Thursday, 8 December 2011

Pointless Quizzes

This morning I completed the University's on-line Diversity Training. In principle a good idea, as it raises awareness about disadvantaging students (or members of staff) where you didn't think you were, but in practice just another thing to do during an already full schedule. And much of it was not relevant for me anyway, as I am not in a position to determine the level of pay of my fellow members of staff, either male or female.

What struck me, however, was a particularly bad quiz. I've been thinking about this in the context of the Stanford AI-Class (on which I will post soon - it'll be finished in two weeks' time), and here it came up again: there were two short on-line multiple-choice quizzes embedded in the course.

The first one was so simple that I could just guess the right answers without having needed to read the previous text. If they are so glaringly obvious that anybody can get them right just with a bit of common sense then it does not really contribute to a good view on the course as a whole - it just comes across as—literally!—a box-ticking exercise.

But the second quiz was even worse, and not only because I got some of the answers wrong. There were various scenarios given, and the four choices you had to choose from were: was this case a) victimisation b) direct discrimination c) indirect discrimination or d) nothing illegal.

Why on Earth do I need to know the difference between 'direct' and 'indirect' discrimination? As far as I am concerned, I need to know what is legal, and what is not, in other words there are only two relevant categories for me: 'discrimination' or 'no discrimination'. So I got several answers wrong because I chose 'direct' when the answer was clearly 'indirect' or the other way round. This was just plain annoying. I can see that I need this when wanting to work in the legal field of employment tribunals, but as a simple bod delivering seminars and lectures about language to students I couldn't care less—as long as I know that I'm not doing anything that would count as illegal discrimination.

But this seems to be a frequent pattern with many on-line tests. Because the people creating such tests have not thought about them properly they come up with spurious details that they ask for, just so that they can have four possible choices, when ideally you should start at the learning outcomes—what do the people taking the quiz need to have learned, and how can we test this?

It is perfectly possible to do really good and useful on-line multiple-choice quizzes, but it requires work and thinking about the purpose of it. Otherwise it just annoys people and makes them want to do things to you that I could not possibly mention on this blog.

More on this topic in a few weeks when I will be discussing my experiences with the on-line AI course...

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Why I deleted my FaceBook account

I have just deleted my Facebook account. I cannot remember exactly when I joined, but it was probably 5 or 6 years ago. A while ago I already removed most information about me (such as what music or books I liked), as I felt increasingly uncomfortable with FB's way of making more and more of your information about you available to other people, unless you explicitly disallowed it. This did not feel very honest to me.

And then today came the proverbial straw: I read two (unrelated) posts about FB in direct succession which convinced me that it was finally time to cut the cord. The first [1], showed how FB does not really 'log you out' when you log out - it keeps certain cookies in place which can identify you. I don't use many public computers (especially not with FB) so this does not overly concern me, but I see this as yet a further violation of default expectable privacy.

The second article was vaguely similar, and shows how FB can track where you have been, and other sites can post on your 'wall' when you simply read a webpage. This is just silly. I'm - again - not overly concerned about this (along the lines that I don't generally do things which are illegal or immoral), but on top of that it just contributes to the already existing information overload. If I need to care that person X read webpage Y then I would expect X to tell me. I don't want a stream of activities swamped with reports what websites people I know have visited.

Anyway, those two articles were enough to sway me far enough to permanently delete my account. Not sure what 'permanently' means in this context. For at least the next 14 days FB keeps my account in case I'll change my mind, and I don't exactly trust it to delete anything for real anyway. Remember, in the FB business model, FB's assets are you, its users and their data, which they mine and sell on to other people.

Will I miss FB? I haven't really used it that much in the first place. I'm much more active on Twitter, which is somewhat less intrusive and has fewer opportunities to do stuff with my data. I won't now not as easily be updated on what some family members who live abroad are doing, but there are other ways of keeping in touch. The main issue is our postgraduate students (I am coordinating our English Language PG students) - they have recently set up a FB page, which I now won't be able to see. But most things are still posted on a traditional mailing-list anyway.

On the positive side, I no longer need to deliberate whether I accept somebody who wants to be my friend or snub them if I only vaguely know them. Fewer decisions to make equals more happiness.

It feels weird, cutting the cord, as it did with any account on any system I spent a reasonable amount of time on, but in the long run I don't think I will shed any tears over it. I'm just concerned that FB will spread its tentacles out further, so that at some point in the future everybody is expected to have a FB account, and you cannot do certain things without one. Matrix, anyone?

[1] Apologies for the shortened (and thus opaque) links - they're directly copied from the corresponding tweets

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Plagiarism - setting an example

Germany's Defence secretary, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned today. What that has to do with a blog on learning and teaching, you ask? The reason for his resignation was that he plagiarised large parts of his PhD thesis, though he said this was only because he was so busy with his job (MP) and family (two daughters) and he didn't notice that he copied some hundred or so pages. His supervisor (retired) was of course shocked, as he was one of his best students, and he wouldn't have believed any accusations of plagiarism by the so-called "Baron zu Googleberg". There's the old blind trust in 'honourable' people again...

