That’s not the smell of success, your brain is on fire.

Would you mind putting out the hippocampus when you have a chance?

Would you mind putting out the hippocampus when you have a chance?

I’ve written before about the issues of prolonged human workload leading to ethical problems and the fact that working more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis is downright unproductive because you get less efficient and error-prone. This is not some 1968 French student revolutionary musing on what benefits the soul of a true human, this is industrial research by Henry Ford and the U.S. Army, neither of whom cold be classified as Foucault-worshipping Situationist yurt-dwelling flower children, that shows that there are limits to how long you can work in a sustained weekly pattern and get useful things done, while maintaining your awareness of the world around you.

The myth won’t die, sadly, because physical presence and hours attending work are very easy to measure, while productive outputs and their origins in a useful process on a personal or group basis are much harder to measure. A cynic might note that the people who are around when there is credit to take may end up being the people who (reluctantly, of course) take the credit. But we know that it’s rubbish. And the people who’ve confirmed this are both philosophers and the commercial sector. One day, perhaps.

But anyone who has studied cognitive load issues, the way that the human thinking processes perform as they work and are stressed, will be aware that we have a finite amount of working memory. We can really only track so many things at one time and when we exceed that, we get issues like the helmet fire that I refer to in the first linked piece, where you can’t perform any task efficiently and you lose track of where you are.

So what about multi-tasking?

Ready for this?

We don’t.

There’s a ton of research on this but I’m going to link you to a recent article by Daniel Levitin in the Guardian Q&A. The article covers the fact that what we are really doing is switching quickly from one task to another, dumping one set of information from working memory and loading in another, which of course means that working on two things at once is less efficient than doing two things one after the other.

But it’s more poisonous than that. The sensation of multi-tasking is actually quite rewarding as we get a regular burst of the “oooh, shiny” rewards our brain gives us for finding something new and we enter a heightened state of task readiness (fight or flight) that also can make us feel, for want of a better word, more alive. But we’re burning up the brain’s fuel at a fearsome rate to be less efficient so we’re going to tire more quickly.

Get the idea? Multi-tasking is horribly inefficient task switching that feels good but makes us tired faster and does things less well. But when we achieve tiny tasks in this death spiral of activity, like replying to an e-mail, we get a burst of reward hormones. So if your multi-tasking includes something like checking e-mails when they come in, you’re going to get more and more distracted by that, to the detriment of every other task. But you’re going to keep doing them because multi-tasking.

I regularly get told, by parents, that their children are able to multi-task really well. They can do X, watch TV, do Y and it’s amazing. Well, your children are my students and everything I’ve seen confirms what the research tells me – no, they can’t but they can give a convincing impression when asked. When you dig into what gets produced, it’s a different story. If someone sits down and does the work as a single task, it will take them a shorter time and they will do a better job than if they juggle five things. The five things will take more than five times as long (up to 10, which really blows out time estimation) and will not be done as well, nor will the students learn about the work in the right way. (You can actually sabotage long term storage by multi-tasking in the wrong way.) The most successful study groups around the Uni are small, focused groups that stay on one task until it’s done and then move on. The ones with music and no focus will be sitting there for hours after the others are gone. Fun? Yes. Efficient? No. And most of my students need to be at least reasonably efficient to get everything done. Have some fun but try to get all the work done too – it’s educational, I hear. 🙂

It’s really not a surprise that we haven’t changed humanity in one or two generations. Our brains are just not built in a way that can (yet) provide assistance with the quite large amount of work required to perform multi-tasking.

We can handle multiple tasks, no doubt at all, but we’ve just got to make sure, for our own well-being and overall ability to complete the task, that we don’t fall into the attractive, but deceptive, trap that we are some sort of parallel supercomputer.

I Am Self-righteous, You Are Loud, She is Ignored

If we’ve learned anything from recent Internet debates that have become almost Lovecraftian in the way that a single word uttered in the wrong place can cause an outbreaking of chaos, it is that the establishment of a mutually acceptable tone is the only sensible way to manage any conversation that is conducted outside of body-language cues. Or, in short, we need to work out how to stop people screaming at each other when they’re safely behind their keyboards or (worse) anonymity.

As a scientist, I’m very familiar with the approach that says that all ideas can be questioned and it is only by ferocious interrogation of reality, ideas, theory and perception that we can arrive at a sound basis for moving forward.

But, as a human, I’m aware that conducting ourselves as if everyone is made of uncaring steel is, to be put it mildly, a very poor way to educate and it’s a lousy way to arrive at complex consensus. In fact, while we claim such an approach is inherently meritocratic, as good ideas must flourish under such rigour, it’s more likely that we will only hear ideas from people who can endure the system, regardless of whether those people have the best ideas. A recent book, “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy” by Lani Guinier, looks at how supposedly meritocratic systems in education are really measures of privilege levels prior to going into education and that education is more about cultivating merit, rather than scoring a measure of merit that is actually something else.

This isn’t to say that face-to-face arguments are isolated from the effects that are caused by antagonists competing to see who can keep making their point for the longest time. If one person doesn’t wish to concede the argument but the other can’t see any point in making progress, it is more likely for the (for want of a better term) stubborn party to claim that they have won because they have reached a point where the other person is “giving up”. But this illustrates the key flaw that underlies many arguments – that one “wins” or “loses”.

In scientific argument, in theory, we all get together in large rooms, put on our discussion togas and have at ignorance until we force it into knowledge. In reality, what happens is someone gets up and presents and the overall impression of competency is formed by:

  • The gender, age, rank, race and linguistic grasp of the speaker
  • Their status in the community
  • How familiar the audience are with the work
  • How attentive the audience are and whether they’re all working on grants or e-mail
  • How much they have invested in the speaker being right or wrong
  • Objective scientific assessment

We know about the first one because we keep doing studies that tell us that women cannot be assessed fairly by the majority of people, even in blind trials where all that changes on a CV is the name. We know that status has a terrible influence on how we perceive people. Dunning-Kruger (for all of its faults) and novelty effects influence how critical we can be. We can go through all of these and we come back to the fact that our pure discussion is tainted by the rituals and traditions of presentation, with our vaunted scientific objectivity coming in after we’ve stripped off everything else.

It is still there, don’t get me wrong, but you stand a much better chance of getting a full critical hearing with a prepared, specialist audience who have come together with a clear intention to attempt to find out what is going on than an intention to destroy what is being presented. There is always going to be something wrong or unknown but, if you address the theory rather than the person, you’ll get somewhere.

