Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Boring is good

Technology is only interesting when it's sufficiently boring to become transparent. Any technology you have to run a training session for is not boring enough. We all need to fight our urge for novelty and embrace boredom:

Upgrade Me

Simon Armitage is the new Alan Bennett.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Daily Mail (rhymes with FAIL)

fail a) Daily Mail breaks embargo (EMBARGO: Tuesday, September 29, 2009 5 P.M. PACIFIC / 8 P.M. EASTERN TIME, USA).

b) "The study is published in the online journal Public Library of Science One."

Why it is better to be reliable but dumb than smart but slapdash

The psychological attributes of intelligence and personality are usually seen as being quite distinct in nature: higher intelligence being regarded a 'gift' (bestowed mostly by heredity); while personality or 'character' is morally evaluated by others, on the assumption that it is mostly a consequence of choice? So a teacher is more likely to praise a child for their highly Conscientious personality (high 'C') - an ability to take the long view, work hard with self-discipline and persevere in the face of difficulty - than for possessing high IQ. Even in science, where high intelligence is greatly valued, it is seen as being more virtuous to be a reliable and steady worker. Yet it is probable that both IQ and personality traits (such as high-C) are about-equally inherited 'gifts' (heritability of both likely to be in excess of 0.5). Rankings of both IQ and C are generally stable throughout life (although absolute levels of both will typically increase throughout the lifespan, with IQ peaking in late-teens and C probably peaking in middle age). Furthermore, high IQ is not just an ability to be used only as required; higher IQ also carries various behavioural predispositions - as reflected in the positive correlation with the personality trait of Openness to Experience; and characteristically 'left-wing' or 'enlightened' socio-political values among high IQ individuals. However, IQ is 'effortless' while high-C emerges mainly in tough situations where exceptional effort is required. So we probably tend to regard personality in moral terms because this fits with a social system that provides incentives for virtuous behaviour (including Conscientiousness). In conclusion, high IQ should probably more often be regarded in morally evaluative terms because it is associated with behavioural predispositions; while C should probably be interpreted with more emphasis on its being a gift or natural ability. In particular, people with high levels of C are very lucky in modern societies, since they are usually well-rewarded for this aptitude. This includes science, where it seems that C has been selected-for more rigorously than IQ. Indeed, those 'gifted' with high Conscientiousness are in some ways even luckier than the very intelligent - because there are more jobs for reliable and hard-working people (even if they are relatively 'dumb') than for smart people with undependable personalities.

Why it is 'better' to be reliable but dumb than smart but slapdash: Are intelligence (IQ) and Conscientiousness best regarded as gifts or virtues. Med Hypotheses. Jul 25 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Virtually Useless #fote09 #fote09vw

Snow Crash Why do I hate Second Life? Let me count the ways.

Badly designed - apart from the fact that the software has a poor user interface, opening the port required for access is a significant security risk. I guess Windows users are just used to compromised security ;-)

Too cumbersome - every time I try to use it I have to start by downloading an installing a new version of the client software. By that time, I've lost interest or the event I'm supposed to be attending is over.

Lack of imagination - that fact that almost every project feels it has to build a representation of the real world is a chronic indictment of the lack of imagination that Second Life represents. If I was training astronauts for a Mars mission, I might want to build a realistic representation of the environment they would be working in. I could replicate an English cathedral - but why bother? If I want to train students in genetics, do I need to build a laboratory with trees outside the window? Does a representation of surfing in Hawaii with palm trees make me more inclined to want to go surfing than a cold Cornish beach with the wind in my hair and the smell of the sea? Get real!

Cost - in case you haven't noticed, a public spending time bomb is about to decimate education. Stop wasting money on expensive strategies which are not supported by evidence of effectiveness or cost-effectiveness. Sub-contracting pedagogy by employing firms of developers to build "stuff" for you because you can't use the tools you are expecting students to use is about to become socially unacceptable.

Online identity - Far-sighted educators have been working with students choices of online identity. Second Life gets in the way. I want to spend my time teaching/learning, not fiddling about with a cartoon representations of myself, or worse, paying someone else to do it for me. I want to build my personal brand, use my own name online, not some dumb name Second Life picks for me. I also want to use my own image as avatar to build trust - a Futurama head in a jar is just fine as far as I'm concerned.

Data portability - in Second Life? Don't make me laugh. At least you don't have to waste money building walled gardens in SL - they've built it for you.

