Thursday, June 12, 2014

What does the learning game have to learn from football? Data matters...

Most professional sports employ data to improve performance. Yet football (soccer), in data terms, is not so much the beautiful game as a rather messy and random affair. Unlike many sports, such as basketball, American football and baseball, in soccer the ball changes sides so often it is difficult to identify patterns in the numbers. That is not to say they don’t exist. As usual, the data, although messy, reveals some surprising facts:

1. Corners don’t matter that much. Mourino was amazed when English supporters cheered corners, as he knew they rarely led to goals. The stats support this. There is no correlation between corners and goals – the correlation is essentially zero.
2. Then there’s the old myth that teams are at their most vulnerable after scoring a goal. Teams are not more vulnerable immediately after scoring goal. In fact the numbers show that this is the least likely time that a goal will be conceded.
3. Coin toss is the most significant factor in penalty-shootout success. 60% of all penalty shootouts have been won by coin toss winners. Goalkeepers who mess about on the line and hold their hands high to look bigger also have an effect, making a miss more likely. Standing 10 cms to one side also has a significant, almost unconscious effect on the goalscorer, making one side look more tempting.
4. It’s a game of turnovers. The vast amount of moves never go beyond four passes. This has huge consequences – ‘pressing’ matters, especially in final third of field. Avoiding turnovers is perhaps the most important tactic in football.

These are just a few of the secrets revealed by Chris Anderson and David Sally, two academics, from Cornell and Dartmouth, in their book The Numbers Game – Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong.

Seasoned managers, coaches, trainers, players often get it wrong because, in football, our cognitive biases exaggerate individual events. We exaggerate the positives and what is obvious and seen at the expense of the hidden, subtle and negative. A good example is defending. Mancini may have been the greatest defender ever because of what he never did – tackle. We prize tackling, yet it is often a weakness not a strength. We think that corners matter when they don’t. Similarly in education, we prize the opinions of seasoned practitioners over the data: exams, uniforms, one hour lectures, one hour lessons and all sorts of specious things just because they are part of the traditional game. Yet, what good teachers don't do really matters. This is why guided coaching and tons of deliberate and variable practice matter in sports but is rarely taken seriously in education.

Soccer and learning
If a sport like football, which is random and chaotic, can benefit from data and algorithms that guide action such as buying players, picking players, strategy, and tactics, then surely something far more predictable, such as learning, will benefit from such an approach? What we can learn is that data about the ‘players’ is vital, what they do, when they do it and what leads to positive outcomes. It is this focus on the performance of the people that really counts, a personalised approach to learners, that is so often missing in learning.

Education gathers wrong data
Education has, perhaps, been gathering the wrong data – bums on seats, contact time, course completion, results of summative assessments, even happy sheets. What is missing is the more fine grained data about what works and doesn’t work. Data about the learner’s progress. Here we can lever data, through algorithms to improve each student’s performance as they take a learning journey. We need the sort of data that a satnav uses to identify where they start, where they’re going and, when they go off-piste, how to get them back on track. In modern sports going over videos of a team's performance and those of the opposition has become normal, as has the gathering of stats. What has most often led to the goals you've scored this season? It may not be the quality of the striker but what wing is better, the feeder players from midfield, the importance of dead-ball opportunities.

Just as the ‘nay-sayers’ in football claimed that the numbers would have no role to play in performance, as it was all down to good coaches, trainers and scouts, so education claims that it is all down to good teachers. This is a stupid, silver-bullet response to a complex set of problems. It is partly down to good teachers but aided by good data, learners have the most to gain from other interventions. Education needs to take a far more critical look at pedagogic change and admit that critical analysis leads to better outcomes. This means using data, especially personal data, in real time to improve learner performance

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Africa - the mobile continent

Africa is a mobile only continent. Phones were never meant to be tethered to the wall like a goat. Mobile is their natural state and everywhere you go in Africa, you see people with $10 mobiles. There’s kiosks everywhere, that offer phone charging, airtime, money transfer, recycling and repair. We have a lot to learn from Africa in this regard.
Mobile is lifeline
Why Africa? Mobile is far more important to the poor than the rich. It’s a lifeline to work, money transfer, running a small business, communications with family, medical advice, vetinary advice, market prices and increasingly knowledge and education.
Sustainable success
There is a strong relationship between internet access and economic growth. In a donor-dependent continent where agents of virtue, often compound, rather than solve problems, the ubiquitous use of mobile is one of Africa’s great sustainable successes. It’s cheap, compelling and continues to grow as it’s so damn useful. Small businesses can thrive, money managed and progress made in people’s lives.
Mobiles & literacy
Last year in Namibia I participated in a discussion about mobiles and literacy. Cornelia Koku Muganda, from Tanzania, explained why mobiles were pushing a ride in basic literacy. Every child in Africa WANTS to read and write, as they want to TXT and read TXTS. We now know that this constant writing leads to better literacy, a fuller phonetic understanding of the language and more social skills. There’s even phonics apps to txt in local languages. School is not cool but mobiles are as cool as it comes.
Mobiles & education
I’ve always been rather sceptical about m-learning in the developed world but in the developing world necessity is the mother of mobile learning, with Dr Maths through Mxit, Wikipedia Zero, even SMS requests for SMS delivery of Wikipedia in Kenya. There’s a vibrant, home grown m-learning industry emerging.
Political transparency
Africa has its share of problems, with cronyism and corruption but remember that eth Arab Spring happened largely in Africa and young people across the continent are finding their voices leading to gains in transparency and political action.
Leapfrogged landlines
They have leapfrogged the landline infrastructure and with 635m mobile subscriptions rising to 930 million by 2019. $10 simple phones, often with FM radio and torches are still dominant but $50 smartphones have hit the market. Samsung are the market leader but cheaper Chinese phones are gaining ground. (Note that Apple has only 3% share of the smartphone market.) This will make a huge difference as internet access in Africa is largely through mobiles. 70% of internet use is via mobile. According to a World Bank study, An astonishing 1 in 5 would forgo basic necessities, such as food, for extra airtime, it’s that valuable a commodity.

This is a good news story from Africa, something simple and sustainable that has emerged across the whole continent. This is something that Africans use with other Africans to improve their lives. For Africa, the future is mobile. It’s powerful, personal and portable; perfect in a continent of huge distances with huge problems and huge demand. Scalable internet access offers a cheap infrastructure with access to free content. (This is a sort of summary of a contribution made to BBC Radio Scotland this morning).