Friday, October 31, 2008

Wiki choices

Wikimart Which wiki is a question which has been big in my mind for the last few weeks. I use wikis in a number of contexts, but at the moment I'm considering the technology I'm going to use next term on my final year virology course at the University of Leicester.

Over the last few weeks, I've gone backwards and forwards about WetPaint. The alternative is the Learning Objects wiki add-on for Blackboard. Both of these have advantages and disadvanatges. One of the main ones is lack of RSS output from the Learning Objects/Blackboard wiki, which WetPaint has, making assessment of individual contributions much easier. In fact, without RSS output I'm not sure how I could assess individual contributions to a group Learning Objects/Blackboard wiki. (Sigh, yes, I do have to assess, or students won't engage.) Privacy (which I hate but students like, as I found out in my forays into assessing contributions to Wikipedia) and the much greater range of content which can be embedded into Learning Objects/Blackboard wikis make me lean towards this solution.

In fact, the bigger question for me right now is group versus individual wikis. Previously on this course I have used collaborative writing on Wikipedia as an assessment format, but I was persuaded by a presentation at the HEA conference this summer to try out individual Learning Objects/Blackboard wikis this time around. However, although that might solve some of the problems with the squabbles about credit for contributions to a single group wiki, I've never felt comfortable with abandoning the idea of collaboration where knowledge is individually owned by students but socially constructed.

So right now, I'm stuck in a morass of self-doubt, both on the technology and the pedagogical fronts. Both solutions are flawed. Which is worse? Maybe I should just get the students to write a 3000 word essay and spend a boring afternoon marking them all?

Richard Badge is using the Learning Objects/Blackboard wiki as a place to keep lab notes and record gel photos, and laboratory wikis were originally a component of Small Worlds, although we've backed off promoting wiki use recently.

Maybe I'm going about this the wrong way. Perhaps the question is:

Why wiki?

Although I've never found approaching these problems from a learning outcomes perspective any more helpful than Sarah Horrigan.

Input, please?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An insight into the student mind?

BS1010 Over the past couple of weeks here in Leicester (The University of the Year, 2008 - OK, I'll stop now ;-) the students on our PLE module have been busily subscribing to RSS feeds and sharing items on Google Reader with explanatory notes describing how the items they have chosen to share are useful for the biological sciences modules which make up the rest of their course.

I like this approach to constructing the PLEs, because the technology looks like biology, and that makes it much more palatable. And we are developing interesting new methods of collaborative marking and moderation using Google Documents - more on that later I suspect, when Stuart's written the manuscript! ;-) There's quite a frisson in watching your colleagues minds working as they deliberate whether a particular item is a Douglas or a Desmond, and the Google spreadsheet updates in real time in front of you as they waver.

At the same time, the students are doing an overlapping assessment by bookmarking items on delicious, and in this case, using our first year module codes to specify which parts of the degree course the items are relevant to. This is building up a repository of information for the entire cohort (and staff, if they care to use it):
In marking all this shared information on a weekly basis, it's starting to become clear that some topics are over-represented in the items shared and bookmarked. In particular, material relevant to our supplementary chemistry module comes up a lot. It's no surprise that many students who have chosen to study for degrees in biological sciences feel uncertain about chemistry, but the live data stream from these two assessments seems to be revealing underlying anxieties about their modules and abilities.

The question is, what are we going to do with all this data?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Online identity

There's been a lot of it about this week.

On Monday, Steven Warburton launched the Rhizomes Identities project. I wasn't able to do Graham Attwell's Monday night Sounds of Bazaar, so I only picked up the link from Twitter, and at present I'm still slightly confused what Rhizomes is all about (and the Netvibes site isn't helping me that much), but maybe a kindly younger reader will explain it all to me...
(see this)

Also on Monday, our lunchtime session on Facebook and the Student Experience broke out into a lively Twitter discussion as Tris put it, temporarily knocking all but Obama and Google out of the top Twitter trends. A lot of newbies had their first Twitter experience during this session, and it was pretty challenging keeping up with what was going on in the room, participating in the Twitter stream and trying to help out the noobs struggling with Twitter.

