Thursday, 20 December 2012

Selfish gene stupidity gets into my assignments

If I see another student who tells me that the function of a gene is to produce a protein then I think I might scream. So the function of those 30,000 protein coding genes is to produce a protein. Who would have thought it. This sort of tautological nonsense is inspired by a light reading of people like Richard Dawkins. Genes are self-serving, only the gene matters according to them.

Nonsense and garbage they forget that genotype and phenotype are not linearly associated. Gene space and phenotype space do not simply map to one another and the interactions are horrendously complex with many proteins having multiple functions that can depend on space and time. So when I ask what the function of a gene is I expect an inclusive answer not a trite one.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Does the party system work?

All politics is based around a party system. Parties make it easier to fund-raise, they make it easier for people to make decisions and they make it easier to know what you are voting for. But do they?

With parties you have to take a whole bunch of policies you cannot chop and change and pick the ones you want. You wouldn't go to a shop and let them tell you that you can only buy the red bag or the blue bag and you have to take what is inside. Parties make selection of your true opinions impossible. Do they need to? Do policies have to be connected? There is a strong argument for spending and taxation policies as these have to be connected, but the devil is in the detail.

Parties also make it easier for lobby groups to interfere with government. If we got to pick and choose policies then the lobbyists would have to lobby all of us. They would have to get access to all of us and this is going to be incredibly difficult. It is much easier to lobby a party. So that is another good thing.

But most of all the world or the country run by a politician is a complex thing. So policies have to change. What you wanted to do might no longer be a possibility because things change. You have to be pragmatic and to know when to ditch ideology. The problem is that with parties the ideology trumps the pragmatism and we end up with failed policies and a triumph of ideology over reason and evidence. Rhetoric wins over reason.

So if we want good government we want politicians who are pragmatic, who are no dominated by ideology, who can talk across party lines and we need journalists who appreciate this without looking for splits. So what if Lib-Dems talk to Labour - we should be encouraging cross-party relations, Churchill did.

RT  Nick Clegg has had "lengthy discussions" with senior Labour figures - including Ed Miliband 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Death penalty for cop killers

Lord Tebbit suggests that the argument against the death penalty was always very thin. So lets have a little look at evidence and history.

What about Derek Bentley? - another cop killer. Is that a thin argument hanging someone who did not carry out the act and who was pardoned 45 years later.

Then if the death sentence had been around the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four would probably have all been hanged as well. But they were all innocent. Lord Denning had said when interviewed that if the Guildford Four had been hanged "They'd probably have hanged the right men". But the criminal law does not depend on probabilities it depends on beyond reasonable doubt.

So I don't see that there is a thin argument at all. The chance that you might execute someone who is innocent is all the argument we need.

The deaths of two unarmed police officers in Manchester yesterday was shocking and a terrible loss. But the actions of the suspect are unusual. Why hand yourself in straight after committing such a crime instead of continuing to run? It is going to be a complex case.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The simple reason why high frequency trading is dangerous

The stock-market is usually modelled as a Brownian motion or  a random walk as shown by Mandlebrot amongst others. Now Brownian motion is an odd type of motion because the speed at which particles travel depends on the time between you making measurements of where they are.

On a molecular level Brownian motion is caused by lots of collisions of much smaller objects on a larger object. As time increases these average out and so changes of direction cancel as the object is pummelled from all directions. So as I measure the distance travelled over longer times it increases proportional to the square root of the time since I started measurement. If I measure it very frequently then I see rapid changes over short distances but over longer times the rate of change of position is smaller and so the speed decreases.

This square root relationship applies to all the random walks where changes of direction are possible - so share prices go up and down depending on the buffeting of individual transactions. If I look at the movements over a day they will be slower because of averaging than movements over an hour. This is this square root relationship. The problem with high frequency trading is that the time-scales are shrunk to seconds and so the speed of change is much higher than these longer sampling averaged times because of the NOISE at this level. That is the point high frequency trading depends on the noise that gives rapid price changes. There is no sense of investment or any rational relationship to the economy this is pure speculation and their is no investment involved.

Mathematically and politically this is a foolish and reckless process that makes no sense. On average you will gain nothing. Some days you will be well ahead and others well behind because that is how a random process works. If you are consistently ahead then you must have information that tips the random process in your favour like card counting. This can only be done if you have insider information that others do not and is suggestive of insider trading, or at least an uneven playing field. There is no justifiable reason for the high frequency trading that has become a major part of the markets.

The EU wanted to introduce a transaction tax that would have stopped this practice but the UK was opposed as the equity markets are supposedly important for the UK economy (more of the inequity of equities another time). Such a tax would kill these transactions as they would no longer be profitable and end one of the hedge funds little tricks. This would put another nail in their coffin if short selling is also banned. It is time there was some sense in the markets and a transaction tax would be a good step forward.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Food Security and China

There is going to be a serious world food crisis in the next twelve months as several key crops have failed. The US corn harvest has failed and the Russian grain harvest is also in a bad way. This is going to drive up grain commodity prices and grain futures will become a speculators paradise. There was a recent article on how Barclays had made £500 million from speculation in the last crisis.

This will not affect the rich countries as much as the lower income countries where many people will not be able to afford to eat. This will lead to waves of violence and unrest, that have been predicted in a slashdot post today. Europe, the US and Russia must all think seriously about food security but they should look beyond their own borders. They should also be looking towards China. The problem for China is that it is a middle income country with a huge population to feed. So if the prices go too high their is a big chance that unrest will spread to China and this is very serious for international relations. I was discussing with colleagues that I would buy a farm and then have personal food security, but they pointed out how do you protect your food from those who would take it? Look at what happened to the farmers in Zimbabwe for instance. The mob will just come and take it. So food security for China is vital. We don't want to face a mob of 1.34 billion with potential access to military hardware and nuclear weapons fighting for food resources. That would have very serious consequences for all of us.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Pearsonification of University Education

I have written before on my worries about the big publishers taking over university education and this year it has begun as Pearson are accrediting a degree delivered by Royal Holloway. Soon McGraw-Hill and Wiley will follow as this is a multi-billion pound market and they cannot afford to get left behind. This couple with the governments new fees schemes is going to mean that higher education will have changed beyond all recognition within ten years. On our departmental away-day I said that this would be something to watch out for but I did not realise it would happen so quickly.

