, has 15 built-in themes, basic image manipulation (resizing) and of course, is collaborative with versioning and online presentation sharing:

But that not be all.

A week after IBM announced that it would join the developer community, the company has launched its own standalone office application suite, Lotus Symphony, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet application, and presentation software.

So what? Office is Microsoft's biggest earner, and now be bein' attacked by pirates.

English-to-Pirate translator

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

You're not my friend

friendz Martin has been thinking about the nature of friends, specifically with respect to social networks such as Facebook.

He wasn't all that taken with my suggestion that "contacts" (which has of course already been bagged by Microsoft) was a better term than "friend" for these weird online inter-relationships, often with people we've never met.

Yesterday at a meeting, I met one of my Facebook "friends" I've never seen f2f before. We were favorably disposed, inclined to approve, help, or support, not hostile or at variance, amicable, but not friendly in the social sense.

So why is this guy my Facebook friend? Because we are part of a community of practice, engaged in a shared domain of human endeavor. A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest, in this case education. We are both members of the community.

So we are more than contacts, but less then friends. We share social capital (Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook "friends:" Social capital and college students' use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 4).

But what should I call them? In this TLA world, I'm leaning towards RLFs (pronounced ralfs) and FBs
(pronounced eff bees).

Crazyegg gets even better

Crazyegg I've been using crazyegg for the last year and it's proved immensely valuable for a number of projects I've worked on during that time. By adding a small piece of Javascript to a webpage, you can analyse user behavior.

Crazyegg allows a number of different views of the user data it has collected, including list and overlay views of user actions, but my favourite has always been the heatmap view. This example from a recent post tells me that people are interested in bacn, and lots more people read comments than make them (which I already knew).

Crazyegg A while ago, crazyegg added a new feature called confetti, which provides both a visual (coloured dots) and a list view of even more user data, including referrers, search terms, operating system, browser, etc.

Nice. I like it when the best gets better. I'm currently using crazyegg to optimize navigation in my free RSS tutorial. I'd like to use these tools on our VLE to better analyze student interactions with presentation of course materials, but the reporting doesn't work behind a login wall, so it's tempting to import the tools I need into the VLE as an iframe or something from expernal public web 2.0 sites.

Vote early and vote often

Millionaire Jo sent me this great resource on the use of Personal Response Systems (PRS), Electronic Voting Systems (EVS), call them what you will (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire style clickers), written by Steve Draper.

All I need now is enough handsets for the entire first year.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

SOTI Roundup 16.09.07

  • If you like Flash welcome screens, you're going to love I'm not proud, so I'll say it: It took me a while to get it.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The blues

Guitar One of my kids just bought an electric guitar.

I've got guitar-envy.

So I'm sitting here listening to John Lee Hooker.

Boom boom boom boom.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Witchcraft - coming soon to a shopping centre near you

witch The United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization has ruled in favour of a group of witches in a dispute with Hammerson, the developers behind the £300 million extension of the Shires shopping centre in Leicester. The witches registered the website to promote their beliefs - but Hammerson wanted the website after it used the same name for the new shopping centre. The United Nations panel ruled the witches had registered the domain name legitimately. The company had offered to buy the domain name, but its bids were rejected by the witches.
Mel Gordon, who designed the site and acted as spokesman for the witches, said the site's owner Morrigan Wisecraft was delighted with the decision:

She hasn't been in the best of health lately. I think it has a lot to do with the stress of this. She was in the garden with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren when I gave her the news. She kept dancing around the garden, singing at the top of her voice like a 15-year-old.
Magic. The UN's attempts to sort out the Darfur crisis will now be replaced by a panel of witches.


Unicode Codes are multiplying. Professor Sir David King, the British government's chief scientific advisor, set out a universal ethical code for scientists:

  • Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
  • Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
  • Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
  • Ensure that research is justified and lawful
  • Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
  • Discuss issues science raises for society
  • Do not mislead; present evidence honestly

King believes if every scientist followed the code, we would improve the quality of science and remove many of the concerns society has about research.

Hot on the heels of that, Chris sent me a link to, which has more codes than you can shake a stick at. Helpfully, the site also provides the following "code of codes":

  • Aspirational (codes of ethics) set out ideals that practitioners should uphold
  • Advisory (codes of conduct) go further than Aspirational codes by tying actions to guidelines which suggest how to act appropriately
  • Enforceable (codes of practice) seek to further codify what is acceptable practice. Rather than attempting to sway or guide behavior, enforceable codes are embedded within wider systems of professional and legal regulations
  • Source: Rappert, Brian (2004), Towards a Life Sciences Code: Countering the Threat from Biological Weapons, Bradford Briefing Papers, University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies.

So my question to you is this. The more codes we have to regulate our behavior, are we more or less likely to misbehave?

Steven Pinker - A brief history of violence

Play Video

We live in violent times, an era of heightened warfare, genocide and senseless crime. Or so we've come to believe. Steven Pinker charts a history of violence from Biblical times through the present, and says modern society has a little less to feel guilty about.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What did I learn at ALT-C 2007?

