PowerPoint and Learning

If you take my own discipline, media studies, as an example, then only 15 years ago if you wanted to make video you had to gai

Learning in Networks of Knowledge

Matthew Allen (Curtin) is the recipient of an Australian learning and Teaching Council Fellowship for:

Learning in Networks of Knowledge (LINK) – improving student educational outcomes in online learning, using Web 2.0 concepts and a knowledge-networking approach.

I get to be part of the project reference group.

Six Degrees of Book

This Book Will be Famous” is elegant. A hand made book consisting of six pages. Leave a trace and then send it to the most famous person you know. They leave a trace and send it on in turn. Once page six has been reached it will be auctioned to raise money for charity. Small world networks, six degrees of separation (and of course Kevin Bacon) meets bespoke practice.

Queens and YouTube

This is popping up all over the place today, Queen Rania’s (Jordan) acceptance of the YouTube Visionary Award, Letterman style. I suspect the interest is partly the unfamiliarity many in the west have not only with the middle east but also with royalty, after all in Australia our model is the British royal family, who would never do things like the Norwegian royal family do (the crown princess had a child from a previous relationship before she got to be a princess) and King Olav V was famous for catching the tram up to Holmenkollen to go skiing. So Queen Rania clearly knows how to make fun of herself, while also being able to be an advocate. You can imagine she’d be a very popular Queen.


Dopplr is a social site that lets you share your travel with others and it works out your carbon footprint. I’m not sure what it means to see that someone else is travelling, though I guess if you see people travelling at the same time to the same place, or who have gone to somewhere you’re new to, that could be handy. Still, interesting combination of social software, maps, and the green economy.

Ah, from the email after I subscribed:

Dopplr is all about serendipity – meeting up with friends and colleagues on the road or in people’s home cities. So we encourage you to invite travellers you know to join too.


Dopplr gives you email alerts about coincidences in your trusted network. If somebody is coming to your town, or happens to be travelling where you are, you can get an alert in your inbox. Initially we’ll send you weekly alerts; you can change your email settings at http://www.dopplr.com/account/email


Let me Google that for you.

Wireless Problem

Got home and the wireless on the PowerBook just would not even start. Bit of hunting on A’s computer and I found the solution. Just needed to delete the preferences files in the library and reboot.

Bell Curves, Assessment and Misanthropy

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’ve been rather productively turning the List-Of-Things-That-Need-Doing into the List-Of-Things-That-Have-Been-Done. So now I’ve got that later afternoon sugar absence where apart from having a junkie’s need for sweet things you don’t actually do a whole lot. So, turning away from the aforementioned list I’ve decided now is a good time for a quick catch up. Actually, I’m just frustrated.

At a meeting today at the ominously sounding teaching and learning committee there was a brief bit of repartee around bell curves and assessment. The details are irrelevant, but I am of the very strong view that there is no pedagogical reason for why results must conform to a bell curve. Indeed, I think the only reason we use things like bell curves in assessment is because assessment confuses learning with an almost corporate, capitalist and highly individualist system that privileges an ability to rank over the measurement of learning. Stick that on your t-shirt.

Traditionally, and certainly anecdotally, most of our best students are best students all the way through. That’s because they come to us either brighter than the rest (because there is a bell curve for the distribution of naturally occuring things like academic competencies), or understanding how to respond most successfully in the highly structured system that is a university (they understand, consciously or otherwise, the rules of the game and play it well). So these students get high marks. This is not because we’ve taught them a lot, its because they knew a lot to begin with. They certainly are in the top of the class, but this is in raw terms of how much they know. Remember, they knew a lot already. So my first problem with the bell curve is that it measures how much they know, but not against how much they knew. So smart ones go well, even if they learnt next to nothing during your semester. But what about the other student, the one who really struggles but perhaps through your semester for the first time actually understood and applied, and abstract concept, if I measured how much learning students achieved then this, surely would be one of the better students?

Now, add to this assessment tasks that don’t measure how much you know, but how much you have learnt. Include clear explanations of criteria, such as “understanding and applying an abstract concept” and what that is like for top, average, and poor marks. In such a structure it is not hard to see that if students have this modelled, and then meet these criteria, then they will receive excellent marks. As a result your class results will not conform to a bell curve. Now, the immediate response from most is that either a) the work is too easy, b) they’re not being challenged, c) you’re an easy marker. Bullshit. Utter and thorough bullshit. What it means is that you have set criteria that they have understood and met. This is because assessment should be about this, and not a ranking of best to worse.

AdrianMo.jpgI’m such a cranky grumpy short tempered misanthrope around this. I can see myself frothing and bulged eyed as I try to explain how arse about this is. The argument that because too many students get high marks somehow equals poor assessment is trying to argue that the ability of students to learn from your teaching (which is not ‘natural’ but an applied practice) is subject to the same conditions as a random, natural distribution of other attributes. This argument actually proposes that my teaching achieves nothing as a practice, in the same way that as long as my kids eat reasonably well I can’t actually change their eventual height. As a teacher I don’t believe this is the case at all, I believe I am quite capable of defining appropriate academic standards for a year level, making these concrete, explicit, understandable, and therefore achievable for a majority of the class. Given this, apart from asinine arguments about equating learning with nature and the hegemony of empirical rankings, why on earth should a bell curve be applied. How is it even pedagogically sustainable?grecian2000.jpg

I should nurture this mood because next Wednesday I’m involved in a debate as a part of RMIT’s teaching and learning expo. I’m on a team saying that the single biggest thing that could improve learning at RMIT would be to ban PowerPoint. I don’t actually believe that, but I do intend to take advantage of the moment to continue this sort of evangelical thread. I think the nut of it will be something about a scenario where PowerPoint is banned and the good thing about that is that it will lead to a deep rethinking about what a lecture is, why we still have them, and where learning happens in a lecture. I want to ask about what happens when the rationale for going to a university is no longer because that’s the only way you can get access to research and expertise (a friend of mine got into medical school by using MIT’s open courseware to get his science up to par), and in a world so connected, where knowledge and its objects are now so porous to each other, why do we think that a linear series of dot points in a tool designed around a US model of time poor business pitches (which at the end of the day is the ideology of PowerPoint) actually relates to learning? The crux is not PowerPoint, but how PowerPoint hypostatises an industrialised and twentieth century model of production and consumption when the world (well, except for US car makers – and don’t you love that that link is to the english edition of Aljazeera?) seems to have moved on.

