Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wikipedia as it happens

Ever wondered how often Wikipedia is updated? You're not the first because there's now a site that shows you updates as they happen and where in the world the update has been made.
Wikipediavision is the brainchild of a guy called László Kozma from the Helsinki University of Technology. It is a mashup with a world map (Google maps) and a feed from Wikipedia and you can simply sit and watch the world add to Wikipedia. When a new entry appears you just click on it and you see it on Wikipedia. Something for those long winter evenings maybe.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Academic burnout

The academic world is subject to the same trends as society in general and one of these is bewildering choice in everything. In the "good old days" there was, for example, a limited number of publications within a given field and if you kept an eye on them you could keep abreast of the latest findings. Today there are countless sources of information in every conceivable field and keeping up to date is a much greater challenge.

This is the theme of an article, Knowledge overload, by Ken Coates in Inside Higher Ed. He gives the example of a recent conference which featured around 4,000 presentations over 4 days and concludes that even the most enthusiastic delegate can only manage to sample around 2% of the content on offer. Many of the papers were presented to very limited audiences, even if the content may well have been highly relevant. Even if all the material was accessible on the net afterwards, how many of the participants have any time to seriously read it all? I have just received the proceedings of a conference I attended last year and even though I'm sure there is plenty of valuable content there I doubt if I'll ever read more than a small fraction of it.

More and more people are writing more and more articles in an ever increasing number of publications, both on-line and on paper but how many are actually being read? The author, like the rest of us, finds it impossible now to stay up to date in his field and resorts more often than not to reading abstracts rather than papers, digests rather than articles and so on.

This infinite diversity and variety ("an academic monsoon" as Coates puts it) means that skills like digital literacy, skimming and filtering are essential but as the academic overload swells the risk increases that some research may never be read by anyone. Should there be limits to the amount of academic output to ensure that it is actually put to constructive use?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Is the net changing the way we read?

There has been considerable debate around an article by Nicholas Carr called "Is Google making us stupid?" He admits to finding it increasingly difficult to engage in deep reading and blames it on our restless habits on the net (symbolised by Google); "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

We are becoming increasingly impatient as the information overload increases. Quick news summaries, newsletters, highlights packages and Twitter feeds help us keep up with events without spending too much time on it all. Blog posts of over 5 paragraphs are seldom read. Carr fears we're losing the ability to contemplate and reflect since we never switch off the background noise for long enough to hear the silence again.

Trent Baston's response in Campus Technology sees the trend in a more positive light. Knowledge today is constantly being adapted and enriched in a constant dialogue. Learning is no longer a solitary activity reading the thoughts of one author but is revised almost daily in a rich on-line discussion. In a way, Baston argues, our net habits are more in line with oral tradition; listening to different arguments and replying spontaneously. Rather than making us stupid, the net is helping us discover new ways to collaborate and learn.

Plug and play

A guy in Finland is shooting to world fame as a result of an unusual operation. Having lost a finger in a motorbike accident he has replaced it with a prosthetic finger containing a 2GB USB memory stick. He just sticks his finger into the computer and downloads. News sites everywhere are covering this of course, including the British Daily Telegraph. If only we could then upload the contents of the memory stick into the brain ...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Skimming and zapping

In the age of homo zapiens it is not surprising to read that people tend not to read long texts any more. Just as we zap frenetically from channel to channel trying to find something worth watching, we also tend to click away from texts on the net that are too demanding. It's hard to catch a reader's attention on the net and even if you do you can bet that few will spend long reading your content.

This issue is discussed in a new post on Tony Karrer's blog eLearning Technology. Maybe we need to teach the skill of effective skimming to students in order to get the gist of an article and maybe, more importantly, we need to teach the skill of writing articles that are adapted for skim-readers. Even if you've written a brilliant study full of detailed argument it's important to highlight the essentials to catch the attention of those who are only willing to give your report a few short minutes of their time (see even an earlier post on his blog).

Are we becoming lazy readers/viewers forever zapping away from anything demanding or discomforting? Or are we simply finding new ways of coping with the information overload?

Monday, March 9, 2009

You've seen the wiki now read the book!

I'm not sure what to make of the interesting service offered by PediaPress. You choose a selection of entries from Wikipedia and PediaPress will make a book out of them and send it to you. The cost of this hard copy starts at $8.99 depending, of course, on how much of Wikipedia you want to print (take a look at a sample book). So theoretically you can aim to have a "fine set of modern encyclopedias on your bookshelf" as the door-to-door salesmen of yesteryear used to say.

It certainly enables you to compile your own book on whatever obscure topic you like and be the owner of a one-off publication. I doubt if there's a mass market here but in these days of customisation in everything, why not customise books?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Real writing

When I was at school we were taught "real writing" and spent years painstakingly practicing the art. In those days that was excellent preparation for a future where handwriting still mattered. Later on in school, the girls got the chance to learn touch typing as a preparation for secretarial work whereas boys concentrated on things like woodwork (or in my case Latin!).

TonyKarrer's blog eLearning Technology has a new post (Cursive writing - outraged?) wondering why children today still learn cursive writing despite the fact that few will need it later whilst almost no-one learns touch typing, a key skill for the future. I can't help admiring the keyboard skills of women who learnt touch typing in their youth as they effortlessly type reports without even looking at the keyboard. The rest of us, however, battle away with two fingers.

Even if the younger generation can type text messages at the speed of light their keyboard skills can't compete with their mothers or grandmothers. Surely it's time to bring back some basic keyboard skills to schools, possibly at the expense of some of the handwriting classes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Books in the iPod

In the previous entry I dreamed of a link-up between the Kindle and the iPod/iPhone and as if my magic came an article in the New York Times announcing a deal between Amazon and Apple making their e-books available to iPods. Still far from an open solution but at least a little bit of compatibility. However, I don't think I'll be reading War and Peace on my iPod any time soon.