Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A free lunch

Free One of the interesting things that happened to me yesterday was a fascinating conversation over lunch with Tipexxed and university colleagues about social media and community building.

Another was reading Malcolm Gladwell's review of Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

The third was realizing that both of these were really about moving from a "scarcity" mind-set to an "abundance" mind-set. They're also about the postdigital concept - an attitude that is more concerned with being human than with being digital.

We meet (usually online first, offline later). We talk. We build personal networks around the things that matter to us but are only loosely connected to where we work, what we eat, the technologies we use. We do these things first because the resources needed to do them are no longer scarce, then we think about how to fund them and make them sustainable later.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Surely you're video podcastling, Mr Everyman!

On Saturday, I mused about the problems with online video. Coincidentally, this morning I was pointed at this video podcast:

For all it's lack of technical proficiency, this video has something. It communicates because the presenters are engaging. But for how long will these guys be prepared to make the effort to meet in a parked car, record a thoughtful video and then post it online? Isn't the overhead of doing this too high to be sustainable?

Last year I had a Public Understanding of Science grant from the Society for General Microbiology under the terms of which I had to make a monthly video podcast for MicroBiologyBytes. I achieved this, but by the end of the year, the effort was weighing down on me and breathed I sigh of relief when it was over. It reminded me of the toll The Show seemed to take on zefrank by the end of a year. I'd like to make more video podcasts, but I'm not saying when.

And yet I remain bullish about online video. Maybe it's my Star Trek adolescence, but I still believe that when the right tool comes along with a Twitter-like click, online video conversation will be the future:

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Pearls "Scientific research, like anything else, is subject to “irrational exuberance.” Fashion, fads, and hypes arrive, have their moment, and disappear from view. In the face of this inevitable ebb and flow of focus and attention, how are we to teach students the “lessons that last” or “the facts of a field” while keeping current? Likewise, how can we teach such lessons in the face of the sheer volume of research that is being published in hundreds of journals? Ostensibly, textbooks serve such a purpose, but such volumes are costly to produce and purchase and require near-constant revision. The standard “mini-review” piece tends to focus on making research recently published more accessible, but these can be too narrow or superficial to live much beyond the moment. The vision of Pearls is different. Our goal is to produce a substantial collection of short (1,500 words maximum) educational and highly useful articles that address topics of relevance and importance within the field of pathogens research. We aim to have each Pearl cover a given topic in a way that makes its significance clear and compelling to a general readership while offering accessible and accurate insight at a graduate student–level."

Interesting idea which will fail. The audience decides which are the pearls, not the editors. Not that there's anything wrong with a collection of accessible articles with a Creative Commons licence, but the grandiosity of choosing an arrogant title such as Pearls spells out why the central premise is flawed.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Death of Seesmic

Seesmic I used to be very keen on Seesmic, and wrote about it here quite a lot. Over the last few months however, I haven't used it at all. Yesterday at #uanda I talked to several people about why that was, but didn't really come to any straightforward conclusions. Some felt that the service just didn't feel right any more, and that fits into the Twitter zeitgeist better.

I think the reason I stopped using Seesmic is that the video overhead is just too high for conversation in the face of the Twitter monster, but it didn't come as any surprise to hear that the company has put its video service on hold. Loic Le Meur claims that no video site is growing except for YouTube. Is video inherently flawed, or is this consolidation in operation?

Friday, June 26, 2009

SMART: Student Microblogging And Recording Timelines

Next week Jo is at the HEA Conference, talking about exciting things like academic integrity, but she's also going to take part in a TechDis session and describe the HEAT3 project we ran last year:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Familiar faces

It's good to see some familiar faces on the list of National Teaching Fellows 2009:
Congratulations to them and to all the other winners.

Uses and Abuses

Uses and abuses I'm looking forward to taking part in the Uses and Abuses event tomorrow, a one day seminar at the University of Leicester (programme). I'll be in the room, but you can participate remotely via the Twitter hashtag: #uanda.

I was thinking about how I would describe myself to the other participants (if asked) and came up with this:
I'm Alan Cann from the Department of Biology. I'm interested in social objects in education and socially-constructed knowledge, but very much at the applied end of the social media spectrum.
Whaddya think?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Verbatim reply from Sir Peter

From: SOULSBY, Peter
23 June 2009 14:43
To: AJ Cann
Dear Mr Cann,

Thnak you for your email.

I am a member vof the Transport Committee and am currently involved in their inquiries into the future of avaition and into rail fares and franchises.