Sleaze - I had an "interesting" time choosing pictures to illustrate this post...

So what's good about Second Life?
I'm not against virtual environments - it's SL I have a problem with. There are many potential applications, the ones that particularly attract me being travel replacement and carbon footprint reduction. However, I don't feel that virtual environments are good conferencing tools - I don't need a 3D representation and the lighter touch of tools such as Eluminate and Skype are much more appropriate for this application.

Google Lively was a much more promising tool than Second Life - until Google pulled it. Simple embedding of Lively "rooms" into any HTML webpage meant content could be provided in a two-dimensional format, and communication surrounding the topic of that content could be made in the three-dimensional room without the need to enter a separate program. Nice.

Some of may gamer colleagues argue that World of Warcraft is a much better prospect for education than Second Life. Certainly the emergence of user-generated Guilds is an interesting model in an educational context.

So I'm pleased to be able to finish on a positive note. There is, above all else, one thing that Second Life is unsurpassed for. If you need to generate a large amount of cash from a naive grant-awarding body over-eager to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, offer to build, for a preposterous amount of cash, a virtual representation of something that already exists in the real world but that no-one will ever use in SL. Something like, say, Belgium. You'll be quids in. Careers have been built on it.

If you want your say, you can leave a comment below, or join us at the Future of Technology in Education Conference 2009 via Twitter: #fote09

Friday, September 25, 2009

Breathing life into Beyond Google

BeyondGoogle BeyondGoogle is a rather loose-knit information literacy strategy we've been thinking about for some time, without, it has to be said, making very much progress. I'm pleased to say that on Wednesday, the Biological Sciences Board of Studies approved my proposal to revise our second year key skills module to include a beefed-up information literacy strand:

To integrate with existing information literacy teaching on this module and prepare students for final year research projects, we will build on bibliographic and social bookmarking tools introduced earlier in the course.

Students will be given taught sessions on:

- Database searching (WoS & PubMed)
- Refworks
- CiteULike
- Critical appraisal of scientific literature

Students will then join a degree-specific online journal club at where they will contribute to a database of relevant papers and carry out critical appraisal of papers based on assessment criteria and annotated examples. Face to face help sessions will be held to support this exercise. At the end of the module, students contribution to the journal clubs will be assessed according to the criteria and marks awarded via the Blackboard gradebook. The existing sessions taught by Information Librarians on BS2060 will be retained and extended. It is hoped that students (and ideally staff) will continue to use the degree-specific online journal clubs after the completion of this module to support students as they prepare for and carry out their final year research projects.

Although we don't roll this out until February 2010, it's not too soon to start thinking how we are going to run and assess this - let the planning begin :-)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

UoL ITS website

tweet After a tweet yesterday, UoL ITS emailed me and asked if I would formally comment on their new Plonk-powered website (I'd like to call it Plone, honest, but Microsoft spellchecker insists that it's "Plonk" and keeps changing it, and since ITS won't let me use Open Office, I'm stuck with it ;-) Anyhow, nice to know that ITS is watching what we tweet. How about joining in the conversation guys rather than just lurking?

While the new version is very pastel pretty, personally, I find it much harder to navigate than the old version. For example, it took me an age to try to discover if Windows7 is available to users (I think the answer is no?). Did they try optimizing it with CrazyEgg? How much user testing did they do?

So, is it just me? If you have an opinion on the matter, leave a comment below or send me a private message and I'll collate all the comments and pass them on to ITS anonymously.

Jonathan Zittrain: The Web as random acts of kindness

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why am I not surprised?

It's already having a damaging affect on academic careers and scholarly activity. Citation data rules. I have a simple choice. If I want to keep doing this job, feed my family and keep my pension, forget publishing in open access journals, forget building my online reputation through self-publication (blogging is something I do in spite of my job, not because of it), and maximize my impact scores. Did I ever believe it would be different next time around? No.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Two cheers! Hip Hip

Too big to fail Nature's inability to escape the gravitational pull of open access continues with the announcement of Nature Communications, due to launch in April 2010. NC will be "a multidisciplinary, online-only journal with an open-access option" - authors will be able to publish their work either via the traditional subscription route, or as open access through payment of an article processing charge (not yet announced).

Any accusation that this is a shameless rip-off of PLoS - is spot on. Hear that sound? It's the deckchairs being rearranged on Naturtanic...

