Saturday, October 30, 2010


"What I especially like is that it's all open and that everyone can have their opinion. If this was a large group in a lecture theatre, then some people will be too shy and not say anything and others would become the main speakers. However, on friendfeed, it's not as scary because you don't have to speak in front of people. I also think it's easier to talk to Doctors/Professors on friendfeed than in real life."

"The first thing I did when I noticed that the network was down, was to go on to friendfeed because I knew I could rely on it for information ... I like how one's able to ask for advice from everyone, not only first year colleagues, but also second and third years as well."

Friday, October 29, 2010

The third shoe drops

BeyondGoogle After Monday's post about reference managers, I had an email from Claus Wolf, the European Operations Manager for RefWorks, pointing out the new features available in the beta version of RefWorks 2.0.

I also had an email from Fergus Gallagher at CiteULike, and after a short discussion - CiteULike now has a Like/Recommend button in the button bar:

CiteULike has had a number of features to promote sharing and social discovery of reference before (Copy, Blog, Groups, etc), but they have not been widely used. Will "Like" be any different? One difference is that "likes" will be visible on the listing pages, and there will be a dedicated Likes page (e.g. /user/fred/likes) with a corresponding RSS feed. This makes Likes potentially more visible than some of the previous mechanisms, and hopefully will promote uptake.


The encouraging thing about both of these conversations is further proof that blogging is an effective tool for academics to interact with industrial partners who would otherwise be closed-off to them, and to contribute the the development of new academic tools. All that is needed now is for us to receive credit for this important public-facing part of our jobs.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The other shoe drops

BeyondGoogle In the summer I reluctantly took the decision to drop delicious from our first year skills course. And now I have even more reluctantly taken the decision to drop CiteULike from our second year skills course.

There are two reasons I have taken this decision. The first is an analysis of usage. I have just looked at continued use of CiteULike by our final year students in the year following the second year course. 11% of students (13/116) were using CiteULike 6 months after the second year skills course in which they a were introduced to it and during their final year research projects. There's no other time when usage would be higher, so this is a disappointing outcome. I asked the users what they valued about CiteULike, and they said:
I use CiteUlike as a means for organizing papers for my dissertation, I upload a pdf for every one and it gives me access to all my relevant journals on any computer with the internet. I still write references myself in pieces of work but it helps to have the information readily available on CiteUlike. It is also very valuable if I see a paper on my dissertation topic on the internet and I can check instantly if I have the journal in my possession. I can't really compare it to any other tool as it is the only one I have used since being introduced to it on the BS2060 course. I can only compare it to organising papers in folders on my PC, and it is much more efficient than that! The most valuable thing about citeUlike is how readily it picks up DOIs and there are often 'share' links to CiteUlike on journal websites, cutting down the time it takes to record the information of journal articles.

I use CiteULike as a tool to quickly reference any of the written assignments that I have to do, as well as using the services' ability to store pdfs of papers online, which, given that I collect huge numbers of references for essays and the like, is an incredibly useful service. I regularly export my references from CiteULike for written work, but there are issues with the formatting it exports in which I can quickly remedy. CiteULike is significantly easier to use than equivalent programmes such as Refworks and the cloud-style storage makes it compatible with most machines. The most valuable features of CiteULike are the exporting ability saving me large amounts of time when referencing work, the ability to store pdfs of papers in a cloud, thereby allowing me access anywhere and the easy tagging system to make it simple to collate my references.

I'm currently using only CiteULike. I started using it again when I wasn't on my own computer and wanted to save some papers for later use, since then I use it to keep all my references together. I prefer it for its simplicity - Refworks was more complex and I wanted to work at speed, so I guess CiteULike just stuck.

I'm using CiteULike pretty much exclusively as a referencing tool. It's really easy to use, and unlike RefWorks will tell me if I try to add a reference more than once. I do find that very useful, since I'll often search for info on a topic at several different times and I don't always remember what papers I've already added to CiteULike. As for the most valuable aspect of CiteULike, it has to be having access to the same references in multiple locations. I might find a really useful paper while researching a gene at home or in the library, and if I then add that reference to CiteULike I can easily pull it up in seconds at work. It's a good way to coordinate my research.

