Monday, November 29, 2010

Google Presentations in Lectures

Google Presentations At ALT-C 2010 Emma Duke-Williams talked about using the chat window in Google Presentations to engage in realtime conversations with students during lectures. Ever since I heard her talk I've been wanting to try it, and on Friday I got the chance.

The setting was a guest lecture on microbiology to our first year Medical Sciences students (~100). Several days before the lecture I asked the students to bring a personal internet device (laptop, netbook or smartphone) with them to the lecture. I set up my presentation on Google Docs and prepared a Powerpoint splash slide to set up the lecture:

So far as I could tell, the majority of people in the room had brought some form of internet device. There was a little delay as people accessed the document, but this was quite short and would reduce if the exercise was run more than once. Several questions were asked via the chat window during the lecture but not as many as I was expecting. It was quite difficult to monitor the chat window for questions while talking (Emma runs this as a two-person process, one speaking, one (remote) fielding questions), so I found myself backtracking to answer questions about previous slides, but overall the technology was not too distracting (for me). I thought the content of the chat window was persistent, but seemingly not as it was gone the next time I logged in. There are pluses and minuses to persistent/transient content in this context, so I'm not sure what to make of this (unless I've missed a setting somewhere?).

After the lecture I asked the students for feedback (using a Google Form, obviously) and their responses are given below. Overall, this interactive lecture format has considerable potential and is worth investigating further. Familiarity of use would reduce some of the first-time barriers, but as with all interactive gizmos (such as PRS), over use would reduce the value. As to whether the format is distracting, this is an extension of the Great Twitterfall Debate - with an important twist. I hardly ever teach in places with dual projection facilities, so commenting via a hashtag would mean heads down in the lecture. Although some students said they found the chat window distracting, at least this is a heads up and all look at the same screen situation, which is probably better for formal lectures.

Medical Sciences Google Docs Trial Lecture
(n = 39/~100)

1. Did you like the use of Google Docs in the MB1030 Microbiology lecture?
Yes: 72%
No: 8%
Don't care: 20%

2. Were you able to access the Google Document on your internet device?
Yes: 87%
No: 13% (problems with smartphones)

3. Were you able to access the chat window?
Yes: 56%
No: 44% (mostly problems with smartphones)

4. Describe how you felt about the use of the Google Document in the lecture:
Lots of potential | Interactive, exciting, fun | Interactive, keeps intrested, distracting | Easy to use | Clear and convenient | Different, engaging | Productive, useful | Don't care | Very modern | It was good, it felt like I was more involved. Also although I didn't have a question, if I did I would have felt more comfortable typing it than raising my hand to interupt the lecture. | Fun, useful | Engaging Innovative Exciting | Helpful, interesting, distracting | Fun, useful, different | I couldn't set it up and you didn't make sure everyone was ready. | Could be effective. | Off-putting | Easy to follow | Innovative | Wasn't used, unnecessary | Disappointingly unnecessary | Indifferent, impartial | Not very useful | Useful | Could be better | Interesting helpful different | It was good | Casual learning | Easy to ask questions when you use Google Chat | Liked chat window | Helpful distracting | OK | Useful, easy, open | Allowed partcipation | No point, on-screen | Interactive, easy, fun | New hence distracting | Engaging, interesting, informative | Interactive useful fun

