Friday, December 21, 2012

Review of the year 2012

Nothing happened
The trendy thing this year seems to have been to do a blog advent calendar. As usual, I have no problem resisting the blandishments of fashion, so here is my personal all in one review of the year - well, the tip of the iceberg that I choose to write about publicly.

I'll start with the small scale personal stuff.
I gave ten talks in five countries, joined three national committees and achieved one major award. I started five MOOCs and completed two; the two I completed were useful but not flawless - the others less so. After a welcome break over the past few months I have two more MOOCs coming up soon - based purely on the content rather than exploring platforms.
My three main blogs (Science of the Invisible, MicrobiologyBytes and AoB Blog) all had their busiest years ever. I ticked past a million pageviews on MicrobiologyBytes, a million views on YouTube and two million views on Flickr. In mid August a started an intermittent fasting diet and since then I have lost a stone in weight, taking my BMI from 24.7 to 22.9. My trousers now fall down a lot. It feels like it's been a non-stop year.

Technical Award 2012
My technical award for for the most improved product goes to Google Scholar: "for continued improvement". Google has added a slew of new and important features to Scholar over the course of the year, mostly around citations, but also in terms of increasingly useful literature recommendations. I now oscillate between Scholar and PubMed as my first choice bibliometric tool.

Academic Publishing
The speed of change in academic publishing picked up a gear. I have written more about publishing than any other topic this year. eLife and PeerJ came online. The rise of the Megajournals is unstoppable. Early in the year I experimented with open peer review. I got some stick for that, and I'm currently not sure how to move this forward. Recently I have been looking at Figshare.

My most important personal insight of 2012
Dark social is working for me, but I think the term has been misinterpreted by others. I need to put a more positive spin on it for 2013. If it helps, stop thinking about dark social and think about "contextual". Forget about "push" and think about "just in time". Feel better now?

And 2013?
I'm rather looking forward to 2013. I have personal plans in addition to anticipating significant new institutional commitments. These include both widening and deepening my involvement with professional bodies, and substantial changes to some of my teaching delivery. More about that here early next year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Assessment, technology and democratic education in the age of data

Much of my attention this week has been focused on the collision between data and management culture. Most of the time I have felt uncomfortable about what I've been hearing. This doesn't make me feel any better:

"...I would like to suggest now that powerful techniques to manipulate data can be easily co-opted to serve the restrictive frameworks of competitive, hyper-controlling, managerial accountability that characterise current cultures of summative assessment in many countries. In fact, recent technological developments may work against the inclusion of more sophisticated forms of evidence, such as those that assume constructivist and collaborative epistemologies, since the emphasis on machine-readable information tends to cause overreliance on quantifiable data."

Assessment, technology and democratic education in the age of data. Learning, Media and Technology, 18 Dec 2012 doi:10.1080/17439884.2013.752384
This paper contends that powerful techniques to manipulate data, enabled by technological and economic developments, can be easily co-opted to serve the restrictive frameworks of hyper-controlling, managerial accountability that characterise current cultures of summative assessment in education. In response to these challenges, research is urgently needed to increase our understanding of the impact that assessments have on individuals and society. The paper concludes that social research ought to contribute to the identification of responses – educational, technological and political – that can minimise inequalities and potential abuses through the encouragement of data literacy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How to become an HEA Fellow

Higher Education Academy After I announced recently that I had been made a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA), I was gratified by the many messages of congratulation I received. In conversations online and in person, several people also asked for advice about applying for HEA fellowships, so while I make no claim to be the right person to do this, I am happy to share my experience with you and make a few suggestions that I hope will be helpful to others considering applying.

1. Could you show me your application?
Certainly - here it is.
This is my application for a Senior Fellowship and may not be of much value to you, but I am happy to share this.

I urge you to read the guidance on the HEA website and make sure you are applying to the most appropriate level for you:
 AFHEA – Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
 FHEA – Fellows of the Higher Education Academy
 SFHEA - Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
 PFHEA – Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
Be realistic but don't be too modest about your achievements.

3. So many frameworks, so little time
The main problem I had writing my application was conflicting advice. HEA makes it clear that applications should align with the UK Professional Standards Framework. Fine. However, the application form and guidance notes for each level on the HEA site do not mesh clearly with the UKPSF. Try as hard as you can to map the strengths identified in your application to both sets of criteria, and be explicit in defining where you have done this.

4. Referees
You'll need two "referee statements" (references). If one of those can be from your line manager, great, but pick the two most supportive and influential people you can find to argue your case - and make sure they've read the UKPSF and reference it explicitly in their statements so that they don't just write you a bland endorsement.

5. Good luck with your application!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Senior Fellowship status of the Higher Education Academy

Higher Education Academy Dr Alan Cann and Dr Raymond Dalgleish achieve Senior Fellowship status of the Higher Education Academy

Two academics at the University of Leicester have been recognised for their distinctive contributions to higher education. Dr Alan Cann of the Department of Biology, and Dr Raymond Dalgleish of the Department of Genetics, have achieved the status of Senior Fellows of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) is an independent institution funded by grants from the four UK HE funding bodies and subscriptions from HE institutions. The professional recognition scheme contributes towards the professionalization of teaching, closely referenced to the UK Professional Standards Framework. This professional recognition is an asset recognised across the HE sector as evidence of expertise and commitment to enhancing and supporting the student learning experience.

The HEA works with individual academic staff, discipline groups and senior managers in institutions to identify and share effective teaching practices in order to provide the best possible learning experience for all students.

Dr Cann said: “Professional recognition in higher education has become ever more important with student expectations and competition among universities on the rise. As well as recognising the quality of teaching and pedagogic research within the School of Biological Sciences, this award also reflects well on the University by feeding into the public Key Information Set (KIS) data. It’s great to have achieved Senior Fellow status with the Higher Education Academy both or myself, and for my colleagues."

