Monday, 7 December 2009

Email Abstinence

I have now tried this out for a while--not having my gmail browser tab open all the time, switching off google-notifier, and only checking my email about 3 times a day (a bit more frequently when I actually have to write an email as part of doing a job).

I feel I am much more productive, get things done, and go home with all items on my daily to-do list crossed off (which is a great feeling!). And I have now just come across a piece on the BBC website where researchers say that constant email alerts disrupt disproportionally.

So far I don't miss it much. Occasionally I get a twinge, but can easily resist the urge to check. I'm always a bit shocked when I've got 10 new emails, as before they didn't mount up because I dealt with them as soon as they came up. Guess I have to get used to that...

Needless to say, I have also cut down on twitter and google reader, both of which I only check when I have time, eg when all my daily tasks are ticked off. Productivity Heaven!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A hard choice

I always have my browser up, and the first tab on the left is gmail (the second and third are google calendar and reader). I also have google notifier in my status bar, so that I can instantly see when somebody has sent me an email. And I check frequently if there is any.

Not any more. After reading an interesting blog post about time management, I have decided to change my ways. No more google email notifier (though I keep the calendar notifier up), no more open tab with gmail. No more instant replies.

It seems to me that this is a major drain on time (and interrupter of longer lasting tasks), and I will now aim to read my email (and respond to it) three times a day: morning, when I come into the office, lunch-time, when I have a break, and afternoon, before I'm ready to go. This means I won't be able to have on-going 'conversations' by email, and people will have to wait for replies longer, but I also hope it means I get more productive things done during the day.

As an email addict I don't know how long I will be able to keep this up, but I'm starting today!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Differences in Perception?

The thing that most amazes me about receiving student feedback is the difference in perception regarding certain aspects. I cannot say what the reason for that is, apart from perhaps different expectations of explicitness.

In my Frameworks of English Discourse Analysis module I keep telling the students that there are four sections to the module (each lasting 5 weeks), and what the topics are that we are dealing with. Compared to how the module was run a few years back it has a much better thought-out structure to it, and I think this actually works quite well. Part of that was also to bring the topics of the lectures in line with the seminars.

However, in my most recent round of feedback, these are exactly the issues the students comment on: not being clear about the structure of the module, and the lectures not being related to the seminar topics. I myself feel I'm over-doing it, by telling the students at regular intervals where we are and what they have to expect, but it seem that this is still not enough.

Perhaps it is the absence of anything tangible: I have not given the students a handout with the module outline and the lecture schedule. So talking about the structure is probably not as effective as giving the students something in writing. I will have to do that in future!

Thursday, 29 October 2009


I am currently thinking about applying for a BU Teaching Fellowship. As part of the evidence of engaging with the subject I thought I'd list this blog as an example for using modern technology to foster discussion and dissemination of ideas in an educational context, etc.

However, it then occurred to me that I might not want to list the URL of this blog in an official application... I have chosen the URL on the spur of a moment during the Web 2.0 in Learning and Teaching course, and it seemed fine for an ephemeral thing to play around with. I didn't really expect that it would develop the way it did...

So, I have just exported this blog (in other words, downloaded all the posts into a file on my computer) and then imported it again into a new blog at a new URL: I feel happier putting this address into the application!

I am, however, not sure how to continue, whether I maintain both blogs, or continue using this one, with occasional synchronisations with the new one? Time will tell.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Great Expectations

I found myself in an interesting situation yesterday. A colleague had told me how some of my students were really enthusiastic and happy about one of my seminars (which is a wonderful thing to hear!), and I am fully aware that the module is working a lot better than last year, due to some changes in the way I am running it.

Then I needed to prepare this week's seminar session. Blank. Procrastination. Emptiness. Stress. The reason: I felt I needed to aim high, and find activities that would really live up to the high expectations that I now anticipate in my students. I couldn't possibly be letting them down by doing a second-rate thing, something I might have got away with in previous years. So I was contemplating what to do, dithering between different options, trying to (somewhat in vain) evaluate/second-guess which one would work better. In the end I ended up with a compromise which I think did work fine.

The problem with teaching is that you never stand still. You innovate, hit upon a successful improvement, and then you have to keep maintaining high standards. No time to rest and fall back. Constantly pushing yourself.

I guess it's a good thing...!

Friday, 23 October 2009


In the first year Language Foundation seminars I am currently teaching phonemic transcription. I write a few sentences on the white board, and then the students transcribe them in group work (if they want) into phonemic symbols. At the end of the session we discuss their transcriptions.

One issue that was always rather unsatisfactory is how to involve everybody (and not just the vocal and confident students) and how to get round the issue that it's a continuous stream (and not words in isolation).

Yesterday I suddenly had a flash of inspiration: instead of waiting for the students to volunteer solutions, and to ask somebody else when a word had been completed, I start with a random student. This students says how they transcribed the first sound (phoneme). Then I go clockwise through the room, each student contributing the next phoneme. If there are differences (there always are, due to the nature of the task), we briefly stop and discuss alternatives, before resuming the round robin.

Simple idea (pretty trivial, really), but it solves the problems. It also keeps all students on their toes, as they need to keep track where they are and which sound they have to do. And even the quiet ones have to participate. As it's low stakes (only a single sound each time), getting it wrong is not a drama.

Win-win situation!

Google Forms for Student Feedback

While thinking about a good way to elicit feedback from students on what they think of my re-designed module delivery, Bill suggested Google Forms (I was almost resigned to the fact that I'd have to use the dreaded WebCT for that!). In Google Forms you simply create a form, and populate it with questions.

Several options are available, multiple choice ('radio buttons'), check boxes, open text, scale, etc. The form can be embedded into a webpage, or sent by email, and this is just what I've done: each student registered on the module got a copy sent to them. All they need to do is to fill it in (which shouldn't take too long), and then that's all done.

The beauty of the whole procedure is that the results are automatically collected in a Google Spreadsheet, and you can even view an automatically created summary of all the answers. I'd be hard pressed to think of a way to make that easier!

Of course you can also use that for 'testing'. It just depends on the questions you're using. But it seemed to me to be an easy way of getting some feedback, anonymously, while the module is still running. The students will then also see the point in filling in the form(s), much more so than the end-of-year form they are usually being asked to fill in.

If this sounds like a sales-advert, it just mirrors how impressed I am with it. And amazed how I could have missed that in the first place...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Wild Idea on a Friday Afternoon

There's a particular style of presentation, called Pecha Kucha. With this you have 20 slides at 20 seconds each, meaning you'll be talking for 6 minutes and 40 seconds. And each slide changes after a fixed 20 second period. Maybe suitable for creative sales pitches a la Dragon's Den, but how could that possibly work in an educational setting? For one way to approach this, you might want to listen to this 6:40min YouTube clip:

Now, having a number of different people present in a single lecture slot is probably not feasible. But what about 4 individual, separate short lectures? You simply(!!!) take your lecture topic, and identify the four most important individual points you want your students to take home. Then you have the first talk. Maybe that's an overview talk, giving some context on what is to follow in the other three talks. Then a short break, and perhaps a few questions from the audience (being optimistic, student participation is anticipated...).

