Thursday, May 16, 2019

Should students be forced to make presentations for assessment?

Image source: Clipart Library.
At this time or year many students are presenting their research results as part of their assessments. For many it is a traumatising experience - I regularly have nervous students in front of me who are terrified of losing marks. We are often told that fear of public speaking is one of the most common of all phobias - yet we (academia) insist on putting students through this experience/torture. And then we grade them!

Anna Fazackerley, writing in The Guardian, asks the question about public speaking: "is the push to make students employable going too far?". Employers often emphasise the importance of communication skills, and it is good to be able to present to colleagues, management, and clients in the work environment. But what about students who suffer from anxiety or other mental conditions - is if fair to force students to present? Mark Twain is quoted as having said: “There are two types of speakers: Those who get nervous and those who are liars”. I think it is fair to say that we all get nervous when presenting. Some people are naturally confident, while others do it for a living (eg - Lecturers such as me). Forcing students to present even for 5 minutes can be daunting - most in my experience get through it and I always try my best to get students to be as relaxed as possible.

Fazackerley, in her Guardian article, writes about efforts at Bristol University to offer "presentation coaching, starting with small exercises and building confidence until students feel they can tackle a whole presentation, and that to begin with, "students practise public speaking as part of a group". Help is available, so students should consider this if they are faced with the prospect of a presentation that they are anxious or worried about. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

"Absolute Confidence" # Statistics #Analytics

Tim Healy writes in The Irish Independent that a US laboratory confirms it will appeal landmark judgement in Ruth Morrissey cervical cancer case. I have no argument with the results of the case or the award made by the court - my comment here is based on statistical probability. However, an intriguing aspect of the judgement is that the Judge ruled that laboratories should have "absolute confidence" in their results.

Is there such a thing as "absolute confidence"? Well - yes, there is. We will all die, night follows day, and so on. But could there be "absolute confidence" in smear or any other tests? The answer is theoretically "Yes", but practically "No". The reason is that in statistics, we make inferences about populations using samples (think of a poll before an election). For example, we accept that Paracetamol is an effective cure for pain in humans - but does it work in all cases for all humans? We can't know that unless we test every single person in the world - an expensive and impractical idea. All we can do is conduct clinical trials on a sample of the population and make inferences about the population using the results. Because it is a sample, we cannot be certain of the result - hence there is always uncertainty in experiments that do not involve the entire population. What we can say is that we are confident of the result - 95% or 99% confidence is often an acceptable level of confidence in statistics.

Without wishing to diminish the awful cases that some people have endured due to misread results, there is uncertainty in almost everything that we do. In 2018, 149  people lost their lives on Ireland's roads - there is a risk that you will die every time you use our roads. Thankfully, this is a small risk - 149 deaths from a population of 4,857,000 (Estimate: April 2018, CSO) - this translates into a 0.003% chance of being killed on our roads. While this is a tiny risk, it does mean that our roads are not safe for everyone. A 0.003% of being killed also means that you have a 99.997% of not being killed.

Is 99% confidence enough? Would you get on a plane if you were 99% certain that it would not crash? According to FlightAware, there is an average of "9,728 planes, carrying 1,270,406 people, in the sky at any given time". If 99% of these were safe, this means that 9,631 would be safe - but 97 would not be safe. That's a lot! What about 99.9% safety? 9,718 would be safe, but 10 would be unsafe. Only at 99.9999% would you get an acceptable safety level - 9,727.99 out of 9,728 flights would be safe. Still a tiny chance, but enough for us to get on a plane. Crucially, even at 99.9999% we cannot have "absolute confidence".

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

A blast-from-the-past

Out of the blue today I received a link to an old video in which I featured but had never seen. In my previous job at CBT Systems/SmartForce in the late 1990s, I was a Product Manager and my first big job was to manage the creation of a suite of Novell Certification courses (then only available on CD-ROM or floppy diskettes). One of the courses was "NDS Design (532)" and I was sent to Provo in Utah to participate in this course delivered by Bob King (who put the video on YouTube last month and sent me the link). It was a three day course and a camera crew came in to the Novell offices to shoot some footage to promote the new course. I had completely forgotten about this. I'm guessing this was done in 1996 - at the time the company was called CBT Systems (which in turn became SmartForce in 1999). I am even seen wearing a CBT Systems t-shirt in the video, and of course I look a lot younger then than I do now.

Here's the video, I am featured at 3:36, 4:45, and 6:05

Thursday, May 02, 2019

How many toilets do you need in a Theatre? #MoreLoos #LittlesLaw

Joanna Lumley.
Image source: Irish Independent.
I read with interest an article by Sinéad Ryan in yesterday's Irish Independent: "Biggest drama in theatre is getting to loos". She had attended an event in a community hall where there were "just two cubicles for a room holding 300 people". As a man I have had rarely needed to queue to use the loo in places such as theatres, arenas, or public places - there is a definite anatomical advantage to being male when it comes to time for a pee. "Joanna Lumley won’t take shortage of ladies’ loos sitting down" writes Rebecca Nicholson in The Guardian newspaper - the lovely Joanna has launched a "More Loos" campaign and says that the "ladies are about to storm the men’s loos. They can’t manage to have a drink and a waz at half time"! In her article, Sinéad Ryan uses our own Abbey Theatre which has been criticised recently for its lack of loos for women. 

So how many loos are needed to satisfy demand?

Prof John Little.
Image source: MIT Sloan.
Fortunately, there is a formula for working these things out. In 1961, Professor John Little of MIT published what became to be known as Little's Law. This law illustrates the mathematical relationship between throughput, work-in-progress (WIP), and cycle time. Let's use Dublin's Abbey Theatre as an example to work out how many toilets for women are needed during a 20 minute interval in the middle of a show.

