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Nook Storytelling A New Way 2 of 2

Photo by orb9220

Last week, in conversation over a cup of tea with a handful of PhD students and the DTC Co-ordinator, someone remarked on the large quantity of printing that PhD students (and researchers in general) do. It’s common to end up with piles and piles of printed articles which have been read only a few times before being “archived”.

Not only is this wasteful, both environmentally and economically, it also means carrying all of those dead-tree documents around if you want to read them out of the office (which most people do).

One alternative is to read on-screen, but I’ve never found this very satisfactory, either on desktop or laptop. I don’t mind reading on an iPhone/iPod touch, so I think the key for me is being able to hold what I’m reading in my hand — perhaps something to do with fine control of focal distance, or taking advantage of hand-eye coordination reflexes. There’s also the fact that I don’t always want to carry a laptop around with me.

A possible solution

So that led us on to thinking about e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader. Perhaps one of these devices could solve the problems of printing on dead trees and reading on screen.

We can’t just buy a batch of these things on a whim for our students and staff though. We’ll want to know:

  • Are they cost effective compared with paper?
  • Are they more sustainable, environmentally?
  • Will people actually find them useful?

The first question should be fairly easy to estimate, especially since the university is moving to a centrally-managed print service with fixed costs per page. The second is tricky, since it still seems unclear what the lifetime environmental impact of a Kindle actually is. The third is probably going to generate the most discussion, since it’s going to vary widely from person to person.

But will it work…?

I’d be really interested to know if any of my readers have any relevant thoughts or experience.

Issues that we’ve come up with so far include:

  • Most scientific articles come in PDF format. It needs to be possible either to view PDFs easily on a 6” e-reader screen or to reformat them consistently to make them readable. Images, diagrams and equations need to be preserved;
  • One of the key reasons for printing off articles is to annotate them, by highlighting or scribbling notes in the margin. This has to be possible in an effective e-reader as well;
  • One early question was whether this is something that the students would actually want/use. Currently about 80% are in favour (22 out of 26 having voted in a quick poll), but there’s a difference between thinking something’s cool and actually using it.

Let me know what you think.


Part of my role in the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies is to provide advice on how our students and researchers can make the best use of ICT in their work, and that includes software. Recently I’ve attended a couple of “free workshops” covering first Matlab and then LabVIEW, both of which the University has a site license for.

They were both run for free by the vendors of the software in question: the Matlab workshop by Mathworks and the LabVIEW one by National Instruments. The experiences couldn’t have been more different.

The Matlab workshop was a whole-day affair, gathering several hundred researchers from across the university. A succession of Mathworks employees whizzed through feature after impressive feature, clearly caught up in the shining brilliance of their own product.

Because of the diversity of the audience, the examples chosen to illustrate different features could only really appeal to a fraction of those watching at any one time. The presenters each chose to focus on developing a small number of examples in detail, and rushed head-over-heels to try and show off as many features as possible.

The net effect was leave much of the audience somewhat non-plussed. I know Matlab to be an excellent piece of software even for very basic analysis such as plotting a graph or two (though it can be a little annoying to a certain type of snobbish coding geek; i.e. me). The chemistry PhD students I was sitting with, though, were left with the strong impression that it was a very complicated piece of software, only useful for engineers and financial analysts.

The LabVIEW session was quite different. National Instruments had planned several shorter workshops to keep audience sizes small. They’d put together a workbook with some tasks and provided enough laptops with LabVIEW installed for every two people to have one.

A little bit of standard marketing speak was followed by an interesting session of putting together a ‘virtual instrument’ to analyse data from an interesting little USB thingy with an LED, a microphone and some other bits and bobs soldered to it.

We had complete freedom to experiment, so we were soon taking the task in interesting directions related to our own backgrounds. Much more engaging, and I had soon got to understand some of the power of an application that I’d never really even heard of before.

So, it seems it applies as much to selling as teaching: you can’t “just tell ‘em”.

Please, please, please. If you’ve got a great product that you’re proud of, let it speak for itself and don’t ram it down my throat.

And that goes for teaching too.


