29 October 2012

Items to Share: 29 October

 Education Focus

Other Business

24 October 2012

On using a title

Years ago, I was asked for my name for some National Health Service form, by a receptionist whose first language was not English. After she struggled with the spelling of my surname, I just passed over a credit card so she could copy it. It showed my title as "Dr", and I lost my mini-campaign to be treated as normal by the NHS. Not that I am discriminated against in my thankfully so far limited contact with them, it is just that using my academic title confuses the system, wastes time as I have to explain I'm not a medic., and has medical staff "explaining" things to me in technical language which means nothing... All--admittedly rather desultory--efforts to get it changed have so far had no effect, despite assurances.

But I do remember one wise doctor on a course who greeted me with, "Are you one of us, or a proper one?" In the UK, strangely enough, the medical "Dr" is a courtesy title, because the MD is rare; most medics are "MB, BS" (or "MB, ChB"--two unclassified bachelor's degrees, in any case) and of course to the disconcertion of foreigners taken ill in the UK, surgeons are "Mr" or "Miss"*. By "proper one" he meant an academic doctorate, although of course there was no telling what its private connotations were ...

It came up again last week, in an out-patients' waiting room--and everyone looked up as I responded to the call for "Dr Atherton". I'm probably being hyper-sensitive and it's all trivial but I mention it because...

I've just been watching a Newsnight piece on the postponement of the badger cull. The two interviewees were a representative of the National Farmers' Union, and Dr Brian May speaking for "Team Badger". The title appeared in his on-screen label, as well as in Paxman's introduction. There is no doubt as to his entitlement to the title: PhD, Imperial College London, 2007**. In astrophysics. How does that--or indeed the reason which probably actually got him onto the programme--his previous association with some popular musical group called "Queen"--relate to his credibility as a badger advocate? (I'm with him on the badgers, as a cause, so I feel let down by his apparent need to appeal to false -OK, irrelevant--credentials.)

*  this is entirely a matter of convention, and as far as I know, the standard and equivalence of UK medical qualifications is globally acknowledged.

**  and all credit to him for completing it thirty years after starting it--lucky he did not fall foul of the pernicious "Levinsky rules".

22 October 2012

Items to Share: 21 October

14 October 2012

On Savile and his heritage

I don't much want to comment on the sordid case of Jimmy Savile, although I too had heard the rumours, years ago. But I have commented on similar issues here and here and elsewhere, trying to understand some of the issues which the promised inquiries will pursue.

Nige of Nigeness has an excellent (if arguable) piece about the basic problem of recognising a "wrong 'un".

I'm more concerned at the moment about the potential consequences. The Soham murders, for example, triggered a disproportionate "safeguarding" apparatus which probably had no positive but many negative consequences (Ian Huntley could apparently have been stopped by the diligent application of measures already in place) while the impact of new regulations may well have discouraged many potential volunteers from getting involved in youth groups, uniformed organisations, and even helping out neighbours...

Whitaker and Lieberman (1964) discuss how, confronted with a "focal conflict" of deep concern to a group, the group can all too readily come to a "knee-jerk" response, which they call a restrictive solution. That effectively puts a plaster on the problem, but at later great cost to the group. In their context (which was psychotherapy) they argue that the critical task is to get beyond such a response to a facilitating solution. The same process seems to occur in the political world, too, particularly when the cry to "do something" is amplified by the tabloid press. It takes great presence of mind to maintain a sort of "negative capability" and not to act. That may be one reason why the immediate reaction of politicians nowadays seems to be to call for an inquiry. It takes time, allows some passions to cool, and distances the events--and it's certainly better than the usual restrictive solutions such as scape-goating or ill-considered legislation (Dangerous Dogs Act, anyone?)

There are some interesting pieces cropping up in today's papers, exploring the argument about whether there was really a "different culture" back in the '70s and '80s; about the assumption of untrustworthiness which pervades the perception of adults; and Minette Marin in the Sunday Times (unfortunately behind a paywall) saying the unsayable, that women and girls should toughen up and not make such a big deal out of the "casual sexism" end of the spectrum.

It's a sad coincidence that yesterday Stuart Bell MP died: he resigned from the opposition front bench in 1987 so as to be free to fight the case of the families caught up in the Cleveland child abuse saga, when 121 children were removed from their parents amid allegations of organised sexual abuse, stemming from the reports of two paediatric consultants, and based on fallacious interpretations of one test. And then there was the Orkney "satanic abuse" case of 1991...

