Thursday, May 31, 2012


GEUG12 I've spent most of today online in various conferences, which has allowed me to make some interesting comparisons.

This morning I was in a Google+ Hangout discussing arrangements for #GEUG12, the Google Apps for Education European User Group meeting next month (places still available ;-)

The Hangout started started effortlessly as a native HTML5 application in the browser, and 10 of us chatted happily, sharing links and screens for an hour or so.

At lunchtime, I was due to join ALT's Rough Guide to Google Analytics session via Blackboard Collaborate. In contrast to the Hangout, I couldn't get the Collaborate Java file to open in spite of having used Collaborate before, and I missed the start of the session. Dan Barker did an excellent job of attempting to explain the complexities of Google Analytics in one hour, much more suitable in an academic context than Google's own commercially-oriented Answers To Your Burning Google Analytics Questions, but the sound was poor and the whole experience less satisfying than the Google Hangout. One advantage that Blackboard Collaborate has is being able to distribute a URL for a session in advance rather than having to do it live during the event or as a recording after the event. Other than that, I know which platform I prefer these days.

Which isn't Skype (any more), borne out by the fact that the person who was going to call me after the Collaborate session couldn't get Skype to work, so wound up phoning my on the old fashioned landline. How quaint.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How do you measure the effectiveness of feedback?

Measuring Let's leave aside the question of whether measuring everything is a good idea (maybe we'll come back to that one at a later date), and ask How do you measure the effectiveness of feedback on student work?

Comparing feedback to attainment is one way, but that would cause ethical problems, and since attainment is such a multifactorial event, how do you tease out the effect of feedback from all the other inputs?

"Accurate measurement of feedback effectiveness is difficult and perhaps impossible." Feedback: all that effort, but what is the effect? (2010) Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(3): 277-289

The art of feedback then is in matching outputs to expectations so that no-one gets any nasty surprises late in the day. Measurement other than trivial recording of quantity and timing is spurious.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fun on Friday

Strategy On Friday we ran the first of our "new" (revamped) e-learning events coming out of our recent strategic review of teaching. Playing it safe, we went for the evergreen topic of online assessment. Chris talked about synchronous summative testing, I talked about asynchronous testing (formative/summative), and Duncan talked about GradeMark.

We got a small audience, no doubt partly due to the time of year, but it did remind me of the underwhelming response Jo and I got when we organized similar events years ago, and why we stopped doing this type of thing. Jo went on to experiment with a range of online offerings, on Plone and offsite, but we both believed that the helpline approach was the most effective intervention (e-Learning versus e-Teaching: Seeing the Pedagogic Wood for the Technological Trees. Bioscience Education, 5, 2005).

This morning, Sarah published a highly relevant post about her experience in Sheffield, followed up by an interesting discussion. I'm in two minds about the effectiveness of an online approach to supporting and converting new punters, but overall, I can't justify an increased online presence beyond my personal presence (which is a somewhat different issue).

So where do we go from here? More face to face events in September for sure. Apart from that, I don't know. I'm pretty certain that less is more in this regard.

Chris's Slides:

My slides:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Podcasting for the 21st Century?

DJ Some of my tamer students have been tossing me marking sanity YouTube playlists (Ben Howard in the lead so far - I banned drum n' bass). But this is a role that I feel really should be filled by podcasts.

I recently moaned about podcasts here (Podcasting is (still) dying). Nothing arising from that post changed my mind. In this socially-driven age, RSS-driven formats are moribund and social playlists are winning.

With that in mind, I was interested to read about Player FM recently, which allows you to create and share bundles of podcasts. So I did: (It's a bit wordy. OK, it's a lot wordy.) While you can share a bundle, Player FM is not what I would call a truly social service. And there's no music on Player FM, presumably for legal reasons. Which set me off playing with ds106 radio (which tends to play the old man music I like) - truly social links and commentary via a twitter hashtag. But not terribly convenient. Has anyone built a mashup to display the audio and the hashtag in a single location? (Also, I don't understand the legality of ds106 radio).

So there we have it, podcasting (and RSS) still pretty much broken, you will be told what to listen to via your friend's playlists. Of course, I'm getting old, but it sounds like this could be eternity in teenage mixtape hell. Where's semantic music when you need it?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Maybe the sky really is falling

Chicken Little
In the coming decade, emerging technologies will thoroughly transform higher education. Although distance learning and computer-assisted education have been around since the 1960s, financial pressures are forcing institutions to develop aggressive online programs.
College Crackup and the Online Future. Bloomberg. Web. 23 May 2012.

