Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Learning Versus Qualifications

I work in a place where giving out qualifications is a big deal. Huge ceremony, fancy clothes, lots of fuss - a grand day out for everyone. However very few of the academic staff here seem to think that giving out qualifications is our main business. We help people make sense of their world, learn lots of useful stuff and go out having gone through a good deal of personal and professional growth. The qualification is our acknowledgement of the growth and learning our student have achieved.  It's an exciting business to be in.

Somehow, this is not what young people perceive education is all about as they go through school and college. Visit a "good" college and you will be told about A-level results until you are sick of it. Sounds good until your willing offspring pick up the idea that nobody is much interested in whether they develop any deep understanding, or whether they grow and develop through being there. All that matters is the grades. This really comes home when you see bring students being forced to undertake mind numbingly unchallenging Computing A2 projects because the college has figured out the mark scheme and knows that a pathetic little project with a beautiful write up gets an 'A' more easily than a complex and difficult project.  No wonder so many university computer science departments have much interest in A-level computing.

Other sciences are the same. I went to an open day at a "top" sixth form and some very enthusiastic students showed me a chemistry experiment. It was big and complicated and had a long chemical formula above it that read something link blah + blah = blah + H2O. I'm not a chemist, but know that H2O is water. However, these bring young people would not even guess what the clear liquid dripping out of the tube at the end was. I bet they both got 'A' grades. Conversations with other students were similarly disappointing.

If you know any really smart kids who hate school or college, perhaps the the qualification fixation explains it a bit. Educators who believe that qualifications are more important than learning should quit. Today. They betray our young people, their parents and our society.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Use of Technology in Teaching

I read a frightening article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today. If you don't want to read in, just look at the chart!

There are those who claim that academics who don't make the most of technology to enhance the learning experience of their students are in some sense guilty of malpractice. On the other hand, there are plenty that teach in a very traditional way and get good student feedback and great learning outcomes.

The question this raises for me is about what our institutional priorities should be for e-learning. We have lots of good (and expensive) tools: Blackboard, streaming media, Wimba, PDP, clickers and more. Furthermore, there is lots of good feedback from staff who use these things. However, I have dark moments when I wonder how much teaching is really enhanced by technology. Everyone uses the VLE, but is it really much more than a convenient repository of documents for most students? How much learning is really enhanced by facilitated online discussions? Do students engage with their lecturers electronically?

In contrast, adoption of technology that helps students learning individually or together is rapid and requires little encouragement by the University. Put a sofa somewhere where there's wireless and power and students will instantly discover it. Create a space where students can congregate with a few laptops and perhaps some coffee and it's always busy. We're running Google Mail for our students and have (fairly quietly) just turned on Google Docs. Early evidence suggests that about 10% of students are already using it to share and collaborate. Interestingly, this has led to a stream of requests from academics for Google accounts.

The default model for rolling out e-learning technology is for the centre to provide tools and training to academic staff who then use it (or not) in their teaching. Maybe we should focus a little more on pushing the latest and greatest tools (like Google Wave) directly at students and let them create a learning environment that they feel they really own and which they can suck their lecturers into.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Billion 7800 / 7800N Router

I don't really do hardware reviews, but I wanted to say something nice about Billion's new ADSL router. My network is a little complex, I have a /27 routed subnet, I tunnel IPv6 over IPv4 and I have lots of firewall rules. I don't have NAT, and I need stageful packet inspection. Also, my phone line ls quite long.

Consumer routers tend to be cheap miserable little things. Vigor are pretty good, but don't have a Broadcom chipsets and therefore achieve poor speeds on long lines. Cisco are expensive and complex (but nice kit). I've tried OpenWRT in a clever setup with two routers, but although I'm demanding I don't want to make my router my hobby!

My 7800 is on an Andrews and Arnold BE line. It was quick and easy to setup and immediately achieved twice the speed of my old Speedtouch. My IPv6 tunnel runs just fine and the iptables based firewall does exactly what I need.

You can access the 7800 via telnet and do clever Linux things, but you don't really need to. The web interface is very comprehensive and snappy to use and it works well on Safari and Firefox.

I've never been so pleased with a router at this price point.

My ISP, Andrews and Arnold are worth a mention. They don"t block anything, they don't do packet filtering and they give me 32 IP addresses. They also let me do things like tweak the target SNR margin on the DSLAM via a web control panel.

Friday, 18 June 2010

iPad Update

I've had an iPad for a couple of weeks now and it's been interesting. It's a bit early to say how it's going to evolve. It's become the "thing I carry around all day". I love being in a meeting with it (once we're past the "ooh, an iPad" bit) because I can have all the papers in it (and other relevant documents) and have shed the whole business of printing and filing documents - I'm almost entirely paperless now. When I'm on the hoof, it's much better than a smartphone for email, which means I get to reply to lots of these in odd moments. I'm very attached to Evernote and this is great on the iPad. Right now, I have a laptop, smartphone and iPad.

This is overkill, but I'm allowing myself the luxury of figuring out what's best for what and how the iPad fits into the ecosystem. With time, I can see many busy people moving to a desktop/iPad/dumbphone setup.

Not everyone is going to go for this, but I find I can read books on it. In cold financial terms, it pays for itself in around two years if I don't print papers for meetings.

My team have another reason to have a few of these around - lots of our students are going to have them and while I'm not going to instigate a big project to make everything work in iPad, we're including it in the list of platforms we check new and updated things on.

...and oh, yes - I love it!