Whatever the casual sexual harassment which pervaded the BBC and other work-places, the evidence of such panic reactions by the authorities testifies to sensitivity to allegations more than twenty years ago. Just not to allegations made directly by victims, against powerful people.

Whitaker, D. S. and Lieberman, M. A. (1964) Psychotherapy through the Group Process.  New York: Atherton Press.

13 October 2012

On learning and Bayesian statistics

I have--rather to my surprise--just finished reading Sharon Bertsch McGrayne's The theory that would not die (London; Yale U P, 2011). I only picked it up because there was a 3 for 2 offer in the bookshop and I needed a third book in order not to miss out. The sub-title says it all: "How Bayes' rule cracked the Enigma code, hunted down Russian submarines, and emerged triumphant from two centuries of controversy." I first came across Bayes' theorem through an Open University course on Professional Judgment* in the later '80s, in the days when their courses were supported by late-night programmes on TV. As usual with those programmes, particularly in maths, I thought I understood them perfectly at the time but the understanding just evaporated within hours... Even so, the basic idea has stuck with me for twenty-odd years, which is more than I can say for the MOOC...

So what is Bayes/Laplace's theorem/rule? My understanding is limited, but it is fundamentally a statistical approach to informing decision-making under conditions of uncertainty and incomplete information, by refining probabilities based on information about prior conditions as well as current measurements/ assessments. To me, the overall process seems very like the way in which betting odds are arrived at (where the money bet is a proxy for positive or negative information about the object of the wager); or as Keynes put it, "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?" (epigraph to McGrayne).

Here is a more respectable, and of course more detailed, account.

I was already aware of some of the basic principles as applied to assessment (here)...But here is why I am mentioning it now--it came up as a current story. 

McGrayne doesn't make the links to learning very much (just on p.158 and pp.247/8.) But it's not a giant leap of insight to make the connection between learning through successively better approximations and Bayesian principles:
  • Piagetian principles of adaptation-- assimilation and accommodation--are consistent with a Bayesian framework.The progress of a Bayesian calculation--up-dating predictions or odds on the basis of greater knowledge, is basically similar to Piaget's view of children's learning through assimilation, where each new instance of a concept informs and adds to existing understanding (as discussed in the bold linked article above).
  • And Hattie's meta-analytic findings on the importance of feedback  also fit, particularly the passage I quote on feedback from learner to teacher. The teacher is continually making adjustments to her strategy based on refinement of her uncertain and imperfect knowledge--some Bayesian understanding of the process may well help with the formulation of her strategy, and although this may be difficult to achieve in real time in the classroom, one can see how it could possibly be incorporated into an assessment strategy, or indeed an online course.
Or is the characteristic sound of a Sunday morning the sound of me barking up the wrong tree? (As Penelope Gilliat said of Harold Hobson.) The probability of that could also be computed using Bayes'. Probably.

*  See the reader for the course: Dowie J and Elstein A (eds.) (1988) Professional Judgment; a reader in clinical decision making Cambridge; Cambridge U P. Incidentally I also wrote about it here. What I realise only now--since reading McGrayne-- is that the dissenting voice granted a couple of minutes at the end of each programme represented an almighty row which was going on in the world of statistics; the main programme was unashamedly Bayesian, while the comment presumably represented the mainstream view, which McGrayne typifies as "frequentist".

09 October 2012

On the MOOC -- 4: Forums and Assignments

This is the last in a series of posts about participation in the free Massive Online Open Course [MOOC] on the History of the World since 1300 CE, from Princeton U via Coursera. Jonathan Rees, at More or Less Bunk, is also blogging his take on it. I'm sure he has more readers than me, so if you feel like commenting, please do there first--no objection of course to getting his leftovers!

I promised I'd look at the forums on the MOOC. It's when you do this that you realise just what "Massive" means. I gather that about 70,000 people are signed up, all over the world. (Here's a map of the distribution, as entered by participants.) Not everyone is posting, of course, but the simple truth must be that the "community" is unmanageable--and was always going to be. As Adelman has noted:
"The Forums have become an active site for the exchange of ideas, information, and solutions to technical problems. They are now overwhelmed. This "common good" that we have created is getting crowded out and I fear many of you will stop turning to it as a resource. I am no longer able to keep up with your conversations and as a result you are loosing (sic.) my engagement in the course." (Adelman, Thu 20 Sep 2012 1:14:00 PM BST)  
Coursera has been working on the threading and the facilities in the forums, but a casual review shows that despite entreaties from the moderating Teaching Assistants and Adelman himself, there are many repeated questions sometimes coming up on inappropriate forums. I'm sure that this is not because people can't be bothered to post appropriately, but that they don't know how to find the topic they are interested in.