Today saw the first day of the Digital Curation Centre’s (DCC) 3-day workshop on data management here in Bath. Today was just a half-day and gave a general overview of the data management landscape.

My aims for the event are to better understand how I can teach our doctoral students about good data management, and provide them with the right tools to do it in practice.

I’ll be looking out for:

  • Examples of good practice from people who are already doing this with their students;
  • Ways of making data management easy (nay even attractive) for researchers who would not otherwise be interested;
  • Advice on how to assess the data needs of researchers and select appropriate methods of storing and archiving that data.

We had an excellent strategic overview from Liz Lyon (Director of UKOLN), followed by three case studies presented by Chris McMahon (University of Bath), Gregory Tourte (University of Bristol) and Kenji Takeda (University of Southampton). The afternoon closed with a short talk from the DCC’s director, Kevin Ashley, on what resources the DCC provides to support people in rolling out good data management practice.

I’ve been promised that the slides will be available on the web soon, so I’ll post those as soon as I know where they are. There also seem to be a few twitterers there so I’ve saved the twitter stream from the event for future reference, and if you want to follow it live the hashtag is #dccsw10.

Tomorrow’s session is a little bit high-level for me, being aimed at senior management and similar roles, but I’ll be attending both of the more practical workshops on Thursday.


I’ve just discovered a great piece of reference management software called Mendeley. I’ve heard it mentioned a bit recently, by people like Brian Kelly, Peter Murray-Rust and Jean-Claude Bradley, but when my wife mentioned it after her recent visit to the ILI2010 (Internet Library International) conference I finally thought I’d give it a go.

Keeping your references together is an ongoing problem for any researcher. For years the standard software has been Endnote, though I’ve never used it much myself1. BibDesk has been my tool of choice for the last few years, but I can’t recommend it to many people because it’s Mac-only, as is the beautifully-designed but paid-for Papers. More recently, I’ve found Zotero very useful, but it’s only available as a plugin for Firefox.

And whatever tool you use, keeping it in sync between multiple computers is a pain for anyone who doesn’t have a good grasp of version control software. There have been some online tools like Connotea, but mostly they felt a bit clunky, and had no integration with any kind of word processing tool.

I’ve not played with Mendeley for long yet, but it feels different: it’s open-source (Correction: it’s free, has an open API and the catalog is Creative-Commons licensed); it’s cross-platform; it’s a desktop app but syncs between computers via a web tool.

The online version isn’t just for syncing though: it adds real value. There are social networking features, so you can discover new references based on what your contacts are reading. It’s also building up a free and open bibliographic database, like Web of Knowledge or Scopus but without the price-tag, and with statistics on how many people are reading the articles.

I’ll certainly be using it myself for a while and recommending it to our students to try. Anyone else tried it out yet?

  1. Mostly because I used LaTeX, BibTeX and Pybliographer as an undergraduate, and endlessly exporting BibTeX files from another system seemed a bit klunky.


Future Tense by Kevin Dooley Well, what a busy few months it’s been. As I’ve already alluded to, my wife and I got married in June. In addition, I took the difficult decision a few months ago to leave my PhD, and now I have a new job!

No jobs being forthcoming after withdrawing from my course, I set up as a freelance web developer. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and great fun. I’ve learned a lot about business, from marketing through to finance and everything in between, and I’ve met lots of new people into the bargain.

However, life is always ready with a curveball. (What’s the appropriate British metaphor here? A googly perhaps?) I’d stopped applying for jobs to focus on freelancing, and business was just starting to pick up. Then out of the blue I was interviewed for, and subsequently offered, a post for which I’d applied back in May.

The job? ICT Project Manager at the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) and, basically, it’s my perfect job. I get to be involved with setting up a virtual research environment (VRE) for the centre, which will involve lots of web stuff along with consulting, training and supporting users, all of which I really enjoy.

So, I’m back working in higher education, and I’ll be back blogging on similar subjects after a hiatus of several months. Given the nature of the job, there will be more of a focus on research and digital scholarship than before, but I’m sure I’ll still have plenty of opportunities to talk about elearning and education too, especially as the EPSRC-funded doctoral training centre is a major part of CSCT.