As part of the latter, I found myself in a Twitter discussion about the importance of profie photos (or avatars) in building trust in an online identity, and shortly after that, stumbled across Turn Your Name Into a Face, which does exactly what it says on the tin:

Turn Your Name Into a Face

Contractually Obliged?

University of Leicester I'm probably contractually obliged to point out that the University of Leicester has been named University of the Year 2008 in the Times Higher Education Awards (but see my disclaimer ;-)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Scientists and Web 2.0

Small Worlds Michael Nielsen makes an interesting point about the myth that "physicists invented the web":
Berners-Lee didn’t succeed because CERN was doing fundamental research. He succeeded in spite of it.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (>)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Social Ranking Affects Choices

Dutch National Lottery In the famous Dutch Post Code Lottery, the winning ticket is drawn on the basis of the post code. When the post code of somebody who didn’t buy the ticket is drawn, this person is surrounded by winning neighbours who are suddenly very rich. As well as the regret for not buying the ticket, this unlucky person feels a strong sense of envy. The case of a Dutch women who, in anger and frustration, actually sued the lottery for the reimbursement of moral damages was reported in the press. The way we evaluate the outcome of our decision depends on the context in which we are acting - whether we are alone or with other people. In the same way, we modify our behaviour choices when other people are present, even when they are only spectators - these are the conclusions of a new study conducted by three economists. The researchers studied how social ranking affects choice behaviour. They investigated how people evaluate the outcome of their decision in private versus social contexts and whether social and private emotions influence monetary decisions in different ways.

What happens when we are not acting alone, but have to factor in a social context? The research shows that social emotions linked to a success or a failure are stronger than in the ‘single actor’ scenario. Moreover, we behave more boldly in a prudent environment (against a weak opponent) and more prudently against a bold opponent. Social competitive emotions are stronger than their private counterpart. Each day, we make decisions and evaluate their consequences and each time, we fall into the trap of counterfactual thinking, recreating in our mind all other possible scenarios (along the lines of, “I would have been better off choosing the other option”). The relief resulting from a good choice can vanish if we realize that another choice would have been better still; when this happens, we regret our choice. Relief and regret are emotions linked to an evaluation of a choice behaviour, so they arise from a reasoning process and they play an key role in evaluating our behaviours and in adjusting future ones. What happens when we are placed in a social context? Usually, we feel envy (the social analogue of regret) when we are comparing our negative situation to the positive situation of another. Conversely, when we are the winner, it appears there is no room for empathy; gloating always prevails.

In a social context, emotional responses to a choice (either good or bad) will be enhanced due to social comparison: social emotions have stronger effects than their private counterparts. Moreover, they operate differently, and they affect our behaviour in a deeper way. If, in a private context, failures matter more than successes, in social situation, competitive spirit prevails. In many situations, the most important thing is to gain the upper hand over the others; in this case, gloating is understandable, but contexts are always changing and so is the point of view: the important thing to do is to minimize envy; that is the social difference between us and the others. For that, I need to adjust my behaviour to that of others. Nonetheless, when a human is placed in a social context, even with a minimal interaction and without any induced competition element, he immediately sees his status concern prevail. This fact has serious implications on human choice behaviour.

In the study, the subjects played a lottery game but their actions never influenced the outcome of the game for the others. Emotional arousal was assessed by recording the skin conductance responses and heart rate of all participants during the entire experiment. Despite the absence of any competitive element, gloating looms larger than envy. On the contrary, in the single player scenario, the regret over a failure is stronger than the relief over a success. Social emotions were thus shown to operate differently from private ones: social competitive emotions are stronger that the private counterparts even when in the lab and there is no induced competitive element. Data on self-reporting rates and physiological responses were extremely consistent in their experiment. Effect of the environment on choices: social and private Participants in the study chose among lotteries with different levels of risk and faced opponents with different gaming styles. Again, satisfaction for a victory was greater than regret for a defeat when in a social context, contrary to what happens in a private context.

