Amazon Echo in Teaching

Friday, May 5, 2017 at 11:06:56

How can we use XXX in teaching? Replace XXX with your favourite peace of technology - you see it all the time and it’s a good excuse to buy a shiny bit of kit and play with it in class. So no surprise to see the use of the Amazon Echo crop up at some point. In this case it’s Donald Clark who has supplied the goods (although more related to business). And there are some good things on the list. My picks are:

1. Use it as a countdown timer: great for tests, group work, discussion, staged practicals etc.

2. To Do Lists: I can see this being used by the instructor and students to keep multiple lists of things theyve found hard, topics to cover again, answers to post etc etc. Have multiple lists, that could include voting-up (likes) for topics etc

3. Calculator: easier and quicker than a phone

4. Queries/Questions: ask populations, capitals, parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, names of sensors, expiration dates satellites. The list is endless, useful and fast.

5. Training: text-to-speech, audio briefings. The power of voice is tremendous and this can be a great way to bring further personalisation to learning.

There are some great thoughts in there, although don’t underestimate the complexities of running in a room of people.

The Success of Failure

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 at 14:23:14

I’ve blogged before about the success of failure and how critical it is to improving in whatever domain you are working in. In my review of Matthew Syed’s Bounce I noted the central importance of purposeful practice. That is, practicing at the “edge” which inevitably leads to failure. Without failure you don’t know where (and how) to improve. Failure is vital to success.

Donald Clark provides a nice succinct list to the 5 levels of failure. Read it - it’s good. So, in abbreviated form:

1. Failure is normal in life, it happens, recognise it for what it is.

2. Break it down (or the science of marginal gains). Break your task down in to small steps or elements, strip it back, analyse it and improve. For those in the teaching game, Lesson Study looks at these building blocks in the classroom.

3. Practice, then practice some more! Do it, fail, feedback, improve, stretch your abilities.

4. Catastrophic Failure: practice those tasks that lead to major failure… so that they are unlikely to happen when it’s the real deal!

5. Reboot: learn, try, fail, go back to the beginning of the level and try again. Its a gaming strategy and incredibly frustrating, additive and the way to accelerated learning!!

So, go ahead, fail and go do it again.

Anyone have any good (big or small) failure stories?

Lucy Powell: Labour’s Vision for Education

Friday, July 22, 2016 at 10:43:46

An interesting article in Governing Matters (a monthly for UK school governors) this month where they interviewed Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow education secretary (see her profile at theyworkforyou), to outline current party thinking (and her personal take). In general I would note the tone as progressive but as is typical of opposition parties, it is generally critical (although the rhetoric isn’t strongly this way), with no strong steer on how any measures would be funded - the latter is particularly telling as it relies on successful school leavers contributing more in taxes in the future. Which is just wishful thinking when you are setting budgets!

What caught my attention though was the following question:

What is your vision for the education system in England?

“Like most people’s, it’s one where every child can reach their full potential regardless of background or postcode. And not just their academic potential, they would also develop a rounded character. At the moment, this is all too often the preserve of those you can pay. We’ve got to make sure that today’s education system is equipping our young people for tomorrow’s economy and tomorrow’s society and challenges. There is a lot more we can do to bring together the worlds of work and education.”

This is all very disappointing stuff:

1. “reach their full potential” is almost by definition what education should be, but what does “full potential” actually mean. Be specific - if this is going to become policy, curricula and performance measures then what exactly is that?

2. Not biased by factors beyond a child’s control - I get that, although the previous Lib-Con government had explicitly funded this through the pupil premium.

3. We then return to “potential” - more specifically, “academic” and “a rounded character”. Academic is fair enough - we’ve had 150 years of this and we might argue about what should be in it, but we measure it every year. But what the heck is “rounded character”? Please please please define it for me, tell me how its “taught” and what the metric is for it?!

4. Slightly firmer ground - “equipping our young people”. I say firmer, in that this starts the process of understanding what education is for but - well - says no more about it. What do we need to be equipped to do, what do we need to learn and become proficient in in order to achieve that and how will that be undertaken?

5. It then finishes with “bringing together the worlds of work and education”. At what age, in what way, for what purpose? Is this a sop to apprenticeships or something deeper? Or is this a cynical ploy for a government to develop tax revenue in the future?

