An Update: Shuttleworth and Beyond

Some of you have been wondering where I’d disappeared to over the past 18 months – an update is indeed long overdue. In short: life happened and certain projects had to be put on hold. This was in part for a really lovely reason, namely the arrival of my daughter in early 2015 (yes – the DPhil was completed and I became Dr. Sophie a mere fortnight before the little one’s arrival: how’s that for a deadline, eh?). Unfortunately though the other, less pleasant, reason, has been that I’ve spent a lot of time since then in and out of hospital, so blogging has been forced to take a back seat for a time.

But at least I’m blogging now, and I’m particularly keen to let you know how I’ve been using the Flash Grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation, which I received early last year. The main areas I’ve put the money into are:

  • Covering natural overheads for the Open Science Training Initiative;
  • Ergonomic equipment to assist with long-term medical issues;
  • Conference registration;
  • Consolidating my existing work in education via application for HEA Fellowship.

Before I discuss that though, I’d like to say a massive thank you to the Shuttleworth Foundation for supporting me with funding, and for being willing to accommodate my situation of both medical- and baby-related delays over the past year or so. And many thanks too to Peter Murray-Rust, for nominating me for the grant in the first place.

First things first…overheads

The main application of the Shuttleworth money was to cover OSTI’s natural overheads, namely: domain name and hosting costs for the website, print cartridges/paper, and like-for-like replacement of IT equipment when items have finally given up the ghost (namely the Toshiba laptop in May 2015, which is used for most of the day-to-day jobs relating to OSTI, and the iPad in March 2016, which is used when I’m at conferences or when having online meetings). That list might not sound particularly riveting but, believe me, it’s been a vital help in keeping things ticking over – there’s been no other funding to cover these expenses since my Panton Fellowship with the then-OKFN concluded in 2013.

Some other bits that worked…

The Shuttleworth money has helped me provide a partial ergo setup (keyboard and mouse) for my office, to mitigate some long-term medical issues. These really help to avoid and/or reduce joint and muscle pain when typing or using the computer for long periods, and also make typing more manageable on the bad days. I’ve actually used these for years, but previous versions were all owned by my respective departments, so when I left, the equipment couldn’t come with me.

Even if you don’t need to seek out an ergo setup for health reasons, I’d definitely recommend you take a look if you get the opportunity, as I suspect many people would find ergo equipment beneficial, especially if you have to spend a substantial portion of the working day using a computer (and that’s a lot of us!). Do consider trying a few different ergo keyboards and mice out to find what works for you though: remember that there are lots of designs out there, and you might have to work through a few before you find the best one for you. And be aware that there’s a bit of a settling in phase where you get used to using “weird” incarnations of keyboard/mouse. Believe me, you get used to it pretty quickly.

I use a Goldtouch V2 keyboard, which splits in the centre and can be angled to suit your natural hand position. On first use, this can feel a little strange, but once you’re used to it you’ll never go back to a regular flat keyboard. The other plus point (and one which I hadn’t foreseen before I got one of these) is that it forces you to improve your touch typing, by making you use the correct fingers for particular keys. For the mouse, I use an Evoluent Vertical Mouse, which helps to reduce torque in the wrist and is really, really comfortable (they market it as “the handshake grip”).

…and some that didn’t

I also signed up, very optimistically, to attend both the Wikimedia UK Science Conference and MozFest, both in 2015. The plan was to take baby with me in a sling and head around things together in a bit of a mother-daughter open science mission. Unfortunately though, when each of these events hit, I wasn’t mobile enough to make it out of the house and into London (yes, the dastardly health/mobility issues again). Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to find people able to use my ticket instead – bad luck, as I would still have liked someone to benefit from the experience. Was such a shame to miss out but hopefully I’ll be around and about at these in the future, and thankfully the registrations were very low-cost, so didn’t put too much of a dent in the grant.