Dr Dalgleish added: “Students have higher than ever expectations with respect to their learning experience at university and meeting these expectations is crucial to student satisfaction and supporting their learning. Research is the driver for my teaching and I hope that my enthusiasm for research feeds through to my students, especially in the context of the innovative activities and teaching aids which I have developed to support my teaching. I am delighted to have been recognised by the HEA for my commitment over many years to improving the student experience at Leicester.”

Professor Craig Mahoney, Chief Executive at the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the national body which awards Fellowship against the UK Professional Standards Framework, said: "Dr Cann and Dr Dalgleish join a prestigious group of highly qualified academic colleagues from across the higher education community who have gained Senior Fellowship of the HEA. To achieve Senior Fellowship requires a great deal of sustained commitment and the ability to evidence core knowledge, professional values and diverse delivery skills well above the threshold of normal academic teaching. This is an outstanding achievement and we encourage other experienced staff in the university to explore the potential for recognition at this advanced level.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Oliver Burkeman Over the last year, Oliver Burkeman's weekly pop psychology column in the guardian has become one of the highlights of my weekly print indulgence. I was again motivated by this week's suggestion that we should adopt Peter Drucker's notion of "posteriorities" (the opposite of priorities), resulting in creation of a "stop-doing list".

To an extent, I have already adopted this principle in altering my communications strategy to a Dark Social-led approach. I wonder what else I can drop for 2013.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Speaking the same language? Are the principles of feedback transferable across disciplines?


Fernández-Toro, M., Truman, M., & Walker, M. (2012). Are the principles of effective feedback transferable across disciplines? A comparative study of written assignment feedback in Languages and Technology. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, doi: 10.1080/02602938.2012.724381
This paper describes an investigation into the written feedback provided by tutors on Language assignments, together with students’ responses to it. The study replicates a previous study of assignment feedback in Technology, in order to determine the extent to which the characteristics underlying common feedback practice and students’ perceptions of effective feedback vary according to discipline. Drawing on two Spanish modules, the researchers analysed over 4000 feedback comments on 72 scripts, identifying their category and depth in accordance with the classification used in the Technology study. With regard to categories, it was found that Language tutors’ comments related more to skills development than to content, the opposite tendency to that observed in Technology. With regard to depth, corrections formed a lower proportion of Language tutors’ comments, but the proportions indicating errors and providing explanations were both greater than in Technology. This analysis was followed by interviews with 20 of the students whose assignment feedback had been analysed. The differences and similarities between the ways feedback is perceived by students of Languages and Technology are discussed. The authors conclude that a methodological approach involving cross-subject replication is a powerful means of uncovering subject-specific assumptions on assignment feedback.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Learning outcomes - where's the evidence?

Bloom's taxonomy At the December meeting of our local PedR group yesterday, we discussed learning outcomes. This was an interesting topic and an enjoyable discussion, although I'm not convinced we made any progress, at least not in terms of converting the doubters. One of the threads to emerge from the discussion was Where's the evidence?

Shortly after the meeting, I came across this website from Carnegie Mellon University:
Solve a Teaching Problem
It's an interesting site and I don't want to be unduly critical of this approach to surface staff development. I hope the staff of Carnegie Mellon University benefit from it. But it does leave me asking myself, where's the evidence?

As far as learning objectives are concerned, one possible improvement we discussed yesterday was in future to try to present learning outcomes as a pedagogic rather than a managerial objective. That at least must help with the hearts and minds problem which learning outcomes face.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Google+ communities

Google+ communities Overnight, Communities appeared on Google+. Like you, my first thought was Oh no, closely followed by Do I need another online space?

Most people feel that Google+ is already too confusing, but in fact, Communities do look to offer a valuable new space. Unlike Google+ Pages, which are primarily a broadcast tool, Communities are much more open and designed for discussion. They are also more suited to professional use than other aspects of Google+ and provide a valuable differentiation of this service from Facebook, which most people want to use for friends and family.

So is this the long-awaited replacement for friendfeed?  I suspect not. Although it probably has the right attributes, it's too late now to win the uphill struggle  against Twitter. At the time, friendfeed didn't have any real competition in terms of professional online discussion space. I think it's probably now too late to woo people away from the deficient charms of 140 characters. I hope I'm wrong.

However, Google+ Communities may have their uses. They might well be more suited to courses and modules than a simple Google+ public stream. (Sadly, posting to a Google+ Community also spams your Google+ public stream.) However, until they prove their worth, I'm sticking with dark social because it's working for me.

Update: I see the Higher Education Community tag has already been grabbed by "Marketing and Communications Professionals". Hmm, land grab? I wonder how Google will resolve name disputes?

Thursday, December 06, 2012

And the winner is ... video

Metajournal discussions crawl on

Earlier this week I wrote about the idea of metajournals being the future of academic publishing outside of the commercial/megajournal hegemony.

In his comments on that post and in email correspondence, Martin Weller is still positive about the idea of an Edtech metajournal, but the nuts and bolts of how to make such a venture sustainable remain a stumbling block.

Informal discussions have also stared within the SGM Communications Committee (of which I am a member) about the possibility of a microbiology metajournal. The idea is that the involvement of the Society for General Microbiology would help to sustain this. I am interested in this because without new approaches such as this, I feel that the future for learned societies looks dodgy. Maybe universities should be more proactive.

On a related note, I see that Bioscience Education is also looking for a new Editor in Chief. Again, my feeling is that the metajournal model I described earlier is probably the way forward for publishing venture of this sort - encouraging and supporting contributors in publishing via either the Green or the Gold Open Access routes (as I have done recently myself) and then composing a curation layer via the metajournal format.

