Digitally Ready, a retrospective

Claudia's Climate Change and Gardening survey blog received over 4000 hits.

Claudia’s Climate Change and Gardening survey blog post received over 4000 hits.

In October 2011 I drafted a brief description of my digital education interests for this blog (when it was just starting) but didn’t get to the point where I wanted to publish it.  Looking back over the two years of this project I now see how far my digital readiness has moved and how far the institution has developed its digital literacy.  I’ve also written and published a lot of blogs.

At the beginning of Digitally Ready I was a user of Blackboard, Facebook, WordPress and Blogger, LinkedIn, Google and had a Twitter account as well as running the web pages for Biological Sciences.  I also had a commitment to e-science infrastructures through two large EU funded projects: 4D4Life and i4Life. I’d felt my level of knowledge was that of the interested professional.  My profession, however, is that of a Botanist.

My interests in Botany are fundamentally of an international nature and this has coloured my use and development of digital tools.  The MSc in Plant Diversity recruits around 50% international students each year so publicity needs to reach around the world.

The largest seed in the world being introduced to visitors of the tropical Glasshouse

The largest seed in the world being introduced to visitors of the tropical Glasshouse

The number of students interested in botany, and, more specifically, plant taxonomy is substantial at a global level but those students are highly dispersed.  Publicity needs to be globally accessible, discoverable and cost-effective so large-scale mail shots are impossible.  Redevelopment of the MSc web pages, to include short summaries of the modules and some case studies of graduates helped deliver information globally however the discoverability was limited.  Strengths of the course include the fact it has run in various forms since 1969 so has a large pool of alumni and also that we value highly field and other hands-on teaching so there is plenty of news to report every academic year.  With this in mind I set up an open Facebook page ‘Plant Diversity‘ – and was amazed to find nobody had already taken the domain!  To accompany the open page a closed group was established to provide a forum for alumni ensuring news and opportunities spread among our graduates.  The Plant Diversity page has a regular readership around the world while the closed group has very active discussions among alumni so both are fulfilling their purpose.

For students, once at Reading, both undergraduate and MSc, the need was not for diffuse communication to them but to reinforce the digital skills of those that are here such that they develop their digital presence and also that they help generate material for further teaching, outreach and research such that I don’t have to produce it all.

Justin Groves working on his Whiteknights biodiversity UROP palcement

Justin Groves working on his Whiteknights biodiversity UROP palcement

As usual, with Reading students, they have risen to the challenge.  There are now some 60 students involved in blogging on the Whiteknights Biodiversity and Tropical Biodiversity blogs, as well as my PhD group posting on a lab blog.  The Facebook pages Plant Diversity, Catalogue of Life and Whiteknights Biodiversity have been seen by over 100000 people this week and the Student Eats Botanika Facebook group (set up by Justin Groves) is now managing a vegetable garden via Facebook!

Here helping to set up the tropical Biodiversity Glasshouse, Lucy now works at the Eden project

Here helping to set up the tropical Biodiversity Glasshouse, Lucy now works at the Eden project

I’ve set up what seems to be the world’s first digitally enhanced glasshouse collection with University WiFi and a gradual accumulation of blogs about the species we grow and also been involved in several e-learning dissemination events on campus to spread good practice and attended others that show that the level of inventive use of Web 2.0 tools in Learning and Teaching has increased dramatically in the past two years.  I’m not quite ready for a holiday in Virtual Rome but can at least now find our Tropical Biodiversity Glasshouse on Google maps.

For the next academic year I’ll be working with Alice Mauchline in Agriculture, Hazel Mcgoff in Environmental Sciences, Alison Black in Typography and Karsten Lundqvist in Systems Engineering to develop mobile recording tools for biodiversity that will help our students record what they see and to build a database that will enhance future teaching and research activities on campus.

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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