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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.