This week I had a short online survey from an International provider of educational resources and it asked me about Pearson, Longman and Edexcel. They asked what words and phrases I associate with Pearson and I said dangerous and scandal. This is because the head of Edexcel was forced to resign after they were recorded saying that people should do their exams because they are easier and they have a higher pass rate. Anyway this provider was of course Pearson and so my chances of a job working for them are now nil. So I had better ingratiate myself with McGraw-Hill or I might not have a future.

This lowering of standards as has happened at GCSE and A-levels because of exam boards competing for students is one of my concerns. There will be even more pressure at university level where the fees are much higher. A more serious problem is the ultimate consequence for universities. When you can get your Pearson, McGraw-Hill or Wiley degree it is not dependent on any particular institution and so students will go where it is cheapest, or where league tables say teaching is best.

Now the best universities according to the legue tables are the elite "Russel Group". I have worked for two of these universities and their teaching is actually alright but nothing spectacular, and often not very innovative. They are much more focussed on research - especially with the way government is now funding universities with research league tables and assessments. If they could have graduate schools and ditch under-graduates they would.  They also pride themselves on setting their own curriculums and accreditation and this is not going to change. So you are not likely to get a Pearson degree from there.

The universities that focus on teaching are outside this group and so there will be a competition to deliver the corporate accredited degrees between the other universities. This will lead to mergers of universities and to some closing as competition increases. There will be downward pressure on fees that you can charge students and there will be a need to cut costs. This will mean less student contact and a higher student to staff ratio as well as using different low-cost methods of teaching. All of this leads to a poorer experience for students as they become homogenised and their education industrialised. There will be some winners but many losers.

If the Russell Group think they will come out of this unscathed they only need to look at the world of the super-market. In fact looking at the world rich list will aslo make it clear. They will keep to a high quality elite expensive delivery to those who can afford/want to be that bit different. But who makes most money? Wall-Mart, Tesco or Marks and Spencer? They will take the M&S option but the reality is that Tesco and Wall-Mart are where the money is. So universities will become places where they stack students high and sell degrees cheap because that is how to make money.

The Organic Question

Last week there was a meta-analysis of the health benefits of eating organic which was summed up in the press as there is no evidence for any nutritional or health benefit of eating organic. Except if you actually read the paper the conclusion said that it is possible that eating organic leads to less ingestion of pesticides. I then got in to a bit of a Twitter row with Le Canard Noir and Simon Singh about organic so I wanted to write down a few points as to why this is not a simple issue and why Singh is wrong to try and make it a single view issue.

Singh and others are fighting against their perception of quackery amongst the organic movement. They are right that the Soil Association says a lot of stupid things. For example they promote homeopathy for animals as organic - no it is not organic it is stupid. They have also wanted to ban the use of wormers on organic farms which is also stupid and will result in a negative impact on animal welfare. This and the fact that they are bullies over silly chemical regulations when the chemicals decay faster than they say and when they have little scientific evidence. So I agree the organic movement is certified by a group with  a very poor track record. This is the negative side but are there any positives or should we just say it is a crackpot idea?

I have to also say I am son of a farmer who contributed to the further industrialisation of milk production in the breeding of super milkers. My family had a herd of pedigree Friesians but the Friesian is almost an extinct animal as it has been bred with the Holstein to produce more milk (at the cost of quality because of reduced fat content). Towards the end of his life he deeply regretted what had happened in British Dairy farming and the loss of quality. For example to him we produced tasteless rubberised cheese because we had lost the skills of the small dairies and cheese-makers. He felt we went to far in following policies that destroyed taste.

So is there any clear positive evidence for organic?

Well the ecological impacts are one of the reasons we buy organic.

Firstly, why do we want to encourage the more intensive use of pesticides and other chemical interventions? I was shocked by my cousin spraying the grass field where the cows will graze with herbicides. We NEVER did this when I was on the farm and my grandfather was in charge. This is just laziness. Cows will eat most of the weeds so what is the point. You have to worry about Ragwort which will kill them and thistles are annoying but there are ways of limiting the thistles by "topping" which just involves mowing off the tops and this is how we used to do it. This is laziness and the excessive use of anti-biotics is also laziness as it allows you to have lower levels of animal welfare and higher densities increasing production. Personally I would sooner have a happy cow as they are a tastier cow. Banning any use of antibiotics as the soil association want is stupidity because this has a harmful effect on animal welfare where some of the organic policies have improved animal welfare, such as the requirements for space for organic chickens.

The second point is the increase in monocultures. We now sow many fewer varieties of crops and on a larger scale with much more chemical intervention. Now from an evolutionary perspective this is not a good idea. More variety means avoiding the problem of having "all your eggs in one basket". Diversity means it is less likely that some pest/virus can affect the entire crop. In the case of bananas the spread of disease and the lack of diversity threatens global production. Nature does not limit diversity and so it is unwise for us to ignore nature's example.

So that is the ecology point what about the more direct effects such as those mentioned in the conclusion of the study? That is the minimal exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Perhaps the simplest example is BST a hormone given to cattle to increase milk production. The producers assured the government agencies that it was not present in the milk and so it did not need clinical trials as all drugs must undergo (they cost a fortune). But they were wrong (or lying depending on your view) it does go into the milk. So the EU banned its use and banned import of milk from treated cattle. Then the WTO using the corporate evidence said this was unfair and is now penalising the EU for an "unfair" trade restriction against the US, where it is used. There was a similar problem with growth hormone in beef cattle.

