Friday, February 26, 2010

Attention is a River: Part 17

River I had an interesting discussion yesterday afternoon with the students on the final year module I'm teaching. In addition to lectures, tutorials, online notes and all the materials on the VLE, I've been drip feeding them extra virology tidbits relevant to the lecture topics via the virology tag on MicrobiologyBytes and the MicrobiologyBytes Facebook page.

Or at least, I thought I had.

To make life easier for them, I put a link to these sites in the VLE sidebar from the course site. In class, we had a chat about Blackboard discussion boards - Do you use them on any of your modules? - No. How many of you have looked at the MicrobiologyBytes links? One.

Why not? Probably a number of reasons, but the basic one being - it didn't command their attention. Discussion, feedback, reading - all the good stuff in education - doesn't happen via links in the sidebar. It only happens when those activities take place in the river of attention. There is no learning in the silted up oxbow lakes on Blackboard. That's why the river design of Friendfeed is so powerful, and why I'm disappointed with the information puddles on BuddyPress and Ning. Of course, if you're used to splashing around in the shallow end, navigating a wide river of information is scary at first. When we talk about these things, most people say to me, I don't get Friendfeed. Neither did I , for a long time. That's where educational design comes in, and what we're currently working on.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Friendfolios update

Friendfolio progress report Now that a month has gone by, I scraped some data via the friendfeed api to see how our first year students (n = 137) are getting on with their friendfolios.

Rather than total activity (including status updates), I looked at the level of interactivity via the number of comments and likes. The numbers of both follow a power law distribution, a classical web long tail. The median number of comments/likes is 17/7, maximum 115/93 (and minimum of course, zero). The way these graphs are drawn, the tail represents the high frequency users. This is a pretty crude analysis of interactivity and it won't be until we run the full network analysis in a few weeks time that we will have a good overall picture of what is going on, but it's clear that we have a small number of highly engaged users and a larger number of low frequency interactions - possibly no surprise. I also looked at gender influence on interactivity:


Although females make more comments/likes per head (37/16) than males (24/11), the difference is not statistically significant (Fisher's exact test, p = 1), which is good.

When the assessed phase of the project is over in a few weeks time, we will run a complete analysis of the data, including status updates, comments and likes, as well as network diagrams, but since we are unable to reveal any of the original data for ethical reasons, I know some people have been waiting for a sneak peek of the outcomes of the project.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Optimistically, I spent two hours online listening to the @timeshighered #voteHE "debate", hoping a politician seeking election might come up with something as radical as a policy. Any policy. But no. Apparently, we have to "wait and see".

The first ten minutes were the worst, when all three parties agreed that funding cuts already agreed were inevitable.

The second ten minutes were the worst as well, when they carried on talking in a policy vacuum.

After that, it all went downhill, enlivened only by David Lammy's gaffes, such as "In 1997 the capital budget for FE was zero. This year it's five and a half times what it was then", and that old favourite, "You don't know my sister...".

But at least the whole thing has cleared up the election problem. If you're concerned about UK higher education, the only sensible choice is Official Monster Raving Loony. All the other parties are a bit bonkers.

Science blogs and public engagement with science

Digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) are novelty tools that can be used to facilitate broader involvement of citizens in the discussions about science. The same tools can be used to reinforce the traditional top-down model of science communication. Empirical investigations of particular technologies can help to understand how these tools are used in the dissemination of information and knowledge as well as stimulate a dialog about better models and practices of science communication. This study focuses on one of the ICTs that have already been adopted in science communication, on science blogging. The findings from the analysis of eleven blogs are presented in an attempt to understand current practices of science blogging and to provide insight into the role of blogging in the promotion of more interactive forms of science communication.

This study examined posts and comments from eleven science blogs in an attempt to answer the question of whether they can facilitate public engagement with science. The findings suggest that the majority of individuals involved in science blogging as both authors and readers are professional scientists or future professional scientists. Science blogs are a virtual water cooler for graduate students, postdoctoral associates, faculty, and researchers from a variety of disciplines and areas of inquiry. The conversations in science blogs are also of “water cooler” quality. Bloggers alternate explanations and critical commentary with quick personal opinions, re-posting of content from news sources and other blogs, and humorous and sarcastic remarks. Readers respond with similar actions and in addition to topic developments offer quick personal judgments, insulting and sarcastic remarks, and personal details. To become a tool for non-scientist participation, science blogs need to stabilize as a genre or as a set of subgenres where smaller conversations may facilitate more meaningful participation from members of the public3. Science bloggers need to become more aware of their audience, welcome non-scientists, and focus on explanatory, interpretative, and critical modes of communication rather than on reporting and opinionating. An interesting practical experiment would also be to reverse the roles of writers and readers and invite the so called “ordinary persons” to create and publish science blogs, i.e., to engage them in the practices of science blog writing rather than reading or commenting.

Comment: Hmm, not sure I entirely agree with the conclusions, but nice to see MicrobiologyBytes listed up there with the big boys :-)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Let's play!

