Monday, January 31, 2011

Using the Game of Mastermind to Teach Scientific Reasoning Skills

Mastermind "In order to develop into effective researchers, educators, and science professionals, students must internalize basic principles of scientific reasoning and experimental design. Scientific reasoning skills can improve with training, but they can be difficult to impart as abstract concepts in the classroom. Here, we discuss the potential for using the game of Mastermind as a tool to help students develop logic skills, design effective experiments, and discuss scientific reasoning in the classroom or lab.
The English code-breaking game known as Bulls and Cows, popularized as the board game Mastermind, has been adapted for applications in fields such as mathematics, computing, and psychology. Mastermind has been proposed as a tool for teaching logic in mathematics courses, but the problem-solving skills emphasized by the game are also relevant to the life sciences. We propose that the game can be used to teach specific lessons and spark discussions about scientific reasoning, covering topics such as sound experimental design, hypothesis-testing, careful interpretation of results, and the effective use of controls."

Using the Game of Mastermind to Teach, Practice, and Discuss Scientific Reasoning Skills. (2011) PLoS Biol 9(1): e1000578. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000578

Friday, January 28, 2011

ipadio live stream test for #dr11

"Hello, welcome to the first ever Digital Researcher at 2011 Podcast. This is Alan Cann. We're experimenting with a variety of platforms to see if we can provide some live streaming content in addition to the online media such as Twitter and all of the other documents which will be online for the Digital Researcher meeting. We know that everybody can't be the British Library on the 14th February, so we are looking to provide you with as many rich online activity streams as we can. This is just the first test of the system and if it's successful - please tell us if you like it and we will be back soon."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I think my Quora experiment may have run its course

Quora As I wrote here previously, I've been looking at Quora, but I think I may now have come to the end of the experiment. While at first I felt the site might have potential as an educational tool, I have now moved away from that idea. One of the main reasons for this is the problem that other people can retrospectively edit the questions asked. Editing answers is fine, but retro-editing of questions makes the answers given look rather silly, and I certainly don't have time to keep going back to check.

Another smaller frustration is the number of dumb questions being asked, e.g. not Why is the sky blue?, which is a perfectly valid question, but What's wrong with the USA? etc. Ironically, question editing doesn't seem to help with this problem. In addition, when I have asked technical questions, I've received faster, better and more diverse answers from my admittedly more mature Twitter network than from Quora. For these reasons, Quora feels like it has a flawed architecture, not a flexible as a true wiki but overly dependent on the question format gimmick and I won't be investing any more time in it. Time for Stack Overflow?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A gripe about R

Dear Diary: Scaffolding Reflection

Scaffolding Sometimes, when you're so close to a problem for a long time, the only solution is to talk it though with a colleague who knows what the constraints are so that you can escape the echo chamber inside your head. That's exactly what happened yesterday when I talked though how to scaffold reflection on Friendfeed for our first year students in the coming term with Jo.

This term I want to move on from the staff-led reflection (topic suggestion) which worked last term to a more student-led structure where people decide what they want to write about for themselves. And yet, our previous experience says that scaffolding is of critical importance for most students to be able to achieve significant authentic reflection, and that a chronological structure is the most important and effective element of guidance we can give (without telling them what to write).

In a flash fit spurt of inspiration, we came up with Dear Diary, and associated light-touch assessment. Will this be an effective tool to scaffold self-initiated reflection on a social network? We'll see, but we can already guess that only a minority of these students will be able to come to grips with deep professional reflection as a regular part of their academic practice. This is a numbers game, maximizing the return in the ZPD.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Feed the yak

YaketyYak Although it seems like yesterday, it was two and a half years ago that I added the Disqus commenting system to this blog (June 2008). At the time, I hoped it would make my life easier by facilitating spam control, and to some extent it did. One thing it's never done is make commenting easier, and right now, for various technical reasons on various platforms, it has committed the ultimate sin of making commenting harder, so Disqus has now gone.

Fortunately, Blogger has recently improved spam handling (and the built in stats), though it's still not as good as Akismet, so we'll see how the new system works for a while. If you have any comments:

Monday, January 24, 2011

#OeRBITAL thoughts

OER OeRBITAL A few not too structured thoughts following on from the OeRBITAL meeting on Friday:

What is an OER?
Could define by licence (CC BY SA preferably not NC) but this is too restrictive, for example excluding iTunesU (and many other available resources).