This is the economic analogue of the dominance complementarity observed in postural relationship, where a dominant posture is likely to induce a submissive one, and vice-versa. We produce the most rewarding behaviour in a competitive environment. To explain the difference between the relative weight of gains and losses in private and social environments one may consider the different impact of the outcome in the two scenarios. For example, in the private context, an individual may find that her survival is at stake. On the other hand, climbing the social ladder and becoming dominant could result in having many sexual and food advantages. If ranking first is much better than ranking second, the difference among the lower ranks is not as significant. The behaviour is therefore driven more by the prospect of winning than by the fear of losing.

Interdependent Utilities: How Social Ranking Affects Choice Behavior. 2008 PLoS ONE 3(10): e3477
Organization in hierarchical dominance structures is prevalent in animal societies, so a strong preference for higher positions in social ranking is likely to be an important motivation of human social and economic behavior. This preference is also likely to influence the way in which we evaluate our outcome and the outcome of others, and finally the way we choose. In our experiment participants choose among lotteries with different levels of risk, and can observe the choice that others have made. Results show that the relative weight of gains and losses is the opposite in the private and social domain. For private outcomes, experience and anticipation of losses loom larger than gains, whereas in the social domain, gains loom larger than losses, as indexed by subjective emotional evaluations and physiological responses. We propose a theoretical model (interdependent utilities), predicting the implication of this effect for choice behavior. The relatively larger weight assigned to social gains strongly affects choices, inducing complementary behavior: faced with a weaker competitor, participants adopt a more risky and dominant behavior.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How to build an antisocial network

Antisocial On Monday I described the difficulty we were having with our Small Worlds project site - that users were treating it as a social network rather than as a data collection tool allowing them to find others with common interests - and I asked the question, how do you build an antisocial network?

The post generated lots of comments, and I'm very grateful to all those who contributed via public comments or private emails and tweets. That evening as I sat pondering what to do, all the pieces clicked into place and I had the answer: a little social engineering.

The big dilemma I had was how to alter user behavior so that people stopped trying to develop the Small Worlds wiki into a social network and simply entered their details before going off to join existing networks on other sites. In addition, I wanted an easier way to be able to get at the user data stored on WetPaint. The answer turned out to be a fairly simple site redesign, moving the user data onto more prominent wiki pages.

This wouldn't have happened without the discussion which took place here yesterday. This sort of collective problem solving is the reason I blog openly about my work. I heart SOTI readers :-)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How to make politics interesting for teenage boys

According to my son, this version of Obama vs. McCain, done by creating characters on Soul Calibur IV, is more interesting:

So he spent the evening deciding which characters he's going to design for his own version. The favourite so far is Robert Peston vs. Alastair Darling.

Monday, October 20, 2008

No Zombie Vampire Superpokes Please, We're Scientists

The last couple of weeks have been pretty hectic, with lots of face time on both our undergraduate PLE module (going very well thank you, very impressed with some of the skills students are showing and there are interesting signs of online communities developing). Our postgraduate Small Worlds project is also progressing. We ran two non-virtual training sessions (thanks to those who helped out) which 27 people attended, and the Small Worlds site now has nearly 70 members. Several members are Twittering away, we have further events planned over the next few weeks, and Google Analytics shows that there is steady traffic on the site.

Small Worlds Tag Cloud

So I should be pretty happy, but I having a nagging sense that something isn't quite right. Over the past couple of weeks (since I wrote this), I've been falling out of love with WetPaint, which we chose as the repository or hub to base Small Worlds around. When writing pages for training sessions, I'm starting to find the (understandable) restrictions on content embedding more restrictive and annoying, but the worst problem is the inability to easily extract or get at data regarding the members. Because WetPaint splits off the members profile pages and treats them separately to wiki pages, I can't find out who has listed certain interests, etc, without going through all the members one at a time. Now privacy is good and I can understand why WetPaint works this way, but this is hindering the intentions of the Small Worlds project.

