Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The First Rule of Backchannels

Prohibition I've seen/participated in several discussions recently about how to "control" backchannels. This has been frustrating, since the First Rule of Backchannels is:

Backchannels don't have rules.
In some circumstances, it may be possible for institutions to restrict or formalize a backchannel, in which case, it is no longer a backchannel. The fiercer the attempts at prohibition, the more likely the conversation will move elsewhere, and become less visible to the prohibitors.

I do not argue that an unrestricted, free for all backchannel is a good thing in all circumstances, although it usually is, which is why approaching this issue with a negative mindset is an instant fail. The backchannel is civilized and moderated by the participants, who set the social norms - which are widely different on 4chan than on a PLoS article. Backchgannels have no rules, but they have conventions, leaders and an open and questioning culture. Engage.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Subtle and subterranean in nature

Playing their game: an exploration of academic resistance in the managerial university

This thesis explores the phenomenon of academics’ resistance to materialism in Australian universities. In common with many other public sector employees, academics have experienced significant changes in the management of their institutions over recent years. Many of these changes are associated with increasing ‘managerialism’ – the application of methods and approaches commonly associated with the private sector, to public sector organizations. While previous studies indicate that academics are broadly opposed to such changes, little Australian research has considered how they might be resisting managerialism, in their daily working lives. The study found that academics were resisting managerial practices in a variety of ways. These included public acts of protest, refusal and more ‘everyday’ forms of resistance, such as avoidance and strategic compliance. This resistance was underpinned by shared understandings, values and norms embedded within traditional academic culture, and reflected academics’ negative assessments of the consequences of managerial practices within their institutions.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Peerwise Ruth pointed me at this interesting looking event about PeerWise in Nottingham on 9th July. I can't go, but PeerWise looks interesting:
Students of a participating course develop multiple-choice questions with associated explanations and contribute them to PeerWise. These questions are then available to other students in the course and can be answered for study purposes, critiqued and discussed, and rated for difficulty and quality.
Developing effective multiple-choice questions requires that the associated concepts are thoroughly understood and provides a good opportunity to reinforce material that has been recently learned. The collection of questions and responses provides timely feedback to instructors on how students are performing and how various course topics are perceived, and becomes a valuable study resource for students. The process of answering, evaluating and discussing questions developed by their peers enables students to compare their performance and understanding with that of other students studying the same material.
If you go, or have used PeerWise, please let me know how it is.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Into the Future

Annals of Botany Since the East Midlands Development Agency rejected our bid to support scientific publishing in the East Midlands (a politician told me at least part of the problem was that we were from Leicester - if we'd bid from the University of Nottingham we'd probably have got it - they may be right), we've been scheming away figuring out how to do what we want without any external support.

Today, Alun and I are off to the AoB Editorial meeting in Oxford to talk about plans for socializing knowledge. AoB is doing rather well at present, but as a relatively small journal needs to keep moving forward or disapper into obscurity. I'm hopeful we can help prevent that happening while bringing the science that might otherwise remain buried in academia to much wider public knowledge. And if you want to talk to the public, you have to go where the public is.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Memory Lane

Mailing list For the last couple of years I've been thinking mostly about big, "open" public spaces such as Friendfeed and Facebook and what they can offer to education.

Unexpectedly, an old mailing list (young people: read this) I have been a member of for years has cranked back into life, and is currently producing some excellent, reflective, high quality discussion. It's a bit of a surprise, but rather a nice one. The discussions via this list over the last week set me thinking about the differences between mailing lists and social networks and the educational affordances of each. (Yes, I know this is old ground, but this is my personal reflection in the light of heavy Facebook immersion).

Whereas contemporary social networks smack of inclusivity (real or imagined), mailing lists radiate an aura of exclusivity, selection, privacy (secrecy?). They are by default closed communities guarded by subscription rituals. Consenting adults (and they mostly are adults) go there to whisper to each other.

What are the good points to mailing lists? I've been through my fair share of flame wars over the years, but it could be argued that the kinetics of this long-form communication lend themselves to more reflective contributions than does the tendency to status microblogging on social networks.

