Tuesday, October 20, 2020

World Statistics Day #StatsDay2020

Today is the United Nations World Statistics Day, and the theme this year is about "Connecting the world with data we can trust". UN Secretary-General António Guterres tells us that "the United Nations marks its seventy-fifth anniversary and the world deploys data to face a common challenge, let us use World Statistics Day to spotlight the role of statistics in advancing sustainable development for all".

As a Lecturer who has been teaching Statistics for the past seven years, I think it is fantastic that statistics get recognition like this. We now know more than ever how important data has become - Statistics is the Science of Data and is an increasingly important skill to have. In the video below, various experts tell us that "Statistics can save lives",  "Data is a force for good", "Good data is essential to keep us safe", and that we "need data for a better world".

The writer H.G. Wells (1866-1946), once prophetically said that "Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write”. He was right!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

YouTube Channel Feedback

Over the years since I first started my YouTube Channel in 2006, I have received many comments on videos from viewers. These are mostly positive, though there are some negative comments too. Rarely are the comments more than a line or two - mostly just saying "thanks". I also know very little about my viewers. YouTube Analytics gives me lots of general demographic data such as what country viewers are from, their age, and gender - but nothing on individuals.

Recently, I received much more detailed feedback from a viewer that struck me as both kind and informative. I'll not name the viewer here, but based on the viewer's name she is most likely to be from the USA. She is a single mother with a disabled child who works full-time and is also a part time student studying for a BA degree. She is using her studies, and my videos which she really likes, to compete for jobs that she would not otherwise be qualified for. She is clearly a dedicated learner and I wish her well in her future. Hearing her story and getting feedback like this certainly motivates me to continue my YouTube work.

At the National College of Ireland, our Mission is "To Change Lives Through Education". I have seen this happen over and over in my time at NCI.

My kind viewer is just one of 23,014,049 viewers and 51,300 subscribers - the 23M and 50K landmarks were both passed recently. I have plans for a new series of videos, and will possibly retire some of the older videos that are no longer valid or useful. I would certainly like to grow the number of views and continue to hope that my videos will contribute in some small way to changing lives through education.

Data Source: YouTube Analytics (15th Oct, 2020).

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

€250 for students #Budget2021

In yesterday's budget it was announced that third-level students in Ireland are to be given a payment of €250 each in the coming academic year to compensate for moving to on-line learning. This does not sound like a lot of money, but in total it will amount to a whopping €50 million. Students who already pay the €3,000 student registration fee will get €250 of this back - this does not sound like a lot of money any more.

Nevertheless, it will be a welcome refund for all. Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris is quoted as saying "For students, this year has been like no other. The majority of college will be online for this semester and we will provide financial assistance through a €50 million fund". I don't know how much assistance €250 will buy, perhaps some equipment like headphones, mics, or a down payment on a new laptop. Many students will already have a lot of the equipment they need. They should not need to buy any extra software as it should be provided by their College.
Image source: knowyourmeme.com

While I welcome any financial assistance provided to students, I can't help feeling that money like this should be targeted at students who are in real financial difficulty. They already of course get the SUSI grant, and this needed €250 will be on top of that, lack of money should not be a barrier to education. There are many students who are well off enough not to need this €250, and I wonder should means be considered? In any event, I hope students spend this money wisely. It is borrowed money that will have to be repaid some day in the future by today's students.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Digital Natives are not used to online learning via @guardian

With most Colleges and Universities returning to class this week there are understandable worries about how incoming new students will perform. In the 19th September edition of The Guardian newspaper, Anna Fazackerley writes about fears that UK universities predict record student dropout rate. She worries about students having “lost the discipline of learning” due to long months without classes and exams. She quotes a source saying that "the university experience won’t be as good because so much has to be different, from how they are taught to how they socialise”. 

There's no doubt that going to College this year is going to be a lot different than what would have normally been expected. But my sense of it is that students will adapt and create a unique "university experience" like no other. After all, today's incoming students are "Digital Natives". While almost all colleges are rushing to switch to on-line teaching, Fazackerley quotes a university advisor who says that  while incoming students may be “digital natives”, they are "not used to online learning". 

I beg to differ!

I have been teaching on-line classes for the past two years, and I know that many students prefer on-line learning for lots of reasons: work/life balance, convenience, less travel to College, recorded classes, and many more. Lots of courses are already delivered on-line for many years. Incoming students in their late teens/early twenties have been learning on-line for almost all of their lives. They have been using the likes of YouTube to learn everything from how to take out a contact lens, to cooking chocolate brownies. I also know from comments in my own YouTube Channel that many students look to "How To..." videos to learn everything from how to perform a statistics test, to how to draw a pie chart in Excel. To say that young people are  "not used to online learning" is way off the mark. 

My message to incoming students is that they should grasp the opportunity to be the first generation to attend College fully on-line, and to create opportunities for connecting and socialising like never before. You are already experts at on-line learning, and I predict that in four years time when you graduate, that you and your fellow students will be much sought after by employers as you will have had to overcome challenges that no other graduates will have had to do before. 

Seize this opportunity!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Curves and Lockdown #analytics

Most people will be aware that the city of Melbourne in Australia has endured one of the world's strictest lockdowns, but the data so far is showing that this drastic action has yielded fantastic results. In a stark lesson for those people who protest against lockdowns and face-mask wearing, the evidence is that Melbourne's early lockdown intervention serves as another lesson for people living in Dublin as to what a new (albeit moderate) lockdown will mean for us, and why early intervention is necessary. 

Check out the chart below...

Source: The Shot.

The upsurge in cases in June looks small, this was due partly to the sharing of a cigarette lighter between security guards at a hotel where international travellers were being quarantined (see: The Irish Times article "The strange tale of the cigarette lighter that spread coronavirus around a city"). However, the spread of the virus quickly got out of control, and the authorities introduced a lockdown in early July. You can see that this had little effect at first as cases still climbed, but since August they have dramatically declined. Could this happen in Dublin, a city/county about one quarter the size of Melbourne?

