Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lindsay Jordan on blogging with students

Nice video from Lindsay Jordan summarizing we we need to move to a blog format for our reflective ePortfolios next year:

Friday, May 29, 2009

Everything is Miscellaneous

I have a cunning plan

writing At a departmental meeting yesterday I pitched the idea of running a postgraduate writing skills course. This was approved, so from October 2009 all our new PhD students will take part in this mandatory "course".

It will run along the lines that I described previously, be quite informal and not assessed, so in many respects it's more of an uncourse, but formal recognition by my department that all students must complete the course is an important component. The completed/flunked stamp that I will be able to award makes the participants stakeholders, the absence of which scuppered Small Worlds.

Students will practice their scientific writing skills, and I'll also give them some helpful hints about (social) bookmarking sites. They'll need to join the CiteULike group I'll set up to collect some of their assignments. And they might want to ask me (and each other) for advice via Twitter. Later, if they want to continue to practice their writing, they can join the departmental blog network. In other words, Son of Small Worlds kicks off in October ;-)

Thursday, May 28, 2009



Have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum Yesterday I went to a presentation on the institutional strategy for the rollout of Blackboard 9.
Not a discussion or a consultation, but a presentation.
Which was nice.
And apart from Where has the pedagogical input for this come from? all I could think was:

You lock the door
And throw away the key
There's something in my head, but it's not a VLE.

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
I blog and no one seems to hear
And if the band I'm in starts playing different tunes
I'm teaching on the dark side of the moon.

The lunatics control my class
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs
Got to keep the loonies on the path.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I don't have time

Dali ripoff An interesting Twitter discussion with some of my UoL colleagues yesterday about promoting technology adoption led me to reflect on what the barriers are. A few seconds thought reminded me what the most frequently cited objection is:
I don't have time.

So how do we counter this? The peer-pressure of "Because everyone else uses it" can help to overturn "That's the way we've always done it", but how do we manufacture more time?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Delayed gratification

For the last few weeks I've been trying to force myself to slog though some of the components that our students used in their PLEs before Christmas, and the ePortfolios they built after Christmas, looking for evidence of ongoing usage. It sooo boring that I do anything to avoid this tedious data scraping, but because of permissions and confidentiality there's no way to automate the task.

The picture that's emerging isn't pretty, and it isn't surprising. The vast majority of students used these tools because we made them. Then they stopped. I'm prepared for everyone to say this is all my fault, that I didn't present the tools in the right way, that assessing reflection is a bad idea, that I'm a poor teacher. Maybe, but I also think this data reflects the fact that delayed gratification is a tough sell in education these days. Which is a shame:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's just a small thing

But I'd like to know what this logo is. Any ideas?

And Twitter said:

markhawker: That logo is Alpinestars, manufacturer of automotive and motorcycle racing and riding apparel.

