Friday, February 27, 2009

Should I stay or should I go?

When I started blogging, I was worried I might run out of things to write about. Now I'm worried I may run out of things not to write about.

I sometimes get emails from people offering to buy one of my blogs. I've always assumed that these were either from bankers looking to blow a few billion, or simply scams, so I hit the Report Spam button, but I suppose that some could be genuine in the sense that certain lowlifes might be looking to to buy traffic so that they could peddle dodgy pharmaceuticals. But on Monday I received an email from the Seed Media Group offering me a much more challenging proposition.

For those of you who don't know, the Seed Media Group publishes SEED Magazine, but also owns ScienceBlogs and is involved with In other words, Seed Media is second only to Nature Publishing Group in the science blogosphere. ScienceBlogs is a network of about 75 blogs written by a mixture of academics and science writers. Like NPG, ScienceBlogs is a commercial venture, and all the blogs in the network carry advertising, which is interesting since a number of the blogs are published under a Creative Commons licence and in signing up to the network a blogger agrees to give Seed Media non-exclusive, perpetual license to use their work. Squaring this circle is something I'm still trying to get my head around (Pass the politics, please: Science blogs peppered with commentary).

ScienceBlogs pays it's contributors a monthly rate that varies according to individual traffic levels. But don't get too excited, we're not talking huge amounts - not enough to buy an iPhone for example. My calculations show I could make more money by slapping a small Google Adsense advert onto the top left corner of MicrobiologyBytes, except that at present MicrobiologyBytes is on, which in return for free hosting does not allow blogs to carry ads (fair enough). I buy into the line that Seed Media does not exercise any significant editorial control over the content on the ScienceBlogs network, although there are some understandable legal restraints built into the contract.

Show me the money
As an author, I'm not going to make any significant money out of joining ScienceBlogs. The question of whether Seed Media would make any significant money out of my writing is more difficult to determine, but possibly not. So if it's not about the money, what is it that's kept me awake the past few nights? I've been surprised by the emotional investment I seem to have in the decision. Somehow, this point feels like a crossroads in my blogging anti-career. Maybe that's what happens once you've got your 10,000 hours in. MicrobiologyBytes traffic outweighs the hits on the old tat I pass off here by about ten to one.
And yet...
Over the last year this site has developed a real sense of community which has been invaluable to me. I'm a writer, I couldn't stop if I wanted to, but the interactions I have with the people who read this site goes beyond any financial payment. I know you're not my "friends" (this isn't Facebook), but I'd really miss you if you went away. Somehow MicrobiologyBytes doesn't feel like that. For all the people who read it, there's little sense of community there. That's not altogether surprising, since when I started MicrobiologyBytes the intention was just to explore the concept of microchunking reusable learning objects, something which the data says has been remarkably successful. (In contrast, when I started this site, I had no idea what the purpose of it was...) Wouldn't it be great if I could build a community around MicrobiologyBytes which feels a bit like the one I sense here? Would joining a blog network help me with that, or would my rugged individualism still get in the way? Is it time for me to grow up and get serious about blogging? I've been weighing the options since Monday and not made a lot of progress, so I've made a (bulleted) list:

  • Move MicrobiologyBytes to its own domain: Overcomes the restrictions of hosting (no scripts, content restrictions), but also loses the advantages of hosting. The decision to blog on and on Blogger has proved to be valuable as both platforms have developed. I'll still be using WordPress, but on my own domain.
  • Move MicrobiologyBytes to the ScienceBlogs network: Would this build more of a community around MicrobiologyBytes? Is ScienceBlogs US-centric focus appropriate for what I'm trying to achieve?

  • Move MicrobiologyBytes to the Nature Network: Would NPG's kudos add something that ScienceBlogs doesn't? Is this still selling out to the man? I'd still be a sharecropper on Nature's farm.

  • Hedge my bets - split the content and run two microbiology blogs, one on a blog network and the other on or on Considering how ridiculously overcommited I am, do I have time for this? Is splitting the traffic a sensible option?

What I really need is your input.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's good to blog

"More researchers should engage with the blogosphere"

The blogosphere differs from mass media and specialized media in many respects, but the same considerations apply in disseminating new scientific results there. Authors of papers in press have the right to correct misrepresentations and to point to results that will appear in a paper. But a full discussion should await the paper's publication.
Indeed, researchers would do well to blog more than they do. The experience of journals such as Cell and PLoS ONE, which allow people to comment on papers online, suggests that researchers are very reluctant to engage in such forums. But the blogosphere tends to be less inhibited, and technical discussions there seem likely to increase.
Moreover, there are societal debates that have much to gain from the uncensored voices of researchers. A good blogging website consumes much of the spare time of the one or several fully committed scientists that write and moderate it. But it can make a difference to the quality and integrity of public discussion.

