Friday, 19 December 2008


Yesterday I wrote about CPD and how it can fit in with what a university should be doing. I was also thinking about what Schank had said about delivery and the best way of delivering CPD. So these are some other jottings.

What is the use of CPD?

CPD reaches the students that other teaching cannot reach. Many people want to get out of education and start earning as soon as they can, but later they find that they do not have the knowledge or skills that they need and so CPD is the best opportunity to reach these people. It also has great benefits for the university. We would like to believe that those who stay on to do PhDs are the best of the best but we do lose real talent in the graduates who want to earn a living. Amongst them might be brighter stars than those who do continue, and so this is a way of reaching out and finding them. Not all great undergraduates make great PhD students and not all great PhD students were amazing undergraduates (Einstein for example). So a second chance to spot talent is always good especially when they will have built up a wealth of real-world experience.

Bite-size Learning

If you are going to get something out there and get industry interested you have to break it down into nice tasty bite sized pieces. Industry want results and they want to know that the course that they have paid for is going to give them returns. They cannot afford to have employees away for long periods at a time. So it is important to make courses timely, short and relevant. It is better to have them take many little bites than try and force them to eat the entire 4 course meal.

Just-in Time Courses

This is an idea of Schank's that relates to the bite sized learning and making the courses relevant. If you want someone to remember something then teach them when they need to know it and when they are going to use it. A course on statistics will only be remembered if you are going to use those statistics straight away. So as well as making it bite–sized we have to orientate the bites to fit with what people are going to need the course for. I know that the only time I learn something well is when I want to know something new and I go and research it – find the papers and the textbooks and read then so I can carry out a specific task. This is what we have to mimic when we are teaching, to make it student relevant.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Continuing Professional Development

Roger Schank believes that Education will change dramatically in the future as we make it fit for purposes. One of the problems we have in University Education is the question of what a university is for and what they were created to do. The idea of the university comes out of the medieval period a place to train the scholars who were largely for the religious orders. The red-brick universities sprang up to supply the industrial revolution with new man-power. So what does a university do now? Trying to get the balance right between research and teaching is particularly difficult. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a university position is about your research and to forget the service to the "community" to create new potential. Even if there is consideration to teaching it is often focused on producing the next research student and not on producing someone who will benefit society.

Now we have a global economic crisis it is more important than ever that we produce students who are employable and this is often no compatible with students who would be good research students. We need to focus on the practical and not the theoretical (I am a theoretician so look who is talking). We need to teach students skills and this might not be a bad thing for universities as a whole. Science in particular seems so abstract to many people that it is losing its connections to the real world. John Horgan wrote a book called the "End of Science", where he wrote that science has become ironic science, big experiments with unproven conclusions that are of little importance to most of us. I am not as pessimistic but we do need to think about what we do as scientists. We need fundamental research but this has to be balanced with more applied research and we need a sensible approach to combining them both.

So what has all this got to do with CPD? Well this is something which universities can do while they try and find the balance between the fundamental and the applied. We can at least do some sort of outreach bringing the fundamental research to a wider audience and through this engagement hopefully both parties can benefit. The fundamental researcher can see new directions for their research and the student can get the latest techniques to try and solve the important problems.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Online Course Design Guide


Students will learn about the application of Stochastic Models in Systems Biology.


This course will enable students to:

  1. … use stochastic models from the literature.
  2. … build their own stochastic models within a development environment.
  3. … evaluate the effectiveness of their own models and those in the literature.

Design Principle

  1. Materials created must be better than/ add more to a textbook
    1. If not then we should use the textbook?
    2. Online readings are usually printed out and so reading materials should be supplied as hard copies (except where postal delays are an issue).

Media Choices

Students are paying a lot for the course, and have limited time for study and so:

  1. They need to see value for money;
  2. They have restricted access to resources – particularly libraries;
  3. They should not have a long reading list.

This suggests a single course text, supplemented by the use of primary resources and online content.

Darren Wilkinson has developed a similar module in Newcastle for their MSc programme. He has written a textbook based on the content of that face-to-face module. There are no other obvious alternatives except books of mathematical modelling that contain chapters on stochastic models.

Using a core text removes the need to put a large volume of material online.

The focus of the online materials should be learning support and student guidance. This will use;

  1. Guided readings from the text and primary literature.
  2. A wiki to build a collection of student knowledge and ideas – written in their own terms.
  3. Discussion boards for students to ask questions of tutors and to share answers.

Learning Support

Learning support will be provided by the online tutors who will act as e-moderators in the discussion boards. One tutor will be the course author and he will be assisted by another tutor who is familiar with stochastic models of biochemical systems.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Internal Review

We had an internal review meeting for the online stochastic modelling course and it became clear that the reviewers and the course developers had very different expectations. This means the plan needs to be better documented so that the reviewers can understand the perspective of the course developers. The reviewers are subject experts and from their point of view the course needs more content, but from a course implementation point of view this is not possible for pedagogical reasons as the course already tries to cover a large amount of material. To correct this problem we need to add more to the course specification and the implicit factors in the design need to be made explicit. To do this we need to write:

  1. A clear description of the audience for the course.
  2. A clearer course aim – this might be separate to the existing specification.
  3. A set of course objectives these could be distinguished from the learning outcomes of the specification.
    1. Sub-objectives should also be defined on a unit by unit basis.
  4. An outline of the content to describe how these objectives might be achieved.
  5. A description and justification of the media to be used.
  6. A discussion of learner support – the tutor requirements.
  7. A review of existing material – this will include the reasoning for choosing to base the course around a set text.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Assessing Courses for Teacher Training

At the start of the DipLaTHE course, each of us was asked to say what we thought teaching was. Each person's view is very dependent on their expectations of the course. Some people are expecting to be given practical advice and that the course will teach you how to be a good teacher. They are less interested or not interested at all in the theories of pedagogy. Others take a different approach they are more open to the ideas of theory and the possibility that being a good teacher is a goal that you always try to achieve but never succeed.

