Monday, 25 February 2013

Productivity for Academic Librarians and Researchers: Session 4 - Getting Things Done

Session 4 of the Year of Productivity programme, and Getting Things Done gets a mention. I’d heard of the GTD system before, but had been put off trying it – it seemed like so much work and that’s before you even start on your actual tasks.

However, thinking about it, a lot of it actually makes sense. David Allen, who came up with GTD, argues that you can’t be productive if your brain is buzzing with all the things you need to remember to do. I remember when I was studying for my GCSEs, and I couldn't sleep for thinking about everything I had to do – I would get up and make a list of all the projects, pieces of coursework and other random bits of work I had to complete, and found that simply writing it down helped, because I knew I didn't have to remember it all – everything was written down. Even now, one of the first things I do when I feel overwhelmed or stressed is to make a list – this is true for both my personal and professional life. I am a seriously compulsive list maker.

It does seem that there is more to GTD than to-do lists, and I actually ended up ordering the book to explore it in more detail. While I wait for it to arrive, I will begin to implement some of the principles.

This session’s tasks included doing the ‘data dump’ and sorting it into projects, actions and categories. I had fun doing this and decided to sign up for along the way. I tried out Remember the Milk (another list-making app) for a couple of weeks, and while it is straightforward and easy to use, it is comparatively basic in its functionality. is an obsessive list-maker’s dream, with its different categories and filters, and the ability to nest tasks. You can sort tasks into different Projects, which makes it ideal for GTD. There is a ‘Today’ button you can click to find out what is due today, and I like the ‘Next’ filter, which shows you tasks with the soonest deadlines from all categories.

I read an interesting blog post by Bethan Ruddock recently, which points out how much more difficult it is to change small everyday habits than big ones, as we don’t see them as so important. With this in mind, I’m going to try extra hard to stay focused on maintaining and reviewing my lists.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) - Digital Artefact (Final Assignment)

As the final part of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course, I've created a digital artefact which forms the final assignment for the course. I had a number of platforms to choose from, but opted for Thinglink, which helps you create interactive images - you select an image and add links to videos, images, articles, and anything else you like.

I found this task rather difficult: I am used to writing essays and even giving presentations, but something like this is highly unusual for me. I enjoyed the challenge but I'm not entirely happy with the result. I hope I will receive some useful feedback.

Here is my artefact:

A Technological Revolution?
(Original image courtesy of

I'd really appreciate any comments or suggestions.

Friday, 22 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) - Being Human, Week 4: Redefining the Human

The fourth and final week of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course looked, like Week 3, at the concept of ‘being human’ – but from the perspective of how technology works to redefine our notions of humanity. The videos provided an interesting introduction to the topic, particularly ‘Robbie’ which imagined a robot with which what many would describe as ‘human’ attributes, floating around in space at the end of his ‘life’. I found this moving and quite sad – but I’m not convinced that artificial intelligences with ‘human-like’ thoughts and feelings are the future. Maybe we are imposing our own ideas and values onto these?

The readings, which looked at the concept of transhumanism, were eye-opening. Despite claims of a utopian future characterised by individual autonomy and a projected end of death and suffering, I felt deeply distrustful of the idea that perfection could be achieved. When reading Nick Bostrom’s piece on transhumanist values1, I found it hard to believe it was sincere – it seemed like a spoof. As Hayles2 points out, it focuses on individual choice and autonomy without acknowledging the wider implications of society, and doesn’t look at what will happen in terms of population increase if people are able to live longer.

Despite claims to the contrary, the concept of transhumanism has echoes of Nazi-esque eugenics and cult religion. Many of the ideas seem far-fetched, and I think they are unlikely to be realised in the near future, if at all. The idea that human limitations can be transcended and the ‘evil’ of death destroyed I found alternately silly and terrifying.

The articles exploring educational perspectives were much more palatable and relevant to the online learning context. The EPSRC document on technology enhanced learning3 argues that learning needs to exploit the potential of technology the way other areas of life and work have been doing for years. Broadly speaking I agree with this idea, although I took issue with some of the generalisations made, such as that “almost everyone in the UK has a powerful computer in their pocket” – really? This report, like so many readings from the course, barely acknowledges the digital divide between those who have, enjoy and are competent at using technology and the huge numbers who have difficulty affording and using such equipment.

