Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Constructivism and subjectivism

This is something I have experienced in online discussions recently. The discussions were about religion and extremism after Baroness Warsi and her complaints of militant secularism. There was a very volatile twitter debate and I was trying to be a non-militant, but the web is a place where arguments are easily polarised. This is the argument of the "Net Delusion", which I need to get around to reading. 
The problem is that people cannot accept that the way you perceive the world and the language you use and the descriptions you make and even the way you experience the world is not objective. Some scientists (in particular the ones that are most vocal, but often the least capable) will never accept that objective beliefs are not possible. They also argue that this view is not dogma, by defining dogma narrowly to mean the pig-headedness of those who do not share their views. 
Why does cognitive science still exist as a discipline when constructivist science does not? A computer is a metaphor for the brain, and not even a very good one, and certainly not a description. A computer can only do what it is programmed to do. It will never have the heuristics of intuition and imagination. At least we have moved on from behaviourism but this need for objective truth allows the "scientists" to try to undermine constructivism and phenomenological research. There is a suggestion that if research is not quantitative and objective then it is not rigorous. In reality even physics has had to accept the role of the observer in the experiment and maths has had to accept that there is no absolute truth where some aspects are not defined arbitrarily. 
The personal irony is that I have been moving steadily to the more quantitative end of science and that now I am mostly a statistician!

Vincent Hendricks - when trying to be cool fails.

This is an example of cultural failure in one Danish academic's attempts to try and "relate" to his students.

Vincent Hendricks getting down with his students

Comment on Hendricks

I partly agree and partly disagree with the second set of comments. There is a professional barrier between students and staff but academics should never appear intimidating.

Certainly when I started I was perhaps too informal and related too much with the students. I was clearing out my old files the other day and I found a birthday card my first cohort of MSc students had given me which had a picture of a guy with a snorkel on the front and the title "M**f Diver". So students can give as much as they take! Except that was mainly a male group and at Masters level.

I would also say that I find that Danish humour can be quite different to US or British humour and they can be pretty rude, both male and female. Humour is definitely a very cultural thing and very dangerous to use.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Search and Filter

James Gleick in The Information sums up what Google and most of the other Web 2.0 technologies do as search and filter. He is right that all around us we are surrounded with more and more information, which can overwhelm us. First we have to find the information we want and second we have to filter out the information we do not want.
These should be essential skills for students but I do not think that we spend enough time on them. Students can be good at finding information but they are not very discerning and so they tend to pick the lowest fruit. This will often be the worst possible data, or the least balanced opinion.
I use twitter to do search and filter of current news. By reading the twitter feeds I get a 140 character digest of what is going on so I can then follow up on anything interesting. This is a good way of finding new examples of statistics for classes from the news.

Serendipity in Learning

There is so much information in the world and there are so many leads that you could follow that accidents are often the best way to make connections between ideas.
I let Amazon suggest books to me based on the books I have bought. I have a rather eclectic reading list and so I get some quite wacky suggestions which sometimes I follow and sometimes I don't. You get suggestions of books that other people who have similar book interests have also liked or bought. Occasionally this means I get some very odd suggestions and sometimes these are just what I am looking for. My Chemistry Prof. said it is sometimes the article before the one you went to read in the journal that stimulates the new idea, rather than the article you went to find. As we construct knowledge there is a random aspect to it.
I also keep a list of the books I have read so that I can try and see how I have constructed my views and to see who has influenced me
The nice thing today was going to YouTube to see the video about student motivation, but on the side as a recommended video was another called The Big Mistake in E-learning and so I clicked on this (even before I finished watching what I should have been watching). It sums up perfectly what is wrong with not just e-learning but with most taught courses, certainly at University level. The focus on information and not on the meta-problem of dealing with that information and creating knowledge.
I think it is a great video.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Assessment an Epiphany

Today I was writing the exam questions for one of the course that I teach on and I found it so much easier to write the questions for lectures I had not given yet. As then I can fit the teaching to the assessment. My  wife pointed out that isn't that how we always teach - decide what the students have to learn and then teach them. Well it is sort of true but not really.

Teaching is driven by curriculum

When I arrived there were no materials for the course I was about to teach and so I was given a list of the lectures from last year and ideas for the lectures this year which made up the curriculum. I then made up the lectures under these headings aligning them to the recommended textbook. So this is completely content and curriculum driven teaching. The students have to learn what is in the syllabus and then the exam has to test this syllabus.