I am a huge fan of simple tagging tools such as delicious and CiteULike and all too aware of the gap that the lack of uptake leaves in our student's skill-set. But in the end social is an emergent property and what we have gained in moving form a tool-centred PLE towards a people-centred PLN exceeds what we have lost. I need to figure out a way of re-introducing these tools via the PLN at the appropriate point, but that's not easy to do when you're trying to suppoort hundreds of students without adequate time.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Project SOAR

River Soar I'm delighted to announce that the University of Leicester Student Experience Enhancement Group has funded the following project. I've just registered the domain name, but you'll have to wait for a few weeks while we build the back end before I ask you to start participating as a beta tester. And yes, once we're up and running, of course the project will be open to all:

Project Title: SOAR - Student's Online Attention and Reading lists: navigating the river of student attention
Pilot project will be run in the School of Biological Sciences to explore the academic potential, scalability and sustainability for roll out across other Colleges facilitated by project partners.

Start and completion dates: 1st November 2010 – 31st July 2012.

To encourage students to engage with curated reading lists, I will create an interactive website with a familiar format allowing students to leave star ratings, reviews and recommendations. Books on the list will be published at relevant times during the academic year to ensure appropriate module-related release of information rather than overloading students at the beginning of term. The online list will be reinforced by regular face to face student-led meetings in the format of a book discussion group. These will be casual twilight sessions held in informal learning spaces such as ARC in the refurbished Students Union to maximize the opportunities for interactions with students provided by new learning spaces within the University. Utilizing low cost existing tools which enable the student voice to be heard and powerful analytical software coupled with direct feedback from students on their opinions of the effectiveness of this approach, we will test this approach to increasing engagement with academic literature. This proposal fits well with the University Learning and Teaching Strategy by promoting awareness of and involvement in the informal curriculum and opportunities for academic and personal development.

Educational Issues:
In the School of Biological Sciences, all the available evidence suggests that very few students engage with the curated reading lists given to them in the blizzard of information they are faced with at the start of Year 1. Although they are given a printed list, conversations with students reveal that they do not even recall receiving it, let alone reading any of the books listed (without an explanation of why they should). After their training in secondary education and the strategies they have adopted to be successful at A level, all the evidence suggests that these students fail to engage with non-assessed extension tasks when they transition to HE. A generation ago the sources of information available to students were comparatively few. Academic staff curated and channeled information to students through lectures and reading lists of carefully selected books. In some disciplines, literature has remained the focus of study, but in others, science in particular, the burgeoning sources of online information have out-competed traditional sources. As the ubiquity of online interactions has increased with services such as Facebook and Twitter, important information becomes submerged in the chatter. Non-assessed reading to broaden knowledge does not compete effectively with just-in-time sources such as Wikipedia. The literature surrounding the contribution of online resources to academic literacy has been well summarized by Charles Crook (Crook C. Addressing research at the intersection of academic literacies and new technology. International Journal of Educational Research. 2005 43 (7-8): 509-518). Wildridge et al suggested requirements for successful uptake of reading lists (Wildridge, V. et al., 2004. How to create successful partnerships – a review of the literature. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 21 (Supplement 1), 3-19):
  • attainable goals and objectives
  • members see collaboration as in their self-interest and share a stake
  • clear roles and guidelines
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • open and frequent communication
  • informal relationships and communication links
In response to these guidelines, this project will emphasise the collaborative nature of both social media and social gatherings to build a sense of community around the process of selecting, reading and thinking about additional reading, moving away from the isolation of the physical act of reading and towards a deeper collective understanding of important texts. Providing access to and information about extension reading materials from multiple access points, i.e. Wordpress, Blackboard, and social networking sites offers students choice and flexibility. Exploiting the Web environment to create a dynamic "reading list" by joining up access to disparate but relevant resources for students e.g. on the Web, from the Library, etc, offers much more "added value" than static paper-based reading lists. A pilot project will be conducted within the School of Biological Sciences during which evidence of effectiveness will be collected prior to consideration for roll-out by other Colleges within the University, and to inform selection and implementation of an electronic resource/reading list system by the Library currently planned for 2011/12.