After that, you fire up the next talk. Again, just 20 slides at 20 seconds each. Just under seven minutes later you stop again, fielding another set of questions about the talk. Rinse and repeat.

I have no idea whether that would work. It could be great, in that it keeps the students' attention going, as there are breaks; no continuous talking for long amounts of time. It forces the lecturer to be well prepared, decide carefully what to talk about and how, and – as mentioned in the clip – lends itself nicely to podcasting. Bite-sized chunks, just right for the facebook generation?

It could also be a complete disaster. A choppy lecture, stop-and-go, artificial constraints, innovation for the sake of innovation, strange concepts, violating students' expectations on how to absorb information, potential for a stunned silence after 6:40mins, topics might not lend themselves to being presented like that.

One way where it might just work are workshops or mini-conferences. There would be a genuine reason for having such constraints, as there wouldn't be any pre-specified 50min slots, and you would have more than one speaker.

When starting this post I was all enthusiastic and willing to give it a go, but the more I think about it the more skeptical I get. Maybe I will give it a go some time. Maybe it's best to try it out at a low-stake event, such as organising a mini-conference. Especially in the English department this might work well, with a mixture of different subjects, from Linguistics, to Literature, to Old English... or at School/College level. A more varied set of topics would mean you could get a good overview, and if you weren't interested in a talk you'd just wait until it's over. While waiting you might find that it's more interesting than you initially expected.

Now how would that be for Open Days...?!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Back to Basics?

Technology is not always the best solution to a problem.

One issue that took two weeks to sort out was the assignment of students into groups in the FREDA module. I put students into groups, made one of each group a coordinator, and put their emails on WebCT with the 'suggestion' that they all should look up which group they were in, find out who their coordinator is, and email that person so that a group meeting could be set up.

For some reason, some students simply didn't do it. I have no idea why. Maybe this is too strange and unusual given the other tasks they have to perform at university? It was beginning to interfere with my running of the seminar, as I expected them to discuss the readings in the groups, and I didn't want to assign further readings until that had all been sorted.

Now in today's lecture I cut through this Gordian knot. I finished 10 minutes early, and sent all the TELLING students away (even though some were confused enough and stayed on asking what groups they were in...), and called out the groups, asking them to come to the front of the lecture theatre. And finally, the groups would meet... A few students were absent, so I rearranged/merged two other groups on the spot, but most groups now managed to get themselves set up.

What email and WebCT did not manage in 2 weeks was achieved in 5 minutes after the lecture... Now I hope that it'll all be a lot easier when the groups get reshuffled after reading week!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Various Updates

And another three weeks have passed since the last entry. Blogging for academics really cannot mean a post a day... but among these three weeks was: spending one week abroad at a conference in Mannheim, Germany, and then the first week of term with a re-written lecture and various other planning and preparing of teaching.

My conference talk was about reconciling grammar and phraseology (you can't, really), and I think it was well-received. It's always hard to tell, as my presentation style is very different from most other talks at pretty much any linguistics conference. Most talks will feature slides full of text, and very few images. Perhaps the odd diagram or two. Mine, on the other hand, hardly contain any text. Lots of pictures, and some slides with one sentence, blown up to fill the whole screen. And about 60 slides for a 30 minute talk. Now all I need is a black turtleneck sweater...

I also use this presentation style in my lectures, and in today's lecture on phonology I had the impression that the audience (first year students) did indeed listen (apart from lots of coughing, but I blame the weather for that). There is so much useful information about presenting effectively on the web (and in books), but this does not seem to have filtered through to academia. On the other hand, I don't know if there are any studies on how students respond to different presentation styles.

Then my Discourse Analysis module started. I duly split the students up into groups, deciding on the spot that the students in one seminar group would be 'group coordinators' for this half term, and then of course timetable clashes and late registrations messed up my nice 10/10/10/10 distribution, which now seems to be more like 12/7/9/12 or something. Still have to wait for another week or two before this settles down. And of course, some students didn't turn up, and consequently missed all of the detailed administrative monologue I delivered. I also hope the students where not too overwhelmed, but I will see over the coming weeks how this turns out.

Yesterday I then produced the first podcast for the module, 12 minutes altogether. I think that's plenty long enough to listen to me talking about odds and ends... I thought it was a useful way to round up what had been done in the seminar group meetings, repeat and expand on various issues. Tomorrow and Thursday in the group meetings I will find out if anybody actually listens to the thing!

Producing it was not very difficult. Just jotted down a list of things I wanted to cover, got the digital recorder set up, and started talking. One thing I noticed when doing the post-editing: I need to make it clearer when I restart. Probably say 'RESTART', that makes it a lot easier to find where to cut out bits where my spontaneous talking lead into a cul-de-sac. I don't like writing a full script, as it would be a lot more time-consuming, and it would take away the informal/conversational character of the podcast. Who would want to listen to me read out stuff? No, just as in lectures, free speech. I did notice some things I didn't like, eg my blatant over-use of the word 'basically', which I need to cut down on next time. But for the first attempt I am quite happy with it.

So, nothing for three weeks, and then a massively above-average-length post. I'll try to go back to a more regular schedule of smaller posts, and will try to also write a bit more about the 'research' part, which is the slightly under-represented triplet of the blog's title...

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Should Academics Blog?

In the THES is an article titled I'm a celebrity academic ... in the blogosphere. Apparently it is much more common in the USA for academics to self-promote and use blogs to do so, whereas in the UK there is a lot of doubt about the value of doing so.

I think there are several factors that need to be considered: First, what is 'blogging'? Does it mean you have to churn out a post every day? Or every two days? Does it still count if you're posting at irregular intervals? I believe the latter is acceptable, otherwise there is too much pressure to write just for the sake of writing. As a comment on the THES site said, with RSS feeds it is quite easy to follow a blog without having to check every day for a new post.

Second, can we afford the time to blog? I think yes, as long as we are aware that a blog post is not a polished journal article, but something more 'raw'; however, the danger here is that you write something which you never can take back. Once it is out there, it always will be. But nobody should expect academics to be infallible, so there is nothing wrong with making mistakes. We're usually used to more scrutiny through peer review, and perhaps students who want to catch us out.

What then, is the point of blogging? For a start, you can disseminate knowledge. A lot of things I come across during my work are more bite-sized chunks of information/discoveries, too small to write up in an article. And if I wait and aggregate them, and do write an article, and get that reviewed and published, two years might have passed before other people can read it. A blog is much less formal, and is a much quicker route to the audience.

As for self-promotion, I think it becomes increasingly necessary to maintain a good on-line presence, and that not only applies to academics. And a blog is a good way to become more visible, raise awareness for the kinds of things you do, and perhaps even dispel some urban myths. As long as it does not interfere with your other tasks, I see no harm in academics blogging.

The next question, then, is the 'where'. Should universities provide blogging facilities? What if an academic moves to another university? What if the institution doesn't like what's written on the blog? Here we have the conflict between private views and those institutional ones. For the time being I guess it is safest to blog outside one's university, for reasons of freedom of expression and also the security of a fixed location.

If anybody reads those academic outpourings, however, is a completely different question!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Twitter in Teaching?