The capacity of the Abbey Theatre is currently 492 seats - let's assume for simplicity that at a typical performance that 50% of the attendance are female. This means that there would be 246 women at each performance. This is our WIP (demand for toilets). The throughput is the length of the interval time - in this case 20 minutes. Finally, let's assume that on average, each woman spends 3 minutes in the toilet cubicle, and that there are 10 cubicles available (I don't know exact figure as I have never been in the ladies' toilets in the Abbey!).

In summary:

    WIP (Demand for toilets) = 246 women
    Throughput time = 20 minutes
    Work content = 3 minutes

First - we need to calculate the cycle time:

        Cycle time = Throughput = 20 = 0.08 minutes
                    WIP      246

Next - calculate the number of toilets required :

        # toilets required = Work content = 37.5 toilets
                         Cycle Time    0.08

There are not enough toilets to deal with demand since as 37.5 (say 38) are required. Given that the work content (the time taken to use the loo) cannot realistically be shortened, nor WIP (demand for the loo) be reduced, then what are the options?

  1. More toilets - 38 to cover demand
  2. A longer interval:
     (New) cycle time = Work content = 0.3
                         # toilets     10


Throughput time = WIP x Cycle time = 246 x 0.03 = 73.8 minutes. The interval would need to be 74 minutes long to ensure that all demand was met.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Why don't An Post use eircode?

I took a delivery this morning from An Post for a new book purchased from Amazon - I'm delighted that they use our national postal service to deliver our parcels. No doubt that this is contributing a significant part of An Post's business - see "Profits at An Post surge by 400pc while it closes offices" announced today.

But what really surprised me was that the delivery man called me from his phone as he approached our street - I could see him through our front window. I take particular care to ensure that my address is full and accurate - plus I now always add my postcode/eircode. It turned out that the printing on my parcel label was very close to the edge, and the driver could not tell if my house number was "2", or "12", or "22" and so on. I also know that these drivers are under tremendous pressure to deliver quickly, so no doubt he was saving himself some time to avoid checking every house on our street that has a "2" in the address. When he got to my door I asked him could he not have used the eircode (which was on the label)? He said that while it is used in the sorting office it is "no use" to the drivers, and that the drivers "can't find anything" with the eircode. They do not have a navigation system that can use the eircode and bring them directly to the delivery address. They are still relying on the street address, and still have to use the phone if their is any ambiguity on the address label. 

Jaysus!

Friday, April 19, 2019

End of Semester - Phew!

Today, Good Friday, marks the end of Semester II this academic year - it was the 34th semester of my time at the National College of Ireland. As Easter is so late this year, our second Reading Week is actually next week - no classes or exams next week. It is always a relief to get through a semester - 13 weeks ago the end seemed so far away, but it has passed in a flash.

St John the Baptist, Blackrock.
Image source: Wikimedia.
I like to look back and reflect on a semester as I feel that I learn something new every time. This past semester I had four classes: two for Statistics, one for R Programming (on-line), and one for Data Visualization. The corresponding semester last year was very hectic, with most weeks being 50-60 hours. I made a decision this year to not do this - trying to keep it to less than 40 hours per week. While this greatly improved work-life balance, it did mean I had less time to prepare classes and grade assessments when compared to last year. I did feel less prepared for classes - even ones I had taught before. One of the things I have never been good at is preparing for classes in the shortest possible time.

I am still a rookie in the online delivery of classes - during last semester I had my second module to deliver on-line: R Programming. I was happy with the way the class went, and based of feedback from students they seemed to like to too. Much still to improve on - but I hope to get the opportunity to do more on-line education again next year.

The College is closed today and on Monday - so a nice end-of-semester break is welcome. Good Friday means choir in the mid-afternoon for me - at 3 o'clock I will be joining my colleagues at the Church of St John the Baptist in Blackrock for Good Friday prayers, before heading to Wexford for the weekend. I have a lot to be thankful for!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

New Video: How To... Create a Simple Data Entry Form in Excel

It has been a while since I made a video based on Excel, so I am glad to be able to publish a new video showing how to create a data entry form in Excel. Many people are used to doing this in Microsoft Access, but very few people use Access compared to Excel. Fortunately, Excel make it easy to do - but it is not immediately obvious where to start. It can be awkward entering data into a sheet with many columns - a form makes this easier. This is the first of two videos on creating a data entry form...

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

New Video: How To... Calculate Spearman's Rank Correlation Coefficient (By Hand)

Last December I got a message on my YouTube channel as follows: "wrong formula! rookie mistake". Naturally I was concerned about this - I often get messages claiming that there are errors on my videos. The video was about how to calculate Spearman's Rank Correlation Coefficient by hand - it is a relatively easy calculation to do and is based on the difference in the rankings of two variables. However, the method I demonstrated had what are called "ties" (two or more values which are the same) - the formula that I used in the video should not be used when there are ties. A rookie mistake indeed! The video was only published in June 2018, but it proved popular as it racked up just over 16,000 views in less than 6 months - very good for a new video. I immediately took the video down from my channel - I did this by making it "Private" so that the 16,000 views would still count in my overall figures. This is cheating of course, but hey - they were still views!

My New Home Studio.
Yesterday I published an updated version - this time with no ties. Some data analysts/statisticians say that if there are only a few ties in a large data set that it does not matter, but the purists say to use a different formula - Kendall's Tau is the recommended one. I hope to do a video of this soon. 

