Friday, July 27, 2012

Now *there's* an olympic event I would pay to see

Monkey football I had reached the conclusion that nothing would persuade me to watch the 'lympics. However, my brilliant wife has come up with an idea that I would be quite keen to see.

Monkey football.

Take the idea a stage further - primates playing any of the lympic sports - and the whole thing starts to sound quite interesting.

Monkey steeplechase
Monkey marathon
Monkey beach volleyball

You get the idea....

MOOC Scoreboard

Certificate Current score:

Completed: 1 (Google MOOC)

Abandoned: 1 (Udacity ST101)

Pending: 1 (Coursera)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Sound of Schama

The american Future I've been reading Simon Schama's The American Future. While his grasp of the history is, I think, masterful, I can't say I'm entirely enjoying it. The writing is rather uneven, purple passages interspersed with the odd sensation of Schama's familiar voice talking inside your head. But that's what you get with the script for a TV series which has been, in the immortal works of Monty Python, adapted for radio by banging a few nails through it.

Still, I am, in the immortal words of Benny Hill, learning all the time.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Future of Learned Societies - Part 2

Owl Following on from yesterday's post on the future of learned societies (Making sense of learned societies), I had number of interesting conversations online. The Twitter conversation is summarised in the Storify by Cameron Neylon (The challenge for scholarly societies) below. I also have a few further thoughts to add.

The (only) way for learned societies to survive is to add value for their members. That means specialization to combat the easily available but generalized assistance and advice available online. Some value propositions societies could offer:
  • Subject-specific repositories
  • Facilitating peer review - panels of specialist reviewers
  • OA meta journals, - knowledge curation?
My view is that such activities should receive public (government) financial support as more cost effective alternative to commercial publishers. these activities are an essential part of the research infrastructure equivalent to the research councils.

I am currently a member of the Society of Biology Research Dissemination Committee. All posts on this blog reflect my personal opinions and do not represent the views of any organizations I may be associated with.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

MOOC roundup - week 4

MOOC This is the last in my series of weekly reflections on ST101 and Power Searching with Google here as they progress.

I probably should structure this post as a standard sh*t sandwich (good-bad-good), but it looks more like a Scandinavian open sandwich. This is the week the wheels finally came off ST101 for me. I was already feeling disenfranchised after my grumbles last week, and by the time the "optional" python programming elements had be come compulsory to answer the questions near the start of this week's Algebra For Programmers 101, I'd had enough. I no longer care about ST101, but I'll probably glance idly at the rest of the units as they are posted without bothering with the assessments or to complete the course. What's the lesson here? Be careful about signposting content and pathways to prospective students so that they don't get unexpected shocks. I feel I've learned all I need about the Udacity model and I won't be bothering with it any more.

In contrast, Power Searching with Google is giving me that warm, fuzzy glow the longer it goes on. The content is great, the example below illustrating some of the trick I've learned over the year but don't find it easy to put into words, although I found out by experiment that "Search by image" is not always that accurate.

With its relatively loose connection and low pressure environment, the Google model works for me, and I've had no difficulty sticking with the two week course. I'm already planning to rip off apply my new found information literacy skills in my teaching.

Google MOOC

The next step is to get stuck into the Cousera model. While I've become convinced that packaging as courses is the solution to lack of uptake of OERs, I'm wondering about the chunking. The two seek, six chunk, two assessments Google MOOC model worked well for me. The six week, n+1 chunk Udacity model is starting to feel like a stretch - too long to maintain engagement. I know several people who would be interested in some of the Coursera courses, but 10 weeks at 6-8 hours a week is way too much for me to even bother recommending it to them.

OERs - it's always been about the chunking. YouTube = microchunking works. 1-2 week intensive MOOCs work. Beyond that? there is insufficient payoff to maintain the link for longer.

Making sense of learned societies

For several years I have been pessimistic about what the future holds for learned societies such as SGM. As disintermediation through social media strips away much of their function, it is not clear where they should turn. However, I suspect that they will all jump on the model adopted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (Chemistry society turns subscriptions into gold). This will provide some temporary respite.
But whether this is the "right" thing to do, or whether the societies would be better looking further ahead in developing arXiv-style Green open access subject repositories, only time will tell. Is competing head to head with PeerJ a smart move? It may work - until PeerJ eventually trumps society journal impact factors.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cyberabad Days

Cyberabad Days I was hooked an an Ian McDonald fan as soon as I read The Dervish House. This was confirmed by Brasyl and I'm slowly working my way through his back catalog. So I had high hopes for Cyberabad Days, the story of India in 2047, which it far exceeded.