I've been thinking about using twitter for teaching this year. One obvious application would be to get students to summarise articles they've read in the eponymous 140 characters or less. This I think would be really good to force them to be concise and restrict what they write to the most important part. But one problem I was wondering about is the transient nature of tweets: here today, gone tomorrow... But by chance I stumbled across a solution on twitter (thanks to Lou Burnard for that!): TweetDoc

Tweetdoc collects tweets and turns them into a PDF. Basically I'd get all students to mark their tweets with '#freda' or something, and then tweetdoc will be able to aggregate them in a single document (you can specify a date range as well as search terms). That seems like an OK solution to automatically produce a discussion document: everybody tweets about things they come across during the week that are in some way relevant to the module (and I think Discourse Analysis is almost everywhere...) and then in the seminar session the students get a tweetdoc as a handout, and comb through it, discussing what has been collected. Might work.

On the other hand, it might not; but it could work as an additional way of getting students who are interested in new technology to contribute to a seminar in a more indirect way. Perhaps they are too shy to mention something in the seminar, or by the time the seminar comes they've forgotten what they wanted to say. Twitter here can fill a gap between email to the lecturer (which might be too intimidating) and a direct communication in the seminar. It'd be somewhat anonymous (given the wide variety of twitter names) and as such might just be the ticket to more student-led discussions.

What do YOU think?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

How many blogs does it take...?

I now have some more details about the shape of the FREDA module for next year. There will be 40 students, in 4 groups of 10 each. This makes life somewhat easy, as I can divide them up into 10 groups with 4 students each, which seems to be a good number to be able to have good discussions/collaboration, while still finding a regular date/time to meet during the week. And with ten groups there'll be 10 copies of each formative task, which should also not be too hard to deal with.

However, one component of the plan worries me: originally I had planned to set up one blog per group, but ten blogs seems rather excessive. What is the answer? One blog for all the students? Several blogs for more than one group? Somehow I will have to strike the right balance between it being too fragmented and too crowded. I shall have to think about that in more detail. It also, of course, depends on the great unknown: how the students will take up Web 2.0!

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Weird Twitter Triggers

As an avid user of Twitter, I am sometimes surprised at who chooses to 'follow' me. Most people following me are colleagues who are also using twitter, and people I follow too. I also follow some other people whose tweets I find interesting, but what really puzzled me was a set of seemingly random people (or rather, accounts) that turned up on my list of followers.

One (fairly predictable, with hindsight) set are 'females' with more or less revealing avatars, typically with a large set of people they follow, very few followers, and very few updates. Their tweets are usually bait to click on links which lead you off to dubious web-sites. It seems that these accounts are run automatically, and randomly pick the people they follow. Or whatever.

More interesting is another category, the 'trigger followers'. I first noticed that when I tweeted that my scooter was in the garage. Promptly I acquired a follower 'scooterscoop'. Other terms which have had a similar effect are exam/essay (websites selling essays being triggered), 'paperless office', and 'giants'. When you tweet about going to the theatre to see the BFG, and mention that 'the giants are scary', you are suddenly followed by an account linked to a San Francisco baseball team.

The latter example shows how useless isolated words are for conveying meaning. If you read the full sentence, it is pretty clear that 'giants' here refers to actual scary creatures, and you would need a lot of extra context to make that apply to a baseball team (though it is not impossible).

A lot of these random followers have since unfollowed me (or have been removed in the case of the dubious females), perhaps bored to death with the utter trivialities of my life. I am not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing...

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Why not WebCT?

The next iteration of my FREDA module will make use of a course blog. No WebCT. Well, some WebCT: I will need to use it as a repository for some of the seminar reading, as it cannot be put on publicly available sites, but that will pretty much be all I'm going to use it for. Why?

There are several reasons why I believe WebCT is not all that great for teaching. First, it's slow and clunky. Having moved it to a hosted environment rather than self-hosting it at Bham might have improved things a little, but it is still slow and clunky, that's inherent in the way it is implemented. Too Web 1.0. Doing anything in it takes ages, for example putting a link on. Creating the link wasn't too bad, but I wanted it in the top-left corner, and by default it started bottom-right. So I had to click on the properties/move/up about five times, having to scroll the screen each time. And all just for one link!

The second argument, which came to me today while responding to a comment on an earlier post, is actually far more important, as it deals with inherent motivation. Sure, we can make our students use WebCT because it is the only way they can get access to certain materials. But will they enjoy doing it? No. If I curse and swear while using it, then the students will not scream with pleasure either. That means, no points for motivation. It's a drudge, not an enjoyable experience.

However, blogs and other Web 2.0 stuff is interesting. It's part of modern life, and students will see that it is a useful skill. It is inherently useful to be able to find your way round this stuff, and many students are already used to it. That, I believe, is instrumental for participation. If they have a positive attitude and are interested, then they are much more likely to do things. At least that's the theory. I'll keep you all posted on how it goes next term!

Monday, 8 June 2009

Web 2.0 in Teaching

In a quiet post-marking moment I have set up the course blog for next year's FREDA module. I have built the year into the title, as there will be a new blog with every iteration of the module, and it's always easier to do if you plan that right from the start.

In the initial post I have outlined my plans for teaching the module. Any feedback welcome!

Time for another habit...?

I'm really pleased with my daily 200+ words of writing, which I have managed to keep up so far. Even if it involved getting up in the middle of the night once, because I had just remembered that I hadn't written anything that day. I've written some 20,000+ words since starting it, and hopefully over the summer I will have some opportunities to turn that into some actual publications.

But now something else occurred to me. Writing is only part of the whole equation. You also need to read stuff, in order to a) get ideas for things to write about or research and b) know what other people are doing to either avoid duplication of mistakes or wheel-reinventions.

Since acquiring the Papers program, I have collected almost a thousand papers. But I haven't nearly read enough of them. Part of the hunter/gatherer or packrat mentality... Useful paper, will read it at some point when I've got time. Only, you never have time!

And here is the solution: apart from writing 200+ words every day (or spend 30 minutes editing), I will now do the same for reading research papers. I just need to work out what the best modus operandi is for that; clearly reading a paper every day might be useful but not feasible. One a week? Not really enough, probably. I think I'll settle for 30 minutes initially, and then see how much I can manage to read in that time. But it's not only reading, also post-processing. Keeping notes in some shape or form, probably a mind-map. Mmmh, this is more complicated than I initially imagined.

Anyway, starting from today I will try to read a research paper for at least 30 minutes every day!

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Audio Feedback Revisited

I have now actually tried this out. My final year option only has half a dozen students, and this seemed to be an ideal opportunity. And I think it worked.

Firstly, it does take a bit more time. On average I have recorded about 10 minutes of commentary per essay. After working out the best way to use the digital recorder I did not have to post-edit the recording, but I still needed to listen to it, which means another 10 minutes. Administrative stuff is fairly easy, as the recorder records straight to MP3, I only need to rename the file with the student id (which I announce at the beginning of the recording). The files are around 2 MB in size. Not sure about how to distribute them yet; for the time being they're all on a CD ROM that goes with the pile of essays.

However, my feedback is obviously a lot more detailed than it would have been just in writing. I do hope that the students find this useful, and I intend to ask them what they think. They will also get a(n ultra-short) traditional feedback form, as there has to be something on paper.

