Thursday, February 28, 2013

Developing Techniques for Pedagogical Research in the Biosciences

Higher Education Academy Date: 11 Apr 2013
Location: University of Leicester
Book here

Bioscientists are typically very well acquainted with the approaches to research associated with their subject-based experience. Pedagogical research, however, employs both quantitative and qualitative techniques which often represent unfamiliar territory for researchers in the biosciences, both in terms of utilising the techniques and appreciating the research literature based on these approaches. The aim of this workshop is to build on the outcomes of last year’s seminar, focusing on the techniques that attendees specifically identified: questionnaire design, focus groups and structured interviews. The workshop will take the form of plenary sessions from researchers with significant experience in using these techniques followed by some short case studies from the Biosciences to provide the subject context. There will also be a session to allow colleagues to engage in discussion about developing potential research projects with guided support from the presenters.

09:30 – 10:00 Registration & Coffee
10:00 – 10:10 Welcome
10:10 – 10:50 Presentation 1 – Questionnaire Design
10:50 – 11:30 Presentation 2 – Focus Groups
11:30 – 11:50 Coffee
11:50 – 12:20 Presentation 3 – Structured Interviews
12:20 – 13:00 2 x 15 min case studies, plus 5 mins discussion
13:00 – 13:30 Lunch with discussions about possible projects
13:30 – 14:30 3 x 15 min case studies, plus 5 mins discussion
14:30 – 15:15 Group discussion sessions to formulate project outlines
15:15 – 15:45 Group reporting back and identification of actions
15:45 – 16:00 Close

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Absolute beginners #RHelp

R At the weekend I was thinking about posting here about how often, when I am trying to do simple things with R, I can't find the low level information I need, and that the online R communities are too high powered to give me help at the level I, and I'm sure others, need. I thought about calling for a new community to provide this sort of low level help.

Then I thought, f**k it, I'll do it myself.

Click the graphs for larger version, copy and paste the code into R to try this for yourself.
Note: These are not real data, I made them up to show the method.

The anatomy of fish species depend on their diet. In a practical class, students examined two species of fish, mackerel (Scomber scombrus) and gurnard (Chelidonichthys cuculus). They made various measurements, including the standard length (from tip of snout to end of body) and the length of the intestine. The class pooled their data. There was a variation in the length of individual fish of each species, so the students calculated the ratio of the length of the intestine to the standard length of each fish. Using R:

> mackerel <- c(0.278, 0.389, 0.292, 0.268, 0.277, 0.364, 0.362, 0.217, 0.375, 0.338, 0.368)

> gurnard <- c(0.655, 0.702, 0.595, 0.667, 0.705, 0.687, 0.715, 0.656, 0.636, 0.701, NA)

> <- data.frame(cbind(mackerel, gurnard))

> attach(

> summary(
    mackerel         gurnard     
 Min.   :0.2170   Min.   :0.5950 
 1st Qu.:0.2775   1st Qu.:0.6552 
 Median :0.3380   Median :0.6770 
 Mean   :0.3207   Mean   :0.6719 
 3rd Qu.:0.3660   3rd Qu.:0.7017 
 Max.   :0.3890   Max.   :0.7150 
                  NA's   :1      

> boxplot(


# This is a comment line - I can write notes here to remind me what I've done.
# Let's colour the graph in so that it's easier to see.
# What colours can R use?

> colors()
[1] "white" "aliceblue" "antiquewhite" "antiquewhite1" "antiquewhite2"
[6] "antiquewhite3" "antiquewhite4" "aquamarine" "aquamarine1" "aquamarine2"
#Edited - try it for yourself

# This is a scientific report, so don't use anything too bright.
# Why Should Engineers and Scientists Be Worried About Color?
# But don't spend too long playing with colours :-)
# This might help:

> boxplot(, col="slategray2")

# This graph needs tidying up for presentation:

> boxplot(, ylab="Standard length : Intestine ratio", main="Graph of standard length to intestine length ratio", col="slategray2")


# Well they look different.
# We could do statistical tests to see if they really are.
# But this post is about data visualization.

> stripchart(


#Come on R, you can do better than that.

