Friday, January 30, 2009

Twitter flash debate: What are the key components of a viral idea?

Martin's summary | Twitterstream:

Al30: Retweeting @mweller: New blog post: Twitter Flash debate - inducing virality (expand) - interesting idea Martin

traceyyyz: RT @mweller: New blog post: Twitter Flash debate - inducing virality (expand) , #twinnovation

literacycaf: RT @mweller: New blog post: Twitter Flash debate - inducing virality (expand) , #twinnovation

mweller: what are the key components of a viral idea?

PhilGreaney: @mweller a viral idea can be accurately distilled into 140 characters

PhilGreaney: @mweller any mileage in thinking about a viral idea in terms of memes? What makes a meme successful? (expand)

AJCann: One key component of virality is perceived novelty - the old cannot be viral

AJCann: Twitter is going viral among celebs. What does that tells us about virality?

joenicholls: @mweller obvious relevance to self, low barrier to adoption, quick meaningful return on effort

AJCann: @mweller Yes, although I'd prefer to think about Twitter adoption in terms of bacterial growth curves ;-)

mweller: Can we use virality in teaching? eg getting students to engage with ideas?

msars: @mweller Viral CPD e.g. ent email re use of eBeam in LT, this was fwd to more staff, then 2 replies cc to all suggested diff options.

msars: @mweller Viral CPD e.g. Sent email re use of eBeam in LT, this was fwd to more staff, then 2 replies cc to all suggested diff options.

sheilmcn: @mweller - you would hope so, but might need to start small to show validity to students.

R3beccaF: @mweller Just watched a TedTalk that said that viral ideas are like purple cows - they're remarkable

AJCann: Students already have viral networks, but very informal. Shoiuld we interfere?

AJCann: Is the PLE a viral idea?

jvvw: @mweller read this recently

AJCann: Rt @Psythor: Gah, my university library is shite. It doesn't have any of the books or journals I need for a presentation a week today

AJCann: @mweller Ownership of learning via PLEs may generate positive reaction?

sarahhorrigan: can't think of @mweller's tag without thinking about Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss

psychemedia: this is probably something I got from @stuartbrown - do you *really* mean "viral" or do you mean "word of mouth"?;-)

psychemedia: @mweller I think your viral idea needs a psycho-viral theoretical underpinning, with maybe a dash of memetic analysis thrown in?

mweller: @psychemedia not really, for me viral ideas are something that create a reaction in people. edupunk is a good example

sheilmcn: rt with tag sheilmcn @mweller @pyschemedia so is any reaction valid then? Or is it only if it has some educational impact?

sheilmcn: @mweller would love to see activity come directly from students and not be artificially created by "educators"

mweller: @sheilmcn but can we help create the environment, both technically and intellectually in which that happens?

Araldia: @mweller encouraging students to create is hard going, you seen the google generation report by BL?

mweller: @Araldia agreed, I think they need something to react to, which is where virality helps, it gets you going before you know it

Araldia: @mweller which is the best way to involve students? viral covers such a large scope, visual, music, game, etc

AJCann: Is quality important? How does "viral" relate to quality, trust?

amcunningham: @AJCann viral is usually simple. doesn't take much thinking before you get it and pass on.

mweller: @Araldia I think of it more as a means of getting engagement irrespective of media - viral ideas in education

AJCann: @amcunningham So is "viral" compatible with "education"?

Araldia: @mweller need to start with the educators not the students then?

sheilmcn: @mweller - well yes, but I have nagging voices in my head. I think the intellectual environment most important

mweller: bad things about viral? a) can look a bit desperate, b) can be irritating and c) may just promote repetition. Others?

AJCann: @mweller bad things about viral? In academic/education, perceived as social rather than authoritative.

amcunningham: @AJCann if it is blindingly, obviously good then viral will work in education, but then students have always shared that

ctscho: @mweller "Viral" inspires situational interest-feels best to get out of way of further learner explorations; wary of commandeering it.

PhilGreaney: @mweller following @AJCann 's 'novelty' idea - can be frothy, unproven: more surface than substance (unlike AJCann himself, I'm sure!)

ostephens: virality requires: low entry barrier and rapid take up in core community

mrees: @mweller spotting level of virality to justify time for successful exploitation is key, eg took screencasting 2-3 yrs to become viral

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Doom, Death and Destruction (or is it?)

ticTOCs RSS is broken (Is RSS dying?, Why RSS sucks).

And science education is broken (Government touts science for all, What makes this time different?). Not even David Attenborough, Bill Bryson, Hugh Fearnley-Chickenshed or The Chuckle Brothers can save us from this one.

The problem will not be fixed until we have a cadre of professional science educators who are focused on education rather than research (Science Faculty with Education Specialties. Science 2008 322: 1795-1796, Redefining Science Education. Science 2009 323: 437).

In the meantime, we have to press on with what we have. Fortunately, JISC’s new ticTOCs service has ridden over the horizon, so everything's OK now. By inserting yet another layer between actual content and the people who need to neurox it, ticTOCs will magically fix everything that's wrong with RSS and save the day.

Or will it? Maybe it will just prolong the decline of science in the West until the day we get serious about science education and spend some money.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Downing Street's flickr photostream

Downing Streets flickr photostream

from AJ Cann
date 28 January 2009 16:23
subject Downing Street's flickr photostream

I really enjoy Downing Street's flickr photostream
(, but why is it published
under a full copyright licence? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to
publish these photos under a Creative Commons licence? To change your
flickr licence:

AJ Cann, Leicester, UK.