The issues you raise are at the heart of these inquiries, details of which can be found at

Yours sincerely,
Peter Soulsby

In response to Sustainable Transport

Academic Celebrity

Kings Place The moment I walked into the glittering venue I realized this wasn't your average grubby academic conference. From my lofty perch in the keynote session I walked in on, I couldn't see any other laptops open - mostly dead tree media. During the day though, it emerged that this was a Blackberry conference, even though the press officers secretly longed for iPhones (which their bosses won't buy for them).

The Structured Networking session was a bizarre experience - it felt like being dropped into Second Life. Participants wandered around, occasionally bumping into each other, but balloons containing their agendas seemed to hover over them. As they talked to you, they crossed you off their list.
He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.
In the afternoon, there was a talk, which seemed to go OK, but by far the most interesting part of the day was observing the academic celebs strut their stuff. In a workshop on Resistance to Organizational Change the full greasy pole tactics were revealed. Simply ignore people in your organization who block what you want to do. Go around them. Be politically unpredictable, always do the unexpected, zig to their zag (for a while, I thought I was back in the 80's). And most importantly of all, make sure you sit on every committee you can to push your agenda. If there isn't a committee, start one.

All of which explains why I'm sitting here contemplating the ruins of my career. I'm crap at this stuff. I know how to do it, I just can't bring myself to. Even when I get to go to a greasy pole conference I screw up with a rude blog post about the celebs.

Which is kinda how I like it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Science Communication Conference 09

Today I'm speaking at the Science Communication Conference 09:

I'll be Twittering during the event, and inevitably, asking you (via Twitter #scc2009) how Twitter should be used to communicate science and build relationships, so if you're online between 3-4pm (UK time) today, I'd welcome your input.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reflections on #SLTC09

sltc09 When I got back from the Science Learning and Teaching Conference 09, I walked into a maelstrom of committee meetings and exam boards, so here, belatedly but before I forget, are a few thoughts.

Overall, this conference was not as good as the previous two. I'd heard quite a few of the talks before - minor increments don't count. New blood and new ideas are needed before the next one. I felt I identified a couple of themes from the meeting:
  • Many isolated individuals failing to influence practice in their institutions, or beyond.
  • A tendency to ask students to do more and more, be expert in all areas, do everything at once. Get real! If you want them to do something new, what are you prepared to drop so they can do it?
But it wasn't all negative, and apart from personal networking, for me the most interesting aspect of this meeting was the social media amplification which, for the first time, allowed it to spread beyond the walls of the venue:
  • Twitter Hashtag: #sltc09
  • Delicious: sltc09
  • Flickr tag: sltc09
  • Slideshare: sltc09
  • and the SLTC09 Friendfeed Group which aggregates and archives all the above. As well as making it easier to keep up with the disseminated chatter across networks, this FriendFeed group now provides a semi-permanent archive of what would otherwise be ephemera (thoughts, opinions, links) around the main conference presentations.

Sustainable Transport

Peter Soulsby MP, Leicester South. Dear Sir Peter, On Tuesday 16th June I flew from East Midlands airport to Edinburgh at a cost of £35 return (630 miles).  On Thursday 18th June I was shocked to discover that a standard class return from Leicester to London (202 miles) purchased in advance of the day of travel now costs £111.  By restricting my journey times as much as my business in London allowed, I was able to reduce the cost to £88.  I am writing to ask you want you intend to do about this unacceptable discrepancy in advance of the next election.  I have published this letter on my blog ( and will also be publishing your reply so that it can be seen by the hundreds of people a day, many of whom are constituents of yours, who read this site. Depending on the content of your reply, I will decide whether I am able to vote for you again at the next election or whether I am forced to vote for a party with a more sustainable transport policy. Yours Sincerely, A.J. Cann.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Science Learning and Teaching Conference 09

For the next couple of days I'm at the Science Learning and Teaching Conference 09 at Heriot-Watt University on 16-17 June (programme):

Dude, Where's My University?
View more presentations from Alan Cann.

Monday, June 15, 2009

An Improved Quadrant Model of Pedagogy

The improved quadrant model of pedagogy (Cann, 2009) consists of axes of new and existing technologies and new and existing learning processes, but goes all the way to five:

mode l

Cann, A. Spinal Pedagogy and Faint Signals from Uranus. Journal of General Ignorance, Vol. 92, No. 1-2. (June 2009), pp. 329-347

(Note: If you are off campus, you may need to use EZtheretigerProxy to access this journal)

Friday, June 12, 2009


Halp! Yesterday was an interesting exercise in presence and attention. Jo pointed me at the possibility of realtime blogging with embedded FriendFeed onjects (from Andy Brudtkuhl). A quick trial provoked an interesting discussion and clearly this has great promise.

