Sunday, December 23, 2012

Moocing into the future

There has been a lot of comment about MOOC providers such as Udacity or Coursera being a disruptive technology in the filed of higher ed, and this is hard to argue with, although the process is likely to be more protracted than many commentators think.  However just because change is taking place, it doesn't mean that we have to be antediluvian about it.
I know this is a weak analogy, but I'm sure that when the motor car came out there were some people complaining about the effect the innovation was going to have on the lives of ostlers, grooms and dung collectors.
We don't know where new online and automated forms of education will take us.  What we do know, is that they have the potential to take us someplace very far from the current state of affairs.  This potential may involve some creative destruction, and toppling of sacred cows, but it is up to us to steer it towards the creative the innovative and the good, and away from the banal and the mass market.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A short thought on MOOCS

There are a number of different versions of MOOC and I would suggest that the versions promoted by George Siemens, and Stephen Downs et al, are the most interesting. I have taken part in some of these, and they are a loo sly organized scrum of people generating and discussing content around some core theme. Very much a collaborative and distributed effort which at times has much of the characteristics of an extended research conference.
The very recent development of Massive enrollment courses from such sites as Alison, Coursera and Udacity, are somewhat different, and strike me as being a somewhat transitional use of technology, like early plastics trying to look like more traditional materials and failing.
I have taken part in courses from all of the above. If one views these courses in the traditional manner, then the ability to respond to students is extremely limited, they scale very poorly, and the fall out rates are horrendous. However if you view them as something more akin to an encyclopedia, or revision notes for a topic, then the idea of casual usage of the material, without taking all the tests or listening to all the lectures becomes more understandable, and provides a new model for learning.
When I taught physics at university level, I used to tell my students that there was a very similar course available on line through MIT's open course-ware initiative. I said that if there were topics where my students found my presentation confusing that I recommended Prof Lewin's treatment as an alternative. As he was paid more than me, and had been teaching the material for longer, it could potentially be clearer. My students responded well to this.
So I think we should view these courses as another tool to use in our teaching, playing a role similar to that of an academic library where you went to look for other books on a subject to either explore it further or get a better explanation. All contributing to the ultimate task of dispelling ignorance.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Thoughts on teaching math with calculators.

I teach some elementary math’s to adult learners, and I am mandated to teach them how to use a calculator. 
When I produce the calculators about ½ way through the course I ask them what a calculator is for. I then explain that it is for when the calculations get to big to do by hand, and we then move on to calculate some really big numbers, like the amount of sand on the local beach, the number of snowflakes that fell in the last big storm, the number of breaths they have taken so far in their lives etc.  I use the calculator to introduce the idea of estimating and approximating, and we then try to make an estimate of how good our answers are.  The idea is that, now you have the skills, the calculator opens up a whole new vista of doable problems.
That’s for my mainstream students. For some of the students, maybe two in a hundred, I teach more specific calculator use, when I have decided that these are students who don’t have the ability at this time of mastering the skills of hand calculation. This may be an innate deficit, or it may be the product of years of confrontational math education resulting in the student being terrified by the prospect of looking at numbers in any constructive manner whatsoever.
These are the students for whom the calculator will become the mathematical equivalent of dragon dictate, and just as dragon dictate can open up the world of generating texts to individuals who would be unable to write or use a keyboard, I see the calculator as giving access to mathematical results to people who would otherwise be incapable of getting there.
Finally to mention some specific skills. I teach adding fractions by cross multiplying and reducing the result. I explain that there are other methods which they may already know, but that I am avoiding them because they don’t always work, and we don’t have time to go through all the special cases.
I do this, not because I’m short on time, but because often I find students abandoned their attempts to understand fractions at the LCD/LCM stage. Fractions are key, and I explain that these operations are important because if they come to algebra many of the same methods will work. 
I spend almost a full class on the concept of dividing by a half.
I teach long multiplication, again stressing that this is a method which will go forward into algebra, and I teach long division in the same way for the same reasons.
The key in all of this is that I am teaching skills which will continue to be of value, both in general life, and in the students further math’s careers, should they care to pursue them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Instructional design and Tacit learning

