27 April 2010

On PowerPoint's unintended consequences

(See also Edward Tufte on Powerpoint here--a detailed discussion of NASA's use of PowerPoint in relation to the Columbia disaster of 2003-- and more generally here.)

The link is to an article in the (US) Armed Forces Journal (thanks to the Browser for the link) about the impact of using PowerPoint on staff decision-making in the Forces. It sees the very fact of using a presentation as changing the manner of passing on information, of conducting discussions, and of making the decisions. It even changes the structure of staff officers' working days. I have no idea whether or not is an accurate account, but it is an exemplary piece of analysis of the unintended effects of a minor technological change.

Interestingly, the author (a retired Marine officer now undertaking a doctorate at Oxford) largely exempts the use of PPt as an instructional tool. Tufte is much more scathing about that usage, too. It is a matter worthy of much thought among teachers and lecturers.

Update:  See also here and here, and (28 April) here.

25 April 2010

On problem-solving crows

I've used Betty the Crow (bottom of the page) as an example of animal problem-solving for some time, but this material from New Zealand puts her in the shade.

21 April 2010

On cited authors in the humanities (2007)

Foucault came top.  D G Myers comments, concluding;
The “enchanting crisscrossing of names” from France—Foucault, Bour­dieu, Derrida—suggests that humanists remain bogged down in the slough of Theory. They are engaged in a common pursuit, all right, but it is not the pursuit of truth. It is the pursuit of intellectual fashion, even if the fashion is a little worn and threadbare after four decades.
I've got a lot of sympathy with that viewpoint, although it's a bit tough on Bourdieu, who may be unreadable but has more going for him than those other posturing purveyors of intellectual flatulence.

But one is bound to be disappointed if one sees studies in the humanities in terms of the "pursuit of truth" with a sub-text of the possibility of making "progress". I don't even see what would count as "progress" in those areas.

On the other hand, note that the list includes Albert Bandura at number 4, Anthony Giddens at 5 and Erving Goffman at 6. All of them have a body of empirical (and incidentally very accessible) work to their credit, and may indeed be credited with useful new knowledge, sometimes in terms of answers, but sometimes too in terms of new questions. What of course the current authors were doing as they cited them is a different matter--probably rubbishing them! Citations cut both ways.

16 April 2010

On academic writing, again

The link is to a salutary essay on pretentious and obscure academic writing--worthy of note particularly at this time of the academic year, as people prepare their assignments and dissertations.

The author (Rachel Toor) cites George Orwell on modern (not so modern, actually, given that he was writing in 1946) academic prose: "It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

10 April 2010

On getting others to mark student work

It's not just call-centres now--the linked piece is about how a professor in Texas is out-sourcing the marking of assignments to India. She and the entrepreneurs running the service in India make a good case; her teaching assistants are not trained or even skilled enough to mark, she has enrolments of up to 1,000 students, and each of them produce 5,000 words... It facilitates using essays, projects and report--free-text writing--rather than computer-marked multiple-choice and short-answer questions. The students get a faster turn-around, too.

But what I found particularly interesting were the comments--81 of them when I last looked--which are overwhelmingly hostile. The first two pick up on a major shortcoming, which is that while the students may be getting good feedback, the professor is not getting the feedback about their understanding she would if she actually read at least a sample herself.

I have mentioned before the work of John Hattie (here) and discussed it (currently being revised) here. I'm currently reading--indeed, I have even bought--his excellent Visible Learning... London; Routledge 2009. His syntheses of meta-analyses has lead him to emphasise the importance of feedback / formative assessment / "assessment for learning" etc., but;
...one of the major results presented in this book relates to increasing the amount of feedback because it is an important correlate of student achievement. However, one should not immediately start providing more feedback and then await the magical increases in achievement. [...] increasing the amount of feedback in order to have a positive effect on student achievement requires a change in the conception of what it means to be a teacher; it is the feedback to the teacher about what students can and cannot do that is more powerful than feedback to the student, and it necessitates a different way of interacting and respecting students  [...].  [...] It is important to be concerned about the climate of the classroom before increasing the amount of feedback (to the student or teacher) because it is critical to ensure that "errors" are welcomed, as they are key levers for enhancing learning. It is critical to have appropriately challenging goals as then the amount and directedness of feedback is maximized. Simply applying a recipe (e.g.,"providing more feedback") will not work in our busy, multifaceted, culturally invested, and changing classrooms. (Hattie, 2009 p.4; emphases added)
One of the limitations of end-of-module assessment is that this information arrives too late to use it for the current cycle (and the next one may be different) but it is streets ahead of no such information; and although it may have received little direct attention as you sit and plough your way through interminable assignments, its message is quite likely to have got through.

