Monthly Archives: July 2009

A little glow in the doom

In these days of doom and gloom, rising unemployment, pay and recruitment freezes, nama debates, terrorism in tourist destinations, delayed economic recovery, etc, nice heart-warming incidents and situations are happening.

Here’s one from Herald AM this morning.

Casper the cat, resident of Plymouth Devon, has become a firm favourite with  local bus drivers. The little feline imp has taken to hitching a ride on the number 3 bus service . He has his regular hop-on and hop-off stops which the bus drivers have got to know. Locals seem to be accepting of their feline traveling companion and are happy to accommodate him. He apparently enjoys curling up on a seat for his journey.

It’s simply nice to know that the doom and gloom hasn’t made us so morose that we are immune to the endearing foibles of our four-legged friends.  Long may it last, the endearment that is, not the recession.

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Useless research not so useless?

Questions are increasingly asked about what exactly some research is for. Why do universities and various other institutions allocate so much time and effort (not to mention money) on research that doesn’t seem useful or worthwhile?

Much of the problem seems to arise from the fact that many research units are highly specialised and speak a metaphorically different language from each other. As such mutual understanding can be limited.  For example, those in the law domain have very different usage of English than do creative writers. Those in the sciences have several sets of terminology that only they can understand.

Arguably, however, the language differences are just a screen. Researchers from different units do not always appreciate the domain essence of what their colleagues in other departments value. A typical law professor may not see the beauty in a Jane Austin turn of phrase. A climate control researcher may not appreciate the finer points of buzz marketing. As the risk of generalising, a hard-core environmentalist might have considerable difficulty appreciating the nuances of a marketing campaign for a seemingly trivial item like a cuddly toy.

The interpretation of trivial is in the eye of the beholder. A piece of seemingly useless research that I read about today concerns hair length in Florida theme parks. At first glance one wonders why the researchers decided that it was important to know the hair length of 24,300 adults attending a theme park. The expression “who cares” comes to mind. What difference can it make if your hair is cropped short or several feet long or somewhere in-between.

It’s not up there with research into cancer research but I’m informed it’s important. There are implications for the very lucrative fashion world. Milliners, in particular, keep a beady eye on hair lengths. The extent of tresses is a top priority for cosmetics manufacturers too. For most of us a bottle of shampoo is merely a bottle of shampoo. But ask shampoo manufacturers and the commentary is very different indeed.

The essence is that research into hair length is seemngly irrelevant to me but is of grave importance to others.

So called “useless” research that requires the investment of resources may not be all the useless when considered through a different set of eyes. The problem is that it can be difficult to view a particular research domain from the perspectives of others whose domain of expertise is far removed from one’s own.

Hair and lots of it....

... or none at all

... or none at all

A call for open-mindedness is required.

Summer Holidays

Hands up and be counted all of you who think that lecturers (like myself) who work in colleges / universities have extended long holidays over the summer. Go on, hands up!

I thought I had plenty to do until I compared myself to some others. Taliessinthroughlogres will / is having a busy summer. Thankfully, mine won’t be as busy as this and I’m actually planning on 2 weeks holidays. Here’s how mine compares –

  • Development of new courses and subjects (no, not this year for me)
  • Research (yes, the only time of the year I get an extended period to focus on research)
  • Recruitment which can be meeting and interviewing potential students and production of promotional materials (no to the second, as for the first…)
  • Liaising with Industry and government bodies (not over the summer)
  • Writing research papers (depending on research progress)
  • Dealing with student appeals and cases of unfair practice (yes)
  • Supervising postgraduate students (yes)
  • Applying for research funding (no)
  • Helping organise conferences (no)
  • Reviewing journal papers and drafts of student dissertations (yes to the second, no to the first)
  • Helping students revise for repeat exams (yes)
  • Teaching in partner institutes (no)
  • Development of teaching and assessment materials for next year (yes)

Life doesn’t stop just because classes stop and (some) students take an academic break.

Do you still wish you worked in my area?

Alas, no rest for the wicked over the summer for some.  But what about our charges…..