I've been pretty sceptical of the apocalyptic "end of higher education" stories being published in the US for the past couple of years, although when you read the catalog of woe in this Bloomberg series (the above is the final in a three part series), you might begin to doubt that view.

What's changed my mind is the way we in the UK seem impelled to import the American way of doing things, particularly American crises, and particularly under this government. There's no sign that that will change, so maybe the sky really is falling.

For years I have clung to my academic status and fought off well-meaning suggestions that I was a "learning technologist". I have a feeling the time may have come to make that change.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Open Access to US Federally Funded Research

Uncle Sam For my U.S. readers:

Public petition to the Obama Administration:
Require free, timely access over the Internet to journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.
We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research, and education.  Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research.
The highly successful Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health proves that this can be done without disrupting the research process, and we urge President Obama to act now to implement open access policies for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.

Background: see the Access2Research website

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Rethinking facebook, and the value of open

The last week has been difficult and stressful for me, with more such weeks and months ahead. I cannot discuss this publicly at present, so I have tried as far as possible to put the problems out of my mind. It turns out that is not possible. In the course of the week, my small (I'm a long way off Dunbar's number) private network on facebook has unexpectedly played an important role. Unexpected because for the last few years I have found far more value in open public discussion here and on other networks than in private in groups.

The support of a small private community has forced me to rethink my attitudes over the last week. I am forced to recognize the value of privacy alongside the value of openness. Both have a role to play, and I have redressed my personal balance. I owe them a debt I hope I am able to repay.

I am under no illusion that this post is not a statement of the bleedin' obvious, but personal experience is always the strongest motivation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Floatation device

I find myself unable to avoid writing about the floatation. So here it is.

I've got a pretty good record of predicting what's going to happen, and a poor record of predicting when it's going to happen. But the writing is clearly on the wall now for facebook. What I don't know is how the bubble will burst - with a sudden pop, or a slow deflation like a leaky football (or Sven Göran Eriksson). Teenagers are already deserting facebook, not over privacy or any of the grown up reasons we would like them to, but mostly because they're bored and are moving on. And when facebook is forced to make a dumb move by its investors, then it will finally be game over. How do I know this? Because I talk to teenagers, online and offline. Unlike universities, which talk at teenagers, especially online. Which is particularly dumb when you're trying to persuade them to sign up to your expensive fee structure. So if you're trying to recruit, what do you do? Pay attention to Google, semantic search has changed the game:

New improved Google, now with semantic search

Universities will say "We know how to do Google". But they don't, not any more, just like they didn't really know how to do facebook. Socially driven semantic search is a hard thing for an institution to get its head around. Maybe impossible.

And if you're not into recruitment but just want to hangout where the cool kids are - where do you go then?
Probably reddit.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Should I stay or should I go?

Oh how I love Flickr - sometimes Gizmodo just published a nice article:
How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.

I've got a large(ish) collection of Creative Commons images on Flickr, and for some time I've been wondering whether to renew my account when it expires in September, or move elsewhere. Moving will be a major logistic exercise, but do I really trust in the longevity of Yahoo and do nothing?

Recently, it seems as though the site has got a little better again, cleaner and faster. And what is the alternative - is there anything else out there that will serve me as well as Flickr has done over the years?

Update: As ever, useful discussion on Google+

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Soft science. The softer the better.

This popped up a couple of days ago on an email discussion list (yes, they still exist ;-) Worth sharing:

The health professional education community is struggling with a number of issues regarding the place and value of research in the field, including: the role of theory-building versus applied research; the relative value of generalisable versus contextually rich, localised solutions, and the relative value of local versus multi-institutional research. In part, these debates are limited by the fact that the health professional education community has become deeply entrenched in the notion of the physical sciences as presenting a model for ‘ideal’ research. The resulting emphasis on an ‘imperative of proof’ in our dominant research approaches has translated poorly to the domain of education, with a resulting denigration of the domain as ‘soft’ and ‘unscientific’ and a devaluing of knowledge acquired to date. Similarly, our adoption of the physical sciences ‘imperative of generalisable simplicity’ has created difficulties for our ability to represent well the complexity of the social interactions that shape education and learning at a local level.
Using references to the scientific paradigms associated with the physical sciences, this paper will reconsider the place of our current goals for education research in the production and evolution of knowledge within our community, and will explore the implications for enhancing the value of research in health professional education.
Reorienting education research from its alignment with the imperative of proof to one with an imperative of understanding, and from the imperative of simplicity to an imperative of representing complexity well may enable a shift in research focus away from a problematic search for proofs of simple generalisable solutions to our collective problems, towards the generation of rich understandings of the complex environments in which our collective problems are uniquely embedded.