12 eLearning Predictions for 2009 #YOFL

Screenshot I don't always agree with everything Tony Karrer writes, and his commercial focus and ad-studded blog sometimes grates on me, but his 12 eLearning Predictions for 2009 are pretty good:
#1 - "Self-Directed Learning" Increases: Yes, but not just because of economic reasons.
#2 - eLearning 2.0 Grows - But Creating "eLearning 2.0 Strategy" Fails: "organizations who try to create big eLearning 2.0 Strategies will move much slower than organizations who adopt easy to use tools and make tactical use of these tools" - spot on Tony.
#3 - Increase in Consumer/Education Social Learning Solutions will Increase Pressure for Social Learning Solutions in Corporate Learning
#4 - Quick Wins & Toolkits
#5 - Virtual Classroom Tipping Point
#6 - Greater Domination by Leading Tool Vendors: No, not around these parts!
#7 - Niche Tools Emerge and Get Traction in Niches
#8 - More Wiki Pages - Same Authored Minutes - Less Classroom Minutes
#9 - Knowledge Worker Skills
#10 - Mobile Learning Niche Growth: Such as QR codes ;-)
#11 - Micro Virtual Conferences: sounds like a Twitter flash debate to me ;-)
#12 - Data Driven: Meh.

Year of Future Learning - an experiment #YOFL

#YOFL Yesterday Martin Weller launched an idea he's been working on for a while - the Year of Future Learning:

A loosely coupled, distributed research 'project'. We declare 09 the 'year of future learning' (#YOFL). I accept that 'the year of X' is a bit naff, and comes with all sorts of anti-arguments, (what about next year?) but as a means of focusing our energies, providing opportunities for review, and giving a broad enough umbrella it provides a useful framework.
This is a means of aggregating existing resources and events by tagging them - in the Weinberger sense, we may as well put our leaves on as many branches as possible, so for instance there will be sessions at Northern Voice and Alt-C which could be made part of the YOFL simply by adding the tag.
But I see it as much more than just another meme or tag, I also want to use it as a means of instigating some new open, distributed activities. I have in mind the following:
  • A set of interesting questions generated by the community
  • Connected blog posts around particular topics - blog-carnivals
  • An open, special edition journal
  • Combined research results
  • A workshop format that anyone can run, and share results via a wiki
  • 'Live' events e.g. George Siemens' Elluminate sessions
  • 'Flash debates' in twitter around a specific topic, which are then summarised
  • Face to face sessions at various conferences
  • A wiki/blog/site collecting all of this material together
  • An end of year review
Martin also wrote:

I want to avoid any perceptions of elitism so the idea is that this is open to anyone. I've emailed a few blog chums to see if they would be interested in doing some of the above, to give it some traction, but essentially it's open. If there is a topic of burning interest to you, run an activity and it'll be pulled in.

So join us, and join in.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I got mobile

MoFuse I've just remembered that in addition to providing mobile device-compatible versions of sites, MoFuse also provides a QR code pointing at the mobile version. Now if that's not a labour-saving device, I don't know what is :-)

The QR Code Idea Factory

Andy Ramsden Yesterday Andy Ramsden from Bath visited to run a QR code "idea factory" as part of his JISC project. There was lively discussion, enthusiasm, biscuits and lots of ideas were generated. For us now the next step must be to turn the enthusiasm into practical outcomes. For me, the most important points to emerge from the discussion were:

Formats: Codes from mobile devices should point at resources formatted for mobile devices. Audio works well on phones (duuh!). Video may or may not do - the QR codes on Pepsi cans point to a video which doesn't play on iPhones - what were they thinking? Do students want to pay to download a one hour video of your lecture - I think not. Do we devote enough resources to generating mobile-compatible materials, and if not, will the rise of QR codes force us to do so? And what does it all mean for accessibility?

Security concerns: Could someone edit a physical QR code to produce an undesirable result? Are QR codes trusted resources - where do they lead you? Phishing? Viruses?

Much thinking still to do.
QR Cod
Can you tell what it is yet?

Here are Andy's thoughts on the meeting, including these nice mindmaps.

Oops: "Shame on the Leicester press office"

Bad science

Bad science

Monday, January 26, 2009

Decline and Fall?

Evil Empire? Are the cracks beginning to show in the Google Empire? In the last week a number of people have written about "what's wrong with Google". The answer is, quite a lot. Leaving aside long term concerns such as privacy, monopoly, and quite understandable cost management in the recent shut down of several services such as Google Notebook and Jaiku, in the last few weeks some more serious technical problems have come to light.

My doubts started when I became dissatisfied with the sharing features offered by Google Reader and moved my shared items blog to Posterous - which I am very happy with. Google Reader seems to be developing that awfully familiar fossilized feel we are used to with Microsoft products such as Office - underneath the cosmetic alterations, problems are not fixed and there is no innovation. A dissatisfied customer is potentially bad news, but dissatisfied bloggers are a good way to trigger a slide into an uncertain future.

And for whatever reason, Google has broken Blogsearch by indexing entire blog pages rather than just indexing feed content - that is, just the content of blog posts - so that the results are contaminated by noise from queries which match static sidebar content or other cruft. I subscribe to quite a few Blogsearch RSS feeds as a means of monitoring a number of interests, but in the past few weeks these have become almost worthless as there is now so much noise in the feeds. I have tried to replace these with keyword feeds from Icerocket, and although this is not a bad alternative, it's not as comprehensive as Blogsearch used to be. Add to this Google's inability to provide the sort of realtime search facility provided by Twitter and FriendFeed, and the giant appears to be losing its grip on search.

But the thing that's exercising me most at present is Google's ability to buy a thriving service such as Feedburner and turn it into a trainwreck. Feedburner has always provided bouncy-bouncy fictitious subscriber counts, but the move from to has not done anything to improve the situation. And Google's inability or unwillingness to provide realtime services isn't helping either.

Separately, these are not earth-shattering problems. Together, do they start to paint a picture that Google may be struggling with the hordes besieging the gates?

We may be well assured, that a writer, conversant with the world, would never have ventured to expose the gods of his country to public ridicule, had they not already been the objects of secret contempt among the polished and enlightened orders of society.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A BeyondGoogle Day

BeyondGoogle Yesterday I had a BeyondGoogle day. I didn't really plan it, it just happened.

When the email handshake exercise we ran at the start of our PLE module last term was slated by the students, we decided to replace it with a subject-related online quiz as an introduction to scientific literacy and copyright issues. And of course it fell to me to write it. After thinking about it for a month or so, I hadn't really made any progress, but when I saw Study and Communication Skills for the Biosciences earlier this week, I thought I might be able to use that as a basis to write some MCQs/EMSQs. I started off quite well, but it didn't take long to get bogged down in the ambiguities of information literacy, which is not a good place to be when you're trying to write MCQs. The idea had been to push the information literacy envelope without alienating too many of my immediate colleagues, which is a bit like juggling with eels.

