Blogging your research: Tips for getting started

Curious about research blogging, but not sure where to start?

Alice Fleerackersand Lupin Battersby of the ScholCommLab have put together a good post on Blogging your research: Tips for getting started. Despite being committed to blogging (this blog has been going since 2003) I must admit that I’m not sure blogging has the impact it once had. Twitter seems to have replaced blogging as a way to quickly share and follow research. Blog platforms, like WordPress have become project news and promotion systems.

What few talk about is how blogging can be a way of journaling for oneself. My blog certainly serves as a form of memory by and for myself. If only I search it (which I often do when I’m looking for information about something I knew but forgot) then it is still useful. Does everything in academia have to be about promotion and public impact?

In this age of fake news we seem to be back in the situation that Socrates and Gorgias sparred about in Plato’s Gorgias. Gorgias makes the point that the orator or, in today’s terms the communications specialist, can be more convincing than the scholar because they know how to “communicate”.

Socrates: Then the case is the same in all the other arts for the orator and his rhetoric: there is no need to know [459c] the truth of the actual matters, but one merely needs to have discovered some device of persuasion which will make one appear to those who do not know to know better than those who know.

Gorgias: Well, and is it not a great convenience, Socrates, to make oneself a match for the professionals by learning just this single art and omitting all the others? (Gorgias 459a)

It certainly feels like today there is a positive distrust of expertise such that the blatant lie, if repeated often enough, can convince those who want to hear the lie. Does communicating about our research have the beneficial effect we hope it does? Or, does it inflate our bubble without touching that of others?

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise – Infolet

I’m republishing here a blog essay originally in Italian that Domenico Fiormonte posted on Infolet that is worth reading,

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise

By Domenico Fiormonte

(All links removed. They can be found in the original post – English Translation by Desmond Schmidt)

A group of professors from Italian universities have written an open letter on the consequences of using proprietary digital platforms in distance learning. They hope that a discussion on the future of education will begin as soon as possible and that the investments discussed in recent weeks will be used to create a public digital infrastructure for schools and universities.


Dear colleagues and students,

as you already know, since the COVID-19 emergency began, Italian schools and universities have relied on proprietary platforms and tools for distance learning (including exams), which are mostly produced by the “GAFAM” group of companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon). There are a few exceptions, such as the Politecnico di Torino, which has adopted instead its own custom-built solutions. However, on July 16, 2020 the European Court of Justice issued a very important ruling, which essentially says that US companies do not guarantee user privacy in accordance with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As a result, all data transfers from the EU to the United States must be regarded as non-compliant with this regulation, and are therefore illegal.

A debate on this issue is currently underway in the EU, and the European Authority has explicitly invited “institutions, offices, agencies and organizations of the European Union to avoid transfers of personal data to the United States for new procedures or when securing new contracts with service providers.” In fact the Irish Authority has explicitly banned the transfer of Facebook user data to the United States. Finally, some studies underline how the majority of commercial platforms used during the “educational emergency” (primarily G-Suite) pose serious legal problems and represent a “systematic violation of the principles of transparency.”

In this difficult situation, various organizations, including (as stated below) some university professors, are trying to help Italian schools and universities comply with the ruling. They do so in the interests not only of the institutions themselves, but also of teachers and students, who have the right to study, teach and discuss without being surveilled, profiled and catalogued. The inherent risks in outsourcing teaching to multinational companies, who can do as they please with our data, are not only cultural or economic, but also legal: anyone, in this situation, could complain to the privacy authority to the detriment of the institution for which they are working.

However, the question goes beyond our own right, or that of our students, to privacy. In the renewed COVID emergency we know that there are enormous economic interests at stake, and the digital platforms, which in recent months have increased their turnover (see the study published in October by Mediobanca), now have the power to shape the future of education around the world. An example is what is happening in Italian schools with the national “Smart Class” project, financed with EU funds by the Ministry of Education. This is a package of “integrated teaching” where Pearson contributes the content for all the subjects, Google provides the software, and the hardware is the Acer Chromebook. (Incidentally, Pearson is the second largest publisher in the world, with a turnover of more than 4.5 billion euros in 2018.) And for the schools that join, it is not possible to buy other products.

Finally, although it may seem like science fiction, in addition to stabilizing proprietary distance learning as an “offer”, there is already talk of using artificial intelligence to “support” teachers in their work.

For all these reasons, a group of professors from various Italian universities decided to take action. Our initiative is not currently aimed at presenting an immediate complaint to the data protection officer, but at avoiding it, by allowing teachers and students to create spaces for discussion and encourage them to make choices that combine their freedom of teaching with their right to study. Only if the institutional response is insufficient or absent, we will register, as a last resort, a complaint to the national privacy authority. In this case the first step will be to exploit the “flaw” opened by the EU court ruling to push the Italian privacy authority to intervene (indeed, the former President, Antonello Soro, had already done so, but received no response). The purpose of these actions is certainly not to “block” the platforms that provide distance learning and those who use them, but to push the government to finally invest in the creation of a public infrastructure based on free software for scientific communication and teaching (on the model of what is proposed here and
which is already a reality for example in France, Spain and other European countries).