Something that concerns me even more is the way members are, again understandably, using the social features provided by Wetpaint. There are a lot of Friend requests and private messages flying around. The Small Worlds site was never intended to be a destination, only a data collection tool and a jumping off point for other networks with better functionality. That was the reason we didn't base Small Worlds on Ning, because we didn't want it to be a ghetto. But now there's fairly stong evidence that some users are signing up to Small Worlds, but not moving on to the other destinations we intended them to find. With the Small Worlds project, we didn't set out to build a social network for scientists. The last thing anyone needs right now is another social network. We intended to facilitate uptake of more suitable tools for scientists than Facebook, and to foster networks on sites with the best affordances (e.g. Twitter for communication, social bookmarking, etc).

So I'm facing a tough choice. Having got this far, do I leave Small Worlds where it is on WetPaint, or bite the bullet and move to a better architecture (and if so, what?). My gut feeling is that however painful, a move might be the right decision. I've been in this position before. Both of my blogs have been repurposed, rebadged and moved, all of which were painful at the time but which turned out to be the right long term decisions. And Small Worlds is nothing if not a long term project.

So if we were to move, where should we go? There's plenty of advice around about building a social network, but not much about how to prevent a site becoming too social. It took me a long time to grok Friendfeed, but I finally feel like I'm getting there, and I'm pondering whether a Friendfeed room might be a better home for Small Worlds. On the other hand, I've still got lingering doubts about whether WordPress might be a solution.

So I really need your input. Should I stay or should I go? And how do you build an antisocial network?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Flickr and a work of genius

Yesterday I was playing around with various ways of adding a little more interest to the forthcoming images sessions in our undergraduate personal learning environments (PLE) course. These sessions are going to be based around the online photo management and sharing site Flickr. In the course of this doodling, I knocked up a quick Google custom search engine (CSE) I could embed in the notes for these sessions:

After playing with this for a while, I stopped thinking about the students, and starting thinking about how I could use this myself, in particular:
Tony was just going out, so he suggested that I look at the Google API. After half an hour of stirring the alphabet soup that is the API, I knew I wasn't going to go anywhere down that route, but it didn't take him long after he came home to come up with the solution.

In case you haven't twigged, the reason I awarded Tony a BA Genius (Hons) rather than merely a Geoff Hurst from the University of Personal Learning is because you can use this approach to get an RSS feed from any Google search.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

BTW, University of Leicester - waves at the UoL Press Office staff who learned how to use RSS feeds on Friday! ;-)

Friday, October 17, 2008

The wordle you don't want to hear

I don't know if I missed this originally, or if it's a new feature, but now allows you to create a word cloud from any blog or delicious account. Here's the SOTI wordle:
Oh dear, I wish assessment didn't feature so prominently.

Call that PR? :-)


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Put your money where your mouth is

Creative Commons needs your support to help build a participatory culture, in which everyone can actively engage in the creativity that surrounds us

Creative Commons needs your support to help build a participatory culture, in which everyone can actively engage in the creativity that surrounds us.

Put your money where your mouth is.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pear Shaped

Arse It's not been the best of days, what with a funding committee failing to grok our Twitter-based application (Resubmit? Why? If you don't understand the technology now, are you going to understand in in 6 weeks time?), Steve failing to come up with a tablet or a netbook, and wrestling with the latest up-cock in the brave new world of loosely-coupled PLEs.

Jo blogged about our problems with a Google Reader-based RSS assessment, the main one being how to deliver weekly feedback for 200 students. The Blackboard gradebook makes this as difficult as possible, but is also the wrong solution. I’m in favour of separating feedback from assessment (which we do in this assessment by delaying the marks until the end of term), but feedback needs to be located inline with the assessment tool - we already have lots of data showing that students will not visit an alternative destination (e.g. the Bb gradebook) and so will never see the feedback. This is a limitation of the Google Reader shared items architecture - there’s no way to add a comment to a shared item.

Eventually, after considering alternative solutions, we're falling back on email. I'm not proud of it, but it's not the worst thing to happen today. If we do resubmit "Where Are Leicester Learning Spaces", it's going back in as "Assessing and Recording the Student Experience".

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Trust and Transparency

Trust I've been kept busy over the last week with our undergraduate PLE course and postgraduate Small Worlds project (blogging the most interesting bits here), but I have had time to read a couple of interesting blog posts which were published.

