Expanding Research Through Open Notebook Science

IT Conversations | Jon Udell’s Interviews with Innovators | Jean-Claude Bradley

He believes that scientific research happens better and faster when the entire process is transparently narrated online.

New social tools can have a tremendous impact on teaching, learning and research. The emergence of Open Notebook Science has the potential of speeding up the diffusion of scientific discoveries and of helping students and others look into the nature of “real research with all it’s glitches.” In this interview, Jon Udell and chemist Jean-Claude Bradley talk about the real-world potential of blogs, wikis and other social software tools to encourage communication and speed up collaboration among scientists and students..

Writing Strategically (Part Two)

This is a quick follow-up to my last post about choosing a writing strategy for your for your blog. In the last post, I talked about treating your blog as an a forum to explore all the interesting things that you learn about through the web, reading, conversations, and all the other sources of information that come into your personal information universe. Readers will seek out your blog as a way of entering into your world and of finding resources that they never would have found on their own.

Another strategy is to pick out a particular area of expertise and write deeply and extensively about issues within that area. Readers come to your site because you know more about this topic than almost anyone else in the world. (Or at least on the internet.) The goal of this type of blogging is summed up in this quote from Ron Gross’s book The Independent Scholar’s Handbook:

Max Schuster was not a man to mince words or to warm you up with small talk. His words were well honed; he obviously had delivered this message before and knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Fixing me with a firm eye over the glistening mahogany desktop he declared: “I have one bit of advice for you–not just for success in this business, but personally. Begin at once–not today or tomorrow or at some indefinite date, but right now, at this precise moment–to chose some subject, some concept, some great name or idea or idea in history on which you can eventually make yourselves the world’s supreme expert. Start a crash program immediately to qualify yourself for this self-assignment through reading, research and reflection. In his librarylike office, such a program did not seem impossible, as a generous slice of the world’s wisdom was within arms reach.

In a world defined by the long tail, just about every topic needs its experts. One of my favorite examples has been

43 Folders where Merlin Mann has turned his own inability to manage his time and his life into what appears to be a full-time job. If you have a passion, no matter how narrow, your blog can be a place to find others who share it.

Writing Strategically (Part One)

This is a part of a series of posts I’m doing in anticipation of my new role as a member of the community of official bloggers at the College of William and Mary. The goal is to identify some guidelines for blogging that have emerged from my work with students and academic blogging over the last half decade.

People visit websites because of the content. Once you’ve figured out why you’re becoming involved in this blogging business at all, it’s helpful to do plan what you’re going to write about. The vast majority of bloggers write primarily to share information with a few friends or relatives, and the content flows naturally from their everyday lives. Their blogs are filled with hilarious anecdotes about their cats, tales of fabulous meals at local Mexican restaurants and occasional musings about the meaning of life.

Professional blogging is a little different. Since you can’t count on your cat to provide the content for your posts, you need to come up with a focus that will attract readers to your site and engage them with your material. There are at least two general strategies for making that decision: the BoingBoing strategy and 43Folders methodology.

Writers following the BoingBoing strategy emulate the success of BoingBoing.net. which seeks to be a world-wide directory of “cultural curiosities and interesting technologies” and draws readers by providing a mix of ideas that readers might miss if left to their own devices. (For most of the history of the blogosphere, BoingBong has been the internet’s most popular blog, though it now appears to have been surpassed by the Huffington Post.)

A typical BoingBoing session includes topics like the following:

  • US seizes Danish dress-shop’s payment to Pakistan in the name of “terrorism”
  • First-ever video of human ovulation
  • Denial-of-coffee attacks affect networked coffee-maker
  • Recycled teacup lights

Bloggers using the BoingBoing strategy are a lot like the producers of the Today Show. Readers are attracted to the mix of stories and the particular sensibilities of editors. They return to the site to be entertained, challenged and enlightened. One of the best examples of this strategy in the educational arena is the far-ranging writings of Gardner Campbell, covering topics ranging from John Donne to Douglas Engelbart, the Beatles, Beach Boys and fish tacos. Gardner’s blog has been the model that I’ve used most often to introduce my students to blogging, and most of them have adopted the generalist strategy.

There is, however, another method for organizing your blog, and I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

Think First; Type Later

For most people, writing is hard work. Writing for a public forum on the internet is hard, scary work. Once you push the “submit” button, your words are out there for everyone to see and respond to, instantly searchable, and living in perpetuity in the Google cache or deep in the Internet Archive. Yet, tens of millions of folks all over the world overcome their fear to post their content on the web–including 64% of American teens who are “content creators“, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. One good bit of advice for beginning bloggers, and more experienced folks who are starting a new project, is to “think first and type later.” Before making that first post, take a few minutes and answer three questions. (A number one pencil and a legal pad are the perfect tools for this part of the process, but it’s OK to type if you’ve forgotten how to use a pencil.)