Current things: Teaching Accreditation

I’m also working towards Fellowship accreditation with the HEA for the teaching experience I’ve gained over the past 7 years, and some of the grant is going towards this. I’ve been fortunate to have had a range of opportunities to design and deliver both undergraduate and graduate teaching and training, but I now want to consolidate this while I have the opportunity.  Further work on OSTI and related projects will be strengthened by me broadening my awareness of the education literature, and enhance the credibility of the work I’m delivering. Application is going to happen around my other commitments, so it’ll most likely be a work in progress for a couple of months. I’ll let you know how I get on!

And the rest?

I’ve not actually spent all the Shuttleworth funding yet, but have plenty of areas I’d like to put it into. Amongst these options are getting one or more people on board to help a little with updating the website design, content and navigability.

In particular, I’d like to set up a dedicated area of the site for people to share their experiences – both good and bad – of using the rotation-based learning which underpins OSTI, potentially allowing them to connect with each other and even advise RBL newbies on how to go about it. An online community of RBLers, if you will. Whether you’re into Open Science, or an educator, or a community builder, I would love to hear people’s opinions on this.

I have yet to make final decisions on the remaining cash of course, but I’ll be blogging here and on the OSTI site once that happens. And although it’ll be a while yet before I can provide some tangible stats on the effects of the Flash Grant upon the uptake/impact of OSTI, I can say with certainty that it’s proving a wonderful lifeline in keeping the project going and developing it further. I’ll keep you posted – and hopefully without making you wait 18 months for an update next time… 🙂

#OpenScience Training Initiative: Progress & Plans for 2015

Well, what a long while it’s been since my last blog post! Things have been pretty busy here and I had to put the blogging on hold temporarily – for a variety of reasons, both personal and professional. I emerged from DPhil thesis hand-in last month, and the viva – at 38 weeks pregnant – followed 2 weeks later. Since then, it’s been great having some time to delve back into the various strands of the Open Science Training Initiative and see where things need to head over the coming year, and as you’ll see from my first subject, there’s good scope for making plans right now…

Funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation

If you've been paying close attention to the main OSTI website, you may have noticed the addition of the Shuttleworth Logo in December 2015.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed the addition of the Shuttleworth Logo to the OSTI website in December 2015. Great news!

Perhaps the most significant piece of news is that OSTI was awarded a Shuttleworth Flash Grant in December 2014. This is really exciting news, as the project has been run without funding since my Panton Fellowship concluded back in Spring 2013. Many thanks to Peter Murray-Rust for nominating us in the first place 🙂 Thus far, the grant has helped to manage some of our basic running costs (including, for example, domain renewal) and we have a few other ideas in the pipeline for channelling the money into various projects over the coming months.

Perhaps inevitably, there are too many strands on the current to-do list to mention everything here. Some of the projects under construction include a redesign of our website and materials to improve the experience for dyslexic and sight-impaired users; provision of interactive spaces on our website, allowing those who’ve run OSTI- or RBL-style courses to share their experiences and offer advice; and a continued push for translation of the main teaching materials into other languages. I’ll let you know how these various projects progress!

OSTI’s addition to Mozilla Teaching Resources

Our Learning With LLegoBoxCircularego course, which made its debut at SpotOn London in November 2013, is about to become available as a stand-alone workshop as part of Mozilla’s Lo-Fi, No-Fi teaching kit. The kit aims to deliver courses and exercises which are suitable for teaching useful skills for the web, and training in technical and scientific thinking, but which can be successfully delivered in an environment with low or no Internet connectivity.

Lego microscope from the “Learning With Lego” course, made using correct instructions. Photo by Sophie Kay, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY-4.0

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the News section of the OSTI website, you’ll be aware this this one’s been waiting in the wings for a while. I’m glad to say that it’s now up and running – the page still has to go through some final checks before its listing is added to the Lo-Fi No-Fi page proper, but a version is already available on the Mozilla website. Click here for a nosy at the Mozilla-fied page of our Learning With Lego course!

