Open research – Professional Amateurs – Science in Action

I recently wrote a post that touched upon openness of and elitism in education. I just wanted to express a few more quick thoughts on this, though it is something I intend to return to with a more in-depth look at open education and resources.

I feel the elitism of universities doesn’t lie with who is allowed to become a students, it is more related to the fact that resources are securely tied up within universities making those resources inaccessible to the majority. Resources in this context could be books or journals (hard copies or online with paid for institutional subscriptions), the academic discourse, the talents of faculty, the research equipment and facilities, past Ph.D. theses, etc. In addition, it relates to the subjects and specific topics that are deemed to be worthy of teaching or researching, or what the funders deem so.

Universities deal in the currency of degrees, a passport in society. Why in times of recession, such as at present, should it be that otherwise capable individuals are denied their chance of a degree passport because the government puts a squeeze on the number of places available in order to balance the books? A further point is the question of assessment, and is it really a useful measure, or is the ongoing presentation of someone’s work, either within a university or indeed outside it (informal learning), a better reflection of their capabilities and abilities? Indeed, evidence is beginning to accumulate indicating that those who present their work using social media place themselves in a more advantageous position for employment. And shouldn’t publicly funded research be in the public domain anyway? I’ve previously written about Open Notebook Science.

I can envisage how much of this could be opened up to greater access, but I was having a problem with scientific equipment and facilities and how that might be liberated.

There have been some interesting examples where institution based science projects have reached out to the public for assistance. There was SETI were you signed up and your computer were utilized while it was on (and you weren’t using it) to process data to search for extra-terrestrial life. Then I recall a project were public volunteers were called for to look for new astronomical bodies in tens of thousands of photographs of space; these were provided online and after doing a test to see how accurately you could assess the images you could process the live data. It was discovered that humans were much better at seeing differences in the data than if the processing was done electronically with image recognition.

Therefore, in a rather detached way people were participating in scientific research.

However, I then heard the repeat of the Friday 25 September Science in Action programme* on BBC World Service at 4:32GMT on Sunday morning. (Sometimes I’m awake in the night or wake up early.) Listen to the programme. The significant part where this blog post is concerned is the DIYbio article. The article talked about people who are undertaking scientific research, bio-engineering in this case, in their own homes using inexpensive equipment, some bought secondhand on Ebay(R) for a fraction of its cost new to a research lab. They are able to design and create new biological parts, devices and systems. Integral to this approach is the support from online communities, for example, sometimes with professionals voluntarily assisting these communities.

Clay Shirky has talked about the increase in mass amateurization, without being amateurish. This is the breaking down of the dichotomy between ‘experts’ and amateurs, with the creation of a new category – the Professional Amateurs or Pro-Ams. Charles Leadbeater in his book We-Think talks about how mass creativity has seen sites including Wikipedia and Youtube, and the Linux operating system rise in prominence and signal a shift in the way we and society can organise ourselves; participation becoming the key element.

All of this, for me raises the question, “Are universities, education systems and society more generally getting ready for the future of learning and research?”

* This particular programme doesn’t seem to be archived, though you can usually listen to the previous two recent episodes, so I guess you’ve probably got a couple of week to hear it before the link is broken.


Subject Professor – Social Sciences and Arts

I first happened upon the Economics version of the “Professor” series of these Social Sciences and Arts sites, each of which has the subject preceding Professor. They include:

Each of the different sites is of the same format, generally with terms categorized into theories and theorists, or their equivalent for the particular subject. Each of the terms is then defined, in a similar way to that in a dictionary or glossary of terms. The definitions are trawled from primary or secondary sources, and you can suggest amendments or additions.

There also tends to be a couple of useful links out from each site, be that to a discussion forum or online journals, etc.

These appear to be useful sites to students of the subjects, however, these aren’t my particular subject areas, so, as always, you’d need to assess them against other sources to validate accuracy.

Video: Guide to Diigo Annotations

Yesterday I wrote about Google Sidewiki and its potential use for annotations. However, you might have gathered that I’m a big BIG fan of Diigo, and I mentioned its use for educational annotation in that same article.

José Picardo has produced a short informative video for his students about using Diigo annotations and sending a link to the pages including annotations.

iPods for 8 year olds

This is just brilliant.

At Burnt Oak Junior School in Kent, UK, they gave a class of 32 eight year olds an iPod Touch with a number of useful apps installed.

In their blog post there is an embedded video that includes interviews with the teacher responsible, the head teacher and children. I’ve reproduced the video here. Please take a look.

It ties in with the NSW laptop initiative.

Google Sidewiki – the Web just changed again

Google just yesterday announced their new facility, Sidewiki. It’s a plugin for Firefox and IE at the moment, Chrome is to follow (where it is anticipated to be in by default).

I’ve been using similar functions provided by Diigo (the bookmarking and annotation service) for some time now. Just part of what you can do with Diigo is comment on a whole page using a sidebar facility. And this is pretty much what Sidewiki does.

“Why does this change anything?”, you might ask. Well, even though Diigo is a fantastic service (which I’ve written about here and here, and talked about here), it just hasn’t got the penetration required (yet) to achieve its full potential. Whereas Google has the pulling power.

“So why is being able to leave or read other people’s comment significant?” Well, this makes every page on the web is collaborative. Every page has the potential for dialogue and discussions to take place, informing and adding to the original content; re-enforcing the premise or refuting it.

Every corporate page now had the potential to have consumer comments presented alongside. Every PR disaster can instantly be commented on, on your own website, by thousand or tens of thousands of disgruntled customers. And remember, customers trust each other and their opinions more than they trust the corporate stance; think of Customer Reviews on Amazon.

The renowned analyst, Jeremiah Owyang, has said that a Social Strategy needs to be developed, now. He highlights three point in his web strategy blog:

  1. Shift your thinking: recognize that you don’t own your corporate website –your customers do.
  2. Develop an internal strategy and ongoing program.
  3. Don’t just hesitate or be reactive to negative content –embrace social content now.

But consider the potential for education. You can now have asynchronous discussions on topics in-situ with renowned experts in the area, from universities and industry, researchers, students, school children, or anyone who is interested.

Or is it a bad thing?

The Web just got a little bit more interesting.

Spezify search

Just had a v. quick play with Spezify, and new search engine just out of beta.


Certainly has the simplicity. And from first glance it appears to do a search of various media and provide a media rich response. First impression is that it could be good for finding out what other individuals are currently publishing, as we all increasing create content over a range of media avenues.


More investigation required.

What are your impressions of Spezify?

Google Apps

I came across a couple of useful things today relating to Google Apps.

The first is a student perspective on the ease of use of Google Apps for her course. She is very articulate and succinct in her responses, and shows a mastery of her digital environment.

If school children are demonstrating this level of knowledge, understanding and proficiency in using Google Apps then it seems out of step to be providing anything proprietory at university, particularly if it offers less functionality and required students then learning an unfamiliar environment that they won’t use again after graduation.

A teacher also talks about her use of Google Apps for her classes.

As a supplement to the above, there are some resources available at Google Tools for Educators including links to some useful videos.