Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The network as proxy

Cover A new paper in BJET discusses the use of social network analysis as a proxy for academic performance. Unfortunately, it doesn't refer to our earlier work in a this area (Badge, J. L., Saunders, N. F., & Cann, A. J. (2012). Beyond marks: new tools to visualise student engagement via social networks. Research in Learning Technology, 20).

Reviewing the differences in size, composition and structure between the personal networks of high- and low-performing students. Br J Educ Technol (1 November 2013), doi:10.1111/bjet.12110
Abstract: An interesting aspect in the current literature about learning networks is the shift of focus from the understanding of the “whole network” of a course to the examination of the “personal networks” of individual students. This line of research is relatively new, based on small-scale studies and diverse analysis techniques, which demands for more empirical research in order to contextualize the findings and to meta-analyze the research methods. The main objective of this paper is to review two research questions posed by a previous British Journal of Educational Technology contribution by Shane Dawson in order to know whether the differences in personal network composition impact on the performance of students. The two questions were defined by Dawson as follows: (1) Are there significant differences in personal network composition between high- and low-performing students? and (2) Do high-performing students have larger personal networks than their low-performing peers? In addition, the “clustered graphs” method used in this study allows the inclusion of the structural analysis of personal networks. In doing so, a new research question is addressed: (3) Are there significant differences in personal network structure between high- and low-performing students? This paper tries to answer these questions in the context of two undergraduate, inter-university and fully online courses, and two different technology-enhanced learning environments (a virtual learning environment and a personal learning environment) where interactions took place indirectly through shared resources. The results show that the network behaviors of high- and low-performing students' are strongly correlated, and that high-performing students developed larger personal networks than low performers.

The analysis in this paper (wisely) stops at correlation. But correlation is enough to get you into trouble.
"I spent 24 hours last weekend at the Isle of Wight literary festival, only in its second year but already thriving. I went to a session on spies with the writers Roger Hermiston and Professor Richard Aldrich. Aldrich has written a fascinating book about GCHQ. He said that so much of what we do now is on the electronic record that we live in a world that offers neither secrecy nor privacy. You might imagine we still have a secret ballot. Yet analysis of our buying patterns in the supermarket can, these days, reveal how we vote to a likelihood of 87%-90%." Guardian
I think it's fairly clear where learning analytics is heading, from the descriptive to the presumptive. At a time when I'm considering deciding what to buy from Sainsbury's based on a random number generator, I'm not sure what I think about these developments, except that I know I'm not sanguine about them. I believe this sort of data has real societal value, whether it be catching terrorists or supporting student learning, but the present situation we are slipping into is unacceptable. Yesterday I spent an hour interrogating Blackboard to extract data about submissions to pre-lab quizzes. I was interested in how far in advance of the practical classes students had submitted their answers, but the data buried in Blackboard tells me much more than this - not only facts such as IP addresses but far more subtle patterns. Even a simple visual inspection without software tools reveals that the majority of (but not all) students submit their answers to the quizzes multiple times. Why? Because having submitted once and seen the feedback, they then resubmit (sometimes multiple times) to ensure the mark recorded by Blackboard is as high as possible. We could infer all sorts of things from observing this behavior (such as the fact that students are engaging with the assessment part of this exercise rather than the feedback). This is the pattern followed by most students, but what about those students who only submit once, then move on - how should we respond to them? And most importantly, are these students aware of the information that their online activity patterns are revealing? Exactly how evil are the NSA, GCHQ, Blackboard?

There is a way to square the circle. Transparency. Unlike the present situation, we need to make people much more aware of what data is being collected and the implications of this. That's where the NSA went wrong. We in higher education should not follow the same path.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Grokking the visual web

BuzzFeed I've put a fair amount of effort into getting under the skin of the visual web over the past few years. I've played with Pinterest, without success, and put this failure down to the largely non-visual nature if much of what I work on. But now that the visual web is a billion dollar trend driven by mobile devices, giving up is simply not an option.