So am I going to be introducing mailing lists for all our students next year? No, because I have no confidence (or evidence from past experience) that this technology would be effective with undergraduates. Although I might joke about this being the sort of dead technology that JISC would fund (mailing lists in Second Life - there's a grant in there for someone), Friendfeed does us just fine.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Changing Values

Abstract Things that are cheap in the 21st century:
Things that are expensive in the 21st century:
  • Carbon (at least, moving it from one long term store to another)
  • Time
  • Education
You may want to add to this list.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I'll be brief

because I'm writing a lot at the moment, just not here.

Yesterday Tris and I spent several hours beating our heads against the data we collected before, during and after DR10. Conclusions? Maybe the data don't support any strong conclusions, but we can offer you a piece of advice:
If you're thinking of running any sort of one-off training event designed to encourage people to use social media in a professional context, don't bother - it's a waste of your resources.
So where do we go from here? Hopefully, DR11, which will be different to DR10. How? We don't know exactly yet, but it will have more of a network feel to it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Attention hacking and adjacent spaces

Attention Danah Boyd recently published a post about attention hacking. Dave Winer has also written about the new "reader" function in Safari 5.

They are right to highlight these issues. From the location of links to adjacent spaces, attention is now the currency of the internet.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Continuous student ratings with Twitter

Pretty picture Student ratings have been a controversial but important method for the improvement of teaching quality during the past several decades. Most universities rely on summative evaluations conducted at the end of a term or course. A formative approach in which each course unit is evaluated may be beneficial for students and teachers but has rarely been applied. This is most probably due to the time constraints associated with various procedures inherent in formative evaluation (numerous evaluations, high amounts of aggregated data, high administrative investment). In order to circumvent these disadvantages, we chose the Web 2.0 Internet application Twitter as evaluation tool and tested whether it is useful for the implementation of a formative evaluation. After a first pilot and subsequent experimental study, the following conclusions were drawn: First, the formative evaluation did not come to the same results as the summative evaluation at the end of term, suggesting that formative evaluations tap into different aspects of course evaluation than summative evaluations do. Second, the results from an offline (i.e., paper-pencil) summative evaluation were identical with those from an online summative evaluation of the same course conducted a week later. Third, the formative evaluation did not influence the ratings of the summative evaluation at the end of the term. All in all, we can conclude that Twitter is a useful tool for evaluating a course formatively (i.e., on a weekly basis). Because of Twitter's simple use and the electronic handling of data, the administrative effort remains small.

Let's Go Formative: Continuous Student Ratings with Web 2.0 Application Twitter. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2010 Apr;13(2): 163-7


Friday, June 11, 2010

It had to happen :-(

A few months ago ThisIsLeicestershire, the syndicated site for the Leicester Mercury, improved its commenting system for online articles. Part of the "improvement" required commenters to give an email address for registration. I don't bother with the disposable email accounts used to register on dodgy sites - if I think a site is dodgy, I just don't bother.

The Mercury has now started sending me spam asking me to place adverts.

The Mercury has violated my trust.

Note to Mercury: Respect my privacy, stop the spam. You're not Facebook.

Note to Keith: You're not Zukerberg (maybe that's a good thing).

Leicester Mercury

When you're hot, you're hot

Guardian University Guide 2011 Biosciences
Guardian University Guide 2011: Biosciences


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Treating us like grown-ups - the good the bad and the ugly of social media policies for staff

The Good The Bad and The Ugly Yesterday I sent out a message on my networks:
Does your university have a policy on social media use for staff? Can you share it with me? Thanks.
Several people replied, and my thanks to them. I was specifically interested in policies regarding HE staff rather then students, who are not employees of the institution and mostly regarded as covered by IT acceptable use policies. Quite a few universities don't currently have specific social media policies for staff, or are reportedly in the process of developing them. Of those that do, these fall into three categories:

The Good
These are characterised by sensible, but most of all positive advice to staff - go forth and do good things unto others. This is true of the policies for Leeds Met (sorry, Word doc) and De Paul University.

The Bad
It's slightly unfair to categorize the University of Durham policy as bad. Overall it's reasonable, but the nagging negative nanny tone is beginning to creep in - awful lot of Thou Shalt Not's in there.
And then, there's:

The Ugly
Facebookers force Leeds to trash gagging code


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

How could they get it so wrong?

