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.

The 2009 site revision


I’ve star­ted to con­sol­id­ate vari­ous web pres­ences into one Me Portal as Kimberly Alderman called it. It means mov­ing from WordPress​.com because in the end a hos­ted solu­tion isn’t flex­ible enough. I’d still highly recom­mend WordPress​.com, espe­cially as a site for new blog­gers. Still the little things, like spend­ing an after­noon writ­ing a script to import links, start to annoy. Now Postalicious will read what I’ve marked with a ‘share’ on Google Reader and you can read the latest shares on the home page.

Changes and Upgrades

The entries now fall into six cat­egor­ies: The Past, Science, Politics, Digital Academia and Life. The sixth cat­egory, for those who can count, is Featured. That’s the easy way of stick­ing stor­ies into rota­tion on the front page.

The reason for doing that is that it should work bet­ter for vari­ous aggreg­at­ors. Maia Atlantides doesn’t need to know about a photo of a cute kit­ten that I’ve seen, so I can provide a Past feed which only sends the rel­ev­ant stuff. Likewise I’ve been think­ing for a which of adding this site to an Atheism aggreg­ator, but a lot of what I write wouldn’t really be rel­ev­ant for that either. Now I have a Politics feed. I could have called it Philosophy, but I’m wary of people in the human­it­ies who call them­selves philo­soph­ers without any basic ground­ing in the sub­ject. Even if it is philo­sophy, they also tend to be posts about the art of liv­ing with people so it’s also polit­ics with a small p. I’ll prob­ably change the Digital Academia name when I can work out what a com­bin­a­tion of Lifehacking / Education / General inter­net­ness should be called.

It’s still pos­sible to track Ancient History, Archaeology and Archaeoastronomy entries via the tag pages, and now the site is off WordPress​.com the tag pages are a lot more usable,

Lots of image and video links are broken. I’ll try and fix them as and when I can. On the plus side I’m hop­ing that adding video and audio will have become a lot easier.

I’m using Postalicious to handle blog posts based on what I’ve been read­ing. Sociable for book­mark­lets at the bot­tom of posts. WP-Touch makes the site a lot more mobile friendly.


I’ve changed the com­ment sys­tem to be oper­ated by Disqus. It should oper­ate more or less as it did before. You can leave a com­ment by leav­ing a name and an email address. The email address won’t be made pub­lic. However, there’s cer­tain extra things you can do, You can sign in with your Twitter account, your Facebook account or Open ID if you prefer. You can also sign up with a Disqus account and aggreg­ate all your com­ments. If Disqus and Intense Debate could talk to each other and agree a com­mon stand­ard then you’d be able to effect­ively blog like Statler or Waldorf, gath­er­ing together all your com­ments on other posts. If it takes off then adding a sys­tem like this could add more value for the com­ment­at­ors on the blog. I say if as it hasn’t yet. I’d expec­ted Automattic to make more of their acquis­i­tion of Intense Debate by rolling it out on WordPress​.com.


I can now expand the site in some dir­ec­tions. I’m hold­ing off adding a forum for now. I’m not sure there’d be a lot of point, though I’m sure it would add a lot of hassle mod­er­at­ing it. I used to play with Pligg, but I don’t think another Past-themed ver­sion of that is neces­sary. Maia Atlantides does a good enough job aggreg­at­ing posts. On the other hand there’s plenty I can add.

There’ll be a pho­tob­log sooner or later. Probably show­ing 700px or 800px wide images on a black back­ground. Text looks bet­ter on white, but pho­tos tend to work bet­ter with a darker back­ground. WordPress simply isn’t a suit­able engine for ser­i­ous pho­tob­log­ging at the moment.

I also want to get to grips with Wikindx. For me it’s a word pro­cessor with built in bib­li­o­graphic tools. For every­one else it’ll be a way of fol­low­ing my bib­li­o­graphy. I’d like to work out what to do with CiteULike as well, but at the moment it simply doesn’t it in with how I work. I sus­pect if more people I knew were using CiteULike it would get more useful.

