chemical education

Is Chemistry Incompatible with Web 2.0?

(This post is in response to the April 19 editorial in C&E News.  For the response to the May 10 editorial, click here)

A recent ChemJobber post notes that C&E News Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum‘s editorials sometimes have a tendency to approach the controversial – and sometimes the purely political.  I wanted to discuss this weeks editorial which threatens to call into question much of my online existence (sorry, Mitch.  If Rudy’s right, I think you’re about to spontaneously e-implode).

In this week’s editorial, “The Limits of Web 2.0,” Baum decries the cliché “information wants to be free” for both its out-of-context usage (the full quote says information wants to be expensive because it is valuable and free because the cost of information dissemination is shrinking almost hourly – thus a struggle) and for its lunacy (information can’t wish for anything – it’s inanimate).  Rather, Baum says that it’s people who wish that information would be free.  I’d amend Baum’s correction slightly.  People really want information to be free and readily accessible.  I’d argue public libraries have long made most information “free,” if you were willing to do the legwork to get it.

But the bulk of Baum’s editorial promotes Jaron Lanier’s book You are Not a Gadget: A Manefesto, and summarizes Lanier’s main points, namely that the wisdom of crowds can be dangerous and science should be loath to adopt web 2.0 ideals.  Lanier points out that around the turn of century, a “torrent (a word hijacked by the web 2.0 crowd -ed.) of petty designs sometimes called web 2.0″ flooded the web.  And through the use of web 2.0, we apparently are losing sight of the trees for the forest, er, the taggers for the cloud.

Baum writes in his editorial (cross-posted for free on the web 2.0 CENtral Science blog, natch), “The essence of what Lanier is saying is that individuals are important and that we’re losing sight of that at our own peril in elevating the wisdom of the crowd to a higher plane than the creativity of a single person.”  That is, we are valuing the cloud more than the individuals, when the cloud can’t exist – and has no meaning – without the existence of the individuals.  Lanier notes that collective intelligence can be used well, but only when guided by individuals who can direct the course of the hive mind and help steer clear of common groupthink pitfalls.

But the most interesting quote comes near then end, when Baum quotes Lanier as saying that scientific communities “achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and ‘blind’ elitism.”  I’m not really sure what that means…

But to Lanier’s thesis that science ought to be wary of embracing web 2.0 and its ideals, I find it interesting that Baum writes his editorial at C&E News, the magazine of the ACS, whose flagship publication, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, has featured a JACSβ page for some time now.  The same C&E News whose blog has become so popular that it had to split off into several child blogs.  Where each post for each ACS article has links to share the article on one of several social networking sites.  Where scientists can now browse their favorite article on their iphones with ACSMobile.  While perhaps late to the party in some areas, the American Chemical Society has certainly ‘logged on’ to web 2.0 as a way to export content to the web-savvy scientist.

Plus, we have our own Mitch, a one man walking encapsulation of web 2.0.  His most successful application is, in my opinion, the chemical forums, which typically sees between 8,000 and 11,000 visitors per day.  This blog seems to be a big hit, and his ChemFeeds is a one-stop source for your aggregated list of your favorite journals’ graphical abstracts.  All this innovation on Mitch’s part earned him an interview with David Bradley (of ScienceBase) in his chemistry WebMagazine, Reactive Reports.

There’s also the Chemistry Reddit as another outlet of chemistry news and notes.

In the inaugural issue of Nature Chemistry, the Nature Publishing Group recounted how they have completely bought into web 2.0 as a means of science communication – each issue of Nature Chemistry even features a roundup of their favorite posts from the chemical blogosphere (which reminds me, to the left, Mitch has also created an aggregated rss feed of several popular chemistry blogs).

And, of course, web 2.0 in the sciences has been discussed in the blogs several times over the years.  We have over 3 pages of posts categorized Web 2.0, mostly Mitch’s posts on new web 2.0 platforms he’s developed.  Jean-Claude Bradley writes about web 2.0 in response to a very interesting post at Nascent, a blog from the folks at Nature.

