How google revolutionised study

10 01 2013


As the beginning of the school year rolls around (for the southern hemisphere) and I am once again tempted (but resisting) going back to university, I have been reflecting on the changes since I undertook my first degree, in the early 1990s.

I studied recreation management and planning, which was a fabulous degree. It was a very small intake, 40 students per year, so we all knew each other very well. To get into the course you not only had to have the right high school marks, you also had to write a couple of essays about why you wanted to do it, what your career ambitions were, and then sit and interview. I remember how excited I was when I was accepted!

Because we were such a small tight group, we cooperated for resources. At the beginning of each semester, we would form a production line at the photocopiers in the library and photocopy off the required readings for each student. These were the days before easy access to resources on computers, and before every student having a computer in their home. Microsoft dominance had not yet become entrenched and hence part of the course included being taught how to use the university’s computers. When deadlines rolled around the entire year would set up camp in the computer room at the university and stay there, sharing resources, ordering pizzas, and proof-reading each other’s assignments. Assignments had to be handed up in hard copy and bound, and hence the battle with the printer was a shared one.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when I completed my most recent degree (I am a serial student with the university debts to show for it). I studied online with students from all around the world. In fact one of the really interesting things was hearing about people’s career paths in other countries and other fields.

All materials were sent electronically. Assignments were submitted electronically. Research could be done electronically. During this entire degree I did not set foot in a library for research purposes – when Google Scholar and PubMed can provide us with a wider range of peer-review journals and free access to books, photocopying sources in the library is no longer the time-consuming (and costly) exercise it was. As a result, hopefully there is a wider range of material being used for references….although too much information can be difficult to manage. (When I lectured at University, the undergrads all used to use the same quotes from the same sources. Very monotonous to mark. Post-grads were better.)

Studying as an activity has become entirely different. Possibly for those who study on-campus, ie: attend lectures rather than distance education, the experience might still be similar – the camaraderie, the networking. I still occasionally come across people I studied with in my work life and it is always great to look back on those days.

But as an adult with work and home responsibilities, the convenience of being able to log on at night without having to travel to campus has significant benefits. If distance education weren’t available I wouldn’t have done so much study.

And I wouldn’t be so tempted to go back again…..

The joys of Slideshare

18 11 2011

After a considerable amount of procrastinating, I have finally got around to getting a Slideshare account.

Ah – the joy!

As a study-junkie (I have just about finished my third Masters degree – I sometimes wonder if I am single-handedly keeping the Australian University system afloat with my fee repayments), I have a large number of academic documents and powerpoint presentations lying around. And really, once you have handed them in, perhaps presented them at a conference, they sit on your computer hard drive gathering dust.

Might as well be out there in the real world, hopefully offering some value to someone, perhaps adding to my public profile.

So I spent this morning loading up some old powerpoints (and some are a little dated) and my Masters Public Health thesis. And discovering that i can’t actually find my Masters of Arts, Communication Management thesis, which is a little concerning. I can find the literature review, but not the actual thesis.

I have posted the links on my Facebook page, twittered a couple of them, and linked the account and a couple of the documents to my LinkedIn account.

And within an hour, one of the documents had over 200 hits on it! Amazing.

So the moral of the story is, documents that had done their value for me, are suddenly of use to others! (I am avoiding the trash and treasure cliche, because they weren’t ever trash.)

If you are interested, my Slideshare account is here.

the benefits of study

12 11 2011

photo credit: CCAC North Library

It is that time of year when the universities are madly hawking their wares (in Australia anyway), trying to sign up students for various courses. Education has become a huge business, at all levels.

Usually the benefits of study that the schools, colleges, institutes and universities will tell you are:
– get a better job (and therefore have a better life)
– ummmmm…………
– education is good in and of itself (this argument only works for teachers – they are marketing to themselves).

OK, so they all pretty much say the same thing in their advertising. Despite this, I am a serial consumer of higher education. I finish a degree, exhausted, swearing never to study again. On one occasion I even put a message on Facebook that said “if I ever say I am going to study again, someone please slap me.”

And then a year goes by, sometimes just a few months…..and I am bored. I need something to be working towards. So I sign up for something else, get stuck into it and close to the end, too close to consider giving up, I think “How did I get here again?”

Of course I know the answer – I am not that self-unaware. So in case you are thinking of undertaking some study and want some real reasons to do it, some reasons the universities can’t really tell you, here are a few from me.

1. It’s good to have some “big thing” to be working towards. So much of life is stuff you just do again and again. Housework. Commuting. Housework. You get the picture. The little things you do when you study actually count for something bigger in the long-term. Delayed gratification is an important skill for success in any field of life and study helps you practice it (as this posting on marshmallows explains more thoroughly).

2. Intelligent thought. So maybe it’s just me, but generally I find when I don’t have something guiding my thoughts, I resort to trivia. Like pondering on the pretty lit-up map of proximity to McDonald’s locations in the US that someone sent me recently. Study makes you use logic and engage in new thoughts, new thought patterns, stay on topic. You can’t just wander off and look at the pretty lights.