But dig into the more specific and targeted sub-forums, and the impression which emerges is of a very thoughtful and well-informed conversation (with of course the occasional troll). And I can't fail to be impressed by the commitment of Adelman and his T.A.s to respond to the conversation; having run on-line courses myself, with much smaller groups, I'm well aware of how time-consuming it is. Despite his fears in the quotation above, he seems far from disengaged.

One feature of the lecture discussions which I suspect is unusual, however, is the number of posts correcting the lecturer (and even the textbook), which point to the atypicality of the constituency!

Just impressionistically, I've been trying to detect other more general patterns. Clearly some of the exchanges  take the format of hub and spoke, particularly when Adelman is involved, and that is as one would expect with the instructor responding to comments and questions. Others are more like nets, typically with just a few participants. I haven't come across any very long "rallies", as it were. But the regrettably typical viciousness which seems to characterise on-line arguments is sometimes here, too... It is very difficult to generalise--the course is so big that anything might appear.

Does it matter? Probably not. By which I mean that the forums are probably essential, regardless of what proportion of participants use them. In a MOOC, you're never likely to have them embarrassingly empty, which can all too easily happen in an ordinary on-line course, and leads to the use of assessment credits for level of participation almost regardless of a quality of content, which is a tactic fraught with unintended consequences. It may well be what they stand for which matters, rather than what they are supposed to achieve. They represent an essential channel back to the course organisers and teachers. They acknowledge, however crudely, many participants' desire to be part of a community which can share experiences and queries. They can model effective participation and the level of background knowledge expected of participants (dauntingly high on the evidence of what I've read so far, but then I'm not an historian). And I speak from experience when I say that the obligation to engage in forums as a tutor is a brilliant way to get a feel for your student group. "A" feel, of course. Not necessarily the best or most representative one, though.


The first assignment was due yesterday. There was a choice from three titles, one of which was:
Option A - What changed, and what survived, as a result of the plagues and disasters of the fourteenth-century in Afro-Eurasia?
Faced with such a title, I realised I hadn't a clue what to do with it. Partly that was because I recognised that I don't actually know very much about what happened--and that may well be because I have concentrated far too much on the online pedagogy of the course rather than its content. And partly it is because it is over thirty years since I have had to write like that at someone else's behest; I no longer know how to do it, other than that I would start by deconstructing the title... (And I gave up setting assignments of that kind in my own teaching about sixteen years ago.)

I also don't know at what level the assignment is set. Looking at the provided guidance on writing, I am struck by its emphasis on clear expression of an answer.
Don’t present a reader with competing arguments and hope they can make up their mind.  [...] The reader wants to know what you think.
and, in the assessment criteria:
3 points - A clear response to the question in the terms posed in the assignment. 
(My emphasis) Oh well, bang goes the idea of deconstructing the title!

I'm probably making this more complicated than it really is, but the title could be calling for a basically narrative and factual account of changes and continuities on the lower levels of Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain, or it could be demanding synthesis and evaluation, although that is something of a tall order with a 750-word limit. Actually, I think the titles are well chosen, and, like the multiple choice quizzes at the end of the lecture segments, they do force one to think about the processes of change, which is a main theme of the course. My difficulty is with the effectiveness of this kind of exercise as a teaching device; the constraints of the online format are both limiting and shaping content and process of the course.

This becomes even clearer in the guidance on how to write the essay:
"Material for these essays should be only drawn from lectures, recommended readings from Worlds Together, Worlds Apart and comments from the Forums from this course [...] This is important because peers will assess each other based on the knowledge they share from this course."
I've never been keen on sticking to set reading, at the best of times. But the reason for requiring it here, to facilitate the peer assessment (good idea in itself, but...) really shows that the constraints of the medium have won, well thought through though the actual peer assessment seems to be.

Of course, this may well suggest that there are epistemological considerations in what content is suited to being taught online. History is, like other humanities subjects, contestable. It is studied not only for its own sake, but also in order to develop skills of critical thinking and argument--and so its teaching media need to support that process. In STEM subjects, on the other hand, the balance is much further in favour of sheer content--at least, Laurillard argues, until the final undergraduate year. The distinction is allied to that between divergent and convergent thinking (Hudson, 1967).

However, I have now fallen so far behind, and missed the deadline for the first essay, that I and the MOOC are parting company (the attrition rate is enormous, supposedly 80-90%). It's partly because the announced time-commitment (up to seven hours a week) is more than I can manage at the moment, but it is also because the experience has been distinctly unrewarding. After less than three weeks, it has become a chore; but that may well say more about me than about the MOOC itself.