What is interesting to me is the range of proposals for the final portfolios. Almost everyone had changed their view of what they could learn from the course. Almost everyone had embraced a "deeper" approach to learning about teaching. This might be because they have read the assessment criteria and they have adapted their portfolio plans to meet these criteria, while their underlying beliefs have remained unchanged, but this is not true in most cases. So the course has been effective as it has changed the participant's perspectives about their teaching and student learning.

The course is effective because it has clearly stated aims and these are aligned to the course assessment. One of the most common causes for courses failure is that they do not have clearly defined aims and learning objectives, or if they do have objectives they are not successfully aligned with the assessment.

My own experience is a little misleading as I have been on such a course before and so I was not coming into the programme as a blank slate. When I was appointed as a lecturer in Exeter we were required to attend a SEDA accredited course for new lecturers. The course lasted two years but after the first year because of a lack of institutional support the main staff of the course left the University and without that momentum most of my cohort did not submit their final portfolios even if like me they had got to a draft stage.

So in terms of Fox's personal views of teaching I did not start the course from the same point as those tutors who took part in his survey. What was interesting to me was reading some of the same papers again. When I had read them before I had made some notes and now I could see how my own viewpoint had changed over the intervening years. My own experience agrees very much with Fox.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Differing Views of Higher Education

If I were to ask an academic, a student, a politician and a university vice-chancellor what is the purpose of Higher Education then I would probably get four different answers. If we restricted their answers to; wealth generation, subject engagement, personal transformation and critical citizenship then I would probably get different orders of priority, although all four might agree on the main priority.

As the numbers of students in higher education increase and the cost of going into higher education also increases then more students are taking a strategic/rational approach. Most students are not learning for learning's sake. Many students see a university degree as a stepping stone to a career, this is something you have to do, and you take the path of least resistance by taking a degree in a subject that you engage with most that will lead you towards your career goal. There is one group of students where financial considerations are less likely to be the most important factor in deciding to study and those are the lifelong learners who often take a course for their personal enjoyment and to broaden their knowledge.

The university vice-chancellor is also driven by the need for financial security and so students are transformed into customers and higher education into a market where the product that is being sold are the degrees. The demand depends on the institutional reputation also defined within league tables, which also depend on student/customer feedback.

The current educational policy aims to widen participation in higher education and to increase student numbers. Underlying this is the belief in a knowledge based economy and that a successful economy requires a better educated work-force. So again the economic priority is central.

Academics are the least likely to consider the financial consequences as the most important but they still understand that this is a driving force in the environment in which they are engaged.


Friday, 19 September 2008

Making maths engaging

A new report by Ofsted is complaining that secondary school maths teaching is teaching students to pass the tests and not to actually comprehend the subject. I did maths under the old 'O'-level system and the current exams are at least a bit more realistic and less theoretical but still maths teaching is not really fit for purpose and so it will continue to be taught in order to fulfill an artificial testing system.

Many children come to hate maths - they find it too abstract and inaccessible. I can understand their point. All through my undergraduate degree we were discouraged from the mathematical side by lecturers always emphasizing how difficult it was. Maths is not really like that, often it has a very simple elegance and when you study it properly it is not the impenetrable subject many teachers (who find it difficult themselves) portray.

Teachers want the students to pass and they think students find it hard so they teach the shortest path - they teach surface learning and this will cripple students who go on to further and higher education. Maths can be challenging but taught in the right way students will engage with it and find the challenge "fun" - something they want to overcome. As teachers we should not underestimate student's ability by teaching them bad habits.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Loss of Grammar

There is something about Neil Sean's column in Metro that he repeatedly makes the most awful mistakes in his spelling. He is obviously using spell-check and it comes up with a word, except it is the wrong one.

Today's examples is good:

"Model Agyness Deyn has no problem with nudity in her job. She explained: 'I am at one with nudity and I think that people should all stop been prudes really'"

Well done Neil, that is a monumental error.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

One Last Hand Grenade

My sons made me smile today by reminding me of playing soldier games when I was a child. They were playing with their Lego Star Wars figures and one was being Boba Fett and the other was shooting at him. When one said he had shot Boba the other said that no he had not as he had a forcefield and then the response was that he had gone through the forcefield so that he had shot him.

This reminded me so much of playground games when I was a child. You would say you shot someone and that now he was out of the game and had to play dead but they would not want to and so as they were bad losers there was always "one last hand-grenade" which killed everyone in the game and meant you had to start playing again with everyone back in the game.