5. Any other comments?
  • This technology has great use, you can interact with each other and ask questions of the lecturer when it suited them best to answer. This might help engage and allow other students to get an insight into someone else's perspective of the material. If more questions had have been asked then clearly it would have been more beneficial. It also makes the lecturer aware of any issues students have with specific slides so they can be improved or reworded if required.
  • Was unsure what to write in the instant messenger chat window i.e. what was really relevant.
  • Was very good because no all information was not on the slide, so one was made to listen and make more effective notes. It allowed more interaction with the lecture. Only problem being allowed on the internet or to have our phone out, was very distracting.
  • The chat was useful because it allowed you to easily ask a question without having to wait till the end of a lecture.
  • It was good because people could ask questions as soon as any came into their head rather than trying to remember them and then forgetting them. Also, it was only used as and when people wanted to use it and it didn't seem to be an interruption.
  • I couldn't make the chat work so I didn't get to benefit from that. The use of google docs in the lecture was interesting but as I couldn't make the chat work I didn't see the importance of using it.
  • It's quite interactive and nice use of technology.
  • I liked the chat box and if more people were to use it it would probably be more beneficial.
  • I liked that we could use the chat window to ask questions or to add comments, though the novelty could prove distracting. If it was used frequently the novelty would wear off and I think it could be very useful.
  • Useful to ask questions without interrupting the lecturer "mid-flow".
  • More useful with laptops instead of phones as I couldn't use the chat with mine.
  • I felt I was put off by having the chat window and didn't concentrate on the lecture as much as I normally would.
  • The lecture could have made more use of the chat window.
  • Google documents has surprised me again. Asking questions through the chat window is quite innovative. Now I won't feel guilty stopping a lecturer in the middle of an explanation to ask questions.
  • Good premise for more confusing lectures to promote questions being asked about content.
  • I didn't bring an internet device
  • We didn't really use the Google Docs feature much, just for posting questions. It would have been great if we were made to do some problem solving together using google docs as it allows everyone to take part (at least those who are interested).
  • It is very useful as we don't hesitate when thinking about asking a question. I don't like having everyone's attention on me when I ask a question so this way was much more easier and it was a nice change from the usual.
  • Should be done again, maybe involve the students a bit more by setting compulsory tasks or activities.
  • It has the potential to be used well, but was quite distracting to the lecture at times. It helps those that want to ask questions, but are too shy to do so ask something.
  • It was useful and easy for people to ask questions as we went along as they sometimes do get forgotten. It was good to see what the rest of the class was thinking.
  • I felt as though the idea was good because it meant that people could ask questions without being scared to. For example, some people may have wondered "what exactly IS the picture on the MRSA slide showing?" all through the lecture without knowing and without wanting to ask what they thought could have been a stupid question. However, I felt that setting up everyone's devices took a bit of time. I had to explain over and over again to different people what the link was to get onto the document in the first place, or type it in to their address bar for them, while the lecturer was talking, and I feel as though because of this, I missed some important points at the beginning about how we were supposed to use the chat feature. Perhaps having the link written down on the board or somewhere convenient for the duration of the talk may have helped.
  • Unfortunately I could not get onto it because I did not have the latest version of flash player but it was still good to be able to see the conversations on my screen and also on the projection.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Painful conversations

Pain I keep having painful conversations.

It started a few days ago with Top ten reasons why academics do not contribute to Wikipedia.

That was followed by CiteULike - remove feature request (Remove feature? wtf?). It's depressing that users want squirreling away, not social discovery (but it does explain the design of Mendeley). Well, at least squirreling away is something I suppose!

Because on Friday we started having a conversation with our students about bookmarking online resources - either they don't or they write stuff in a Word doc. Some write it out by hand...
Their knowledge is transient - they are completely brainwashed by modularized culture - file assessment and forget.

Why aren't people social?


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Feeling Lucky?

Feeling Lucky Doug says he needs to get out more (or at least, meet new people). He's right.

In our pre-launch testing, one of the hottest features we've added to the Project SOAR website is a Feeling Lucky? button which serves up random links to resources on the site.

Online conferences which stick to the paradigms of physical events are a steaming pile of second-rate fail. Link, innovate, surprise. Make online conference participants feel lucky.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Google Scholars School Report: Dramatic Improvement in Performance

This article reports a 2010 empirical study using a 2005 study as a base to compare Google Scholar's coverage of scholarly journals with commercial services. Through random samples of eight databases, the author finds that, as of 2010, Google Scholar covers 98 to 100 percent of scholarly journals from both publicly accessible Web contents and from subscription-based databases that Google Scholar partners with. In 2005 the coverage of the same databases ranged from 30 to 88 percent. The author explores de-duplication of search results by Google Scholar and discusses its impacts on searches and library resources. With the dramatic improvement of Google Scholar, the uniqueness and effectiveness of subscription-based abstracts and indexes have dramatically changed.