The long delay in replacing the incorrect video was partly due to time pressure, and partly due to me wanting to experiment with my new GoPro camera. I set it up like a document reader and after many trials, I finally got the settings right. I also learned how to control this with my iPad - great for getting the size and settings such as resolution right. I could also start/pause/stop using the iPad. I feel that the quality was really excellent - the sound and video were fine. The GoPro picked up my voice OK, and it was able to focus on the worksheet no problem. I don't have sound proofing in my home office, which could be a problem in future. The GoPro microphone is so good that it is picking up noise from other rooms and from the road outside my house. I have to make recordings during quiet time.

So - finally corrected, here's my new video on how to calculate Spearman's Correlation Coefficient in data that does not have ties...

Monday, April 08, 2019

What does word spinning look like?

Here is my previous post "€8 a page - the price of cheating" put through the spinbot.com word-spinner, two posts for the price of one...!


News in the present Guardian that "US article factory firm targets new understudies through WhatsApp" does not by any means shock me - I'm certain paper factories have numerous cunning approaches to pull in the consideration of understudies who decide not to compose their very own expositions. What surprises me is the value, it is £7 per page (simply over €8). I had never referred to the expense as I clearly have no enthusiasm for completing this. 

So - what might an exposition with a guide of 2,000 words cost? As per the Howard Community College Library site page: 

For a page with 1 inch edges, 12 point Times New Roman text style, and insignificant separating components, a great principle guideline is 500 words for a solitary dispersed page and 250 words for a twofold divided page. 

A 2,000 word exposition would in this manner cost about £28 (€32.56) - exceptionally shoddy. No big surprise understudies are enticed. While most assignments will get a multi week's notice of the accommodation date, it isn't exceptional for understudies to postpone beginning their task until the last minute. At the cost of 5 or 6 pints they can get an exposition factory to take the necessary steps. I don't have the foggiest idea if any of my understudies in the course of recent years have utilized article factory administrations - I surely have never found anybody doing it, nor have I ever even had the smallest doubt. Either these administrations are great, or none of my understudies bamboozled - I want to believe that the last is valid! 

Exposition Mills is one of these administrations who guarantee to be "one of a kind" and who guarantee to give "just 100% literary theft free article papers". I can't help suspecting that one of the strategies they use is word turning (where programming can swap expressions of comparable importance to beat literary theft) - here's certain instances of sentences from their Essay page: 

We appreciate that in the present time of developments; clients want to gain admittance to the rendered administrations from anyplace. 

Regardless of you are in class or at play area, you can get to our administrations from anyplace. 

Regardless of whether you have one percent question that the task composing administration which is taking your well deserved cash from you would not work with an unwavering methodology, you should look for different choices. 

No one composes normally like this. While I have identified word turning previously, any indication of strange sentence development, as in the over three precedents, would quickly raise my doubts.

€8 a page - the price of cheating

News in today's Guardian that "US essay mill firm targets new students through WhatsApp" does not really surprise me - I'm sure essay mills have many clever ways to attract the attention of students who choose not to write their own essays. What does surprise me is the price, it is £7 per page (just over €8). I had never known the cost as I obviously have no interest in getting this done.

So - what would an essay with a guide of 2,000 words cost? According to the Howard Community College Library web page: 

For a page with 1 inch margins, 12 point Times New Roman font, and minimal spacing elements, a good rule of thumb is 500 words for a single spaced page and 250 words for a double spaced page.

A 2,000 word essay would therefore cost about £28 (€32.56) - very cheap. No wonder students are tempted. While most assignments will get several week's notice of the submission date, it is not uncommon for students to delay starting their assignment until the last moment. For the price of 5 or 6 pints they can get an essay mill to do the work instead. I don't know if any of my students over the past 17 years have used essay mill services - I certainly have never caught anyone doing it, nor have I ever even had the slightest suspicion. Either these services are very good, or none of my students cheated - I prefer to think that the latter is true!

Essay Mills is one of these services who claim to be "unique" and who promise to provide "only 100% plagiarism free essay papers". It seems to me that one of the tactics they use is word spinning (where software can swap words of similar meaning to beat plagiarism) - here's some examples of sentences from their Essay page: 

We comprehend that in the current era of innovations; customers desire to get access to the rendered services from anywhere.

No matter you are in class or at playground, you can access our services from anywhere.

Even if you have one percent doubt that the assignment writing service which is taking your hard earned money from you would not work with a faithful approach, you should seek other alternatives.

Nobody writes naturally like this. While I have detected word spinning before, any sign of weird sentence construction, as in the above three examples, would immediately raise my suspicions.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Selling my Coin Collection

Today at the Whyte's Auction I sold almost my entire coin collection. I have been collecting coins since I was a boy and have enjoyed having them over the years. However, in recent years I have stopped purchasing coins at fairs and coin shops - I had really lost interest. Last September I went to Whyte's Auctioneers in Molesworth Street with a suitcase full of coins. The suitcase was divided into nine lots for the auction - some, such as the 1986 coin set below, sold for less than the guide price, but others, such as the box of collectibles below, made more than the guide price. While I felt a little sad at selling some coins I've had for over 40 years - I also felt it was time to let go. I hope whoever has bought them enjoys these coins.

I didn't expect to make a lot of money on coins over the years. Many of the official Mint sets I purchased were worth less than what I paid for them, and I am certain that I paid far more than the sales total that I received today. None of the individual coins or sets were rare or valuable - though the 1986 set below sold for €240 (it was estimated to sell for up to €400). 


Friday, April 05, 2019

12 Years on YouTube

This weekend 12 years ago I set up my YouTube Channel. This was just 7 months after Google bought YouTube (for $1.65 billion!) - YouTube was founded by  Jawed Karim, Steve Chen, and Chad Hurley on 14th February, 2005. It seems to have been around forever, and it has been part of my life for a long time.