It takes children a long time to learn to fix the rules first before you play the game as if you all play by your own rules eventually there is no game at all.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Blog of Online Course Development

I am working on a project to develop a new online course so I thought it might be useful both to me and to others to write a blog of the experience. I have had a number of unpleasant experiences developing online materials in the past so I hope that this time the project will be less painful and more productive. There are no promises that it will be a smooth ride but hopefully there will be some interesting lessons.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

More degree inflation

I missed this on Wednesday but at least I caught up with it today. Manchester Metropolitan got caught this time.

This is what you get when you put a league table system in place and where the system is self-assessing. There is no choice but to make sure you get the best results. As someone commented the league tables might as well reward those who fail most as they must have the highest standards. If you are going to have league tables then you would need an external nationally accredited exam system. There was something like this under the old polytechnic system where they had national degrees, but universities are awarding institutions each with their own standards. The only thing that maintains these standards is academic integrity, which tends to be undermined with short-term contracts and threats from university bureaucrats to which standards, integrity and ethics do not apply.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

There is a lot going on.

It is that time of year when everything happens. I have been reviewing the MSc programme that I am currently responsible for and also trying to get on top of my reading and my ideas for the Diploma in Learning and Teaching. So now I hopefully will be able to post more frequently at least until the conference and holiday season begin (so in two weeks).

There has been a lot happening in UK Higher Education and there have been a lot of stories in the press. For me they are not very balanced and they try to scare monger but they are a reflection of what we are creating with current higher education policies.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Can Blogs Be Conversational?

I had read Dianna Laurillard's book on Rethinking University Teaching and so I was interested in hearing her give a talk at the University. She was talking about the use of the Conversational Framework in developing teachers and students especially relating to technology. One thing she was not sure about was how lecturers could share good practice as this requires us to develop effective online communities.

I said about this blog and how this is part of the Centre for Bioscience. Her opinion is that Blogging is a productive technology and so this does not meet the conversational framework. Her point is that blogs are often written and rarely read, so there is not a two way flow between participants. I agree in some ways, after all how many peoples blogs in the HEA group have I read? You get the most satisfaction and see the best effect when you blog is read by someone else and when they comment on it. But I disagree in others. If you do not publish then your message and experience is only an internal one. It is never shared and this externalising of experience is the first step towards the conversational framework.

So I would be a bit more pragmatic and say that while it might be like the sound of one hand clapping sometimes someone else will join in and then it is worth it.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Education: Learning Languages

This is an interesting new idea from the BBC to help people to learn languages by getting them involved in a drama. This course is in Spanish and is called Mi Vida Loca.

I have a special interest in learning Spanish as my wife is Spanish and my children have been brought up to be bilingual. I have only been to one week of language training but I can cope with listening in Spanish and I can even watch films in Spanish without getting completely lost. My spoken language is still terrible, I just cannot think fast enough in Spanish to deal with a normal conversation. Most of my learning has been by immersion. When I go to Spain I am in a part of the country where there are few English speakers and so I have to work in Spanish so there is no alternative to learning. For me this is the best way to learn any language.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Thoughts: Contextual Knowledge

Does everyone see the same thing when they look at the same image?

People should see the same thing if they look at it from the same perspective but it depends if there is also a context. I see a tree and sometimes it is a species I recognize so I can say I see an oak or a beech, but many scenes/images are more complex than that. If I see my grandma in the street then to me that is my grandma, to some she is Doris and to others she is just a little old lady.

This is the problem for education. There are those that would say that the world can be projected as an absolute totally objective truth. Then there are the rest of us who realize that this is an illusion, and that context always plays a part. In biology our models change from the clockwork of Descartes and Laplace to the computer analogy of today. Tomorrow there will be other analogies. So should we ever look for students to be convergent to the teachers? Is there ever a right answer?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Education: More on the OLPC

For those who do not know OLPC is One Laptop Per Child, the project to make cheap laptops available to everyone to make sure that we do not have a world of haves and have nots (perhaps making sure they have food and clean water first might also help but lets keep to the point). Anyway this is an opportunity for a massive change in the way we educate and so educational philosophy has played a key part in the management of the project and the project's aims. This has also been a major cause of disagreements.

A new "OLPC rant" is available from another member of the team who resigned. The problem is not which educational ideal they want to use but rather the best way of implementing it. Should we be open source or not? So in the end we always get bogged down in turning theory into practice. Whereas if we took a more pragmatic approach we would program and be damned - we would have a less developed theory that we adapt by practice and the main theory we should have is that flexibility is essential as we cannot create a system which will suit all learners and all teachers in all educational circumstances.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Web 2.0: Is this how libraries should be?

I am subscribed to the shifted librarian blog and today they had a You-tube post for a new service they will be running soon in the Orange County Library Service, called Citricon - our Orange hero who defends libraries.

The OCLS is an amazing site, but is this the future of libraries? Where is the chance to sit down quietly and read a book. Books need digestion and activity is not always the way to appreciation and understanding.

Education: Surveys, testing and evaluation

One of the key things of education is assessment - how else are we to know if they have learnt anything? The problem is that it is too easy for students to take a strategic approach and to focus on how to pass the exams rather than on knowing anything. This only tests how good your memory is and mine is quite good thank you.

