Thursday, December 10, 2009

E-unlearning: Virtual Iraq treats PTSD

Every year I buy The Best of American Science Writing, and every year I come across at least one, often more, astounding pieces of work that change my world view. One was a paper on first-cousin marriage in the Middle East which explained why western ideas of government could never succeed in some countries, as they never replace close kinship, family and tribal affiliations in their populations. Another showed meticulous research showing that bullies do not suffer from low self-esteem, but a surfeit of esteem, and that efforts to bolster their esteem backfire, making them worse!

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This year, 2009, brought a fascinating tale of US soldiers being successfully treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) through video games. Patients don a helmet with goggles, earphones, supplemented by a scent machine and realistic simulations from the video game Full Spectrum Warrior (originally developed as a training programme). They then go back to experience the horrors of war that caused their condition in the first place.

Nearly 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD and most therapies don’t seem to work. This new type of therapy is based on Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy and tries neutralise the cues that trigger PTSD by playing back the traumatic experiences over and over again, leading to ‘habituation’.

The technique was first used in 1997 with some long-term PTSD Vietnam veterans and all showed signs of improvement. This time round the system was way more sophisticated and in all groups that have used the system, four out of five, eight out of ten and eight out of nine, no longer meet the criteria for PTSD. This is an astonishing rate of success.

Crazy - me?

Interestingly, many sufferers had previously avoided treatment or cut out of treatment due to the stigma of being thought of as ‘crazy’. The fact that the treatment was using computer games, was seen as ‘cool and unthreatening’. There are already signs that computer games can be used in healthcare to good effect, with improved performance in surgery, pain management in children, Alzheimers and other conditions.


Alternative realities (e-unlearning) may be more than just escapism, they may be just the thing to cure minds of faulty imagined realities. Ultimately, depression and many other forms of mental illness may well be relieved by such virtual approaches, where the mind heals itself through created realities.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Facebook causes cancer! The Big Debate

Fireworks in Berlin at 'The Big Debate', where Aric Sigman and I locked horns on the question:

“The increasing use of technology and social software is damaging students' minds and undermining the benefits of traditional methods of learning”.

I argued that it improved students’ minds and enhanced the benefits of traditional education.

'Facebook causes cancer' was a headline from the Daily Mail this year, sparked off by a paper written by Aric Sigman, in a peer reviewed journal called ‘Biologist’ (Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking’). Ben Godacre, Doctor and award winning journalist, author of Bad Science, and a debunker of some renown, took Sigman to task on Newsnight. It’s as good a demolition job as I’ve ever seen on Newsnight and I’ve seen a few. Even Paxman thought he was a nutter! (Also watch out for Susan Greenfield's admission that there is NO EVIDENCE.)

Sigman's Cherry picking

Back to the debate. I followed Goldacre’s line and attacked the original paper on the grounds that the papers Sigman cited did NOT mention social networking and were largely about medical effects in people over the age of fifty, in some cases even older.

Cole SW et al (2007) Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes

No mention of ‘social networking’

Tiny sample aged 50-67

Lamkin D M (2008) Positive psychosocial factors and NKT cells in ovarian cancer patients

No mention of ‘social networking’

Study of women over 65

Rutledge T et al (2004) Social networks are associated with lower mortality rates among women with suspected coronary disease

No mention of ‘social networking’

Mean age was 59

Cohen S et al (1997) Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold

No mention of ‘social networking’

1997 way before social networks!

Ertel K A et al (2008) Effects of Social Integration on Preserving Memory Function in a Nationally Representative US Elderly Population

No mention of ‘social networking’

US sample of elderly adults


On top of this, on one citation, he deliberately failed to mention that the authors Kraut R et al (1998) (Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?) who had discovered small negative effects of using Internet on measures of social involvement and psychological well-being among Pittsburgh families in 1995-1996, had in Kraut R et al (2001) (Internet Paradox Revisited) had changed their minds, “In a 3-year follow-up of the original sample, we find that negative effects dissipated over the total period. We also report findings from a longitudinal study in 1998-99 of new computer and television purchasers. This new sample experienced overall positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being.” That is more than cherry-picking by Sigman, it’s deception.

In fact the evidence, that Sigman knew about, but deliberately ignored points to the opposite:

1. Caplan SE (2007) “Relations among loneliness, social anxiety, and problematic Internet use.”

“The results support the hypothesis that the relationship between loneliness and preference for online social interaction is spurious.”

2. Sum et al (2008) “Internet use and loneliness in older adults“.

greater use of the Internet as a communication tool was associated with a lower level of social loneliness.”

3. Subrahmanyam et al (2007) “Adolescents on the net: Internet use and well-being.

“loneliness was not related to the total time spent online, nor to the time spent on e-mail”

Byron review

Tanya Byron was commissioned to look specifically at these issues by the UK government and in a well conducted and level-headed research project, collected a” vast array of evidence…commissioned three literature reviews:

up to date research evidence on children’s brain development – Prof. Mark Johnson Birkbeck University

comprehensive review on the vast body of child development research - Professor Usha Goswami Cambridge University

current media effects literature in relation to video games and the internet – Prof. David Buckingham Institute of Education"

Annexes F, G, and H and at

Some of her conclusions, relevant to this debate, were that, “there is no clear evidence of desensitisation in children”, “children actively involved in sport play on consoles for same amount of time as those who are not” and “technology specifically useful; for those with learning difficulties and disabilities”.

US Department of Education Study

In support of my proposition that technology enhanced education I then quoted from the US Department of Education’s study ‘Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies’ which looked at data from 1996 to 2008, selecting rigorous, measurable effects, random assignment and the existence of controls, “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving traditional face-to-face instruction.” and “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.”