Ruth Reynard wrote about Avoiding the Five Most Common Mistakes in Using Blogs with Students. Most students don't take natually to blogging imposed as a means of assessment, or "reflection", and Ruth provides a good summary of the common problems:
  1. Ineffective Contextualization
  2. Unclear Learning Outcomes
  3. Misuse of the environment
  4. Illusive grading practices
  5. Inadequate time allocation
Short version: avoid problems by transparency/clarity of purpose.

The THE also woke up to the fact that a few academics are blogging, but much more interesting were Stephen Downes thoughts on "What the heck is an e-portfolio": My Digital Identity, which I'll summarize in list form as for Ruth's post:
  1. Technology
  2. What We Think About Identity
  3. Asking Questions About Identity
  4. The Failure of Authentication
  5. Trust and Motivation
  6. Identity and Resources
Short version: it's all about trust.

Lots of food for thought there.

Monday, October 13, 2008

He's back

Much too much
Too much too young
Spent some time away
Spent some time in rehab
But now he's back
And he's a ramdamshamalamafeedbackosockiesaurus:


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Make it a challenge

BS1010 The first assessed exercise on our undergraduate PLE module is when students to receive a set of instructions as an email attachment, create and manipulate an image and send it back as an attachment. The image consists of an annotated screenshot of the Google search results on their own name.

Not particularly challenging, and it's not meant to be, it's mainly a handshaking exercise to make sure registration on the VLE has been completed and communications channels are open. We ask them to send some feedback on the exercise in the body of their email submission:
  • What I liked about this assessment was...
  • What I didn't like about this assessment was...
  • This assessment could be improved by...
Almost universally, they said the assessment could be improved by making it harder, not a statement one normally associates with students. But they're keen - it's only the second week of their university career, and the disillusionment hasn't set in yet. However, what I saw as a clever piece of personalization (the Google name search), they perceive as depersonalized.

Should we abandon an email assessment altogether, assume universality, and replace this exercise with a more challenging handshake? Although 95% of the students found the exercise trivial, 5% had difficulty and I suspect more than that learned something. Several also commented that this, their first assessment in higher education, was confidence building. With some regret, I feel that this exercise has to stay, but be more focused on what they perceive HE is all about. So here's what I'm planning for next year, and I'd welcome your input.

Students will receive an email with an attachment instructing them to:
  • Write a reflective essay (hey, essay's are what HE is all about, right?) entitled: "How should the University of Leicester use learning technologies in science degrees?"
  • Maximum of 400 words.
  • Submit the essay as an email attachment.
  • All submissions will be checked for plagiarism by Turnitin
  • Marks will be awarded as follows:
    • Receipt of an email with an appropriate subject line containing your essay as an attachment: 10%
    • Range of technologies discussed: 30%
    • Personal experiences and opinions: 30%
    • Quality of writing (including clarity of expression, spelling, grammar, etc): 30%
The intention is to match student expectations of what it's like to be all grown up and at university while sneaking the email handshake in under the radar. The downside is the workload involved in "marking" 200 essays (which could be a dealbreaker). And?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Playing in the PLE sandpit

CAPITAL Yesterday I attended a workshop, or "sandpit", on PLEs ("Personalised/Personal Learning Environments") run by the CAPITAL project (Curriculum And Pedagogy In Technology Assisted Learning) commissioned by Becta. The event had three strands of activity:

1. An opportunity to play with and discuss a number of emerging PLEs and related technologies.
2. Agree the scope of issues and challenges facing the personalization of learning environments.
3. Share views on what will work or won't in the future.

We managed 1 and 3, but 2 was and is more problematic. Although we all tried to focus on the pedagogy of PLEs, inevitably we were continually dragged back to the technology. Interestingly, money was less of a concern (as in "we need to pay developers a lot of cash to build this"), except with regard to institutional responses to the impending crisis in public spending - will universities play it safe and try to pull "learning" back inside a Chinese wall?

In the morning, there were a series of "oases" - technology demonstrations from a mixture of vendors and current projects. I started off with PebblePad to get it out of the way. Not much to say about it that I haven't said here before, except to note again that PebblePad tries to encourage "reflection" by imposing a structure, and emphasises privacy online.

