Thursday, March 31, 2011

In which your brave blogger ventures into the enchanted kingdom of Branson's elves

Times are hard at Casa del Cuts (thank that nice Mr Clegg for the fees hike), so along with other domestic frugality, last night I went on a quest into the magical kingdom of Branson's elves, where all is not as it seems. told me that I could save £12.50 a month by chopping 64 TV channels we never watch, but after a long search, the truth was revealed that although you can upgrade your Virgin services via the website, you can't downgrade them, so I was forced into a perilous journey through the realms of 0845.

My first encounter was with Intern Elf, who told me that all lines were busy and put me on hold. After repeating this process several times, Intern Elf eventually permitted me access to Junior Elf. Junior Elf was pleasant but, shall we say, one wand short of spellbinding. The first task they set me was to tell them my password. I began, one character at a time - which is when the problems started. First character, fine, but when I moved onto the second character, it became apparent that Junior Elf could not retain more than one character at a time, so we had to go back to the beginning and start again. After repeating this process five or six times, Junior Elf put me on hold. When Junior Elf returned, we started the whole process again, including being put on hold. To their credit, Junior Elf clearly realized their limitations and on their third manifestation, decided to transfer me to Middle Ranking Executive Elf. After putting me on hold for some time.

Middle Ranking Executive Elf was a different kettle of fish altogether - bold, efficient, an Elf who gets things done. After expressing their incredulity that I wanted to downgrade my TV package, Middle Ranking Executive Elf put me on hold (see, they've done something already). On their return, Middle Ranking Executive Elf was ready to discuss money. Although I would save £12.50 a month, Virgin would then charge me £5 a month for the Virgin box. At that point, Middle Ranking Executive Elf "had an idea". They put me on hold. When they returned, they wanted to make me an offer. If I agreed to upgrade my broadband package, doubling the speed to 20 megs, they would cut my total bill by £20 a month, leaving me with the same TV package as before. Clearly this was a trap, so in a clever double bluff, I agreed. In a final flourish, Middle Ranking Executive Elf put me on hold. On their final appearance, they told me that Virgin now owed me money and would cut £4 off my next bill. And then they were gone.

Later that night, I sat trembling in front of Jamie's TV School, waiting for the whole thing to go wrong and Virgin to cut off all my services. But so far, so good. And I didn't even have to mention the "S" word.

Friday, March 25, 2011

So the iPad2 is ordered

Here's a question for you to ponder: Are iPads masculine or feminine?

According to the French, they are masculine, but only because adopted English words are inevitably masculine. And what do they know?

Facebook's response to Quora

Facebook Questions

Panicked by the press that Quora got recently, Facebook has rushed out Facebook Questions. The concept is simple, you ask a question, your "friends" answer it. The concept is deeply flawed. The people I enjoy talking to on Facebook aren't my friends, they're a collection of avatars I've made for my amusement not my education, and an audience for my jests. ("Introducing Facebook Sociopath - the friend you keep in a box!") And "Advertisers: Can Pages ask or answer a question? Yes, Pages can ask and answer questions". So forget friends then. And of course, your questions go viral...

This looks to me like Zuckerberg's second misstep, after the Facebook Connect debacle. Zuck is wrong about people only wanting one space online. We live in interesting times. Microsoft is dead, Google can't do social and the cracks are starting to appear in Facebook. Roll up roll up, who's next?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

"I’m delighted to say that we have reduced the Annals of Botany Open Access charges to £1000 GBP/ $1615 USD/ €1160 EURO for all papers. Open Access papers are freely accessible to everybody over the web, and all rights for reuse, republication and dissemination lie with the authors. Our discussions suggest that the high charges are a major limitation to wider uptake of open access across the whole plant research community, and this 40% reduction makes our charges substantially lower than those of all the major on-line/open-access-only subject journals. We have the additional advantages that our open-access papers are distributed not just on-line but in the printed journal. Like all our authors, the open access authors have no charges for full-colour in their papers and receive free reprints. For authors from low-income developing countries, we completely waive the open access charge so these authors can distribute their papers more widely. Full details are given at Our Annals of Botany subscription costs will be reduced in line with the open-access content in the journal, so this will allow us to increase the number of papers we publish without increasing the subscription. Authors make a decision about open-access after acceptance of their manuscript so editorial processes are not changed."

