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+.

Teaching Apples and Oranges

Introduction to Monstering

Introduction to Monstering

There’s an inter­est­ing story on the BBC News web­site: Teaching ‘bet­ter at school than uni­ver­sity’ — survey

When asked to com­pare teach­ing at school and uni­ver­sity, less than one-in-five privately edu­cated pupils favoured their uni­ver­sity tutor­ing. Almost two-thirds declared that the teach­ing they had at school had been better.

The res­ults are not a sur­prise. I took A-levels (pre-university exams) twice. The first time I was taught maths, chem­istry and phys­ics and I learned about chem­istry and physics.

The second time was a few years later for Economics and Law even­ing classes. Here I was taught what I needed to know to pass the exams. In the case of Law, there were always four ques­tions in Paper II, Homicide, Tort, Contract and Constitutional law. You needed to answer two of four, so the even­ing class only covered Homicide and Tort. I do not have a roun­ded legal edu­ca­tion, but the col­lege was not graded on my edu­ca­tion it was graded on the res­ults I got. Behind trained for the exam was a huge suc­cess and I scored more UCAS points on my one year even­ing class courses than in my two year stand­ard courses.

Every year for over twenty years the num­ber and qual­ity of A-level passes has gone up. The argu­ments are usu­ally over whether or not the exams are get­ting easier, or the pupils bet­ter. What is less often noted is that schools are graded and com­pared against their neigh­bours on their pass rate. Unsurprisingly they’ve become more and more ruth­less about train pupils to pass an exam because that’s what mat­ters, not whether or not they under­stand why they’re doing what they’re doing.
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The value of models in history

Total War Screen Grab. (cc) Miyaoka Hitchcock.

Play the Past, a group blog about the use of video games in his­tory teach­ing is pro­du­cing some excel­lent posts. It’s par­tic­u­larly use­ful to me given my atti­tude to teach­ing with video games. It’d be nice to say I’m scep­tical, but that implies I’ve had a crit­ical look at the evid­ence and come to a reasoned con­clu­sion. It’d be fairer to say I’m unreas­on­ably hos­tile and there’s been a couple of good posts that show that.

Practical Necromancy for Beginners by Shawn Graham would have been a big help to me if it had been my intro­duc­tion to mod­el­ling soci­et­ies. I didn’t like mod­els for his­tory when I was intro­duced to them. What I saw was a big soci­etal model with no real jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the arbit­rary pro­cesses that made up the model and then a detailed dis­cus­sion of one of the sub-processes without much ref­er­ence to the rest of the model, all presen­ted as “this is how soci­et­ies are”. Shawn Graham could have made a massive change to my first reac­tion thanks to one simple sen­tence:

Ah. So you’re not sim­u­lat­ing the past, but rather how you think x worked in the past.”

It’s small dif­fer­ence but it’s a subtle dif­fer­ence. He goes on to explain how you don’t have to accept any model he puts for­ward, you can change it. Again this adds sup­port for accept­ing or reject­ing a model. It also helps his mod­els have con­sequences if you change the inputs and are not purely about dynamic thrust­ing arrows in excit­ing shapes and intersections.

There are places I could grumble. One of the bene­fits of com­puter mod­els is that read­ing code requires close-reading which is a use­ful his­tor­ical skill. Yes it is, but my gut reac­tion is why learn close-reading for his­tory by examin­ing code, when you could close-reading for his­tory by examin­ing his­tor­ical texts? The gut is not noted for its large num­ber of brain cells, and this example demon­strates why mine is no genius. Close-reading for code should be sim­pler. It should be unam­bigu­ous and lack­ing the com­plex­it­ies of mean­ing that words in his­tor­ical text have. It’s an easier way of learn­ing the skill that you can then take into more com­plex situ­ations effect­ively mak­ing a shal­lower learn­ing curve.

