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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Five Blogs That Make Me Think

Hari Jayaram just listed my blog as one that makes him think. Keeping the meme going, I'll list 5 that have had an impact on me.

1. Beth's Second Life Beth Ritter-Guth has been a huge inspiration for me and she is the main reason I pulled the trigger on getting involved with Second Life for my teaching and research. We have collaborated on many other projects involving social software and new approaches to education - Google her name for many more goodies.

2. Chem-bla-ics Egon Willighagen has been instrumental to the cheminformatics community. From the description on his blog: "chemblaics only uses open source software, making experimental results reproducable and validatable". What I like about his blog is that he posts or links to real usable code (like chemistry enhancing GreaseMonkey scripts) or implements simple but powerful tools that can be used immediately (like making Chemical Blogspace more semantically aware).

3. Peter Murray-Rust's blog - Peter is a pioneer of cheminformatics, including the creation of Chemical Markup Language (CML) with Henry Rzepa. For anyone working in any area of cheminformatics and Open Chemistry, his blog is indispensable.

4. Open Reading Frame Bill Hooker is one of the strongest champions of Open Science that I know and has written probably the most comprehensive series of articles on the topic that I have seen.

5. business/bytes/genes/molecules
Deepak Singh tends to write about stuff that interests me. Although there are many bioinformatics blogs out there, most of them don't have a high enough signal to noise ratio to make it to my most frequently checked list.

I didn't include several other blogs that I also follow closely - I'll add these to my blogroll shortly (which I have been meaning to do for a while).

Instructions for the next group, copied from Hari's post:

(1) If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think; (2) Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme; and (3) Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Assignment Zero

Fans of Open Source Science (or just the open source concept in general) should take a look at Assignment Zero. Jay Rosen writes on the About page:
Inspired by the open-source movement, this is an attempt to bring journalists together with people in the public who can help cover a story. It's a collaboration among NewAssignment.Net, Wired, and those who choose to participate.

The investigation takes place in the open, not behind newsroom walls. Participation is voluntary; contributors are welcome from across the Web. The people getting, telling and vetting the story are a mix of professional journalists and members of the public -- also known as citizen journalists. This is a model I describe as "pro-am."

The "ams" are simply people getting together on their own time to contribute to a project in journalism that for their own reasons they support. The "pros" are journalists guiding and editing the story, setting standards, overseeing fact-checking, and publishing a final version.
There is a page for crowdsourcing science, where I added some info about Open Source Chemistry. The existing info on that page is pretty sparse - maybe Bill Hooker can pick out a few gems from his comprehensive reports on Open Science in 3QuarksDaily.

The site functions like a wiki in that information from anyone is sought but it looks like only an editor can include the contributions in the main content pages. There is no edit button - in order to submit you have to find an existing open item and respond to it, just like in a forum.

The final article will be published in Wired magazine.

More info about crowdsourcing from Jeff Howe

Monday, April 23, 2007

C&E News Article on Social Software in Chemistry

The April 23, 2007 Chemistry and Engineering News article on the Social Software in Education symposium at the American Chemical Society spring meeting in Chicago has come out. I gave a talk there on using blogs and wikis to teach organic chemistry.

The article is a pretty comprehensive report on the session and does a good job of summarizing the key technologies currently being tried without much hype. Podcasting, vodcasting, tagging and wikis were discussed from teachers and librarians using them in different ways. Of course the controversial issue of attendance was highlighted.

Although the session was primarily about education, UsefulChem got a nice plug.
Bradley posts his lectures and all other information for his class on a wiki with open access. He also has an open-access wiki for his research group (usefulchem.wikispaces.com), where the students' lab notebooks are freely available to anyone in the world who wants to read them. His group will write and edit manuscripts using the wiki itself and invite any interested person to edit them.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Edison Predicted Educational Podcasting?

I often find that books on the history of science and technology are fun to read because they give me an opportunity to try to forget what I know about how things turned out and piece together an older worldview.

For example, I am currently reading the new book by Tom McNichol "AC/DC - The Savage Tale of the First Standards War". On p. 38 is reprinted part of Edison's article in North American Review, written in 1878, shortly after his invention of the phonograph:
Among the many uses to which the phonograph will be applied are the following:
2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling and other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
and on p. 39:
Edison predicted that the motion picture camera would one day be a great tool for education, with film eventually supplanting books in schools and universities.
Here we are 130 years later and we are still talking about this like it is a bold new concept. In the short term, it turned out that the killer app for the phonograph was music. Edison didn't anticipate the strong demand in that direction.

With the wide adoption of phonographs and the existing infrastructure of the postal system, there is really no good technical reason for the delay in the evolution of mainstream education towards multi-media dominance.

