Teaching, Web2.0 and Teaching Web2.0

Looking for a guide to Web2.0? Image (cc) Stéphane Massa-Bidal.

Looking for a guide to Web2.0? Image (cc) Stéphane Massa-Bidal.

Yesterday I was at an event organ­ised with the HEA centre for Biosciences, Enhancing learn­ing through Web2.0. I thought it was a very good day. I didn’t get exactly what I wanted out of the day. What I was hop­ing for some­thing to help me build a work­shop for teach­ing Web2.0 tools to stu­dents. The event, as the name says, was more about using Web2.0 to teach stu­dents. There’s over­lap but it’s subtly dif­fer­ent. In the end that was no bad thing.

I struggled with the morn­ing ses­sion. I thought I was a novice. There are some tools I’m simply not aware of, some which I haven’t been max­im­ising, and I’ve no exper­i­ence of teach­ing how to use these tools. However most of the first ses­sion was about learn­ing how use use sites as your level of exper­i­ence. A lot of people were being intro­duced to Twitter and Google Docs. To work at the same level I’d really need to have con­sidered build­ing schema for machine tags and work­ing out how to get them doing some­thing use­ful with a Flickr API. It’s some­thing I want to do, slowly, because I think there’s huge poten­tial for machine tag­ging on Flickr. Unfortunately, archae­ology and his­tory doesn’t have the eas­ily recog­nis­able ref­er­ence points that astro­nomy has. Astronometry​.net is clever site, and the integ­ra­tion with Flickr is one of those things that’s worth a spon­tan­eous round of applause. It’s not some­thing that you can rip-off in a morn­ing though, so I spent the time eaves­drop­ping as politely as possible.

What came across is that some­thing like Twitter is very easy to oper­ate. Trivially easy. What makes is more dif­fi­cult is that use requires more than typ­ing into a box and click­ing sub­mit. It’s a bit like chess, just because you know how the pieces move, you don’t know how to play the game. Things like hasht­ags and retweets that make it more enga­ging, but these are social con­ven­tions that people have built around Twitter more than part of the site. There is now a retweet func­tion in Twitter, but that’s still dif­fer­ent to the RT @username tweets you see in your stream.

I think that means that any les­son plan I come up with will need a few goals. Telling people to tweet some­thing is not enough, they need a reason. I think they also need a net­work. That gives me some con­cern because you never know who is going to fol­low you on twit­ter but it’s a safe bet sooner or later someone will be invit­ing you join her, but not her clothes, on a web­site somewhere.

The after­noon ses­sions were very good. They opened with Kevin Emamy intro­du­cing CiteULike. Before he gave his talk my opin­ion of CiteULike was that it was a good site that didn’t really fit into the way I work. After his talk I was con­vinced that CiteULike was a really good tool that didn’t fit into the way I work — but I still need to keep a close eye on it.

CiteULike is del​.icio​.us for aca­demic papers. You find some­thing, click the book­mark­let to save it, give it some use­ful tags, and if you have the PDF you can upload a per­sonal copy. I think that’s use­ful, and that’s what Zotero and Mendeley can do too. Zotero even has the advant­age of work­ing with Word and Open Office, so my opin­ion of CiteULike isn’t that it’s bad, just that I don’t see a need for a duplic­ate sys­tem. It’s changed in the past few weeks. There’s now a recom­mend­a­tion sys­tem which is being developed. It makes CiteULike much more inter­est­ing, or at least it would for me if there was a viable archae­ology / ancient his­tory com­munity on it. That’s a social prob­lem, not a pro­gram­mable prob­lem, but with social tools you go where the people are.

Still, I’m look­ing at it with a lot more interest for a couple of reas­ons. While it might not yet be use­ful for me, the social side of CiteULike makes it extremely good for intro­du­cing stu­dents to it in class. They already have their net­work and you can drop them as a lump into CiteULike with a ded­ic­ated group. Another key point is that, unlike Zotero, it works with Internet Explorer. It’s a fun­da­mental incom­pat­ib­il­ity that means Zotero can’t work on Internet Explorer. That’s not a prob­lem for me, I tend to use Firefox, but it’s a prob­lem if you’re in a cor­por­ate envir­on­ment which likes to min­im­ise choice to max­im­ise effi­ciency. You have to work with what you have at the time, and right now that would be CiteULike. The fact that it is very good means I don’t feel at all grumpy about that.

The next ses­sion we had Jo Badge and Terry McAndrew. Jo Badge, who was pretty amaz­ing all day, talked through her PLE. We com­pared her skil­fully presen­ted mind map against Alan Cann’s tag cloud and I think the room was uni­formly in favour of her more nuanced approach. Both approaches helped show one of the other prob­lems that you can have selling Web2.0 to an audi­ence. As Stuart Johnson poin­ted out, it’s very diverse and if you stick it up as a block it can look over­whelm­ing. It’s related to the fact that often each site is related to an indi­vidual task. You might find a page on Google Reader, book­mark it on deli­cious and com­ment on it at Posterous. It looks like triple-handling one piece of inform­a­tion. In fact you could set things up so that you click in Google Reader to send com­ments to Posterous and the book­mark to deli­cious auto­mat­ic­ally, but this still looks like duplic­a­tion. Terry McAndrew then drew the dis­cus­sion into how Web2.0 and teach­ing and learn­ing tied into the HEA Biosciences projects.