Lies, damned lies and frustration

Textbook This term I will be mostly teaching statistics. To nearly 300 students split between first and second year. In two hours a week, which is where the problem lies.

How can I say this diplomatically? As a population (SPSS has rotted my brain), biologists are not the most numerate of scientists. And yet - most think that statistics is the one bit of maths that they can do. So they get very upset when they find that they can't. "Can do" translates into English as "can work out the mode but have never used any statistics software before". Real world fail.

The conversation goes like this:
Dr Cann, the significance value is greater than 0.05, so I accept the null hypothesis, right?

Good. What is the null hypothesis?

"The system" (gosh, does he mean schools?) has trained them to "do" statistics. But not to have any understanding of statistics. It has trained them to use a calculator, generate a number, write a report, without any clear rationale.

And then "we" come along and make things worse, by assuming that the piece of paper they have that says they have "done" statistics means they can "do" statistics. So we timetable statistics into our curriculum for two hours a week, but kill all hope by giving it the fatal "key skills" moniker.

And they emerge with a science degree and a piece of paper which says that they can "do" statistics. Sigh.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Seen one of these?


The authentic voice

Jonathon Ross I have a dirty secret. Well OK, if you search this site, you'll find I have several dirty secrets, but there's a new one I want to impose on you today.

I like Jonathon Ross.

No, let me be more specific than that. I like Jonathon Ross' Saturday morning radio program. His TV show, I can live without. And I don't follow him on Twitter because he doesn't add enough value to my personal network. But I always look forward to Saturday mornings, because on the wadio, Wossy gets it wight. So last Saturday morning when I listened to the opening of his show, I was worried. Something didn't quite click. OMG, I thought, the Daily Mail has finally got to Wossy - he's playing it safe. Fortunately, within a few minutes things were back to normal, and Wossy was sounding like Wossy again rather than the lobotomized DJ stereotype who had opened the show. But the episode got me thinking: what is the authentic voice, and how often do we hear it in education?

Sounding "natural" (whatever that is) while performing the plate spinning act that is presenting a radio show is formidably difficult. Don't think for a moment it's just a matter of relaxing and talking mindlessly - sounding authentic is much harder than that. Have you ever tried to make a podcast or dubbing a video? Difficult, isn't it? I'm rubbish at it - my voice is just as boring as students used to tell me it was in lectures (before I gave them up). So I try and trick people by hoping what I have to say is a lot more interesting than the sound of me saying it.

I've had several conversations in the last week about how students pick up on faint signals. But on Saturday Wossy got me thinking. How often do students hear a truly a authentic voice in education? Everything we do is so constrained for one reason or another. There are so many barriers to communication that we lose the state of "flow" that is necessary to communicate the true richness and complexity of the ideas we would like to get across. If they heard more of the authentic voice in education, how much would students benefit?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Son of SOTI

Son of SOTI A while ago I blogged about the birth of Son of SOTI, my linkshare blog on Posterous.

You can share in the Son of SOTI fun on the site itself, via the sidebar on this site, on Twitter, or by the RSS feed.

Join in!

Monday, February 23, 2009


Tinychat Tinychat does for chatrooms what tinyurl does for urls - gives you a free, instant, disposable chatroom, and plays nicely with Twitter. It's entirely public, but provides a valuable means to take noisy discussions out of your public twitterstream while keeping them in the public domain and facilitating multiple partcipants.

So why do I care? As we move towards a model of increasing peer-support for students, this is a very valuable tool. By building on the functionality of Twitter, we can offer lightweight realtime support to students as needed. Boys and girls, you're looking at the future.

How rude!

rude I thought for a long time before writing this post, and nearly didn't write it at all, but I've decided to go ahead and publish it. I don't want this blog to be whiny, but unless I balance the positive with the negative, I lose the authentic voice which allows me to establish a meaningful connection with readers.

In one day last week while teaching, I encountered two incidents of rude behavior by students (towards me, as it happens). This was sufficiently unusual that it caused me to think about standards of behavior in education. I'm not student-bashing, as most of the students I encounter are perfectly OK and some of them are outstanding in many different aspects of their life, but these two incidents on the same day seemed to reveal a pattern for a subset of students. In the second incident in particular, the student displayed such aggression that my inward reaction was to question what they were doing there at all, there seemed to be no prospect of them learning anything such was their concentration on corrosive hostility.