So I'm trying again, and this time it's BuzzFeed. If you haven't encountered BuzzFeed, that's because you're old. BuzzFeed is like reddit for .... even younger people. And BuzzFeed is the hottest property online right now by some distance. When ze Frank went to BuzzFeed I didn't get it. But now I do. Yet BuzzFeed vexes me. So much trivia. And yet, when you dig a little deeper, so much potential. Strip away the froth and BuzzFeed is the place to be. Why? Because visuals drive the mobile web (typing on phone keyboards is so last year), and BuzzFeed is about visual if it's about anything. But dig a little deeper. Longform has real substance, fact checking and debunking the media, or the subtle political. Still think it's all froth? Well there's science there too. But not just science, BuzzFeed is pioneering new formats, such as reporting on scientific papers in the style of a teen romance magazine photo story. Everybody wants in. Since BuzzFeed declared "The Internet loves a list", even the Times Higher is getting in on the act.

For Open Access Week, Alun wrote 6 Discoveries You Can Read In Open Access Journals. (Yes, please up vote it!) And now it's my turn, so I've been trying to grok BuzzFeed the only way I know, by immersion:
The Wisdom of The Wire
Why The Wire (2002-2008) is the greatest TV series ever made.

You Spent Money On What? 11 Improbable Scientific Papers [NSFW]
Science is a laff. No, really, it is. Millions of pounds get spent on research into… improbable events. Here are some of my favourites.

Even such trivial immersion as this has given me the vital insight into BuzzFeed that I needed. And I like it. Why? It feels exactly like Twitter did when I first started using it, i.e. entirely trivial at first sight, but when you scratch the surface, you realize the power of the interface and what it is capable of. And the main thing is it capable of is exploiting the mobile device driven visual web. I recommend it to you.

So will I be using BuzzFeed on a regular basis. No. Here's why: I find it difficult to compose in the visual medium. I am happy to consume visual media but in terms of output I'm a words person. Something like suits my style much better, for example, Medium's take on the visual web, or indeed, this post. Which is a shame, because Medium is rather backward looking in terms of current technologies. Or possibly, like Ev William's previous offerings, Medium is so far ahead of its time in the vanguard of the backlash against social media that we just can't see it yet.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

How to write an email newsletter

Newsletter In my ongoing series of posts about email, I've been looking at different models for periodic email newsletters, and thinking about how to better connect with my various readerships.*

For the past year I have been using weekly email newsletters on courses I am teaching. I am very happy with the model I have for doing this, both in terms of using Blogger as a content management system (CMS) and multimedia authoring tool, and the content and format of the messages. Although it is difficult to gather evidence in support of the dark social model, feedback from student questionnaires has been encouraging. I'll be writing more about that at some point in the future, but in this post I want to consider my more public facing blogs.

Last week, and after considerable thought, I announced that my longest running blog, MicrobiologyBytes, is moving to a weekly publication schedule. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is to allow me to avoid the information overload that comes from frequent posting, and develop a more engaging relationship with readers - something which has been lost as the number of blogs and the volume of content has grown over the years. Over the last couple of weeks I have been looking at alternative formats for email newsletters and deciding which way I want to go. But before plunging into the details, I'd like to quickly rehash the reasons behind the change. Number one is content overload and consequent loss of engagement. There's a very old AlertBox post about different categories of email which is as true today as when it was written (Protecting the User's Mailbox). This maps directly onto the problem with frequency of posting - longform once a week blog posts now jostle for attention beside short form content such as SMS and Twitter ("Protecting the User's Cognitive Space"). To protect my blood pressure, I'll reserve discussing colleagues unable to distinguish Reply from Reply To All, and Send Email To Students versus Send Email To All Course Participants, for another occasion. But this isn't an entirely negative move, I'm focusing more on the positive outcomes, such as the now near ubiquity of responsive design allowing enhanced engagement through mobile devices.

In essence, after looking at a considerable number of examples, I have concluded there are two types of email newsletter. One is the linkfest. This can be original content but is much more commonly simply a collation of previously published items. Linkfests come in two flavours, highly visual, where images serve the main come-ons to the links, or primarily text based, with some sort of branding or splash image to reassure recipients that they're not looking at spam. These are by far the most common type of newsletter. But to me, they miss a huge trick, which is the major reason I am interested in this.

Just as there are two categories of email - functional (e.g. submission receipts) and conversational - the second category of newsletter seeks to engage the readership rather than simply push more content at them. This clearly takes more work, but is the major advantage of the format. This isn't about competing directly for attention with social networks. It's about developing a much more engaged relationship with readers. There is a clear parallel with blog post style, simple sharing of a link versus writing crafted to give the impression that you are sharing the poster's inner thoughts. The newsletters I am planning to write are about relationships rather than publishing content. This arises from my experience of using newsletters with students to manage the information flow on courses I am teaching. Although much of the content I will share will consist of discussing links to content published elsewhere, the style will need to be open rather than closed, and aimed at generating conversation rather than pageviews.

