All posts by Paul Ayres

What are you doing with your Cognitive Surplus?

Last week, Clay Shirky, the Internet commentator and NYU academic spoke at the Watershed in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas.

A couple of members of the Virtual Training Suite team were lucky enough to get to see Shirky talk about his latest book / idea – the Cognitive Surplus. The central idea is that as we have more free time the Internet can enable us to collaborate – this isn’t necessarily a new thing and Shirky argues that the post war age may be seen as an outlier when we were turned into passive consumers, rather than being the natural collaborators we were before TV came along.

To illustrate the potential scale for this collaborative effort, Shirky estimates that about 100 million hours of effort that has gone into producing Wikipedia over the last decade, yet 200 billion hours of TV are watched in the US each and every year – you could produce another Wikipedia sized website just from the time spent watching adverts on American TV each weekend.

Other examples of online collaboration cited by Shirky included:

  • The Consortium of Loose and Pub Going Women who united online to defeat the suppression of women’s rights in India.
  • The PatientsLikeMe website that brings together those who suffer from various conditions and encourages them to share their medical data to improve drug trials and treatments.
  • The Ushahidi platform that was built to bring together reports of violence and repression around the Kenyan elections and has since been used in a number of other countries, proving that not all these innovations have to come out of California.

The Q&A session explored the concept of “peak” Cognitive Surplus, how it could be applied to reduce a budget by 11% and whether technology is a cause of such change, or just an enabler.

The 90 minute video is split fairly evenly between an initial lecture and questions from the audience. Shirky also reflects on some of the ideas in his talk at the Festival of Ideas website, while you can keep up-to-date with his writings at

Other write-ups of the talk are available from:

Quite how you harness this Cognitive Surplus in education is a tricky question, but one Shirky has shown to be worth reflecting upon.

An introduction to the new Virtual Training Suite tutorials

We recently launched 30 new and updated Virtual Training Suite tutorials covering a range of academic subjects from architecture to petroleum engineering.

The tutorials aim to teach students about the concept of information literacy and develop their Internet research skills.

A short Slidecast (PowerPoint slides with an audio track) should be embedded below or is available via SlideShare.

The Slidecast introduces the Virtual Training Suite, takes you through the structure of the tutorials with sections on Tour, Discover, Judge and Success, makes some suggestions for how the tutorials could be used with students and talks briefly about future developments.

The screenshots from the presentation are available on Flickr and further updates on the Virtual Training Suite are online at the VTStutorials Twitter channel.

Is there a Virtual Training Suite author near you?

Last week the Virtual Training Suite launched 30 new Internet research skills tutorials covering a range of subjects from Architecture to Women’s Studies and from Allied Health to Petroleum Engineering.

The Virtual Training Suite tutorials are written by subject experts from universities and colleges around the UK.

A Google Map is available that shows you where our authors are based, the tutorials they have written and you can even see what a few of them look like!

Screenshots from the tutorials are available on Flickr and updates about them will appear on the Virtual Training Suite Twitter channel.

New Virtual Training Suite Tutorials

30 new Internet tutorials for university students have just been released as part of the Virtual Training Suite.

The tutorials teach Internet research skills for degree subjects, and are ideal for students looking for advice and guidance on using the Web for their studies, especially those who:

  • struggle to find the right information for university work.
  • get marked down for citing inappropriate sources in their assignments.
  • rely too heavily on Google, Wikipedia and the open Web, because they are unaware of key academic and library sources.

All the tutorials have been written and reviewed by lecturers and librarians from UK universities, who are experienced Internet researchers.

What’s new?

This year we have completely overhauled the content and design of 50% of our tutorials, as well as introducing some new titles. The new and updated tutorials are:

Why change?

The tutorial content and design have now been completely overhauled in light of Internet developments, in particular the impact of Web 2.0 technologies in higher education (HE); academic Web trends (changes in online academic publishing); and extensive user feedback.

Changes to tutorial content

User feedback indicated a growing recognition of the need to help students develop Internet research skills. It also suggested that helping students to understand peer-review was more important than ever in a Web 2.0 world of user generated content.

We have re-written the tutorial content to reflect this, so the coverage of the four main sections of each tutorial is now as follows:

  1. Tour – focuses on the academic information landscape on the Internet and aims to create a mental map for students of the key scholarly sources for their subject.
  2. Discover – offers updated guidance on how to find scholarly information online; choosing the right search tool and looks at the importance of developing a search strategy.
  3. Judge – discusses how critical thinking can improve the quality of online research and provides guidance on how to judge which Internet resources are appropriate for University work.
  4. Success – provides practical examples of students using the Internet for research – successfully and unsuccessfully, so that students can learn from the mistakes of others, as well as by example.