Martin Macgillvray demonstrated the Nottingham Learning Gateway, an LEA CMS based on Microsoft Sharepoint. The intention of this project is that the fine granularity of access control that Sharepoint provides plus content filters results in personalization. It's a nice project, but in a Large-Hadron-Collider-hammer-nut sort of way.

Next up was a Skype chat with Graham Attwell, which proved difficult for personal and technical reasons (background noise), but Graham talked his usual sense, including some nuggets which proved to be very useful later in the day:
  • Separate assessment and accreditation.
  • What is a PLE is the wrong question. The correct question is Why is a PLE?
After that, I played with the new versions of Blackboard, including the development version, which was interesting, but slightly irrelevant in regard of the present situation at UoL. Future versions of Blackboard will make much more personalization possible, but the institution will control this (... so draw your own conclusions). In order to provide political balance ;-) I then looked at the Desire2learn VLE. Similar to the forthcoming versions of Blackboard (surprise!) and with greater flexibility of roles, but again, these would be controlled by institutional policy, so if you're working at the University of Omgwemustcontrolthetechnology, you won't be seeing much in the way of personalization. The d2l e-portfolio looks rather nice, although of course it sits within the VLE, so students will be excommunicated when they leave the institution.

The highlight of the day for me was talking to Angela Smallwood, from the School of English Studies at the University of Nottingham, an LSRI Associate and Co-Director of the CETL for Integrative Learning. She made a convincing argument that the main challenge in education is lifewide learning, not lifelong learning. Angela was a contributor to the JISC infoKit on e-portfolios and subscribes to the view that self-publishing is crucial to a PLE and the best e-portfolio solution is distributed - a "mashup PLE". "Big box tools" tend to be rejected by students in favour of social sites:

Hartnell-Young et al 2007 Impact study of e-portfolios on learning partners
Hartnell-Young, E. et al. (2007) Impact study of e-portfolios on learning partners

In the afternoon, several discussion session attempted to pull together the strands from the morning. One of the themes which emerged from the day was the important distinction between:
  • Personal (what's in it for me?)
  • Personalized (what's in it for the institution?)
Don't confuse the two! Students should apply the "crusher test": if it was put in a crusher, would it hurt? If so, it's part of your PLE. Academics and institutions should ask themselves the Attwell question:

Why is a PLE?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Chocolate Beetroot Cake

Beetroot 100 g (3.5 oz) drinking chocolate
230 g (8 oz) self-raising flour
200 g (7 oz) golden caster sugar
100 g (3.5 oz) dark chocolate (60-70% cacao) broken into pieces
125 g (4.5 oz) unsalted butter
250 g (9 oz) cooked beetroot
3 large eggs

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
Butter and flour an 18 cm (7 inch) round cake tin.
Sift together drinking chocolate and flour, mix in the sugar.
Melt the chocolate and butter together.
Puree beetroot in a food processor, whisk the eggs and stir them into the beetroot.
Mix all the ingredients together, pour into cake tin and bake for 50 minutes or until done (test with skewer). Allow to cool before turning out onto wire rack.
Dust with icing sugar and serve with creme fraiche.


Current publication practices distort science

PLoS The current system of publishing medical and scientific research provides "a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic," says an article in this week's PLoS Medicine. In their essay, the team of researchers apply principles from the field of economics to present evidence consistent with a distortion. There is an "extreme imbalance," they say, between the abundance of supply (the output of basic science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the increasingly limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact). The result is that only a small proportion of all research results are eventually chosen for publication, and these results are unrepresentative of scientists' repeated samplings of the real world. The authors argue that there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.