I've never been to India, but it seems to me that this picture of the future is far more likely to represent what is to come than most others. While I feel I need a short break from McDonald for a while, I'll be back. River of Gods next I think.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Learning by doing

Google Sites For the past 24 hours I've been playing around with Google Sites for a project which ... I can't talk about yet. After the initial shiny wore off, it quickly became a frustrating experience. I suppose if I was not familiar with HTML my reaction may have been different, but as it is, with the progress Blogger has made over the last year, it's now a much better prospect as a content management system than Sites. Apart from side-stepping the idiosyncrasies and annoyances of Sites, Blogger gives you content scheduling, tagging, RSS everywhere, multiple sharing options, custom permalinks - it's a no-brainer.

One remaining issue - what's the best way to implement MCQs/SAQs on Blogger - via links to Google forms?

Which has two consequences. On the plus side, I now have a platform for my forthcoming (secret) project (sorry). On the other hand, I was planning on inflicting Google Sites on our first year students in the coming year. I can't do that in good conscience now, so I need an alternative (to replace the Google Docs group writing exercise which has just become too troublesome to administer). Any suggestions of what to do with 300 first year biology students?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On the Nature of Surface Learning

A young sales assistant starts work in a hardware shop. The owner says,

"Watch this, I'll show you how it's done."

A customer comes in and ask for a box of grass seed. The owner says,

"Certainly Sir, and I imagine you might be needing a lawnmower for your new lawn?"

After discussion, the customer leaves with a box of grass seed and a lawnmower.

"See," says the owner, "that's how to do it."

A little later another customer enters, approaches the counter and asks for a packet of wallpaper paste.

"Ah" says the sales assistant, "you'll be wanting a lawnmower with that."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Open Access? It all depends...

RCUK has just announced its new policy on open access publishing of results. This is pretty much as the March draft, and requires either Gold or Green open access publication. So far, so good. The real sting is in the section on article processing charges:
RCUK have in the past provided support for APCs through both direct and indirect costs as part of grant funding. From 1st April 2013 and until further notice, RCUK will support the payment of APCs and other publication charges related to Research Council-funded research solely through block grants to UK Higher Education Institutions, approved independent research organisations and Research Council Institutes. Research grant applications will, therefore, no longer include provision for Open Access publication or other publication charges. In all cases universities and research organisations upon receipt of funding should transfer these charges to their institutional publication fund. A university or research organisation can then access these funds to pay for APCs for any article resulting from research council funding.
This means that where you can publish will depend on where you work. If you work in a wealthy institution, you can publish lots of articles in expensive journals. If you work in a less well off institution ... who knows?

Welcome to the iniquity of Gold open access, restricting the availability of research results.

BIS response to Finch report
Letter from David Willetts (pdf)
"Dear Janet,
Please find enclosed the Government’s response to your excellent report on open access to published research.
We are firmly committed to improving access so the Government accepts the proposals in your report, except for one specific point on VAT."

Society of Biology Statement

I am currently a member of the Society of Biology Research Dissemination Committee. All posts on this blog reflect my personal opinions and do not represent the views of any organizations I may be associated with.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

MOOC roundup - third week, comparing the models

MOOC I plan to post occasional reflections on ST101 and Power Searching with Google here as they progress.

The first thing to say this week is that these online courses are not really MOOCs, but MOTS. However, I'm going to continue to use the term MOOC for these courses as that is now established, although not technically accurate.

I struggled so badly on probability last week that I spent some time on Khan Academy. Hated it - videos poorly produced c.f. the Udacity screen captures, non-interactive (no questioning), boring, couldn't follow most of it. Having said that, I was unhappy with ST101 Unit 2: "Processes that generate data", as I felt it did not cover the title of the unit well (in contrast to Unit 1: Visualizing relationships in data, which was a very good overview of the first topic).