I’m really excited about the whole thing. Bye for now!


So, in case any of my regular readers (do I have any?) have been wondering why there hasn’t been a lot to read regularly, I thought I’d post a short update to let you all know what I’ve been up to: planning a wedding and starting a business, in between commuting to my part-time job tutoring kids. It’s all been loads of fun (and will continue to be) and I’ve not really had time to make blog posts.

More posts, when I get back from the honeymoon. Bye for now!


In my last post, Privacy, identity and control on the web, I talked about about how important it can be to take control of your online presence.

But I got to thinking: What do you do to protect your privacy and/or identity on Facebook, Twitter or the rest of the web?

Please share your thoughts by posting a comment below, or by writing a post on your own blog and linking to this one — a link will automagically appear below.


My Identity by Kathryn B (via Flickr)
Recently, my dad contacted me to ask some advice about Facebook: a friend of his (who shall remain nameless, for obvious reasons) had been a victim of Facebook identity theft. The friend is a school teacher, and unbeknownst to him, someone or other had set up a Facebook profile in his name with his photo and begun befriending his school pupils.

It’s still unclear what the intention was here. It may have been to groom children by posing as someone they knew. It may have been to falsely accuse the friend of grooming children. It may even have been totally innocent.

In the end, the friend was very lucky. Well before the situation could get out of hand, he was able to contact Facebook, prove satisfactorily that this was a fake account and have it taken down. But reputation being what it is, it could have ended his career.

Last week was the Plymouth e-Learning Conference 2010, and although I didn’t attend, I have been reading some of the coverage on the blogosphere. In particular my eye was caught by James Clay’s blog post, Privacy has gone… which in turn discusses Josie Fraser’s keynote on privacy.

As I was reading James’s blog post, that story came back to me, and it occurred to me that there’s an element of balance to be found in protecting one’s privacy and identity online.

Those of us engaged in education often teach our students about the dangers of revealing too much information about ourselves online. The publishing of addresses, birth dates, account numbers will almost inevitably lead to identity theft.

But it seems just as important to strongly establish your identity online. Perhaps by having a well-established Facebook page it would be much easier to say “that fake profile is not mine.” If there are even a dozen people who you’ve friended online who you know in real life, and who can vouch for the real you, you’re in a much stronger position.

In addition to this, having a Facebook account permits your friends to tag photos of you properly if they wish, rather than just entering your name, which in turn allows you to restrict who sees those tags.

The way to protect yourself online is not to become the Ungooglable Man — James rightly points out that this strategy doesn’t work. Much better to step up and proudly say “this is me”. Take control of your brand, and don’t let other people have the only voice in what the web says about you.

Do you have a Facebook profile? How tightly do you control your privacy settings? What comes up if you Google yourself? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo credit: My Identity by Kathryn B


“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

So said Socrates, anyway, and he was a pretty bright chap by all accounts.

Reflective writing is increasingly being used as a form of evidence in many qualifications and as part of professional development programmes. It was central to the assessment of my PCHE qualification, and it’s the main method of assessment for my other half’s CILIP chartership process.

By why? What’s so important about it?

Well professional qualifications are typically about being better at what you do.

Now, if you’re studying mathematics, biology or astrophysics, the object of your learning is external and independent. On the other hand, if you want to be better at teaching or people management, it’s your own behaviour that needs to change.

It’s not enough to know what you should be doing in theory. You also need to know what you’re actually doing so that you can work out how to improve.

Where does writing fit in?

It’s perfectly possible to think about your own behaviour without going near a pen (or computer). Why would you want to write it all down? For me, reflective writing serves several purposes.

First, it makes a permanent record. I can quite easily forget what I was thinking five minutes ago, let alone remember everything I thought last month. But if I write something down it’s a lot harder to lose.

Plus, it can be enlightening and even surprising to look back at a later date at what you thought in the past. It can be particularly useful to see how your thoughts develop over a period of time, particularly if you have an interest in how people learn.

