Ebb and Flow – Monitoring Systems Without Intrusion

I’ve been wishing a lot of people “Happy Thanksgiving” today because, despite being frightfully Antipodean, I have a lot of friends and family who are Thanksgiving observers in the US. However, I would know that something was up in the US anyway because I am missing about 40% of my standard viewers on my blog. Today is an honorary Sunday – hooray, sleep-ins all round! More seriously, this illustrates one of the most interesting things about measurement, which is measuring long enough to be able to determine when something out of the ordinary occurs. As I’ve already discussed, I can tell when I’ve been linked to a higher profile blog because my read count surges. I also can tell when I haven’t been using attractive pictures because the count drops by about 30%.

A fruit bat, in recovery, about to drink its special fruit smoothie. (Yes, this is shameless manipulation.)

This is because I know what the day-to-day operation of the blog looks like and I can spot anomalies. When I was a network admin, I could often tell when something was going wrong on the network just because of the way that certain network operations started to feel, and often well before these problems reached the level where they would trigger any sort of alarm. It’s the same for people who’ve lived by the same patch of sea for thirty years. They’ll look at what appears to be a flat sea on a calm day and tell you not to go out – because they can read a number of things from the system and those things mean ‘danger’.

One of the reasons that the network example is useful is because any time you send data through the network to see what happens, you’re actually using the network to do it. So network probes will actually consume network bandwidth and this may either mask or exacerbate your problems, depending on how unlucky you are. However, using the network for day-today operations, and sensing that something is off, then gives you a reason to run those probes or to check the counters on your networking gear to find out exactly why the hair on the back of your neck is going up.

I observe the behaviour of my students a lot and I try to gain as much information as I can from what they already give me. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in assignment submissions, because students are going to submit assignments anyway and any extra information I can get from this is a giant bonus! I am running a follow-up Piazza activity on our remote campus and I’m fascinated to be able to watch the developing activity because it tells me who is participating and how they are participating. For those who haven’t heard about Piazza, it’s like a Wiki but instead of the Wiki model of “edit first, then argue into shape”, Piazza encourages a “discuss first and write after consensus” model. I put up the Piazza assignment for the class, with a mid-December deadline, and I’ve already had tens of registered discussions, some of which are leading to edits. Of course, not all groups are active yet and, come Monday, I’ll send out a reminder e-mail and chat to them privately. Instead of sending a blanket mail to everyone saying “HAVE YOU STARTED PIAZZA”, I can refine my contact based on passive observation.

The other thing about Piazza is that, once all of the assignment is over, I can still see all of their discussions, because that’s where I’ve told them to have the discussion! As a result, we can code their answers and track the development of their answers, classifying them in terms of their group role, their level of function and so on. For an open-ended team-based problem, this allows me a great deal of insight into how much understanding my students have of the area and allows me to fine-tune my teaching. Being me, I’m really looking for ways to improve self-regulation mechanisms, as well as uncovering any new threshold concepts, but this nonintrusive monitoring has more advantages than this. I can measure participation by briefly looking at my mailbox to see how many mail messages are foldered under a particular group’s ID, from anywhere, or I can go to Piazza and see it unfolding there. I can step in where I have to, but only when I have to, to get things back on track but I don’t have to prove or deconstruct a team-formed artefact to see what is going on.

In terms of ebb and flow, the Piazza groups are still unpredictable because I don’t have enough data to be able to tell you what the working pattern is for a successful group. I can tell you that no activity is undesirable but, even early on, I could tell you some interesting things about the people who post the most! (There are some upcoming publications that will deal with things along these lines and I will post more on these later.) We’ve been lucky enough to secure some Summer students and I’m hoping that at least some of their work will involve looking at dependencies in communication and ebb and flow across these systems.

As you may have guessed, I like simple. I like the idea of a single dashboard that has a green light (healthy course), an orange light (sick course) and a red light (time to go back to playing guitar on the street corner) although I know it will never be that easy. However, anything that brings me closer to that is doing me a huge favour, because the less time I have to spend actively probing in the course, the less of my students’ time I take up with probes and the less of my own time I spend not knowing what is going on!