It's hard to sell these "radical" ideas to conservative academics hung up on REFophobia and that's the way we've always done it. But the clock is ticking and these is only limited time until most of the boutique journals we have now collapse. As ever, defining the timescale of the event horizon is the difficult part.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Why not auction your paper?

"Unfortunately the journals have the power. The authors are supplicants. But, of course, the journals, even the swankiest of them, need authors. No authors, no journal, no readers, no prestige, no fat salaries. Why not reverse the power gradient and auction your paper? Let the journals chase the authors rather than the other way round."

Monday, December 03, 2012


Another Saturday night. I'm sitting watching a film when an idea pops into my head.
I recently wrote that:
The general feeling was that the rise of megajournals is inevitable, and that specialist journals cannot survive economically. The new business model for boutique journals (such as Annals of Botany) might be to apply the brand (expertise, editorial board) widely across many platforms, becoming a metajournal. When? Difficult to say, but the event horizon is within 20 years (and might be much sooner)
I suppose I was post-processing that idea, and a Twitter conversation with Gary Foster and Paul Hoskinsson last week. So here it is:

Metabiology Metabiology, a biology metajournal created by a band of editors. No original submissions, content comes from existing open access peer reviewed journals (including post-publication peer review). Editors add a metalayer of commentary to the original publications, filter into streams, which is what people seem to want. It's a bit like one of the big tech blogs but based on peer-reviewed content from the megajournals (and any of the boutique journals which are OA and survive).

What's the business plan?
I'm an ideas guy not a money guy, but generating sufficient income for sustainability is vital. That's why this is a biology journal not an education journal (like Martin Weller's Meta Ed Tech journal). In this case the money comes from meta advertising, for example Digital Science's 1DegreeBio or Scrazzl. This would be semi-semantic and targeted by data mining.

How is this different from F1000?
It's free and it's open. All the content can be read by everybody. If it's not OA it's not there. CC-BY.

So are you actually going to do this?
It depends what you mean by "do". If you mean do I want to be a managing editor for a journal, no. I would be interested in advising or having a curation role. In many ways this is what I have been doing for the last six years at MicrobiologyBytes. I have no plans to go it alone with this, I don't think it would be any more sustainable than Meta Ed Tech.
I was thinking about pitching it to Digital Science, but I decided to blog about it first. If anyone from Digital Science (or anyone else) is interested, let me know.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A motto for our times

"Always make sure you are
   smarter than your phone"

They've Got Mail

Email Students who multitask by juggling IT during classes get better grades. But only if they use email or IM - if they use Facebook or text messaging in class, their grades go down. In other words, attention-juggling multitasking during classes is not inherently bad - it all depends how engaged the students are with the class. Communications tools such as email and IM may be a proxy for engagement.

Junco, Reynol. "In-class multitasking and academic performance." Computers in Human Behavior (2012)
The omnipresence of student-owned information and communication technologies (ICTs) in today’s college classrooms presents educational opportunities but can also create learning problems. Specifically, multitasking with these technologies can interfere with the learning process. Indeed, research in cognitive science shows that there are clear performance decrements when trying to attend to two tasks at the same time. This study examines the frequency with which students multitask during class using a large sample (N = 1,839) and examines the relationship between multitasking and academic performance as measured by actual overall semester grade point average (GPA). Students reported frequently text messaging during class but reported multitasking with other ICTs to a lesser extent. Furthermore, only social technologies (Facebook and text messaging) were negatively related to GPA.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Room 237: Being an inquiry into Room 237 in 1 part

Room 237 As a post-modern criticism of post-modern criticism Room 237 is a lot of fun. As a commentary on the state of the human condition it made me want to cry at times. Sure, I did my homework before I went watch Room 237 by watching The Shining again, and it occurred to me then that the film has penetrated my dreams. So I was interested in the parts about dream like sequences was interesting, although of course all the subliminal images stuff is bollocks.
Minotaur? Mine's a pint. I always liked you Lloyd, you were always the best.
I even have some sympathy with the guy who has spent so long thinking about The Shining that he now feels trapped in the Overlook Hotel. But continuity errors spun out as conspiracy theories I don't buy (probably because I'm not rooted in the distrust generated by the American political system which constantly spawns conspiracy theories). So Room 237 is a good film, but is it a great one? How can anyone claim to make a serious commentary on The Shining without even mentioning the most notable criticism of the film to date (The Simpsons, Treehouse of Horror V, 6(6)The Shinning, 1994).
Homer, it's Moe. Uh, look, some of the ghouls and I are a little concerned the project isn't moving forward.
While overprojecting the film running backwards and forwards simultaneously is interesting, the spurious correlations generated are nowhere near as informative as intercutting the film with Groening's critique:

So as I sit looking out of my impossible window counting the cars in the car park, I conclude that you should go and watch Room 237, it's a good film. But don't take it too seriously. And make sure you watch The Shining first.

2 x 3 x 7 = 42
2 + 2 = 5
Solve for x.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

tl;dr "Best Practices for Mobile–Friendly Courses"

Best Practices for Mobile–Friendly Courses

Digital Literacies For Biologists - Part 2

Digital literacy Last week over at the @leBioscience blog I published a post about Digital Literacies for Biological Science Students. The purpose of @leBioscience is to highlight best practice and research into teaching and learning within the School of Biological Sciences. The blog faces two ways - outwards to the World and inwards towards my colleagues. As is my practice, after I published the post, I distributed it locally via email. This Dark Social channel led to a lively and useful discussion. The purpose of this post is to surface and continue that dialogue.