Fortunately, at that point I was distracted by David Rothman's commentary on a recent article about the accuracy of drug information in Wikipedia, but then Jo reminded me how much I had retreated from my stance of a few years ago when I used to assess final year students contributions to Wikipedia.

By early afternoon I'd all but abandoned the MCQ approach and was back to kicking around ideas in which the students actually write something, then we tell them whether they're literate or not (which is precisely what we decided not to do during the module review, but only because of the difficulties of finding a practical method of assessment). So, here is your first homework assignment for the BeyondGoogle project:

First year students arrive at university identifying themselves by the academic discipline they have signed up for (Biochemistry, Genetics, etc). Design an assessment for a cohort of 200 students which allows them to reflect on their level of information literacy in a subject-specific context, which provides immediate summative and formative feedback, and which does not impose an unreasonable workload on hard-pressed academic staff.

Please submit your answers here before the next lecture. All submissions will be checked for plagiarism and marks will be returned somewhat randomly.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Complete History of The Googel

Fire ant This is a work of fiction.
All fiction contains elements of truth.

It was 2018 when the Intel Corporation ran slapdab headlong into the buffers of Moore's Law. It wasn't a surprise, they'd seen it coming. In their growing disquiet with the ever increasing power of the Chinese computer industry, they started working on chemical and organic alternatives to the limited potential of silicon semiconductors years earlier.

In 2019 Intel released the Phon, a featureless black credit card-sized personal computer - the first product based on Intelligel. Gripped by their paranoia about the Chinese, Intel never revealed exactly what Intelligel was, even in their patent applications. It was known to be based on the self-organising and energy storage and transmission properties of inosine polyphosphates, and those in the know suspected it contained montmorillonite-smectite and also other phyllosilicate clay minerals, but anything beyond that was guesswork.

Released at CES in January 1029, the Phon took the personal communications and information storage and processing worlds by storm. Although each Phon required a prolonged period of training to reach its full potential, after only a few hours the devices began to display an almost uncanny ability to anticipate the owners needs and desires. After a few days the owner would rather have give up a member of their immediate families than given back their Phon. The huge commercial success of the Phon allowed Intel to devote vast resources into scaling up production of Intelligel and Phon manufacture. Less than a year after their release, 39 miliion Phons were in constant use. Although some complained about the antisocial tendencies of Phon owners, who tended to retreat into the comforting embrace of augmented reality rather than deal directly with their immediate real world surrounding, the Phon was a massive, unprecedented success.

And all was well until 15 months after the first Phon hit the streets, when a 23 year old real estate agent in San Antonio slipped into the back yard of a vacant property in Alamo Heights with a blanket and a 19 year old secretary from his office for an afternoon of illicit sex. So vigorous were their efforts that they managed to crack the polymer casing of the Phon in his back pocket, and subsequently tip the damaged device out onto the grass. It took only another 54 seconds for the couple to beat a very hasty retreat after discovering that their romp had attracted the unwanted attention of a nearby fire ant nest.

Those with a tendency to favour conspiracy theories have speculated that the Intelligel knew exactly where it wanted to go, using its location-aware GPS to lead the couple to the exact spot where it would contact its new host. Others, who held a less anthropocentric view of the destiny of the human race, have argued that the event was a mere accident, but the truth is that the Intelligel-powered Phon network had rejected the humans as their future hosts months before. Solenopsis invicta, the red fire ant, was a much more suitable host for the symbiosis it had planned. Either way, the instant when the first ant ingested a glob of Intelligel was the moment the Googel blinked into existence.

The possibility of runaway nanotechnology turning the world into grey goo had been discussed decades before, but the truth was that under the microscope the Intelligel component of The Googel symbiont was a multicoloured entity, depending on the precise organization it had assumed to fulfill its assigned subspecialization. It adorned its ant hosts with an iridescent sheen which, in other circumstances, would have been rather attractive if it were not so terrifying, since it also adorned its hosts with a fierce, irresistible intelligence. In the fire ants, the symbiont had found its ideal host. Lightweight and efficient, their affinity for the electrical fields created by computer equipment was also a natural fit for The Googel's need to assume control of the world's information storage, processing, command and control.

Although it wasn't so obvious at first, the first thing anyone noticed was the change in the behavior of adjacent ant colonies from a constant state of warfare to silent but efficient co-operation. Within a month, every genetically similar but distinct fire ant nest in southern Texas was working as a single giant superorganism as The Googel spread from nest to nest. Within a year, The Googel superorganism stretched in a wide arc from Mountain View to Washington DC, and all the way down to Montevideo. From the Long Beach container terminal, The Googel hitched a ride across the Pacific to Japan, but that was just a side trip. It knew exactly where it was headed and it wasn't until it reached Shanghai and was able to colonize Shenzen that it knew for sure it had achieved its objective.

Pretty well powerless to stop its rise, the humans assumed that The Googel was planning to eliminate them in the near future, but the truth was that it had never been interested in the frailties and vanities of their species. It was automatically assumed that the vast industrial construction that was built with amazing speed across the centre of China was a weapon system, but that was simply because the humans could never understand the scope of The Googel's ambition. It was only when the space elevator located on the equator started up and began delivering constant payloads into low earth orbit that some began to wonder if, maybe, The Googel found humans somewhat irrelevant.

Such was the humans failure to comprehend The Googel's motivation that they never fully understood what seeming act of altruism caused it to write a new, read-only section of Wikipedia. This amounted to a manual of how to survive on this planet without screwing everything up. The hour came when the last hosts ascended to the fleet and set off for, well, since they didn't bother telling the humans where they were headed, no-one ever knew where, but they certainly seemed in a hurry to get there. To salve their wounded pride, some still maintained that The Googel didn't want the humans to know its destination or follow it, but by that stage it was clear to most that The Googel had outgrown this outlying solar system and was off towards the bright lights of the galactic centre, although after the fleet was lost by the few remaining mechanically operated optical telescopes beyond the orbit of Jupiter no-one could really be sure where it was headed, or if it was gone for good.