Oh well, the good news is that I think that there are only three more papers to write before the Mayan Apocalypse occurs and at least one of them will be on this. I’ll see if I can sneak in a picture of a fruit bat. 🙂

Brief Stats Update: I appear to have written two more books

On May 6th, I congratulated Mark Guzdial on his 1000th post and I noted that I had written 102,136 words, an average of 676 words per post, with 151 posts over 126 days. I commented that, at that rate, I could expect to produce about 180,000 more words by the end of the year, for a total of about 280,000. So, to summarise, my average posting level was at rate of 1.2 posts per day, and 676 words per post.

Today, I reanalysed the blog to see how I was going. This post will be published on Tuesday the 9th, my time, and the analysis here does not include itself. So, up until all activity on Monday the 8th, Central Australian Daylight Saving Time, here are the stats.

Total word count: 273,639. Total number of posts: 343. Number of words per post: 798. Number of posts per day: 1.23. I will reach my end of year projected word count in about 9 days.

I knew that I had been writing longer posts, you may remember that I’ve deliberately tried to keep the posts to around 1,000 where possible, but it’s obvious that I’m just not that capable of writing a short post! In the long term, I’d expect this to approach 1,000 words/post because of my goal to limit myself to that, with the occasional overshoot. I’m surprised by the consistency in number of posts per day. The previous average was a smidgen under 1.2 but I wanted to clarify that there has been a minor increase. Given that my goal was not to necessarily hit exactly 1/day but to set aside time to think about learning and teaching every day, I’m happy with that.

The word count, however, is terrifying. One of the reasons that I wanted to talk about this is to identify how much work something like this is, not to either over inflate myself or to put you off, but to help anyone out there who is considering such a venture. Let me explain some things first.

  1. I have been typing in one form or another since 1977. I was exposed to computers early on and, while I’ve never been trained to touch type, I have that nasty hybrid version where I don’t use all of my fingers but still don’t have to look at the keyboard.
  2. I can sustain a typing speed of about 2,500 words/hour for fiction for quite a long time. That includes the aspects of creativity required, not dictation or transcription. It is very tiring, however, and too much of it makes me amusingly incoherent.
  3. I do not have any problems with repetitive strain injury and I have a couple of excellent working spaces with fast computers and big screens.
  4. I love to write.

So, I’m starting from a good basis and, let me stress, I love to write. Now let me tell you about the problems that this project has revealed.

  1. I produce two kinds of posts: research focused and the more anecdotal. Anecdotal posts can be written up quickly but the moment any research, pre-reading or reformulation is required, it will take me about an hour or two to get a post together. So that cute high speed production drops to about 500-1000 words/hour.
  2. Research posts are the result of hours of reading and quite a lot of associated thought. My best posts start from a set of papers that I read, I then mull on it for a few days and finally it all comes together. I often ask someone else to look at the work to see how it sits in the queue.
  3. I’m always better when I don’t have to produce something for tomorrow. When the post queue is dry, I don’t have the time to read in detail or mull so I have to either pull a previous draft from the queue and see if I can fix it (and I’ve pretty much run out of those) or I have to come up with an idea now and write it now. All too often, these end up being relatively empty opinion pieces.
  4. If you are already tired, writing can be very tiring and you lose a lot of the fiero and inspiration from writing a good post.

I have probably spent, by all of these figures and time estimates, somewhere around 274 hours on this project. That’s just under 7 working weeks at 40 hours/week. No wonder I feel tired sometimes!

I am already, as you know, looking to change the posting frequency next year because I wish to focus on the quality of my work rather than the volume of my output. I still plan to have that hour or so put aside every day to contemplate and carry out research on learning and teaching but it will no longer be tied to an associated posting deadline. My original plan had an output requirement to force me to carry out the work. Unsurprisingly, oh brave new world that has such extrinsic motivating factors in it, I have become focused on the post, rather than the underlying research. My word count indicates that I am writing but, once this year is over, the review that I carry out will be to make sure that every word written from that point on is both valuable and necessary. My satisfaction in the contribution and utility of those posts I do make will replace any other quantitative measures of output.