In my opinion, the government has no option but to renew restrictions in Dublin. This is shitty for everyone, not just for the protestors, people who deny there is a problem, or those whose personal freedom is being denied by a piece of cloth on their face. We don't want a curve with a higher peak than Melbourne's above, and the consequent higher number of deaths that will follow.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Gompertz Curve #analytics #covid19

One thing that the Covid-19 Pandemic has done is to introduce the science of data to many more people than ever before. We listen out for numbers every day and worry when they increase. Expressions such as "flattening the curve" and terms such as the "R number" are now part of our vocabulary, Today I heard a new term - the Gompertz Curve!

The Gompertz Curve is a type of mathematical model for a time series analysis, and is named after Benjamin Gompertz (1779–1865) who was a British mathematician. According to Wikipedia, the Gompertz Curve is a "sigmoid function which describes growth as being slowest at the start and end of a given time period". Here's a curve for the daily cumulative number of deaths from Covid-19 in Ireland since the first case was diagnosed on March 1st to today:

This is a familiar chart for those of us who are following Covid-19 data closely. The curve follows the classic Gompertz shape and the number of deaths per day has thankfully slowed. But for how long?

A similar chart drawn for cumulative cases over the same period is a little bit different:

You can see that from March to July, the curve was indeed a classic Gompertz shape. But since August the curve has started to go up again, and can no longer be described as a Gompertz Curve. If we imagine starting a new curve in (say) June when it was last flat, we can expect the increase to get more pronounced before it levels off again.

Worrying times ahead. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Missing NCI

Yesterday I was in Dublin City Centre for the first time since mid-March, and I happened to be close to the National College of Ireland so I called by to see it. The College is closed on Sundays and I made no attempt to go in. I have not been in my office now for 28 weeks (sounds like a horror movie!), and I find myself missing College and my colleagues. It is a weird feeling standing outside my place of work and not being able to go in. 

Home is now my place of work, as it for many. Home will also soon be a place of learning for most students - this will be different for everyone, challenging for many, and brilliant for others. This of course is the same for students coming to classroom based courses. I do hope that Colleges will be more than ready for the coming semester. While I have been teaching on-line for the past two years, I have very limited experience of taking classes on-line. 

It's an aspect of the coming year that almost all lecturers who will be teaching have not themselves taken classes while studying for their degrees on-line. It will take quite a long time for this to change, but today's students who will become tomorrow's lecturers will have a unique set of learning experiences that I hope will make them better teachers.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

"The quality of our third-level education will be maintained and, in some cases, enhanced" via @gregfoley2002

The always insightful DCU Lecturer Greg Foley get my 100% agreement with his letter "Lecture Notes" in The Irish Times yesterday. In his letter, he points out that while students will be "missing out by having so little on-campus time", that the there are "advantages of techniques like screencasting", and that the quality of education will be "enhanced". Let's all hope that this is true!

In a blog post expanding on his letter: Going online and the student experience, Greg asks about what the student "experience" is and writes that for many students, "the on-campus experience is not all it’s cracked up to be". He uses the word "elitist" to describe those who say that a lack of on-campus experience somehow stunts student learning.

I have written elsewhere in this blog that I feel that an education revolution is taking place and that third-level in particular could change forever. Foley writes that for "many disciplines..... the lecture is not an effective way of teaching". Certainly, I and many of many colleagues, have found that teaching on-line is a different experience than in a physical classroom. The Lecture is dead, long live on-line teaching!

Please note: Views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own personal views, and not those of NCI or any other academic institution.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Pool Tables to attract Third-level Students

First - a confession. I spent a huge amount of my College time in first and second year in Trinity in the Junior Common Room playing pool and table football. If I had used this time on study instead, perhaps I would have got through these years and avoided the endless repeats I subjected myself to. 

Image source: The Irish Times.

An advertising feature in today's Irish Times entitled "Just received your exam results? It’s time to book your student home at Brickworks" shows a picture of pool and football tables at the top of the article (and on the thumbnail link on the IT home page). I'm guessing that this is not an accident, the article does feature a lot more photos showing other facilities and student rooms. However, I am fascinated by the use of this photo as a headline - is this clever marketing or a real indicator of what life will be like in student accomodation?

Brickworks looks like a fantastic place for students to live - my digs in Terenure in my 1st year were a million miles away from this. Student accommodation businesses are certainly in uncertain times and are currently offering what seem to be very flexible terms. With an expected drop in International students, and Colleges running classes on-line, it's going to take more than pool tables to fill these places up!

Thursday, September 03, 2020

"Academics are notoriously slow to change" via @timeshighered

So, between Covid-19 and Google - we are entering into a new era of education. We have unprecedented abilities to change and improve the way we teach and learn. As Dawn Lerman and Falguni Sen wrote in the Times Higher Education (THE) website last April, "Could the coronavirus force positive change in higher education?". They argue that we "need to build on the speed and enthusiasm with which academics have embraced online teaching" though doing this in colleges where "only a handful of faculty previously taught online is no small task". This was easily accepted because back in March/April we all thought it was a temporary measure of just a few weeks - and we didn't really have a choice.

Now we are all faced with at least a semester being delivered online, and possibly a full academic year - colleges/universities everywhere are boosting their online teaching skills with staff development programmes and training in the use of tools like Adobe Connect and Microsoft Teams. As Lerman and Sen write, converting a course for online delivery is "time-consuming work", and my own experience confirms this. Incoming students will have high expectations of Technology Enhanced Learning and the abilities of their lecturers to deliver.