I often refer to this as the difference between scientists and lawyers. If we’re tying to build a better science then we’re always trying to improve understanding through genuine discovery. Defence lawyers are trying to sow doubt in the mind of judges and juries, invalidating evidence for reasons that are nothing to do with the strength of the evidence, and preventing wider causal linkages from forming that would be to the detriment of their client. (Simplistic, I know.)

Any scientific theory must be able to stand up to scientific enquiry because that’s how it works. But the moment we turn such a process into an inquisition where the process becomes one that the person has to endure then we are no longer assessing the strength of the science – we are seeing if we can shout someone into giving up.

As I wrote in the title, when we are self-righteous, whether legitimately or not, we will be happy to yell from the rooftops. If someone else is doing it with us then we might think they are loud but how can someone else’s voice be heard if we have defined all exchange in terms of this exhausting primal scream? If that person comes from a traditionally under-represented or under-privileged group then they may have no way at all to break in.

The mutual establishment of tone is essential if we to hear all of the voices who are able to contribute to the improvement and development of ideas and, right now, we are downright terrible at it. For all we know, the cure for cancer has been ignored because it had the audacity to show up in the mind of a shy, female, junior researcher in a traditionally hierarchical lab that will let her have her own ideas investigated when she gets to be a professor.

Or it it would have occurred to someone had she received education but she’s stuck in the fields and won’t ever get more than a grade 5 education. That’s not a meritocracy.

One of the reasons I think that we’re so bad at establishing tone and seeing past the illusion of meritocracy is the reason that we’ve always been bad at handling bullying: we are more likely to see a spill-over reaction from the target than the initial action except in the most obvious cases of physical bullying. Human language and body-assisted communication are subtle and words are more than words. Let’s look at this sentence:

“I’m sure he’s doing the best he can.”

You can adjust this sentence to be incredibly praising, condescending, downright insulting, dismissive and indifferent without touching the content of the sentence. But, written like this, it is robbed of tone and context. If someone has been “needled” with statements like this for months, then a sudden outburst is increasingly likely, especially in stressful situations. This is the point at which someone says “But I only said … ” If our workplaces our innately rife with inter-privilege tension and high stress due to the collapse of the middle class – no wonder people blow up!

We have the same problem in the on-line community from an approach called Sea-Lioning, where persistent questioning is deployed in a way that, with each question isolated, appears innocuous but, as a whole, forms a bullying technique to undermine and intimidate the original writer. Now some of this is because there are people who honestly cannot tell what a mutually respectful tone look like and really want to know the answer. But, if you look at the cartoon I linked to, you can easily see how this can be abused and, in particular, how it can be used to shut down people who are expressing ideas in new space. We also don’t get the warning signs of tone. Worse still, we often can’t or don’t walk away because we maintain a connection that the other person can jump on anytime they want to. (The best thing you can do sometimes on Facebook is to stop notifications because you stop getting tapped on the shoulder by people trying to get up your nose. It is like a drink of cool water on a hot day, sometimes. I do, however, realise that this is easier to say than do.)

From XKCD #386 – “Duty Calls”

When students communicate over our on-line forums, we do keep an eye on them for behaviour that is disrespectful or downright rude so that we can step in and moderate the forum, but we don’t require moderation before comment. Again, we have the notion that all ideas can be questioned, because SCIENCE, but the moment we realise that some questions can be asked not to advance the debate but to undermine and intimidate, we have to look very carefully at the overall context and how we construct useful discussion, without being incredibly prescriptive about what form discussion takes.

I recently stepped in to a discussion about some PhD research that was being carried out at my University because it became apparent that someone was acting in, if not bad faith, an aggressive manner that was not actually achieving any useful discussion. When questions were answered, the answers were dismissed, the argument recast and, to be blunt, a lot of random stuff was injected to discredit the researcher (for no good reason). When I stepped in to point out that this was off track, my points were side-stepped, a new argument came up and then I realised that I was dealing with a most amphibious mammal.

The reason I bring this up is that when I commented on the post, I immediately got positive feedback from a number of people on the forum who had been uncomfortable with what had been going on but didn’t know what to do about it. This is the worst thing about people who set a negative tone and hold it down, we end up with social conventions of politeness stopping other people from commenting or saying anything because it’s possible that the argument is being made in good faith. This is precisely the trap a bad faith actor wants to lock people into and, yet, it’s also the thing that keeps most discussions civil.

Thanks, Internet trolls. You’re really helping to make the world a better place.

These days my first action is to step in and ask people to clarify things, in the most non-confrontational way I can muster because asking people “What do you mean” can be incredibly hostile by itself! This quickly establishes people who aren’t willing to engage properly because they’ll start wriggling and the Sea-Lion effect kicks in – accusations of rudeness, unwillingness to debate – which is really, when it comes down to it:


This isn’t the open approach to science. This is thuggery. This is privilege. This is the same old rubbish that is currently destroying the world because we can’t seem to be able to work together without getting caught up in these stupid games. I dream of a better world where people can say any combination of “I use  Mac/PC/Java/Python” without being insulted but I am, after all, an Idealist.

The summary? The merit of your argument is not determined by how loudly you shout and how many other people you silence.

I expect my students to engage with each other in good faith on the forums, be respectful and think about how their actions affect other people. I’m really beginning to wonder if that’s the best preparation for a world where a toxic on-line debate can break over into the real world, where SWAT team attacks and document revelation demonstrate what happens when people get too carried away in on-line forums.

We’re stopping people from being heard when they have something to say and that’s wrong, especially when it’s done maliciously by people who are demanding to say something and then say nothing. We should be better at this by now.

Spectacular Learning May Not Be What You’re After

Back in 1967, Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist, released a fairly brief but very powerful work called the “The Society of the Spectacle“, which brought together much of the work of the Situationist International. Debord touches on many themes in this work (it’s well worth reading) but he focuses on the degradation of human life, the influence of mass media and our commodity culture, and then (unsurprisingly for a Marxist) draws on the parallels between religion and marketing. I’m going to write three more paragraphs on the Spectacle itself and then get to the education stuff. Hang in there!


It would be very hard for me to convey all of the aspects that Debord covered with “the Spectacle” in one sentence but, in short, it is the officially-sanctioned, bureaucratic, commodity-drive second-hand world that we live in without much power or freedom to truly express ourselves in a creative fashion. Buying stuff can take the place of living a real experience. Watching someone else do something replaces doing it ourselves. The Society of the Spectacle opens with the statement:

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. (Debord, 1967.)

Ultimately, this representation of the real world becomes the perceived reality and it moderates all of our interactions as people, manipulating us by changing what we see and experience. (Recent research into the use of photographic images for memory manipulation have verified this – your memories can be altered by the selection of photos and items that you use to remember a particular event. Choose your happy snaps wisely!)