Next, it can act as evidence of your learning. A portfolio which includes reflective writing shows not only that you have the right skills, but also that you’re both willing and able to improve them.

Finally, it externalises your thought processes, placing them in the real world where you can examine them more objectively. It’s far to easy to get wrapped up in those processes if you keep them locked away inside your head.

How can I write reflectively?

As I rapidly discovered when I started, reflective writing doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Thankfully there are a number of tricks which can help — here are a few that have worked for me:

  1. Use a timer: Set an ordinary kitchen timer for 10 minutes, and write without pausing until it goes off. Don’t worry about staying on topic; just don’t stop writing.

  2. Write a letter: Try imagining that you’re writing a to a friend or family member. You don’t have to ever send it, but writing for someone else can make reflection feel less futile.

  3. Ask a question: If you’re writing about a particular problem, seeing it phrased as a question can help to trigger problem-solving thought processes.

  4. Mix it up: If writing doesn’t do it for you, try talking things through into a dictaphone. If you have a trusted friend or colleague, you could set up a tape recorder (or use a laptop or mobile phone) and record a conversation with them.

  5. Learn more: Gillie Bolton isn’t the only author to write about reflective writing by a long way, but I found her book Reflective Practice full of useful ideas. I’m also planning to take a look at Donald Schön’s classic work on the subject, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action soon.

But I’m interested: what works for you? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below.

Photo credit: Young Narcissist by Victoria Henderson


Looking at the date of my last post, it’s been almost exactly two months since I last posted. I suppose that’s not surprising, since those two months contained an awful lot of stuff happening elsewhere in my life, such as moving house and Christmas.

However, it does mean that I’ve so far missed out on the traditional ritual of looking back on one’s year to date and using it as blog-fodder. So here we are then. Time to have a look back and see what I’ve learned from the experience so far.

2009 has been my first full year of blogging. It took me a while to get going, and to begin finding my voice (I’m still working on that), but then I made some decisions about my future career and suddenly this blog had a purpose: to give me a way to join in the e-learning community, reflect and learn. Since then, I’ve posted on pretty much whatever’s seemed appropriate, and started getting to grips with what makes this medium tick.

What did people read?

My most popular (i.e. most viewed) posts seem to fit into one or both of two categories: “hot topics” and conversations.

By “hot topics”, I mean subjects which interest a large portion of the online community enough to see what I’ve got to say. Examples of this type of post include:

By “conversations”, I refer to posts which are actively trying to engage with my audience. My favourite of these (and my favourite post of the year) has to be:

I think its success lies in the fact that it was a question broad enough for everyone to have an opinion on and important enough for many people to want to comment on. I intentionally kept the original post quite short, and ensured that the question I was asking stood out.

Then, of course, there are posts which fall into both categories, such as my contribution to the debate on the death or otherwise of the VLE.

What didn’t work?

I tried a couple of different things to keep things interesting, such as posting a weekly summary of links that I’d found around the internet and trying monthly themes, but neither of these really caught on as I didn’t have the motivation to keep on with them.

I think perhaps the monthly theme idea would work better for a blog which was consciously aimed at being educational resource for the reader, forming part of the ongoing story which keeps learners engaged. For this blog, though, which is more reflective and tends to be a reaction to my own thoughts and experiences, it feels unnecessarily prescriptive.

Other highlights

In August, I moved from to my own self-hosted blog, thanks to the generosity of a friend with a server to host it. I wanted to have scope to experiment and expand, so I went with Wordpress MU, the multi-user version of Wordpress which allows multiple blogs to run off a single installation.

I also tried my hand at writing some fiction in response to a challenge on Joanna Young’s Confident Writing blog. I really enjoyed it, but decided that it didn’t really fit into my plan for this blog, so I took advantage of Wordpress MU and started a separate non-work-related blog to keep all of the random writings and photos that I wanted to share.


I’ve found blogging to be valuable. It lets me reflect and organise my thoughts in a form suitable for consumption by other human beings; it lets me connect to the e-learning community and build a useful professional network; it lets me take part in a global conversation.

Enough cliches.

Here’s looking forward to the next twelve months.