I disagree with Lerman and Sen's claim that "Academics are notoriously slow to change" just because we "teach the same courses year after year". I believe we have changed and adapted to the new environments. Nobody expects us to change from classroom to online delivery perfectly overnight. A brilliant lecturer in a theatre may struggle with virtual classrooms, while others may thrive online. 

Thankfully, new and younger academics entering a career as a lecturer will be far more technology efficient than academics of my generation. I predict that they will all have to deliver at least some of their lectures/classes online, and that on-line teaching ability will be just as important as lecturing, carrying out research, and publishing papers. Get ready for this!

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Google: “In our own hiring, we will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles

Higher Education is about to be disrupted again! While the Covid-19 pandemic has moved millions of third-level students online and classrooms remain empty, Google (with a perfect sense of timing) is launching a series of "career certificates" that they claim can be completed in six months. They further claim that these certificates are equal to a four-year degree programmes during their own hiring process (they do not claim that this will be the case for other companies). Google already has an IT Support Professional Certificate, and plan to create new certifications in areas such as Data Analyst, Project Manager, and UX Designer. At the moment their website (Grow With Google) seems to indicate that this is for the USA only (you need a Zip Code to register interest, EirCodes don't work) - but surely if this is successful, it will spread worldwide faster than a virus. I'd certainly like to see it available to Irish people - we need these skills in our economy. The courses will not be free, but Google is making some scholarships and subsidies available


So - how can a six-month programme be the "equivalent" of a four-year degree? Clearly the extra-curricular activities associated with studying for a degree such as sports, travel, and partying are not part of Google's career certificates. To me, a nineteen-year old school-leaver with a career certificate gained after six months is not as qualified as a 22-year old with a four year degree. Students learn more than just the core skills in a subject area, and they also build on their skills as they move up through the years. Nevertheless, four years seems a long time compared to six months!

Some Colleges, such as our own National College of Ireland, have had some success with compressing a degree into two years. Examples of such programmes are the two-year part-time BA (Honours) in HRM Strategy and Practice and the BA (Honours) in Business Management. This is more attractive to people in a hurry, and who are prepared to commit to fast-track study.  

Google is definitely shaking things up and universities/colleges better watch out and get ready to react.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Well Done Waterford IT!

So - Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) is first out of the blocks and has announced that all lectures, tutorials and practical classes will be delivered remotely for the 2020/2021 academic year, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a message to students, WIT announced that "delivery will include live-streaming of lectures and other forms of remote learning platforms appropriate to individual modules or programmes". Some classes such as laboratories and workshops, or those that require special equipment, will take place on campus but be subject to "appropriate social distancing and PPE based on the physical layout of the learning spaces". A sensible and clear communication from WIT.

I applaud WIT for this move.

Waterford IT.
Image source: www.wit.ie.

If done correctly, delivering lectures, tutorials and practical classes on-line should result in a good learning experience for students. While there are challenges, learning on-line should see students adapting to the new environment. My sense is that our students, especially those in their late teens and early twenties, will adopt new techniques very quickly. Many have commented on the learning experience of college life being missed out on. While this is true, it is not a show stopper. Many students already commute long distances to College as they cannot afford city accommodation - these students will find life easier, and perhaps will enjoy being in their own communities a bit more rather than sitting on a bus/train for hours each day.

No doubt there will be studies carried out into the effectiveness of the switch to on-line learning in the coming years, and it will be really interesting to see what the effect is on students' health and well-being, as well as their academic performance. 

Please note: Views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own personal views, and not those of NCI or any other academic institution.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Proposal: Make the 2020/2021 Academic Year Online Only

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the coming academic year should be declared entirely online. No uncertainty, no doubts, no health risks, and of course - no need for physical classrooms. Students are still wondering if they'll need accommodation, or if they will have to book a B&B for their once in a month appearance in College. Others worry about the risk to their health and might not want to attend a class. If Colleges are recording classes anyway - why bother turning up? 

What about the academics?

An article in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper "UK universities' promise of face-to-face teaching is risking academics' health" points out many downsides to students not returning to College, including the "financial basket cases" that UK universities and colleges are in compared to their wealthier American counterparts who can afford to ride out the Covid-19 storm. The article makes the obvious point that "online teaching involves absolutely no risk of catching Covid". Why would universities and colleges put older (60+ like me) academics at risk when there is a risk-free online alternative? For a brief few weeks in March and April colleges everywhere showed that online teaching could be done. Starting the next academic year off online and/or blended learning is fine - we have no choice. But the rest of the year is still in doubt - today, Trinity College's website states that a "decision on the second semester will be taken closer to the time". 

With no sign that the virus is going away, or that a vaccine will be widely available by the end of this year - we should make the decision now to go fully online as much as possible for the entire academic year.

Please note: Views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own personal views, and not those of NCI or any other academic institution.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Want to study for free at NCI?

Check out this great video from NCI featuring my colleagues Orla O'Sullivan and Sam Cogan telling us about studying in NCI on our Springboard courses. Some programmes, like Data Analytics, are filling up fast - so if you are interested in gaining a new skill, now is the time to act. Our next Open Day (which will be on-line) is this Saturday (29th August). I will be on duty to answer your questions - so see you there!

Monday, August 17, 2020

90% of Data is Crap? #analytics

In a recent book "World Wide Waste" by Gerry McGovern, he tells us that up to "90% of digital data is not used" and that we "collect....store....create... and then don’t use" our data. He cites quite a lot of sources to base this information on:
  • Around 90% of data is never accessed three months after it is first stored, according to Tech Target. 
  • 80% of all digital data is never accessed or used again after it is stored, according to a 2018 report by Active Archive Alliance.
  • Businesses typically only analyze around 10% of the data they collect, according to search technology specialist Lucidworks. 
  • 90% of unstructured data is never analyzed, according to IDC.
  • 90% of all sensor data collected from Internet of Things devices is never used, according to IBM
Source: https://gerrymcgovern.com/books/world-wide-waste/

McGovern goes on to say: "Cheap storage combined with cheap processing power made the World Wide Web the World Wide Waste" and that the "Web is an ocean full of crap". I don't disagree with this. My own Google Drive right now has 192,178 files, 19,853 folders, and takes up 360,216,594,133 bytes - I have no idea what all this "crap" is!

