Thursday, 20 September 2007

Being a Lecturer 2.0

Being a Lecturer 2.0 - the impact of the new web on being an academic.

How blogs, wiki's, social networking and second life affect our work as academics - a quick overview of Google enabled academic work.

A report on a session at the Learning and Teaching Conference at London Metropolitan University - July 2007

The session ran in an IT studio, which enabled a break in the middle for participants to explore some of the tools covered so far. The following report includes some tools that were not covered due to lack of time, and some further resources.

I ran the session using Portable Firebox. Firebox is an open source1 web browser that is the main alternative to Internet Explorer (IE). The latest version (2) has a number of advantages over traditional browsers. One major feature of new browsers, including the latest IE, is tabbed browsing. This enables the user to open new tabs rather than new instances of the software and makes opening multiple WebPages easier and faster. Portable Firebox is part of the Portable Applications suite of open source software that will run on a USB stick ( I was therefore able to set up the browser in advance with my settings to run on the studio computer.

As open source software Firebox has a number of extensions that have been created to enhance its capabilities. Some of these I introduced during the session but at the beginning I demonstrated Cooliris which previews WebPages from links which makes internet searching quicker as an example.

Firebox extensions are available from

My internet use is based on Google. Google provides a range of tools which work together to do many of the things which help me to be effective and to provide information to my students, who currently tend to be people studying e-learning and learning technologies, but the tools are all useful for teachers in more traditional subjects. Google is not universally popular, and some people are very critical of the company. It is a very powerful player in the internet business and can be seen as a potential monopoly power. Through using its services it gains a lot of information about you and there have been some questions in the past about whether it may misuse that information. It has also been criticised for colluding with censorship in some areas, notably China. While I recognise these issues I find it very useful, and am not concerned about any information that could be gleaned about me being useful to anyone.

There are alternatives to all the services provided by Google -

Google started with a search engine and now has developed into a suite of tools which, apart from the search engine itself needs you to set up an account at All the Google tools mentioned below are available from the 'more' link on that page, or your Igoogle page once you have an account.

Out of the initial search engine developed Google personalised Home page, now called iGoogle. This is a personal portal – designed as your home page on which you can add bits, mostly RSS2 feeds which are news feeds but also weather forecasts, cartoons, horoscopes etc. More sophisticated portals such as and enable you to create your own 'widgets' – RSS feeds (see below) etc and are therefore more flexible. Portals were more important for me before tabbed browsers and I have stopped using mine since then – as I prefer to have a number of web pages and tools open across a number of tabs. You can save a number of tabs so that when you open a tabbed browser all your favourite web pages and tools open, which creates a more sophisticated version of a portal in effect.

Google now have a couple of specialist search engines which are useful - Google Scholar only searches for academic articles and books. Google Books will search all the books on their database and will show you the pages on which the search term appears rather that giving you the link.

Google Coop is a useful tool for academics - you can set up a search engine for your students that either restricts the websites that will be searched, or will prioritise the ones you specify. This can help students who have not yet developed the internet searching skills to navigate to the best sites for your subject material. For examples see for Learning Technologies, or for Learning and Teaching in HE. And this seems like a good moment to mention - this is a free service that turns long urls into short ones - so for the learning technologies search engine go to, and the general learning and teaching one -

Gmail was the first main extension of the range of Google products. Gmail was the first webmail service that had enough storage to claim that you never need to delete an email. What marks it out, is its use of the Google search technology that makes folders redundant. It also stores emails as conversations similar to threaded bulletin boards. These innovations have made it a very popular webmail system.

I use Gmail as my main email system, forwarding email from the university and my other email accounts to it, not that you would know as it is sophisticated enough to automatically respond to any email from the relevant email address. My contacts are therefore always available to me on-line and I use my address book to keep notes on students progress etc.

There are some extensions in Firebox which further enhance Gmail if you are using Firebox – one I use Better Gmail does some nice thing like shows an icon which identifies the nature of attachments (word documents etc). GTDInbox enables me to label emails and to create tasks using categories from the 'Getting Things Done' time management system. For example I can label any email which I need to refer to in a particular meeting with the name of the meeting, prior to the meeting I can then see a list of the emails and tasks that relate to that meeting. I find anything that helps to make me look efficient helps – and I need all the help I can get sometimes!