My first video was published on 11th December 2007. It now seems very antiquated and very much out of date (it has just 6,436 views in 12 years). This was very much an experiment to use the (then) latest technology to view class notes created in PowerPoint. The quality compared to today is poor, everything was done as screen shots rather than video capture. Even the use of an iPod seems old - smartphones were not yet anything like as ubiquitous as today - the first iPhone was launched by Steve Jobs just over 5 months earlier on 29th June, 2007. I can remember having fun making this video and also having many "takes" before getting it right. There's no way I would have believed anyone if they told me that I would have 18.5 millions views on my channel 12 years later.

A little bit of nostalgia...

Friday, March 29, 2019

"59 year old farts" don't like Harley-Davidson's new electric bike #LiveWire

Here's news of something I thought I'd never see - Harley-Davidson have recently announced the launch of the LiveWire, a new electric bike. Petrol Heads everywhere must be both surprised and astonished that such an icon of American iron is embracing the electric era. This is what it looks like:

Image source: Clean Technica.

Apart from the Sportster like tank, this does not look like a Harley. No exhaust pipes (which means no noise) looks weird, and the "engine" looks like it wouldn't pull you out of your bed. However, this bike is not built for cruising on long journeys. For a start, it will do just 175 kms (110 miles) on a charge. There is no room for luggage, but I suspect many riders will like the instant acceleration that an electric "engine" gives plus not having to deal with gears. What riders won't like is the price tag, Dublin Harley-Davidson is quoting prices starting at a whopping €34,695 (pre-orders open in April) - that's more expensive that any new motorcycle (other than Trikes) that Harley-Davidson sells in Ireland.

The Beautifully Organised Blog gets it right for me when it quotes a rider called David Lutzow, of Pasadena. While he thinks that it is great for the environment that Harley-Davidson is going electric, he is not sure if it will "catch on". He says. "I think it will attract the younger people — they call them, what, millennials or whatever? I think it will attract that group, other than 59-year-old farts like myself.

As a fellow 59-year-old "fart", give me the smell and noise of my Monster Ovals exhaust pipes and the rumble of my 1600 cc noisy engine any time!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

30 Years Ago - CBT Systems

On 28th March 1989 I walked though the doors of 39/40 Lower Mount Street in Dublin into my first "proper job" - my how the 30 years since have passed! The company was named "CBT Systems" - when I was interviewed for the job (with BB and TG) I did not know what "CBT" stood for - no Google in those days to look it up! CBT (Computer Based Training) Systems became SmartForce in 1997, which in turn was taken over by Skillsoft in 2002 when I left the company.

I remember that my first day was spent looking at the company's existing e-Learning courses, though it was not called e-Learning then. I remember that the product we (two others started the same days) looked at was called "Protocol 90" - a course on telecommunications that was the first big success for CBT Systems. We spent over a week training in a basement office before we were added to project teams.

One of my first business cards.
When I think back to the technology that we used then it amazes me how we got any work done. The PC I had was an early 1980s IBM 8086 with no hard drive - I was very excited to have a computer to myself to work with! It had two 5.5 inch floppy disk drives, the program we used (TenCORE) was on one disk, our work on the other. The operating system was MS-DOS. No network to back up our work - this was done at the end of the week by copying our work onto separate floppy disks which were taken off site. None of us had mobile phones, laptops, or our own computers at home at that time. 

I remember being very nervous on the first day, but I was put at ease straight away. No way would I have predicted that I would spend over 13 years in CBT Systems/SmartForce which involved moving from floppy disks to the dot com boom. Though it is now nearly 17 years since I left SmartForce I still have fond memories of the people and the work since my first day nervously knocking on the door of 39/40 Mount Street.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A New Leader @YouTube

For almost all the time since I published my How To...Create a Basic Gantt Chart in Excel 2010 in January 2011, it has been my most watched YouTube video. It was my first video to reach a million views , and to date it has 1,216,688 views. Earlier this year, my How To... Plot Multiple Data Sets on the Same Chart in Excel 2010 (published in April 2012) became my second video to reach a million views and just a few weeks ago it surpassed the Gantt chart video to take over as my most viewed video. Today it has reached 1,285,406 views. In both cases it has taken about six to seven years to reach the one million views landmark - not exactly "going viral", but figures I am proud of just the same. It is hard to create a YouTube "Hit" in the "How To..." space, a funny dog video might get a million views in just a day!

I have some plans for a new set of videos, but equipment and time are both short at the moment. I would love to do more Statistics By Hand videos but I no longer have access to an adequate document reader (I am experimenting with my new GoPro). I may also dip my toe into R Programming, and a bit more SPSS.

So here's to the new #1...!

Monday, March 25, 2019

Only snobs care about apostrophes

Image source: The Guardian.
The First Dog on the Moon cartoonist makes fun of apostrophe snobs in last week's guardian newspaper: Only snobs care about apostrophes: some correct and popular opinions. It's good fun and as a satirist, the First Dog is not really insulting people who insist on the correct use of apostrophes. I'm also sure he is not having a go at Irish surnames - many, like mine, have an apostrophe in them. I am a self-confessed apostrophe snob!

Beto O'Rourke
Image Source: Facebook.
Your name is one of your most precious things - and I always appreciate the effort that people make to get my surname right. The correct spelling of my family's surname is "O'Loughlin", not "Oloughlin", or "O Loughlin", or "Loughlin". The apostrophe is on all keyboards, just like other symbols and the rest of the alphabet. If people don't make the effort to get a surname right - in a way they are giving a mild insult. Leaving out the apostrophe is the most common error that people make when they get my name wrong. Would "John Smith" be insulted if the name omitted one character and was written as "John S ith"? 

Perhaps if there were more famous people who had an apostrophe, then people would get it right. I hope that Beto O'Rourke gets to be President of the United States - if only to show the world how an Irish name is spelt!

