Monthly Archives: May 2009

How we compare?

The IIA have released the latest State-of-the-net in Ireland report. Some things I found interesting –

A list of what-do-people do on the internet reveals that searching for travel information is still the number one activity. Most standard activities are on the rise, with notable increases in social networking, Government services information and current affairs. The only decrease is in “school / college research”.  Is this a good thing – are students finally getting the message that there are many internet sources that are simply not “formal academic peer-reviewed sources”? Alternatively, is the power and quality resources of the internet increasingly not being availed of?

Regarding internet purchases there is a similar note of curiosity. When all purchases are aggregated we are above the EU average. 36% of Irish people have made internet purchases, compared with 32% of Europeans.  However, in the specific category of “books, magazines and e-learning 12% of Europeans have purchased, compared to only 7% of Irish. Is this a cultural or language difference, or does it say something about our literary tastes and / or activities in Ireland?  Our travel / holiday purchases push account for a significant proportion of our online purchasing.

We’re still lagging behind the EU average for broadband connectivity but the gap has noticeably narrowed.

What’s the bottom line – much done, much left to do?


Quality control, here and there

The latest UK QAA report on “concerns about academic quality and standards in higher education in England” has asked and attempted to answer the following question types (apologies if my paraphrasing has distorted anything) –

  • Are there enough student-staff contact hours to enable students to reach graduate standards of achievement?
  • Do low rates of contact with staff represents poor ‘value for money’ in a fee-paying environment?
  • Is there an admissions problem of students with insufficient English language skills, the result of which is all students (not just the linguistically challenged) have an impoverished learning experience?
  • Are there sufficient ongoing availability and/or effective support mechanisms in place to deal with deficient language skills?
  • Are international students and their advisers sufficiently knowledgeable about higher education teaching, learning and assessment practices in the UK? Do they know what to expect when they arrive here?
  • Are the intentions, operations and role of external examiners clear?
  • Are the inputs, reports, and recommendations of external examiners appreciated by the institutions they are externing? If not, why not? What does this imply about the concept of external examiners?
  • To what extent is there variation in the way that institutional assessment regulations are applied by individual schools or departments (with potential impacts on parity and fairness)?
  • Is the degree classification system applied consistently across different departments, schools and institutions?
  • What do the terms “academic quality” and “academic standards” actually mean?
  • Do those inside educational institutions and those outside of them (e.g. the media) have the same understanding of subject benchmark statements and other reference tools used by institutions in setting and maintaining academic standards and academic quality

To what extent should the same questions be asked here in Ireland?

What might the answers look like?

Playing with the latest web tool

Wolfram Alpha tell us that their “long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone“.  That is quite a claim and is guaranteed to bring experimenters flocking.

I’ve had a look and I must admit that it is particularly good at some knowledge types.

  • A query about the weather in Dublin tells me that it’s 12 degrees, cloudy along with a depth of related information
  • A query to see how much the Euro is worth in other currencies tells me that I should get $1.37 US dollars, 88.06 British pence, and many other currencies besides. It also wonders if its interpretation of Euro is the one I intended. Apparently, a euro is also a marsupial animal
  • A search for Jean Luc Picard, alas, did not return the captain of the Starship Enterprise
  • A search for Rathmines returns one in Australia and not the Dublin suburb
  • A search for the price of fish returns something very strange indeed

At the moment, WA isn’t quite the sophisticated semantic web we’ve been waiting for. But it certainly is a start. It certainly has potential.

It’s biggest plus is the avoidance of individual web pages. It gets straight to the point very quickly avoiding searchs for individual web pages that the user then has to further click on to proceed their search. WA aggregates and computes what the user requires and simply presents it.  It takes the user a step closer to their information requirements.

As of now, Wolfram Alpha contains many trillions of elements and growing (from their faq page).  It doesnt trawl the web as traditional search engines do. Instead the data comes from its own knowledge base which, in turn, comes from official public or private websites but mostly from “more systematic primary sources”. We are not told what those might be.