Friday, May 22, 2009

#uollts Learning & Teaching in the Sciences Unconference Roundup


jobadge: @AJCann @stujohnson suggested tag for unconference on 22 May #uollts ? AJCann: @jobadge @stujohnson #uollts sounds good. jobadge: RT @dajbelshaw: Some great ideas for using Twitter when presenting here: @stujohnson @ajcann useful for #uollts? llordllama: @stujohnson Aha! Excellent - looking forward to it #uollts AJCann: @stujohnson Is #uollts UoL only or open to all? jobadge: RT @stujohnson: Learning and teaching in the sciences unconference - 8 bookings already since last night #uollts stujohnson: There is indeed wifi in the George Porter Building #uollts stujohnson: back by popular demand and x18 bookings since Monday evening. Best get planning it then #uollts stujohnson: Wish I'd looked at booking form tracker before worrying input at #uollts Looks like there'll be plenty of stuff to talk about AJCann: @stujohnson How many booked for #uollts ? cjrw: @stujohnson did you count me in or do I need to fill form? #uollts llordllama: Do we get name badges, that's what I want to know! #uollts stujohnson: That's the #uollts emails sent llordllama: Just noticed @stujohnson 's put a screen-cap of the menu for tomorrow's #uollts on the web site. Now that's one way to lure people in! jobadge: @stujohnson @llordllama what is a low calorie sarnie when it's at home? #uollts stujohnson: @jobadge @llordllama I have no idea what a low calorie sarnie is. Marmite possibly? #uollts AJCann: #uollts twitterfall test jobadge: ok let's try that with the right tag #uollts ooo what does twitterfall look like then? lots of colours AJCann: #uollts stujohnson: Bit nervous about #uollts this morning Hope people are in a chatty/ideasy mood llordllama: In the office, and about ready to sleep. Hope to find some energy by #uollts STLock: Have fun all you folks at #uollts llordllama: Wondering if everything (even the low-cal sarnies) is on a stick today #uollts whittybus: @llordllama glad you are going #uollts stujohnson: Off to shuffle tables round #uollts stujohnson: Got twitterfall working in GPS18 #uollts jobadge: @richardbadge hurray glad you are feeling happy. Won't see you at lunchtime, will be at unconference #uollts AlexM11: @stujohnson good luck! Looking forward to following and nipping in now and again on #uollts stujohnson: We now even have signs and stickers. No expense spared! #uollts chriscane: Sorry not to be able to make it in person - marking and MSc admissions stuff to do :-( #uollts stujohnson: Can someone bring a pen please! #uollts AJCann: @stujohnson You mean we don't get free pens at #uollts ? stujohnson: @llordllama wrong tag! #uollts jobadge: are we starting at 10.30? #uollts @stujohnson seems very organised iamhelenharrop: RT: @AJCann If you fancy a break this morning, can you do something for us: [tech + assessment event] #uollts llordllama: You assume I'm talking to you ;) #uollts iamhelenharrop: @AJCann hi Alan, if there are outputs from #uollts I'm v. interested in seeing them. No time to follow along alas but will check in later simonjball: RT: @AJCann If you fancy a break this morning, can you do something for us: [tech + assessment event] #uollts traceymadden: RT @simonjball: RT: @AJCann If you fancy a break this morning, can you do something for us: #uollts msars: All ready for #uollts with filtered stream in place in tweetdeck. I should have consulted menu earlier and brought coordinated lunch. jobadge: @msars is your lunch high calorie then? we are apparently having low calorie sarnies :-) #uollts jobadge: RT @AJCann: If you fancy a break this morning, can you do something for us: #uollts llordllama: @jobadge On a stick #uollts dsugden: #uollts Good luck everyone at Science Assessment session jobadge: right off to unconference #uollts via photocopier and internal mail :-) there should be two of me by the time I arrive. ffolliet: @stujohnson #uollts can I get the conference bag please? llordllama: Where abouts is this room for #uollts exactly then? stujohnson: @llordllama chemistry building then follow signs - 2nd floor #uollts stujohnson: Will shortly be excusing myself froM faculty LTC to get to #uollts llordllama: Ah. The smell do chem building takes me back to being a student #uollts planetchemistry: #uollts Greetings from sunny Ulster. Hope the unconf. goes well. Let me know when the coffee break is so I can check email. jobadge: got my cup of tea #uollts jobadge: Anyone listening in can you say hello to the unconference and tell us where you are? #uollts AlexM11: Hello #uollts I'm in Brum talking educational games research, but following closely and awaiting news of low cal sandwiches llordllama: @jobadge i'm over here! Oh, that's not what you were meaning... #uollts traceymadden: Greetings from the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre (based in Hull) #uollts llordllama: @stujohnson Introducing the day #uollts cjrw: #uollts wot no biscuits? simonjball: Hello #uollts Following twitterstream from lovely Yorkshire while writing about inclusion+SL.Hoping for great insights into tech/assessment jobadge: @stujohnson is starting us off, twitterfall is on big screen in the room #uollts whittybus: Hi there #uollts from the office at Clinical :-) AJCann: What is an unconference? #uollts laikas: #uollts Hello, greetings from laikas, medical librarian and PhD medical biology. Searching in between and