The only thing I could ser­i­ously say is miss­ing is that mod­els can also be help­ful when they break down — if it’s a good model. If you have some­thing is that work­ing very well in most situ­ations, but breaks down at a spe­cific time or place, that’s a big clue that some­thing really inter­est­ing is hap­pen­ing at that time or place. History is com­plex, so it’s cer­tain that any model will break down sooner or later, but maybe a recog­ni­tion that a model that breaks isn’t the same as a failed model would be helpful.

The other entry is older, but again shows me that I’m miss­ing some­thing, Sid Meier’s Colonization: Is it offens­ive enough? by Trevor Owens. I saw a brief flurry of tweets and I wasn’t inter­ested. I’ve played Colonization, it’s a very basic game with not much adher­ence to the his­tory of the times. My feel­ing was you could spin up some­thing about his­tor­ical rel­ev­ance, but the lim­it­a­tions of tech­no­logy would mean that it would have to be lim­ited by design. If you actu­ally read the post, you’ll see Trevor Owens goes way bey­ond that.

He points out that a game based in that period is by neces­sity going to have racist over­tones, because the beliefs of the times and the col­on­isa­tion pro­cesses were racist. Yet he makes a very sens­ible point that the Triangular Trade makes no appear­ance in Colonization. You see North America. You deal with Europe at a dis­tance, but there is no Africa. I can see why the design­ers balked at mak­ing own­ing negro slave a fun activ­ity. At the same time it does no favours to the African-American exper­i­ence to com­pletely ignore that the slavery exis­ted. It’s not simply the lim­it­a­tions of PCs at the time that meant slavery was omit­ted. It was a choice. That blind­ness can be seen in other ways that we use or remem­ber the past. It’s another good post.

I dare say there are shal­low and vapid obser­va­tions on the use of games in teach­ing. You can find shal­low opin­ions in all fields, so it would be weird if teach­ing through gam­ing was exempt. What the Play the Past is show­ing is that it’s not inher­ently the case that teach­ing with com­puter games has to be shal­low. So I’ve tried to work out why I have an imme­di­ate pre­ju­dice against teach­ing through gaming.

One reason might be pur­it­an­ical. If it’s fun it’s not work. Games are sup­posed to be fun, ergo they can’t be work. It might be silly, but pre­ju­dices don’t have to be rational. Oddly another reason might be dia­met­ric­ally opposed to this. I’m not a huge fan of com­puter games. I’ve been temp­ted by Rome: Total War, that I’ve seen has hit the Mac App Store. That’s partly due to see­ing it used in the semi-documentary Time Commanders which I liked. Prejudices don’t have to be con­sist­ent either.

I think another reason is that I haven’t grasped what games mean in the mod­ern media land­scape. I can see why someone would ana­lyse the use of the past in films or books. Why not games? I don’t play many games, but it ignores the fact that many people do. It’s a massive industry that is rivalling the film industry in reach into house­holds. People like me will dis­ap­pear through nat­ural wastage in time, but I won­der if people pro­du­cing really clever and pion­eer­ing research and teach­ing tools are going to find a frus­trat­ing bar­rier of ignor­ance for the next few years.

For sens­ible com­ment­ary on games and mod­els, see also the post that Shawn Graham linked to from his post, Student Created Sims as Historical Interpretations.

This month I’ve mainly been working on Project SOAR


Project SOAR is a rethink of what stu­dent read­ing lists mean. My con­tri­bu­tion to has been fid­dling with the code. Some of it has been adapt­ing the lay­out and some o it is behind the scenes like tying entries on books to other sites and plug­ging in the review sys­tem. It’s been a good pro­ject to work on. Partly because Alan Cann has inter­est­ing ideas about what can be done with read­ing lists. More prac­tic­ally he’s also been very clear on what he wants done with the site, so I’ve never felt like I’ve been aim­ing at a mov­ing target.

It’s also been very fast. My role was sched­uled to start November 1. I actu­ally star­ted as soon as I heard fund­ing had been approved, but even so it’s been a short pro­ject with a clear goal. Because it’s his pro­ject, you can read more about it at his site.

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.