Google and Firebox collaborate on a number of things – there is a Google toolbar for firefox that includes several features like an auto-fill for forms. Google will also enable you to synchronise your settings from one computer to another. Clearly using on-line tools has the drawback of not being available when you are not on-line. The next version of Firebox will enable you to use the tools off-line – synchronising the data when you go on-line next. Google is developing GoogleGears, which is developing in a similar way.

Google calendar is an on-line calendar system that enables you to set up and view multiple calendars; public or private, including shared private calendars. I can share a calendar and enable someone to edit it, or just be able to see when I am free. I can invite people to an event – they get an email and their response is recorded in the event details (and if they have a Google calendar the event is automatically put in their calendar). Googlegears does not yet cover the calendar – however in Microsoft Vista the Windows Calendar will synchronise with Google, or there is a third party free product called Calgoo which works well.

For shared working Google now includes Google Documents – this enables you to store and edit documents and spreadsheets on-line. While this is sometimes useful in itself it also enables shared work on documents. When you save a document you can specify who can see and edit it, and you can publish it so anyone can see it - an alternative to putting things on web pages.

One of the other ways of publishing on the web without having to create your own web sites is to have a blog. A blog is an on-line journal that is easy to maintain and keep up-dated. Google provide Blogger - where you can set up a blog in a couple of minutes and then easily change the settings, make it private or public, invite other authors, change the appearance etc. There are other types of blogs you can use and a significant alternative is Londonmet also hosts blogs -

You are looking at my blog so you will see how using blogger I have added a number of widgets which link to other things and do things like allow readers to get a version more suitable for browsing on mobile phones (via There are also some embedded videos via Utube.

If you use Firebox as your browser then Scribefire is a useful extension that allows you to insert the url (web address) of WebPages, or selected text to be inserted into your blog. You can set up various blogs so that keeping a number of blogs becomes much easier.

As well as publishing on a blog, the Web 2.0 lecturer will be reading a number of blogs. Rather than going to a number of blog addresses we use an aggregator that collects them together for us. The Google aggregator is Google Reader. The main alternative is As well as making reading blogs much easier they also enable us to publish either whole collections or selected items to our students – and other readers – see the Shared Items Box on my e-learning blog.

Another way of sharing what you find on the web is to use a social book marking service – the most well know being - again you need to set up an account and then you can label – or ‘tag’ websites as you find them. For example on the bottom of my e-learning blog you can see a tag cloud of my tags. A tag cloud is a representation of my tags with the size of the word indicating the number of sites with that tag.

If you want to save quotes or sections of WebPages to come back to later you can do that with a number of tools. Google Notebook is the Google version, but there are others like Diigo. You can then share those cuttings with students and colleagues. There is a Firebox extension – Zotero that does the same and will produce a bibliography of the web addresses if you are working on a publication. Unfortunately Zotero as yet does not allow sharing.

Leaving Google behind, but I am sure they will catch up with us soon, a couple of other areas.

Social networking – keeping up with friends and colleagues. The two main social networks are MySpace and Facebook – Facebook is perhaps more popular with about 2,300 people in the londonmet network at the time of writing. Bebo is a European based network.

Wiki – wiki are editable web pages. The most famous is which is an on-line encyclopaedia being developed by thousands of individuals – there is a big debate in education about its use by students as a source of information – I personally find it useful, particularly for computer related information – but I guess if I was doing a course I probably wouldn’t put it in the bibliography just in case! You can set up a wiki to use for yourself or students at various sites (see wikipedia for a list ) – my preference for a web-based wiki is Tiddly wiki are wiki that are designed as much for personal use – you can keep one on a USB stick for notes – see - my preference is for the pirate monkey version. If you want to use a wiki you will need to spend some time looking at the specific editing and formatting instructions for the type of wiki you have chosen.