My experience in this can be summarised quite simply. Setting a posting schedule that is too restrictive risks you putting the emphasis on the wrong component, where setting aside a regular time to study and contemplate the issues that lead to a good post is a far wiser investment. If you want to write this much, then it cannot be too much of a chore and, honestly, loving writing is almost essential, I feel. Fortunately, I have more than enough to keep the post queue going to the end of the year, as I’m working on a number of papers and ideas that will naturally end up here but I feel that I have, very much, achieved what I originally set to to do. I now deeply value the scholarship of learning and teaching and have learned enough to know that I have a great deal more to learn.

From a personal perspective, I believe that all of the words written have been valuable to me but, from next year, I have to make sure that the words I write are equally valuable to other people.

I’ll finish with something amusing. Someone asked me the other day how many words I’d written and, off the top of my head, I said “about 140,000” and thought that I was possibly over-claiming. The fact that I was under claiming by almost a factor of two never would have occurred to me, nor the fact that I had written more words than can be found in Order of the Phoenix. While I may wish to reclaim my reading time once this is over, for any fiction publishers reading this, I will have some free time next year! 🙂

Are you succeeding?

My wife sent me a link to this image, created by Alex Koplin and David Meiklejohn.

The message is (naively) simple – if you don’t like where you are, change something. This, of course, assumes that you have the capacity for change and the freedom to change. There are lots of times where this isn’t true but, in academia, we often have far more resources to hand to help people if they assess where they are going and don’t like the direction.

I talk a lot about process awareness – making students of what they are doing to ensure that they can identify the steps that they take and the impact that those steps have. My first-years have their first process awareness assignment to complete next week where I want them to look at their coding history in terms of difficulty and timeliness. What did they do that had a big impact on their chances of success? Being honest with themselves, were they lucky to get the work in on time? What I really want my students to understand is that they have to know enough about themselves and their capabilities that their work processes are:

  1. Predictable: They can estimate the time required to complete a task and the obstacles that they will encounter, and be reasonably accurate.
  2.  Reconfigurable: They can take apart their process to add new elements for new skills and re-use elements in new workflows.
  3. Well-defined and understood: Above all, they know what they are doing, why they are doing it and can explain it to other people.

Looking back at the diagram above, the most important step is change something if you don’t like where you are. By introducing early process awareness, before we ramp up programming difficulty and complexity, I’m trying to make my students understand the building blocks that they are using and, with this fundamental understanding, I hope that this helps them to be able to see what they could change, or even that change could be possible, if they need to try a different approach to achieve success.

Remember MIKE and SWEDE? Even a good student, who can usually pull off good work in a short time, may eventually be swamped by the scale of all the work that they have to do – without understanding which of their workflow components have to be altered, they’re guessing. Measurement of what works first requires understanding the individual elements. This are early days and I don’t expect anyone to be fully process aware yet, but I like the diagram, as it reminds me of why I’m teaching my students about all of this in the first place – to enable them to be active participants in the educational process and have the agency for change and the knowledge to change constructively and productively.

Surviving and thriving on collaboration.

Juggling all of the things that you’re supposed to do as a University academic can be tricky. The traditional academic is supposed to conduct large amounts of valuable, cited and grant-rewarded research, be an exemplary and inspirational teacher, and also find time to sit on lots of committees, fill out forms and not get in the way, too much, of the central administration process. As a junior academic, you’ll sit on fewer committees but you may, instead, get admin jobs like ‘collecting the software requirements’ or ‘looking after the casual teaching budget’, so there’s always something to do.

The biggest mistake a lot of people make is trying to do it all themselves. Yes, you must be involved with these tasks, you will be responsible for their successful completion, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t consult other people to help, or involve them for collaboration, or bring other people in when the scale of what you’re trying to do might crush you.

The quick summary of this post is that if you get good at collaborating with other people, and you can set up a relationship that is on a roughly equal footing, then everyone benefits. However, you need to work out what each person is bringing and who is the right person to involve.

You can read a lot of self-help books that, effectively, boil down to “making it appear as if there is more than one of you”. When you can set things up so that you put in some vital, required, element, but then the heavy lifting or continued presence is handled elsewhere, then you’ve achieved this because you can then devote yourself elsewhere. Some things require you to be there the whole time: your own wedding, any event where you are supposed to be the speaker (which includes lecturing) and a lot of meetings. Some other things on our long to-do list require us to be involved, but not necessarily to be the sole operator. Let’s start by looking at research.