Why current publication practices may distort science. 2008 PLoS Med 5(10): e201
The current system of publication in biomedical research provides a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic. This system can be studied by applying principles from the field of economics. The “winner’s curse,” a more general statement of publication bias, suggests that the small proportion of results chosen for publication are unrepresentative of scientists’ repeated samplings of the real world. The self-correcting mechanism in science is retarded by the extreme imbalance between the abundance of supply (the output of basic science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the increasingly limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact). This system would be expected intrinsically to lead to the misallocation of resources. The scarcity of available outlets is artificial, based on the costs of printing in an electronic age and a belief that selectivity is equivalent to quality. Science is subject to great uncertainty: we cannot be confident now which efforts will ultimately yield worthwhile achievements. However, the current system abdicates to a small number of intermediates an authoritative prescience to anticipate a highly unpredictable future. In considering society’s expectations and our own goals as scientists, we believe that there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.

Monday, October 06, 2008

It's the community, stupid

Bill Clinton famously said:

and while it's tempting to mention that again where my pension is concerned, so far as social media are concerned, instead, as several people have said on Twitter this week, I'll say:

It's the community, not the tool

For the first time this year, the majority of our students have arrived at university with Facebook accounts. In previous years, joining Facebook was something they did during their first year. It's difficult to say what changes this previous experience with online social networks might cause, but some hints are becoming clear.

Any online community needs some glue to hold it together. For our undergraduates, the glue is Blackboard, which is the hub and authentication system from which the interesting stuff hangs. For our postgraduates, the glue is the Small Worlds wiki. Although they both play an essential role, I wouldn't expect either of these rather static sites to provide sufficient engagement to win the hearts and minds of users. In order to do that, we've tried to add something extra to both projects.

For the undergraduates, this was a suggestion that they look into Twitter, Seesmic, and by default, the "social" features of Blackboard such as the Discussion Board. Not surprisingly, there's very little participation in the non-compulsory areas of Blackboard. Seesmic has also not been taken up yet - presumably the barrier of video is too high. But Twitter seems to be taking off, so we're feeding an aggregated tweet stream back into the Blackboard module to try to keep it interesting.

For the postgraduates, the starting point we've suggested is creating a personal profile on the wiki to facilitate conversations. But we've also suggested they look into Twitter, Seesmic and FriendFeed as conversation channels (in addition to the more research focused technologies such as RSS, social bookmarking, etc). It remains to be seen which of these channels will prove to be the most popular with this more heterogeneous group.

One thing which is clear is that whatever channel they "vote" for by participation, that's the one we'll push to enhance the community. I've always said that neither the undergraduate or the postgraduate projects were technology-driven (but I don't think many people accepted that). So I'll say it again:

It's the community, not the tool

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Music Sharing Services

The University of Leicester policy on filesharing services such as KaZaa, Limewire, etc, is very clear, and the penalties for the use of prohibited software on the University network include suspension of your central service computing account.

However, listening to streaming music on campus is fine, although you'll need to use headphones as the speakers in open access computers are disabled (for obvious reasons). I used to like Pandora, but that's no longer available. For whatever reason, I never liked, so my current favourite is

Now that might not be to your taste, so what are you listening to at present and what services are you using to listen to it?

Friday, October 03, 2008


The bastard lovechild of Ann Widdecombe and Bill Oddie

Lovechild Walking to work this morning, a question popped into my head:
What software could best be described as the bastard lovechild of Ann Widdecombe and Bill Oddie?

I considered several possibilities, but it soon became clear to me that there could only be one answer:

Google Reader

Why? Consider what the unfortunate child would be like: fiercely clever, f-ugly and pretty unlikable. And that's exactly how I feel about Google Reader.

If this software were a TV presenter it would be Jeremy Clarkson: competent, but too clever by half, visually unappealing and not something you'd want to spend any time with.

And that's exactly how I feel about Google Reader, or Jeremy, as I plan on calling it from now on.

But if my beloved Bloglines keeps on dying at the present rate, I'll have to stare at Jeremy on a daily basis. So I'm looking for suggestions of alternative web-based RSS readers, (no desktop clients please). Anyone?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Calling All Postgrads

Small world networks Today is the official launch of our Small Worlds project at the University of Leicester. To celebrate, we have opened the Small Worlds wiki and would like to invite everyone to join.

Many early career stage laboratory researchers work in professional isolation, either in small research groups, or part time. The widespread availability of computers means that everyone is in constant contact with everyone else. However, this creates a false impression and the reality is that many junior scientists do not come into daily contact with their scientific peers. For these individuals, the opportunities offered by new technologies could be particularly important for career development.