Google Scholar's Dramatic Coverage Improvement Five Years after Debut. Xiaotian Chen. Serials Review 36(4): 221-226 doi:10.1016/j.serrev.2010.08.002

Commentary: I know I'm using GScholar more and more as the months go by. It's particularly useful for finding repository copies of articles I don't have access to. Nearly time to start recommending it to students as their major resource. This is one area I can't see Facebook competing in. Everything else...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A rod for my own back

Sisyphus For the last few weeks our first year Biological Sciences students (n ~250) have been using Google Documents to write group reports on a biological topic of their choosing. We've been using Google Docs on our first year key skills module for several years now. It was originally introduced to Smash The State! Sock it to the Man! persuade students of the value of social software, but it was only this year I figured out how dumb I'd been in asking them to write individual documents when I could save myself tons of work by getting them to work in groups using the social features Google Docs provides.

Or could I?

Except for a few squabbles, the writing part went fairly smoothly. The Turnitin originality reports are OK, apart from a few bad habits we use Turnitin as a tool to flag up. So it was time to start marking. Which is hell. Why? Because abandoning a simple bigbox VLE has its costs. Here's my workflow:

1. Copy group allocations from Excel (used to randomize assignment to groups of 4).

2. Check the Turnitin report for the group document. Take screenshots of relevant sections and annotate using Skitch. Paste into the Google Doc (because Blackboard 9 unhelpfully won't let me attach the PDFs to the feedback in the Gradecentre).

3. Mark the group report according to our criterion-referenced scheme using a BBEdit as a scratchpad. Add additional feedback comments as appropriate. (50% of overall mark)

4. Add overall feedback to the Google Doc. Add additional feedback comments at appropriate points in the Google Doc. Add comment about individual mark availability via the Bb9 Gradecentre.

5. Check the revision history of the Google Doc to assess individual contributions, mostly by weight but with an eye to quality too. Look out for last minute Roberts (yes Michelle, they are all Roberts). Add feedback about timeliness of groupwork contributions where appropriate! As ever, the document revision history is a telling account of how well the exercise went for each group. (Other 50% of overall mark)

6. Calculate total, paste overall mark, component marks and group plus individual feedback assembled in BBEdit into Bb9 Gradecentre for each student in the group.

7. Send notification email via the Google Doc to group members informing them that their marks/feedback are available on the Google Doc/Blackboard.

8. Goto 1.

Ugly, innit? But I can't think of any way to speed this up without loosing the feedback quality. I thought about using Excel conditional IF statements to semi-automate report writing as I used to do in the pre-Blackboard days, but that's not really the pinch point, it's dodging between the various apps and annotating the Google Doc in the right places which consumes the time.

No way I'm marking 60+ reports next year. Now I've trialled the process I'll have to parcel out the marking to colleagues, with all the attendant problems of consistency that that entails. Point to note: this exercise is staying in. I think it's valuable for the students. Apart from the knee-jerk moaning, the feedback comments have been surprisingly positive. It's my problem, not theirs.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Small world networks Project SOAR is built around the Reading List for students in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester. We have a local origin and we have a hyperlocal component, the Book Group for our students. But Project SOAR is an open project and will invite anyone who is interested in science to participate.