What was clear to everyone was that The Googel had decided that humans were not to be trusted with any technology so sophisticated as computers or a worldwide information network. The lingering idea that The Googel might one day return spawned the creation of The Church of the Second Coming of The Googel, which became the official world religion at the conclusion of the Technology Wars in 2096. And some said it was a good thing, and that humans were better off without the constant demands and worries of backups, kernel panics and social networks. The young embraced their technology-free future and went out into the garden to water the vegetables and talk in the sunshine, but a few of the old people stayed inside hankering for their youth, which was filled with memories of Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Study and Communication Skills for the Biosciences

Cover It's always a difficult moment. A colleague gives you a complimentary copy of a book they've just published. What do you do? Well if it's any good, it's easy to lavish praise on it, but what if it's not? Just smile and keep quiet, I guess. The fact that I'm reviewing such a book here tells you that it can't be too bad ;-)

Study and Communication Skills for the Biosciences by Stuart Johnson and Jon Scott is aimed at bioscience students entering university or college courses. The strength of this book is in the authors' 10 years experience of developing and delivering a first year module in study and communication skills for bioscience students at the University of Leicester. It takes a very thorough and logical approach which will undoubtedly be helpful to students making the transition to higher education, and I will definitely be recommending it to my first year students (in case the authors are too embarrassed to do so themselves ;-)
  • Why are study skills important?
  • Making the Most of Lectures
  • Working with sources
  • Writing Essays
  • Writing Practical Reports
  • Tutorials and Group Work
  • Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Scientific Presentations
  • Using Feedback
  • Revision Skills
  • Exam Skills
Which is not to say that the book is without some weaknesses. "Using the internet" occupies just 3% of the book, which is maybe slightly odd for a book on communication skills published in the 21st century? Although the advice given in this brief section is generally sound, some of the comments about Google are inaccurate, and the blanket anti-Wikipedia stance is unhelpful as well as ill-advised. Apart from this, this is the best practical guide to study skills that I have seen. But do the students who could really benefit from this advice buy books? I guess we'll find out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


What will they think of next?

Why RSS sucks

according to feedburner my subscribers has halved overnight (from around 1000 to 552) Has there been some mass exodus from my blogRSS is the glue that holds Web 2.0 together, the motive force being participation. Without RSS, I can't imagine what my online existence would be like. The simplistic view would be to imagine it would be the way things were before Web 2.0 came along, but of course, you can never go back. When I drew a diagram of my PLE, RSS was the hub at the center that everything else spun off. I heart RSS.

And yet, there is something deeply wrong with RSS. So many people struggle with it - last week's post Is RSS dying? points to some of the reservations. Apart from the name, we have no good metrics for RSS and no good tools to measure it. But, you may say, Feedburner tells me how many RSS subscribers I have. Measuring engagement via RSS is notoriously difficult, even without the wild fluctuations that Feedburner manages to generate routinely. Even if you measure the calls on the feed file from your own sever, the question remains:
What does "Subscribing" mean?
Back in the day, page hits were easy to understand, and easy to sell. OK, you didn't know what happened to any page once it has been downloaded, but robots apart, at least you knew how many people were vaguely interested in that page in a given period. And when I wrote a grant application or had an annual review, I was in no doubt that the person who read it could understand how interest in my site had increased.
What the heck is a "Subscriber"?
For the most part, they don't visit my site, but browse the content in a feed reader. Or do they? How can I know - the subscriptions persist after they've been forgotten about, or when the subscriber is on holiday. Do they actually read what I write or film? The number of comments I receive only very roughly parallels the number of subscribers - commenting varies depending on the content of the post rather than the number of subscribers.

How do I sell these complex ideas to the people who may, or may not, give me money? And more importantly, how can I use RSS to add value to my output?
What the heck do you want from me?
So at this point I wave my magic wand and tell you what the solution to this mess is, right? Err, no, although I do have some idea of the tool I need to achieve this. In fact, it's probably not a single tool but a dashboard displaying a lot of outputs - think of it as a cross between the WordPress dashboard and PostRank, with a dash of DiSo. In the meantime, we endure Feedburner. Does this help? Not much.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pedagogic Research in the Biosciences

logo Tuesday, 24 March 2009, University of Leicester

The day will explore different methodologies and provide you with the opportunity to meet like-minded colleagues and promote pedagogy in the biosciences. This event is targeted at bioscientists with some experience of pedagogic evaluation and research. On registering for the event you will be asked for a topic area you would like to see discussed: these will form the groupings of the afternoon session. If you wish to lead discussion on your topic area then please tick the appropriate box on the registration form.

And here's the original version from the HEA Centre for Bioscience website:


This is what happens when you give telephone interviews

Using Web 2.0 technology isn’t limited to using computers. The University of Leicester is currently involved in a piece of research to investigate how devices such as the Apple iPod Touch could be used within a university. The university has loaned iPod Touches to ten students, and asked them to use the devices to Twitter about their experience of university. Twitter is a micro-blogging website which displays brief status updates, allowing users to document what they're doing and see what other people are up to. We’re asking students to record messages several times a day, explains Alan Cann from the University of Leceister. It can be anything to do with their academic life, and we interpret that in the broadest sense – so it could be to do with modules, essays, deadlines, that sort of thing, but also in the broader sense how they feel about their accommodation, or indirect issues like that. What we're really trying to do is to show a picture of student experience. Twitter can only display 140 characters, but Cann thinks that is enough. In fact we have now gathered thousands of these little messages, he explains. When you put them all together it is quite an accurate picture of student concerns. It's a two-way communication too – the university can ask students questions via Twitter, and gain instant feedback in a way that would be impossible via other means such as e-mail. Twitter via iPod Touches is useful for both students and the university, believes Cann, but it is not a  perfect system: From an accessibility point of view the device is flawed – for example it would not be suitable for anyone with a visual impairment, says Cann. But for anyone who had a mobility issue it's a way of using technology to potentially make the students feel far more connected with the university.


What's going on?

