“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Differentiation in the Lecture Room

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Students come to university with a wide range of ability and prior knowledge, and take to different subjects with different levels of engagement and competence. This spread isn’t as wide as in other areas of education—after all, students have chosen to attend, been selected in a particular grade boundary, and are doing a subject of their choice—but, there is still a decent amount of variation there.

How do we deal with this variation? In school education, they talk a lot about differentiation—arranging teaching and learning activities so that students of different levels of ability, knowledge, progress, etc. can work on a particular topic. I think that we need to do more of this at university; so much university teaching is either aimed at the typical 2:1 student, or is off-the-scale advanced. How can we make adjustments so that our teaching recognises the diversity of student’s knowledge and experience?

In particular, how can we do this in lectures? If we have a canonical, non-interactive lecture, can we do this? I think we can: here are some ideas:

Asides. I find it useful to give little parenthetical asides as part of the lecture. Little definitions, bits of background knowledge. I do this particularly for the cultural background knowledge in the Computational Creativity module, often introduced with the phrase “as you may know”. For example: “Picasso—who, as you may know, was a painter in the early-mid 20th century who invented cubism which plays with multiple perspectives in the same painting—was…”. This is phrased so that it more-or-less washes over those who don’t need it, but is there as a piece of anchoring information for those that do. Similarly for mathematical definitions: “Let’s represent this as a matrix—which, you will remember from you maths course, is a grid of numbers—…”. Again, the reinforcement/reminder is there, without patronising or distracting the students who have this knowledge by having a “for beginners” slide.

Additional connections. Let’s consider the opposite—those students who are very advanced, and have a good knowledge of the area are broadly. I differentiate for these by making little side-comments that connect to the wider course or other background knowledge. Sometimes introduced with a phrase such as “if you have studied…” or “for those of you that know about…”. For example: “for those of you who have done an option in information retrieval, this might remind you of tf-idf.”. Again, this introduces the connection without putting on a slide and make it seem big and important for those students who are struggling to manage the basics, but gives some additional information and a spark of a connection for the students who are finding the material humdrum. (I am reminded of an anecdote from John Maynard Smith, who talked about a research seminar where the speaker had said “this will remind you of a phase transition in statistical physics”: “I can’t imagine a time in my life when anything will remind me of a phase transition”).

Code examples. A computing-specific one, this. I’ve found that a lot of students click into something once they have seen a code example. These aren’t needed for the high-flying coding ninjas, who can go from a more abstract description to working out how the code is put together. But, for many students, the code example is the point where all the abstract waffle from the previous few minutes clicks into place. The stronger students can compare the code that they have been writing in their heads to mine. I sometimes do the coding live, but I’ve sometimes chickened out and used a screencap video (this also helps me to talk over the coding activity). A particularly clear example of this was where I showed a double-summation in sigma notation to a group, to largely blank looks, followed by the same process on the next slide as a nested loop, where most students seemed to be following clearly.

Any other thoughts for differentiation tricks and tips specifically in the context of giving lectures?

Coke, Pepsi, and Universities

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Why does Coca-Cola still advertise? For most people in most of the world, it is a universal product—everyone knows about it, and more advertising doesn’t give you more information to help you make a purchasing decision. After a while, advertising spend and marketing effort is primarily about maintaining public awareness, keeping the product in the public eye, rather than giving people more information on which to make a decision. There is something of the “Red Queen” effect here; if competitors are spending a certain amount to keep their product at the forefront of public attention, then you are obliged to do so, even though the best thing for all of the companies involved, and for the public, would be to scale it down. (This is explained nicely in an old documentary called Burp! Pepsi vs. Coke: the Ice Cold War.) There’s a certain threshold where advertising/marketing/promotion tips over from informative to merely awareness-raising.

This is true for Universities as much as other organisations. A certain amount of promotional material is useful for prospective students, giving a feel of the place and the courses that are available. But, after a while, a decent amount of both student’s own fee money, and public investment, goes into spend over this threshold; mere spend for the purpose of maintaining awareness. However, in this case, we do have some mechanism to stop it. Perhaps universities should have a cap on the proportion of their turnover that they can spend on marketing activities, enforced by the withdrawal of (say) loan entitlements if they exceed this threshold.