BuddyPress It's been a long time since I sat down and read an instruction manual cover to cover.

OK, I have never read an instruction manual cover to cover. This is partly due to the fact that I have a Y chromosome, but recently, it has a lot more to do with Web 2.0, the ethos of which says, If you need a training course, it ain't Web 2.0. So how do we learn Web 2.0? We tinker, or as I prefer to think of it, play. I haven't spent millions of years evolving play as the most significant learning mechanism in my lifespan to start reading instruction manuals now!

So when I want to learn how to use a new tool, I like to play with it. Which is fine, except that if it's a social tool, I need some friends to play with (which is where you come in). I'm trying to get my head around BuddyPress, the flavour of WordPress sometimes described as Facebook in a box. With the recent release of BuddyPress 1.2, the time to play is now.

So I've set up an account on the BuddyPress test site (it's all free - it's open source you see :-) and I'm asking you to be my friend. Let's kick the tyres and poke about under the bonnet to see what this thing can do for us.

Friday, February 19, 2010

All good things must end

writing Posterous is A Good Thing.
But Friendfeed is better.

As part of my postgraduate scientific writing project I needed to set up a site for a student who has been identified as needing extended writing support. To minimize my workload, my first thought was to set up a blog and get them to write about life in general at least once a week. The student wants the blog to be private. The supervisor wants the student to read/write about plant biology. No worries.

Whenever anyone asks me how to set up a blog (not that anyone does), Posterous is my first call (and WordPress my second, depending on what's required). Posterous is simple, flexible, and the workflow is good. But not as good as Friendfeed. I've set the student up with a (private) Friendfeed account. Into that I've dropped the PubMed Arabidopsis RSS feed and a few hyperlocal feeds to give it a flava. Plenty to read and write about. The student picks a paper and writes a few hundred words about it once a week. I subscribe to the Friendfeed comments RSS to monitor activity and respond with corrections and suggestions. No need to fiddle about with multiple logins on Google Reader and Posterous. Attention is focused in a single location. Simples. And scalable across the College.

Over the past couple of months, I've found myself posting less and less content to Son of SoTI and more and more to Friendfeed. I think the time has come to mothball SoSoTI, at least for the foreseeable future. I've removed the SoSoTI feed from my sidebar and added my Friendfeed activity. I may add my Buzz network at some point, but we'll see how Buzz develops for a while first.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Reverse Milgram Experiment

Joy Observant readers will have noticed a slight diminution in the frequency of posting here recently. It's temporary and has several causes - partly due to my teaching load at present and in part because I've been online more than ever, but in other networks rather than here. These include Buzz, which I'm still experimenting with, but mostly Friendfeed, which I've been working with extensively (two identities) over the past few weeks.

These networks share a common feature: the Like link. Easily understood but much underestimated, "Likes" are little jolts of joy which transmit attention between network nodes. In addition to traversing the synapses of attention, Likes also reward contributions - "strokes" in the vocabulary of emotional intelligence.

Move over Stanley.

I need your help

I need to collect evidence of impact of the work we have been doing with social tools in higher education here at UoL over the past couple of years. If you have been positively influenced by anything we've done, I would be very grateful if you could take a minute to send me an email describing:
  • The impact our work has had on your practices
  • Your role/title
It doesn't need to be long, a couple of pithy sentences would be ideal.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

And The Winner Is...

Jennifer's post yesterday inspired me to use your.flowingdata to have a look at some of the "official" University of Lesta Twitter accounts:

UniofLeics PercyGee
UniofLeicsNews uolsupport

And the winner is:

Well, it's a close-run thing with PercyGee, but I'd say uolsupport has the most well-balanced, mature network.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Religion Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 this morning peddled the myth of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. If you missed it, I'm sure it's languishing on a website somewhere.

When I was a student, we were subjected to the ministrations of a chaplain we referred to, affectionately I hope, as Rick the Vic. In those distant Young Ones days, I didn't know if Rick actively partook of the ganja, but I wouldn't have been surprised, because it was certainly the impression he liked to give. And yet theologically, Rick was as hardline as they come. For Rick, everyone was in hermetically-sealed, immutable boxes. Taliban in one, Digital Natives in another. Rick would have loved Thought for the Day this morning, as clearly Radio Rick did.

Where it it all go wrong?

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (Marc Prensky)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

It's Saturday night

Saturday and over on Friendfeed half a dozen first year students are discussing the role of reflection in learning. A dozen more are discussing the details of coursework essays, practical reports and tutorials.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Feedback on Friendfolios

One of the reasons we were keen on using Friendfeed is because unlike many other services (e.g. delicious), it allows us to leave feedback for students in the location where they are working rather than trying to pull their attention to another location (e.g. email). On several modules, we have extended the Blackboard authentication hub by incorporating Friendfeed into the module site, either as a straight link in the content frame:


Or via a filtered module-specific tag:


The nice thing about this is that if someone if logged into Friendfeed (and logins are persistent), they can move and work seamlessly between the two environments. Attention flows and is not divided. By linking feedback (and more importantly, two-way discussions) on assessments to Friendfeed threads from locations within Blackboard, we have been able to generate more engagement with feedback than we ever managed with any of the Blackboard tools.