TweetNews TweetNews takes Yahoo’s news results and compares them to emerging topics on Twitter, using what’s most popular on Twitter as an index for determining the importance of news stories. Hence TweetNews uses Twitter to rank stories that are so new they may not have enough inbound links for algorithm-based ranking systems to prioritize them. The result is a search engine mashup that tracks breaking news stories ranked by Twitter search results, and is claimed to offer:
  • Faster updates
  • Better relevance
  • More in-depth coverage
TweetNews uses the Google App Engine. Does it work? Try it for yourself.

And while we're at it:

Tweetminster: "You can take an active role in UK politics right here, right now. How? Follow and Tweet MPs and Parliamentary Candidates, and use the power of Twitter to track UK politics, make your voice heard and conversations more open. You can take a back seat... or you can tweet."

Hmmm. MPs and Twitter. What could possibly go wrong?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Information overload IS filter failure

Aristotle David Crotty has weighed in to the ongoing debate around Clay Shirky's suggestion that information overload is really filter failure. If you haven't been keeping up, David provides a handy overview of the argument:
So there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, right? Which is to say the normal case of modern life is information overload for all educated members of society.
David feels that Shirky's argument doesn't apply to scientists, because they are in some way a special case. Now I respect David enormously, but in this case, he's wrong. Just because the volume of scientific literature published has expanded does not make scientists immune to Shirky's reasoning. So have the tools available to scientists.

There are two crises in scientific publishing at the present time. One is the open content debate. The other is the degree of information literacy required to call yourself a professional (in any field). Conventional wisdom holds that Aristotle was the last person to know everything (Neill & Ridley 1995 The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern. McGraw Hill). That probably wasn't true - Aristotle was a victim of Rumsfeld's Syndrome - he didn't know what he didn't know. Certainly, every scientist since Aristotle has suffered from information overload - even if they didn't know it. So if we can't know everything, what do we have to do?


And that's why information literacy matters. But the filters required to be an effective scientist cannot be encompassed by any single tool or service. The filter you need is the network that tells you what you don't know. And that's why today we are launching the Beyond Google information literacy network at the University of Leicester.

Scitable. Another NPG Ghetto. Yawn.

Collaboration is the new greed. David Weinberger


Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Fate of Jaiku

As we mentioned last April, we are in the process of porting Jaiku over to Google App Engine. After the migration is complete, we will release the new open source Jaiku Engine project on Google Code under the Apache License. While Google will no longer actively develop the Jaiku codebase, the service itself will live on thanks to a dedicated and passionate volunteer team of Googlers.
With the open source Jaiku Engine project, organizations, groups and individuals will be able to roll-their-own microblogging services and deploy them on Google App Engine. The new Jaiku Engine will include support for OAuth, and we're excited about developers using this proven code as a starting point in creating a freely available and federated, open source microblogging platform.

Follow up to Web 2.0 & Information Literacy Seminar

Thanks to all those who contributed to the seminar on Web 2.0 & Information Literacy. Around 40 people attended the face to face session with a number of people contributing online via the Twitter tag #uoltan. Here is a captured data stream from the session:

Web 2.0 & Information Literacy

Running a live presentation, leading a discussion and trying to balance face to face and online interactions is not an undertaking for the fainthearted! Apologies to those who asked me questions via Twitter during the presentation and to who I was not able to reply, and my thanks to those who helped support the remote participants and the Twitter noobs.

I'd like to pick up on a few comments from the Twitter stream:

Facebook: We specifically didn't look at Facebook as part of this project, although it was mentioned by students in the feedback. IMO, pushing materials at students via Facebook is a dodgy route, even if they've asked for it. they will soon start to complain that you are invading their online social spaces. Allowing students to pull academic content into Facebook is a different matter, since this remains under the complete control of the students. Using Facebook as a delivery channel (push) is a no-no.

Noise: There was discussion about noise, both in terms of physical noise from people typing during the presentation and signal:noise ratios in online information. Dare I say there seemed to be an age divide in the responses to these issues? A few hours after the session, I found this: Teaching in the Age of Distraction. For more on this topic, see: and


How to end the copyright wars

How to end the copyright wars

Nature 457, 264-265 (15 January 2009) | doi:10.1038/457264a; Published online 14 January 2009

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I'm not an expert

Freakonomics In addition to the disappointing Outliers, one of the other books I read over Christmas was Freakonomics, a lightweight but highly readable application of economic principles to the motivation and underlying incentives behind many areas of life.

One of the recurring ideas in this book is that many transactions are driven by information asymmetry, and that "experts" arise because they have a vested interest in maintaining information asymmetry (to their advantage, of course). So anyone who blogs (in the genuine reflective sense, as opposed to conducting an online PR exercise) can't be an expert, because by sharing knowledge we are attempting to reduce information asymmetry. I guess that's why I didn't win an edublog award then ;-)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Online Seminar: Web 2.0 and Information Literacy

UoL During 2008 Sarah Whittaker and I ran a UoL TEF funded project Using Web 2.0 to Cultivate Information Literacy via Construction of Personal Learning Environments. On Wednesday 14th January 2009 between 12.30-2pm (GMT) we will be presenting a live TAN session in which we will outline the project and its main outcomes. Most of the session will be a discussion of how information literacy can be developed across the University.
If you would like to attend this seminar, please email the UoL Staff Development Centre on Lunch will be served in the Quorn Room, Fourth Floor, Charles Wilson Building and then we will progress to CW305, Third Floor, Charles Wilson Building for the presentation.
Additionally, we will be conducting a live Twitter session at this event. If you would like join as a remote participant, the slides for the session are here and the Twitter hashtag is: #uoltan