waiting 4 the unconference 2 start llordllama: @ajcann Uncomplicated? Unrully? #uollts cjrw: Backchannel up on screen at #uollts msars: Hello to all at #uollts from the Life Sci Dept at Imperial College in London AJCann: We need 2 screens @ #uollts ! cjrw: Feedforward: keepads for picking topics at next unconference #uollts llordllama: Now we're working out what topics to discuss #uollts AJCann: Deciding 1st round of topics for #uollts llordllama: So not much love for information literacy issues in the room,colour me not suprised. #uollts jobadge: Choosing first round of discussion topics #uollts peer assmnt, blackboard for lab assmnt, keyboard exam, why do we assess msars: @cjrw Used PRS for selecting topics to discuss in past. Answer was always "Plagiarism detection" so I stopped using that technique. #uollts jobadge: On blackboard assessmnt for lab prac's table - Eran is leading and has brought handouts - wow :-) #uollts cjrw: Peer assessment was first past post but lost out on single transferable vote #uollts AJCann: NOT talking about plagiarism @ #uollts - hurrah! llordllama: Is it what teachers and students gain? Yeah that sounds good to me #uollts stujohnson: I'm in the group on peer assessment (currently) #uollts stujohnson: Is peer assessment valid/reliable #uollts stujohnson: That was supposed to be a question #uollts cjrw: Assessment FOR learning mentioned on at least two tables #uollts AJCann: Lab reports don't validate student understanding #uollts jobadge: Yes peer assessment can be reliable and valid and a great learning experience #uollts jobadge: Assessment for learning here on lab reports too #uollts llordllama: Best phrase so far has to be 'enforce learning' #uollts msars: @jobadge #uollts. We use 3 types of Bb assessmnt for lab pracs. 1. quiz. 2. autograde excel sheet. (1& 2 postprac) 3. whole prac in Bb. traceymadden: Worth looking at WebPA (web based peer assessment) #uollts cjrw: Are we expecting GENUINE original thought from undergrads? #uollts cjrw: @jobadge counted your table already #uollts llordllama: What do students get from assessment? Top choice-the degree #uollts AJCann: Anyone use MCQs for practical assessment? #uollts jobadge: @msars trying to think about discrimination and feedback #uollts msars: @cjrw They should be thinking thoughts that are new to them, not necessarily original in the world. #uollts planetchemistry: @AJCann #uollts we use MCQ for pre-practical assessment... students do some assessed work BEFORE they come to lab. llordllama: We're drawing lots of arrows on the sheet, can't twitter them tho #uollts AJCann: @msars How does your Bb quiz work in practicals? #uollts cjrw: @msars key word there probably thinking not just cut-n-pasting #uollts stujohnson: Don't forget to move when u want to #uollts msars: @AJCann We use MCQs post-prac. Open book with lab notes. Good notes and understanding --> good marks. #uollts cjrw: Information literacy and assessment - assessed tasks in evaluating source docs #uollts my sprogs do that in history msars: @AJCann Whole prac in Bb when using online tools, e.g. bioinformatics. MCQs and also (more tricky) manually marked short ans Qs. #uollts llordllama: Kudos to @crjw for the props to information literacy there and key role in avoiding plagerism #uollts cjrw: Taking prompt from @stujohnson to swap tables #uollts AJCann: Turns out several people are using Bb for post-practical assessment #uollts AJCann: Does anyone use pre-practical MCQs? #uollts msars: @cjrw Absolutely. Assessment must allow demonstration of thinking, analysis, criticism, construction - not just regurgitating facts. #uollts msars: @AJCann Yes, for some pre-prac work - do calcs in advance, get feedback --> make up solutions correctly in prac. Not nec summative. #uollts planetchemistry: @AJCann "Does anyone use pre-practical MCQs?" Me! me! me!.. anyone else?? #uollts AJCann: @AJCann #uollts we use MCQ for pre-practical assessment... students do some assessed work BEFORE they come to lab. (via @PlanetChemistry) stujohnson: Now hearing about a pilot project to let students take exams on a locked down pc #uollts Anyone any experience Eingang: @AJCann What is a pre-practical multiple choice question? #uollts msars: @AJCann And not just MCQs. Use short answers a lot with regex checking. Also matching Qs e.g. for process planning. #uollts AJCann: @Eingang Quiz before practical class #uollts HallyMk1: @AJCann Malcolm Andrew in Pharmaceutical Microbiology at DMU uses a java-driven practical tutor at Level 2 #uollts msars: @stujohnson #uollts We use lockdown PCs for students with SEN requirements to take exams on PCs. These are essay exams --> print out scripts llordllama: Talking about how assessment and grades from regarded unis and hence new students being attracted #uollts planetchemistry: Any ideas on how to give personliased feedback to large lab classes (70 per class 140 total on modules??) #uollts stujohnson: Does taking an exam on a pc change the way you think about stuff? Pen & paper for sketchy thought and keyboard when know #uollts llordllama: Assessment = only 1-2-1 interaction with staff for many students #uollts llordllama: Might not be physical interaction but comments on an essay is personal to the student #uollts msars: @stujohnson In sci usually pen and paper needed in addition to PC diagrams, maths, chemistry. And then collate all bits tog. #uollts