What about pesticides? Well these have not been reported to get through to consumed food in significant amounts. But there is some evidence that they might be. Hive collapse disorder is a problem particularly in the US where bee hives are suddenly emptied. Recently there was evidence that this might be caused by trace amounts of pesticide introduced by the beekeepers when they replaced the combs with sugar filled cells. They had moved to using glucose-fructose syrup from genetically modified maize that had been treated with a herbicide to which bees are particularly sensitive. These trace amounts might be responsible for the collapse disorder. So pesticides can get in to the food chain although in very small amounts and it is not clear that these have any effects on human health. But we cannot say they definitely don't because we have not properly tested them.

There is another negative side to organic and that is the lower yields. As the world population grows and as we face dealing with the effects of climate change can we afford to be organic? Our first duty is to make sure everyone is fed and organic cannot do that as the losses in yield are significant. There are somethings that can be organic without substantial changes in yield - lamb raised on welsh mountains could be an example. The opposition to genetic modification is also unreasonable as we are just accelerating breeding we are not creating Franken-food and the organic movement has fed the hysteria about GM. In fact GM can have environmental benefits by reducing the needs for herbicides as well and producing plants that can live in poorer conditions.

So I understand why Singh and others might feels anti-organic for the ridiculous nutritional claims, or the irrational arguments against GM, but there are other arguments not so easily discounted. I would also like to test to see if they can find a taste difference between a mass produced factory farmed supermarket chicken and an organic chicken. I think that they would and sometimes just because it tastes better is reason enough.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The paucity of argument from the ever lovely James Delingpole

For someone educated at public school and then Oxford, James Delingpole shows a distinct lack of intellectual ability. He is rather easy to bait and also rather pathetic in his responses. He seems to think that abuse and vulgarity are how to win arguments. He did study English Literature and not Classics, so he does have some excuse for a lack of rhetorical ability, but as some sort of journalist you might have thought he could have picked it up in the job.

Anyway here is his Twitter conversation about the new citizenship exam and the need for rote learning of dates. I am against rote learning of anything as it leads to superficial learning that is not long lasting, nor useful. Without context we learn nothing properly and why do I care what the date for the Peterloo massacre is? I have Wikipedia, if I know the events exist then that is enough, knowing their dates is a rather useless fact. Approximate dates or knowing the period in which events occur is useful. Having Peterloo in the Middle Ages would not be good but knowing the exact year, month and day is irrelevant.

Ok so I did go in hard calling them crap facts but really dates over significance - who cares. Nobody learns times tables by rote any more and if you think about how you learn them only very bad students ever did. You learn them from the pattern not memorizing seven times eight is fifty-six (well that is one you might go but deep learning uses the patterns and cheats of estimation and rounding). Anyway I was the best in my class at mental arithmetic and you do not rote learn the times tables. So his response is that I do not have a fucking clue and that he does not care about my opinions anyway. A couple of points on this:

1) He does care or he would not have posted a reply.
2) Saying others views are irrelevant without any sort of reasoning is a very poor argument.

Then I have an appeal to expertise about learning. So how will James reply. I know he has a low opinion of all the new ideas. He would like us to stay in the 1960s as far as education goes and he is probably a big supporter of "Gove levels". He is going to be a didactic traditionalist and not a constructivist. To him Skinner's methods are the pinnacle of psychology and he might give a nod to cognitive science but only briefly. 

Yep he hates educationalist. He is an example of that oxymoron the anti-intellectual pseudo-intellectual. I hate clever people but I think I am clever and therefore right and I will stick my fingers in my ears if anyone says anything else. So a closed and non-pragmatic mind, a mind ignorant of any views other than those they already hold.

So back to vulgarity. I am now a Tosser and that makes him so big. No Mr Delingpole you are not big and you are not clever. Our children means in the wider sense. I am afraid that your views of education will go the way of the dinosaurs. I will hopefully never have the pleasure of teaching the spawn of James Delingpole but I know that the system that will teach them will be much closer to my view than his. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

How not to do a scientific study.

Today the media have been talking about a study that shows there are dangers with people working too hard and becoming "screen slaves". Here is the BBC report with the usual press release sound bites.

At first glance this looks a nice example for my statistics course of carrying out a health related observational study. So I wanted to see the details. It is an online survey of 2010 office workers (online always gets me worried to start with). There is no link to the survey on the BBC page so I go to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy page and find that the study is all related to their "Workout at Work Day". On their website there is even less detail about the study. They only report the study's findings and then only very sketchily and with no warnings about reliability, and no analysis at all.

One of the society's aims is to get physiotherapy recognised as a medical profession. Producing "puff" articles like this, where you do not give the content and you do not present data in a scientific way, is not the way to do it. It does not look professional and it is not professional from a scientific view-point. I am really disappointed in what they have done, this is a missed opportunity and reflects badly amongst medical professionals.

At least it does provide a case-study for my teaching next year, as an example of how NOT to do a survey, and how NOT to present your findings.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Gender Quotas

A few weeks ago there was a big story about the number of women in higher management positions and senior positions in general. The debate on BBC Breakfast was about whether there should be quotas in the work-place to secure gender equality. Edwina Currie was arguing against them and a journalist from a women's magazine was arguing for them. Now I don't think I have ever agreed with Edwina before in my life but I had to agree here.

Quotas are the wrong way of going about it. You want the best people for a job doing that job. So gender should not be an issue at all. It should not be something you even think about when you make an appointment. So why are women still discriminated against in the workplace?

I was talking to a woman who works in the NHS and they have been blocked from promotion several times because her boss does not think that women can do the job. This is the sort of attitude that a quota system could address by getting rid of the old boys network. But the old boys network does not just discriminate against women, it discriminates against all talent as the old boys protect their own interests. You only have to read Dilbert to see how this is a problem in many industries. A better way to address this is to make the appointments process more transparent and to make the legal frameworks more robust so that those that have been discriminated against have proper protections.

