Friday, November 28, 2008

I think this is what I want

or is it?

The Skyrails project at the University of New South Wales aims to provide visualisations of social networks. The Guardian likened it to the "consensual hallucination" of Gibson's novel Neuromancer.

A few months back, I thought I knew most of the questions, although few of the answers. Now, I don't even feel I know that.

It's been a bad week.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Twitter and the Socratic method

Socratic dialogue is a genre of prose literary works developed in Greece at the turn of the fourth century BC in which characters discuss moral and philosophical problems, illustrating the Socratic method:

    Socr. I have heard it said, then, that at Naucratis in Egypt there lived one of the old gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis; and the name of the divinity was Theuth. It was he who first invented numbers and arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, dicing, too, and the game of draughts and, most particularly and especially, writing. Now the King of all Egypt at that time was Thamus who lived in the great city of the upper region which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes; the god himself they call Ammon. Theuth came to him and exhibited his arts and declared that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. And Thamus questioned him about the usefulness of each one; and as Theuth enumerated, the King blamed or praised what he thought were the good or bad points in the explanation... When it came to writing, Theuth said, "This discipline, my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories: my invention is a recipe for both memory and wisdom." But the King said, "Theuth, my master of arts, to one man it is given to create the elements of an art, to another to judge the extent of harm and usefulness it will have for those who are going to employ it. And now, since you are father of written letters, your paternal goodwill has led you to pronounce the very opposite of what is their real power. The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it's not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you're equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth. Thanks to you and your invention, your pupils will be widely read without benefit of a teacher's instruction; in consequence, they'll entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment. They will also be difficult to get on with since they will have become wise merely in their own conceit, not genuinely so."

    Then any man who imagines that he has bequeathed an art to posterity because he put his views in writing, and also anyone who inherits such an "art" in the belief that any subject will be clear or certain because it is couched in writing such men will be utterly simple-minded. They must be really ignorant of Zeus Ammon's method of delivering prophetic truth if they believe that words put in writing are something more than what they are in fact: a reminder to a man, already conversant with the subject of the material with which the writing is concerned.

    Phaedr. Quite right.

    Socr. Writing, you know, Phaedrus, has this strange quality about it, which makes it really like painting: the painter's products stand before us quite as though they were alive; but if you question them, they maintain a solemn silence. So, too, with written words: you might think they spoke as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever. Once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend; it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid. And when it is ill-treated or abused as illegitimate, it always needs its father to help it, being quite unable to protect or help itself.

    Phaedr. You're quite right about that, too.

    Socr. Well then, are we able to imagine another sort of discourse a legitimate brother of our bastard? How does it originate? How far is it better and more powerful in nature?

    Phaedr. What sort of discourse? What do you mean about its origin?

    Socr. A discourse which is inscribed with genuine knowledge in the soul of the learner; a discourse that can defend itself and knows to whom it should speak and before whom to remain silent.

    Phaedr. Do you mean the living, animate discourse of a man who really knows? Would it be fair to call the written discourse only a kind of ghost of it?

    Socr. Precisely. Now tell me this: take a sensible farmer who has seed he is anxious to tend properly and wants it to yield him a good full crop: would he seriously plant it during the summer, and in forcing-areas at that, and then take pleasure in the spectacle of a fine crop on the eighth day? If he ever did such a thing, wouldn't it be just for fun or to meet the needs of a special festival? But with seed that he was really serious about, wouldn't he make full use of scientific husbandry and plant it in suitable soil and be perfectly satisfied if it came to maturity in the eighth month?

    Phaedr. As you know, Socrates, the latter would be a serious act, the former quite different, and motivated as you say.

    Socr. Shall we suppose that a man who has real knowledge of justice and beauty and goodness will have less intelligence about his own seeds than a farmer does?

    Phaedr. By no means.