3. Unlike life, study gives you immediate feedback in a clear unambiguous scale. Yes, marks. I get good marks (Rik from the Young Ones would call me a girly-swat) so this is a nice little ego-boost for me. However in much of life you don’t get clear unambiguous and immediate feedback. You might self-assess “I think I did a pretty good job of that email / job application / craftwork” but it isn’t the same. (Note for mature age students returning to university. A “C” grade is not average, it means credit. Likewise, “D” does not mean you have failed, it means Distinction.)

4. Helps practice other life skills such as planning and scheduling, focussing and concentrating, reading, writing and typing. Of, and thinking, let’s not forget thinking. (A Note on typing: when I went to a girls’ school in pre desk-top computer days, the only students who did typing were those who were destined for secretarial jobs. Those destined for professions were not taught typing. Fast-forward not very long to the introduction of computers and suddenly typing has become an important skill – as ubiquitous as computers, in fact. I just say this because it is interesting and shows how much things have changed in the two decades (oh OK, two and a bit!) since I left high school. I still don’t use the correct fingers on the keyboard though.)

5. This is something that is completely under your control. OK, maybe not completely, but hear me out here. At work, you do what the boss says. At home there are parents, partners, spouses, children to negotiate with and hopefully come to some sort of satisfactory compromise. That’s life! Most uni assignments are you, yourself. You get a topic or a question, then you get to decide how you want to approach it, how much effort you will put in, etc etc. (The exception to this is group-assignments. As I do my study online, this usually involves a lot of negotiation via email, entirely unlike any realistic work situation. None-the-less, the universities persist with it – I suspect because it means less marking.)

So that’s it. I have almost finished my third Masters Degree and every time I get a mark back I feel a little self-affirming buzz. When things are tough and you feel unappreciated in the world, it’s good to get that largely objective mark back that says “you’re good at this”.

Things I have learned from Big Bang Theory

5 11 2011

Big Bang Theory is a huge hit in our house. It is such a new idea, so different from other programs and involves intelligent people getting on with their lives, not people being stupid for the sake of it (which seems to be a recurring theme in so many sitcoms). They value higher education (great for my children to see) and the university setting actually includes some reference to work, research and learning, not just a place to pick up. Not everyone looks like a teenage anorexic Barbie or Ken doll. And maybe, just maybe, I am learning something. Admittedly, not life-changing lessons for life, but interesting things none-the-less.

I should add a disclaimer here. I am not a scientist and this is not a science blog. There are plenty of science blogs out there that are blogging on Big Bang Theory, so if you are looking for one of those, please glance over my posting and then move on!

So here goes:

1. String theory. Now I am going to start by making excuses: I finished both high-school and university before the mid-90s when this theory was first developed. So this was certainly not part of high-school physics classes. And since then my field has been mostly biological science – as Sheldon would have it, applied science, not pure theoretical science. So when I first heard of string theory on Big Bang, a small part of me thought maybe it was something the program writers had made up, Just briefly. There – a true confession. Turns out it is real.

2. The Theremin. This is the instrument that Sheldon practices in order to distract the others from developing an app that will recognise equations. While the sound is vaguely familiar from various sci-fi movie theme music, I have to confess it sounded a lot like someone playing the Saw.

3. The Square-cube law. This states “When an object undergoes a proportional increase in size, its new volume is proportional to the cube of the multiplier and its new surface area is proportional to the square of the multiplier.” (Source – Wikipedia). In practical application, Sheldon uses this to explain to Raj and Howard why giant ants could not exist – as they became larger their increase in volume would render their physical structure unviable. Quite why Howard, an engineer, would require Sheldon to explain this to him is unclear.

4. Toast. Apparently the term “toast” referring to the clinking of glasses together and usually a few words such as “cheers” or “chin-chin” came from the Ancient Romans who used to dip toast into their spiced wine.

5. The importance of a decent business model. When Penny decides to make her fortune making Penny Blossoms and selling them online, she bases her pricing on having made one. When Howard makes her a fabulous website that also offers a rush-order option for ordering 1000 Penny Blossoms, they work night and day to get them ready and then work out that the profit margin is miniscule.

6. The spherical cow joke. The spherical cow joke is this: Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer “I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.” (again, thanks to Wikipedia). The importance of the spherical cow joke is its commentary on the application of idealised scientific principles to real life.

7. Some excellent use of Progam Logic methodology. OK, not a learning, but I love the way they use program logic to map out relationships – particularly Sheldon’s attempt to map a friendship in order to get access to lab resources in “The Friendship Algorithm”. The logic loop and Sheldon’s strict adherence to it is particularly amusing.

8. Skinner’s principles of positive reinforcement can be employed in real life. Yes, yes, we all know that positive reinforcement can work – that’s why we tell the dog he is a “good boy” for coming when he is called. But Sheldon’s use of chocolates as reinforcement to get Penny to adhere to his rules was marvellous and devious at the same time and was a fabulous example of the principle.