I've just left the first round of formal feedback for students which reinforces the constant informal feedback given through our presence in the service. The responses have been fantastically positive (unfortunately, I can't share them all with you yet). There was some confusion around public versus private account settings, but other than that, Friendfolios look like the future of PDP to me.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The short view

In a well argued and thought-provoking piece a few days ago (Science and Web 2.0: Talking About Science vs. Doing Science), David Crotty argues that:
"Tools for communication are the low-hanging fruit, the obvious things to build based on Web 2.0 ventures that have worked in other areas, but so far they’ve failed to capture the interest of most scientists."
This is undeniably true, but it leads David to the conclusion that:
Every second spent blogging, chatting on FriendFeed, or leaving comments on a PLoS paper is a second taken away from other activities. Those other activities have direct rewards towards advancement.
Finding ways to help scientists spend more time at the bench and to get more out of that time will succeed where the current crop of peripheral distracting tools have failed.
While presently true, this is the short view, which fails to recognize the change that these tools are bringing, in science as in society. Scientists may not like them, but they're not going away. Just as in the last week Friendfeed has enabled us to set up a research collaboration with someone in Australia we have never met face to face, these tools will bring great changes to education. If people think the professional qualities we are instilling via Friendfolios are not significant, then they have truly missed the point of social tools:


Monday, February 08, 2010

Winning the game

Asus eeePC 900 As part of a complex negotiation which took place over the weekend, my son became the owner of a new iPod Touch while I became the owner of a used Asus eeePC 900. Both of us are happy with the deal.

The eeePC had languished unused for several months, and with the arrival of the iPod Touch, it was clear that it wouldn't get used any more. The iMac gets used a lot, and the iPod Touch is fine for MSN and Facebook, although of course, the clincher is that the iPT is also a games platform.

I, on the other hand, am happier with the eeePC (now running Karmic Koala under the easyPeasy netbook interface). I get Flash, decent browsers and better text entry. Of course, I couldn't survive with the eeePC as my main device, but as my sofa companion for evening online interaction (e.g. tweeting my frustration with TV), it works well.

So I guess Steve Jobs' remarks about netbooks need to be filtered through the age demographic. I guess I'm in the netbook generation.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Cloaking device Try as hard as I might, from time to time my geek invisibility cloak slips and I find myself revealed for my pathetic lack of technical ability.

I'm looking for someone to help me parse the output from an api, need someone with Python or Ruby skills, something like that. I think what I want to do is actually rather simple, but, err ... (looks down at ground and kicks dust).

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Well, that and authorship for your contribution to an academic paper. Any offers?

OK, sorry If I scared the non edtechies out there.
<cloaking device on>

Update: I'm very grateful to everyone who responded, we're currently working with someone to develop tools for this project. I can't imagine that anything we develop won't wind up as freely available to all.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


Mendeley Warning: Lots of UoL politics in this post!

This morning we had our UoL GrokMendeley meeting. In the event, lots of people couldn't make it so we were a very small select group. More Jaffa Cakes for me.

After a general chat about our perceptions of the differences between Mendeley, CiteULike and Papers, we had a quick look at the Mendeley pdf markup and MSWord tools, which Selina has found to be very attractive to some users.

In the end, we decided that the Library will make an application to the Software Panel to get the Mendeley client installed on CFS before Windoze 7 purdah strikes. In order to do this, Alex is going to try to arrange to gather some data about Mendeley by running a short trial on Tagginganna. If we can get the client installed on CFS, we'll let someone else worry about the legal issues around pdf sharing. (Oh, I forgot, I wasn't supposed to say that ;-)

And after that? The only thing that is really clear is that Mendeley is going to evolve rapidly over the next few years. While it needs to, this is a bit of a problem because of the difficulties of getting the Mendeley client updated on CFS.

As far as I personally am concerned, I'm happy to keep a watching brief on Mendeley. I'll be using CiteULike for the foreseeable future. It's kinda fun though, being on the sidelines and watching the epic Darwinian struggle between these emerging research tools and the dying Endnoteosaurus.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Friendfolios in action

I've written previously about our concept of reflective Friendfolios based on the social network Friendfeed. And now it's happening. For the past week, I've tried to find ways of sharing examples of the work being done by the students, but I have not been able to do this for confidentiality reasons related to the way the Friendfeed site works. So while I can't share any examples with you, I can share the analysis of the first week.

In one week, 140 students (so far) have produced 1542 interactions, including 347 Friendfeed "Likes" and 1195 comments ranging from a single word to several hundred words. In all, they've written over 20,000 words on topics including shared links, housekeeping and deeply personal reflections:
The Friday Reflection: At 6pm on Friday evening I posted the following video:

We've had about 50 responses so far, posted at all times of day and night - nearly 24/7. And what do the students think of the site? One called it Fakebook. Let's hope it's as sticky as Facebook over the next few months.