> ?stripchart

> stripchart(, vertical=TRUE)

# Better.

> stripchart(, vertical=TRUE,method="jitter")

# Even better

> stripchart(, vertical=TRUE,method="jitter", pch=c(1, 2), main="Plots of standard length to intestine length ratio", ylab="Standard length : Intestine ratio")


# You can have more than one graph window open at a time if you want:
# windows()    on Windows OS
# quartz()     on Macintosh OS
# I'd also like to plot this data as a barplot with standard deviation error bars to show the variation in the data.

> summary(
    mackerel         gurnard    
 Min.   :0.2170   Min.   :0.5950
 1st Qu.:0.2775   1st Qu.:0.6552
 Median :0.3380   Median :0.6770
 Mean   :0.3207   Mean   :0.6719
 3rd Qu.:0.3660   3rd Qu.:0.7017
 Max.   :0.3890   Max.   :0.7150
                  NA's   :1     

# Make a file of the mean values to plot:

> means <- c(0.3207, 0.6719)

# Calculate the standard deviations for the error bars:

> sd(mackerel, na.rm=TRUE)
[1] 0.05640761

> sd(gurnard, na.rm=TRUE)
[1] 0.03756313

# Make a file to plot the error bars:

> error.bars <- c(0.05640761, 0.03756313)

> SD.graph <- barplot(means, ylim=c(0,max(means)+max(error.bars)))

# This plots the graph. The y-axis scale will depend on the size of the longest error bar. You can change it by setting a value of ylim

> arrows(SD.graph, means-error.bars, SD.graph, means+error.bars, code=3, angle=90, length=.1)

# This adds the error bars
# Now a decent version for presentation:

> SD.graph <- barplot(means, main="Means of standard length to intestine length ratio", names.arg=c("Mackerel", "Gurnard"), ylab="Standard length : Intestine ratio", ylim=c(0,max(means)+max(error.bars)))

> arrows(SD.graph, means-error.bars, SD.graph, means+error.bars, code=3, angle=90, length=.1)


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Practical digilit 101

Recent discussions stimulated by posts I made here on the topic of Dark Social communications, and specifically about email, are starting to tie in with my thoughts on the topic of digital literacy.

I'm still struggling towards an accessible definition of digital literacy, but my current thoughts look something like this:Digital Literacies
You can view this diagram in two ways - bottom up (skills are more important than literacies) or top down (literacies are more important). Either way, in the case of email the one thing everyone seems able to agree on is that it's not going to go away. This means that we need to do a better job of dealing with it, and issues of skills and literacies come into play.

Years ago, we used to cover email in our first year key skills I.T. course, but the topic started to feel irremediably naff, and having grown up with it, it was very difficult to convince students that that had anything to learn (even presented in the context of building a professional identity). Yet clearly they do, such as the importance of a suitable subject line (competency), knowing (and being able to apply) the difference between CC, BCC and Reply to all (skill), and not making yourself look like a prat to a professor by over-familiarity and textspeak (literacy).

Email is easily the most successful digital innovation of our time, dwarfing the puny achievements of social networks, and there is much to praise - the distributed architecture of email and the resulting sense of ownership and direct personal contact. It's clear to me that there is still a need for email training for students and colleagues alike, but how to convince others that they have stuff to learn? My answer is to teach skills but stress literacies. By way of illustration, here are three approaches to email that I use which I think others could benefit from:

1. Reply to all c.f. BCC
I make extensive use of BCC in communicating with student groups of up to 300 or more. It works well, is easy for me to manage and generates a sense of personal contact in recipients that I often reinforce by including audio or video in the message, resulting in high response rates and threaded conversations which are easy to index and archive. In contrast, it's easy to talk about Reply to all disasters, and the importance of knowing the difference and of visualizing the recipient when composing email.

2. Training expectations
When students (or colleagues) become over demanding and over dependent on email responses, I train them by gradually lengthening my response time, and by including links to the content they are requesting in my answers rather than the content itself. Depending on the nature of the relationship, it can be advantageous to develop your sig file into a user agreement which defines what response times your correspondents can typically expect and maybe email office hours (for your own sanity). This is so much better than the dreadful Out of office reply, generating dead letters.