The downloadable instructions are the same as those used for the inaugural workshop, but were previously only available via the OSTI GitHub repository. Hopefully this neatly-packaged set of instructions will encourage more of you to give Learning With Lego a try, whether that’s with high school students, undergraduates or academic researchers.

The 2014-15 academic year has also seen Learning With Lego implemented at Royal Holloway, University of London, to train their first-year mathematics undergraduates in technical writing, science communication and repeatability/reproducibility. Each weekly instance of the course sees the use of full rotation based learning: not only does each group have to build the microscope model from faulty instructions and critique its description, but they must also create a Lego model of their own design, fully described with accompanying instructions. These new designs are uploaded onto a database for further use and assessment in future sessions.

Encouragingly, the success of the Royal Holloway scheme has already drawn interest from their Educational Development team, who will be discussing it with the arts and humanities divisions. This may even lead to non-scientific versions of the course in the future and I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads over the coming year.

Accessible Materials – An OSTI For Everyone

This is a really important area, and one I’ve been wanting to address for quite some time (alas, running OSTI as a one-woman team makes it pretty much impossible for me to do everything at once!). The first round of OSTI teaching materials was constructed for the pilot scheme which, as none of the participants required adapted materials, didn’t account for users with specific needs.

Image by Tobias Mikkelsen (Flickr), CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image by Tobias Mikkelsen (Flickr), CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s high time this was remedied though, and so I’m currently developing modified versions of the OSTI materials which are suitable for sight-impaired and dyslexic users. As part of this endeavour, I’m currently in touch with the British Dyslexia Association and the RNIB to discuss how the website and educational materials in their present form need to be adapted. Both organisations also provide web pages and advice sheets to guide educators in developing suitably adapted educational materials, so I’ll also be using those to shape refinements. Hopefully we’ll see some progress here in the near future.

This definitely calls for a more specific blog post sometime soon – including a bit of a call to action for those amongst you who can offer any personal insights or advice into what developments you’d like to see in the materials, where we’re falling down at the moment, and maybe even give us an appraisal of the new materials once they’re available!

Efficacy of Rotation-Based Learning

One thing I’d love to achieve with OSTI in 2015 is to gather extensive data on the efficacy of Rotation Based Learning (RBL) in a variety of settings. For example:

  • What does it achieve for student motivation?
  • How easy is it to implement for a given subject?
  • What are the tangible benefits of this approach, and are they maintained after the conclusion of the course?

Of course, instances such as the OSTI pilot scheme and the recent Learning With Lego series at Royal Holloway have provided partial answers to these questions, but much more data is required. Running a one-hour workshop with the RBL teaching pattern is a completely different thing to integrating it into a two-week academic course. Not only do those two extremes involve completely different settings, but the attendee demographic will differ and the subject-specific context may interface more or less well with the RBL structure accordingly.

I’d like to know more, not just about these two extrema, but about everything in between. Please get in touch (sophie[at] if you’ve already run an RBL-style course of any kind, or if you’re thinking of running one. I’d really appreciate any on-the-ground insights you can provide into how you found it!

And so…

I’ll hold it there for today, otherwise this post is going to get far too long. But all being well, I’ll provide another progress update soon – and in any case, I’ll be providing a summary of how OSTI has put the Shuttleworth Funding to good use in due course, as per the grant’s requirements. As always though, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to discuss running an OSTI/RBL course of your own, whatever the subject area, setting or timespan!

#solo13lego: Research Roles Through Lego

Ah, it’s been a busy week. Already several days have passed since the end of SpotOn 2013, so it’s about time I blogged my session from the Saturday, #solo13lego. I’m not able to deliver the kind of prolific blogging which some of my fellow attendees at the #solo13blogs session are capable of.