    Socr. Then he will not, when he's in earnest, resort to a written form and inscribe his seeds in water, and in inky water at that; he will not sow them with a pen, using words which are unable either to argue in their own defense when attacked or to fulfill the role of a teacher in presenting the truth... In this regard, far more noble and splendid is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who finds a congenial soul and then proceeds with true knowledge to plant and sow in it words which are able to help themselves and help him who planted them; words which will not be unproductive, for they can transmit their seed to other natures and cause the growth of fresh words in them, providing an eternal existence for their seed; words which bring their possessor to the highest degree of happiness possible for a human being to attain.

Think about it next time you're on Twitter.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's your ePortfolio, now get reflecting

eportfolio As our students ponder the PLEs they have "created" (more of that later, hopefully), we're getting close to the last act for this term, construction of a reflective ePortfolio.

Students will choose the software they use to create their portfolios, although we are recommending they use WetPaint or Wikispaces, as in these (rather minimal) exemplars. Next term, they will to continue to add to their ePortfolio each week and we will assess the way they develop. Which is where the fun starts.

What assessment criteria should we use?
We need to promote ownership of their portfolio (which is why they choose the software to use rather than having it imposed on them), and we need to recognize that the process of reflection will vary from person to person, so any criteria need to be rather minimalistic and competence-based rather than too restrictive. At the same time, the criteria need to guide the student in terms of what is expected of them (beyond the structure of the exemplars).

I'm not going to debate again the wisdom of assessing reflection, but I will repeat that we already know that if we did not assess the exercise most students would not participate, so the assessment period is aimed at getting students into the habit of reflection, after which it is hoped they will carry on then we stop giving them the reinforcement of assessment. It's also worth restating that our objective is educational rather than technical. We are more interested in the benefits students will gain from the experience than about compliance with IMS standards - to emphasize the process rather than the product.

The following criteria are based loosely on the reported E-Portfolio Assessment Criteria from Penn State University:

Functionality & Appearance: 30%
  • Appearance and navigation is clear and consistent
  • All links work
  • Multimedia elements display correctly
  • Text is clear and readable, spelling and grammar are correct
  • Previously published materials respect copyright laws
Evidence: 30%
  • Organization connects all evidence into an integrated whole
  • Features or showcases evidence
  • Shows depth of knowledge and experience
  • Shows breadth of knowledge and experience
  • Includes a current curriculum vitae
Reflection: 40%
  • Addresses both career and personal development
  • Includes reflective comments about evidence as well as reflective comments about what this evidence says about you
  • Includes short-term goals (skills to add/improve)
  • Includes long-term goals (professional and/or personal aims)
  • Interpretation of your achievements is expressed

Are these criteria adequate? Workable? Achievable?


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Student email

WTF? I've just received the following email from a student:

Please can I have extra time to complete the assessment. I've just been told by my doctor that I shouldn't use the computer. Obviously I'm using it now to email you, but I can't use it long enough to do the assessment.




Second Life a Liability

Just Do It I started this post while listening to the live stream of the Sounds of the Bazaar special "Into the Dragons Den" and participating in the chatroom. Kudos to Graham and Cristina for another great innovative session, but I'm afraid the content left me cold (as did The Dragon That Didn't Bite). I've tried to see the practical educational value in Second Life, but for me, SL just doesn't cut it - the cost benefit ratio doesn't work. If I have to pay a pile of money to professional developers to build something, that's too high a barrier as far as I'm concerned. Reuters has got it right, and now it's time for education to follow.

This morning, I was struck again by the discussion at CETIS08 concerning the differences between audio, video and lectures. A speaker made the case that video and audio are 'text' whereas lectures are 'interactive'. I feel SL deserves the same downgrading as video in this regard - SL is not half as interactive as Twitter.