Rationale for OER
Retirements & staff losses - greying of academic
Students as producers

OeRBITAL project is JISC funded - brief is for UK HE but with global reach.
To gather stories of reuse (and other aspects, e.g. production)

Technical - architecture/metadata
Psychological - Ownership (RLOs)
? Role of learning technologists

OeRBITAL wiki coming soon (or WordPress collaboration/distribution tool?)

Twitter: #oerbital
delicious: oerbital

More to follow in the next few weeks!

Friday, January 21, 2011

OeRBITAL - Open educational Resources for Bioscientists Involved in Teaching and Learning

OER OeRBITAL I'm off to Leeds today for a chat about OeRBITAL (I'm the microbiology consultant):
In this project we will select specialist discipline consultants who will be tasked to discover content for the bioscience disciplines using the multiple repositories of OERs now available in addition to their own personal networks. We intend to recruit members of our Bioscience Community in the capacity of OER Discipline Consultants to gather and promote collections of resources in various bioscience disciplines using a web 2.0 solution based on an OER bioscience wiki/blog combination which will act as a curated introduction to the essential resources available in their discipline. We specifically wish to build stronger links through bioscience Subject Associations and the Learned Societies to progress shared interests associated with using Open Educational Resources. OER Discipline Consultants will be responsible for initiating, leading and developing a number of activities as part of developing and establishing essential practices to optimise the use and re-use of Open Educational Resources. This OER phase 2 collections strand project will be working with a number of academic staff and learning technologists to discover and curate specific resources within a number of Bioscience disciplines and foster support for their future enhancement. For OER to be established we need a resources to achieve a sustainable “orbit” i.e. to be maintained and enhanced continuously by its relevant community. We wish to develop and establish the essential practices with practitioners to optimise the discovery, use and re-use of such resources. This project will recruit selected members of the Bioscience community as ‘Discipline Consultants’ acting as discovery agents and curators for collections in their discipline interest across all undergraduate levels, and postgraduate where possible. Using our community network to find the most appropriate individuals in our 2200+ contacts, we hope to further develop the use of OERs with Learned Societies and National Subject Associations.
I'll be writing more about OeRBITAL - including invitations for you to participate - here and on MicrobiologyBytes over the next few months.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

#dr11 homework

Vitae The Digital Researcher 2011 is designed to be more about the experience of working as part of an academic community than about a single event, but if you're participating (in person or remotely), you'll probably be glad to hear there isn't going to be an exam.

Having said that, we would be remiss if we didn't make people aware of the fact that there is now a substantial body of academic literature around the sort of tools we are going to be using as part of the program, so Tris Hooley and I have started to put together a gentle introduction for anyone who wants it. We've been doing this entirely online, working from different cities, using our favourite bibliography management tool CiteULike, and you can find the papers we've selected so far at:
If you think anything particularly relevant is missing, please join in this exercise and contribute on CiteULike using the dr11 tag.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Love over Gold

Cognitive Surplus In my continuing series of Clay Shirky fanboy posts:

In chapter 3 of Cognitive Surplus, Shirky discusses the work of Edward Deci, which showed that people paid to solve a puzzle spend less time working on it than volunteers performing the same task. Although Shirky isn't discussing this in a education context, the findings can easily be applied to assessment and feedback.
Extrinsic motivations are those in which the reward for doing something is external to the activity, not the activity itself... extrinsic motivations can actually decrease intrinsic ones.
Shirky does go on to discuss the role of positive feedback as an intrinsic motivator, whereas the "payment" of "marks" works in a negative context.

Translation: Let's stop over-assessing students and making them dependent on external motivation. Love over gold.

Monday, January 17, 2011

If this is a blog post about #dr11, what's it doing here

Vitae and not on the Digital Researcher blog?

In his recent book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky has a nice discussion of "Gutenberg economics" and how digital content changes the publication process. He concludes:
A lot of new kinds of media have emerged since Gutenberg: images and sounds were encoded onto objects, from photographic plates to music CDs; electromagnetic waves were harnessed to create radio and TV. All these subsequent revolutions, as different as they were, still had the core of Gutenberg economics: enormous investment costs. It's expensive to own the means of production, whether it is a printing press or a TV tower, which makes novelty a fundamentally high-risk operation. If it's expensive to own and manage the means of production or if it requires a staff you're in a world of Gutenberg economics. And wherever you have Gutenberg economics, whether you are a Venetian publisher or a Hollywood producer, you’re going to have fifteenth-century risk management as well, where the producers have to decide what's good before showing it to the audience. In this world almost all media was produced by "the media," a world we all lived in up until a few years ago.
Shirky also has his own take on Nicholas Carr's view of digital sharecropping - where the Web 2.0 robber barons own, or at least claim rights to, the content you produce.
Services that help us share things thrive precisely because they make easier and often cheaper for us to do things we're already inclined to do. One function of the market, in other words, is to provide platforms for us to engage in the things we value doing outside the market, whether those platforms are bars or websites. The fifteenth­ century model of media production didn't allow for that kind of sharing, because its inherent cost and risk meant professionals were required at every step. Now they’re not.
I want Facebook to help me share the content I post there with my friends (so I need to grant them certain rights in order for them to do so). In exactly the same way, I want Blogger to help me to share the content I post here with a research community who share my interests. By doing so, we both gain. I could publish the same thoughts on the Digital Researcher blog, but since, after many years of my hard work, this site already attracts a daily audience of several thousand readers, I prefer to place it here, in my shop window. And since I publish it under a Creative Commons licence, I encourage anyone who is interested in what I have to say to take and reuse my output (with appropriate attribution).