Wht will the kids do over the summer?
Pic from olesverden blog

Talking to a machine

Having had enough of the tedious process of typing notes for my research work, I finally gave in and purchased some voice recognition software.  Perhaps talking to the computer would be a less tedious process?  It’s a long way from Star Trek (computer do this, computer do that!) but it’s a start.

In a way it’s almost like talking to a person who is learning English and so is not so familiar with some words and sounds. The software has to learn new things as it comes across them.

The really quirky part involves the words and sounds it throws little wobblers on.  Some examples:

  • It has significant difficulty with words that have a “Tuh” sound and they end up being abbreviated to something else altogether. The word “tools” is non-existent in its vocab. It took some extended training to teach the tool the word “tool”. The word “through” poses similar problems.  You could end up with a phrase of “The tu tu the system caused tu many tu to be tu”. What does that mean? Answers on a postcard please.
  • It has a peculiar liking for the word “dissipating”. Every 3 or 4 syllable word ending on “ing” that it doesn’t understand ends up dissipating.
  • It has a number of placenames, person names, odd slang, etc that it likes to show off on occasion.  I’m not quite sure what it understood when it returned “British Tom porno” to something I said.

Correcting the mistakes is where the real fun starts.

Really, it is fun – honestly – particularly when I ask it to select the misspelled / misunderstood word and it stubbornly keeps blinking at me and doesn’t move to a pixel towards selecting said word. That’s when I have to administer the tough love. Would…. you…. pu lea ase … select … the … bleeping … word. Then, in all its intelligence, it assumes that I want it to type those words and has great fun wondering what “bleeping” is.

Once the mistake has been corrected, I often forget to tell the software to move back down to the bottom of the document to continue dictation. As a result I have sentences smack-bang in the middle of other sentences. One could weave a really interesting story there. How about: “significant shifts have occurred in flux and often distributed across geographic conceptualisation of classrooms”. Is that profound or just a lot of nonsense?

Nonetheless, I’m getting there in building a relationship with my voice software. It’s getting to know me and my “tu” pronunciations and I’m getting to know it and its dissipations. It’s the start of a wonderful friendship.

My Dragon and I

Gender evolution

My cousin’s little fellow (arguably the most gorgeous little imp around) tells me that he’s off to do a cookery course as part of school summer holiday activities. He’s as excited about this as if he were off to play football with the greats of the game. It’s something fun and interesting to do with his holidays. More importantly, the idea of cooking being a ‘woman’s work in the kitchen’ is totally irrelevant.

How things have changed!

I almost want to cry when I think back to my own primary school days. I was lucky enough to attend a small rural school and for the most part it was a positive experience. It had 3 teachers when I started and somewhere along the way that 3 became 2. There was one classroom for the infants and lower classes (ages 4 to 7 or thereabouts) and one classroom for the older children.

Here’s what typically happened on a Friday afternoon: the younger classroom become the home economics room (i.e. sewing, knitting, cookery etc) for the girls and the older classroom became quiz / games room for the boys. Guess where yours truly got sent …. to involuntary prick herself with sewing needles, involuntary ruin perfectly fine yarn and involuntary burn any cooking utensil  that lent itself to buring?  The part that really hurt was hearing the cheers and whoops and hollers of the boys in the next room as they got to enjoy learning through (what at the time were unorthodox) methods of sheer fun. It hurt!

Another example – the school had a small library and pupils were allowed borrow books from it. Being wonderfully democratic the pupils were allowed to run the library, the male pupils that is!  Oh how I remember gritting my teeth with envy as the boys in the 6th class (11 or 12 year olds) took turns to run the library. I remember how important it all seemed, sitting behind their disks, checking and stamping library cards and books.

A non-academic example involved a mouse!  It was a rural school and so the odd rural 4-legged creature ventured indoors every now and again. I vividly remember one such occasion. The little mouse had dared to enter the older classroom and was duly spotted. The reaction – all the girls were sent off to the juniors classroom to be safely out of the way of the fun while the boys had a whale of time chasing the mouse around the room. I still remember the whoops and hollers from the boys. I’m still convinced they eked out the chase just to annoy us girls before the invader was safely dispatched to a nearby field.

Back to the 21st century and things have certainly changed. Now all pupils, male and female, partake in home economics. The library (as far as I know) is run on a computer and book-checking is electronic and self-service. 4-legged pests are kept at bay with electronic beeping devices.