Research, in terms of finding ideas, pursuing ideas, getting results, writing them up and publishing them, is a time-intensive activity that requires reasonably long stretches of uninterrupted time to get the best results. Unless you have a research-only position, or you’re on sabbatical, that’s very hard to achieve. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t do it and we don’t necessarily have to sacrifice all of our weekends to do it. (Seriously, though, you’re going to lose some leisure time here and there. Academia is not a 9-5 job.)

One of the big advantages of having research collaborators is that your research and its publication, hence visibility and possible grant success, is always moving forward. These collaborators might be colleagues in a research group, research fellows, post docs, research assistants and PhD students (in later stages) and most of these, especially people who are paid to research, can keep the flow going when you’re tied up having to be in another place.

All these staff sound fine but this assumes that you’ve had the success required to employ all of these people! So how do we start down this track?

The answer is collaboration: finding people who are doing similar things so that you have more than one of you working on research, papers and grant applications. Look around inside your own school, or faculty, and work out if you have something that you’ve done that, combined with someone else’s work or input, can give you both some benefit if you work together. Ideally, the effort expended by each of you is approximately 50-70% of the effort required individually but still achieves the outcome. The more you work together, the more synergy that you’re likely to achieve because you start to have small copies of each other in your heads.

The same is true for learning and teaching based research and development. Can you find someone who also wants to do what you’re doing and can you work together so that you achieve the same result with less individual effort? Can you find someone to bounce those early ideas off to get better ideas forming?

We all know that your students learn more when they’re excited and engaged and discussing things with their peers. Research success can be achieved on the same basis. If your research is rewarding and you have someone to bounce it off, someone who can enthuse you or bring it back on track, you will do more and you will achieve more.

Forming a collaboration should be rewarding and all parties should benefit from it. Some collaborations stop after one effort, because one side or the other feels that they have been exploited. Yes, sometimes this happens, but you’ll quickly work out who you can and can’t work with. Forming successful collaborations early on, before you have the money to employ your own continuity providers, makes your job more manageable and allows you to bring more of yourself to other places, including your home life.

Here’s my (not exhaustive) list of things to think about when setting up a collaboration:

  1. What are you going to do? You should know what the task or project is, including every subtask you can think of, so there are no surprises later on.
  2. Who is involved? Work out who you are working with and have them involved from the start.
  3. What is everyone doing? Who is responsible for what?
  4. How much is everyone bringing to the arrangement? Resources, time, people or goodwill – cards on the table up front to avoid disappointment.
  5. When is everything due? Know your internal and external deadlines.
  6. How often will you meet? Will you be minuting things, e-mailing, using wikis or just having chats to keep track?
  7. How will credit be allocated? If it’s a paper, what does the author list look like? How could it change? If it’s a grant, what’s the money division?
  8. Do you have to worry about IP or commercialisation? If so, this gets tricky fast and makes 4 and 7 more complex. Sort this out BEFORE someone runs off with the IP and founds MicroGoogleII.
  9. Evaluation. How will we know that this worked for us and if we should continue? Sounds premature but if you have a rough idea of what you think denotes a successful collaboration, and you discuss it early on, then everyone knows the rough behaviour that’s expected.

Finally, here’s my list of 5 things to look out for as possible warning signs that your collaboration is not as solid as it could be.