It’s NOT rocket science: rethinking our metaphors for research in health professions education (2010) Medical Education 44(1): 31-39, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03418.x

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Online peer-assessment in a large first-year class

In the context of widening participation, large classes and increased diversity, assessment of student learning is becoming increasingly problematic in that providing formative feedback aimed at developing student writing proves to be particularly laborious. Although the potential value of peer assessment has been well documented in the literature, the associated administrative burden, also in relation to managing anonymity and intellectual ownership, makes this option less attractive, particularly in large classes. A potential solution involves the use of information and communication technologies to automate the logistics associated with peer assessment in a time-efficient way. However, uptake of such systems in the higher education community is limited, and research in this area is only beginning. This case study reports on the use of the Moodle Workshop module for formative peer assessment of students’ individual work in a first-year introductory macro-economics class of over 800 students. Data were collected through an end-of-course evaluation survey of students. The study found that using the feature-rich Workshop module not only addressed many of the practical challenges associated with paper-based peer assessments, but also provided a range of additional options for enhancing validity and reliability of peer assessments that would not be possible with paper-based systems.

Markus Mostert and Jen D. Snowball (2012): Where angels fear to tread: online peer-assessment in a large first-year class, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, doi:10.1080/02602938.2012.683770

Commentary: I'm still looking for a good online peer assessment system which gets around all the problems (administrative load, consortia formation, infantile squabbles, etc). Sadly, this isn't it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A taxonomy of edublogs

Blog Many Moons Ago When the World Was Young O Gentle Reader, I was asked to take part in a project. My contribution was to be the construction of a taxonomy of edublogs.

Once upon a time, taxonomy was an essential component of any biology degree. But taxonomy is not popular with students (or grant awarders), so it tends to get downplayed these days. This is a shame, because as well as helping us make sense of complexity, it goes beyond that function by suggesting rationale and motivation which lies beneath the surface. Just as our first year students puzzle out the difference between taxonomy and nomenclature, I found myself thinking about the purpose of this exercise.

Although blogging, as opposed to microblogging, is still a minority exercise, it is now sufficiently mainstream to demand further thought. In the networks in which I participate, a lot has been written about science blogs - in particular the rise and fall of networks, and although I'm not involved, political blogs have become more prominent in the UK, but what about edublogs? What framework could we use to think about them? And what does that tell us about the people who write them (and those who try to stop them)?

My first thought was that we could classify edublogs based on roles:
Student - Primary - Secondary - Tertiary
but when I tried to do that it was difficult to see any overarching principles, so I thought about classification based on technologies.

Institutional - dependent on a given infrastructure, a mix of early and late adopters. Some probably didn't know why they blogged, it just felt right (competitive advantage?).

Independent - e.g. Blogger, Typepad, Wordpress, etc. Those who took the trouble to go out and forge an independent path display a strong motivation, although the barriers have been lowered by microblogging of status updates on social networks.

Course blogs - many invisible behind walls in neatly manicured walled gardens. Should this include "portfolios" such as PebblePad?

Video blogs - never caught on in the education sphere - the overhead is too high. Photoblogging is popular, but are there any eduphotoblogs (excluding photography and design courses)?

Microblogs - cannot be ignored in any taxonomy of blogging as it has taken off in such a big way - where is the line between blogging and pure microblogging? Not just Twitter - parallel networks (Yammer, Plurk, but also Friendfeed, Facebook, Google+ ?)

So what does all this tell us? That there is great diversity - of style, purpose. But always a wish to communicate, either from an individual or an institution. The project for which this was intended never happened. Once again I find myself defined by the things I do not do rather than the things I do.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Playing with Hangouts On Air

I'm not quite sure if the universal availability of Hangouts On Air is the "killer app" for Google+, but it's certainly an important development and one that I anticipate using a lot, so it's time to get some practice in:

Friday, May 04, 2012

In the other place this week

Google+ Highlights from the other place this week:

Death of Flickr. Worrying :-(
"My Flickr Pro account expires tomorrow. I will not be renewing it..."

Still making Waves
"When Google agreed to donate Wave to Apache, it had first to strip it bare. Parts of Wave can be found in Google docs. But it is to Google’s credit—and that of Messrs Mechner and Carmack—that they were willing to brave the legal and technical wrangles to make their work available to all. Other developers would do well to follow in their footsteps."

Pit-bull reviewing, the pursuit of perfection and the victims of success
I may have done eLife a disservice. If it is true that eLife will:
"promote fairness and transparency by publishing the (anonymous) referees’ reports" then it goes up in my estimation. But not much, as it sticks with the failed "Filter on the way in" publishing model rather than following the arXiv model, as it should have done.