Still going beyond this, why are women not better represented at higher levels in both the public and private sector? Family will always play an issue but this should not be treated in the - well women have children, overly simplistic way it currently is. What happens is that working families have to manage work-life balance and that someone has to compromise work to meet family needs. This does not have to be a woman and it could just as easily be a man, but it has more usually been the men who have been pushed towards career over life-balance. If we set quotas we are not addressing this deeper issue about work. That is that now we can manage a better work life balance. We do not need to work the long hours of the past. We can work in more flexible ways and men and women can both have a better work-life balance. Children can get to see both of their parents! If we can work better and smarter then talent will become the deciding factor not who is most prepared to compromise work versus family. In this way we all benefit as the best people get the jobs and we don't waste the talent we have available. This benefits men and women by improving everyone's quality of life. Then maybe we can find some sort of workplace equality.

Here is a nice article about the statistics of gender with earning power and hours worked
Why the Gender Gap Won't Go Away. Ever

So I think it can be reduced but only if we take a bigger picture and spread opportunities more widely by changing the ways we work. I completely agree with Bertrand Russell in his Praise of Idleness.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

NICE and the Prostate Drug Abiraterone

Originally NICE rejected the prostate drug Abiraterone as not being cost effective. It was originally £3000 and can extend life by over 3 months. I would totally agree with their decision and suggest that there is some evidence for no efficacious benefit at all.

Extending life by over 3 months is rather vague, as the life expectancy of those with prostate cancer will show some variation. The drug company will have found the studies that show the biggest possible effect size and this is a very small effect. So it is possible with larger studies over a longer period that the effect might be shown to be non-existent and a result of the variation in cancer life expectancy.

I know that as a patient terminally ill with prostate cancer you want to delay the end as long as you can but taking into consideration the quality of life and the limited extension of life this does not seem a worthwhile drug. I have seen someone have their life extended by 9 months by extensive, painful and debilitating anti-cancer treatment. To see them given false hopes only to eventually succumb. This is another of those false hopes.

NICE changed their view as the drug company cut the price tag from £3000 a month to something more affordable. But this still raises questions about how the drug company tries to set prices for new drugs without any sense of the market value and how the NHS can be pushed into signing deals with Big Pharma especially when public opinion is involved.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

E-learning thoughts

 I have been developing e-learning for a while, mostly following gut instinct rather than good practice but at last it is looking like a paradigm shifting technology in education. It is beginning to change the way we approach pedagogy and looking at how students learn.

When I first started it was all about getting materials online and the technologies and environments that you would use. We did not use the technology to improve teaching, it was just there as a fancy add-on, or an excuse to reduce contact hours. Now it presents a chance to finally escape the curse of lectures and the ideas of transmission in teaching, but there are threats to this opportunity.

Big information - like the textbook companies live off transmission teaching so they are not keen for us to change our approaches. Students also need to be convinced that this is a way forward. They prefer the idea of transmission because it takes the blame away from them. If they did not learn it is because the teacher did not transmit that knowledge properly, not that they did nothing for learning. This will get worse as they pay more and so teaching might become more defensive. It is important that it does not. We have to sell the positives of employability, skills for life and deep learning to students whose focus is becoming the certificates at the end. We can do this by making stronger links to employers and showing them what we are giving students, both by doing CPD and by making some of our resources open access. 

Doing this course has made me feel more positive about e-learning and what we can do. It has also reminded me that the impact of e-learning has not been what we expected ten years ago. But worthwhile transformations take time and we are following the Gartner curve about early over-optimism is replaced by a second peak of realistic application. 

The course has strengthened my view that the pedagogy is the most important aspect and that the bells and whistles of the technology are always secondary. It has also reminded me to think more outside the box. Do not teach the same way you teach face-to-face try new approaches and try edu-tainment. You need to bring the teaching alive. So Terry Pratchett might soon be making an appearance on my course reading lists and I might make the students watch Moneyball (Brad Pitt fans will be happy). 

One of my favourite papers on education is Fox's paper on different types of teacher. We often think of different learning styles but there are different teaching styles too. I like to think of myself as a pith helmeted explorer in the deep jungles of education trying to find the lost civilisations of  student learning. Maybe I should upgrade it to a more Indiana Jones style professor hunting for ancient treasure with a bit more dynamic style, maybe I am not thinking far enough outside the box. 

I think we perhaps should have looked more at Web2.0 and e-learning2.0 if the terms actually mean anything but I am not sure they are more than empty brands. 

It is becoming too hard to separate what we can do in education from government policy because the financial constraints are so tight. What I hope is that technology can help to reduce these constraints to give us more freedom in how we teach the students and better quality interactions. If the technology can reduce costs and improve sustainability, while also allowing us to provide an improved educational experience then everyone should be using e-learning. We have to be evangelical if we believe it is the right way to go. 

E-learning design is no harder that any learning design. The only difference is that in e-learning we actually do it, whilst in face-to-face we can usually muddle along doing what-ever we want to,within the very loose constraints of "learning objectives". You cannot do that in e-learning because the technology has to be in place, you have to relate the things you do to how and what the students are going to learn. Planning is absolutely essential and the most important part of building an e-learning course. You also have to accept that your plan is unlikely to work the first time. It is likely to need tinkering and you will find that something works and something might not. It has to be an evolving plan and so I would also try to avoid over-planning. There has to be a balance between design and application and we are all learning in an experiential way how to plan e-learning. Taking this course is only a first step. The next step is carrying out the plan. Then there is the crying when it all falls over and nothing works and the students hate it and then there is the new plan and the next version. Edison tried over 1000 materials before he found the right one for the light-bulb.