Being a conservative, Guttenberg could count on the support of the conservative press, such as BILD, which ran articles in which it was emphasised that he was a good minister, doing a splendid job for the boys in Afghanistan, and that he shouldn't resign because a couple of academics have lost all sense of proportion and demand his resignation over a piddly little academic infelicity. Those people in their ivory towers, out of touch with the real world of our troops dying in the Hindukush, how dare they ruin the career of this brilliant man... just because of some stupid footnotes!

But he finally resigned; and his PhD was taken away earlier by Bayreuth University, which is none too happy about the PR implications. And now we have a good example that we can show our students: even the powerful can fall if they commit plagiarism! While plagiarism should indeed reason enough to not be fit for public office, Guttenberg himself of course states it was not the only reason... showing that he doesn't seem to bothered about his integrity.

There is also an interesting linguistic side-aspect to this: in English we talk about plagiarism, meaning the process of plagiarising something. In German you talk about the Plagiariat, the product of copying, rather than the process. Of course you can 'verb' it into Er plagiarisierte seine Doktorarbeit, but that sounds rather awkward. The offender, a plagiarist, is also not directly lexicalised in German.

And to end on a happy note, here's a joke I heard on Twitter:
Fragt der Praktikant im Verteidigungsministerium "Wo ist denn der Kopierer?" Antwort: "Auf Truppenbesuch in Afghanistan" (Intern at the ministry of defence asks "where's the copier[*]?" Answer: "Visiting the troops in Afghanistan"). Who says Germans don't have a sense of humour?!

[*] Kopierer in this usage would generally be understood to mean 'photocopier'

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Numerical illiteracy

I had a look at our free local newspaper, the Birmingham Mail Extra. In this issue is an article titled "Suburb is now crime hotspot". This article has several problems, which are indicative of the problems of representing what happens 'out there' in the form of a newspaper article.

Quinton had very little burglaries, "averaging just one or two burglaries a month" over the last nine years. But now, crime has "shot up by 29%", more than the rest of Birmingham where crime only rose by 21%.

I find this rather misleading, and I worked through an example with the kids at the dinner table, which illustrates the problem:

Suburb A had 10 burglaries in 2009, and 12 in 2010. That is an increase of 20%.
Suburb B had 4 burglaries in 2009, and 5 in 2010. Increase of 25%.
Suburb C had one burglary in 2009, and two in 2010. A whopping 100% increase.

First lesson: percentage increase is meaningless unless everybody started in the same place. Why do developing economies have higher growth rates than Europe and the US? Because the percentage looks bigger. If you double your output from 100 cars to 200 cars you increase by 100%, but to maintain that rate you will have to produce an additional 200 cars the year after, and then 400, 800 etc.

Second lesson: without a fixed reference point (such as burglaries per 1000 inhabitants) you have no idea whether the risk of your house being burgled is high or low. Everything is relative, but you still need a fixed point to evaluate things.

Third lesson: this is not mentioned, but is that difference between 29% and 21% statistically significant? With "one or two burglaries a month", the variation seems rather high, given those small numbers. So if there was one extra or one fewer burglaries, how would the 29% change?

Final lesson: be careful with calling places "crime hotspot" when your statistics are that shaky.

Now I don't expect a staff reporter at the Birmingham Mail to apply the same rigour as a scientist (or any other, non-science researcher), but the way the article is presented is simply misleading. To me this sounds like a scare story being created out of some random statistics. I don't know whether that is the case, and maybe Quinton is really a crime-ridden area, but I cannot tell from the few facts given to me in the article. The reason for this development given in the paper is that there are now 5 fewer policemen covering Quinton. Is there really such a cast-iron correlation between policemen and crime rate? How about the influence of the recession on crime?

I now have more questions and know less than I did before reading that article!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The cuts start now...

My two elder daughters (who are at primary school) are currently getting free language tuition at a nearby secondary school. That school has specialist status for languages, and provides those additional classes for free as an after-school activity for the younger ones. Apart from teaching the kids Spanish/French/German/... I guess they also benefit themselves through advertising their school. No idea how much the kids actually learn, but it is a fun class, they enjoy it, and if they can speak a few French phrases in addition then that's great. It definitely gets them interested in foreign languages, and that is a bonus given the current attitude to those in England.

However, we yesterday got a letter from the school. The new coalition government has abolished the 'specialist status' scheme, and presumably that means that any funding that was connected to this status is going to disappear. From April onwards, the letter states, the school cannot afford to provide those additional language classes any longer.

This, of course, is not the school's fault. But it is really sad that foreign language classes for primary school kids are disappearing, and it shows that this government got its priorities wrong. I'm not too worried about my own kids, as they get a lot of exposure to other languages, but children from mono-lingual families are now losing out. Not all parents can afford to pay for language classes provided by, eg, Club Fran├žais, after school.

In my view, learning foreign languages is vital in the modern global world. Even though many people learn English as a second language it severely limits you if you can only speak one language. And since modern languages are no longer compulsory at A-level, recruitment for modern language departments at English universities has gone down.

Given that the British economy has little manufacturing left, languages are vital if we want to compete on the global market. Cutting down spending in education is the wrong way to move forward. But this cabinet of millionaires does seem to have other priorities.