It is not snobbish to want your name spelt correctly - make the effort!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Reading" Week

Today is the start of Reading Week - no classes for four days following yesterday's St Patrick's weekend Bank Holiday. It is a welcome break for me after eight weeks in a row of classes. Most of this week for me will be spent grading Continuous Assessments. I also have the remainder of the semester to plan - though just four more weeks to go. This semester was my first ever with three evening classes, so it will a little strange going back to 9 to 5 for the week.

Reading Week is not just a break from classes. For students it is an opportunity to catch up on study, work on projects, and most importantly to take a break from classes. For faculty it is an opportunity to catch up on grading and class preparation - for some it will be an opportunity to concentrate on research, and most importantly to take a break from classes too. With Easter being so late this year we do not have the opportunity to have two Reading Weeks, so we need to make the most of the break.

The question is - despite above comments, it is worth it? Even the name "Reading Week" suggests that a lot of academic work is being done. No doubt there is much work being done - especially for those students in their final year, or those taking a one year course. But is it the same for all? For me I think that since it was introduced in the College that the break aspect of the week has become most important as semester fatigue sets in. In the week before Reading Week I often note a slight drop in attendance - I guess this is not surprising as it also the lead into a Bank Holiday weekend.

I do hope that students find the time for both study and a rest this week, and set themselves up for the last push before exams start on 1st May. Reading Week - make the most of it!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Being Irish and Native American on St Patrick's Day

So - I was born, reared, live, and will die in Ireland. In my family tree at Ancestry, as far as I can tell - all of my traced ancestors are Irish. So I guess that makes me 100% Irish? While I certainly feel 100% Irish, apparently this is not the case!

Some years ago I got my DNA assessed by the National Geographic's Genographic Project. Clearly it is tracing my DNA back a long time and the results show a mixed ancestry reflecting a mixed heritage. I am 2% Native American according to my results!


While the figures are very general, it does point out that everyone in the world today is linked in some way. In fact, the common direct maternal ancestor to all women alive today was born in East Africa around 180,000 years ago, and that the common direct paternal ancestor of all men alive today was born in Africa around 140,000 years ago. Not quite Adam and Eve as they lived 40,000 years apart and they were not the only man and woman alive at those times. But only their direct ancestors survive today.

I hope that some of my Native American cousins will celebrate St Patrick's Day today - perhaps even with a pint of the black stuff (which I plan to have later)!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Happy 30th Birthday World Wide Web!

This NeXT Computer was used by Berners-Lee
at CERN and became the world's first web server.
Image credit: By Coolcaesar at the English language
Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=395096
So - 30 years ago today in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web - I was just starting my first proper job (in a company called CBT Systems, which later became SmartForce). Like almost everyone, I was oblivious as to what was going on - and certainly not aware of the impact this moment would have on our lives 30 years later. According to Wikipedia, the definition of what the World Wide Web is:

The World Wide Web, commonly known as the Web, is an information space where documents and other web resources are identified by Uniform Resource Locators, which may be interlinked by hypertext, and are accessible via the Internet.

Of course - very few people used the web in 1989. We didn't even have email (I got my first email address at the end of 1994). There was no wasting time looking up the latest news, or checking Facebook, or watching YouTube. I recall wasting time actually chatting with colleagues in the office!

In 1989, Computer Based Training (CBT) was in its infancy - all our courses were delivered on 5 1/2 inch floppy diskettes. Within 10 years we were delivering courses on the World Wide Web via the Internet. WWW made innovation possible on a scale none of us thought possible - but look at us now! Education has thrived with learners able to study at long distances learning almost any topic they want. One of the four modules I teach (R Programming) is on-line, with students from all over Ireland connecting with me as I sit in my office - a long way from a 5 1/2 inch floppy diskette!

A screen-shot from one of my on-line classes.


Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Jerry Merryman RIP

Jerry Merryman (1932-2019).
Image source: NBC News.
Until today, I did not know who Jerry Merryman was - it turns out he was one of the three men who invented the hand-held calculator. Sadly he died on 27th February last - one can say that he truly had an effect on people's lives.

I am reminded of the Intermediate (now Junior) Certificate exams in 1975 - I was 15 years old and calculators were allowed in State Maths exams for the first time in Ireland. If I recall correctly, there were just two boys in the whole exam hall who had calculators, one was in front of me. It seemed grossly unfair that some boys had calculators, while most of us did not - we had to use the old-fashioned Log Tables instead. The Department of Education quickly abandoned calculators in exams after this and they were not re-introduced for some years. 

Jerry Merryman and his colleagues certainly made life easier for anyone needing to carry out basic and advanced mathematical functions. Some argued when they were introduced that students would lose the ability to add and subtract. This may be so, but it frees up valuable time to study other things. 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Hands Off Our Houses Mr Daly!

Minister Jim Daly.
Image source:
www.finegael.ie.
Much ado lately about old people being part of the housing crisis as they dare to live in their own large houses while homeless families live in hotels and emergency accommodation. While these families certainly have my sympathy, I object to the idea that I am part of the problem. Yes - I do live in a four-bedroom house and am currently only using one of those rooms. We raised our family in this house and paid for it over many years with money earned after tax had already been deducted.

Minister for Older People, Jim Daly, is examining ways for older people to "right-size to appropriately sized units" according to a report by Lorraine Courtney in last Thursday's Irish Independent: In this bad game of Monopoly, the young find they can't even pass Go. She quotes from an unpublished Housing Options for our Ageing Population policy statement which proposes new ways of dealing with the current crisis in housing.