This whole thing was intended as an experiment, and on occasion I might try this again (let's see what the external examiner thinks of it first!), but I do not intend to persuade the department at large to do the same. It might not suit everybody, and for larger modules it is indeed a lot more time-consuming. And I wouldn't want to get anybody to change the way they work.

To be continued...

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The use of "use" is used to make use of the use of "use"

Looking through a stack of student essays and exam scripts makes you spot patterns. One pattern that I noticed today is that of superfluous use of words such as "use", especially in sentences like "the use of evaluation is used to indicate such and such". Why not simply write "evaluation is used to indicate ...", or even "Here, evaluation indicates..." etc. Shorter, more to the point, and sounding less bloated and repetitive.

Another common pattern seems to be using the wrong verbs with abstract nouns. Hypothesis are being fortified, an author enhances a concept, and various other examples which of course now escape my mind. Next time I shall keep a list, which I can then throw back at my students in the hope that the use of this list can be used to improve their academic written use of English.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Not much going on, teaching-wise. And little time to write new blog posts, for it is marking time. And I have to get a paper finished by last week...

Once marking is out of the way, fairly normal service will resume!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Job Advertising

I've always been in favour of openness and transparency when it comes to job advertisements. In the last millennium, when I was student representative at my university's faculty council, I managed to get through a motion that professors had to openly advertise any student RA jobs (there was money in those days for students to act as kind of personal assistants, doing a variety of jobs such as photocopying, putting together reading lists, or even, in my case, programming and systems admin). Until then, they would just approach some student they knew from their own seminars or lectures and would give them the job.

Advertising jobs openly is not only good for equal opportunities, it also broadens the reach, and you might get a better candidate. I happened to be in a seminar where the professor announced that he had some money for a student to work on a bibliography project, and asked if anybody was interested. I wasn't, but at the time I knew somebody with a first degree in documentation/library science stuff, so I recommended that person. Needless to say, the professor was very happy and in the faculty council enthusiastically supported my proposal.

Now I am in the same situation: I got some money from our Learning and Teaching fund for a project on using podcasts in teaching. Part of that grant includes 60 hrs of a PG student doing some research on best practices. I could just have approached a student from our department I know, and that would have made life very easy for me. But, remembering the experience from all those years ago, I decided to advertise it to all PG students in the college (I thought that would probably sufficient for outreach, though I could have of course included all PG students at the university, which might have been fairer).

So far (deadline for applications is tomorrow) I received 8 applications from a variety of students from different subject areas within the college. I haven't yet received CVs from all of them, but I can see that early next week I will have a very difficult task at hand, deciding which of those 8 will be the lucky one. What I have seen so far is really great, there are some very good applications, which I would not have come across had I simply gone for the easy way out. No pain, no gain... Ultimately it will be very hard on those 7 who I have to reject, because I have to. Not because I want to, as all of them would probably be suitable candidates. I will also have to think of a fair way to make that decision, as I know some applicants personally, and have never heard of others. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to involve my co-applicant (Hello, Bill!), as he might bring some more detached objectivity into the equation.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Audio Feedback

Today I took part in an on-line seminar on providing feedback to students not in writing, but in audio format. The seminar itself was interesting, as people from all over the UK were participating, and there was a combination of 'chat' (written) and audio/video (mostly from the people organising it).

One project reported on an experiment where students were given audio feedback over the course of a year, and they all liked it (and so did the staff). With speaking, you can say more in the same time you'd need to write it, and it's also a richer medium -- presumably less ambiguous due to tone of voice etc. The time required to produce it is variable, from shorter to same to longer, and that probably depends on how streamlined the whole process can be made. Here is a summary of some of the advice given.

One of my seminar groups whose essays are now in my marking pile is fairly small, ideal circumstances to try it out. After consulting both the head of department and the exams officer I'll give it a go, but will have to provide a traditional feedback sheet as well. I've ordered a digital recorder (which can record straight to mp3), and will start marking their essays as soon as it has arrived.

Just need to think of a way to elicit feedback from the students to see what they thought of it. And a way to deliver it! Presumably using the dreaded WebCT. Maybe one thing it is actually useful for.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Another Advantage of a Zero Inbox

I'm now increasingly checking my email from a mobile device, and having an empty inbox is very handy in this case: the built-in email client doesn't thread messages like gmail does, so even having only one conversation in your current inbox can already mean that you've got several screenfuls of emails cluttering up everything.

With your Zero Inbox (or was it 'Inbox Zero'?), if something crops up it is immediately visible as new, and in a nice case of a positive feedback loop you will want to deal with it quickly to get back to that pristine empty inbox.

And of course you have the satisfying blank page when there is no actual mail waiting for you...

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


The marking season hasn't even started yet, and I'm already tired of it. At present I'm looking through a pile of formative assignments, which are exam-style questions to prepare students for what is awaiting them in a few weeks' time. And I don't like doing it.

Why not? Is this the typical whingeing about an unpleasant job? Partly. I can think of many things I'd rather do, and that I still have to do once the marking is finished. But that in itself is not the reason. Giving feedback should be one of the central tasks in education, but the ways we have available for it are not very satisfactory.

Ideally I would write an essay about the length of the students' submission to give them proper feedback about all the things I like and don't like about their work. Because the student will read it at some point, and might come back to me with questions about it, I have to be very specific, and have to make sure they can be read out of context (ie without having the student essay still fresh in mind). This is very difficult to do. And would consume more time than is available.

It is also the case that it is very hard to phrase feedback properly. I can easily read a text and decide whether I like it or not, but then telling somebody else why I came to that conclusion is difficult. Often these points are on an almost sub-conscious level, and hard to verbalise. It would also be a lot easier if it could be delivered in a face-to-face conversation, as interactivity would be much better than simply a list of bullet points with good and bad points about the student's work. Resource shortage however makes that impossible, apart from practical considerations.

Maybe it would be an idea to try out what other people have done: record feedback orally, and then send it to the students. It would be quicker to say something, rather than to write it down in great detail, but dealing with sound files might be more time-consuming in the end.

So it remains the only option for the moment, filling in feedback forms, printing them off, attaching them to the paper, and hoping that the students will be able to use them to improve their work. Unsatisfactory!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Internet Radio

A word of warning: if you have an Internet radio and a limited bandwidth broadband connection, then you want to be careful. A few afternoons of listening to the world's radio stations and your usage allowance goes down the drain.

Apart from that it's fantastic: you can listen to all sorts of stations from all over the world, sorted by genre or country, whatever. Recently I discovered a Canadian station (I think it was Canadian), Ancient FM, and they played some very interesting Renaissance music, which I then bought on iTunes. Great to broaden your horizon, but keep an eye on that bandwidth!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Inbox Zero

One important productivity tool is your inbox; the email one, not the David Allen conceptual one. Nothing is more depressing than an overflowing mailbox which takes ages to load and makes it hard to find what you need. So having a zero-inbox is really a first step towards feeling more positive and productive, at least that's the effect it has on me.

