A new MOOC from Leeds: “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”

Picture1It’s a pretty exciting time to be teaching in higher education.  There has been a wave of critical evaluation (mostly by the teachers themselves) which has led to a great deal of progress over the past couple of years.  This has led to a recognition that lecture-based courses are not the “be all and end all” of university teaching, and that there are better ways to do things.  Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs for short) are playing quite a large role in redefining how university teachers engage with their students and how we think about delivering the student experience.

The new MOOC from the University of Leeds is called “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”, and is being run by Professor Jon Lovett in the School of Geography. Jon is a charismatic and passionate guy with a wide range of experiences in the interaction between people and the nature world, and it is these themes that are explored in the course.  If you want to find out more, head over to the FutureLearn site and sign up (it’s free!).  Here’s a taster:

There are some key characteristics of MOOCs that make them different from conventional university courses:

  • Variable length – MOOCs can be anything from 1 week to 12 weeks, with the breadth and depth of content varying accordingly.
  • Entirely online – with no need to rely on built infrastructure, MOOCs can (and, indeed, do!) cater for tens of thousands of students, rather than the usual hundred or so.
  • Flexible study – because of the online nature, students can participate whenever is convenient for them.  Sometimes this means that students drop-off entirely (completion rates are relatively low) but that isn’t really the point of MOOCs.  MOOCs are frequently designed to provide access to education for as many people as want it, and any learning is a bonus.
  • Flexible structure – the online platform allows a wide variety of multimedia, interactive, connected resources to form the backbone of a course.  These make for a very engaging learning experience.

All these factors combine to make a new and interested way of teaching and engaging a wider range of students, and I look forward to seeing where the MOOC movement goes.

Do Power Balance wrist bands work? Of course they don’t…

Silicone wrist bands and other “performance jewellery” have become commonplace among sports stars (see Paul Collingwood and Andrew Strauss, England cricketers, who are bedecked in several varieties).  Power Balance, Harmony, Ionic, Q-Ray, Balance, Bio-Ray, IRenew and Rayma are some of the many brands that you might see online or in sports stores.  I have been writing about negative ions and balance bands for a few years now, but most of that focused on the inherent lack of a plausible mechanism by which the things could work.  Since I wrote those posts, there have been a number of clinical trials published, and I thought it would be worth trying to pull some of those together to provide an overview of the science.  I have linked to all the studies so you can check them out yourself.

Summary: I found seven studies: four journal articles, one MSc thesis, one research poster, and one conference presentation which was an expansion of a journal article.  The studies included a total of 193 participants and looked mainly at balance, strength and agility, all using the Power Balance band (in which holograms are the supposedly active part).  None showed any improvement in performance with the band, but study quality varied.  Interestingly, some studies suggest that the placebo effect might not even be present. However, another study showed that the placebo effect with this product is strongly dependent upon prior beliefs, and that performance may even suffer while wearing a band if the participant does not believe that the band will help. I was not able to find any tests of bands in which “ions” were purported to be the mode of action.

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Dead ducks, homosexual necrophilia, and the importance of anecdotes

The wonderful world of anecdotes is often scorned by scientists.  Leading journals demand tightly controlled studies with a priori justifications, and this approach has sidelined some of the more interesting and peculiar aspects of academic.  For example, I have a couple of articles that describe trends through space and time in the presence of dragonflies using databases that were collected by enthusiasts in the field.  These kinds of observations are the bedrock of natural history, for example, where initial anecdotes spur pilots studies which result (if the data is supportive) in fully-fledged grants. Another important anecdote was recorded on 5th June 1995, and it has been immortalised with its own (admittedly slightly niche) holiday.  You can see Dr Kees Moeliker talking about his homosexual necrophiliac mallard here:

The absurdity of research grant writing

I have recently (and luckily) been successful in applying for grant funding. I’ll write more about the grant itself later, but I wanted to highlight something that I see as far more significant. Applying for research funding is absurd and I think I’ve come up with an analogy to drive this home.

Imagine that you are an athlete (more difficult for some of us than for others). You have decided to dedicate your life to your sport and have entered a competition to pit yourself against the best in the country. The trouble is that the sport is poorly defined. You turn up on the day prepared with a full gymnastics routine, but you know right now that the judges prefer figure skating. But gymnastics is your thing and you don’t really know anything about skating, plus you have spent two months preparing this gymnastics routine and you’d hate it all to be for nothing.

So you turn up and perform your routine. Only there are no judges watching and there is no audience to cheer you on. You perform in an empty hall with your footsteps echoing around the auditorium. You finish and there is no applause. You pack your things and leave for home.  Four months later you receive a letter with the results. The letter contains only five lines of mixed, non-specific comments: “too ambitious”, “not original enough”, “clearly capable”.  The letter goes on:

“We would like to congratulate you on your marks and it is our pleasure to inform you that you placed third overall in the competition”

You are elated – third place means that you get a medal and some prize money and that is precisely what you wanted – something to hang on your wall at home and something to help you keep making progress in the career that you love.  But you read on:

“Unfortunately due to budgeting issues, we have only been able to provide medals and prize money for the first and second placed contestants.  Better luck next year”

This is what grant applications are like.  We receive vague messages about funding priorities, we push applications through archaic and arcane peer review processes which are (often but not always) unhelpful in improving the submission, and the quality of the application is no guarantee of funding even if what you write is practically flawless.  A recent Nature paper (Herbert et al., 2013) suggested that Australian scientists spent around 500 years of working hours preparing grants to submit to a major Australian funding body.  Since only around 20% of those grants were accepted, Australia wasted 400 years of research effort.  Now, I don’t consider rejected grants to be a complete loss but there is no doubt in my mind that the grant submission process (along with the scientific publishing process) could be massively improved…

Reference:
Herbert, D.L., Barnett, A.G., and Graves, N. (2013) Funding: Australia’s grant system wastes time, Nature, 495: 314.

