Clickolage – The movie

A few weeks ago I went to a great workshop about Creative Social-Mobile Learning and Teaching at Graz in Austria. I presented my pinterest stuff, which I’ve written up here .


I met lots of interesting people from all over Europe working on some very interesting projects, all sharing an interest in using new technologies to help learners learn and teachers teach. I’ve made a lot of new contacts on twitter and hopefully I’ll be seeing a lot of the same faces next year.

I was also interviewed by Yishay Mor about Clickolage, a term I’m still trying to introduce and promote (having written about it here). It was actually quite fun being interviewed although it was on a busy street and you can see how distracting that was!

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Reading Pack 2.0

Just over three years ago I blogged about creating a reading pack for my introductory anthropology class. I’ve just put the finishing touches to the 4th version of the reading pack so thought it might be a good time to reflect on its use in my class.

I’d produced the pack in response to students’ comments about the lack of textbook for the course, and for the first two years I recovered the costs (around £7 for 200+ pages) from the students themselves. The pack was very popular and I’m happy to say that the Foundation Centre now pays for the packs. This is generous, but in the years before the pack I would give the students module handbooks and some readings (where mandatory) so this replaces the time and resource costs of that.

Evolution of the reading pack

Evolution of the reading pack

I’ve recently updated a couple of the readings in the pack as new editions of the sources were available. 3 years ago the process of scanning the books and getting something usable into a word document was particularly laborious (something I document in the blog post) but now it was relatively straightforward. I used a dedicated book scanner in our library to produce PDFs and a web based tool to convert these into a series of jpegs. There was still a lot of work (and faff!) in cropping, resizing, and brightening the images (around half a day for 40 odd pages!) but I’m very happy with the results.

I’m currently revamping my VLE course sites and part of this will include weekly discussion boards (pre-loaded with questions) around each week’s reading.  I was wondering wether there were any tools out there that would allow me to host a pdf of each reading in a way that students could comment on or annotate within the VLE? I think this could be particularly useful for international students who I see annotate their readings in their own language.

Is anybody else using reading packs in this way? or in more interesting ways?

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Making a new banner for my course site

Well it’s that time between the admin finishing for the last teaching year and the new intake coming in, and I thought I’d have a look at my VLE course site, which I’ve neglected for too long. This is easily done when I’ve been distracted by using Pinterest, Youtube and Slideshare for my teaching, but ultimately the one thing all my students will enage with for sure is my course site, so I should probably make sure that’s top notch. I’ve also noticed that I’ve not blogged for nearly a year, so thought I may as well document what I’ve been doing today, namely putting together a new banner for the welcome page. I should probably add that this isn’t because I think I’ve done anything amazing, it’s partly to document how I did it for future reference, and I guess to invite suggestions about how I can improve the process and output!

Firstly my old banner. I’m not even sure how it came to be:

My old course site banner

My old course site banner

This banner is shit in so many ways. For starters it’s not visually appealing in any way, but it also includes completely irrelevant information (durham campus). Last year the course was split across both the campuses that I teach at, but the students know which campus they are on. This year the course is only being taught at the Durham City campus, so this really isn’t important information.

Southampton Uni have some very clear instructions on how to change your banner (apols to Durham, this was just the first and best guidance that google came up with) and they also recomended an online site to edit and manipulate the banner and this was really useful for somebody with no photoshoppy skills whatsoever (I get confused by MS Paint). This site was super easy to use, and I could straight away specify the 480 x 80 recommended image size.

I thought it would be a good idea to include some kind of relevant image, and used the creative commons search in Flickr to find something (after a bit of a distracted browse through the internet archive book images collection). So this is what I came up with:


I know it’s not very sexy, but i think it’s a big improvement ( a bit less shit). I would welcome any tips or suggestions (maybe you’ve got a great banner you want to show off??).

I did actually have a photo attribution on there but it seems to have dropped off so I’ll have to add that again.


