Sunday, January 30, 2011

Are we Scholars or Teachers?

I have just finished reading this interesting piece
written by Robert Martn and Andrew Gillen in "Inside higher Ed"
They raise the point that there is no efficient market for excellent teachers, rather there is an efficient market for scholars of higher education. Thus rather than training people to teach effectively, we train them to be effective scholars in the field of education.
This is not unique to education, and comes from the inbuilt reflexive bias in higher ed, whereby course givers are by and large working for academic institutions.
The article also identifies another source of this bias which is that in the hiring process employers have the external publishing record of the lecturer/researcher to go on, and that the reference mechanism is in many markets broke. (An excellent reference may indicate an employer’s unwillingness to be sued, or their enthusiasm for getting rid of the individual in question, rather than a deep-seated conviction that this is an individual of truly above average ability!)
When I think of the coursework in the course I am now pursuing, I find that much of it is aimed fairly and squarely at scholarly research, which is very valid considering that that is going to be a significant hiring criteria. It does however beg the question has this emphasis on scholarship led to less time being spent on delivering material pertinent to the development and delivery of content to students, which may be what teaching is about.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The semantic Web

This is in response to a discussion in #LAK11
The semantic web is an umbrella term for an initiative to make the web richer by attempting to tag large data collections with tags conveying their meanings and knowledge content.  In some sense I see it as being an outgrowth of the AI community's effort to encode knowledge into semantic maps.
I think its a wonderful project, but perhaps a little too ambitious, and I'll tell you why. Humans love to re-purpose things in unexpected ways, and I cant see a set of tags which would be broad enough to encompass all possible uses, yet retain enough specificity to be useful. As an example:
Once upon a time there was an astronomer who was looking at galaxies, and after two years of looking at galaxies everyday they asked for help:
and currently
Whats interesting in all of this is that:
1) These are collections of big data which still need many thousands of people to generate knowledge, and
2) A specific tool for a specific task, (deciding whether galaxies were spirals or not) is now looking for space junk on the moon, examining solar storms, and reading old ships logs to find out about global warming.
This is a very human thing to do, other examples, a website set up for selling Pez dispensers turned into Ebay, and a piece of software set up to help an academic keep track of references, turned into Google.
This is human.
At our best we look above and beyond.
 The second problem is the one alluded to in the old joke about the British and the Americans being two nations divided by a common language.
As a chemist I once studied a set of small molecules each containing 4 atoms.
I was talking to another computational chemist and they recommended a particular piece of software as being good for small molecules.
I tried it, and it failed.
When I met them again, I asked about it. It turned out that they were doing computational biochemistry, and small for them was around 10,000 or so atoms big. 
Even in very closely related fields terms can have very different meanings.
My 2c.
Laurence Cuffe

Monday, January 10, 2011

Meta Analysis

Great claims have been made for Meta analysis. The principle seems sound, that by combining the results of numerous smaller studies you can generate results which are both more authoritative and more general than any of the individual papers which go to make up the study. 
Professor John Hattie is a practitioner (
I remain to be convinced by Hattie's Meta analysis. For me its a purely numeric argument. I assume that for a study to make a valid contribution to a meta analysis, the author of the Meta analysis must have read the paper. 

Hattie's meta analysis is claimed to be  a synthesis of 50,000 previous studies (This number varies in some papers on his website its as high as 180,000). If the original papers were used that would be reading 50 papers a week for about twenty years.
However Hattie does not claim to have read these studies, but to have read a much smaller number of studies summarizing previous work.  At this point one has to ask how it was possible to ensure that the literature used as input in those studies was distinct, i.e. that each of those studies did not include many of the same papers.
If you cant do this then determining just how many studies contributed to the eventual conclusion becomes problematic.

Just to make this reservation clear, I would like to state that this comment is based on over 100,000 research studies, because it is based on at least two reviews of Hattie's work, each of which were based on his work, which included the results of over 50,000....

Much of what Hattie  says is very sensible, in particular his argument that as educationalist we must move away from "it works for me"(Hattie, 1999) and take a more objective approach to educational research and model building. Statistics can be one approach to such a project. However showing that two factors are correlated is a very long way from showing that there is a causal relationship between them, and its hard to see how Hatties approach of combining Meta analysis can drill down deeply enough into the nuts and bolts of what goes on  in a classroom environment to provide us with reliable information as to what will work for us.
my 2c.
Hattie 1999

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Game Based learning

This very brief article on game based learning highlights a game called the healing blade, where the lord of pestilence is pitted against the apothecary. This is a card based game for teaching medical students what does and what does not work in fighting infectious disease.  The take home of this is that Game based learning does not necessarily involve computers, and the second take home is that profits from the game are used to support a pediatric charity.
This takes me back to “life and death 2” which was a video game in the eighties based on learning how to do brain surgery. I’ve played the game, but I’m not sure that I’m equipped with the skills needed for the task.  However in this case its not me but thee subject matter which is likely to query my competence once I detail the source of my online training.
Now: Anyone for a game of Hangman?