The University of California (for the uninitiated, that's not one university but a statewide network of some of the biggest and best universities in the world) is considering a boycott of Nature Publishing Group journals after Nature allegedly tried to pull a 400% price hike.

Around the internet, many researchers are whooping with delight and telling UC not to cave in.

Negotiating tactic or not, NPG now gives every impression of being at war with its customers.

Customers? We're supposed to be on the same side.

How could NPG get it so wrong?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Smarter not harder puts the social in science

Article Level Metrics Yesterday a link on Friendfeed alerted me to this article on the PLoS blog: Search faster and smarter with PLoS. Your immediate reaction (unless you're a librarian) might be, Meh, a new search engine. But you'd be wrong. Here's why.

By including filtering options based on the article level metrics data PLoS has been building, the new engine allows smarter, crowdsourced searches in addition to the traditional indexed content type. For example, consider this (malaria, sorted by "relevance") versus this (malaria, crowdsourced by most views).

But there's a more important reason why this is important. This is embodied by the Scholarly Kitchen crew banging on about how scientists shouldn't waste their time messing about with social media and should get back in the lab and do some research. But it's also typified by majority of scientists I talk to about this asking, reasonably enough, What's in it for me? Incorporating socially-generated data such as article level metrics into scientific workflows answers that question. By contributing to social datasets, you improve the quality of them for yourself and for everybody else. And that's a good enough reason for scientists to engage with social tools.

Monday, June 07, 2010

What is excellence in teaching?

Certificate At the conference earlier this month, Morag Shiach, Vice-Principal (Teaching and Learning) at Queen Mary, University of London, gave an interesting presentation titled "Enhancing Teaching and Learning through a research-rich environment".

Morag started by talking about the costs of teaching and how “optional” elements will be always be pruned (not sure if she was on the "do more with less" agenda or suggesting judicious use of chaff when writing grant applications). She went on to describe the situation at Queen Mary, which tries to reward teaching as research. The indicators that are used to measure teaching "quality" are:
  1. National/International prize(s)
  2. Peer-reviewed funding
  3. National/International (how is "impact" measured?)
  4. Appointment as an external expert
It's an interesting list, although Morag stressed that Queen Mary uses these headings as the framework for a conversation, not as strict metrics. What is interesting from this list is that teaching is not enough - a research component is required to be deemed "excellent". This is not just a Queen Mary criterion, many other universities apply the same thinking. Now while universities get a lot of funding for research, this is still pretty confused, as they also get a lot of money from teaching. Is it true that you can't be an excellent HE teacher without conducting research?

The snag is, we're not talking about conducting research here. Getting grants, winning international prizes, that's about generating (spurious?) metrics that the ever-growing army of non-teaching, non-researching HE managers can use to "manage" "their" "staff" (what about colleagues - remember them?) That's why teaching is on the lowest rung of the HE tree. Higher "Education"?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Microblogging on the Facebook platform

Facebook page Following the success of the MicrobiologyBytes page on Facebook, I'm blogging the creation of the new edition of Principles of Molecular Virology on the same platform. This is a public page, so you don't need a Facebook account to read it. You don't need to be my "friend" on Facebook.

Why this format? Because writing (for me) is a long, painful business, and I don't plan to go Stephen Fry Web2.0 cold turkey. And with the possible exception of Friendfeed and Twitter, Facebook is the place that holds my hand and is most likely to keep me going. Why not another blog? Because I'm writing a book, not a blog, and this format is best suited to microchunked contributions with threaded discussions.

Good idea or not? We'll see.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Object-Centred Networks as the Mother of All Swiss Army Knives

Swiss army knife Following last week's discussion, we decided that we are going to roll out social network portfolios for our first year students at the start of Year 1 rather than waiting until the second term as we originally planned.