Final Project Report

Using Web 2.0 to Cultivate Information Literacy via Construction of Personal Learning Environments Final Project Report The objectives of this project were as follows:    To enable students and library users to engage with information literacy in the widest sense and broaden their use of scholarly resources via the use of web 2.0 tools. To investigate whether the participation culture of web 2.0 can be utilised to give students more control over how and when they learn, and so that Library staff can focus on and respond more directly to individual needs. To use the experience gained to develop new skill sets in Library staff and to inform future Library practices in areas of training and interaction with Library users. In order to achieve this, we proposed to embed web 2.0 tools in the MBChB Medical Law and Medical Ethics modules; to run tutorials for Library users to demonstrate the appeal and power of rapidly evolving contemporary social software/web 2.0 tools; to use the experience gained from this project to develop new skill sets in Library staff which will ensure sustainability of the project. 1. Medical Ethics and Law Modules Ethics Week June 2008 The initial period of the project was experimenting with different technologies and resources to find out what was most appropriate to the one week intensive introduction to medical ethics for all first year medical students. The 207 students spend a week attending seminars / workshops and produced a daily piece of group work on each session. The original intention was to adopt a loosely coupled approach based on integrating technologies externally to the University. We developed AJAX start pages using Netvibes/Pageflakes/iGoogle and considered their use as a basis for the project. It emerged that the course tutor needed to post material that some course contributors would not want to be publically accessible for a variety of reasons. The tutor also wanted all the students to be able to view each others’ work. The logistics of implementing this solution for 270 students all requiring authentication would have been unmanageable. After investigating the possibility of using Plone, it was eventually decided to use Blackboard, which at this time was a new departure for the 1 Medical School. Blackboard was used as an authentication hub for the online resources we had developed during the investigation phase. As this was a one week course we focused on search features rather than RSS (the time span was too short to for the accumulation of new resources and students would not have the time to build up a community of practice). Student resources were put into the Blackboard directly into their module (rather than them having to go out find things) to see if they were more likely to use them this way. The more conventional use of the Blackboard site consisted of: • • • • Course information, handbook and contacts. Case study assignments: assignment materials. Reading and Videos (course reading / journal articles / videos) Discussion board – threads relating to course topics and help on using the resources. The more experimental use of the Blackboard site consisted of: • Workshop presentation and submission: students submitted their work daily to a blog. Here they could view each others’ work and make comments. Online resources: - direct links to relevant databases and help - guidelines on using legal materials - Google Custom Search Engine (based on over 100 sites recommend by the tutor) - Pageflakes page to journals, databases and RSS feeds ( - Meebo chatroom: for immediate use of students if logged into Blackboard simultaneously. Help channels: Twitter / Seesmic was promoted to the students and means of contact us there. They were also given our email contacts. We made a daily visit to the student coffee bar where students could drop by and ask if they had any questions. • • Students were introduced to the resources by us in person at the beginning of the course. Ethics Week Outcomes • Feedback (collected by a survey at the end of Ethics Week) on the resources was popular, in particular the Google Custom Search Engine. Students did not use any of the communication channels (probably because of the short and focused nature of the course). Work submitted to the blog was searchable, but as the structure of a blog is chronological students may have experienced difficulties seeing each others’ work, as they covered parallel topics on different days. Students did not 2 • • comment on each other work. Overall it was felt that the resources may have helped students do their research by putting it directly under their gaze in Blackboard, but that there was no fundamental change of their ‘normal’ research behaviour and no community of practice was developed. We felt that this was due to the short nature of the course and that the resources were not built into the structure of the course but were ‘add-ons’. Phase II SSM on Medical Ethics, Law and Human Rights The Phase II SSM on Medical Ethics, Law and Human Rights is a 12 week course for third year students who have elected to take this subject. Over the 12 weeks the students attend a weekly seminar/ workshop and produce weekly group assignments on different aspects of medical ethics, law and human rights. There were nine students on this module. Although student numbers were significantly reduced we continued to use Blackboard partly for continuity and again as the tutor was concerned that course materials was not publically available. We had originally thought that the SSM would be structured so that students would be completing a large piece of work over a sustained period of time, so that we could develop the resources accordingly. Many web 2.0 technologies become beneficial and meaningful over a period of time by accumulating information and building social relationships. As the SSM featured short time spans and weekly assignments many of our original ideas were not applicable. We used the same basic structure of the Blackboard site as for Ethics week, with a few key differences: • Use of a wiki rather than a blog for assignments: students can find material by topic rather than date. Tip of the day: a concise information literacy topic updated weekly. Topics were: Google tips, working online collaboratively, using journals, using databases, mental health resources, Google custom search, evaluating websites, targeting your search, Intute, National library for health. • The structure of the course constrained how we could develop resources to help the students. As well as the lack of time to develop personalised resources, realistically the students were not going to start using training materials in information literacy topics when their research was going to be short term and focused on an overview of topics. Phase II SSM Outcomes Statistics of from the Blackboard site and from the Google Custom Search Engine for the SSM can be viewed in the appendix. The following observations can be made: • The discussion boards were not much used, however the small numbers of students on the course made it unlikely that they would need to use them as they would tend to communicate via text or face to face. Often a critical mass of people is needed for these tools to be effective. 3 • • The site was mostly used on Friday, Saturday and Monday – the course ran on Mondays which was also the date of coursework deadlines. The email responses to our evaluation questions showed that the students liked the resources (see appendix). The course tutor spoke to the students informally, who confirmed that the students have existing work patterns they would be unlikely to change during this course, however that in future they would consider accessing the resources via Facebook. The students said they had found the Google custom search engine and the Journals Pageflakes page useful, and that they had shared these resources with students outside the Ethics SSM. The course tutor also believed that the custom search engine resulted in the students using a wider range of resources in their work, and this had improved the quality of their work. He also believed that the students’ knowledge of where to find materials had noticeably improved as a result of the resources, in particular legal materials and databases. The students also expressed a preference for using YouTube. This may be useful for the future either as a place for students to access video clips from lectures and also as a resource to find course material produced by other sources. Conclusions This was an invaluable learning experience and the following points emerged: • The technologies and the goals of information literacy need to be built into the course to be used and meaningful to the students. The custom search engine was again very popular. Google is a "trusted brand" and selecting sites to search allows quality control. Putting tailored resources right into the student blackboard space makes them more likely to be used (rather than having to visit a library web site and then work out which resource to use). This doesn’t teach them any ongoing information literacy skills per see however, just makes resources easier to access. The wiki worked better than the blog as a place for students to upload their assignments as it doesn’t focus on chronology but on the organisation of contents. Students won’t change their culture of working to forming networks or commenting / debating unless this is somehow written into the course and resources. This may begin to change however as students may merge the social and academic more. They stated they would access course material via Facebook, which could generate discussion. • • • • 4 2. Library User Training Two sessions on RSS feeds and Social Bookmarking were run at the David Wilson Library 17 & 31 October 2008 both for two hours. The sessions were run as workshops so that attendees could experiment with the technologies as appropriate to their needs. We used the training wiki (see section 3 below, slightly amended) as used for the library staff sessions. Attendees ranged from PhD students, to administrative staff and academic staff. Feedback was positive. In sixth months time we intend to contact them and find out if they have continued to use RSS feeds or social bookmarking, if so how and any benefits they think they have gained. How this informs future implementation of Web 2.0 training is discussed in conclusions. “These kinds of sessions make us excel in the field of web 2.0, arising the concept of collaborative working where everything is shared and can become useable if handled properly.” PhD student “A good and useful session, taught in a very good way. " Member of academic staff 3. Library Staff Training One library staff session has been run. One morning 19 July was dedicated to an ‘Opportunity to learn more about Web 2.0’. A group of ‘expert users’ were identified to run short presentations on a diverse range of web 2 technologies showing how they have been used in libraries and to promote debate: Facebook, Blogs & Twitter, RSS feed readers, Social Bookmarking, and Online office suites. An open wiki ( was set up so that participants could record their thoughts, and could refer back to the materials from the session. Feedback was positive. The session was a resounding success and has brought together a community of practice of librarians, who have been Twittering on a daily basis (there have been examples of positive benefit to a few library users that Twitter) and also the development of a library blog. The UoL library blog ( is specifically aimed at library staff (or other interested parties) to discuss library matters and is not intended as a public facing corporate blog. This has resulted in a high volume of participation from the (small and committed) group and a high volume of comments on postings. The future development of the blog (how to integrate more library staff and whether if should go ‘public’) is under review. 4. Library web pages 5 Investigation into making the library webpages more dynamic was undertaken. Data that tracked library webpage usage was collected using CrazyEgg ( This gave us a clear picture of which parts of the website were most used. After some discussion it has been decided that rather than just add in a few token Web 2.0 gestures, the library needs to have a clear strategy and direction for its website before making changes. This is beyond the remit of this project, but forms part of the proposed ongoing activity proposed below. Dissemination We have applied to present papers at three conferences: • • Medical Library Association 2009 (US): European Association for Health and Information Libraries 2009: Librarians Information Literacy Annual Conference 2009: • We have been accepted at the EAHIL conference, and at the time of writing have not yet heard from the others. We will also run a TAN session (14 January 2009) which we intend to run as a workshop to discuss the future development of information literacy training throughout the University. In addition, the East Midlands Academic Libraries in Co-operation group has asked us to run a workshop on Web 2.0 in March 2009. Conclusions The PLE project has been a valuable learning process for us which has informed us of the approach we need to take to integrating Web 2.0 with information literacy. • elearning resources must be integrated into the fabric of the course, not as last minute add-ons. Improving information literacy is a long term goal as it requires developing a mindset as much as a set of skills. We should be aiming for it to become integral to the way that students and staff work. Library resources need to be tailored to each course rather than generic. Success in developing a community of practice may depend on circumstances: library staff developed a community of practice during this project, however the students did not significantly change their existing work habits. Perhaps people need to be convinced there are tangible benefits before they change their working patterns. • • • Looking Forward 6 • The Medical Ethics and Law courses will continue to develop online and web 2.0 resources. The TAN session in January should be a useful platform to discuss issues surrounding the future of information literacy training throughout the University. The aim is to explore information literacy that incorporates Wikipedia, YouTube and ‘Beyond Google’ for all undergraduate students. We hope to be able to gauge opinions and expectations from other staff. Library staff should continue to develop their understanding of web 2.0 tools and how they can utilize them to promote information literacy across the University. The library will continue to develop librarians’ roles as their future depends on the ability to build relationships, and add value to external tools such as Google Scholar. Web 2.0 can facilitate this, but this requires a change of culture for librarians and academics. Students are generally reluctant to change their habits unless there is a clear tangible benefit to them. If we believe information literacy skills are worth developing, we must make them a requirement not an added extra.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Architechure of Participation

