This project aims to bring some of the affordances of consumer social networks to teaching and learning, and will deliver applications within CamTools, our Sakai-based VLE. This is an informal blog by the project team at CARET, University of Cambridge.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Libraries, Twitter and social networking

Twitter - a 'micro-blogging' and social networking service - is making its way into libraries across the US, whether to update patrons with important news (unexpected closures), to provoke curiosity and questions or to communicate internally. This article provides an interesting overview:

Thursday, 29 January 2009

What's out there? Looking at

The Academic Networking team at CARET, together with our colleague Clay Fenlason of Georgia Tech, have been thinking about, the academic networking site.

It's an thought-provoking model of networking, inviting you to navigate a visualization of two parallel networks, one of research interests and one of academic institutions. Research topics and publishing outputs become the organizing principals.

Here are our thoughts in a little more detail:

Good points

Research is a global endeavour, not an institutional one, and reflects this. One of our interviewees had a profile on She explained this was because at graduate level, you are unlikely to be working in the same field as people in your department. (This is partly because the graduates and academics are hugely aware of subtle nuances and differences between areas . You need to be aware of and keeping in touch with the research and publications of people who are working in your field - and they are most likely to be at other Universities. The ultimate nightmare for a PhD student is that you devote 3 years to researching 'railway companies in the Russian Revolution' and that 2.5 years through the research, another academic publishes a book on 'railway companies in the Russian Revolution', at which point you have to start again. Thus, offers another opportunity to keep abreast of research in your field internationally, and to make others aware of your research.

The same interviewee said that in looking at other people's key words (how
they'd chosen to define their research), she had been prompted to think about her research differently.

It's useful to be able to search people by their research field, particularly
now that interdisciplinary research is becoming increasingly important, and it helps you to find connections - i.e. who else is working on Mongolian nomads, whether they're in the Geography dept or the dept of Anthropology. It's a very obvious thing to do, but not something that you can do in our current university website.

Our interviewee said that she particularly appreciated the option to allow people to contact you via the site, without you needing to give out your email address.

I loved the way that when I put in the URL of my research paper, it turned it
into Flash paper so that I could read it directly online, rather than by downloading it. It's a small point technically, but it certainly created 'user delight' for me.

I enjoyed being able to see other people's research papers so easily.

I like the news feed, showing what others have been up to, although it's not really targeted enough to be of much use


I couldn't actually find anyone with my research interest ('Who else is
working on Restoration Comedy at the moment?'). I couldn't find it by searching, wasn't sure how it would be classed (dramatic literature? literary criticism?) and couldn't find it by browsing. Or at least I don't think I could find it by browsing - 41 people were under 'dramatic literature' and I didn't want to look at each of them individually to see if they happened to work on Restoration Comedy. The search facility is clearly vital for this type of tool to be useful.

It isn't regulated in any way, so there's no guarantee that anyone on there is in fact who they say they are, that their papers are genuine, etc. For example, John created the Department of Tube Mechanics at Oxford, and added himself to it. No-one seems to have noticed.

It is extra work for academics to fill in and update their profiles - not only do they have to put together their official Departmental profile, at Cambridge their college profile, and quite possibly a research group profile or a specialist disciplinary network , but now they have to keep an profile.

The Flash interface drives me absolutely mad! From people's individual profiles, I'm constantly being returned to the overview of all Universities when I wanted to return to what I was last looking at, i.e. all members of particular department / centre. It doesn't seem well thought out from this point of view.

It's slow

Friday, 16 January 2009

Pew report on social networking amongst adults

The Arcadia project blog mentions some of the conclusions of a new Pew report on how US adults use social networks. It seems they network mostly for personal reasons, that they are aware of privacy issues, and when networking professionally, use a variety of profiles on a range of sites.

The full blog post is here.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Podcase with UX consultant from Flow Interactive

Those looking for a brief introduction to what user-centred design might be, and how it might benefit businesses, might want to check out this interview with one of the UX consultants at Flow Interactive, the consultancy that's guiding us through the research and design phase of this project.


I was chatting to a mathematician colleague about our academic networking research in a popular Cambridge cafe yesterday, when a student sharing our table broke into the conversation. "I totally recognise what you're saying," she said, and began to tell us her experience of finding books and the inadequacies of reading lists: "I go to the UL and when I see one of my lecturers in the hallway or the tea room, I ask them to recommend me the three best books on the subject."

It was great not only to have a student spontaneously recognise our interpretations of what our research had brought out, but to be interested and excited that this research is taking place!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Looking at other social networking sites

One thing that the team's been keen on all along is that our social networking tool shouldn't aim to replace face-to-face interaction at the University. We want to promote 'idea moments', what a team from another University called 'Rolos'*, and we think that getting people physically together is a great way for these moments to happen. As far as we're concerned, if our tool introduces people to each other who go on to meet up occasionally, it's done its job - they don't have to regularly communicate via the tool as well.

So I was excited to hear about - a site which helps facilitate face to face communication using the web. The whole point is that you meet real people, living near you, to talk about shared interests. Yes, there are message boards and photo albums for those groups, but the emphasis throughout is on meeting face to face. I think it's a brave concept. I'll have to report back on the quality of discussion at a meeting, though!

* Random Opportunities for Learning Outcomes, apparently! Would you give someone your last ROLO?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Reflecting on our research questions

The quiet time between Christmas and New Year has been a great chance for me to reflect on the key questions at the heart of this research project (it's been wonderful having such a peaceful office!). I've been taking a step back and considering what we really what to know in order to make a difference to our University members. After all, we are the Centre for Applied Research, and making sure that our research leads to valuable change is what it's all about. The data gathering phase of our research has always been seen in three stages, and with one stage under our belts and moving into detailed planning for the next stages, it's a good time to reflect on how the data and preliminary analysis from stage 1 (looking at undergraduates) should influence the research questions for stages 2 (looking at graduate students) and 3 (looking at academics). Returning to and rethinking research questions seems to me a delicate balance - the University landscape has moved on in the last 3 months, with other related projects being launched or piloted, and so it's well worth us asking again what we want to achieve. At the same time, our original research question, 'How can the social networks of students and academics help them in their learning, teaching and research?' remains valid, and it's important to keep a steady eye on that goal. Ultimately, however, we need to break that high-level question down into a more detailed research questions for each stage of the data gathering phase, and it seems reasonable to be willing to reconsider these detailed research questions over the course of the project.