Monday, July 26, 2010

Crowdsourcing #solo10

solo10 I've been invited to moderate a session at solo10. The theme will be science education, and the title of the session ... well, that's why I'm writing this post - I'm hoping you'll help with that. My tentative title is:
Students in the sandbox - developing professionals

It seems unavoidable that I'll witter about Friendfeed and Facebook, since they seem to have taken over my life, but this session needs to be more than that. We'll need to touch on all of the usual social network issues, such as focusing and defocusing attention, openness versus privacy, and object-centered sociality, but I would like to go well beyond generic discussion.

Ideally, I'm aiming at a crossover of some of the best ideas in education which may not be familiar to scientists or those responsible for educating them. Martin Weller's pedagogy of abundance might sneak in, although ideas around dealing with abundance won't be particularly new to this audience. Graham Attwell's Vygotsky-ZPD riff is a possibility, as is Terry Anderson's connectivism. Other themes I'd like to develop include how to move towards agility in science education, disambiguation (garage biotech) and economic/energy descent pathways.

And now it's over to you. What do scientists need to think about in terms of science education?

Suggestions from the comments:

Graham Attwell:
- Student motivation/engagement
- Reflection
- What does the internet of machines means for science education?
- Can we envisage the 'citizen scientist'?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A good week for the GUI

It's been a good week for the GUI. On Thursday we had FlipBoard. Today we have TabCandy:

This is progress.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What's the point of good science if nobody reads it?

AoB Blog There's some fantastic plant science being done, but it mostly gets dismissed (by non-plant scientists) as "boring botany". Annals of Botany is an old and well respected journal, which is not to say that it's particularly well read outside a limited field. Yet a lot of the content, beyond the scientific papers, is fantastic, such as Nigel Chaffney's brilliant Plant Cuttings, and deserves a much wider readership.

In connection with the work that Alun and I are doing for AoB to surface more of their content to new audiences (such as the Facebook generation), I had a very useful chat yesterday with Jason Hoyt and William Gunn about Mendeley. I've written here before about the fact that I struggle with Mendeley, but some of the developments coming in the next few weeks and months are going to make the service a LOT more usable from my point of view.

The most useful practical aspect to come out of yesterday's conversation was a feature which has existed on Mendeley for a while, but which passed me by completely - public collections. Public collections make it possible to interact with other Mendeley users in a variety of interesting and powerful ways - Tagginganna team take note!

There's already some great stuff on there, such as this useful collection of research papers and articles about Social Network Analysis. Spend some time grokking Mendeley's public collections and ask not what you can do for public collections, but what public collections can do for you ;-)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Damn, Flipboard is making me want an iPad

RSS never caught on, most likely a few million people at most are using the most accessible RSS reader on the market. OPML, the format by which you can share collections of dynamic sources in RSS format, is an incredible act of poetry. But no one writes or reads it. Twitter lists in an interface like Flipboard? That's a game changer. Marshall Kirkpatrick

I'm only partially convinced by Marshall Kirkpatrick's RSS is dead - no it isn't - yes it is shtick, but what I like about Flipboard is how it brings social filtering to the fore. It makes explicit the key feature of all social technologies. Wait until Facebook gets their head around this - bye bye newspapers.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

This is the problem

Nice iPhone 4 experiment. Take an iPhone to the most isolated place on Earth and have a Facetime chat over a satellite connection. The technology works perfectly, but there's a problem - can you spot what it is?

He's got nothing to say. Video calls - a technology in search of a problem.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pulling the wings off the angel

Screenshot When I announced our ONS chytrid project, someone joked Every time someone starts an ONS project, an angel gets their wings. We recently decided we had to pull the wings off the angel.

The good news is that the reasons have nothing to do with the ONS philosophy behind this project. Indeed, I was constantly surprised at how receptive people seemed to be to this approach. This should be some encouragement in the dark days that lie ahead, although I expect it won't be.

