Use Wikipedia by going beyond Wikipedia

Adam Coomer asks on The Guardian, “Should university students use Wikipedia?

No, if you want to cite directly from it or get all your sources from the article’s references and nowhere else.

Yes, if you want a starting point or if you want to familiarise yourself with general concepts.

Of course, there is a proviso: always expect mistakes, controversy, and vandalism. Just in case.

The subject matter may look like a boring source to add jokes, false information, and opinion, but it happens all over the place. Take everything with a pinch of salt.

By the time you’re at the stage of writing essays and completing coursework, Wikipedia shouldn’t be top of your list. But it’s a great place to start when you’re researching and gathering notes.

libri8 (photo by rezdora70)

Here are three major reasons Wikipedia will work for you:

  1. Off to a Great Start – A wiki entry isn’t good enough for gathering references, because it only skirts the surface. Even an in-depth article won’t cover everything to the extent you’re expected to dive into. You are expected to look at academic articles and books from many sources. But Wikipedia is great to use at the beginning. Get stuck in when you start out, not when you finish up.
  2. Convenience – A quick look online is easier than taking out the textbooks. You may even want a simple outline of a topic. Enter Simple Wikipedia. Brief explanations when even the original Wikipedia article is too much hassle. A great way to remind you of the core information.
  3. Jumping Off Point – Don’t think of the Wiki footnotes as a set of articles to add to your own references. Go further and read the references within those referenced articles. Also, find key words that the Wikipedia piece makes a big deal of and look them up in recent scholarly articles. That way, you get the important older papers, plus a look at more up to date stuff. And all off the back of a Wikipedia page.

Talking of jumping off points, there are others close to home. Use your textbooks in the same way. Yes, Wikipedia is convenient, but you probably have your textbooks close to hand much of the time. You don’t have to do much to get the treasure. Grab the books, find the topic you’re researching, and look at the references given in the book (usually at the end of the chapter, or at the back of the book). Voila! More books and academic papers for you to dig out to study and reference. And not the same ones that everyone else looking at Wikipedia will dish out either. Win!

The point of all this is that Wikipedia has a place. As the Guardian piece states, “the default response of academics to simply advise against using the site is unlikely to have much effect”. After all, why not use the site?

I say go ahead and use it. But use it wisely. The key is to use Wikipedia to your advantage and not merely for shortcuts. Make the site part of your wider scholarly plan and there shouldn’t be a problem. It’s when you rely on it as your major go-to that you’ll end up with issues.

Wikipedia is your friend, even at uni, so long as you treat it right. How much do you use it?

Engaging With Digital Scholarship & Recognising the Purpose of Tools

Long post alert. As an additional post, this piece is part of the #change11 Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). It’s part of Week 3, on digital scholarship.

What is a MOOC? Here’s a video introduction:


Books are tools. Visiting a library doesn’t turn someone into a scholar. Digital platforms for information and engagement can be viewed similarly. We have an increasing range of digital tools at our disposal. Free access to those tools doesn’t turn everyone into digital scholars.

So is the term ‘digital scholarship’ useful? To an extent, I would argue it is, even though no single definition is clear.

Research is affected because scholarly access is altered. At its most basic level, anyone with access to the Internet can indulge in research. It is often quick and painless and routinely involves Google.

Can a basic Google search constitute research? Has the term ‘research’ been tainted by digital means of accessing information more freely? Must research involve new discovery and/or the remixing of materials into something new?

How about teaching? I am pleased to see an increasing push toward tackling misunderstandings of ‘digital natives’. Just because young people (myself included) have generally been granted access to the Internet from an early age, that doesn’t mean all young people have mastered online access as a matter of course. Neither does it mean young people should be expected to know how to best use digital tools to their advantage. Access to the tools is different to mastering them. And even an advanced grasp of Facebook and other social platforms is not enough to assume someone can take that savvy and apply it to anything remotely ‘digital’ in nature.

Martin Weller, author of ‘The Digital Scholar‘ is hosting this week of the Change MOOC and he asks that we address the question: “what impact has digital scholarship had on your practice and what difficulties have you encountered?

When I was an undergraduate, I recognised that most of my peers were not taking to the Internet as enthusiastically as myself. I’d been telling school friends as early as 1995 how the Internet was going to change the world. My friends thought I was crazy. They didn’t even know what I was talking about at the time.

By the time I was at university, people were beginning to get the hang of this Internet beast and technologies were moving quickly. Nevertheless, I didn’t notice many people getting excited about finding a new online journal dedicated to exactly the topic I was looking into at the time. I was one of the few. Far more popular at the time was Napster. Change wasn’t limited to the strictly academic.