3. Occasional bankruptcy
I work on an Inbox Zero policy with email, but several times a year, when returning from email-free vacation for example, it is common to find nearly a thousand messages in my inbox. (And those have made it through my spam filters, which typically reject 60-70% of the email I receive.) On these occasions, I take a deep breath and spend two to three minutes scanning the subject lines (not the content), flagging any messages I think I might want to read or respond to (typically very few). After that, it depends how brave you are - either archive the rest or simply delete them unopened. On the rare occasions you make a bad decision, the recipient will send the message again if it's important to them. I've been doing this for years and it's never let me down yet, in fact - it's a part of my vacation I look forward to :-)

4. *Most Important*
Don't do what institutions do and let email become a channel used solely for bad news, or when you want something. Use email socially so the recipients are on the lookout for your messages. Email your tutor or your boss to tell then what good progress you're making on your project. Email your partner with a suggestion for your next vacation or the recipe you're going to cook then at the weekend. But at all times use restraint - email is too powerful a tool to be in the hands of fools.

I challenge anyone to tell me they don't have students or colleagues who would benefit from such training :-)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Evidence and emotion

Email Yesterday I pointed at an article which argued that email is not the problem, it's the people that use it who are broken. I publicized this with the heading Saying that email is broken is as dumb as blaming your obesity on food, and it caused quite a discussion.

The social media addicts (been there, done that) could not accept that email has a place to play in a communications strategy, insisting that it was, essentially, "evil". I was amused rather than annoyed by this anthropomorphism of technology, and not at all surprised that the biased sample discussing this issue on social media could not produce any evidence beyond anecdote (Well it works for me), of the effectiveness of social media. The reason spammers use email is not because because it doesn't work. That does not mean email is "evil", any more than road accidents mean that cars are "evil". It means that humans are imperfect.

I'm just coming off a multi-year experiment where we forced students (through assessment) to communicate via social media. (This grew out of the Small Worlds experiment.) This year, we stopped forcing them and gave them a choice. And they stopped using social media to communicate with us (#DarkSocial - The Results Are In). Since I focused on email as my main (non-assessed) communication tool for students (and colleagues), the number of comments and questions I receive is up more than 10 fold, and it's a lot easier for me to manage than obsessively checking social networks for fleeting content. Student feedback says they feel the same way and the data supports that. Interestingly, this academic year we are seeing a big upsurge in email from mobiles (Sent from my Blackberry/iPhone, etc, and even without the sig, the terse nature of thumb typing is easy to spot).

The strength of email is that users "own" the content, both intellectually and physically, in a way that is not true of content posted to facebook or Google+. One trick I have learned is to use Blogger as an easy multimedia authoring tool so that I can quickly produce attractive multimedia emails with a reusable archive which will come into its own in terms of reuse in future years. Email still has to compete for user attention in the clamour of the online space. As I said, using email badly doesn't prove that email is bad. But DarkSocial is not simply email or nothing. It's about recognizing that we cannot force others to do what we want them to do if they want to do something else. All the evidence shows this clearly.

I wasn't surprised at the vehemence of the blinkered response from some of the contributors to the discussion. As far as many people are concerned, it's full steam ahead and damn the icebergs. It was useful to remind myself of these emotions though, and to think again of how I tackle a number of speaking engagements over the next few weeks where I have essentially been booked to big up social media in education. When I've figured out how I'm going to do that, you'll read about it here :-)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Great Ink Ripoff

The great ink ripoff Printers are the bane of my existence. Every time I turn my printer on the bloody thing won't work. Over the last few months I've become convinced that Hewlett Packard is out to get me and I have developed a
ritual for turning the printer on which involves cursing Hewlett Packard and swearing that I'll never ever buy another Hewlett Packard printer. It seems that I have to put new ink cartridges in the damn thing every time I want to print. But am I completely paranoid? According to an article in The Guardian, seemingly not (Printer ink cartridges: why you're paying more but getting a lot less).