So today there have been two interesting articles about testing and evaluation. The first looks at tests and the performance of English students. A parliamentary committee decided that students are being over-tested and that they are learning how to pass tests and not the material. The second is about a London University pressurising students to talk up the university's performance in their response to the National Student Survey, which was exposed by a podcast at another London University. The National Student Survey plays an important part in the quality assurance mechanisms of UK universities by giving students an opportunity to feedback their experiences. the article title was actually that University Staff Faking Survey. they are not really faking it - they are just spinning it.

Both of these happen because people are being strategic. The lecturers are trying to be strategic in meeting the QAA requirements and and students are being strategic in trying to pass the tests. Both mean that the test/survey are no longer a valid measure of either learning or teaching quality as both have been under-mined. So we have to think harder about what we do and how we evaluate.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Web 2.0: More people have read this T-shirt than your blog

That was a T-shirt worn by one of the computer scientists here in Oxford.

The question is who are blogs for? You can use them between a group of people to share thoughts. I use them to try and arrange the ideas that pop into my head and to link them to some sort of evidence on the web. For me they are a research tool but also a way of helping keep control of your research group. You can share the literature and hopefully students will feel that they have better supervisor input with a shared research experience.

So I would not expect almost anyone to read my blog but does that devalue it? It is part of an online community of web teachers of Biology at University level (Do not tell them I am a Chemist). So who will read this anyway!

Friday, 9 May 2008

Education: EDAs

Many of us have PDAs but when I went to pick up my children from school one class was doing an outside lesson with their EDAs. I got a closer look at one of them later and I was amazed. they have GPS and a camera built in so that you can go on a field trip and record your location as well as photographing the scene at the same time. This is an amazing tool for history or ecology field trips. All of the devices are wireless but they can cost up to £400 for each one. I was just thinking what we could do with them as part of University teaching.

To use them most effectively you need powerful educational software and one example of this is the RedHalo system, which provides each student with a learning space.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Web 2.0: Yoono

How frustrating is it having five different computers each with different sets of bookmarks and favourites depending even on which browser you are using. I had used before but I found it a bit frustrating. Yoono for me is so much better especially if you are a Firefox user (As with everything it is less good with Internet Explorer where you need a separate program).

Now all my bookmarks are in one list and I have imported all that list to so now I can plug in from anywhere and always have my links at my fingertips.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Education: IPPR Report -Those Who Can

In this "Think" Tank report they claim that students who are taught by poorly performing teachers lose 0.6 of a GCSE grade. This is the first time that the relationship between poor teaching has been quantified.

Now there are one or two problems with this report. Even without reading a sentence of it I can tell you that the conclusions are probably wrong. What they have done is confused correlation with causation. Just because you do some statistics and find a relationship this does not mean that one causes the other. A simple example is rich people own Mercedes. So if I buy a Mercedes then I will be rich - causation and correlation do not always follow. In this case how do you define a bad teacher? It should be someone who fails to teach the students, so that they do not learn and the only metric to assess this would be the metrics of learning - the exams. So actually this is a self-referential paradox!

Actually they use the figures relating the level of first degree performance in high performing nations as part of the measure of quality of teachers. Sorry but this is also ridiculous. I know many great academics who cannot teach. A great mind is rarely a great teacher. This assumes that teacher training actually counts for nothing and would invalidate their own findings that it should be extended.

Of course all of this could have nothing to do with the current problems for the Labour Government that used to have the mantra education, education, education and that is currently facing a teacher's strike. Given that IPPR is a Labour Party associated think-tank and that many use it as a training ground for political life.

Four more realistic causes of poor results are inadequate resources, inadequate social support for families, the number of people who are on lower incomes and a lack of parental input. These are things a socialist government might like to tackle, but after 10 years they have not managed to put the money into the real problems and have wasted it on surface fixes.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Education: Developing Online Learning

Perhaps the most frustrating part of developing online learning is the entire design and QA process. In a face-to-face class you can see when things are going wrong and change them. Good teachers come back from each class and reflect on what went wrong and what went well, what problems students have and how to deal with them. For online learning you are supposed to do this before you teach a class!

This is impossible and so QAing a course apart from removing typographical errors is perhaps the most pointless exercise in the process. If you believe in an "active learning" pedagogy then you make an argument that the QA process is there to evaluate the student learning experience - to see what they will see and imagine what they will get from the course. I wish I could do this, that I could get into the minds of all my students and know what will work for all of them. I taught one course face-to-face to 13 students, I had 12 good reports in the student feedback for the first run and one person who simply hated it. For them it was the worst course they had ever done. That was because it did not meet their expectations, it surprised the other 12 but they accepted it.

So how can we possibly do this for online courses?

The only way to have effective QA is to run it, to experience what happens and to be able to correct it on the fly. This is the greatest weakness of VLEs. The amount of effort it takes to change the content means changing aspects mid-course is very difficult and disorientating for the students. Correcting a PowerPoint mid-lecture is so much easier.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Thoughts:On Belief

To me this is the most important possession anyone has. If you let anyone else tell you what beliefs you should have then it diminishes you as a person. Whilst your beliefs must be compatible with society and others being able to hold their own beliefs you should not sacrifice more freedom of expression than you have to.

When I am teaching one of the most common complaints is why don't you tell us the answers. Well I can to this question but that does not mean that this question will be the one you want to answer tomorrow, or that anyone will ask this sort of question in the future. The same is true of belief how can anyone tell you what to believe?