Ultimately, the Spectacle is self-sustaining and participating in a version of the world that is manipulated and second-hand will only produce more experiences that are in line with what has already been experienced. And why shouldn’t it? The entire point is that everything is presented as if it is the right thing to do and, by working within this system, that your own interactions are good because they are also within the Spectacle. However, this can be quite alienating, especially for radical or creative thought. Enter the situation, where you construct authentic, creative ways to liberate yourself from the Spectacle. This is where you are actually creating, making, doing something beyond the relationship of yourself to things you buy: this interactions with people beyond the mediation of established systems and commodity fetishism.

Ok, ok, enough of the details of Debord! I’ll get to my point on education. Let’s take a simplistic view and talk about the presentation of second-hand experiences with little participation and official sanction. I don’t know about you but that sounds a lot like the traditional lecturing style to me – high power-distance and low participation. Hierarchical enforcement and the weight of history, combined with a strong bureaucracy. Yup. That sounds like the Spectacle.

When we talk about engagement we often don’t go to the opposite end and discuss the problem of alienation. Educational culture can be frightening and alienating for people who aren’t used to it but, even when you are within it, aspects will continue to leap out and pit the individual (student or teacher) against the needs of the system itself (we must do this because that’s how it works).

So what can we do? Well, the Situationists valued play, freedom and critical thinking. They had a political agenda that I won’t address here (you can read about it in many places) – I’m going to look at ways to reduce alienation, increase creativity and increase exploration. In fact, we’ve already done this when we talk about active learningcollaborative learning and getting students to value each other as sources of knowledge as well as their teachers.

But we can go further. While many people wonder how students can invest vast amounts of energy into some projects and not others, bringing the ability to play into the equation makes a significant difference and it goes hand-in-hand with freedom. But this means giving students the time, the space, the skills and the associated activities that will encourage this kind of exploration. (We’ve been doing this in my school with open-ended, self-selected creative assignments where we can. Still working on how we can scale it) But the principle of exploration is one that we can explore across curricula, schools, and all aspects of society.

It’s interesting. So many people seem to complain about student limitations when they encounter new situations (there’s that word again) yet place students into a passive Spectacle where the experience is often worse than second-hand. When I read a text book, I am reading the words of someone who has the knowledge rather than necessarily creating it for myself. If I have someone reading those words to me from the front of a lecture theatre then I’m not only rigidly locked into a conforming position, bound to listen, but I’m having something that’s closer to a third-hand experience.

When you’re really into something, you climb all over it and explore it. Your passion drives your interest and it is your ability to play with the elements, turn them around, mash them up and actually create something is a very good indicator of how well you are working with that knowledge. Getting students to rewrite the classic “Hello World” program is a waste of time. Getting students to work out how to take the picture of their choice and create something new is valuable. The Spectacle is not what we want in higher education or education at all because it is limiting, dull, and, above all, boring.

To paraphrase Debord: “Boredom is always counter-educational. Always.”

You are a confused ghost riding a meat Segway.

I regularly write bits and pieces for my students to read, sometimes at the beginning of courses and sometimes at the end. Occasionally, I fall into the trap of thinking that this means that I understand what is going on. This post is something that all of my students should read to get a good understanding of the context behind those suggestions.

  1. You are a confused ghost riding a meat Segway. It doesn’t really matter whether you believe that your consciousness is something innate and separate from your body or whether you believe it’s a byproduct of the chemical and electrical interactions in your brain, your conscious will and the autonomic systems of your body are separate entities for the most part. We assume continence in our society: of bladder, bowel, speech and action. Despite the push from the underlying framework to do things, the ghost on top can and does regularly override those impulses. Some people choose not to override or claim that the pull is too strong and, at this point, things start to fall apart. Some other people try and force the Segway to do stuff that it can’t do and then that falls apart. One thing we can generally agree on is that it’s harder to communicate with people when the meat Segway crashes or fails so look after it but don’t let it rule your life. The Segway comes in different shapes, sizes and colours but the ghosts tend to be more affected by how the world reacts to you rather than much else.
  2. No-one will know you who are unless you communicate. This doesn’t mean that you have to talk to everyone but the best ideas in the world will do nothing unless they are shared with someone. We have no idea how many great ideas have been lost because someone was born in a condition, place or time where they were unable to get their ideas out.
  3. Communication works best when tone is set by consensus. There’s a lot of stridency in communication today, where people start talking in a certain tone and then demand that people conform to their intensity or requirement for answers. You only have to Google “Sea-lioning” to see how well this works out for people. Mutual communication implies an environment that allows for everyone to be comfortable in the exchange. Doesn’t always work and, sometimes, stridency is called for, of course. Making it the default state of your communicational openings is going to cause more grief than is required. Try to develop your ear along with your mouth.
  4. Certainty is seductive. Don’t worry, I’m not making some Foucaultian statement about reality or meaning, I’m just saying that, from my experience, being absolutely certain of something can be appealing but it’s quite rare to find things where this is true. But I’m a scientist so I would say something like this – even with all the evidence in the world, we’d still need a cast-iron proof to say that something was certain. And that’s “a” proof, not “some” proof. People love certainty. Other people often sell certainty because many people will buy it. Often it helps to ask why you want that certainty or why you think you need it. What you believe is always up to you but it helps to understand what drives your needs and desires in terms of that belief.
  5. No-one knows how to be a grown-up. If you feel like it, go and look at advice for people who are in an age bracket and see what it says. It will almost always say something like “No-one knows what’s going on!”. As you get older, you make more mistakes and you learn from them, hopefully. Older people often have more assets behind them, which gives them more resilience, more ability to try something and not succeed. But there is no grand revelation that comes when you get older and, according to my friends with kids, there is no giant door opening when you have kids either. We’re all pretty much the same.

5 Good Things to Start in 2015

At the beginning of December I wrote about 5 things that I’d learned and had (re)confirmed. There’s been a lot going on since then and it’s been astounding me how willing people are to make the same mistakes, especially in on-line communication, and just go out and do things that are hurtful, ignorant and, well, just plain stupid. I’m always writing this with the idea of being helpful to my students so here is a list of 5 things (not necessarily the only 5 things or the top 5 things) that would be good habits to commit to in 2015 when it comes to electronic communication. Think of it as the 5 things I’ve learned, specifically addressing the on-line world. Some of these have come up in the blog before but I think this is the only time they’ve all been in the same place. Eh, let me know. (Note: we’ve all done things like this at some point probably so this is a reminder from a fellow sufferer rather than a lecture from a saint. My feet of clay go up to my navel.)

