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.