My workshop did admittedly have its own title, “Making Research Useful: The Consequences of (Bad) Communication“, but that didn’t prove as catchy as referring to it as “The One With Lego“, which was perhaps a better indicator of the main aspect of its appeal. Peter Murray Rust has already blogged about his experience of the session, so you can also head over there to hear an attendee’s perspective.

We were also highly fortunate in that SpotOn keynote, Salvatore Mela, inadvertently kicked off the Lego vibe on Day One of the conference when he showed us pictures of a gloriously Lego-fied particle collider. Couldn’t have asked for a better theme-setting ahead of our workshop!

The Main Premise

Participants deep in thought and Lego at Solo13. Photo by Neil Chue Hong, CC-BY

Participants deep in thought and Lego at Solo13. Photo by Neil Chue Hong (@npch). Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY-3.0.

There’s been a lot said about reproducibility of late (indeed, the result of much work and discussion in the scientific community over many years – see discussion here), whether that’s to do with working culture, tools, infrastructure or incentives – all highly relevant factors and issues that need to be dealt with. Ultimately though, the reproducibility issue boils down to a failure on the part of the research producer to anticipate or account for the needs of the research user (that may sound an oversimplification, but it’ll do for now – I’ll go into details in a future blog post, otherwise I’ll ramble on for ages here).

A microscope from one of our Group B teams. Photo by Suzi Gage (@soozaphone).

A microscope from one of our Group B teams. Photo by Suzi Gage (@soozaphone).

#solo13lego aimed to redress the balance and get participants thinking about how to identify the needs of the end user. By dealing with the frustrations of poorly communicated instructions, could they pinpoint where the problems lay, how the original writer had failed in their communication, and how the situation might be improved?

Optical Microscopes in Lego

Split into groups of ten, the participants had to download a set of Lego instructions to build an optical microscope, complete with “mirror”, stage, objective lenses and eyepieces. We had three sets of instructions, each describing the same item in a slightly different way.

Photo by Sarah Cosgriff (@Sarah_Cosgriff).

The results of (I think) one of the Group B efforts. Here the faulty instructions for the middle section have caused problems in constructing the microscope stage. Photo by Sarah Cosgriff (@Sarah_Cosgriff).

And now for the catch: these were faulty instructions, deliberately written to confuse, confound and completely obstruct the user, and devoid of diagrams, schematics, images or any other visual aid. Although the participants were aware of this from the beginning, it didn’t prevent them from becoming highly frustrated with the situation!

In addition to dealing with the pecularities of the instructions, our Lego builders had to identify precisely what made these instructions bad instructions, how they had failed to address the user’s needs, and how they should be improved.

And the rules: no discussion between groups, no sneaky peeks at each other’s models, no looking at other group’s instructions. So, how far did they get in 35 minutes?

The End Result…

Given that they’d only had just over half an hour to interpret the instructions and build their microscopes, the groups made some good attempts. Notably though (and as one would expect) none of the groups managed to reproduce the original microscope model: hardly surprising, given the flaws in the instructions.

Finished micrscope by Group A. Photo by Jonathan Pritchard, @jr_pritchard.

Finished microscope by Group A – note how the alignment of the eyepieces differs from the other models shown above. Photo by Jonathan Pritchard, @jr_pritchard.

In fact, if you take a look at the photos in this blog, what may at first glance seem to be identical models clearly have quite obvious differences.

Some models completely missed out the band of dark green bricks in the middle of the microscope. Some didn’t manage to include the microscope stage. Others misplaced the focus dial or missed it out altogether; the alignment and position of the objective lenses and eyepieces varied wildly between models. And this really wasn’t the fault of our participants: they were doing their best with the instructions they had!

The discussion that followed identified various “improvements” required:

  • Use of a coordinate system to describe the position and orientation of blocks;
  • Corrections to the number and types of bricks listed for use;
  • Adequate description of where each level of bricks should be positioned in relation to the levels above and below;
  • Use of visual aids, such as photos, diagrams and schematics, to demonstrate how the sections of the model should fit together;
  • Inclusion of images for the end result…
  • …and lots more (full discussion can be viewed on the livestream footage).
Microscope base in progress. Photo by Sophie Kay (@StilettoFiend), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY.