AJCann: MCQ assessment fits into a blended pattern of assessment #uollts llordllama: @stujohnson i'm all for keyboards ar my handwriting is terrible! #uollts simonjball: @planetchemistry #uollts At MDX they give feedback to 700 Year1's by dividing marks into 10 groupings & sending standard f'back to each grp jobadge: Getting ready for Learning and Teaching in the Sciences unconference #uollts planetchemistry: @simonjball sounds good. thanks! #uollts llordllama: Could we have education without assessment? And if so how would it work? #uollts simonjball: @llordllama #uollts surely 'education without assessment' is just 'life'? psychemedia: @llordllama I think I prefer to view assessment as enrichment... #uollts jobadge: If you are here at the science and learning teaching unconference or want to join the conversation from elsewhere add #uollts to your tweets traceymadden: Surely in life we self-assess and this is a very valuable skill (essential for the self-motivated learner) #uollts msars: @AJCann Definitely agree that online assessment has to be part whole. Esp if using MCQs. Longer written pieces also imp. #uollts jobadge: this is what we are doing at #uollts stujohnson: Feedback time #uollts cjrw: Moved to discuss peer assessment (both meanings of moved) #uollts jobadge: you can see who else is using twitter at this unconference by using twitter search on the tag #uollts cjrw: Been tweet quiet as mouth active #uollts llordllama: I vote 5 minutes a table! #uollts msars: @planetchemistry We use online assessment for 2/3 of pracs. F/back for each Q + general f/back on whole assessment + pers if req #uollts AJCann: Stuart summing up first round @ #uollts cjrw: Share about our experience using Conway et al's peer weighting scheme #uollts llordllama: Wondering he we should be doing Mike Reid's Runaround to change tables shortly? #uollts jobadge: Assessment gives one to one relationship with student #uollts ffolliet: u guys realise you tweeted more #eurovision than you have #uollts. ;-) llordllama: Do we assess too much or too little ~ good topic for the next round. Maybe also do we use the right kind of assessment. #uollts msars: @jobadge Is 1-to-1 essential component of assessment? For large classes automation --> more feedback possible but less personal. #uollts planetchemistry: @msars that's somewhat similar to us.... the option for personal feedback is always available if needed.. #uollts AJCann: Keyboard exams problematic #uollts AlexM11: Assessment in small bites - it would be good to explore quicker/shorter assessment methods for modern students #uollts llordllama: @msars yeah, our group touched on the problems with lack of personal interaction much as we'd like it to be higher #uollts msars: @planetchemistry We use autograding script to mark prac reports w/calcs based on stu results + Bb quizzes too #uollts llordllama: @alexm11 so long as those small bites are onna stick #uollts planetchemistry: @msars #uollts autograding script looks good. We use the QuizTest script quite old but it works well. jobadge: Reminder demo of grademark #uollts Eingang: @AJCann No pre-practical exactly, but I do write some MCQ questions that are intended to scaffold the exam project activities. #uollts cjrw: Our use of Conway (now for videos instead) #uollts llordllama: @whatshtag Unconference at university of Leicester uk discussing learnin and teaching in the sciences #uollts jobadge: And finally we are a trending topics #uollts AlexM11: @llordllama assessment on a stick? nice #uollts msars: @AlexM11 We do lots of our online prac assessment immediately after prac. 30 min write up. Got to be good! #uollts cjrw: Also use peer evaluation (formative) in teaching about essay writing #uollts jobadge: Hearing about peer assesment types: group work, assess contribution, assess each others work #uollts AJCann: Discussion in the room currently denting tweets from #uollts AJCann: Lots of sharing at #uollts msars: @cjrw #uollts Your student ranking of essays results are like ours -probs distinguishing best answers. Can't always see beyond facts. llordllama: Peer review sounds like it brings out some scary feedback #uollts jobadge: Talking about peer marking being like peer review #uollts laikas: "#uollts we use QMP ( ? ) in computer-assisted learning (on BB) and in exams. 4 med students. " msars: @planetchemistry I'll look into this script. Thanks. #uollts AJCann: @jobadge demonstrating Turnitin Grademark at #uollts - anyone else use this? llordllama: Oh good. Lunch has arrived and is now scheduled for 12.30. @DaGooses can keep their becks out of it! #uollts stujohnson: Hearing about grademark from @jobadge #uollts cjrw: @jobadge is demo-ing some tools n tricks in blackboard #uollts msars: @AJCann Is @jobadge demonstrating Turnitin Grademark for staff marking or peer marking - or maybe both? We don't use it yet. #uollts laikas: following #uollts from a distance. Missing discussions -- and Lunch. Twitter has its limitations. Next time video -unconference? llordllama: Grade Mark looks interering but i'd want to run it across 2 screens #uollts AJCann: Participants at #uollts not too impressed with Turnitin Grademark. msars: @jobadge Is there any research on students preferences for electronic v. handwritten feedback on essays? #uollts msars: @AJCann What were problems perceived with Grademark? I think they've tried hard with the s/w