Which brings us back to the issue of metrics - how do you measure success in this area? I'm coming to the conclusion the answer to that has something to do with ... Google Analytics - although it's not easy to differentiate between various sources such as email and RSS. I have a number of experiments going on right now, and I'll publish the results during my dark social workshop at SpotOn London 2013: The Dark Art of Dark Social: Email, the antisocial medium which will not die.

*See what I did there? Used the word "series" to make it look like there is some sort of planning behind my ramblings about dark social.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Supporting assessment and feedback practice with technology

The Jisc Assessment and Feedback programme (Sept 2011-Aug 2014) has worked with 40 higher education providers seeking to review and enhance their assessment and feedback practice through the appropriate use of technology. The projects have worked directly with over 2,200 staff and more than 6,000 students covering all of the main academic disciplines and the outcomes of their work have directly impacted a far greater number (in excess of 40,000 students). This report summarises the main themes and findings from the programme up to October 2013.

Ferrell, Gill. Jisc (2013) Supporting assessment and feedback practice with technology: from tinkering to transformation.

Selected conclusions:
  • Whilst difficulties in attributing specific outcomes to particular technology interventions are inevitable, there is compelling evidence that the use of technology can support the implementation of educational principles and enhance learning.
  • Over-assessment and assessment bunching have a negative impact on student attainment.
  • Students at all levels need better support and development to enable them to engage effectively with assessment and feedback practice.
  • Students need to be made aware of the benefits of engaging with assessment and feedback practice and developing their own evaluative capabilities in terms of improving their personal employability.
  • End-to-end electronic assessment management is not easy to achieve but, for possibly the first time, the technical capabilities exist if institutions can design and implement appropriate business processes. (Hmmm...)
  • There is a compelling case for e-submission in terms of improving efficiency and meeting student expectations.
  • Online marking has reached a level of maturity whereby the evidence for its effectiveness and efficiency may soon result in a critical mass of institutions and academics adopting the practice.
  • Electronic assessment management is a pre-requisite for capturing and analysing the data needed to enhance learning through effective use of learning analytics.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

TiL ... I have zero prospect of getting to the end of this FutureLearn MOOC


Left some feedback on the site - which is very interesting as it allows you to see the feedback left by other people. This confirmed my feelings about the FutureLearn platform - it's barely a beta at present. I did get an email response to the comment I left.

And linking course units to articles behind commercial paywalls is ... perverse. I'm not convinced these guys get "MOOC".

Monday, October 21, 2013

Pinterest as a learning tool?

I have tried and failed with Pinterest, but if it's your thing, you might be interested in this:

Learning beyond the classroom: evaluating the use of Pinterest in learning and teaching in an introductory anthropology class. JIME
Abstract: This paper details a case study of using Pinterest as an educational resource in an introductory anthropology course. Its use was evaluated through the data provided by the platform itself and focus groups. This evaluation found that Pinterest was a popular and useful tool for developing curated multimedia resources to support students' learning. The focus group findings suggested that online resources were shared by students across a variety of social networks, including but not limited to Pinterest. These resources were shared and used beyond the classroom, both physically in locations outside, but also with friends and family that were not part of the classroom. The opportunities for developing critical thinking through the use of tools such as Pinterest are explored.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Blog email subscription options #solo13

Email The Dark Art of Dark Social: Email, the antisocial medium which will not die.

Follow Science of the Invisible by email
Enter your email address:

Email direct to your inbox - the easy way to read this site.

Email newsletters go back to the dawn of the Internet but have been neglected in recent years with the rise of shiny social networks. But eTOCs have seen off RSS and email will not die. Why else does Twitter encourage users to share tweets via email? The evidence is clear that message dissemination via social networks only reaches a relatively small proportion of the potential audience and that most link sharing occurs via private channels such as email (hence "dark social"). The Silk Road bust and the unmasking of Dread Pirate Roberts reveals how difficult it is to maintain anonymity online. Public discussion via online comments is limited by the high risk nature of the putting your head above the parapet in the rough and tumble of the web. Yet discussions via private channels continue unabated. The rebirth email on mobile devices and the contribution of social media to information overload is causing a rethink about the utility of public versus private channels and we are seeing the rebirth of email newsletters and mailing lists. My upcoming workshop at SpotOn London 2013 will look at the case for and against dark social, practical aspects such and tools such as how to use blogs as content management systems for email generation and asks you to embrace the dark side. As part of my research I have been experimenting with email subscription options on my various blogs (see DarkSocial Experimental Ethics). So what are the options?