This 90% figure is based on Sturgeon's Law, which states that "ninety percent of everything is crap", and is also similar to the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule ("80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes"). I'm sure everyone can think of situations where this applies, and it is no surprise that data is similarly regarded.

So if 90% is "crap", 10% is therefore useful. But the key thing here is how to identify the useful 10%? This is where we need skilled data scientists and analysts posing the right questions and using the right tools to find value in data. Learning how to prioritise the 10% is not easy, but it starts with questions. If 90% of your sales come from 10% of your customers - do you know who the customers are who make up the 10%? 

Asking a question is easy, but asking the right question is not.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Afraid to go back to work? #Over60s

Older people with underlying conditions appear to be the most vulnerable to dying if they catch the Covid-19 virus - younger people are less affected. Take a look at the data example below from May 13th in New York city:

Data Source: worldometer.

So, if you are in the 46-64 years old age group (as I am), you are over four times more likely to die than someone in the 18-44 years old group if you catch Covid-19. This makes me fearful for any teacher/lecturer going back to classes where most students are a lot younger. For teachers going back to primary/secondary schools - the gap is even bigger. But like nurses and doctors going into work in a hospital - it has to be done. Or does it?

The new school year is only a couple of weeks away, and another five weeks to third level Colleges opening up. While Colleges seem to be ready for on-line classes, our Government is prioritising school opening. Today is the 11th August, and three counties are back in lockdown - how can schools reopen in these areas? Or those beside them? I fear we will see further disruption to schools.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Phased Return to Campus

Several weeks ago when it was announced that the NCI Campus would reopen on a phased basis from 10th August, it seemed so far away. I have not been in the College since the middle of March, and have no plans to go there for at least the rest of this month. My summer holidays are over, but I am continuing to work from home. Yes - like everyone else, I miss my colleagues and the normality of being in an office. August would have been a relatively quiet time in the College Campus. Repeat exams would have been taking place, but the numbers of students in the building would have been small anyway.
It has been a strange realization that we can continue to work for almost five months without seeing colleagues and students. In a way, the timing of the Covid 19 arrival in Ireland and subsequent lockdown was suitable! Only a few weeks of classes were disrupted at the end of Semester II, and we have had a long lead in to the new academic year. I'm beginning to wonder if I will return to the office at all?

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Back to Work #wfh

After a couple of weeks break, I am now "back" to work, but working from home. It's a strange feeling not to be riding into the College in Dublin City Centre this morning trying to see what has changed on the street landscapes since before my holidays. Though NCI is opening its campus next Monday, I have no plans to go there in the next few weeks - I will continue to work from my home office.

The Government has published guidelines for third-level institutions today. Shauna Bowers writes in today's Irish Times that Students to wear face coverings in lectures where two metre distance not possible. She also reports that "In the event that tuition requires the staff member to be less than two metres from students, the staff member should wear face shields, visors or other protective equipment which will be provided by the college or university", and that class sizes be restricted to just 50 students. All of this makes perfect sense from a public health point of view, though NCI is way ahead with plans for opening the campus next Monday:

But will there be any students? Most classes are going to be on-line in semester I - both Lecturers and students will be at home for class. Some Colleges are planning to provide classes both on-line and live in the classroom - I wonder how well that will go down with the unions? Is it practical? Is is necessary? Who is going to come to the College campus when classes are also on-line? We showed at the end of the last academic year, and with courses running over the summer, that everything is possible on-line. True - many students might prefer to study in the library, but with more ebooks available, this too seems to be a bit old-fashioned. 

It is my view now that physical classroom space in a College campus is no longer necessary. It is possible or even probable that students feel the same. No one thought a few years ago that the likes of Tinder and Bumble would replace the pub or disco as a place to meet someone - yet it seems to be very normal now. It is not that long ago that it would have been unusual for a student to bring a computer to College - now they almost all do. An true education revolution has taken place over the past few months, and Colleges will struggle to justify the existence of their old-fashioned lecture halls and classrooms. 

There should be no going back.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

A Proud Legacy #GAA #WicklowPeople

In the Wicklow People newspaper published on 15th July last there is a wonderful article by Ettie Kilbride about the little known GAA club in Tomacork which was founded by my Grandfather PJ O'Loughlin. He was originally from Newmarket in North Cork and came to Tomacork, just outside Carnew in South Co Wicklow, in 1930. In the photo of the Newmarket 1927 County Junior team to the right he is wearing a suit and is seated at the right side of the middle row. He was 23 years old in this photo. 

Right from the start he set about creating a new club in Tomacork, while also managing a new farm and starting a new family (my Dad and his twin sister Sheila were born in March 1931) - he clearly liked to be busy! According to the late Jim Brophy's excellent book about Wicklow GAA "The Leathers Echo", PJ played for Carnew Emmets in the Wicklow Junior Hurling final in 1932 beating Glenealy 3-0 to 2-2. According to Ettie Kilbride, this Carnew team was an "amalgamate" team of Tomacork and Carnew. A separate Tomacork team (which did not feature my Grandfather) then went on to win the title by themselves in 1933. Reproduced below (without permission from the Wicklow People) is Ettie's article in full with the story of Tomacork GAA and the role played by my Grandfather in this piece of GAA history. 

Thank you Ettie for the memories!