Finally I pointed toYouTube EDU, iTUNES U, Open Learn, MITOPENCOURSEWARE, Project Gutenberg and the Hole in the Wall project to show that there are some wonderful examples of enhancement.


Aric Sigman is the academic version of Sue Palmer, cherry-picking luddites who have books to sell, with titles like ‘Toxic Childhood’ and The Spoilt Child’. They’re part of a ‘parenting industry’ that creates and thrives on fear. It’s people like them that are promoting helicopter parenting and risk averse attitudes that lead to kids being locked up indoors, not the technology.

That's was pretty much my case. I only had 10 minutes, so summed up with a quote from Douglas Adams,

everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really. Apply this list to movies, rock music, TV, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

We won the vote. I have to say that it was a great format and really got the juices flowing. Conferences should have more of this.

One last point. Sigman claimed that kids spend on average 7.5 hours a day online. I challenged this but he stuck to his guns. Now I don't know about you, but but mine would have to switch on the minute they got back from school and stay focussed until midnight every night without going to the toilet, eating etc. This figure alone makes him look ridiculous.


Here’s some tweets and a blog post on the debate:

Why blame technology for something that depends on the home environment, parents must take responsibility for childrens learning

read his book on 'bad science' and then you'll see through people like aric

by the way, nasty of Aric to slag Ben Goldacre..he's not a journalist but a doctor and specialises in statistical misuse

Good fuel for a hot debate - extremely well selected speakers

Donald Clark : technologies helps inclusion. Very important

The Brits are demonstrating how to run a controversial debate. Fun.

Lectures on YouTubeEdu are improving education. Teachers get a larger audience

Donald Clark: USDE meta study found good support of e-learning

Donald Clark: Aric's studies based on the elderly, not using social networking

Sigman uses sources for his theory that are not about social networking

Sigman does not understand that social software is very social

listening to Aric Sigman I start to think we should call it OFFLINE Educa next year.

Aric Sigman: North Korea as the model for modern education - teachers get respect!

The sessions were rounded off with a 'debate' on the proposal that the internet is destroying our children's minds. A motion led by Aric Sigman who shouted and attempted to scare everyone. His extremely aggressive style offended some, particularly those unfamiliar with him (the vast majority of the 2,000+ international delegates), but for others gradually seemed like a raving madman. He attacked the audience as being pushers of this mind-rotting technology..not a great debating tactic, but he gives the impression of a man who cares about nothing other than his ego which was bloated by the use of the video projection screens, sadly.

He then was robustly challenged by Donald Clark who did a great job and was happy enough to show some passion and contempt for the scaremongering. The next two speakers were less effective. Bruce 'the Brute' (see Private Eye) Anderson, a veritable caricature of a fleet street hack, his tie slung askew muttered along the lines of trying to support the motion but being 'reasonable' (the old good cop/bad cop pairing), then some guy 'from Silicon Valley,' Jerry Michalski gave a fairly anodyne response to that...his analogy of the development of the 'automobile' with the net currently being at Model T wasn't a good one for a European audience, as a bicycling Dutchman commented!

Anyway, what needs to be said to those unfamiliar with Dr. Sigman is that cherry-picking (ie selective use of some reports and wilfully ignoring of other contradictory findings) seems to be his speciality, as pointed out by Ben Goldacre who he seemed to have a pop at during the session. If you want more on this aspect and some examples then visit this link.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A-level playing field looking patchy

Learning or cramfests?

Reached that time in life when my kids are off to 6th form college and have to knuckle down, and narrow down, in terms of subjects, which is a shame. No one really know what they want to do at 15, and if they do, it’s a probably a bad sign. If the answer is a doctor or lawyer, you can bet good money that a pushy parent has his or her hand up their offspring’s spineless back.

The good news is that A-Levels have been around since 1951 and are simply the de facto qualifications for UK Universities, with some cache on an international scale, as they are used by lots of Commonwealth countries. The bad news is that the A-level system is cripplingly restricted as it forces young people into 3 subjects far too early. Despite the Curriculum 2000 split into As and A2, you get students who are often one-sided, either Maths/Physics/other science OR English/Psychology /other arts. It’s this Manichean aspect of the system I don’t like. You see this in the culture. There’s the anti-science brigade versus the anti-arts brigade. Then there’s the ‘fill their heads with this stuff as quickly as possible’ approach to most subjects. It’s a cramfest.


The Scottish system is in one way better but in another a complete disaster. Their Highers, where students take 4/5/6 subjects usually give them more breadth. It’s a system I went through 35 years ago and hasn’t changed a bit. The downside is still the same; the stupidity of the lost sixth year, when most students switch off (University positions secured on Higher results). It’s a waste of time for no mother reason that lazy politics - preserving 4 year degrees in Scottish Universities.

International Baccalaureate

What a joy, then, to find an approach that is better than all of this, the International Baccalaureate. This has the right blend of breadth and depth, knowledge and skills, arts and science. Here’s the deal. You commit to doing:

3 Higher level courses and 2 Standard

Maths, English, Science and a language compulsory

Lots of choices in other subjects (philosophy, psychology, history)

150 hours of community, creative or active work over the two years

4000 word essay on a subject you’re passionate about

core theory of knowledge course

This is recognised by universities worldwide, and the smart ones see the benefit in the rounded education the student receives, preparing themselves for University, and life. I spoke to a bunch of these kids at Varndean College in Brighton, in both their first and second years of study and have never, ever, come across a more enthusiastic bunch of learners in my life. They absolutely love their course. It’s hard work, they say, but the classes are small, the work interesting and projects inspiring. The course also attracts a wider mix of students, with more international breadth. Some were quite keen on studying abroad. They seemed way wiser than the A-level herd I spoke to that same evening. Far more confident in the fact that they were ‘learning’ rather than completing a series of separate and unrelated qualifications. It stops kids taking pure analytic courses or a set of oddball A-levels, presenting a balanced set of options with a solid analytic approach. It's about the learner, not the qualifications.