When the website launches on 1st December, it will have social components which take it beyond the local level:
  • Facebook: A presence of Facebook gives us massive outreach, way beyond one institution and one group of students.
  • Friendfeed: Biological Sciences students in Leicester use friendfeed to communicate with each other and with academic staff, so this will be an attractive, low overhead channel for them. But there is an active scientific community on this site, many of who would never venture onto Facebook, so friendfeed gives us an interesting blend of local and remote connections.
  • And - what's missing from this list? We debated whether to create a presence for this project on CiteULike or Mendeley, but after consideration decided that these services wouldn't add much if anything to the site - are we right about this?
We'll be taking advantage of the social features on these sites to hold a conversation about scientific publishing with a much larger group of people than our own students. Apart from the ethics of needing to communicate best practices in science education, this mix of short range (local) and long range (remote) links is what we need to ensure the sustainability of the project.

Project SOAR - coming soon to a social network near you:

Friday, November 19, 2010

Being a genius isn't enough #gorillaz

I went over to Birmingham on Wednesday night for the Gorillaz gig at the NIA. I've taken 24 hours to think about it before writing anything because it was quite overwhelming. I was never a great Blur fan, tending to come down on the Mancunian side of the Blur/Oasis argument in the 90's, but I dutifully bought the Blur greatest hits CD when it came out. I've always had a fascination for virtual studio bands so the animated Albarn-Hewlett creation was interesting, and the first album still has my favourite tracks on it (see the video below). As animation morphed into flesh, I was a bit unsure what to think, and a somewhat lacklustre performance at Glastonbury didn't help, but the chance to see the whole shooting match - with half of The Clash and all the guests - in the flesh was too good to pass up, so off to Birmingham. fourtyfivequidlighterpluspetrolsixquidforparkingand

And it was good. Technically the best gig I've ever been to. Getting lost in Birmingham and missing the first support act (Little Dragon) was a bit annoying, but in 35 years of going to rock concerts this is the first time I've ever known one start on time - 7.30 pm on the dot. Blimey. Unaccustomed punctuality was a portent of things to come. The second support band, De La Soul, were interesting. Interesting meaning that this aging white guy is not a hip hop party people (but more of them later). And then they were on. Half a symphony orchestra and 40 foot high pirate-costumed Snoop Dog launching into Plastic Beach. Nearly two hours of non-stop genius. De La Soul's lecture on the philosophy of hip hop suddenly making sense as contemporary black American beats broke like counterpoint over Albarn's rythmic complexities. Ancient Arabic world rhythms woven into synthesizer enviropop, introduced by Albarn's polemic on Middle East diplomacy and the reconciliation of the West with Islam. Venerated soul singers, drunken Mancunian feedback conjurers, cartoon children's choirs ... and Albarn conducting the whole thing, a leaping, capering loon holding an impossible coalition together. Yes folks, it's the Damon Albarn show.
And yet...
it wasn't enough. Foolishly, I had turned up expecting a rock concert. And whatever this mad extravaganza was, it wasn't a rock concert. It wasn't like watching The Stranglers in a grungy dive in Moss Side, or grooving out to Graham Parker's brass section in the Sheffield Student's Union all those years ago. Something was missing. Spontaneity. Spit. Soul? Being a genius isn't enough.

As the day job gets harder and harder, as numbers squeeze the joy out, being a genius hardly counts for anything at all. It's all about grinding out the beats, ducking and weaving. Spontaneity. Soul. Spit?

I've been watching the hashtag (as you do these days) and the best review of Tuesday's gig at the O2 was Danced all night at #gorillaz now my tootsies hurt. Kinda wish I'd written that one really.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Student book lists - are we getting it right?

Since the beginning of recorded time (the 1960s), we have given students in the School of Biological Sciences a list of "good books". Whether they read them or not is not assessed directly, and the idea of a reading list is one of the few things about our degree which has not changed since the beginning. But giving students a printed list of books in the week they arrive at university is a bit, well, 1960s. Do they read any of them, or even remember having received the list in the hurly burly of fresher's week? To be honest, we didn't really know, so we took the revolutionary step of asking them - and now we do. Survey says:

I'm not altogether delighted with the results of this survey, but I am far from surprised. In fact, this is the reason for the existence of Project SOAR, which is going to launch on 1st December 2010:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why stuff goes viral (or not)

Network nodes with local connections, as opposed to the long-range ones that facilitate epidemics, spread innovations more quickly. Nodes that are not as tightly integrated to the network and have fewer connections let change spread more quickly, while nodes with lots of connections actually slowed the spread of information down.
Lesson learned: Be a connector, curate your local network, cultivate network diversity.