Bye Bye Blackboard

Cloud over Blackboard I spent most of yesterday wrangling Blackboard in preparation for the start of term next week. Along the way, I started to wonder if I could just walk away from Blackboard (maybe the university would give me the money I'd save them as salary)? And I think the answer is yes (to the first question, but probably not the second).

Each student would get a blog (because I don't see the sense of abandoning a VLE to encumber yourself with the admin load of administering WordPressMU or any other centralized installation - let's put it in the cloud). This would serve as a place to submit assessments and receive feedback. Students could choose whether their blogfolio was public or only visible to instructors. The joy of RSS-everywhere in Wordpress would make large numbers of students a joy to administer.

Blackboard quizzes and other forms of data submission (usernames, etc) would be dealt with via Google forms on the Instructor's own course blog. Course materials would be published sequentially on the Instructor's course blog and support given via Twitter,, YouTube and Skype.

Let's do it (you know you want to).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Learning all the time

Benny ... in the immortal words of Benny Hill.

Already my postgraduate scientific writing project (PSWP) is throwing up new insights, some of which I can blog about, some of which I can only tell you face to face if you buy me some sort of beverage ;-)

The first insight is how strongly wedded most research scientists are to pdfs. They love 'em. Of course, I knew that already, but I've never thought deeply about how to adapt my strategy to incorporate this. I'm not keen on pdfs (neither is Josie ;-) but I'm going to have to work with researchers pdofilia.

This has practical implications beyond my decision to use email and MSWord for this project (which are generating a more enthusiastic response than any attempt to use an online project management site such as or a wiki). Although CiteULike handles pdfs perfectly well, reference managers which are perceived of as more pdf-based will certainly be more popular with researchers. Mendeley springs to mind, but the best example is Papers, which hits all the right buttons. With it's iTunes-like interface, it allows researchers to squirrel pdfs away and ablates any possibility of sharing. The winning stroke however it that while CiteULike and Mendeley are free - you have to pay for Papers. Scientists love that - "proves" it must be better.

New insight... into myself and my colleagues. Scientists are weird. I wonder if I still am one?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Open Letter to Peter Klappa

TRIS Dear Peter,

I hope you don't mind me writing to you like this, but I feel that this conversation could benefit from being open rather than being cloaked in email. Your infectious enthusiasm had a great impact on me at the Centre for Bioscience Reps meeting, and I was very interested to hear about your plans for the TRIS (Teaching Resource Information Service) newsletter, so your email about publication on the website of the University of Kent Faculty of Sciences website got my immediate attention, as did your call for contributions. This feels like something I should be contributing to.

And yet, there are a few things I feel I have to say. The first is a relatively minor point, but I think I should bring it to your attention. According to the web page, the copyright for TRIS is held by the University of Kent, which kind of dents my enthusiasm. Why would I want to write for TRIS and sign over my rights to the University of Kent when I can publish the same material on this site, quicker and easier (with multimedia) under a Creative Commons licence so that everyone can benefit from it for free?

The other thing comes back to Terry's (rant :-) on Friday about Open Educational Resources (OER) and tagging. I can see how the paper-analogy of the PDF format of TRIS could open the resource up to some staff who simply aren't "resident" online, but isn't the old centralized editorship model a problem? What happens when the University of Kent tells you to stop playing around with TRIS and get on with some real work which counts towards REF? Will TRIS just go away? Would the community overall be better with a decentralized model which aggregates useful resources under a delicious tag? Couldn't a volunteer curator reformat this into paper format for the luddites?

I hope you are not offended by me asking these questions, and I really hope I don't put you off producing a valuable resource. Most of all, I hope I can still be on your quiz team at the next reps meeting.



Saturday, September 19, 2009

Poem 180909

In the hallway
Black bin bags of VHS tapes
Remember when this was
Learning technology

Friday, September 18, 2009

One of those good news-bad news moments

I phoned the Highcross Apple Store who confirmed that the logic board in my Macbook is toast and that the replacement cost would be £550. Hasta la vista, Macbook. Kudos to the Highcross staff, they cushioned the blow by waiving the diagnostic fee.

So now I have to make a decision... I'm not a road warrior, and I don't use my laptop much, but when I'm away and I need to get online, I need to get online. So I'm thinking out loud about my options:

Netbook: Preferred option. Value for money. I'd love a flash drive, light, 10 inch netbook. But which one? I'm very impressed with my son's eeePC 901 running EasyPeasy, but truth is, there's just too much I can't do with Linux. Networking on the eeePC is dodgy, getting a 3G dongle to work is a real problem, and most of the time, there isn't wifi around when I need to be online. The Samsung N series got a really good press from ALT-C delegates - but could I really bring myself to run Windoze?

iPhone: Nice, convenient, but not value for money. Lack of Flash is also bad news, but text input for anything other than Twitter is the killer.

