Teaching with Social Media

Road building in Nepal
Road building in Nepal

Road build­ing on the Annapurna cir­cuit, Nepal, surely a path to enlight­en­ment? Photo by rpb1001.

I think I took my PhD at Leicester at almost exactly the right time — if you ignore the cata­strophic down­turn in edu­ca­tion fund­ing. The reason is I’ve had the oppor­tun­ity to work with a few people who have been inspir­ingly innov­at­ive in their teach­ing. Derek Raine intro­duced me to Problem-Based Learning, when he built a new degree in Interdisciplinary Science around it. +A.J. Cann also help by let­ting me help out on some of his numer­acy / study skills courses for Biological Sciences and that’s what he’s blog­ging about today at Of Schemes and Memes and on his own blog at Science of the Invisible.

I’m sure I’ve had plenty of study skills train­ing but I don’t remem­ber much of it. At its worst it was a part of the first year course teach­ing how to use vari­ous sys­tems I might want to use in the third year. By which time the sys­tem might well have changed or else I would have for­got­ten it through lack of use. I don’t do well if I have do some­thing in order to learn how to use a sys­tem. I work bet­ter if I learn how to use a sys­tem in order to do some­thing else.

Alan Cann has a focus on how and why stu­dents want to learn some­thing. To explain the dif­fer­ence, when I was taught I might be shown how to use PubMed. Fill in all the boxes and that’s a pass. In con­trast Alan sets tasks that have a pur­pose and explains PubMed or Web of Knowledge are the easi­est ways to get the inform­a­tion stu­dents need. The cleverest part is that this is wrapped up with social media icing.

Getting cohorts onto Google+ gets them think­ing about pri­vacy, but also makes com­mu­nic­a­tion online a more nat­ural act. Students can build their own sup­port struc­tures. These become more import­ant as the stu­dents move toward inde­pend­ent study later in their degree. Another clever thing work­ing through social media does is it helps dis­solve bar­ri­ers between modules.

In my first degree what I learned in mod­ule A applied to mod­ule A. What I learned in Module B applied to Module B. I wasn’t mak­ing con­nec­tions between the two. On Google+ the work their is for Alan’s mod­ule, but stu­dents dis­cuss more than that. They’ll talk about other mod­ules and make con­nec­tions about why some­thing puzz­ling is hap­pen­ing because we know from this mod­ule that this occurs so when you apply it to that lab exper­i­ment you should expect that and so on.

Another fea­ture is that Alan doesn’t give the same course twice. He’ll drop what thinks doesn’t work and come up with some­thing bet­ter. This shouldn’t be rad­ical. I’ve been on count­less courses as a post-grad that talk about the import­ance of reflec­tion in teach­ing. Usually this reflec­tion in the sense of “how can you bet­ter guide stu­dents along the path to enlight­en­ment?” Alan and Derek have both taken the approach that ques­tions if the path is right in the first place. Even if it’s basic­ally sound, do we need all these wig­gly detours to des­tin­a­tions no one vis­its anymore?

This post is a good entry point to some of what Alan is doing with teach­ing. Science of the Invisible is the place to go if you want to read more.

Photo: Road build­ing on the Annapurna cir­cuit, Nepal by rpb1001. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

This post also appears on Google+.

Blogging Archaeology 4: What next? Part One


For our last ques­tion, I would like to ask you to con­sider the act of pub­lic­a­tion for this blog car­ni­val. How could we best cap­ture the inter­play, the mul­ti­me­dia exper­i­ence of blog­ging as a more form­al­ized pub­lic­a­tion? What would be the best out­come for this col­lec­tion of insights from archae­olo­gical bloggers?

This week’s ques­tion is two ques­tions which makes it harder to answer. I’m not sure a form­al­ised pub­lic­a­tion is the best out­come. It’s not a bad idea though, so I’ll tackle that in this post.

My first reac­tion was like Shawn Graham, a Kindle Single — but that’s because a Kindle is my new toy. A Kindle single could work, I liked this art­icle on hydro­frack­ing, which was free to down­load when I got it. It has some per­man­ence and it would col­late the vari­ous entries. The reason it might not be the best solu­tion is that first it helps to know why you’re col­lat­ing the entries.