One of the incidents provoked a conversation with another student who witnessed the event, which went along the lines of "students changed when they started to pay fees and regard themselves as customers" (their thoughts, not mine). Personally, I don't think this is a problem of education, it seems to me to reflect the society we live in. And I'm not asking for suggestions as to how to deal with such behavior. As I twittered to someone last week, I gave up the desire to inflict physical violence on other people decades ago, and it was the most liberating experience of my life. But the fact that I'm still mulling these events over several days later means that they had an effect on me, and I'm hoping that publishing this will be sufficiently cathartic that I'll be able to resolve my reactions. We'll see.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Entrance Exam for the SOTI Academy

Question 1: If you took a long ribbon and wrapped it around the equator touching the surface all the way, then increased the length of the ribbon by one metre and raised it equally all round the earth, what would the distance be between the surface of the earth and the ribbon? (The circumference of the earth is approximately 40,075,160 metres)

Question 2: If you took a long ribbon and wrapped it around a sphere one meter in circumference touching the surface all the way, then increased the length of the ribbon by one metre and raised it equally all the way round, what would the distance be between the surface of the sphere and the ribbon?

Question 3: I have a mobile phone which makes and receives calls perfectly but cannot send text messages. Would it be worth trying a new SIM card or not?

Answers to 1 and 2 below, answer to 3 in the comments please!


Friday, February 20, 2009

Too much or too little?

Tony Blair In Blair, crowds and Iraq, Martin Weller argues that Tony Blair's decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq stemmed from the fact that he had too much information. Leaving aside political considerations, for example that the UK decision was simply an extension of Blair's long-term policy of tying the UK's interests to those of the USA, in terms of information and decision making, I have to disagree with Martin on this one.

Martin cites James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds as evidence for the reason Blair (and most of the Conservative party) parted company with UK public opinion over this decision:

Blair had an excess of information, while the crowd, deprived of all the intelligence reports he was privy to, had been forced to see the salient features of the war, and had instinctively judged it to be 'wrong'.

Martin is right about the crowd, but he's wrong about Blair.

There is no such thing as too much information.

There is such a thing as too little filtering. Information overload is filter failure. That's where Blair went wrong, in being unable to pick out the signal from the noise. Earlier this week a colleague of mine was shocked when they saw how many RSS feeds I subscribed to in Google Reader. We were discussing the relative merits of Netvibes (which is great for displaying but not crunching information) and dedicated RSS readers. After I deep sigh, I had to have the filter on the way out conversation. Blair didn't filter enough, and he probably had too many people filtering on the way in. The one thing he didn't have was too much information (such as, what the consequences of his decision would be).

There is no such thing as too much information. There is such a thing as bad filtering. That's why social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are the most important outcome of the Web 2.0 era. They are glorious noise. The crowd speaks to the crowd, and the crowd listens, but more importantly, the crowd filters.

Send me some noise.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Research=Promotion. Teaching= ?

Logos The latest HEA survey shows that teaching is still valued less than research. A lot less. Prepare to be depressed by the quotes from the survey:
  • My major concern relates to senior managers paying lip service to the value of teaching. Management culture says research is all; teaching is for those who can't do anything else.
  • In 2001 I'd been a teaching fellow (at this institution) for four years. The v-c visited the campus that I was working on, and I asked him in a public forum what the university would do to support people like me. He was rather embarrassed by my question and said that I could leave it with him and that he would give me an answer within two weeks. I never heard anything else from him.
  • It (teaching) is almost a necessary evil. This is what I find hard to comprehend. We make money from teaching - that's why we keep taking on more students. But what they (the academic department) really want you to do is get research bids.
  • Few people believe that they can build a career on teaching and learning and (people) think that it's quite dangerous to attempt to do so.
  • From what I've seen, really good teachers tend to get quite average ratings from students - their ratings tend to be polarised. Lazy students who just want to be told what they need to know (to pass exams) give good teachers low ratings because they are expecting them to work, but other students love it because their other classes aren't challenging enough. If everybody kept a reflective portfolio on how they teach, what they do and why, that would give reasonably objective evidence of their practices that could be looked at by somebody else without putting performance on the stage.


1. You preface everyone’s name with “@” in real life in the same way some Jeopardy freaks answer everything in the form of a question.

2. Your friend starts a blog to announce that she’s engaged/divorced/adopted a child, because she’s realized that RSS is the most reliable way to communicate with you.

3. You can’t recall whether a recent conversation took place on Twitter, a message board, or in blog comments. Face-to-face never even occurs to you as an option.

4. All the various auto-posting services you’ve subscribed to have created a continuing loop that threatens to create a wormhole which may possibly consume the internet.