Macbook: Preferred option, but can I justify the cost? I could if I used a laptop more frequently, but probably not based on how much I actually do. It's all about the interface, stupid.


PLoS rolls out article level metrics

Video from - try it, it's free

The Public Library of Science (PLoS), announced the release of an expanded set of article-level metrics on its scientific and medical journal articles (some 14,000 articles across 7 journals). The article-level metrics program was launched in March 2009, and with this addition of online usage data, PLoS is providing an unprecedented set of information on every published article. Such information will be of value to researchers, readers, funders, administrators and anyone interested in the evaluation of scientific research. The PLoS article metrics include the new online usage data (HTML page views, PDF downloads and XML downloads), as well as citation counts, comments, ratings, social bookmarks and blog coverage. Usage data will be updated daily and currently include more than four years of statistics from all seven peer-reviewed PLoS journals. With this growing and detailed set of metrics on every article, PLoS aims to demonstrate that individual articles can be judged on their own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which they are published. Because very few data have previously been made public by scholarly publishers, visitors to the journal sites will need help to understand these data. For example, it is clear from the PLoS data that online usage is dependent on the age of the article, as well its subject area. In order to place the new usage data in context, PLoS is therefore providing summary tables to allow users to see how an article compares with various average measures. For anyone wishing to examine the data in detail the complete raw data set is also available as a download. PLoS is still in the early stages of the article-level metrics program, but this is the first attempt by a major publisher to place such a broad range of data on each article. PLoS therefore hopes that the provision of these data will encourage other publishers to make such data available, which will lead ultimately to broader improvements in scholarly communication and research assessment.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Recommendations on CiteULike

Postgraduate Scientific Writing

writing I'm delighted to announce that the HEA UK Centre for Bioscience has awarded me a Teaching Development Fund grant to support my project "Postgraduate Scientific Writing Skills Pilot Programme" (details below). I described the background to this project here some time ago.
Here comes the interesting bit ;-)
The student-facing part will consist entirely of tools they use in connection with their research - Microsoft Word and email. However, so that I don't get too bored, I've treated myself to a site to test it out as a project management tool.

Postgraduate Scientific Writing Skills Pilot Programme

Postgraduate students are expected to produce writing that is suitable for publication in scientific journals. This requires them to assimilate new academic cultures and standards very quickly and to write in new and challenging ways. Effective communication of scientific results and ideas is vital both for professional advancement and relationships with research supervisors, yet it is an area where both students and staff acknowledge lack of confidence and proficiency. I plan to introduce an evaluative pilot scientific writing skills programme for all first year PhD students entering the Department of Biology in order to determine whether this additional personalized support provides lasting benefits in terms of improving scientific writing.

Effective communication of scientific results and ideas is vital both for professional advancement and relationships with research supervisors (W. Zhu 2004 Faculty views on the importance of writing, the nature of academic writing, and teaching and responding to writing in the disciplines. Journal of Second Language Writing 13(1):29–48). However, in this crucial area both students and supervisors commonly acknowledge lack of confidence and ability. In addition to proficiency in English, technical elements such as referencing, style, sentence structure and clarity are common barriers to proficient technical writing. Although the essay is still regarded as the gold standard for much of the assessment in undergraduate science degrees, particularly in final year examinations, experience shows that UK students find it difficult to transfer whatever skills they may have developed during undergraduate education to the discipline of formal scientific writing at postgraduate level. Moreover, the mixture of home and overseas students beginning PhDs have been exposed to a wide range of formative writing experiences and cultures. This pilot programme will not seek to address fundamental English language skills (although practice at writing will undoubtedly improve these skills for many students), but rather to address and improve the technical issues of scientific writing through an extended programme of writing practice. All students who start higher degree courses in the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology have already proven a minimum agreed level of English proficiency. However, if any non-native speakers are identified as having fundamental difficulties with English language skills, they will be referred to the University of Leicester English Language Teaching Unit.