Here are some recent related pieces from other people:

07 October 2012

On informal learning and being nerdy

I've just been watching Evan Davis' Built in Britain on BBC2, and getting increasingly irritated about things probably no-one else has noticed. But I've just realised that I've acquired my sensitivity to them without ever having been taught them--purely from problem-solving experience.

Sync.I linked to the actual programme on iPlayer, because you need to see some of the speech-to-camera shots to get this. The sound/vision synchronisation is out, probably by only one frame (in old money), and in real-time I can't tell in which direction--but it bugs me!

My first efforts at movie-making were around 1960, and for amateurs the addition of sound (even as a mood musical accompaniment) was a considerable technical challenge, involving ingenious devices such as the Synchrodek.) I had --indeed still have--a Eumig P8 phonomatic projector which used a rheostat system to allow a reel-to-reel tape recorder to control the projection speed and achieve (after a fiddly cueing set-up) synchronisation to within half a second over a 200ft. reel  (about 15 minutes). "Lip-sync"--matching speech-sound to lip movement (effectively better than 0.06s)--was merely an aspiration...

I became hyper-sensitive to sync. Nowadays it should not be an issue. Video records video and sound together, and editing packages treat them as locked together by default. I can synchronise and mix a multi-camera setup using domestic/recreational standard kit on the basis of a simple loud clap, or a flash. (OK, there are more complicated scenarios, I admit.)

But it really gets my goat when I watch a TV documentary (such as an expose of funeral directors which I also watched in the past couple of weeks) where there are simple, straightforward interviews, and somehow they have managed to get the sync. a frame or two out. A few years ago, there was an ad campaign for a men's hair dye called "Grecian 2000" which was probably dubbed, but I felt the lack of attention to synchronisation said something about the advertiser's lack of respect for its audience. (Good grief--it's still being sold--Google turned up 1,830,000 hits for it.)

I sometimes think I am the only person who notices. I put that down to my heightened sensitivity from dealing with the challenge for 45 years (off and on)--but apart from occasional conversations at Altrincham Cine Club  (now apparently Altrincham Video Society) in the early '70s, I've never been "taught" that perspective.

I've gone on longer than I planned. But---the programme this evening also suffered from a problem (to my ears) with sound perspective. The interviews and the to-camera pieces were, to my ears, too uniformly "dead". Beautifully clear--but no ambience. And don't get me started on aspect ratios (particularly with still inserts--there were no problems before Ken Morse retired)...

OK--rant over! It's not the content which matters, so much as the way I (and I am in no way special) learned it. Alan Tough's thinking about adults' learning projects (1971) is rarely referred to nowadays, but fits exactly my acquisition of my (admittedly half-baked) knowledge and skills about movie- and video-making. And although I had previously thought of this as a matter of hints and tips, and the product of practice--important though that is--I'm coming to realise that without ever setting out to do so, that learning has changed my perception and what I pay attention to. It is not a matter of choice--I am unable to ignore these trivial but--to me--profoundly irritating faults. And of course it is a distraction from the content.

But--would I rather be able to ignore this stuff? Hmmm...

Items to Share: 7 October

Education Focus

It's largely about MOOCs etc. this week--otherwise rather fallow:
Two pieces on the experience of participating as a learner on-line:
Other Business 

Half of the Facts You Know Are Probably Wrong - Reason.com

The Oxford English Dictionary needs you! Announcing the new OED Appeals

Joking Matters (Experimental Theology)

01 October 2012

On fifty years on

I just realised that later this month it will be half a century since the Cuban missile crisis.

I was in my final year at school. I was preparing for scholarship examinations for Oxbridge (I didn't succeed). I remember very clearly sitting on the steps of the podium in the school assembly hall, talking to a couple of friends. One of them asked, "How long do you think we've got?" I replied, on the basis of no real knowledge, of course, but aspiring to be a 17-year-old sage,"About three weeks". I believed it, and I was far from alone.

The Cold War was real and in those three weeks it was on a nuclear hair trigger. The prospect was of being blown off the face of the earth, with just four minutes' warning. The apocalypse really was on the horizon.

I also remember watching the news coverage of the denouement, and apparently being alone in thinking that Khruschev had "won".

And I failed to rise to the occasion (in several senses)---my adolescent existentialism withered when confronted by my equally adolescent evangelicalism (of course my then girl-friend's catholicism didn't help...)

The apocalypse didn't happen, and my wife is now on holiday in Cuba.

So it goes.