So, all of these prove that web 2.0 has been talked about many times in the context of science.  Has it worked?  With the exception of blogs, sadly I’m inclined to say no.  At least not yet.  And even with blogs (with the possible exception of All Things Metathesis, and In the Pipeline, though Derek isn’t allowed to talk about his work b/c of intellectual property issues), not a lot of academic or industry leaders are prone to blogging.  It’s not like we’re reading Phil Baran’s blog and getting inside his head on a daily basis.

Sure, there is a subculture of people who are active on the web 2.0 scene, but it surely hasn’t taken off as a medium for all chemists to enjoy.  It theoretically should.  Chemists are always benefited from communal sharing of results and information.  But there are still (and probably always will be) people who seem reluctant to join the new technological paradigm.  I like the way Timo Hannay words it in his post on Nascent,

“But it’s not up to the doubters to ‘get it’, it is up to those of us who support these developments to demonstrate their value. And if we can’t then they don’t deserve to be adopted and we don’t deserve to be heard.”

Especially if there are people at the position of Editor-in-Chief for arguably the top chemistry magazine denouncing the web 2.0 movement, clearly it has a ways to go before it will be appreciated by all to the point where web 2.0 is ‘taken for granted,’ where we don’t even realize what we’re doing when we post results and opinions via web 2.0 technologies.

Let’s get moving!

Online Textbooks: ChemWiki Part 1

I remember buying my first O-chem books back when I was attending DVC (Diablo Valley College), a not-so-little community college here in the Bay Area. At first I checked the bookstore and lost my lunch when I saw the price of the new books. The text was $215, the lab manual was another $70, and the solutions manual was $100. Unfortunately, a new edition had been released that year, so even though the professor said that we could use older editions, many of the problem sets wouldn’t match up, so we’d have to get the problems from our classmates. In the end, the cheapest and most convenient route was to go online and buy the international editions. Even after extending the method to all my other classes, I still paid almost $500 for books that semester. Now I attended DVC before California went belly-up, so my classes were still a great bargain at $18 a unit. Since I usually took ~19 units, my total tuition cost was around $350 a semester. The cost of the books were actually greater than my cost of tuition. The sad thing is, this wasn’t an unusual case. Luckily this wasn’t too much of a hardship for me; I had a job on campus and money saved up. However, I knew a lot of students for whom the beginning of the semester meant not eating lunch in order to save up gas money.

Now students have probably been complaining about textbooks since time immemorial. Aristotle probably complained that his scribe made spelling mistakes in his copy of The Republic. Most of the time our bellyaching is justified. Not only do textbooks cost a lot, but there is often a gross amount of errors in them. Everyone knows that the first time you find a caption or answer wrong, it makes the rest of the book suspect. Also, these errors give the publishers a reason to release a next edition…that never seems to fix even half of the errors. However, they do switch around problem numbers, add a few pages of new content, and possibly even rearrange chapters. So now the professors lesson and homework plan, that goes by chapter numbers, page numbers, and problem numbers, is moot. And the student is effectively forced to buy the new edition (price “adjusted for inflation”) or suffer some inconveniences. Most choose to simply buy the new edition since tracking down the old one can be difficult and you have to be quick. Also, sometimes bookstores won’t buy back the old edition so if you had it, and an edition switch occurred before you finished your course track, you are up the creek.

Some of these issues can be addressed with online textbooks. The idea of supplementing physical texts with online modules has been around and implemented by publishers for many years. However, I’ve yet to see a good entirely online chemistry textbook. The advantages of online texts are of many: accessible anywhere you get 3G or Wi-Fi and have your mobile device, interactive learning capabilities, easy distribution, instant update/revision, and low cost publishing (server fees). Of course this won’t necessarily result the publisher make more money, but at 4 billion (yea, you read that correctly, billion) dollars a year, the industry doesn’t really need much help.

The student, however, does. We need these online textbooks, not just to save our wallet, but also to help prevent being stuck with an expensive and lousy text for a year that does a poor job of explaining the material. That expensive O-Chem book I bought really was terrible and it forced my professor to do a lot of extra work in teaching us not to follow the book’s direction of simply memorizing 500 reactions, but to see the patterns and the underlying physical explanations. In the end, we learned from his powerpoints and I paid $215 for a glorified reference book.