"Which network structures favor the rapid spread of new ideas, behaviors, or technologies? This question has been studied extensively using epidemic models. Here we consider a complementary point of view and consider scenarios where the individuals’ behavior is the result of a strategic choice among competing alternatives. In particular, we study models that are based on the dynamics of coordination games. Classical results in game theory studying this model provide a simple condition for a new action or innovation to become widespread in the network. The present paper characterizes the rate of convergence as a function of the structure of the interaction network. The resulting predictions differ strongly from the ones provided by epidemic models. In particular, it appears that innovation spreads much more slowly on well-connected network structures dominated by long-range links than in low-dimensional ones dominated, for example, by geographic proximity."
The spread of innovations in social networks. PNAS USA November 12, 2010. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1004098107

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

It doesn't improve

A week ago I scraped together the funds to buy Adobe CS5 (Web Premium, since you ask - it's going to keep me afloat in the HTML5 world). I managed to do this because I was aware the University has an education licence agreement with Adobe through a reseller. Unfortunately, the terms of this are of such Byzantine complexity they are beyond a mere PhD like me, so I asked my helpful colleagues to find the price for me.

The first response was the eye-watering full price - 4 figures - which is clearly wrong since there is an education licence, so I asked them to go back and try again. The second quote was half of the first quote, but still too much for me, so in the spirit of the souk, I asked them to try again. The third price was half the second offer. Tempting as it was to keep going, I'm a little too busy at this time of year, so I agreed.

Over the course of the next few days, I received a series of emails from Adobe, and the package containing the disc a few days after that. Today I installed my new software.

Retrieving my licence from the Adobe website took 15 minutes, including a compulsory 5 minute Adobe presentation on How To Retrieve Your Licence From The Adobe Website. Installing from the CD took 55 minutes (on a top end iMac). And I know that now I'm going to be constantly bugged by emails and compulsory software updates every time I try to use it until CS6 comes out and Adobe loses interest in CS5. It also installed several browser extensions without asking permission.

The Adobe customer experience sucks. But their effective monopoly as the market leader in this area means there is no real choice.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A Long Westcountry Tradition

Devon, 6th November 2010

I heard a story today about someone who was banned from a local social club for dealing in contraband cigarettes. The gears whirred, a circuit clicked and a memory of childhood literature stirred - Jamaca Inn and A Smuggler's Song. Brittany Ferries to Roscoff, stock up at the local hypermarket. Cartons exchanged for cash in the car park. It's a long tradition in this part of the world.

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again - and they'll be gone next day!
If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm - don't you ask no more!
If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you "pretty maid," and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!
Knocks and footsteps round the house - whistles after dark -
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie -
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!
If you do as you've been told, 'likely there's a chance,
You'll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood -
A present from the Gentlemen, along o' being good!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie -
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.

Rudyard Kipling

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Twitter Licence

Twitter Licence


Xpert Xpert (Xerte Public E-learning ReposiTory) project is a JISC funded project to explore the potential of delivering and supporting a distributed repository of e-learning resources.

Xpert allows teachers or students to search a large database of open learning resources suitable for students at all levels of study in a wide range of different subjects - and all available for reuse. One of the nice features of Xpert is RSS in (staying up to date with many OER sites worldwide from multiple institutions) and highly flexible RSS out, allowing users to be alerted to new resources available in any area of interest, e.g:

Finding reusable OER multimedia resources can be very time consuming, Xpert can make life simpler. Give it a try.