After thinking about this over the weekend, it's clear that there is no real definition of digital literacy - the term obviously means different things to different people. That explains much of the wooliness of the debate. For that reason, it seems to me that the best way forward is to try to cut through the fog by adopting a pragmatic approach and avoiding the worst of the confusion.

Hard skills, e.g:
Statistical software (R)
Data processing
Bibliographic data
- and?
Teach in house, integrate with curriculum.

Soft skills, e.g:
Online identity
Social media
Keyboard skills (hugely important and almost always overlooked)
- and?
Outsource, augment curriculum.

I will be promoting this approach during out forthcoming curriculum redesign process. Will this view prevail, or will the whole thing get swept under the carpet because we can't agree what digital literacy is for our students?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A vital part of scholarship is getting the data out there

Figshare Scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public.

With roles in education changing so rapidly, what defines "scholarship" is a hot topic. Academic roles now involve so much mundane administrative activity that much effort is seemingly lost. But academic publication is changing to adapt to new technologies and new patterns of activity. One of the bright spots on the horizon of the education researcher is the development of new scholarly publication channels. The foremost of these is arXiv. But arXiv does not accept papers describing education research, beyond a small subset in computer science (and neither will Peer-J). Enter Figshare, which offers education researchers vital opportunities to get their data out there and engage in scholarly communication with others in their field.

I have recently written about my first experience with Figshare. Now I have used the site for the first time to publish results from my current research activity:
Alan J. Cann (2012) A trial of the TurnitIn GradeMark system in a mixed information economy. figshare.

Why Figshare?
This report is the first part of work on the HEA grant on audio feedback I currently hold (Engaging by Talking: Audio Feedback; University of Leicester Ethical Approval Ref: nna-6053). There will be two subsequent interim reports and a final synoptic paper in a traditional journal (plus presentations at various conferences and my non-stop drip feed of information via social media). But I can't wait for years for a paper to be published in a journal, I need this data out there so it can feed into management decisions within this institution. And if the data is useful to others and they don't have to what years to see it, then that is what scholarship should be in 2012.

Shouldn't you be taking your scholarly responsibility of sharing your data with the scholarly community - all that grey stuff that's never going to make it to an Impact Factor - more seriously? 

Monday, November 26, 2012

The unintended consequences of grading teaching

"Attempting to manipulate behaviour by incentivising the achievement of certain targets is not new, and the UK education system is blighted with the consequences. We know that such targets distort behaviour, from their first trials in the US Army during the Vietnam War. Influenced by the RAND Corporation's ‘rational choice theory’ and ideology that pure self-interest drives all human behaviour, the US Army introduced incentives for body counts, with the unintended consequence of a substantial increase in civilian casualties. Introducing performance management schemes into academic life requires quantitative measures of performance in academic work for performance indicators. This is the quantification of essentially qualitative developmental data. There is no good or useful purpose that such dubious quantifications can be put to, and I believe there are likely to be unintended consequences which are serious and detrimental for both teachers and teaching."

The unintended consequences of grading teaching (2012) Teaching in Higher Education 17(6), doi 10.1080/13562517.2012.744437
This article examines the possibility of a ‘Teaching Assessment Exercise’ and attempts to quantify teaching quality as part of performance management schemes for academics. The primary sources of data are identified as student evaluation of teaching (SET) and peer observation of teaching (POT). The conceptual and empirical issues in developing valid and reliable teaching quality indices from SET and POT are critically reviewed. The difficulties of using such data for academic performance management are discussed, focusing on the tensions between using such data both formatively for professional development and summatively for decisions about employment.

Academic liberation - also known as Figshare

focaccia Saturday night. The focaccia is in the oven but it needs another 10 minutes. I decide that the best way to grok Figshare is to publish some data there.

But what? I spent half an hour on Friday looking at some data in R - drawing graphs, quick statistical analysis - but I'm not quite sure where I'm going with that yet.

Click open iPhoto. Some old photographs. Pull out a few. Upload to Figshare, add metadata (category, tags, a few sentences of description). Click publish. Done. 10 minutes later I'm eating dinner.

Alan J. Cann. Larval development in Mantella aurantiaca. figshare.

This is how it should be. Academic publishing meets blogging. I'm not claiming this data will change the course of Western history, but it's doing more good on Figshare with its CC-BY licence than sitting in iPhoto on my hard disk. It feels liberating. It feels right, sharing knowledge rather than spending months arguing with journals, waiting for some lazy referee to get their arse in gear. How will I really judge success? I guess if the data gets cited that's a definite win. The Google Scholar integration will help me monitor that. (How long does it take Figshare content to get indexed by Google Scholar?) Having said that, I have in my head the quote that most conventionally published papers never get cited (reference needed). I haven't been able to track this data down. As a result of this discussion, the closest I have come is this (can you help?).

The downside? No peer review. Well, unless you choose to go to Figshare and leave comments (or do so via some other channel). Adding a post-publication peer review layer and Figshare would be the model for academic publishing in the 21st Century. The download data is useful but it's a shame there's no PLOS/Nature style breakdown of traffic sources (yet ;-) Also the CC-BY licence needs to be made explicit on the article page itself rather than burying it. Do CC-BY images on Figshare show up appropriately under Google Image Search? They don't seem to, which is a shame. I've made these feature requests on Figshare.

Am I going to add this publication to my CV? No, not because I am ashamed of it - quite the opposite - but it detracts from the narrative arc that I would like to describe there. Several people asked me online about what amphibian species I was working with. I have been a keen amateur herpetologist for many years but have never done any formal scientific work in this area (I was warned off a project in amphibian biology several years ago). I have accumulated a lot of data in a Citizen Science-y sort of way and I am delighted that Figshare allows me to make that useful for more formal scientific researchers.
The focaccia was good too. Another rock n' roll Saturday night.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy

The Martians Back in the summer asked people for recommendations for non-dystopian sci-fi. Top of the list by far was Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, which is indeed excellent.

