Why I *still* love Delicious

Delicious logo

Delicious has survived various changes of ownership in the last ten years. Fortunately rumours of its demise have never been correct (yet)

This week, I passed a landmark of sorts when I bookmarked my 10,000th website using the Delicious tool.

Back in December 2007, my colleague Alan Cann persuaded me to try out a new social bookmarking tool, then called del.icio.us (I guess from a current vantage point we’d call this an early example of “cloud computing“). Here was a way to mark websites in case you wanted to find them again at a later stage. If that sounds a bit like “favourites” on your PC, then it was – but this was SO much more. Using del.icio.us you could:

  • add to one list of sites regardless of which machine you happened to be using
  • add tags of your choosing (“folksonomies”) meaning that you could mark the page by content, by source, by potential use, etc
  • add some additional notes or comments
  • share the sites with other people (including setting up RSS feeds)
  • dip into the bookmarks being used by other people, the “social” dimension.

The value of this resource was immediately obvious to me. As someone with eclectic interests, coupled with a significant horder streak, here was a mechanism to flag up things I might want to find again at a later stage without clogging my office with paper print outs. This was a point I tried to convey in a pair of (slightly contrived) photos in a July 2008 presentation about social bookmarking (still available on Slideshare which is, incidentally, one of my other favourite resources). Continue reading

To Whom It May Concern: Some advice for students seeking references

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

A number of recent events have prompted me to reflect again on the subject of reference writing.

Offering a letter of recommendation, or completing one of the myriad different online forms, is not a trivial task, either in terms of the labour involved or the potential significance of the resultant document. In this post I want to make some suggestions for any students seeking a reference from an academic, regardless of their discipline, which I hope will make the process more effective (and less fraught) for all parties.

1. Ask. Firstly, do ask a potential referee before you offer their name to the organisation seeking the reference. On one level this is common courtesy. However it also does two things to the benefit of the applicant: it forewarns the academic that they need to budget some time for writing a reference and gathering the relevant information (see 3, below); it also gives them the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate referee for the specific job. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the first person you should ask for a reference is your personal tutor. For finalists or graduates requiring a second academic commendation the next person to ask is usually your project supervisor. Continue reading

Teaching and Communicating Science in a Digital Age (Conference)

December 15th-17th 2014 saw me at Charles Darwin House (London) for the Society of Experimental Biology’s Education and Public Affairs symposium Teaching and Communicating Science in a Digital Age (click link to see full programme). This looked like a valuable event from the outset, but I can honestly say it turned out to be even better than expected. A pdf file (35 pages) capturing the Twitter feed for #SEBed2014 can be seen via this link. [UPDATE: I have also produced my first Storify from the tweets, which removes the retweets in the PDF, and puts them into a more logical order.]

It was good to catch up with old friends, to have the first face-to-face meeting with various Twitter friends and to make other new friends. Indeed, one of the striking things about the attendees was the lack of overlap with the HEA Bioscience regulars.

It would be invidious to pick out any one talk for special mention, but I would say the two sessions from which I got the most inspiration were “Engaging with the public and schools” and “Students as creators and communicators” (CoI declaration: my talk was in this session). At least two of the presentations were primarily delivered by current undergraduates, which was also refreshing.

I made three formal contributions to the symposium – a talk on our bioethics video-production assessment, and two posters (one on the Careers After Biological Science work, and one on Biology on the Box, my more recent project developing a library of recommended television clips for teaching biology). Links to all three can be found here:

The CABS programme involves Leicester alumni giving talks about their diverse careers which are then made available online.

The CABS programme involves Leicester alumni giving talks about their diverse careers which are then made available online.

Biology on the Box is my latest project, developing a library of recommended TV clips and programmes for teaching Biology

Use of multimedia in bioethics education

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics are currently running a series of “how to” teach bioethics articles on their Nuff’ said blog. I was asked to contribute a post on Use of multimedia in bioethics, which can be accessed via this link.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics produces authori

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is an independent body that examines and reports on ethical issues in biology and medicine

Other posts in the series will include features on: the Role of bioethics in (school) science education; Use of debates; Teaching ethics with medical students; Use of theatre to stimulate awareness and discussion; and Use of case studies/scenarios.