Carr’s piece4 explores the sobering idea that modern use of technology, particularly the Internet, is changing the way we learn and think. In particular he focuses on a growing inability to concentrate on deep, close reading of longer texts in the face of the mass of information available at our fingertips, which we tend to click through and skim-read. This isn’t necessarily a completely bad thing but it serves as a reminder of the impact technology has on our learning.

Having finished the reading for this course, my next task is to complete the assignment, which involves creating a digital artefact relating to one or more of the topics covered. After that I’d like to have a proper think about what I’ve got out of this course and examine my views on MOOCs as a whole.

1Bostrom, N. (2005). Transhumanist values, Review of Contemporary Philosophy, Vol. 4. [Accessed 21 February 2013].

2Hayles, N. K. (2011). Wrestling with transhumanism. Metanexus. h-wrestling-transhumanism. [Accessed 21 February 2013].

3EPSRC (2012). System upgrade: realising the vision for UK education, EPSRC Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme. [Accessed 21 February 2013].

4Carr, M. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? The Atlantic. [Accessed 21 February 2013].

Monday, 18 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) - Being Human, Week 3: Reasserting the Human

This week I moved on to the second part of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course, which focuses on the concept of being human. In particular it looks at the implications for education of the meaning of humanity within an increasingly digital culture, and how this will pan out in the future.

The first part of ‘Being Human’ is about the supposed threat to ‘the human’ and how to reassert the essential nature of humanity – if indeed there is such a thing. I found the videos for this week quite interesting in this respect. I didn’t like the computer-generated nature of the Toyota advert and it reminded me of the new Andrex puppy ad – the animated puppy being infinitely inferior to the original, real puppy. The BT advert was more interesting from a ‘being human’ perspective, seemingly claiming that speaking on the phone is somehow more ‘human’ than texting, emailing or computer messaging. Personally I absolutely detest speaking on the phone and will use pretty much any other communication method in preference: emailing, texting, letter-writing, meeting up in person… while I can understand the advantage of telephone conversations in the sense that you can hear the other person’s voice, I don’t think that they are necessarily any more ‘human’ than other forms of communication. I think a well-written email or even a traditional letter can convey much more personality and emotion.

Many of this week’s texts were philosophical in nature and I found them quite thought-provoking. Steve Fuller’s talk on defining humanity1 provided a useful overview of the issues raised; this and Neil Badmington’s discussion of posthumanism2 made me question what I thought about humanity. The articles looking at the ‘human’ element in the context of education were the most fascinating, contrasting Kolowich’s piece on developing video and audio as ways to deliver learning online with Monke’s piece lamenting the use of computers as educational tools for young children. This latter piece reminded me of the ‘World Made of Glass’ video from last week, in which children seemed rather detached from the natural world. Kolowich’s piece in some ways reminded me of the BT advert, claiming that some forms of communication are better or more worthwhile than others. Are video and audio more ‘human’ than written text?

This week raised some interesting questions which I am still thinking about, and I look forward to the final week which explores the other side of the ‘being human’ question.

1Fuller, Steve. Humanity 2.0: defining humanity – Steve Fuller’s TEDx Warwick talk (24:08), [Accessed 18 February 2013].

2Badmington, Neil (2000). Introduction: approaching posthumanism. Posthumanism. Houndmills; New York: Palgrave. [Accessed 18 February 2013].

3Kolowich, S (2010). The Human Element. Inside Higher Ed. [Accessed 18 February 2013].

4Monke, L. (2004).The Human Touch, EducationNext [Accessed 18 February 2013].

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Productivity for Academic Librarians and Researchers: Session 3 - Email

Session 3 of the Year of Productivity programme looks at email, and the different ways this can be managed. Like many people I get quite a lot of emails every day and it becomes important to manage them so that they don’t take over my life.

