Institutional repositories, social media and academic publication: a simple experiment

Over at Science of the Invisible, my colleague Alan Cann has been reflecting on the contemporary landscape within academic publication. Specifically, he’s been thinking aloud about the role played by institutional repositories alongside (or, more radically, instead of) more formal journal publication (for example, see Wit’s End, which links in turn to Melissa Terras’ post What happens when you tweet an open access paper).

Institutional repositories are playing an increasingly important role in academic publishing

Prompted by Alan and Melissa’s enthusiasm for using social media to promote awareness of published work, in mid-November I started to use Twitter to advertise the existence of some of the papers I have deposited in the Leicester Research Archive (LRA). Some of my tweets were retweeted by others in the community, especially Alan, who also shared some of these within his Google+ circles.

Partway through this process it occurred to me that I had stumbled into a little experiment. So in the end I selectively tweeted about 8 of the 27 documents I currently have in the LRA. Admittedly these were probably the 8 papers that I felt were of most interest to the broader community on Twitter, but this did not mean they had previously received the most hits in the archive. In fact, if you rank the 25 works that had been in the Leicester repository throughout the 6 months (May to October 2011) from most to least popular,  then these 8 were ranked: 4th, 5th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 18th, 23rd and 24th= (2 documents were not added to the archive until November). Continue reading

Threshold concepts and Friendfeed – a window into troublesome knowledge?

On January 24th 2011 we were treated to a very thought-provoking seminar on “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge:  A Transformational Approach to Learning” as part of the University of Leicester’s Intrepid Researcher series. I won’t make extensive notes on the content of the presentation here because a very similar set of slides can be accessed here (Sept 2010, PowerPoint) and an older version here ( December 2008, pdf). A repository of resources related to the notion of Threshold Concepts is also available at this UCL site. I will reserve discussion here to a few of the main things that hit me.

Firstly, there is the notion that troublesome knowledge is really the key to maturing within a discipline – experiencing a certain amount of anxiety is a necessary part of moving on to deeper understanding. The concepts that trigger this experience within the majority of students may therefore be fundamental in their mastery of the topic. University education is analogous to gym membership (where work is required to reap the benefits) and not a stay at a luxury hotel.

Continue reading

Marking, remarking and meaningful learning

“Marking, remarking and meaningful learning: an assessment and feedback seminar” was held at the University of Leicester on April 4th 2008.  The event was organised by the Assessment and Feedback Working party of the University’s Student Experience Enhancement Committee and was attended by about 60 members of the academic community. The following are personal reflections and things that I took from the day.


The first presentation was given by Jon Scott, Director of Studies in Biological Sciences at the University. Jon’s cryptic title “How the baby got the Smartie” actually drew analogies between his research work on development of motor coordination skills and effective use of feedback. The ability of a baby to pick up a smartie from a flat surface is apparently a developmental landmark (presumably there are healthy options now available for choco-phobic parents). Research on brain activity whilst learning this task has shown that neurons are fired by failure to achieve the task, i.e. whilst the infant is self-feedbacking (is that a word?) . It knows what it is expecting (bright, interesting-looking object in mouth) and feedback modifies performance until it gets it. Once the task has been mastered, apparently, the relevant neurons go silent.

  Continue reading

Learning and Teaching in the Sciences (conference report, part 3)

The fact that you are reading this blog entry at all means that you are already engaging with Web 2.0, which has been defined on Wikipedia as “a perceived second-generation of Web-based services such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users”.  In the third talk at the University of Leicester Learning and Teaching in the Sciences conference on 23rd May 2007, Alan Cann raised the potential impact of Web 2.0 technologies in science teaching.

Dr Cann began with the definition of Web 2.0 given in the previous paragraph, and illustrated how broadly we have come to accept interactive aspects of the web with reference to Amazon.  Ostensibly an online shop, Amazon offers us the opportunity to review the goods on sale, even allowing us to give critical reports.  Similarly, we are invited to rate the performance of sellers for whom Amazon has acted as middleman.

Alan highlighted the fact that, when asked to write an essay, the default strategy of today’s student is to turn to Google and Wikipedia.  We may not like it, but this does not change the reality and, setting the pattern that was to run throughout his presentation, Dr Cann challenged us to think about ways that we can work with and develop the students’ study habits rather than fighting against them.  So, for example, we should teach students how to use Google more effectively to obtain the best quality information, rather than simply chastising them for using such a shoddy tool and brow-beating them into using the ‘proper’ searches.  This does not mean that we abandon training sessions on PubMed, Web of Science and the like, far from it.  We start with Google and move on to the more professional tools as an extension of good practice.

Against that backdrop, what is the place of wikis, blogs, podcasts and the like in the teaching of science? Alan suggested that, used appropriately, these Web 2.0 technologies can be particularly helpful in engaging the ‘long-tail’ of less able and less motivated students who do not respond well to the traditional approaches.  Clearly we need to adapt our writing style to be appropriate to the medium – the academic journal genre is not appropriate for blog entries which must be more bitesized and engaging.

What about podcasts and ‘viral’ video?  Dr Cann shared some insights from his personal experience and research projects conducted over the previous couple of years.  Alan has been developing blogs, podcasts and online video for the public understanding of science (specifically microbiology), for using in teaching statistics to first year undergraduates at the University of Leicester, and to share his virtual frogroom with fellow tropical frog enthusiasts. In doing so he has gathered both statistical data and qualitative comments from users concerning the relative merits of different approaches.  His observations included:
(1) A general dislike for the ‘push’ model of subscription via RSS feed, people prefer to ‘pull’ material to their computer as and when it looks of interest to them.
(2) Students are happy to listen to ‘work’-related podcasts on their computer, but reserve use of their mp3 player for ‘entertainment’.
(3) More students watch online videos via YouTube, and the like, than listen to podcasts.

Dr Cann finished by reiterating the point that this is not a call to ‘dumbing down’ and that the intention was to offer Web 2.0 resources to students in addition to traditional approaches.  The materials produced must remain academically robust, but should be offered in a format that is comfortable and familiar for 21st Century undergraduates.

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