At present, most of the formal taught postgraduate sessions in the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology at the University of Leicester are squeezed into single one or two hour slots. This format is not conducive to the extended practice that proficiency in writing demands (Bydder, et al. 2006 The value of a scientific writing training workshop for radiologists and radiation oncologists. Australasian Radiology 50(1):29–32). Much recent work on scientific writing has concentrated on undergraduate rather than postgraduate students (Jones, H.L. 2008 Developing Students’ Writing Skills: The Science Log. Centre For Bioscience Bulletin Autumn 2008; Write Now Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning). Postgraduates tend to be fobbed off with workshops or ineffective "how to write" books (B. Kamler & P. Thomson 2008 The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing. Educational Researcher 37(8):507–514).

Regular writing practice is the basis of the well-tested 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. Through intensive scrutiny and highly personal feedback, students writing improves as the most problematic defects are repeatedly highlighted and the solutions explained. The student is then required to test their understanding and ability by putting these principles into practice in subsequent exercises. This progressive pattern builds confidence in writing ability and encourages clear and concise expression of meaning. The more people write, the better they become at it.

Starting in October 2009, I plan to introduce a pilot scientific writing skills programme for all first year PhD students entering the Department of Biology. This pilot programme will not seek to provide fundamental English language skills (although practice at writing will undoubtedly improve these skills for many students), but rather to address and improve the technical issues of scientific writing through an extended programme of writing practice. Students will be asked to complete a set programme consisting of five pieces of writing over a ten week period. The format will be similar to that in which students will eventually be writing in for publication, using Microsoft Word and email attachments to communicate with the tutor on an individual basis. PhD supervisors will not be required to take part in the programme, but supervisor support will be a key aspect in the success of this programme, so supervisors will be asked to look at and comment on the first and last submissions in the programme so they can see how the students have progressed and decide if further intervention is necessary.

The programme will be conducted via the following assignments:
  1. Correcting a passage extracted from the professional literature which contains introduced errors that students need to identify, explain and correct.
  2. Produce a 500 word summary of an assigned published research paper relevant to the student's research topic which describes the background behind the paper, how the research was conducted and the main findings.
  3. Produce a short (one side of A4) report on a dataset extracted from the published literature following an exemplar.
  4. Produce a short (one side of A4) report on a different dataset extracted from the published literature without an exemplar.
  5. Students will be asked to produce a summary document similar to a first year report of up to 500-1000 words describing an area related to their research topic.
Each exercise will be annotated by the tutor and discussed with the student in a face-to-face meeting. If the exercise is felt not to meet the expected standard, the student may be asked to resubmit a revised version including corrections before proceeding to the next exercise. Annotated copies of the revisions will be returned to students but because of time constraints there will be no face-to-face meeting to discuss these. There will be no "marks" associated with the exercises, their purpose is solely to increase confidence and improve the quality of writing. By selecting writing and topics individually relevant to the student's area of research, the programme will seek to achieve a high level of commitment from the participants as well as supervisor support. This recursive pattern of feedback and active expression is likely to be more effective than the previous style of one-off events, or even no formal writing support at all. In summary, the proposed programme will consist of:

a) An initial meeting with each student to explain the programme.
b) Fortnightly individual meetings with students in which the most recent assignment is discussed in detail.
c) At the end of the ten week programme, students judged to have met the minimum criteria will have their progress formally noted by the Department. All participants will also be offered the option of a follow-on programme. This will be in the form of an invitation to join a departmental blog network where they will have opportunity to continue to develop their writing skills while receiving comments and support from their peers.

Rightly or wrongly, some research supervisors are concerned by the amount of time PhD students are required to commit to formal taught sessions and are resistant to further erosion of laboratory research time. In order to achieve supervisor buy-in and support for this initiative I have deliberately take a "light touch" approach and the purpose of the evaluation strand of the project is to determine if this is enough to achieve substantial and tangible benefits for the student.

One drawback with this system is that it is more expensive in terms of time than a single taught session or online exercises. In reality, investment of time in student writing skills at an early stage will return interest later during the preparation of a thesis and research publications. I estimate that it will take approximately one hour per student per week, including reading, correction, meeting with students (one 30 minute meeting per fortnight) and administration (email, record keeping, evaluation), plus time for materials relevant to each student to be prepared.

At the conclusion of the pilot programme, participants and their research supervisors will be asked to comment on the effectiveness of the exercises to collect as much evidence of effectiveness as possible. PhD pass rates are already close to 100% so numerical measures of the success of the project based on this outcome will not be meaningful. Since number of publications varies considerably depending on both the student and research topic, this would not be a useful measure either. The time spent by supervisors correcting drafts of student writing and the time taken for students to become independent writers is an important cost in the research enterprise. We will measure whether this intervention is able to reduce either of these drag factors. Depending on the outcome of this evaluation, if it is decided to adopt the programme as part of the regular practice of the Department, sustainability will be achieved by adjustment of Departmental administrative loads.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Were you up for Portillo?