1. The author of the Getting Things Done: My Experiences using GTD” blog has a post entitled “Evolution of my email setup”. Read this article and write a short accounting of how you would describe your email evolution. Are you a slave to your inbox?
My own ‘email evolution’ is fairly similar to the author’s in some ways: I started with just one, rarely-used email account when I was a teenager, and over the years I have ended up with four accounts that are all much more heavily used these days. This is particularly true of my work account: I've never been bombarded with emails in any of my jobs, but I get many more in my current role than I ever used to. I do tend to check my inbox whenever an email comes in: partly out of curiosity and partly in case it is urgent. Twice a week I am on Helpdesk, and I need to keep a close eye on this email account at these times to ensure I keep up with any service requests.

I was surprised to read that the author of the article referenced above prints out emails in order to keep a hard copy and get rid of the electronic mail message. I don’t see the point of this myself, as it strikes me as a waste of paper. The idea of filing and organising emails, and acting on important ones straight away, do however seem like good ideas to me.

2. Investigate the tutorials / help sections for your particular email system. I've provided links to several systems in the Selected Reading section below. Spend a little time and experiment with creating a filter for a category of emails that you want to read but don’t want to interrupt you every day when they arrive. Add an appointment to your calendar to remind you to review that filtered folder at another specified time.
At work I use Groupwise, and though I had a quick look at some help resources I’m not convinced they will help me organise my email. I haven’t signed up to any mailing lists with this account: any emails I receive need to be looked at, if not straight away then fairly soon, and I’d prefer all my emails to go straight into an inbox.

My personal accounts are another matter, but again I don’t like the idea of new emails going anywhere but my inbox. I would rather use folders to store emails I've already looked at and want to keep. I’m the sort of person who can’t stand to have an unread email in their account, so filters would be no good for me!

3. Explore the Inbox Zero resources. Is Merlin Mann’s technique something you would like to try? Think about ways to chunk the initial setup process to make it more doable for you and your email.
I’m not sure if the entire Inbox Zero technique would work for me – partly because downloadable programs won’t work on my work email, and I am too concerned about not leaving any emails unread to be happy about setting up a filter to check once or twice a week. Frankly, I don’t get enough email to need to do this. However, there are some interesting points raised, such as dealing with email as soon as it comes in, unsubscribing from unwanted mailing lists, and using folders in order to find information quickly.

4. Share! What helpful hints, techniques, or articles/blog posts would you like to share with the rest of us?
I’m sure there are advantages to having all your email go to one inbox, but I prefer using several. At work we use Groupwise, and I have three personal email accounts: Gmail for professional and career-related stuff; Hotmail for personal stuff; and Yahoo for mailing lists and sign-ups that I don’t want cluttering up my Hotmail. This system lets me focus on work during work hours and ignore it in my free time, and I can focus on the important personal stuff in Hotmail without bothering with all the newsletters that clog up my Yahoo inbox (but which I don’t want to get rid of completely).

At work, I leave emails in my inbox until I have acted upon them. If my inbox gets too cluttered, that’s a sign I need to focus more on tasks that need completion. Afterwards, if they need to be kept, the emails go into a folder related to their subject. This system works well for me, but it might be too simple for someone who gets a hundred emails a day.

I like the idea of leaving the first hour of the day to work on important tasks, not checking email until after this time is up. I've been trying this for the last week and find I do get more done when I can get in and get straight down to work.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) - Utopias & Dystopias, Week 2: Looking to the Future

The second week in the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course looked at the future – how is technology, particularly in the context of education, predicted to change over the course of the century and beyond? I am interested in this on a personal level, being curious about how technology will develop, as well as in a professional sense: my job and certainly my career are likely to change as a result of future developments.

Participants were initially required to watch several videos, including two adverts from technology companies which presented visions of the future. Here, technology is seamlessly integrated into everyday life, with classroom walls and car dashboards and kitchen work surfaces acting as touch screens, and families and colleagues sharing experiences and ideas in a utopian community.

Apart from wondering how much all of this would cost, I found the visions presented slightly disturbing – new and exciting they might be, but they were also bland and seemed rather detached from the physical world. In particular, the section in which the schoolchildren used glass touchscreens to look at ‘dinosaurs’ in the forest made an impression on me: using technology to explore and learn is not in itself a bad thing, but I thought it was a shame that the children were ignoring the actual world around them – the trees, grass, sky, wildlife – and viewing everything through a pane of glass. On the other hand, the concept of sharing ideas and experiences is a positive one.

