Sunday, March 31, 2013

Laying the guilt trip on ya

Terry Pratchett: Facing Extinction

Enjoying your Easter eggs, are you? Good. While you munch away, you might want to watch this documentary about the fate of the orangutan (sorry, available in UK only), then to figure out how many orangs your Easter eggs killed, read:

Appetite for Destruction? The Food Product Guide to Palm Oil Content


Easter eggs rated by palm oil use


Friday, March 29, 2013

What I did right

Tick Most of the things I touch turn to ashes, so occasionally it's nice to remind myself of things I did right.

Even before Harriet Jones inspirational seminar in February I had decided to challenge my final year students by raising my expectations. Although I don't have the final outcomes yet, demanding more worked well from my perspective, even though I did need to back off from my initial enthusiasm slightly.

  • All in all I thought the module was great and I am really happy to have chosen it. I found it interesting and I was very impressed in the way it was taught. My only worry is the amount of information we must learn and understand just from the lectures themselves, as well as having to do a lot of extra reading in the hopes of getting a decent mark in the exams. 
  • The weekly newsletter is very interesting and helpful!
  • It was certainly very challenging, however, it did provide a lot of cutting edge research to read on a very important and stimulating topic of research. 
  • Very good module, probably one of the best this year.
  • I think the structure of the module has been very good. Dr Cann has provided us with sufficient extra material to read. All the lecture material was organised in a good way, and the notes provided within the powerpoint presentation are also extremely helpful. It was made clear to us throughout the course what level of detail we needed to know in order to do well ad achieve high grades. I think Dr Cann is awesome!!!

Raising my expectations definitely feels like something I did right. I can't claim to have been as reckless as I intended to be this year so far. But I am trying.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I haz a tumblr

tumblr To be strictly accurate, I now haz many tumblrs. It's addictive.

I've had a tumblr account for over 5 years, longer than I've been on Twitter. Actually, in that time, I've had several tumblr accounts as I struggled to either find a purpose for tumblr or to make it fit a particular task. None of those efforts went anywhere until, snow bound on Saturday, I spent the day making an effort to grok the tumblr culture in much the same way as I recently tackled reddit head on (The effect formerly known as Slashdot).

And I like it. It's fast, flexible, social, and so far, very good. The upshot is I am currently running four tumblr "blogs" (microblogs would be a better term):
AJC - my personal blog/scratchpad

AoB Understorey - looking at behind the scenes at AoB Blog.

MicrobiologyBytes - the latest news about microbiology.

#SGMMan - a personal view of the SGM Spring Conference.

Of these, the last one is perhaps the most interesting - a nice rich snapshot of a conference experience. Finally, I get tumblr and I can see myself using it as a default go to site in future.

I wonder what took me so long?

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Monolith

The Monolith

Papa's got a brand new dongle.

While viewing this image, please ensure this is playing in the background.

How has social media and Web 2.0 been integrated into medical education?

Objective: Present-day students have grown up with considerable knowledge concerning multi-media. The communication modes they use are faster, more spontaneous, and independent of place and time. These new web-based forms of information and communication are used by students, educators, and patients in various ways. Universities which have already used these tools report many positive effects on the learning behaviour of the students. In a systematic literature review, we summarized the manner in which the integration of Social Media and Web 2.0 into education has taken place.

Method: A systematic literature search covering the last 5 years using MeSH terms was carried out via PubMed.

Result: Among the 20 chosen publications, there was only one German publication. Most of the publications are from the US and Great Britain. The latest publications report on the concrete usage of the tools in education, including social networking, podcasts, blogs, wikis, YouTube, Twitter and Skype.

Conclusion: The integration of Web 2.0 and Social Media is the modern form of self-determined learning. It stimulates reflection and actively integrates the students in the construction of their knowledge. With these new tools, the students acquire skills which they need in both their social and professional lives.

Hartz, T., & √úckert, F. (2013). Education 2.0-How has social media and Web 2.0 been integrated into medical education? A systematical literature review. GMS Z Med Ausbild, 30, 1.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Beyond Google I've been busy, crazy busy over the last week. And the next two weeks look worse. Along the way I learned how to use Thunderbird, and good it is too (once you stop it looking so f-ugly). And in a rare quiet moment, I read Jacob Neilsen's latest AlertBox, Converting Search into Navigation:
Users are incredibly bad at finding and researching things on the web. A few years ago, I characterized users' research skills as "incompetent," and they’ve only gotten worse over time. "Pathetic" and "useless" are words that come to mind after this year's user testing.

This struck a chord, as only yesterday I failed to find the file I needed on the dreaded School VLE admin site, earning myself a withering email response when I asked for help. Is there any possibility of designing an effective support site where staff can find the content they want? I'm not holding my breath, as we've been discussing this for the past five years without making any obvious progress (despite redesigns). I've given up on the Uni website and simple use a Google CSE, but that strategy doesn't work with the locked down content on Blackboard. Sigh.