This moved on to more spe­cific examples of using Web 2.0 in the Biosciences. There were examples using Diigo, Google forms and microvideo. There was noth­ing bad about any of these talks, but real­ist­ic­ally Diigo was the only one I could see that would be rel­ev­ant to what I want to do, and I’m more likely to use deli­cious for that. The uses of forms and video was clever, but they have logist­ical prob­lems that I can­not solve yet. For example the form were used to track data for charts dur­ing a lab prac­tical. For that you need a lab that’s happy about hav­ing mobile phones in use. After that we moved more or less into wrap­ping up the day for the sub­ject centre.

I think the most inter­est­ing ques­tion of the day was asked by someone who wasn’t there. “How do you sell this to tech­no­phobes?” We had a day of people with a keen interest in aca­demia and a desire to learn about Web2.0. In the lec­ture hall you’re likely to have stu­dents who have neither. In the case of elec­tronic bib­li­o­graphy, many stu­dents approach a pro­ject as a one-off. You only do Module X once in the course and this pro­ject once in Module X, so why invest time in set­ting up an elec­tronic bib­li­o­graphy when it’s not per­ceived to have an ongo­ing use?

I was asked what I took away from the day in a ques­tion­naire and I said I’d have to have a mull. I can think of a few things I need to con­sider for my own Web2.0 work­shop. A few things come to mind.

  • I need some good zero-network tools. A lot of Web2.0 is made much more use­ful if there’s a social ele­ment. There isn’t going to be that social ele­ment for every­one. Life sci­ences are very social but adop­tion of social net­work­ing is patchy. Why use Twitter or FriendFeed if there’s no net­work? Well, in the case of FriendFeed it could be used as an RSS aggregator.
  • Teaching to a group means there is a net­work with a com­mon interest, even if it’s only a tem­por­ary feel­ing of ‘what do we have to do to get through this course?’ I think this can be used to over­come the ini­tial prob­lem that you know no-one on a net­work when you start.
  • It’s not the tools that are the major obstacle, it’s find­ing a reason to adopt them. I know Classics pro­fess­ors who, even in 2000, were far too humor­ously eccent­ric to use email. That changed when they star­ted miss­ing out on oppor­tun­it­ies. Any web2.0 tool has to have a reason to use it. If it’s not mak­ing life easier or open­ing new oppor­tun­it­ies, then there’s no reason why we should expect people to use it anyway.
  • Safety. I can’t recall this com­ing up on the day. There are freaks on the inter­net. I know all the stu­dents are intel­li­gent adults, but I think there’s a respons­ib­il­ity you have when push­ing people out into the net that you don’t have if they choose to explore them­selves. What hap­pens if a stu­dent with an interest in bio­logy gets fol­lowed by a mad anti-vaxxer on his blog? Or a stu­dent who’s work­ing through prob­lems in cli­mate change on her blog who gets hassled by someone who insists she stops work­ing on her mod­ule and demands she provide full and com­plete answers to a vari­ety of his mad ques­tions instead? “Don’t feed the troll” might be the simple answer but, espe­cially if you’re iden­ti­fi­ably female, you can get some really vicious stuff. I’m sure they could find plenty of sup­port to fight on their side, but not every­one who sets up a blog wants a fight.

You can’t make a per­fectly safe inter­net, and I’m not sure why I’d want to, but at the same time when you teach someone to cross the road you don’t start with at the dual car­riage way where caf­fein­ated drivers hurtle at the top of the speed lim­iters. For that reason I’m think­ing of start­ing with a private room on FriendFeed. It can act as a shallow-end sub­sti­tute for Twitter and a feed reader. Because it’s a private room I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to make pub­lic, but I’ll dis­cuss the work­shop plan some more at a later date. If any­one knows of some model courses, I’d love to be able to look at them.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. AJCann says:

    I told you you weren’t a novice :-)

  2. AJCann says:

    Using Friendfeed as an aggreg­ator is a dead end. I know because I fell into that trap. Friendfeed is a super­ior ver­sion of Facebook (e.g. aggreg­a­tion cap­ab­il­it­ies). Would you use Facebook as an isol­ated indi­vidual? It would have no value. If you want an aggreg­ator, use Google reader, or one the the newer more visual ser­vices. Friendfeed is a social network.

  3. Milly/Lotte says:

    not every­one who sets up a blog wants a fight”-and most blog­gers don’t get them since by and large it is only a small num­ber of blogs that get high enough traffic to attract interest of whichever vari­ety of netloon your par­tic­u­lar interests might attract. I under­stand your con­cerns for your stu­dents, but I think those that are tech­no­lo­gic­ally res­ist­ant prob­ably have those fears already, and I’m not sure a false/closed envir­on­ment is neces­sar­ily help­ful in com­bat­ing those.
    I can only speak from my own exper­i­ence but most of my techno-phobic class­mates are not so much phobic, as bored (by any­thing other than facebook) .