The difficulties with referencing online material were even greater back in the late ’90s. And it wasn’t unusual to have anything related to the Internet be frowned upon as if it was automatically unreliable and suspect. Happily, those times have changed, yet issues remain. And while hurdles are slowly jumped, several more pop up and any type of catch-up is not reasonable. An element of openness to newness is required otherwise there’s little point making a realistic embrace of digital scholarship, whether a student or an academic.

Weller states that there is moderate evidence for differences in expectations of net generation learners. This is more acceptable than suggesting that net generation learners are more capable and/or ready to learn differently. Expectations can change, but that doesn’t automatically alter ability. Familiarity and access are improved for many, but again I go back to saying that possessing the tools does not equate to using them efficiently, if at all.

Digital scholarship must be learned, the same as any scholarly activity. As technology changes and generations start from different points, it may seem likely that expectations will change and tools will be taken for granted. What’s less likely, however, is automatic understanding and full perception of these tools. That takes time, effort, and a desire to get to grips with those tools to a greater extent.

Weller explores the myths of a genuinely savvy generation and I recently wrote about an Illinois study that discovered the extent to which even Google isn’t used very well for research. This is concerning when you consider how ingrained Google is to the general public psyche. Google is a recognised verb and there’s plenty of jokes suggesting that you can “Google it with Bing” and other search engines. Google the term and you’ll see what I mean…

If the most well-known search tool on the Internet is subject to poor technique and use, what hope is there for everything else?

I was lucky enough to be given a computer when I was only two years of age. This was a time when computers weren’t a norm in the home. At school, I was regularly frustrated by the lack of depth within IT lessons. As the years went by, dedicated IT teachers continued to be low in number and curriculum often covered only the basics. Into my teens, some of my peers also grew frustrated at the limitations imposed upon them. Looking back, it appears that while students gained increasing familiarity with computers and their capabilities, learning resources were not growing in conjunction with that familiarity.

Weller asks that we should look to maintain relevance during cultural change. He also urges that these changes should be seen as a series of opportunities rather than threats. I agree with this. Culture changes, tools change, our lives change. It’s difficult to adapt to changes when faced with uncertainty, but our lives are exposed to an ongoing series of challenges. Jonathan Fields suggests that uncertainty and fear need to be dealt with differently, rather than moving away from uncertainty itself. Without those scary moments where it’s hard to ascertain what to do next, life becomes a safe haven and…shudder…a long stay in the comfort zone.

Times change and it’s wise to be alert to what’s changing around us. Does that mean specific digital tools are now a requirement to continue along a scholarly path?

Not exactly. Turning to a tool because it looks like an ‘answer’ to something is dangerous. It’s better to turn to a tool and learn about its relevance to you as an individual. If you can use the tool to your advantage, use it, and keep learning so that you truly master the tool. If the tool doesn’t work for you, make sure you’re not just suffering teething troubles. When you’re satisfied the tool isn’t providing any intrinsic benefit to you and those you’re affiliated with, feel free to drop it. There is likely to be another tool out there that you CAN use to your advantage:

“…scholars shouldn’t be using wikis because they believe there is a Wikipedia generation and it will make them look relevant but rather because they allow them to achieve certain goals in teaching.” (Weller, 2011)

This sums up how I’ve been feeling for many years. Our relationship with tools can be turned the wrong way at times. I was recently quoted in the Guardian:

“Social media tools are only tools. Rely on them & you let tools rule you. Learn to use them, don’t seek their help.”

Is digital scholarship a way to define scholarship when using these digital tools?

Scholarship is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:

“The attainments of a scholar; learning, erudition; esp. proficiency in the Greek and Latin languages and their literature. Also, the collective attainments of scholars; the sphere of polite learning.”

The definition of ‘scholar’ gives even greater range of meaning. I return to this question: is a search on Google digital scholarship?

Tools don’t necessarily need to be scholarly, but perhaps our practice does. Since the term ‘scholarly’ itself is subjective, we’re left in a potential muddle. However, consider Twitter for a moment. Twitter is valued by many academics around the world and it wasn’t initially recognised as a tool to grow scholarly and interested networks. There wasn’t a group of people using the service to exchange links on numerous topics. People learned to use the Twitter in ways that hadn’t been suggested at the outset. Scholarly moves can be made with tools bearing no visible scholarly use. Perhaps this is digital scholarship in action. In realtime.

What about this MOOC? Is this a real stab at digital scholarship, or a distant cousin? Weller writes in a blog post that he hasn’t had much time to put together the exciting and radical package he’d hoped for this week. Why? In Weller’s own words, “Innovation takes time”.

