Ian Cognito: an infamous academic

July 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Posted in MOOC, waffle | Leave a comment

A piece of work I did a few months ago has finally made it to the small screen, as FutureLearn’s English as a Medium of Instruction for Academics enters its second week.  I was asked to record a truly awful lecture to illustrate a whole gamut of behaviours that tutors should avoid. I’m involved in local amateur dramatics, and this sounded like a fun bit of theatre to devise. It had to be a fairly short lecture, and I chose a resource (old – so uses Flash) I had already made about copyright as the basis.

I thought about how I would bring in the various elements of bad practice, but the whole thing was recorded in one take without any rehearsal. You may note that I nearly corpse a couple of times, but manage to keep going. I was especially pleased with the cultural references to English children’s literature from the 1950s that would bamboozle any international students unfortunate enough to be in the audience.

So without any further introduction, here is Ian Cognito showing how not to do it…

I’d just like to point out that Ian Cognito is my evil twin and in no way reflects my actual teaching style. Just as Anna Nymyti is my ‘fake Polish student’ alter-ego I use for testing software systems… and I’ve just learned of a French cousin called Sue Denìmê…


July 7, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment

This week, it has been 30 years since I joined the University as the Desktop Publishing specialist in Computing Services. Back in 1987, a massive IBM 3090 mainframe provided most of the University’s computing power, supplemented by BBC B Micros and a wide variety of other early micro-computers. I was one of the lucky few to have an IBM XT 286 with a 6MHz 80286 processor, 640kB of RAM, a 20MB hard drive and a 13″ colour screen with VGA graphics showing 16 colours from a 256-colour palette at a resolution of 640×480 pixels. I used it with Ventura Publisher and the only HP LaserJet on campus to create user guides, posters and newsletters. This was pre-Windows; Ventura had its own graphical user interface (GUI) that used a mouse.

Today, I’m still lucky enough to have a state-of-the-art device; I’m typing this on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with a 2.2GHz Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a 12″ screen showing 16 million colours at a resolution of 2736×1824 pixels. OK, the screen is a bit smaller, but it is fully touch-enabled with pen input… and I have a lovely 27″ display plugged in to it. Today I’ve mainly been using it to author an interactive guide using Articulate Storyline.

And of course it has this thing called ‘The Internet’ that was still in its infancy when I started… Do I feel old? Not really, just experienced.

Voting for Fidel

January 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Posted in student response systems, waffle | Leave a comment

Winning poster by Daniela Healey

Yesterday I was pleased to be able to help my friend and colleague Dr Denise Baden run an X-Factor style gala event at which five groups of young people from schools and colleges performed their own songs about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. The aim is to ‘crowd-source’ a complete musical, and the first performance will hopefully take place in Southampton later this year.

My role was to manage the audience voting using TurningPoint and clickers, so I worked with Denise to design the slides provided technical support at the event. I suggested that the voting slides used 1-5 stars instead of rating each song from ‘very good’ to ‘not good’ and I wasn’t happy with the middle ‘neutral’ choice… what does it mean to be neutral about a piece of music?

The event was thoroughly enyoyable… and quite stressful! I had my fair share of technical problems with the audio (from the laptop to the PA system), Turning Point (despite prior testing) and the data projector (which wouldn’t show the whole screen, so I had to re-design the slides). However, the five performances were fantastic and in the end ‘it all went alright on the night’. The audience votes (around 240) were hurriedly combined with those from the expert musical panel and the winner’s certificates presented. The clickers were also used to quickly gather research data from the audience to help evaluate the impact of the project – we all need to ‘show impact’ these days!

You can find out more about the project and listen to some of the music at its website and Facebook page. Viva La Revolution and Hasta La Victoria!


Saving the planet, one picture at a time

December 10, 2015 at 5:17 pm | Posted in software, Uncategorized, waffle | 1 Comment
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I like to think that I take quite a good photo, and on rainy lunchtimes I will often while away some time on the Digital Photography Review website to gain inspiration and keep up to date. Today I read an article about an improved method of compressing standard JPEG images that can lead to reductions in file size from 20-40% for typical web-page images up to 50-80% for full resolution camera images. And the technology, JPEGmini by BEAMR, is available now as a stand-alone program, a plug-in, a server or a web service, and claims to be able to make these reductions with no perceptible loss in visual quality. There is a free trial version for both Windows and Mac PCs, or you can use the free web service.

For me, the appeal would be to significantly reduce the space taken by my iPhoto library (currently around 15,000 photos) without reducing image quality. And of course backing up those images to cloud storage or uploading them to the Photobox print service I use would be significantly quicker. The $20 stand-alone app will do batch conversion, so it won’t take me much effort either.