Specific Environment for the Project:
The pilot phase of the project within the School of Biological Sciences will be offered to all current undergraduates (approximately 550). One phase will run online, as described below, while face to face book group meetings will also be offered 1-2 times per term. If large numbers of students express an interest in attending, several duplicate meetings will be held to accommodate the numbers. Members of staff involved in the project include Dr Alan Cann, Department of Biology, Project Director, and project partners: Sam Horrell, President, University of Leicester Biological Sciences Society; Stuart Johnson, Acting Head of Student Support & Development Service; Alex Nutt, Academic Affairs Officer, University of Leicester Students Union; Sarah Whittaker, Information Librarian, Clinical Sciences Library; Ben Wynne, Head of Academic Liaison, David Wilson Library. Other members of Academic and teaching staff from within the School of Biological Sciences will be recruited as the project progresses.
The proposal fits into sector two of the Strategy for Learning Innovation: Established programmes/students + new technologies. In terms of the University Learning and Teaching Strategy, the project fits within section 2.1.5 " addition to the learning opportunities provided through the formal curriculum, the University will also promote an awareness of, and involvement in, the informal curriculum: the opportunities provided within the University and the wider environment for academic and personal development, and for students, whatever their mode and level of study, to reflect on the wider benefits of higher education." In the Aims for Undergraduate Programmes, the project will help to ensure graduates will have:
  • developed the necessary skills to learn effectively and independently in order to support progression throughout their course and into appropriate and rewarding employment; and
  • developed personally in ways which will enrich their lives and facilitate a full contribution to society in the future.
By reading widely outside the core curriculum and discussing their opinions with peers and staff, this project will also help students develop their critical evaluation and communication skills in a more informal setting than is possible in the normal course of formal teaching.

Details of the work:
I will use the familiar and attractive model of the Amazon website to create a site with a similar experience, including the potent interactive elements such as ability to leave reviews, star ratings and recommendations ("People who read this book also read..."). This is straightforward to create using Wordpress as suitable themes and plugins already exist. This will be a non-commercial site, although each page will inform students which books are available for purchase from the University Bookshop, and will also include a link to the relevant University Library Catalogue record for each book so that students can easily see whether and how they can get obtain each item from the Library.
The site will be preloaded with all the items in the Biological Sciences reading list, one item per page. Conveniently with Wordpress, this can be done in advance and the pages scheduled for publication at appropriate points throughout the academic year. Each item will be linked to the appropriate module(s) by module-specific tags and linked to from the appropriate module site within Blackboard. We will also promote each item on publication via the dedicated Friendfeed social network used by Biological Sciences students.
Alongside the online component will be a face to face book discussion group which will be promoted using the channels described above. This will be entirely voluntary and not linked to assessment. We would only expect a minority of highly engaged students to take part in this element of the project, but smaller numbers will be better suited to this activity. The meetings will be held 2-3 times a term in non-academic social spaces such as the newly refurbished areas of the Students' Union. The Activities and Resources Centre (ARC) and lower floor meeting rooms would all be suitable and are bookable. Participants would be able to buy food and drinks from the adjacent services within the Union and bring them into the meetings. The discussion at these settings will be student-led, but as many members of academic staff who wish to attend will be encouraged to do so.

Intended Outcomes:
Although students in the School of Biological Sciences are all given a printed reading list when they enroll, the limited evidence available suggested that very few students engage with the materials listed. The intended outcomes of this project are:
  • To encourage students to engage with extension reading by creating an attractive and easy to access website which competes effectively for student attention and facilitates timed release of reading recommendations for modules via Blackboard course sites.
  • To reinforce the online experience with a periodic face to face book discussion group which will meet 1-2 times per term in an informal space within the university and where students will be able to discuss a selected book from the list with each other and with members of academic staff on a peer basis.
  • To collect as much evidence as possible of student engagement with reading list materials (see below).
  • In addition to internal reports, we will publish our findings an recommendations in a peer reviewed journal and actively promote them to colleagues around the University.
The intention is that evidence collected as part of this pilot project within the School of Biological Sciences will serve as a model which can be used to encourage colleagues to roll out this model more widely across other Colleges, and inform planning for a Library supported electronic resource/reading list system.