These are terms which hover around the borderland between education and training.  Instructional design came originally from a military need to train lots of people quickly to a uniform standard in the Second World War, and a desire to take educational theory and use it to produce a effective framework for people trained to a specific set of competences. Gagne is a key name here. Within that context, Tacit knowledge is the collection of nonverbal learning that SME’s (Subject matter experts) gain from experience which can be difficult to encode into a formal description of the specified learning outcomes of a course.
Once we step out of that context it becomes more difficult. I see education proceeding from very well defined learning goals, such the ability to tie a shoe lace, or to add decimal numbers up two places of decimals at primary level, through less concrete goals at secondary level such as “Students will understand the causes of the civil war”.  As education proceeds through third level, we encounter the sort of concepts embodied in the idea of a liberal education, or Newman’s idea of a university. Here packing what is being learnt into a Specified Learning Objectives framework becomes less appropriate.
I am referring by analogy to this type of learning also as Tacit learning, and in particular I am  thinking of the kind of skills which we develop as a professional, which are open ended, and don’t have set limits.  Good teachers, I think, don’t stop learning when they are qualified, and learn from a diverse set of sources including their students, and their practice.
This is an area of learning for which I can find few instructional design models, and which I am interested in exploring further.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Searching for assesment

This piece is a result of reading this blog post
There has recently been a considerable amount of controversy about employers asking for job candidates Facebook credentials in order to find out what sort of people they were, and what sort of things they got up to. 
The critical issue seems to revolve about the distinction between a users public and private life.
In practice we may be judged by the company we keep.  This issue is particularly apt because Facebook is primarily a social network, and unless I am a policeman, and my friends are mostly journalists, it’s not totally clear that this information is relevant to an employer.
Be that as it may, David Wiley of Bringham Young University  has come up with another scary evaluation metric.  How about letting your employer, or your prospective college, see your search history?  Using “Big Data” tools, this could give either power broker a deep insight into whom they are potentially entering into a long term relationship with.
I think, with a moment’s thought, that this one too comes into the too much information category, and would fail European data protection legislation on the basis of informed consent and need to know grounds.  It would also leave a potential employer open to charges of discrimination, by providing them with information on which to make a discriminatory decision.
The problem again comes in because of the umbrella nature of such a request. It grabs everything, and a lot of it is outside the scope of any possible legitimate use of the data.

Now how about if I am asking my students to do research?  Suppose I’m asking them to document their web journey in search of enlightenment on the subject using membranes to provide high altitude diesel trains with oxygen enriched air for combustion.
In this case, it could be legitimate, and could provide a valuable anti plagiarism tool.  It shows how long they were on task, It shows how efficiently they used the web, and it shows how successful they were while they were doing it.
I could potentially have a number of target websites which I expected them to find, and I could evaluate them on a richer metric which could combine time on task with success in locating information, and a subjective assessment of their search methodology. 
Because the search could be seen as coursework, and could be limited to a defined time period, we could avoid the privacy issues, which down check the more general histories covered above.   As for an employer, I could ask the candidate in advance to provide a transcript of an hour spent researching the company prior to the interview.  This could be an effective test of their skills and prior knowledge in the field. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Teachers are peasants!

Introducing innovation to teachers is difficult, because they operate in a subsistence manner. i.e. They operate at the limit of their resources and are required to get a crop in each and every time.Hence the peasant analogy.  This makes them disinclined to take risks with sweeping changes which could make them loose a years crop, but open to small labor saving incremental changes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Entropy as a measure of class learning

