Monthly Archives: November 2015

ALASI 2015 Day 2

Off to a cracking start to Day 2 of ALASI 2015 this morning with a fabulous keynote from Peter Reimann. Learning Analytics meets Learning Research mediated through Design-based Research (DBR).  It was a neat argument and the most lucid description of DBR that I’ve heard or read. Learning Analytics allows us to continuously record data at multiple levels, in different places and over time. DBR connects learning analytics to learning research and together they can provide an evidence-base for theory building and achieving generalisable results. We need to advance the way learning as a process is studied and align our methods with learning theory. Most important, we need to explain how learning is achieved. Inspiring stuff.

But, perhaps the most inspiring moment was when Peter calmly explained that quantitative disciplines like Physics and Chemistry rely on qualitative descriptions: the nature of matter, energy, materials and so on. Of course he is right, but heavens above, is this the moment to finally pop the qualitative-quantitative clash to bed with a mug of Horlicks?

I learned two new terms: retroduction and retrodiction, marvelled at his process causation diagram and left the keynote altogether more positive about the World and my place in it than when I set off this morning: a sure sign of an excellent keynote.

Not to be outdone, Clover snorted at my new terms and explained that goats had developed these ideas long before people. Not only does every goat carefully observe the properties of fences in general and electric fences in particular in order to develop theories about them but they also evaluate their theories on the basis of how well they explain past events. Like the time her boy, Pedro, miscalculated the height of the top wire and fetched up trussed and suspended upside down by his two front hoofs. (Pedro was unhurt apart from lost dignity and the most plaintive wailing I have ever heard from man or beast.)

After morning tea, I joined the session where Abelardo Pardo and Jurgen Schulte led us through Scaling instructor-driven personal support actions, an exercise in reverse engineering our teaching.  We had to invent a scenario and then describe the data we would need to identify student actions and the rules we would use to determine the actions to take in response. The take-home message was, if you can describe it, we can build it and if we can build it, it will scale. It was a good session, an interesting exercise and some fascinating examples from participants.

ALASI concluded today with a final opportunity for discussion over lunch. A special highlight was meeting colleagues from Auckland and Christchurch who I had never met before. I guess in the end, making connections is really what ALASI is all about.


ALASI 2015 Day 1

The first day of the Australian Learning Analytics Summer Institute (ALASI 2015) was packed with things to think about. Lyn Alderman’s opening keynote was strong on solid practical advice about ensuring the relevance and quality of higher education courses and drew on her work at QUT. A key message from Lyn’s talk was the simple but critical idea to have a dedicated, educationally mindful team mediating between academics and institutional data analysts – sort of like a clutch to ensure the wheels turn smoothly. Lyn used lots of authentic examples to illustrate the work of her team and their course performance model – engaging and good stuff.

After morning tea, I headed off to Identifying and contacting disengaged students in Moodle presented by Jean-Christophe Froissard and Danny Liu from Macquarie. A really well prepared and thoughtful session that had us all using their Moodle plugin on mocked-up course data and playing with a dizzying array of parameters available for teachers to set. I do struggle with the assignment of a risk value to individual students based on a set of parameters, whether teacher selected or not, but the ability to easily flag students based on selectable and flexible criteria (grades, discussion posts, logins etc) and then contact them as individuals or as a group has clear benefits. Lots of good discussion and thoughts from the floor and good to be sloshing about in the muddy intersection of theory and practice.

Interesting and thought-provoking discussions over lunch were followed by a session on Writing Analytics. Simon Buckingham Shum, Simon Knight and Andrew Gibson introduced writing analytics in general and their AWA tool in particular and provided an opportunity to try AWA. The tool is designed to highlight features of reflective and academic writing and Philippa Ryan spoke about using AWA with students in her law class. There were many thoughtful and a few difficult questions from the floor during this session and I think these highlighted the issues and challenges of working in this area really well.

The nub of the problem is that as soon as you define a set of rules (you might say a grammar) to describe a language, there will always be some reasonable expression of the language which will fail to be captured by your rules; Sapir’s dictum, “all grammars leak”. Why? Well, much like goats, once we have perfectly well understood the rules we then proceed to chew on them and reshape them in order to express our inner goat. Taking a statistical approach to feature identification may help improve the situation but some old goat will always come along with a new expressive feature that just will not be captured.

AWA is designed as a teaching and learning tool and by constraining the context of use this mitigates the problem to a degree: there are some basic, well understood features of academic and reflective writing that we teach and that AWA will capture. It was encouraging to hear Philippa’s experience, that when used carefully, in an appropriate context and with guidance,  AWA can be used to support students to develop reflective and academic writing skills. Nevertheless, in common with similar tools it can also frustrate and it was good to see examples of this too. Finding the sweet contextual spot where frustration is minimised seems to be key. I did paste a reflective piece from this blog into AWA. Sadly, no reflective features were identified but then again, it is hardly reasonable to expect AWA to speak goat!

Ruth Crick talking about Layers, Loops and Processes: challenges of authority and interpretation in the formulation of actionable insights in virtual learning ecologies was a highlight. The opportunity to do the learning power survey (see, reflect on it and see how the ALASI cohort as a whole fared was fascinating. A carefully structured, qualitative approach to understanding key processes involved in learning was illustrated in a very personal way – great stuff.

A delightful jazz trio, the product of their mindful musicianship bouncing off the walls, rendered the tail-end poster session something of a fizz. Nevertheless, fortified with food and drink, a handful of hardy presenters and a few noble delegates carried on regardless and brought to a close an excellent day overall. If you missed our poster, here it is and the abstract here.


Crimson and Clover

Quelle horreur! In this morning’s ODT Crimson Consulting has purchased UniTutor, a local beneficiary of a bit of higher education unbundling.

If we want ever more tangible evidence of widening participation gaps look no further. Crimson Consulting, according to its website, can help you get into the most elite of clubs: Harvard, Oxford, Columbia, Yale …. yay.  The website background image is of five young men; four of the five are white. The Advisory Board is four older men and all are white. The founder is a young white man….and the dream:

“Our professional team have the network and interview tactics to help you break into the company of your dreams.”

The tutors are all expert at gaining the right credentials. No just-over-line-B-average Joe or Joelle here! Nope. They’ve all got what it takes to succeed and can (for a fee) help you to get what it takes too. Roll up, roll up. Pay your money and take your choice! Except this is of course a lie. A competitive system is not an egalitarian system. We cannot all succeed even if we could pay. If we do, the elite is dead and there is nothing left to sell.

In our brave new unbundled or, Clover would say, fast unravelling world of higher education you can reach for the stars. Except you can’t unless you are, in the main, white, male, young, wealthy and privileged.

A step too far? I can hear the bristle of newly starched white shirts:
Crimson is gender and race neutral. We welcome diversity. Hell! We just bought UniTutor and that was started by a woman. Crimson Consulting’s young men and er women are society’s future leaders. They will address the participation gap, at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future. In the meantime, all you nay-sayers and miserable old goats who weren’t good enough to get into the top-drawer, get back in your paddocks. Just because we hit the #NZTop50 and had a congratulatory tweet from Deloitte, you’re jealous – that’s all.

I turned to Clover to say something profound but she had wandered away from the ODT, past a few tall crimson poppies, to a clump of forget-me-nots and was paying them very close attention.

Yes indeed Clover. Forget not the forget-me-nots. Quite right.


A Prickle in the Throat

Watched George Siemens giving a recent keynote at Learning with MOOCS 2015 here:

His main point seems to be about wanting MOOCs to “make us better as people and as a society” and lamenting the inequity and horror that goes on in Higher Ed. Laudable stuff but the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening and arguably regressing back to where it was pre-Enlightenment (see Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Picketty and Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston-Saul).

From the perspective of the goat, MOOCs is something a cow does when she has a prickle in her throat. And, there is no gap that cannot be jumped. You either have something or you don’t: food, sleep, trees, play, work and oh yes, love.

A goat, now long deceased, called Thelma, once fell madly in love with a Saanen goat called Chariot.  This was never a match made in heaven on account of difficult ears. Thelma had lop-style Boer goat ears and Chariot had sticky-up Saanen ears. I did see the offspring of such a match once, and it was unfortunate: horizontal flying-nun ears. On the plus side, Thelma and Chariot’s liaison was a lesbian affair with no possibility of offspring. Nonetheless they played hell with my fences and in the end there was nothing for it but to allow the two smitten goats to commune in the same paddock.

But I digress. The difficulty with making us better is the stampede of capital interest and power which accompanies every fresh and well motivated development or idea. Hapless teachers in higher education are barely getting to grips with the implications of the latest thing before it has spawned a gaggle of start-ups, been swept into a lather of bubble and froth by early adopters, and bought in a rush by university management because a higher-ranking-than-us university already bought it in a rush to retain their position, their power and their competitive edge. Educational Technology researchers and practitioners are left flailing about in the backwash of progress trying to piece together a meaningful research agenda…or even more thankless, to practice teaching with integrity.

And flailing we are. I guess Siemens and Downes are often credited with the first MOOC but their let’s-all-learn-together-and-in-the-open cMOOC was nothing like the MOOCs that actually propelled us all into the present fuss. The game-changing xMOOCs were in the main, started by computer scientists or mathematicians who were and doubtless are still, very good teachers and very well meaning. What MOOCs are evolving into now, it seems to me, has little to do with MOOCs themselves or with the good folk who started them but with the perennial old villains; power, control and access to resource. Until what we value in higher education changes do not expect any new game-changer to change much at all.

For the best example of this, consider Sir Tim Berners-Lee who, bless him, gave us the World-Wide Web. If a stunning, elegant and democratic invention like the Web itself cannot reverse the tide of inequity, MOOCs surely are unlikely to have this effect? The shape of higher education may well change and arguably is changing. But, whether for the better is another matter. Take your pick, a crusty old University model (originally based on inculcating an unruly bunch of Jesuits with prescribed doctrine, I believe) or an unbundled Brave New World. In either, our basic values will sadly remain true and as people and a society we will be no better than ever. Sorry, George.

So, confronted with this gloomy reality, take a leaf from the Book of Goat. Never be pushed. Avoid bubble and froth, especially when it comes from cows, and always follow that which offers a tangible reward. And don’t forget to look skywards. Sometimes the best rewards are just over our heads.


Adventures in POS-Tagging

A misty grey day on the hill and Clover is huddled in her house with great friend Chicory. So, perfect conditions for fiddling with part-of-speech tagging in R…

My goal was to try out the openNLP library in R on a learner corpus of short-answer responses. Having installed the openNLP library, the main issue was not having Java 1.6 installed which resulted in R crashing with an unhelpful fatal error message when loading the library with:

> require(“openNLP”)

All was not lost however. This helpful post from R-bloggers sorted out the issue for me:

The tagger uses the Penn Treebank tagset and next job is to compare performance with NLTK pos tagger and Stanford tagger. I can never remember what all the tags are but a handy index to the Penn Treebank tags is here:

And here’s the openNLP output for a model answer:
Because/IN blood/NN ejected/VBN from/IN the/DT left/JJ ventricle/NN into/IN the/DT aorta/NN is/VBZ under/IN high/JJ pressure/NN and/CC flow/NN in/IN the/DT aorta/NN and/CC arterial/JJ system/NN is/VBZ pulsatile/NN ./.

Compare with NLTK out-of-the-box tagger which also uses the Penn Treebank tagset:
Because/IN blood/NN ejected/VBD from/IN the/DT left/NN ventricle/NN into/IN the/DT aorta/NN is/VBZ under/IN high/JJ pressure/NN and/CC flow/NN in/IN the/DT aorta/NN and/CC arterial/JJ system/NN is/VBZ pulsatile/JJ ./.

The only difference between the two is in the interpretation of ‘left’ and pulsatile’. Pulsatile, in the physiology sense, probably is an adjective and the NLTK tagger got this right. Whereas openNLP tagged it as a noun. Arguably ‘left’ could be tagged as either a noun or an adjective. In this case openNLP assigned the adjective tag and NLTK assigned the noun tag.

But overall, not bad on a specific disciplinary dataset.

Clover couldn’t care less. She knows that Clover is a NNP and a very important one at that.

A Goat Called Clover

At the intersection of education and nature is The Goat. In this case, a goat called Clover. Popular wisdom in Higher Education is that academics should have an online profile to promote their research and teaching and to have an impact in the wider community.

I’m unconvinced that much of what goes on in Higher Education has any immediate impact at all, especially in my paddock. However, Clover convinced me that starting a blog was a good idea, as long as she featured in it, and I am happy to be swayed by a goat.
So here goes: A Goat Called Clover. And here she is, with her little brood at the very outset of their journey into the world at large. And at the outset of mine, into blogging on Higher Education, Educational Technology and of course the Wisdom of Goats.