Busy day yesterday, several meetings, exam marking and trying to participate in online discussions. All of which made me realize that attention and presence in the overlapping but distinct communities I am part of on Twitter and FriendFeed is impossible. What I need is a strategy, which is:
  1. I'm primarily a Twitterer, dropping in on FriendFeed 2-3 times a day and checking the RSS feed in Google Reader. For me on a regular basis, Twitter is realtime and conversational, Friendfeed is more asynchronous.
    FriendFeed is still too darn noisy (go on, tell me I'm doing it wrong). Right now all my FriendFeed peeps are in a big heap. I need to go through and separate them into personal and professional, and maybe do some pruning of the ones with a low signal:noise ratio.
  2. If I'm at an event which is going to be well covered by a Twitter hashtag, Twitter is the way for me to go. Twitter makes less demands on my attention than Friendfeed and allows me to participate more in the live event.
  3. I plan to use embedded Friendfeed objects for liveblogging events which are not well covered by a cohort of Twitterers. I'll have several opportunities to try this out over the next few weeks.
My problem with liveblogging is my non-existent typing ability - which is less significant on Twitter than Friendfeed.

So what sort of event is SLTC09?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Real Time Blogging With FriendFeed

Break Glass for Emergency Librarian

CiteULike How come there's never a librarian around when you need one? Like the four or five times a month I get asked by some drongo to provide the same data time and time again for the REF?

Wouldn't it be great if we could just pull a formatted list of our own publications from CiteULike and fend off the timewasters? Sounds easy doesn't it, and CiteULike provides instructions which I think are aimed at doing this, but I can't make them work.

This would be a great selling point for CiteULike among academics!

Update from comments: Format is: +author:("cann a") +year:2008

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How Scholarly Is Google Scholar?

Google Scholar Google Scholar (GS) was released as a beta product in November of 2004. Since then, GS has been scrutinized and questioned by many in academia and the library field. Our objectives in undertaking this study were to determine how scholarly GS is in comparison with traditional library resources and to determine if the scholarliness of materials found in GS varies across disciplines. We found that GS is, on average, 17.6% more scholarly than materials found only in library databases and that there is no statistically significant difference between the scholarliness of materials found in GS across disciplines.

How Scholarly Is Google Scholar? A Comparison of Google Scholar to Library Databases. Brigham Young University

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

I'm a librarian

Sigh. I have colleagues who say "I don't want to put my papers online, someone might steal them!"

Somehow strangely familiar...



The new deli at the University of Leicester. Social baguette anyone?

One thing leads to another

Office On Saturday I sat down and tried to build a project dashboard, a collaborative space which takes more than RSS feeds. I didn't make much progress (so if you have any dashboard ideas, I'm listening), because I soon got distracted and started playing around with Google Docs.

Revisiting a discussion we had on Friday, I started thinking about how annoying it is that Google Documents don't have any notifications (beyond RSS feeds for public documents), but since Google Spreadsheets do, I started playing around with the dashboard possibilities a Google spreadsheet offers. This is something I may revisit sometime, but on Saturday it didn't take me long to get distracted by the statistical functions. It turns out that Google Spreadsheets has most of the functionality that Open Office Calc has, as well as a few things that it doesn't have, such as motion charts.

You may remember that in March I proposed a framework for statistics teaching in our degree courses. It's now apparent that this isn't going to happen, for a variety of reasons. Instead, we're going to continue with a very low level key skills first year statistics course for all students and any higher level courses will be delivered by specialist modules in individual degree streams (or not).

This means that I need to rethink once again my statistics teaching strategy. The learning curve for R is simply too high for a first year course which does not lead on to subsequent levels, and I can't afford to invest the time personally to explore R if I'm not using it for teaching. (And whatever anyone says, R does have a steep learning curve). My request to install Open Office declined by the University, and there's no way I'm teaching this course using Excel 2007 again. All of which means I've been pushed into the arms of Google, which may or may not be a good thing. Certainly our students won't have an issue using Google Spreadsheets as this follows on directly from the other Google components they use in their PLEs the previous term.

As part of my learning process, I've set up a scratchpad where I can play with the tools and think about presentation and delivery of the modified course. StatsBytes is on hold at present while I decide whether to junk it (I probably don't have the time to develop an uncourse for this single module, the scratchpad will be the alternative), or turn it into a GoogleStats uncourse.

Never did build that dashboard.