Alan J. Cann is Internet Consulting Editor for the Annals of Botany. This makes him happy :-)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wiki party - you're all invited #oerbital

OERbital I've finally started my contributions to the OeRBITAL project. Over the next few weeks I'll be adding my contributions to the Microbiology page. The OeRBITAL wiki is not open for public contributions, but I am calling here for your suggestions of good open educational resources in microbiology, so comments below please!



Monday, March 21, 2011

Don’t call it OER. Call it Creative Commons #OeRBITAL

"Having been involved in OER projects for two years I can confidently say that no-one outside an OER project uses or understands that term. Use it when you are in the room with someone from JISC, but if you want to see eyes light up and smiles on faces, show your academic colleagues that you understand that designing teaching and learning materials is a creative act and that the way they teach is a unique combination of style, design, presentation and personality. You’ll get a better response."

Melissa is dead right. The OER "community" is alienating teachers by downplaying their role.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Preserving Video

Technology evolves, and over the next few weeks several items of the kit I use is due to be upgraded. In the process of planning this, I realized that it would no longer be possible (or possibly, no longer be easily possible) to connect my ancient video handycam to a computer. This set off a train of thought about the content stored in that format. Our children growing up, dead parents, dead pets, lives on tape. Lots of stuff I want to preserve. The question is, how?

I'm currently in the process of digitizing all the old tapes before my ability to do so is degraded by new computer purchases. But what to do with it then? What format is currently most future proof? Have you faced this issue, and if so, what solution did you come up with?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Observing Emerging Student Networks on a Microblogging Service

xxx The impact of social networks on lives of the majority of young adults has been enormous, although their impact on education is less well understood. Some consideration has been give to the role Facebook plays in higher education and in the transition from secondary to tertiary education, but little analysis has been conducted on the role of the microblogging social network Twitter. By examining the use made of this service by two cohorts of students, this study found that Twitter is easy for students to use and popular with the majority once they have experience with it. For this study different patterns of use between individuals in the study and between the two different student cohorts were observed, as was the emergence of informal online peer support networks. The results of this study suggest models for future use of microblogging services.

Joanne Badge, Stuart Johnson, Alex Moseley, Alan Cann. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 7, No. 1. (March 2011)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Tipping Point #Rgasm

Phwoar look at the error bars on that Yesterday I think I reached my own personal tipping point with R. Even though I haven't spent 10,000 hours working on it, plotting this graph was the key. I also have a plan now for both an assessment and a dissemination strategy. I haz a happy.

I also downloaded RStudio and had a play. I can see the point of the RStudio Server, but I'm struggling a bit with the rationale for the desktop version, presumably because I'm not yet a R power user. Or it could be that I'm already a big enough Rsnob not to care for GUIs and pretty colours. (Some might say that makes me an Rsole). Enough Rpuns.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


R It went well yesterday with the new R course. Using my new found knowledge, I am able to sum the day up in an equation:
Incomprehensible! <- numberwang(data, p=1)
I'm still at the naming of parts stage rather than the publication on phase however.

(Note: For the literary minded, the allusion in this post is to Henry Reed's Naming of Parts. For the non literary-minded the allusion is to Mitchell and Webb's Numberwang!)

Friday, March 04, 2011

Cracking the mysteries of R

For the last two years I've been slowly working my way towards a new approach to teaching statistics. As my teaching load eases off I've finally had time to work on my R-based introductory statistics course. Don't get me wrong, I love teaching - it's the reason I work here rather than in the research institute I left to take this job. But when you're teaching several classes a day, it just doesn't leave room for other things. Such as thinking.