Ah Google, how you've spoiled us with your free reader and your intelligent search. How we'll miss you when you're gone.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Smooth Audio Feedback - I could use your help

Audio I'm currently working on Phase 2 of my HEA audio feedback project. So far I have mostly managed to confirm the conclusions of earlier work - that students love audio feedback, resulting in increased engagement with feedback, but that it does not automatically reduce academic workload and if badly implemented, can increase workload sharply. I've also managed to figure out how pedagogically broken Turnitin GradeMark is, since it only allows feedback to be delivered after students have received their marks.

Phase 2 of the project involves working with two groups of students in order to confirm and expand the pilot scale findings from Phase 1 (A trial of the TurnitIn GradeMark system in a mixed information economy. (2012) figshare. One of these groups contains 170 students, and so far it's taking me 5 minutes to complete delivery of each message - that's over 14 hours (in case you were wondering - 14 hours is a long time for these sorts of calculation :-)

What is abundantly clear from this is that, in addition to good pedagogic design, workflow is of primary importance in making audio feedback viable. With that in mind, I've been occupying my spare cognitive capacity during those 14 hours by optimizing the workflow for audio feedback delivery - with an additional twist: when the HEA grant runs out, I will have no budget to spend on this. Here's where I'm at. So far, I've been using SoundCloud as a recorder/host/player for the Phase 2 audio files (mp3 format). This gives me access to a few nice features, such as short links to the files I can include in notification emails and some primitive analytics, which is useful for confirming that almost all the students play their audio feedback (in a few cases, as many as 10 times!). But SoundCloud has a few problems. The processing time on 60 second files is variable, sometimes almost instant, occasionally as long as 3-4 minutes. That's not on when you're struggling to get through 170. The other problem is that the upgraded version of SoundCloud I need to use costs money. Not a lot, but enough to make it non-viable for sustained use and scale-up. So I've been thinking about solutions to these problems, and I think I've found a free solution that works better for me - but I need your help in testing it. Here's my revised workflow:
  1. Record a short feedback mp3 (using whatever software you prefer, e.g. Audacity, GarageBand, etc).
  2. Upload the files to a public folder on Dropbox, giving free public hosting.
  3. Convert the Dropbox link to a link for inclusion in notification emails - giving me better analytics than SoundCloud does.
So far this has worked well on all the systems I have tested it on, the overall processing time is no longer that SoundCloud, and it's all free. But I would welcome your help in testing this more widely across a range of system. Does the following link show as an audio player in your browser?

Update: OK, thanks to everyone who sent feedback, you can stop now. Seems to work well across all systems and browsers, including mobile devices. Which is nice. Here's what the analytics look like:


Thursday, March 14, 2013

After Google Reader

Google Reader Google has announced closure of the Google Reader RSS service.

From a business perspective, it's a logical decision. Like it or not (and I don't) RSS is slowly dying, replaced with a Babel of fragmented APIs. Chalk up another one for Dark Social. Loss of Reader will hit me hard. Apart (possibly) from GMail, it's my most valuable online service. Would I pay for this service? Yes, a small amount, probably the same as I pay for Flickr Pro, no more.

The worry now is that Feedburner will follow (I always thought that would go first). I need to be looking for alternatives to that. MailChimp has a good service and a viable business model, but I run most of my online publishing on zero budget so I can't afford to pay for service. Death of Feedburner would also shut down a number of my pro bono online activities. Lots of other people will be feeling the same way. The death of Reader will have far reaching implications.

I've been critical of Google Reader in the past, it took me a long time to get used to it. I preferred Bloglines but the service was never reliable enough. NetNewsWire is OK, although the interface feels like going back to the 90s, and I need a cloud service that syncs across the several machines I use during a day and with a mobile interface for tablets and smartphones. Flipboard is nice, as are Feedly and Netvibes, but neither are a replacement or Google Reader since they emphasise pretty over function and don't deal efficiently with large numbers of subscriptions. If you don't understand why none of these services is an adequate replacement for the 400 subscriptions I currently manage in Reader here's an analogy: Reader is the British Library/Library of Congress; the others are Heat magazine. Right now my overwhelming feeling is of anger, and thinking about ways to punish Google, which is of course ridiculous. I'm toying with the silly idea of boycotting Google+. If you feel obliged to poke the angry blogger with a stick by pointing out that this is an emotional rather than a logical reaction, welcome to the darkest depths of my spam folder.