For example, the Epson T032 colour cartridge (released in 2002) is the same size as the Epson colour T089 (released in 2008). But the T032 contains 16ml of ink and the T089 contains just 3.5ml of ink. It's a similar story with Hewlett Packard (HP) cartridges. A decade ago, the best-selling HP cartridge had 42ml of ink and sold for about £20. Today, the standard printer cartridges made by HP may contain as little as 5ml of ink but sell for about £13. Cut open a HP inkjet cartridge and you'll find what is going on. The size of the sponges inside, which hold the ink, have progressively reduced over the years. The rest of the cartridge is now simply empty space. In Epson cartridges, meanwhile, the ink tank has been systematically reduced in size.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The value of formative assessment

Students on a first year key skills module have the opportunity to take a non-assessed practice quiz which is similar in format and content to the summative assessment on the module. For the students who submitted the assessment on time, I entered the data into R and had a quick look at it:

The marking scheme constrains the marks it is possible for students to score (O, 20, 40, 60, 80, 100%), thus this is not continuous data and a non-parametric test has to be used for comparison (Wilcoxon rank sum test = Mann Whitney U test). In this sample (n=262), 30% of students chose not to do the practice assessment. In general, this group scored lower marks (median = 60%) on the summative quiz than those who had engaged with formative assessment (median = 80%). As you can see, this difference is statistically significant (p < 0.001).

This analysis does not take into account confounding factors, such as the fact that students who bother with formative assessment are more engaged, and quite possibly more talented, than those who do not, so it does not prove the simple hypothesis that it was the practice quiz wot dun it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The strong get stronger and the weak .... don't

Formative assessment Earlier this week I was writing about student self-assessment (Persuading students of the value of formative assessment (or otherwise)), and I described a data set which showed that students who participated in formative assessment did better on subsequent summative assessment. A new paper in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education asks the question: Does student engagement in self-assessment calibrate their judgement over time? (Note this is "assessment of self" rather than completing formative assessments)

It turns out that the answer has a large dose of Matthew Effect - the strong get stronger and the weak .... don't.

Does student engagement in self-assessment calibrate their judgement over time? (2013) Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, doi: 10.1080/02602938.2013.769198
One of the implicit aims of higher education is to enable students to become better judges of their own work. This paper examines whether students who voluntarily engage in self-assessment improve in their capacity to make those judgements. The study utilises data from a web-based marking system that provides students with the opportunity to assess themselves on each criterion for each assessment task throughout a programme of study. Student marks were compared with those from tutors to plot changes over time. The findings suggest that overall students’ judgements do converge with those of tutors, but that there is considerable variation across achievement levels, with weaker students showing little improvement. Whilst the study is limited by the exigencies of voluntary participation and thus consequential gaps in the data set, it shows how judgement over time can be demonstrated and points to the potential for more systematic interventions to improve students’ judgements. It also illustrates the use of the web-based marking and feedback software (ReView) that has considerable utility in aiding self-assessment research.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Tectonic plates moved. A crack appeared. In it, a thought, which grew into a word. Which grew into an idea. I wrote, faster and faster until I could find no more words. Then I rested, ate. Later I wrote more, and more. Until I believed. This could work. I could show people how to write. No, not show them - write with them, write alongside them, write together. We would write and we would grow. People would be drawn to this idea - people who wanted to write and people who wanted others to write. The writing would go until more and more people were writing. This plan could work. This was my plan. I could do this.

I needed supporters to begin. I took my opportunity. The conversation stalled momentarily. I leaned forward, planted my idea in the crack. I have an idea. I talked, faster and faster. As I talked, the flow of words from my mouth became confident, concrete, certain. Syllables flew and I talked and he listened. I leaned forward and shut out the rest. I leaned forward and talked and looked into his eyes.

His lizard brain ticked over. Tongue flicked from the corner of his mouth, tasted the air. Slowly the eyes dulled. No profit in this idea. And in that instant the thought was dead. I put it away, sat back. The idea was dead. I would not write with others. I would be writing alone.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Monday, February 18, 2013

In competiton with the pendulum

Dark Social On Friday, Martin Weller wrote about academics competing in the attention economy, something that has interested me for some time. We went on to have our usual knockabout exchange in the comments on Martin's post, and while I accept his main point as valid, thinking about this has left me reinforced in my belief that academia and social media are not entirely suited to each other, and there there could be a better way.

When competing for online attention, academia is doomed if it places itself in competition with entertainment. I know you don't want to hear that (my speaking diary for the next couple of months with half a dozen invitations to talk about social media in education conforms this), but that's the way it is. Sadly, this puts me out of sync with the current swing toward social education. Too far ahead of the bloody curve again :-(  What's the solution? Academic needs to place itself above entertainment in the attention economy, and in society in general. Until we pursue that goal, the long downward slide will continue.