What is ironic is that the great religious and humanist thinkers emphasized this. Jesus told his disciples that the church was built from them and not the buildings and the priests. Buddha told his followers not to right down his teachings and that each person had to find his own path to Nirvana. Sadly disciple are disciples so they follow and do not understand. Even the humanists have high priests who say what to believe. Santayana had this idea at the start of the last century that humanism would prevail and that everyone would find their own beliefs and their own God. His humanist disciples want to make us all believe there is no God.

I am pragmatic if I want a God then that is my God and it is what I want for me, it is God created as I want it, if I want it. But I will not listen to priests or humanist priests who want to tell me what to believe.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Thoughts: On Errors and Being Wrong

The Baconian view of science is that we should collect all of the possible data and then we should shake it about and see what scientific laws come out form the mixture. It was a stimulus for modern empirical science but the method has long been abandoned. Now we systematically create experiments where we can test a pre-arranged hypothesis. There are still some disciplines that depend on observational studies such as medicine and the social sciences but the other sciences have become experimental.

Anyway one of Bacons dicta was;

"Truth emerges more readily from Error than Confusion"

To a hacker this has become program and be damned. The idea that sometimes it is better to get out a work in progress with some bugs in it rather than to design and design and to never get there.

Linus Pauling was once asked how he had so many good ideas and he replied that he had lots of ideas and then threw away the bad ones. I first heard this as him saying that he had lots of bad ones (his model of DNA is one example and his excessive belief in mega-dosage vitamin C another).

We never have a complete argument, we never can start with the finished product, you can never write the perfect theory or the perfect lesson or create anything else the first time. Everything should be considered "Work in Progress".

I just think that now in Biology we are again at the same point that we were in Chemistry and Physics in Bacon's time. We have a lot of facts and data and we have some information but we need some sort of paradigm to turn it into knowledge, and for all of the expertise in the world at the minute all we are doing is stamp-collecting.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Education: Imagination, intuition, inspiration

There is something special about creativity and the way that our minds are structured. some of us are lucky to find a source of inspiration in everything around us, some people need to find a muse. I said when I started my course in learning and teaching that I learn something new everyday and I stick with that. Today I finished reading "The Meaning of It All" by Richard Feynman. It struck lots of chords. He was inspirational and he has some of the same feelings towards English for example, although I am more conciliatory towards psychology.

What we want as teachers are to create reasoning adventurers. People who everyday set out with a sense of wonder about the world, that are on a voyage of discovery and that know how to be discerning. They can sort the wheat from the chaff, the Chomsky from the Coulter.

So how do we teach intuition and imagination? How do we inspire?

Well apparently we have to bore our students so that they will then respond by using their imaginations! That is one hypothesis on the Cultural Uses of Boredom. In some ways it is true in the PlayStation and wii generation they are always active and at school active learning is in fashion. Just because students are busy it does not mean they are busy learning. In a fast paced world boredom gives us some time to digest.

There is a certain joy in knowing that you know nothing, that there is much less certainty than most people appreciate. Feynman thought the Russians were wrong because they had fixed ideas. They had decided that in some areas of science the ultimate truth had been found. For him there was no truth, all politicians should sit on the fence, then they might think out some of their plans a bit more methodically (that explains why I am a fence sitting Liberal Democrat). We have got into a world where we have a lot of data, a little bit of knowledge and we are getting less and less wisdom.

What is sad is that his Lecture is as relevant today as it was when he gave it in 1963. Sure the Russians are not the baddies anymore but the same prejudices and small-town ideas still cause the same problems nearly 50 years later. It is sad because we have made so little progress with all that opportunity.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Second Life:Get a real life.

Everyone is starting to go mad about the opportunities of Second Life and the other virtual communities. They are going to create new communities and new ways to live and learn. Not really as you have the same people behind the avatars that they were before. They are no wiser, if anything they usually behave worse in virtual reality as there it does not count. There are online affairs, online murders, online rants and everything else you can think of.

It reminds me of video-conferencing - yes it saves money, yes you save time, but sometimes wasting time is good. It makes you feel better it gets you out of the office. Second-life will make even more people glued to their seats than we had before. What is wrong with meeting people? What is wrong with the cafe society? Only the repressed Anglo-Saxons could think this is a good idea! The geeks shall inherit the Earth.

There is one woman who earns more making jewelry for avatars than being the nurse she used to be in real-life! So we lose a nurse and we gain ..... Now research shows that our avatars are affecting how we behave in real-life. This is a terrifying connection - the virtual worlds are feeding back.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Education: William G Perry

Perry was an academic at Harvard who carried out a longitudinal studies of his students ideas about learning. It was a bit of an odd study - he had a number of deaths, all of the students were male, but this perhaps reflected the times it was carried out. Anyway his most important conclusion was his nine stage epistemology. For me it is the best presentation and clearest epistemology I have seen. What is striking about it is how few people - especially those who call themselves scientists, get anywhere near the higher levels of the epistemology. In fact if you asked most scientists what epistemology is they would not have any idea. How can you hope to understand something if you do not know what knowing means? How can you put what you do into context?