  1. Just Because You Can See Something Doesn’t Mean You Have to Comment.

    There’s a famous XKCD comic about this (see above) and it is both a time sink and a road to unhappiness to think that everything that you can see needs to be dealt with by your intervention. Now there are times when it almost always makes sense to assist, much as in real life: when someone is being threatened, when someone is being bullied, when someone else is actively harassing someone. But when you notice that someone you vaguely know is happy about using a selfie stick and posts some silly pictures? No, that’s not the time to post an insulting video about selfie sticks and then link him in so he knows he’s being insulted. Really? That makes sense? Don’t be that person. We all have strong opinions about some recreational stuff but, most of the time, no-one’s getting hurt so why make someone else feel miserable?

    It’s sometimes hard for people to know when to leap in and when not to but there are some clear indicators. Are you doing it to make someone else feel bad about something that they like? Yeah, why are you doing that? Go and find something better to do. Are you doing it to show how smart you are? It’s probably working in the opposite way. Are you bullying people to complain about people bullying people? Do you need to read that sentence again?

    Doesn’t mean that you can’t comment but it means you need to choose when to comment and the best way to comment. If you really feel that something you run across needs input, don’t do it in a way that is thoughtless, mean, bullying, unnecessary or insulting. If someone says “Yeah, I don’t need your input” – then stop. If you really screwed up the communication – apologise. Simple. Learn. Try to do better in future.

  2. Vent BEFORE Typing

    Oh, yeah. If only I could take back some of the things I typed when I was angry. These days, I try to be grumpy off-line so I’m constructive on-line. Way more effective and I have to apologise less. If someone isn’t getting the point, then don’t get ruder or START USING ALL CAPS. Back off. Use your energies elsewhere. The science is pretty clear that straight-up chest bumping arguments only solid opposing opinion. Discuss, back off, discuss again. Be cool.

    (Ok, so sometimes I have a small vent at the air for a while and then grab a calming tea before I come back. This brings me to the next point…)

  3. The Internet Can Wait

    The Internet is not a communications system that has hard real-time constraints. Guess what – if you don’t respond immediately then you can go back later and see if anyone else has said what you wanted to say or if the person commenting has read through some stuff and changed their mind. 3,000 people saying “HERP DERP” is not actually helpful and a pile-on is just mass bullying.

    Especially when you are agitated, step away. Don’t step away into Day Z and get sniped by human hunters, though. Step all the way away and go and relax somewhere. 3D print a flower and look at that. (You may have actual flowers you can observe.) Watch an episode of something unchallenging. Think about what you want to say and then compose your response. Say it with the style that comes from having time to edit.


    That’s really less than convincing. Take some time out.

    What are you basing that on? I thought the evidence was pretty clear on this.

    There. That’s better. And now with 100% less Hitler!

  4. Stay Actual Rather Than Hypothetical

    It’s easy to say “If I were in situation X” and make up a whole heap of stuff but that doesn’t actually make your experience authentic. If you start your sentence with qualifiers such as “If I were..”, “Surely,” or “I would have thought…” then you really need to wonder about whether you are making a useful point or just putting down what you would like to be true in order for you to win an argument that you don’t really have any genuine experience to comment on.

    It’s been so long since I’ve been unemployed that I would hesitate to write anything on the experience of unemployment but, given that my take on welfare is for it be generous and universal and I have a strong background in the actual documented evidence of what works for public welfare, my contributions to any thread discussing welfare issues can be valuable if I stick to what could be used to improve people’s lot, with an understanding of what it was like to be unemployed in Australia. However, I would almost never leap in on anything about raising children because I don’t have any kids. (Unless it was, I WANT TO BOIL MY CHILDREN, in which case it’s probably wise to check if this is a psychotic break or autocorrect.)

  5. Don’t Make People’s Real Problems a Dinner Party Game

    One of the few times I have been speechless with rage was when I was discussing gay marriage with someone on-line and they said “Well, this would be a fascinating discussion to have over dinner!” and they were serious. No, human rights are not something for other people to talk about as it it were some plaything. (I walked away from that discussion and frothed for some time!)

    And this goes triple for anyone who leaps in to play “Devil’s Advocate” on an issue that really does not require any more exploration or detailed thought. If we are discussing a legal argument, and not human rights, then sure, why not? If we’re talking about people not being allowed to use a certain door because of the colour of their skin? We’ve discussed that. There is no more exploration of the issue of racism required because anyone with a vague knowledge of history will be aware that this particular discussion has been had. XKCD has, of course, already nailed this because XKCD is awesome.

    I see this now with many of the misconceptions about poverty and the pernicious myths that want to paint poor people as being “less worthy”, when a cursory examination of the evidence available shows that we are seeing a rapidly growing wealth divide and the disturbing growth of the working poor. The willingness to discuss the reduction of rights for the poor (compulsory contraception, food credits rather than money, no ‘recreational’ spending) as if this is an amusement is morally repugnant and, apart from anything else, is part of a series of discussions that have been running for centuries. We can now clearly see, from our vast data panopticon, what the truth of these stories are and, yet, go onto any forum talking about this and find people trotting out tired anecdotes, “Devil’s advocate” positions and treating this as an intellectual game.

    People’s lives are not a game. Engage in discussions with the seriousness required to address the issue or it’s probably best to try and find somewhere else to play. There are many wonderful places to talk rubbish on the Internet – my blog, for example, is a place where I work and play, while I try to change the world a little for the better. But when I roll up my sleeves in big discussions elsewhere, I try to be helpful and to be serious. The people who are less fortunate than I am deserve my serious attention and not to be treated as some kind of self-worth enhancing amusement.

  6. Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself

    Gosh, I said there were 5 and now there are 6. Why? Because you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes. I’ve made all of the mistakes above and I’ll probably (although I try not to) make a few of them again. But as long as you’re learning and moving forward, don’t be too hard on yourself. But keep an eye on you. You can be shifty. But don’t be strict about your own rules because rigidity can be a prison – bend where necessary to stay sane and to make the world a better place.

    But always remember that the best guidelines for bending your own rules is to work out if you’re being kinder and more generous or harsher and meaner. Are you giving an extra point 6 when you promised 5? Are you stopping at 4 because you can’t be bothered?

We all make mistakes. Some of us learn. Some of us try to help others to learn. I think we’re getting better. Have a great 2015!

5 Things: Stuff I learned about meetings

I’ve held an Associate Dean’s role over the past three years and the number of meetings that I was required to attend increased dramatically. However, the number of meetings that I thought I had to attend or hold increased far more than that and it wasn’t until I realised the five things below that my life became more manageable. Some of you will already know all of this but I hope it’s useful to at least a few people out there!