What I really want to talk about is dark social, but that's not a message that people want to hear at present. This last six months has been a revelation to me, still leveraging the power of technology without forcing mock social interactions. I have developed a dark social approach to my teaching this year and the results have been better than I could have hoped. On my first year key skills module last year, for the first time ever (over 10 years), the pass rate was 100%. I'm certainly not claiming all the credit for that, we have a very strong first year cohort, but with n~300, that's pretty convincing evidence for the dark social approach to educational curation (or "teaching", if you will). And overall, once I'd got a decent email system sorted out (including tagging, folders, templates, lists, etc), it wasn't any more work for me than obsessively monitoring social media for student activity and support requests.

Based on my current teaching experience, next year I plan to roll out the dark social approach further. That means a lot of online content will disappear from the VLE and will be replaced with skeleton notes and high quality interaction face to face in lectures (I'm shifting the blend back to the classroom), and via one-to-one online channels such as email and facebook messages (which have taken off recently in a sub-cohort of students from whom this is their preferred channel). So in five years time when the MOOC hysteria has gone and all this is old hat again, remember who told you about dark social ;-)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Brainwashed into the cult of social media

Attention Oliver Burkeman's column in The Guardian this week discusses brainwashing and cults. "Brainwashing" doesn't exist, but "effort justification" does - the tendency to attribute a greater value (greater than the objective value) to an outcome effort has been put into acquiring or achieving.

Effort justification applies to a lot of activities which take place in and around education. Over-attributing value to fetishes such as collaboration, team work, and social media is an example of this. One of the main reasons I'm currently trying to shift my emphasis from social media to a dark social approach is that I have been guilty of effort justification in the past, and returning to a more evidence based rationale for dealing with students and colleagues is needed to re-establish more profitable outcomes.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Positive academic outcomes of Facebook use


Chan, C.L., Fu, W.E., Lai, K.R., and  Tseng, S.F. (2013) Feasibility study of using social networks platform for learning support: an example of Facebook
  • In this study, we explored the students’ computer-supported collaborative learning behavior based on the Facebook platform
  • Sixty two senior college students major in Information Management took Decision Support System (DSS) class. Besides the lectures and class discussion, the students participated in the DSS Facebook for collaborative learning. 
Reasonable sample size, although not huge.
  • We found that students’ characteristics (e.g. gender and mindset of learning) are important factors to affect their Facebook usage behavior and learning performance
  • The students using DSS Facebook more often get better performance in their final projects, learning satisfaction and the online communication behavior survey. 
  • We also found that gender affects the usage of social network platform. For instance, male students use social networks platform several times per week and get better performance in online communication, learning satisfaction and creativity self-efficacy.
We have the same observations (in press), but I would current argue that academic facebook usage is a proxy for academic engagement rather than a inherent major driver. See: Time on Task

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lessons in Life

1) Negotiation Skills
Don't be afraid to ask for what you want - but timing is important.
Be persistent. When you are refused, ask again. You are now in a negotiation situation.
When negotiating, put an offer on the table. Be positive, aim for both parties to gain something.
Have a red line. If the other party will not negotiate, walk away having documented that their behavior is unreasonable.

2) The P Word
There is no place for Passion in civilized society.
We do not live in a civilized society.
You will never be given anything unless you demonstrate your "Passion".
Fake it.

3) Work Harder Than Your Competitors
Start earlier, or if you can't do that, work later.
Harder does not mean longer, it means better.
Be professional, become the go-to guy.
Return to (1).

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's contagious

Contagious At our local PedR meeting this week, Harriet Jones from UEA discussed Transition to university - getting the most from students. For me, the most stimulating part of this meeting was the discussion around Harriet's view that in the face of the difficult transition from secondary to higher education, our expectations of students are not high enough, and that students of all abilities respond best to challenge rather than dumbing down of the curriculum and over assessment.