We’re stuck with these dated, national systems, struggling to translate credits from one country to another, yet here’s a solution staring us in the face. I hope at least one of my lads will take this course. He’s keen, but it’s his decision.

Footnote: Welsh Baccalaureate

Interesting to see Wales take a lead, of sorts, here, ahead of England, Scotland and N Ireland, by introducing their own Baccalaureate. Available at three levels, Basic, Intermediate and Advanced, studies from the Universities of Nottingham and Bath have been positive, producing a wider, more skills-based approach to pre-University qualifications. However, it lacks the core subject approach that the IB offers, and has less traction as a qualification, even in the UK.

Friday, November 13, 2009

E-learning Age Awards

Award ceremonies can be the worst and best of times. I’ve been to lots and the one’s I’ve enjoyed the most have been those that descended into chaos! Easily the best was way back in the early 90s where Willie Rushton told a horrifically sexist joke (based on the name of the host organisation -BIVA) and was booed by most of the women in the room. Bread rolls were thrown and the whole thing descended into farce. My second favourite was last year’s WOLCE awards, where Marcus Brigstocke had a hilarious time congratulating non-deserving companies like RBS on their ‘Understanding Business’ e-learning programme. It started late so the audience was as at peak point of drunkenness, where all are at one with the world and everything seems funny. The hotel, somewhere in Birmingham, was seedy, tacky and slightly odorous, as only cheap British hotels can be. The poached pears were as hard as marble. So, I was hoping for some welcome anarchy last night, as I trooped off by train, with Clive Shepherd, to the Sheraton in London, for the E-learning Age Awards. As the WOLCE awards have collapsed, this is now the premier UK awards night, and deservedly so. The number of entries was up and the mood seemed buoyant.

Caspian’s double triumph

I have to declare an interest here (as I’m on their Board) but well done to Caspian. a Gold Award for best games/simulation in learning (for Royal Navy), as well as a Silver for Most Innovative New Product, 'ThinkingWorlds'. It takes some doing to get two awards on the one night for both your content and the tool you created to make that content. We had three of team who helped create the programme and tool at the table (down from Newcastle) and they deserved this. I also had time to talk to the wonderful ‘Queen of Tools’ Jane Hart, who was sitting next to me at the table. We’re speaking together at Online Educa, which should be fun. Check out her incredibly useful tools site.

Piers Lea

I’ve known Piers for 20 odd years and he’s as nice a man as you’d ever hope to meet, and thoroughly deserved his Outstanding Achievement Award. Piers is the CEO of LINE which has seen a surge in sales over the last four years. He has some really talented people in his team with Keith, Sean, Bruce, Fi, Andrew et al. These guys really know their stuff. Again I’ll declare an interest, as I’ve been working with Piers over the last few years helping to open up the defence sector and bringing in some fresh blood, such as Ken Robertson (best proposal writer in the business) and John Helmer (best e-learning marketing person in the business. Just a word of praise for David Wilson, who was shortlisted. He’s sure to win this some time soon, as he’s been a key figure in the industry in terms of objective analysis.


You can’t keep us Brighton boys down! So a big congratulations to Charles, Lars, Virginia and the rest of the excellent Brightwave team, for winning Production Company of the Year. Their table was curiously packed with kilted Scotsmen (from Sky TV), as they have an office in Scotland. Good people doing good work. And check out Lars blog – it’s quality stuff.


Good to see my old company Epic get back on track, after its disastrous dalliance with the hapless Huveaux. Great to see Roy Evans, of the British Army, and the Epic team, Nick and Vicky, get the Gold for best mobile application. I’ve blogged about these excellent projects before, on the Nintendo and iPods, as they’re way beyond the often fuzzy mobile learning projects you find in education. These teach numeracy, Arabic and Pashtun, to young soldiers on the frontline. It’s not often you can say that e-learning may be saving lives – ask Roy, he knows. Let’s hope there’s more from Roy and the Epic team. Strange footnote to this one. I was collared by Jonathon and Naomi, of Epic, for being rude in my blog about some quango person in their Oxford debate. They were a little confused as I haven’t written anything about the debate in my blog (I think). I did, in fact, make one short comment on Clive’s blog about her banal views. Lighten up guys – it’s only a blog!


More Brighton success with Kineo coming in for an award for something. Nice to see Mark Harrison swan up to the stage dressed even shabbier than me! Well done to Steve, Stephen, Mark and Matt. These guys are working their proverbial bollocks off to build their business and continue their meteoric rise with over 50 staff and new offices in the US. Go Kineo!


A word also for Gavin Cooney of Learnosity who won a Gold for Most Innovative Tool. Gavin, who’s a prodigious social networker, online and offline, will no doubt put this new sobriquet to good use. He’s another lovely guy with, he tells me, only one suit. Clive and myself look forward to working with him in Ireland in the new year.


All in all, a good evening. The right folks seemed to win the right awards. No, sorry, hold that ending……I forgot to mention The Royal Bank of Scotland, who won the Gold Award for (wait for it) ‘Meeting the Needs of Compliance for an External regulator or an Internal Workforce’. Have the judges been locked up in solitary confinement for the last year? This is the company who we’re all bailing out, as they failed to comply with anything, even normal standards of decency. Maybe a Platinum Award for the ‘Most Non-compliant, Arrogant, Wasteful, Incompetent and Greedy Behaviour of any Bank in the History of Banking Award’ would have been more appropriate. Sorry, let’s get back to business. A good comedian would have ripped into this one, and maybe that’s what the event needs next year to take it to the next level – some comic chaos!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

INSET days – 7 reasons to scrap them

Parents get pretty annoyed every time an ‘INSET’ day comes along. What other organisation simply closes shop and refuses to deal with all of its customers or clients five days a year? Imagine phoning up the school and saying, ‘Listen, my work is having a training evening next week, could you look after my kid for me, until I get home?’

