Sunday, August 31, 2008


Logo Virtually attending the Nature Science Blogging Conference 2008 (#sciblog) yesterday via online backchannels was an interesting experience, more interesting than I thought it would be. I started out following the the tweets of friends who were there and the #sciblog tag on Twitter. That proved to be a rather fragmentary experience, mostly because few of the attendees were twittering, so there wasn't enough coverage to keep me engaged.

Being a geeky kind of meeting, a Friendfeed room had also been set up in advance, and by mid-morning, the action had started to move there. After Matt Wood's microblogging session, the Friendfeed room really took off and the Twitter stream dried up. Personally, I found it more work to follow the proceedings on Friendfeed rather than via Twitter, although technically, it worked equally well. The longer comments took more time and work to read and to compose, sometime distracting from the live stream. Also, threading on Friendfeed made the flow of material harder to follow live than it would have been on Twitter. Although Friendfeed leaves a better "lasting" resource after the event, Twitter makes it easier to participate contemporaneously.

Via the Friendfeed room, I found Cameron Neylon's streamed video on Mogulus. This was an excellent addition (thanks Cameron), although the video quality didn't add anything, but the audio stream was extremely valuable, especially when I found myself listening to the audio in one browser tab and participating in the Friendfeed room on two simultaneous sessions (microbloging and science blogs and online forums as teaching tools) - which was pretty hard work.

Participating in a conference online is of course not the same experience as being there in person. Less networking, less serendipitous meetings and conversations. In some ways, I felt like I had more in common with other remote participants such as Mike Seyfang in Australia. On the other hand, virtual attendance has benefits: not travelling, saving money, time and the planet; participating in simultaneous sessions; sloping off for a while to fix my roof, catch an escaped gecko, pull some carrots, etc.

As for the conference itself, meh. Nothing will change. I got particularly irritated during the first panel session, the scientific life exposed. This was poorly judged for this particular meeting, although that would have been hard to predict in advance. It sucked up all the energy which had been built up by Ben Goldacre's keynote, and if you changed "scientist" to "accountant" in the platitudes coming out of the panellists, it would not have altered the session. What particularly irritated me was the conceit that bloggers know what "the public" want better than professional media organizations. Wrong. Those guys deal in eyeballs by the millions, they know what sells. When 2.3 million people tune into you blog to read about your latest failed western blot or the fact that you haven't been able to get another job since your last short term contract ended, let me know.

But I don't want to end on a negative note. Would I do it all again, give up a Saturday to sit in front of a computer? Yes. I wish more conferences were organized like this.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Nature Science Blogging Conference 2008

Logo Today I'm going to be virtually attending the Nature Science Blogging Conference 2008 (#sciblog), via the backchannel:

Small Worlds Team Meeting 29.08.08

Small world networks At our Small Worlds project meeting yesterday, we agreed to use a WetPaint wiki as the home for this project. Participants will be encouraged to join the wiki and create a profile to enable peer discovery. AJC will present this at the PG Induction Week session on 2/10/08.

We will push:

1. Twitter for peer to peer communication. We decided not to create an immitter for this project, but to use dedicated Twitter identities (so as not to swamp twitter noobs).
2. delicious
3. Google Reader (especially Shared Items pages)

AJC will order Moo cards for follow-up social events (e.g. PG Soc).

Anything else?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Google Reader: Help Wanted

Google Reader I'm in the closing stages of writing the PLE course for our first year Biological Sciences students, but I'm still having a little trouble with Google Reader. What I'd like to do is have students tag and share items from RSS feeds they have subscribed to. The problem is how to efficiently assess this task for a large number of students (nearly 200).

Google Reader shared pages have complex URLs such as, c.f. delicious URLs, which are predictable if the account username is known, e.g. We can collect the shared page URLs manually, but this is laborious for this number of students. Moreover, we would like to emphasize the social and sharing aspects of Google Reader, e.g. pooled tags relevant to all students on a particular course, but so far, I haven't found a way of doing this.

Can anyone help me out of my unfamiliarity with Google Reader?