Nonetheless, the possibilities are there for a true semantic mash-up web. The users gets direct answers to their queries and requirements, compiled on-the-fly from many useful and reliable sources. And isnt that what the web should be about anyhow?

Digital Natives

Rather says it all… 

Possibilities –

  • Daily project, each student has to blog “here’s what I learned today”.
  • Allows teachers to see what’s grabbing the little ones’ attention
  • Forces Mum and Dad to become more tech-aware and tech-using
  • Allows for a sneak preview of the dinner table conversation
  • Gets kids writing
  • Provides an archive that can be used to track evolution of thought over time
  • Constructive comments can be used as a form of feedback

What a really good idea.

A little PBL exercise

Problem-based learning is so popular and trendy it has its own acronym PBL. And why not? Anything that gets students wondering how something might have happened and how to solve it can only be a good idea.

Those folks at Samsung have embedded PBL into an interesting publicity feature for their new video/camera phone. Have a look through the first 40 seconds and then hit pause. Ask yourself how they did it.

Marking scheme as follows –

  • You didn’t stop and think and instead let the vid run to reveal the answer = 0 marks
  • You came up with a reasonable explanation but it wasn’t the correct one = 5 marks
  • You puzzled and puzzled for ages coming up with possibilities that you knew were more or less  infeasible = 3 marks
  • You puzzled for a little while then asked the person sitting beside you for the answer help = 3 marks (but only if you got the right answer, otherwise 0)
  • You pressed stop instead of pause on the vid and surfed elsewhere instead = -5 marks
  • You puzzled out the correct explanation = 10 marks

PS – if you don’t know what a cloaked Klingon Bird-Of-Prey is… you’re not nearly nerdy enough. I recommend going to see the new Star Trek movie. Ok, the Klingons don’t feature prominently in it but it’s definitely worth seeing.

PPS – once again thanks to Darragh Doyle for the vid link

The value in blogs

Earlier this week I attended some student presentations.  As one particular group was speaking I found myself idly wondering about the source of their knowledge. Something just didn’t fit and I wasn’t entirely sure what the either the something or the fit was. The content seemed too casual. I flicked to the reference list – aha!

I noticed a in the reference list.  I already had impressed several times on this particular class the need for formal academic references and that amateur-written non-peer-reviewed blogs are so far to the bottom of possible sources they are off the accepted list. They are at the other end of the spectrum from formal peer-reviewed academic journals.

What’s the problem? I blog and I enjoy reading other blogs. The fact that blogs don’t have the delay factor associated with peer-review (or any other review) means their publishing time is very short indeed. Comments can be posted in as much time as it takes the commenter to type them. The author can reply to comments in whatever tone and with whatever content they like. They can even change their original blog posting on the fly. In essence, immediacy and ease of editing are strong plus points.

The big questions –

  1. To what extent does the immediacy and ease of editing make blogs superior to peer-reviewed formally published journals?
  2. Should blogs be subject to a review process?

Question 1 – Content in even lower ranked academic journal articles have a considerable amount of thought and research on show. They are the product of extensive research which simply cannot be done in a hurry. Opinions and conclusions therein have to be justified with concrete proof and argumentation. A given blog posting will not have this level of research on show.  Surely, the mere fact that a typical blog posting takes the author minutes to write is not a reason to prefer its content to the more formal and time-extended efforts by authors of journal article – at least not for academic writing and research pruposes.

Question 2 – In “Time to rise above the blog standard” in the Sunday Business Post of 3rd May suggests there is a need for a “professional membership body with a code of conduct”, that “could come under the remit of a watchdog for blogs that would have a role similar to an ombudsman”. This is based on the author’s suggestion that “the majority of bloggers couldn’t have cared less whether the details they’d printed were accurate or not”.  The reader isn’t told who these particular bloggers are. Blogs are predominantly opinions. Opinions are neither right nor wrong in any absolute way, they are merely more or less informed. It is up to the reader to decide for themselves the value of such opinions. If self-respecting readers spot factual errors in a blog, newspaper, book, etc, they are unlikely to return to that source. An ombudsman is not needed.

