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.