As we said above, before appealing to the national authority, a preliminary stage is necessary. Everyone must write to the data protection officer (DPO) requesting some information (attached here is the facsimile of the form for teachers we have prepared). If no response is received within thirty days, or if the response is considered unsatisfactory, we can proceed with the complaint to the national authority. At that point, the conversation will change, because the complaint to the national authority can be made not only by individuals, but also by groups or associations. It is important to emphasize that, even in this avoidable scenario, the question to the data controller is not necessarily a “protest” against the institution, but an attempt to turn it into a better working and study environment for everyone, conforming to European standards.

How’s the Alberta PSE Re-Think Going?

Anyways, in sum: the emerging Alberta 2030 recommendations are for the most part banalities.  Not necessarily bad banalities – there are a lot of worthy ideas in there, just none which suggest any evidence of innovative thinking or actual learning from other jurisdictions.  But there are two obvious flashpoints, neither of which seems very promising ground for the government to launch fights.

Alex Usher has just posted How’s the Alberta PSE Re-Think Going? (Part 2) which, surprise, follows How’s the Alberta PSE Re-Think Going? (Part 1). Part 1 deals with whether the McKinsey review of Post-Secondary Education is worth the $3.7 million the province is paying for it. (It is not!) Part 2 looks at the recommendations.

What Usher doesn’t talk much about is the “Building Skill for Jobs” aspect of the whole exercise. The assumption is that PSE is all about giving students skills so they can get jobs. I also suspect that the skills imagined by the government are mostly those needed by the energy industry, even though there might not be the jobs in the future. As Usher puts it, “most UCP policy is a nostalgia play for the resource boom of 2004-2014”.

The two flashpoints Usher mentions are 1) a recommendation around deregulating tuition and then balancing that with needs-based financial aid. 2) The second is a recommendation to have fewer boards. Instead of a board for institution, there could be just one board for the research university sector.

We shall see.

Automatic grading and how to game it

Edgenuity involves short answers graded by an algorithm, and students have already cracked it

The Verge has a story on how students are figuring out how to game automatic marking systems like Edgenuity. The story is titled, These students figured out their tests were graded by AI — and the easy way to cheat. The story describes a keyword salad approach where you just enter a list of words that the grader may be looking for. The grader doesn’t know whether what your wrote is legible or nonsense, it just looks for the right words. The students in turn get good as skimming the study materials for the keywords needed (or find lists shared by other students online.)

Perhaps we could build a tool called Edgenorance which you could feed the study materials to and it would generate the keyword list automatically. It could watch the lectures for you, do the speech recognition, then extract the relevant keywords based on the text of the question.

None of this should be surprising. Companies have been promoting algorithms that were probably word based for a while. The algorithm works if it is not understood and thus not gamed. Perhaps we will get AIs that can genuinely understand a short paragraph answer and assess it, but that will be close to an artificial general intelligence and such an AGI will change everything.

Sean Gouglas Remembers Stéfan Sinclair

Sean Gouglas shared these memories of Stéfan Sinclair with me and asked me to post them. They are from when they started the Humanities Computing programme at the University of Alberta where I am lucky to now teach.

In the summer of 2001, two newly-minted PhDs started planning how they were going to build and then teach a new graduate program in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta. This was the first such program in North America. To be absolutely honest, Stéfan Sinclair and I really had no idea what we were doing. The next few months were both exhausting and exhilarating. Working with Stéfan was a professional and personal treat, especially considering that he had an almost infinite capacity for hard work. I remember him coding up the first Humanities Computing website in about seven minutes — the first HuCo logo appearing like a rising sun on a dark blue background. It also had an unfortunate typo that neither of us noticed for years. 

It was an inspiration to work with Stéfan. He was kind and patient with students, demanding a lot from them but giving even more back. He promoted the program passionately at every conference, workshop, and seminar. Over the next three years, there was a lot of coffee, a lot of spicy food, a beer or two, some volleyball, some squash, and then he and Stephanie were off to McMaster for their next adventure. 

Our Digital Humanities program has changed a lot since then — new courses, new programs, new faculty, and even a new name. Through that change, the soul of the program remained the same and it was shaped and molded by the vision and hard work of Stéfan Sinclair. 

On the 6th of August, Stéfan died of cancer. The Canadian Society for Digital Humanities has a lovely tribute, which can be found here: https://csdh-schn.org/stefan-sinclair-in-memoriam/. It was written in part by Geoffrey Rockwell, who worked closely with Stéfan for more than two decades. 