Changes to tutorial design

We have now made all our tutorials shorter, easier to read online, with more graphics and exercises. Interactive features of each tutorial include quizzes, practical exercises, and a ‘links basket’ functionality which allows the user to keep a record of all website URLs mentioned in the tutorial.

The Virtual Training Suite is continually updated, but these changes reflect a major overhaul, which we hope that you will like.

How can the tutorials be used?

Each tutorial takes around one hour to complete, allowing the user to work through the material in their own time and at their own pace.

Feedback from university staff suggests that they find it useful to point students to the tutorials from course handbooks, VLEs and library web pages. There is also evidence that they are being used to support courses in research methods, study skills and information literacy.

The tutorials are freely available from:

What’s next for the Virtual Training Suite?

Following on from previous announcements about our future:

  • We can confirm that we have received 12 months maintenance funding from August 2010 to assist in moving towards a self-sustaining business model
  • This enables the maintenance of the current suite of over 60 subject based Internet research skills tutorials, keeping them freely available
  • During 2010/11 we will be looking to develop and implement a licensing model to sustain the Virtual Training Suite beyond August 2011

Look out for further developments in the coming months by getting in touch by email at or by following us on Twitter at

What’s your Google Search Story?

Google have released a new fun tool to enable people to create their own Google “Search Stories”

All you need to do is type in your search terms, choose the search service(s) you wish to use – Books, News, Blogs, Images, Web search etc. – pick some appropriate music and then the video is created automagically.

Here’s an example looking at the economic crisis:

It’s easy to see that with a few tweaks, this could be turned into an educational tool.

For example, in the Internet for Economics VTS tutorial where we look at search strategies on Google it could provide a visual walkthrough of the educational point that:

  • Searching on economic crisis returns many millions of results, all of which contain both the keywords “economic” AND “crisis” (note: Google automatically returns results containing both keywords).
  • Searching for economic OR crisis returns even more records. This is because OR returns all those Web pages that contain either the word “economic”, or the word “crisis”.
  • Searching on “economic crisis” returns fewer results. This is because Google only returns those resources containing the exact phrase. A page about “economic responses to energy crisis” would not be included.

In order to become an educational tool, it would help if:

  • Google Scholar was added to the list searches to add to the videos
  • Users could vary the length of time each search was on screen
  • There was some choice in the “pan and scan” options each search uses

Alas, at the moment – it feels as though you are just creating an advert for Google – and to be fair to them, the inspiration for it did come from their Super Bowl ad about finding love in Paris.

However, there are plenty of videos being uploaded to the Google Search Stories YouTube channel, even if some of them are subverting the system ever so slightly.

Intute features more Internet resources on the economic crisis and more subject specific tutorials in the Virtual Training Suite.

YouTube EDU one year on

YouTube EDU the repository of lectures, video clips and webcasts from mainly US universities has been with us for a year.

During that time we’ve seen …

  • 10 countries join the service
  • Over 300 institutions adding their videos to the repository
  • 350+ full courses added to YouTube EDU
  • 65,000+ videos and video clips made available
  • Millions of videos viewed

The most popular video is from the late Randy Pausch and is a moving, but funny last lecture.

It’s perhaps worth taking a step back and revisiting some of the issues from our original blog post  looking at the launch of YouTube EDU and see how things have shaped up.

Subject access has improved with a very basic topic based classification of videos, but if your subject is not listed there, then you will still be reliant  on tags on individual videos – so while a search for Economics will yield hundreds of results, you’ll still miss out on videos that have not been correctly tagged and other educational material from organisations that aren’t in the YouTube EDU directory – for example the World Bank.

The most viewed videos page shows that while there may be full length lecture videos from over 350 courses, the shorter form videos appear to be more YouTube friendly – the TL:DR problem finding a new expression in video form. Plus it helps if you are Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs or talking about a hit movie like Watchmen, if you want to get noticed.

However, the YouTube bandwagon keeps on rolling – my own institution the University of Bristol, has launched their YouTube channel recently and there can be clear benefits, such as the Periodic Table of Videos from the University  of Nottingham, that have been viewed millions of times and increased applications to their Department of Chemistry by 40 percent.

… but it looks as though YouTube EDU is here to stay after a pretty impressive debut year.

Intute features more academic Internet resources from YouTube.

ESRC Festival of Social Science

The ESRC Festival of Social Science is happening from 12-21 March 2010 as part of National Science and Engineering Week.

The 2010 Festival of Social Science features over 130 events happening in 7 regions and in over 40 different cities in the UK.

You can follow what’s happening at the Festival via:

It celebrates some of the country’s leading social science research, giving an exciting opportunity to showcase the valuable work of the UK’s social scientists and demonstrate how their work has an impact on all our lives.

