Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Last Starbucks

Starbucks The last time I was in a Starbucks was on Boxing Day last year, on 5th Avenue in New York, across the block from the Empire State Building. It was freezing. I drank chai after several days of hardcore NYC coffee.

That is until yesterday, when I had a meeting in The Square plotting Project SOAR. The new informal learning spaces in the Students Union look as though they're going to be great - right next to Starbucks and the bar, which is just what we need. The new facilities in the Union are going to put the social into SOAR. I'm looking forward to this.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I've been a fan of Dylan William ever since his ALT-C keynote in 2007. In the second part of The Classroom Experiment, he nails the corrosive effect of the obsession with marks on engagement with feedback:


Don't tell me we've got serious about feedback until we have rolled back the oppressive assessment addiction both students and staff have fallen prey to.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We know where you live

Recent work has demonstrated that Web search volume can “predict the present,” meaning that it can be used to accurately track outcomes such as unemployment levels, auto and home sales, and disease prevalence in near real time. Here we show that what consumers are searching for online can also predict their collective future behavior days or even weeks in advance. Specifically we use search query volume to forecast the opening weekend box-office revenue for feature films, first-month sales of video games, and the rank of songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, finding in all cases that search counts are highly predictive of future outcomes. We also find that search counts generally boost the performance of baseline models fit on other publicly available data, where the boost varies from modest to dramatic, depending on the application in question. Finally, we reexamine previous work on tracking flu trends and show that, perhaps surprisingly, the utility of search data relative to a simple autoregressive model is modest. We conclude that in the absence of other data sources, or where small improvements in predictive performance are material, search queries provide a useful guide to the near future.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Balkans I've been considering what is the optimal size for a hashtag. Leaving out the question of how we define "optimal", how would we find out?

Event hashtags work well if the event is large enough to sustain them, e.g. #altc2010, with >700 contributors. I'm not a fan of salami slicing hashtags, e.g. separate tags for multiple sessions at a single conference. This balkanises the conversation and fails more often than it succeeds. An example of this was #reps10 - with only 18 contributors and <100 tweets, the conversation fizzled out quickly after the event. I can understand why the Centre for Bioscience did not want to use #heabio (which was used for the meeting in 2009) after rebranding, but in chopping and changing, they have missed the chance to establish an ongoing conversation between distributed representatives with little else in common. By adopting a hashtag as an ongoing social object, we extend rather than limit the power of social media.

Nielsen's rule of participation inequality suggests a community of ~100 may be necessary to maintain a conversation, although this figure was derived for a more passive, asynchronous medium than Twitter and it is not clear how to adapt this for realtime channels. The fact that hashtags and RSS provide an asynchronous element to Twitter suggests that 100 is a good rule of thumb for a viable community. Having said that, the #solo10 community, with 750 contributors, limps on a month after the event. I suspect that this is because the tag was event-centred rather than formed as an ongoing social object. This suggests that purpose and expectations matter in addition to numbers. Presumably, a smaller tight-knit group such as a department or course could maintain an ongoing conversation if they are imbued with sufficient common purpose.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Stoopid Stoopid STOOPID

Stoopid This morning I found a section of the grant I'm writing had disappeared. I'm of the opinion that no-one takes backups seriously until they've personally experienced a significant data loss, and I have in the past, so I'm normally pretty anal about backing up. My normal practice is to back up nightly but for various reasons I didn't on Thursday night, and now I've lost several hours (I can ill afford) of work on a grant application. This wouldn't have happened if I'd used Google Docs as I often do, even when writing in isolation - GDocs gives me version control, data portability plus auto backup via the document history.

In my frustration (at myself), I expressed my unhappiness in fluent Anglo Saxon on Twitter. My network helpfully castigated me for not using TimeMachine, but as far as I'm concerned unless you backup off-site there's little point, since fire and theft are a likely cause of data loss. Paying for off-site storage introduces a cost element, and that's a problem for me right now. At present I carry out a nightly incremental backup to a small 8 Gig flash drive (I 'm going to need 32GB soon), but this is run manually and I'd like to automate the process to run in the background. The other need for my backup disk is to sync the multiple computers scattered around my life.
  • TimeMachine is of no value to me unless it's off-site and there's no sync capacity.
  • I've not previously looked at, but at £42 a year it has too many limitations such as file size limits and no sync capacity. Off-site storage probably also contravenes various institutional data protection regulations (but we won't talk about that ;-)
  • Michele recommended ForeverSave, and it looks quite good. I think I'll give it a trial once I've got myself a bigger flash drive, unless anyone else has any better suggestions?