  • Purpose: Why am I doing this?
  • Content: What am I going to write about?
  • Process: How am I going to do it?

There are lots of good reasons to publish on the web. For me, posting regularly is a discipline that accomplishes two goals. First, it focuses my attention by forcing me to look the mass of information that I’ve been exposed on any particular day and evaluate the usefulness (or interestingness) of that information. The half-hour that I’m investing in writing this post could be spent in an infinite number of other ways. What, if anything, justifies the time and energy to highlight a particular idea, pie and hold up for further inspection? The possible stories come from everywhere–something that I read, a TV or radio program, podcast, conversation or just a random thought that popped into my mind. Focused attention helps to make sense from the torrent of information.

The second discipline is to try to figure out the utility of writing about a particular topic for the reader. One major reason for publishing is to allow others to benefit from what I’ve learned from my experience. In my writing, I’m always searching for some way to help members of my community to broaden their perspectives, to look at their information universe a little differently, or to think of ways to improve their practice.

As an official faculty blogger, my purpose is a little different than it has been for other writing I’ve done. We know that the most frequent visitors to the site are from outside William and Mary, some of whom may not be interested in the nuts and bolts of our technology infrastructure. My task here is to look what’s happening at the college from my personal perspective and post about topics that be interesting and helpful to parents, prospective students, alumni and members of the larger educational community. By merging my personal perspective with those of the other writers on the project, we provide an additional window into the William and Mary experience that is emergent, individual, authentic and vibrant.

In my next post, I take a look at how to translate that purpose into something more concrete by looking at the second question: what am I going to write about?

On Becoming a Faculty Blogger

I’ve been asked to be an “official faculty blogger” when William and Mary launches the new college web site in July. The re.web project has been one of the most thoughtfully managed projects that I’ve experienced at any university, and I’m honored to be asked to contribute to the final product in this way. Writing as a faculty blogger opens up a new audience for me, and I’m hoping that it will foster some additional communication and community with the other faculty and students who are also participating.

I’ve used blogs in my own teaching and professional development at least since the term was coined in 1999. My students and I have created (and abandoned!) dozens of general interest and special purpose journals using almost every piece of specialized software that’s been available to us. We write primarily about educational technology issues in K-12, colleges and universities, and adult education. Most of the blogs are focused on class issues and tend to die pretty quickly after the grades are in, but a few have turned into extremely powerful forums for professional development.

I’m currently maintaining two blogs–Techfoot, my primary forum for writing about technology, and a test blog called Academic Technology News , which is an internal journal primarily designed to share technical information with our technology specialists.(The jury is still out on that one, and it could well disappear very shortly.) As a faculty blogger, my writing will still be focused on technology, but for a more general audience.

Blogging has become an integrated part of my teaching and scholarship and that of my students. When it works, blogging permits us to play with ideas in a rough draft format and to get immediate (and candid) feedback from members of our community. The feedback effect on blogs comes much more quickly than in traditional methods of communication and potentially provides a much greater range of ideas.

Here’s hoping that this new forum will bring even more voices to the conversation about teaching, learning and technology at William and Mary.

Twitter-Free for a Week

I’ve been more or less Twitter-free for the last seven days.

I’m a little compulsive about my computer environment. I can–and have–gone months without washing my car, but when someone touches my screen with a greasy, oily finger, my response is fairly predictable. I immediately threaten to cut off their hands if they ever do that again, and then I go looking for some microfiber to clean off the smudge. The fact that I keep getting an error message about an expired certificate on one of our BlackBoard pages grates on me worse than chalk squeaking on a board, even though it takes less than a second to click through it. Why doesn’t someone fix that; can’t they see that our site is BROKEN!

Twitter was contributing to my craziness far more than some moronic little application should be able to do. The endless errors about the server timing out, or the pagination not working, or whatever other technical problem was plaguing Twitterdom broke the flow that made the whole exercise worthwhile.

So I turned it off–with only one minor relapse–only to find that I really missed the sense of community, the stream of interesting quotes and comments, the tinyurls with interesting connections. So, I’m jumping back in. I’ve downloaded and installed the new version of Twhirl, and normalcy is being re-established. I now know that Andy and Jerry are in Princeton listening to Henry Jenkins, Jeff is changing his oil, and Garder, ‘Woke up this morning with “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople” in my head. “But if I had my time again / You all know just what I’d do.”‘

All’s right with the world.