Just what is a "right-sized unit"? Should I move from a 4 bedroom house to a 3 bedroom one, or 2, or 1, or a bedsit? Why not pack off all the over 55s into a gulag somewhere on their way to a nursing home in later life? I am sorry to inform the minister that the house I live in is the right size for me, and he can fuck off if he thinks that he can get inside my conscience and force me to give up my home. Am I being selfish?

Ireland's population is growing at about 60,000 per year. We have a thing about high rise buildings and not allowing them - the social disaster of the Ballymun Tower blocks in Dublin will stay in the mind for a long time. But other cities, such as Vancouver, can manage high rise and accommodate thousands of people in a small area - I was really struck by the number of tower apartment blocks in Vancouver city centre when visiting last year. I'm sure there are plenty of problems with these blocks, but if carefully planned I'm sure they would work here too.

The Minister is looking at easy targets such as the over 55s - but has he forgotten that we are the people who vote the most? Hands off our houses!

City of Vancouver.
Image source: The Georgia Straight.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

"Get on with it!" #SnailTortoise

Image source: Celebrating the Ordinary.
Recently, I received a comment from a viewer on one of my YouTube video tutorials to "Come to the point". While comments on my channel are largely very positive, I do get occasional comments that I am going either too slow or too fast. Some also find my Irish accent hard to follow.

So - what is the right pace to deliver content at? It's obvious to all educators that students learn at different paces. Some get the point straight away, while others may leave at the end of class not understanding a thing. I often pause and check how students are getting on in my class - especially practical classes. When I walk around the class I always find that some students get the work done very quickly, while others may not have even started or have got stuck. This makes it difficult to pace a class - we can't go at a speed suitable to the fastest learner - equally it is is very difficult to go at the speed of the slowest learner.  In addition to this there are a lot of distractions in class - almost all my students have computers on during class, and it is obvious to me that some are checking email/messages (and even watching football!). 

It can be a bit frustrating to explain things again and again, but that's part of my job and I do it. I can also see and feel some frustration on the part of students who need to wait while others catch up. In my videos there is the option to fast-forward or rewind (an obvious thing for the author of the comment above to consider). I also have my on-line classes automatically recorded, but I've no sense yet if students find them useful. It is probably one of the biggest advantages that video has over the classroom - I'm certain that there are times in class when my students would like to hit Rewind/Pause/Fast Forward. Maybe even some would like to switch me off!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Feedback as part of Learning #FeedBack, #FeedUp, #FeedForward

I am not often asked by students to give feedback on an exam paper - just a handful over the past few years. Almost always in my experience, when a student requests a feedback session they want to know "where did I lose marks". Students also may feel that they should have got a higher mark - and want to question their grade. My feedback experience with students is largely positive - most are satisfied with their grade once we go through their answers and marks awarded.

While reading the Science of Learning by the Deans for Impact earlier this week I noted that they place a huge emphasis on the benefits of feedback. For the cognitive principle "effective feedback is often essential to acquiring new knowledge and skills" - their advice relating to the practical implication for the classroom is:

Good feedback is: 

  • Specific and clear
  • Focused on the task rather than the student
  • Explanatory and focused on improvement rather than merely verifying performance

Sound advice indeed - I have found that most of my feedback sessions are focused on performance in an exam rather than on improvement. 

John Hattie and Helen Timperley of the University of Auckland (2007) proposed a model of feedback to enhance learning:

Source: Columbia University.
This model encourages "Feed Up" and "Feed Forward" as well as "Feed Back" - the purpose of which is to "reduce discrepancies between current understanding/performance and a desired goal". The model is very much forward looking and is much more than "where did I lose marks". In a way it is a pity that an individual feedback session is not done automatically for all students. We do it for continuous assessment - my practice is to give general feedback in class and offer students the opportunity to request further feedback if they want to (but only a handful do). But most students will want to move on after end of semester exams. Almost always it is about a month between sitting an exam and getting results - feedback will lose its value after such a long time. There are also practical implications restricting individual feedback for all - think of how long it would take to do for a class of 50 students!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

YouTube Channel Coming of Age #18000000

My YouTube channel has grown up this week as it passed the 18 million views mark (18,008,943 today to be precise). Once again I am both delighted and humbled that so many people take the time to view my videos. The channel is still growing as shown in the Lifetime chart below:

Click/Tap image to enlarge.

The channel is firmly on the road to recovery after the disaster of May 2015 (when I changed metadata). I fully expect it to pass 20,000,000 views well before the end of the year. The United States still dominates the percentage of views (34%) but this is declining steadily when compared to other countries (India now ranked second with 11% of overall views). Ireland accounts for just 1.2% of overall views. The top 11 countries for percentage views are as follows:


Onward and upwards!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fluency in the science of learning

In a job advertisement I saw on LinkedIn today (no - I'm not looking for a different job!) for a Learning and Leadership Development Manager in Accenture, I came across the following requirement:

You Might Also Have: 
  • Fluency in the science of learning
In what was an interesting job advert - this stuck out, and I wondered what it meant. I Googled this exact sentence, but just got lots of websites advertising the same job. It seems to me to be a new expression written by the clever folks at Accenture - and I love it!

The Science of Learning can be described in many ways. In an interesting short paper by the Deans of Impact in 2015*, a summary of the "existing research from cognitive science related to how students learn, and connect this research to its practical implications for teaching and learning" is provided. They write that the Science of Learning is based on six questions:

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  5. What motivates students to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

For each question, the answers are divided into Cognitive Principles, and Practical Implications for the Classroom. For example, in question 1 for the cognitive principle...

  • Students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know

... one of the practical implications is advice to provide...

  • A well-sequenced curriculum is important to ensure that students have the prior knowledge they need to master new ideas

For anyone involved in Learning and Teaching, "fluency" in the above six questions focused on students, plus their answers, is a must. The Deans for Impact paper shows educators that there is more to the Science of Learning than just turning up in class and hoping for the best.

*Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact. 


Friday, February 15, 2019

STEM with Arts #STEAM

Image source: Urban Gateways.
An interesting thought in the Guardian, 'Universities stamp out creativity': are graduates ready for work?, from Julie Ward, Labour MEP for north-west England. She stresses the importance of including arts in the emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as key subjects, so that "Stem becomes Steam". She quite rightly (IMHO) points out that parents who advised their children that "taking arts subjects would harm their job prospects were making a mistake". So would it be a good idea to take Arts subjects in a technology degree?

Steve Jobs famously took up calligraphy before dropping out of Reed College in Portland, Oregon  - the story goes that became fascinated by school’s handmade signs, and carried this forward into designing fonts for the Mac. What Arts module(s) would enhance a technology degree? I would favour a plan where one (or more) modules in 1st or 2nd year could be any Elective Arts subject. For example - how about a module on "Text Analysis and Sight-Reading" in Trinity's Diploma in Acting and Theatre, or the "Nature of Morality" in the BA in Philosophy? If a College does not offer Arts programmes, why not let students attend such a module in another University/College/Online, and get the necessary credits, plus the "A" in "STEAM"? A whole new world could be opened up for students in technology degrees who even in first year are pigeon-holed into a path that involves programming, databases, web development, cloud computing, data analytics, etc. Why not add classic Greek as a language?

Creativity and curiosity will be important skills in the workplace of the future, and it must be cultivated more amongst students. Without it employers are increasingly finding themselves in a bind as they require qualifications, but also want graduates to be good at problem-solving - they will demand creativity. Perhaps putting the "A" into STEM will achieve this?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

New Data from the Higher Education Authority #NonCompletion #Analytics

The HEA have produced a major study on An Analysis of Completion in Irish Higher Education: 2007/08 Entrants, which makes for interesting reading. As with many HEA reports there is a lot of detail and mountains of data (this report is 220 pages long!). It does not include the National College of Ireland nor the likes of the Dublin Business School which is a big pity and a major omission in my view. 

Out of this report, Katherine Donnelly of the Irish Independent headlines her report today with "Tech courses are toughest to finish in college". While this may be true, the report digs a lot deeper than a one-liner in the paper. The report divides up the HEA sector into three categories: Colleges (not including NCI), Institutes of Technology, and Universities. Data on levels 6 and 7 for Colleges and Universities is not included - presumably because they don't offer courses under level 8 (honours degree level). 

Non-completion (a fancy word for dropout) rates in Colleges are at 6%, in ITs it is 34%, and in Universities it is 17%. The overall non-completion rate at level 8 is 18% (34,059 students in total) - this is a lot lower than the headline figures being given on radio news this morning.  The lowest non-completion rate is 3% in St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (606 students) - while the highest is 39% at IT Tallaght (605 students), clearly an unusual statistic for institutions with an almost identical number of students - see chart below:

Source: HEA.


Perhaps of more interest to me was the headline figure of 46% non-completion rate in the Computing area. Schools of Computing across the land cannot hide from these figures - here's the HEA's chart for all institutions and also for all levels:

Source: HEA.
Technical courses are indeed challenging, and the HEA point to the Mathematics component of Computing courses as a possible reason for non-completion. The image of working in IT of creating best-selling games, killer apps, and making a lot of money with the potential of becoming a multi-millionaire is a strong one, but this is not going to happen until you learn some Maths and Programming. The HEA report also suggests a strong link between CAO points and non-completion rates - perhaps we are letting some students on low points onto courses they are not yet able for.

I do see lower numbers of students finishing courses than the number at the start in my own classes - it is inevitable. Choosing the right course is a two-way thing: we have to make sure that the course is right for a student, but we also have to make sure that the student is right for the course. I really don't see how an 18 year-old school leaver can be certain of what their future is going to bring - in 1977 when I was 18, I certainly didn't. Most Colleges have tried lots of things to engage first year students in an effort to keep them on board and reduce non-completion. Based ion the HEA figures we all have to try harder!

Monday, February 11, 2019

There's still life in "An Introduction to Business Systems Analysis" book!


Last December I re-released my textbook "An Introduction to Business Systems Analysis" as a print-to-order edition via Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing following the decision of my publisher, The Liffey Press, not to print any more copies. I got all the originals files back from the publisher and reworked them for sale as paperback only on Amazon. Sadly the format would not work in Kindle format, but every time Amazon gets an order, a fresh copy is printed and sent out to the purchaser. The book is an expensive £15.00 + £4.00 postage (€21.92), and I get about £4 per book as a royalty. I did not expect it to sell at all - ego was more of a motivation for keeping it on Amazon than money. 

Much to my surprise, the book has sold 20 copies in two months since its re-release. The module that the book is based on, "Business Systems Analysis" (part of the Certificate in Business Analysis at NCI), still has this book on the reading list - so I'm guessing that at least some students may have purchased it. However, more than half the sales are from the United States, so there is still life in the old dog yet!

Below are sales figures from Amazon - not much, but a book every few days will keep it going with some small royalties to add up for a nice dinner out later in the year!



Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Silence from a class... it almost never means “Yes!”

Image source: 8 seconds.
I got some giggles in class recently when I used my usual tactic when I ask "does anyone have any questions?" after covering a topic by waiting longer than normal for responses. When I explain that I wait at least 8-10 seconds before continuing, I mostly get nods of approval as students see the value in giving extra time to compose questions.