  1. Meetings can add work to your schedule but you get very little work removed from your schedule in a meeting.Meetings can be used to report on activity, summarise new directions, and make decisions. What you cannot easily do is immediately undertake any of the work assigned to you in this or any other meeting while you’re sitting around the table, talking. Even if you’re trying to sneakily work at a meeting (we’ve all done it in this age of WiFi and mobile devices), your efficiency is way below what it would be if you weren’t in a meeting.

    What this means is that if your day is all meetings, all your actual work has to occur somewhere else. Hint hint: don’t fill your week with meetings unless that is supposed to be your job (you’re a facilitator or this is a pure reporting phase).

  2. Meetings are not a place to read, whether you or the presenter are just reading documents. The best meetings take place when everyone has read all of the papers before the meeting. Human reading speed varies and there is nothing more frustrating than a public reading of documents that should have been absorbed prior to the meeting. Presentations can take place in a meeting but if the presentation is someone talking at slides? Forget it. Send out a summary and have the presenter there to answer questions. The more time you spend in meetings, the less time you have to do the work that people care about.

    And if someone can’t organise/bother themselves to read the documents when everyone else does? They’re not going to be that much help to you unless they have an absolutely irreplaceable skill to bring to the table. There is a role for the sharp-eyed curmudgeon but very few organisations have one, let alone more than one. Drop them off the list.

    Vendor demonstration? Put it in a seminar room where everyone can sit comfortably instead of forcing everyone to crane their necks around a boardroom table. Fix a time limit. Have questions. End the session and get back to doing something useful. Your time is valuable.

  3. Only invite the people who are needed for this meeting.

    Coming up with some new ideas? You can crowdsource it more easily without trying to jam 300 people into a room. One person who doesn’t “get it” is going to act as a block on the other 299 in that community and a group can easily go down a negative direction because it’s easier to be cautious than it is to be adventurous. Deciding on a path forward? Only bring in the people who actually need to make it happen or you’ll have a room full of people who say things like “Surely, …” or “I would have thought…” which are red flags to indicate that the people in question probably don’t know what they’re talking about. People with facts at their disposal make clear statements – they don’t need linguistic guards to protect their conjecture.Any meeting larger than 6 people will have a very hard time making truly consensual complex decisions because the number of exchanges required to make sure everyone can discuss the idea with everyone else gets large very quickly. (Yes, this is a mesh network thing, for those who’ve read my earlier notes on this. 2 people need one exchange. 3 people need 3 if they can’t easily reach consensus. That looks ok until you realise that, in the worst case for discussions between pairs, 4 people need 6, 5 need 24 and 6 need 120. These are single discussions between pairs.)

    When you’ve come up with the ideas, then you can take them to the community as a presentation, form smaller groups to discuss it and then bring the comments back in again.

    The best group for a meeting consists of the people who have the knowledge, the people who have the resources and the people who have the requisite authority to make it all happen.

  4. Repeating the problem isn’t a contribution.

    Some people feel that they have to say something at a meeting but, given that positive contributions can be hard to come up with and potentially risky, the “cautious voice of reason” is a pretty safe play unless the meeting is titled “Innovative Ideas Forum That Will Stop Me Firing Some Of The Participants”. The first part of that is constantly repeating the problem or part of a problem, especially if you use it to shut down someone else who is working on something constructive.The plural of anecdote is not data so repeating the one situation that has occurred and has a tangential relationship to the problem at hand does little to help, especially if (like so many of these anecdotes) it’s not a true perception of what happened and contradicts all the actual evidence that is being presented in the meeting. Memory is a fickle beast and a lot of what is presented as “we tried this and it didn’t work” will often omit key items that would make the recollection useful.

    The role of “Devil’s Advocate” has no place in brainstorming or (forgive me) “blue sky” thinking and is often more negative than useful. But that is actually the safer option for that contributor: “the sky will fall” has been a good headline since we developed language. Like a friend of mine once said “As if the Devil needs much help in these days of constrained resources and anti-intellectualism”.

    Encouraging participants to think in a “We could if this happened” rather than a “That will never work” is more likely to bring about a useful outcome.

    Finally, some people are just schmucks and their useful skills are impaired by an unhelpful attitude. That’s a management problem. Don’t punish the other people in a meeting because one person is a schmuck. Meetings can be really useful when you remove the major obstructions.

  5. Meetings end when the objectives have been achieved or the time limit runs out, whichever comes first.

    I now book out 30 minute slots for most meetings and try to get everything done in 15 minutes if possible. That gives me 15 minutes to write things up or start the wheels moving. I hate sitting around in meetings where everything has been done but someone has decided that they need to say something to confirm their attendance value at the meeting. This is often when point 4 gets a really good work-out. (Yeah, full confession, I’ve done this, too. We all have bad days but you try not to make it the norm! 🙂 ) Some meetings get an hour or two because that’s what they need. Longer than that? Build in breaks. People need bathroom breaks, food, and time to check on the state of the world.The best meetings are the meetings where everyone gets the agenda and the documents in advance, read through it, then can quickly decide if they even need to get together to discuss anything. In other words, the best meetings are the ones where clear communication can occur without the meeting and work can get done anyway. E-mail is a self-documenting communication system and allows you to have a meeting, without minutes, wherever the participants are. Skype (or other conferencing system) allows you hold a distributed meeting and record it for posterity, with everyone in the comfort of their own working space. Face-to-face is still the best approach for rapid question and answer, and discussion but everyone is so busy, you need to keep it to the shortest time possible.

    The Scooby Gang, stunned that Caltech was now in the range 50-100.

    The Scooby Gang, not having a productive meeting. Go and solve crimes, you crazy kids!

    Then you can use the reserved meeting time to actually do your work. If you have to have the meeting, start on time and finish on time. By doing this, it will drive the behaviours of good document dissemination and time management in the meeting.

I realised I had a problem when I discovered that 40% of my week was meetings because all I was doing was running from meeting to meeting. I cut my meetings back, started using documents, trimmed attendance lists, started using quick catch-ups instead of formal meetings more often and my life became much easier. Hope this is useful!

Rules: As For Them, So For Us

In a previous post, I mentioned a game called “Dog Eat Dog” where players role-play the conflict between Colonist and Native Occupiers, through playing out scenarios that both sides seek to control, with the result being the production of a new rule that encapsulates the ‘lesson’ of the scenario. I then presented education as being a good fit for this model but noted that many of the rules that students have to be obey are behavioural rather than knowledge-focussed. A student who is ‘playing through’ education will probably accumulate a list of rules like this (not in any particular order):

  1. Always be on time for class
  2. Always present your own work
  3. Be knowledgable
  4. Prepare for each activity
  5. Participate in class
  6. Submit your work on time

But, as noted in Dog Eat Dog, the nasty truth of colonisation is that the Colonists are always superior to the Colonised. So, rule 0 is actually: Students are inferior to Teachers. Now, that’s a big claim to make – that the underlying notion in education is one of inferiority. In the Dog Eat Dog framing, the superiority manifests as dominance in decision making and the ability to intrude into every situation. We’ll come back to this.