What is occurring

AoBBlog Alun wrote a very nice piece yesterday which is effectively a mission statement for what we are trying to achieve with AoBBlog. He concluded by saying:

... loss of control makes measuring success difficult, so I can see why the idea of owning a community is attractive for a commercial enterprise. Effectively you have a free workforce pushing your branding and an easy way to measure if it’s working. But that’s not the way science works. Very few people publish exclusively in one journal. Even if it were possible, I don’t think dominating a niche would be healthy for a journal. Still, I think the idea of a blog participating in a community works. I think the key point is you can’t have a community of one.
Although I would admit to being the origin of the ideas we are trying to put into practice, it's Alun who is doing all the hard work and the project would not exist in it's present form without him (and the foresighted support of AoB), so it's fitting that Alun should have put into words what I have not been able to fully articulate.

Social is an emergent property

Emergent property Yesterday Anne Marie Cunningham and I got into an interesting conversation about social bookmarking.

We have used different approaches to social bookmarking with students (Anne used diigo on a voluntary basis, I used delicious driven by assessment) but we both observed a similar outcome - lack of sustained uptake by students (and most colleagues, with a few notable exceptions who become hot converts). As part of this conversation, I suggested that the failure to be won over is related to the failure to move from isolated to social practice. Social behavior is an emergent property. The question is how can we encourage users to achieve this advance?

In my opinion, the failure to progress and persist is partly related to failure to build a suitable network and partly related to the architecture of the software involved. Network building occurs on Facebook because of explicit "Friend" suggestions, and it works on Twitter because conversations are transparent by virtue of the @reply and can be joined. These are two different architectures but both work for users who stick around longer than an initial cursory trial of the service. Clearly the runaway success of Twitter and Facebook tells us something. Services with good social architecture will thrive, while those with poor social architecture will eventually die. This is potentially bad news for fans of delicious, diigo (and CiteULike?).

Of course there more to it than that. Services also need to provide a needed function (which is clearly the case for bibliographic tools for researchers) even if this is not intuitive - who knew they needed Facebook? - but be simple to use and sufficiently transparent that users don't need to read a manual or go on a training course (I'm looking at you Mendeley).

So here is my thesis: In a free attention economy, Gresham's Law applies and bad money drives out good. Facebook and Twitter are inherently worse than diigo and delicious because they have poorer functionality, but they win because they promote network building. What you do about it is largely a political decision based on your own beliefs - try to impose a leftist command economy or settle for a pragmatic rightist free market. To my surprise, I have done the latter, which is why we have gone down the PLN road and why I have invested heavily in Facebook pages in recent months.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Friendfolios 2010: RSS component - an essay in YouTube format

The life of an academic

5 am start (email, blogging).

Grant writing (deadline for 1st draft tomorrow).

Four meetings today, last scheduled to finish at 6.30 pm (optimistic?) (not including lunchtime iScience meeting which clashes with one of the others).

Teaching materials to prepare for a course with 230 students which starts in just over a week.

Probably no time for writing that book today then.

I'm not complaining, just thought I'd mention it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Let's get serious

"After the changes take effect, people who do not play games will no longer see news feed stories from friends who do play games — same goes for any other third-party app. Because news feed stories were a main way that people found games in the first place, we expect app virality to decrease as a result of this change."

I'm liking this. A lot. Facebook is responding to “tens of millions of app wall posts are deleted every day by people who find them irrelevant. By surfacing relevant stories based on usage and discovery stories based on friends, we believe we’re providing the best user experience and building lasting and long term value.”
Facebook is growing up.