MailChimp is what the many of the big boys use. Very powerful and free for up to 2000 subscribers (after that, you pay). Downsides: slightly dodgy stats claims, doesn't play well with Microsoft Outlook, can be tricky to get your posts formatted the way you want. The good news is that MailChimp emails allow replies, offering up the possibility of onging email conversations (if that's what you want).

Feedburner offers an email subscription service. Available for any platform and particularly easy to integrate with Blogger via a sidebar widget. Unlike MailChimp, recipients cannot reply by email but they can leave a public comment on the original post. Like MailChimp, Feedburner allows email replies.
Key feature - unlike the other two solutions listed here, you can burn a selected tag as a feed for email subscriptions rather than inflicting all your verbal blogging diarohoea on subscribers inboxes. This enables you to schedule a regular newsletter rather than turning them off by bombarding them with everything you post. Blogs are great for those who have the time and the commitment for frequent posts. But many don't and not everyone wants to read your passing thoughts as they occur to you. The answer for both of these groups is the digest or newsletter - weekly, fortnightly or monthly as you prefer. So how do you structure and write an effective email newsletter? If enough people ask me in the comments to this post, I'll tell you ;-)
But there's a problem hanging over Feedburner - the future status of the service after Google axed Reader earlier this year. Feedburner's stats and post scheduling also seem to be as erratic as ever :-(

Wordpress JetPack also offers an email subscription option (run via even on self-hosted installations) but unlike the other two is only available for Wordpress blogs (on or self-hosted). Probably the simplest of the three to set up. Like Feedburner email subscriptions, simple to run - the blog is your content management system delivering full text content or excepts to your subscribers without any work after you have scheduled or posted them. Unlike the other two services, JetPack emails do not offer email replies, so if you think email newsletters are about relationships rather than publishing content (hint), you'll have to include your email address if you want people to be able to contact you.

So why bother with email at all? Long answer - because it works (Why email newsletters still work). Short answer: mobiles.

So am I going to sign up to your blog via email? Well no I'm not, but I'm unusual - a web dinosaur who's still in love with RSS (the glue of my online world). But I'm in an ever decreasing minority in that respect, and the advantages of email on mobile devices are considerable.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

And we're off #FutureLearn

FutureLearn After a quick Chatham House Rules gander at the FutureLearn platform last week, I'm up and running with my first MOOC, The Secret Power of Brands.

"Over the next ten weeks, we’ll be exploring our topic step by step, using a variety of tools. There are opportunities to test yourself along the way, to be sure it’s all sinking in, as you learn about the basics of branding. You'll have a chance to use your own creativity. You'll analyse how organisations use their brands. And you'll be assessing the future – both the future of branding and the future of you."

While I am interested in branding, overall I'm less highly motivated by the subject than I am about plant science, so this will be a fairly stiff test for the stickiness of the platform. Tbh I though there was a nice symmetrical irony about this topic too :-) 10 weeks? We'll see...

The spare look and feel of the platform is very iOS7 - Jacob Nielsen might well have things to say about the design. It is definitely lacking in navigation cues, something which needs fixing urgently. The experience was a bit laggy for me too, they're going to have to spend some money on bandwidth. Chunking is a bit uneven, most of the videos a comfortable 2-5 minutes then suddenly an 18 minute chunk of lecture notes (© 2009) on the history of brands.

Assessment in this course so far is 5 simple MCQs at the end of the unit, although with nice feedback for failed attempts.

Verdict so far:  The jury is out.

#DarkSocial Experimental Ethics #solo13

Ethics I'm trying to design some experiments to look at the impact of dark social, but I want the ethics of my approach to be sunshine and light.