No-one ever says "give me a copy of your phone number". Digital content published under an appropriate licence makes you free to reuse (or ignore) my content as you wish. It's not costing me anything.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Digital Researcher 2011 #dr11

Digital Researcher 2011 I'm off to The Smoke later today to hobnob with Aleks Krotoski and colleagues about plans for the Digital Researcher 2011 (Twitter: #dr11).

Although DR10 went well, we feel we can do better, and that's the agenda for today. So if you are a researcher of any shade, you can find out more about DR11 here, and I believe there are still a few places available.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Quora Masterclass

Quora What is it about Quora? Beyond the recent hype, this service feels important to me, but it is undoubtedly very confusing at first - so here are a few pointers to think about.

First and most important, so that you don't drown in the topographic ocean, filter the noise by following people (those which give good answers) rather than topics, which will inevitably give you noise. I started by following topics to kickstart my Quora community, but I have dumped most of them now and rely on a peer network for information, which works much better.

The structure of Quora is different from what you're used to. I find the design clunky (particularly on mobile devices), but once I understood the differences between Answers, Comments and Posts it started to become easier. I got this information from the unofficial Quora Etiquette Guide - well worth a read.

Each question is a wiki. Each question (at least the significant ones) attracts its own community. Questions, answers and comments can all be edited, but you can see history of the item (and revert changes) by clicking on the Last Activity link in the left margin. Quora is a multiverse of wikis. It is not a Twitter killer. Got it?

You may be struggling to find relevant content on the site right now. That's because it may not be there (yet). Remember that Quora has had a small user community until its recent explosive growth, and was focused very heavily on social media memes and startups. If you want relevant content, add it to the site and contribute to discussions, e.g:
How can we use Quora in education? I have no idea ... but I'm working on it. I still feel it's worth persisting with.


Monday, January 10, 2011

The Macintosh App Store

Macintosh App Store I've been feeling pretty jaded about the news over the last week, with all the post-Christmas lazyjourno stories and the pre-CES woowoo, so even though I'm a long term iTunes store user, I initially dismissed the Macintosh App Store when it was launched as part of Mac OS X on 6th December. It wasn't until I had a quick play with it the following day that I realized how wrong I had been. This is a game changer in exactly the same way iTunes was a game changer for the music industry - i.e. not the first, but easily the best.

I grabbed a few free apps just for the experience:
The App Store has made me look with fresh eyes at the entire process of software distribution, individual apps (such as Evernote), and purchasing decisions (social recommendations).

Steve did it again. The game just changed. Sorry this sounds like a fanboy post, but I figured I owed it to you to tell you, in case you'd missed it, like me.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


Gumbo We used to eat gumbo at the Ritz Cafe in West LA when it went though its cajun phase in the mid-80s. This is the stripped down Leicester version. Ain't never been nearer the bayou than Beaumont Leys. (Serves 8-ish)

Start by making the roux. Heat a large thick bottomed pot and then add half a pint of cooking oil and enough plain flour to make a thick roux. Keep stirring and cook until a dark caramel colour.

Add three or four chopped onions and fry.

Bone and skin 8 chicken thighs, ad the meat to the pot and cook. Add 3-4 smoked pork sausages chopped into large chunks. Add a pound or two of chopped okra.

Add enough hot water to form a thick soup. Add half a bottle of tomato ketchup, cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce to taste (lots), Worcester sauce, salt and pepper.

Cook for an hour then add prawns (or other seafood). Cook for another 15-30 minutes. Add lots of chopped parsley before serving in bowls over cooked rice with hush puppies:
1 cup plain flower
1 cup cornmeal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1 cup chopped spring onion tops
Enough milk to form a soft paste
Deep fry golf ball-sized lumps until golden brown.