Gymnast photo: Rick McCharles

BREAKING NEWS: Correactology can no longer cure cancer!!

From http://www.someecards.com/workplace-cards/its-the-small-victoriesPresumably as the result of in-depth clinical trials (how else would they know that their treatments can cure so many severe and varied diseases and conditions?) the experts at the Correactology Centres (which I have discussed before) have removed “cancer” from the list of “ailments” that Correactology can treat.  A quick scan from an archived version of their “Ailments Treated” page from 4th November 2007 shows 127 ailments, but that list on the current version of the page is only 126.  In case you are wondering whether I am serious, I want to be absolutely clear that a PubMed search for “Correactology” produces zero results.  The removal of cancer from the list was an edit to the website, rather than a contribution to scientific research.  There have been no trials.  There are no datasets.  There are anecdotes and testimonials that score very low on the evidence pyramid.  Nevertheless, Correactologists take money from patients, claiming to be able to treat all kinds of diseases.  I will leave you to browse their (wish) list at your leisure, but I wanted to highlight a couple that are particularly unpleasant:Read More »

Our Skeptical Inquirer article has been published!

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The Skeptical Inquirer piece on climate change denial in universities that I wrote (along with my co-conspirators) has just been published in the May/June 2013 print edition!  It’s a bit strange to be listed alongside people like Ben Radford, Sharon Hill, Joe Nickell, Massimo Pigliucci and Massimo Polidoro, but we’re all delighted that Ken Frazier and the rest of the SI team saw enough value to accept our little piece.  Many thanks to them all for a smooth and efficient editorial process.  I’m afraid that there’s no online version yet (they don’t publish all the print articles online, and those that they do publish online come along a month or two after the print edition) but I’ll post a link if/when it does appear.  All the more reason to go and subscribe to the print version!

While we wait for the open access revolution, self-archive!

I’ve just had a paper published on open access in ecology and evolution, so I thought I would let you know what it’s all about.  I wrote a few weeks ago about how you can often post more of a scientific paper online without violating copyright than you might think.  I went through a couple of journals in which I had published articles, and tried to work out what I could self-archive.  The answer was usually “quite a lot”!  Then someone in the comments popped up and mentioned the SHERPA-ROMEO website, which allows you to search for the name of the journal in which your paper has been published and then shows you the policy on self-archiving.  Well, being the data-lover that I am I decided to check out the rest of the journals in ecology and evolutionary biology (all 165 that were listed on Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Reports).  The results were pretty interesting…

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My PhD thesis in the ten hundred most used words

Calopteryx splendens femaleInspired by this xkcd comic, and facilitated by this online tool, people have been summarising all kinds of ideas using the 1,000 most common words.  Naturally PhD students have latched onto this as a source of procrastination and, in a show of solidarity, I decided to join them (this was during my lunch break – honest!).  Here’s my PhD thesis:

My work looks at how animals change as the world gets warmer.  My animal is like a fly but it has four flying bits, eats other animals, and has big eyes.  By looking at where people saw these animals in the past, I figured out how the place and time at which they appear changes with how hot it is.   I found that they appear earlier when it is hot, which is interesting because these animals spend most of their lives in water.  Animals in water had not been shown to change when they appear in this way before.   I also looked at the ways in which we look at changes in where animals appear and showed the best way to look at this problem.  Last, I looked at how the form of these animals changes as they move when it gets hotter.  I found that the animals that had moved a long way had a form that made it easy for them to move (like big flying bits).  In short, the changes shown by the animals that I looked at can be used to build a case for a warming world.

How much of an academic paper can you post online? Most of it!!

Edit: As was pointed out in the comments, you can find self-archiving info for most journals at http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/ [h/t Laurent]

I have been a bit frustrated about scientific publishing, as you might have been able to tell if you read some of my earlier posts on open access in academia.  I posted earlier this week about Aaron Swartz and the legal predicament in which he found himself when he downloaded huge numbers of scientific papers.  I was frustrated at the lack of access that most people experience to academic publishing, but didn’t want to resort to breaking the law to remedy the situation.  However, a certain amount of that frustration could have been relieved had I just taken the time to figure out where the boundaries lie in the copyright documents that I sign when I publish papers.  I decided to have a look to see how many of my rights remain, and I was quite interested to find out that I can post a reasonable amount of information on the web without breaking any laws.  As ever, this isn’t legal advice.  However, there do seem to be a few generalities that others can use to guide the release of their publications depending upon the publisher that owns the journals within which their papers are published:Read More »

The (current) limits of open access and #PDFtribute

EDIT [18/1/13]: At almost exactly the same time as I was posting about how the revolution was coming, the revolution started.  Mathematicians are setting up community-run, open access journals independent of larger publishers.

I had never heard of Aaron Swartz before he died.  Swartz was 2 1/2 years younger than me and spent his life working on, with, and around the internet and its various limitations.  I have a lot of respect for what he accomplished, not only in terms of the technical progress that he was a part of, but also because of his philosophy about open access to information.  In the wake of his death, supporters took to Twitter to post free copies of their publications, whether or not the material was in the public domain.  This reflects Swartz’s actions in downloading millions of academic papers from the MIT network which precipitated the court case that he was fighting when he chose to end his life.Read More »