Weller continues:

“I view MOOCs in a different way to conventional courses. I see them more as a focal point for bringing people together to discuss the topics. They are not there to teach. It is a shame though because the point of doing a MOOC for me as an educator is that they provide a space to experiment in a way that may not be acceptable with paying students, so I don’t feel as though I used this opportunity to its full potential.”

In between reading, typing, and searching for the occasional link, I kept returning to this question: is my participation in a MOOC, by writing this very post, meant to be built up using scholarly language, accurate referencing, removing vague statements, and backing up every last point?

I still haven’t reached a comfortable answer to this. Here lies the biggest difficulty I have encountered. In my opinion, this is a type of scholarship. It uses digital platforms. It is part of a bigger thing, but it can be encountered (to an extent) in isolation. However, it doesn’t act as an academic paper. It isn’t traditionally academic. It isn’t relying directly on a lot of research (though it comes about after a lot of general research).

Digital scholarship suffers due to an uncertainty surrounding context. And, as I state above, the fact that the term is highly subjective hardly helps.

My ability to research and connect and engage is greatly improved with the use of digital platforms. Perhaps digital scholarship wins on this basis alone. Everything else is a bonus.

I have made the conscious decision to keep this post rough and a bit ’round the houses’ in order to make this as far removed from hardcore academic scholarship as possible. Are academics uncomfortable with the rough and raw output of a blog post? Does it feel unnatural to hit ‘publish’ and have a post published online without previous peer-review?

What academics achieve online can be a part of their work offline, as well as something separate. Digital scholarship is necessarily complementary and different at the same time. I conclude this because what we do as individuals cannot feasibly be placed into isolated boxes. Online personas may or may not appear different to those offline, but they still belong to us. They still cross over at times and meet when we least (and most) expect it.

Weller states on his MOOC introduction:

“…people on both sides of the digital scholarship argument portray it as an either/or scenario, so you may hear detractors saying ‘I don’t want everything to be reduced to a tweet, I think books are still important’, or evangelists proclaiming that ‘publishing is dead, video is king now.’ I would suggest that what digital scholarship provides us with is a richer set of alternatives, where previously we may have had no choice.”

Tools don’t make us different people, but we can use tools to explore further and in new directions. Giving up on books or any other tool is utterly pointless unless there has been a total replacement that allows complete conversion. That’s a pretty difficult feat for most things.

So whenever I hear someone declare anything as ‘dead’, I shrug and move along quickly. There’s no point in arguing because the author is either being deliberately provocative or they have already made up their mind. Their loss.

I’m going to make use of what I need to get the job done. Digital scholarship has opened things up. I’m thankful for that.

This seems a good place to stop. Because I need to get the job done. And, as I’m sure a lot of you will agree, the job is never done!

10 ways to get better Google search results

Google is no stranger to us, right? You may even think Google is a bit too familiar

Google is probably a big part of your life, one way or another. But when it comes to that single box on the home page, waiting for your keyword input, what do you type in? A recent US study suggested that many Google searches don’t dig deep enough.

“Throughout the interviews, students mentioned Google 115 times — more than twice as many times as any other database. The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources.”

Rather than type a word or two in the search box and hope for the best, there’s a whole host of ways you can make Google find you far better results to suit exactly what you’re looking for. Here are 10 simple ideas to get Google working even harder for you:

1. Go beyond the first page of results

When Google returns about a billion results, you’re not even skimming the surface if you stay on Page One. Dig deeper. You may be surprised at what you find. Used with the tips below, it works especially well, because you’ll be getting more targeted results. What used to return a billion hits may now produce a million. Or a thousand. Or a hundred.
But even if you get a hundred results back, that’s still ten pages of Google goodness going on. If you ignore Page Two and beyond, who’s to say you weren’t amazingly close to finding exactly what you wanted?

2. Find similar words with a tilde (~)

With a WHAT!? The tilde looks like this:


Yes, a tilde looks a bit like a curly moustache.
But wait, its powers don’t stop at imitating facial hair. A tilde also tells Google to put a thesaurus to your word. For instance, if you search for “study tips”, you get one set of results. But search for “study ~tips” and you get results for study tips, study skills, study techniques, study guides, and so on.

3. “Use quotes”

When you’re looking for an exact set of words together, put them inside quotes so Google searches for the phrase in its entirety rather than as separate words. You can still add other words outside quotes.

4. Use ‘OR’ in your search

With a few interchangeable words in mind, the ‘OR’ operator lets you search for one or more of the words you choose. Sometimes you want to search a core topic, but with several separate sub-topics. By using OR between each of the sub-topics, you don’t need to bother with multiple searches. [Make sure OR is in capital letters, otherwise Google considers it as the word ‘or’.]