It seems that, most often, progress happens by combining existing technologies in new ways instead of waiting for radically new inventions. But these combinations must wait for the right conditions to facilitate the process.

Podcasting is a really good example of that. The technology itself, the delivery of files via RSS subscription, is really very simple by the standards of the late 90s, when it was developed. But I think it took the marketing genius of Apple with their iPod campaign to make all things pod desirable, even (or perhaps especially) to people who didn't really know what it was.

Ironically, the reality is that, at least in my current classes, most students use their laptops and not their ipods to access podcasts. But it doesn't matter - the social impact has been to make podcasting generally desirable and the pressure is being felt now in educational institutions to provide it.

I also think that the recent availability of high quality free and hosted services, exemplified on a mass scale by Google, is also key to the current transformation.

Going forward we have to remember that we can't predict the timing of technological change, even if it is inevitable.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

UsefulChem and Skateboarding

I just came across Karl Bailey's blog, a chemistry teacher at Clark College who happens to teach virtually the same 3 organic chemistry classes that I do, in the same sequence following the Wade book. Clark has a quarter system like Drexel.

But what really caught my attention was his mention of UsefulChem and the image of skateboarders he used on the post. What a great representation of Open Source Science, at least the way that many of my friends and I conceive of it. I also get the same vibe from many of the young people that see me after I speak on the topic.

I suppose it represents a form of rebellion from the status quo, but not without standards for competence and dedication. Without that rebellion is just cynicism.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Second Race in Second Life

We just ran a quiz race in Second Life for the second time this morning in my organic chemistry class. Two of the students were physically with me in the classroom and two were coming in remotely.

Initially, Beth was still the owner of the obelisks and we learned the hard way that all but one stop working when the owner is not on the island. We worked it out this morning by transferring the ownership to me and as long as I was next to my students all of them could do the quizzes.

Beth is always talking about the community spirit in Second Life and I got a taste of it first hand when Beth invited many of her friends, including Eloise who built the quiz, to come help. This is such a different experience from using Unreal Tournament to construct the races. When I would run into a problem, I was basically completely alone and had to read the manual or try to make contact on a forum.

We got started about 10 minutes late and there was confusion but now that we understand the problem next week should go smoothly. There is still a problem that not all the obelisks will work when I am not there but Beth and Eloise assure me that can be fixed also.

We also had a few random visitors taking a peek at what we were up to and, if I had a bit of time between helping students, I chatted with them. Some also talked with my students. Since we are on Nature Island, the type of people who tend to visit generally have a great interest in science and are eager to share.

Here is a pic of this morning's race.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Post-mortem of Winter 07 term

Another term done and and it is time to evaluate what I had planned to do in January and what I learned.

1) One of the key new implementations was to offer an alternative to the lecture format by detailing every concept covered in the course on a wiki content page and linking to free online study materials, mainly online textbooks. This turned out to be fairly time-consuming but I'm glad that I have this resource available now to use at workshops in combination with the Google co-op search on organic chemistry. And because the content is fully open, anyone is free to use it.

2) The content page did not induce a vast shift away from the recorded lectures as the primary information source for the class. There is still an expectation from most students that "lectures are the way to take a class", whether in person or recorded. I am not sure that they prefer that but that's what they are used to. Thinking back to my own experience as an undergrad, I always felt that the lecture format is a terribly inefficient and painful way to learn because it is intrinsically linear. For me, the random access feature of books, web pages and discussion is vastly superior, as long as it is with the right text and teacher. But I realize that not all students are like that so I'll keep the lectures around.

3) I didn't have time to organize any Unreal Tournament races last term. This term, I'm using Second Life and it will be interesting to see how it compares.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fatal Flaw in new Blogger Atom Feed for Education

I started the Spring term with a nasty surprise: over half of my podcast files were missing from my organic chemistry CHEM241 class.

After some digging around I found the problem to be that the Blogger Atom feed post limit was reduced from 100 to 25. What that means is that it is no longer possible to use the Blogger/Feedburner system to create podcasts with more than 25 files at any one time.

Courses at Drexel generally run three times a week for 10 weeks. So generating 3 file types per class (mp3, m4v and pdf) runs close to the previous limit of 100 posts for the Atom feed. And as soon as a file drops out of the Atom feed, it drops off of Feedburner and then iTunes. So both of my classes on iTunes are broken now.

Students can still access all of the class files directly off of the blog (stressing once again the importance of redundancy).

iTunes was supposed to be a convenient vehicle to deliver the class content. Now I think I am just going to zip up all the files for simplicity, although I do want to fix the feed at some point since people do happen upon my courses via iTunes.

image of Nasty Surprise taken with permission from Cake That!

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