Friday, October 30, 2020

Retiring Today

Today is my last day as an employee at the National College of Ireland - I am officially retiring! I have been planning this ever since my wife Roma retired just over two years ago. It is early retirement (I am 61 years of age), but I have long desired to go early. My timing in the middle of lockdown during a Pandemic is of course perfect, but nevertheless I decided to go ahead.

Last week, while visiting the College for the first time since early March, I cleared out my office. I decided to be tough and only take home what I really wanted. There was lots of paper for shredding, but I was also surprised to generate half a bag of rubbish. I decided to keep just a few books and leave the rest. I thought it might be a bit emotional doing this task, but I found it easy to do. I have fond memories of my office - I was one of the lucky ones in NCI to have an office to myself. I will very much miss students and colleagues dropping by for a chat.
Emptying my office.

Goodbye to Room 3.21 and NCI!

While visiting the College I met with a colleague (HGV), who posted a photo (with my agreement) on LinkedIn, not thinking it would attract much attention. 

I was overwhelmed with the response! At the time of writing there are 425 Reactions and over 100 Comments. I got messages of good wishes from current and former colleagues, and loads from former students. Messages from former students who have found success are most satisfying - it is always great to hear from them.
So it is "Goodbye" to the National College of Ireland after 18 years - I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Over the next few weeks I will reflect in this blog about my 31 years as an educator.

I'm off!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Statistical Illiteracy

Throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic, numbers and statistics have become part of our lives. We have got used to numbers in a way we never thought possible - nothing right now will make us happier than seeing numbers going down. We should all be able to interpret and understand what the numbers mean.

Carlo Rovelli writes in yesterday's Guardian newspaper: "Statistical illiteracy isn't a niche problem. During a pandemic, it can be fatal" and that "Insufficient understanding of statistics is widespread". Most of us trust our Government to use data in the fairest and wisest way possible. Others use numbers to spread fake news and concoct conspiracy theories. However, as Rovelli says: "Our extensive statistical illiteracy is today particularly dangerous".

Most people understand as least some basic probability. For example, tossing a coin will be 50/50 for heads/tails. No matter how often you toss a coin, you cannot be certain whether the result will be heads or tails. But you know what the probability is. 

Numbers don't lie, but statistics involves uncertainty. In my classes we often conducted statistical tests at a 95% confidence level, sometimes 99%. In relation to Covid-19 - if a vaccine was effective for 95% of people in Ireland, that would mean that it would be ineffective for around 50,000 people (1% approx of our population). This has obvious ethical implications. Would you take the chance and get vaccinated with 99% accuracy? How about 99.9%, which would mean that a vaccine would not work for about 5,000 people, or even 99.99% and 500 people losing out? You can see why vaccine trials are so important. No vaccine will be 100% effective. This means that you cannot be 100% certain that you will get infected with the virus, but also that you cannot be 100% certain that you will be safe. So for example, if you reduce your number of contacts, you will reduce the probability of getting the virus, but not by 100%.

Knowing and understanding statistics and probability will help stop the spread of the virus, but remember, not by 100%.

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:

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!