I've signed up some interesting contributors for my workshop on DarkSocial at SpotOn London 2013 but I still feel I would like to try to generate some data so that my contribution is not purely anecdotal. I have analytics stats I can show of course, but l last week I was fretting about how I could demonstrate that it's not all about numbers and that dark social channels lead to high levels of engagement. If I ask students to complete an online survey via email I get low response rates, but survey responses continue to nose dive, so that's not surprising. Around half the email conversations I get from students on courses I am teaching originate from mass emails such as my weekly newsletters, but that's a fairly small scale experiment. I'd really like to step this up a gear and draw some wider conclusions.

After investigation, it's clear that MailChimp, ReadNotify, etc, can't actually deliver what I need in terms of verifying engagement. It's not their fault, modern email systems are designed to maintain privacy, which is a major reason why people like them so much. So my only alternative seems to be trying to measure what people do in response to email rather than going down the route of simple numbers. Which is where the problems start. To their credit, MailChimp and ReadNotify make it very clear that this is murky territory and that the worse thing you can do is cause loss of trust by intruding too far. So I need to find ethical ways of measuring these relationships, and here's my framework for doing that:
  1. Any task I ask email correspondents to perform in order to measure response rates has to be authentic, i.e. something that that might normally do.
  2. Any task-based measurement has to offer the recipients a potential benefit for participating, for example, links to extra information or service that they want.
  3. And?
I think I'm happy with this. All I need to do now is figure out what I can offer (calls for a sand walk - when it stops raining :-).
Lou Woodley has just pointed out (via a dark social channel, of course :-) that this may be one reason that dark social usually sits within the domain of the Marketing department rather than rather than traditional analytics. And that's a pretty good reason for wrestling it back off them :-)

Friday, October 11, 2013

One week on... [Pre-lab Quizzes]

Online quizzes ... and I have the data from the second online pre-lab quiz which I wrote about on the School blog last week.

This week, out of 190 students registered on Blackboard, 64% (87%) submitted answers before the practical, 7% (5%) looked at the quiz but did not submit before the practical and 8% (8%) did not look at the quiz online before the class (c.f. figures in brackets for the first week). As previously, a considerable number of "just in time" submissions were returned.

There were some really insightful answers submitted citing references - clear evidence of independent reading in preparation for the practical. The on time submission rate dropped, but the big change this week was the number of students submitting blank answers to the essay format questions, presumably in order to see the feedback - up from less than 1% in the first week to 21% in Week 2. Many of these students are clearly testing for weaknesses in "the system". We've already cut this one off at the pass by switching from Essay format questions to Fill-In-The-Blank format, as I explained earlier in the week (TiL - a better way of using Blackboard) - so this strategy won't work next week as by automarking FITB questions using pattern matching, such students won't see the feedback but will be told to answer all the questions.The first definitive conclusion from this pilot study it therefore that essay format question are not suitable for these quizzes. FITB questions will certainly reduce staff input required but whether that are an improvement in this circumstance remains to be tested.

Thus the never ending war of wits between fresher and grizzled lecturer continues.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

What a Plant Knows [MOOC]

What a Plant Knows What a Plant Knows comes as a refreshing change. This is down to the quality and enthusiasm of the teaching staff rather than any platform attribute.

Apart from a couple of statistics courses, the majority of the MOOCs I have taken were because I wanted to explore the platform and approach to learning being used rather than because of the subject matter. Coursera's What a Plant Knows is different, because as the non-plant scientist Internet Consulting Editor of Annals of Botany, I feel that I really do want to learn more about plants.

Based on his book What a Plant Knows, Daniel Chamovitz fits into what I'll call the Model B MOOC Professor - the big personality. In the grey world of MOOCs, this works well for me, although it would be very easy to tip over the edge and become irritating. As usual, there is a little too much talking head video, but clearly efforts have been made to include alternative formats. The assessment component is perfunctory, a few MCQs for each section. To their credit, teaching staff, including Daniel Chamovitz, are actively participating in the course discussions boards.

Week 1 was a good general introduction, although maybe slightly a little too "OH WOW, it's a PLANT". Week 2 on plant responses to light ("What A Plant Sees") is right on the money - great stuff! Without any doubt this is the best Science MOOC I have seen yet.

Will this (very good) MOOC bring students flocking to the professional study of plant science? Not in any significant numbers - I can't see us having to start a plant science degree to cope with student demand any time soon.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Negotiating learning patterns through little big data

Email Since last week I've had over 150 emails from students on the two first year modules I am teaching. I am aware that this is a nightmare scenario for many people (i.e. the combination of teaching and email), but it's exactly what I've been trying to achieve since switching from an open social to a dark social communication strategy a year ago. As expected, at least half of the messages have come from smartphones.