Putting Perry's biography article into context in Wikipedia. It was almost rejected as not notable. Yet there is a long article about William "The Fridge" Perry and he is apparently notable enough for wikipedia. I remember "The Fridge" and his campaign to try and bring American Football to the UK. I remember the Chicago Bears winning the Superbowl and I know that was one of the best rated sides of all time. But I am sorry that "The Fridge's" contribution to society is much less than the man who shared his name. That is the problem with knowledge it is defined in a social context, by what we think is important today - now.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Thinking: There is no such thing as a new idea

The Greeks got there first - most of the ideas of philosophy are actually just repetitions of old ideas with refinements. To be honest from a fundamental point of view there are not many possible world views we can have. For example we can either think that the world operates through the interaction of particles of physical matter - the atomism of Democritus. We can believe that everything has a soul inside it - this is animism, or we can take a path between the two that there is a physical real world that is describable and that there is a spiritual parallel world which we cannot directly observe which is dualism of Descartes.

No matter how you describe you world view you will be following one of these alternatives as they describe a complete set of possibilities.

The same is true of so many other ideas. What we have is a cycle that repeats and at each repeat we get a more developed version of each of the world views. As R Brown stated in "Social Psychology" (1965).
So good an idea is never invented. The antecedents of the authors we have discussed have also their antecedents, and in the end, we find, the idea seems always to have existed. What has changed is the precision of its statement and the implications which are developed p604.
I am trying to decide how to get students to think and to learn and I am looking to see what I can use to inspire them. For me my great inspirations have been James Burke and Douglas Adams. Videos from both of them are in my YouTube favourites. Another inspiration is Richard Feynman. So I have encouraged them to read some of his books and especially "The Meaning Of It All."

What was funny was what Feynman said about how newspapers report science
And the newspapers, as you know, have a standard line for every discovery made in physiology today: "The discoverer said that the discovery may have uses in the cure of cancer." But they cannot explain the value of the thing itself. p15
This is still so true today, every time you see a report about the genome or post-genomic technology. We still do not have this magic bullet and I suspect that we are still some way off.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Thinking: More than the sum of the parts

The same ideas come up in science and philosophy over and over again. One of the big battles is between the reductionist/atomists and the holists (which has a concealed dualism).

Reductionists believe that everything can be reduced to atomic parts that can be studied individually so that you can put the entire back together from these component parts. Holists believe that the whole is more than the sum of the parts and so you cannot study the parts in isolation - it only has reality as a complete object. So there is something added that comes from the whole - the vagueness of the what is the dualistic nature of the viewpoint.

For me both are wrong. We can study the components but the important part that means the whole is more than the sum of the parts is how the parts are arranged. They are arranged heterogeneously, they are not randomly mixed and so there is some part we get from the view of the whole but we also get a lot from the view of the parts. What is important is the system the relationship between parts and whole. So Systems Theory is very important.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Education: One Lap-top per child and constructivist education

I had not realised how politically and ethically charged the one laptop per child programme had become. While I realised it was politicised from an open source, operating system and hardware point of view with Intel, AMD and Microsoft all involved in the mix.

What I did not understand was the ideological position of some of the project founders. This was not only going to be about access to a much wider number of people this was going also to be about promoting a constructivist educational agenda. Central to this was the Sugar User Interface and then this changed to XP and from this point on many in the MIT media lab felt that they had lost this educational function for the project. This caused Walter Bender to resign.

I know the media lab from Mitchel Resnick's work and from StarLogo - especially its use as an educational tool. Resnick's book Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams was very influential both for my own research and also for my teaching. I believe that simulations and games can play a significant role in teaching and learning.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Comment: Doing a Kaplinsky

There is a lot of testosterone in the newspapers this week. The Spanish government now has a majority of women and there has been a rash of articles about "if women rule the world" (they do already). So now there is an editorial backlash.

Today in Metro there was the headline "Bosses fear girls will do a Kaplinsky". Metro are trying to introduce a new noun to the dictionary that means take up a new job and get pregnant. Most employers when asked about a new employee getting pregnant said they would feel they had been cheated and that they would like to ask female candidates about plans to start a family. Only 1 in 20 would hire a pregnant woman. For small businesses this is particularly the case and I know of several women who have been made redundant the second they took maternity leave.

As for Natasha Kaplinsky she works as an independent and so she does not get maternity pay.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Artificial Intelligence: Cybernetics and Learning

This is one way of linking research and teaching. I was working on my reading for my Diploma in Learning and Teaching and thinking about the concepts of deep and surface learners. I also had Ashby's cybernetics running around in my head, and also some of the ideas of control theory.

So how can we make a thinking robot? This would be real artificial intelligence. The problem we have with computers at the minute is that they do what we program. They are the perfect surface learners - they reproduce everything and so long as we can conceive an idea they can do it. They can learn to a degree by seeing patterns, many of them novel that we do not see, or by giving weights to repeated rules. But under it all they are like a control system that needs each possible state defining. They need far more rules and far more description so that they can find some experience in their programming to relate to the question that is posed. They cannot wonder and they cannot use intuition.

Fundamentally from a cybernetics point of view they need a control system that describes all possible inputs and their related outputs. In systems theory they are a very poor bow-tie model as the knot is as big as the bows.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Education: Accessibility

Today on Slashdot there is a post about website accessibility for the blind. There are some views and some comments which I find unbelievable. Provision for visual impairment is still very poor. There are still not effective ways of presenting web-content which is by its nature visual. Flash is a particular bug-bear although I have been to meetings where they have talked about making Flash accessible. One of the main problems is that if you are visually impaired one way you interact with visual media is by touch and you cannot do this with a computer screen.