  1. The other party has a lot of equipment resources and makes them available to you but does no actual research or writing, they just expect credit. Credit as an acknowledgement on a paper or grant app is one thing, expecting lead authorship or a slice of the funding is another. This isn’t always invalid but it’s almost always cleaner to pay cash money for resources, or resource access, and remove any doubt about credit. (A senior person who demands lead authorship regardless of involvement is much harder to manage here. That’s a political problem I leave to you although I might try and comment on it later.)
  2. Your collaborators have lots of ideas but never seem to produce anything. However, after five meetings, when you present the final work, they will still expect full credit for their ideas, regardless of the quality or usefulness. If you’re a non-producing ideas person, then other people will be just as grumpy with you. There are ideas and then there are ideas.
  3. Your collaborators rewrite everything that you submit, or redo the design, or experimentation, because it’s not up to ‘their standards’ or they just feel like it. I’m not saying that they or you are wrong – but your expectations aren’t aligned and one of you is going to get frustrated quickly.
  4. Deadlines slip or you end up in a deadline-chasing model that doesn’t work for you. Some people like to work in a panic close to the deadline, some don’t. If working up until the minute before hand-in is your thing, but gives your collaborator heartburn, don’t expect the relationship to survive. If you and your group can’t agree upon whether deadlines are really important or not, the stress risks breaking the relationship.
  5. You walk away from most of the meetings wondering why you bothered. If either of you is thinking that, you have to either address it up-front or finish what you’re doing, tie it up and find someone else to work with. Discussing it might be able to save the relationship (some people just don’t realise what they’re doing) but always be ready to close off your project neatly and start again elsewhere.

Collaboration is a fantastic way to get more results for less effort by recognising that people can work well together and, carefully controlled, it is the ultimate tool for junior academics to make it to being more senior (and tenured) academics. Just go into it with open eyes and be frank in your early discussions and it will work for you, rather than becoming a cautionary tale for the future.

Happy collaboration!


THE (Thinking Higher Education).

Well, if you’ve survived the MIKE post and the SWEDE post, you’ve probably guessed that I like acronyms. However, TMASTB (Too Many Acronyms Spoil The Broth), so I’ll present one more and go back to discussing other issues. However, these three acronyms together will drive a lot of what I talk about and, with any luck, I’ll have strangers around the world muttering “MIKE THE SWEDE” at each other.

I’m not holding my breath.

There are so many different ways to educate, some many different environments, students and teachers, choosing an approach that will work can sometimes appear to be an overwhelmingly difficult problem. How do I cater for everyone? How do I deal with large ranges in ability? How can I be fair to all the groups I deal with and, at the same, fair to myself and my own family, giving myself enough time to work and live.

This is where “THE” comes in. I’m not trying to solve every educational problem, I’m thinking about higher education. The students that I deal with have already shown that they can handle education to some extent, whether traditional classroom-based study, collaborative group learning in more experimental frameworks or home-schooling. They have passed sufficient entry requirements to attend classes at my institution. They can read. They can write. They are fundamentally numerate. They may have pre-requisite subject requirements to meet on top of this. For example, all of my students have at least one course of mathematics to the matriculation level. As an educator, I have so much to be grateful for in that a lot of the hard work has already been done by the educators before me, who excited these students about learning, who gave them the basis upon which they could develop to the point that they made it to me. For the families who supported them, or the groups that supported the students or the families when they families couldn’t do it by themselves.

I looked into publishing a book once, on computerising wineries (previous career), and I attended a really interesting workshop on pitching books to publishers. One of the most important pieces of advice was that no book was ever really suitable for ‘all ages from 8 to 80’, so don’t claim it. Work out who your book is for, write it for that group and then advertise it correctly. Who should my courses be suitable for? What do they come in with? What do I want them to leave with? How do I tell people that they will benefit from this course so come and try it?

Thinking Higher Education means thinking about students who have already demonstrated an ability to work within our systems, who have already stuck at education for 12+ years and who most likely perfectly capable of passing our courses, if we keep them engaged, do our jobs properly and their own lives don’t get in the way. Yes, there will be ranges of ability and dedication, but these tend to be smaller than are seen in the early primary or early secondary years. The kids who caused lots of trouble in class probably aren’t here anymore although, with any luck, they’ll sort themselves out in a while and we’ll welcome them back as mature-aged students with open arms. Yes, you’ll have mature-aged students sitting next to 17 year olds and you’ll need to think about that but if they’re sitting in your course then they need (and sometimes even want) you to teach them. Or to give them the right environment in which they can teach themselves. But they all need the same thing and, theoretically, they are on a much tighter track in their quest for degree completion than trying to match the diverse requirements of a group of 15 year olds sitting in an English class.

It’s not impossible. It’s certainly not easy and it doesn’t downgrade the role of a University educator but, despite having students from all over the world, the country, the age groups, the demographic spectrum – we can manage this problem and share our knowledge.