One of the issues we have struggled with in introducing PLEs/portfolios is creating sufficiently convincing authentic assessment to carry students along. Consequently, while we will still require students to create delicious/Google Reader accounts as part of their PLE, the output from these accounts will fed into Friendfeed and assessed there as part of an overall pattern of activity. The tools will remain in the background, but the focus will be on the network. In (partially) conceding Cameron Neylon's contention that Friendfeed (and increasingly, Facebook) are primarily object-centred networks, we are searching for the sweet spot that the network approach provides.

Apart from engagement, there are other advantages of basing a PLE/portfolio on a social network. Student (and staff) weariness with having to sign up for yet another online service is all too evident. There are also problems in terms of tracking usage across various services (in particular Google Reader). While building a PLE based on a distributed toolset is optimum in terms of the tools available, it sacrifices the convenience of doing everything inside a big-box VLE. Social network portfolios offer some of this convenience back, while allowing students to retain ownership of their network and associated tools during and after formal education, and offering better data to track continued usage was that after courses have ended, all problems which arose previously with a distributed toolset PLE. One remaining issue to solve is whether the operant conditioning of link sharing and reflective status updates overcomes the perception of network creation and curation as authentic learning rather than simply a social distraction.


Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Libraries of the Future

"What is happening in the world is bypassing university libraries. I talk to colleagues and the feeling is that libraries for STM (science, technical, medical) are not useful. That’s not my polemic view – that’s reporting on having spoken to people. When I got feedback from technologically-aware librarians, they informed me that they are doing a good job that is not being appreciated, and I should stop criticising. I wasn’t criticising – I’m trying to tell it as it is. The librarian of the future will not come from the librarian of the present. The librarian of the future will be a revolutionary.
What do scientists want? They want quality peer-review. They want immediate access to published information, and to access it electronically, and possibly in chunks, rather than the entirety of a paper. They want help in writing papers and grant applications. They want a personal collection of papers. They want recognition for their work.
In the future, all information will be free and online, and everyone will be pervasively connected. Things change on the web through evolution, not through planning. Neglect the major players at your peril (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft).
Putting information and research (including code and demonstrations) online in open-access repositories is vital. If your repositories don’t look like SourceForge, you’re not doing it right.
Publishing giants govern the direction of scholarly publication. We had the chance to control scholarly publication through the university presses, and we didn’t. Vice chancellors need to feel that they are losing the plot, because they are. Google may Do No Evil today, but what will happen in the future?
Tim Berners-Lee’s phrase is “Just do it”. Why are universities not helping Wikipedia become a teaching and learning organisation? The bit of Wikipedia I wrote is in my view correct. Wikipedia is all versioned. Stamp it at a point in time and say that a page is fit for purpose. I don’t know how librarians of the future will do it, but they need to get out there, and just do it."

The Case Against Links

Links At ReadWriteWeb, Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote an interesting piece on "The Case Against Links". The gist of the argument is that in-text hyperlinks are good for machines but bad for the brain, distracting attention. The suggested solution is to place links as footnotes at the end of the document.

Instinctively, this sort-of feels wrong to me, fighting against the architecture of online writing. However, I can't argue against evidence which shows the increasing problem with getting students to read notes I place on the VLE, rather than trying to skip directly to the assessment. I've already drastically reduced the number of words in my VLE notes, but this has not been very effective. So maybe I will try restructuring the notes with the links at the end. Seems I have nothing to lose.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010


Goodreads Last week I asked my Twitter followers for reading recommendations, and they came up with an interesting and varied list of suggestions which I am currently following up. Crowdsourcing worked because of the reasonably large, diverse network of people who follow me on Twitter. But it set me wondering about the single purpose book recommendation sites which I hadn't explored before, so I went off to have a look.

The first site I looked at was LibraryThing, but was put off immediately by the language used to describe the site and how it works, which came across as anal-retentive librarian (apparently, I'm not allowed to make any further comments on this). Next up was Shelfari, which has had some bad press for security lapses and didn't look over-interesting, so in the end I settled for Goodreads. The UI of this site was the most appealing, but after 24 hours, I'm still struggling to make it do very much other than sit and look at me. Presumably the problem is that I don't have any friends on the site, so it's going to take a long time to build yet another network whose interests and tastes overlap my own rather eclectic choices.

Anyone used Goodreads or have other recommendations?