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Notes from Compuational Anthropology workshop

As ever I was not disappointed. I always enjoy hanging out with Anthropologists, before the workshop had even started the small talk was about the evolution of Batman’s face in comic books and how this might reflect different images of masculinity, and monkey fossils.

Stephen Lyon and I gathered together computationally minded anthropologists, from Durham and Kent and from pretty much the full spectrum of anthropology, but there was still clear evidence of an anti-computational bias in some areas, with one participant noting that you get “burned as a witch for using computers in social anthropology”, and anthropologists know about witchcraft!

Whilst the carefully orchestrated programme quickly flew out of the window the wide ranging discussions had 3 clear themes, and some familiar echoes to my previous work in e-science (a fairly long discussion of ontologies for example, although the specific word wasn’t used as it has specific meaning within anthroplogy).

So one of the key themes were about social network analysis, something which has been going on in anthropology long before Friends reunited, Myspace or Facebook, or the internet for that matter. This included a memorable and relevant quote for SNA types today “one does not study networks, one uses network methods to study anthropological questions” from Sanek 1974. Replace anthropological with economic, geographic or whichever discipline, and I think that there is a useful reminder to a lot of people working with online social networks, who can get a bit overly focussed on the networks, rather than the underlying questions to be answered.

Another theme from the workshop was the fact that anthropologists in the field collect all kinds of messy data. Qualitative analysis tools such as NVIVO or Atlas.ti can now deal with multimedia content, but anthropologists need to be able to access and analyse their disparate datasets (family trees, field notes, images, videos, objects) through the people mentioned in them, as well as the themes. And obviously the people involved in a long term ethnographic investigation will be related to one another in all sorts of ways (relating to the previous theme). There is definitely scope here for some sophisticated tools, an anthropologist may publish from their initial fieldwork for the rest of their career, and others may re-analyse somebody else’s data set to come to some interesting conclusions (such as this paper).

The last theme was about the role of simulation in anthropology, which suprised me. My first degree was in economics, and my PhD meant interacting with plenty of transport researchers, so i’m quite familiar with simulations, how engrossing and absorbing they are to the people working on them, and how useless they generally are at predicting things (although in both economics and transport, the important thing is to have some sort of forecast, almost irrespective of how accurate it is).

Michael Fischer who has been programming in academic since 1976 gave a really interesting talk about the role of simulation within social anthropology. The key thing wasn’t the simulation itself, but the role such simulations play in knowledge elicitation in ethnography. The most memorable example was for Mambila Spider Divination. In a part of Nigeria/ Cameroon the movements of spiders, in a set layout of leaves and twigs is used for divination purposes. This project included a digital simulation of the process, which was a helpful tool in conversations with the diviners in getting at the complex knowledge embedded within analysing the movement of spiders. That the simulation is optimised to run on Netscape also hints at the sustainability issues which were discussed as the workshop drew to a close.

After a brief discussion the participants agree to focus on the second theme, a disparate data field notes management tool for future development and we will be putting in a bid under the SSI’s Open Call. Then, as after every workshop with anthropologists that I’ve ever attended, we all went to the pub to continue such discussions well into the night.

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Walkabout pt 1

Well I had high hopes of blogging every day while I was down here, but that hasn’t happened, partly because i’ve been too busy and partly because I’ve not had great access to wifi ( i spent 40 quid accessing my emails on my phone last week!).

I have had a great time, and I’ve met 6 people from four universities (Sydney, Newcastle, UNSW and RMIT) so far. I haven’t got time to give a detailed report, but I thought I’d post a few observations on Australian HE so far.

One striking thing is the scale. So far the universities I’ve looked at are big. The UNSW campus is physically imposing (on a hill), and Newcastle’s is a big campus. Some of the buildings I’ve seen at RMIT are architecturally bold and sydney was very pretty (and apparently home to the largest library in the southern hemisphere, australians seem to like their random claims to fame).

Also both UNSW and Newcastle were very keen to show me their centres for aboriginal studies. Newcastle had the Wollotuka Institute and UNSW had Nura Gili which had a collaboration spaces designed according to aboriginal principles, which apparently include a clear line of sight, so there were glass internal walls (i didn’t get to see this as i was in a hurry to my next meeting!).