Downes lives on

OLDaily I often struggle with Stephen Downes OLDaily. His iconoclastic approach to, well, everything really, makes me wonder why I bother. The reason I do is because he sometimes points me at important information via his rather different viewpoint which makes me rethink my opinions. At other times, he just points me at good stuff I wouldn't have seen otherwise. This was exactly the case with a couple of links a few days ago.

The first of these was Not the Institutional Web Server - couldn't have said it better myself.

The second link touched on themes I've been writing about repeatedly here recently - OERs and lecture quality - With Open Source Lectures, Who Needs So Many Lecturers?

In the epic Darwinian struggle for attention which is my Google Reader OPML, Downes lives another day ;-)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

This is a test. This is only a test.

Arse Grr, Blogger has broken Flickr (Flickr-hosted images appear in blog posts and RSS feeds but Blogger rewrites URLs of thumbnails in pointers elsewhere, e.g. on Facebook and Friendfeed). Six weeks for a fix!

So I'm testing Picasa, which is c-l-u-n-k-y :-(

So I finally managed to get thumbnails embedded in Facebook pages again. Picasa is horrible though. Other alternatives (bearing in mind I just shelled out to renew my Flickr Pro status)?

Leading questions

"Providing students with supplementary course materials such as audio podcasts, enhanced podcasts, video podcasts and other forms of lecture-capture video files after a lecture is now a common occurrence in many post-secondary courses. We used an online questionnaire to ask students how helpful enhanced podcasts were for a variety of course activities and how important having access to the enhanced podcasts was in their decision to miss classes. Student responses from two courses, one introductory and one advanced, were compared. Students in the introductory Genetics course reported that having access to enhanced podcasts was “very important” in their decision to miss class more often (39%) than those in the advanced Microbiology course (20%). They also reported missing more classes than students in the advanced course. Students in both courses found the enhanced podcasts helpful for a range of learning activities. First year students who missed just a few classes and those who missed many classes both found the enhanced podcasts to be very helpful for learning activities. We argue that creating these resources is a good choice for instructors irrespective of the level of the course they teach and that the potential value of these resources, particularly for first year students, outweighs any impact that having access to supplementary enhanced podcasts of the lectures may have on class attendance."
Jane Holbrook & Christine Dupont. Making the Decision to Provide Enhanced Podcasts to Post-Secondary Science Students. JSET September 2010 1-13. DOI: 10.1007/s10956-010-9248-1

Commentary: I'm unconvinced by this. First, if you ask students "did you find our podcasts useful", they're going to say yes. Guaranteed. My own experience is that providing this sort of material had no significant effect on lecture attendence - but more importantly - if your lectures are sufficiently crap that they can be replaced with a podcast - yr doin it wrng.


Monday, September 20, 2010


500000000 On Friday, people started to get excited over who my 1000th Twitter follower would be (and what I would do to them). I wasn't, mostly because it was odds-on that it would be a spammer, but also because churn means my follower numbers bounce around, and I don't count 1000 until I'm well over.

I still block and report Twitter spammers manually, which is a pain, and if you don't then you're a poor citizen who is not helping to curate this community. Over the weekend, I cracked the 1000 "barrier" several times, but scum removal meant that I also kept going backwards. Actually, I don't mind people marketing themselves or products in Twitter, just don't get in my way or expect to ride on my back.

And do I care? Yes. Not for narcissistic reasons, but having a thousand pairs of eyes fact checking, commenting on and improving what I write, and being available to answer my question is powerful - much more than I ever imagined it could be when I first started using Twitter. If you made the cut, I thank each and every one of you.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A long list of things I don't like about Mendeley

Mendeley I feel bad. The nice folks at Mendeley just sent me a T-shirt and I'm going to complain about their product. But I want to like Mendeley, really I do. I want it to take over from CiteULike as my online reference manager because, well I'm not sure really, I just feel it should. But I'm still struggling, every time I go back, I just don't get it. Sure it's pretty, but it's a lots less functional for me than CiteULike, which though rough round the edges, "just works". So I thought I might be able to make some progress by facing my demons. To do that, I made a list of all the things (I could currently think of), that I feel are holding me back so that people can tell me what an idiot I am. Yes, really - don't hold back.