A short online questionnaire will be run with first year Biological Sciences students before the launch of the website to capture baseline data about reading list usage. A major advantage of using Wordpress is that this software provides excellent user interaction details, broken down chronologically and by item. With the addition of Google Analytics and Crazyegg, we will have a highly detailed analysis of user behavior. I have considerable experience in the use of all of these tools. Additional qualitative data concerning student engagement and limiting factors will be collected via comments on the website, and an end of year online questionnaire. Short, informal focus groups into engagement with reading materials will also be conducted as part of the book discussion group.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How wrong can you be?

The mystery event I attended yesterday turned out to be a brainstorming workshop for the Wellcome Trust People Awards. It was an interesting day and I met some new people, but I don't feel we cracked "it", i.e. came up with a killer idea for an application.

Why not? The format was interesting, tables of about eight with one designated geek per table, but I'm not sure this worked as well as it should have done. Much as I like geeks, the second session worked better, when all the geeks had succumbed to the gravitational pull of themselves and wound up sitting on the same table. On the day, it just didn't spark and I didn't hear any killer ideas developed. Not that there weren't plenty of suggestions, it was just that they were all variants on past failures. On another day it might have been different. (I suspect the geeks feel differently and will go ahead with their GitNode scraper idea.) None of this is a criticism of anyone involved in organizing the day - it was a worthy idea that was worth a try.

And no-one said "upstream" all day. Maybe that was the problem.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In which I make a prediction

I'm off to Wellcome Trust HQ today for the I'm A Scientist Beyond Blogging event: hashtag #iasbb (list of tweeps)

Beyond Blogging

I'm not entirely sure what to expect, but from the programme, the organizers seem to be expecting me (and the other participants) to tell them how fix the problems of science. Well, we'll see how far we get. Of one thing however, I am quite confident and prepared to make a prediction. The Word of the Day will be:


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Open Access Advantage

Open Access Advantage The 25,000 peer-reviewed journals and refereed conference proceedings that exist today publish about 2.5 million articles per year, across all disciplines, languages and nations. No university or research institution anywhere, not even the richest, can afford to subscribe to all or most of the journals that its researchers may need to use. As a consequence, all articles are currently losing some portion of their potential research impact (usage and citations), because they are not accessible online to all their potential users. This is supported by recent evidence, independently confirmed by many studies, to the effect that articles whose authors have supplemented subscription-based access to the publisher’s version by self-archiving their own final draft to make it accessible free for all on the web ("Open Access", OA) are cited significantly more than articles in the same journal and year that have not been made OA. This "OA Impact Advantage" has been found in all fields analyzed so far – physical, technological, biological and social sciences, and humanities. Hence OA is not just about public access rights or the general dissemination of knowledge: It is about increasing the impact and thereby the progress of research itself. A work’s research impact is an indication of how much it contributes to further research by other scientists and scholars – how much it is used, applied and built upon. That is also why impact is valued, measured and rewarded in researcher performance assessment as well as in research funding.

Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. (2010) PLoS ONE 5(10): e13636. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013636
Background: Articles whose authors have supplemented subscription-based access to the publisher’s version by self- archiving their own final draft to make it accessible free for all on the web ("Open Access", OA) are cited significantly more than articles in the same journal and year that have not been made OA. Some have suggested that this "OA Advantage" may not be causal but just a self-selection bias, because authors preferentially make higher-quality articles OA. To test this we compared self-selective self-archiving with mandatory self-archiving for a sample of 27,197 articles published 2002–2006 in 1,984 journals.
Methdology/Principal Findings: The OA Advantage proved just as high for both. Logistic regression analysis showed that the advantage is independent of other correlates of citations (article age; journal impact factor; number of co-authors, references or pages; field; article type; or country) and highest for the most highly cited articles. The OA Advantage is real, independent and causal, but skewed. Its size is indeed correlated with quality, just as citations themselves are (the top 20% of articles receive about 80% of all citations).
Conclusions/Significance: The OA advantage is greater for the more citable articles, not because of a quality bias from authors self-selecting what to make OA, but because of a quality advantage, from users self-selecting what to use and cite, freed by OA from the constraints of selective accessibility to subscribers only. It is hoped that these findings will help motivate the adoption of OA self-archiving mandates by universities, research institutions and research funders.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Friday Reflection