There are a number of reasons we have called a halt. I always had reservations about the amount of time I would have been able to devote to the project, and I was aware that to be successful, it would need more time than I would have been able to give. In the end, it was my institutional situation which sealed its fate, with both myself and my collaborator being warned off proceeding. Looking at the current UK funding situation, this simply isn't the time to invest my career in laboratory research anyway.

It is possible that the project might resume at a lower level than we originally envisioned at some future time, but I doubt it, and even if it did, significant involvement on my part is unlikely.

A sad day.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Facebook - not a problem

"Regarding our SNS usage measures, we find no significant differences in GPA by SNS user typology, nor types of social activities performed on these sites. This is understandable as social practices could both support (e.g. offer help with homework) and detract from (e.g. offer alternatives to focusing on school obligations) academic work, and thus their effects could cancel each other out. In contrast to uses specific to SNSs, we do find a positive association between Internet skills and academic achievement even when controlling for various demographic characteristics. The positive relationship between webuse skills and GPA may illustrate that students who have better online skills can draw on their Internet savvy to aid in their schoolwork. But engaging more intensely with SNSs, in particular, shows no relationship to our outcome variable of academic achievement."

Hargittai, Eszter and Hsieh, Yu-li Patrick (2010) Predictors and consequences of

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Students and mobile devices

Many educators advocate, promote and encourage the dreams of agency, control, ownership and choice amongst students whilst educational institutions take the responsibility for provision, equity, access, participation and standards. The institutions traditionally procure, provide and control the technology for learning but now students are acquiring their own personal technologies for learning and institutions are challenged to keep pace. These allow students to produce, store, transmit and consume information, images and ideas; this potentially realises the educators' dream but for institutions is potentially a nightmare, one of loss of control and loss of the quality, consistency, uniformity and stability that delivered the dreams of equity, access and participation. This paper traces the conflicting dreams and responsibilities.
"To return to our starting point of dreams and responsibilities, student devices unlock the dreams of agency, control, ownership and choice amongst students but put the dreams of equity, access and participation at risk. Universities cannot afford, procure, provide nor control these devices but they cannot ignore them either. Clearly such a stark choice is an over-simplification; there is no simple question and no simple answer."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A spoonful of sugar?

A spoonful of sugar
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Why do we have to do statistics? I'm a Biochemist and I don't need to know all this stuff. We didn't do it that way at A level, we had to use a calculator. Will this be on the exam?

There was lots of very useful discussion after my post yesterday about statistics teaching, both from students and colleagues, via Twitter and Friendfeed.

As a result of suggestions, I went away and had another look at Stata. It's quite nice. For the uninitiated (and possibly uninterested), Stata is a commercial statistics package available for multiple platforms. Although the command line interface is prominent, there is a menu-driven graphical user interface (GUI) which also gives access to nearly all built-in commands. It's a bit pricey, but less so than other packages such as SPSS and SAS. (In the midst of yesterday's discussion but unconnected to it, a student retaking the module over the summer contacted me to ask how to get the Analysis Toolpak on Excel 2008. Another good reason to drop Excel as quickly as possible.) Discounts are available for students and the documentation is pretty good. Overall, it is easier to use than R. Which is why the rest of this post is about why Stata might not be the right solution for teaching statistics.

In the discussion yesterday, students raised questions about our blended module delivery consisting of online notes and screen capture videos demonstrating procedures within the software, supported by face to face help sessions. We know that statistics, like all areas of mathematics, is challenging for most of our students. They would prefer to be "taught statistics" - sit in a lecture theatre and emerge knowing how to do it, possibly revise it for the exam. But statistics doesn't work like that. Even if you know how to perform the procedures, you don't know when and why (or why not). If students are faced with a menu command saying "Histogram" or "t test", they click it. And why not? Except that they don't know why they clicked it, whether they should have done, and what the significance of the output is (in the context of their particular dataset). And that's why Stata is the wrong answer for us - it makes doing statistics too easy, without contributing to understanding.