The Wicklow People - 15th July, 2020.
Reproduced without permission.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Study Data Analytics at NCI

It's a time of year when many people might be considering taking a course this coming September. Higher than normal unemployment rates may also be a factor in some people considering new options. SpringBoard+ offers lots of free and partly-free options, and many of these courses are delivered by the National College of Ireland. The Higher Diplomas in Data Analytics and Computing are very popular - over 2,000 students have enrolled in these courses over the past five years, almost all via SpringBoard+.

A third level (8) degree in any discipline is all you need to qualify for the course. If you do not have a degree, there is a path for you to follow via NCI's Recognition of Prior Experiential Learning (RPEL) process - so don't be put off if you do not have a degree. Our next Open Evening takes place on-line on 16th July next - check the Events page at www.ncirl.ie for details. Why not join us!

Check out the following video from NCI's Marketing Department featuring Daren Malone, one of our data analytics graduates, and hear what he has to say.

National College of Ireland - Changing Lives Through Education

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The HSE's Covid Tracker App #Analytics

Many people will be worried about the data privacy implications with the new HSE Covid Tracker App. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has stated "Please take two minutes to download the app. It is totally private" - if you are reassured by statements from politicians, then you should be OK. 

Clearly - the motives for creating and using this tracker are morally justified in my view. Anything that can help slow down infection rates, which in turn will save lives, is good for the common good. Nobody wants to get catch this virus, nobody wants to pass it on, nobody wants to die from Covid-19, and I'm certain that nobody wants to be the source of infection for someone who dies. So what's the problem with a tracker app?

No data collected is private. Repeat - no data collected is private.

Data sits on a computer somewhere - everything from phones to servers. In order for this app to work it has to gather data - that means that it can be accessed. No doubt these data will be a valuable source of information for researchers everywhere. Who knows - a data scientist might come up with a cure before a medical scientist looking for a vaccine.

I have installed the App and intend to use it. There are very few age groups listed - the oldest is "60+" which the App tells me is the most vulnerable group. I am in this group, and have in interest in staying alive. During installation I was told "Your identity will never be revealed to other app users" and that "Any personal data you provide will be processed in line with GDPR and data protection law". There were several opportunities to visit data protection sites.

We have to trust this App, the people who created it, and those who protect the data. There will be hackers out there already trying to get their hands on these valuable data. Since I took the screenshot above on my phone 22 minutes ago, the number has gone up to 160,440 Check-Ins today.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Out of the city #Wexford #wfh

It's the end of June and finally the end of the Covid-19 Lockdown, and I have decamped to Wexford for the rest of the summer. I am continuing to work from home thanks to recently installed Vodafone broadband. It's good to be out of the city and be in beautiful Wexford.

One of the first things I did when I got here was to go to Carnew to see my Mum and Dad - I hadn't seen them since St Patrick's Day. It was very hard to confine myself to Dublin and stay away from them - especially when others took risks and broke the Lockdown rules. I was never 100% sure that I would not have the virus - 99% was not good enough for me. So many people have lost parents and grandparents - my family and I are blessed that Phil and Joe were safe and healthy.

Someday I might write about experiences during Lockdown - especially relating to being an educator in the on-line world. But I do notice some things coming back to normal. It was great to be able to drive more than 20 kms though the familiar roads of Wicklow - driving, such a simple pleasure. 

When in Gorey the other day I used cash to pay for parking, 50c got me 30 minutes. It was the first time using cash for over three months. I was only going to be in Gorey for a few minutes, but I did not want to risk a €40 fine. Other simple things like mowing the lawn were also a treat, even though the length of the grass made my lawn look more like a meadow than a manicured green grass carpet. I almost consider it a badge of honour to have my lawn like this. I mow the lawn myself - many of my neighbours use lawn mowing services to keep their grass in a trim condition.

Normally on this week every year, I start my (generously) lengthy summer holidays. This time last year Roma and I were on Day 3 of our Route 66 trip riding from Springfield to St Louis. I'm not taking holidays this year until the last two weeks in July - it's going to be difficult to stay working at my computer while walks on the beach are close at hand.

It is good to be back to some semblance of normality - good riddance to March/April/May/June 2020.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Is now a good time for a gap year from College?

Many new and returning students are facing into uncertain times when the new academic year begins in September. For many students, deferring admission or continuation for a year is suddenly far more attractive. Many Universities and Colleges have still to finalise if classes will be held on campus and/or on-line. 

College of course is as much about campus-life experience as it is about classes. I spent eight years in Trinity and loved (almost) every minute of it. I did not have a gap year - it wasn't really a thing back in the late 70s and early 80s. Today's students must be wondering if it is worth going back to College and inevitable uncertainty, or is it a good time to step away from education and do something else?

Believe it or not - there is a Gap Year Association. It recommends four key components for making a year off before college worthwhile:
  1. Service work or volunteering
  2. Internship or career mentorship
  3. Some amount of paid work
  4. "Free Radical"  - something creative, so that the year is not over-scheduled

In addition to current uncertainty, students may experience burnout from the competitive pressure of College, and  have a desire to know more about themselves. Travel is also a good reason to take a gap year - but this may remain restricted for some time. Why take a gap year if you can't travel the world?

On balance - I think this would be the perfect time for a gap year if you can afford it. While travel may be restricted, and opportunities for casual work in bars and restaurants reduced - there is still plenty to do.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Lecturers - we are no longer in charge of the classroom?

The transition from classroom to on-line lectures has been smooth for some lecturers, and difficult for others. Not all subjects lend themselves to the on-line environment, and as Éanna Ó Caollaí writes about "Coronavirus and the ‘new norm’ at third level" in today's Irish Times: "shoe-horning course content online in response to a crisis might work as a stop-gap but it is not considered to be best practice when it comes to online education". Ó Caollaí also wonders about the "degree to which academic programmes will be redesigned to place online at the core of curriculum delivery still remains to be seen". But the central point of a class/lecture has always been that the treacher/lecturer is in control of what happens - but is this changing?