reflection One of the things I want to achieve with our student social portfolios is for them to move beyond a resource-sharing community and become a useful socially-constructed reflection tool. It's early days, but the first signs this year are encouraging. To scaffold reflection, each Friday I ask a question to try to start discussions. On a good week, themes emerge, and hopefully problems get addressed, if not solved.

Last week, I asked two questions, one for the new students and one for the second year online mentors. Following on from the THE article, the question I asked the mentors on Friday was: Do you spend too much time on social media?

I've been thinking about this over the weekend. My knee jerk reaction is to go down the professional research tool route, and while there is some truth in this, in my reflection I felt I needed to go beyond this. One of the major criteria I am unable to escape in my professional life are considerations of effectiveness. This is the reason I find it so difficult to participate in the whole, rotten, grant submission process, which has done more to harm academia over the last decade than anything else. So is my use of social media in a professional context effective? To address that, I considered frequency and purpose. I'm entirely happy with purpose - professional research tool and community builder for students (and to a lesser extent colleagues). But what about frequency? Thinking about this has decided me to try to change my practice and go for less frequent in an attempt to increase effectiveness. Will it work and will I be able to stick to it?

Like any addict, acknowledging the problem is the start of the process of recovery.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don't be afraid to share

Logo The Times Higher today has a feature by Sarah Cunnane on social media in the academy. A few selected quotes:

Alan Cann, senior lecturer in biology at the University of Leicester, says it is very difficult to change the minds of people who disparage social media and dismiss them as useless - partly because it is hard to convey the nature of the experience to those with no familiarity with it. "It's frustrating because all of this is experiential," he says. "When you have someone who doesn't use Twitter, it's very difficult to explain the value of it." However, Cann admits that he can sympathise with those who do not see the point of social media. "When I first saw Twitter, I thought it was the stupidest thing I'd ever seen. It took me a year to understand it and figure it out."
It is not just academics and institutions that struggle to integrate social media into their work. It can prove difficult to encourage students to extend their use into the classroom, too. Cann weaves FriendFeed, a social-media aggregator, into assessment for one of his modules, but says he did so "reluctantly". "Students are used to being heavily guided and focused on assessment - they're told that if you write this sentence you'll get these marks. Consequently, if you wave something in front of them and tell them that it's good but that they won't get any marks for using it, we know that the take-up is very low."
"I'm pissed off that I can't get a grant for my work," says Cann, whose research has moved beyond his field of biology to social media and technology in the classroom. The difficulty, he has found, is that research councils are much more willing to fund a project with a tangible outcome, such as building a new social-networking tool, than they are to fund someone using existing networks to collect data. "It's reinventing the wheel: if I build something similar to Facebook, it won't be as good as Facebook because I wouldn't have access to the level of resources it has," he says. "I don't want to be building some ghetto destination that students have to go to in order to get marks. If we want our students to build social networks that they will use, we need to use public destinations and online resources that people already have confidence in."
Although social media will no doubt evolve, they are here to stay. And as their use increases, the sector is increasingly becoming an academy of enthusiastic Twitterers. Or, as David Cameron might put it, an academy of enthusiastic twats.

You get the idea :-)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On paper you look good, but so does fish and chips

Roo Reynolds published a nice post yesterday about Twitter and The Apprentice. I'm pretty bored by the format now, and populating this series with unemployed merchant w*nkers hasn't helped, but I am interested in The Apprentice as a social object, so I had the eeePC on my lap last week as the programme went out. Unfortunately, I screwed up and used the less popular #apprentice hashtag rather than #theapprentice:

Apprentice episode 1
It seems my personal network is understandably bored with the show now - the glory days of Lee McQueen are long behind us, and sadly the BBC is not running The Predictor which introduced an interesting game layer into the last series. So join me around the hashtag this evening and tweetalonga @Lord_Sugar. Maybe you could feed him some new lines. God knows he needs them.