functionality. #uollts AJCann: #uollts in danger of degenerating into a Blackboard session simonjball: @msars #uollts Research by Gomez (was UWE now Plymouth) shows students much prefer Audio feedback to typed/written -more personal/supportive llordllama: @ajcann You mean it hasn't already? #uollts AlexM11: @AJCann pull back from the technology people: focus on assessment as the core. You can do it! #uollts wozzza: @AJCann techniques of assessment? #uollts AlexM11: Actually focus on the students as a core. I correct myself. #uollts msars: @simonjball Thanks for ref. That would be recorded audio, I suppose, rather than f2f? #uollts NextTweetTopics: Be The First twitter #uollts: Good discussion of teaching and assessment - now on peer asses.. simonjball: @msars #uollts yes recorded audio feedback supplied as MP3. students reassured by tone of voice and not deciphering handwritten comments! jobadge: Moving tables - new topics: plagiarism here #uollts llordllama: Work place learning group for me. Not just because it's closer to the lunch. #uollts planetchemistry: @simonjball @msars #uollts MP3. We use it for f'back and v. effectively as f'forward tool for 'quick look' at drafts etc. stujohnson: Hearing about 'learning-place working' authentic assessment #uollts traceymadden: Who's going to be the first to mention e-portfolios? #uollts AJCann: Overassessment topic voted down at #uollts so now discussing group assessment. llordllama: My third year of my degree was totally on work placement doing real drug research for real money. Best bit of my degree i'd say #uollts stujohnson: Learning-place working sounds fascinating. Anyone any experience? #uollts llordllama: Good to hear the uni is working towards plans for more work based learning. But when do we get to the discussions? #uollts llordllama: Actually that said this physics project working with esa sounds dead interesting but that's my inner science geekspeaking #uollts AJCann: Institue of Engineers insists on some team project wprk for accreditation #uollts msars: @stujohnson Do you have "year in industry" degrees at UoL? They are v good experience for students. #uollts msars: @simonjball @planetchemistry I like the idea of recording f/back so that students can refer to it again. Need to look at logistics. #uollts llordllama: Hey, there's a dairy free plate of sarnies is that for me? #uollts jobadge: @msars yes a few students take industry sandwich option #uollts llordllama: @msars yes we do, certainly in chemistry and we're talking about how much that up skills them #uollts msars: @llordllama I agree Yini students are upskilled when they return & show more maturity and motivation. They get what it's all about. #uollts AJCann: Difficult to design team projects that allow team to work simeltaneously rather than sequentially #uollts llordllama: Been sharing aspects of my year working at Glaxo. #uollts llordllama: @msars I loved it, but showed me that due to allergies and career aspirations that lab work wasn't for me? Real wake up moment #uollts planetchemistry: @msars #uollts MP3. Audacity is the way to go for recording f/back. To mail personalised attachments to a large group I use Pegasus Mail. llordllama: @ajcann at uni we were placed in Belbin teams so we weren't expected 2all work @ same time. Outcomes were team function not project #uollts jobadge: Moved away from plagiarism to being open and the changing notion of scholarship #uollts jobadge: Sarnies!! #uollts llordllama: It's onna stick time! #uollts msars: @llordllama lunchtime = end of formal part of #uollts? If you have formal at unconf? davidandrew52: #uollts thank you everyone nogbad: @AJCann Interested in this - IME teams automatically chunk tasks such that they are sequential #uollts NicoleKitta: Difficult to design team projects that allow team to work simeltaneously rather than sequentially #uollts NicoleKitta: It's onna stick time! #uollts msars: @jobadge How many people were at the unconf? It was short and intense! #uollts jobadge: @msars about 20 here #uollts planetchemistry: #uollts thanks to all... great stuff! llordllama: #uollts What a pleasure to see the phrase 'onna stick' retweeted msars: @jobadge thanks to all at #uollts for sharing via twitter llordllama: And @stujohnson is now calling up to order for feedback on the format #uollts llordllama: #uollts Session's getting good feedback. Formal discussion paper? Well I'm going to blog it but he the uni thinks in paper terms... #uollts llordllama: I think the session needed more of an ice breaker - I certainly didn't know that many faces! Names on the other hand... #uollts llordllama: Greatest opponents can be the most evangalising converts. #uollts llordllama: If you need help running sessions let me know @stujohnson I used to run these things for a living! #uollts llordllama: Is TAN still exTANt? #uollts llordllama: Beyond science events ala TAN getting some props in the room I agree, get out of our subject corners! #uollts stujohnson: @llordllama great! Yes please! #uollts jobadge: link to TAN events discussed at unconf #uollts llordllama: I vote for brown Bag lunch events using using speed networking techniques #uollts stujohnson: Thanks to all of you who contributed to #uollts via twitter. Will send some links out later. was v. useful stujohnson: @ajcann twitter archive just worked a treat. 244 #uollts tweets straight to csv Thanks @moodledan