BTW, the syllabus for this course (I.T. and Numeracy Skills for Biologists) is:

Session 1 (2/10/2008): Introduction
Session 2 (6/10/2008): Email
Session 3 (9/10/2008): Scientific Literature
Sessions 4 & 5 (13/10/2008): RSS
Session 6 (20/10/2008): Manipulating Numbers
Session 7 (23/10/2008): Social Bookmarking
Sessions 8 & 9 (27/10/2008): Office Suites
Sessions 10 (3/11/2008): Units & Conversions
Sessions 11 & 12 (6/11/2008): Presentations & Posters
Sessions 13 (13/11/2008): Molarities & Dilutions
Sessions 14 & 15 (17/11/2008): Images
Session 16 (24/11/2008): Areas & Volumes
Session 17 (27/11/2008): Your PLE
Session 18 (1/12/2008): Exponents & Logs
Session 19 (4/12/2008): ePortfolios

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


WE magazine WE magazine, a free online quarterly aiming to address "cutting edge" topics on the internet, just launched. I was interested in the Ten Futures article by Stephen Downes:

The Pragmatic Web
Forget about the Semantic Web. Whether or not it ever gets built, you can be sure that we will be complaining about it. Because while the Semantic Web gives us meaning, it doesn’t give us context. It will give us what we can get from an encyclopedia, but not what we can get from phoning up our best buddy...

We will again in the future become a species of nomads, moving in tribes and herds through society, grazing on energy and information inputs as they become available ...
Consumer goods – ubiquitous today – will become expensive and impractical in the future. Owing a library of books, for example, will be a wealthy man’s folly – a lot like keeping a Spanish Galleon in the back yard to support your own personal trade link to China. We will have few possessions, and those mostly as keepsakes or mementos. "Rooted" people will be thought of in the future the way we think of "nomadic" people today – unable, for some social-cultural reason to mesh with the rest of society.

Ten Futures (Stephen Downes)
WE: Towards a New Enlightenment and the Tasks of a Natural Religion (Stuart Kauffman)
WE Care - Corporate Social Responsibility (Line Hadsbjerg)
The world is talking. WE is listening! Global Voices Online (Ethan Zuckerman)
You don’t have to ask WE for permission - Creative Commons (Joichi Ito)
WE - The Media (Dan Gillmor)
From Youtube To WEtube (blogpost by Henry Jenkins)
WE are hiring Indians (Sugata Mitra)
Playing for Change (Jeff Cobb)
The Fast Learnung Organization - Enterprise 2.0 (Willms Buhse/Soeren Stamer)
WE Create - Mass Customization and beyond (Frank T. Piller/Dennis Hilgers)
WE Digital Natives (Jonathan Imme)
WE distribute, shape and share information, knowledge and cultures (Regine Debatty)

Monday, August 25, 2008

This week I have been mostly eating beetroot

1 lb baby beetroots (the smaller the better) and their leafy tops
1 tsp red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
1 carton of sour cream or crème fraiche
A pinch of sugar
½ pint of water
1 squeeze of lemon juice
salt and pepper
A mixture of fresh herbs e.g. coriander, parsley and a little mint
Take the beetroots and wash well. Chop off the roots, but leave the skins and the leafy tops on. Add a teaspoon of salt to the washing water to remove any tiny slugs or snails. Rinse in fresh water and chop the beetroots and leaves finely. Place in a saucepan with half a pint of water, a pinch of salt and the vinegar and a small squeeze of lemon. Cook just enough to make sure the beetroot pieces are tender. If you prefer a smoother consistency, place in a blender for a minute.
Cool thoroughly. Stir the cream in swirls and decorate the top with finely chopped herbs.

Roasted Vegetables
Sweet potatoes
Olive oil
Thyme or rosemary, salt and pepper

Peel and cut all the vegetables into same-size chunks and put them into a large roasting tin. Drizzle them with olive oil and turn all the chunks to cover them, strew the herbs over them, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour on medium heat, as you would roast potatoes. Turn them every 20 minutes.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finally, an embeddable Flickr slideshow widget

Flickr finally added the ability to share a slideshow with other users. Just click the Share link when viewing any slideshow on Flickr. You get two options: a URL that links to the slideshow you're viewing or HTML code that will let you embed a smaller version on your web page:

Friday, August 22, 2008

Latest news from the Beijing Olympics

50 Ideas on Using Twitter for Education

It's a big job Chris Brogan has a nice post on 50 Ideas on Using Twitter for Business. If you swap "Education" for "Business", it's still pretty relevant. Chris lists his 50 tips under five headings:

First Steps:
  • Build an account and immediate start using Twitter Search to listen for your name, your competitor’s names, words that relate to your space.
  • Add a picture. We want to see you.
  • Don’t get stuck in the apology loop. Be helpful instead.
Ideas About WHAT to Tweet:
  • Ask questions. Twitter is GREAT for getting opinions.
Some Sanity For You:
  • You don’t have to read every tweet.
  • You don’t have to reply to every @ tweet directed to you.
  • Commenting on others’ tweets, and retweeting what others have posted is a great way to build community.
The Negatives People Will Throw At You:
  • Twitter takes up time.
  • Twitter takes you away from other productive work.
Some Positives to Throw Back:
  • Twitter can help direct people’s attention to good things.
  • Twitter at events helps people build an instant “backchannel.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

First year undergraduate practicals

Report In April 2008 the Centre for Bioscience arranged a workshop involving 32 bioscience staff from across UK HE, to discuss the topic of first year undergraduate work in the biosciences. Participants shared experiences of delivering practical classes where problem solving, research investigation, creativity and innovation are key features, before redesigning a number of current practicals in an investigative mode and in light of the needs expressed by students in a prior survey.

