Monday, 1 September 2014

open, collaborative, reproducible science.

I have over the last week been looking at material from the software carpentry organisation. They are tackling the problem of teaching programming to scientists and engineers.
Behind the skills of automation, modularisation, version control and structured and unstructured data they teach at boot camps, they are actually promoting the idea of open, collaborative, reproducible science.
It really does seem that the science community as a whole has been drifting away from these core principles. I wonder when this started to happen and why?

Collaborative Teaching

One of the points made by Greg Wilson in this video is that educators don't use version control when it comes to their lectures, lesson plans and lab notes. Wikipedia is a an exemplar of a collaborative research tool where many people write, review and improve an educational resource. Why don't more educators use this idea to improve their educational material?

As an example, in the lab classes for "Sensation and Perception" the lab notes are not great, in fact lab notes in general are not great in my experience. They are often confusing and don't offer enough detail in the areas that most students need. I'm not criticising the academics writing them either, they are trying to provide good materials but are often increasingly busy and they often don't take lab classes themselves. So how can this be improved?

A red and green post-it notes system is used in the software carpentry boot camps. A student puts a green post-it note on their laptop if everything is fine and they are progressing through the material. If they get stuck, they put the red post it note up and the instructor directs an assistant their way. At the end of each session, everyone writes something they learned on the green post-it and something that they didn't understand on the red post-it. Over time, this identifies the common stumbling blocks and allows the instructors to focus more time on the areas most people find difficult or rewrite the sections to try to improve the situation.

If the lab notes were on git-hub, I could take the information from running a lab and after forking the repository, attempt a rewrite. I could then send a pull request to the lecturer for their approval of the changes.