5. You criticize your spouse for checking his Facebook account while driving… on Facebook.

6. You have to declare feed reader and email bankruptcy so often, you’ve effectively unsubscribed from everything.

7. Instead of your planner, you check your Twitter stream to see when your last hair/dentist/doctor’s appointment was, because it’s a more reliable source.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Library Web Site of the Future

Digital library "It is debatable that faculty and students ever perceived the library as the starting point for their research, but these indicators offer convincing evidence that the library’s web portal, more than ever, can make no such claim to that title. We may be fortunate when they go there at all. The future of the library Web site as information portal is bleak. But that’s good news. Libraries have grown too dependent on their Web sites as gateways to electronic scholarly content, and have invested too much time trying to fix what is broken.
This needs to change. The academic library community’s general response to the dissatisfaction is to improve the usability. Tabbed interfaces, simple search boxes and more personalization are a few of the new features site designers are employing in chasing better focus group responses. All of this change suggests rearranging the deck chairs on this Titanic. Now is the time to let this ship sink to its watery grave...
So it is little surprise that faculty and students rarely use the library’s Web site to connect to content that satisfies their scholarly needs. Instead they invent their own backdoor routes to the content, but in doing so may miss related or new electronic resources made available by the library. You may argue that faculty and students forged their own paths to circumvent the library back in the print only days, but now the possibilities for and associated risks of missing important resources are astronomically greater...
Put simply, the library portal as we know it today is unsustainable. It, along with a host of other indicators such as declines in reference questions and shifts from print to e-resources, signals that for academic libraries a “let’s just keep doing business as usual” mentality is a sure path to obsolescence. If academic librarians fail to grasp the urgency of needed changes to their portals it is quite possible we will read in a future article something along the lines of "Academic librarians thought they were in the information gateway business, but they were really in the learning and scholarly productivity business. They just didn’t recognize it."

Sound familiar to anyone at UoL? When are we meeting again? ;-)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Susans and Roberts

Yesterday's post (Don't mention the B-word) set off an interesting Twitter discussion. During the course of this, Eingang pointed me at "Teaching for Quality Learning at University" by John Biggs & Catherine Tang, and this video:

This gets dangerously close to learning styles, which, as we know, are a dead end. And even if they weren't, they don't help me in trying to establish a culture of reflection, whether through ePortfolios or blogging, in a competitive, fact-based discipline. Fortunately, Biggs gives us the answer, which is Constructive Alignment (along with some Motherhood and Apple Pie).

Gosh, it's so obvious when you know how, although I can't help feeling that a few of the details are missing ... such as, if it's that easy, why am I surrounded with Roberts and Robertas? ;-)

I'm much more interested in another remark Eingang made about reflection, to the effect that "You have to get the students to buy into it". More good advice ... but how?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Don't mention the B-word

Guillotine This is the 19th year I have run my final year virology course. It's starting to feel like a life sentence. Over the years this venerable module has served as a testbed for many different things:
There was a promising start this year when the students took on themselves what they perceived as the need to "organize" topics for blog posts. But the complaints started again, that this task is "too difficult", "takes too long" and that the detailed assessment criteria and marking scheme (with marked examples) is "unclear". So when I read: Post-Secondary Students' Purposes For Blogging. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 9 (3) 2008, it struck a familiar chord:

Findings revealed that the primary use of blogging was for social purposes. Self-disclosure was the most notable purpose for blogging, in addition to sharing emotional responses to learning. The lack of teaching presence may have influenced students’ use of blogging for social rather than instructional purposes.

I cling to the hope that there is some sort of assessed blog sweet spot, that if I can just get the assessment criteria right, all will be well, but in truth I'm starting to think that "blogging" needs to be placed in the same education category as Facebook so far as I'm concerned - a netherworld of zombie vampire superpokes where no sensible teacher ventures. Is assessed student blogging an impossible dream?

...despite new opportunities to engage in such distribution of content, relatively few people are taking advantage of these recent developments. Moreover, neither creation nor sharing is randomly distributed among a diverse group of young adults. Consistent with existing literature, creative activity is related to a person's socioeconomic status as measured by parental schooling. The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age. Information, Communication and Society.

I don't entirely blame the students for their reaction. After three years of didactic force-feeding it's difficult for les petit foie gras to switch to a system which requires them to think rather than merely swallow information. And if you're inclined to suggest that I should simply stop awarding marks, then you haven't been paying attention. All this is reminiscent of our discussion a week ago about reflection and ePortfolios. I'm finding the zone between formal and informal learning difficult to navigate. I have considered using wikis (preferably collective but I have also thought about using individual wikis, although that seems a terrible waste of effort) as an alternative writing system, but apart from the difficulties of assessing group work, I can't see any reason why wiki contributions would generate a different response to writing blog posts.