Study of UK Online Learning

"A number of common themes emerged that might reflect generally held views across the sector. These included:
  • a clear message to not be too focused on the technology involved in delivering ODL; e.g. the technology was described as "vital but not central"
  • recognition of the requirement for low student-tutor ratios, and regular feedback and assessment points to ensure that students are engaged and retained
  • the need to address the challenge associated with "change management" e.g. supporting the changes necessitated by the need to encourage academic staff to shift emphasis away from content dissemination towards facilitating more independent and activity-based learning
  • the importance of understanding the expectations of ODL students in full-time work and appreciating that their motivations, needs and aspirations may differ significantly from traditional campus-based students. The inherent advantages of ODL as a mode of delivery for students in full-time work was identified
  • a consensus that in order to strategically expand the provision of high quality ODL courses, a robust institutional infrastructure for developing, delivering and maintaining courses is essential. A key consideration is the extent to which institutions provide central support to facilitate such developments. In many cases, ODL offerings have evolved from a "cottage industry" style approach with developments led wholly at departmental level. While this approach was seen to have many benefits, not least ensuring academic quality and promoting innovation, it was also seen as a challenge and a potential barrier to expanding provision
  • the challenge of embedding sustainable practice without stifling innovation.
The key message to emerge was that institutions felt the substantive challenge was not the pedagogical model they chose to use for ODL, but planning the configuration of the supporting infrastructure, resources and business models required to support the development and delivery of ODL programmes. Addressing these structural issues was seen as a prerequisite for success in expanding provision."

Commentary: Uh, thing is Dave is that what you are describing here is not ODL but UK HE as a whole.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The next Friendfeed

As I stood at the front of the lecture theatre yesterday waiting for the class of 230 shiny new freshers to wander in so I could launch them onto Friendfeed, I was wondering whether this would be the last time I would do this.

For Friendfeed is suffering, gradually, inexorably, asymptotically winding to a halt. And my network is looking for a replacement, which no-one want to be Facebook, and Twitter, though good, isn't it either. It took me the fabled "over a year" to grok Friendfeed, just as it took me over a year to grok Twitter. I've been on LinkedIn for longer then that, never really getting it, so when LinkedIn launched the beta trial of Signal last month, I was interested.

LinkedIn Signal

At the moment, LS Signal has a spare feel to it that I like. I'm still far from sure what it can do, but it looks very interesting. More interesting than Cliqset. Almost as interesting as Facebook. Right now, I don't have a community there, just a bunch of connections, and all I see are people dumping the feeds from other networks (mostly Twitter), but that's what I'd expect at this stage. And technically, it's got a long way to go. In theory, LS Signal could be the right professional partner to Facebook's social network - if they get it right. So while we wait for Google to get it's act together, come and play with me so we can find out whether this is going to fly or not. If it remains an aggregator rather than becoming a destination, it will die. Time will tell, but the truth is that what Google does next is probably the biggest factor.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education

Gráinne Conole and Panagiota Alevizou have produced a very nice literature review for the Higher Education Academy EvidenceNet - well worth a read:
This review focuses on the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education. It provides a synthesis of the research literature in the field and a series of illustrative examples of how these tools are being used in learning and teaching. It draws out the benefits that these new technologies appear to offer, and highlights some of the challenges and issues surrounding their use. The review forms the basis for a HE Academy funded project, ‘Pearls in the Cloud’, which is exploring how Web 2.0 tools can be used to support evidence‐based practices in learning and teaching. The project has also produced two in‐depth case studies, which are reported elsewhere (Galley et al., 2010, Alevizou et al., 2010). The case studies focus on evaluation of a recently developed site for learning and teaching, Cloudworks, which harnesses Web 2.0 functionality to facilitate the sharing and discussion of educational practice. The case studies explore the extent to which the Web 2.0 affordances of the site are successfully promoting the sharing of ideas, as well as scholarly reflections, on learning and teaching.
Conole G, Alevizou P. A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education. Higher Education Academy EvidenceNet; 2010. Available from: (CiteULike).