The other three videos presented fictional narratives based on future worlds where technological developments have profoundly affected the way we live, but though these were interesting, the overwhelmingly dystopian nature of all of the worlds was rather dramatic.

The core reading for the week1 looked at how the use of metaphors helps us to relate to the internet and reflect cultural values. Johnston looks at the commonly used metaphors of space and speed, destruction and salvation often linked with the web (and ‘web’ itself is a metaphor), which often encompass the same absolute values of utopian and dystopian viewpoints. Another article by Bleecker2 looked at the concept of an ‘Internet of Things’, in which objects blog and in so doing provide valuable information – such as the location of lost luggage in the airport. I must admit that the reference to luggage “that has lost its human” made me think of the Luggage in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, running here and there on its numerous little legs.

Two contrasting viewpoints were presented by Clay Shirky3 and Aaron Bady4, the one claiming that MOOCs herald a positive educational revolution, with the other arguing that this is by no means certain and that most MOOC providers are profit-driven businesses. Both have vested interests in their respective positions, but I thought that both made valid points. Personally, I have serious doubts whether MOOCs can or should replace traditional university courses: the free model is not sustainable in the long-term and the large numbers of participants aren’t conducive to in-depth group discussion. Without access to the library resources that traditional universities provide, MOOCs are forced to rely on free online resources that may or may not be reliable. As a history graduate, I am sympathetic to the humanities academics cited in Bady’s article who state that MOOCs cannot replicate the general intangible intellectual atmosphere and discussion found in a traditional university environment. Shirky does make the point that contemporary higher education is now hugely expensive, and some students may see obvious advantages in going down the online route. Neither writer refers to the millions of people around the world who lack the Internet access necessary to take a course online – the very same people who are likely to lack the means to enter a traditional university.

It may be that the MOOC is a fad, and online learning may go down the route of correspondence courses which surged in popularity a century ago before dying out.5 Certainly MOOCs are known to have high dropout rates, and according to a fellow course participant, those with Masters degrees and PhDs are those most likely to stick at them and pass – perhaps suggesting that the self-discipline and study skills needed to successfully learn online are those which can themselves be learned best in more traditional study environments. I think it’s notable that within a very short time of this course starting, there were numerous forum posts arranging real-life meet-ups.

I’m still forming my thoughts on this issue, but I’m not convinced that MOOCs and other kinds of online courses will either save or destroy education. After all, the Open University in Britain did not spell the end for traditional institutions. Unlike the correspondence course, I believe e-learning of one form or another is here to stay – but I don’t think that it can or should replace traditional education. Online courses have huge potential for disseminating high quality learning and information, and for sharing thoughts and ideas around the world; but the benefits of a traditional university campus education are too many to be dismissed.

1Johnston, R (2009). Salvation or destruction: metaphors of the internet. First Monday, 14(4). [Accessed 12 February 2013].

2Bleecker, J. (2006). A manifesto for networked objects — Cohabiting with pigeons, arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

3Shirky, C. (2012). Napster, Udacity and the academy., 12 November 2012. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

4Bady, A. (2012). Questioning Clay Shirky. Inside Higher Ed, 6 December 2012. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

5Carr, N. (2012). The Crisis in Higher Education. MIT Technology Review, 27 September 2012. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

Monday, 4 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) - Utopias & Dystopias, Week 1: Looking to the Past

Last week I signed up to the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course on Coursera. Run by tutors on the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Digital Education, the course is an example of a MOOC (massive open online course) – a relatively new development in distance education.

As an Information Officer working in the e-learning field, I was keen to participate in the course, not only to learn more about the wider context of the field in which I work but also to experience e-learning from the ‘other side’, which will hopefully help me in assisting the students and staff at my institution with their questions.

The five-week course has been designed to look at two themes, followed by a final assessment. The first theme is Utopias & Dystopias, exploring how and why e-learning and digital culture has been portrayed as both utopian and dystopian in popular culture and academic literature.