The question of making our online statistics course accessible caused some heated debate. I wanted to render the equations as images - the course was written in LaTeX and you can do this usng mimeTex. The web learning people wanted it all as MathML for accessibility and to comply with the Disability Discrimination Legislation in the UK. For me the development time of the conversion to MathML is too long as there is no simple translation/parsing tool. This meant that the course was almost not available to any students visually impaired or not. In the end we did it in MathML but the clarity of the equations for everyone suffers.

By writing it in LaTeX I have a source that can readily be converted to Braille and provide a hardcopy of the course material. For me this is the only way to deal with complex equations, reading them out loud from a browser is not useful as the equation is a whole and reading it linearly it loses its sense. The important part of online learning is the interaction between students, how they get the raw materials is less important. So if the website does not provide the right type of resource then why shouldn't it be supported with paper materials?

I still have never had a visually impaired student on any of my courses although I have interviewed some and we have explored with them how we could help them within the course. It is a difficult problem for online learning but one where you have to think about what part of the content is important and ask what aspects of the course are people with different dissabilities missing out on?

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Education: Wiki-learning

The problem with using wikis with classes so that they can learn about new material are the ground rules for the wiki. If you have your own wiki set-up for the class or the class share a private wiki then you can set your own ground rules.

This is not the case with deciding as a class exercise that you will write a wikipedia article. Wikipedia requires that articles are not essays, that they are not original work and that they are objective. This is a very difficult standard to meet as a learning objective, and one that is likely to result in students performing the task taking a surface approach. If you follow these guidelines then there is no possibility of comment or true synthesis. It encourages those making entries to cut and paste.

One of the great advantages of knowledge is what you add to it as it goes through your hands. A list of web-links is not very useful. It becomes useful when it is annotated and rated. This is when it can be evaluated and when it develops as knowledge.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Web 2.0: Evaluating Blogs

When is a blog reliable? When does it have credibility?

It cannot just be based on the number of links to it, otherwise all of the pornographic and viral advertising sites in the world would be reliable and credible.

A better way is a great guide by Stephen Downes. Or you can use to see how many blogs are connected to that blog by typing the blog URL into the search form.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Education: When is a Blog not a Blog?

In Will Richardson's book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms, he defines a difference between a blog and a journal/ A blog should contain reference to other material on the web, on which it should either make a comment or form some sort of synthesis. If the entry is totally self-contained and only provides a personal view of some concept then it is a journal entry and not a blog.

I take a more pragmatic view that a blog will be a mixture of both as you often need to create the context for your blog and you do this by putting in the personal - journal entries. I have done this here.

There is one way of cheating, and that is to also write the links that you refer to!

I have been working on wikipedia and writing an article on Student Approaches to Learning. It is a good way for me to practise what I preach and to see the effect of wikis on learning as I am learning within the DipLaTHE.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Education: The Reliability of Wikipedia

We have an on-going discussion at work about the reliability of wikipedia. There are those who believe and those who remain to be convinced. In 2005 Nature carried out a study that showed that wikipedia was almost as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then again amongst scientists Nature has a dubious history of reliability - cold fusion, memory of water etc. As for the comparison Encyclopedia Britannica - this is where many of the wikipedia entries originate, and the point of wikipedia is to be more up to date than you can achieve in print. The Isuzu experiment showed that errors are corrected very quickly - in a matter of hours.

This evaluation of wikipedia was in response to a number of high profile errors found on the site. Often these were in biographical entries about living people and so these could be easily verified. A more recent example was with the obituary of Ronnie Hazlehurst where he was associated with writing songs for S-club 7. As well as revealing errors in wikipedia these also reveal sloppy journalism that is obviously using wikipedia as its only source for reporting some stories!

These are jokes -little bits of vandalism put in by geeks to see who is watching. For me they are amusing to see what people will believe - April Fools jokes like the Spaghetti Trees.

What is interesting is the communities which consider wikipedia reliable and those which do not. I am in a science department and if a student wants a reference resource then we often tell them to use wikipedia and we consider it quite reliable. However the humanties and liberal arts are the skeptics, and they have a point.

While wikipedia is reliable for facts - these can be self-correcting, theories and view-points are not so well presented, as these depend on the authors stance. Wikipedia requires objectivity but in many cases this is not possible as the disciplines require the individual to take a personal view and where many alternative views might exist. In these cases there is no right or wrong there is a relativism based on argument and the best you can do is hope for articles that present both sides of the argument as objectively as possible.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Education: Personal Experiences

I remember well my under-graduate lectures. I studied both chemistry and law, and they had very different methods of achieving the same neglect of teaching.

In Chemistry one lecturer would come in with the overheads pre-prepared on a roll and unroll them while repeating what was written on them. Many of these were written some years before and had not been updated, after all the subject matter had not changed. Others would come in with a ring binder of notes and lay these on the bench. They would then pick up the chalk and start writing for an hour while we wrote down everything they put on the board.

In Law it was a little different. The lecturer would sit behind a lecturn and read out the lecture dictating what we had to write down.