Back on familiar ground this week with Unit 3: normal distributions and the central limit theorem. I enjoyed the Laplace probability generations at the start of the unit though - well explained (but don't they belong in the previous Unit?). I didn't like all the complex algebra around the standard deviation - an unwelcome distraction based on the unnecessary "optional" python programming element of the course, which is increasing distracting me from the key statistics messages.

While I like the formative questions integrated with the video (which is really the strength of the Uadacity approach), it's starting to get irritating - too many itty bitty pieces. The format, which I initially liked, is starting to grate. There's also no way the bottom-end-of-Bloom's-pyramid approach translates into other disciplines with non-numercial answers.

And I'm annoyed with Udacity's mis-selling of this computer science course as a statistics course. It's not, and that's not what I signed up for. Under other circumstances, I'd be asking for my money back. For me, this is the week the cracks started to show in the Udacity model. Would I sign up for another Udactity course after this one? No, not now I've seen how their model works.

Second concurrent MOOC I started this week is Power Searching with Google. This feels very different from ST101, and, surprisingly from Google, far less slick. The course site has a homebrew feel about it, and there is no progress bar. The content consists entirely of well-produced but conventional YouTube videos interspersed with javascript-driven formative questions. For me, the videos are slightly too long, slightly too slow, but that reflects personal choice. The pace gives a non-pressured, relaxed feel to the proceedings. The summative assessment consists of a midway and a terminal quiz, completion of which (inside fairly tight deadlines of a few days) results in an electronic certificate of completion for participants. There is a Google Groups forum which I haven't bothered to join, partly because I'm allergic to Google Groups, partly because I haven't felt the need. This has had the effect of making me feel far more distanced from and less involved with this course that with ST101. There has also been one live Hangout so far that I wasn't able to join because of the timing and haven't yet watched the recording of.

It's a bit PR-orientated and Google is clearly using it to gather user data. No change there then. Hard to complain when you're not paying. I'm now halfway through this course and it feels like a worthwhile exercise. I've picked up some really nice tips related to image searching, e.g. image search for:

[scientist curriculum vitae]

Would I sign up for another course in this format, e.g. on Photoshop, Chrome or Blackboard? Yes I would, which is a very interesting contrast with Udacity.

Update: Here's the Hangout:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cameron Neylon - Network Enabled Research

Comment on Brian Kelly's question (0:50) (paraphrased) and Cameron's reply: "Do we need to build a new Twitter?" - Yes, but only if it will be better than the existing service. Better meaning function, scale, ease of use, etc.


Postbox Following on from yesterday's post, I've been trying out Postbox. Previously I tried Sparrow, which was OK, but over-simplified to the extent that it is hard to tell what processes have occurred. The point of needing an new email client is to feel comfortable and confident in the medium, and Sparrow failed to achieve that for me.

So far, Postbox is looking good, like a vastly improved Outlook. Improved by being much more customizable, up to date and generally rather good (such as reminding you when you forget to actually attach those attachments you mentioned, message templates - which will be really useful for responding to students, etc).  I'm currently on the 30 day free trial, but I anticipate buying the full version (price recently reduced to $9.95) soon.

Give it a try.

Friday, July 13, 2012

What Students Want

email I've spent the last five years trying to kill email and promote RSS. Time for a rethink.

At the recent #GEUG12 meeting, Barry Foley from University College Cork talked about their implementation of Google Apps (start 00:50):

The most interesting part of his (excellent) talk for me was how GMail (integrated in Google Apps) has resurrected email as the primary professional comms channel. This raises other issues:
  • Email gives the differentiation between the professional and the social (facebook).
  • The failure of RSS to "stick" (yes, I know you use RSS, but there's just the two of us, no-one else does)
This is feeding into several things I'm doing at present:
  • An internal communication project where I'm stressing feedburner email subscriptions to cascade information, rather than RSS.
  • Increased use of email on large undergraduate modules for "personalization". Offering a choice of channels between public/social and private/email.