Elemental Business: Snapshots of the chemical industry

Like the man who enthuses about a TV show he’s just seen for the first time, only to find that the recipient of their new-found wisdom has just spent the weekend binge-watching Season 4 in its entirety, there is a risk that this post will be re-introducing you to an old friend. Nevertheless, in case you are (a) interested in chemistry and (b) are not already aware of Elemental Business, here’s a quick summary.

Podcasts about the economic relevance of various elements can be downloaded from the BBC website

Podcasts about the economic relevance of various elements can be downloaded from the BBC website

For nearly a year, Business Daily on the BBC World Service the programme has had an occasional feature Elemental Business “looking at the economy from the point of view of the elements of the periodic table”. Correspondent Justin Rowlatt, with the assistance of Prof Andrea Sella from UCL, takes a tour around the industrial and business application of chemicals. I became aware of the series after reading a BBC website article about Bromine. It turns out that there have been at least 24 episodes so far in the series. They are all currently available as both articles and podcasts.

The following links go through to audio for each episode to date. Some elements of particular economic importance (Carbon, Nitrogen and Silicon) have already been given more than one programme,each emphasising a different dimension of their relevance.

All episodes are available direct from the BBC website, including the capacity to download them as podcasts.

Unconditional offers: a self-defeating policy?

In the UCAS admissions round for 2013 University entry, The University of Birmingham triggered a seismic change in recruitment policy when they introduce unconditional offers to strong candidates on the basis that the applicant made Birmingham their firm, rather than insurance, choice. Many competitor institutions thought Birmingham ought to be reprimanded for breach of admissions etiquette. Far from this being the case, Birmingham was actually named University of the Year 2013-14 in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. Judges praised their “bold – and successful – approach to recruitment”.

What were other universities to do? In the 2013-14 recruitment round a number of further institutions decided to also make unconditional offers, with or without strings attached. It is predicted that in the coming year even more institutions will adopt the practice. This development worries me, a lot, and here’s why.

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

Firstly, there is a evolutionary theory known as the Red Queen hypothesis. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen informs Alice that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. This could easily be applied to the recruitment trend. If it reaches a point where the majority of universities are making unconditional offers then there will no longer be any selective advantage over competitor institutions – the benefits of making unconditional offers will have been lost, but the detrimental aspects (e.g. accepting students who have failed to fulfil their academic potential) will remain.

Secondly, I am concerned about the impact this development will have on the integrity of grade predictions offered by schools. Back in the 1990s, in a previous incarnation, I taught A Level Chemistry. One year, after I had made the grade predictions for my group, I was contacted by the parents of one student. “You’ve predicted a C for [let’s call him Johnny]. He won’t get offers for his chosen course at university if that’s his prediction, so please can you change this to an A”. I declined their appeal on the grounds that it was just delaying the inevitable; Johnny wasn’t going to get an A so better to face up to the disappointment now and select a more appropriate course.

Now, fast forward to a world with unconditional offers. Provided that Johnny has a sufficient crop of A* grades for his GCSE, those predicted grades start to have real currency. If Mr Willmott the Chemistry teacher can be cajoled into upping Johnny’s prediction from a C to an A then there is a real chance he can blag an unconditional offer and treat the C he ultimately gets as though it was just a bad day at the office.

If we continue down the “unconditional” route, teachers are going to be put under immense pressure to inflate their predictions because the natural safeguard we’ve had against this previously (i.e. when results day reveals Johnny does not have adequate grades to fulfill the conditions of his offer) will no longer be there. Unscrupulous schools have everything to gain by over-inflating their predictions; the league tables will show that they got more students into top Unis. The Universities themselves, however, will have an increasing number of first year undergraduates who do not necessarily have the academic foundations necessary for the courses to which they have been admitted. It is even possible that the students themselves may suffer if the course turns out to be too much for them.

[As is always the case, this blog post reflects the personal opinion of the author and should not be considered as the views of the institution where he works or any of the varied bodies on which he serves.]

Television as a teaching tool

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

Regular readers of The Journal of the Left-Handed Biochemist will know of my enthusiasm for exploiting multimedia in teaching. Back in January 2014 I hosted a conference on the theme, and it is also the raison d’être for two other blogs that I run Bioethicsbytes and the new Biology on the Box.

In August, Times Higher Education magazine published an opinion piece in which I discussed some of the ways that TV footage can be used in teaching and to try to dispel reservations that might be stopping colleagues from making more of this rich resource. The article can be freely accessed, so rather than repeating myself here can I encourage you to read the original piece via this link.

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