Monday, June 08, 2009

The Urgency of Open Education

In case you haven't seen it yet, Brian Lamb's recent keynote on The Urgency of Open Education (start at 3 minutes to skip the annoying intro). Video:

Amplifying #sltc09

SLTC3 The 3rd Science Learning and Teaching Conference
runs at Heriot-Watt University on 16-17 June. The programme is available online and free wifi is available to all participants (but bring your own ethernet cable if you want to get online in the accommodation).

The Leicester PedR crew will be there mob-handed, so you know what that means: this is going to be an amplified event! Helpfully, the organizers have not provided any suggestions, so I guess it's up to us:
Do we need anything else?


CiteULike - now with added TweetULike (under [Share])

I love the way CiteULike is developing - outward looking and responsive to the needs of users.
Prediction: CiteULike posed for bigtime takeoff in the next year.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Go Away From My Door

Silently the strident student assaults my senses with their very presence.
Filling space time in my office reserved for the holy pursuit of writing.
Seconds pass.
Eventually from deep within a stirring.
A murmur.
Can you tell me
what must I know
to pass the test?
I suggest revision of the curriculum.
This time the response is swift, offended.
What, all of it?

Essential reading

I'm pretty sure my colleagues who just got a grant to work in Second Life have already read Snow Crash, the most influential book about virtual worlds ever, but just in case they haven't let me remind them:

Most of SL’s users do not build sims, design or manage land. They use SL as a glorified chat room – the most advanced, detailed, customizable chat room ever. The first virtual world that manages to take us past the chat room, past the emoticons and pre-loaded animations, will make buckets and boatloads. Even a primative facial recognition program for a web cam, applied as real time animation to an SL avatar, would take the program leaps and bounds over its current state of maddening chat windows and tinny voices. If Linden wants to trandform SL into the premier platform for education and business conferences, as is its stated goal, then it needs to radically alter and improve its interface pronto.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


DJ For the past couple of weeks I've been using as an additional delivery channel for my MicrobiologyBytes podcasts over Twitter. If you enter the URL of an mp3 audio file into the search box at, you can then send a Tweet linking to the file.

Yesterday I was on a mission to find a site or application which has Audioboo-like functionality without a phone, i.e. record an audio file and Twitter a link to it without an intervening upload stage, i.e. record direct. I got a few suggestions on Twitter but none of them were very functional. (Still looking.)

Then George Roberts asked me about mixing microbiology podcasts with the music stream, which set me thinking back to my podcasting origins. The very first podcast series I produced contained a mixture of speech and music - similar to the way Graham Attwell does Sounds of the Bazaar. I never felt entirely comfortable with this mixture, but when I eventually stopped producing the series, lots of people asked me to carry on. The first student podcasts I produced also contained a bizarre mixture of music and mathematics ("Sounds of the Bizarre?") which again I was never entirely comfortable with, but the student feedback regular said "the music is the best bit". So I don't really have a problem with mixing academic content and music, even if I don't feel comfortable or confident imposing my musical choices on others.

But I'm still looking for a free web-based Audioboo equivalent to that I can experiment with micro-podcasting and enrich my Twitter streams.


Leicester Mercury
Did you hear that? It was the sound of the printing presses falling silent in a desperate bid to cut costs as Northcliffe Media ("At the heart of all things local") switches printing of the Leicester Mercury to Derby (and of the Nottingham Evening Post to Stoke). How many kilograms of CO2 is that going to create each year?

Hear that? It's the sound of Keith Perch's P45 winging its way from Viscount Rothermere to St Georges Way. Because after this fails, the next way to cut cost is to consolidate local newspapers into regional newspapers, and the East Midlands Metro is only going to need one editor, not three.

I don't buy the Leicester Mercury, although I do use the website on a daily basis (whenever the RSS feeds aren't broken). My children are never going to buy the Leicester Mercury. Like the historical model for the newspaper industry, it's doomed. So why am I writing about it here? Well first, because I care about what's going on in my local community, but mostly because I watch dying newspapers and the publishing industry in general as a harbinger of what's headed towards higher education. Currently, the music industry is propping itself up with revenue from live gigs, the traditional publishing and distribution model having failed. And the live gig is all that keeps higher education afloat (plus the diminishing revenue from certifying qualifications).

So what's a struggling editor supposed to do? Well, the first thing is to employ a couple of undergraduates over the summer to show them how to produce a Kindle edition, then in the autumn, roll out trials of downloads and hyperlocal print-on-demand terminals. And of course, the most important thing of all is to get serious about the website and change it from a low rent car boot sale to a conduit that the local community cares about.

Or not.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Would you like to join our blog network?