Learning what is Unnecessary

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Learning which steps in a process are unnecessary is one of the hardest things to learn. Steps that are unnecessary yet harmless can easily be worked into a routine, and because they cause no problems apart from the waste of time, don’t readily appear as problems.

An example. A few years ago a (not very technical) colleague was demonstrating something to me on their computer at work. At one point, I asked them to google something, and they opened the web browser, typed the URL of the University home page into the browser, went to that page, then typed the Google URL into the browser, went the Google home page, and then typed their query. This was not at trivial time cost; they were a hunt-and-peck typist who took a good 20-30 seconds to type each URL.

Why did they do the unnecessary step of going to the University home page first? Principally because when they had first seen someone use Google, that person had been at the University home page, and then gone to the Google page; they interpreted being at the University home page as some kind of precondition for going to Google. Moreover, it was harmless—it didn’t stop them from doing what they set out to do, and so it wasn’t flagged up to them that it was a problem. Indeed, they had built a vague mental model of what they were doing—by going to the University home page, they were somehow “logging on”, or “telling Google that this was a search from our University”. It was only on demonstrating it to me that it became clear that it was redundant, because I asked why they were doing it.

Another example. When I first learned C++, I put semicolons after the brackets at the end of each block, after the curly bracket. Again, this is harmless: all it does is to insert some null statements into the code, which I assume the compiler strips out at optimisation. Again, I had a decent mental model for this: a vague notion of “you put semicolons at the end of meaningful units to mark the end”. It was only when I started to look at other people’s code in detail that I realised that this was unnecessary.

Learning these is hard, and usually requires us to either look carefully at external examples and compare them to our behaviour, or for a more experienced person to point them out to us. In many cases it isn’t all that important; all you lose is a bit of time. But, sometimes it can mark you out as a rube, with worse consequences than wasting a few seconds of time; an error like this can cause people to think “if they don’t know something as simple as that, then what else don’t they know?”.

Computer Science

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

Is the current state of computer science education analogous to a situation where there were no business schools, and everyone who wanted to do “business studies” had to do economics instead?

The Map that Precedes the Territory

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

I’ve sometimes joked that I only have hobbies because they are necessary for me to indulge my meta-hobbies of project management, product design, and logistics. Sometimes, I worry that I get more pleasure from the planning that goes around an activity than doing the activity itself. The planning the travel and activities for a trip, the well-organised and well-chosen set of accessories or tools for doing some craft, preferring to be the person who organises the meetings and makes up the groups rather than being a participant in the activity.

I wonder where this comes from? I think part of it is from growing up in a household where there wasn’t much money to spend on leisure stuff. As a result, I spent a lot of my childhood planning what I would do when I had things, making tables and catalogues of things, and endlessly going over the same small number of resources. I remember planning in great detail things like model railway layouts, devising complex electrical circuits, and filling notebook-after-notebook with code in anticipation of the day when I might finally have access to a computer to run it on—a computer which would be chosen not on a whim, but from detailed comparison tables I had drawn up from catalogues and ads so as to get the very best one for the limited money we had.

The intellectual resources I had access to were interesting. We had some books, bought from W.H. Smith, brought home from the school where my father taught, bought from a catalogue of discount improving educational books which was available at School (which introduced me to the excellent Usborne books which I still think are a model for exposition of complex concepts), or bought from the eccentric selection available at remainder shops (I particularly remember three random volumes of encyclopaedia that I had bought from one such shop). The local library was a good resource too, but I rapidly exhausted the books on topics of relevance to me, and just started reading my way through everything; one week I remember bringing home a haul of books on Anglicanism, resulting in my mother’s immortal line “You’re not going to become a bloody vicar, are you?”. Catalogues and the like were an endless source of information too, I remember endless poring over detailed technical catalogues such as the Maplin one, and spec sheets from computer shops, compiling my own lists and tables of electrical components, details of how different computers worked, etc. I remember really working through what limited resource I had; endlessly reading through the couple of advanced university-level science books that a colleague of my mother’s had given to her via a relative who had done some scientific studies at university.