If you want to give blog­ging a degree of cred­ib­il­ity among people who don’t value elec­tronic media then an elec­tronic out­put is a per­fect way to be ignored. You could try and self-publish via some­thing like Lulu. I’d be against try­ing to cover up the self-published nature of the book by adding a spuri­ous imprint — unless the pub­lic­a­tion were part of a long-term pro­ject involving sev­eral books. Still, I’m not sure to what extent this is a good idea. I can’t see a tech­no­phobe buy a book about archae­olo­gical blog­ging. This is why I think Colleen Morgan’s approach is clever. She’s put­ting the ses­sion into a main­stream con­fer­ence. Both John and Matthew Law raise the pos­sib­il­ity of pub­lic­a­tion via an SAA related pub­lic­a­tion. If that’s pos­sible then this is a sens­ible out­reach com­pon­ent of pub­lic­a­tion. Additionally then, a Kindle Single would be the elec­tron­ic­ally per­man­ent ver­sion — the advant­age of the Kindle Single being that you can embed links in them. Add a CC licence and drop a big hint to Amazon that you’re mak­ing avail­able free on the web and Amazon could make it avail­able free on their site, like Hydrofracked was.

In terms of how the con­tent of the book could look, a good model that comes to mind is Philosophy and Archaeological Practice. Perspectives for the 21st Century by Cornelius Holtorf and Håkan Karlsson. Each paper in the book comes with at least one response by another author. A com­mon obser­va­tion is that the com­ments have added value to the car­ni­val. I think Kandinsky adds some­thing to my post here, and I’m hop­ing this adds value to the pre­vi­ous posts I’ve linked back to. Jonathan Jarrett is leav­ing some excel­lent com­ments in vari­ous places. I think adding these to the pub­lic­a­tion demon­strates that blog­ging can be part of a reflect­ive pro­cess and need not be a static out­put, even if by pin­ning it into a pub­lic­a­tion the posts become static on paper.

I think col­lat­ing the blog posts in some way is bet­ter than not col­lat­ing them, so I don’t want to run down the idea. I do won­der if it’s going to be ter­minal. Freezing the posts marks an end. It could be pos­sible to start a new pro­ject in a few months, but it would be start­ing from scratch again. Colleen has put in a huge amount of work get­ting the SAA ses­sion to work. She’s been e-mailing people for sev­eral months organ­ising this, and the vis­ible part is really just a frac­tion of the effort. It would be a shame if someone else look­ing to start a group pro­ject had to rep­lic­ate all that work again. Terry Brock has raised the pos­sib­il­ity of using this as a spur to some­thing more ongo­ing, like a group blog. Mick Morrisson has also been ask­ing what people think about the future of Four Stone Hearth, an anthro­po­lo­gical car­ni­val with a large archae­olo­gical com­pon­ent — with little suc­cess by the looks of it.

An ongo­ing event is not exclus­ive to also form­al­ising this cur­rent car­ni­val, but it is a dif­fer­ent prob­lem, so I’ll tackle that in another post. For now my response for Colleen is “form­al­ise the car­ni­val how­ever you like”, but in a cheery and enthu­si­astic tone of voice.

Blogging Archaeology Week 3: If I were after more comments here’s what I’d do.


And now Blogging Archaeology Week 3.

A final down­side to the short form is the appear­ance of dia­log. Noting this vir­tual round table and other blogs (like MS) as excep­tions, most archae­olo­gical blogs that I read have very little in the way of dia­log through com­ments. Often on this blog, I feel like I am talk­ing to myself, which in a way is cath­arsis, but if an archae­ology blog­ger writes and no one reacts, are we really chan­ging opin­ions or mov­ing the field for­ward?” I would add to this, how do you attract read­er­ship? Without too much in the way of SEO chat­ter, who is your audi­ence and how to you inter­act with this audi­ence? What do you want out of inter­activ­ity by means of blog­ging about archaeology?

I’m not sure if I’m the right per­son to answer this for archae­olo­gists. For a while I set up a sep­ar­ate site and barred Google from it, so I could blog thoughts without large num­bers of people vis­it­ing. I’m not hos­tile to read­ers, but the read­ers I want are the one who come here any­way, not simply a large num­ber count. It’s partly down to why you blog.

At the same time I can say this worked depress­ingly well in terms of view­ers. I also changed the name of the site to “The Britney Spears Site of, like, Really Old Stuff” and changed the theme to a Britney theme (it was 2005). But I don’t know if it changed anything.

I think I can come up with three reas­ons why com­ments might not happen.

  1. Subject Matter.
    If your blog repeats the news, then I won’t com­ment. It’ll be some­thing that I’ve already seen before or else will see repeated sev­eral times over. What about the oppos­ite? Add ori­ginal com­ment­ary and that will encour­age com­ments yes? I’m not sure it will. There’s plenty of people writ­ing good ori­ginal posts. I won’t always com­ment though because these will be inter­est­ing art­icles out­side my imme­di­ate field. What I need to do is read round the sub­ject before I can add any­thing more than “Nice one”. That takes time. It’s some­thing you don’t get on some sci­ence blogs, because a lot of sci­ence is the same round the world, but archae­ology is very localised.

