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, fixing his car 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) .