Although Small Worlds is aimed at laboratory researchers, it is not limited to PhD students alone. We welcome technical staff and academics willing to assist with the professional development of new researchers. Likewise, although Small Worlds is centred on the University of Leicester, it is open to all irrespective of their location, because most of the problems faced by researchers are common to all. Small Worlds is an open initiative with a local flavour. We are able to offer this service by leveraging the power of free emerging web technologies.

Why do we need another site aimed at professional development of research staff? Unlike other initiatives such as Graduate Junction, Small Worlds is based on open tools loosely-joined and is outward-looking. These sites are not mutually exclusive - join both and see which suits you best.

So if you're interested, please join the wiki and create a profile to share your professional online identities on the services (Twitter, delicious, Friendfeed, etc) we are using to build the project. We hope to talk to you soon.

Small Worlds

In the cloud

On 1st October 2008, I turned off my webserver. All my stuff is now in the cloud.

When I walked into my office this morning, it was silent. For the first time in 15 years, there was no sound of a server running in the background.

It felt strange.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

I kissed WetPaint and I liked it

WetPaint I've made a decision. For my final year virology module last year I decided assess student contributions to a group blog. The hard part was what software to use. I set up a site for the project but prevaricated until 24 hours before the module was due to start when I finally decided to "play safe" and use the Learning Objects blog tool in Blackboard.

Choosing the feature-poor "safe" option over a full-featured product like WordPress was the wrong decision, and I regretted it almost immediately. I was very careful how I presented the assessment to students, never using the "b-word", but inevitably, they hated the unfamiliarity of the format and started to complain. (They eventually formally complained to the Staff-Student Council, but since that happens to me every year, I'm now used to it - hey, if your students don't challenge you, you're doing it wrong.)

For the first week of the module I agonized over whether to jump ship to WordPress, but in the end decided that it would be better to stay with things as they were rather than disrupt the entire assessment and start again, even though I knew by then that I had made the wrong software choice. I consoled myself by planning to use WordPress on this year's module. That is, until I heard a presentation at the HEA Conference in July about using the Learning Objects wiki tool within Blackboard for student assessment.

For two years, I used student contributions to Wikipedia for assessment on this module. The students hated the unfamiliarity of the format and formally complained to the Staff-Student Council (both times), at which point I gave up on Wikipedia and tried the blog-based assessment. The main complaint was the fact that the assessment was conducted publicly, which is the primary reason I opted for the LO blog tool over WordPress the following year.

In the presentation I heard in July, each student constructed an individual wiki within WordPress which was visible to the other students but not editable by them. To get students to turn facts into knowledge, I decided to use a group wiki since individuals could not be expected to cover the entire module content on their own. The difference from the Wikipedia assessment was that this would be conducted privately within Blackboard. And so it stood, until a couple of weeks ago when I put together an LO wiki in Blackboard for a course in the University of Leicester Medical School. And that experience sealed it, I would be dumb to make the wrong software choice again.

Over the last year, I've put together half a dozen WetPaint sites for various projects. When we start a new project these days, one of the first decisions we make is whether to use WetPaint or WordPress as the management/reporting tool. So far, it's running about 50:50, but the choice depends on the nature of the project. So WetPaint is the best choice for my virology module. It's not perfect, but it's pretty darn good. I'll avoid using the "w-word" to students which would set them off again, so I'll just refer to it as "the WetPaint site".
It felt so wrong
It felt so right
Don't mean I'm in love tonight
I kissed WetPaint and I liked it
I liked it
To avoid the Wikipedia complaints (I wonder what they'll report me for this year?), the site will be private and linked out from Blackboard. The wiki will be seeded with core topics and basic information such as my PowerPoint presentations, Google custom search engine, etc, and the students will work collaboratively to construct the final site. Assessment will be based on achievement of weekly content contribution targets, and as previously, these will mostly be based on volume to avoid endless arguments over quality. As usual, plagiarism will be dealt with by threatening the students with Turnitin.

What could possibly go wrong? ;-)