What should have happened

I should have asked, what do the students need to learn? What are we trying to get them to do? What should they be able to do when they finish the course? This is different to what should they know at the end of the course in a subtle way. In this learning the knowledge is less important than the ways students interact with that knowledge and in particular in what they get wrong. What are their misconceptions? Where do they struggle? What are the blocks to their understanding? What will they need to use the skills they learn in the course for? Is there learning or coaching to pass an exam.

What can I do now?

Find out what they cannot do. Find out what they need to do. I am running a session with last years students who are now in their final year doing their projects and who are struggling with the statistics. I need to find out what skills they missing and make sure they get help with this as well as making sure these skills have been covered. I am setting a formative assessment to see how much my current students know and where they are making mistakes.
Confidence is a big issue and the current students are worried about the formative assessment and would prefer to do more practice problems in class where I show them how to solve them. I am reluctant because this does not teach them the skills for joining techniques together. The biggest problem they have is not being able to recognise what sort of problem they are dealing with. This requires a "holistic" approach but I am devising a structured formative assessment to make the process less intimidating.
Possibly I need to combine the techniques and do some as they want but also have the formative assessment as we have five hours of contact time to go over the material.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Equations in browsers

For the online assessment and feedback it is important to be able to insert equations into the feedback but equations are a nightmare in web browsers. They can be displayed as images but this is not disability friendly. They can be entered as MathML but this requires special software to interpret the equations in Internet Explorer and different browsers look different. Then they can be displayed using a Java applet. This is what Blackboard does but it often crashes because of Java security issues!
The other choice is to use LaTex but I am not sure that is supported by all browsers but it does produce the best formatted equations.
The other major frustration is the need for images in questions and feedback and so I am going to have to use mash-ups and create a Flickr account and images to show the data and the graphs. This is all a major amount of work and shows that online learning can be very costly in terms of development time.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Laurillard's conversational framework and Socratic method

Laurillard makes a big point of the students eventually coming to an agreement with the tutor - the tutor teaches by bringing them to a shared view/opinion as Socrates did with his dialogues with students. The problem I have with this, is that it does not encourage personal learning. It is very teleological in that there is a right and wrong answer and there is a kind of "truth". I prefer knowledge as provisional on what we currently know, as students when they leave the University need to be able to approach the novel and situations that might be analogous to what they have seen before but not necessarily homologous. It also suggests that answers might not be multi-themed or that there might be cases where there is no right answer, which is what often happens in the literature. 
I wonder if there are ways to use games and simulations to make learning more open and perhaps more realistic in looking like everyday situations where students might use the material they are learning. Case-studies go some way towards this but role-play, such as mooting that they use in law can also be useful.
The problem is the cost of setting up these sorts of environments and also the danger that students will feel helpless and lost if they do not have a clear learning path to follow.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Humanism and Religion

I get annoyed when I see intolerance amongst the humanists. Humanism should be inclusive and not the same dogmatic fundamentalism you see in religions. Views are personal and saying that there is only one true humanism is as ignorant as saying there is only one true religion. Anyone who allows another to make the choice for them as to what beliefs they are going to hold is a fool. You have to make up your own mind after listening to the evidence. You may not impose your views on others, and you should not use rhetoric to try to show your view is superior. It must be presented as clear un-biased evidence. Then they should make their mind up and you should respect their choice.

So for me there are weaknesses in some views - these are reasons why I do not agree with them, based on my view of the evidence. You do not have to agree with me and I might be wrong. I would certainly not want anyone not to make their own choices.


Buddha thought that organised religion was bad and that people should find their own way. He did not want his teachings written down. He saw lots of suffering in the world and didn't like the idea of reincarnation - he wanted to escape the physical and find the perfect Nirvana. To me this is an overly personal thing - you try to save yourself and so the focus is on you and not so much on what you do in the world. So I think that is wrong you need to do the most you can with your life with regard to others, the communities you belong to and to your society.


Mohammed began in a very moderate and conciliatory way with the commune in Medina and with the early attempts to unit the tribes. The problem was politics and wars and people changing sides. In the end he gave up and became much more militaristic although the conquests were often tolerant of religions in the countries they occupied. So the problem he could not solve was politics and the problems of people using his example for their own personal gain.