The first important step is to consolidate multiple email-addresses you might have (work, private, etc) to a single account, so that you do not have to check in multiple places all the time. This is very easy to do with gmail. Next, set up four labels for the important/unimportant and urgent/non-urgent combinations. I have chosen _A1 to _A4, as these will show up at the top of the "labels" bar on gmail. Each email that requires an action is immediately shunted off into one of those four mailboxes. Constantly archiving all the other mails you get is also very important, and occasionally, wenn stuff builds up, move everything into an _inbox, to get your Inbox Zero back. If you allowed it to build up, then it cannot have been important!

Another benefit, apart from the psychological one, is that when you're on the move, checking your mail is a lot quicker!

Thursday, 9 April 2009


I got a new toy, which pretends to be a mobile phone but instead really runs lots of applications on it. One of them, which I installed today, is called Streaks. This is exactly what I need to keep up my writing: you get a little calendar, and tap a date (has to be in the past...). The program then puts a satisfying red X on the day, and counts how many days your current streak is. It maintains counts for the current streak and the longest. Ideally, of course, you will only have one streak!

For my own writing chain I only count work-days, so there'll be a bit of a break over the upcoming Easter hols. However, I can't tell that to the program, so I'll mark weekends and holidays as 'streaked'. The first consequence is that my 34 current links got puffed up to a massive 46, which is of course nice... And it makes it even harder to stop.

Today I was a bit stuck for what to write, and so I started a new project, one that I wanted to have started earlier anyway. With new projects it's a lot easier to write stuff, and if you do it during the mindless "have to write 200 words" stage of the day it saves you your more productive time to do the real work. At least that's the theory!

Friday, 3 April 2009

Video Recording

This afternoon I had a lecture video-ed (spellchecker suggests voided?!?!). This will be used by Student Recruitment for marketing purposes: they go out into schools and scare the pupils with it. The recording took place in a conference-type room, fairly small, and originally there was supposed to be an audience of about 8 school kids, but Recruitment couldn't get hold of any, so it was just me talking to an almost empty room (the person doing the recording was there as well).

My first attempt was no good. Not helped by my sore throat and the absence of any of the usual visual feedback (bored or perplexed students) made me go through my 49 slides at high-speed, ending the lecture after only 27 minutes. Not good.

Luckily there was enough time, so I had a break, drank some water, and then we did it again. This time I felt much more relaxed and at ease, explaining things in more detail, speaking more slowly, and at the end came in at 44 minutes. Much better!

The recording was done using the new Echo-360 system, and it is basically live. You can't pause or edit anything. Once you've started, you've got to finish. Unlike podcasting where you can edit out all those hesitations, repetitions, and deviations.

I got a list of tips from the media people, and I'll have to add another one: Have something to eat beforehand. At one stage I was getting very worried that my rumbling stomach would drown out my talking. I hope you won't be able to hear that on the recording...

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Peer Review

I have long had a dislike for peer review, as I believe that it is inherently conservative, hampering the spread of new ideas, and preserving the current mainstream of a discipline. One indication for this is that ground-breaking articles are usually published in obscure minor journals, not in the big ones which are more strongly guarded by peer reviewers.

In theory, peer review should be very useful, picking up on methodological issues, and procedural mistakes. And indeed, in a review of a conference submission a while ago the reviewer wondered why my results all had a certain feature in common, which lead me to have a closer look at my software. And indeed, he (or she!) had spotted a bug which I had missed, thus improving the quality of my paper. Positive result.

But in contrast, I had a project application rejected because the reviewer was obviously working in a different paradigm, and didn't accept that the methods used in the project (not invented by myself, but by eminent people working in my field) "could possibly work". They clearly did, as I had a working prototype at the time, but this was perhaps something the reviewer simply didn't like. Negative result (at least for me and my colleague in the project...)

John Sinclair famously said in his valedictory lecture that he never in his life got a peer reviewed paper published. I can only assume that this is because he often challenged established assumptions, and his ideas usually were a step ahead of most other people.

So the main problem is that peer review does (in my experience) not merely look at whether the work has been executed in the right way, but mainly is about whether the reviewer likes the content. This is not really peer review, but gatekeeping. Anything I don't like I reject, as it could threaten my position in my field.

The reason for this rant is an article I've just read, on alternatives, or peer-to-peer review. The main concern of which peer review is seen as the answer is that everybody can just publish anything, and especially so since the advent of the Web. And people do. There are a lot of wacko websites, where all sorts of rubbish is proclaimed as the truth. But who really cares? You can usually spot them easily, and there are also sites like Bad Science who deal explicitly with this issue. The point is, peer review doesn't stop nonsense being published, for example even the BMJ fell victim to the 'cello scrotum' hoax. The BMJ is peer reviewed, but perhaps they don't review 'brief case report[s]'? Does this not provide a false sense of security, even? It's in the BMJ, so it must be true?

If there is no peer review, you cannot rely so much on this (potentially false) sense of security, but with 'peer-to-peer' review, once a paper would be published, it could be more easily be discussed, and critical comments could point to problematic issues. In effect that would be like making peer reviewers' comments public. And if they are no longer anonymous, then it's a lot harder to be unfairly biased.

Of course this might just open the floodgates, and all sorts of nonsense could be published. But would people not be more careful? Would you still push out papers you didn't think were good enough? You might, because the number of papers you publish is an indicator of research quality. I'll save that for another time, one rant a day is enough...

Why not use Web 2.0 to get out of this dilemma? For example blogs (as mentioned on this blog before) for publications, and comments for the discussion. The whole system of publishing needs revision, IMHO, but I can't see anything happening anytime soon. As it said in the article mentioned above,

[p]eer review thus functions as a self-perpetuating disciplinary system, inculcating the objects of discipline into becoming its subjects. After all, those who manage the current system of peer review are of course those who have successfully negotiated it, granting an enormous inertia to the status quo.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Planning for next year...

In the last session of this term I had a chat with my students about what they liked and disliked about each module I taught. While you always get some people who complain about everything (this is a universal thing, not related to students only) there was a lot of useful positive feedback. From this I thought about how to change the module delivery for my second-year module, Frameworks in English Discourse Analysis for the next academic year. Including, of course, Web 2.0 technology!

One strand of the delivery is reading papers, which I initially discussed in the seminar itself. This turned out to be not a good idea, as it can be tedious, and if some students forgot to do the reading, then all the talking has to be done by me. First solution: do practical group work in the seminars, and ask the students to read the texts afterwards. Then they don't need to prepare anything to benefit from the seminar group session, and they can do the reading as a kind of revision. Disadvantage: they might not do it at all and then lack the theoretical background required to follow the module over the course of the year.

A student suggestion was to organise reading/study groups, where the students meet outside the seminars and discuss the readings/work their way through them, answering tutor-supplied questions. This is already practice in some other modules, and I think it is a good idea. In an ideal world students would do that sort of thing under their own steam, but it can be difficult as it's got to be a team effort. So, one plan for next year is to set up such groups.

I then had another idea: the same students are always together in the seminar meetings, and that is a bit luck-of-the-draw to which group you are assigned. You won't ever meet people from any other group, and hence your overall experience is a bit restricted in that way. So I thought I would compose the study groups across seminar groups. If, like this year, I have three FREDA groups, I will pick two students from each group to make up a study group of six. These students will then meet up, and discuss the reading, reporting back in their own seminar groups. The composition of the groups will change after each half-term, so that people should get to know each other, forming one big learning community.