According to Roger Johnson from the University of Minnesota back in 1977, we should wait "at least 8 seconds after asking for questions from a group of learners - before you say anything else as an instructor!” His reason for this is that it turns out when the average instructor asks, “Are there any questions?”, they wait about 3 seconds. According to Johnson, it takes an audience (in my case a class) "a few more seconds to process your request, formulate questions in their minds, scan the room for other people’s responses and decide to actually ask".  He then advises us to count to 8 before continuing and that we will see an "amazing difference". It might not work for every instructor/lecturer, but I feel it works for me and is appreciated in class - it works and I get more questions. I'm careful not to wait too long because more than 10 seconds can lead to an awkward prolonged silence and it may appear that an instructor is dragging things out.

A student commenting on this topic told me when asked "Do you understand this", that any silence from a class more often than not means "confusion"and "hesitation". It almost never means “Yes!”.

So my advice to all educators echoes that of Johnson - wait at least 8 seconds for responses. It's only five seconds more than the standard 3 seconds, and does not take any effort.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Hope Management

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) outlines 10 Knowledge areas that tell us how project management could be conducted. In my IT Project Management class we cover all ten areas, but with most emphasis on Scope/Time/Cost/Quality as it is just a five credit module. As you can see from the diagram below, "Hope Management" is not one of the 10 areas:

Source: Introduction it IT Project Management (Schwalbe, 2018)

Too often, Project Managers and other managers engaged in project management activity, hope that things will work out. The old adage: "Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail" has always been true when it comes to managing projects of any type. When team members are involved in projects that are badly planned - motivation takes a knock, and quality falls. Even a short project needs a plan! If you need something done quickly, don't give it to a busy person. Allocate the appropriate time and resources, learn from mistakes, and quit hoping that things will work out.

In a Blog post from 2012, the Value Transformation web site pleads with Project Managers to "move away from project management activities based upon hope", to stop "making up, dates and duration with little knowledge and hoping things will work out". Worse again is repeating the mistakes of the past and doing exactly the same thing again! There's nothing more that can demotivate team members than poor project management practices. Students interested in a career in Project Management should take note (as should all Project Managers).

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Two weeks without a home computer!

For the past two weeks my home computer has been disconnected while we renovated our home office with new insulation in what was a very cold room. While the work took just two days we had to endure delays when the workmen doing the job didn't turn up, and then waiting for plaster and paint to dry. This morning I finally put everything back together and am back on-line.

So - what's it like without a home computer? Well, I did have an iPad so was not completely disconnected - but I hated being without my desktop PC and two screens. Putting everything back together provided an opportunity to untangle all my cables and put everything back together more tidily. While under my desk is still a mass of wires - it's a lot better now. Sound is not back working yet - but I'll get to that.

Some think people we should all take a break from things - for example not drinking and/or not using technology for a while. But a dry and disconnected January is not for me. If I'd known it would take two weeks before I could use the computer again I would have set it up somewhere else in the house. I have had to put things on the long finger while I was without a computer, and I have a few personal emails to respond to. Work has been busy and hectic since I returned after the Christmas/New Year holiday - I genuinely had very little time to use my work computer in the College for personal stuff (something I probably should not be doing anyway?). Anyway - it's good to have my computer again. I missed it!

My tidy desk - for how long?

Monday, January 21, 2019

New Semester!

In just under an hour I will have my first class for the new semester when I take a Higher Diploma in Data Analytics class for Data Visualization. It's been just over month since my last class - in between we obviously had the holiday season, I also spent almost every day since the New Year grading projects/assignments/exams. I can't wait to get back to class!

Image source: McNair Secondary School.
A new semester is exciting, but it also can be a bit daunting. This semester I do not have a new subject to teach, though I am revamping one module (Advanced Business Data Analysis) quite a bit. While it's nice to be able to re-use material from previous years and get the same modules again to teach - I've always liked having something new. Semester II last year was one of my busiest ever, but I expect it to be a lot less busy this year. I always look forward to meeting new students - two of my modules are with new classes. Equally, I like to see familiar faces - the other two classes I have are with students I taught in semester I.

The two major changes for me this year are that I will be teaching three nights a week for the first time ever. This will be a challenge, but the upside is that I will have the mornings off on those days. I will also be teaching a module (R Programming) on-line again - this is the same module I taught on-line last semester, but to a new group of students. While I feel I did OK in this on-line module last semester, there is lots of room for improvement. While I don't plan a new series of reflective blog posts, I might write a post every now and again.

Here's to the New Semester!

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

January Courses at the National College of Ireland

National College of Ireland,
Changing Lives Through Education.
January is of course a time for new year resolutions - many people might be considering taking one of the many courses available in many third level Colleges. The Springboard initiative funds several courses, including the Higher Diploma in Data Analytics, where most of my teaching is set. It is not too dramatic to say that going back to College can be a life-changing experience - I have seen this several times with my own eyes in the faces of students that sit in my classes. Prospective students can be fearful and uncertain about what steps to take in making a big decision to go to College.

So - what informs a decision to go back to education? There are a lot of questions that you can ask, such as:
  • How hard is it?
  • How easy is it?
  • Will I succeed?
  • It's been a long time since I went to College - will I fit in?
  • It's a long time since I studied - will I be able to pick this up again?
  • It's a long time since I sat an exam - will I be able to get through it?
  • I have a family - can I manage study and a family?
  • I have a job - will I be able to work and study together?
  • Am I too old at 40 (insert your age here) to go back to College?
  • Will I have fun?
  • Will I get a job at the end of the course?

    ....and many more
It is of course a decision for each individual as to whether to go back to College or not. But you should be assured that you are not alone. Courses like our Higher Diplomas are hard work and take up a lot of time - there's no denying that. Study will be disruptive to your life - our job is to help you get you through this. But hopefully the rewards will be worth it and that you can take pride at receiving your diploma at The Graduation Ceremony.