Word cloud:
word cloud

Some of the guilty parties:

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Learning and Teaching in the Sciences Tomorrow (Friday) morning is our annual Learning and Teaching in the Sciences event at the University of Leicester, which is going to be a little different this year in the form of a participant-driven "unconference", centred around the theme of assessment.

Understandably, some people have expressed some reservations about this, and while the organizer is maintaining a calm front, I suspect he's pretty nervous about how it's going to go, so I may have to buy him some cake this afternoon ;-)

You can see more details about the event here, but most importantly, you can participate. Undoubtedly some of us will be Twittering using the hashtag #uollts, and I'm going to try to persuade Stuart to put the tweetstream on screen. This is probably going to be as big a challenge to some of the Twossers as the unconference format, so please drop by between 10.30 and 12.30 tomorrow. You never know, you might learn something :-)

The end of an era?

The glorious days for British universities, which began when Labour came to power in 1997 and which led to expansion on a generous scale and a massive amount of building, are well and truly over. But whether any universities will go to the wall is debatable. At the moment the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) is concerned about the viability of only a tiny handful of institutions. If the squeeze continues or gets worse, that number could grow. And if that happens, Hefce might need to develop a policy on mergers and restructuring.
But, for now, the number of jobs being cut looks fairly modest, certainly compared to the private sector, however much the University and College Union (UCU) wants to pretend otherwise. Surrey University's loss of 65 jobs is a tiny proportion of the whole and its vice chancellor, Professor Christopher Snowdon, has explained cogently why they are needed to ensure that his university continues to flourish. The UCU's attempt nationally to use this to whip up support for a ballot on industrial action looks pretty opportunistic when you consider how hard Snowdon has worked to be open and honest with his staff.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

We've got all the words, now all we have to do is get them in the right order

Word cloud Whenever I set out to design something online I never anticipate any particular problems. I usually have a picture in my head of how "it" will look, but when the time comes to actually build it, it often becomes obvious that my graphic design abilities are not what they might be.

I'm currently working on a site where the main navigation element will be a pseudo-tagcloud, i.e. a word cloud linked to destinations. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well it's trickier than you might think. Google doesn't help me particularly with this task, but are there design criteria for this type of element that I haven't found yet, and do you have any favourite examples you could point me at?

Monday, May 18, 2009


FAIL I've written about Wolfram Alpha before and I don't intend to do so again, and besides, David Weinberger has already said anything I could say much better:

WolframAlpha ... is like a roomful of idiot savants.

But I do have two things to say about the events surrounding the launch. Far be it from me to offer Stephen "brain the size of a planet" Wolfram advice, but here goes:

Mistake 1: Allowing Wolfram Alpha to be pitched as a search engine. Clearly, it isn't. It's much more like a front end for Mathematica.

Mistake 2: Allowing the "Google-killer" hype to get out of control for the sake of publicity. Cuil anyone?

Why should I care about this? So that we learn from these mistakes and don't let the same things happen to our SM@LL project.

(It's Still) All About Filtering

Filtering I consciously try not to write about politics on this blog, but occasionally it becomes inevitable. There's a lot of it about at the moment, in my day job (more of that later this week), and I believe there's been some sort of scandal at Westminster?

The latter fact came to my attention at the weekend when I was playing with Tony Hirst's MPs Expenses Dashboard, and found out how staggeringly expensive Sir Peter Soulsby, Labour MP for Leicester South is to run. Ever heard of him? No, I thought not. Not exactly high-profile, is he?

But it's not just him, and while bad news is great for selling newspapers (as we watch the death throes of that industry), everyone is pissed off with politicians. Which upsets me as this can't be the best response to bad news. Rather than this baby-bathwater approach, let's identify the politicians who don't rip us off and reward good behavior (with votes, not money) rather than relying on a futile whack-a-mole approach to wrong doing. Which political party/candidate in the forthcoming elections gives best value for money? There's no shortage of data, which is why Tony's work in visualizing the complex tables through the dashboard approach is so valuable. It allows us to filter the news and make a smart response rather than the gut reaction that both the politicians and the press would prefer us to have.

Update via Tony Hirst: MPs who claim the least

Friday, May 15, 2009

The End of the World

Small world networks
One door closes, another opens

In the week that SocialLearn had a soft launch, the Small Worlds project finally came to an end. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, as I've written about the outcomes of the Small Worlds experiment before.

So no more Small Worlds then?

Yes and no. Small Worlds as an entity is gone. But the plan is that some of the ideas and much of the technology will be incorporated into the new University of Leicester Postgraduate Research Skills Record System as it evolves.

Will SocialLearn succeed where Small Worlds Failed?