Microscope base in progress. Photo by Sophie Kay (@StilettoFiend), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY-3.0.

Group work in full flight at #solo13lego. Photo by Sophie Kay (@StilettoFiend), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY-3.0.

Even this short exercise demonstrates how a supposedly simple set of instructions can produce wildly different results if ambiguities leave them open to misinterpretation. It really got us thinking about what the needs of the end user are – something which we’re not taught to think about (or indeed encouraged to do so) at any stage of our education. Could this kind of exercise, whether with Lego or with hands-on science, be used to promote better communication amongst our scientists?

The extended session at the upcoming hackday (see below) is going to take this idea further and train participants to produce instructions that account for this user perspective.

All five microscopes at the end of the session. Photo by Peter Murray Rust (@petermurrayrust).

All five microscopes at the end of the session, alongside Sophie’s slide of how the models should have looked. Photo by Peter Murray Rust (@petermurrayrust).

Upcoming Hackday

Now, dates are yet TBC, but I’ll be running an extended session of Lego-Based Learning at the upcoming SpotOn Hackday, which will probably happen sometime early 2014. I’m hoping this longer workshop will last around 3 hours. It’ll give us time to explore both the user and producer roles and I’ll be implementing the rotation-based learning approach of OSTI, so there’ll be an even stronger incentive for good communication skills. I’ll be posting the details on the OSTI News page once the time and place are confirmed, as well as tweeting the details, so keep an eye on all that and let me know if you’d like to join: I’m looking forward to seeing some returning faces as well as new ones! And there are worse ways to spend a Saturday than playing with Lego…

And What Next?

Although the instruction sheets are still available via my previous blogpost, I’ve posted the slide deck and the instructions up on the GitHub repository for the Open Science Training Initiative. If you’re interested in running a similar session, you can download those now – of course, you’ll need to buy your own stash of Lego (or get someone else to buy it for you) but at least that’s quite a fun task. Good Luck! 🙂

Panton Fellowship: End of Year Report

PLEASE NOTE: This article is just the advert for my Panton report, NOT the report itself! You can download a PDF of my 12-page end of year report here, all in glorious technicolour…


Twelve months on from the start of mine and Ross Mounce‘s Panton Fellowships with the Open Knowledge Foundation, it’s time to take stock of where we’ve got to in that time. And how quickly the time has gone!

The Contents of a Year

Yes, the time might have flown by, but it’s time for the concluding Panton report. At the request of the OKFN, I’ve produced a full report on my work in Open Science and Open Education over the past year – you can download a copy here. I’ve tried to provide a fairly all-round picture of the major meetings, trips and of course an overview of the Open Science Training Initiative. Alas though, there wasn’t space to fit every last bit of news in, so feel free to leave me a comment/message on this blog or on my Twitter account if you’d like to know more about my Panton experiences!

Just to clear up any confusion though: I know some of you are also awaiting my post-pilot report on the inaugural OSTI scheme. It should be released in the next fortnight , and is a completely separate report to the one I’ve listed above. So don’t worry – those details, and indeed all the OSTI course materials, will be appearing very soon. I’ll be publicising it on Twitter and here on my blog once that happens, although I can add you to the direct mailing list for OSTI releases if you send an email to enquiries(at) 🙂

Much of my focus has been on furthering the integration of open practices within academia, through development and delivery of graduate-level open science education. Meanwhile, my Bath-based counterpart, Ross Mounce, has done a phenomenal amount of work for policy development in open access and open data, including trips to Brussels and appearances on the radio, alongside data mining work inspired by his background in phylogenetics. That’s only the tip of the iceberg though, so I’ll leave it to Ross to tell the story in his own words – I’ll be posting a link to his blog in the next 24 hours, as soon as his review appears online. [EDIT: Ross’ review now up on the OKFN blog – read it here] So definitely take a look! And we’ve both enjoyed some great opportunities to promote the world of Open at conferences, workshops and meet-ups to a diverse range of audiences. We’ve met some fantastic people along the way.