Kate Roll (Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL) and Marc Ventresca (Said Business School, Oxford) writing in The Guardian this week tell us that "Lecturer and student relationships matter even more online than on campus", and that due to the Pandemic that we have an "unparalleled opportunity to rethink teaching and to refocus on relationships with students". Roll and Ventresca tell us that "lecturers aren’t feeling so in charge anymore" due to the "destabilising" nature of on-line teaching compared to the traditional lecture theatre approach. I firmly agree with them that "standard lecture approaches often fare poorly online" and that both students and lecturers will feel disconnected and demotivated.

The Roll and Ventresca message is that relationships with students matter more than ever. Lecturers are no longer in control of the classroom on-line. I have been teaching on-line as well as in the classroom for the past two years, and there is no doubting that it is a much different experience. While I am in control of the software (I have used the Adobe Connect Virtual Classroom), I cannot see the students, I don't know if they are attending to the class (unless they pop a message into the chat pod), I can't hear them, I cannot read body language to tell if something is not being understood, I have no control over what happens in break-out sessions with Teaching Assistants, and if a students wished to attend a class by watching the recording later - I am not even there.

Building relationships with anyone is not easy, especially when the centuries old tradition of the lecturer as the sage-on-the-stage is being tested like never before. In addition to modifying or even completely changing course resources such as lecture and tutorial notes in response to moving on-line, us lecturers now need to learn how to build virtual relationships. Everything will be different for our students, but it is different for us too.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

1960 Baby

Me in 1960.
The Internet has brought us a lot of wonderful things. People share memories, ideas, make money, connect, and lots of other things. During the lockdown, lots of people are digging into old photos and sharing them online. I am fascinated by photos shared online by the people of Gorey (where my Mum grew up) and Carnew (where my Dad grew up). Lots of wonderful memories and brain taxing efforts to identify people in old photos.

A few years ago I shared photos from my Mum's photo album of her school days - several class photos got a great reaction with many people saying that they had never seen the photos before, and things like "there's my Mum 3rd from right in middle row". It's brilliant to think that others can get such simple enjoyment. As always with these things, the comments and likes died down as the sharing cycle inevitably came to an end.

Right out of the blue last month, I got a comment on a Gorey school photo from the daughter of one of my Mum's best friends (who had not seen the photo before). Much to my surprise, and delight, she also sent me a copy of the photo here. I wasn't certain at first, but it is me as a baby in early 1960 at only 4 or 5 months old - I don't think I would have won a Bonnie Baby competition! I had never seen it before. Imagine, a photo like this lying in someone else's old photo album!

There is so much wrong with how people use the Internet to spread fake news, abuse, and troll others - but it is a wonderful medium for sharing memories that otherwise might have been lost.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Post Boxes

No name on this post box.
I have started to notice things about my neighbourhood, while I am confined to a 5km distance from home during lockdown, that I did not notice before. Dotted around our roads are various post boxes of different shapes and sizes. I started taking pictures while out walking - I show a selection below. 

When Ireland was part of the UK, we obviously followed the tradition of naming our post boxes after the king or queen of England, and painting them red. The first post boxes in Ireland had Victoria's name until 1901 - a simple V R (Victoria Regina). This was followed by Edward VII between 1901 and 1910 - as you can see below there were two different types for Edward Rex. George V was the last king we had here, so post boxes with his name appeared between 1910 and 1921. 

Following independence in 1921, we had no need of such royal insignia, even though the king was nominally our head of state. In 1922, one of the first acts of the new Irish Government was to order that all post boxes be painted green - even though the royal insignia could be clearly seen. One of my favourite post boxes is on Booterstown Avenue - it has a Saorstát Éireann (sé) insignia. This is not as clear as some of the others, and to me it looks like it was either stamped over a royal insignia or in a blank box like the one above. The final one below features p 7 t (Post and Telegraph). The 7 like symbol is shorthand for "agus" - it has a name. It is called a "Tironian et". The Dept of Posts and Telegraphs ceased to exist in 1984 when it as changed to Dept of Communications.

I need to get out more!

Edward VII

George V

Edward VII

Saorstát Éireann

Post and Telegraph

Friday, June 05, 2020

22,000,000 YouTube Views #humbled

A nice million landmark was reached on my YouTube Channel today which passed the 22,000,000 views mark. As always, I am delighted and humbled that so many people have viewed my videos - I never thought that this would happen when I set the channel up on April 7th 2006. As you can see below, there are definite trends that occur year after year:

Sadly, the number of views per day this year are not reaching the heights of last year. There are about 2,000 views per day less. My Statistics videos, with some Excel ones too, are the most popular.

The "Watch time" figure in hours is an interesting one: 981.8k hours is equivalent to about 110 years. That's a long time! I am also looking forward to a Subscribers landmark figure, as I am hoping it will pass 50,000 before the end of the year.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Lecture is Dead, Long Live the Lecture

Prof Patrick Prendergast.
Image source: Trinity College.
I listened with interest on RTÉ radio's Drivetime programme to Professor Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College, discussing the re-opening of Trinity for the next academic year. He is a sensible Wexford man who tells it as he sees it, and points out that the inevitable loss of revenue, due mostly to an expected huge drop in foreign students, will affect not only Trinity, but the entire third level sector. However, I was most interested in his comments about how Trinity will deal with social distancing and classes in the coming academic year. Clearly, we cannot have packed lecture theatres and maintain social distancing. He did offer a "hybrid" model, where a lecture might be held in a theatre with just a few students, and that it would be streamed on-line at the same time. A good idea?