I don't know. Maybe I'll be able to answer that when we know what SocialLearn is.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Postgraduate writing skills

writing At a l...o...n...g Graduate Studies Board meeting today, postgraduate scientific writing skills (or the lack thereof) came up in the context of the formal taught element of our postgraduate programmes. Instant recognition all the way round the table that writing skills are one of the major problems postgraduate students face, in particular (but not exclusively) the growing number of overseas students.

There's a lot of mythology around writing, but the truth is simple - you learn to write by doing it. The more you write, the better you get. And I'm not specifically talking about blogging here, but all forms of writing. A few smart people figured this out hundreds of years ago, and it became the Oxbridge tutorial system - students write on a regular (e.g. weekly) basis and their work is critiqued by a tutor in a one-to-one setting. There's no place to hide, and at the beginning it can be brutal. And it works. It's how I learned to write as an undergraduate at my thoroughly redbrick university, taught my by Oxbridge-educated tutor.

So if we know that it works, why don't we use it? "Resources" - which you can interpret either as too many students or too little will to implement it. At present, most of our formal taught postgraduate sessions are squeezed into one or two hour slots. Which is fine, if you're trying to teach people how to click buttons, but it's not going to have any significant impact on writing skills. There's no alternative but to bite the bullet and do it for real.

So how could it work? The Graduate Studies Board also discussed the possibility of assigning credit to these taught sessions and requiring all postgraduates to gain a minimum number of credits from a mixture of compulsory and elective sessions. Students would be asked to complete a set program (for example 6 pieces of writing over a over 12 week period?) to earn the relevant number of credits for the time spent. It could be run in blog format, but for this group my preference would be to replicate the same format that they will be writing in for publication, either using Microsloth Word or possibly shared Google docs. Supervisor buy-in is a key aspect of these taught programmes, so maybe supervisors could be asked to look at the first and last submissions so they could see how the students have progressed?

The obstacle is still staff time - so if there's no will to implement a full scale programme across the entire College, I'm inclined to try to run a Departmental pilot via the Roberts fund. Are you in?

All your eyeballs are belong to us

Yesterday I Posteroused (neologism, verb to) a story from The Guardian about Google's Searchology event. Just after I did so, a few people wandered into my office so I showed them the wonder of Google's new Show options display. I'm not sure they got it, so here's a ten second tutorial:

1. Perform a Google search for University of Leicester.
Click the Show options link. So far, so normal.


2. Click Wonder Wheel:


3. See what happens? Returned search data on the right, more stuff to play with on the left.


4.Click the back arrow until you get to the original search. Click Related Searches (and Timeline if you want. See what happens? You stay on the page.

5. Now repeat the process with your own name. Don't forget to click on Images from the page.

The fact that Google is prepared to "open the kimono" is a measure of how worried they are about the competition from Twitter (Wolfram Alpha? No, I don't think so). Twitter, not Microsoft or Yahoo, who are searchdead (it's a bit like being braindead, only worse). Apart from the semantic back end which powers this technology and the forthcoming Google Squared, "Show options" represents a major change of policy for Google search. By displaying the information on the returned page, Google stops being a directory and becomes a destination. Do no evil? We'll see...

So, you ask me (metaphorically), why should I care?
  1. If you're involved in education, 100% of your students use Google as a primary conduit to access information (just like you do). This changes they way they will interact with the information in subtle, and as yet unpredictable, ways.
  2. If you're involved in eLearning, you need to compete for students attention online. So does Google.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Time for Change

Learning and Teaching in the Sciences This year, the organizers of the annual Learning and Teaching in the Sciences event at the University of Leicester have decided to do something a little different and run a participant-driven "unconference", centred around the theme of assessment.

Sounds good. My only concern is how to stop it turning into a conference...

You can book for the event (which is free AFAIK), which runs on Friday 22 May, here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Guardian University Guide 2010 - Biosciences

League table

Learning Spaces

Asleep in lectures Less positively, perhaps, but understandably, the community spirit also leads to the formation of a clear sense of boundaries in web space. This has been typed broadly as:
  • Secret space: SMS, IM
  • Group space: Bebo, Facebook, etc
  • Publishing space: blogs, wikis, YouTube
  • Performance space: Second Life, World of Warcraft
  • Participation space: meetings, markets, events
  • Watching space: lectures (sleeping space?)

First draft

I was invited to "talk about Twitter" at a meeting in London to a group consisting mostly of university press officers. When the program was published, the title turned into "Using Twitter to communicate science (and how to convince your boss it's a good idea)" ...

So here's what I plan to say - what do you think?

View more presentations from Alan Cann.