OSS advise on how to sabotage organizations or conferences

On Twitter someone posted a link to a 1944 OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual. This includes simple, but brilliant advice on how to sabotage organizations or conferences.

This sounds a lot like what we all do when we academics normally do as a matter of principle. I particularly like the advice to “Make ‘speeches.'” I imagine many will see themselves in their less cooperative moments in this list of actions or their committee meetings.

The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) was the US office that turned into the CIA.

What coding really teaches children

You’ve seen movies where programmers pound out torrents of code? That is nothing like reality. Most of the time, coders don’t type at all; they sit and stare morosely at the screen, running their hands through their hair, trying to spot what they’ve done wrong. It can take hours, days, or even weeks. But once the bug is fixed and the program starts working again, the burst of pleasure has a narcotic effect.

Stéfan pointed me to a nice opinion piece about programming education in the Globe titled, Opinion: What coding really teaches children. Clive Thompson that teaching programming in elementary school will not necessarily teach math but it can teach kids about the digital world and teach them the persistence it takes to get complex things working. He also worries, as I do, about asking elementary teachers to learn enough coding to be able to teach it. This could be a recipe for alienating a lot of students who are taught by teachers who haven’t learned.

Internet Archive closes the National Emergency Library

Within a few days of the announcement that libraries, schools and colleges across the nation would be closing due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, we launched the temporary National Emergency Library to provide books to support emergency remote teaching, research activities, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation during the closures.  […]

According to the Internet Archive blog the Temporary National Emergency Library to close 2 weeks early, returning to traditional controlled digital lending. The National Emergency Library (NEL) was open to anyone in the world during a time when physical libraries were closed. It made books the IA had digitized available to read online. It was supposed to close at the end of June because four commercial publishers decided to sue. 

The blog entry points to what the HathiTrust is doing as part of their Emergency Temporary Access Service which lets libraries that are members (and the U of Alberta Library is one) provide access to digital copies of books they have corresponding physical copies of. This is only available to “member libraries that have experienced unexpected or involuntary, temporary disruption to normal operations, requiring it to be closed to the public”. 

It is a pity the IS NEL was discontinued, for a moment there it looked like large public service digital libraries might become normal. Instead it looks like we will have a mix of commercial e-book services and Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) offered by libraries that have the physical books and the digital resources to organize it. The IA blog entry goes on to note that even CDL is under attack. Here is a story from Plagiarism Today:

Though the National Emergency Library may have been what provoked the lawsuit, the complaint itself is much broader. Ultimately, it targets the entirety of the IA’s digital lending practices, including the scanning of physical books to create digital books to lend.

The IA has long held that its practices are covered under the concept of controlled digital lending (CDL). However, as the complaint notes, the idea has not been codified by a court and is, at best, very controversial. According to the complaint, the practice of scanning a physical book for digital lending, even when the number of copies is controlled, is an infringement.

CSDH / SCHN 2020 was brilliant online

Today was the last day of the CSDH / SCHN 2020 online conference. You can see my conference notes here. The conference had to go online due to Covid-19 and the cancellation of Congress 2020. That said, the online conference web brilliantly. The Programme Committee, chaired by Kim Martin, deserve a lot of credit as do the folks at the U of Alberta Arts Resource Centre who provided technical support. Some of the things they did that

  • The schedule has a single track across 5 days rather than parallel tracks over 3 days. See the schedule.
  • There were only 3 and half hours of sessions a day (from 9:00am to 12:30 Western time) so you could get other things done. (There were also hangout sessions before and after.)
  • Papers (or prepared presentations) had to be put up the week before on Humanities Commons.
  • The live presentations during the conference were thus kept to 3 minutes or so, which allowed sessions to be shorter which allowed them to have a single track.
  • They had a chair and a respondent for each session which meant that there was a lot of discussion instead of long papers and no time for questions. In fact, the discussion seemed better than at on site conferences.
  • They used Eventbrite for registration, Zoom for the registrants-only parts of the conference, and Google Meet for the open parts.
  • They had hangout or informal sessions at the beginning and end of each day where more informal discussion could take place.

The nice thing about the conference was that they took advantage of the medium. As none of us had flown to London, Ontario, they were able to stretch the conference over 5 days, but not use up the entire day.

All told, I think they have shown that an online conference can work surprisingly well if properly planned and supported.

Introducing the AI4Society Signature Area

AI4Society will provide institutional leadership in this exciting area of teaching, research, and scholarship.

The Quad has a story Introducing the AI4Society Signature Area. Artificial Intelligence for Society is a University of Alberta Signature Area that brings together researchers and instructors from both the sciences and the arts. AI4S looks at how AI can be imagined, designed, and tested so that it serves society. I’m lucky to contribute to this Area as the Associate Director, working with the Director, Eleni Stroulia from Computing Science.