I have been off the blogs recently as I have spent the last three weeks stressing over a Blackboard test for the entire 2nd year in Life Sciences. That is 360 students in many different degree programmes. The statistics test combined all the different question types you can use. It has graphics, it had many alternative sets of data so that each student had a different test. In total there were 22 questions and over 2000 question variants across the 22 questions. The module leader was really concerned about how it would run but it all went smoothly even with two computers dying mid test! In the end 85% of the students passed (got more than 40%) 15% got more than 80%. The mean and median were 60%. So statistically it is ideal, it is what you want of an exam. Even better NO MARKING it was all marked instantly by blackboard. So it has been a positive experience in the end but a horrible one until then as making sure all the sums were right was a nightmare! This is what e-learning can do and when it works it is great.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Credentials and the future of universities

What employers want from universities is the credentials and they hope this relates to assessment. The problem is that most assessments do not test anything employers will find useful. Sitting for three hours regurgitating notes is not what employers want. So maybe this will lead to improvements in assessment which is the bit you will always have to pay for, and the bit universities will always want to keep control of.
As a thought if you are only doing the credentials and assessment, couldn't we have just one or two world-wide credential issuing/assessing bodies? After all there is no cap on numbers, as with the traditional university model. So this could mean full free-market competition leaving only the fittest. Would the research led universities want to bother? Would we all end up with a Pearson or McGraw-Hill degree?

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Why I would not invest a dime with Principalis Asset Management

This is precisely the half-witted nonsense that created the UK deficit in the first place. Oddly the deficit was not created by public sector pensions. It was created by bankers creating stupid financial instruments they were confident that government could not regulate, but which they (the financiers) failed to understand.

The nasty reality for the financial industry is that in western democracy those fools the plebs (non-bankers) get to vote, and even if the current government are not going to kick them where it hurts eventually the public will vote someone in who will. Then that really terrible thing happens called legislation which stops them continuing making money at the tax payer's expense. Nice friendly draconian legislation like that after the South Sea Bubble, the kind that disbands all public held companies and locks all the nice bankers in the jail for a few years. Anyway here is what the President of Principalis thinks,
My point is that the state as it currently exists in Western Europe cannot continue to exist - this is the end of the social welfare state.
The problem is that no-one in Western Europe wants to give up the social welfare state, so they have to find a way to fund its continuation and that means they can't deregulate the private sector.
Funny but deregulating the private financial sector was why we had the crisis, that had to be resolved by the intervention of the state through the central banks (the economic purists can say this is not the state as the central banks are independent, but who permits the printing of money? who send a monthly report to whom?).

So would you really put any money in a company which is lead by someone with this startling lack of vision? Someone who really knows how to annoy those with the legislative power? In a last ditch battle between politicians and financiers if it is a choice between the markets tanking or winning an election I know which way they will go. They do not want to be out of power and kicking a few billionaires and millionaires doesn't cost many votes. In the end the people hold them to account. It is either a friendly account at the ballot box, or if the financiers want to keep pushing it a less friendly one of the 1789 variety. If the financiers think this is not a possible outcome then lets look at history and politicians who found themselves in a financial crisis having to choose between their financier friends and holding on to power - Nero, King John, Philip IV, the French Revolutions, the Russian Revolutions ...

Monday, 16 April 2012

Finishing my module on e-learning

The hardest thing about the coursework was trying to keep to the word limit. There were so many more things that I wanted to say. In the end I have a very long word document with all of the discussion board points that I wanted to use and I have not been able to fit any of them in. Like all academics it is a case of why write 2,500 when 10,000 is even better. I did not get to add anything from the Experience Designer or Academically Adrift. I did not get to say anything about Fox and his different types of tutors. I did not get to say anything about deep and surface learning and Marton and Saljo. I did not get to say anything about the experience of wikis, the net delusion and the growing polarisation of views brought about by the internet. I did not get to say anything about Marshall McLuhan who everyone quotes and I never quite understand. Then there is Foucault, Kuhn, Feyerabend and Popper and the different approaches to epistemology and ... well maybe Eco, Borges and semiotics. I didn't even mention Terry Pratchett and the idea of Narrativium.
I think I feel a thesis coming on ...

PS I forgot Joseph Campbell and Peter Gabriel other inspirational figures (Campbell inspired George Lucas but don't hold that against him).

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Education: Teaching is not a Science

Teaching is not a science; it is an art. If teaching were a science there would be a best way of teaching and everyone would have to teach like that. Since teaching is not a science, there is great latitude and much possibility for personal differences. ... let me tell you what my idea of teaching is. Perhaps the first point, which is widely accepted, is that teaching must be active, or rather active learning. ... the main point in mathematics teaching is to develop the tactics of problem solving. G Polya


One of the possible ways forward that "The Experience Designer" feels has been neglected is Edu-tainment. The problem has been that people have tried to create games out of education rather than using entertainment/games for education. There were a few courses where the Matrix was used to look at consciousness and ideas in philosophy. There are also books, such as the Physics of Star Trek and the Philosophy of the Simpsons but are these being used for education? I wanted to set Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen's series of books on the Science of Discworld as a course text but I never had the courage, and not everyone is a Discworld fan. A good example of edu-tainment for a younger audience is Horrible Histories, which my children love and a lot of others seem to as well. We used to have "Think of a Number" and "Think Again" for maths and there was "How!" for science. There is Bang Goes the Theory but The Big Bang Theory might be more popular!

Edu-tainment could be very useful online as this is one thing where people interact often and people are prepared to commit a huge amount of time and effort to their Farms, Sims, Moshi-monsters or whatever else they are playing. If we could harness that enthusiasm in an edu-tainment context then we would have a much more dynamic course. The Sims are a good place to start or Civ as gaming environments. I have tools like StarLogo and NetLogo but these are much less games and too much entertainment. People can learn even when they don't think they are learning if you can generate the right outcomes.

Friday, 13 April 2012


 I had never really thought about this insidious growth in education. It is the manifestation of commercial interests driving how we educate. The recent scandals from the exam boards and their links to the publishers are a good example (Pearson and Edexcel). 
The content that they produce is mostly awful. They produce test banks to make life easier for tutors to set online exercises but these are often poorly worded and next to useless. All the textbooks come now with "online content" as a step towards e-learning. Most of them have modules that you can plug into Blackboard or WebCT. They have even developed AI algorithms to automatically mark student work according to their criteria. All of this is information and machine inspired learning. We are creating robots and losing the ability to actually think outside the box. If you want to see an apocalyptic world like the Matrix or Terminator then this is the fast way to get there. We are trying to turn students into computers and losing our humanity and most importantly our ability to think and be creative. They will never and can never make a creatively emergent AI (Herbert Simon was wrong).