The report contains a summary of the main points, a list of recommendations, and a number of practicals, from the workshop, and the presentations and copies of the practicals from the workshop can be viewed on the Centre of Bioscience website.
  • What are (should be?) the learning objectives of 1st year practicals?
  • Do we want to teach 1st year students specific laboratory skills since it will be 3 years before they reach employment?
  • Should we be challenging students more and letting them make mistakes? Do they see such mistakes as learning opportunities or as badly designed practicals which do not work?
  • Are we providing a taste for what laboratories are like and therefore informing career choices?
  • Are we trying to engender enthusiasm and interest in laboratory work?
  • Have we got the right balance between these different issues?
  • Not adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, can we introduce choice into practicals?
  • The transition from school to university laboratory work. This is a big jump; can we help students make it in easy steps over a period of time?
  • Can we reduce the ‘worst’ things about practicals while capitalising on the ‘best’ things to improve the student experience of laboratory classes and so stimulate student interest and motivation for laboratory based careers?
  • Is there an alternative approach (which may be very time consuming) in which staff talk to students about a negatively perceived laboratory class to show where learning can be extracted?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Facing the music

Although I liked Pandora a lot, since it was disabled for UK accounts (the workarounds were too much of a faff to bother with), I haven't used it much. looks like a possible replacement, but it's nowhere near as smooth. For some reason, I never took to

So right now, I'm flipping between imeem and the new, improved grooveshark.

I'm not sure which will win yet, because, like, I'm not sure I've really grokked either of these.

Monday, August 18, 2008

How to fix a broken Internet

H2O project It's been a DIY sort of week, as my house seems to be breaking. On my way to B&Q on Saturday, I caught a little bit of Baroness Susan Greenfield talking complete bollocks about the internet. Seemingly having relinquished all claim to be a scientist, Baroness Greenfield is no longer encumbered by the need for any evidence to support her wacky public statements. However, one thing she said did strike a chord with me:
The technology is such that is creating an environment which is answer-rich, but we are question-poor.
I said something similar in a comment on Tony Hirst's blog some months ago. This issue is a fundamental change in how the world works (but not our brains). Instantaneous gratification (information rather than knowledge) is a contributory cause to why the Internet doesn't work (as well as it should). Actually, the Internet works fine, doing exactly the job it was designed for. It's Internet users that are broken.

Which brings me to the second serendipitous find of the last two days. On Friday, Dave Winer wrote about the H2O project at Harvard, in particular, Rotisserie, which is:

an innovative approach to online discussion that encourages measured, thoughtful discourse in a way that traditional threaded messaging systems cannot. In contrast to the completely asynchronous, broadcast-to-broadcast mode of existing threaded messaging systems, the Rotisserie adds structure to both the timing and the flow of the discussion. The timing of the discussion is broken into semi-synchronous rounds. Users are allowed to post responses at any time, but their responses are not published to other users until the deadline for the current round passes. This structure allows users to put significant thought into their responses rather than competing with other participants to post first. More important, this structure allows the system to control the flow of the discussion by distributing responses to specific users for further discussion at the end of each round, ensuring that every post is distributed to at least one other user for comment and that each user has exactly one post to which to respond.

Rotisserie is about moving away from instaneous, broadcast-mode communication, back to a more asynchronous, structured method of discussion and decision making. When I first read Dave Winer's post, I dismissed his comments as hype, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if approaches to online communications such as Rotisserie are a way to get off the Twitter/email treadmill, and perhaps even a way back from the tyrrany of information towards knowledge.