Some boomerangs at Newcastle


This focus on the importance of design was taken up with my visit to RMIT where I saw a really fantastic building with heaps (!!) of student learning spaces. Every room had windows facing outside, which sounds unremarkable, until I saw a lecture theatre with windows showing people walking past, who could see what was going on inside (should they want to), which was definitely quite weird (but shouldn’t be really). Also the lecture theatre was full.

Openness was a big recurring theme, and the building I’m checking out tomorrow has a massive glass wall enabling the local community to see every room, and the research that is taking place there.

At RMIT the public, including primary and secondary school children are invited in and come and play around with the cool stuff, which sounds like a great way of making university accessible and appealing to non-traditional entrants.

My last observation so far picks up on this. I have learnt quite a lot so far about the kinds of programmes that they have here to widen participation (often called student equity). I’ve heard about some really interesting programmes. Having just had our Foundation Year Network I’m starting to think that the diversity we have in provision in the UK is only the tip of the iceberg, there’s some really interesting stuff going on here, and I hope to come back to learn more one day!

I’m here in Melbourne for a couple more days before heading on to Canberra and then I have a holiday! I’ve been working a lot harder than I’d anticipated, but that ‘work’ has been meeting interesting people, and hearing about so much stuff that i think I will be months digesting it when I get back.

Apologies if I’ve made any errors or omissions, i’m still pretty frazzled!

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Computational Anthropology Workshop – Sept 4th, Durham

One part of my SSI fellowship which I’m particularly excited about is the opportunity to support Digital Anthropology. For a flavour of the kinds of stuff being done in this fairly niche area (I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fairly luddite practices within cultural anthropology) have a look at a recent special issue of Social Science Computer Review.

You can see that there are anthropologists creating and using software to do some pretty interesting stuff, modelling kinship patterns , using graph theory to map burials or GIS techniques to analyse the patterns of burials plus plenty more.


Here are some of the software packages, that are, or have been, used:



CSAC Kinship Editor

CSAC Fieldnotes Editor


Kinship Algebra Modeller

CSAC ImageInterviewer

Knowledge Elicitation Tools


These projects use software that has often been developed by anthropologists, and made available to the community on sites such as SourceForge, but the take up by other developers has not been as hoped. This is exactly the sort of sustainability issue that the SSI was set up to adress, and this workshop will hopefully help create a community of users and developers to further anthropology research.

The aim of this one day workshop is to bring together anthropologists who use or are interested in using software  better suited to anthropological data production, management and analysis problems in the field, the lab and the office. Members of Durham University and the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (Kent) will present brief accounts of software tools designed or adapted by anthropologists to address complex issues arising in anthropological research.

Participants in the workshop will contribute to identifying a range of problems encountered by anthropologists in research and brainstorm to develop a prioritised wish list of software capabilities to address these issues. One of our goals is to ensure that development of software tools for anthropological research is driven by research priorities in anthropology.

If you are interested in coming to the workshop get in touch with me, and if you know other software that’s not in the list above, post a link in a comment below!

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Going Walkabout

This time next week I will be in Sydney at the start of a trip around Australia. I will be spending 10 days on a 3 city tour (Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra), meeting lots of interesting people and learning about how higher education operates down under.

I’m going there thanks to two projects I’m currently involved in, the SPIRES project is the reason I’m heading to Melbourne (more here) and my SSI fellowship, which is why I’m meeting people who produce software in academia, and those they try and support.

I expect to be blogging a lot while I’m down there, probably most days, and the people I’m meeting range from those interested in supporting researchers, teaching mature students, learning and teaching more generally and social media/ technology more broadly. So far I have firm plans to meet 7 people from 7 different universities across the 3 cities, which will hopefully give me a good idea of how things operate across the spectrum. Although I’m always keen to add more meetings to my itenerary!