With a head count of approximately 500 students on the two modules, these emails amount to something like a 30% response rate, 30 times the response rate received via social channels such as friendfeed or Google+. They have come in response to verbal invitations in lectures, online help documentation and the weekly email newsletters I publish (via BCC) to students on the courses I am teaching. Of course, the use of email does not preclude face to face meetings for students with greater needs, providing a sifting mechanism for needs assessment. I am not using email to deliver teaching, only to support learning and the inevitable administration involved.

Although deliberately encouraging this volume of email is regard as lunacy by many, I find the killer attributes of email (ownership of your inbox and the convenience of everything in one place) makes it quite easy to manage. I do use canned responses (Postbox Drafts and Templates and a few macros) but these are overlaid with personalization (e.g. use of student first names) which is very important. Students feel that they have direct staff contact via the phone in their pocket or their treasured new laptops. I feel that I am in control of my communications strategy without madly checking many different social networks. Manageability is enhanced by training and management of expectations - students learn that email is not real time conversation through me not replying to messages until an hour after they have been received, and any student who shows signs of becoming over dependent is gently weaned by slowly increasing the response time.

Is this the best use of my time? It is hugely more effective in terms of response rate that the open social strategy I followed in previous years (Visitors and Residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks) and it is much more popular with students because of the personalization element - I am talking directly to them, not broadcasting. Email results in far less inhibition than public sharing of information, hence the much better response rate and hugely increased student satisfaction.

But this strategy really only pays off if I use the data collected from this channel to focus my efforts and attention. By grouping the requests and questions into categories, I can prioritize the information I feed back and can quickly spot and fix any bottlenecks or problems. By using this nano-scale "big data" in this way, the effort more than pays off. But from the perspective of a fresher taking their wobbly first steps in higher education, I am there for them via the device in their pocket when they need me.

Now in case you thought this post was just another of my ramblings about dark social, we can get to the point - what I have learned from the data I have collected in the last week. By far the most frequent category are the calls from students for practice assessments and resubmission of assessed work. Since these are not our practice, it is clear that we need to manage student expectations in this area. The majority of students arrive from secondary education with the experience of mark manipulation through resubmission and with this as their most important feedback channel. We clearly need to do a better job of explaining that independent learning in higher education is not managed by this route and they they need to pick up on the more limited formative feedback they will receive. We can do that by emphasizing the significance of independence in higher education and contrasting this approach with their prior experiences. And if that's not a good use of email, I don't know what is.

Monday, October 07, 2013

EduWiki Conference 2013

EduWiki Conference 2013 Last year I went to the EduWiki conference and I was very impressed.

This year's conference is in Cardiff Friday 1 - Saturday 2 November 2013.

If you're in that area, I'd recommend it.

TiL - a better way of using Blackboard

Blackboard logo File this under the heading Blindingly Obvious, but if it stops someone else making the same mistake, it's worth sharing.

This year we are piloting online pre-lab quizzes via Blackboard to increase student engagement with laboratory practical classes. The quizzes are formative and we are interested in student response rates, as well as delivering useful feedback to students (including directed reading) to improve their knowledge before they take the practical class. So far, the first results look promising.

The quizzes are deliberately designed to be challenging, and to make students read and think about the science they will be doing in the practical class rather than blindly following instructions like a recipe book. For this reason we have been using a range of question formats, including MCQs and fill-in-the-blanks questions. However, to maximize engagement we also want students to write some short answers of about 100 words explaining their reasoning. Initially, I used Essay format questions for this, but they have a serious limitation in our situation. We have hundreds of students taking these modules and we want to give them feedback quickly, and to have a "gamification" element derived from a formative mark. But Blackboard Essay format questions require manual marking. Even though we are only interested in delivering the feedback to students so they can compare it with their answer, manual marking is slow and tedious and removes the instant score element which we know many students respond to.

So I have switched the Essay format questions to Fill-in-the-blank format. This doesn't look as good on screen as students are only presented with a small text entry box (which there is no way of formatting in Blackboard as far as I can see) rather than a proper paragraph submission tool, but we tell them to paste their answer in the box. The big advantage comes in automated marking. By selecting the Pattern Matching option with the correct answer set as ".*", students receive the overall mark for the quiz instantly without any staff input. If they do not answer the question, they don't get the feedback but are politely asked to submit an answer.