What I'm reading (and how) [video]

Pre-publication peer review, the Gold Silver Outdated standard
Retractions of published papers are on the rise, and some scientists fear the situation is out of control.

Thursday, May 03, 2012


Pork scratchings
Adam held the capsule under his nose, broke the thin plastic and sniffed. The smell of salty water filled his nostrils, with a faint tang of bacon. That was all.

He slept. Modified oligonucleotides slipped through membranes, avoided enzymes. They gathered in his nuclei, zipped themselves up into a full length gene which silently nestled into his 14th chromosome, right where it had been designed to go.

Next morning he woke, dressed, got in the car, drove to Tesco. Bread, milk, apples, tomatoes, shampoo, newspaper, wine, yoghurt, three bags of pork scratchings.

Genetic Variation of an Odorant Receptor OR7D4 and Sensory Perception of Cooked Meat Containing Androstenone. (2012) PLoS ONE 7(5): e35259. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035259
Although odour perception impacts food preferences, the effect of genotypic variation of odorant receptors (ORs) on the sensory perception of food is unclear. Human OR7D4 responds to androstenone, and genotypic variation in OR7D4 predicts variation in the perception of androstenone. Since androstenone is naturally present in meat derived from male pigs, we asked whether OR7D4 genotype correlates with either the ability to detect androstenone or the evaluation of cooked pork tainted with varying levels of androstenone within the naturally-occurring range. Consistent with previous findings, subjects with two copies of the functional OR7D4 RT variant were more sensitive to androstenone than subjects carrying a non- functional OR7D4 WM variant. When pork containing varying levels of androstenone was cooked and tested by sniffing and tasting, subjects with two copies of the RT variant tended to rate the androstenone-containing meat as less favourable than subjects carrying the WM variant. Our data is consistent with the idea that OR7D4 genotype predicts the sensory perception of meat containing androstenone and that genetic variation in an odorant receptor can alter food preferences.

Decoupling the scholarly journal

"The journal is built around the delivery of ink and paper by horses and boats. Today, we have better ink and faster horses, but no fundamental change. This change, especially in an institution as conservative as the academy, is not easy and takes time."

Decoupling the scholarly journal. (2012) Front. Comput. Neurosci. 6: 19. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2012.00019
Although many observers have advocated the reform of the scholarly publishing system, improvements to functions like peer review have been adopted sluggishly. We argue that this is due to the tight coupling of the journal system: the system's essential functions of archiving, registration, dissemination, and certification are bundled together and siloed into tens of thousands of individual journals. This tight coupling makes it difficult to change any one aspect of the system, choking out innovation. We suggest that the solution is the “decoupled journal (DcJ).” In this system, the functions are unbundled and performed as services, able to compete for patronage and evolve in response to the market. For instance, a scholar might deposit an article in her institutional repository, have it copyedited and typeset by one company, indexed for search by several others, self-marketed over her own social networks, and peer reviewed by one or more stamping agencies that connect her paper to external reviewers. The DcJ brings publishing out of its current seventeenth-century paradigm, and creates a Web-like environment of loosely joined pieces—a marketplace of tools that, like the Web, evolves quickly in response to new technologies and users' needs. Importantly, this system is able to evolve from the current one, requiring only the continued development of bolt-on services external to the journal, particularly for peer review.

A.J. Cann

Tuesday, May 01, 2012



Wikipedia's barnstarring performance

I've had several discussions recently with people who seems to have just woken up to the fact that Wikipedia accepts user contributions: "Hey, wouldn't it be a great idea if scientists contributed to Wikipedia?". In these uncomfortable encounters I am forced to play the part of the guy who points out contributing to Wikipedia ain't all sunshine and light.

As if dealing with the Wikipedia incrowd bitchfest wasn't bad enough, I hope I don't shock you by letting on that contributing to Wikipedia doesn't count as Impact for REF. Or anything else, like job security, or that promotion you were hoping for. Nevertheless, contributing to Wikipedia is fundamentally A Good Thing, so the following is of interest:

Experimental Study of Informal Rewards in Peer Production. (2012) PLoS ONE 7(3): e34358. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034358
We test the effects of informal rewards in online peer production. Using a randomized, experimental design, we assigned editing awards or “barnstars” to a subset of the 1% most productive Wikipedia contributors. Comparison with the control group shows that receiving a barnstar increases productivity by 60% and makes contributors six times more likely to receive additional barnstars from other community members, revealing that informal rewards significantly impact individual effort.