As well as meeting lots of people I’m also interested in hearing about how people manage to organize their work over a long distance and fairly long period of time. As you can see I’ve found a physical map quite a useful tool for visualising my trip, but I’m already having some problems trying to arrange my itenerary over Outlook in multiple time zones (although I’m getting the hang of this). Any tools or tips for keeping on top of the day job?

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Web scraping workshop report

web scraping

A couple of weeks ago Iwas delighted to able to invite Chris Hanretty up to Durham to deliver a web scraping workshop. I’ve already blogged about how happy I was with the popularity of the course, it filled up in a matter of hours, but I on the morning I guess I was still nervous to see who would turn up and what they would get from the day.

On the day 25 people turned up, and there was a big variety of people. There was people from Law, Anthropology, Education, Psychology, Archaeology and Modern Languages amongst others, as well a couple of STEMers. There was also a wide range of computer experience, from people who already did some coding, so those who had never seen html tags before. Chris’s materials and teaching style were very well recieved and by the end of the most of the participants were working on real scripts scraping stuff off the web, a massive achievement! I happened to bump into one of the anthropologists who was there afterwards who had told me that he was fiddling with some web scraping code the following night, which was great to hear.

I think there is a real appetite for this kind of stuff at Durham. One participant commented that they would like a similar course looking at Visual Basic, which I think could be really useful too, although I think ‘real’ coders turn their noses up at it. I wonder what other ‘low hanging fruit’ there are that could entice non or less technical minded people to use simple coding scripts to help make their working lives easier??

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Tracing a false fact in wikipedia

There’s a college at Durham University named after  campaigning feminist Josephine Butler, and so one afternoon I found myself on wikipedia looking her up. I was quite surprised to read the following ‘fact’


I happen to be from Southend. Royal Artillery way (or to give it it’s less fancy name, the A1159) is a short stretch of dual carriageway. I looked it up on google maps to check, no museum there. I googled it more broadly, no mention of the museum (except for the wikipedia page, and people who had cut and pasted it (a total of 77 hits!!). Most worryingly there is no link to any evidence for the museum’s existence on the wikipedia page, which is supposed to be one of the rules of wikipedia.

So after a bit of faff (the IP address of my office desktop was blocked) i managed to log in to wikipedia and try and find out when this misinformation was added. It was added on 20th October 2008, just shy of 5 years ago, and the original edit included some more information about the museum.


Now this is more obviously untrue, “lazers” is misspelt for a start, but a few weeks later somebody with a different account name, embellishes it further


This was obviously a step too far for somebody, and a couple of weeks later it was edited back to the ‘fact’ that I stumbled across (and have now deleted) nearly 5 years later.

I think this raises some interesting questions about wikipedia in general. Why did the original person only delete half the false fact and leave half? How did this unlikely fact last so long? Was it left alone because it sounded vaguely plausible once the more puerile stuff was deleted? How many other plausible untruths are there on wikipedia? And perhaps most importantly, why Southend? Any other town and I wouldn’t have checked and who knows how long that ‘fact’ would have lasted?

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Web scraping for arts, humanities and social sciences workshop

Web scraping is a versatile tool for taking data from websites and putting them into a spreadsheet for analysis. The potential is there to get a large amount of useful data, which can then be analysed. For example I’m thinking of scraping the IMDB database to look for zombie films, when they were released, the box office takings etc. to see if there are any interesting patterns over time. I did something similar to this manually in the past, with web scraping it can be automated and I can tinker with the parameters easier (e.g. what counts as a zombie film?)


As part of my SSI fellowship I’m delighted to be inviting Chris Hanretty up to Durham to deliver a workshop on webscraping, something he uses in his politics research.

The workshop is on July 1st, and all 25 places were filled within hours of the workshop’s announcement, which is a great indication of the pent up interest in this tool. I even got a couple of emails from people who couldn’t make it, but were really supportive of the idea. I’d be really interested to hear about the different potential applications across the arts, humanities and social sciences. So much stuff is online now, the potential for web scraping is enormous!

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