Online learning means using the internet as a tool to help learning. It does not mean subjugating yourself to these edu-commerce giants. Companies like Barnes and Noble and Amazon try to create brand loyalty by building courses onto their products - how long before you will need to have a Kindle in order to read university textbooks. The textbook companies have even started legal action against authors of open textbooks as these would damage their markets. 

I do not mean to single out Pearson, McGraw Hill is just the same. They have seminars with business where they promote their courses and texts for employability, but they are trying to turn soft skills into an information skill. For all these companies, Thomson-Reuters McGraw-Hill, Pearson they all have to persuade that information is all you need as that is what they sell. McGraw Hill owns Standard and Poor one of the rating agencies, Reuters like Bloomberg made its name in business information, Pearson owns the FT again business information. But information is not learning and so we have to resist their interference now that we have an opportunity to develop new approaches. We must not keep doing the same bad things in new ways!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Ground Rules and Bullies

When I was at school bullying was done at the end of a pair of Doctor Martens behind the school shed. One day I was very upset because of the name calling and a sympathetic family member replied "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me". This was not what I wanted to hear and left me angry with them for a long time. But now looking back and putting things into proportion I think we have become too over-sensitive to words, especially in social media.

Last week a stupid drunken idiot student was jailed for 56 days for tweeting racial hatred against Fabrice Muamba. He has also been expelled from his university where he was a final year student, destroying his career. Some years ago I was at a magistrate's court watching a case where a youth had been carrying a knife on a Friday night and he was not given anything more than a caution. One of these people is a threat to the community and one is a stupid ignorant fool who needs to spend some time in counselling and less time in the pub.

For my discussion board entry about the saboteur I had zero tolerance as this is someone who tries to destroy learning for the group and who makes people feel bad. But I think I was being far too harsh. As others said there is often an underlying cause that you need to try and understand and address. There are students who you cannot reach but they are rare. In most cases you can find something to bring them back into cooperation. The question is about an individual attack. Racism and sexism are not things we can just sweep away by pushing a button. They are often hidden in attitudes. I was always proud of Leicester's race relations history as I come from that part of the country. But I was talking to one of the students from an Asian background whose family had moved from there because it was so racist!

Online we need to have ground rules for within the learning environment and these can be and should be quite strict. We should work hard to stamp out bullying and anyone making anyone else feel bad about themselves in any way. But we also have to strengthen how good people feel about themselves, so that people can deal with criticism, fair or unfair as that is what we all experience. The world is not a just place, and there are a lot of bullies who you will have to work with.

By building this confidence and security inside the learning environment this can be carried outside to the social networks. Here we have no control and the nastier side of human interactions can proliferate. On Daybreak they had everyone's favourite psychologist talking about bullying. The presenters said that because of the anonymity of the web and the inability to see the reaction people act in worse ways and are more likely to bully. Historically this is not really true. We have had no problem trading insults face-to-face and if you look at the barbarism of ancient times this was often at the point of a sword or blade of an axe. Steven Pinker argues that we are improving and becoming less violent and less nasty and I hope he is right

Monday, 2 April 2012

Student Online Attendance

I was delivering my last few weeks of F2F teaching and in one class I had 7 out of 70 and in another 20 out of 100. This does not annoy me as students are responsible for their own learning. If they do not take opportunities for learning they either do not need them, or they are making their lives harder later.

For the online learning I have found that there is also a problem with regularity of attendance. I had a few problems at work that have increased stress levels and meant that I have not been as committed to the course for a few weeks as I had been before. This was compounded by problems with the internet. In F2F you can see that people are not there and you can know what commitment they are making. Online it is harder to know. We need better tools to monitor student activity on the course. We need to make sure that is is spread evenly over the different components. So for example if students do not access learning materials this should be flagged up by the system to the tutors. Tutors need an effective dash-board to help them manage the course. Without this finding out how students are doing will be too time consuming and this leads to disaffection with the course on the part of the tutors as well as the students.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

What should we be assessing?

We assess the wrong things. The students came to one of my lecture after an MCQ and they had been told that they cannot use anything but Blackboard during the test. This is reasonable as if they could use the internet they would find all the answers from Google and Wikipedia. But in a real life environment and not an artificial educational one you would have Google and Wikipedia so why do we need to memorise those facts? All of our subjects are too large to hold in memory any more and so you have to rely on books or the internet. So why are we assessing something that will be irrelevant to the future lives of students. 

I am setting an online statistics test and I have taught them how to work out statistics with a calculator just using sums, squares and square roots. But this was the first time in my life I had ever done it this way. I always use software to do it because the chances of making a mistake with 40 numbers is too high. I was going through the mock test where you have to calculate 30 numbers and one of the students said but why not do it in Excel? Well why not? I had expected they might think of this as I had used it to create my mock answer sheet! The test is online so they will have a computer with Excel so why shouldn't they use the skills they have? So my assessment has to make sure that those that know Excel do not have a significant advantage over those who don't or it tests their understanding of how you use statistics and not the process of carrying it out. The way I have designed it now it can be done as shown in the lectures, in Excel, by calculator ... So I let students think outside the box and use what they know. If they learn SPSS - a better stats programme to do the exam then even better. They have constructed their solutions to the problems. I have not made them unlearn what they know or made the assessment more artificial than necessary.

Friday, 30 March 2012

What should education do?

 What are the ultimate learning objectives of education? Now that students are having to pay they will be more focussed on getting something out of their university studies rather than studying for pleasure. 

What we all want is a good quality of life. We use education to get to that quality. So it is most often about career as this provides the money and this provides the food, the shelter ... The Experience Designer proposes that education is a response to try and meet the needs of the current society. The problem is that this is not very adaptive and because changing the way we educate takes so long we are always teaching what was needed 10 or 20 years ago and not what is needed now. We try to teach better but employers tell us that graduates are worse and worse and meet their needs less and less.