It's all about barriers and ownership. Just do it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Google SearchWonki

Evi? Much flapping and tutting on the interwebs about Google's new SearchWiki feature. As usual, David Weinberger nailed it:
  • First, opting us in is obnoxious enough, but not giving us a way to opt out is unsupportable...
  • Second, the results page shows you the nicknames of other users who have voted the page up. So, now the whole world will see that “dweinberger” not only searched for “Angelina Jolie” but thumbs-upped the page of closeups of her tattoos? Guess who just changed his nickname to something less identifiable! This is a feature without value — the list of names isn’t clickable or complete or tell you how many people voted it up — unless you recognize someone’s nickname, in which case it has negative value.
Simple solution, log into:
Google: My Account: Web History
and turn History off. We already knew that Google is not to be trusted with this kind of data.

Move along, nothing new to see here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Obsequious apology

Future of Creative Technologies #foct08

IOCT Yesterday I was at the Future of Creative Technologies Conference run by the IOCT at De Montfort University:
  • Introductory keynote by Andrew Hugill, IOCT, DMU.
  • Technology - Jerry Fishenden, National Technology Officer at Microsoft UK: Trends in internet and technologies.
  • Content - Professor Sue Thomas: Trends in digital content.
  • Design - Professor Martin Rieser: Trends in digital art and design.
Afternoon sessions:
  • Jim Hendler
  • Lev Manovich
  • Howard Rheingold
  • Open discussion with questions from the workshops and the floor
To be honest, it was bit variable, but overall very enjoyable and I think quite valuable. The best way to summarize the whole thing is to publish the:

Josie's Photos:


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Tragedy of the Commons

Creative Commons Our PLE students are currently doing an assessment which involves them manipulating images and sharing the results on Flickr with an appropriate description and tags. The rationale for doing this is so that they can learn some rudimentary image editing skills, but it's also a Trojan horse so we can introduce them to Creative Commons. The students were told that they may use as source material "images you own (e.g. photographs you have taken) or original images covered by Creative Commons licences".

And the result?

Holiday snaps. We've made them so paranoid about copyright that they're not willing to take the "risk" of reusing existing resources, so they're just putting up their holiday snaps.



Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is UoL filtering your internet access?

It is, according to The Guardian:

See: Firewalling. Hardly a recommendation, is it? More like, don't bother us.

Update, see: Obsequious apology

A blast from the past


As you can tell from that post, I didn't grok Twitter straight away, for two reasons:
  1. I hadn't built up a big enough active network for it to be useful.
  2. It didn't help me thinking about Twitter as "microblogging". I didn't get Twitter until I started to think about it in terms of "presence" and conversation.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Told you so

FREESOULS: Captured and Released

Freesouls FREESOULS: Captured and Released by Joi Ito is a celebration of all the people who are willing to share. It consists of photos by Joi Ito and a collection of essays by:

  • Howard Rheingold: Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies
    To accomplish this attention-turning, we must develop a participative pedagogy, assisted by digital media and networked publics, that focuses on catalyzing, inspiring, nourishing, facilitating, and guiding literacies essential to individual and collective life in the 21st century. Literacies are where the human brain, human sociality and communication technologies meet.

  • Lawrence Liang: Free as in Soul: The Anti-image Politics of Copyright
    It is well-documented that the philosophical justification of copyright is premised on the idea of the romantic author, the sole suffering genius sitting in isolation and producing works of genius. The first serious challenge to the idea of the romantic author emerged with the invention of photography.

  • Cory Doctorow: You Can't Own Knowledge
    ...there's plenty of stuff out there that's valuable even if it's not property. For example, my daughter was born in February, 2008. She's not my property. But she's worth quite a lot to me. If you took her from me, the crime wouldn't be "theft." If you injured her, it wouldn't be "trespass to chattels." We have an entire vocabulary and set of legal concepts to deal with the value that a human life embodies ... Trying to shoehorn knowledge into the "property" metaphor leaves us without the flexibility and nuance that a true knowledge rights regime would have.

  • Yochai Benkler: Complexity and Humanity
    To deal with the new complexity of contemporary life we need to re-introduce the human into the design of systems. We must put the soul back into the system. If years of work on artificial intelligence have taught us anything, it is that what makes for human insight is extremely difficult to replicate or systematize. At the center of these new systems, then, sits a human being who has a capacity to make judgments, experiment, learn and adapt.