I'm not sure - I can see both positives and negatives. It doesn't make sense to me that a lecturer should walk to (say) a 100-seater theatre with just 20 students, while the remaining 80 students access the lecture on-line. Why not go all the way and just do the whole lecture on-line? No need to worry about social distancing. No need for a technician to be available. No need for an older (and therefore more vulnerable) lecturer to be present in a room where there are younger (and therefore less vulnerable) students present. No need to sanitise equipment like the lectern PC keyboard and mouse after every lecture. No need for a Teaching Assistant to deal with on-line questions. On the plus side, a hundreds of years old tradition of delivering a lecture to a room full of students will at least be partially maintained. And of course there is the extra-curricular activities that make college/university such an enriching learning experience.

An empty Lecture Theatre.
Image source: The Atlantic.
I had some lecturers in my time in Trinity (1979-1987) who, quite frankly, were poor teachers. All they did was come into the lecture theatre, talk at us for 45 minutes, and leave. Some just read out their own notes, while others used the available technology at that time (overhead projectors and/or slide projectors). Even today, I know that many lecturers (not just in Trinity) feel that they should still do the same - the only difference is that PowerPoint is used instead of a projector, and notes are now on Moodle. If this is all you do, there is no difference to student learning whether they are watching you in a lecture theatre, or on a computer screen. It is my sincere hope that the Covd-19 virus will kill this type of lecture. The challenge is to make the on-line lecture into a high class learning experience, and to motivate students to learn while doing so. Topics for another blog post!

Patrick Prendergast does value the learning experience of attending university, as I do. At the end of the interview he tells us that "we shouldn't tell a generation you're not going to have that type of experience, you have to stay at home - it's kind of incumbent upon us to do the best we can, recognising all the difficulties we have with public health, to ensure that our young people can have the kind of education that we had, and that we act appropriately to the constraints that are upon all of us in universities". 

Maybe the lecture is not dead after all?

You can hear Professor Prendergast's interview here.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

On-line College courses are here to stay

There's no going back to the old ways - at least not completely. There are many lessons to be learned from the current Pandemic, and one of them is that classes can be delivered on line much easier than many thought. A few short weeks ago I would not have been allowed to deliver a class from home. Two of my modules were delivered in a classroom computer laboratory - these switched to on-line in the last few weeks of the semester no problem at all. In the past few days I finished grading terminal assessments which replaced exams. While I have not decided if this is a good or bad thing yet - it is complete and it will be interesting to see if overall grades match previous years.

A lecture at the University of Bologna in Italy
in the mid-fourteenth century. The lecturer reads
from a text on the lectern while students in the back sleep.
Image source: Wikipedia.
Lauren Razavi, writing in The Guardian, tells us that "Students like the flexibility" that on-line universities provide. Lectures have been around for a long time, and not much has changed in hundreds of years. On-line options provide the flexibility like never before. The need to group students in a physical room for all classes is extinct.

While many of us with e-Learning backgrounds have been championing the use of technology in education for many years, we never quite got to the point of a revolution in education.  As Razavi points out in her article, the challenge now is "the scale and pace of change", and that the pandemic finally represents “a revolutionary moment".

Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) - get used to it!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

No more face-to-face lectures at Cambridge University until summer of 2021

News today that Cambridge University, and all its Colleges, are moving all lectures on-line for the 2020/2021 academic year. The immediate questions are: If Cambridge are doing it, should the rest of us follow? If it is good enough for a hallowed and respected institution like Cambridge - is it good enough for the rest of us?

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Image source: Wikipedia.
The start of Semester I in September is just four months away - we will not be out of lockdown for another two months. The European Union coronavirus response chief,  Dr Andrea Ammon, warns us also today that "Europe should brace itself for second wave" of Covid-19 infections after people return from summer holidays. Without wishing to alarmist, I feel that more universities and colleges will follow Cambridge. I guess most third level institutions are already planning for the possibility of no return to face-to-face lectures, but pressure will grow in the next few weeks for clarity. The student accommodation crisis is with us every late summer - so prospective students will want to know where they stand (landlords too). College Faculty will also need to be ready, and will need to know several weeks in advance of a new semester whether they are teaching on-line or in a physical classroom.

I applaud Cambridge for their foresight and being first out of the blocks with this - students and staff know exactly where they stand for the coming academic year.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Drive to Working from Home #wfh

Empty for years - The Seamark Building, Dublin.
Image source: CBRE.
I'm glad I am not a property developer building a new office block, or a landlord sitting on an empty building right now. I am wondering if some companies who are considering expanding their workforce still feel the need to rent/buy new offices. Perhaps there is even another property crash ahead? Some offices in Dublin have been empty for years already!

Twitter have announced in a company Blog Post yesterday that if their employees are "in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen". Note the word "forever"! And this is for everyone in Twitter! The Irish Times reports today the "Google and Facebook extended their work-from-home policies into 2021. Amazon extended its work-from-home policy until at least early October". These of course are high-tech companies that have the technology to do this. It is obviously working for them right now, and this is the way they see the future. 

Image source: Information is Beautiful.
Schools and Colleges in Ireland are not expected to reopen until September - I agree with most people that this is a sensible thing to do, and hopefully this will happen at that time. But I for one am not comfortable going back into a building with hundreds of people in it at a time. I am not comfortable going into a classroom with 50 students, neither am I comfortable going into a reduced class of 10 - 15 students. On-line is more than OK by me, and I'm certain that prudent Colleges are already preparing for the possibility that classes might have to restart on-line in September.

Much of my reticence comes from now being over 60 years of age. The figures (based on Italy and UK) tell us that the over 60s are at most risk of dying if they get the infection. Compare this to 20 to 40 year olds (ages of most students) where the rate is less than 1%. Imagine working in an environment where one person has a 10% of dying, while everyone else is relatively safe at 1% if infection breaks out. The over 60s will benefit the most from new working from home policies.

I'm not ageist, but Covid-19 is.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Covid-19 Data Visualizations #TheBestSoFar #InformationIsBeautiful #Analytics

The excellent David McCandless has taken on the task of illustrating Covid-19 data in a very colourful and interactive way. He is author of the "Information is Beautiful" text book that is on our Reading List for the Higher Diploma in Data Analytics at NCI. While the source of the data (Johns Hopkins) is the same as that used by many other web sites (eg, The Irish Times Dashboard), McCandless's visualizations far outstrip others I have seen. the use of colour, shape, variety of charts, interactivity shows how big Data can be displayed in an interesting and effective way. Here's one of the best:

Image source: Information is Beautiful.

Choosing the right colours and shapes is an art, but it can be learned. You have to take into account the semantics of colour, what it is that you want to show, and how viewers will interact with your visualization. McCandless shows how far this can be taken to produce some wonderful visualizations - be sure to check them out.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Places I've been to in April #Lockdown.

I allow Google Maps to keep track of my phone. I'm not too bothered about how or what they use this data for - it is often interesting to look back over a month and recollect where I have been. I am often stuck by the accuracy of this tracking, even at times telling me what shop I went into.

According to latest map - I have been to one place: Dublin. When I drill into this it show locations around where I live - I guess most others who are obeying the Lockdown will have a similar experience. Covid-19 Tracking Apps may have a role in the near future in the fight against the virus using technology similar to Google Maps. Of course not all people will have smartphones, many who do have tracking turned off - in the end it might just be a small proportion of the population who will do this. My mind is made up to get the tracking app when it becomes available - it might only be a few bytes in a vast lake of data, but every little bit helps!

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Smoothing the Covid-19 Curve #Analytics

Lots of talk still about flattening the curve of Covid-19 infections. There now is clear evidence that the curves have flattened in many countries (see the excellent "Has the curve flattened?" page at Johns Hopkins). Much of the data is still what we call "noisy" - going up and down.

Data source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

One method that researchers use to detect trends in "noisy" data is to use a moving average to smooth the data. In the diagram above the blue line represents actual daily data for the number of confirmed new cases of Covid-19 in Ireland - as you can see it does jump up and down a bit over time, though a trend is still visible. By applying a moving average (I have used a 5-day average), the smoothing red dotted line is much clearer in displaying the downward trend since the peak in mid-April. It still has a long way to go, but let's hope that we do not see the trend going upwards again.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Getting Bored of People Stating the Obvious

"Unprecedented", "things will never be the same", "Covid-19 is a deadly virus", "these are uncertain times", "wash your hands", "the safety of our customers is our highest priority" - I am getting fed up hearing people stating the obvious. We already know all this - but why do people online, in meetings, in calls, in the media feel the need to say this stuff over and over? 

Also, there has been an increase in the level of moaning about what will happen after the lockdown is ended. Nobody knows for sure, but that doesn't stop some people falling onto a "What have the Government ever done for us" trance.

Here's an example from yesterday's Irish Times, where Éanna Ó Caollaí and Carl O'Brien report that "University lecturers warn of ‘enrolment chaos’ in autumn". Like - has no one in the Department of Education not already thought of this? The Irish Federation of University Teachers (which I am not a member of) is warning us that the Government must begin consulting with colleges, staff and students in order to avoid escalating uncertainty and the threat of “enrolment chaos” in the autumn, and that students and university teachers are being left in an “ongoing limbo” amid the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Well d'uh!

Universities and Colleges are already aware that there is a pandemic on - I know this 'cos I work in one. Ó Caollaí and O'Brien do report in their article there are actually discussions taking place. I know that in my own College that several discussions and projections have already taken place. Yet - we have to endure more warnings stating the obvious that something must be done. IFUT is demanding that they need clear and detailed discussion on a roadmap from Government on issues like when and how colleges will be allowed to reopen in a time when we have an interim Government who not surprisingly are focussing on saving lives.

Rant over.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Assignments replacing exams

So far, I'm not a big fan of the situation that Covid-19 has forced us all into replacing end of semester  exams with assignments/projects. Exams designed to assess learning outcomes are not being used, and it has not been easy coming up with replacements in the form of an assignment to to the same thing. Add in the fact that we had to create replacement assessments in a short time, I feel as though this situation is not ideal. But, it is-what-it-is! 

Replacing exams with assignments has an impact for educators grading them. It takes a lot longer! Most students will write between 8 - 12 pages during a two hour exam. Some who perform badly in an exam, may only write a few pages - these scripts take just a few minutes to grade. Very few will write 20/30/40 pages. But this is what I am getting with the replacement assignments - and the time taken to review and grade is very lengthy. This will inevitably put pressure on deadlines for us to get results published. 

No doubt there will be a sector review of assessment. Simply substituting an assignment (which we have had to do for obvious reasons) for an exam is a crude mechanism not designed for assessment. Assessment needs to be carefully planned regardless of whether it is an assignment or an exam. Students should be assured that no matter what mechanism is used, they are being assessed in a fair and sure manner. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

What Flattening the Covid-19 Curve is Starting to Look Like

Data published daily by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control allows us to examine Covid-19 data ourselves - Data Democracy in action! There has been much talk over the past few weeks about "flattening the curve", and how important following the HSE's guidelines on staying safe can help to do this. We are all praying and hoping that the feckin' curve will revert to zero quickly, but flattening also means that we prolong the infection. 

I think we can at last see evidence that the curve is flattening. Here's a bar chart showing daily reported new cases in Ireland since 1st March when the first case was reported here:

Click/Tap to Enlarge.
While the curve is not smooth, we can definitely see the slow growth in the number of cases since the first one was recorded, followed by a downward trend over the past few days. However, yesterday's new cases figure (631) bucks the trend and shows us how easy it is for the curve to start to go up again. Based on the shape of the curve above, it will take at least 3 to 4 weeks more from today before the curve reaches less than 200 new cases per day. A sobering thought given cries for the lockdown to be eased on 5th May!