Overall I’m left thoroughly underwhelmed if this is the best a pre-scripted shadow education secretary can do. I blogged a while back about “What is education for?” and the topics raised are good starting points for any discussion about the future of education - and particularly the ideas of autonomy outlined by John White. This reminded me of a recent conversation with my 16 year old daughter who bemoaned the fact that she didn’t know how to make an egg mayonnaise sandwich or understand how credit cards work (and commented: “Why don’t they teach this at school?”). These are vital life skills for autonomy. Which brings us back to “reach their full potential regardless of background or postcode” - what is important for children to attain and so what do we want our schools to do? I may not agree with a vision as promoted by Labour or Conservative, but if we start from something explicit we at least have something to work from.

3 ‘Knowns’ in Learning Science

Friday, June 10, 2016 at 10:17:34

A great opinion post over at EdSurge on complete wins in learning science titled 3 ‘Knowns’ in Learning Science. I’ve come across or blogged about these before but just to reiterate:

1. Bloom’s Two Sigma Problem: Benjamin Bloom tested the improvement in student learning under three styles of teaching. Conventional lecture, “mastery” learning (incorporating staged learning, peer assistance and strong feedback loops) and one to one tuition. The last gave the best performance, but the second gave a 1 sigma increase in performance for limited resource input (Donald Clark covers this in part). Don’t take anyone elses word for it, read the paper!!

2. Spaced Repetition: otherwise known as deliberate practice. The brilliant Bounce by Matthew Syed covers this - I blogged about in detail. Repetitively practice, at the edge of your ability with feedback. You will become exceptional.

3. Nudge Analytics: interesting to see this listed here and I fully agree. This is about small changes in environment (“nudges”) that can lead to big changes in behaviour and performance. Expect this one to have increasingly profound effects.

There is something for everyone to take away here - education is a shared experience with teachers and learners. We need teaching that is passionate and focused upon learners need. But equally we need learners who want to learn otherwise these strategies will have limited impact.

RGS: Accreditation of university geography programmes

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 at 08:15:00

The RGS have announced accreditation of university geography programmes. This is all part of their strategy for professionalising geography and follows on from the Chartered Geographer status intended for individuals, to accreditation intended for programmes.

As they note… “Programmes are assessed in line with QAA subject benchmark statement for Geography, which defines what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the knowledge, understanding, skills and approaches they have gained.”

There is increasing accreditation across a range of programmes. This naturally began where there was an element of professional practice. Law, accounting, geology, surveying, pharmacy to name a few. As subjects and their representative bodies try to take stock of their relevance in an increasingly “busy” degree marketplace, accreditation can be seen as both a big draw and, dare I say it, a small money spinner! The Higher Education Academy, now weaned off soft government money in these austere times, has had to make itself both relevant and self-sustaining. It’s relevance comes from professional standards in teaching (the UK Professional Standards Framework) and so accreditation fees, both initial and ongoing, can account for income.

The application, unsurprisingly, requires programme specification, module outlines, programme guide, external examiner reports and programme reviews. All fairly normal stuff for programme operation. In addition there is a 2000-4000 words reflection on programme content/aims and (crucially) professional practice. Awareness of the QAA benchmark statement (which of course the RGS helped draft) is needed and a good rationale for how the program meets this. It would be nice though to get away from the “2000-4000 report” - surely in these times of teaching awareness (and the number of staff that are HEA Fellows) there must be another approach?? How about a 5-min VOD or PODcast? Mind map? Interactive slide deck? Wiki? Come on people, let’s get a little creative!

Once complete, this then goes forward to the accreditation panel comprised of other academics, an industry Chartered Geographer and “anyone else” deemed appropriate. It’ll be interesting to see what the take-up is like. I imagine there will be early-adopters, but the lack of student awareness and the fact that they don’t actually need an accredited programme for further employment might stunt this, at least initially. Which probably means academic advocates within the RGS pushing their own departments. It’s a similar story with the Chartered Geographer, although there is a growing groundswell with good interest from industry.

Geography’s place in the world

Sunday, April 3, 2016 at 16:05:34

A really interesting opinion piece over at The Times Higher Education Supplement on Geography’s place in the world. Four academics and four opinions on the what must be one of the most inter-disciplinary and diverse academic subjects: geography. Carl Lee/Danny Dorling (Oxford) take the traditional (?) view of geography being integrative and relevant to everything in society and that it is in a good state of health. Nick Clifford (King’s College) takes an opposing view of the dual split between physical and human geography opening up a gulf within the subject, this being increased as non-geographers are appointed to “subject specialist” positions within the domain. Jenny Pickerill (Sheffield) notes geography being the unifier and particularly within the context of the “environment”, addressing both physical and human geographical traits. Michael Goodchild (California) finishes with an about face and focus upon geographic information science. That is, a knowledge and understanding of how you spatially represent and model data. This is my subject specialism and it’s interesting he places this centre stage - the core of geography.