Facebook making it up as it goes along

Facebook just launched their "new" groups feature. Except of course that Facebook has had Groups for a long time. But these groups are different. These groups go all the way to 11. Because Groups are based on the "Friend" relationship they are no use for teaching (unlike Pages):

Facebook Groups. Again
Facebook. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

PLoS Biology Launches New Education Series

PLoS Biology Here's the press release:

Educators, like researchers, face enormous pressure to keep up with the rapid pace of scientific discovery. But educators must also find compelling ways to communicate the latest scientific findings to their students.

To help biology teachers find - and share - the best teaching tools, resources, and methods, PLoS Biology is launching a new series of articles on education. The Education Series combines open education - which freely shares teaching methods, initiatives, and materials - with open access publishing to present innovative approaches to teaching critical concepts, developments, and methods in biology. It will cover fundamental areas of biology, from evolution and ecology to cell biology and biochemistry, and take full advantage of Web-based open-access research and multimedia tools to create an interactive, dynamic resource to further understanding of fundamental questions in biology and of current methods to investigate them.

Articles will feature initiatives that incorporate current life sciences research and allow students to use authentic research tools to investigate real-world problems and generate solid data - crucial elements for nurturing students’ interest in science. Toward this end, approaches that use genomics databases and bioinformatics tools, with their easy online access and mathematical expression of biological concepts, are particularly effective in the classroom. Alternately, taking students out in the field to test questions about relationships between species abundance and the presence of contaminants can provide a memorable lesson in environmental science.

By mining the promise of open education and harnessing the collective imagination and talent of PLoS Biology readers and contributors, the Education Series will create a virtual biology education library that will be available through PLoS Biology Collections.

In the first article, Louise Charkoudian, Jay Fitzgerald, Andrea Champlin and Chaitan Khosla show that Streptomyces-derived natural products provide an untapped source of pigments, showing others how to explore the potential of biopigments in the classroom as well as in art and industry. The authors share their experiences in harnessing these biopigments to create paint and paintings and provide educators with the tools to replicate their experiments in the classroom.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

What is effective, anyway?

Last week I crunched the monthly stats for the range of services I publish on. September was a pretty busy month, judging from the numbers. Which set me thinking - is what I do online effective, and what is effective anyway?

Let's start with the low hanging fruit. Easily the most effective thing I've done in the course of the last year was stopping podcasting. This isn't an anti-podcast rant (although there are a heck of a lot of bad podcasts being made which do not consider the optimum format for the delivery medium) - in my case, the effectiveness of the podcasts I was producing was simply not repaying the time/bandwidth costs involved. But then, that's true for most podcasts.

These days I think of any blog site as a mere content container which allows republication into the sphere of online attention where all the interaction occurs. So what of RSS versus Twitter versus Facebook?

It depends. Twitter is winning on SoTI, taking attention away from the container to the network, or at least outstripping RSS as a messenger. And Twitter clearly drives traffic (September was the biggest month ever for SoTI no matter how you measure it, except for RSS), but where is the community? Twitter fragments community into sub-networks - lists. Does this mean we are moving toward distributed online presences?

In contrast, on MicrobiologyBytes, RSS is usage is up. Is this because RSS is seen as more "professional" than Twitter? But Facebook is also beating Twitter here - suggesting multiple sub-networks again? It is noticeable that surprisingly few referrals to full articles on MicrobiologyBytes come from Facebook, showing once again the stickiness of Facebook and that the community is on the Facebook page not on the blog (no surprise).
MicrobiologyBytes Stats

So what does it all mean? In my case, it means I know nothing, that the multiplatform Babel persists, and that publish early, publish everywhere is the only strategy which competes effectively in the attention economy (The VLE Is Dead).

What does it mean to you?


Friday, October 01, 2010

Dave White at ALT-C 2010

For me, the highlight of ALT-C this year was Dave White's talk. A video recording of the talk is now available:

Unfortunately, this recording suffers from from some of the technical problems we had at ALT-C this year. Fortunately, Dave has made the slides from this presentation available and blogged about it here:

You can stay up to date with the latest news at the ALT-C Facebook page.