Blog Archives

Some tech turkeys for Christmas

A (dis)advantage of being constantly busy is that I don’t get as much time as I might like to play with new tech toys. However, this might not be such a bad thing.  Apparently, there were some turkeys released this year.

Linuxinsider has come up with its list of forgettable tech products for the year that is 2009. Some are items that are on my to-be-checked-out list. Perhaps they might now find themselves removed from that list. On the other hand, one negative review hardly makes for a poor product.  The great thing about the internet is that comparison shopping is merely a click away. It’s easy to access multiple reviews and compare for yourself.

First up in the Linux review is Windows 7. The 7 is a turkey due its release date being 3 years later it was supposed to have been and requiring customers to but Vista in the meanwhile.  To add to the injury, 7 is seemingly no better than Vista. Perhaps I’ll stick to XP after all.

Next up is the iphone. Is having a smartphone a good thing?  I work long enough hours as it is. Do I really want to be able to access emails and do mobile work on the little free time I have?  I’ve been putting the smartphone on the long finger. This is just as well given that “people look like jerks using them [the iphone”. The iphone also has the vendor lock-in problem. Marketers love this concept, consumers aren’t so keen.

Number three is a continuation of number 2. Apple are quite good at coming up with useful gadgets like iphones and ipods and ithis and ithat. But these products are so heavily patented that developers are frustrated with the lock-down aspect. Remember this is coming from a site called linuxinsider.

Number 4 is a follow on from number three. Google Chrome OS netbooks comes in for some criticism for not being open enough. It’s not even publicly available yet but the jury has spoken.

For me, Nvidia have a really nice funky edge. Have a look at the cool products.  But, alas, one mistake puts them on the turkey list for a respected blogger with an off-putting name.  This blogger seems to have issues with toolbars too.

Ubuntu comes under fire for its overzealous stand on releases. One buggy release replaces another buggy release in very short spaces of time.  Who’s perfect?  At least they’re trying.

Anyone thinking of purchasing an e-reader should hold off. The Sony / Kindle / Other argument needs to be solved by replacing all of them with a DRM-free device that allows much more freedom. Apparently, e-books won’t take off until the format problem is no longer a problem i.e. all readers will read all formats.

EA Games come under fire for self-sabotage. According to Linuxinsider they buy in perfectly good game developers only to destroy them , the same applies to their products, apparently.

So, there you have it. I’m off to re-write my Christmas shopping list now…


Good and bad policies

Every week seems to produce new ideas and thoughts regarding higher education. There’s nothing wrong idea generation and the consequent discussion and analysis per se. After all, the best ideas can come from non-judgemental brain-storming.

But, oh but, there are some strange ones. Here’s a sample from this past week –

  • Uk  “University courses are to be tagged with their drop-out rates, graduates’ future earnings and the number of contact hours students can expect with tutors” becasue this is an “indication of quality” of the courses. Are these really quality indicators of the quality of a course? We all know that drop-out rates have a myriad of reasons which often have little to do with the course itself. Future earnings – so Higher Dips in Education are to be a low quality course? Contact hours – what’s the reasoning here – is more better or worse, from what starting point and in what way might more or less contact time help or hinder.  At what point does more spill over into too much such that students are prevented from acquiring independent-learner skills?  What in all this is the joy of learning a subject matter that appeals to something intrinsic in the student?  Where is the in-depth engagement with a subject matter that allows for enhanced enjoyment and fulfillment?
  • DNA swab for your job”. To take up a job at the University of Akron in the USA the board of trustees require you to submit to not only a criminal background check but you also are required to hand over a sample of your DNA. In my book, that’s just ridiculously invasive. Where is the right to privacy of one’s own person. One lecturer has resigned in protest. An interesting comment asks whether the board of trustees will be submitting their DNA samples.
  • “State needs Catholic University”. The President of Mary “I” College of Education in Limerick is calling for a specifically catholic university in the country. I have never met and I know little about the president of this college so I’ll not say much apart from wondering what exactlya strong religious ethos can do for an educational institution.

Frtunately all is not quite so negative.  There are efforts to highlight the dangers of negative practices –

  • IFUT are highlighting the dangers of market-based funding. Their seminar during the week seems to have many international guests saying lots of meaningful, interesting and important things on the theme. A quote from Mike Jennings (IFUT General Secretary): “Irish universities must not become the pawns of market forces and private speculators, who view education as just another source of profit and their students like customers in a supermarket”.  Last word goes to Jens Vraa-Jensen of Education International (EI): “The basic raison d’être for any private enterprise is to create profit for its owners. The purpose of a university is not profit but to spend money in the most appropriate way on teaching students and conducting research to develop the intellectual capacity of future generations and provide the society with new knowledge for future development and welfare”.   Well said!

And on that note, I’m off to spend the afternoon / evening working on my PhD.

Rising grades back in the news again

UK politicians wonder how / why the number of 1:1 degrees awarded in the UK has almost doubled in a decade. Read about it here and here. Yesterday’s Observer also carried the story, garnering 250+ comments.  There seems to be suggestion that different institutions require different levels of effort from students to achieve their degree classification. The conclusion seems to be that the watchdog overseeing standards isn’t doing its job right.

I wonder how they could possibly consider that standards are and / or should be the same across the entire gamut of universities. It’s absurd to think that that there can be equality. It would be like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. Yes, they are both fruit but so vastly different.

The only way equality and direct comparisons across institutions could be made is if marking were centralised ala the leaving certificate in this country, and all students sit the same unseen papers.  That’s not going to happen. The administration nightmare for a start puts a limit on it. Even if that obstacle was overcome, such an approach would merely strait-jacket third-level education, preventing any flexibility and innovation, let alone eating into much-valued (from everyone’s point of view) academic freedom. Third level would become a continuation of the second-level spoon feeding exercise, and that’s not even useful at second-level.

The politicians argue that employers have a right to know whether they should employ person A with a degree from university A or person B with the “same” degree from university B.  I don’t think it is as straight-forward as that.  An employee brings a lot more than their degree parchment to a job. Indeed, that degree parchment is just one indicator of their abilities for the particulars of a given job. I have heard of employers not taking 1:1 students believing that they tend to be one-dimensional and not as rounded personalities as those with lower honours. Consider as another example the most successful graduate of my undergraduate degree. This person is now one of the country’s foremost business people but didn’t come top of the class or achieve a first class honours qualification.  Yet, he achieved the grounding required to proceed to his very impressive achievements.

In Ireland we have a much smaller number of universities and colleges than in the UK. As such it should be easier to ascertain what is a “good” college and what is not. The definition of “good”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It differs for everyone.  If a potential student is interested in studying a precise area of engineering then their definition of good is limited down to the few institutions offering this course. If they have a strong location preference then it is likely that their choice is very much reduced, particularly if they live outside of Dublin.  Students need to work out what is important to them, rank and weight those criteria, attending as many open days for different institutions as they can. In this way, they can choose the institution that best fits their definition of “good”.

A problem is that far too many students don’t do this. Their decisions can be made on flimsy criteria such as: “my boy/girlfriend is going to _______ so I’m going there too”, or “my daddy wants me to study ______ at ________ so that’s what I’m doing”, or “that college give too many / few first class honours degrees”, and for older students “I don’t know how I will juggle in studying with the job and family life but I feel obliged to obtain a masters”.  A student’s goal on entering college is likely to effect the award classification they get on leaving. If entry goals are so varied and in some cases, shallow, what can we really expect?

This looks like a debate that will run and run.


Update: Jobless graduate sues her college

I couldnt even begin to comment.

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?

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?