I've spent the last six months thinking about my response to this hostility. Next year it's back to writing essays for my final year students. The final deciding factor was the realization that I've been asking students to do something that most of my colleagues can't or won't. At present, I can see little alternative to pulling back from the hope that we can expect students educated in this system to think or reflect. The persistent complaints that this assessment format "takes too long" and the almost total aversion to any form of collaborative learning makes me think that 18 years of instant gratification is too great a heritage for me to overcome in one module. Perhaps that's where Twitter comes in?


Friday, February 13, 2009

A model of online learning

Online learning A danger of assessment-centered learning systems is the potential increase in the workload demanded of busy online learning teachers. Strategies that are designed to provide formative and summative assessment with minimal direct impact on teacher workload are urgently needed. There is a growing list of tools that provide such assessment without increased teacher participation, including:
  • the use of online computer-marked assessments that extend beyond quizzes to simulation exercises, virtual labs, and other automated assessments of active student learning;
  • collaborative learning environments that students create to document and assess their own learning in virtual groups;
  • mechanisms, such as online automated tutors, that support and scaffold students’ evaluation of their own work and that of their peers;
  • student agents who facilitate and monitor peer activities to allow students to assess and aid each other informally;
  • the use of sophisticated software tools, such as latent semantic analysis (LSA) or neural networks, to machine-score even complicated materials, such as students’ essays.
Thus, the challenge of online learning is to provide high quantity and quality of assessment while maintaining student interest and commitment. These goals are often best achieved through the development of a learning community...

Sounds like Son of Small Worlds :-)
Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Celebrating Darwin Day

Charles Darwin The plan was to celebrate Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, with a witty and thought-provoking post.

This is plan B.

I would like to have gone to this, but annoyingly, it clashes with the holiday I have just booked:

MERLOT Conference

The MERLOT Conference Committee invites you to attend the ninth Annual MERLOT International Conference (MIC09) to be held in San Jose, August 13-16, 2009. The MIC09 conference theme is Teaching and Learning in a Networked World. The MERLOT International Conference is designed to foster learning, innovation and practice in the use of information, instruction, and communications technologies in higher education. It is a venue for educators, administrators, and technologists who have interests and expertise in technology-enabled teaching and learning and who recognize the need to remain current in this rapidly advancing field of educational practice and theory. Participants in this conference represent a wide variety of disciplines; presentations are designed to meet the needs of the novice to experienced educator. MERLOT is based on the premise of discipline-based communities of practice in which common interests in specific fields of knowledge, methods of teaching and especially in the development of technology-based teaching materials are shared. At the same time, the strength of the conference is the broad appeal across all disciplines in the use of educational technologies and the new and exciting ideas that come from exchanges among all domains of knowledge.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The ePortfolio Saga

ePortfolios We (being me and my team of magic elves) have just finished the first assessment of our student ePortfolios. We laughed ("My Career Plans: I don't have any career plans. I may do a PhD"), we cried ("I have always wanted to do medicine since I was a child"), and we decided that we're never going to do this again.

Which doesn't necessarily mean that I know what we are going to do, just not this, for the love of God. In the wake of Towards reflective Twitterfolios, several people commented that you can't ask people to be reflective to order, and that attempts to formalize these outputs would be seriously counterproductive. Student blogs had a lot of fans, but I have to say that the evidence in their favour is rather slim.

Several people also expressed doubts about capturing/archiving material from Twitter, implying that it would be too labour-intensive. That's the wrong thing to say to someone who's just spent two days slogging through 200 ePortfolios. A few Twitter tags, an RSS feed, a Friendfeed page, and you're done - as we've proved effectively with our HEAT3 project. If an ePortfolio is too in-your-face to encourage reflection, then Twitterfolio has to be a better solution.

So I think it's time to take a step back and to ask what it is that we are trying to achieve.

1. To discharge the statutory obligation to PDP. But we don't need ePortfolios for that - we were never trying to capture data to present to employers, and the Burgess Review student transcripts will do that for us soon.

2. To encourage student's academic and professional development through reflection. And so far, at least, there's not much evidence that assessed ePortfolio hoop-jumping is doing that for the majority of students.

Anything else, and any reason why it can't be achieved via an aggregated Twitterfolio?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Microsoft Error

Error bars Yesterday I was exposed to the trainwreck that is Excel 2007. I have no intention of installing Office 2008, but since the University has foisted 2007 on students, many of them are forced to use it.
I was shocked at the loss of usability - the most important features are now buried several menus deep, and of course, Microsoft has done nothing to fix the errors which have persisted in Excel since the first version, in spite of the many cosmetic changes.
So it looks like I'm finally going to have to abandon Excel for teaching and make the jump to something else. The Google Charts API looks a bit too daunting for our first year students, so I'm asking for suggestions of something simpler that will plot different chart types, with the possibility to add features such as interpolated trendlines and error bars.
Any ideas? OpenOffice 3.0 looks nice, but how would we get the students to run this since it's not available within the institution?