Finally, the new course is starting to take shape. Its physical form is limited (and not publicly visible) at present, but its shape is growing stronger in my mind. And finally, due to several colleagues here who have helped me, I have finally broken the log jam which has meant that it hasn't been more than a concept up until now. With Eran's help, I can now finally get data into R (it's taken me two years to do that), and so I have been able to explore and tinker with it, gradually building up material that might be suitable for first year students. Progress is slow, but any progress at all is gratifying. Over the past week I've started to think about other issues, such as:

  • What role could StatsBytes have in the writing (as opposed to the delivery) of this course? My original plan was to use StatsBytes as the vehicle to construct the course, but because of the problems I've had with R and because I'm adapting an existing course this hasn't really worked out. I'm still hoping the microchunked uncourse approach can play a role in the development of the new module.
  • How do I assess competence in a class of nearly 300 students? MCQ's - so hard to resist as the pressure grows.
  • And where, if anywhere, do we go with this after the Year 1 module? Is that where StatsBytes comes in?

I don't have answer to these questions yet...


Thursday, March 03, 2011

Face to face #scireadr

Screenshot hasn't exactly set the internet on fire. That's fine, it wasn't meant to. It was only ever part of our strategy to encourage students to engage with long-form literature. Part two is the Book Group. We held the first meeting yesterday. To protect the confidentiality of individuals, I won't be going into details here, but I have some general thoughts I would like to publish.

Attendance was ... sparse. There are many possible reasons for that. Some are local and particular, such as the fact the meeting was on a Wednesday evening when students have had no timetabled teaching in the afternoon so may not have been on campus. In addition, it is the last week of first half modules for first year students, so assessment deadlines were bunched up. Other possible reasons are more general, and discussed below.

We had a good discussion about Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, the book up for discussion. To my surprise, it received a good kicking. The general feeling was that Bryson had been overambitious with the scope of this book, and in the eyes of those present, had fallen short, coming up with a book of lists. We discussed issues of authority and authenticity, and whether as a non-scientist, Bryson was the right person to write this book. The consensus was that he was not sufficiently critical of the science or the scientists he discusses, and falls short on that count. A more serious criticism was that the characters portrayed came across as two-dimensional and unengaging, presumably due to Bryson's lack of authority in science. Although I stood up for his portrayal of the Revd. William Buckland, people felt that Bryson had done a particularly poor job on Darwin and missed a big opportunity in the process.

After an hour or so, the discussion became more general, ranging across student fees, over-assessment, and how to run a book group. There was a feeling that society/societies had been overrun by more flexible personal networks - the cult of the individual. Much emphasis is placed on volunteering for reward. None of this helps in maintaining non-core organizations such as student or learned societies where the workload is great and the rewards uncertain. It was felt that going to a book group needed to become a habit, since no-one had participated in one before. The conflict here is that the frequency of a habit-forming schedule (e.g. once a month) is likely to be too great a commitment for most students. This is the core of the SciReadr experiment - can it extend student's knowledge without cracking the assessment whip? Clearly this is a long term project which has a long way to go. We hope to arrange another meeting in the summer term.

These are my personal views of the meeting, if you were there and saw things a different way, please leave a comment.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A discussion breaks out #oerbital

A private email discussion has broken out among the contributors to OeRBITAL project as to whether it is a good idea to label resources on the wiki with "levels", e.g. using the Bologna criteria.

I say no as this tends to restrict rather than promote reuse, but what do you think?


Evernote Evernote announced an updated iPhone client. It has lots of additional bells and whistles.

I badly want to like Evernote. I think it's a great application, really useful. But I don't use it, although I've tried. The reason is that Evernote is a destination which doesn't fit into my workflow. Because it doesn't feature in my activity streams, I keep falling off the wagon.

I need Evernote functionality where my attention is focused, for example in Google Reader.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Reusability Paradox #oerbital

Learning Analytics and Knowledge The more I read Doug Clow's reports of the Learning Analytics and Knowledge meeting, the more upset I am that my teaching load means that I was not able to go (next one in Milton Keynes please!). Today, I was particularly struck by this item in Doug's reportage:
Reuse paradox, proposed by David (Wiley?). We have small objects – photo, table – is very easy to use, but very little educational context. At the other end, richer, bigger objects, with more context, are harder to reuse.
Tried to measure reusability. Split in to three sizes – Small (components in slides, images in Wikipedia); Medium (modules in Connexions, libraries in software); Large (courses in curricula, WebAPI in mashups). Found that reuse is about 20%, regardless of size. Could be higher.
This certainly matches my experience. Seems like the less context we give items (educational or not), the better. Everything is indeed miscellaneous.