Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tips for Writing a SSHRC Program of Study

I've previously blogged about on getting Canadian graduate grants including my top ten tips. This year, I had the opportunity to look at several prospective masters programs of study. Below are common concerns that I noticed.

Common SSHRC program of study issues:

- good storytelling is important - proposals must engage the reader and entice them to read on (and not instantly discard), so don't start with "I am in my first year of a MA..."

- if including one's personal background it should be related to the program of study so specify this relationship. Don't include one's life story or a laundry list of classes taken

- acknowledge ethical concerns - if your proposed research is low risk,then once sentence will probably suffice to acknowledge your intention to follow university process here. I read some students proposals that dealt with sensitive populations or were proposing research that may actually result (indirectly) in harm to participants - in these cases it's important to deal with this.

- watch the scope is not too broad or suffers from Miss Universe syndrome (i.e. my research will save the world)

- mention (even briefly) sampling, access, and data analysis

- don't use of the term "subjects" or other dehumanizing labels for research participants

- define key terms and/or operationalize central concepts

- a clearly articulated research question is important

- explain how the research fits into your current area of study. I read some programs of study that appeared as if the student was in the wrong program as they referred exclusively to the concepts of other disciplines. It is important to fit one's research into one's current discipline not only to show that you are on a logical, appropriate academic path, but also applications are vetted by one's department so don't alienate them

- include a good title

- cite sources correctly!

I believe addressing these issues will make a program of study read better and be more academically appropriate.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lessons From In-the-Trenches Webcasting

I recently finished three days of orchestrating webcasts for a local social media conference. Prior to this, I had participated in the back-end production and front-end participation of webcasts, but hadn't gotten deep into the trenches of overseeing all aspects of the webcasts. It was a learning experience, to say the least. Without getting into the details of the decision whether or not to webcast or the event management details, I'll outline my experience to offer tips and caveats for anyone considering webcasting.

I had four days to find a video recording and webcasting solution. Fortunately, the IT guys at my department already had a solution in place and were incredibly helpful. I would not have been able to do this without technical support and an integrated solution. So my first tip for anyone attempting this is to make sure they have experienced technical help in place before even embarking on such a project.

As the conference relied on volunteer labour, it meant that I didn't know whom exactly was helping out until the day of the event. Ideally, a meeting and some training beforehand would help - but I realize this isn't always feasible. Considering the uncertainty of volunteer expertise and availability, it was essential to keep everything simple and operable by one person.

It also helps to see the environment one will be working in to figure out what are going to be any camera, audio, power, and network issues. We didn't get to see all the rooms, so we packed extra power bars, extension cords, and cable extenders (another great idea).

The webcasting system
Considering the circumstances and availability of equipment and expertise, I decided that the integrated solution my department provided was ideal. They had already purchased a subscription to webcasting software. This includes web-based recording management software and desktop recording software. We had fairly small webcams that had a omni-directional microphone, auto focus, and automatic light and colour correction. This makes operation of the camera and microphone incredibly easy. The webcams have a stand/clamp that makes positioning it easy. The webcams fed into a netbook. The software can also record the speaker's PowerPoint presentation if it is preloaded onto the computer - this would then be seen with the webcam via a split screen during the webcast. The cameras capture the session and then upload to server. We used both the wireless and wired network connection. Once on the Web, sessions can be managed, edited, and shared.

The set-up
Our job was to cover 3 break-out conference panels for the 3 days of the conference (15 sessions in total). Including myself, we had 3 volunteers. I had about one hour to meet with the volunteers to set-up equipment and train them how to use the software.

Technical problems
As to be expected, there are always problems that arise - some that cannot be anticipated. Of the three days of the conference, I had a new batch of problems come up suddenly and dramatically every day. These include:
  • wireless network connection unstable and slow and wired connection didn't seem to always work either
  • camera stand tips easily
  • camera or microphones can't zoom in - so people sitting far away from the camera aren't seen or heard particularly well
  • camera can't capture details of a presentation screen well-enough to be able to read it
  • backlight from windows or projector beam light overwhelms camera
  • webcasting software would mysteriously uninstall itself and need reinstalling
  • one of the netbooks died
Having back-up netbooks minimized problems with hardware and having lots of powerbars and cable extenders also helped.

Human issues
  • problems would come up and volunteers would have to leave recording to resolve them
  • speakers refused (for various reasons) to be recorded
  • pre-loading presentations onto netbooks takes too long if doing multiple speakers
  • locks on equipment didn't work, so room would have to be locked and unlocked regularly
  • no tech support available on weekends
  • attendees and speakers needed help with various things (e.g. getting onto Internet, where's washroom, projectors, etc.) and in doing this it takes time away from recording set-up
  • speakers that read their papers (often in a monotone) make for incredibly boring webcasts
  • real-time communication between volunteers and conference organizers across buildings and rooms was a problem
Having more volunteers to act as a float and resolve the other non-webcasting issues would have help - as would have a technical expert on stand-by (even if only available via telephone).

Considering all the problems, I would be tempted to say it was an ideal solution. If we had access to high-def cameras, tripods, and full suite of microphoness it would have certainly provided a better quality recording. But these are more difficult to operate and the use of various microphones would have meant we would have fed things into an audio board. Certainly, not something one, untrained person could feasibly do alone. To cover this many sessions, it would have also required lots of computer memory - not cheap. This type of equipment tends to be bigger and require more space and cords for set-up.

The webcams and netbooks are highly portable and don't take up much space - considering the small size of some of the rooms this is an asset. This system is also easy to set-up and fast to upload. As quality wasn't as essential as making use of existing resources (both technical and labour), it was a good solution. I believe most of the problems would be addressed with better real-time communication and at least 1-2 more volunteers.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Why I Really Love Delicious

As a daily web surfer since 1998, I have encountered almost innumerable webpages, many of which I wish to record or revisit. Without a robust and scalable solution, I would not be able to easily store and retrieve online resources essential to my career and personal life. For the past four years, I have used Delicious for my web bookmarks.

I use Delicious almost exclusively for my bookmarks as it offers me superior classification flexibility compared to tree-based bookmarking systems and it offers memory aids unequaled by search engines. I previously blogged about my Delicious usage. But in short, I tend to create 75 bookmarks a month on Delicious and visit their website about 2-3 times a week. Less frequently, I also use it to aid my sharing of webpages, to connect with similar bookmarkers, and to find new information.

But it is not just the utility or social networking that has garnered such devotion in me. I was wondering why I really love Delicious, so I tried to think more consciously and reflectively of my usage for a few days.

I noticed that I bookmarked not only for future retrieval but also as a form of nostalgic memory aid. I bookmark to recall life events such as family vacations, conferences attended and experiences, such as humourous findings and my bizarre interests. My bookmarks are my version of photo album and diary.

My Delicious bookmarking also fosters a sense of control. Not only are there seemingly infinite numbers of webpages to manage, but I also have many topics my career requires me to master. Faithfully bookmarking allows me to feel that these resources and the information contained therein is within my domain, readily within my grasp.

Delicious' interface is certainly simple and their browser plug-in makes using it even simpler. But it is Delicious' functionality that hooks me by being so well-suited to allowing me to obsessively grow (over 3400 bookmarks) and control this element of my life.