Here’s seven reasons to scrap them:
  1. Organisations don’t throw customers out of the door for an entire day of training
  2. Extra cost/load on parents in terms of childcare is significant
  3. Kids lose about a week of schooling a year
  4. No convincing research evidence that INSET days have any beneficial effects
  5. Some are not training and used as catch-ups for work
  6. Many are hotchpotches of faddish, non-empirical training
  7. Many are ill-planned, dull and irrelevant
Other organisations don’t throw customers out of the door for an entire day to do training
Imagine banks, hospitals, shops, police forces, fire services – almost every other service, closing down for five days a year with a simple notice saying ‘staff training’. It’s unimaginable.
The extra cost/load on parents in terms of childcare is significant
People don’t find it easy to cope with teacher training days. Additional childcare, often at a cost that huts people on low pay, is the cost to the community.
Kids lose about a week of schooling a year
Schools have 5 INSET days a year, resulting in a significant amount of lost teaching. Imagine the fuss if parents suggested that we should be allowed to take our kids out of school, for five separate days, of our choosing.
No research evidence that INSET days have any beneficial effects
Prof Dylan Wiliam, from the Institute of Education thinks that INSET days are largely a waste of time as there’s no real evaluation of their effect and no conving research showing they work.
Some are not training and used as catch-ups for work
INSET days are not supposed to be work catch-up days, but are often treated as such. This is clear from teacher forums.
Many are hotchpotches of faddish, non-empirical training
INSET days are used to introduce theories from outside ‘mom and pop’ training companies that are often out of date, untested and nothing short of snakeoil. Brain Gym, Mozart Effect, L/R brain theories, Gardner’s MI, Learning Styles….the list is huge.
Many are ill-planned, dull and irrelevant
We have to go to stupid, boring, meetings that last all day and often are a total waste of my time” (from teacher’s forum). This sort of reaction is not unusual from teachers.
And why not simply latch these days on to the start or end of holidays? Why pop them into the middle of terms? The problem here is that the timetabling is at the discretion of the school. What’s not generally known is that, the regulations state that attendance outside the regular required hours at INSET days is not obligatory. In other words, they needn’t attend at all!
Who knows? It seems to be a pretty scrappy affair but evidence from teacher’s forums is pretty disturbing. Here’s the first post on the subject from the TES and there’s lots like these in teacher forums:
I am just looking to get a feel for what other schools do with support staff on inset days. Until recently we were left to our own devices which was great as we were able to catch up on work but under a "Whole Staff" ethos we are "invited" to attend training. The problem is that we do not find the training offered to be relevant to our job roles and, at times, is completely incomprehensible to us! We are also informed that failure to attend our allocated training session is a disciplinary issue which does wonders for the morale. We would be happy to attend targetting training but curriculum INSET is a nonsense for us and we'd rather be clearing the decks!
Online CPD is the way forward. Encourage teachers to join professional networks, especially on social media. They'll see the flourishing communities of Teachmeets, ResearchEd and so on. Go one step further and do a MOOC - there's lots in this area. Anything but those awful round table and flipchart sessions.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Gardner's 'Multiple Intelligences' seductive nonsense?

In Gardner’s 2003 paper in the American Educational Research Association, Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years, he states,
I have come to realize that once one releases an idea – “meme” – into the world, one cannot completely control its behaviour – anymore than one can control those products of our genes we call children.
Absolutely. One of the problems with Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences’ was its seductiveness. A teacher could simply say, everyone’s smart, we’re all just smart in different ways. There’s a truth in this, in terms of a narrowly academic curriculum, but when adopted as ‘science’ in schools, Multiple Intelligences can be a dumbing-down, destructive force. In general people confuse the critique of single IQ scores as a measure of intelligence, with Gardner’s theory, as if he were the final world on the matter. He is not.
Not neuroscience
First, teachers who quote and use the theory are unlikely to have fully understood its status and further development by Gardner himself. Few will have understood that it is not supported in the world of neuroscience, despite the perception by educators that it arose from there. Gardner’s first book, Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (2003) laid out the first version of the theory, followed 16 years later by a reformulation in Intelligence Reframed (1999), then again in Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years (2003). Few have followed its development after 1983 or the critiques and Gardner’s subsequent distancing of the theory from brain science.
Lynn Waterhouse laid out the lack of scientific evidence for the theory in Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review in Educational Psychologist, a paper to which Gardner felt duty bound to respond. In fact, in response to the absence of neurological evidence for his separate 'intelligence' components, Gardner had to redefine his intelligences as “composites of fine-grained neurological subprocesses but not those subprocesses themselves”(Gardner and Moran, 2006). In fact, many areas of learning such as reason, emotion, action, music, language and so on are characterised by their overlapping, dispersed and complex patterns of activity in the brain, as shown in brain scans. Islands of functional specificity are extremely rare. In short, Gardner suffers from conceptual invention and simplicity. Brain science simply does not support the theory.
Gardener himself admits that the science has yet to come, but teachers assume it’s already there and that the theory arose from the science. Big mistake. Pickering and Howard-Jones found that teachers associate multiple intelligences with neuroscience, but as Howard-Jones states in his recent BECTA report, “In terms of the science, however, it seems an unhelpful simplification as no clearly defined set of capabilities arises from either the biological or psychological research”.

