Friday, May 23, 2014

The employability gap

The Guardian This is my current mantra. Most academics are only interested in producing clones who they foolishly imagine will follow the same career path as themselves (So many PhD students, so few jobs).

Just because your research is the most important thing in your life doesn't mean that it is important.

... if we always assume that particular subjects must lead to particular jobs, too many students will believe that the choices they make at 16 and 18 will define their career path for the rest of their lives.

... although there are plenty of Stem graduates, employers say they do not always have the additional skills needed. And it's not just employers, students are asking to be trained to be employable too. A National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) survey found that 92% of students want placements, work experience and internships to be a part of their university experience. However, less than half have had access to them, and a quarter want more links between their university and business.

We must stop giving universities employability ratings based on the first job a graduate gets, or the one they are in just six months after graduation. Instead, we should measure the advancement of graduates early in their careers, through promotions and upward moves across sector and role. We will then have a better picture of how universities are doing and how much value higher education is adding to the workplace.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

SafeAssign for plagiarism detection?

SafeAssign We are getting SafeAssign soon and I'm interested in the experience of anyone who has used it, in particular, those who have moved from Turnitin to SafeAssign. I'm particularly interested in the comparison between GradeMark and Crocodoc.

Thanks for any advice.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Is blog as platform dead?

Blogging I'm not about to give up blogging. I don't think I could, even if I wanted to (although I can easily imagine circumstances where I might go anonymous). But the question is, should I give up running so many blogs?

This blog is both of great sentimental and practical value to me and it's not going to go away. It is my online notepad and thinking space. I'm agnostic about the software, as long as it's there and it's easy to use. (The iOS clients for Blogger suck, unless I've missed something?) But the same is not true for other blogs I write.

What precipitated this introspection? I've just written my annual Internet Consulting Editor's report for AoBBlog. The number of users of the blog is up but pageviews down. The number of people we reach through social media is climbing and climbing. We now have a truly distributed audience for our agenda on plant science. So is the blog as platform significant any more? Yes, it's our space online, but is it more significant than the eyeballs on Facebook? The other event which impacted on me this week was Buzzfeed breaking the New York Times Innovation report. Reading this and watching the New York Times is like watching a car crash in slow motion. I mostly read the Times via Facebook, occasionally via links my PLE surfaces. I'm not emotionally attached to the Times in the same way I am to The Guardian, but this is still painful to read.
"An executive there described watching the aggregation outperform our original content after Nelson Mandela’s death," the report says. ‘You guys got crushed,’ he said. ‘I was queasy watching the numbers. I’m not proud of this. But this is your competition. You should defend the digital pickpockets from stealing your stuff with better headlines, better social.’

Does my distributed online identity depend on the the digital pickpockets - are they my partners, not my competitors? How do I stamp intellectual watermarks on my ideas to get the credit for them? Andrew Baron was right - write once, publish everywhere. I need to defend my digital profile, not be besieged in a digital castle.

Which brings me to the point of this post. For the last two years I've been watching the painful death of MicrobiologyBytes. More than anything else, MB is my flagship publication. But it's an external representation of who I am, and it doesn't feel as authentic as this blog. On the other hand, thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ might disagree. How do I know? Because comments on the blog died years ago, but there's still a conversation going on on these other sites.

My gut reaction is to refocus the content I publish on MicrobiologyBytes. News is dead. My content has to be material that does not exist elsewhere - the unique value of explanation rather than content. I need to write long-lasting articles which my digital partners will distribute for me. That's largely what I've been doing with my microbiology spinoff, PoMV. But this is a conservative approach to a situation which demands radical action.

Some years ago I knew a small shopkeeper who took over the family business from his father. The shop had been going down the tubes for years. He kept it open to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his father starting the business, then closed it the next day. Shall I wait for the 10th year MicrobiologyBytes anniversary coming up soon then pull the plug, or shall I do it now?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014


I'm slowly getting to grips with the camera on my iPhone, and I've been playing around with apps to see how far I can push its capabilities. I'm a big fan of VSCO Cam and Cortex Cam, bit over the last few days I've been playing with ProCam2.

Decent macro shots is a lot to ask of a phone, but that's where it started. Focus is always a problem, and this closeup of Bellis perennis ...wasn't quite there.

Bellis perennis

A little practice and a little patience and things got better.

Bellis perennis

Static flowers such as this Ceanothus are easy enough, but the bees buzzing this shrub didn't stay around long enough to allow me to get on in focus.