  • Isaac Mao: Sharism: A Mind Revolution
    Non-sharing culture misleads us with its absolute separation of Private and Public space. It makes creative action a binary choice between public and private, open and closed. This creates a gap in the spectrum of knowledge. Although this gap has the potential to become a valuable creative space, concerns about privacy make this gap hard to fill. We shouldn't be surprised that, to be safe, most people keep their sharing private and stay "closed." They may fear the Internet creates a potential for abuse that they can't fight alone. However, the paradox is: The less you share, the less power you have.

  • Marko Ahtisaari: Intelligent Travel
    A new system of intelligent travel is already being imagined, and built. But the prospects of developing online, interconnected systems−ones based on the principle of shared intelligence and joined through trusted social networks−is not unique to one website or a single start-up. It is a global movement of world travelers sharing local information with friends, acquaintances, and everybody else.
Science of the Invisible is published under a Creative Commons licence

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The 2008 Edublog Awards

My 2008 Edublog Award Nominations

My Nominations for the 2008 Edublog Awards are:

Best group blog: Pontydysgu

Most influential blog post: Scott Leslie, planning to share

Best librarian/library blog: UoL Library blog - a real community has emerged here in the last few months.

Best ed tech support blog: Brian Kelly

Make your own nominations by following these instructions.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On-line Innovation in Higher Education

Cooke report On-line Innovation in Higher Education, Professor Sir Ron Cooke, Chair of JISC Board, Submission to Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Edited highlights:

The use of Web 2.0 technologies is greatly improving the student learning experience and many HEIs are enhancing their teaching practices as a result. A large majority of young people use online tools and environments to support social interaction and their own learning represents an important context for thinking about new models of delivery.

The effective use of e-learning and pedagogic approaches differ for different sectors of higher education, for example: in research-led universities there is a need to link effectively research resources with learning and teaching.

In the UK most online material should be openly available to all, free of charge at the point of use. This will encourage re-use of materials by other teachers, make available high quality resources to students that they can have confidence in, and provide a valuable marketing tool to potential overseas students.

Encourage and support institutions to include the integration of their library, information and IT services in the development of their strategies for research and learning and teaching.

Google Moderator

Google Moderator Google Moderator is a small application created for submitting and voting on questions. I've spent the past two months staring at it trying to figure out how I could use it:
  • Free web-based PRS ("clicker")?
  • Meeting backchannel?
  • Blog topic requests?
None of these is completely satisfying - so it's over to you for suggestions.

Or maybe I'd be better off with UserVoice?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Just Do It

Just Do It So many of the promising conversations I have with colleagues get terminated by a vague sense that they cannot adopt new technologies because "something could go wrong", or a senior colleague "would not approve".

Blackboard, our institutional VLE, has been up and down like a yoyo all week, and I've been fielding endless emails from students who have left submission of assessments until the last moment. Clearly, something went wrong.

Our institutional webmail was down at the weekend. Clearly, something went wrong, but fortunately, Twitter was up and our students let me know all about it.

And so it goes. In Planning to Share versus Just Sharing, Scott Leslie describes "years of frustration with ineffective institutional collaborations". Fortunately, he also has the solution:
grow your network by sharing, not planning to share or deciding who to share with; the tech doesn’t determine the sharing - if you want to share, you will; weave your network by sharing what you can, and they will share what they can - people won’t share [without a lot of added incentives] stuff that’s not easy or compelling for them to share. Create virtuous cycles that amplify network effects. Given the right set, simple tech is all they need to get started.

I have never spoken to “an institution.” I would be scared if one started to speak to me. But I’ve spoken and shared with many *people* in institutions. Many *people* use stuff I have shared. And usually, in my experience, its people who directly, not through some intermediary, have a need.

I blog. I use twitter. I use delicious. I use flickr. I use facebook (when I have to.) I use I use slideshare. I use scribd. I use google docs. I use… the list goes on and on... Contrast this with these formal initiatives to network “organizations” - in my experience, much time goes into finding the right single “platform” to collaborate in and somehow it always ends up to blame - too clunky, too this, too that.