That photo of me? I’m participating in movemeber so if you’d like to donate drop by and leave me a couple of Aussie sheckels (that’d be about $1.30 US or a solitary Euro). The moustache isn’t so much grey as silver by the way, think future “silver fox” rather than “blue rinse“, or Grecian 2000. Go on, it’s a good cause.

Finder Alternative

Leap as a finder alternative looks worth investigation. That’s all.

Social Software

Bit of social software catch up time today. Yes, that does mean saying yes to a few more invites on facebook (something I don’t really use), and finally set up a twitter account (which I thought I’d done ages ago but apparently not) and then swurl. Not sure if I’ll take to twitter, though I’m currently trying to set up my mobile to post directly, and swirl, not sure yet maybe this will just be the archive?


On the videoblogging list there’s been a bit of a rave about the possibilities of bandwidth limits being placed on domestic accounts in the US. Below is the rough email I sent. I think what riles me is the assumption that someone’s high use (because they want to view lots of video) is perfectly OK when that use takes up plenty of bandwidth compared to the majority of other uses. I’m a Euro style social democrat. You pay for what you use and need and we make sure those who need it and can’t pay for it are supported. Not the other way round.

My email:

Not sure I have tthis right but if it is a monthly cap then this is the norm here in Australia and always has been. Has been one of the reasons why I argue very strongly for proper compression and also other aesthetic requirements in videoblogging. I get 8GB a month, but have the advantage of a university job during the day. A feature film is around 500MB, so that’s 16 features a month, which if you’re a AV professional is not much, but for the majority is probably in the ball park.

However, I am going to poke the possum here (colloquial Australian expression, stir up things if you like).

I don’t understand why there is an attitude where bandwidth is treated as infinite and not a finite resource. It is a finite resource. Data and digital duplication of our material is trivial, but transferring that to other places is not. For example, even in Australia the majority of our schools have quite poor bandwidth, and if I want my work to be viewed in regional Australia (and for that matter parts of rural United States) then I have to be aware that bandwidth is constrained. Now bandwidth might be fast or slow, but it does have a width, and it is a material infrastructure with its associated costs. Just as with telephony there are international, national, and local agreements about how much a byte costs, and while the telcos might make lots from it (or not), the pipes are not infinite.

Treating it as infinite leads to what I teach my students is “bandwidth pollution”. Emails with stupid large attachments, videos that run to gigabytes. First industrialised world bandwidth arrogance is the internet equivalent of cheap oil (the analogy is simply if oil is finite, but cheap, then there is little incentive not to use it, in spite of it’s inevitable disappearance and of course the pollution it is causing). The solution then becomes simply adding more. More cables, more electricity to run it all, and presumably more time for us to actually view all this extra material (I know, that’s facetious). Here in my state we used to (20 years ago) think that water was infinite, and you pretty much got it for free. Then they started charging for it, on the reasonable basis that a) some people used more than others so if you had a swimming pool and fancy garden why shouldn’t you pay more? and b) it required expensive infrastructure which needed to be paid for and c) it might encourage water conversation. We are now in a major and prolonged drought with substantial water restrictions. The governments response is to spend billions on desalination and pipelines (bigger fatter pipes) instead of spending the same money on ways to reduce our demand for water. I live on the driest continent on earth yet outside my window right now are English style gardens with roses, azaleas and fuschias.

The point? Bigger pipes is like cheap oil is like infinite bandwidth. It supports an economy (of mind, of practice and of institutions) which thinks the answer is simply more, not less. Compress properly, think about length. Sustainability applies here as much (if not more given the energy demands of the net) as the real world. And the model of “I should have as much as I want” translates poorly outside of very specific cultural and political economies.

An OMG Sort of Week

Been a week hasn’t it? Obama got up. Bloody impressive. The United States is just such an exception, and I don’t mean exceptional. Guns, an enormous swathe of fundamentalism through most of the centre (creationism in the science curriculum anyone?), capital punishment, and all that odd rhetoric about small government when as far as I can tell enormous amounts of research and social capital are funded via what we once quaintly described as the ‘military-industrial establishment’ (according to Parag Khanna there are more musicians in the US military than foreign service officers).

(I’ve always been interested in asking at a US conference how many academics have not received research money from these sources. I don’t mean just explicit money, like “I’ve got money to build a missile or develop counter surveillance technologies” but money that comes from any part of the military. Any amount. Some money from a naval research fund who might be interested in how hypertext could help with documentation. Or some other centre interested in information visualisation, or robotics? (here’s two simple examples at the bigger end, some robotics and info security). I wonder how many haven’t received, directly or indirectly, such funding?)

So, it’s been a big week. An “oh my god” week as the two year old proclaimed on seeing the carefully cup sculpted rice mound on her dinner plate. Even all the way over here, across the Pacific, we all sat refreshing the New York Times during our Wednesday afternoon until we were sure. It’s the same feeling from when Kevin Rudd said sorry on our behalf, after three terms of a wedge politics driven, small minded, divisive government that defined itself solely in terms of what the individual could aggregate to themselves rather than what we ought to contribute to community.

Let’s hope for more.