I think I am more included to take Nick Clifford’s view on this one - there is a duality in the subject and the appointment of non-geographers to departmental positions points to perhaps the subject’s biggest weakness. It isn’t subject specific - rather it is pan-academic. Much of what we study as geographers is covered (at least in part) in other subjects and in the US where there are very few geography departments you see these interests in a range of other departments. So perhaps Michael Goodchild’s observation about GI science gets to the nub of where we are at. Quantitative and qualitative approaches are both equally valid, but there needs to be a handling strategy to deal with them. And these other subject areas now realise that and are expanding into this niche. It’s not so much that geography is in decline, but rather the spatial knowledge is being subsumed back into the core disciplines, in much the same way they might use statistics. There is still a need for spatial research, but the focus will be on GI science and those graduates that understand that will be at a significant advantage.

Nature Futures

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 at 17:25:08

My colleague Kerry put me onto the rather excellent (and free!) Nature Futures which is a growing collection of science fiction short stories. These are sci-fi in the “real sense” as they are intended to be firmly founded on science but pushing and blurring the boundaries with what is real and what isn’t. As they say:

entirely fictional, self-contained story of around 850-950 words in length, and the genre should, broadly speaking, be ‘hard’ (that is, ‘scientific’) SF rather than, say, outright fantasy, slipstream or horror.


p>And they really are short and focused on a very specific idea. They are often physics based, but there are all sorts of subject areas covered. Some fun reading!!

Social Media for Active Learning

Sunday, March 20, 2016 at 16:09:22

I obviously blog!! It’s not a vanity project, but rather a whole mix of rationales for presenting my thoughts to the general public. Last year, after 10 years of blogging and 1000 posts, I “celebrated” that milestone by commenting on why I blog. And almost all of these reasons are related to learning. It’s an overused phrase, but “lifelong learning” is a state of mind - it means that I want to actively participate in life and not be content with simply going along for the ride. I want to shape my present and future, allowing me to be responsible for my past.Humans have a remarkable ability, unlike (we believe) all other life, to imagine a future so enabling us to try to make that happen, bring it into reality.

So Donald Clark’s blog on Social media as powerful method of learning is a timely reminder that being able to continue to engage with life, take on new ideas, plan a future, enable that to happen and vivaciously participate in the world around us is central to a fulfilling and happy life. Social media are just one form of public engagement and interaction, but as a medium for learning they are extremely useful as they demonstrate an active individual, mind, learner. They show you wanting to participate in the world around you, shape your life, build a future.

Qualification Levels

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 at 13:08:16

Yes, it’s that time of year again - open days!! Applicants and parents trail around the country getting similar accommodation and finance talks, along with more detail on courses, facilities and location. It always surprises how seldom the qualifications framework is explained because it makes understanding university courses that much easier. So, here goes…

  • qualifications in the UK given levels from “entry”, through 1 to 8. A tabular summary can be found here
  • so GCSE (grades A*-C) are level 2, AS/A level 3 and an undergraduate degree 4, 5 and 6 (and for the record, Masters 7 and PhD 8)
  • to gain entry to a university you most commonly need tariff points at level 3, as per the UCAS website. 140 points for an A* at A level, going down in 20 point increments per grade
  • each level at university corresponds to a year (although there are some 2 and 4 year degrees), being worth 120 credit points each. 360 points make an honours degree
  • credit points are notionally transferable between universities as long as the courses are relevant
  • each point is equivalent a notional 10 hours of study, be it lecture, practical, seminar, fieldwork, assessment, reading, thinking, note taking etc
  • so a degree is 3600 hours of study, 1200 per year
  • Kingston has 30 credit modules, but universities operate a wide range of credit points for modules
  • this is reported at UNISTATS, a good source of comparative government information.
  • See our Geography degree and under “Time in lectures” you’ll note around 30% is actual contact

Hopefully that gives a good feel for the overarching structure!

Tired of a 27k degree??