If we tease apart the rules for students then are some obvious omissions that we would like to see such as “be innovative” or “be creative”, except that these rules are very hard to apply as pre-requisites for progress. We have enough potential difficulty with the measurement of professional skills, without trying to assess if one thing is a creative approach while another is just missing the point or deliberate obfuscation. It’s understandable that five of the rules presented are those that we can easily control with extrinsic motivational factors – 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are generally presented as important because of things like mandatory attendance, plagiarism rules and lateness penalties. 3, the only truly cognitive element on the list, is a much harder thing to demand and, unsurprisingly, this is why it’s sometimes easier to seek well-behaved students than it is to seek knowledgable, less-controlled students, because it’s so much harder to see that we’ve had a  positive impact. So, let us accept that this list is naturally difficult to select and somewhat artificial, but it is a reasonable model for what people expect of a ‘good’ student.

Let me ask you some questions before we proceed.

  1. A student is always late for class. Could there be a reasonable excuse for this and, if so, does your system allow for it?
  2. Students occasionally present summary presentations from other authors, including slides prepared by scholarly authors. How do you interpret that?
  3. Students sometimes show up for classes and are obviously out of their depth. What do you do? Should they go away and come back later when they’re ready? Do they just need to try harder?
  4. Students don’t do the pre-reading and try to cram it in just before a session. Is this kind of “just in time” acceptable?
  5. Students sometimes sit up the back, checking their e-mail, and don’t really want to get involved. Is that ok? What if they do it every time?
  6. Students are doing a lot of things and often want to shift around deadlines or get you to take into account their work from other courses or outside jobs. Do you allow this? How often? Is there a penalty?

As you can see, I’ve taken each of the original ‘good student’ points and asked you to think about it. Now, let us accept that there are ultimate administrative deadlines (I’ve already talked about this a lot in time banking) and we can accept that the student is aware of these and are not planning to put all their work off until next century.

Now, let’s look at this as it applies to teaching staff. I think we can all agree that a staff member who meets that list are going to achieve a lot of their teaching goals. I’m going to reframe the questions in terms of staff.

  1. You have to drop your kids off every morning at day care. This means that you show up at your 9am lecture 5 minutes late every day because you physically can’t get there any faster and your partner can’t do it because he/she is working shift work. How do you explain this to your students?
  2. You are teaching a course from a textbook which has slides prepared already. Is it ok to take these slides and use them without any major modification?
  3. You’ve been asked to cover another teacher’s courses for two weeks due to their illness. You have a basis in the area but you haven’t had to do anything detailed for it in over 10 years and you’ll also have to give feedback on the final stages of a lengthy assignment. How do you prepare for this and what, if anything, do you tell the class to brief them on your own lack of expertise?
  4. The staff meeting is coming around and the Head of School wants feedback on a major proposal and discussion at that meeting. You’ve been flat out and haven’t had a chance to look at it, so you skim it on the way to the meeting and take it with you to read in the preliminaries. Given the importance of the proposal, do you think this is a useful approach?
  5. It’s the same staff meeting and Doctor X is going on (again) about radical pedagogy and Situationist philosophy. You quickly catch up on some important work e-mails and make some meetings for later in the week, while you have a second.
  6. You’ve got three research papers due, a government grant application and your Head of School needs your workload bid for the next calendar year. The grant deadline is fixed and you’ve already been late for three things for the Head of School. Do you drop one (or more) of the papers or do you write to the convenors to see if you can arrange an extension to the deadline?

Is this artificial? Well, of course, because I’m trying to make a point. Beyond being pedantic on this because you know what I’m saying, if you answered one way for the staff member and other way for the student then you have given the staff member more power in the same situation than the student. Just because we can all sympathise with the staff member (Doctor X sounds horribly familiar, doesn’t he?) doesn’t that the student’s reasons, when explored and contextualised, are not equally valid.

If we are prepared to listen to our students and give their thoughts, reasoning and lives as much weight and value as our own, then rule 0 is most likely not in play at the moment – you don’t think your students are inferior to you. If you thought that the staff member was being perfectly reasonable and yet you couldn’t see why a student should be extended the same privileges, even where I’ve asked you to consider the circumstances where it could be, then it’s possible that the superiority issue is one that has become well-established at your institution.

Ultimately, if this small list is a set of goals, then we should be a reasonable exemplar for our students. Recently, due to illness, I’ve gone from being very reliable in these areas, to being less reliable on things like the level of preparation I used to do and timeliness. I have looked at what I’ve had to do and renegotiated my  deadlines, apologising and explaining where I need to. As a result, things are getting done and, as far as I know, most people are happy with what I’m doing. (That’s acceptable but they used to be very happy. I have  way to go.) I still have a couple of things to fix, which I haven’t forgotten about, but I’ve had to carry out some triage. I’m honest about this because, that way, I encourage my students to be honest with me. I do what I can, within sound pedagogical framing and our administrative requirements, and my students know that. It makes them think more, become more autonomous and be ready to go out and practice at a higher level, sooner.

This list is quite deliberately constructed but I hope that, within this framework, I’ve made my point: we have to be honest if we are seeing ourselves as superior and, in my opinion, we should work more as equals with each other.

When Does Collaborative Work Fall Into This Trap?

A recent study has shown that crowdsourcing activities are prone to bringing out the competitors’ worst competitive instincts.

“[T]he openness makes crowdsourcing solutions vulnerable to malicious behaviour of other interested parties,” said one of the study’s authors, Victor Naroditskiy from the University of Southampton, in a release on the study. “Malicious behaviour can take many forms, ranging from sabotaging problem progress to submitting misinformation. This comes to the front in crowdsourcing contests where a single winner takes the prize.” (emphasis mine)

You can read more about it here but it’s not a pretty story. Looks like a pretty good reason to be very careful about how we construct competitive challenges in the classroom!

We both want to build this but I WILL DO IT WITH YOUR BONES!

We both want to build this but I WILL DO IT WITH YOUR BONES!

Knowing the Tricks Helps You To Deal With Assumptions

I teach a variety of courses, including one called Puzzle-Based Learning, where we try to teach think and problem-solving techniques through the use of simple puzzles that don’t depend on too much external information. These domain-free problems have most of the characteristics of more complicated problems but you don’t have to be an expert in the specific area of knowledge to attempt them. The other thing that we’ve noticed over time is that a good puzzle is fun to solve, fun to teach and gets passed on to other people – a form of infectious knowledge.