The other problem with our current education system is how wasteful it is from a Constructivist perspective. Everyone has a unique background. Every has different skills/competencies how ever you want to call them. Also everyone has had different experiences. I was just marking first year students CMS exercises and they too often focus on what they learn in formal education and forget that they learn soft skills in their everyday lives. We are influenced by what we read, what we choose to read, what we watch, who we talk to and all of this is then lost when we try to teach students one way and one set of solutions to a set of questions. Students should be thinking about their studies in the context of their lives and wider experiences but they are not. The ones that do get it - those are the ones who got the high marks for the assignment.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

E-learning collaboration

We cannot read the tutor's minds but they have managed to show us the strengths and weanesses of collaborative tools while we have been within the collaborative experiment itself. That is quite an acheievment. My head is buzzing around with so many views that this is going to be a bit random as I an struggling to get a clear picture of the lessons.

There are problems with various collaborative tools in that they fail to actually create a fully functioning dialogue. The point of Web2.0 technologies is to make it a read-write web, but often it just becomes a different way of authoring and viewing, there is reading or writing but not both. This would not meet Laurillard's objectives in e-learning to have a dialogue as either one side or the other is speaking but there is no fusion of the discussion. This can be a problem with asynchronous discussion boards. Each person makes posts but they never build into a conversation. This is why the tutor always plays a significant role in bringing the ideas together as suggested by Gilly Salmon. There is a T-shirt that says more people have read this T-shirt than have read your blog. A blog without comments is not a conversation - it is a monologue and so there is no opportunity to develop ideas.

Most of us felt best about Skype where there is a stronger feel that you are involved in a conversation because the responses are real-time. But does this give time for reasoned response and were the discussions more than superficial? Can you construct new knowledge at that pace?

Some of the discussion boards worked well, but we had one example that failed miserably and this is an important lesson. There are many different dynamics in a group and you can never be sure that one method will work for everyone in a group and in some cases it may not work at all. Even in the second exercise when we looked at types of learner people have only partially engaged with the technology. We have commented on each others posts but there is another chance for reflection by rating posts and most of us have been too polite to enter a rating.

We also looked at Wikis. The reason why wikipedia works and why they are worried is that it depends on having a large community of editors. They might not agree but they will keep writing and rewriting and so the hope is that over time articles improve. In this case we did not have this degree of collaboration because we did not edit each others posts. It is that read-write dynamic that leads to changed perceptions and learning. Like with a blog without comments a wiki without edits is another monologue and there is little deep learning, or more significantly advancement of the ideas.

Where most of the discussions have taken place and most of the collaboration has happened is in the personal blogs through the commenting. Here we have had the most active discussions even though these are the places where we are writing something personal that is not per se intended to be collaborative. 

So how would I sum it up? Sometimes you get collaboration where you were not expecting to find it and sometimes there is little collaboration on a task you designed to stimulate it. People and especially groups of people are very difficult to plan for.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Assessment for Learning

 am just reading The Experience Designer. This is a bit of an alternative view of learning that puts learning in the context of something we do all the time in order to understand the world around us and to buffer our personal world against the confluence of modern life (if he says that once more I will scream). This means that learning is the construction of a narrative. So this is a bit of a terrifying view. To accept this view we would have to make a big step in education to make it less reactive and more adaptive, but this might be too big a change to make and risks the careers of all those who are students during the change. The book sets out to show how e-learning can make this change happen.
I can see the good points but I was reading reviews of the book on Amazon. The first person loved it and thought that it was a paradigm changing book for e-learning. The second said that it was a nice idea but just not practical or realistic. According to that reviewer the critical thing is that we need to assess more to see that learning is happening, but we do need to get away from standardised tests.
Assess more! We have just been reviewing our courses to reduce the amount of assessments and they are suggesting to use more. Of all the things we hate as academics marking must be the most hated part. I am going to use more online assessment for formative feedback during my courses - especially statistics as the students have been struggling with not having more examples that they can do themselves. My perhaps diffident reply is go and find some examples in a textbook - those things we have in the library, the big rooms with books in them. As they are supposed to be independent learners, but they seem to want more hand-holding.

Prezi - this is so cool

Ok now I am addicted to Presi. I heard about it through BBC Click and I had seen it before as sometimes my wife uses them for her secondary school teaching but this is just great. It is so good that we can have a free private educational account because we have an educational e-mail address but I think the university should pay for some support as this is a service we want to grow and grow. These are just two examples.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Defensive Teaching

Last week we had a talk about students taking legal action against the university, which terrified lots of my colleagues. I have been lucky enough at my previous work to have three students take appeals against my course and two of them made it all the way to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Such cases are usually rare - in my case my cohort of MSc students was about 120 over the 5 years and I had 3 difficult students, so I have had more than my fair share.
I was thinking about these people in the context of the saboteur. These were students who came angry at the system and who thought that it should reward them in the way they wanted. They were paying £20,000, they had made it to this elite institution so they were brilliant and so they were going to get the brilliant marks they expected. Otherwise the system was letting them down. It was not their fault in anyway (I am reminded of the genetically perfect failures in GATACA).
  1. Student A: Did not get the marks he expected. He appealed and the external examiners remarked them and agreed with the given mark. He then found the name of the externals and checked their cv and wrote to them saying that they were unfit to judge his work. Eventually after he exhausted the appeals process he went to the OIA and they dismissed it almost instantly.
  2. Student B: Had a bad experience with his old university and appealed every mark he was given. When we eventually had enough and did not allow him to progress he appealed and accused the university of corruption and of selling degrees. Wisely he did not take that to the OIA but I had over 6 months of internal appeals.
  3. Student C: Was my project student. Projects are marked by supervisors and another marker. I read his draft and told him it would fail and how to change it. He ignored my advice and submitted it as it was. It failed. The external examiners agreed the fail. In the exam meeting a wrong mark was put on the sheet. This was crossed out and the correct mark entered, but he was sent this original where you could make out the crossed out mark. He appealed to the OIA claiming corruption and discrimination. They rejected his claim after consideration of the evidence, the key was having all the minutes and documents.
This kind of destructive student is a child having a tantrum and throwing their toys. In an online environment these sorts of postings with petty incriminations can destroy group cohesiveness. Even worse are the chinese whispers of the personal messaging and e-mails that you do not see.
The problem is as they pay more this will get worse. This was the cause of the break between Oxford and Cambridge. At Oxford the students bought tutors and had the control and so the tutors said forget that we are going to set up a place where we teach as we want and students learn according to our standards. 