To facilitate the community aspect I was thinking of using a blog for the module. I am not quite sure yet how best to do that, one blog per study group? One blog for the study groups and one 'official' module blog? Or just one altogether? The latter might make it easier to organise. Only time will tell whether and how that works, and it will of course also depend on the students themselves! And perhaps Wiki pages will be a better medium? Maybe Wikis to collate material, and a blog to reflect on the process?

Another feedback issue was that the students wanted more lectures than just one every other week. Here I will use podcasts to fill the gaps.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Podcasting and Grammar

Thinking further about using podcasts in teaching, I was wondering how feasible it would be to have short explanatory ones for difficult issues. Inspired partly by the "Close Reading" work done by some lit-colleagues on WebCT I thought I'll try something similar in a different medium, a walk-through SPOCA analysis in a podcast. SPOCA analysis is something a lot of students have problems with, so a few extra exercises would be useful. Here is my first go at one:

You presumably see nothing. That's because blogger doesn't seem to like that particular podcast. And neither does YouTube. And all sorts of video converters crash when trying to make something of it. Which is rather frustrating...

Blogger just gives me an error code and a video id, and asks me to contact them, but that is virtually impossible. It simply takes you to a kind of FAQ. Even more frustrating.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


I still find it hard to see any possible use for Twitter in a work situation. At yesterday's presentation I learned that it can be used to keep in touch with year abroad students, which is an interesting idea I hadn't thought about.

While searching for any interesting people to follow on twitter, however, I came across another use: replacing rss for more transient announcements. The University has a twitter stream which has frequent updates with news and events, eg lectures. Some newspapers do the same with news snippets. So I guess I might be using it to receive, rather than send out stuff myself. Though it is quite fun to post things yourself occasionally. For example, every day I post how many links I have in my current chain (see Don't break the chain!). Just the right degree of public pressure to force me to keep it up.

And who knows, perhaps some other opportunities for using it will turn up in the future. All we can do is try and learn and wait.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

More podcasting

After listening to Tom's podcast in the presentation session of the Web 2.0 course it suddenly dawned on me my my podcasts sound a bit dull: no reverb! It's like one bloke sitting at his desk, talking quietly into a microphone. Well, too close to reality that is... Now I restarted Garageband, and re-did the voice track on my previous podcast, in order to give it more depth. Some reverb, more clarity, a bit lower, basically to give more body to the voice.

Very easy to do, but I might have overdone it. Judge for yourselves:

Same content, different voice. More authority?

Podcast Podcast

Another podcast, this time about the use of podcasting in teaching:

This was a lot faster to do. I basically planned the whole lot, and then turned it into a presentation with Keynote. I recorded the voice in Audacity, cut out some pauses and speech errors, and then exported that as an mp3 file. Fired up GarageBand, created a podcast project, drag'n'dropped the mp3 file, exported the slides as images, put them into the podcast-artwork track, and created a podcast from that.

No nice transitions, though, as it's basically a slideshow only. And the aspect ratio of the images is all wrong, which is why they're a bit cut-off. Need to think about that next time I try. Presumably the images need to have a certain size (320x266 pixels), which I need to make sure I use when exporting them. Oh well, one always learns more...

Using Garageband I also have the option of creating a video podcast, but still images and videos don't mix. That is one situation where iMovie is better, as it automatically converts still images into (static) film clips.

Friday, 13 March 2009


I have had a bit of spare time this afternoon, and I burned slightly more than two hours on a three-minute podcast about the Web 2.0 course. Here is the final result:

This involved recording some course participants with a digital recorder during the session (in a noisy computer room), collecting some more recordings for those which had been missed, adding a framing narrative (prepared with a quick storyboard), finding some music clips, and putting all that together in Audacity. Then some quick images needed preparing, and the whole thing was thrown at iMovie, and then exported.

Not bad for a first attempt, I would guess, but still with lots of room for improvement. Still looks a bit amateurish to me. But I didn't really want to spend another couple of hours on it. Though I will have to for podcasts that are meant to be teaching materials!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Some initial experiences with podcasting

Earlier this week I thought I'd play around with Garageband, and produce a podcast. For starters it'd be easy enough to take an existing post, and record myself reading it out. Then a bit of music and a few images combined with it–instant podcast.

Only, it's rubbish.

That particular blogpost doesn't improve by being read aloud. Apart from the weird sound of my voice recorded it's also boring to listen to. Podcasts, I have decided, have to be free and spontaneous speech. Reading out stuff, especially words that have not explicitly been written to be spoken, just doesn't work.

OL's first rule of podcasting:

Podcasts are essentially spoken, rather than written language.

In the Web 2.0 course session there was an opportunity to gather some spontaneous speech: an impromptu interview with some participants. As I did the question asking, I think I'll take those snippets and put a frame around them, and I'll try to turn them into a more interesting podcast than the one I finally deleted this afternoon due to running out of disk space...

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Information Overload

Another reason for slower-paced blogging is the vast amount of information that needs dealing with. With reading other people's blogs you comment on some posts, and then check up on responses to your comments, then there's twittering, reddit (which comes up with oodles of interesting posts, some of which are even relevant for my work) and so on. You find a wealth of useful info, but there are not enough hours in the day to process it all, and do your job at the same time.

In addition, thanks to my new writing routine (see Don't break the chain!) I have less time to spend just surfing the web for nothing in particular.

So my tabs in Firefox keep multiplying, and I can hardly keep up with closing them. I guess there are a few possible solutions: speed reading is one, and better information filtering the second. With so much stuff available you sometimes just have to click on 'mark all as read' just to catch up. But don't worry, if it is important it will come around again!

Friday, 6 March 2009

Doing my bit to make the world a better place

It's Friday, and a meeting I was due to have has just been canceled. So I use this opportunity to talk about something that makes you feel good, is fairly inexpensive, and for a change not directly related to learning, teaching, or academia.

While looking at stuff on the web (I forgot where I actually found it, somewhat of a common occurrence with all that material out there!) I came across Kiva. This is a micro-lending organisation, which distributes funds to local lending organisations who in turn give it to entrepreneurs who are asking for a loan. Basically, people sign up, give money (via paypal) to shopkeepers in Nicaragua who want to expand their shop, or carpenters in Lebanon who want to buy more tools. Each loan to an entrepreneur is made up of payments by a number of lenders, so the risk is fairly low, but the default rate overall is only about 2% anyway.

What you do: look at the website, where profiles of people wanting loans are shown. It tells you how much they want, what they want it for, a short description of their circumstances, and how much of their loan amount has already been raised by other people. If you like it, you can then chip in and make a payment. Once all the funds have been raised the loan is made, and a repayment schedule starts. The money being repaid goes back into your Kiva account, ready to be loaned to somebody else. You don't receive any interest.

What I like about it is that I can decide whom I want to help. I don't like giving money to the big charities who employ professional fundraisers, where you never really know what happens to your money. My first loan was to somebody in Cambodia who wanted new tools for his electronics repair business. I like it that electronics are repaired rather than thrown away, which was one reason for me. The other was that they're in my age group, and they have to look after their six children on about $7 a day.