Training's the problem
The problem seems to be the culture of in-service training ( a fact confirmed in the Howard-Jones survey), as the most quoted source for such myths. It would seem that a rather lazy culture of oddball suppliers and ‘psychology for dummies’ INSET days has led to this sad state of affairs. There's an army of small teams of trainers peddling this snake-oil. They cull populist, fashionable theories, string them together in PowerPoint presentations, and the ever-popular 'workshops' and so the meme is virally spread, not only through the minds of teachers, but to our children who suffer from the misconceptions of their teachers. We all agree that teachers don't have a lot of spare time, so why waste it on this rubbish? Their time would surely be better spent on real brain science, where real increases in the productivity of learning are possible, not tomorrow but now.
Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. (New York, Basic Books).
Gardner, H. (1999) Intelligence Reframed. (New York, Basic Books).
Gardner, H. (2003) "Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years." American Educational Research Association.
Gardner, H., and Moran, S. (2006) The Science of Multiple Intelligences Theory: A Response to Lynn Waterhouse, Educational Psychologist, 41.4, 227-32.
Pickering, S.J., and Howard-Jones, P. (2007) Educators' Views on the Role of Neuroscience in Education: Findings from a Study of UK and International Perspectives, Mind, Brain and Education, 1.3, 109-13.
Waterhouse L. (2006) Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review, Educational Psychologist, 41.4, 207-25.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

BBC Bitesize - stupid, lazy GCSE questions

English GCSE Revision
To Kill A Mockingbird
How were black people were treated in 1930s America?
a) Treated like everyone else
b) Treated extremely badly
c) Treated for dry rot and rising damp
What halfwit came up with this question and its dumb-assed third option? In what way is this really testing 15 year old GCSE students? It simply reduces the questions to a 50:50 chance of getting them right.
Here's another...
Why are we told about Jem's broken arm at the start of the novel when the attack does not occur until the end?
a) To make us feel sorry for Jem.
b) To create suspense.
c) So that we know what happens if we don't have time to read the book.
There's loads of these. Standards and BBC - an oxymoron?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Piaget – why teach this stuff?

Asked my niece, who’s doing teacher training (B Ed), what she’s getting in psychology and the first name that comes up is ‘Piaget’. My heart sinks as there’s almost nothing left of his theories that is remotely useful to a new teacher. His four-stage theory of child development has been so completely wiped out by subsequent studies, that there’s nothing left. It’s merely an exercise in the history of science. What’s shocking is the way he’s still revered and taught in such courses. It’s like teaching Lamarck, not Darwin.

Famous four-stages demolished

His famous four stage developmental model (Sensorimotor, Pre-operational, Concrete and Formal) has been fairly well trashed.

First, the Sensimotor Stage with the infamous ‘hide a toy under a cloth and the child thinks it’s no longer there’ study, which turned out to be an exercise in distraction, and when repeated by Bower and Wishart in the absence of an adult, with a teddy, most children had no difficulty in understanding that the toy is still under the cloth. In general, Piaget simply focussed too much on motor actions when the real development is perceptual. Kagan also attributes object permanence to a simple increase in memory capacity.

Second, the Pre-operational Stage study, where a child fails to recognise a doll’s point of view from photographs of three mountains, was shown to be too complex for the children to understand. A simpler experiment by Hughes, using dolls of two policeman, showed that many children can understand non-egocentric perspectives.

Third, the Concrete Operation Stage was demolished by Rose and Blank, when it was found that Piaget had been verbally correcting the children towards his wanted conclusions, invalidating the data. The ‘naughty teddy’ experiment also wiped out his famous three rows of sweets trial supposedly showing that kids couldn’t get constancy in number. Overall he ignored hereditary, educational and cultural effects, thereby standardising theory, when, in fact, there are large differences in the speed and nature of development due to these and other factors

Fourthly, the Formal Operative Stage focused to much on formal logic, ignoring many other mature cognitive skills. It’s as if we were all little mathematicians, not ‘little scientists’. In fact kids develop, not in a predictable, linear fashion, but in fits and starts, and in many different ways.

All in all, the four stages were pretty much demolished and subsequent research has shown that development takes place much earlier than he had posited, is more of a continuum, with more variation in ages and more plasticity than was previously thought.

Poor scientist

How did he get it so wrong? Well, like Freud, he was no scientist. First, he used his own three children (or others from wealthy, professional families) and not objective or multiple observers to eliminate observational bias. Secondly, he often repeated a statement if the child’s answer did not conform to his experimental expectation.. Thirdly, the data and analysis lacked rigour, making most of his supposed studies next to useless. So, he led children towards the answers he wanted, didn’t isolate the tested variables, used his own children, and was extremely vague on his concepts.

I wasn’t kidding when I compared him to Lamark, as his theories are mostly wrong and he offers nothing but descriptions of development without any real underlying explanations. This was his biggest weakness, failing to understand the mechanisms behind development. For him, kids just ‘do thing’ stripped of motivation, language development, memory development and so on.

The good news is that his mistakes led to more rigorous studies that really did unravel child development, although one wonders why he is taught at all. The bad news is that the hole was filled by an even less rigorous and more flawed theorist, Lev Vygotsky. Don’t get me started on him!

What's worrying is the fact that teachers are coming out with a fixed view of child development based on 'ages and stages' that are quite wrong. This leads to amateurish teaching methods and a lack of understanding of when and how to teach numeracy and literacy. The 'whole-language' teaching fiasco in primary schools was the perfect storm of this amateurish approach.

The sad fact is that education and training is still soaked in this dated theory, as they suffer badly from 'groupthink'. The community literally thinks that theories are sound if a) they've been around for a long time (sorry, but in science, especially psychology, the opposite is true) b) everyone does it (that's precisely the problem).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Future is free

Reading Chris Anderson’s book FREE – The Future of a Radical Price, makes one think that these powerful principles could be applied in education and training.