Well, some people are pioneering an effort to create an “Open Access Textbook”. In a perfect example of “chem 2.0”, UC Davis Professor Delmar Larsen is the project director of the ChemWiki, a truly free online textbook written by everyone, for everyone. In an absolutely Herculean effort, the developers and Larsen (Mary Obrien, Ron Rusay, Brent Krueger, Michelle McCombs) are trying to create a free and complete, as in covering all branches, chemistry textbook using a community of students, faculty, and outside experts from around the world. Of course they aren’t there yet, and there is still a long way to go but hey, their text literally gets better everyday.

Now I know you probably have a lot of questions: what about correctness and plagiarism? Could such a thing ever be considered an Authority? What do the publishers say? Does anyone actually use the thing? Well, it just so happened that a couple of weeks ago, I was at Davis for the Borge fellowship visitation and I had a chance to talk with professor Larsen who agreed to answer some of these questions for me. In a couple of days, I’ll post the interview here. For now, I suggest you go and check out http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/ and browse not just through the core, but the wikitexts and community as well.

SPIE – San Francisco 2010: Day 2

SPIE an international society focused on all things light-based is having their big photonics conference in San Francisco this week. I had the opportunity to sit in the professional development speaker series and thought I would share some of the speakers’ insights.

Andrea Armani a 2nd year assistant professor at USC in chemical engineering spoke on Leading a Well-Adjusted Research Group. She stated that she gives her students Fridays off from their main research endeavor and allows them to tackle any question they want; which is a very new generation Google-esque approach to student mentoring. She also explicitly establishes that a particular older graduate student will mentor a younger graduate student in the lab, so that the younger student will always have someone to answer their questions. The most interesting story told was how she deftly managed to diffuse the amorous advances of a student, a very awkward position indeed, and a situation not covered in the manual.

Thomas Tongue gave a talk on Peaks and Pitfalls of Professional Communication, but it mainly focused on how to deliver what he calls The Elevator Pitch. He says that in scenarios where you would like to collaborate with an other scientist, or a scenario where you feel you could contribute to a team in the company if only you were placed on it, that you essentially have 60-90 s with that collaborator or vice-president to make your best pitch. The pitch has to be clear, compelling, conceptual (not bogged down in technical jargon), concrete (a specific quantifiable metric should be given), consistent (story should flow well), customized for the the target audience, and always given in a conversational tone. His advice is similar in nature to what Peggy Klaus advocates in her book The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It but she terms them brag-a-logs. Peggy Klaus’s book is a good read for those interested in professional development and especially for those that have problems vocalizing their contributions.

The chair of the session was Dirk Fabian from SPIE Student Services and I’m glad they were able to put together a good mix of speakers; as this type of information can be hard to extract from PIs.

Mitch

By January 25, 2010 0 comments chemical education

Web 2.0: In the Classroom?

I went to a workshop a while ago under the title of Teaching During Budgetary Crises.  Among the topics covered were alternative teaching methods and free or inexpensive methods of interacting with your students other than traditional the 50 minute lecture.

We were given a list of a variety of web 2.0 platforms and suggested ways to use them in a classroom setting.  The workshop participants spanned a variety of departments across the university, so as I glance through the list, I can see how some platforms would lend themselves to use in certain departments, while others might make more sense for the physical sciences.

Here’s the list we were given, with links to information about the site.  Have any of you seen any of these technologies used in a classroom or seminar setting?  If so, how were they implemented?  Were they successful?  Would you have done it differently?

I think I could see myself using Jing as a resource to walk through out-of-class examples of more complex or complicated synthesis problems and mechanisms.  Jing is a screen-capture technology that allows you to upload video of your onscreen actions.  I could propose a synthesis problem, jump to my slides covering the needed concepts, and jump to ChemDraw to illustrate my thought process and the correct answer.

Times and technology are certainly changing before our eyes.  Are educators going to stick with the traditional lecture model, or are we going to move with the trends to bring content to students in new and exciting ways?  Or, if we do move with the trends, are we going to end up sacrificing quality to increase curb appeal?

Tools for Interactive Questioning

Strategic Recording

Collaborative Learning

By October 14, 2009 7 comments chem 2.0, chemical education