Student Feedback

When I took over as director of an MSc programme I had to review the module feedback of my colleagues. One of the lecturers consistently had amazing feedback. I found this odd as I saw his module content and from a teaching perspective it was amongst the worst I have seen. It was minimum activity and a huge amount of facts, long meandering lectures that showed no direction, a total lack of coherence and no sort of learning objectives. His assessments were weak and easily subject to plagiarism and the marks were so high that this brought comment from the external examiner who wanted to know why, and in fact we nearly had to lower them.
So why did he get good feedback? The students were not learning and certainly not learning deeply. It was fun and crazy and something they did not follow at all. But he gave them a nice easy assessment so that didn't matter. So they all gave him the great feedback.
Is the perfect situation where we give the students the answers to the assessment in the course, where we do not try to teach them anything. So we get a 100% pass rate and perfect feedback and they go out thinking they know it all.
There is something wrong with this. Students do not have to like you, but you do want to see some results. You do want to see learning. There is nothing worse than seeing a student panic and not respond to your teaching. None of us go out of our way to make students suffer. But have we allowed our teaching to be dominated too much by student feedback? When is is constructive and when is it an example of student apathy and laziness?

Monday, 19 March 2012

The successful online student

 Am I a successful online learner?
Sometimes. Today I am not as I am not really focussed when I am writing this. Last week I was not as good as I have been tired because of having to manage illness at home and also dealing with some challenges in setting an online assessment for my students. 
Sharing experience - I probably share too much - say too much, which is odd, I am in some ways an extroverted introvert. Some would say I love the sound of my own voice except I am very self-conscious. It took me years to cope with the stress of lectures and get into performing. Online there is less need for performance. In twitter I am more the watcher and less the exhibitionist, I follow more people than follow me. So I do not think it is easy to say that people share consistently. We are all a bit compartmentalised about what we share and when and with whom and in what environment. Online makes you more likely to share some things and less likely/able to share others.
Communication through writing - I hate formal writing. I always prefer conversational, almost spoken writing. So I do not think that there is a huge loss between writing and speaking. In Skype it feels like a conversation except we can all type at once, whereas we cannot all speak at once or nobody would understand anything.
Self motivation and self-discipline, time management - These are the most important factors. Motivation is not really a problem on this course as I am passionate about e-learning, or any way we can improve learning and make it more widely accessible. Self-discipline is a problem. With online courses as a tutor I have seen them rush off with a great excitement and interest before they lose momentum and drift towards assessment. I am the same you have to be more of a consistent plodder that a flash in the pan to be very successful. It is better to be Eeyore than Tigger. Moving from 12 hours to 1 hour then back to 6 hours then doing none is less successful than being consistent at four hours as if you give the course uneven time you get uneven results.
Accepting criticism - We are academics we never accept criticism. All the referees and grant reviewers in the world are idiots. They never have the big world view we have. Ignorance is wide-spread amongst those who are critical of our views. This is because we are in the field of reputation, we sell our reputations and anything that undermines our credibility is a threat. I am exaggerating but regardless of needing a thick skin to cope with reviewers we all have some soft spots.
Thinking it through - I showed above that I don't as I read criticism instead of critical thinking. So I am not always good. I know that I am biased about some things but we all have personal beliefs. What kind of constructivist, behaviourist, cognitivist are you?
Feel that e-learning can work - I have seen examples of the saboteur both online and face-to-face. I said in another post that I did team building with someone who did not believe in the approach we were taking to team building on that course. In that case it was a feminist sociologist who had an axe to grind. She was an expert in the feminist view of science and she made me want to burn The Female Eunuch much as women burnt their bra's in the 60s. Anyway after some cooling down time I can talk about it now. For me this is the most frustrating participant on a course. They are the most likely people to get me to say something inappropriate and Anglo-Saxon. Quite simply I do not want them there as they spread destruction through the course.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Students and examples

I have been teaching students statistics for the last two semesters and one consistent feedback is they want me to go through examples. I have looked at each of my lectures and most of them involve half the slides going through worked examples and putting in real numbers. So I have been puzzled about this - You don't do examples.
Then it dawned on me, reading that students feel more comfortable when they see hand-writing compared to type. That and something the module leader had said about them wanting a chalk and talk, where I would do the examples.
The problem is they do not engage with examples where the whole solution appears, even if it appears in many steps over many slides. They actually need to see the writing process so that they can see it being worked out. It is not enough to show the calculations you have to show calculating!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Managing Disaster

Things will not always go the way you expect. There were big differences between the three group discussions in terms of their activity and this sort of variability is a major difficulty when designing a course. You have to build in the flexibility and adaptability to cope with this sort of eventuality. What is most important is not losing student motivation, or making students feel left-out. When they lose the desire to participate then you have lost the battle.
There are a few possible solutions I was thinking about if you find a group is not participating as expected.
  1. Dummy students: create accounts for fake students that can be used to make sure there are active discussions on the course. These dummy accounts can be used to seed discussion groups and to make sure that important questions are asked.
  2. Give students very clearly defined roles: One of the weaknesses of online learning can be giving students too much freedom (Clark and Mayer). Students can be not very discerning or selective and they can be over-whelmed by too much choice. Three options is the most before people start to get confused (Gigeranzer).
  3. Make sure that interactions are assessed: If you are going to have a task it has to be linked to assessment to make sure that students will participate.