...I am a big believer in everyone, no matter what their role in an organization, developing their own personal learning network/environment... if you must provide a single “platform,” my advice is to focus on providing one with these three simple pieces:
* a simple way to find out who else is out there (profile, even just a directory)
* some simple channels to communicate: email lists/addresses, threaded discussions
* a simple way to publish content

That’s it. Maybe a synchronous tool.

Focus on the people. Use the simplest tools you can. Most importantly of all, don't talk about it. Just do it.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Mothballs Working in eLearning, we have had to concede that we cannot supply the same service that commercial providers do (e.g. GMail, Google Docs, Adobe ConnectNow, delicious, WordPress, etc). It's senseless to compete with these services and outsourcing is the only sensible institutional strategy.

In the sixth e-Learning Stuff podcast, the point was made that it is rapidly becoming nonsensical for institutions to invest large sums in front end hardware (user devices) as the cost of devices such as the Asus eeePC continues to fall.

Time to get out the mothballs.

How many students does it take to change a lightbulb?

TechDis and other insights into the student mind...

Last week we kicked off our TechDis HEAT3 project (Ooh, shiny) using the Twitter student backchannel we have built this term to try to get a snapshot of the UoL student experience. Reading the resulting stream of consciousness is fascinating:
  • doing metabolism questions over msn, testing each other is a fab way to learn! If only I knew any answers.
  • is tired.... but must work!
  • has the words 'russian bride' written on his hand, and can't remember much of last night.... Now for chemistry revision.
  • is rather worried about the assessment tomorrow and is preparing herself for failure.
  • feels like I've never been away from home! But my bedroom is no longer my own :(
  • is working hard on biological molecules but can see the iTouch winking at him from across the room.
  • I'm actually bit disappointed the biochem lectures have finished. Will start the essay as soon as I stop this distracting me.
But beyond voyeurism, what have we learned so far?
  • That students will use any technology given to them in unexpected ways, and any attempts to lock down control results in a stilted, unfulfilling, superficial experience.
  • Unsurprisingly, the domestic looms large in the transition to higher education. Diets (good and bad) feature prominently in tweets.
  • That novelty results in engagement, but presumably will fade.
The problem with student experience projects such as this is that they are opt-in, and so reflect a skewed picture generated by the committed minority. There is no ethnic or religious diversity in our sample. On the plus side, this means that to date, even though we haven't given them any specific instructions about online identities, they seem to be quite switched on with respect to self-editing and have not (yet) posted any content they may regret later. Of course, we don't know what private messages are flying backwards and forwards...

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Virgin V+

Virgin V+ I finally decided to subscribe to the Virgin V+ HDTV service, and when I Twittered about my experience and first impressions, I got a number of questions, hence this post.

I won't go into detail about why I chose V+ over BSkyB or Freesat, but my motivation was primarily to get access to HDTV rather than the additional PVR service that comes with it on Sky+ or V+ (which is just as well, as it turns out).

In theory, the installation should have been a straightforward box-swap from my previous Virgin setup, but of course, nothing is ever that simple. However, after some discussion, head scratching and a few phone calls, the new box was installed and the line activated. I played with it for a few minutes before getting back to what I was doing before, and everything seemed OK. A hour later when my wife came home, I began to proudly demonstrate my mastery of HDTV technology. Except that in the interim, everything had stopped working - I couldn't even change channels. The first of many (thankfully free) phone calls to Virgin customer services eventually told me that Virgin was claiming that there was a technical fault with the V+ service in my postcode.

Six hours later, service was partially restored, in the sense that I could change channels, although nothing else worked. At least that allowed me to settle down to a few hours TV on Friday evening in order to address the question:

HDTV - is it worth it?

As it turns out, the answer is: errm...