On a personal level, my major problem is that "statistics" is a huge field, a degree course in itself. It doesn't fit into the 20 contact hours I'm allotted to "teach" it, so I'm only ever going to be scratching the surface. Ironically, using "difficult" software might make it easier for me to help students understand they're not going to be experts after one module, and that that's not a failure for them or me. Which raises an interesting question which also emerged from yesterdays discussions. Should we tell students "Statistics is difficult. R is difficult. We can't teach you everything in such a short time, but we plan to make a start.", or should I follow Neil's advice and say "Welcome to stats class. We'll be using R. Open R. Read CSV file. Couple of simple descriptive stats and a simple plot. That was lesson 1. Log out. Don't even mention that R is supposed to be hard - just do something with it, quickly and say "wasn't that easy"". I'm looking for input on this.

In practical terms, we won't be abandoning our blended model for the undergraduate module. My proposed session structures for the revised module look something like:
  • Mini-"lecture" on statistical principles consisting of VLE notes, short video, Friendfeed support for Q&A. The issue here is that we know many students will skip this and go directly to the assessment.
  • Assessed task consisting of dataset plus screencast of procedure being carried out.
  • Ongoing feedback and support via computer lab help sessions, Friendfeed.
  • Possibly rolling the whole thing into some sort of "handout" (format?) students can take away with them so they can continue to use it after they get shut out of the VLE.
To allow for the increased difficulty of supporting R, the topics covered will be scaled back to a more suitable introductory level we can adequately support in the time allotted for the first year module:
  1. Introduction - this module (ethos); Using R - why R?
  2. EDA with R - the normal frequency distribution
  3. Graphs: Boxplots, histograms, +?
  4. Descriptive statistics.
  5. Comparing groups - Students' t test and Chi square.
  6. Looking ahead: How you can become an R guru - online help and forums.

Comments welcome!

Monday, July 12, 2010

I've seen the future and it's R (again)

R Richard Badge and I had a useful chat on Friday about the future of statistics teaching in the School. After discussing all the options, we came back to the conclusion that there is no sensible alternative but to roll out use of R as our statistics package of choice. This will not be easy, so the plan is to use Excel on BS1011 for one more year and put a sticking plaster on StatsVision for one more iteration of the MSc course, then roll out R-based courses on the StatsVision model in January 2012.

This shows amazing optimism, first that we think it might be possible to develop an acceptable first year R-based course, second that I think I may still have a job in January 2012. We'll see.


Thursday, July 08, 2010

Shredding the 90s

Shredder I performed a massive shredding operation yesterday, which took several hours as I had to keep stopping because I was worried I would burn out the motor in the shredder.

The 90's are gone now. I don't have room for them any more.

It's an interesting way of viewing a decade though, shredding it. One impression stood out. The 90's were the decade when I used to write stuff and get paid for it. Unlike now, when I write stuff and don't get paid for it.

Happy days.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Paying for it

Dongle I've had a T-Mobile 3G dongle for a while now, and I'm reasonably happy with it, but I don't get my money's worth for £15 a month, so it's time to switch to PAYG.

Please can I have your recommendations for the best UK payg deal, including not only pricing but connectivity and service? I will or course, collate all the answers and make them available.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Mechanical What?

For the Win A line in Cory Doctrow's For the Win (which you should read btw. Globalization? My arse!) set me thinking about Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

Part of "doing more with less" is going to involve doing less - assessment in my case. I'm replacing a hand marked online submission that takes a lot of time with a VLE quiz for formative feedback. This involves generating, within a set series of parameters, a question bank based on an existing spreadsheet. And this is so mind-numbingly boring that I've been putting it off for months. And it's expensive too, because if I spend a couple of days doing this, I'm not writing those papers and grants (only so many hours in the day).

So what are the ethics of using Mechanical Turk to create the question bank? Not upload them to the VLE, just generate the variations?

(In this case, the amount of work required for the setup means it's not worth it. This problem doesn't scale sufficiently. In other cases though, it might be worth it. This post is about the ethics of the practice rather than the practicalities.)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Postdigital Behavioural Modification

This has been widely blogged already, but in case you haven't seen it:

More joy please.