In light of this inspiring discussion of a seemingly intractable problem, a paper just published in PLOS One is interesting (Spread of Academic Success in a High School Social Network. (2013) PLoS ONE 8(2): e55944. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055944). U.S. high school students whose friends’ average grade point average (GPA) is greater than their own have a tendency to increase their own GPA. Previous studies have shown that a student’s social network can influence obesity, emotional state and other cognitive traits and behavior. These authors found that students whose friends were performing better academically were more likely to improve their own scores over time. The opposite effect was also seen: when their friends GPAs were lower, a given student’s GPA was more likely to decrease as well. The authors also found that the strongest link between a student’s GPA change and that of their peers was likely to be with those they had ranked as friends, rather than best friends or acquaintances.

This suggests that streaming students by ability is a very bad idea, although just as friendship groups tend to form along social and ethnic lines, academic ability (and engagement) is also a determinant of social link formation in my experience. Educators therefore seemingly have a responsibility to mix things up, and where we have any influence, random allocation to groups seems to be about the best way we can achieve this.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Dangerously Radical Suggestion?

Leading by example Recently I heard an interesting story about a teacher who is sitting all the public exams on the course he has taught at the same time as his students. As far as I know he is in a separate room so as not to distract students during papers, and there's an obvious difference between public exams and HE exams set by the teaching staff. But maybe HE staff could compensate for that by sitting exams on the other modules students take rather than our own?

What if we all did that, what would student reaction be? Respect? Ridicule? Indifference?

With all this talk of MOOCs, it's easy to overlook the distance which has grown between HE teachers and students. I won't rehearse all the reason crammed into our busy lives why this has happened, just note that the problem keeps getting worse. In a culture where education and scholarship are not valued, how do academics earn student's respect? In this regard, technology is a problem rather than a solution to a difficulty. In some areas we need to stop relying on technology and lead by example.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Changing the Learning Landscape #cll1213

Higher Education Academy

Changing the Learning Landscape – The Use of Social Media in Science and Technology Teaching and Learning
Date: 13 Mar 2013
Location: Royal Society of Chemistry, Piccadilly, London.
Twitter: #cll1213

The Use of Social Media in Science and Technology workshop offers an opportunity for those involved in teaching, or directly managing degree programmes, to find out more about the role social media can play in enhancing the student and tutor experience. Through a series of presentations, activities and discussions, led by academics from the science and technology disciplines, participants will be introduced to new social media approaches and see discipline-focused exemplars of social media applied in practice.
Topics will cover:
  • an introduction to teaching with social media
  • encouraging student social networking in laboratory practical sessions
  • enhancing fieldwork learning through social media technologies
  • social media and lecture capture
  • accessibility aspects of social media
  • student perspectives on the use of social media in science and technology teaching and learning
These topics will be delivered by practitioners from the science and technology disciplines (including me ;-)
There is no charge for the workshop but places are limited and you are advised to apply early using the booking form.

A similar workshop The Use of Social Media in Engineering and Mathematics will be held on 22 May 2013 in Manchester. Details of, and registration for, this workshop will follow in due course.

Higher Education Academy

Monday, February 11, 2013

Big Fat Turnitin Grademark #Fail ?

I appear to have completely misunderstood how the Post Date setting in Turnitin GradeMark works. (Or have I? It's so confusing I can't be sure.) I thought that by setting the Post Date, students could view their feedback in GradeMark but not their mark until the Post Date is reached. However, this is not the case. Post Date only works when Anonymous marking is selected in the Turnitin assignment - which is not what I want (and I'm not sure if we can set that here anyway).

So is there anyway to separate feedback from marks in GradeMark other than making two inefficient passes though the cohort, once to add feedback and then again at a later date to add the mark?

Sadly, Word Verification is Back

Google Captcha When I wrote about commenting on Blogger last month (Why does commenting suck?), one outcome of the discussion was that the Blogger Word verification (captcha) system causes people problems, so I turned it off.

Sadly, after a one month trial, there is just too much spam on Blogger, and the spam system doesn't catch enough of it (unlike Akismet on Wordpress), so sadly the captcha is back here.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Your weekend reading assignment

Google+ Turning PowerPoint presentations into comic book style
It's the words that are the problem

Once the MOOC hysteria subsides we'll figure it out

Open Access Now, and Green at that. Anything else might kill you
Sneaky vested powers are doing what they always do, trying to grab it back when we're not looking

It's been a while since I found anything truly worthy of updating my LOL Library
It's raining (or snowing) - you deserve this

Thursday, February 07, 2013

More evidence on the Dark Social pile

The latest report from the Nielsen Norman Group has some interesting evidence about teenagers (think transition to Higher Education and embedded attitudes) and technology (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox: February 1, 2013, Teenage Usability: Designing Teen-Targeted Websites).