WOW: Just learned that the Toolpak is gone in Excel 2008. It's even worse than I thought.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Towards reflective Twitterfolios (because ePortfolios suck and I don't want to be a prison guard)

Reflection I'm still trying to pick the bones out of the helpful comments on last week's post Who needs reflection?
There seemed to be three main threads, and I've highlighted a few somewhat representative quotes below:

Easegill commented:
Being 1st year students, I think that they might need stepping into the process a bit more. It's possible that they won't really understand what they are getting out of the process until next year - or even later.
Maybe we're on a hiding to nothing with first years? Specialism before generalism? Wait until when? Year 2? Year 3?

David Andrew commented:
...the physiology associated with reflection - in the bath, sitting on the bus, relaxing on a sofa etc. I recall nobody saying they did it sitting at a computer - I have a hunch that sitting at a computer is not conducive to reflection for most people.
A valid point, but since from an institutional point of view, we need a product to assess (we know that the majority of students will not participate if the activity is not assessed), this is problematic. But the comments below might point towards a better solution. Constructing a fancy-pants ePortfolio requires sitting in front of a computer. Other forms of communication don't (read on...)

Martin Weller commented:
I know, having tried to force-feed reflective practice, and having had it force-fed, that it doesn't really map onto conventional teaching very well 'Now reflect on your answer'. Students get fed up with this, and feel it is playing a game - they know if they say 'I think I could have done better at this', then they'll get marks. Whereas if you said 'I think I did everything right' you won't. It feels like a prisoner playing at contrition to get past the parole board...maybe just give students tools such as blogs, and get them to read people who are good, reflective bloggers, and they may pick it up in a more subtle form.
I've shied away from blogs and "learning logs" based on the negative reception they seem to generate, recorded in the work of Gráinne Conole and at the OU (don't use the "B-word": Exploring students’ understanding of how blogs & blogging can support distance learning in HE, ALT-C 2007, 169-178). Maybe I need to rethink this. Jim Groom supports the idea of the blogfolio (This ain’t yo mama’s e-portfolio part 1, part 2) and cites Barbara Ganley: "Twitter to connect, blog to reflect".

In response to Martin, I commented:
A subgroup of this cohort are active Twitterers, and their tweets capture precisely this "stream of consciousness style of reflection".
Hmm. Blogfolio? Maybe. Twitterfolio???

David Andrew commented:
I did find myself writing more reflective notes than I normally do - then I realised that they were in the form of the way I use Twitter - I think Twitter is maybe the best way of encouraging reflection.

