MSc Web Science: Week 1

First day of Web Science/Tim O’Riordan 2013/CC BY 2.0 UK

Some notes on my first week on the MSc Web Science course at Southampton.

Quantitative Research Methods (QRM)

The tutor, Nikolaos Tzavidis, posted the notes and slides for the first two lectures on Blackboard and emailed the class 4 days ahead to let us know. I like Nikos!

As a dyed in the wool qualitative researcher I am a little suspicious of quantitative methods, but this module is very much geared towards the absolute beginner – and I am being won over.

In the first class we were introduced to mean, modes and median scores; categorical (nominal and ordinal) and continuous sampling and the concepts of whole population and sample-based research (I may have got some of the terminology wrong there).

The good news is that, although we are doing some maths at the start (exploring Normal Distribution Curves), we don’t have to memorise it all. The bad news is that we have to learn a new program – SPSS – which will help us find the answer to everything.

There are some problems in getting hold of the readings for this module. The text book on SPSS (Discovering Statistics using SPSS) is reference only and can’t leave the library. We’ve been told to read chapters 1 to 4, but I haven’t had time to spend in the library. I can photocopy one chapter to take away and have a whopping £26 on my photocopy credit – but my card has been locked out of the system! Also need to read chapters 1-7 of Diamond and Jefferies’ Beginning Statistics: an Introduction for Social Scientists. Fortunately one of the readings (Quantitative Data Analysis in Education) is available online.

I’m also reading up on some old school research methods as described in Martin Mayers’ 1958 publication: Madison Avenue U.S.A.. The book gives a very thorough account of the problems of selecting true samples, and of getting truthful responses from interviewees.

Computational Thinking

This module is run by Les Carr and Hugh Davis, and the early message is that they hope to stimulate our interest by teaching basic computer architecture, and through introducing us to Python programming using Raspberry Pi’s. The assessed components are two group projects ( a presentation and a 6th Form teaching activity), and a blog-style article
This module, along with the rest of the Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) modules is not supported by Blackboard – but by the ECS’s own intranet.

On Friday Hugh took us through ‘computers 101′ – on which we will not be assessed. He covered lots of useful stuff: transistors, logic gates, bit comparators, 1 bit algebraic logic units and memory.

One of the readings for this module is Broadshears’ Computer Science Overview, which is available online in pdf format (yay!).

At the moment I’m considering using Compenium L D as a tool for designing the learning activity.

Independent Interdisciplinary Review

The title is self explanatory. In this module I am required to study two disciplines that I have no previous experience of but which are relevant to my interests, and produce a 12 page report with accompanying poster that demonstrates my understanding of the primary concepts underlying both disciplines (the ontologies, basic theories and methodologies) and draw them together to tackle a problem. The idea is to use this exercise to “pilot interdisciplinary engagement”.

Starting with a description of the question (e.g. “How might corporations be encouraged to open their data?”), I will explain why I have chosen the two disciplines (e.g. Anthropology and Economics), describe each discipline and how they might approach the problem and conclude with a suggestion of how the two approaches could be brought together.

I need to decide what my approach is by week 3, and a weekly blog outlining my study of each discipline is also required.

Hypertext and Web Text for Masters

This is the biggest class (about 120 students) containing some undergrads. Les undertook a straw poll on online usage, only 3 owned up blogging regularly, and 4 to uploading videos to YouTube.
I learned that:

  • The host address is better known under its Domain Name System (DNS) name:
  • The meaning of status codes (e.g. 200 = OK)
  • Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) should be persistent.
  • There are 5 stars of linked data.
  • Web architecture is made up of 3 key parts: identification, interaction, and formats.
  • Les sang us a song about this, to the tune of Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary…

TimBL, TimBL, very nimble,
How does your linked Web grow?
With URLs and HTMLs,
And GET and POSTS all in a row.


Foundations of Web Science

This is about the social impact of the web. In the first two classes we looked at the how we use the web, looked at categories of behaviour and interconnectedness (including an exploration of the World Trend Map).

3 months personal browsing (produced by ECS History Visualiser)

In the last class on Friday Les asked us to consider what sites we visit a lot, what we value, and what is significant, and to use the History Visualiser to present out browsing activity over the previous 7 days. Grabbing browsing history in Chrome isn’t straightforward and requires a third party application – Chrome History View – to export a list that’s usable in History Visualiser.

Unsurprisingly my visualisation shows a lot of activity on Google (I use Drive and search a lot), Facebook (I have two channels and use it to communicate with family, friends – and my new WS buddies), YouTube (I post a lot of videos), and the University site.

What I value is the ability to find out things very quickly, and test validity through ‘informal triangulation’. For example, on Friday I received a message from client with a problem DVD who needed a quick response from me. Using Google search, I was able to find other people who had the same problem, gauge the issues’ importance and check – and double check – the solution, before getting back to my client within 30 minutes. This would not have been impossible without the web.

There’s quite a large reading list for this module, but I’ve started with a book from my collection: Ed Krol’s 1992 ground-breaking, The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog. This book was published on the cusp of the development of the Web as we know it today, it does not mention HTTP or HTML, and refers to the Web as “the newest arrival from the Internet’s toolshop” and “probably the most flexible tool for prowling around the Internet”.

While this has much arcane interest, the chapters on the development of the Internet, ownership and management are fascinating.

The central argument presented in this module is that the Webs’ success is based firmly on academic freedom and the willingness of the academics involved in the project to freely share their ideas. While this is undoubtedly true, my interest in finding ways to enhance sharing on the Web tells me that this altruistic motivation is not universally shared by all of academia.
My thesis is that the central motivations for the Web’s development stem from a particularly American attitude to the rights of government, a belief in the efficacy of free trade, and a freedom of capital which encouraged venture investors to give early support to current Web mainstays. The prevalent attitude to government in the US is one of “we’ve paid for it – we own it”, which leads to the Federal government sharing data and artefacts that have been created through the application of taxpayers money. This is not a universally shared attitude – on the photo sharing site Flickr, compare US military’s sharing of images with the British MOD, or the Library of Congress’ attitude to its collections with the UK’s National Archive. The position to government ownership exemplified by Crown Copyright in the UK does not exist in the US, and the attitude that sees a large amount of Federal government stuff “go back to the people” was I believe vital to the early stages of the Web’s development. Although proposed and developed by Tim Berners-Lee, a Brit working on a European science project (CERN), the Web as we know it today could not have existed without this very American liberal mindset.

I admit that I may have overstated my case here, but I’ll see if it takes me somewhere useful over the next few weeks.

Digital Literacy Student Champions

I’ve registered to run workshops about using online media to support teaching and learning, and have one booking already! To run a WordPress blogging workshop in two weeks time.

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