Teenage Usability

"Our research refutes many stereotypes , including that teens:
  • just want to be entertained online with graphics and multimedia,
  • are supremely tech savvy,
  • use smartphones for everything, and
  • want everything to be social"
"Teenagers use the Internet from many devices in various environments. For our research, we focused on web usability, mainly from desktop and laptop computers. We also looked at mobile website usability and how teenagers use mobile devices."

"The bad news: Teens are not as invincible as some people think. Although teens might feel confident online, they do make mistakes and often give up quickly. Fast-moving teens are also less cautious than adults and make snap judgments; these lead to lower success....
  • Teens perform worse than adults for three reasons:
  • Insufficient reading skills
  • Less sophisticated research strategies
  • Dramatically lower levels of patience"

"Design for Smaller Screens and Poor Ergonomics"

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The curation problem in science education

Maths I'm not losing sleep over it, but I keep chewing over the "too much to learn" issue which arose from a student survey last week which I described recently

In one way, student complaints about "too much to know" are an entirely predictable response to information overload which is a consequence of the massive expansion of scientific knowledge since my time as a student. They are also entirely predictable from research findings (see: Why email rules the DarkSocial). I don't know of any students who have an adequate bookmarking or tagging system for information recall. Nearly all those I have asked hope to rely on squirreling stuff away in a Word document, much as I would have done as a student over 30 years ago. This surely represents a failure of education, although it must be said that the same is true for most of my academic colleagues.

But the thing that keeps me coming back to the survey results is that this is my problem rather than the student's problem. In science education (maybe in all education, but I'm restricting my thoughts to my own experience at present to help me get a handle on the problem), skills are fine, but facts are needed to build "scientific literacy" - it does matter whether students know the basic framework for building knowledge. But what are the basics that students need to know? The "core knowledge" bears no relationship to the limited fact set I was expected to absorb as a student.

I'm paternalistic enough to believe that teaching is essentially a curation activity. Hence, my students comments represent, at some level, my failure to curate the knowledge that they "need to know". If they learn the textbook they will pass the course. But knowing what I do about withdrawal as a strategy for coping with information overload, am I doing an adequate job as a teacher?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Let your creative juices flow

Question This is a true story.

I've had to post a number of parcels recently and I was running low on packaging materials. Walking to work yesterday I spied a sturdy cardboard shoebox in a skip [dumpster]. I'm having that, I said. When I got to work and opened it, what do you think it contained?

To help start you off, I'll give you a few clues. It wasn't:
  • Air (though technically correct in part, too boring to mention)
  • Nothing
  • Footware, or other clothing
  • Money
  • Drugs
  • Weapon(s)
  • Body parts
  • Excrement

Be creative.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Richard the Turd

You say Richard III. I hear Sellers.

Dear students...

DarkSocial I substantially revamped my final year Virology course this year. On Friday in class I asked the students for some feedback on their feelings about the course at the end of the first week. I didn't really get any responses - they didn't want to talk. So I popped up a quick Google form for confidential responses, and got some very revealing comments.

As is now my practice, I had already positioned email as the major communications channel for this module, even though the students also have access to a range of other channels including Facebook, Google+ and blogs if they choose to use them. With a very small number of exceptions, they don't, and this is confirmed by the data I have so far from this and other modules I am currently teaching as well as the responses I received over the weekend.

In the face of increasing information overload, the rise and rise of Dark Social continues.

For information, here are my (edited) responses to the questionnaire data I have just sent back to students. Via email, obviously.

Feedback Survey Results
Many thanks to all who took the time to fill in the feedback survey I posted on Friday. Your responses were very useful in helping us design this module so that it best fits your needs. As I said on Friday we won’t be bothering you with questionnaire requests all the time, but I have now put up a “Suggestion Box” on Blackboard - a link to a web form where you can comment anonymously about anything on the module at any time.