Web versus desktop client: Apart from not being able to use Mendeley with our students because we don't have the client installed on our servers (see big burly guy gap), I always find this confusing. So I'm supposed to work mostly by dropping PDFs onto the client? Maybe that's the problem, I hate PDFs, try to avoid them whenever possible. It's not about squirreling away PDFs (I have OS X for that), it's about sharing information.
Let me try an analogy. With Tweetdeck, I'm very clear that I'm using a client/app. Yes I have an account at that syncs my settings across platforms, but I never get confused between the two - the client is the workspace. With Mendeley, I'm never sure I'm in the right place. Mendeley feels like a Microsoft product to CiteULike's Google. I suspect this is a problem coming to Mendeley after using CiteULike, where there is no such confusion.

Documentation: I guess it's all there, but I always find it difficult to access. Why doesn't Mendeley have a prominent Help link near the top of the page as is the convention? (Help "not found"). The software is so complicated that I keep having to refer to the documentation but I can never find what I want. Instead I have to resort to Google searches and third party FAQs like this. The more features get added, the worse this gets. Simple screen capture videos please!

Sync with CiteULike: After much faffing about over several months, this finally worked. Is this a manual process - do I have to sync each time I add something to CiteULike?

Charging: Shouldn't be a problem. In theory. But it's always at the back of my mind - if I really start to use this a lot, when will I have to pay? I certainly can't afford a fiver a month. I pay 69p a month for Flickr. Would I pay a fiver a month for Facebook? No. For Twitter ... ?
Mendeley upgrade
I want to shamelessly rip-off Martin Fenner's idea and create a reading list for MicrobiologyBytes. This site gets accessed lots of different ways, e.g. Facebook, RSS, Twitter. Any associated service has to be purely online and agile. Mendeley collections don't feel like that to me. Hard to navigate, cumbersome - doesn't feel like a good fit for a lightweight, web-oriented community. A simple CiteULike tag or group is a much better fit for this use. Although it's easy to embed Mendeley Collections anywhere via an iframe, this is pretty ugly. There's also a Mendeley WordPress plugin, but I try and avoid plugins whenever I can as they invariably break and cause more work.
  • Probably lots of other things that I can't think of right now.
If I hate it so much, why do I keep returning to Mendeley? Because this is all about sharing and finding information collaboratively. Right now, CiteULike works much better for that, but if my community(s) split, move to Mendeley or if Mendeley removes the bloat and adds some killer feature (e.g dumps the client and becomes a web-based service ;-) I need to be there.

So exactly how dumb am I? Please let me know.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My mini-rant about OERs at #reps10

And pigs might Yesterday at Reps10 I had I little rant about our failure to implement a successful OER strategy. I was fired up last week at ALT-C by the statement that Hefce has wasted £10m on its failed OER strategy in the last two years, so when the dam broke yesterday, it all came out.

Failed strategy? Yes. For the average UK academic, OERs have made no signifcant inroads into their practice. Why? Because of the failure to establish a realistic system of reward and recognition for production or reuse of OERs. For most academics, OERs are perceived as a threat to their jobs. And academics aren't dumb. I get no instituional credit for producing or reusing any OER. But I do monitored on what the institution sees as my role in maintaining its position relative to it's competitors. Offer me £1000 to produce my OER biostatistics with R course and I'll bite your hand off. But as things are, why should I predjudice my job by spending the time to do this?

In the absence of a universal online micropayment system, we have a perfectly good model for academic credit which has existed for years but which has been ignored. It's called publishing royalties. That's why academics write textbooks. If that's too retro for you, a minimal alternative would be a supply side approach along the lines of the big U.S. OER repositries. Instead, we have the failed JISC technodeterminist stance.

You might say it's still early days. It is, but we're headed in the wrong direction. When will we get real about OERs?

And the winner is...

Graham Scott The winner of theEd Wood Teaching Award 2010 is Graham Scott from the University of Hull for his work on student managed learning.

The Ed Wood Teaching Award was established in 2008/09 to provide an annual opportunity for bioscience academics to receive national recognition for their outstanding learning and teaching practices. All UK bioscience academics who work in higher education or who teach higher education in a further education establishment are eligible for the Award.

