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:

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.