There’s something to be said for trying damn hard to understand something that is just too difficult. I remember working for hours at a complex mathematical book from the local library about electrical motors, just because it was there and on an interesting topic, and learning linear and dynamic programming, university level maths topics, again because there happened to be a good book on it in the local library. These days, with access to a vast university library, books at cheap prices on Amazon, and talks on almost every imaginable topic available on YouTube, I think I waste a lot of time trying to find some resource that is just at my level, rather than really pushing myself to make my own meaning out of something that is on the very fringe of my level of possible understanding. Similarly, I remember the same for courses at University—I got a crazily high mark (88% or something) in a paper on number theory, where I had struggled to understand and the textbooks were pretty ropey, whereas the well-presented topics with nice neatly presented textbooks were the golden road to a 2:1 level of achievement.

Talking of lectures and YouTube etc., another thing that is near impossible to have a feel for was the ephemerality of media. There were decent TV and radio programmes on topics I was interested in, science and technology and the like, but it seems incomprehensibly primitive that these were shown once, at a specific time, and then probably not repeated for months. How bizarre that I couldn’t just revisit it. But, again, in made it special; I had to be there at a specific time. I think this is why lecture courses remain an important part of university education. About 20 years ago I worked with someone called Donald Bligh, who wrote an influential book called What’s the Use of Lectures?, which anticipated lots of the later developments in the flipped classroom etc. He couldn’t understand why, with the technology available to deliver focused, reviewable, breakable-downable, indexable online material, we still obsessed about the live lecture. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view, but I think lecture courses deliver pace and, at their best, model “thinking out loud”—particularly, for technical and mathematical subjects. When everything is available at hand, we just get stuck in focus paralysis; I do that with things I want to learn, there are too many things and it is too easy when something gets hard to not persevere, and to turn to something else instead; or, I spend endless amounts of time in search of the perfect resource, one that is just at my level. This is what I wasn’t able to do, 30 years ago, in my little room with limited resources, and so I got on with the task at hand.

How can we regain this focus in a world of endless intellectual resource abundance? Some approaches are just to pace stuff out—even MOOCs, where the resources are at hand and could be released, box-set-like, all at once, nonetheless spoon them out bit-by-bit in an attempt to create a cohort and a sense of pace. Another approach is pure self-discipline; I force myself to sit down with a specific task for the day, and use techniques such as the Pomodoro technique to pace out my time appropriately. Others use technologies to limit the amount of time spent online, such as web-blockers that limit the amount of time spent either on the web in general, or specifically on distractors such as social media. But, I still think that we don’t have a really good solution to this.

Scared (1)

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

As we approach the beginning of term, and a new cohort of students joining our universities, it is worth remembering that a decent number of our new students are arriving frightened of us, or assuming that we will look down on them. I think that the comment here, from a student admissions forum, is not untypical:
You never feel like you're inferior to the seminar leaders (despite their PhDs!) and nearly all of them are genuinely nice people.
It is important, in our first few interactions with them, to make it clear that this isn’t the case.

Blank-equivalent

Monday, August 27th, 2018

An idea that I got from Colin Runciman. When marking student work, and you come across a bad answer, ask yourself “is this blank-equivalent, i.e. does this show the same level of insight into the problem as if the student had written nothing?”. In many cases, the answer is “no”. We frequently fail to use points on the marking scale that are between zero and pass, particularly when marking short answer questions in exams. Thinking about “blank equivalence” gives us a tool to decide which answers genuinely show insufficient knowledge or skill to be worth any marks, from those that are still fails, but nonetheless show some insight.

Perhaps the idea of “blank-equivalence” is valuable elsewhere. Perhaps a work of art is not good enough to be worthy of critical attention and positive aesthetic judgement—but, it is still not sufficiently devoid of skill and imagination to make the same impact on the world as doing nothing.