10/24 people completed the survey. You can see all the responses attached to this email. Please note that you can see where I have edited the responses so that everyone’s anonymity is maintained.

How would you prefer me to share information with you:
5 votes: via a weekly email newsletter that you can save and never look at again
5 votes: via the box at the top of the Course Documents page as at present

After consideration, the links box at the top of the Course Documents page is gone. I will continue emailing you extra links directly relevant to specific topics which come up in lectures. In future you will also get a weekly email newsletter (usually on Friday so you have chance to look at it over the weekend if you want to - but see below) with other information which is relevant to (but not essential for) this module.
IMPORTANT: What you do with this information is up to you. As I explained in the first lecture, there is enough information in the textbook for you to pass the module (but probably not to do much more without extra reading). You may wish to read the information I am sharing with you each week and discuss it with me and/or your classmates as we go through the course. You may want to file it away somewhere and keep it for revision. Or you can simply delete it - it’s up to you.

What is your overall rating for the first week (1 = rubbish, 5 = brilliant)
Average = 4.3

What is the thing(s) you enjoyed most about the first week?
Thanks for all the comments here. As I said above, there is now a [Google form-powered]  Suggestion Box on Blackboard for confidential comments on the module at any time.

What is the thing(s) you enjoyed least about the first week?
This was the most useful part of the survey for me.

"I have found all the extra information really overwhelming. The accumulation of the end of powerpoint paper links, the links on blackboard, the things that have been sent out in emails, the critical appraisals and the test yourself questions has been quite scary in terms of volume. I understand that a lot of these are voluntary, but I want to do as well as I can, and the expectation that we should do as much of this as possible on top of our own reading is beginning to be a bit stressful. I already feel like I hardly have time for my other module."
"The amount of work seems quite daunting. In other modules, you can get away with relying on the lecture slides and some speaker notes for exams. Virology seems to rely on lecture notes, lots of speaker notes, textbook reading, research paper reading, learning all of those virus families... However it may turn out to not be as difficult as it seems, only time will tell."
Please remember that you don’t have to read everything, and you certainly don’t have to “learn” everything about virology in 10 weeks. The information in the textbook is sufficient to pass this module. Extra reading is required to get higher grades specified by the School of Biological Sciences assessment criteria. The PowerPoint lecture slides and the textbook are not extra reading. Everything else is. How much you do is up to you, but you need to balance the time you spend on this module with all the other things you have to do. Do you keep a study diary or planner which allows you to work out the best way of spending your study time? Unlike at A level, in higher education the curriculum is open ended - the more you know, the better you do - but more importantly, how you are able to process and analyze information from a range of sources is crucial.

"There are too many papers you ask us to read. It will be ideal if we can read them all + understanding + memorise it but in reality it seems impossible to do that (at least to me)"
The word memorise scares me. That’s not what the shared links are about - I don’t expect students to memorise everything any more than I expect them to memorize what they read in the newspaper or saw on the TV last night. Reading the shared content is about awareness of the subject, not about memorising facts. No-one expects any student to “learn everything”. It’s about adding extra dimensions and depth to the book chapters and to the PowerPoint slides.

“There appears to be a lot of extra information outside of lectures that we are required to know in comparison to other modules. I presume this is to greater expand our knowledge so we can achieve the highest possible grade.“
Yes, exactly. For what it’s worth, most years the average score on this module is higher than the average final year module score, but of course this varies considerably from person to person.

Any other comments?
It was good to read that some people don’t hate virology :-)
Please remember that you can email me at any time if you have a question about the module. Or even if you just want to shoot the breeze about virology ;-)
Thanks for helping us improve the module.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

So it goes with God

Life of Pi I've always been a big fan of Life of Pi, but when I heard they were making a film of it I was highly skeptical. Consequently I didn't rush to see it when it came out, but I was dragged along yesterday.

And it was good. Full credit to Ang Lee, for stunning cinematography, but also for not ducking the rather difficult structure of the book and Disneying it up. I think this is probably the best film adaption of literature I have seen. And if you need another reason to go and see it, I think this is also the only film I have seen where the 3D didn't suck (and give me a headache) (with the possible exception of Avatar?).

So go and see Life of Pi - it doesn't suck.