Monthly Archives: April 2009

A “smart” household

I was rudely awoken at around 2am this morning by my washing machine. It had mysteriously stopped mid-cycle and felt the need to beep really loudly to tell me all about it. The problem was that it couldn’t. That is, it could not tell me why it had stopped and what I needed to do to get it moving again. Is it simply not very smart?

This had me wondering what is out there that could be considered a “smart” household object.

Here’s a site that caught my eye. And the eye catching wasn’t just because of the phrase “toys for the boys and gadgets for the girls”. What’s the difference between a toy and a gadget, and why are they gender different is a whole other post?  The content that I liked –

  • What are the motivations for purchasing a £50,000 games console?  I’ve always found the consumer behaviour field of sales and marketing fascinating. The psychological makeup of a purchaser in this regard might make for an interesting case study.
  • For some a hot bubble-bath with some healthy salts is the perfect relaxant after a hard day’s work. How about one that’s simultaneously a sauna, jacuzzi and steam room?  I’m relaxing just thinking about it.
  • Other people prefer sinking into their favourite comfie chair and having some preferred music playing to add to the atmosphere. What about a chair that makes you feel like you’re sitting inside a sound speaker?  The music oozes through the chair. Sounds good? It would set you back a cool £15,000 – worth it? Perhaps not.

Another site commented that “great technology is the stuff that solves problems you already have”.  That’s quite a claim. How realistic is it? Examples given of such problems are washing the floors, rigging up a music system throughout the house without massacring walls, and cooking the dinner.  Apparently there are techie gadgets that will let you do these things. Not a mention of a washing machine that will wash the clothes without mysteriously stopping half way.

Smart gadgets has some intriguing techie toys / gadgets on show. No smart washing machine there either.

My search for smart household devices threw up some interesting results. Some were wacky, weird and wonderful. Others challenged the notion of smart.  What does “smart” mean and how “smart” is “smart enough”?

When it behaves, my washing machine really is smart. It doesn’t have any self-awareness, not is it multi-purpose. But it’s intelligent enough to do what I want it to do. I put the clothes in, put in some washing detergent, twiddle a few knobs, disappear for a few hours and when I come back, hey presto, clean clothes. Quite simply, it’s intelligent enough. When things go wrong it’s also displaying intelligence of sorts.  It beeps loudly enough to bring me running to help it out. Surely this calling for help is intelligent “thinking”.

Haven’t we come a long way?

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Their requirements or ours?

It’s that time of year again. Students (to varying degrees) are occupied with the dreaded end-of-year exams. And, quite rightly so, one might add.

A recent conversation in class with one of my examinees brought home to me (again!) that student motivations with exams can vary significantly from that of their lecturers.

The exam in question is predominantly a hands-on-keyboard computer exam with a lower weighted written component. The written component is aimed at testing what (and to what depth) the student really understands about the computer-based work completed. The particular student in question wondered what was the point of the written component given that he would be demonstrating how-to knowledge of it in the hands-on component. He commented that he could still pass comfortably by omitting it and leaving the exam early.

I didn’t even try to hide my cringe factor. Pointing out all the marks that he would lose out on was not enough to change his mind.  A reminder that he would be depriving himself of the opportunity to show off his learning met with equal dismissal.  In fact, he was rather puzzled by my reaction.

The point is that his requirements are very different from mine.  

Prof Noel Entwhistle from the University of Edinburgh has an oft-quoted framework for classifying students’ conception of learning. There are 3 possibilities –

  • The deep approach in which the student looks for meaning, patterns and underlying principles in the material being studied. They question the material asking how, why, what-if type questions. They are self-aware and conscious of their learning and what it means;
  • The surface approach in which the student makes minimal effort to dig deep into the material. They are reluctant to do anything more than passively reproduce that material in an exam to achieve the minimal passing grade. They see little or no meaning in the program of study and are not motivated (by a myriad set of complex factors both internal and external to the student – my emphasis) to look for any;
  • The strategic approach in which the student organises their study and study activities in order to achieve the highest possible grades with the minimal amount of effort. Each unit of effort is evaluated in terms of what it’s contribution to the grade might be. If a large amount of effort has to be put in to achieve a relatively small return, then that effort is not put in.

My student is in the third category. I’d prefer if he (and his classmates) were in the first category but, alas, that is not the case.

Am I wrong to criticise the strategic approach to learning? The student is still learning a lot, and will likely emerge with an honours grade even if of a lower level than he is capable of. He can take the extra time not spent on my subject and use in a subject-area he is less confident on. He is developing organisation and personal management skills in deciding on and implementing his choices of juggling his resource allocations across different subjects. He avoids becoming a one-dimensional live-in-the-library student in that he retains enough “me-time” to pursue other aspects of his life and so move towards becoming the well-rounded student that employers value.

Now, as to the surface learners………. I think we can all agree on the down-sides of that one.