I also like that it's not a present. The entrepreneurs get money to help them build something up, but they then repay the loan. I feel much happier with this, as it comes without any sentimental feelings. Sure, they are grateful to receive the money, but they don't have to feel too bad about it, as they will eventually pay it back. The relationship is more even, a business transaction rather than an one-sided act of giving. It's difficult to express what I mean, but I hope you get the overall idea.

One additional motivation comes from reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (Wow, I never knew his middle name was Mason...): Basically the West dominates the world mainly due to very lucky circumstances of geography. That's why I'm in a position to contribute towards a loan to people in Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Lebanon, rather than me having to ask them for money.

Right, so much for making the world a better place. If you've got $25 spare, why not sign up to Kiva and fund somebody's dreams?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

An Academic Use of Blogs

As a follow-up to a previous post on writing academic papers, I have just discovered another use of blogs in the context of academia. Part of academic work is to claim ground in your research area. You discover something, and you want to have your name associated with it, so that people will until eternity have to write according to Bloggs (2008), this that or the other. If Bloggs (2008) is one of your publications, then you get recognition by rising in the citation indices, and your employer looks on you with a pleased smile as you are raking in points for the REF or whatever is about to replace the RAE.

The only problem is that you're not alone in working on your topic. Many other people in other places will work on similar areas, and what if they claim they came up with the idea first? It is thus important that you publish your findings, as proof that you had the idea at a certain point in time. That in itself is of course not sufficient, as even in the oh-so-perfect sciences there are cases where some idea had been published in some obscure place by a now forgotten individual, before the person now associated with it got a publication in a more mainstream place.

However, it is a non-trivial issue to get together a publication, and often discoveries in themselves are not sufficient to fill 10,000 words worth of writing. And even if we manage to 'pad it out' in the course of many weeks, then it has to be submitted, is reviewed, rejected, revised, resubmitted, etc, until it is finally published years later. Conference papers are a bit better in that respect, and you can get something out quicker as well. But there might not be an appropriate conference in the near future after your discovery.

Along comes Web 2.0. Actually, Web 1.0 would have had the same capabilities. In fact, the whole Web was invented just for this purpose, distributing research papers. Blog posts just neatly fill the gap between chatting to your colleagues about an issue and publishing a research paper. Or maybe giving a seminar talk. Only, you're not talking to 20-30 people, but potentially to a lot more. In reality probably to about the same number, or fewer, depending how many friends you have. Or members of family who feel obliged to read your blog. But, once it's out in the open, search engines will pick it up and other people will find it, so the potential audience is really quite big enough.

Now there are issues of quality control, as nobody peer reviews blogs. Maybe that would be a good project, setting up a review mechanism for academic blog posts? Anybody and their dog can post, which on the other hand is great, as it removes formal barriers to research. One could of course make bold claims which are not supported by any evidence, but if the post is written like a short research paper that wouldn't be an issue. I leave you to judge it for yourself, and here is my most recent academic blog post.

Now if I only could the right places to recognise blogs as publications...

Friday, 27 February 2009

Don't break the chain!

There is a story attributed to Seinfeld which describes his strategy for writing jokes.  Not very remarkable, one might think, but the point of it is that it's something you need to do little and often.  But such tasks are often the first ones to fall under the table if there's any pressure or lack of time.  Always something more important takes precedence, and a month later you've completely forgotten that you ever used to do this 'writing' thing.

Academic writing is similar.  Due to teaching and admin (and other research) commitments, you rarely have the luxury of a full day free to do nothing but write.  So doing it little and often is really the only way forward.  This then brings us back to the Seinfeld story: how can we make sure to fit the writing in, and not forget about it?

The trick is to introduce some secondary motivation, which is stronger than the motivation required for simply writing something.  In this case you get a big calendar, and every day you do your writing, you mark this on the calendar.  After a few days you start getting a 'chain' of marks on the calendar, and your mission is to keep the chain uninterrupted.  Now the issue is no longer to 'write something', but more like 'don't let the long chain break', and it becomes more and more important the longer the chain is.

You need a clearly defined goal, so that you can be sure when you've done your daily deed.  I set it to at least 200 words; in a week this would give me 1000 words, and roughly 50,000 words in a whole year.  Obviously I won't stop if I can write more than 200, but that is the minimum.  I need to think about how to deal with post-editing, when I basically cut out words, so that should probably be as a period of time, eg half an hour or so.

The next step is to tell everybody.  It's a lot harder to break the chain if people who bump into you on the corridor ask how many links you've got.  And it might give them ideas about trying it themselves!

I started on Monday, and managed to keep up the chain for the whole week (I only count weekdays, not the week-end).  In the process I have produced about 5000 words (not including any blog posts); now where did that time come from?  The answer is, I'm more focused on my work.  Those little periods 'between things' are suddenly no longer wasted, because I always have 'MUST WRITE' at the front of my thoughts.  Just because I don't want to have to tell anybody that I broke the chain.

Monday, 23 February 2009


My initial flurry of posts has abated a bit, and there are two main reasons:

1. I now try to post more regularly on my other blog, but writing posts there takes more time, as it's more research-based.  Basically it involves some programming, testing it out, describing the code, and so on.  Slower, but supposedly higher quality.  And somebody submitted my most recent posting to reddit, which nicely links us to

2. I discovered reddit, which is a bit like social bookmarking site (see delicious): people submit links, in different channels/categories.  You can comment on it, too.  And, here is the good bit, you can vote something up or down–instant peer review.  Of course, if you look at the programming channel and your peers are spotty teenagers who don't appreciate the intricacies of functional programming, you lose out.  Or if you look at politics and everybody else has a different view of the world than you do.  But it's also fun to read what other people think about a site, and you get to read some insightful websites (mainly blogs).

The upshot of this is that I've been doing a lot more reading in the past few days, and I even set up my own reddit channel, about a subject I'm interested in.  I already have 7 other people who subscribed to it...

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Other Blogs

I read some 60-odd blogs, but a lot of them are very low volume (and specialised). In Google Reader I have set up a folder structure to keep at least some order in the list. I'll briefly go through this, as some of the blogs might be interesting for others as well.

Computing is my biggest category. I try to follow current technological trends, and I'm always amazed by the things that one comes across as a side-effect.  Some of the tech bloggers are keen photographers, eg Tim Bray on his ongoing blog.  Elliotte Rusty Harrold (Cafe au Lait Java News and Resources) is an avid birdwatcher.  Tim lives in Vancouver, and often comments on life in Canada; apparently Vancouver is one of the three greatest places in the world, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro being the other two.  Not sure where Birmingham would come in that ranking.

Being a serial procrastinator, GTD & productivity comes a close second.  Instead of Getting Things Done it's easier just to read about it.  The top blogs (both in quality and in volume) are lifehack and lifehacker; a useful low-volume one is Academic Productivity.

For light relief there's humour, with the usual suspect Dilbert, and some other funny web comics, eg PHD Comics, and Basic Instructions.  By subscribing to them as an RSS feed (via I don't even have to go to the sites, and they just pop up in my reader every day.  Very convenient.  And efficient.

And then there's the news: nothing adventurous, only various feeds from the BBC news: Science, Technology, Education (you can select what kind of news you want to get delivered).  And the News from the THE.  What else do you need to know about the world?  Though there seems to be a rather larger overlap with Dilbert than one would have expected...

