Archive for December, 2009

Hampered? Open up your links basket!

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

The Virtual Training Suite’s Links Basket feature is the subject of today’s blog post

The Virtual Training Suite is a set of free Internet tutorials to help students develop Internet research skills for their university course. Each tutorial contains a number of learning objectives, and is divided into four main sections: the best of the Web for your subject; advice and examples on how to find scholarly information online; details on how to discern which Internet resources are appropriate for university work; and finally some summary scenarios which brings together all of the learning points made in the tutorial in stories of both success, and failure.

Peppered throughout the tutorial are references to websites which are either key resources for the specific tutorial subject, or more generic sites which online researchers should be aware of. To supplement these website references, the tutorials all contain a links basket feature, which works in much the same way as a shopping cart on shopping sites such as Amazon. The links basket allows users working through a tutorial to save the links which they find most useful and store them in their own basket for later use.

Zoomed-in view of the links basket counter

The links basket itself has two views – ‘Links stored in your links basket’, and ‘All links in this tutorial’ which allow you either review the links you’ve saved, or see all the links mentioned throughout the tutorial. In addition to these views, there are tools available within from the links basket page which allow the user to make more use of the links which have been collected: they can be sent to an email address; the page of links can be itself be bookmarked; and perhaps most useful, the collected links can be exported as a file suitable for importing into your browser Bookmarks/Favorites or to a Social Bookmarking tool such as Delicious. It’s this export to Delicious which we will look at in more detail in this article.

Zoomed-in view of links basket export option

Selecting the ‘Export your links basket’ option will prompt you to save a file to your computer called ‘bookmarks.html’. Once saved to your computer, this file can either then be imported into your browser of choice, or you can login to your account on Delicious.com, and find your way to Settings > Bookmarks > Import / Upload and then selecting the Manual Import option you can upload the saved bookmarks file from your computer, and import all the links in to Delicious. This may take some time, depending on how many links you are importing, so it might be a good time to go and get a coffee or take a screen break while you wait. After a short while you should get an email telling you your links have been successfully imported.

Your new Delicious bookmarks list should now look something like:

imported-delicious-links

You can now add further tags, edit the links, or share them with other Delicious users and accounts. Leaving the ‘Virtual Trainings Suite’ tags in place should help remind you that these links came from a trusted source, and that they are suitable for use for your academic work.

The combined public bookmark collections of Delicious users build up into a large collection of annotated Web pages, which users can consult even if they haven’t registered as a Delicious user. This means that by adding the Virtual Training Suite links to your Delicious collection and making them public, other people can benefit as you will be helping them find quality resources suitable for their university work.

Wikipedia and academia

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Today’s guest post about Wikipedia has been written by Martin Poulter.

Martin (User:MartinPoulter) has made more than 2,000 edits to the English language version of Wikipedia, including a rewrite of the Confirmation bias article, and new articles on Introspection illusion, Attribute substitution and Illusory superiority.

Martin has a PhD from the University of Bristol and is the ICT Manager for the Economics Network, where his work with wikis has informed the development of the TRUE project – where wiki based websites provide access to Open Educational Resources in economics.

Martin writes about his experience as a contributor to Wikipedia.

Voluntary work for an obscure educational charity

Behind the apparently chaotic, wild-west culture of Wikipedia (WP) is an ethos that is very serious about article quality, reliable sourcing and academic credibility. Look just behind the scenes, and there is a great bulk of policy documents and style guidelines covering everything from fair representation of scientific controversies to the proper use of italics.

The quality of individual articles ranges from outstanding to appalling, but the system keeps improvements and rejects vandalism, allowing the quality to evolve upwards. Inevitably, there are crackpots (the bad kind of obsessive) pushing fringe views as fact, but there are dedicated administrators (the good kind of obsessive) reverting and punishing vandalism and enforcing policy.

Debates about what is true are irrelevant to WP, which is only concerned with what can be verified in reliable published sources and summarised in an engaging way for a general audience. This clear goal makes it possible for people with widely different perspectives to collaborate, since our focus is on article quality, not our own opinions.

Since WP is for summaries of published material, not for original research, I cannot include my critical reflections on the sources I use. That can be a difficult adjustment when you are used to academic writing, but balanced against that is the prospect of reaching a huge readership; thousands of hits per day for many articles.

The very best articles have Good Article and Featured Article badges that are earned through a review process as demanding as that for some academic journals. I have had rapid, detailed, sometimes line-by-line feedback on my contributions, which has really helped both my writing and critical thinking about the article topics.

All users are on a level playing field, where existing qualifications mean nothing. Here again, what initially appears to be anti-expert actually weighs in our favour. Contributions are judged on their own merit, rather than on who wrote them. Hence it is enormously useful to actually know the subject, especially if you can access subscription-only journals and research databases. Text that is referenced to the best peer-reviewed sources is what I call “armoured”; another user who tries to remove it will get into trouble unless they have a good reason.

By joining a Wikiproject, users can find out what needs doing in a particular subject area. Some tasks require serious thought and research, while others take literally a minute. I follow the Rational Skepticism and Psychology wikiprojects, although the latter is relatively quiet.

The English Wikipedia is only one of many projects run by the Wikimedia Foundation, a US-based charity. There are versions of the encyclopedia in 270 other languages, as well as sister projects including Wikisource (for public-domain primary materials), Wikimedia Commons (audio-visual content) Wikiquote (quotations), Wikispecies, and Wikinews.

So although I tear my hair out at some of its misleading junk content, I am impressed with the process behind WP. That process has produced a lot of excellent content in only a few years: let’s see what happens in a generation or two.