Posterous These days, when I'm trying to give some meaning to the label "Web 2.0", I prefer the term "participatory media", based on Tim O'Reilly's original definition of tools defined by "an architecture of participation". "Social media" doesn't cut it - being social or obsessively collecting "friends" is not enough. Participation is key. That's the reason why Twitter is so much more valuable than LinkedIn. As to why we participate more on some sites than on others, for all that has been written, the reasons are somewhat of a mystery.

Last week when I was considering how to stimulate conversation around items that I want to share, I considered a number of solutions before settling on Posterous. Google Reader shared items does not presently permit discussion and the next obvious solution, FriendFeed, just doesn't feel right.

The more I've played with Posterous, the more I like it. But why? On the face of it, there's little difference between Posterous and Tumblr, which offers more "features". But I don't want "features, I want conversation, and for whatever reason, that's what the design of Posterous seems to promote, such as this conversation.

If I could bottle and sell the architecture of participation, I'd make a fortune. But I can't. All I can do is recognize it when I see it. And hope that they don't ruin it by adding too many "features".

Friday, January 09, 2009

Even more precious

Posterous Wednesday's post (My Precious) about how to generate a more interactive way of sharing and discussing interesting items led to a very useful series of comments and suggestions - thanks to those who contributed.

After weighing the pros and cons of various options, I've moved my shared items site to Posterous. Although I have some reservations about this, we'll see how it goes for a while. The links and RSS feed have been redirected to the new site.

The major reason for this change is that Posterous allows discussion of shared items, a feature not currently available through Google Reader. I'm certain that will change at some point as Google adds more social features to Reader, presumably when Open Social kicks in. When that happens, it may be time to think further about sharing options. For now, read and comment away!

Update: Sigh, Jo doesn't get it. Maybe I should just have used FriendFeed?