Phase 1 – Free knowledge

In fact, it already has. In 1991 the encyclopedia industry was worth an astonishing $1.2 billion, Britannica being the market leader with sales of $650 million. In 1993, Encarta was launched for $99 and in the same year Britannica laid off its door-to-door sales force. Within 3 years Britannica had dropped to $300 million and the overall encyclopedia market had shrunk to $600 million, of which Encarta had $100 million. So a cheaper price not only revolutionised this market, it decimated the market. Along came Wikipedia and the market shrunk again, with Encarta canned completely in 2009. The end result is a market where the cost to the learner is ZERO. However, the availability of free encyclopedic knowledge base, that is bigger, better, broader, in more languages than ever before won the day.

The really interesting economic point is that the real money that would have been spent on expensive sets of rarely read Encyclopedias, can be spent elsewhere. It’s redistributed. We as customers get to keep our money a well as getting a better product.

Phase 2 – Free teacher created content

Now that lectures are being recorded, and distributed, often for free through YouTube EDU, iTunes U, Open Learn, MIT Courseware and others, anyone can have access to this level of instruction. See previous post. The advantages are obvious. In fact these recorded lectures, are in the end better than their live originals in all sorts of ways supported by the psychology of learning.

Google and its many services has also given us access to a wealth of resources, especially in searchable print. Project Gutenberg and others have given us hundreds of thousands of free books. You pretty much get an answer to any question you pose.

Phase 4 – Free formative teaching

This is the tricky one, but formative feedback is improving greatly in online content, especially in simulations and games. There’s plenty of evidence to show that many learning tasks can be completed without teacher intervention. It’s simply a matter of designing top class content.

Live teaching is not a necessary condition for learning. In fact it can be a condition for stopping learners from learning. If e can take some magical motivational dust from games and other media and apply it to learning, we’ll make great gains.

Phase 4 – Free accreditation

At some time in the future, the technology will be able to provide free assessment. Let’s face it, current types of assessment in education and training are often fairly crude. It’s no great stretch of the imagination for it to be largely automated.

The first problem is unique identification. Iris scanning, fingerprints, digital photographs and other cheap techniques will make this very cheap.

As for delivery, the online delivery of assessments, which avoid leaks, can be varied from person to person and really does provide high quality assessment, is already possible.

This frees people up to take the assessment when they’re ready, and not just when it’s convenient for the organisation. It’s about attainment not attendance.

I’m free

I, for one, am already a ‘free learner’. I don’t go on courses, don’t use teachers, yet learn daily online (and offline). I know from the many other people I encounter online that we all read, click on links, use reference material, do academic research, email, blog, Facebook, Tweet to improve our knowledge and skills. The future is free.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Web makes you smarter - UCLA study

Last year I had a few drinks and dinner with Steven Johnson, and he was delighted to hear that Flynn, whose data he had used in Everything Bad is Good for You had come round to his hypothesis, that new media was making people smarter. Johnson used f Flynn’s IQ data from the US military that showed a 0.31-0.39 points per annum rise over 46 years. New media doesn’t dumb down, but smartens up, he concluded.

New study from UCLA

A new study has looked specifically at the impact of web use in older subjects. A fMRI-based study from UCLA has just been presented by Teena Moody in Chicago at the Society for Neuroscience, which took scans from 24 normal 55-78 year olds. It showed significant increases in brain activity patterns and increased function after just seven one hour sessions on the web over seven days. The control was the group who did no web activity.

Enhanced cognition

“The first scan of participants with little Internet experience showed brain activity in the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the home practice searches, demonstrated activation of these same regions, but there was also activity in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus – areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

“The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults.” says Moody.

What’s fascinating about brain scanning research, is the possibility of identifying optimal learning techniques. For example, what type of internet activity leads to highest levels of desirable cognitive activity and improvement?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Universities - recorded lectures better than live

Universities, in their current guise, have become closed, inward-looking, traditional, elitist institutions. Shut for much of the year, empty buildings, three lectures a week, poor teaching – the current financial squeeze will hopefully force us to re-examine the model.

Imagine a world in which some universities simply opened their doors to learners, even offering courses for free. There are signs that such a paradigm shift may be happening on the web. Suddenly a huge amount of good content is available on the web, for free, as some of the biggest brands on the web act as conduits for higher education content, with hefty foundation grants paying the bill.

YouTube EDU

Simple enough, video lectures with ratings and details of number of downloads, from over 320 Universities such as; Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford,, and so on. Cambridge, Coventry, Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham, OU, The top lecture has received 10.5 million views! But even physics lectures are beating the 350,000 mark. Compare this with the once a year, lecture from a typical living academic – let’s say 100 students once a year for 15 years (and that’s really pushing it). You’re effectively extending the life of a good physics lecturer by thousand of years!

YouTube lectures can be public or private, structured as playlists embed on your site or show on a mobile phone. YouTube Insight gives you loads of useful stats on; views, referrals, gender, age, geography.

iTunes U

Like YouTube EDU, iTunes U is all free content, currently at 200,00 audio and video items, from major Universities. You can download all the tracks on a specific topic or just one. You can also subscribe to receive new stuff automatically. Top downloads – Intensive English, Introduction to Mac OS, Building a Business, beginners’ French etc. One distinct advantage is that you can play audio or video on your iPod, iTouch, iPhone, MP3 player, Mac or PC. iTunes U Reports give you lots of stuff on downloads, unique users and so on.

Open Learn

Open Learn is the OUs Moodle based system is much more sophisticated on support for learners with its learning tools, knowledge maps, shared activities and activity reports. All you need do is register with a personal profile. The content and forums are then available for group discussions, you can do the self-assessment, where you answer questions, then compare your answers with model answers. You can rate and review units, create a learning journal and use Learning Space to organise your study. Pretty impressive.