Now Jesus wanted people to be more community minded and he also wanted people to find their own ways - this church will not be built of bricks but of people. So he was in a sense a humanist but he was also ridiculously naive and he had some of the worst kinds of people as his disciples. People like Simon-Peter and later Paul were abominations to what he wanted to achieve. The creation of the Christian Churches and their intolerance has been one of the worst disasters of history. He forgot to stress he did not want blind followers and sycophants, and it was all hijacked by Rome to mix religion and Imperial power.

So they all had good intentions but they all made a complete mess, not because of their teachings but because of the way others have used them for their own gains. I do not believe that people are fundamentally bad in a Hobbesian way. I am much closer to Rousseau in thinking we can achieve great things - we just haven't got as far as I would like.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Why use online learning?

My subject matter is statistics and mathematics. Biology students wind the material particularly challenging but it is fundamental to their future. The classes are very large and I have between 300-400 students split across multiple runs of the same lecture course. Without having the right tools to analyse the world around you, you are easily deceived. The tools are not hard to learn but they are usually presented badly. Those with a Maths background find it very hard to relate to students who cannot understand it at the same level. Lectures make this worse as they present large amounts of information and describe methods without putting them into context or letting the students experience the sort of real problems and real data they will see when they are doing their projects or in the future when they are working. 
There is a more fundamental problem, in that we are not always giving students what they need when we teach them. There are too many facts when with the Internet rote memory is less important than application. Our existing assessments also fall into this trap by not assessing in a way that encourages deep learning and acquiring the knowledge for life, rather than for the exam. I had one graduate level student who has attended a statistics courses six months before. The course had been given good feedback and the students were very sure they had learned statistics. But after 6 months the student could not carry out the most basic statistical analysis using software tools!
The ways I think online learning can help are:
  1. Reducing the amount of times the material has to be delivered.
  2. Building the confidence of the students by having more significant interactions.
  3. Encourage deeper learning.
  4. Promoting group work and the sharing of experiences.
  5. Allowing the use of more case-study based work to put the subject into context.
  6. Changing the way assessment can be done by combining online assessment with continuous assessment.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Managing your browsing

Problem: Keeping Track of your bookmarks across many different machines.
  1. Use Chrome and synchronise machines by signing in to your Google account which will store a profile. This is useful if you have Chrome on all machines, but there are problems if you do not have administrative rights to install it.
  2. Use a bookmarking site like Delicious or Diigo . The advantages of these are tagging. Usually you store bookmarks in folder but tagging makes a more dynamic and searchable set of lists of bookmarks. This is important when a site might fall into more than one category (from a computing perspective this is a object).
RSS Reading: Making the net work for you.
  • With RSS you are kept up-to-date as sites change.
  • You can use RSS to monitor the literature and notify you when there are new publications in your area.
  • You can keep up-to-date with the latest news.
Chrome Applications
  • Google Calendar - keep organised.
  • YouTube - useful video library.
  • Diigo - bookmark tagging.
  • Quotes Book - keep a quote book.
  • Lucid Chart - mind maps and flowcharts.
  • Read Later Fast - for offline reading.
  • Quick Note - post-it notes.
  • ScribeFire - Blog Editor.
  • Instapaper - Offline Reader.
Managing Literature
There is a free open source alternative to EndNote called zotero. It does not work with Chrome and so you have to use Firefox as well. This is compatible with OpenOffice and Microsoft Word.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

A New Family Venture

If you are going to the Picos de Europa for some climbing, hiking, bird-watching or eco-tourism then you can always stay here:

The Olive Tree of Illas - Holiday Villa - Casa Rural.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Using Twitter and Facebook in online learning

From past experience I have found that discussion boards sometimes work and some classes they are completely empty. It depends on the size of the group (you seem to need a critical mass) and also the nature of the students. Some students are naturally chatty and some are not. Yet according to the news they are all on Facebook and quite a lot are on Twitter.
I have been wondering about the use of Twitter and Facebook in teaching. Resources such as TED produce videos on important issues that they send to Facebook and they are actively commented on and discussed. There are lots of very active discussions on Twitter about blogs and articles in the press, but 140 characters can make discussions difficult and there is a large potential for misunderstanding and "Trolling". 
  • Could they be used to supplement the online learning environment to give up to the minute content? 
  • Could they be used to dynamically alter material?
  • Could they be used to improve discussion and share ideas?