Somehow, #scidebate felt a bit like that.

Favorite quote from Lord Drayson: Only good has come out of Twitter.


Pub quiz You may remember I'm on a crusade to roll back the years of over-assessment. It's all that struggling to be an evidence-based researcher that's the problem. Somewhere along the line one of the key elements that first attracted my to e-learning got pushed to one side:
One of the pieces fell into place last week while I was listening to Peter Klappa at the UK Centre for Bioscience forum. Peter reminded me about the simple idea of running a pub quiz as a learning activity, which I plan to do on my final year virology module this year.

The interesting bit is that it's not going to form part of the module assessment. It's just for fun. Or is this non-assessment for learning?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Call for Reform - Fix the Broken Funding System

Broken The grant-funding system is broken, argues Peter Lawrence in a new commentary published in PLoS Biology. While government officials and educators steer more students onto scientific tracks, those who heed the call will likely come to regret their decision. The current system churns out promising, creative young scientists only to betray them, Lawrence laments, leaving even the best and the brightest struggling against a baffling, impenetrable Kafkaesque bureaucracy just to do the work they were hired to do. Lawrence, a University of Cambridge developmental biologist who has worked on fly development for more than 40 years, says the current system forces scientists into a Darwinian struggle for funding, with the result that those who learn how to game the system survive and those who don’t, lose out - often leaving the game altogether. “To expect a young scientist to recruit and train students and postdocs as well as producing and publishing new and original work within two years (in order to fuel the next grant application) is preposterous,” he writes. “It is neither right nor sensible to ask scientists to become astrologists and predict precisely the path their research will follow - and then to judge them on how persuasively they can put over this fiction.”

In an all-too-familiar tale, Lawrence describes the experience of a scientist (called K.) who spent 18 years in training after a brilliant start, only to be thwarted by the granting system when he tried to break out on his own. This once-bright star now appears en route to failure. “The waste in expertise and time is heartbreaking,” says Lawrence. Mushrooming and expensive bureaucracy, onerous rules and regulations, pressures to churn out rushed papers to boost publication record, inadequate initial grants, and inherent biases that favor established scientists at the expense of new talent are just some of the problems Lawrence outlines. He also presents the perspectives of numerous senior scientists, who recount their own experiences and offer insights into how the system has failed. Lawrence, and his colleagues, recommend a number of reforms to allow researchers to get on with the business of research - and restore science to its rightful place.

Lawrence PA (2009) Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. PLoS Biol 7(9):e1000197 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000197


Monday, September 14, 2009


 Terry Andersons Virtual Communities of Practice I don't like conferences, so last week was rough, with two back to back.

ALT-C 2009 represented all that is both good and bad about conferences. On the minus side: overpriced, environmentally damaging and some shockingly bad presentations. The prevailing air of depression concerning the financial future didn't help either. This doesn't tell you much about ALT-C 2009 - the same problems apply to most big conferences. After two disappointing keynotes from Michael Wesch (Oh well, whatever, nevermind), and the new Vice Chancellor of the Open University, Barack O'Bean (What's your name? Hello Debbie), the lowest point came on the last day with the infamous I wouldn't blog in a million years incident. Why disappointing? When I invest the amount of time and money it takes to get to ALT-C, I want to come away with ideas that will change my working practices, as I have at past ALT conferences.

Fortunately, the event was redeemed by Terry Anderson's keynote address which contained an elegant exposition of individuals, groups and networks in education. Groups are necessary but not sufficient for quality learning - because groups are limited and inward looking, they eventually consume themselves. That's why Ning and VLEs are a bad thing (for learning, although fine for administration). Networks are open and outward-facing, ultimately the only route to sustainable learning. And of course, ALT-C was one of the rare occasions where I meet some of the more distant nodes on my network face to face. In addition, I was extremely proud of my Leicester colleagues as I felt the quality and evidence-based nature of our presentations stood out.

If you still feel you missed something, everything is archived in the Friendfeed Group (apart from the f2f interaction).