09 April 2010

On being canvassed

In my more politically active days, door-to-door canvassing scored bottom out of the range of preferred activities. (Even that scored higher than door-to-door evangelism in my more religiously active days.)

I read something in the past few days about how it has all changed in the internet era. I can't find it to link to it, but you can reconstruct the argument for yourselves in half a minute.

I know how I am going to vote. My partner has a "plague on all your houses" approach, and won't vote (I don't agree of course but that is not the business of this blog). So people will be wasting their time calling round; I've decided to save them and us a lot of trouble with the following notice on our front door:
To all candidates and canvassers:
Please do NOT call or deliver leaflets.
To do so guarantees that we will not vote for your party.
Thank you
(No copyright claimed--feel free to copy and distribute, and of course improve... On reflection. "So to do" is more elegant than "To do so", ..)

This is win-win. You don't get bothered, and canvassers will be relieved to know that there is no point in expending time and effort where it will clearly be counter-productive.

And of course there are variants. I don't write it down, but I do set out the ground rules for when the Jehovah's Witnesses come round, which they do regularly round here;
Thank you for calling! My great-aunt was a Witness and played the organ at the local Kingdom Hall (true) I have the greatest respect for your commitment, and particularly the suffering of Witnesses under the Nazis but...

you are not going to convert me, and I don't even want to convert you.

..but I really enjoy theological arguments, and although my Biblical scholarship is a little rusty, it will all come back to me. So if you have a couple of hours to spare, let's make a date...
The last time anyone took me up on that was 40+ years ago.

This is not about cheap points at the expense of political or religious canvassers, but about understanding the pressures on them. The last thing they want is an enthusiastic time-waster. Pity! It's great fun. I can recommend it.

PS. If a canvasser of whatever ilk asks you a question, please don't answer it directly, as posed. That marks you as a mug/prole/voter. Apart from the crude "litany" recitation favoured by politicians themselves, there are several more elegant response strategies, of which two are:
  • I don't understand the question, or even if you are of a positivist bent, the question is meaningless (be warned--you may have to justify that proposition).
  • Please define your terms.
See here!

    07 April 2010

    On a minor dilemma

    ...which probably afllicts many people with a web presence from time to time.

    I was approached by email, and very politely and punctiliously, by someone requesting permission to use material from my site, on a course this person was running. No problem. The pages are explicitly covered by a standard form of Creative Commons licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

    But the email included a link to the site of the institute/clinic my correspondent represented. Frankly I found it dubious, promoting a range of "alternative" therapies and "wellness" interventions. I have no problem with the latter. If people want to spend their money on something which they believe will make them feel even better, regardless of any evidence, that is up to them; but I have serious reservations about the former. If there is evidence to support "alternative" medicine, it's not "alternative", it is just medicine.

    The use to which my correspondent wished to put my material seemed quite straightforward--to print it out as a handout to support a teaching session on a mainstream and almost uncontentious topic. And my correspondent did not have to ask. I'm sure my stuff is printed out and used thus hundreds of times a day without anyone taking the trouble to ask. And the Creative Commons licence does specify;
    AttributionYou must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

    So, should/could I have applied different rules to this request because of my views of the ideology of the sponsoring institution?

    05 April 2010

    On betraying my faith

    As you can tell--I started this a while ago...

    Probably in two senses. I revealed my background, but I am a "backslider" from it. It's Good Friday tomorrow, so perhaps a good time to take stock...

    (The notice about "Easter Opening" at our local Tesco carefully avoids mentioning either "Good Friday" or "Easter Sunday". Why? Who do they think is going to be offended? --apart of course from professional victims.)

    It's the end of term, and happily as usual the class arranged an informal gathering after the session in the local pub. (It happens to be the national tenanted pub of the year, last year--not just your average local) For some reason, however, they seemed really keen on the cheesy chips... I digress.

    One student took the opportunity to ask me about my religious beliefs. That was interesting, because I have always treated teaching as a secular zone, and apart from one member of the class who wears the hijab (I don't go looking for other more subtle iconography; she didn't join us in the pub, which was a pity, but I think she had practical logistical reasons for getting away and she was not the only one) I was not aware of any religious allusions in my teaching.

    (There is one on the web, though, at the end of the page on memory.) 