5. Use Google Scholar, Books, and News

Google offers other services that give entirely different results, which can be especially useful when you do academic research.
Google Scholar searches for scholarly papers. You can search within a timeframe, limiting the search to just the recent academic papers if you wish.
Google Books looks at content inside, you guessed it, books. When you need a juicy quote or want to read more about a technical detail, this type of search is great. You can also study a book before you even have the physical copy in your hands.
Google News looks at current events, making it great for relevant links about what’s happening right now in your area of interest. You can even set up email alerts every time new articles are published.

6. Search over a particular time

On the left hand side of your search, click on the text that says ‘More search tools‘. New options will appear to let you search the past year, the past month, the past day, even the past hour. You can also search a specific date range if you like.

7. Filter more

Also on the left hand side of your search, you can select various filtering options on your results. One good (though not perfect) option is to search by reading level (basic, intermediate, expert). You can also look at a search timeline, which can be hit and miss, but arranged differently to the standard search results.

8. allintitle:

Want to search for words that are so important they have to be in the page title? Just add ‘allintitle:’ before your search.

9. intitle:

If you want to search for a specific word in the title, but also drill down further with words that’ll only show up elsewhere on the page, add ‘intitle:’ before the word you require in the title of the page. Type the other words as usual. Google will do the rest of the magic.

10. filetype:

What if you only want to search for Word documents or Adobe Acrobat files? No problem. For Word files, add your search terms and include ‘filetype:doc OR filetype:docx’. For Acrobat files, add your search terms and include ‘filetype:pdf’.

These search tips are quick and easy, especially after you’ve used them a couple of times. But Google search goes further than that. If these examples have got you hooked, check out Google Guide for a complete overview of everything available at your fingertips.

Happy searching!

Is big change in higher education possible?

With votes of no confidence flying around and private ventures getting serious amounts of flack, the world of academia has been pretty animated this week.

You know it’s serious when The Guardian decides to run a live-blog of events

photo by micn2sugars

photo by micn2sugars

But rather than weigh into a debate that’s being flogged to death, I want to ask one big question:

  • Can HE actually achieve truly different models of teaching and learning to the models already in action?

Essentially, how can anyone create a bold, innovative plan to take higher education forward in new ways unless economic constraints are lifted?

I ask this because money has become such a focus in recent years that it’s currently impossible to remove the link between HE and funding. Everything requires money, so where will it come from?

Increasingly, the answer seems to be ‘from the student’, although the truth goes much deeper and is much more complicated.

Indeed, the truth isn’t possible to tell right now. Making sense of it all will probably still be tough even when the long awaited government White Paper on the future of HE is published.

Whatever happens, new models of teaching and learning will likely be hard to find with much HE funding moving in the direction of the student.

Subject to so much criticism this week, New College for the Humanities (NCH) is not particularly different to other models already on offer. However, the price tag and celebrity catch has made it easy fodder for debating.

We are facing up to at least one aspect of the future. NCH’s yearly tuition fee of £18k is going to upset many, no matter what is on offer and how it presents itself.

Despite the controversy, however, this is just the beginning of a long for-profit march. London Met’s Malcolm Gillies says that a “fundamentally different economy [is] emerging in higher education”.

Even so, take away the question of private ventures and the university system is still set for a ride into the unknown. Can the current state of affairs in HE be used in alternative ways that continue to allow freedom of enquiry as well as a platform for students to achieve the many things they want, including (but certainly not limited to) future career prospects?

The more I consider this, the more I feel something will eventually give. My hope is that the necessary change will prove positive in the main.

And it is necessary change. On one hand, the government (among others) is pushing for change. On the other hand, critics are pushing for change in other directions.

The one thing few seem to be wishing for is that everything stays precisely the same as it currently is. And yet the HE community get constantly ribbed for resisting any type of change!

Perhaps too many things will change at once. When you alter too much at the same time:

  1. You can’t distinguish between successful moves and failures;
  2. Risks are much greater in the mid to long term, if not also the short term;
  3. Nobody is sure what direction they are facing, should be facing, or even want to be facing;
  4. The subsequent confusion can lead to much flailing about and little to show for it.

The marketisation of HE takes us into new territory, but one which doesn’t look like it can easily support genuine innovation in terms of delivery and concept. Perhaps perversely, for-profit players may be best placed to find different successes by fluke, but it’s still a long shot and will continue to be strewn with controversy. The only accurate thing to say at this point is that it’s anyone’s game.

Not that it is a game, or feels like one, of course!

With students touted as being at the heart of HE, does their growing role as ‘consumer’ bring hope or horror to the sector?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask, as I’m sure you’ve long worked out.

My next post will look at the dangers of relying too much on a ‘student as consumer’ focus.