Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"colleges make millions from resit fee" says @oreganMark in Irish Independent

I have just finished grading assessments for Semester II (phew!) and am generally very pleased with results. Unfortunately for some students - repeat exams may need to be taken in order to pass subjects. As a student myself who had to repeat exams in both 1st and 2nd year in Trinity, I have a lot of sympathy for students who have to study through the summer and sit repeat exams. There is the stigma of failure to overcome, not to mention thinking about all the other things a student should be doing during the summer. I know of students who had to give up J1 opportunities in America, or come home early to sit repeat exams. This doesn't influence me in the slightest when grading - a fail is a fail, and I always remember advice an old colleague gave to me when I first became a Lecturer: "you don't fail the students in exams, they fail themselves". Sometimes tough love is necessary.

Image source: The Graveyard Waltz.
Writng in the Irish Independent (Sunday 21st May edition), Mark O'Regan tells us that "Students count cost of failed exams as colleges make millions from resit fees". He uses the example from UCD which "earned €1.8m in a single academic year from charging students looking to repeat exams" - UCD charges €230 to repeat a module. O'Regan contrasts this with students who are facing "unprecedented financial pressures", and with staff who "enjoy lucrative pension and service related pay-offs". All this paints us in the third-level sector as money grabbing leeches who prey on cash-starved students who failed their exams. You'd swear we were awarding fail grades just to get an extra few bob in repeat fees! 

Not so.

To those students whose results do not match their expectations, and have failed one or more modules - there's no more stigma in failure. Repeat exams are a second opportunity that should be grasped with both hands to get through a year. For students like me back in the 70s, this was how I got though my first two years in College. I owe a lot to the second chance I got through repeat exams - the fee is worth it. The alternative is to drop out of College, which could end up being the best thing that ever happened to a student, but picking yourself up when you are down and trying again is a sign of character.

Please note: Opinions and comment expressed in this post (and all posts in this blog) are mine alone and do not in any way represent those of anyone else or any institution.

Monday, May 29, 2017

John F. Kennedy #idol

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of former US President John F. Kennedy. Like a lot of Irish people I have always had a strong admiration for him, though I was only four years old when he died. Indeed the date of his death, 22nd November 1963, is my earliest memory. I don't recall where I was exactly (most likely either at home or in school) when I heard the news, but I have a vivid recollection of people talking about it. I also have an image of President Kennedy coming out of a fog and turning back to see the bad men chasing him - I guess in the mind of a small boy this is what I thought an assassination was about. When he visited the South-east of Ireland in the summer of 1963, I have no memories of this.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Irish Times: 13th April, 2009.
I have been to Dealey Plaza, where he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, during a business trip to Dallas in the late 1990s. I also went up to the Sixth Floor Museum and looked out the window from where Oswald fired the fatal shots. Last summer I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, and in January 2016 I visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. I have also read Robert Dallek's masterful biography - "John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life". I even quoted Kennedy in a letter to The Irish Times in 2009 at the height iof the economic crisis in Ireland. It's fair to say that I am an admirer.

Of course dying young (he was just 46) keeps him young in all our minds. We think of the waste of a life, and what might have been had he lived. His generation are now almost all gone, and most of the people who voted for him are now old or gone too. Today I think of a man who was no saint, who stood up to the Russians, who inspired a generation, and who will remain in my memory until the day I too depart this life.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Good Bye Windows Phone? #SpokeTooSoon

Oh dear - less than two weeks after abandoning my Windows phone in favour of an iPhone, I am back using it again. Last night I left my iPhone on a charger overnight but this morning discovered that a crack in the glass appeared. This is the first time that I have broken a smartphone like this, but I am convinced this happened without any contribution from me. I plugged it in to charge, and then there was a crack. I did not drop it - the crack is a clean single line near the top of the screen, which also leaves a shadow on the screen behind the glass. Did it spontaneously crack while charging? The touch screen in the small space above the crack is still working, but below it there is no response. The screen will have to be replaced.

However, I'm wondering if it is worth it as the cracked screen is already a replacement screen. It will cost around €100 to fix, with no guarantee that it will last - I think the Windows phone has suddenly become attractive again!

Right now there are four old iPhones in my house - including the cracked one to the right. Two are glass-cracked iPhone 6 models, with two old iPhone 5 models. I shudder to think what we have spent on these over the past 2 or 3 years just to create another Apple graveyard of devices - I'm guessing my house is not that different from many others. While Apple laugh all the way to the bank, I am still astonished that glass is still being used in smartphones - there must be an alternative. Millions must be being spent on replacement screens all over the world.

So it is back to fewer Apps and a Google-less Windows phone. Outlook, Edge, and Bing Maps are my new best friends again!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Annual Conference: The Business Analysis Association of Ireland #baai17

Image via @IrishCompSoc
Yesterday I attended the Business Analysts Association of Ireland's Annual Conference at The Irish Computer Society in Ballsbridge. The theme of the Conference was "Change is Now" and was attended by over 60 Business Analysts who heard a variety of presentations on topics of interest to BAs. Reuben Godfrey of the Blockchain Association of Ireland kicked the event off with a discussion on what Blockchain Management means for Business Analysts. He was followed by Niamh Corby from the Revenue Commissioners who interestingly use the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK) in their projects, but not all of it. The morning session was completed by the wonderful Lanre Oluwatona who started off by saying "I'm not here to scare you" - which he promptly did! He talked to us about the General Data Protection Regulations coming into law next year, He pointed out that there will be 99 articles in the new regulations compared to about 30 now. Brilliant presentation Lanre!

After lunch we had interesting talks about No Code Workflow from Shay O'Conner of FlowForma (fascinating stuff), designing cost effective IT solutions from Piaras McDonnell (who in particular warned us about licensing issues with software), and Cloud solutions from Oracle by John Caulfield. The event was finished off by a thought-provoking presentation by Kevin Breen on "Digital Transformation".

In between all of above I made a presentation on "Data Visualization - What can you see?". I used much material from my recently completed first time Data Visualization module at NCI - it was very tough deciding what to include and what to leave out. Hopefully I got it right, there were plenty of questions and comments afterwards. I did feel like a bit of an idiot when I tried to use a link to my Tableau Public Page. I didn't realize that the presentation was being run over two screens and I looked confused and awkward (I was!) as I tried to show  online material. Anyhow - I have uploaded my presentation to Slideshare and embedded below. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

" drag-and-drops for deep learning" and "Why R is Bad for You according to Bill Vorhies via @DataScienceCtrl

A most interesting post by William Vorhies at Data Ceience Central poses the argument: "Why R is Bad for You". We are lead to believe that knowledge of the R programming langauge is an essential skill for data analysts/scientists - you can use it to do almost anything with data such as clean, manipulate, visualize, transform, perform statistical tests, and in general look for links/trends/patterns in data. Vorhies says that "R is not the best way to learn data science and not the best way to practice it either". 
Image source: The R Project for Statistical Computing

The trouble is that you have to learn R before you can use it. I and several of my colleagues use R for data analysis in class - in my case to perform statistical tests such as ANOVA, Time Series, and Principal Component Analysis. In the new Data Visualization module introduced this past academic year we also used R to plot charts such as boxplots, interactive charts, and flight paths. It is a very powerful language, but none of my classes are programming classes. Students learn how to perform basic programming in R before they come to my class. Usually I give students code in the notes and ask them to use and modify code already written. However, much time is spent in lab work fixing syntax problems - a missing comma can be difficult and frustrating to find and fix for someone not good at programming. 

Bill Vorhies writes that the "largest employers, those with the most data scientists are rapidly reconsolidating on packages like SAS and SPSS with drag-and-drop" - especially in larger companies. These tools, and the likes of Tableau software, are very powerful and much easier to learn and use. Excel is probably the most used data analysis tool - and is getting more powerful. So why learn R? 

R is free. Many employers list it as an essential skill in job adverts. Having the ability to programme in any language shows that you have a logical mind and you are good at problem-solving - probably good at deep learning too. If you have already learned how to use R, then keep on using it - but as Vorhies says: "in the commercial world the need to actually code models in R is diminishing". Something for us educators to think about!

Please note: Opinions and comment expressed in this post (and all posts in this blog) are mine alone and do not in any way represent those of anyone else or any institution.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Abandoning the Windows Phone

Just last year I purchased a SIM-free Microsoft Lumia 950. It was a lot cheaper than a new iPhone or Samsung and the two big things for me were lots of space and a good camera, and of course the very familiar Windows 10 interface. The old iPhone I had sucked for space and the camera was poor. With a 20MP camera and 64GB space on the Lumia - this problem was gone. I quickly got used to using Outlook instead of Gmail and Edge instead of Chrome, and I was confident that the Microsoft App Store would have all I needed. Popular Apps such as Kindle, Netflix, Spotify, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp all had version that worked on Windows. Bing Maps is not as good as Google Maps for me, but I got by. Groove was better than iTunes, but my Bose headphones volume controls didn't work and it would not connect via Bluetooth to my speakers. A huge downside for me was no radio app - I had to use a shortcut to RTÉ Play Live link on the start page. And of course since Microsoft phones are no longer for sale in Ireland there can be little hope of App developers continuing to support Windows.

I have had a spare iPhone for a few months that I used as a second phone for use with Vodafone down the country (especially in Wexford where Virgin Media via Three sucks) - so I am switching back to it. Now the Windows phone is a second phone which I will definitely keep for the camera and of course it still will be able to connect to the web using WiFi.

I tried and persevered with the Microsoft phone - it's now time to go back to Apple.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Happy Birthday Elliott Masie ! @emasie

Elliott Masie.
Image source: Twitter (@emasie)
Last Saturday the great Elliott Masie turned 67 - I have been following him probably longer than anyone else on the planet. I met him once in the (then) CBT Systems offices in Clonskeagh in Dublin for a meeting where I described the CBT Systems product development life cycle to him. I can't remember exactly when this was, but it was around 1993/94. He was a gentleman! 

I have been subscribed to Masie's Learning Trends for as long as I can remember - I always look forward to reading what he is thinking about. In his most recent newsletter (#965), he reflects on what he calls the "half-way point of my career" at age 67. He writes that learning is "amazing", "personal", and "awesome". I particularly connected with his comment that "Learning is all about Curiosity. The world of learning is allowing curiosity to come alive in more and more ways". 

The age of 67 is now the retirement age for workers of my generation - retirement date for me is officially in October 2026, just nine and a half years away. I'd like to think that I will still be as passionate about Learning and Teaching as Elliott Masie is at the same age. There's no sign of Elliott retiring as he is "pumped" to keep on exploring learning - long may he live and stay "curious".

Friday, May 12, 2017

Top 10 Skills in Data Science via @bobehayes

A really interesting post by Bob Hayes for Customer Think "Top 10 Skills in Data Science" tells us that so-called "soft" skills like communication and project management are really important for data scientists. Hayes takes a look at 25 skills assessed in a data science survey, and uses the chart below to filter out the top ten:

Image source: Customer Think (click to enlarge).
It's no surprise to me that Communication is important, but I would not have expected it to be top of the list. In fact we dropped a Communications module from one of our Data Analytics programmes last year and replaced it with Data Visualization (still partly communication I know). Managing structured data (#2) and Maths (#3) rank higher than data mining/management, and statistics (#9). To me these important skills are vital in all roles and perhaps there is a case to be made that these are a given and should be exlcuded from a top ten list of skills? At #11 is "Database Administration", at #12 is "Algorithms and simulations", and at #14 is "Machine Learning" - these would be in the top ten if the standard skills were omitted. Their importance is not lessened, but they should be in the top ten skills for a data scientist.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Data - More Valuable than Oil? via The Economist

The hype about data continues - now it is more valuable than oil! The Economist reports that The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google are "titans" who "deal in data, the oil of the digital era". They have vast amounts of data on us all that is now regarded as a "God’s eye view" of their users' activities. While The Economist discusses how data is valuable to companies it also considers the power of data in different ways: "Google can see what people search for, Facebook what they share, Amazon what they buy" - this can be used to stifle competition. Anti-trust authorities must move to the 21st century and become more "data-savvy in their analysis of market dynamics" to protect privacy. The article signs off with a warning: "But if governments don’t want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon".

Image source: The Economist.
All of this is true, and I'm certain that data is indeed the "oil of the digital era". I'm not sure it is "more valuable than oil" - try getting data to heat your house in the winter, power your car, make plastic, fly across the ocean, and generate electricity to run our computers - but it makes for a good headline. Everybody needs to be more "data-savvy", which is good news for Colleges and Lecturers like myself - we have to keep innovating to provide the right education for students who will need to be as knowledgeable about data as their ability to read and write.

Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write (HG Wells, 1903).

Saturday, May 06, 2017

First Communion 1966

At this time of year thousands of Catholic children make their First Holy Communion all over the world. While religion has taken a back seat in many Irish families, the Communion stills seems to be a big day as it is the first real big landmark occasion from which our lives are measured. As a sacrament it probably has little value to many children and parents any more - but it still a great celebration of growing up. In my day (1966), it was a mark of reaching the "age of reason". I don't think any of us in Second Class in Carnew National School (Co Wicklow) really knew what that meant. I recall our teacher practicing with cream crackers on our tongues (no putting out your hands for communion in those days) in class while she prepared us for the big day.

Holy Eugene!
I don't remember anything about the day - the photo above was taken after the ceremony on the steps of St Brigid's Catholic Church in Carnew. You can't tell from this photo, but I was wearing short trousers - it was my first ever suit which got outings to Mass every Sunday until it fitted me no more. I was only seven years old. It was part of growing up at that time that you did this - I don't remember anyone in our school not making their First Holy Communion as a choice. Religion dominated our lives without us realizing it.