I would like to see more kinds of feeds, esp from newspapers.  A bit of a bore to still have to go out to different websites in the 21st C; that is really soooo out of date!  It's also a bit inconvenient that the BBC articles only show a one-sentence summary, so that you still have to click on it to read, whereas most other blogs supply the full text.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Multiple Blogs

The web makes it easy to have multiple personalities. I wonder if this has an impact on our mental state... But it's easy to have a set of multiple blogs, and it might even be preferable to having just one which then receives a mixed set of posts. Targeting different audiences might make blogs more 'popular' in the sense that you might be happy to listen to person X talking about some professional topic, but couldn't care less about their cat. So, have two blogs: one for professional stuff, one for personal ramblings.

I started this blog for the Web 2.0 course, and I intend to maintain it as the kind of general, informal L&T blog. It might only be interesting to colleagues or people who know me, just as I only follow some blogs because I know who the people are, and I wouldn't follow them if I didn't. About a year ago I started my first blog, which only had very sporadic posts, as I wanted to avoid being another of those people who just blog because they can, and who think they're so important that everybody in the world needs to know what they're doing. On the other blog I will now only post 'technical' stuff, so its target audience are people who might not know me, but are interested in the subject. This blog here will probably appeal more to people who know me, or are in a similar situation working in HE.

The great thing is, you can choose what to follow. A bit like the difference between going to a lecture and going to the SCR. Either you're predominantly interested in the people and what they do, or you want to hear about their work only.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

RSS or Email?

One possible use of news feeds is information dissemination within the university (or any other institution). At the moment a lot of emails are being sent out, many of which are not that relevant (though I think this has improved over the past few years). Such emails clog up your inbox, and might distract from really important mails that get lost in the deluge of information.

RSS feeds, on the other hand, can be split into different channels according to topics. If I want to get information about research seminars in computer science (I don't get this now, because I'm not affiliated to the department), I simply subscribe to that respective feed. However, I would probably opt out of some research seminars in my own department or school which I then don't have to hear about. By being more selective, I can reduce my exposure to irrelevant information, and save much time while still getting more relevant information than before: by choosing feeds that I'm not in the email-target audience for. A win-win situation.

So what's stopping us? Habit. Lack of knowledge of alternatives. So let's hope many people will go on courses to learn about RSS feeds etc. I don't know what I'd do without Google Reader!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Writing Papers?

(I already mentioned this in the comment of another blog, but I thought this is interesting enough to warrant a short comment here)

While perusing my daily blogs I came across an interesting article on writing academic papers.  Apparently computer science papers nowadays are simply formulaic repetitions of the same stuff several times, and could be a lot shorter, was it not for the tradition of publishing them on paper.

I am rather critical of the current academic publishing model: you do research, write it up, it gets reviewed, rejected, rewritten, then finally published, and then the publisher charges your university to access the paper you spent so much of your work time on.  Who benefits?  The publishers?  Definitely not the academics nor the universities who fund the whole circus.  There are of course incentives, RAE recognition etc, which somewhat introduces a market element to it.  But by the time a paper has been published it might well be out of date already.

My other bugbear is peer review.  It's a bit like Churchill's quote about democracy being the worst system of government except all others.  I don't believe it works, as it promotes conservative mainstream work which is uncontroversial (I'm overgeneralising here a bit) and doesn't threaten anybody's research areas.  Really groundbreaking new stuff usually gets rejected and published only in obscure minor journals.  However, I do accept that publishing everything is also not a feasible option.  I'm stuck for a better alternative.

But blogs replacing academic papers might be an option.  Especially if you can refer to them (in which case they'd need to be non-volatile/persistent), and perhaps rate them.  Or, google-style, blog entries with a lot of links to them get a higher ranking.  Which opens another can of worms, of course.  It might also be a chance for the great leveling tool The Web to work its magic, as everybody and their dog can publish stuff.  But obscure publications would probably not make it into the rankings if usually ignored.  And peer review has not saved us from that, either (see the MMR dispute for one thing).

Any suggestions for improvement welcomed!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Multiple Monitors

My MacBook supports two monitors (showing different things) via its external monitor socket. From my unused office PC I do have a spare screen, and have occasionally used it as a second monitor, but I didn't really think it was all that useful.

One reason for this is that Mac programs have a central menubar at the top of the screen, unlike Windows and other OSes which attach menubars to the respective application windows. It's somewhat of a pain to have to move the mouse to the main screen for a menu item, when your application is actually 30cm to the right.

However, my Heureka-moment came when I tried putting the external screen above my laptop. Now, instead of landscape I work in portrait mode. Much better, as I find it easier to glance up and down as opposed to sideways, especially if the monitors have slightly different resolutions. And the menubar? It's now in the middle of the workplace. Easy to reach from wherever I have the mouse, even though it's not supposed to be the optimum according to some law of UI, which suggests that the edge of the screen was best, as it is easiest to reach with the mouse–no overshooting possible!

I feel much more productive, and was supported in this feeling when watching Randy Pausch's lecture on time management (available for free on iTunesU): he advocated using three monitors (like he did), or at least two. Working on two screens is more like working at a desk, one screen is like the little fold-down table in a plane. And especially when doing stuff with the browser I find it useful, as the browser usually fills the whole screen, and leaves no space for other applications (such as text editors) to work with.

How many screens have you got?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Your personal fitness lecturer

I came across a reference to a book by Randy Pausch, an academic who before dying of cancer wrote a book called 'The Last Lecture', and I found an excerpt on the web ( which I thought was very interesting:

When looking at the 'business model' of Higher Education we shouldn't look at Retail. Students coming to us as customers, paying good money, and getting goods for it (a degree). Instead, it's the Athletic Club metaphor: Students come to University, and for a fee they get access to resources (library) and 'fitness trainers' (lecturers). They still have to put the hours in, lifting books, or nothing will happen. In order to get results, you'll have to work hard, not only depart from your (or your parents') hard earned cash.

This sounds to me a lot more plausible. No longer do I have to have a bad feeling to give a poor student a bad mark, as their tuition fees don't buy them the degree, they buy them the opportunities to study. Obviously I do feel bad because I should enable the student to get a good degree, but if they don't also work for it, it won't work.

Why University is different from School...

For a start, most schools in Birmingham were closed today because of a little bit of snow. Which creates quite a few problems if both parents are working, and the kids can't be dropped off at school. Nursery also closed early. More hassle.

University, on the other hand, goes on. Apparently Bham City University is closed tomorrow, pah! But quite impressively, attendance figures were high today, not more than about two students missing per seminar. Much better than expected. I hope that this was not only because my students are so committed and fit & healthy and keen (which they are), but also because my seminars have such a magnetic-like attraction that they cannot resist wading through the 2 inches of snow to get here.

Starting a new blog...

I believe a new blog is born every 5.3 seconds. Here is another one. The origin is in a course on using Web 2.0 for learning and teaching, and over the next few weeks I hope this will take shape.

There is so much out there in terms of technology, but I am skeptical whether much of it can usefully be applied in enhancing learning and teaching in Higher Education. This is a voyage of discovery, and I have no clue where it will end up.