Events are aimed at a range of different audiences, including policy makers, business, the media, the general public and students of all ages. Events come in a variety of formats from traditional lectures and exhibitions to theatrical performances, film screenings, topical debates and even a trip to Second Life.

Intute features more Internet resources from the Economic and Social Research Council about the Social Sciences.

How does the Internet see you?

Personas asks the question – how does the Internet see you?

Try the Personas search, see it build up a categorisation of how the Internet sees you on the fly and see how that matches your reality.

Personas is a critique of data-mining that demonstrates the computer’s uncanny insights and its inadvertent errors, such as the mischaracterizations caused by the inability to separate data from multiple owners of the same name.

Below is a short film showing a Personas search for Intute captured using Screenr – a browser based screencasting tool. A larger version can be seen via the full screen icon or by viewing it from the Screenr website.

This gives a fairly true snapshot of how Intute is described online – with plenty of good descriptions of what we do, some nice reviews from users and a few things you may not have encountered – primarily because it uses Yahoo for the search data rather than Google.

Try a personal name rather than a corporate identity and you may encounter some different results. It was gratifying to see that I was identified as the Economics Editor of Intute on the very first selection – but the categorizations seemed rather bizarre.

It certainly succeeded in getting me thinking about whether data mining is really technologically neutral or just dependent upon how creators of algorithms choose to model the world and which inputs / outputs they use, plus it is a timely reminder of the trail of data we leave online.

While academics may be more concerned about how their identity is represented in traditional academic outputs – see the Mimas / British Library Names project – their online identity may be just as important.

What sort of web animal are you?

The Web Behaviour Test aims to find out what sort of web animal you are by surveying your web habits, as well as, testing your Internet searching and multi-tasking skills.

It is split into three main parts:

  • A survey of your web habits – how long you spend on various types of Internet activity, such as email, social networks etc.
  • Web search tasks – that look at how you formulate a search query, how long you take looking at search results and the sort of sites that you trust.
  • Multi-tasking tests –  a series of Flash games that seem to test your short term memory and ability to do more than one thing at a time.

At the end of the test you are assigned a web animal based on your answers – are you slow or fast moving, solitary or sociable, adaptable or specialised – to see if you are a Fox, Hedgehog, Octopus etc.

The test is part of the Virtual Revolution TV series from the BBC that has been looking at how the Internet has shaped politics, economics, society and people – the final episode Homo Interneticus – featured academic contributions from the CIBER centre at UCL who produced the Google Generation report that was based in part, on a user evaluation of Intute.

Having done the test – there are a few questions still in my mind …

Self-selecting sample? The main way of finding out about the test was by watching the Virtual Revolution programme and as Phil Bradley pointed out, there was such a high demand following the broadcast that the server fell over, but isn’t this a sample of people pre-disposed to be interested users of the Internet?

The science bit Some of the categories of Internet activity seemed to overlap, meaning that the survey results could be skewed and the Flash games seemed to be just a very basic way of testing short term memory – the science behind the test isn’t very enlightening and I’d like to know more about their thinking.

Who do you think you are? The majority of the people I know who have taken the test wound up as Foxes – just like me – perhaps it would have been interesting to get people to assign themselves to one of the categories after taking the test, but before revealing their results to see how good they were at assessing their own Internet activity.

… but feel free to make up your own mind by taking the Web Behaviour Test and perhaps letting us know in the comments – what sort of web animal are Intute users?

Intute features more resources aimed at improving your Internet research skills, including the Virtual Training Suite and the Internet Detective.

Demand Question Time

It may seem strange but some Americans are asking for their politics to be a little more like ours.

This does not mean that they want their own expenses scandals with Americanised versions of moats and duck houses paid for by the tax payer.

But the Demand Question Time campaign is trying to get the cut and thrust of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) to be a part of US political life.

It follows a recent open question session between President Obama and Republican Congressmen at the GOP House Issues conference in Baltimore which featured the sort of tough questions and frank answers that don’t normally happen in front of the TV cameras in US politics.

While PMQs are often criticised in Britain for being formulaic or the worst example of yah-boo politics, they are a hit with political junkies from other countries and at least offer a regular opportunity for political leaders to cross swords and be held to account.

The Demand Question Time campaign has garnered support from left and right in the States, although the online petition has only garnered some 15,000 signatures – a similar number to those on the 10 Downing Street e-petitions website asking the government to “stop criminalising live music” in small scale venues like schools, hospitals and pubs.

It remains to be seen whether the Demand Question Time campaign will be successful or not – but a Sky News campaign for US style leaders debates in the upcoming British general election made it and their online petition had a remarkably similar level of support.

Intute features more Internet resources on Government and Politics.