Friday, January 07, 2011

A Decade of Fear

New visualization by David McCandless:
David McCandless
(click for larger version)

This metric is surprisingly accurate:
  • SARS deaths: 774
  • Bird flu deaths: 306
  • Swine flu deaths: >40,000 (still rising)
  • Killer wifi: 0

I Has App Store

App Store

I has Macintosh desktop Twitter client:

Macintosh desktop Twitter client

I has Macintosh desktop Evernote client (looks interesting):

Macintosh desktop Evernote client

I is playing and will report back :-)

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Posterous groups

James Clay alerted me to the new group blogs on Posterous. It's an interesting idea and I'd like to try it out. The Posterous announcement is clearly aimed at small private groups such as families:

No account sign up required. This means no more waiting for Mom to complete the signup process; instead, just add her email address and she's in your group. Every time you post to the group, she'll receive the full content as an email. She can reply directly to your email and everyone in the group gets her update.
I wonder what the practical numbers limit is on such a group – how many people before the noise becomes overpowering? And how long before the free 1GB fills up (btw, is that 1GB for each of your Posterous blogs or 1GB in total?)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Why virtual debate is not enough

Bioessays "Rather than attempting a wholesale reform of conference formats by making all question sessions more thorough-going, meeting organisers could pick a few sessions at which particular topics are to be addressed in greater depth, with longer periods for questions, and perhaps even with questioners ‘seeded’ in the audience. Setting up opportunities for stronger questioning could function as a training opportunity, and give younger generations of scientists the experience of more engaged and intensive modes of questioning. Poster sessions often give rise to extensive questions, but these interrogations tend to happen in more restricted exchanges (often dyadic) that are not shared with a larger audience. The same is true for letters between scientists. Our experience from both organising and attending multidisciplinary meetings is that when scientists are given enough time, the right context and the licence to overcome inhibitions, they take advantage by asking extensive and profound questions not unlike those philosophers and historians are trained to ask. Many scientists, senior and junior, relish structured opportunities for not only extended discussions of their own work, but also of others' work. Virtual environments are able to do this too, but on their own will not be enough to break the habits acquired at and reinforced during most standard meetings. Online forums can support communities that are already established because they provide an opportunity to extend existing debates, but virtual engagement is very inefficient for initiating de novo the sorts of creative social interactions that lead to new science being done.
There is, in all of this problem space, a wonderful opportunity for some valuable sociology and history of science, in which meeting behaviours and different sorts of meetings are compared over decades and across disciplines, so that a richer understanding of norms and their instantiation is gained. Sadly, we do not know of anyone doing this work at present. Nevertheless, we see in this discussion an important issue being raised that if reflected on openly and critically, and perhaps even at meetings, can raise awareness of what it means to be a scientist and to do science."

The scientific importance of asking questions at meetings: why virtual debate is not enough. Bioessays. 2011 33(1): 35-37

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2011: The Year Ahead in IT

"Interesting" article in Inside Higher Ed: 2011: The Year Ahead in IT

There is a persistent and internalized myth that the university campus is (or at least should be) a place that is on the cutting edge of technology innovation and adoption. Faculty, students, and staff have been conditioned to expect that well-designed, multiplatform, fully integrated technology with nearly unlimited customizations and superior graphical user interfaces should be the norm. That environment is their experience in their lives as private consumers - and no longer the reality of most university IT services providers. Frustration with the lack of agility, available resources and talents has led to a growing position that IT needs to get out of the way other than provisioning reliable network access, limited security and related regulatory and risk-mitigation roles.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Currently reading on the iPhone

Stanza Over the holiday I've been slowly working my way though a big pile of books - about half fiction and half candidates for SciReadr. But in addition, I've also been reading several eBooks.

I recently wrote that I liked the Stanza eBook application on the iPhone. I still do. If you told me before I bought the phone that I'd enjoy reading books on it, I'd have said you were mad. This shows why "experts" need to be practitioners and not just theorists :-) The secret is in the choice of book. Short formats work best. I currently have:

1. Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland. Comes as a free demo with Stanza. I've kept this for demonstration purposes (it has pictures ;-)

2. Cory Doctrow's With a Little Help. 12 short stories, ideally suited to the iPhone. Don't claim to be a geek unless you've read Epoch. Kept me entertained while I waited for an hour for Tron Legacy to start.

3. Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne. I've never read this although I've been meaning to for years. the diary format is again well suited to the iPhone.

Now I'm really looking forward to the iPad2 with the improved display resolution :-)