Friday, February 26, 2016 at 14:31:58

That’s about the total cost of a three year degree in the UK… so if this really represents the actual cost, can you go anywhere else that’s cheaper? The answer is an emphatic yes! Germany has abandoned tuition fees, whilst fees are very low in the Netherlands. Are they any good? OK, that might seem a little snobbish, but if you don’t know the “HE map” then it’s a fair question. The answer is a big YES - whilst you might question the metric, the sheer internationalness of the Times Work University Rankings shows the lie of the land. So - MILLION dollar question. Do you speak the lingo?? Yes, if you are English!! Those top international universities are now realising that there is a big international market (of talent and/or money!) and English is the international language. Check out StudyPortals for a list of universities and courses (on a map of course!!) at UG and PG level that teach in English.

Like the nature of the Dutch and the 40min hop from Stansted to Schiphol? Then study a BA in Archaeology at Leiden. Want to take advantage of no fees in Germany, travel and get in some mountain sports? Try an MA in Physical Geography at Leipzig, It’s fair to say there are many more PG courses currently available across the board, but this will change quickly. And the Dutch and Germans are particularly well placed given they learn English from an early age. A burgeoning sector to keep an eye on particularly if you are looking to avoid paying fees.

101 Top Tips for PhD Students

Monday, February 22, 2016 at 11:35:26

101 Top Tips for PhD Students gets some good reviews over at Amazon, along with one in the current Sensed (although you might have to wait to see the back issue). My PhD student James O’Connor liked it and commented his favourite tip was:

You can get drunk at conferences, just not the most drunk!

Clearly sage advice, although I might edit that to

You can get drunk at conferences, just check who you should be less drunk than!

So, buy a copy and help support poor, under paid, academic staff!!

MCQ Best Practice

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 at 13:25:40

Following up on the last blog post, Donald also has a great post on the 10 stupidest mistakes in multiple choice question design. Everyone ends up doing MCQs at some point simply because they are easy to set, provide rapid feedback and marking can be automated (or largely automated). But, in order to boost learning you need to design them well - the first and most important is “test understanding, not facts”. Good one, but it takes effort to do this and we are all guilty of testing facts at times.

There are two are posts worth looking at in conjunction with this. The first is “10 essential points on use of open-response questions”. Open response questions can be far more effective than MCQs, yet in many situations you can still automate marking and provide detailed feedback.

And finally….. All of the Above - 20 ways to cheat Multiple Choice questions. Given how poor many tests are, use this tips to either write better tests or get better results!

Textual Double Header

Friday, September 4, 2015 at 08:35:38

Donald Clark did a good textual double header last week….. the first piece was on why text actually makes for good learning. Two 10 reasons including its fast, leaves the learner in control and is searchable. Perhaps the big downside (not mentioned) is that it requires effort, i.e. you have to WANT to read to do it, making it an ACTIVE learning process. That is perhaps one of the reasons that it is so effective - people have to engage to do it. Video content, in contrast, is PASSIVE so there will be a significant proportion of people who will watch but NOT engage.

Which leads quite neatly on to his second piece - top 10 tips for WRITING online content. These ARE good and are designed to ENGAGE learners. They include CUT CUT CUT (less is more), using images, stab points, key words and meaningful headings.

For learners and writers alike, these two articles are a great starting point.

Treasure the voice

Thursday, March 19, 2015 at 08:13:02

A really powerful talk from Julian Treasure at Ted. He starts with the seven deadly sins of speaking - why aren’t people listening to you - before moving on to the four powerful cornerstones of speaking. These four (HAIL: honesty, authenticity, integrity, love)any speaker (every academic speaker) should take to heart. He then moves on to look at HOW to use the voice. These are really really useful: register (lower, upper and middle), timbre (smooth, rich, warm…. how it feels), prosody (variations in tone, rather than monotonic), pace (speeding up or slowing down), pitch, volume and……… silence (sodcasting was a great catch!). Finally he covers how to warm up prior to giving a speech - important advice if you want to make an impact, make the most, of your communication.

Voice is often ignored - don’t, its a critical part of communication.

Andrew Stanton: Clues to a Great Story

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at 10:21:42

I came across Andrew Stanton’s (of Pixar fame) TED talk ages ago but have only just got around to watching it. Any great presenter needs to take on board the elements of story telling and here Andrew provides a masterclass in both presentation structure, design, delivery and making us care….. can’t overstate enough how important these elements are. A MUST WATCH! (and the hook is brilliant!)

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