Next year, there are going to be some changes to this award, so sign up now for the Bioscience Teacher of the Year 2011.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

#reps10 - Build networks not destinations

logo Today I'm off to Cardiff for #reps10. In a time of uncertainty, five things are certain:
  1. The HEA Centre for Bioscience has been good, but it won't last forever. Like TLTP, CTIs, etc, it will go the way of the dinosaurs.
  2. The technology we are using today will be replaced by different technology in a few years/months/weeks time.
  3. The only way to survive change is to be agile. Building destinations will fail.
  4. The only organizations which survive long term are adaptable networks which accommodate change.
  5. You don't care about me as much as I care about me. When your funding runs out, you will stop curating my network. For it to survive, I must curate my own network.
At #reps10, let us prepare for the future by building our personal networks.

Monday, September 13, 2010

PMSL at Harrisburg University

On Monday, information technology officials at Harrisburg will block access to those popular social media tools from computers using the campus network. They will also disable the wiki and chat features in the university’s Moodle-based learning management system. The barriers will remain in place for one week.

This will be effective because none of the students who pay huge fees to attend Harrisburg have mobile phones. Oh, wait...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Just when you thought it was safe

5 am and I'm awake my head buzzing with thoughts about ALT-C. But not ALT-C 2010. Oh no:

ALT-C 2011

The ALT-C 2011 themes are:
  1. Research and rigour - creating, marshalling and making effective use of evidence
  2. Making things happen - systematic design, planning, and implementation
  3. Broad tents and strange bedfellows - collaborating, scavenging and sharing to increase value
  4. At the sharp end - enabling organisations and their managers to solve business, pedagogic and technical challenges
  5. Teachers of the future - understanding and influencing the future role and practices of teachers
  6. Preparing for a thaw - looking ahead to a time beyond the disruptive discontinuities of the next few years
If you make it that far, see you there. In the meantime, stay in touch on Facebook.

Monday, September 06, 2010

My, how you've grown. Reflections on #solo10

solo10 Last week I was at the Science Online London conference, the annual shindig where internet science nerds gather in the meatspace. This is my third Solo conference, my second manifested as flesh. And it was good - as last year, this is easily going to be the most important conference I'll attend this year, both intellectually and in terms of taking care of business. My session on the Friday was well attended and seemed to be well received.

As usual, more time was devoted to blogging than anything else, and apart from too much emphasis on blog networks, inevitable so soon after PepsiGate, it did give me time to think about why people blog. It turns out that there's a simple answer - there are as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers. As ever, that's not what people want to hear, preferring complicated answers which they can monetize. My personal reasons are largely internal, and if anyone else reads this, well that's a bit of a surprise to me. This unstartling insight meant that the braying of celebrity bloggers got slightly wearing after the first hour or so, but heigh ho, this is how we roll in this celebrity infested culture. (Andrew Marr has a good take on this in his masterpiece A History of Modern Britain. I'm excusing Ed Yong from this charge as he is a smart cookie, and the self-publicizing of the semi-professional journos doesn't count.) I'm not a huge fan of panels at conferences. If I want a discussion, I like it more free flowing than that. There were too many at this meeting, not all of them very good, and that's before the Twitpocalypse of the final session kittyclysm (see hashtag for details).

The other useful insight was the theme that emerged from the Mendeley Fringe Unconference on Friday night and from Evan Harris' keynote on Saturday: don't overestimate impact of new media. It's good for rallying the troops, but not for talking to "the public".

So, all sunshine and light then? Well not quite. Solo has out grown its original home at the Royal Institution. While the British Library conference centre is a great location in its own right (apart from the dodgy wifi - guys, you need wifi which doesn't fall over at least once a day, and in all the rooms) and paved with iPads, it is less intimate than the RI and more corporate. The VC boys love this, but I miss the intellectual edge I got from being in the Faraday Lecture Theatre. How big is too big? My gut feeling is that Solo is nearing the limit of effectiveness. The other problem, at this of all conferences, was turning off the Twitterfall projection on Friday morning, cutting the privileged attendees in the room off from remote contributors. If you find the hashtag distracting, look away now.