While I was writing this on Saturday, the following conversation with some of the students on the module was taking place on Twitter (reproduced here with their permission):
DrCann: Hmm, Twitter more useful for reflection than an ePortfolio?
bb106: @DrCann Quite possibly, its easier to reflect in a less formal manner like this, I think that personal reflection could be much easier.
DrCann: @bb106 What about the people who don't "get" Twitter? Or by next year, will Twitter be so mainstream that isn't a problem?
bb106: @DrCann I think that a mixture between the two would be a more suitable approach. The idea of an ePortfolio is daunting but if it was less ... formal, and with a lower focus and mark percentage of the module, people would find it easier to do. If it was a chat type interface ... it would be easier to be honest than in such an official website dedicated to personal reflection. People don't like their faults.
pme4: @DrCann I would agree with @bb106 that the ePortfolio is too daunting at 50% of the module marks! Would be much easier over twitter.
pme4: @DrCann ePortfolios are a new concept for people whereas chat interfaces are more accepted! A website dedicated to my reflections is weird!
pme4: @DrCann Twitter is a simple interface once you have played around on it for a while, I am fairly sure it is easier to 'get' than ePortfolios.
pme4: @DrCann I do think that awarding marks for reflection is a step in the wrong direction, it means we are obliged to do it if we want to pass.
uolyd20: @DrCann I pretty much second what @bb106 and @pme4 said. Finding e-portfolio hard mainly just knowing how much/what to add, and by when... eg. how much to add now to get marks and make sure there is enough to add later when marked again. Plus reflection is hard :-s
DrCann: Only 6/200 students use Twitter. Is it fair to use it for assessment?
pme4 @DrCann more students would use twitter were it part of the assessment, just as more are preparing ePortfolios. Twitter is more user friendly.
bb106: @DrCann I didn't mean that twitter should be the method of reflection, I am suggesting a middle ground. Interpersonal conversations would be... much more productive, the general idea like an AA meeting etc. If this was achievable my an IM it would help with expression.
uolyd20: @DrCann No it wouldn't be fair, how would you assess it anyway?
DrCann: @bb106 Interested in this middle gound idea. I wait to hear more ;-)
bb106: @DrCann Twitter is a good medium to start with, but something based in blackboard with IM capability or merely a forum in which to discuss... but make it compulsory to post, but not to reflect, allowing some students to lead the way in starting the reflection, and others... would follow suit. *Wipes sweat away from brow* That was a long line of tweets.
DrCann: @pme4 I doubt the University would accept twitter use for PDP when most senior staff don't understand it :-(
pme4: @DrCann surely it is equally important that the students understand what they are using, which would favour twitter over doing ePortfolios.
DrCann: @pme4 But only 6/200 students use Twitter. Does that indicate understanding?
bb106: @Uolyd20 it shouldn't be assessed at all, it should be encouraged as it helped personal development and advancement.
bb106: Thinks he sounds like a personal motivator at the moment with all of this personal development and reflection talk.
DrCann: @bb106 You can use if you need more that 140 characters ;-)
pme4: @DrCann I had never heard of twitter before BS1010 but soon became accustomed to it due to its easy interface... The twitter interface is more similar to IM, which is well understood by students, so would be easier to adapt to that ePortfolios.
DrCann: @pme4 Sort of. Significant differences between Twitter and IM... Twitter more like blogging - "Microblogging".
pme4: @DrCann I agree that there are differences but twitter is a more familiar style than ePortfolios. I like the idea of microblogging though!
bb106: @DrCann People seem to think that twitter is a medium for geekdom rather than conversation, not seen as 'cool'. It is still relatively unknown.
bb106: @pme4 But reading the twitterstream of 200 people would give incredible headaches... I find it hard to keep up with only 8 people on mine!
bb106: @DrCann The idea of a blog could theoretically work, but as you can realize, there are many comparisons between that and the existing system proposed for an ePortfolio, I think that the blogging capabilities of twitter and the longer length of a blog post could work properly for a proper method of reflection. The idea of assessment is scaring many of my friends from actually contributing to this ePortfolio task.

So there we have it. Reflective Twitterfolio anyone? I think the above is ample evidence that Twitter can be used for reflection.

How the heck am I supposed to sell that one to The Man? :-)

Friday, February 06, 2009


Compartir es buena Current copyright law was formulated before the digital technology became widely available and well before Web 2.0 changed the way that information is created and shared. Patrick and Ewa McGrail argue that copyright law has failed to keep up with the social and legal changes that have accompanied the technological developments of the last 30 years, and as a result it has become both cumbersome as well as impossible to abide by completely. After describing the ways in which copyright law challenges educators and universities, McGrail and McGrail offer some strategies for dealing with copyright in the new millenium and conclude with a call to revise copyright law in a way that acknowledges the realities of Web 2.0.
What's Wrong with Copyright: Educator Strategies for Dealing with Analog Copyright Law in a Digital World. 2009 Innovate 5 (3)

The dying light of the George W. Bush presidency was marked by, among other things, a legislative move to derail recent gains in the federal government's opening of science. In particular, the innocuous sounding “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” (HR 6845) introduced into the House by John Conyers, Jr. (DEM-MI), on 9 September 2008 was poised to shut down the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy, as well as forestall the spread of this open-access spirit to other areas of federally sponsored research and scholarship. Hearings were held, but the bill did not make it through the House. End of story? Not quite.
Certainly, the Obama presidency promises, among so many things, an improved regard for science. Yet I can't help but agree with Peter Suber's prediction that Congress will see the likes of the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act again, though perhaps not from Conyers, who was an early supporter of Obama. The back story on this bill is complicated by the publishers executing an about-face on “archiving rights,” which they have traditionally supported, but it speaks to a larger battle underway that has everything to do with the public standing of research and scholarly work...
You may find the prospects of such coordinated and cooperative approaches to advancing this public good hopelessly naive, even in this time of renewed hope and economic reconstruction. If so, then I can only advise constant, if not increased, vigilance on behalf of those with an interest in the openness of science. It will be a long road forward of strategic incremental measures, such as the NIH Public Access Policy, with carefully orchestrated counter-measures, even as a number of us within the academic community seek ways to extend this vision of public access to all that we do in the name of research and scholarship.
The Publishers' Pushback against NIH's Public Access and Scholarly Publishing Sustainability. 2009 PLoS Biol 7(1): e1000030

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Who needs reflection?