How can Google redeem itself? The answer is simple and seems logical to me. Introduce RSS subscriptions into Google+. That would suit me well, but Google shows no signs of moving in that direction. Unless it does, I don't know where I'm going to go.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Exploring Medium

Medium When Ev Williams builds something, he tends to get my attention. With a track record like his, I’d be stupid to ignore him. So when Medium launched in beta last year, I signed up and waited for my account to be activated. And now it has been:

The issue is, for all its minimalist elegance, has Medium got the stickiness to keep me going back?

All that glisters is not green

Re: Visitors and Residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks

"Thanks for your email. The majority of items archived in the LRA are open access and no log-in or registration is required. As explained in my original email, the full text on this article is under embargo in the LRA and this information is noted on the record under the 'Embargo on File Until' heading. The embargo period is specified by the publisher, Taylor & Francis (Routledge), and expires 12 months after publication when archiving the author's final draft of an article. The embargo on accessing the full text will automatically lift after the 12 month period.
The request to log-in appears as LRA staff can have access to embargoed items for administrative purposes and are required to log-in."

Friday, March 08, 2013

Visitors and Residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks

Teaser The Visitors and Residents model of internet use suggests a continuum of modes of engagement with the online world, ranging from tool use to social spaces. In this paper, we examine evidence derived from a large cohort of students to assess whether this idea can be validated by experimental evidence. We find statistically significant differences between individuals displaying ‘Visitor’ or ‘Resident’ attitudes, suggesting that the Visitors and Residents model is a useful typology for approaching and understanding online behaviour. From our limited sample, we have been able to produce evidence that the Visitors and Residents labels are statistically robust. This demonstrates that the Visitors and Residents approach provides a valuable framework for those considering the use of social tools in educational contexts.

Fiona Wright, David White, Tony Hirst & Alan Cann (2013) Visitors and Residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks. Learning, Media and Technology, doi: 10.1080/17439884.2013.777077

Open Access version.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Mobile impact

Mobile email
One of the most striking things I've observed this academic year is a sharp rise in email sent from mobile phones. The style varies from lowercase text-speak to more articulate English, but even without a specific sig they're easy to recognize - terse (rarely more than a sentence).

Nevertheless, the volume and responsiveness of this new traffic is one of the reasons my Dark Social communication strategy has been a success, so I'm keen to understand more about the mindset behind the messages. A recent article on Wired is informative in that regard: Texting Isn’t Writing, It’s Fingered Speech.

Thinking of these short, frequent emails as lines in a dialogue rather than of each message as a soliloquy is an interesting way to understand the mindset of the senders, and to plan how and when to respond.

Sunday, March 03, 2013


Spikes doesn't have a Mission Statement (or I'd have to resign as Internet Consulting editor ;-) but if it did, it would be something like To bring plant science to a wider audience. For that reason, we care about the traffic the site receives - not for egotistic reasons, but because otherwise, well, there's not much point.

Last year the site experienced a big reddit traffic spike (much discussed at solo12), and we've just had a Tumblr spike. These periodic events stand out above the steady traffic the site receives from a range of referrers, including email subscriptions. But the magnitude of these events is such that they dominate the overall year-on-year stats. Consequently, it's difficult to avoid our actions being biased by these relatively rare events, and I admit, we have been sufficiently conscious of them to direct some of our effort to courting traffic from referrers by ensuring our content is represented there. But the reality is that spike traffic is chaotic, and therefore unpredictable. If I knew how to dial-up a traffic spike once a week or once a month, I'd be rich. Well, actually, I do know, but I'm not interested in writing the sort of low rent celebrity-driven content that requires (Celeb O'tweek splits from long term boyfriend: "My love of Arabidopsis is greater than my love for Justin"). Consequently our content seeding strategy delivers ... patchy results.

In contrast, over at MicrobiologyBytes, some of the best performing content is non-newsworthy items written years ago, which consistently gathers enough views to stay at the top in the face of occasional spikes. I've written before about how, when I started MicrobiologyBytes in 2005, I thought I was writing a weekly magazine - tomorrow's chip wrappers. It didn't take me more than a year to realize that I was actually producing a string of reusable learning objects as blog posts. A good example of this are the MicrobiologyBytes podcasts, which I abandoned three and a half years ago, but which still receive over 5,000 downloads a month without any further attention from me in the meantime.

So our strategy at needs to change course slightly. We need to stop chasing spikes by targeting individual platforms and instead we need to produce spike-friendly content. To reach many audiences, this needs to be diverse, and could well be visual (e.g. graphics, video, animations) as well as text-based information. For my contribution, I will be concentrating on writing explanatory appraisals of papers to make them accessible to a wider audience, but I encourage my co-contributors to continue producing a diverse range of items, including the steady flow of content that is the life blood of AoBBlog. Our target is in the total value of the content of the items we produce rather than in achieving those oh-so-tempting content spikes. If we build it, the spikes will come.