The shallowness of judging by appearances

I make a point of not watching talent shows for all the obvious reasons. However, Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent has got so much attention it’s hard to ignore.

Why is she grabbing the headlines?  Why has there been 4,750,992 views of her youtube vid?

Answer – because she doesn’t look the part that such talent shows expect. When she walked on stage there was tittering and rolled eyes from the audience and the judges. Merely because she looked more of a middle-aged unsophisticated housewife than a wannabe west-end stage singer, people assumed she would not be able to pull the song off.  She had to prove her talents to be taken seriously.  Yet, every rational person knows that how you look has no logical relation to singing ability. When did society become so shallow?

Yet, the question must be asked. Do we do that in our classrooms?

Typically, by Christmas of the academic year, I can make a strong prediction as to the students final grades for the subject for the year. But, I remind myself that it is merely a prediction and I’m bound to get at least one or two students wrong.  There is always someone who performs above and below expectations that I have built up. Exam nerves and other on-the-day factors can cause a student to perform badly on an end-of-year exam (the value of exams is a whole other post). But what about the student who does better than expected.

Why do I get this student wrong. The apperance is mis-leading, that is why.  How this student has presented in my class is not necessarily representative of the skills and talents s/he possesses. For whatever reason, those skills lay hidden, dormant or undeveloped throughout the year and give lecturers a poor and false impression of such a student.

The learning point for us instructors is how to nurture this talent through the academic year and let it shine for all to see.  This is difficult. There are a huge variety of reasons why a student might maintain a low profile academically, including reasons that are so private to the student that they never emerge into the full light of day.

Students develop and grow into their abilities and talents at different points. Some take longer than others. Some require more help and gentle pushes than others. Ultimately we all have something to offer, regardless of what our projected appearance to the world might suggest.

Let’s not be so shallow.

What’s higher education all about – it’s all about opinions

John Kelly has a piece in todays Irish Times calling for a review of higher education.  Some aspects I agreed with and some I rather didn’t.  But this post isn’t about my opinion, or at least, not overtly my opinion on what higher education is about?

The end of the article had a “have your say on this article on irishtimes.com”.  A-ha, the joy of the 2 way online world. Any interested Joe Soaps can post their opinion on what is published in the print edition.

I logged on and had a look. There was just one comment, but what a comment!  It was from Disillusioned Lecturer.  S/he starts with “Oh give me strength”. Then, s/he goes on to wonder why there is a call for yet another taskforce / committee spending more scarce resources on more bureaucracy, adding to lecturer’s work and administered by those not in a position to be administering them.

But, this post is not about Disillustioned Lecturer’s opinion either (even if very interesting).

It’s about the concept of opinions!

  • I love the way the Internet allows airing of such opinions. Anyone (ok, admittedly within reason) can log on and give their twopence worth and have it read. Long gone are the days when journalists had all the power. Now, they have to somehow accommodate the views of Joe Soaps. At the very least, they need to be cognizant of them.
  • I’m often struck by how the first comment is a list can set the scene for any other potential comments that might follow.  In this case, there’s only the one comment. Why? Is the tone and content of this comment such that Disillusioned Lecturer has said it all, is difficult to argue against, or something else?
  • Are commenters more or less likely to comment on an opinion piece of journalism or a factual piece of journalism? Why might this be the case?
  • Should opinion pieces have a place in “news” papers. Can someone’s opinion be classified as news?
  • How informed does an opinion have to be before it can be considered to have any weight?

A post about opinions, that ends up asking questions about opinions – what’s your opinion?

Should questions always be posed of opinions so that said opinions are made as robust and reliable as possible?  What role might the 2-way interactive nature of the Internet play in this endeavour?

Attention – there’s a tension!

Quote from todays Guardian – “There’s a tension between teaching a love of literature and skilling them up for life”.

Apparently, learning outcomes, mission statements, class room objectives, targets, measurements, assessment range / variety / breadth, etc are all more important than the content of all the learning. The joy of a good story has been replaced by analysing the grammar structures in it.

Have we gone too far? Is learning now so structured and rigid that it’s all about ticking boxes and the joy of discovery and creativity and exploration is dying?

On the one hand, yes, there are now a lot of boxes to be ticked in order to ensure the appropriate quality control is taking place.  Making sure all the boxes are ticked is a full time job in itself. As for interpreting the boxes……. Asking  a representative sample of academics from across a number of colleges / universities what they understand by “students are capable of critical analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new and complex ideas”. While there might be broad agreement on the generalities, there are likely to be as many answers as numbers in the sample.

On the other hand, guess who’s celebrating his 70th birthday today. There’s a reason why Seamus Heaney is our most celebrated poets here in Ireland. His works are represented on the school curriculum for a reason. Here’s an interesting interpretation .  All commenters have an opinion. Yes, some are more supported and insightful than others but there’s no denying the range of viewpoints and opinions on the meaning of the poem.