Network I get a lot of these (OK, several), so I've developed the following boilerplate response:
I've written before about blog networks. In this age of disaggregated microchunked self-publication, blog networks do not serve the interest of the blogger. The argument that they bring writing to a larger audience is true, but no more so than Twitter, Friendfeed, delicious and CiteULike. Everything I write online is published under a Creative Commons licence and I'm happy for you to add the RSS feeds to your network on exactly the same basis that I aggregate material at Friendfeed, etc. If you want more than that, i.e. if you want me to curate your blog network, I'm going to require payment for my services under a Freemium model.

CiteULike just got better

Within hours of asking, CiteULike implemented a direct way to flag items for collaborators, the Share option:

I'm liking CiteULike better the more I use it. For one thing, there's less spam than on Connotea. I'm also discovering more about the best file formats to use. To prevent SPAM entering the database, the auto-import feature of CiteULike only works on "trusted" sites such as PubMed, etc. RIS and BibTeX uploads are treated as "unchecked" - i.e., potential spam. DOIs are parsed automatically and checked if possible. This means that there are two "categories of articles in CiteULike: "checked" and "unchecked". "Checked" articles offer more features than "unchecked", so when adding to CiteULike, the way to go is:
  1. Auto-import.
  2. If this fails, use DOI (My CiteULike: Post URL).
  3. If this fails (because what you want to cite doesn't have a DOI) use RIS or BibTeX (but these citations will be second-class citizens in some respects).

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A critical examination of Blackboard’s e-learning environment

Blackboard’s e–learning system dominates the online learning software market. In this essay I critically examine the structure of Blackboard’s two online learning delivery systems, Blackboard 8.0 and Blackboard CE6. I identify ways in which the platforms both constrain and facilitate instructor–student and student–student interaction. I addition, I delineate features that sustain and challenge traditional power relationships in the classroom. I conclude with implications for online pedagogy and practical applications for instructors and students.

...the aims of Blackboard administrators and management likely conflict with many instructors’ goals. Although Blackboard designers structure the course platform for efficiency and profit, instructors and students need a course environment optimized for learning and performative teaching.

Coopman, Stephanie. "A critical examination of Blackboard’s e-learning environment" First Monday [Online], Volume 14 Number 6 (17 May 2009)

Monday, June 01, 2009

It's the Community, Stupid

Tools For some time I've had a sinking feeling that we're not making the best of online reference managers. Jo has been working on this for a while, and a week ago she bullied me into trying Mendeley. My first reaction was, don't like it - overcomplicated, social features I don't want (locations), it's trying to be LinkedIn.

After my initial grumpies subsided, I went on to think in more detail about reference managers. The snag is, they're not there yet. So what do I need in a reference manager?

Free, available online from any browser, moves with me from job to job - bye bye Refworks (commercial), Zotero (Firefox only).

Quick and simple to use. Delicious wins hands down on this score, so it's not surprising so many people use it. The downside of delicious is that it's very generalized and not perfectly suited to bibliographies.

Social features - I want to share and learn from others, not squirrel stuff away on my hard drive. I want to build a group library my colleagues and I can all benefit from. Bye bye Papers.

Which, having discarded the competition, leaves CiteULike. (Sorry Ian :-)
Let's start with the bits I don't like. The auto-import function has failed on everything I've tried except PubMed and PLoS which means lots of tedious typing (not a trivial matter - that's why references don't get maintained). However, I have had success with RIS tags on other sites, so I need to explore this further. In general the CiteULike online documentation is appalling, so I'm learning by trial and error as I go. On the plus side, the user community is active and frequently willing to help with problems.

There's presently no direct way to flag items for collaborators in CiteUlike, but after a day or two I figured out we can use tagging: forusername, e.g. forjobadge. This also gives users an RSS feed they can watch for notifications: The problem with this is that it's potentially open to spamming and at present, these URLs will only return articles that are posted directly from supported websites not those where the metadata is added by hand nor those uploaded via RIS or BibTeX (this is an anti-spam feature). However, Fergus Gallagher sent me an email which hints that a better solution may be available soon - more news on that when we've had chance to play a bit longer.

Earlier Jo tried to get people going via a CiteULike tag, but that didn't work, so we're trying the group approach: eLearning in Leicester (RSS feed). If we wait for someone to do this for us, it's not going to happen, so as with all new technologies at UoL we need to build from the grass roots:

So what about Mendeley? Yes, it has some nice features, but it's more than I need. For me, Mendeley tries to do too much - less is more. The optimum number of reference managers to maintain is one, two I can probably deal with (by increasing my workload) - and I'm not giving up delicious. Three is madness.

It's all about the community. Let's go.