ALT-C 2007 I've waited a week to write this post to try to make it as reflective as possible. So, in simple terms, what were the take home messages for me at ALT-C 2007?

It's not about the technology any more, it's about the users.
I realize many will say that this was always true, but in reality, in the past it's always felt like you were fighting the technology (especially Microsoft) to achieve the pedagogy. Within the last year, that genuinely seems to have turned round.

The perceived tensions between personal space and social space are not just in my head.
It's always good to have my own observations confirmed by others.

Dylan William: Quality control is more effective than quality assurance, as learning is not predictable by inputs but needs to be modeled around outputs - so assessment is critical as it allows for quality control. Teachers don't teach well until they are 6 years in and keep improving for the next twenty years. New teachers tend not to be good teachers - love the one you're with strategy. Fold your arms. Teachers do not create learning, they create the context for learning. We need a pedagogy of engagement and contingency. The right level of challenge is necessary to engage pupils.

SOTI Roundup 11.09.07

montageagoogle While I was away on the conference circuit, a few stories escaped me. Some are shiny, happy tech news (thanks Cali), some are ...

Google Reader adds search. This is a big deal - no, really, it is. All the Googley goodness you would expect of a Google app, but more. Since this is a way of filtering RSS, it takes Reader closer to being a web 3.0 application. Very soon, Reader will recommend feeds to the user, based on previous subscriptions and other Google activity.
I'd be tempted to abandon Bloglines - if Reader worked properly with Safari.

Unfortunately, the GigaOm Show is a huge let down. The producers just don't understand the format. The file sizes are huge yet the quality is poor, the running time is too long and the talking head format could be done better with audio. Om Malik looks tired and several times said "I can't be bothered to talk about this". Well Om, I can't be bothered to watch you. You need to watch WebbAlert to learn how to put together a video podcast.

Montage-a-google is a simple web-based application that uses Google image search to generate a large gridded montage of images based on search terms entered by the user. Nice.

How many teachers does it take to become a journalist? Err, most of them, it seems.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Facebook thing

Facebook logo I've written quite a lot here about Facebook over the last few months. Not because everyone else seemed to be obsessed with this social network, but because I was genuinely interested in it. And when I'm interested in a new technology, I like to immerse myself in it as deeply as possible. And after the huge disappointment that was MySpace, Facebook came as a relief.

Like many people, I started out by trying to get as many "friends" (we desperately need a better term for these social network links) as possible, but after one of my invitations was rebuffed by a blogger who told me she only approved friend requests from people she'd actually met, I came round to that point of view and pruned my list severely.

Of late, the Facebook bacn has started to get a little wearing, but the fact is, there are only so many hours in a day. So I've decided to stop updating my Facebook status, and use the time for something else. Like blogging.

And the Facebook backlash starts to gather pace.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Images from ALT-C

Not real images, but mental images from Seb Schmoller's ALT-C (where I'm speaking on Thursday) Pipe:

Monkey jump Monkeys crossing a river: you can't cross a chasm in two jumps.

Ironbridge Ironbridge: a design for a wooden structure, built in a new material (iron).

eliminate I enjoyed Dylan William's keynote via eluminate.

And the winner is ... Dylan William, best talk ALT-C 2007, beating Peter Norvig by a short head.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Web 2.0 in Science

Categories of social software Pretty good summary article on web 2.0 in science by Timo Hannay in CTWatch Quarterly:

  • The web as a platform
  • The Long Tail (e.g. Amazon)
  • Trust systems and emergent data (e.g. eBay)
  • AJAX (e.g. Google Maps)
  • Tagging (e.g.
  • Peer-to-peer technologies (e.g. Skype)
  • Open APIs and ‘mashups’ (e.g. Flickr)
  • Architectures of participation (e.g. Wikipedia)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Britain's ugliest buildings

Opal Court I've been giving newspapers a bit of a roasting recently, so let me give The Times some kudos for its recent comments about Britain's ugliest buildings. On the shortlist are two that we love to hate, Drake Circus shopping centre, Plymouth, which I've commented on unfavourably elsewhere, and Opal Court, Leicester:

Building student housing has become a huge business, not for the universities themselves - once patrons of the best modern British architecture - but outsourced to developers. I can think of few visions more depressing for a fresher than clapping your eyes on this shelving system for human beings as you weep your goodbyes to mum and dad. It’s another vast bulky box with no concessions to humans, thinly draped with bright colours to disguise its resemblance to a gulag.

AideRSS - very web 3.0

logo Remember that I keep telling you that web 3.0 is going to be defined by machine-generated content and intelligent software agents. The machines will interpret content for us as well as providing it.

AideRSS is a web 3.0 application which does exactly that. The service filter the RSS noise by scoring each post by the number of comments it received, number of times it's been tagged in, inbound links from a number of blog search engines, etc. For example, here's the AideRSS version of what the blogosphere is saying about web 3.0.

Try your own topics and see if the filtering improves your productivity.
Welcome to web 3.0!