Long live the blogosphere with its freedom of expression and opnion!

Should students be worried about….

… this

Dumber than dumb

Dumber than dumb

On the plus side, the blurb (courtesy of Amazon) says the following –
“Don’t let the title fool you; this is an essential guide and resource for any aspiring teacher. Sue Cowley uses her experience and insight to provide a comprehensive and informative resource, packed with excellent advice and brilliant suggestions for making both teaching and learning effective. A must for any teacher’s bookshelf!” Peter Hadfield, Principal lecturer in Education, University of Bedfordshire
Peter is probably correct. This book is likely filled with practical and useful pointers.
However, one wonders if any self-respecting teacher would be caught dead with a copy?

What it says in the Comments…. about twitter

My curiosity is piqued when I see a list of comments that takes up 8 times the length of the blog post they relate to. For one blog post, there were 80 comments. This mean that for one opinion, there were 80 other corresponding opinions. The power of the blog is alive and well in all its glory as a 2-way stream of opinions.

To be more specific, the power of Twitter is alive and well, at least with some.

The blog posting referred to Twitter’s low audience retention rate. Statistics given demonstrate that, even with a boost from the highly influential Oprah Winfrey, 6 out of 10 twits “do not return the following month”. This puts Twitter well below Face book and MySpace in this regard.

But the real power, and the most interesting reactions came from the comments and their authors. I’m honestly not sure what I’m more impressed with –  the ability of a blog post to generate 8 times its own volume in comments thereby saying something very interesting about the blog as a medium of communication, or the contents of those comments.

Starting with the contents, here’s what I learned (with apologies if I have mis-interpeted anything) –

  • Twitter is all about narcissism
  • Once certain celebs emphasise it, its coolness quotient drops dramatically among other people
  • Twitter users get out what twitter users put in
  • Those who use it seems happy with it and will likely remain so until something better comes along
  • Becoming a twit requires times and investment
  • Random babble, or questionable facts and opinions or discovery of new people and facts and views, or/and keeping up to date
  • Trivialises the meaning of ‘friends’.
  • Emphasises society’s pressure for more – more friends, more followers, more brownie points, etc
  • Twitter is useful for following those you don’t know, as opposed to Facebook’s “friends” concept
  • Facebook is a richer app than Twitter for talking to customers
  • Twitter might just do one thing, but it does it very very well
  • Twitter is about only one thing “Status Updates”, a feature that is merely one of many in MySpace and Facebook. Has twitter taken a step back in this regard?
  • Updates on Facebook may or may not be read by friends, Twitter is much better at reaching out
  • Twitter is the opposite of Facebook in that it is high frequency but short bursts of engagement
  • Comparing Twitter and Myspace is like comparing apples and oranges
  • Re-tweets on Twitter get the ball rolling in a way limited by Facebook – the viral effect
  • Twit searches are real-time, not indexed like in Google
  • A form of social currency
  • Being “followed” is oddly amusing but meaningless
  • There is no manual for Twitter because it is different for everyone
  • Blogging  is a way of sharing short and well formed thoughts, Twitter is a way of sharing tiny ill-formed thoughts
  • Interface that’s easy to use, but the value behind it is more challenging to figure out
  • Posting for posting sake
  • and finally, and arguably the one that brings it all together…. Twitter is merely a shift in how we gather and share what we know, think and wonder about

Nielsen were so impressed with the reaction they were quick to satisfy many commenter’s curiosity, and pointed out that they included both traffic directly on twitters website and 30 sites that feed to twitter.

Look how much I’ve learned about twits and their opinions (good, bad, and indifferent) about twitter from one short blog post. If that doesn’t demonstrate the power of the blog I don’t know what would.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m off to a rugby match that I will be watching and enjoying i.e. not distracting myself from it by tweeting about it

4 beautiful aww minutes of learning

Thanks to Darragh for this.

Sometimes the younger ‘uns just need a helping hand in problem-solving.