Some of the most challenging areas to try and teach into are those that deal with probability and statistics, as I’ve touched on before in this post. As always, when an area is harder to understand, it actually requires us to teach better but I do draw the line at trying to coerce students into believing me through the power of my mind alone. But there are some very handy ways to show students that their assumptions about the nature of probability (and randomness) so that they are receptive to the idea that their models could need improvement (allowing us to work in that uncertainty) and can also start to understand probability correctly.

We are ferociously good pattern matchers and this means that we have some quite interesting biases in the way that we think about the world, especially when we try to think about random numbers, or random selections of things.

So, please humour me for a moment. I have flipped a coin five times and recorded the outcome here. But I have also made up three other sequences. Look at the four sequences for a moment and pick which one is most likely to be the one I generated at random – don’t think too much, use your gut:

  1. Tails Tails Tails Heads Tails
  2. Tails Heads Tails Heads Heads
  3. Heads Heads Tails Heads Tails
  4. Heads Heads Heads Heads Heads

Have you done it?

I’m just going to put a bit more working in here to make sure that you’ve written down your number…

I’ve run this with students and I’ve asked them to produce a sequence by flipping coins then produce a false sequence by making subtle changes to the generated one (turns heads into tails but change a couple along the way). They then write the two together on a board and people have to vote on which one is which. As it turns out, the chances of someone picking the right sequence is about 50/50, but I engineered that by starting from a generated sequence.

This is a fascinating article that looks at the overall behaviour of people. If you ask people to write down a five coin sequence that is random, 78% of them will start with heads. So, chances are, you’ve picked 3 or 4 as you’re starting sequence. When it comes to random sequences, most of us equate random with well-shuffled, and, on the large scale, 30 times as many people would prefer option 3 to option 4. (This is where someone leaps into the comments to say “A-ha” but, it’s ok, we’re talking about overall behavioural trends. Your individual experience and approach may not be the dominant behaviour.)

From a teaching point of view, this is a great way to break up the concepts of random sequences and some inherent notion that such sequences must be disordered. There are 32 different ways of flipping 5 coins in a strict sequence like this and all of them are equally likely. It’s only when we start talking about the likelihood of getting all heads versus not getting all heads that the aggregated event of “at least one head” starts to be more likely.

How can we use this? One way is getting students to write down their sequences and then asking them to stand up, then sit down when your ‘call’ (from a script) goes the other way. If almost everyone is still standing at heads then you’ve illustrated that you know something about how their “randomisers” work. A lot of people (if your class is big enough) should still be standing when the final coin is revealed and this we can address. Why do so many people think about it this way? Are we confusing random with chaotic?

The Law of Small Numbers (Tversky and Kahneman), also mentioned in the post, which is basically that people generalise too much from small samples and they expect small samples to act like big ones. In your head, if the grand pattern over time could be resorted into “heads, tails, heads, tails,…” then small sequences must match that or they just don’t look right. This is an example of the logical fallacy called a “hasty generalisation” but with a mathematical flavour. We are strongly biassed towards the the validity of our experiences, so when we generate a random sequence (or pick a lucky door or win the first time at poker machines) then we generalise from this small sample and can become quite resistant to other discussions of possible outcomes.

If you have really big classes (367 or more) then you can start a discussion on random numbers by asking people what the chances are that any two people in the room share a birthday. Given that there are only 366 possible birthdays, the Pigeonhole principle states that two people must share a birthday as, in a class of 367, there are only 366 birthdays to go around so one must be repeated! (Note for future readers: don’t try this in a class of clones.) There are lots of other, interesting thinking examples in the link to Wikipedia that helps you to frame randomness in a way that your students might be able to understand it better.

10 pigeons into 9 boxes? Someone has a roommate.

10 pigeons into 9 boxes? Someone has a roommate.

I’ve used a lot of techniques before, including the infamous card shouting, but the new approach from the podcast is a nice and novel angle to add some interest to a class where randomness can show up.

