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 Del.icio.us 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 Del.icio.us 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.