It’s wonderfully egalitarian and civilised. I hope all the pupils, male and female, have plenty of opportunities to whoop and holler with excitement now and again.

End of year review – was it a waste of time?

In the ideal college environment, all the students pass with flying colours, learning and achieving copious amounts of knowledge and skills as well as the ability to apply and use these skills.  Lecturers proceed with ease through the year and end it with a sense of much satisfaction concerning the achievements of their charge.

But the world is not ideal.

There is plenty of research to indicate that teaching and learning needs to change. The annual Horizon report reminds us that learners want to be active in their own learning and offer a range of tools to assist in this. Put more bluntly, is college a waste of time?  The arguments put forward by Mixerergy are as follows, with my commentary in italics:

  • It creates corporate drones

Students lose their independence and become pawns of whatever company pays them enough to help make payments on their debt.  In the light of increased debate about university fees in Ireland, this is a controversial one. Nonetheless, sweeping statement like don’t help anyone, least of all the graduates who want to and are able to contribute in a constructive and effective way to their new employers.

  • What it teaches is out of date by the time students graduate

This is very much dependent on the subject domain. Some domains (e.g. accountancy, perhaps?) change very little year on year. Others (internet marketing, perhaps?) change a lot. Taking another perspective, isn’t it important that students obtain an appropriate grounding so that they can then go with the flow and thereby are capable of adapting to change as change happens in their domain. In my opinion, this is arguably more important than knowing every little (or even large) fact in that domain.

  • It doesn’t teach the way people learn

People learn by doing, not by sitting in a class and being lectured to.  This implies that college is all passive learning and students have no opportunity to practice what they learn. I’m not a fan of the large group lecture (I’ve blogged about this previously) but fortunately I also have opportunities to facilitate and scaffold student construction and development of their own ideas through project work and small-group tutorial classes.

  • Four years of information is too much to retain

Students end up cramming as much information about a class as they need for to do well on a test and they forget almost all of it after they finish a semester. Unfortunately, the grades-based education system as it is now encourages such learn-it-all off-and-write-it-all-down-in-the-exam modes of study. Nonetheless, such study techniques won’t get a student high grades. Yet, it continues to happen. We need to ask why students persist in such study modes when they know they are satisfying only one goal (getting that passing grade) but not another (true learning). Perhaps, the students’ preferred goal is not the lectuers’ preferred goal?

  • The truth is that college is one big party

The under-graduate college years are pivotal for a student. It’s their transition from parent dependency to personal independency. Personal development, growth of self awareness, experimentation with social structures and events that might have been out of bounds previously are critical here. We need to encourage students to strike a balance between the study part and the social part of their college life.  An excess of partying means a student is unlikely to get beyond first year. A college year spent in the library results in an unfortunately one-dimensional students.


So, what’s the answer

Mixenergy suggests letting students work on real projects, and give them experienced mentors that they can turn to for answers and advice.

In reality, what organisation might let amateurs with little experience and even fewer skills loose on any project of theirs?  Employers may be willing to take a chance on this on a small scale but that’s likely to be it. Any more and they risk spending far too long and too much training up the students in the skills and know-how required for the job.

How many mentors might there be per student? Ideally this should be small. But such a structure has resource and cost implications. One of the reasons large size classes are still with us is simply because because they are cost-effective.

Mixenergy raises some interesting issues. Students are different now then in a pre-net generation. They grow up in a technological world that provides different mental models, ways of processing information, shorter attention spans (for more traditional media types) and personal interests that are far removed from those of their pre-decessors. As a result, engaging students with traditional ways of teaching and learning is limited.

The problem is that such ways and methods are so embedded in our institutions that they are very difficult to break out of. We have a wealth of technologies with potential to reach and engage students (see the Horizon report again). Unfortunately, lecturers with an interest in deploying these tools are faced with many obstacles such as the over-emphasis on grades and traditional exams, not to mention institutional policies and procedures that dominate most educational institutions today that (sometimes, inadvertently) work against novel and innovative ways of active student engagement.


Yet, we persevere!  Giving up is simply not an option.