This was exactly what R.K. Rathbun meant when he said "A lecture is a process by which the notes of the professor become the notes of the students without passing through the minds of either. "

Even worse than this was their opinion about feedback that they gave to you on your work. The lecturers believed that students should not be given any sort of mark, no matter about feedback other that the vague you are doing well or badly etc. After the first mid-sessional exams we never knew another result. How can you possibly learn if you do not know how well you are doing? The closest we got was knowing our classification if our tutor was a younger member of staff who was more progressive. In my final year the first time we wrote an exam like answer to a question was in the final exam itself! This was an inexcusable, this is not education.

Luckily for students today this was how it was nearly twenty years ago. Since then the Government in the UK has brought in Teaching Quality Assurance and whilst this is not perfect and has many weaknesses one of the key points is that lecturers now give feedback. It might be cosmetic but it is something.

If you want to see some more educational wisdom like Rathbun then you can find it at:
Speaking of Education II
Speaking of Education III (pdf)
Quotations by George Polya

PS I am not convinced that the Rathbun quote first came from him as it seems much older, sometimes it is attributed to Polya and it might even be from before him. If you want to know who Polya was then there is a biography here.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Education: What is teaching and learning?

If you are going to evaluate teaching and learning you need to find some sort of benchmark to say this is good and this is bad. This will depend very much on the theory of learning that you have.

Some people think that expertise and mastery is an important concept and others think that the transfer of factual knowledge is important. Some people take a view of the different student experiences and learning styles, some think of the teachers experiences and teaching styles. Some people put this into a context of the current social order.

There has also always been a strong divide between academic and vocational subjects as well as between the professions, the arts and the sciences. Dewey suggested that when you have a competing set of views then you should use this dialogue to extract the underlying meaning.

So for me the core, the central reality of education in no matter what subject and no matter how it is carried out is the ability to make decisions. Deciding which pot to use to cook the food, which tool to use to work the wood, which experiment to carry out to prove your model, all of these are decisions and we become most effective as a practitioner of what-ever discipline we belong to if we can make better decisions.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Education: Formative and Summative

This blog is also here so that I can comment and think about practice in Higher Education Teaching. I am currently on the Diploma in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education at Oxford and I am a passionate believer that teaching should be of equal importance as research to academics. Our research is less likely to stand the test of time than those that we inspire with our teaching.

I was discussing the use of formative and summative assessment and one of my colleagues expressed the belief that it did not matter as the students would not be aware of the terms. While they might not have been when we were students, I am sure that they are now aware of the differences. I am also sure that students on courses in which I am involved should be aware of the significance of the terms. It was a surprise to me that the use of formative assessment was not more wide-spread and that there is still a common belief that all assessment should be summative and that formative is not assessed.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Political Background

I come from a traditional Conservative background. My family have been farmers for several generations and I was a Conservative before I could vote. Then Mrs Thatcher went from getting Britain going again to a rabid anti-European autocrat and I saw the light. Since then I have been a fervent Tory hater, anyone but the selfishness of the right.

Part of why I originally liked the Conservatives was the chip-on-shoulder mentality of the Unions characterized by Arthur Scargill and Red Robbo. They said that their industries were going to be laid waste, and through their actions they made sure that they were. The Conservatives stood up to this which appeals to my pragmatic side, life is there to get on with and it always changes.

After I saw the light I became a Liberal Democrat. I have always voted for them and until today I was a member of the party. I have left not because I am disillusioned with the party, but because of the nature of some of the members. I will still always vote for them, but I wish that politicians were of a higher standard.

I can say this from my own experiences. I was a City Councilor in Exeter for two terms. I was elected and re-elected with about 50% of the vote for a ward based around the University campus. The Conservatives were the only real opposition. When I was up for re-election my wife was pregnant and the chairman of the local party decided that I was not able to make the commitment necessary to ward duties and so de-selected me! So much for Liberal and Democrat! Luckily for me they could not find another candidate and I stood again and won, on the day after my son was born. The chairman lost her seat at an election and so she became the other councilor in my ward when my colleague died. We would continuously spar as to how to run campaigns in the ward. She wanted to do it all by the ALDC book (ALDC is the Association of Liberal Democrat Councilors). ALDC send out their monthly clip-art of campaigns we should do, but this was a very sophisticated ward with its own particular issues and I disagree with the ALDC mantra, you treat the public like children then they will throw toys at you. Anyway to cut a long story short, eventually I moved on to Oxford and we found a suitable candidate to replace me who most voters thought was me. In the next election after I had left the now ex-chairman lost her seat. The beautiful irony was that it was by one vote, sadly to the Tory. So I wonder what the excuse was. Surely it was nothing to do with her lack of activity.

The real moral of the story is that politicians are our representatives and that they should listen to their constituents and not treat them like gullible fools.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Where else can you find me


I am also in Second Life where I am Erasmus Mehrtens. This name is from one of the greatest Rugby players never to win a world cup and from the great humanist writer.

I am trying to synchronise the bookmarks on all of my machine to Yoono AND but it is a long winded task to tag them all and create the Buzz.

On You Tube you will find in my favorites some inspirational video clips from James Burke and Douglas Adams. James Burke particularly has had a significant impact on the way that I think and teach. In some ways they were both ahead of their time and hopefully now we are creating some of that vision.