9. Bose-Einstein condensate. Refers to the slowing of atoms in a dilute gas by the use of cooling apparatus to cool it to near absolute zero. This produces a a singular quantum state which is the Bose-Einstein condensate. I am sure I will use this knowledge eventually in my life.

10. Schrodinger’s Cat can be used to postulate the outcome of a date. I already knew about Schrodinger’s Cat, but have to admit this novel application had not occurred to me.

This is just a few things I can think of from recent episodes – no doubt there are more I have missed or haven’t yet seen. What else have you learned from Big Bang Theory?

Is hell exothermic or endothermic?

19 10 2011

photo credit: Plutar

OK – since I can’t sleep, but am too tired to write something of my own, it’s time for a classic.

This did the email rounds about ten years ago and was also printed in Australian Doctor. It’s all over the net, and each time a different person and/or university is credited, so I won’t try to do an attribution. I should also note that the name of the female student is different each time so I think we can assume that in the interests of anonymity, her name is also lost to the black hole of the internet. Enjoy!

The following is an actual question given on a University chemistry mid-term Exam paper:

Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)? Support your answer with a proof.

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyles Law (gas cools off when it expands and heats up when it is compressed) or some variant.
One student, however, wrote the following:

First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So, we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for how many souls are entering Hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that most people and their souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially.

Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyles Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities.

If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.

Of course, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it?
If we accept the postulate given to me by Ms. Celine LeBlanc during my Freshman year – that “it will be a cold night in Hell before I sleep with you” – and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then (2) cannot be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic.

The student got the only A!

Old dogs and new tricks

27 08 2011

Adult learning is a bit of a holy grail – so much research, so little of it put into action.

While the research often demonstrates that the type of learning that is provided in a school-like environment does not suit adult learning (and might not suit children either), none-the-less, we persist in providing school-like environments for adult learning.

My experience as a university lecturer is that adult learners are often very motivated. They know why they are there, they may have chosen to give something else up to be there (free time, course fees, income). They have often chosen what it is that they want to study so they are interested in the subjects. The mature-age students often blitzed the straight-from-school students. They didn’t stand a chance against that level of motivation.

This is supported by the literature, which characterises adult learners as:

•Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
•Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
•Adults are goal oriented
•Adults are relevancy oriented
•Adults are practical
•Adult learners like to be respected
(Knowles 1970)

So what works for adult learning?

1. Trial and error. Studies demonstrate that adults retain lessons learned the hard way – through making mistakes and understanding the context and reasons for failure. Errorless learning doesn’t “stick”.

2. And on a similar vein, <a href="; title="experiential learning ” target=”_blank”>experiential learning works best for adults, even when it isn’t about making mistakes. Adults are better at remembering things they do (what you did yesterday for instance) than things they read or hear.

3. Observation learning works if there is intention to do the same action. This is similar to the way visualisation works on the brain and on muscle-memory. If the intention to do the action is there and is translated to the motor system rather just the visual system of the brain, then the memory is more likely to embed.

4. Adult learners need to understand why. They tend to resist having ideas and thoughts impressed upon them – as collaborative learners they want to sort through the information and come to their own conclusions.

5. Adults bring their life experiences with them to training or education. They want to use this knowledge and build upon it. They have a lot to offer but also a lot to lose.

6. Generally, adults are in education or training for a specific purpose, They want what they learn to be relevant and practical. They will challenge if it doesn’t seem like it would work in real life.

7. Adult learners have different barriers facing them. They may have job demands, family responsibilities- or commonly, both. Adult education is one more thing they need to juggle in their busy lives. And it is not just about time – it is also about concentration levels and memory space. Let’s hope they are motivated to prioritise their education – but recognise that sometimes they will need to pay more attention to another area of their life.

Some excellent resources are available on the net. One I recommend is :Medscape (you will have to sign up for a free account to access the entire article)

So finally – as someone who seems to be proppin up the university system with my ongoing study and resultant fees debt – what works for me?

– flexibility

– short-term subjects. 10 weeks per subject works beautifully with my busy life

– no group work – I haven’t managed to get out of the group assignments but continually find them frustrating. It is very difficult to get a group of extremely busy adults together to do an assignment, even in the online environment. And there are always passengers – I think everyone knows that.

– really clear instructions. I don;t have time to work out ambiguous instructions, I want to be able to enterall the due dates in my diary and get down to it.

– relevance of subjects – one of the compulsory subjects aI have done for my MBA is finance – which turned out to be about calculating current and future values for bonds, shares and other investments over a series of differnt conditions. As I don’t work in the finance industry and have never had to deal with bonds,this wasn’t very relevant. Happy to do the accouting and economics subjects, still think the finance subject should not have been compulsory.

Well that’s my two cents worth as both a repeat adult learner, and a former lecturer.

What is important to you in education?

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