I like the effect that I got on this dandelion seedhead.


So I switched to the kaleidoscope filter.


The simplest of the ProCam2 kaleidoscope filters has a lot of potential.



Whereas I'm less impressed with the fisheye filter.


So here's another architectural kaleidoscope shot - can you tell where it is?


Thursday, May 15, 2014

What's your institutional culture of assessment?

StuffedWithContent This paper caught my eye both for the topic (institutional cultures of assessment) and the research methodology (Delphi method).

Conclusion: Instilling a positive culture of assessment focused on student learning is a process, which involves redefining any negative cultures that exist and managing symbols and dialogues to slowly spread a positive culture of assessment. Even though defining a negative culture was seen as necessary to move to a more positive culture of assessment, assessment leaders stated change was difficult and slow, but necessary. Assessment leaders in this study had varying motivations for their desire to improve their campus’ culture of assessment, but the motivations were not based on defined theoretical frameworks as much as on metaphors...

Assessment leaders’ perspectives of institutional cultures of assessment: a Delphi study. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 14 May 2014 doi:10.1080/02602938.2014.917369
Institutional cultures of assessment are praised as beneficial to student learning. Yet, extant studies have not explored the theoretical foundations and pragmatic approaches to shaping cultures of assessment. The researchers used the Delphi method to explore 10 higher education assessment leaders’ attitudes and theoretical perspectives regarding cultures of assessment. These expert assessment leaders were iteratively surveyed until a reasonable threshold of consensus was reached. Study participants viewed buy-in as a necessary component of a positive campus culture of assessment, and advice on reshaping negative cultures was offered. Assessment leaders’ guiding theoretical frameworks were implied and loosely defined with metaphors. Finally, advice is offered for improving cultures of assessment by symbolically connecting assessment to student learning through dialogue.

Image credit: Bill Ferriter 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The number of scholarly documents on the Web

The good news is that Biology can hold its head up (although not too high because Chemistry and Physics are better). Almost 1 in 4 of web accessible scholarly documents are freely and publicly available.

The Number of Scholarly Documents on the Public Web. (2014) PLoS ONE 9(5): e93949. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093949
The number of scholarly documents available on the web is estimated using capture/recapture methods by studying the coverage of two major academic search engines: Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search. Our estimates show that at least 114 million English-language scholarly documents are accessible on the web, of which Google Scholar has nearly 100 million. Of these, we estimate that at least 27 million (24%) are freely available since they do not require a subscription or payment of any kind. In addition, at a finer scale, we also estimate the number of scholarly documents on the web for fifteen fields: Agricultural Science, Arts and Humanities, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics and Business, Engineering, Environmental Sciences, Geosciences, Material Science, Mathematics, Medicine, Physics, Social Sciences, and Multidisciplinary, as defined by Microsoft Academic Search. In addition, we show that among these fields the percentage of documents defined as freely available varies significantly, i.e. from 12 to 50%.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Academic Literacies

Thanks to a great session on student writing from Steve and Alex on Friday I have arrived late to this classic:

Lea, M.R. & Street, B.V. (1998) Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in higher education, 23(2), 157-172.
This article addresses the issue of student writing in higher education. It draws on the findings of an Economic and Social Research Council funded project which examined the contrasting expectations and interpretations of academic staff and students regarding undergraduate students' written assignments. It is suggested that the implicit models that have generally been used to understand student writing do not adequately take account of the importance of issues of identity and the institutional relationships of power and authority that surround, and are embedded within, diverse student writing practices across the university. A contrasting and therefore complementary perspective is used to present debates about 'good' and 'poor' student writing. The article outlines an 'academic literacies' framework which can take account of the conflicting and contested nature of writing practices, and may therefore be more valuable for understanding student writing in today's higher education than traditional models and approaches.

Models of student writing in higher education

I'm currently wrestling with digital literacies, and Lea and Street's landmark paper on academic literacies helps:
One of the main purposes of the research has been to move away from a skills-based, deficit model of student writing and to consider the complexity of writing practices that are taking place at degree level in universities. As a starting point, the research adopts the concept of academic literacies as a framework for understanding university writing practices.

academic literacies ... sees literacies as social practices, in the way we have suggested. It views student writing and learning as issues at the level of epistemology and identities rather than skill or socialisation.

