Saturday, September 16, 2017

Get me the d@mn PDF: how I turned write-up procrastination into a new way to access research papers

Today's post is written by Ben Kaube. Ben is a PhD student researching in computational materials science at Imperial College London. When not running physics simulations, Ben likes to build software tools that remove frustrations from people’s lives. In the past Ben has helped researchers evidence the wider impact of their work and provided commuters with a means to hold rail companies to account for delays.

Does this sound familiar? You're reading a new journal paper and come across a result you've not seen before referenced from a paper you can't remember reading. You copy and paste the reference into Google, click on the first link and hit a paywall, or only get a reference but not the actual published PDF. Mildly annoyed you tap at the back button in your browser and scan other results on the page - nothing.

In desperation you click through to page two, then page three. You know that the chances of finding the paper on page four are near zero. Occasionally you venture down a link labyrinth, full of redirects and pop-ups, always finding references, but never the PDFs. Eventually you give up on your search.

While attempting to write up my thesis some months ago I went through countless variations of the above. Sometimes I'd find the PDF I needed within a few clicks, other times I gave up entirely, never knowing what I was missing out on. Every time I felt that the literature search process was unnecessarily cumbersome, due to the difficulty of actually getting the journal article PDF. It occurred to me that I might not be the only one struggling to get hold of papers. Moreover, for researchers without access to well funded libraries, the process is many times more frustrating.

I realised that this problem could make a worthwhile distraction from my thesis writing, and spent the rest of the day thinking about how to automate the process of finding PDFs. Backed by a team of researchers and engineers who felt similarly motivated by the cause, we started work on a first iteration of Kopernio.*

Kopernio is a browser plugin that helps you find PDFs of papers you are looking for with a single click. Behind the scenes it searches your university’s library subscriptions, combined with an index of open sources (e.g. pre-print servers, institutional repositories, etc.) and Google Scholar searches. Most of the time Kopernio stays out of your way and only appears at times when it can offer you a shortcut to the PDF, for example when you are stuck in front of a publisher paywall.

Kopernio integrates with library subscriptions, so you can continue to access journal PDFs even when you are off campus without the need for a VPN. We already support almost 1000 institutions this way, and the list is growing every day.

I should say that it’s very early days for us - the plugin is in alpha testing - and we’re getting amazing feedback everyday, which is helping to shape the direction of Kopernio. Our goal is to make research articles more accessible and convenient.

If you like this idea of “one-click access to article PDFs”, you can download the Kopernio plugin for free for Chrome and Firefox here and try it yourself. And please, leave me some feedback at!

*During one of my more fraught literature searches I was tempted to change the name from Kopernio to GetMeTheD@mnPDF, though I was told this would not be appropriate.

Kindergartners Get Little Time to Play: Here’s Why That’s a Problem

by Play Time.jpgThe Conversation, Yes! magazine:

Being a kindergartner today is very different from being a kindergartner 20 years ago. In fact, it is more like first grade.

Researchers have demonstrated that 5-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.

As a former kindergarten teacher, a father of three girls who’ve recently gone through kindergarten, and as researcher and teacher-educator in early childhood education, I have had kindergarten as a part of my adult life for almost 20 years.

As a parent, I have seen how student-led projects, sensory tables (that include sand or water) and dramatic play areas have been replaced with teacher-led instructional time, writing centers and sight words lists that children need to memorize. And as a researcher, I found, along with my colleague Yi Chin Lan, that early childhood teachers expect children to have academic knowledge, social skills and the ability to control themselves when they enter kindergarten.

So, why does this matter?

All work, and almost no play

First, let’s see what kindergarten looks like today.

As part of my research, I have been conducting interviews with a range of kindergarten stakeholders - children, teachers, parents - about what they think kindergarten is and what it should be. During the interviews, I share a 23-minute film that I made last spring about a typical day in a public school kindergarten classroom.

The classroom I filmed had 22 kindergartners and one teacher. They were together for almost the entire school day. During that time, they engaged in about 15 different academic activities, which included decoding word drills, practicing sight words, reading to themselves and then to a buddy, counting up to 100 by ones, fives and 10s, practicing simple addition, counting money, completing science activities about living things and writing in journals on multiple occasions. Recess did not occur until last hour of the day, and that lasted about 15 minutes.

For children between 5 and 6, this is a tremendous amount of work. Teachers too are under pressure to cover the material.

When I interviewed the teacher for the short film, I asked why she covered so much material in a few hours, she said, “There’s pressure on me and the kids to perform at a higher level academically.”

So even though the teacher admitted that the workload on kindergartners was an awful lot, she also said she was unable to do anything to change it.

She was required to assess her students continually, not only for her own instruction, but also for multiple assessments such as quarterly report cards, school-based reading assessments, district-based literacy and math assessments, as well as state-mandated literacy assessments.

In turn, when I asked the kindergartners what they were learning, their replies reflected two things: one, they were learning to follow rules; two, learning was for the sake of getting to the next grade and eventually to find a job. Almost all of them said to me that they wanted more time to play.

One boy said, “I wish we had more recess.”

These findings mirror the findings of researchers Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham and Anna Rorem that kindergarten now focuses on literacy and math instruction. They also echo the statements of other kindergarten teachers that kids are being prepared for high-stakes tests as early as kindergarten.

Here’s how play helps children

Research has consistently shown classrooms that offer children the opportunities to engage in play-based and child-centered learning activities help children grow academically, socially and emotionally. Furthermore, recess in particular helps children restore their attention for learning in the classroom.

Focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners - all of which can negatively affect their performance in school and in later life.

Giving children a chance to play and engage in hands-on learning activities helps them internalize new information as well as compare and contrast what they’re learning with what they already know. It also provides them with the chance to interact with their peers in a more natural setting and to solve problems on their own. Lastly, it allows kindergartners to make sense of their emotional experiences in and out of school.

So children asking for more time to play are not trying to get out of work. They know they have to work in school. Rather, they’re asking for a chance to recharge as well as be themselves.

As another kindergarten boy in my study told me, “We learn about stuff we need to learn, because if we don’t learn stuff, then we don’t know anything.”

Learning by exploring

So what can we do to help kindergartners?

I am not advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. All of the stakeholders I’ve talked with up to this point, even the children, know and recognize that kindergartners need to learn academic skills so that they can succeed in school.

However, free exploration is missing. As a kindergarten teacher I filmed noted, “Free and exploratory learning has been replaced with sit, focus, learn, get it done and maybe you can have time to play later.”

Policymakers, schools systems and schools need to recognize that the standards and tests they mandate have altered the kindergarten classroom significantly. Families need to be more proactive as well. They can help their children’s teachers by being their advocates for a more balanced approach to instruction.

Kindergartners deserve learning experiences in school that nurtures their development as well as their desire to learn and interact with others. Doing so will assist them see school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people. 

This article was originally published by The Conversation. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.