That guy Walter Lewin, physics lecturer, is at the top of the downloaded courses with his Physics 1 Classical Mechanics lecture with its subtitles/transcript, lecture notes, assignments/solutions and exams/solutions. More of him later.

MITOpenCourseware has an annual running cost of $3.6 million (10% lower than last year) they’re constantly lowering their cost base. Over 1900 courses, some translated, at both undergraduate and graduate level, this is an astonishingly rich resource of free lecture notes, videos and exams from MITs actual courses. There’s translations in Chinese, Thai and Persian. Zipped downloads and lots of user controls coming

The stats are astounding 40 million visits by 31 million people from almost every country in the world. The majority view this stuff for personal learning 62%. Overall the breakdown is 49% self-learners, 32% students, 16% educators.

University of the People

The ‘free’University , yes ‘free’. Just started this year but puts forward a model that may be ideal for the developing world (see my previous post).


A growing resource of ‘Open books for an open world’ are available with the usual wiki functionality of discussion, source and history for each book. There’s also print-ready and PDF books available.

Project Gutenberg

At 2.5 million downloads per month, Project Gutenberg is starting to motor. What’s interesting is the eclectic nature of the downloads. The top ten contains fiction such as Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, but also a science book, the Kama Sutra and a book on the history of Furniture. They also have their famous ‘Distributed Proofreading’ system, where volunteers proofread e-books, a page a day.


The greatest single, searchable store of knowledge on the planet and growing still. It’s a miracle of the web, and I’d personally give Jimmy Wales the Nobel Prize for knowledge dissemination. Who doesn’t use this thing? It’s wonderful beyond belief. Who cares if a few errors are noted, they’re soon fixed. It quite simply the greatest knowledge sharing show on earth.

Open Education

OER (Open Education Resources) is a rapidly growing movement with the not-for-profit OER Foundation launched last month on the back of a $200,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation and support from the Learning4Content project.

The Cape Town Open Education Declaration is up and running, a sort of manifesto for future development. The Opencast Community site has a wealth of information on podcasting in Higher Education. The Matterhorn project is of real interest with $1.3 million from the Mellon and Hewlitt Foundations to develop software that will schedule, capture, encode and deliver audio and video content to the likes of YouTube EDU and iTunes U. Should be ready by summer 2010. WkiEducator is one of many communities operating in the field, where you can join, and create free content. They promise to ‘turn the digital divide into digital dividends’.


So how is all of this funded? Well, there’s a number of sources; foundations, most notably, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, institutions themselves, free contributions, donations and payment. The foundation money (mostly from private sector benefactors) tends to seed the initiative, which then gains momentum either in a University or community. The real progress comes when you get a slingshot effect from altruistic contributors (as in Wikipedia).

Recorded lectures – better learning?

Are Youtube video lectures better than the real thing? I think the evidence is in the video themselves. In the cutaways to the audience you see some students attention wander and always towards another student. You don’t have that distraction in your own company. Lewin understands and explains at the start of his lecture series, that lectures complement other forms of study. He is NOT lecturing the book. It’s about demonstrating physics, selling physics, exciting people about physics. It’s about motivation, as well as understanding.

What I love about Walter Lewin is his style – he walks around, he shouts, he gesticulates, he demonstrates, he stands up on his desk, gets students up, he quips – he’s a livewire. He does the very opposite of playing that ‘I’m an academic and have to be serious, grave and dull’ routine.

Case study 1: University of Texas - Austin

Major findings included:

  • Attendance was not significantly affected by webcasts, even given the limited degree to which some students repeatedly substituted webcasts for attending class.
  • Students perceived webasts to be a helpful tool for learning, but the impact of webcasts on their performance in terms of grades and test scores is not clear.
  • Students used webcasts for learning benefits (e.g., reviewing course content) and psychological benefits (e.g., anxiety reduction, course satisfaction).
  • A majority of students watched webcasts at least once, typically 1-7 times, before exams or 1-3 times a month, at night from home through high-speed connections.
  • Most students watched the entire lecture and typically they both listened to the lecture and watched videos and slides.
  • Female students and students who cared about their course grades perceived webcasts as more beneficial than did male students or those who did not care about their grades respectively. Also, those with certain difficulties non-native speakers of English, students with a learning disability, and students with difficulty in understanding the professor’s speech) did not report benefits from webcasts, contrary to our expectations.
  • Students rated most current and future webcast interface features as important, in particular stop/rewind (current feature), scan (current feature), manipulating the slides or video window (current feature), and better quality or full screen animation/video (future feature).
  • Students and instructors were generally satisfied with webcasts’ quality and did not experience many technical problems. Many problems they did report can be resolved through training of instructors, students, and camera operators.
  • Both students and instructors in general indicated that webcasts were good supplemental learning resources but not a substitute for attending class.

Case Study 2: University of Michigan - Flint

The results presented here now further extend the benefits of the cyber classroom by demonstrating a significant improvement in student outcomes as assessed by final grades with a nearly half grade improvement in mean grades, a 56% drop in failing grades, and a 36% increase in grades B+ and above.

Case study 3: ICTP Trieste

Another comes from ICTP in Trieste, who have been using recorded lectures for some time. Assessed learning improves, students watch 2 hours per night after live daytime lectures and even watch lectures from other courses they’re not taking.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Scotch myths in education

Some years back I gave a talk in Glasgow, and behind me was a huge banner saying, “Scotland, healer, educator to the world”. It was embarrassing hubris, but the myth still persists that Scotland is somehow, a leader in learning. This week I gave a talk at the Royal Society of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the mood was far more realistic, but maybe more worrying.