Monday, May 11, 2009


hash If I had to sum up why I love Twitter in one word, it would be "hashtag". I suspect that those of the Noreen Dorries tendency who don't "get" Twitter don't understand hashtags. So just to help them out, here are a few to play with:





Friday, May 08, 2009

A few updates

First of all, with regard to EU net neutrality - the time to act is now - it worked! See: Net-neutrality clause likely to delay telecoms reform, so if you got off your arse and did something, pat yourself on the back. Personally, I'm going to claim a fair slice of the credit for my Eurobreakfast campaign.

Next, I'm delighted to tell you that my Constipation has been eased. Starting out with the intention of writing a blog post, before I knew where I was I had banged out a thousand words, and after that it was plain sailing. I'd like to think it was the power of blogging that solved my problem, but I suspect that writing has a Schrödinger-like quality to it - to observe is to perturb.

Last, in case you were wondering, What is the meaning of life? Here's the answer:

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Invitation to brainstorm

For the last week, I've had a burning desire to do something with BuddyPress, a suite of eight plugins, currently in beta, that will transform any installation of WordPress MU into a social network platform:

The snag is - what? As someone said a few months ago (I can't find the source of this quote now) "The problem is not, can I build a social network, but, what shall I do with a social network?"

So we build a BuddyPress site. And it looks a lot like Ning, or WetPaint. Why would I want to do that? The destination web era is over:
In March the average American visited a mere 111 domains and 2,500 web pages, according to Nielsen Online. What's worse, our attention across these pages is highly fragmented. The average time spent per page is a mere 56 seconds. Portals and search engines dominate, capturing approximately 12 of the 75 hours spent online in March. However, people-powered sites like Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube are not far behind, snagging nearly 4.5 hours of our monthly attention.
Building destinations (ghettos) is dumb. Trying to control users is dumb. Taking place in conversations where the people are is the only sensible strategy. That means teaching by example and immersion rather than by force.

But I still have this burning desire to do something with BuddyPress. Somebody stop me.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Writers block Some weeks ago I promised a colleague I would work on filling the gaps in some joint notes we had made which are intended to metamorphose into an academic paper. Since then, I've visited the Google Document four or five times, without success. I simply can't bring myself to add anything. I don't believe in writer's block, I believe in slugging it out with a blank screen until my eyes bleed and eventually the words come. I believe in Don't get it right, get it written.

For whatever reason, it's not happening this time. Of course, as a writer, I have plenty of excuses. The main one is that I've covered this material so many times (grant applications, internal reports, blog posts) that I simply can't bring myself to go over it again, even though it's never been written up for a formal publication. But I'm also wondering if microchunking has finally got to me. I find all the Secret Squirrel stuff associated with formal academic publication intensely demotivating these days. What's missing? Conversational cues. Comments. Questions and answers. The silence when I try to write this paper is deafening, unlike the collegiate chatter I have in my head when I'm blogging.

So I'm looking for ideas of how I can get over this. The main one I've had so far is to expand the existing notes by pretending that I'm writing a series of blog posts. (I did consider creating a dedicated Twitter account and twittering the draft manuscript via a hashtag, but at present I'm holding that idea in reserve in case the blogging approach fails).

So, have you found yourself in this situation, and if you have - what did you do about it?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

After you, Claude

Co-operation What if scientists didn't compete? has been doing the rounds recently, so you may have heard about it already. Briefly, Sean Cutler performed a social experiment in which:
Instead of competing with my competitors, I invited them to contribute data to my paper so that no one got scooped. I figured out who might have data relating to my work (and who could get scooped) using public resources and then sent them an email. Now that I have done this, I am thinking: Why the hell isn’t everyone doing this? Why do we waste taxpayer money on ego battles between rival scientists? Usually in science you get first place or you get nothing, but that is a really inefficient model when you think about it, especially in terms of the consequences for people’s careers and training, which the public pays for.
The resulting article by Sean Cutler and 20 other researchers in the United States, Canada and Spain describes a technique for helping plants to grow with less water by activating the natural defenses that enable plants to survive during drought, and has now been published in Science.

So why do scientists who depend on public funding habitually compete rather than co-operate and keep their data secret? This was the dilemma we faced recently when we were writing our JISCRI bid for the SM@LL project. Open collaboration is a prisoner's dilemma where openness runs the risk of punishment.

Unless, of course, openness becomes the rule rather than the exception, and it becomes the people who don't share who face the risks of selfishness. A stated intent of the JISCRI call was to encourage "Engagement with the Community" (the degree to which the proposal demonstrates an openness and willingness to work with and share findings with the JISC community and to work in partnership with JISC in forward planning, dissemination and evaluation, and to continue to make available the findings beyond the project period).

So let's see.

Monday, May 04, 2009



English muffin, Marmite, topped with a slice of Dolcelatte.

It's a nice idea, but like the European Union, it doesn't really work.