Outstanding issues:
  • A decent desktop email client (now that GMail is outlawed in these parts). Experimented with Sparrow but eventually reluctantly returned to Outlook. Sigh.
  • Do I really want to generate that amount of student email?
    Will I cope? Need to dust off my rusty old Mail Merge skills.
  • And I definitely need better tools. Sparrow didn't survive long term scrutiny. Will Postbox make the difference?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No more MOOCs for me

Bb fail Today I planned to participate in the JISC MOOC webinar, but the Elluminate files would not open (even though I'd been through all the configuration from Bb), so I couldn't. So instead, here is a blog post about ... not quite MOOCs. This post is me sorting a few things out, and working off my frustration with Blackboard. Hopefully.

I am currently participating in two MOOCs, Udacity Statistics 101 and Google's Power Searching course. I'm blogging about both of these separately, but this post is an overview of the whole concept. I have never participated in a MOOC, a Massive Online Open Course. Neither the Udacity nor Google courses (nor Coursera, not Ed-X) are MOOCs, because they are Massive Online Courses, but none of them are Open, in the sense of Copyleft or allowing participants to decide what platforms to use. Do I care? No, I don't. I care about the quality of the courses themselves, but I've never really bought into the connectivism voodoo, what matters to me is functionality. How much do I learn?

So if this explosion of free (currently) online education courses are not MOOCs, what are they? David Lefevre suggests we call them MOTS, Massive Online Tutoring Systems (via Seb Schmoller). This I like, as it is both accurate and descriptive. I'd like to start using the term MOTS for what we're seeing now - but changing the trendy MOOC name is going to be hard. Care to help me?

See: Inside Higher Ed: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Unpacking the MOOC as Buzzword

Update: JISC Webinar recording is here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Teaching writing for the real world

PLoSable A recent post on the PLoS Biology Blog (Reach out and teach someone) describes reuse and remixing of the Creative Commons licensed material from PLoS to encourage and train students to write about science. In particular, it describes the PLoSable initiative from Arizona State University as a rather nice exemplar.

I agree, PLoSable is nice - well written, well thought-out and well presented. But on another level, it depresses me how little such reuse occurs, reminding me what a long way we still have to go with open access. It also points to the disaster that is mixed-model gold open access, where some papers are freely available (although still copyright) and others in the same journal are not. For open access to succeed, straightforward, understandable Creative Commons licenses (as in PLoS, and AoB Plants) are an essential component, not a desirable afterthought.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Refections on #ST101 - second week

Introduction to Statistics (ST101) I plan to post occasional reflections on ST101 here as the course progresses.

Tough week! Two reasons, first because I've had a very busy week with little free time, second because #ST101 lurched into a much more difficult area - mathematical probability rather than data visualization. Reflecting on the course weekly is helping to keep me on track.

I've failed to get my head around Bayesian probability previously, and after this unit I now feel I have a better understanding of what it's all about, if not the practicalities - I'm still in deep trouble with the maths. Coming at statistics from a primarily visual angle rather than from a mathematical direction, Bayes' Theorem is at the limit of what I would consider to be statistics - it's pretty straight algebra. I know of course that most statisticians (who are mathematicians) don't see it like that.

Interesting how the characteristics of the teacher become irritating very rapidly as the learner starts to struggle. An argument for blandness?

Although I'm still enjoying ST101 in what has been a challenging week, I'm also starting to think about how engaged I am with the course, and to what extent exterior drivers are keeping me going. To what extent that resembles/differs from a conventional course, I'm not sure.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Trouble with Information Literacy

DIKW I've had this post in draft for a year now. I think its time has come...

For the past few years I have contributed to a module on "Research Skills" for students. In recent years (since we dropped statistics), my contribution has been an "information literacy" section based on finding, reading and critiquing scientific papers.

It's silly to argue against the need for information literacy - the question is, how? The information literacy concept concept is too big and too nebulous to be useful to students - this idea is big, that idea is far away - and needs to be broken down into useful units proximal to student need. Students deal in information, not literacies.

What is encouraging is a new sense of reality about students actually work (rather than how they should theoretically work):
Lucy Holman (2011) Millennial Students' Mental Models of Search: Implications for Academic Librarians and Database Developers. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 37(1): 19–27

But maybe the academic fox has already been shot. Should we just sign 'em up for the Google MOOC?