Credits

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

Graduation ceremonies should have credits, in the same way that films do. This would emphasise to students and a wider set of stakeholders the scale of the support and the hidden activity that goes into providing the environment in which students can flourish.

Innovative (1)

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

The major social media companies have basically been providing the same, largely unchanging product, for the last decade. Yes—they are doing it very well, managing to scale number of users and amounts of activity, and optimising the various conflicting factors around usability, advertising, etc. But, basically, Twitter has been doing the same schtick for the last decade. Yet, if media and government were looking to talk to an innovative, forward-looking company, they might well still turn to such companies.

By contrast, universities, where there is an enormous, rolling programme of change and updating, keeping up with research, innovating in teaching, all in the context of a regulatory and compliance regime that would be seen as mightily fuckoffworthy if imposed on such companies, are portrayed as the lumbering, conservative forces. Why is this? How have the social media companies managed to convey that impression—and how have we in higher education failed?

Just Can’t Imagine

Friday, March 9th, 2018

I’ve been on a lot of student disciplinary panels over the years—examining students for plagiarism, etc.—and something that comes up over and over again is that some weaker students just can’t imagine that students are able to produce work of high quality without some amount of copying, patch-writing, or similar processes The idea that you could sit down and produce from your head a fluent piece of fully referenced writing just isn’t what they imagine “ordinary people” are capable of. Writing, comes from elsewhere—a mysterious world of books and articles that is somehow disjoint from the day-to-day world of ordinary people.

I once came across a maths version of this—a student who, when asked to solve simple algebra problems, was just plucking numbers from the air. They couldn’t imagine that other students in the class were actually solving the problems as quickly as they were. Instead, they assumed that the other students were somehow getting there by some kind of mysterious intuitive process, and that the way to get to that was just to start by “saying the first number that comes into your head” and then, over time, their subconscious would start to work things out and after a while the numbers that emerged would start to coincide with the solutions to the problems.

I think I had a similar problem with singing once upon a time (though, at least I was conscious that there was something I wasn’t getting). People who had had no problem with grokking how to sing in tune with others would just say “you listen to the note and then you sing along with it”, which put me in the same position as our maths friend above—it just seemed to be something that you did until some pre-conscious process gradually learned how to do it. It doesn’t. Eventually, thanks to a very careful description from the wonderful Sarah Leonard of exactly what the head/mouth/ears feel like when you are making the same note as others, I was able to improve that skill in a rational way. Before that, I just couldn’t imagine that other people were managing to do this in anything other than a mysterious, pre-conscious way. Somehow I had failed to pick up what that “in tune” feeling was like as a child, and carried this a decent way into adulthood.

Systematic Inefficiencies (1)

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Every time we have an open day at Kent, the University of Essex (hello to my dear friends there!) pays someone to drive a bloody great van with a mahoosive “University of Essex” poster on it and park it all day opposite the main entrance to our campus.

I can’t imagine that 20-30 years ago, when we first started to talk about having some kind of competitive ethos between universities, that we would ever have imagined that we would end up in a situation like this. And it seems to be a systematic inefficiency baked into the system. Unlike the often talked about “inefficiencies” of public sector management, which seem to be just a matter of motivation and management skill, there are real, ongoing, impossible to avoid inefficiencies at the core of a competition based system.

This is a few hundred pounds that could be going into student’s education or research or goddamn it on nicer port for the vice-chancellor’s summer party. Is there any way in which we can get out of this kind of arms race that is consuming vast amounts of money, time, and attention?

Worse than Nothing?