Where should Solo go now? While the physical element is important, as I said, I feel it's reaching the limit of what I'm interested in. If it gets bigger or more expensive, then I'll look elsewhere. But this is about science online, and it would be great to see the organizers push the envelope and return to the spirit of intellectual exploration which characterized the first two Solo conferences. Online should mean online, reaching out to people who cannot attend in person. In an era of financial stress, the technology should be used to enable new developments rather than allowing money to limit access to the discussions which occur at Solo. The problem with this is that if social media is preaching to the choir, how do we widen the pool? That's where the physical event comes in, converting the doubters into online participants.

I don't want to finish on a negative note, so I'll make it clear that if I could only go to one conference next year, it would be Solo11. Thanks go to all the sponsors and the organizers who worked so hard on this great event. Can I book my place at the next one now?


Sunday, September 05, 2010

So, you finally went and done it

I have taken the plunge and bought a Mac ... now what? I have MS Office (so I can transition from PC), and iWork and am about to get iLife, so ... what else do I need to do some of the things you are doing?

In addition to the software you mentioned, which are important, I'd be lost without the following (Google 'em):
  • Adobe CS5, especially Dreamweaver, Photoshop - ouch, expensive.
  • BBEdit - my standard text workhorse, extremely powerful (grep, etc).
  • Chrome - Mac version is still rough around the edges but improving. I need multiple browsers to manage my various online personas, so I drop into Chrome occasionally. It's my primary browser on Windoze and Linux.
  • Firefox - my secondary browser.
  • Mendeley - I tend to prefer CiteULike (, but I use Mendeley ( for some projects (e.g. and it's improving rapidly with some nice collaborative features coming soon (they didn't pay me to say that, not even a T shirt!)
  • Safari - my primary browser.
  • Skitch - great image capture, annotation and publication application - as in this example.
  • Skype - especially video conferencing and screen sharing.
  • Synchronize! Pro X - my primary backup Gizmo. You'd probably be better off skipping this one and grokking Time Capsule, but I'm a luddite at heart.
  • Tweetdeck (for which you'll need to install Adobe Air first) - I've fallen in love with the new version of Tweetdeck for Twitter and Facebook.
Everything else I do is web based, e.g. Google Suite, Dropbox, CiteULike, etc. Have fun!

Friday, September 03, 2010

Science Online London 2010 #solo10

Ever since it was first held three years ago, the Science Online London conference has kept getting better, right at the forefront of the interface between science and social technologies. This year, I have been fortunate enough to be offer a slot to lead a discussion around science education - the introductory slides are below.

This session runs from an hour from 13.15 UK time today (Friday), and if you want to participate, you can do so via the Twitter hashtag #solo10. If you check the hashtag, you'll also find details of live video streams for the plenary sessions over the next two days.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Targets for conferences

Setting targets I'm off to three conferences over the next two weeks, presenting something at all of them. I'm sure they will have their highs and lows, but to try to maximize return on my time, I've decided to set myself some targets for each one:
#solo10 - Grok Mendeley (I have a feeling this is being too optimistic, but we'll see).

#altc2010 - Business models: I've got the brains, You've got the looks, Let's make lots of money...

#reps10 - Herding cats? Where's the can opener? Suggestions via the comments please.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

C'mon feel the noize

Noddy In the run up to the general election, I considered setting up a "noisy" Twitter account where I could post high volumes of tweets around a particular event without annoying my regular Twitter followers. After useful discussions, I decided to mothball this account (and a few others) and to use my regular Twitter account for conferences.

With the conference season coming up over the next few weeks, that means there's going to be some noise on this account, from #solo10, #altc2010 and maybe even from #reps10. If it bothers you, I apologise in advance. If you want to unfollow me, go ahead. Selective filtering is one of the things Twitter lacks (can you say "freemium"?). But if you can stand the noise, I'd welcome your input at these events.

Update: Some Twitter clients (such as Tweetdeck) have filtering options built in. I have to say I find the Tweetdeck filters tricky to use, but I need to practice more. The first time I tried, I broke JamesClay.