ITiCSE 2014, Day 2, Session4A, Software Engineering, #ITiCSE2014 #ITiCSE

The first talk, “Things Coming Together: Learning Experiences in a Software Studio”, was presented by Julia Prior, from UTS. (One of the nice things about conferences is catching up with people so Julia, Katrina and I got to have a great chat over breakfast before taxiing into the venue.)
Julia started with the conclusions. From their work, the group have evidence of genuine preparation for software practice, this approach works for complex technical problems and tools, it encourages effective group work, builds self-confidence, it also builds the the more elusive prof competencies, provides immersion in rich environments, and furnishes different paths to group development and success. Now for the details!
Ther are three different parts of a studio, based on the arts and architecture model:
  • People: learning community
    teachers and learners
  • Process: creative , reflective
    • interactions
    • physical space
    • collaboration
  • Product: designed object – a single focus for the process
UTS have been working on designing and setting up a Software Development Studio for some time and have had a chance to refine their approach. The subject was project-based on a team project for parks and wildlife, using the Scrum development method. The room the students were working in was trapezoidal, with banks of computers up and down.
What happened? What made this experience different was that an ethnographer sat in and observed the class, as well as participating, for the whole class and there was also an industry mentor who spent 2-3 hours a week with the students. There were also academic mentors. The first week started with Lego where students had to build a mini-town based on a set of requirements, with colour and time constraints. Watching the two groups working at this revealed two different approaches: one planned up front, with components assigned to individuals, and finished well on time. The other group was in complete disarray, took pieces out as they needed it, didn’t plan or allocate roles. This left all the building to two members, with two members passing blocks, and the rest standing around. (This was not planned – it just happened.)
The group that did the Lego game well quickly took on Scrum and got going immediately, (three members already knew about Scrum), including picking their team. The second group felt second-rate and this was reflected in their sprint – no one had done the required reading or had direction, thus they needed a lot of mentor intervention. After some time, during presentations, the second group presented first and, while it was unadventurous, they had developed a good plan. The other group, with strong leadership, were not prepared for their presentation and it was muddled and incomplete. Some weeks after that presentation practice, the groups had started working together with leaders communicating, which was at odds with the first part of the activity.
Finding 1: Group Relations.
  • Intra-Group Relations: Group 1 has lots of strong characters and appeared to be competent and performing well, with students in group learning about Scrum from each other. Group 2 was more introverted, with no dominant or strong characters, but learned as a group together. Both groups ended up being successful despite the different paths. Collaborative learning inside the group occurred well, although differently.
  • Inter-Group Relations: There was good collaborative learning across and between groups after the middle of the semester, where initially the groups were isolated (and one group was strongly focused on winning a prize for best project). Groups learned good practices from observing each other.
Finding 2: Things Coming Together
The network linking the students together doesn’t start off being there but is built up over time – it is strongly relational. The methodologies, mentors and students are tangible components but all of the relationships are intangible. Co-creation becomes a really important part of the process.
Across the whole process, integration become a large focus, getting things working in a complex context.Group relations took more effort and the group had to be strategic in investing their efforts. Doing time was an important part of the process – more time spent together helped things to work better. This time was an investment in developing a catalyst for deep learning that improved the design and development of the product. (Student feedback suggested that students should be timetabled into the studio more.) This time was also spent developing the professional competencies and professional graduates that are often not developed in this kind of environment.
(Apologies, Julia, for a slightly sketchy write-up. I had Internet problems at the start of the process so please drop me a line if you’d like to correct or expand upon anything.)
The next talk was on “Understanding Students’ Preferences of Software Engineering Projects” presented by Robert McCartney. The talk as about a maintenance-centrerd Sofwtare Engineering course (this is a close analogue to industry where you rarely build new but you often patch old.)
We often teach SE with project work where the current project approach usually has a generative aspect based on planning, designing and building. In professional practice, most of SE effort involves maintenance and evolution. The authors developed a maintenance-focused SE course to change the focus to maintenance and evolution. Student start with some existing system and the project involves comprehending and documenting the existing code, proposing functional enhancements, implement, test and document changes.
This is a second-year course, with small teams (often pairs), but each team has to pick a project, comprehend it, propose enhancements, describe and document, implement enhancements, and present their results. (Note: this would often be more of a third-year course in its generative mode.) Since the students are early on, they are pretty fresh in their knowledge. They’ll have some Object Oriented programming and Data Structures, experience with UML class diagrams and experience using Eclipse. (Interesting – we generally avoid IDEs but it may be time to revisit this.)
The key to this approach is to have enough projects of sufficient scope to work on and the authors went out to the open source project community to grab existing open source code and work on it, but without the intention to release it back into the wild. This lifts the chances of having good, authentic code, but it’s important to make sure that the project code works. There are many pieces of O/S code out there, with a wide range of diversity, but teachers have to be involved in the clearing process for these things as there many crap ones out there as well. (My wording. 🙂 )
The paper mith et al “Selecting Open Souce Software Projects to Teach Software Engineering” was presented at SIGCSE 2014 and described the project search process. Starting from the 1000 open source projects that were downloaded, 200 were the appropriate size, 20 were suitable (could build, had sensible structure and documentation). This takes a lot of time to get this number of projects and is labour intensive.
Results in the first year: find suitable projects was hard, having each team work on a different project is too difficult for staff (the lab instructor has to know about 20 separate projects), and small projects are often not as good as the larger projects. Up to 10,000 lines of code were considered small projects but theses often turned out to be single-developer projects, which meant that there was no group communication structure and a lot of things didn’t get written down so the software wouldn’t build as the single developer hadn’t needed to let anyone know the tricks and tips.
In the second year, the number of projects was cut down to make it easier on the lab instructors (down to 10) and the size of the projects went up (40-100k lines) in order to find the group development projects. The number of teams grew and then the teams could pick whichever project they wanted, rather than assigning one team per project on a first-come first-served approach. (The first-come first-served approach meant students were picking based on the name and description of the project, which is very shallow.) To increase group knowledge, the group got a project description , with links to the source code and commendation, build instructions (which had been tested), the list of proposed enhavements and a screen shot of the working program. This gave the group a lot more information to make a deeper decision as to which project they wanted to undertake and students could get a much better feeling for what they took on.
What the students provided, after reviewing the projects, was their top 3 projects and list of proposed enhancements, with an explanation of their choices and a description of the relationship between the project and their proposed enhancement. (Students would receive their top choice but they didn’t know this.)
Analysing the data  with a thematic analysis, abstracting the codes into categories and then using Axial coding to determine the relations between categories to combine the AC results into a single thematic diagram. The attract categories were: Subject Appeal (consider domain of interest, is it cool or flashy), Value Added (value of enhancement, benefit to self or users), Difficulty (How easy/hard it is), and Planning (considering the match between team skills and the skills that the project required, the effects of the project architecture). In the axial coding, centring on value-adding, the authors came up with a resulting thematic map.
Planning was seen as a sub-theme of difficulty, but both subject appeal and difficulty (although considered separately) were children of value-adding. (You can see elements of this in my notes above.) In the relationship among the themes, there was a lot of linkage that led to concepts such as weighing value add against difficulty meant that enhancements still had to be achievable.
Looking at the most frequent choices, for 26 groups, 9 chose an unexacting daily calendar scheduler (Rapla), 7 chose an infrastructure for games (Triple A) and a few chose a 3D home layout program (Sweet Home). Value-add and subject-appeal were dominant features for all of these. The only to-four project that didn’t mention difficulty was a game framework. What this means is that if we propose projects that provide these categories, then we would expect them to be chosen preferentially.
The bottom line is that the choices would have been the same if the selection pool had been 5 rather than 10 projects and there’s no evidence that there was that much collaboration and discussion between those groups doing the same projects. (The dreaded plagiarism problem raises its head.) The number of possible enhancements for such large projects were sufficiently different that the chance of accidentally doing the same thing was quite small.
Caveats: these results are based on the students’ top choices only and these projects dominate the data. (Top 4 projects discussed in 47 answers, remaining 4 discussed in 15.) Importantly, there is no data about why students didn’t choose a given project – so there may have been other factors in play.
In conclusion, the students did make the effort to look past the superficial descriptions in choosing projects. Value adding is a really important criterion, often in conjunction with subject appeal and perceived difficulty. Having multiple teams enhancing the same project (independently) does not necessarily lead to collaboration.
But, wait, there’s more! Larger projects meant that teams face more uniform comprehension tasks and generally picked different enhancements from each other. Fewer projects means less stress on the lab instructor. UML diagrams are not very helpful when trying to get the big-picture view. The UML view often doesn’t help with the overall structure.
In the future, they’re planning to offer 10 projects to 30 teams, look at software metrics of the different projects, characterise the reasons that students avoid certain projects, and provide different tools to support the approach. Really interesting work and some very useful results that I suspect my demonstrators will be very happy to hear. 🙂
The questions were equally interesting, talking about the suitability of UML for large program representation (when it looks like spaghetti) and whether the position of projects in a list may have influenced the selection (did students download the software for the top 5 and then stop?). We don’t have answers to either of these but, if you’re thinking about offering a project selection for your students, maybe randomising the order of presentation might allow you to measure this!