Scotland 3 myths

Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ literally scotches three myths; political, literary and sartorial. Celtic nations are good at mythologizing. We made up a list of fictitious Kings to fill in the gaps, forged documents to prove it, wrote fictitious poetry in an attempt to create a Scottish Homer (Ossian) and the kilt and its accessories was invented by an English Quaker (Thomas Rawlinson) for workers in his Highland factory. It is a “purely modern costume…to bring them off the heath and into the factory”. Kilts were never worn by the clans and neither were clan-specific tartans. The Late 18th century Romantic movement, formation of Highland regiments (to suppress the Highlands and fight abroad), a visit by George IV and Queen Victoria all helped create the myth of a ‘tartanised’ Scotland. Trevor-Roper describes Scotland as a mythologizing nation, keen to invent a history that often doesn’t exist, and uncovers the long list of forgers and fantasists who helped create that myth.

Fourth myth?

He was said to have been working on a fourth myth. We don’t know what that was. It could have been sport, we never did invent 'Golf', nor 'Curling', nor any other sport for that matter. Even the Highland Games were a mid-19th century concoction, as well documented in Grant Jarvie's Highland Games: The Making of the Myth. As for the bagpipes, Nero played the damn things and they existed in Europe, Ireland and Northumbria long before their appearance in Scotland. Again, it was the Highland Regiments and their colonial exploits that spread the myth.

The fourth myth could have been 'finance' but the broadsword has been taken to RBS and HBOS, Fred Goodwin has been exposed as a greedy half-wit and the myth has evapourated as quickly as Scotch mist.

Education myth

Interestingly, both Goodwin and Cummings (HBOS) were the product of the Scottish state schooling system. My guess is that it was the ‘education’ myth. So I did a little analysis myself.

It is still widely believed that Scotland has a superior educational system. Well, despite the favourable Barnett formula, kicked off in 1979, described in a recent 2009 inquiry as ‘arbitrary and unfair’, that gives every Scot £1,644 more than England, the system is not performing. We can expect changes on this front soon, as the Conservatives have nothing much to gain North of the border, and the SNP would rather push for nationalism at the expense of revenue. Salmond said as much at his conference this week where he looked forward to a 'hung parliament' where, and I quote, "Westminster would dance to a Scottish tune".

The 2007 OECD (PISA) assessment showed that despite a doubling in spend over the decade of devolution, improvement was marginal, a similar result to England. In fact, Scotland slipped in Maths, English & Science and its PIRLS (Reading/literacy) rating stands at 21st , down from 14th), six places behind England. Even worse, Scottish students don’t like school one bit. Only 65% said they liked being at school (near the bottom of the survey).

Scottish schools are torn apart by sectarian policies (faith schools in Scotland mean Catholic schools), a wasted sixth year and in some places social problems and division (in Edinburgh 25% of students go to private school).

What’s next?

Like every developed nation, in the wake of the financial crisis and squeeze on public spending will hit Scotland hard. There are several ways in which the public finances will be squeezed. First a reduced Barnett formula, secondly slower growth leading to lower tax base, thirdly the persistent problem of low productivity, fourthly the dependence on financial jobs which are due to be culled or moved south, fifth dependence on public sector employment (23.6% employed in public sector compared to 19.1% in England, 56% of economic activity flowed from public economy compared to 43% across UK).

What to do?

They (and we) have few options:

Spend more – NOT POSSIBLE

Make learners pay – MARGINAL EFFECT

Do more for less – LOGICAL OPTION

I agree with OECD Secretary General Angel GurrĂ­a when he says, "optimising policy choices" and improving the overall management of education institutions” and "Investments in education will need to become much more efficient."

Scotland continues to issue bellicose and belligerent statements to Westminster. This is perfectly compatible with Scottish nationalism (as voted in by the Scottish people). Salmond and Swinney may simply be driving the nationalist wedge more deeply, accepting a poorer Scotland as the price one pays for separation. That, in my view, would be tragic.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Universal Universities?

Millions are now accessing Higher Education without going near a campus. Many aren’t that bothered about getting a degree either. There’s been an explosion of activity in Open Educational Resources:

Open Learn (OU)

MIT Courseware

YouTube EDU

iTunes U

Project Gutenburg




University of the People

Professional educators assume that everyone wants to be part of an institution, signing on for courses and getting accredited. In practice most adult learning is precisely the opposite. In my 25 years of designing and delivering training into large organisations, very few had any form of accreditation. What mattered was whether people learned or not. I like using these resources but have no interest in attending these institutions or getting another degree. Perhaps we need a rethink around the whole idea of the desirability of degrees. There has been a huge surge in degree getting, yet it is not clear that this is desirable.

New learners understand the importance of quality and sharing. Universities don’t really get this. They rarely collaborate and share and this results in massive levels of duplication, with every lecturer inventing their own course. Why attend your own institution’s lectures when you can get world-class lectures from MIT fro free? The technology is allowing students to access top-class content by using the technology.

Of course, the Universities who have gone down this route have much to gain. Many see this as a valuable marketing awareness tool. It’s no accident that the ‘money-smart’ top tier has been generous with its content. They are confident enough in their brand to make this move.

What’s interesting about the funding of much of this is that it ultimately comes from the private sector, especially The William and Flora Hewitt Foundation (of Hewlitt Packard fame). To be fair the contributing Universities contribute greatly through the delivery of content. This philanthropic activity from both sources is heartening.

So are we on the cusp of an era where the drunken meander through a 3 or 4 year degree becomes increasingly anachronistic? Couldn’t a University just offer assessment with no teaching? Why can’t I learn on my own, or with others, then simply get assessed by an organisation, rather than hanging around for years in crap lectures and student union bars? Why don’t Universities allow year round access for online students? Why do they close down for so long every year?