When I arrived in Birmingham for the Centre for Bioscience Reps meeting, I was very tired and frankly not looking forward to it. In spite of my phenomenal performance in the pub quiz (in which our team "We look up to Jon really" was robbed), it wasn't until Friday morning that the buzz kicked in. Why? Because individuals innovate, not institutions, and on Friday morning you could watch the network emerge from this group of self-selected innovators.

I don't want to talk about tools (and I'm not going to mention Twitter ;-) but I left feeling that there was some hope. Let's hope the networks take over when the conferences end.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bioscience Reps Forum 2009

logo Today I'm shifting my conference focus from ALT-C in Manchester to the HEA Centre for Bioscience Representatives' Forum 2009 in Birmingham. There's no hashtag (event is too small) but I'll probably Twitter a bit. Here's the programme:

12.00 Welcome and introduction to the forum
David Adams, Director, Centre for Bioscience

12.15 Interactive video session
Julian Park, Centre for Bioscience and Chris Willmott, University of Leicester

13.45 Activities to lead into Discussion Session
Sheryl Meskin, Centre for Bioscience

15.00 Discussion Session
Steve Maw, Centre for Bioscience

16.15 Swapshop Session 1
Interactive Swapshop: Katherine Rogers, Queen’s University, “Knowing and using learning style preferences to enhance the learning experience for our students”
Stephen McClean, University of Ulster, “Context/Problem Based Learning to Deliver Biological Mass Spectrometry to Year 1 Bioscience Students”
Ian Turner, University of Derby, “PDP - Pain in a Departments Privates?”
Merryn Eckberg, University of Northampton, “Bioethics for bioscience students: a review of teaching strategies”

Friday 11th September

09.15 Swapshop Session 2
INTERACTIVE SWAPSHOP: Dave Lewis, University of Leeds, "Science & Society activities; an alternative to traditional laboratory-based final year research projects"
Dave Skingsley, Staffordshire University, “Second year laboratory based group work as an aid to undergraduate project preparation”
Peter Klappa, University of Kent, “Promoting active learning through ‘pub quizzes’”
Paul McLaughlin, University of Edinburgh, “Richer feedback with e-submission and video summaries”

11.00 Centre Activities Update
Jackie Wilson, Centre Manager, Centre for Bioscience
The Role of the Postgraduate Student in Delivering Bioscience Teaching - Jon Scott, University of Leicester & Steve Maw, Centre for Bioscience
Reps Fund Update:
1. Networking Events Designed to Encourage Participation of PhD Students and Post-Doctoral Fellows (Anne-Margaret Tierney, Joy Perkins and Morven Shearer)
2. A Mentorship Scheme for Teaching-only Practitioners (Kay Yeoman, Julian Park, Damian Parry, Dave Lewis)
Open Educational Resources Project - Terry McAndrew, Centre for Bioscience
External Examiner Database – Steve Maw, Centre for Bioscience

12.30 Reflections on the Forum and closing remarks
David Adams, Director, Centre for Bioscience

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

ALT-C 2009

For the next few days I'll be at the ALT-C 2009 conference in Manchester, for this, among other reasons:

Twitter hashtag is #altc2009, but you can follow (and join in) all the fun in the Friendfeed room.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Hey Mandy - 3 balls and you're in

Carrots Why carrots are better than sticks:

The public goods game is the classic laboratory paradigm for studying collective action problems. Each participant chooses how much to contribute to a common pool that returns benefits to all participants equally. The ideal outcome occurs if everybody contributes the maximum amount, but the self-interested strategy is not to contribute anything. Most previous studies have found punishment to be more effective than reward for maintaining cooperation in public goods games. The typical design of these studies, however, represses future consequences for today’s actions. In an experimental setting, we compare public goods games followed by punishment, reward, or both in the setting of truly repeated games, in which player identities persist from round to round. We show that reward is as effective as punishment for maintaining public cooperation and leads to higher total earnings. Moreover, when both options are available, reward leads to increased contributions and payoff, whereas punishment has no effect on contributions and leads to lower payoff. We conclude that reward outperforms punishment in repeated public goods games and that human cooperation in such repeated settings is best supported by positive interactions with others.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

How group assessment penalizes high achievers

Groupwork We all love group assessments, right? Saves academic lots of time. Snag is, Richard Almond has evidence that group assessment disadvantages high individual scoring students, who are "dragged down by the poor or lazy student", while advantaging low individual scoring students.

This is a problem. We already give high achievers poor service all the way from secondary through tertiary education. (In primary education most high fliers are able to demand teacher time through force of personality, and if they make it to postgraduate education, they may come into their own again).