I’ll also be able to set up short urls for sup­port for con­fer­ence talks. For instance I could set up a site ca2010​.alun​salt​.com to sup­port a talk given at the Classical Association con­fer­ence next year. I’m not plan­ning to go there, so it’s a bit of a waste for now, but the prin­ciple is sound. To an extent this is a bit of pol­ish for my online pres­ence before the next round of job hunt­ing, but it’s more about mak­ing my life easier by gath­er­ing together vari­ous webby things into one toolbox.

Oh and the ‘fol­low me’ tag at the right of the page? Stolen from Civil War Memory. Basically if it’s not nailed down and I like it, I’ll take it. And I’m still on hiatus as far as I’m con­cerned. ;)



I wasn’t plan­ning to com­ment on the 100 anthrob­logs post. One reason is that there’s always the danger of it sound­ing like sour grapes if you ser­i­ously cri­tique it when you’re not on it. Another is that the site that wrote the post has the same M.O. as before. You put together a mix of good and not-so-good web­logs and then take the traffic as people link to the list to tear it down.

As it hap­pens I can say that I’m happy to be off the list with some cred­ib­il­ity. If I were ser­i­ous about being in the top 100 I’d put this where it would get indexed by the search-engines. To be truth­ful I don’t think I’d want to have a blog on a cred­ible “top 100 whatever blogs” list. I already know where my web­logs are. Similarly I wouldn’t want to win a Clio award myself because I think it would be more a cause of embar­rass­ment than ela­tion in my social circle. I think it would make sense in a North American con­text, but blog­ging simply isn’t on the aca­demic radar in the UK classics/archaeology as far as I can tell. There are British archae­ology and clas­sics blog­gers, but there’s not the mass to have a meet­ing of them at any major con­fer­ence yet. That kind of recog­ni­tion doesn’t appeal. Though appre­ci­ation in hard cur­rency would. Euros for pref­er­ence given what’s hap­pen­ing to the pound.

So if it’s such a non-issue why blog about it? It turns out 100 is an inter­est­ing prob­lem. I’m look­ing at set­ting up a Feedvis server. Feedvis is a nifty tool for track­ing what are pop­u­lar tags for posts over a spe­cified times­cale, like 7 days or a month. It means you can track what things are buzz­ing amongst a group of blogs. It’s pos­sible that the limit for the num­ber of feeds the server can handle is one hun­dred. The num­ber of act­ive (at least one post within the last 30 days) web­logs in the ‘Clio’ cat­egory of my news­reader is one hun­dred. Then there’s cog­nate web­logs I’d want to include from anthro­po­logy and art his­tory. No doubt more that will turn up in a month or so. Not only is 100 a mean­ing­ful limit where choices will have to be made, to begin with the excluded will be a minor­ity. That’ll make me feel really bad about exclud­ing them.

I’m not sure how I’d put the list together. One way is to do it for purely per­sonal reas­ons and add my own OPML list. The reason that’s not the only choice is that I’m a bit wary of adding people onto such a list willy-nilly. The other way would be to see if people would want to be lis­ted. That may stall because it’s hard to enthuse people about yet another aggreg­a­tion site. In the case of Feedvis the aim would be to push people out to the rel­ev­ant blogs, but that’s prob­ably not imme­di­ately obvi­ous. With more thought, it’s pretty clear it’d be point­less put­ting up a site I didn’t find use­ful, so I think 100 per­sonal choices would be the best way to go.

If you’d like to see some­thing sim­ilar for astro­nomy, I’m very impressed with Spacebuzz. I shall have to think about this some more over Christmas. I’m still talk­ing with Shawn Graham over PDQ. I think a lot of trouble can be solved if we move to a more Research Blogging style model, which has the advant­age of keep­ing the mater­ial on the authors’ sites.

The single person problem


Is it pos­sible that one per­son just being them­selves could make a social site so unwel­com­ing that you’d avoid recom­mend­ing its use?

This isn’t just about tol­er­ance of trolls. It’s about whether or not social sites are usable in an edu­ca­tional con­text. I’ll give an example.