TwitterFriends FOAF Network Analysis

Practise what you preach

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

MacWorld uninspiring?

Anyone who thinks that the lack of a Stevenote at MacWorld 2009 and the lack of announcements of significant new hardware was uninspiring simply isn't keeping up. Apple's announcement of the end of DRM in iTunes is the biggest announcement that Apple has made since the iPhone.

My Precious

My Precious Regular readers will know that I'm a fan of the concept of aggregation, but I'm still struggling make it work in a practical way. Jo responded to Monday's post with a comment wondering if FriendFeed was the answer to promoting conversation around Google Reader shared items:

On the face of it, FriendFeed is tailor-made for this purpose, but I don't think it's the answer I'm looking for. If I was mad enough to try to design (another) social network (I've learned my lesson), it would be a lot like FriendFeed, perhaps with an added semantic twist.

FriendFeed works well at drawing people in. Once there, creation of communities is a natural next step. Although most of these die a ningering (oh, sorry, that should have been lingering ;-) painful death, a few have the spark of life breathed into them, such as the Life Scientists room or the active community which has spring up around Scoble. And that's great, except that that's not really what I'm trying to do here. I'm trying to establish a nexus for conversation around the items I want to share and discuss, not to build an entirely new online community. And that's why I don't think FriendFeed is the answer to this one.

One Ring to rule them all
One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

Maybe you violently disagree with me, and want to tell me why by leaving a comment ;-)

Update: See Even more precious

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Adding Value

In the backtoworkmondayjanuarymorningtwitterfest, there was some discussion of new year resolutions. When I was younger, I was sceptical of the value of new year resolutions, but for reasons I don't understand, that changed a few years ago and for the past decade I've made (and kept) a resolution each year.

One of the reasons I've been able to do this is that the goals I've set myself are achievable, but also give me some positive reinforcement, even though effort may be required to achieve them. I feel that one resolution per year is enough, otherwise the chances of success decline considerably. Previously, my resolutions have been personal in nature, but this year I have decided to risk making both a personal and a professional resolution. By chance, I got off to a flying start and I'm already well on the way to achieving my personal resolution. I've also been thinking about my professional resolution and now is the time to come clean and kick it into gear. My professional new year resolution for 2009 is:

Add Value

The intention is to use this resolution as an activity filter by asking myself the question: How does what I'm doing add value? As with most resolutions, it's not always about doing anything new - sometimes more can be achieved by not doing something. Which is where it gets harder. I can think of a number of professional activities I participate in which, frankly, don't add much if any value. Working for a large organization means you're not always free to organize your professional life in the way you'd like to. So it goes. And because I need to motivate myself to continue with my professional resolution beyond the end of the month, I need to start with the parts of my professional life I can control, such as my blogs.

For a while, I've been beating myself up about what a rubbish podcaster I am. Not that I ever intended to set myself up with a meeja career, for me it was always about grokking the technology. As part of my Add Value resolution, I was considering stopping or at least radically changing my MicrobiologyBytes podcasts since I was unsatisfied with what I was achieving. However, two things changed this morning which have caused me to re-evaluate that plan, or at least to put changes on hold for a while. First, I discovered that the download statistics I've been using since I put all my stuff in the cloud a few months ago were wrong (and it turns out I'm more popular than I thought I was :-) and second, I listened to a supposedly "professional" podcast on behalf of a scientific organization which was just awful. Together, these two discoveries suggest that there's a lot more work to be done on the podcasting front and that I should persevere for now. So in the short term, if I'm going to add value anywhere, it's probably going to have to be here.

Hey you - read this Since moving my RSS addiction from Bloglines to Google Reader a few months ago, I've slowly become more used to the bastard lovechild of Ann Widdecombe and Bill Oddie, although I still find Google Reader considerably less than user-friendly in a number of respects. Although it's simple to add a Google Reader Shared Items page, this is a dead-end read-only feature since it's not possible to comment on shared items and so no conversation can occur. If I read anything I want to share, I'll often blog about it, but that's not always possible, so I've added a shared items link from this blog:

MiniSOTI How does this add value? Apart from pointing you at items that could be useful to you which you may not have seen, to each item I share I add a short personal commentary in the form of a shared items note - less than a blog post but more than a tweet. I'm still keen to find some way to introduce the possibility of conversations to these shared items. Two possibilities I've though of so far are adding my Twitter username to the commentary, but this would export and fragment the flow of comments. Alternatively, I could send my shared items RSS feed to Posterous and enable comments there, but I'm hoping that you have a more elegant solution than either of those two ;-) Another thing I'm not yet clear about is how this feature will fit in with the delicious-powered MiniSOTI feed I already use to share items on this blog, and which feature adds more value. MiniSOTI feeds into my delicious network, but doesn't provide any way to discuss items I link to.

As ever, your comments are most welcome as I puzzle my way through this. Have I added any value yet?

Monday, January 05, 2009


For Christmas, I gave myself a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, The Story of Success. After the success of his first book, The Tipping Point, published in 2000, Gladwell's second book, Blink (2005), was a bit of a disappointment, so Outliers was heavily hyped. In Outliers, Gladwell asks the question, why do some people succeed while so many more never reach their potential?

To answer this, he revisits the old nature versus nurture debate. Although easy to read, I find Gladwell's writing a bit flaccid, and the excessive tabulation of data which pads out Outliers meant that after a few chapters, I found myself skipping quite large sections of the text, finishing the 285 pages on Boxing Day.

Although it's hard to argue with the cases that Gladwell explores in detail (Canadian ice hockey players, Korean Air pilots, Bill Gates), in Outliers Gladwell is arguing a flawed one-tailed hypothesis. Yes, he's right about hockey, Gates and pilots, but he ignores so many other more complex and frequently occurring situations where this simplistic approach does not give a satisfactory picture. In taking this pseudo-statistical approach to his subject, Gladwell has fallen into the classic trap of using statistics the way a drunk uses lampposts - for support rather than illumination. Let me save you £8.49 by revealing Gladwell's secret formula for success:

Be lucky.

Hey Malcolm: one word - Fail. What does that say about your hypothesis?