(Sigh, it appears I've signed up for yet another MOOC. Must think about trying to break this habit :-)

Monday, July 02, 2012

Heresy: who cares about OERs?

Governing the Commons Trendy edudogma states that open educational resources (OERs) will be the salvation of higher education. Not so fast...

Over the past few weeks I've become fascinated by MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), registering and experimenting with several courses offered by Udacity and Coursera. Except that these are not classic MOOCs as originally envisioned by the connectivist pioneers. They are much more centralized and regimented than the free-form bring your own tools learning environments originally envisaged by those crazy Canadians. Courses offered freely online by providers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity are tied to the providers sites and use copyright content which is not (directly) reusable - so they are not open in the classic sense.

So what?

If Udacity teaches a course to 100,000 students (or more), that trumps an OER that only 1,000 people (and I'm being optimistic there) will ever see or use. The uptake of OERs has been a massive failure. The new online "MOOC" providers have not. I've never bought into the philosophy that Apple is inherently evil because it uses proprietary software. Neither is Microsoft inherently evil, nor the fee-charging university that you work for, or that commercially published textbook you recommend. These companies produce products that work. Just do it. Education is, and has always been, as market-driven as any other commercial transaction. And if the new providers speed the process of change, that's probably a good thing. Any market capitalists out there want to fund my microbiology µOOC? (Yes, µOOC - more of a pun than a typo.)

The current generation of providers has not got the new model quite right yet. Rumour has it that completion rates for most of these courses are low, in the 20% range. Darwinian completion rate survival of the fittest may be just as valid an assessment tool as criterion-referenced marking, but my bet is that these agile newcomers will continue to evolve and refine the model of the course until their systems work a whole lot more efficiently than they do now.

All your courses are belong to us.

"in a highly competitive environment, those that do not search for and select ... rules that enhance net benefits will lose out to those who are successful in adopting better rules"

Audio feedback workshop

Audio feedback I spent most of Friday at a workshop on audio feedback for student work. It proved to be a very thought-provoking day. The meeting was funded by HEA Social Sciences, based on a project funded by the University Teaching Enhancement Fund, which has two parts (so far):
  • A personal voice (good practice in audio feedback)
  • AUDIBLE (linguistic analysis of audio feedback)
The intention is also to produce a framework of support and advice for anyone interested in this approach to feedback on student work.

The morning consisted of a workshop generating and receiving audio feedback on a group work exercise. At first, I found this excruciating, but as the morning wore on, it became more and more interesting, comparing technologies and experiencing both sides of the feedback equation in short order. I learned that I need to reduce my use of the word "disappointing" when giving feedback (or the linguistics police will get me ;-)

The afternoon consisted of presentations by a number of speakers, which were interesting, but for me, not as interesting as the discussion they invoked. A few of the main points I took from this discussion:
  • Structure and signposting are particularly important (e.g. numbed points) in audio, otherwise it is very difficult to pick out and retain key points.
  • Audio feedback is much more like a tutorial than written feedback - conversational, with a performance element.
  • Students like audio if it augments rather than replaces written feedback. Oh dear, not  much prospect for time saving then, but the possibility of improving quality?
  • Does feedback really matter? Feed forward is the important goal, and audio tools don't do anything to help with that issue.
I went to this session because I was very interested in starting to use audio feedback. I came away with considerably less optimistic than when I arrived. I don't consider that to be a negative outcome. In fact I am hopeful that what I learned on Friday may help to avoid disappointment down the line.

Sarah Horrigan's reflections.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Refections on #ST101 - first week

Introduction to Statistics (ST101) I plan to post occasional reflections on ST101 here as the course progresses.

I've thoroughly enjoyed the first week of ST101, although I anticipate it will become more challenging in future weeks. The material so far (introductory, admittedly), is solidly at the lower end of Bloom's taxonomy. In fairness, this is Stats 101, so likely to be content heavy. But how would this model scale to higher order learning?

And does it pass the Weller MOOC test, and The MOOC Misnomer? Udacity courses are free, but the content is not directly reusable in other environments (and based on constrained, proprietary tool choices). Still the Udacity website is undeniably slick, and I'm hoping to pick up some tips on teaching statistics online, particularly with regard to assessment.

I'm looking forward to Unit 2. Another update next week.