I’d like to include video on the next Integrated Sciences web­site. Specifically I’d like to be able to include video con­ver­sa­tion, so that people could ask ques­tions and these would appear on site. Seesmic would seem to be a good idea for that. Except there’s no way I’d use Seesmic because of Underpants Guy, a man who likes to pon­ti­fic­ate with lib­eral use of swear words in his under­pants. There’s plenty of him to see. Now sup­pose this self-proclaimed troll moves into this con­ver­sa­tion thread, what can be done? On Seesmic, noth­ing. Even if there could be, I’m not sure that flag­ging his com­ments for being inap­pro­pri­ate for an edu­ca­tional site would be entirely fair. Seesmic is not my site, there­fore I’m not in a pos­i­tion to insist on a dress code or use of lan­guage. It’s a social site. For this reason Phreadz, with its own lib­eral use of lan­guage isn’t suit­able either.

Phreadz will have the option of cre­at­ing a closed site, which would solve the prob­lem. Unfortunately there’s no way ISciences will be able to afford it, if it’s sens­ibly priced. Also if the site is closed, very few stu­dents will use it. It has to be open and there­fore we have the troll prob­lem again. Again I can’t insist that IScience lays down the beha­viour rules, and with Phreadz being social I think it would be a very bad idea if it did happen.

I’m now think­ing that while fol­low­ing the stu­dents and using the tools they use is a good idea, pro­act­ively lead­ing it opens up too many prob­lems to make sense. There can be grief on Twitter or Facebook, but if it’s some­where where the stu­dents are lead­ing then per­haps that’s less of a problem.

*While flag­ging him for use of lan­guage for purely social reas­ons would be no prob­lem at all. I sus­pect if that actu­ally happened many social sites would col­lapse under the admin strain.

Photo of pants (cc) ZeePack.

Still not getting Facebook


For a brief moment I thought I under­stood why social net­work sites. So I re-activated my Facebook account to give it a go. A stu­pid idea, as I clearly don’t. I’ll give it another try but if it doesn’t make sense then I’ll see if I can use the whole total delete/wipe fea­ture that was prom­ised. I’ve looked hard at it, and it looks like another place to stick the same stuff. The status updates are tweets. The mes­sages are email. Except it’s not so easy to use. The aggreg­a­tion seems to be the only thing going for it, but by being hived off behind Facebook’s bar­ri­ers it looks less social than blogs etc.

I can see there is a social ele­ment to the site in that it helps make con­nec­tions, whereas with blog­ging you have to make them your­self but I don’t see that’s a major prob­lem. Someone who shares my interests would be more likely to find me by post­ing to sites that share my interest than guess who a friend of a friend of a friend might be. It’s also an odd way of think­ing about people. The core of my con­fu­sion can be seen in the video below.

I don’t see friends as a resource to be exploited. That wipes out pretty much all the value of a social net­work­ing site — if I under­stand the video above cor­rectly. I’m ser­i­ous when I say if that video is accur­ate then the entire concept is horrific.

However, I’m pretty cer­tain my friends aren’t that sociopathic either. Well most of them aren’t. So whatever Facebook is being used for I’d be sur­prised if its primary use was friend min­ing. Instead I’d guess it’s about being social. So what it looks like to me is that it’s a walled blog­ging com­munity of the type Microsoft would love to have. I’ll give it a go to see if I’m wrong, but I’m strug­gling to see the attraction.

I can’t work out if that means I’m not social enough, or if I’m too social for Facebook.

Photo ‘No Facebook’ (cc) avlxyz.

UoL Network: Proving that no matter how busy I am there’s always time for coffee


Alan Cann has floated the idea of cre­at­ing a UoL blog­ging net­work on JayJay’s web­log. Now he’s sug­gest­ing along with Chris (whose URL I’d lost) we set up a UoL blog­ging net­work. I think it’s a good idea, or at least I heard cof­fee men­tioned which is similar.

To some extent a uni­fied blog feed could aug­ment the expert’s list on the UoL web­site. For instance if I put up a post say­ing that 10,000 BC might be inac­cur­ate (metal? — there’s a reason why we call it the Stone Age). Then it could go into a feed along with Alan on the the latest super­bug etc. and then you have series of rentaquotes. The down­side with this is that we wouldn’t be clear­ing blog posts with uni­ver­sity author­it­ies so I sus­pect you’d want to limit the feed to staff only.

If you’re a UoL blog­ger you may want to leave a com­ment on Alan’s post at SOTI.