Saturday, May 27th, 2017

Here’s a thought, which came from a conversation with Richard Harvey t’other week. Is it possible for a degree to harm your job prospects? The example that he came up with was a third class degree in some vocational or quasi-vocational subject such as computer science. If you have a third class degree in CS, what does that say to prospective employers? Firstly, that you are not much of a high-flyer in the subject—that is a no-brainer. But, it also labels you as someone who is a specialist—and not a very good one! The holder of a third in history, unless they are applying specifically for a job relating to history, isn’t too much harmed by their degree. Someone sufficiently desperate will take them on to do something generic (this relates to another conversation I had about careers recently—what are universities doing to engage with the third-class employers that will take on our third-class graduates? Perhaps we need to be more proactive in this area, rather than just dismissive, but this requires a degree of tact beyond most people.). But a third-class computing/architecture/pharmacy student is stuck in the bind that they have declared a professional specialism, and so employers will not consider them for a generic role; whilst at the same time evidencing that they are not very good in the specialism that they have identified with. Perhaps we need to do more for these students by emphasising the generic skills that computer science can bring to the workplace—”computing is the new Latin” as a rather tone-deaf saying goes.

“That employability shit”

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

It is depressing, yet informative, that the end result of no-doubt endless meetings and careful planning and strategy documents and analyses of employability results in the NSS and all that woffle ended in the following fragment of conversation from two students on the bus t’other week discussing the assessments that they had to finish by the end of term:

“…and then there’s [whatever it was], but it’s just that employability shit, so it doesn’t matter.”

(Meta-lesson. You learn a lot by getting the bus up to campus.)

Professional Practice

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Is there such a thing as a set of skills that apply across all of the professions? When I first started to come across (still rather rare) university departments of “professional practice”, I was bemused. Professional practice in what? Is there really enough common to being a nurse, barrister, dentist, accountant, town planner, occupational therapist, etc. etc. to call all of their activities “professional practice”? These seem, at least initially, to consist almost entirely of a lot of profession-specific skills/knowledge/understanding.

But, over time, I’ve started to wonder. Perhaps we are at the stage with professional practice schools that we were at with business schools a few decades ago. There was certainly a cynicism at one point that “business” could be taught generically. What business? Is there really enough in common to running a bassoon factory, a chain of gyms, an online career consultancy, an au pair agency, etc. etc. to call all of their activities “business”? At one point, these would have been seen as needing radically different skill-sets, but over time we have started to realise that some common understanding of finance, accountancy, PR, marketing, project management, strategy, staff appraisal, etc. are useful in all areas of business, alongside a knowledge of the specific business domain.

Perhaps there is something to be gained by bringing together dental nurses, architects, and solicitors for part of their education, and having some common core of education in e.g. dealing with clients. Perhaps the idea of a generic professional practice school isn’t such a ludicrous idea after all.

Ironic (1)

Monday, January 16th, 2017

"For years now, I've been doing the same presentation on change for

(actually from quite an interesting article: Lessons from the A47 and the University Bubble).

Personal Practice (1)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

My colleague Sally Fincher has pointed out that one interesting aspect of architecture and design academics is that the vast majority of them continue with some kind of personal practice in their discipline alongside carrying out their teaching and research work. This contrasts with computer science, where such a combination is rather unusual. It might be interesting to do a pilot scheme that gave some academic staff a certain amount of time to do this in their schedule, and see what influence it has on their research and teaching.

Interestingly, a large proportion of computer science students have a personal practice in some aspect of computing/IT. It is interesting to note quite how many of our students are running a little web design business or similar on the side, alongside their studies.

Highs and Lows

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

The highs and lows of work. Spent 2 hours in a meeting on Monday discussing items that were flagged on the agenda as “not for discussion”. Then spent 4 hours yesterday working with students on our new Computational Creativity module, they were really engaged with the material and willing to engage in discussion and had clearly read the papers in detail before the class—proper “flipped classroom” stuff. I wonder what today will bring?

Get Yerself an Edderkation

Saturday, February 6th, 2016

An news item from my former school’s website:

This is a reminder to parents of Year 11 students that the Year  11 Commnedation Eveming due to take place tonight has been postponed (ref letter sent home last wek).

Agility 17, Wisdom 8

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Software engineering education needs to give students a more nuanced understanding of software development processes than one which causes students to say, in effect “There are two kinds of software development: waterfall, which is noisy and old fashioned and so we won’t use it, and agile, which we will use because it means that we can do what we like.”

Ironic (1)

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Email. Subject: "What is the future for university staff unions?" "This message has no content."