    I think for most archae­o­b­log­gers one way to more com­ments is to dumb down massively, or go over the top and aim for a purely aca­demic audi­ence. In the lat­ter case I think you’d still need the social con­nec­tions to pull com­ments in. To get com­ments you will need people read­ing who feel happy talk­ing about the sub­ject of your posts. Which takes us to…

  2. Audience Size.
    Of your audi­ence only a small frac­tion will par­ti­cip­ate by com­ment­ing. This is gen­er­ally known as the 90–9-1 rule. For blogs Neilsen, writ­ing in 2006, said that the ratios were skewed fur­ther to 95–5-0.1. These num­bers describe how people inter­act with your site. The first num­ber are pass­ive con­sumers. The second are occa­sional con­trib­ut­ors. The final num­ber is the heavy con­trib­ut­ors. Using these fig­ures if you have 1000 people read­ing your posts you can expect around five or six com­ments, with one from a reg­u­lar reader. Most archae­o­b­logs aren’t get­ting that kind of read­er­ship. There are ways to lower the bar to com­ment­ing, but even so it’s not likely many blogs will get the read­er­ship levels to get reg­u­lar com­ments. Because of their size though, they’ll be much more vis­ible and you’ll have a skewed idea of how suc­cess­ful you blog is or isn’t.

  3. People don’t com­ment on blogs.
    This is from AJ Cann, who does have com­ments on his blogs. He also runs MicrobiologyBytes. Compare the num­ber of com­ments on the blog with the num­ber of com­ments on Facebook. On the blog there are acres of No com­ments, while the Facebook page picks up com­ments and likes.* This is part of a shift in where we com­ment on blogs. For the last post within a quarter of an hour I saw this tweet from the light­ning fast Åsa M Larsson. Commenting has moved from blogs to Twitter and Facebook. Often the com­ment is purely asso­ci­at­ive, as a like or retweet. Comments on blogs aren’t dead, but usage has changed. It isn’t 2006 anymore.

So what do you do? One is to pull the com­munity to you. Ning built their busi­ness on this and every so often I’ll get someone telling me I should sign up to their Ning site. I’ll do it for work, but not if I don’t have to. The oppos­ite way is the answer. If you want to use a blog as out­reach and com­munity engage­ment then you go where the com­munity is. There are plenty of good reas­ons to be Facebookphobic, but that’s where the audi­ence is. If I had an out­reach blog then I would have to have a Facebook page for the blog, and AoB Blog does. If you ‘like’ it for a few days you’ll see there’s a con­stant drip drip of botan­ical good­ness into your Facebook stream. The reason AoB Blog does this is that we wanted to put the blog where the audi­ence was, and in a place where they’re already com­ment­ing on stuff.

That’s not enough for most archae­o­b­log­gers. A small audi­ence on your blog is still going to be a small audi­ence on Facebook. I think what Facebook could offer blog­gers is easy net­work­ing to increase the poten­tial audi­ence. A col­lect­ive could set up a Facebook page and choose a few admins. The next thing you add is RSS Graffiti. This takes an RSS feed and adds a post to a Facebook page wall for each RSS entry. It’s what we’re using for the Annals of Botany page. The clever thing is that RSS Graffiti can poll mul­tiple RSS feeds. So mul­tiple blog­gers could auto-post to the same page with RSS Graffiti. For any­one who’s post­ing less once a day, the tick­ing over of posts from other blog­gers helps keep the site act­ive so that when your post appears it’s in front of the col­lect­ive audi­ence of all par­ti­cip­at­ing blogs and not just your own. The Facebook wid­get also acts as a way to advert­ise your posts other blogs in the col­lect­ive (word​press​.com users might need a spe­cific RSS feed). And because it’s Facebook you still keep you blog on your own site with your own design, etc. Blogger users aren’t com­pelled to move to WordPress and vice-versa.

It sounds simple but there is a prob­lem. Some blogs you like some you don’t, so who do you include and who do you exclude? Can you exclude people in an inclus­ive way that doesn’t erect a big “Sod off” sign to read­ers? That’s a head­ache that I wouldn’t want, but it does emphas­ise that the answers to social media prob­lems are social.

*Though the inverse is true for Civil War Memory blog and Facebook page, so it’s not a hard and fast rule.