So personalization seems to be the way forward as the best compromise between efficiency gain in a mass higher education system and serving the interests of individual students. Down with group assessments!

Group assessment: comparing group and individual undergraduate module marks. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (2009) 34 (2): 141-148
This report describes a small study that analysed module marks of one cohort of science undergraduates from one academic year. It explored how group summative assessment marking affected the overall marks in comparison with individual assessment. A tutor allocated students to mixed ability project groups. Individual marks for the group work component were derived by tutor-, peer-, and self-assessment weighting. The results showed that students with high individual marks obtained lower marks in the group component. Similarly, students with low individual marks obtained higher marks in the group component. Study limitations, results and conclusions are reported.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

New balance

Balance Last year when I was designing our PLE module, I was fairly obsessed with feedback. This was part of the damage resulting from NSS-driven league tables. The net result was that the assessment load (for staff and students) was too high and not aligned with the perceived value of this key skills (non-core) module. In addition, now that we know that feedback doesn't work, in tweaking the module for the second run through this year, I've decided to be obsessed with overassessment. So I'm considering my options for this year:

1. Make the module non-assessed (but credit-bearing). To qualify for credit, students will have to complete some sort of activity (possibly the present assessments, but with a reduced schedule?). The problem with this is that we know from the data we collected last year that only somewhere in the region of 1% of students will engage as this is a non-core module. Does that matter?

2. Switch to terminal assessment. Treating the in-course assessments as formative would work well for the numeracy part of the model (see One simple idea), but how would I design a terminal assessment for the PLE component - portfolio-based?

3. Leave things essentially as they are but tweak the assessment frequency downwards to reduce the load.

On balance, I think I favour (2), which also has the merit of introducing the ePortfolio concept so that this is less strange when we move onto PDP ePortfolios in Semester 2, but I'd really welcome your input. Have you ever tried backing away from assessment? I'm hopeful that a move towards a more portfolio-based assessment strategy could overcome some of the limitations of a VLE in terms of the subtlety of interaction between assessor and student.

The models described by Helen Barrett at this site are very helpful. In order to balance feedback versus assessment load, I'm thinking about the following workflow:
  1. Students create a blog, selecting their own privacy controls (public, or limited to self + assessors).
  2. Students report url of wordpress site via a Google Form.
  3. At least once per week, students blog about their activity relating to assessed tasks scheduled that week. To facilitate assessment, entries must be tagged with assigned tags relevant to each task (e.g. delicious, GoogleReader, etc).
  4. Feedback will be given by comments on the blog posts (facilitated by scanning RSS subscriptions).
  5. At the end of term, students submit (via the blog) a reflective terminal report linked to evidence of activity (artifacts) which will be assessed in accordance with set criteria.
  6. Evidence of engagement with feedback will be one of the assessment criteria.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

My Twitter Strategy

Small world networks It's a year now since I made the decision to create multiple Twitter accounts in order to try to bring some order to the various Mini-Mes which inhabit the internet. It wasn't an easy decision to take and it hasn't been easy to get my head around my own identities, but one year on, some semblance of order is starting to emerge, so let me explain how and why:

AJCann is the account I think of most as "Me". It's also my highest traffic account and the one I prefer to use for "real people" - i.e. people I actually know and talk to face to face. But it's also "Education Me" and to some extent, "Geek Me".

AlanCann is intended to be "Science Me". Why do I need this extra identity? So I don't put off science-focussed individuals who don't want all the edu-chatter. The snag is that people get confused between this account and the previous one, which is quite understandable. Which Me are they talking to? Which one do they want to talk to?

MicroBytes is the account for At the moment, it's still a bit broadcast-y, but hopefully will become more conversational with time.

DrCann is the account I use to talk to University of Leicester undergraduates. Reasoning that some students may be put off by the content and volume of some of the other Mes, this is actually the account which spawned all the other Mini-Mes. With this account I have all the problems educators face when talking to students on social networks. Am I stalking them? Are they stalking me? Where do we draw the lines?

So how do you manage multiple Twitter identities? With difficulty. Using the right tools helps. I'm a huge fan of the multiple-account enabled Twhirl, which is easily my favourite Twitter client, but Hootsuite is quite good too. The real problem is time, and to some extent quickly getting my head around the right identity when I'm engrossed in something else.

Sigh. the internet is such a complicated place. Or maybe it's the me's that's complicated.