Even though staff generally had a clear belief in these concepts as crucial to their understanding of what constituted a successful piece of writing, there was less certainty when it came to describing what underlay a well-argued or well-structured piece of student work. More commonly, staff were able to identify when a student had been successful, but could not describe how a particular piece of writing 'lacked' structure. We suggest that, in practice, what makes a piece of student writing 'appropriate' has more to do with issues of epistemology than with the surface features of form to which staff often have recourse when describing their students' writing.

As another lecturer put it: 'I know a good essay when I see it but I cannot describe how to write it'. This lends credence to the idea that elements of successful student writing are in essence related to particular ways of constructing the world and not to a set of generic writing skills as the study skills model would suggest. Successful university lecturers are likely to have spent many years developing acceptable ways of constructing their own knowledge through their own writing practices in a variety of disciplinary contexts.

One useful way of examining the relationships surrounding texts may be to start by examining the feedback that staff give to students as a genre. By examining some of the genres of students' written work and the genre of staff feedback on it we may be able to make more sense of the complex ways in which staff and students construct appropriate ways of knowing and reproduce appropriate forms of disciplinary and subject knowledge. There is a dynamic within the feedback genre, for instance, which works both to construct academic knowledge and to maintain relationships of power and authority between novice student and experienced academic. Assumptions about what constitutes valid knowledge may be inferred by analysing feedback but frequently such assumptions remain implicit...

Friday, May 02, 2014

Video feedback

Some notable findings in this work.
Students like video feedback. But not as much as they like written feedback.
Students like feedback on mobile devices. But most view it on a PC
Students never say no to feedback, but with limited time available, there's really no evidence that new methods work better than traditional methods.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

danah boyd - It's Complicated

Cover It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. danah boyd, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN 0300166435

I don't always agree with everything danah boyd writes. That's probably because I'm a crusty old British academic with capital letters in my name, and she ... isn't. But with one caveat, this is the best book about social media that I have ever read. What's the caveat? Boyd (it's the start of a sentence so excuse the capital letter) is writing exclusively about American teenagers, but the sense of what she writes is more generally true. I lied, there's a second caveat. This isn't really a book. It is, as she herself calls it, a monograph. So much the better - hurrah for this moribund form.

There's much to praise in the quality of boyd's writing, and even more in the amount of common sense in this slim volume, so make sure you read it. I wish I could encourage all senior managers in education to read it. Boyd has eloquently summed up her thesis and her findings in the title - it's complicated. Those who think otherwise definitely don't understand social media. I don't need to do more here than pick out a few passages that particularity interested me.

One of the strengths of this book is that boyd accurately defines over used and ill used terms such as bullying and networked publics, on which she is particularly strong:
networked publics creates new opportunities and challenges. They are:
  • persistence: the durability of online expressions and content;
  • visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness;
  • spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and
  • searchability: the ability to find content.
... What persistence also means, then, is that those using social media are often “on the record” to an unprecedented degree.

Nothing about technology is new:
Socrates is purported to have warned of the dangers of the alphabet and writing, citing implications for memory and the ability to convey truth. (Plato quotes Socrates as paraphrasing an Egyptian god. The relevant excerpts critiquing writing as a medium can be found at:

Technological determinism:
Utopian and dystopian views assume that technologies possess intrinsic powers that affect all people in all situations the same way.  ... These extreme rhetorics are equally unhelpful in understanding what actually happens when new technologies are broadly adopted. Reality is nuanced and messy, full of pros and cons. Living in a networked world is complicated.

Context collapse:
A context collapse occurs when people are forced to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social contexts that are rooted in different norms and seemingly demand different social responses. For example, some people might find it quite awkward to run into their former high school teacher while drinking with their friends at a bar. These context collapses happen much more frequently in networked publics.

Online identity and acting out, as illustrated by the "Stokely Carmichael problem":
In his 1985 book No Sense of Place, media scholar Joshua Meyrowitz describes the story of Stokely Carmichael, an American civil rights activist. In the 1960s, Carmichael regularly gave different talks to different audiences. He used a different style of speaking when he addressed white political leaders than when he addressed southern black congregations. When Carmichael started presenting his ideas on television and radio, he faced a difficult decision: which audience should he address? No matter which style of speaking he chose, he knew he’d alienate some. He was right. By using a rolling pastoral voice in broadcast media, Carmichael ingratiated himself with black activists while alienating white elites.

Social media is messy and means exactly what we say it means. Life is complicated. Get over it.