Poetry is a form of written expression that’s particularly interesting.  The meaning of the words is intricately bound up how they are presented. Meter and rhyme are as critical as the words and both are mutually interactive.

There is a happy medium. Discovering and exploring the works of the great poets, dramatists and novelists requires an honest connection with both the words and their structure. Isn’t that balance what English teachers should be aiming for.? Isn’t it?

What, apart from the fish, swims in the oceans?

In a movement away from the usual here (and the day that’s in it!) I’m going green, marine green.

The http://www.oceanconservancy.org website is well worth a visit. Our ocean life on this planet is teaming with life in all its beauty. But unless we look after it that beauty is not going to survive.

But all is not lost. On a single day in September each year since 1989 (1986 in the US) the world witnesses the largest volunteer effort of its kind.  The “international Coastal Cleanup” from September 2008 witnessed almost 400,000 volunteers at 6,485 sites in 104 countries and 42 U.S. states picked up litter and rubbish along the world’s oceans and waterways.  This included 10,606 divers and onboard watercraft by 1,236 boaters.

The stats for Ireland are sobering.  I don’t know how many volunteers there were or how extensively our waterways were cleared.  Nonetheless, given that this particular day did not garner a huge amount of publicity the figures are indicator that we have a problem.

· 8891 items of shoreline litter (e.g. cans, bottles, plastic bags, etc)

· 819 water recreation items (fishing lines, nets, buoys, floats, etc)

· 415 smoking related litter (e.g. cigarette lighters, filters, tips, wrapping, etc)

· 171 deliberately dumped larger items (e.g. fridges, washing machines, cars, car parts, etc)

· 46 medical / personal items (e.g. syringes, medicine bottles, etc)

The problem is a one day a year effort is not enough.  Litter bugs are a problem all year around. Litter to be disposed of improperly is a continuous problem. Repak tells us that this Easter weekend we will produce 42,000 tonnes of waste over and above the normal weekend waste. Marketers emphasise the marketing value of packaging but is it really just a litter problem?

Being tougher on the litter louts and stopping the problem at source would help a lot. Litter fines exist but are they enforced?  The “Green” party seems to have bigger problems to occupy themselves!

On the subject of politics there are parallels with the recessions-buster activities our Government want to implement. The honest hard-working citizen spends time and effort picks up the debris caused by the perpetrators of the crime!.

To MBA or not to MBA?

When things go bad there is a tendency to dig the finger of blame out of the pocket and point it at someone(s) or something(s).  In terms of the current recession, the latest finger pointing is towards graduate business schools.  See here and here. The premise is that the schools that educated our bankers and financiers didn’t do enough to teach them about ethics and didn’t focus enough on the required skills of proper business.

Do they have a point? Is that pinnacle of business qualification, the MBA, somehow responsible for the current global economic crisis? 

Having spent some time recently analysing MBA courses on offer in Dublin colleges / universities, I felt the urge to blog about the world of the MBA.

Apparently, the prefered destination of MBA graduates is banking and finance. However, it seems to me that this cannot imply a direct cause-and-effect with bad business decision-making.  Can the motivations and actions of corrupt bankers and financiers really be traced to their MBA studies. The term ‘long shot’ comes to mind.  While such programs of study encourage reflection and expose students to aspects of themselves and their work activities, there are far more contributing factors to why a corrupt banker is a corrupt banker.  It’s not as if an MBA program has a subject called ‘how to be a corrupt businessperson’.

On the other hand, there is interesting content in the reports. There is comment that MBA courses are short on ethics.  I find myself agreeing with this one. Personally, I reckon ethics should be a core feature on every business course.  But it’s often marginalised as a light subject on the outside of the core business subjects. Instead of having a named Business Ethics subject, I reckon that integrating ethical thinking and activities into each and every domain subject is a better approach. This way, students can study much more directly, the ethical implications of different courses of action and possible solutions.

Lack of ethics manifest in other ways too.  The BBC report tells us that “A 2006 study of cheating among US graduates, published in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education, found that 56% of all MBA students cheated regularly – more than in any other discipline”.  Now, this is a serious cause for concern. There is plenty anecdotal evidence to suggest that academic infringement cases among students are on the rise. Tackling it is a problem facing many educational institutions.  An emphasis on ethics imbued through out a program would help but I doubt if it would eliminate the problem. There are (in my humble opinion) just too many people for whom ethics is just a word in the dictionary that doesn’t apply to them.

There was criticism that the graduate business courses are not equipping students with appropriate skills for the workplace. My (admittedly not in-depth) look at MBA courses begs to differ. I found the courses I looked at to be very practical in focus. The influence of ivory-tower academia was not in evidence. I was struck by the number of courses that don’t refer to the masters capstone project as a dissertation, a term very suggestive of academia. TCD’s MBA, for example, has a Company Project as its capstone. It certainly looks like an in-depth project grounded in reality.

So, on balance, can graduate business schools be blamed for this recession? I, for one, do not agree.