    I asked what prompted her question. (Teachers, like politicians, are not good at straight answers, much as we may expect them of others.) She referred (she was certainly concentrating) to a throwaway remark about how Kolb seemed to be able to map his four-point learning cycle onto any set of four items, such as the seasons, or the four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And in discussing e-learning, I had alluded with reference to the need for the transparency of the media, to Herbert's "The Elixir"
    A man that looks on glasse
    On it may stay his eye,
    Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
    And then the heav’n espie.
    I was a little surprised by the reference to the gospels. To me, their labels (as opposed to their contents) are no more than taken-for-granted cultural reference points, like Father Christmas or the Grand National (no--I am not going to look for a link for a horse-race).

    George Herbert is a little more esoteric, but in fact it was only J's question in class which (apart from a vague reference to "heav'n" in the quotation) imbued the reference with any religious significance.

    But she had sniffed out the religious references, and she asked me about my faith--directly. That's one of the great things about these informal meetings with mature students; they recognise that our tutor-student relationship is relatively trivial, and other aspects may be much more significant. I used to think this was a big deal which required careful "management"; actually it's routinely conducted common-sensically.

    So she asked me whether I was a Christian. Put like that, it's a challenge. Or at least I still experience it that way, because I used to be a Christian (bold "C" if your browser doesn't render it). Given the impoverished and banal ritual of my brand of evangelicalism, I still have my "decision card" signed on 29 March 1959, and stuck inside the front of one of my bibles.

    I didn't know how to reply. Yes would be unrealistic--I haven't been a regular church-goer (if that is a proxy for belief) for many years. I no longer know what the creeds mean, apart from the outcomes of hard-fought disputes at councils at Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451), etc.

    No would be stupid. I have a problem. Our beloved dog, Rupert, is over 13 (human) years old. He is diabetic and consequentially blind. He won't last much longer. But he--like his predecessors, William and Harriet--orders my offices. Strange expression? Simply, walking the dog is my time to pray. I value that a lot. How will I do that without him? Is he an icon, in the orthodox tradition?

    In the jargon of the moment, my "spirituality" is very important to me. On the other hand, such "spirituality" seems largely to be soft self-indulgent bul***it.

    But the authoritarian diktats of much religiosity have been exposed, from biblical scholarship to the latest scandals, to be self-serving obstacles to faith. The greatest, largely artistic, expressions of religion are among the highest creations of the human spirit, refined over the ages--albeit often in ignominious ways. I celebrate them. Particularly as they are manifest in (what we think we know of)  the teachings of Jesus and even some parts of Paul.

    But I reject all the false dichotomies I am asked to choose between.

    Strangely, this may matter to me but not much to anyone else. So many thanks if you have read this far, and apologies if you sought an answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.

    SIn! You didn't mention sin!


    02 April 2010

    On assumptions about the value of teaching

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that if people are to learn things, they should be taught them. But is that necessarily true? We know, of course, about all kinds of things people learn without benefit of teaching, from sexual practices to texting. But there is an assumption that culturally and economically important learning depends on teaching.

    There are of course a number of contrary voices. Here is Ivan Illich;
    A second major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives. [Illich I (1973) De-schooling Society London; Penguin p.20]
    and Lave and Wenger (1991) make similar points about the acquisition of vocational skills. Even a review within the mainstream of educational research recommends that children in the UK should start school later (see here) as indeed they do in most other European countries.

    But the Benezet experiment reported in the article link above was more specific. Children may go to school, but they should not learn arithmetic until 6th grade (12 years old; read the article for Benezet's reasons, noting that his work dates from the early 1930s). That does seem somewhat extreme, and there does not seem to have been any systematic exploration of what the best age is to start mathematics, but nowadays the policy would not doubt draw on the insights of developmental psychology.

    The underlying principle is one of readiness, both for the subject and for--in a wider context--participating in the institution of a school itself. Without readiness, enormous effort may be expended to no benefit or even harm.

    And that is the conclusion I am coming to about the much-vaunted practice of reflection in professional practice; it's no good plugging it until a practitioner is ready for it, and she will not be ready until she has attained a degree of pretty well unconscious competence or even proficiency in the routine practice of the discipline. The implication for professional education may actually be the desirability of discouraging reflection to begin with. That might even have the paradoxical effect of making people ever more enthusiastic about reaching the stage of being ready to do it...

    (Thanks, Ruth, for your earlier comment which goaded me towards these thoughts...)

    01 April 2010

    On some sense at last on libel

    Simon Singh has won at the Appeal Court!

    (I commented on the case earlier, here.)

    It's a small step, but a real one. Go to http://www.libelreform.org/ for a much better commentary than I can offer. Momentum is gathering. Jack Straw (Justice Secretary) is sympathetic... The major hurdle is of course a general election, which will put the issue on the back burner regardless of cross-party support. Even so, today's ruling may indicate a sea-change in judicial attitudes towards libel suits--let's hope so.