Friday, August 15, 2008

3rd Science Learning and Teaching Conference

SLTC3 Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh 16-17 June 2009

The aim of this national conference is to bring together practitioners in the teaching of science disciplines in HE to share their experiences, identify common challenges and an opportunity to share effective practice.
Offers of contributions are invited for oral presentations (15 minutes), interactive presentations (30 minutes), workshops (1.5 hours) and poster presentations. Contributions on any of the following themes are particularly welcome:
  • assessment/feedback/plagiarism
  • induction/transitions/retention/recruitment
  • developments in learning and teaching – forward thinking
Abstracts must be submitted using the online submission form on the conference website. The submission deadline is 12:00 on Friday 28th November 2008. The registration fee for the conference will be £195 for those participants with an accepted abstract; otherwise the fee will be £225. Registration will open in December 2008.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Suckiness abounds: delicious makes a bad move (and an even worse movie)

Following my post yesterday about the Bloglines redesign, now that I've had a chance to use some more, I like the new version even less. Usability has been sacrificed at the expense of "design". Here's an example of what I mean. This is delicious' (those dots are starting to really annoy me) own movie to explain the changes to existing users:

Did you understand wtf that was all about? No, I thought not. When will this madness end?


DIUS While I was away, the Stakeholder Community Manager from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) sent me an email about the "H.E. debate" initiated by John Denham, Secretary of State with responsibility for universities. The specific themes DIUS is seeking input on are:
  • Part-time studies in Higher Education
  • Demographic challenge facing Higher Education
  • Teaching and student experience
  • International issues in higher education
  • Intellectual property and research benefits
  • Academia and public policy making
  • Research careers
  • Understanding institutional performance
  • Higher Education in General
To solicit input, JISC Involve is hosting a site which DIUS hope interested individuals will use to post their views and comments, so if you'd like to have your say on the future of UK HE, you know where to go.

One problem I can see is that the "blog" has been set up as more of a forum, fronted by static pages corresponding to the above topics to which readers can append their comments. There doesn't seem to be any obvious commitment (at least at this stage) for DIUS to provide any further input, so maybe they're hoping readers will fight it out amongst themselves. If they do, the site navigation is going to get pretty confusing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Our customers are stupid and we treat them like dirt

The finger You know how it is. You go away on holiday, and when you come back, something really bad has happened. No, not NBC making dumb decisions about its online Olympics coverage, that's about what I'd expect from an old media firm (here's a hint NBC - either put it online or don't bother).

The surprise was the dumb move by Bloglines to force (notice the f-word there rather than the c-word) all users of its newer beta service to read all their blog subscriptions as pale grey text (#666666) on a white background. (And while we're at it, no, I don't like the new redesign either - much less readable.)

Now if someone gave me the choice of reading pale grey text on a white background ... I wouldn't take it. But no choice was involved here. How could a company like Bloglines get a decision like this so wrong? And why am I making a big deal out of such a small change?

Because the way people act online has changed, and trying to force things on them is a very, very, bad idea. Isn't it, Microsoft, NBC, etc? I still don't like Google Reader - I can't explain why, I just never have. Except that now, I dislike it less than I dislike Bloglines, so it looks as if I'll have to learn to like it.

And that's why this small thing is such a big deal. I can't believe Bloglines won't reverse this change very shortly, but even then, I suspect the damage will have been done and they'll have played right into Google's hands. And this from a "new media" company which is supposed to understand this stuff! Image how bad it's going to be when your senior manager starts telling you how to use Web 2.0 tools for education...

A Holiday Romance

St Eden I'm just back from a holiday in France (yes, very nice thank you, apart from the incident with the andouille), and it's made me think ... about the French, and in particular, the comparison between French and British society.

OK, I was on holiday, and the sun shone (most of the time), but I still can't help feeling that the French have played their hand much better than the Brits over the past 50 years. Whereas we seem to do everything to squander our national interests, the French, of course, don't. So they have arrived at their social paradise, which is strongly socially conservative (in the Sarkosy mode) and feels like the legacy of de Gaulle, although it is of course the legacy of Mitterand. Two World Wars and one World Cup? Try three volume domestic car producers and and one World Cup. A nation where supermarket chains close for lunch from 12-2, and which don't try to eliminate local artisan bakers (because they know they can't). A nation where national identity is valued, rather than derided.

But all holidays have to end, so how can I make this one last, as the tan starts to fade and most of the sand has been vacuumed out of the car? For all it's attraction, I don't think I'd want to live in France permanently, so I've decided to try to be a little more French, on the inside :-)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Are learning portfolios worth the effort?

BMJ A major challenge facing us today is the move to assess doctors’ performance in the workplace instead of the examination hall. The portfolio remains our best solution. It allows the collation and integration of evidence on competence and performance from different sources to gain a comprehensive picture of everyday practice. Simultaneously, portfolios can guide and coach professional development. Studies in multiple contexts confirm that this is feasible if, and only if, users take on board the conditions required for effective use of portfolios.

Are learning portfolios worth the effort? BMJ 2008;337:a513

All we need to do now is introduce the medics to the concept of e-portfolios...