Reflection This term our first year PLE students are building their ePortfolios, so I can't avoid thinking about the role of reflection in this process. The line we are taking is that while collection of evidence is an important component of building an ePortfolio, we don't envisage it is very likely that they would show them to a prospective employer. Rather, it's the process of building the ePortfolio which is most important, which is how I get to be pondering on the role of reflection. And what is clear just one week into the term is that while collection of evidence is easy, reflection is hard.

Is this because we live in a culture where honesty is punished by being seen as a sign of 'weakness" rather than being rewarded? I'm still being influenced by my recent reading of Freakonomics. Another of the recurring themes from that book is that of incentive, viewed from a wide perspective and not just as a narrow economic term. The authors cite several examples to show that schemes based on positive incentives (reward) are much more successful than negative incentives (punishment).

Early on, we took the decision that we were going to assess student's ePortfolios, in spite of the potential risk of game playing - either over representing achievement or doing the minimum necessary to achieve the desired mark. I'd like to think that awarding marks is a positive incentive to engage in a reflective process, but I wonder if the students will see it that way - will they instead reward the regard the withholding of marks as a penalty, and if they do, will this affect how they engage with reflection?

While pondering this on Monday morning, I got sucked into a light-hearted Twitter exchange about reflection, as part of which I sent the tongue-in-cheek message:

OK, so it's agreed then: reflection can damage your health ;-)

In response to this, David Andrew sent me a link to a paper which questions the concept of reflection in higher education, which concludes that:

Reflection as a concept should be abandoned in management educational practice because of:
  • Lack of consistent definition
  • Lack of operational value - we can't tell students how to do it
  • Some minor, but potential dangers if we could tell students how to do it
  • Lack of necessity - we do not see how such an ill-defined concept is necessary for helping students to learn.

Heady, heretical stuff. I'm hoping that by the end of this term we'll have some more fuel to throw on this fire. Right now, the immediate problem is that unhappy students are asking us to tell them what to put in their ePortfolios. Several hundred words (with pictures) and detailed assessment criteria don't seem to be enough guidance. I'm not sure how to get around this problem. Maybe David and his colleagues were right? :-(

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Some kind of milestone


Assessment 2.0: Wikipedia writing projects

As part of their series Case studies of E-learning, the HEA Centre for Bioscience has published a report I wrote some time ago, Assessment 2.0: Wikipedia writing projects (pdf). I'm pleased as people keep asking me about this work, so now you can read it for yourself:

Alternative Solutions

Confidence It's been a rough week on the interwebs, and I'm not talking about Google's slight faux pas, because on Saturday I was much more interested in the fact that Phil Bradley called time on Pageflakes (Pageflakes: 10 fatal mistakes). At the same time, video hosting site Revver was offline. Both services cited migration to new servers as the reason. Both services did a lousy job of telling people what was going on. And both services have shot themselves in the head, because like thousands of other users, as far as I am concerned, they have now lost my confidence.

So this contraction of services is a bad thing, right?
Wrong. In both cases, there are plenty of alternative solutions. I'm happy to move The Microbiology Video Library from Revver to (although it's going to take me a few days). And I'm delighted that when we are writing AJAX front ends for projects we now only have to cover iGoogle and Netvibes - less work, more concentration of user communities, and potential boosting of the surviving services in a difficult economic climate. Darwin lives!

As I commented on Brian Kelly's blog last week, be pragmatic. Maintain backups. Use the best possible service available but keep alternatives in mind. Plan exit strategies. None of this is new, this has always been best practice with Web2.0 services. Life goes on. But not for Revver or Pageflakes.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Green Shoots of Recovery

Digital library On Friday I was pleased to be asked to attend a meeting to discuss the development of a three year strategy for the University of Leicester's Digital Library.

  • Identify and involve the key stakeholders in development of the strategy
  • Raise awareness of developments around Digital Libraries to inform the process of creating a strategy
  • Identify key elements to be taken into account in order to produce the strategy by considering what is required from the Digital Library
Gareth has already written up the content so the session, so rather than repeating that here, I'll concentrate on my non-Librarian impressions of the meeting. To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect in advance, but I was hugely relieved at both the tone and the substance of what was discussed. That's not to say there are no barriers in the way of achieving what, I am now convinced, everyone at the meeting would like to see happen. However, the perceived barriers are not conceptual or financial, but rather an institutional culture which is not always supportive of innovation, and sometimes appears unable to balance the downside risk of possible failures against the benefits of what could be achieved by embracing a more user-focused approach.

I'll certainly be doing everything I can to see that the ideas discussed on Friday are put it into practice, but it would be naive to believe that there is not a long road ahead before real change is evident to Library users.