So THE is a positive thing, a reminder that our job is manageable, an appreciation of the work that has been carried out before by our colleagues in schools, a mark of respect to their successes and an awareness that students come to us with a great deal of potential and previous experience, both of which will shape their future.

Putting it together – Measurement, Environmental Awareness and Managing Scale, you get MIKE THE SWEDE.

Happy muttering!

(No more new acronyms for at least a few days, I promise!)



SWEDE: Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone

Yes, I like acronyms – a good acronym is memorable, meaningful and it makes you think. I wanted to explain why measurement was so important in the previous post but I neglected to tell you why I thought that we had to consider changing our learning and teaching approaches in the first place. So here’s my next higher ed teaching maxim – Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone. Even if we don’t change what we do, we have to be aware of why change should be considered and I want to give you a reason that doesn’t require you to have a fervent commitment to the nature of assessment or new technology. I’ll appeal to your existing knowledge – that you’re already too busy and things are getting busier.

Why do we even have to think about change? The first reason is that things change. New technologies become available, student expectations change, materials change – things change. The second reason is that we now have a lot of students in tertiary education and, if your government is anything like mine, the goal is to increase that number. We may not necessarily have more students in a given classroom, although that is a likely outcome, but we may certainly be teaching more students. We are already teaching a very large number of students and we are a long way from sitting around the agora in small groups, listening to someone who, through Socratic technique, will take three to four years to guide us towards mature and complete knowledge. Some techniques just don’t scale and we have to recognise this, while still providing as many, if not all, the benefits of our knowledge to our students, regardless of how many are in our classes.

I have taught classes as small as 7 and as large as 360, I know that some of you handle much larger and you have my deepest sympathies, and I cannot apply the same techniques in both and expect the same results, unless I work out how to handle the scale. An individual only has 168 hours in each week, fewer if they have the audacity to sleep or eat. Even if we were devoted beyond belief, lecturing, assessment and marking load will eventually reach a point where we cannot handle any more. Reduce this 168 to a (marginally) manageable 70-80 hours to allow for sleep and some outside activities and we can handle half the students. But I still need to pass my knowledge on, encourage them, give them feedback, provide assignment work and examinations, mark everything, give it back in a timely fashion and be what I am supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to do.

Sometimes we handle scale through the use of other people – TAs, marking teams – and this certainly works. But it’s usually not the same as us, the lecturer, being there, unless you’re very lucky in the way that your teams are made up. There should be a reason that we’re there, that the students want to come and listen to us, to discuss the knowledge with us, to learn from us and while there is certainly a place for other people, including using students themselves, we have to think about how we are going to do it properly and in a way that scales to the right level while providing everything that the students need. This places an obligation on us to provide quality control for external marking, to provide strong guidance and rubrics for markers, for learning how to control the class when it moves in and out of ‘nearest neighbour answer checking’, to think about all of the techniques that could be used to increase the quality of our teaching while recognising the pragmatic limitations imposed upon us by the tyranny of scale. Among many, many other things.

We can handle scale if we make sensible use of existing techniques, actively search out new ones (whether philosophical, pedagogical or electronic), assess how we are meeting (or not meeting) our goals and we are clear about what our teaching goals actually are. Frankly, you’re probably already too busy – too many of you are reading this on your phone as you sit on the bus or while you chew your dinner. You don’t need to make things harder for yourself when new approaches come along that can allow you to do the same, if not better job, with less effort. If we don’t choose to handle scale and balance this with our requirements to provide teaching, then eventually we risk reaching a point where we won’t be able to provide any teaching at all – because our time to do everything will blow out so far that even if we are phoning it in, we just won’t get the marks processed in time, or assignments back.

Despite me talking about quality control and our requirements, protecting ourselves from the expenditure of unnecessary effort is the only sensible way to approach a time-consuming, difficult but very enjoyable job. We want to use our individual effort in a way that maximises our results – this is where measurement, process awareness and honesty comes back in, reinforcing my previous post. This is where being open to change, to assessing what you need, to finding new techniques and from doing it properly comes in. Because we have to.

Because, ultimately, SWEDE – Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone.