Marking, grading and assessment in higher education

It is disturbing to find that many people in the higher echelons of education do not seem to understand some basic aspects of marking, grading and formative versus summative assessment.

Firstly, we assess the quality of the artifact or performance, not the inherent quality of the student themselves. We are identifying that the assignment is a credit level assignment, not that the student is a credit level person, or has credit level intelligence.

Secondly, when we mark an assessed piece of work, we might begin with 100% and deduct marks for each “error”, or we might start at 0 and add marks for each relevant point. However when we grade a piece of work, we are using an ordinal scale, not an equal interval scale. If we inherently use a grading system, we need to understand the inherent qualitative properties of such a scale, and the fact that it is ordinal at best in quantitative terms. I say “at best” because within the non-passing grade category, there are a number of different ways to fail that are not all equal, and I would probably argue that a 45 – 50 based on a genuine attempt at all assessments is lower in rank than a half-baked attempt on some assessments in the 30-40 range.

Thirdly, even when we use so-called objective assessments such as multi-choice tests, not all questions are created equal. There are many methods by which we could scale/rescale scores on MCQs including providing different weightings for questions of different levels of difficulty, or deducting points for incorrect answers. These methods may be much more robust than scoring each question as one point, but would most likely be very unpopular with students, and would actually be difficult to implement at a conceptual level (how do you actually rate the difficulty of each question – by performance, by expert-ranking, by whether it differentiates between “good” and “bad” students (but how do we know who these people are given that we are using the test to assess this?).

While I have always been a proponent of grading rather than marking, I have become accustomed to using marking pro-formas that define marking criteria and their weightings. I note that these rubrics tend to use grading of sub-sections of an artifact to generate a numerical score that is then combined with other scores from the rubric weighted according to the pre-defined set of weighting criteria. This allows for an acceptable spread of grades for each artifact and is apparently “more objective” than grading the artifact itself holistically. From where I sit, it is really a way of ensuring that there is a spread of marks that we can then post-hoc turn into a distribution of grades without further reference to the actual artifacts being graded.

So far as I am concerned, when we have done this, we have actually abrogated our professional responsibility to our disciplines, and become part of a credentialling factory that is obsessed with quantification of performance outcomes under the umbrella of “quality assurance” -while being oblivious to the notion that quality and quantity are inherently different constructs.

The slow-motion death of conservative politics

Waleed Aly makes some important points here – we end up so far down the slippery slope in what we don’t bother challenging in our leaders that it becomes hard to identify when it all went so horribly wrong. Each incremental step seems small until you look at how far we have collectively fallen in our acceptance of injustice, intolerance, corruption and greed. The problems in Australian academia reflect the problems in Australian society – so much is corrupted and wrong, but it is difficult to know how to make appropriate change from within.

It’s true in a sense that Trump has stolen the Republican party. But it’s also true it was there for the taking. There are many reasons Trump is succeeding – anger and disillusionment among a humiliated electorate is one of them. But there’s also the fact that the Republicans have been training their voters to indulge every reactionary prejudice for years. Trump simply does this better, louder, and with less varnish than his rivals. Can we be surprised when he vanquishes them? Can the Republican establishment really cry foul when he outdoes them?And is it so different here? Well, in a way, yes. A moderate is presently in the top job and the reactionary forces aren’t yet taking endorsements from former Ku Klux Klan wizards (they’ll have to settle for Reclaim Australia for now). But there’s an important commonality too: that the contradictions that were once holding conservative parties together, and delivering them political success, have now fallen apart. The most important of these is the contradiction between liberal economics and the politics of “values”.It’s hard to be the staunch defenders of family, culture and tradition while you’re also staunch advocates of things like high-skilled immigration and workplace “flexibility” of the kind WorkChoices offered. It’s hard to believe the market should be free to exploit and commodify whatever consumers will tolerate – sex, culture, children – and yet pretend we are bound together by inviolable, sacred values.

Source: The slow-motion death of conservative politics

New Technologies

It’s that time of year again – time to organise my technology world and work out what tools I’ll be using to make stuff happen at work and at play. I spent a month in Africa at the end of 2013, and for a variety of reasons, that time away involved very little use of technology and almost no use of voice/text. Given that my average number of texts per month has been around 500 for at least the past 5 years, this was quite a change, but not one that was at all difficult. I sort of liked not being at the beck and call of anyone.

I also have a few computers that have reached their complete end of life. I have a 12″ Powerbook G4 Which I purchased around 2003 when I first became a “web developer” – it was my badge of street cred 🙂 I also have a 15″ Powerbook G4 with an Intel chip purchased in 2006 when I became a bona-fide Consultant. Both computers have lasted well beyond their life expectancy – one is being used for dev work by a colleague, and the other finally met its death during the recent heatwave, when Tim left it in the car for 5 over 40 deg days.

Fried mac battery

During my travels (Sudan, Tanzania, Canberra), my work laptop, a 13″ Macbook Pro housed in a hard-shelled case, suffered screen-cracking in my checked luggage, despite having been transported in a similar fashion many many other times. I use an external monitor for my Macbook Pro at work anyway, so the laptop is still very usable, and I am also trying to return to being a regular bike commuter rather than a fair-weather occasional bike rider, so I also want to reduce the weight I carry every day by not hauling a laptop with me everywhere.

To this end, I’ve been playing with a Sony Experia Android phone (big but with a 22 MP camera) as a possible alternative to an iPhone/iPad/laptop combo, and I’ve been thinking about switching from an iPad to an iPad mini and then using a non-smart phone just as a phone. What I’ve realised is that I really want a lighter but fully functional laptop and that the smartphone/iPad solution is not workable for what I do (data analysis, writing, editing, graphics). So the real answer was a Macbook Air.

The days of burning DVDs seem to be a thing of the past now that we have cheap multi-gigabyte thumb drives and multi-terabyte external drives, so the limited hard-drive capacity of the Macbook Air is no longer a consideration. I did a quick pricing of a tricked up version via educational pricing, and was a bit despondent that it came out at over 2K – money I can’t really justify if I want to travel as well.

Anyhow, to cut a long story shorter, many planets aligned when I went to ride my bike to work and discovered a popped spoke – I went to my favourite bike store in Mount Waverley so that Dicky could fix my wheel, and this brought me within spitting distance of my favourite Apple reseller. I went to look for my Macbook Air, and discovered that smaller Apple resellers find it hard to get into the Apple Educational pricing (not best pleased with that, since I want to support local businesses and they’ve been great in the past when they were in Burwood. However, I also discovered the ex-demo market and for less than my brand new Macbook Air educational pricing, I now have an ex-demo fully tricked up Macbook Air plus an ex-demo iPhone 5, both of which are mine. Very happy. (For the moment. Until I find out things like iPhone 5 and Macbook Air can’t use Airdrop between them, nor can they pair up to send files via Bluetooth. Say what????? I have to go via email or DropBox???? I could send files from my old Nokia to my old Mac so what’s going on here – it doesn’t stop piracy in any way, shape or form, but it makes it a pain in the arse to take a photo on my iPhone and insert it into my blog post!). I was able to support a local business, and in the two days that I’ve had my new toys, I’ve referred more than 10 people there too!

So, in the next few months, I am planning to ramp up my technical proficiency in a number of areas:

  • Using R for file manipulation
  • Performing analyses in R
  • Using R and Gephi for Social Network Analysis
  • Blogging effectively and regularly, trialling MarsEdit
  • Getting proficient with WordPress
  • Getting proficient with Excel (because most people who should be using databases, graphing software, mathematical software or R/SPSS are probably doing things in Excel instead
  • Having a good backup and data storage capability

So my new tools of choice are going to be my Macbook Air for anywhere, anytime work/play and my software tools of choice may well turn out to be:

  • MarsEdit – blogging tool that allows posts to be written offline and published to a blog at a later date
  • R – open source stats tool with advanced scripting capabilities
  • Gephi – network data visualisation software with some built-in quantitative analyses
  • WordPress – blogging software

I will also be exploring the different options for file sharing, as befits someone whose expertise is supposedly in Digital Technologies and Training, and as we head into the possibly-post-Facebook world 🙂

  • DropBox, iCloud, Swinburne’s netstorage
  • Flickr, Picasa
  • Vimeo, YouTube
  • SlideShare

Learning outcomes

There is a push in my academic world to focus on learning outcomes rather than learning objectives. However I was reminded by the Coodabeens this morning that paradoxically sports coaching is all about process not outcome. I will need to think more about this strange contrast given the intrinsically outcome-focused nature of sport versus the process focused nature of academic study.

Reactivating my blog – time to practise what I preach in terms of reflective journalling

It used to be that every few months, I would have a sudden burst of online activity and update my own website, or write a few things. Then it spread out to every year, somewhat like a spring cleaning activity. I just noticed that it is almost two years to the day that I have made any real contribution to my web-presence other than updating my list of publications.

I now have a number of research threads operating at the same time, and I am teaching into a number of different streams of psychology, so it becomes important to collect the tidbits of information that I’m thinking about into one easily-accessible place. The mobile technology is ripe for it, and my physical notebooks are becoming scrappier and scrappier, so I plan to write regularly on the things we are thinking about, working on and reading about. I might even try to develop an active readership for commentary and link-sharing!

In flicking through my most recent posts (ie early 2010), I was reading the things that have become part of my thinking life, things like James Paul Gee, Csikszentmihalyi, Vygotsky, Hirstein, and possibly just starting on the work of Marshall McLuhan. I had probably also delved into Pylyshyn’s work and started re-reading Fodor. I was beginning to think about relationships between attention and spatial coding in the martial arts and sports world and attention and cognitive processing in general, and I was trying to grapple with the idea of causal contact with the real world.

Now that I almost have a real lab and real technical equipment that can be used to collect real data (I’m almost back to being a real scientist!), I have also returned to the idea of finally mastering at least a small amount of maths – particularly the geometry stuff required for motion capture, and the statistical notions that match the research questions we are dealing with. But the things that will need ongoing discussion and consideration will be on how to ensure that the “real science” doesn’t get side-tracked by the things we can measure rather than the questions we want to answer.

[As always, I need to develop the discipline to write regularly in small doses on a blog so I can have a head start on the longer pieces for academic papers. Somehow, my small doses never seem sufficiently finished to post …]

Commendably-written privacy policy …

In the course of following a link on the distribution of American geniuses (thanks Michael :-)), I read the OKCupid privacy policy (since they publish amusing and interesting statistics on the information provided by their users).

The privacy policy is a really good example of how to actually explain what may happen to someone’s information, including how it is archived and what would happen if the whole website changed hands … I like it!

The stats are also interesting – there are obvious issues with the self-selecting sample, but it makes a change from “the sample were first year psychology students participating for course credit”)

Maths + students = fail

This article from the ABC website documents the declining standard of maths from high school through to uni. Talk to students at schools trying to maximize their ENTER scores and start to understand that the way scores are calculated drives subject choices, rather than the actual relevance of the content …

(written on the iPhone … Not sure whether this is a good idea from an editing point of view …)

Building a Better Teacher

Building a Better Teacher ~ Stephens Web ~ by Stephen Downes.

Stephen comments on an article in the NY Times that claims great teaching can be taught, an issue of great interest to me and Stephen alike. In his comment (from which I declined to actually read the original article), Stephen suggests that the article is effectively a marketing blurb for a book by Doug Lemov, which in turn is promotion for his consultancy. When The NY Times implements its “subscription paywall”, this sort of book promotion will not be effective because the articles will no longer be widely distributed (many of the people who read the NY Times for free will not pay for the privilege). Stephen also notes that Lemov uses “unsurprising techniques” (ie nothing new or innovative) and there are no scholarly references to the “Lemov Taxonomy”.

I am interested in Stephen’s comments because there is subtext that jumps out at me:

1) Paywalls will discourage advertising masquerading as journalism. (Possibly a good thing about paywalls? Of course I won’t find out because I won’t pay …)

2) Where will newspapers get their pay-for content? (Implication that much of the content of newspapers is actual marketing / promotion. Can real journalism only be resurrected by making people pay to read?)

3) Lemov has no “scholarly references to it” – by which I presume Stephen means that Lemov is not cited by any papers in academic journals and that this reduces Lemoy’s credibility. I find this an interesting observation given the subtext in a lot of Web 2.0 discussion that the gate-keeping process of peer-reviewed academic journals creates an unnecessary monopolisitic constraint on the dissemination of new ideas.

Academic freedom of expression at The University of Melbourne

Standing Resolutions of Council – Chapter 4 – General Resolutions Including Protocols : The University of Melbourne.

seems to have been replaced by this during the “Policy simplification project”

It’s a sad reflection on Australian academia that this needs to be stated clearly, but it is refreshing that it has been. (and it’s a sad reflection on my writing that I no longer know what specific point was being made, due to the link no longer being active – note to self, make sure that writing of commentary includes the key point being identified!)

Educational theory and “Being Digital”

I have recently re-focused my thinking on issues arising from Ilana Snyder’s “Being Digital” project that I worked on last year. I prepared a report on some of the data from that project, available online at http://preview.tinyurl.com/ca8o45. The interesting part for me was reading some of the literature on cultural form (particularly Raymond Williams) and digital literacy practices, and trying to get my head around the academic discourse and legitimate research methodology in non-scientific research disciplines.

Having just returned to considering these ideas, I stumbled across the work of Karl Maton and, in particular, this paper on the place of theory in educational research. I wish I had written this particular piece myself, although perhaps it is a good thing to have somewhere else to point people to when expressing similar views. Of course, this would touch on whether a published opinion can add weight to my own professional opinion without an additional ingredient of “data”, and what constitutes the legitimisation of a personal opinion into a professional opinion, and then into domain expertise. I am hoping that further reading of Karl Maton’s work will enlighten me on this in a way that triggers a whole new way of expressing the core ideas in my recent research activity.

Addendum to Stephen Downes presentation

There were two things I forgot to mention in my post about Stephen’s presentation.

1) When Stephen was introducing the concept of connectivist learning, he used an example of the knowledge that “Paris is the capital of France” to talk about symbolic versus connectivist learning. He described the propositional version of declarative knowledge, and countered with the idea that we have a cloud of connections around the idea of Paris, and around what we mean by France and that, in fact, there is not a sentence in the head declaring Paris is the capital of France, but there are instead a whole host of connections that embody that information (or something along those lines). I couldn’t help but think that the example was a poor one because to me, X is the capital of Y is quintessentially the sort of declarative knowledge people have with absolutely no other understanding of Paris, of France and of the notion of “is the capital of” (economically? politically? socially? is the biggest? is the most well known?). I know many people who know the all the captials of all the small african nations without even knowing where the country is on a map, who lives there, or anything else about the notion, because either they learnt it at school, or they know it for trivia quiz nights.

2) The other example Stephen used was of flying a jumbo jet from New York to Melbourne. He commented that flying a jumbo jet was so incredibly complex that one couldn’t possibly consider it to be a set of declarative propositions (or something like that – he was way more eloquent in his connectivist description of Paris and flying jets). What stood out for me, as a result of having thought about military pilot training for the past two years, is that the airline industry is the most proceduralised industry in the world, and there are checklists and procedures for every foreseeable situation. That is to say, there has been a concerted effort to write down every step of the process of flying a jet from New York to Melbourne, including every possible error-situation or event that may happen …

Anyhow – I’m not sure that knowledge carves up neatly between declarative, procedural, connectivist or symbolic. I suspect they are different levels of analysis and apply in different contexts, depending on what entrenched position is being challenged.

Learning 2.0 with Stephen Downes in Melbourne

I noticed on the weekend that Stephen Downes, my online-learning-communities hero, was running a workshop in Melbourne. In a fit of boyish enthusiasm, I registered for the event – it felt a little bit like buying a ticket to a Leonard Cohen concert or something like that … not quite my genre of presentation (a workshop for people mostly from the “education sector” rather than from the cognitive science or web development world) but nevertheless an opportunity to see my hero face-to-face.

Probably the key things that came out of the morning for me were:

1) I’m not really a blogger as such – I prefer to consider my responses before blurting them out to the world, so I tend not to publish the first thing that comes to mind, and that is probably a blessing to my readers.

2) I don’t actually write “for my readers” – I write things that are effectively “note-to-self” rather than having an audience in mind. I publish online for ease of my own access, but also because some of what I have thought through might actually be of interest to some of my friends/acquaintances, and they can read it for themselves at their leisure.

3) Any time I become aware of a tangible audience, I find myself less likely to write because I’m then filtering what I write through what (I think) they might think of what I write … and I become more aware of potential political or personal ramifications of my views.

4) I am such a fan of Stephen Downes because he is such a prolific writer and manages to be considered and engaging in his writing on a very regular basis. His OLDaily newsletter seemed to find most of what I’m interested in in online learning and effectively saves me the time and effort of searching – it’s a lazy approach on my part but it reflects the level of interest I have in online learning (not enough interest to search for my own material regularly).

5) The more compelling reason I am a fan of Stephen Downes is because he has an academic grounding in philosophy (including a great web-site on the logical fallacies), very strong technical skills, and great visual and verbal communication skills so he has true multi-disciplinary knowledge encompassing the theory and practice of what he does. The multi-disciplinary deep knowledge is sadly lacking for many people who operate in the elearning / social networking space (evangelists for all that is new and modern, but without an understanding of what is old and traditional, and how the old transitions to the new).

6) Although the workshop itself was fairly straight-forward, the most exciting part for me was a bit of a discussion on the “Connectivism” course run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course itself was run in an interesting way using Web 2.0 (eLearn 2.0?) technologies and was a fee-paying, for-credit course for 22 students and was open and free for the other 1200+ (not sure of the number but lots not a few) students. There was disappointingly little discussion at the workshop of fee-for-content versus fee-for-accreditation, nor for discipline-based-accreditation versus assessment-of-understanding. To me, these should be issues that are at the forefront of educators’ minds. There was, however, a brief discussion (between Stephen and myself) of connectionism versus symbolic representation and of levels of analysis.

7) This brief discussion with Stephen spawned a whole range of ideas which, were I a more prolific blogger, would have spewed forth unedited into the world as I thunk them.

  • connectivism versus connectionism – connectivism appears to be a new term linking learning nodes (at the level of concepts?) versus the neural connectionism that describes brain functioning. I’m not sure in a distributed cognition framework what exactly constitutes “knowledge” (some amorphous cloud of connections?) and what is embodied in an individual’s learning (7-of-9 removed from the Borg collective?). I am also unsure of what version of “network” is being mooted – network models abound, but they are not all the same, and the type of network has implications for what happens at nodes …
  • Pylyshyn and symbolic representation (there are not many people with whom one can discuss Pylyshyn!): I was questioning whether Pylyshyn’s version of symbolic representation is the same as Fodor’s (and I’m not sufficiently philosophically acquainted to know the answer, or indeed if there is an answer). I know that I disagree with Kosslyn, but I’m not sure that my reading of Pylyshyn aligns with Stephen’s. Does Pylyshyn’s version of proto-objects and indexicals in early vision embody a symbolic representation that isn’t a set of propositional statements in the visual domain – is it Fodor in vision, or is there a non-visual representational level that is neither “visual image” nor symbolic representation – or does that make no sense at all (as in, is a symbolic representation by definition glued together by propositional statements)? Perhaps a different phraseology is “is it possible to instantiate a symbolic representation in a neural network, or is the symbolic representation a different level of description of the functional outcome of the neural network – or does that amount to the same thing?. And is it possible to discuss philosophy in a non-symbolic representational form (ie not through maths/language) or does that become art/music/dance/movement). (This particularly needs careful reflection and consideration – when I think about Fodor/Pylyshyn/symbolic representation and sensory/perceptual/cognitive systems and spatio-temporal awareness, I can’t decide whether what I think is blindingly obvious but difficult to express, or whether I’m just condeptually confused – I still think that it is difficult to express non-linguistic concepts linguisticallly).
  • Somewhat less interestingly, I am still frustrated by the number of straw men in the elearning, web 2.0 domain. I’m also annoyed by the failure to distinguish between teaching and learning. My role as an academic is to teach in my discipline area. I also have an obligation to continue learning in my discipline area. Some of my learning will be facilitated by “teachers” but much will be self-directed. The further I progress in my own learning, the more the ratio of teacher-led to self-directed learning for me will shift to the self-directed. Whoopy-doo. So what? Does it mean that because my “quality learning” is self-directed, that teaching is bad? Is there any concerted effort to understand what teaching is about and how much of the teaching enterprise is about deciding what constitutes the core discipline area and about calibrating and reflecting on the discipline and the level of expertise in the discipline through the process of defining what students need to know about. The process of delivering it is less important than the process of defining it.
  • I am also frustrated by the idea that back-channels are “good” and that audience participation is always a good thing. Back-channels have always been around and are important for people with short attention-spans, but reflective commentary can shared after the event rather than during it. I was mostly well-behaved at the workshop so I didn’t ask all the questions or challenge all the ideas that I wanted to, mostly because the people attending the workshop came to hear Stephen, not me. The direction I could have hijacked the workshop towards may well have been instructive and interesting to the participants, but would not have been what they came for. They came to hear Stephen because he has thought about things they are interested in, and they know enough about the style of his thinking to feel confident of the value of listening to him. They trust his insights. They have no knowledge of whether or not my insights are based on careful analysis or years of thought, and even if I have thought extensively, whether or not my thought processes are sound. In essence, they don’t trust my insights. Presentations tend to be more focussed than chats around the bar, and sometimes we want the ideas distilled before we invest the time around the bar. They are different communication modes, and serve different purposes. They are not interchangeable.
  • In a similar vein, I’m also annoyed by the lack of consideration of timeframe and content of communication in different media. Twitter, Facebook chat, Facebook status changes are transient “conversational” modes that have an expiry date of “fairly immediate”. Discussion posts or blog posts are slightly more considered, but are also at some level “unedited”. Lectopia recordings (live podcasts of live presentations) are also somewhat “unedited” and reflect thought processes and language production in real-time. Putting such things online for people to access asynchronously is good, but allowing people to sift through the tea-leaves for hidden meaning (ie to take things out of the context of the time frame in which the original was produced) is not helpful. Like slo-mo replays in sport. Like video replays in refereeing. Like this is turning into a “real blog post” of unedited thoughts, so it’s a good place to stop …

So anyway, in the end, it was a very stimulating session to have attended, not for the content of the presentation itself, but for the ideas that have been bubbling around and probably need to be clarified into papers sooner rather than later.

Yearly updates

Today I paid a bit more attention to the fact that my sidebar on my blog seemed to have disappeared. When I went to look for it, I discovered that my sidebar had in fact been hijacked by a link injection evil-thing. This possibly explains random junk mail about Google Adword accounts (which I don’t have) and the fact that one or two domains seemed to have refused to accept my email address recently.

And then I noticed that it is more than a year since my last “yearly update” – so it is probably a timely reminder that I should either maintain my websites or shut them down. And if I maintain them, I should install updates and patches to the software running the sites.

So tonight I upgraded WordPress and deleted random other things and generally overhauled the code on my site.

It also gave me food for thought as to what I want to do with my web presence and what level of control I want to have over it. I have resisted the idea of Facebook / MySpace social networking versions of web-presence because of the lack of control and the “model of the world” implicit in them. At the same time, I have started to use open source tools in preference to hand-coding web sites, because my coding is aspirational rather than secure these days. But even though the code in open source tools like WordPress and Moodle is way way way better than mine would be, it is much more worthwhile to hack because of the number of potential targets for any one exploit.

Anyhow – the lesson learned today is to upgrade regularly. And to keep in touch with what the codebase is doing. And to have a bit more curiosity about apparently random things like the fact that my email was blacklisted by a few domains and other non-random but unsolicited junkmail. And to make sure that legacy stuff is removed from my website. And to keep backups of material. All pretty basic.

Coaching, training and teaching

A letter from LS Michaelis published in The Lancet, 1946, and just as true today:

Sir, — At a time when the resources of medical education are being replanned and expanded, it would I think be useful to define these three complementary activities.

Coaching is the assembling of knowledge in preparation for a test of mental assimilation — i.e., the examination. Coaching may follow teaching, but should never precede or coincide with it.

Training is the acquisition of techniques by practical experience: It may coincide with teaching, but should never precede it.

Teaching provides a fundamental introduction, a crtical survey, and a challenge to original thought; it promotes judgement and insight, enthusiasm, and inquiry. It should precede and accompany training, but never degenerate into coaching.

Clever young graduates, with a fund of systematic knowledge, make good coaches; able technicians may make good trainers. But teaching calls for a balanced view of the part and the whole; it demands a broad outlook and a deep insight, with scepticism for the established and an open mind for the new.

When coaching is allowed to predominate in education, the body medical presents itself as a cleanly dissected corpse. When training is given more than its due, the result is a robot. Only when teaching is given its proper scope and precedence does this body medical emerge as a growing living organism.

Barry Jones on resisting the forces of ignorance

An article by Barry Jones in The Australian argues that “Public intellectuals should not remain silent in the face of an assault on reason and our liberties”. Jones implores us to become involved in political life and public debate; to promote rational, informed discussion; to understand other cultures and other perspectives; and to understand that the roots of terrorism are not totally irrational and evil, but are the result of long periods of social injustice and marginalisation. Jones is critical of Australia’s politicians, the political system as it operates in Australia, the public service, the media and academics – all people who should be leading public discussion and debate, providing credible information (not political spin), and contributing to community knowledge and understanding.

We live in an era of instinctive, reactive and ill-informed leaders and followers, marked by contempt for truth, living by the dictum that the end justifies the means. It hardly matters whether that view is driven by cynicism or ideology.

The quality of public debate in Australia has been compromised, partly through media indifference and the systematic denuding of the ABC, but also through the retreat of the public intellectual. We have more paid academics than at any time in history, but across the nation, regrettably, they have fallen silent.

In universities and research institutions, professional activity and workloads have increased appreciably, and contribution to public debate is discouraged. The term academic is routinely used in a denigratory way to mean remote, pedantic, impractical or irrelevant. The only consolation is that in the medium to long term, it is elite opinion that wins out.

Reviving politics will involve encouraging knowledge, curiosity, understanding, scepticism and transparency. It will also require a revolution in education to redefine non-economic values and a critical spirit, with heavier emphasis on history, philosophy and language, as well as the skills needed for vocations.

(The article is an edited transcript of “The John Bray Oration 2007: Censorship and secrecy: threats to an open society in an insecure age”, delivered at the University of Adelaide on Sept 4th.)

More on “good enough”, creativity and blogging

Paul Buchheit (inventor of Gmail) captures one of the main blocks I have in terms of keeping my blog active:

“Every so often I have an idea or thought that might be worth sharing. But then I think of all the ways in which it could be misinterpreted or disputed, and then I think about how to better explain or justify myself, and then I’m just tired of all that thinking and so I don’t actually write anything.” more …

I visited his blog through a link from Michael Stillwell on writing webservers in bash (… it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, it’s raining and I have a heap of housework and “real” work to do so I was procrastinating … What can I say?!) I don’t write webservers, and I don’t write bash scripts, but I very much enjoyed reading the other posts in his blog!

  • “Perfect” is the enemy of “good enough” goes one step further than most of my discussions on quality, to suggest that “good enough” is the enemy of “at all” in terms of creativity, (and I would add, learning).
  • Avoiding hard problems is a slightly different take on “good enough”, but would be a good read for people in the educational technology and simulation arenas.
  • And this piece on Mental Frames is well worth reading too.

There are also posts on database architecture and on comparisons of IBM, Microsoft, Google and Facebook (as instances of types) which have interesting things to say.

Watching your kids on the internet …

I was saddened to read of the deaths of two teenage girls in Melbourne, reported to be as a result of a suicide pact made online through MySpace. There has been a lot of mainstream media coverage of this tragedy, much of which is exhorting parents to monitor what their kids are doing online. There is an insidious element of implied criticism of the girls’ parents – seemingly suggesting that these parents were somehow negligent in not knowing what the kids were doing because they were doing it in secret on line rather than in the open spaces of the “real world”. There is a not-so-hidden implication that we are being irresponsible parents to allow our kids online for too long. As a mother of two adolescents (a girl and a boy) who each spend a reasonable amount of unsupervised time online, I am reading the coverage with some interest.

I am particularly bemused by the commentary by some of the supposed experts in adolescent psychology … adolescence is a tricky time, and one that we all hope our kids get through relatively unscathed … but I would have thought it is precisely the time when we should be allowing our kids room to explore the world. It is a world that has always had a dark side and has always involved kids exploring some of the things their parents told them not to do. Mostly they survive. Often, parental boundaries are set with the naive intention of avoiding their kids being exposed to the dangerous things they chose to do themselves as adolescents …

The thing about suicide is how unpredictable it can be – there is no way to predict what is the precursor to suicide, although there are many ways to see the evidence with 20/20 hindsight. Suicide leaves a devastating after-effect, including an increase of suicides among those affected. But surely drawing attention to the “likelihood” of copycat suicides is tantamount to giving permission to copycats to go ahead by normalising their action?

There is no doubt that when you are touched by someone’s death, it is a good time to hold your special people close and to remember to tell them that you love them. But it is not the right time to suffocate them and to stop trusting them because someone else has shown poor judgement.

The thing about the internet is how much opportunity it gives us to observe the things that would otherwise be transient and unobserved by anyone who wasn’t right there at the time. That is to say, in many ways we can see way more of what our kids are doing online than what they are doing offline … in our houses, we don’t monitor all the conversations our children have, and we don’t control who they interact with at school or elsewhere unless we take them everywhere … I even suspect there are quite a few grandparents whose main contact with their grandkids is online.

Which brings me back (in a somewhat rambling way) to the theme of watching your kids on the internet … my 15 yo son is an avid internet user and I drop by his website occasionally to see what he’s up to and who he’s “hanging out with”. My argument is that he is bringing these people “into my home” through the computer and I want to get a feel for who they are … I try not to hang around his site too much because, frankly, I don’t need to see the adolescent details of his life, just like I don’t need to sit with his friends in the school yard, or listen to the details of their conversations at parties, or read their “I’m bored” / “Me too” / “Me too me too” deep bonding (!!) … would I know if he was using drugs or deeply unhappy or doing evil and / or illegal things on the internet or in real life? I like to think so, but I suspect he could easily lead a double life without me knowing and vice versa if he were intent on so doing – he’s smart, and we just hope that he uses it for good not evil through the values we have offered him through our own example as family and friends.

For the past few days his Journal has had an “Emo” theme of “Going to die in 5 days” with something about it being his foray into attention-grabbing journal entries so he can say he’s tried out the genre … and his “mood” is listed as bored and, amongst other things on his profile, he watches “anything other than the news”. There were a whole string of fairly mundane comments and stuff from his friends associated with the journal entry – ie nothing other than the title to ring any alarm bells. He writes a bit of “dark” poetry occasionally along with lots of light creative things too. We talk sometimes, but not all the time, and we don’t share everything with each other although I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other.

So what is a responsible parent to do with something like that? Is it a joke? Is it a cry for help? Is it nothing? Is it something? Should I be reading his online journal (which is online and therefore presumably fair game for anyone to read including his mother (although I feel like I should knock first before entering as I would into his room if he had friends over))? And if it is something to worry about, how would confronting him be likely to help? Will it exacerbate his crisis or lead him to the sudden realisation that parental love solves everything? Should I put him on suicide watch, cancel all ground-leave, medicate him, take him to a psychiatrist, yell at him?

As it turned out (more than 5 days later … ;-)) – it was about as meaningful in terms of any imminent death as my saying “I’ll kill you if you eat my last chocolate teddy bear biscuit” … (and I leave it to the reader to ascertain the level of threat associated with eating the last chocolate biscuit in my household :-)). Since my son doesn’t watch the news or read the paper, he was completely unaware that it was an ‘insensitive’ journal entry to have made in terms of timing … It has since been edited to say “Going to HAVE A COOKIE in 5 days” … which shows just how inane the whole journal thing can be and why parents might tire of watching their children endlessly online …

So to make a long story even longer, I read the post a few days ago, raised my eyebrows, checked that my son didn’t seem too distressed or secretive and let it go at that. Then I started wondering whether I was being a bad parent, a lazy parent, too confident that I know my son, too insensitive to “see his pain” (ie see pain that is beyond what is bearable for any healthy adolescent) … and started asking myself the question of “how would I feel if I ‘missed the sign'”? … And if I be honest, I probably only asked my son about the entry because I was worried about how I would explain having “seen the sign” and ignored it … especially as a Registered Psychologist ™. But then again, maybe I should have trusted my instincts as a scientist a bit more – watching our kids too closely will also have effects, not all of which are straightforward or “good” no matter what our intent. Heisenberg or Einstein or Schroedinger or someone particularly clever with Quantum Physics said something about the nature of observations and how they relate to the longevity and well-being of cats, and I suspect, along with Kath and Kim, that it may also apply to humans …

I should now be smiling wryly and saying “better safe than sorry” but that actually misses an important point – if my son was seriously suicidal in a pre-meditated way, knew I was watching him, and did not want to talk to me about it, he would probably change his method not his mind. Sometimes we overestimate our power and influence as parents, and we misunderstand the value of our love – adolescents are not really ready to understand the nature of parental love – maybe they are completely used to it and do not actually understand its value, maybe they feel betrayed by some element of it that they don’t understand, maybe they feel smothered by it, maybe they have never experienced it … but many adolescents are betrayed or devastated or overwhelmed by relationships and experiences outside of the family which they feel they need to deal with outside of the family, and in these things we sometimes support our kids best by trusting them to be able to cope. We can not fix everything for our kids (or anyone else), bad stuff does happen, we are not responsible for other people’s happiness (although that’s not to say that we can aren’t sometimes responsible for their unhappiness …)

Suicide leaves a trail of devastation behind it, and loneliness and unhappiness can be relieved by people taking time to care for each other. But life does have ups and downs and perhaps we should embrace a broader range of life’s experience to become resilient to some of the bumps along the way. Perhaps rather than referring people to Lifeline too quickly, we can make it our own crusade to look after the people around us. I think I am understanding my grandmother’s saying “Charity begins at home” a little bit more …

Cyberbullying by parents …

This is a link to a blog site to “discuss” recent changes at Essex Heights Primary School referred to in The Age.

It is a number of years since my kids went to Essex Heights. The school certainly had many good features, but one thing lacking was any innovative use of classroom technology – great to see that at least some of the parents are putting technology to good use (NOT !!) I was going to write some comments about the site, but it seems to be shrinking in content as I write – perhaps the publicity has made some people realise that everyone can read and judge for themselves and that the behaviour they’re modelling to their kids is less than inspiring.

Jakob Nielsen on Life-Long Computer Skills

Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox on Lifelong Computer Skills reiterates the idea that education is about learning fundamental concepts rather than how to do specific things in a specific context.

Teaching life-long computer skills in our schools offers further benefit in that it gives students insights that they’re unlikely to pick up on their own. In contrast, as software gets steadily easier to use, anyone will be able to figure out how to draw a pie chart. People will learn how to use features on their own, when they need them — and thus have the motivation to hunt for them. It’s the conceptual things that get endlessly deferred without the impetus of formal education.

He goes on to list Search Strategies, Information Credibility, Information Overload, and sundry other things relating to creating and evaluating online content as the appropriate skills to be taught as the basics of information literacy.