Week 1: Looking to the Past

The first week explored past views of utopian and dystopian writing on e-learning. We also had to watch a few short films about technology and its impact on humanity. During this time, we were encouraged to discuss the ideas on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the course forums, but the course has so many participants that the flood of information rather daunted me – I ended up attending a study group instead, meeting a couple of other London-based participants on Sunday to discuss the ideas raised.

I found the readings and discussion interesting as it made me look at technology and e-learning in a whole new light. Some of the videos related more closely to technology in general, rather than e-learning in particular, but I still found them useful from a theoretical point of view.

The core reading1 was a useful introduction to the topic of technological determinism, the idea of the importance of technology in instigating social change. Further articles explored the concept of e-learning and the role of technology in learning in general, often with very contrasting viewpoints. I couldn’t help feeling that the opposing viewpoints of utopian/dystopian scenarios were rather simplistic – surely the actuality is more complex?

My initial thoughts, as a history graduate, flew to the invention of the printing press which helped to facilitate religious change within Europe, and the Industrial Revolution which changed the fabric of the UK and Europe in later centuries. Of course it is simplistic to state that technology was the only thing that led to this change, but it did play a large part.

Insofar as I ever thought about it, I always subscribed to the idea that technology itself was neutral – that it is what you do with it that counts. On a simplistic level, for example, librarians seek to use technology to help make information more widely available; totalitarian states can use technology to survey and spy on their citizens. One of the ideas explored in the reading and media was that this is not true – that technology can be built for an inherent purpose or can have repercussions beyond what was originally intended – the ‘Frankenstein syndrome’ defined by Neil Postman (1983). In our group discussion on Sunday, we talked about this concept in relation to the guillotine and the atom bomb, among other things. To me, the growth in popularity of tablet computers, produced without a built-in keyboard, suggests the development of a passive mode of consumption different to the communicative nature of the computer keyboard, which lets you record your thoughts and ideas (someone less obsessed with the written word and more highly disposed to telephone or video communication may see this entirely differently!).

Linked to the ‘Frankenstein syndrome’ was the concept of ‘resistentialism’ – this fictional concept was invented by Paul Jennings in 1948, and put forward the idea that the more crucial a piece of technology is at any given moment, the more likely it is that it will refuse to work. I am sure I am not the only one to feel that this has the ring of truth about it! On a more serious note, it is an example of the easy way in which we can invest inanimate technological equipment with human attributes, such as stubbornness, awkwardness and petulance (and that’s just the printer…).

I was intrigued by two pieces, one offering a utopian and the other a largely dystopian view of online education. J. Daniel’s speech for UNESCO2 argues that e-learning can help to solve the problems of quality and cost that currently plague universities, while D. Noble’s article3 claims that online education will lead to a decline in teaching quality and the commercialisation of education. I thought that both had their points, but I still feel that both positions are too simplistic. After all, there is still a divide between those who have access to the Internet and online learning and those who have not, and most if not all universities nowadays have at least some course content online.

Prensky’s famous paper4 espoused the ‘digital natives’ versus ‘digital immigrants’ theory, arguing that older people who did not grow up with technology – the ‘digital immigrants’ – need to learn to adapt to new ways of working in order to keep pace with the younger ‘digital natives’. This theory is very simplistic, and ignores other factors relating to how and when people adopt technology, such as the digital divide, poverty and other reasons why a younger person might not feel comfortable with technology (not to mention older ones who might be completely at home with it). In my own experience, working on a helpdesk dealing with queries about a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment), many of the students asking questions – several of whom are in their early twenties – don’t show a high level of technological understanding.

After initially wondering what I had let myself in for, I managed to successfully navigate the first week of the course. For the second week I will try to engage more with some of the other course participants on the forums – I might even dip a toe into Google+…

1Chandler, D. (2002). Technological determinism. Web essay, Media and Communications Studies, University of Aberystwyth. [Accessed 1 February 2013]

2Daniel, J. (2002). Technology is the Answer: What was the Question? Speech from Higher Education in the Middle East and North Africa, Paris, Institut du Monde Arabe, 27-29 May 2002. [Accessed 1 February 2013]

3Noble. D. (1998). Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. First Monday 3/1. [Accessed 1 February 2013]

4Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9/5.,%20digital%20immigrants%20-%20part1.pdf. [Accessed 1 February 2013]