It's not the prefect solution but it is an improvement on the first iteration, and we'll see what the students say about it at the end of the module.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Tagginganna for science

PeerJ Questions What seems like years ago (because it was), some of my colleagues in Leicester started the Tagginganna project, involving inline commenting of texts. I'm not quite sure what happened to Tagginganna eventually (is it still in use?), but I do know that the concept of inline commenting - one of the "power features" of Google Docs for example - is still grossly under used.

New formats for scientific publishing such as PLOS (and latterly even Nature) have adopted online commenting as a new standard for scientific publishing. But online commenting on papers has never taken off - most papers languish without discussion in the comment section. For that reason, the launch of PeerJ Questions is particularly interesting. Although I like inline commenting, there's no particular reason to think that it would promote the frequency of comments much above burying them at the end of the paper or on another page, so PeerJ Questions uses a Quora/Digg/reddit-like voting system to try to surface the most "popular" questions.

But are questions about published manuscripts ever "popular"? In my experience most authors want the published paper to be an archival file-and-forget experience, with public discussion about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit. Which is not to say that post-publication discussion does not go on, it simply occurs via the dark social channels it has always occupied.

You could argue that it is the high risk nature of sticking your head above the parapet in science that inhibits commenting (and is also the reason why science clings fiercely to anonymous non-transparent peer review). But if you're slightly more optimistic about the human condition you might hope to believe that comment voting will increase scientific discourse by lowering the barriers to contributions. It is no surprise to me that this innovation has come from PeerJ. If it is successful you can expect others to copy it just as they copied PLOS comments.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Digital literacies concept is not helpful

BioSET logo This week, when I've not been stressing over the first year timetable, I've mostly been stressing about digital literacies.

As our student Digital Literacies in the Disciplines (BioSET) project cranks back into life (the private Facebook group did not sustain activity over the summer break), I've been thinking about the barriers we face. Participating students are obviously confused - the digilit concept is confusing in its own right, and the employability layer on top is a step too far. We are resolving the confusion by stepping back from the student-led approach we wanted to follow and giving the participants more direction about activities, at least to get them started.

But I've also been thinking about the fundamental problem with the digilit concept. "Digital literacy" is either completely transparent (therefore impossible to grasp) or merely an artificial construct with no real world value. I think it's both!

Are our student participants digitally literate? Clearly yes.
Can they articulate this literacy? Not easily.
Why not? Probably a number of reasons, but the lack of utility of the digilit label is a contributing factor.

And Xerte? It's a problem we don't need, so it's on the back burner for now.

Contributor blog posts so far:
Student Employability Team

Logo Design

Evolution of a Biology Logo

BioSET: Digital Literacies Project Introduction

First Meeting of the New Academic Year!

- more to come soon hopefully, following our project meeting today.

Dean Groom: Digital Literacy is a crock

Tuesday, October 01, 2013


The Annales Yesterday was my favourite day of the year - Ussherday.

In 1650 James Ussher famously named October 23, 4004 B.C. as the date for the Creation, which coincidentally, was also the first day of the Autumn term at Trinity college.

From my lofty eyrie overlooking the great thoroughfare I can look down on the freshly laundered masses thronging the street. If I yearn for human contact I can push through the huddled crowds of the Domino's quaffing Harry Potter generation, proudly sporting their Varsity Quiddich T-shirts.

Life has returned to the campus.

Put that in a MOOC.

Massive open online courses and online distance learning: review

Report Massive open online courses and online distance learning: review. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 18 September 2013

"This survey of MOOC and ODL literature aims to capture the state of knowledge and opinion about MOOCs and ODL, how they are evolving, and to identify issues that are important, whether consensual or controversial...
The Burning Issue in the MOOCosphere is the search for business models – and all the associated sub-issues of scale, sustainability monetisation, accreditation for MOOC learning and openness. Our report focuses in depth on analysis of this topic in the literature. The survey suggests that after a phase of broad experimentation, a process of maturation is in place. MOOCs are heading to become a significant and possibly a standard element of credentialed University education, exploiting new pedagogical models, discovering revenue and lowering costs."