Unlike most sci-fi this is a gentle and warm book, sad to the point of elegiac in parts. the science is excellent but is definitely second fiddle to the characterization and the protrayal of the devlopment of an emerging society.

This was a great crowdsourced recommendation and I unhestiatingly recommend it to you. Whatever NASA finally announce in the next few weeks the best way I can think of to prepare for it is to read these books.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thinking About Publication

Figshare This blog is my public notebook, a space for thinking out loud and working out my thoughts. If any of the conversations that take place here are of interest to others, then that is a bonus. Please excuse me while I work out my thoughts about the future of academic publication.

I have already described on this blog my experiments with self-publication and open peer review. I was reasonably satisfied with how the process worked, but I still hope for something better. In this post I'm going to try to set down my current thoughts about the evolution of academic publishing. This is very much a work in progress so please excuse me if it's not entirely coherent. I came back from Science Online London fired up and this is the next stage in me grokking the tools discussed there such as Figshare and ORCID.

I've had some bad personal experiences with academic publishers over the last couple of years, being messed around, wasting huge amounts of time and experiencing ridiculous delays. That was part of the reason I went down the open peer review road. I still believe that peer review is the gold standard for scholarship. I also believe that the current publishing model involving pre-publication gatekeepers who try to filter on the way in is broken. My open peer review experiments rightly received some criticism of possible bias. It remains a great sadness to me that education has not yet come up with our arXiv. eLife, Peer-J and even PLOS ONE do not provide a platform for my outputs (although PLOS ONE comes closest). So I remain very interested in peer-review platforms such as and peerage of science, but neither of these has attracted a critical mass yet, nor are they directed towards education research.

Why do I want to publish?
A wide variety of reasons, but my current preoccupations are:
  1. I want to achieve local impact with the projects I am working on. Traditional publication lends my work (spurious?) credibility which might help with that (although local Dark Social channels are currently more effective).
  2. Dissemination. I want my work to be discoverable by and useful to others.
  3. Institutional pressure. Still REF driven. If it ain't got an Impact Factor it don't exist. 
Why don't I just blog about it? I do, and intend to continue. I don't see the informal channel that blogging gives me as incompatible with a more formal publication channel for my output.

A test case?
I have a small piece of research I have been working on for the last few weeks involving a case study of audio feedback with undergraduates. This is part of a larger ongoing project. This is not a candidate for PLOS ONE - wrong subject matter, too small a study. Is it a candidate for Figshare? At first sight Figshare is not directed towards education research (according to the categories on the site), although some of the manuscripts which have been submitted come pretty close. Is this work suitable for Figshare? It probably fits best in the Social Sciences category. There is a certain amount of work about education already on Figshare but there is currently no top level Education category (although I'm told there might be soon).

Publication on Figshare with the doi and citeability that brings might be an advantage over blogging alone. Figshare is indexed by Google Scholar so is excellent for discoverability and citeability. The weakness of the Figshare platform from my perspective is that it does not easily lend itself to post-publication peer review of submissions. In spite of that it seems the best option available to me at this time for rapid publication of scholarly work.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Biology Open Educational Resources Remember the OeRBITAL project? I thought not.

OeRBITAL was a JISC OER Phase Two attempt to add value to OERs (and boost usage) through a metalayer of (pseudo) peer review. To say OeRBITAL sank without trace would be slightly unkind, but I think everyone would agree that it didn't set the world on fire. Why not? That can be debated long into the night (and has been), but one view might be that the approach (adding an additional curation layer) was flawed.

Society of Biology has recently received funding from the Higher Education Academy and JISC through the Open Educational Resources (OER) Phase Three Programme which has been used to develop a new website to promote OER that supports practical biology and research-led teaching in higher education. The website will feature peer reviewed lab and field work practical and protocols, health and safety information, multimedia alternatives to wet labs, videos and images. Rather similar to OeRBITAL - but hopefully more successful?

Disclosure: I received limited funding from the JISC OER Phase Two through the OeRBITAL project, and am acting as a reviewer (unfunded) for the new Society of Biology project.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What does grok mean?

Grok Regular readers will know I'm quite fond of the term grok. This sometimes results in puzzled looks, so here is my Guide to Grok (and why you should care):

Grok means to understand intuitively, deeply, empathically.

Grok is what the Internet calls scholarship.

Grok is the knowledge you cannot unlearn.

Grok is a verb. Grok is active. Grok is a doing word.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The effect formerly known as Slashdot

reddit Cast your mind back to when you started using Twitter. Remember how idiotic is seemed? How can you achieve anything useful in 140 characters? Wind forward to 2012. Welcome to reddit.

Over the last week I've been thinking a lot about Impact, spurred on by #solo12. There are lots of tools I should be making better use of, including YouTube, where I've had over a million views but have never engaged properly, and new tools such as FigShare and Orcid that I have just started to explore. After the conversation at Solo12 though, I decided to invest the limited time I have available at present grokking reddit. Any tool influential to crash the PLOS servers and give AoB Blog a year's worth of traffic in a single day must be worthy of a closer look.

WARNING - if you're not familiar with reddit, before you start exploring note that a lot of reddit is NSFW. You have been duly warned!

Although it might be under your radar, reddit is big - 3.8 billion pageviews and more than 46 million unique visitors in October 2012. (Although according to Alexa, 4chan is slightly higher than this). The domain is ranked 106th in UK, 64th in the USA. Typical users are males in the age range 18-24, no children, some college education, and browse reddit from school/work. We know those demographics are accurate because reddit feels like stepping into an episode of Big Bang Theory. This the first thing to understand about reddit - it is a community, not a platform; although having said that reddit is not a platform -  University of Reddit? Of course. My own institution has a subreddit, as does yours, You've never been there, but it's an education ;-) But don't take my word for all this. Reddit is the place Obama goes when he wants to win an election.

Reddit is devoted to pricking your ego, so it's not about friends or followers. Karma is important, but not as important as grokking the culture (each subreddit [tribe] tends to develop its own when it reaches a critical mass). Consequently, I've been giving my karma a gentle footrub, becoming familiar all the in-jokes. Of course, overall intelligence works at the gross-out movie level of the normal Gaussian curve, but misunderestimate the redditors at your peril - the reddit community is sharper than Sheldon on modafinil.

At first acquaintance  reddit is crude and confusing, it feels like the Internet felt 15 years ago. This is deliberate - reddit repays effort. Although it needs more work, my filtering is now good enough that it's starting to pay me back in valuable content. I'm not a fan of gamification, but the only way to grok reddit is to play up and play the game. "Front page of the Internet" is too strong (Google is still that) but reddit is much quicker and more agile than Google. And a lot funnier too. Once you get the joke.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Biology Open Educational Resources

Biology Open Educational Resources The Society of Biology has launched a new website which aims to identify, collect and promote existing bioscience open educational resources (OERs):

The site supports practical biology and research-led teaching in higher education and features peer reviewed lab and field work practical and protocols, health and safety information, multimedia alternatives to wet labs, videos and images.

Google Scholar Metrics Grouped by Research Area

Google Google Scholar Metrics I've been doing lots of thinking about impact this week, mostly about altmetrics, but also about formal citation. For five years I have been constantly looking for the bibliometric information I need to boost my career. This morning I have it. And it comes from Google.

In the latest of a dramatic series of improvements over the last year, Google Scholar has just announced bibliometrics for research areas.

This new data allows you to see the top 20 publications in each area ordered by their five-year h-index and h-median metrics. To see which articles in a publication were cited the most and who cited them, click on its h-index number. Such data has been commonly available for the Sciences for some time, but Scholar has now brought this to the Social Sciences, and specifically, the fragmented area of publications in education research. Subheadings available include:
Click on the h-index number for each publication to see the most highly cited articles. So go away and read:
And then go forth and publish.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

#DarkSocial Students

I recently set up blog as a support site for students I teach. It's not password protected or truly private, but I don't advertise it's existence and it isn't indexed by search engines, so the only way students arrive at the site is if I send them there, which I do via dark social channels (VLE, email, etc). This means that the server logs tell an interesting story about the technology our students are using to access information.

74% arrive via Windows, many of these from university computers in open access labs. The preponderance of Windows doesn't surprise me as this is "work" and we know that students often prefer not to pollute their personal devices with such content. 10% arrive on Macintoshes, although if you add in iOS that climbs to 17%. 12% use mobile devices to access the content. (I suspect the iPad is me as I haven't seen any evidence of our students using them.) And yes, they really, really do like Chrome, confirming my informal observations.

There's something else I can do with this - use the server stats to probe the Dark Social referrers. In spite of apparent passivity on Google+, 41% of incoming traffic actually comes from there (very high lurker rate - they observe but will not contribute). The rest comes from my mailshots: 35% from GMail, 21% from Yahoo and 3% from Hotmail.

I like this data. In spite of the fact I hate myself for resorting to DarkSocial, this is just another way it is working for me currently.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

#solo12 reflection

Solo12 I have been at four out to the five Science Online London (a.k.a. SpotOn London) conferences, and the first one was the first ever virtual event I attended. It's the conference I most look forward to each year. For me, this year felt different. It felt like the year solo came of age.

On the first day I had my doubts though. It started well enough. I was expecting Ben Goldacre to do the book talk, but he didn't, instead giving a plea in the usual Goldacre expletive-laced style about harvesting the low hanging fruit of cheap data that has been overlooked rather than over elaborating every study into a €1bn monster. It was entertaining, and it was exactly the right talk for this meeting.

After that ... it wasn't until the last session of the day that the meeting kicked off for me. It came alive in Ian Mulvany's megajournal session - people fighting for the microphone. The general feeling was that the rise of megajournals is inevitable, and that specialist journals cannot survive economically. The new business model for boutique journals (such as Annals of Botany) might be to apply the brand (expertise, editorial board) widely across many platforms, becoming a metajournal. When? Difficult to say, but the event horizon is within 20 years (and might be much sooner):

But what is the business model to sustain the Cormaic McCarthy style bands of roving editors that will run these metajournals? I talked to David Kavanaugh from scrazzl who has some interesting ideas about how that could happen.

After a sociable Sunday night in The Fellow and big big greasy fried breakfast, I was fired up for day two. Our workshop on altmetrics and impact seemed to go well. At least, it was standing room only, but judge for yourself:

After that it was interesting stuff - sessions and private conversations - before I had to run for a train and skip the traditional closing ceremony in The Betjeman Arms.

Already looking forward to next year.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

SpotOn London 2012 #solo12

For the next couple of days I'll be at the SpotOn London 2012 conference #solo12

I'm helping with a workshop session on Assessing social media impact on Monday 12th November at noon. The hashtag for this session is #solo12impact
and the introductory slides are here, so please join in!

Friday, November 09, 2012

Twitter fame is fleeting, but it's better than no fame at all

Twitter fame is fleeting, but it's better than no fame at all. Yet more evidence that being mentioned on Twitter = citations.


How the Scientific Community Reacts to Newly Submitted Preprints: Article Downloads, Twitter Mentions, and Citations. (2012) PLoS ONE 7(11): e47523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047523
We analyze the online response to the preprint publication of a cohort of 4,606 scientific articles submitted to the preprint database between October 2010 and May 2011. We study three forms of responses to these preprints: downloads on the site, mentions on the social media site Twitter, and early citations in the scholarly record. We perform two analyses. First, we analyze the delay and time span of article downloads and Twitter mentions following submission, to understand the temporal configuration of these reactions and whether one precedes or follows the other. Second, we run regression and correlation tests to investigate the relationship between Twitter mentions, arXiv downloads, and article citations. We find that Twitter mentions and arXiv downloads of scholarly articles follow two distinct temporal patterns of activity, with Twitter mentions having shorter delays and narrower time spans than arXiv downloads. We also find that the volume of Twitter mentions is statistically correlated with arXiv downloads and early citations just months after the publication of a preprint, with a possible bias that favors highly mentioned articles.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

EdgeRank - honest broker?

facebook Something changed at Facebook recently and people are trying to figure out what.

Ars Technica asked Is Facebook “broken on purpose” to sell promoted posts?

TechCrunch rebutted this: Killing Rumors With Facts: No, Facebook Didn’t Decrease Page Feed Reach To Sell More Promoted Posts

"Facebook’s news feed ranking algorithm (widely known as EdgeRank) chooses between hundreds or thousands of pieces of content each day to show the few dozen most relevant stories in each person’s news feed. Facebook told me in February that the average Page reaches 16 percent of its fans with each post. That’s because some fans aren’t online when the post is published, a specific post hasn’t gotten much engagement from the people Facebook already showed it to, and because if you don’t interact with that Page when you do see its posts, Facebook will only show you them every once in awhile."

"What should Pages do now that they know what happened? Focus on publishing high-quality content. Don’t post too often and don’t cram your marketing down people’s throats. Be entertaining and informative. Then follow your analytics closely, consider hiring experts that can help, and refine your strategy. If your Page’s reach decreased, I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad Page, business, or admin. You just need to work on finding relevant content to post and delivering it with a natural non-spammy tone."

Robert Scoble chipped in.

If you take all this at face value, the implication is that looking spammy (overposting?) is bad. Instead of getting people to Like your pages, you want them to be "friends" with you. Or you just say Facebook has jumped the shark and move on to Google+.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Altmetrics everywhere - but what are we missing? #solo12impact

This post is a taster for the Assessing Social Media Impact workshop I'll be leading at the SpotOn London 2012 conference this weekend - come along or tune into the hashtags: #solo12 | #solo12impact


In the last couple of years altmetrics (the creation and study of new metrics based on social media for analyzing and informing scholarship) have popped up across the web.

PLOS Nature

We have a plethora of numbers, but what should we be measuring? A recent blog post by Xavier Lasauca i Cisa (via Brian Kelly) suggests the following Key Performance Indicators:




The reality is that this is too complex for those of us with lives and jobs. We need services / dashboards to provide and digest this information. Lots of start-ups will provide this service at considerable cost (Social Mention, ChartBeat and Plum Analytics are just a few that spring to mind). In reality, for reasons of time and cost, most individuals have to settle for simpler options:

Social media metrics

It astounds me that Klout continues to attract so much attention when it has been so thoroughly discredited - Gink is a more useful tool in my opinion ;-)
The best of this bunch is probably Kred, which at least has a transparent public algorithm. In reality, the only tool in this class I use is CrowdBooster, which has a number of useful functions:



I have found this analysis to be useful, but in terms of predicting what content will be popular and what won't - i.e. the mysterious going viral - good luck with that. There's a large dose of chaos involved and although you may be able to convince investors you know the Secrets of the Interwebz, the reality is there will always be more misses than hits (because that's what the maths says).

The elephant in the room

Take a look at your blog or server stats. Much of your traffic comes from what Google calls "organic", i.e. search. If you've been a busy bee on the self-promotion front, you'll also have a goodly slice of referral traffic from all those social networks you've invested so much time in.

Dark Social

EdgeRank Where is all that direct traffic coming from? Welcome to the murky world of Dark Social (private channels such as email and IM), and the reason why measuring Impact is even harder than you think. So even before Facebook broke the newsfeed with EdgeRank, you didn't really know what was going on.

In the #solo12impact workshop at SpotOn London 2012 we will discuss all this and much more. In the meantime:

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

9% Ipsum

Turnitin Yesterday I needed some dummy Turnitin reports, so I bunged 200 words of Lorem ipsum through Turnitin - and got a 9% match.

I'd been assuming that plenty of lorem ipsum had been run through Turnitin previously and so the match would be higher than 9% - but maybe not?
At any rate, I suspect that this is telling us something interesting about the structure of the underlying Turnitin database. However, it will be for smarter statistical minds than mine to figure out exactly what that is....

Monday, November 05, 2012

5 years

5 years

It seems like longer. Twitter was my eye-opener as far as PLNs were concerned. I wonder where we'll be in five years time.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Desert Island Apps

Handheld Learning

Over at the new Handheld Learning blog, I wrote a post about my Desert Island Apps - the apps I couldn't live without. Read it there - and feel free to subscribe for future revelations :-)

In which Facebook scuppers my plans but #DarkSocial comes to the rescue

Facebook promoted posts As I described previously, making Google+ usage voluntary and non-assessed this year has meant that less than one third of students on my first year key skills course (n = 280) have registered for Google+, while less than 1% of them are active users (i.e. contributions, comments or +1's). Dark social tools such as email are an effective way of contacting students, but are very inefficient in terms of staff time with large numbers of students.

As a more inclusive alternative to the minority of Google+ registered students, I've been looking for a platform where I can push dynamic module-related content to students for discussions and optional contributions. One way I was considering doing this was by using a Facebook page as a student support channel. Efficient use of my time suggests a single Facebook page, although the need for course-specific discussions argues for one page per module.

But this intention changed recently, after Facebook introduced promoted posts. Unless you pay for each post, only a small, randomly selected proportion of people who "Like" the page will see the post on their wall. How many? No-one knows - estimates range from 5-50% of the Likes. But since few people visit the page itself, blocking posts in users home pages renders Facebook as useless as a support channel.

My solution has been to start a student support blog (on Blogger). By using a tag for each module I am teaching on I can create a module-specific content stream. After composing and publishing posts on , I can make new posts a splash screen for each module on the course Blackboard site, together with a link to the module archive (via the tag). Blogger also has an option to email new posts on publication, which I have set to send them to me. I can then forward the item to the module email list via BCC.

It is early days for this approach, but the blog stats so far indicate that the combination of email and Blackboard item mean that essentially 100% of students see each message, and the blog also serves as a discussion board for comments and questions in addition to private email correspondence.

I am not publicizing my student support blog - robots.txt is set to "go away" - the contact with students is thus direct, via email or Blackboard. Even though it is based on blogging, this Dark Social approach to student support is far more efficient than email now that social networks such as Google+ and Facebook have become non-viable for this purpose.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Dontcha just hate it when you have to agree with Gove?

Maths I've been banging on about the pure maths takeover of the maths A level for some time when what most people (and certainly most science students) need is an applied maths approach. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Michael Gove when he says the same thing.

Better late than never I suppose.

Disclosure: I am currently acting as an advisor for the Pearson review of the EdExcel A level mathematics curriculum.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

E-Learning in the 21st Century

Cover "There is a technological revolution taking place in higher education. The growth of 'e-learning' is being described as explosive, unprecedented and disruptive. E-Learning in the 21st Century provides a framework for understanding the application and characteristics of e-learning in higher education. The authors discuss their extensive research from technological, pedagogical and organizational perspectives in order to create practical models and release the full potential of e-learning. This in-depth understanding will give direction and guidance to educators who wish to facilitate critical discourse and higher-order learning through the use of electronic technologies in a networked learning context."

E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice. (2013) Terry Anderson, (Google eBook)

Coursera Peer Assessment - Writing in the Sciences

MOOC I finally got a chance to experience the Coursera peer assessment model on the Writing in the Sciences course. It works like this:

1. Each student has 7 days to submit a piece of writing (300-500 words in this case) via the website.

2. During the following 7 days, each student must grade 5 (or more) pieces of work from other students. This is done on a 0-3 mark scheme driven by criterion-referenced rubrics covering Clarity and Concision, Language and Style, Focus and Organization, e.g. for Clarity and Concision:
0 points: No score (not explained - nothing submitted?)
1 point: "The writing is difficult to understand throughout; may contain  substantial clutter and serious grammatical problems."
2 points: "The writing is sometimes difficult to understand; may contain needless clutter, unexplained jargon, or grammatical errors."
3 points: "The writing is clear, concise, and easy to understand."
There is also a section for short freetext feedback, and markers are asked to resubmit two versions of the original text, one marked up with suggested changes (strikethrough for removal, bold for addition), the other a final mofidied version.

3. Marks are then returned via the website.

I was quite impressed with the process, which worked well in my case. I am well aware there has been lots of gaming on other Coursera courses. I received four peer assessments with brief but useful feedback. (My mark was 83% - if you care.)

Would it work as well with my students?  I'd like to think so but I'm not sure. For one thing it's not clear that our students are as confident or motivated as the participants in this course. For another, there is the issue of marking cartels as students indulge in the prisoner's dilemma (as they perceive it) with summative assessment. Sadly, I can't see a system like this being a goer for us.

Would I recommend my students to take this course? No, because frankly the course content is not very good. Would I want them to have the experience of having their writing commented on in this way? Absolutely. Have I achieved my personal learning outcomes for this course?
  • To improve my writing (let go of academic writing habits) - No, because I have only participated in a superficial way after becoming disenchanted with the lectures. But two piece of writing simply aren't enough to form new habits.
  • Explore practical strategies of how to teach and assess writing of large groups of students online - Yes, although I don't see myself of being in a position of being able to put a similar strategy in place for summative assessment in the foreseeable future even if a suitable platform was available.

And that's it. I'm taking a break from MOOCs for a while to concentrate on other things, including the #cfhe12 cMOOC which I simply haven't had time to participate in, and which has failed to motivate me because of the excessive North American focus and lack of sufficient structure to make me want to continue. My learning outcomes for this course were:
  • To compare my view of HE with that of others - where does it align? - Fail, because I simply didn't participate intensively enough to achieve this.
  • To experience d2l platform - Shockingly bad instance, although I'm quite happy to believe that d2l can be much better than this if used with more care and thought.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Visualization or curation?

I've bumped into some interesting analytics tools over the last week I'd like to share with you.

The first is Crowdbooster, which is saw at the Eurosurveillance meeting I spoke at last week. Crowdbooster does a number of useful impact-related things, analysing your content to show which items get most takeup. One simple but useful thing it does it to tell you how many of your followers are online at different times of day. For example, in the following image, compare blog one with blog two:

Spot the UK-based 9 to 5ers who read blog one, compared with the more varied distribution for blog two, which gets a lot of views from North America. Methinks I need to work evenings more with blog two. Fortunately, Crowdbooster lets you schedule tweets :-)

The second tool is Infomous, which I have admired for some time - it is used to good effect on The Economist website. Here's a view of this blog:

Other than pure eye candy, I haven't figured out how to make best use of Infomous yet. Is it an probably an improvement on the existing tag cloud in the sidebar of this blog?

I'm sold on the idea that data visualization is an important tool in fighting information overload, but I'm not convinced that most of the tools currently available are as valuable as high quality curation.