And last but not least…

I also want to reiterate the final message from my end-of-year report: many thanks to the Panton Advisory Board, and indeed to all the folks at the OKFN who have provided sterling support throughout the last year. While I’m keen to avoid the excessive “Gwynnie” approach, there are nonetheless some particular names I’d like to mention. Thanks to Laura Newman, for seeing me through the hectic early days of the fellowship term and to Joris Pekel for stepping in to look after the Fellows since September; to Peter Murray-Rust, for inspirational, ebullient mentorship; to Greg Wilson, for being an absolute guru for educational practice and a bringer of calm; to Puneet Kishor, for his advice and faith in OSTI’s potential; and to Jenny Molloy, for advice, opinions and Oxford-based support!

I’m aiming to put together another blog post in early May, reflecting on what it’s been like to combine the Panton role with my DPhil/PhD commitments. If you’re a prospective Panton applicant for future Fellowship calls, hopefully it’ll prove useful.I should stress though that the end of the Fellowship certainly isn’t spelling the end of my work with OSTI – in fact, it’s more of a beginning. The fellowship year has provided the opportunity to create this wonderful initiative – now we move on to the process of growing it over time. But for today, it’s back to research with me (more specifically, to making my little in silico cells behave in C++). Bye for now!

Open Science Training Initiative – Pilot Scheme Complete!

You could be forgiven for thinking I’d gone very quiet this week. As many of you may remember, the pilot scheme for my Open Science Training Initiative kicked off on January 10th. It’s been a pretty hectic time since then, but we’ve finally reached the closing day – the students are pushing final versions of all their work onto GitHub in the next hour, before presenting their findings from 10:30am onwards.

I’d had this insanely optimistic idea at the outset of blogging progress with the course every other day, or at least at the end of each of the rotation phases. Yep, that turned out to be WAY too optimistic. Once all the lecturing and project supervision meetings were factored in, I barely made it anywhere near my computer each day. Those of you who emailed me may have noticed the, ahem, somewhat tardy replies. All for good reason though – the students have done a fantastic job, produced some really creative work, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the results today – even if it’ll leave me stuck under a stack of marking for a fortnight!

I released a short feedback questionnaire to the students just now, so by the end of today we should have some idea of what they’ve enjoyed in the course, and importantly, how they think we could improve it in the future. I don’t think I’ve ever been subjected to this much judgment in one go before, so let’s hope it all goes ok… Ultimately I’ll be releasing all the findings and analysis in an evaluation report (most probably sometime in February), which will also take account of comments from the course demonstrators, some of whom were with the projects right from the beginning of the course. So keep an eye out for that.

I have to say I was seriously impressed by how they’ve taken to licensing as well. From the general show of hands I asked for in lectures, this area was completely new to all of them. This really shows how much work we need to do in educating our academics in Open practice if we’re going to aid the uptake of these approaches – at the moment, the awareness isn’t there in vast sections of the community. By the end of Phase 1 on the Monday, they’d got the hang of data, code and content licensing to the point where I was fielding some fairly subtle questions in specific cases. Some of you may have noticed me tendering one of these out to the OKFN discussion lists… GitHub for Windows proved really problematic though – more on that in the report and any other blog posts I get around to writing. We’d definitely need to do things differently in that department next time.

Anyway, proper update on the details of both rotation phases will follow, once I get through today and actually get some sleep. For now though, it’s probably time to get ready for the onslaught of the talks. It’s already snowing pretty heavily outside – something tells me I may end up walking home tonight, once the day is done! :S