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.