I has just occurred to me that as teachers we work a piece of un-physical magic as we lead or guide a class through a course.
My reasoning goes as follows. At the start of the class, all the students are unknowns. We don't know how well they learn, how hard they are going to work, or what their ability is.
So if we define the entropy of the system in terms of all the possible outcomes, any student could potentially end up at any point in our class and the entropy is high.
in formula S = k Log(n)
where n is the number of possible states of the system, that is the number of different potential outcomes.
If I have 30 students in the class, and I mark out of 100, then this comes to
S = k 30 Log (100) = 60 k.
After the first mid term,  when 30% of the marks have been decided,
 S = k 30 Log (70) = 55.4 k.
After the second midterm with only 40% of the marks to be decided by the final,
S = k 30 Log (40) = 48.1 k.
After the final, when all outcomes are clear,
S = 0.
As the semester (term) goes on the probable trajectory of each student becomes more constrained. with the system eventually resolving into one final configuration, the final marks, and the uncertainty about the progress of any given student has reduced to zero.  In thermodynamic terms, we have cooled the system by removing the entropy and condensed the educational gas which the students represented, into a set of distinct phases, one for each possible student outcome (mark)..

We have reduced the entropy of the system Can I say cool?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Learning is one dimensional

Not all of it. But I have encountered a problem and its made me think of learning in a new way. I wanted to use Moodle to asses student learning styles, this would involve asking the questions from a test bank, and then rating their answers along a number of different dimensions of learning preference.
I have not solved this problem.  We normally assign students to a point along a one dimensional continuum which runs from didn't understand a thing I taught them in class to has complete understanding of everything covered.
Our aspiration as teachers is to move student along that scale, with the hope that they will end up at the I know everything end of it.
We are neglecting the possibility that their learning is moving in several different dimensions at once.  They may be failing my maths course, but becoming more reflective and capable persons through knowing their limitations.
They may be learning a lot about the interpretation of data and the application of geometry, but failing to pick up on the abstractions of algebra.
In most subjects, if I think about it, I can find several different strands or dimensions of learning, but we insist that at all times is all part of one bag which we judge solely by how full it is.

Maybe its time to make our subjects more multidimensional.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

An online course with a good pedigree CS101

Last fall, I did an free online course in AI last autumn with Professor Sebastion Thrun of Stanford.
The course was very good, and about 22,000 student completed it.
Professor Thrun has now joined a new startup company, Udacity, who are offering two courses to start out. One involves learning how to program a robotic car (Proffesor Thrun was part of the team who won $2,000000 for building aan autonomous, self driving car.)  and the second is about building a search engine.
I think either of these course would be a great project for a TY student, or would be great for someone looking to increse or brush up their computer knowlege.
I have enrolled in the build a search engine course, which aims to teach complete beginners computer programing in seven weeks.

I'm doing so to brush up my programming skills, posibly learn a new language and to learn about programming to interface to the web.

I'm passing this information on as I fell it may be of interest to other members of the teaching comunity.

The web site is here:
and I would invite you to at least view the introductory video, which includes a recomendation by one of the founders of Google.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reading brain waves at the Mayo clinic (not!)

I received an e-mail alert about the video on this page:
and my interest was immediately sparked. The idea of using brain waves to type or at least to communicate with the shipboard computer was a staple of science fiction in my youth, and as more and more of the technology from that genre becomes blasé (personnel communicator = mobile phone, Babel fish = Google translate…)it was interesting to see that this one is starting to fall.
It turns out not to be the case.
In this experimental set up the simulated quadriplegic unable to communicate stares at a screen on which a pattern of flashing letters is formed. When the letter that they were staring at flashes, this is picked up by a series of electrodes monitoring their brainwave activity and this is deemed to reading the letters out of the person’s brain.
It’s not.  It is just detecting which flashing light a person is looking at.  In order for this to work, the person must be able to move their eyeballs to fixate on a particular letter, and must be able to see.
However we already have technology that can watch your eyeballs to see what you are looking at, and its been around for a while.
Cannon used this in cameras to see what part of the image should be used for autofocus since the early 1990’s.
More details are here.
and if you want to play with a very similar application down load camera mouse here:
This doesn’t do eyeball tracking, but will allow you to control a computer even if your arms and legs don’t work in a consistent way.