The quality of HD pictures is variable. Showcase, recent, shot for HD stuff (like the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony) is fairly close to stunning. Sports events less so - good, but the signal falls down a bit on motion and verticals. As for everything else, after half an hour of flicking backwards and forwards between Gardener's World on BBC2 and BBC HD, we reached the conclusion that ... we really want to believe the HD version is marginally better, but in a blind test, we wouldn't be confident that we could tell the difference. The reason for this is that the standard pictures are so much better than on the standard Virgin service, making the difference between standard and HD programs marginal. There are a number of reasons for this.
  • A faster line, capable of carrying HD signals (increased data rate?)
  • A better box (more processing power?)
  • Box connected to TV via HDMI rather than SCART (I suspect this is the single most important single factor)
But none of this means anything unless there's something worth watching, and since I'm not a Sky subscriber (mostly because there's nothing worth watching unless you're into sport), that means BBC HD. Which is a huge disappointment. It's clear that the BBC isn't really trying with BBC HD, which is an embarrassment. Not only is the programming abysmal (does the BBC really think people will sign up for HD to watch repeats of Last of the Summer Wine?), the whole channel has a put-together-in-a-shed feel to it. Program announcements are clunky, timings frequently wrong - it sucks. If the BBC had really wanted to punish Jonathon Ross, they would have put his shows on BBC HD.

So I've phoned Virgin to cancel the service, right? Well, no. I'm waiting for yet another engineer visit to try to get the V+ services working (sigh) - now we've got your money the earliest we will visit you is in a week. But since I can't tell the difference between all the real TV channels and BBC HD on V+, perversely, I'm reasonably satisfied, and it's a definite improvement on the service I had before. So to answer the question, HDTV, is it worth it? Right now, the answer is maybe. YMMV?

Friday, November 07, 2008

WaS (Not Wos)

WoS An article in THE questions the accuracy of the the Web of Science (WoS) database, which is now set to help determine the allocation of more than £1 billion a year in research funding after this year's disastrous research assessment exercise.

Speaking from personal experience, we've had nothing but trouble with WoS for years after trying to use it on our first year key skills module. If there was an alternative science citation database, I'd drop WoS instantly.

And now WoS is going to play a big part in the replacement for the fatally-damaged RAE. Do Hefce never learn?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Bend or Break

As regular readers will know, I'm a huge fan of Bill Oddie, one of the presenters of BBC's Autumnwatch. And Springwatch. And Third Tuesday in Pentecostwatch. The reason I like Bill so much is because he is marginally less irritating than the awful Humble and the rutting red deer obsessed King. And as an Autumnwatch fan (= There's nothing on on a Tuesday), I was pleased to hear last night that the BBC is promoting an Autumnwatch group on Flickr:

This is good news, because the BBC has previously displayed a proprietorial attitude towards viewer-contributed photos, even claiming the copyright. So it's nice to see that the post-Brand apocalypse BBC is finally waking up to how social media works, and that traditional broadcasters need to bend their attitudes towards shared and user generated content, or they will break.

Fine, now what's on Current TV?


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Online Identities



MicrobiologyBytes On Monday 3rd November 2008 MicrobiologyBytes rolled over the half a million page views mark. Not such a big deal in the mega-techblog world, but quite an achievement for a lil' old microbiology blog run by lil' old me and my staff of ... well, just me actually.

However, I didn't achieve this milestone without some help. I'd like to publicly acknowledge the support of the Open Access PLoS Journals which I am proud to be associated with; The Society for General Microbiology, who have sponsored MicrobiologyBytes; and my guest bloggers, who have contributed in their own inimitable way.

Here's to the next half a million!

Update: Just had my first offer to buy the site. Not for sale (yet).

Monday, November 03, 2008

Open Access

The 14th October 2008 was the first ever Open Access Day. Open Access is a fundamental component of a new system for exchanging scholarly research results which aims to:
  • transform health
  • maximize research outputs
  • enable faster scientific discoveries
  • inspire young people
  • transcend the wealth of the institution
  • realize cost savings
  • ensure medical research is conducted for the public good and made available to everyone who needs it
Still not convinced? Maybe this will help: