Wednesday, February 29, 2012

We're all publishers now

Someone just told me that an academic publisher quoted them a fee of 22500 E to do an open access book. Wow, now they want us to _pay_ them
Martin Weller's tweet yesterday set me thinking about publishing overnight. I don't have a problem with commercial publishing. In a free market, companies can charge what they want. And why would a company pay for open access out of their own revenue stream? That's not something you see Sky, Virgin or Marks and Spencer doing - why should they? But that doesn't mean there's not a problem. The problem is that academia is incompatible with commercial publishing models. That's why we need new publishing models. Inevitably, these will involve the Internet. And equally inevitably, they will not fit into the traditional commercial model.

But along the line, somebody somewhere has to pay the costs.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Mikes I was recently invited to be a panelist at a forthcoming event. For reasons I don't completely understand, I said yes.

I'm not a big fan of panels at conferences.  I usually find them boring, and I've had some bad experiences in the past. My feeling is that being a "good" panelist (i.e. playing the game), requires rather more ego than I like to display in public.

But having agreed, I've put together an opening statement as requested by the organizers, and now I'm asking myself, how do we leverage emerging technologies to open up academic work to policymakers?
Your suggestions on a postcard as a comment please.

Monday, February 27, 2012

BBC Future is so 1999

BBC Future The BBC has a new website: BBC Future. But if you live in the UK, the BBC don't want you to see it. It's so futuristic it doesn't have an RSS feed, but of course you can see the Twitter feed. And of course, if you have half a brain you can resolve the URL by bouncing it though a proxy:

And this is the future? Feels a lot like 1999 to me.

Compare and contrast - baby steps in the altmetrics jungle

Google Scholar

The return of Socky?

Long term followers of this blog will know all about Socky, and I get regular requests for his return. I'm regularly adding videos to my statistics course, and I've been agonizing about using Socky for a while. This week I did some informal student polling, and the result is - no Socky:

Watch this video at 480p or higher for better resolution

However, rest assured that Socky is not dead, he's only sleeping and will return when England's need is greatest. In fact, I have a project in mind that may summon him up...

All about video

All about video

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Digital Researcher 2012 Roundup #dr12vitae

Hashtag visualization For me the Digital Researcher 2012 meeting yesterday went well, though it was very hectic, so here's a quick roundup of some of the outputs:
Thanks to everyone who contributed, in person or online.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Good Classes Fail

"The problem of why good classes fail has become a bit of an obsession for me lately. I visit several colleges and universities every semester to talk to faculty about teaching and learning, and everywhere I go I try to sneak away for just a bit and slip into the back of an unsuspecting class just to see how things are going. This has allowed me to see a broad range of techniques and styles, and to see how students respond to them. What inspires this essay is that it is more often than not that I am disappointed by what I find. At worst, I see people feeling disengaged, disconnected, and alienated, and that’s just the professors. At best, I see rooms full of people dutifully playing the game of school, listening carefully, taking notes, etc. … which is okay as far as it goes, but I rarely see people getting lit up, inspired, excited, upset, or even a little uncomfortable (which would be a pretty good place to be for a breakthrough learning moment). The apparent levels of disinterest are astounding, especially in the face of rich content that has included everything from the capacity of ants to create eerily human-like civilizations to the promiscuous (though changing) sexual practices of teenage Trobriand Islanders. (“Really!?” I’m thinking as I sit in the back of the room, “You are not even a little bit interested in this?!” and I realize I could just as well be thinking this about the professor, who seems to be showing as little interest in the material as the students.)"

Wesch is describing the tension that all of us involved in technology-enhanced learning go through: the ease with which the use of social tools establishes bonding capital in a cohort without building the bridging capital that we see. Hence the failure of the Small Worlds and Scireadr projects. Like Wesch, I am still struggling towards the optimum blend.

A.J. Cann

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Pushback I was interested to read that Michael Wesch, noted for embracing innovative teaching methods, has allegedly rethought his approach to teaching in higher education (A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn't Working).

I teach in a highly traditional science program, where the majority of student contact hours are spent in serried ranks in lecture theatres neuroxing the PowerPoint slides. That's what our students learn to respond to, and faced with an environment less tightly constrained by assessment, they don't respond (see: Trying to help).

In view of the lack of engagement, I'm thinking of going back to lectures on the module next year. The detailed lecture notes on the VLE will be replaced with skeleton PowerPoints. Clearly putting content for passive absorption on the VLE is the enemy of learning. By rationing access to my time I am hoping to refocus attention.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mini Statistics Lecture: Analyzing Likert Scale Questionnaire Data using R

Watch this video at 480p for better resolution

Likert Scale:

How to do a showcase - but so what?

As I wrote recently, we are in the process of an internal strategic review of teaching (In Which Our Hero Convinces Reluctant Academics By Contextualizing Within Local Communities). One of the possible outputs from this is some sort of "teaching meets technology showcase". Unfortunately, I've been involved in too many of these in the past and watched the tumbleweed gather around them, so I'm not keen. However, if you're going to do one, the OSU eCampus PDT site is the way to do it - the best I've seen:

OSU eCampus

But ultimately, it's just a blog. We already have plenty of those. This site is where I disseminate thoughts about education and resources. This is Duncan's blog. So what? If we build it, will they come? Of course not. So how do we change the culture around teaching? And why else (apart from tilting at the REF impact windmills) would anyone want to build a showcase - unless, of course, they don't understand the concept of personal learning networks.

Motto for REF

Einstein Last night, following a backchannel conversation, I posted my new academic motto on Twitter and Google+:
If it's not worth measuring it's not worth doing.

This provoked some discussion, during which Rakesh pointed out to me that Einstein allegedly said:
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Einstein. What did he know? Hardly a good role model for the REF.

Monday, February 13, 2012

On Science and Social Media – An Academic’s Viewpoint #SoNYC

Science Online NYC (SoNYC) is a monthly discussion series held in New York City where invited panellists talk about a particular topic related to how science is carried out and communicated online. For this month’s SoNYC has teamed up with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for a special event for Social Media Week. More details of this month’s SoNYC can be found here. To complement the event, the of schemes and memes blog is running a series of guest posts, recounting experiences where social media has been a key part of an education project. I was asked to contribute to this series, and my post, reproduced with permission below, can be seen at (©

Facebook One of the best things about working at a medical school is that we have lots of students and lots of technology, so three years ago we ran a student through our most powerful NMR machine, and this is what we saw:
(Just in case you’ve had a sense of humour bypass, or my Ethics Committee is reading this, we didn’t really – this was one of those Photoshop experiments ;-)

Nevertheless, institutional eLearning tools cannot effectively compete with the current generation of social networks for student attention. Yet there are good reasons for educators not to compete online with the attractions of alcohol and sex. In general terms, attention online is in short supply and although we know that Facebook can be a positive tool for education in some circumstances [1], I prefer to sidestep the complications of predominantly social spaces in order to provide some distinction. I try to foster the use of social tools for academic and professional development.

Dissatisfied with the lack of “social” in institutional tools such as virtual learning environments (VLEs), I started down a more outward looking path some years ago. Students log into the university VLE which acts an authentication hub, confirming their identities and providing us with a secure channel for information such as course marks, which, under the terms of the UK Data Protection Act, cannot be trusted to public sites. The university login provides us with an administrative layer but the interaction, and arguably the learning, takes place elsewhere. Although students may download PowerPoint presentations from the VLE, higher thought processes such as analysis and evaluation are associated with actions such as reading current content from RSS feeds on Google Reader and discussing the relevance of shared items to taught courses on Google+. Vital to this approach is the incorporation of student peer networks to amplify staff input [2].

Initially, I focused on a range of social tools designed to foster student interactions. These included social bookmarking sites such as delicious, social citation tools such as CiteULike and wikis such as WetPaint and Wikispaces. Students were assessed on their use of these sites, but when assessment ceased, we found that very few students continued to use the tools. Some sort of social glue was required to maintain the enthusiasm. Our initial tool-based personal learning environment concept rapidly turned into a people-based personal learning network (PLN) approach. As with all effective education, conceptual frameworks, in this case provided by a peer group rather than solely by teaching staff, win out over content alone.

A people-centred approach to peer learning, where academics assume the role of content curator, mentor, and technical support, places communication as a crucial requirement for success. This explains the failure of our initial tool-based approach to encourage students to curate their own information. In comparison with conventional tagging formats, the “just-in-time” attention management of activity stream architecture, where attention is continually refocused by active items returning to the top of the page, provides the reinforcement needed for continued use. Activity streams and the crowd wisdom of a peer network are at the centre of my approach to online learning. All this might seem like dry, academic posturing – but don’t say that to Facebook and Google, who have spent the last three years betting the farm on activity stream architecture. Starting with the highly influential but now moribund Friendfeed, we were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach in terms of monitoring student engagement [3]. Students engaged in peer to peer discussions around shared resources and personal reflection on their own learning. The patterns of online activity were mapped using graphical tools and were used to inform staff how to guide individual students. Our statistical analysis showed that student contributions to the network could be used to discern student engagement with education in a way which give a far richer picture of online activity than traditional summary statistics such as course or exam marks.

Six months ago, concerned about the sustainability of FriendFeed, I switched our student network to the newly available Google+, and have not looked back. Google+ is conveniently linked to other tools that students use on our course (Google Documents for collaborative writing, Google Reader for RSS feeds), and has fine-grained privacy controls based on the idea of sharing content with user-defined Circles, which gives users confidence about sharing thoughts and content online. Google+ has proved to be an effective and engaging tool for student feedback [4]. We are currently analysing the structure of student networks on Google+ and looking in depth at usage patterns. If you’re interested in finding our more about this, follow me on Google+ where I post regular updates about my research.

What does the future hold? As connectivity continues to improve, undoubtedly massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as the recent Stanford AI class will keep growing, but the notion that universities will be swept away by organizations such as Udacity and Kahn Academy and abandon qualifications from ancient institutions in favour of free badges and Klout scores is as fanciful now as it was on the barricades of 1968. Eventually our sleeping educational leviathans will rouse themselves and stumble towards the sunlight uplands of enlightenment. Unless Google gets there first of course.


[1] Junco, R. (2012) The relationship between frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and student engagement. Computers and Education 58(1): 162-171.

[2] Cann, A.J. and Badge, J. (2011) Reflective Social Portfolios for Feedback and Peer Mentoring. Leicester Research Archive.

[3] Badge, J.L., Saunders, N.F.W. and Cann, A.J.(2012) Beyond marks: new tools to visualise student engagement via social networks. Research in Learning Technology 20: 16283.

[4] Cann, A.J. (2012) An efficient and effective system for interactive student feedback using Google+ to enhance an institutional virtual learning environment. Leicester Research Archive.

A.J. Cann

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Henning Wehn @CurveLeicester

Henning Wehn Henning Wehn @ the Curve last night.
Sample joke:

1st Man: Is there any football on tonight?
2nd Man: Austria-Hungary.
1st man: Who are they playing?

(HW then spends 5 minutes deconstructing the joke, which is the joke)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

More reflections on open peer review

Reflection Earlier this week I published the first product of my open peer review experiment, Student feedback using Google+. So far (after 3 days) the manuscript has been downloaded 74 times (latest figures here). This post is to follow up on my earlier reflection and tidy up a few loose ends concerning my experience of the open peer review process.

Given that this was the first time I undertook the process, in addition to posting the manuscript here for review, I also emailed a number of people I considered qualified to review it and pointed out that the process was under way. Those invitations gave rise to some discussions about "inviting friends to review your work" and consideration of whether this was valid peer review or not. In my opinion it was - open is open to all, friends and foes. However, considering the possible introduction of bias into the review process, when I repeat it in future (damn, given the game away now ;-) I will not issue invitations, only post the manuscript here and publicize the post through the normal channels. If that means the numbers of reviewers is lower, I will extend the review period until an acceptable number of reviewers have commented.

I intended to publish the final version a week or more ago, giving an interval from publishing the preprint to publication of the finished product of less than 21 days. However, personal circumstances and my current teaching load extended this to 23 days, a highly acceptable result in comparison to commercial publishers. Although I consider myself fortunate that most of the reviewers concurred on desirable additions, incorporating the comments of 7 referees is definitely hard work - assuming you attract enough reviews, open peer review is definitely not an easy ride! As hoped for, incorporation of the reviewers comments improved the quality of the publication considerably.

The final published version of this manuscript contain no acknowledgements - this work was a solo effort with no external funding. Since I was not sure about the etiquette of thanking reviewers I did not include them. I hope no-one is offended by that. The other thing I forgot was to add copyright information (CC-BY) to the manuscript itself). I was thinking that this would be covered by the repository page, but I now realize that a) this does not have CC status as I assumed, and b) is easily divorced from the manuscript, so the information must be embedded there. Rookie mistake.

The big question for me is, is this model scalable? If I routinely asked for reviews in this way, would fatigue set in, or would my ‘mates’ become an echo chamber? It is too soon to say, but my concern is that the process I have piloted may not be sustainable because the reviewer ecosystem may not be able to circumvent the Tragedy of the Commons. The only way to tell is further experimentation. Watch this space.

Related posts:

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Student feedback using Google+

Word clouds Whether or not you take a constructivist view of education, feedback on performance is inevitably seen as a crucial component of the process. However, experience shows that students (and academic staff) often struggle with feedback, which all too often fails to translate into feed-forward actions leading to educational gains. Problems get worse as student cohort sizes increase. By building on the well-established principle of separating marks from feedback and by using a social network approach to amplify peer discussion of assessed tasks, this paper describes an efficient system for interactive student feedback. Although the majority of students remain passive recipients in this system, they are still exposed to deeper reflection on assessed tasks than in traditional one-to-one feedback processes.

Cann, A.J. (2012) An efficient and effective system for interactive student feedback using Google+ to enhance an institutional virtual learning environment. Leicester Research Archive.

Background information: Open peer review

My thanks to all who participated in the open peer review process - more thoughts to follow soon.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Beyond marks: new tools to visualise student engagement via social networks

Network "Evidence shows that engaged students perform better academically than disinterested students. Measurement of engagement with education is difficult and imprecise, especially in large student cohorts. Traditional measurements such as summary statistics derived from assessment are crude secondary measures of engagement at best and do not provide much support for educators to work with students and curate engagement during teaching periods. We have used academic-related student contributions to a public social network as a proxy for engagement. Statistical summaries and novel data visualisation tools provide subtle and powerful insights into online student peer networks. Analysis of data collected shows that network visualisation can be an important curation tool for educators interested in cultivating student engagement."

Research in Learning Technology 2012, 20: 16283 doi: 10.3402/rlt.v20i0/16283

Thursday, February 02, 2012

We don't even have a word for it

Cover We don't even have a word for it - "public-ness" - as opposed to privacy.

I never know quite what to make of Jeff Jarvis. And considering the publicity blitz around Public Parts I'm unsure whether to post a public review. But that's the point. Unlike Clay Shirky's books, which lay it all out for you, Jarvis's writing makes you work for the underlying conclusion.

Although I find Jarvis' style sometimes grates against the content, there is real value here - for example the chapters on the history of public discourse and the bibliography. The later chapters on ethics challenging knee jerk reactions to open-ness are also a must read if you have a significant online profile.

In spite of this, ultimately, I came away with the feeling that Public Parts is a book which asks the right questions but doesn't know the answers. Possibly because there is no answer, unless we each arrive at our own. Which is, I suppose, a recommendation to read it.