This quote by the developer, Dror Gill (whose father Aaron Gill was one of the chief scientists who worked on the original JPEG standard in the 1980s) caught my eye:

“There are a lot of terabytes wasted by files that are larger than they need to be. There is no point using bytes and bits that are not visible to humans. The industry is doing it all the time. Maybe we should calculate how many exabytes are being wasted every day – the inefficiency of normal JPEG compression pollutes the environment.”

And the point here is that the storage and transmission of images has a real cost; disk storage and network transmission consume energy – a lot of energy when you consider the billions of images taken, uploaded, stored and viewed on the internet every day. Social media users upload and share around 2 billion images per day. In 2013 it was estimated that the internet used 10% of the world’s energy supply, more than aviation! So a simple technology that minimises the storage required for images and the bandwith needed to transmit them could really make a significant impact on global energy use. But not as much as more efficient video and audio compression methods…

“Because we’ve always done it that way…”

November 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Posted in waffle | 1 Comment
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The ILIaD was launched on 3 November with a conference on the theme of ‘revolutionising education’. All members of ILIaD were encouraged to submit proposals, and I decided to tackle two entrenched features of Higher Education which I think are ideal targets for revolution. The first is the shocking under-utilisation of expensive buildings and facilities that seems to reflect a model of education 150 years old; why are they only used Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm for 30 weeks of the year? I accept that is a simplified view and that research facilities and study spaces such as the Library are used much more intensively, but it is still broadly true. The second is the straight-jacket of the hourly timetable for administrative convenience rather than educational need. We get lectures that are 50 minutes long (minus the time needed to set up and settle down) which is too long for anyone’s attention span if it is ‘just a lecture’ and too short if it is to be properly interactive. And don’t even get me started about three-hour lectures without a break and the wasted time moving between lectures…

When I found that my proposal had been accepted, but was to be a 7-minute Petcha-Kucha-style slot immediately after lunch, I realised that radical action was needed. It needed to be lively enough to wake people up, but wasn’t going to have any time to really unpack or discuss the issues. Inspiration arrived in the form of Hieroglyph, a bold project by Arizona State University and an anthology of ‘science-fiction’ stories that extrapolate current technologies to offer a positive vision of the future, in contrast to the more usual dystopias.

I framed the issues using a story; a history lesson from the future, delivered online by LearnU, one of the leading commercial universities in 2050. The lesson comes from a unit on ‘A century of educational revolution in the UK 1945-2045’ and compares current (early 21st century) university practice (utilisation and timetables) with the model offered by LearnU. Their ‘learning centres’ are located in rented retail units in shopping malls that are open from 7am-midnight, seven days a week, 51 weeks a year., and include café franchises so that students can socialise easily. The educational promise is ‘learn while you earn’, an explicit recognition of the fact that most students will need to have a job to survive while they study.

Their model is an easy-to-envisage extension of MOOC technologies and pedagogies that includes small-group (virtual) seminars facilitated by (under-employed freelance) postgraduates to provide the personal and individual mentoring that good education requires. I also suggest that  assessment technologies will have evolved to the point where they can provide automated feedback on essays – although peer assessment will also be an important part of the equation for both cost and educational reasons. The net result is that LearnU can provide degrees at a total cost of around £6000, spread over two to five years of part-time study, and that around 60% of students choose to study this way for reasons of cost and convenience. What about degrees such as medicine or engineering that require expensive labs? Well, in LearnU’s view those are ‘someone else’s problem’… perhaps industry’s or whatever is left of the NHS?

Needless to say, this has had a drastic impact on traditional public universities, many of which have failed financially. The story doesn’t say so, but it is clear that some elite universities continue to thrive, providing a first-class education for those who can afford it – or are lucky enough to be be awarded bursaries. This is definitely a two-tier system, with the elite institutions perpetuating the all-important social networks of the ‘haves’. See my video ‘Different Trains‘ for another story about this. This isn’t a vision of the future that I would welcome, although it does have some good features… so not entirely a dystopia. And I see LearnU as a consortium of EU public universities and academic publishers, so for some institutions it is a route to survival and growth.

My talk included two key questions:

  • What are the factors that prevent universities from breaking out of their current inefficient utilisation patterns?
  • What will universities need to do to enable them to not only survive but thrive in a world where commercial universities can offer a degree for £6000?

By all means post your thoughts to the comments…

FOOTNOTE: In the story I suggest that the currently-controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Programme (TTIP) is the key that enables US providers to start offering degrees in the UK. This may not be true, but a 2014 briefing paper written by the European Universities Association states:

The EU and the US have embarked on negotiations designed to culminate in a major trade deal. Will it lead to unrestricted market access to higher education services? This is not the first time that the issue has arisen. The question is complex, the implications uncertain, and the answer unknown.


November 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized, waffle | 2 Comments

ILIaD_TEThis Monday (3 November) saw the official launch event for ILIaD, the Institute for Learning Innovation and Development at the University of Southampton. I’ve supported the use of learning technologies at the university for 23 years now, and in that time I’ve always been part of teams with acronym names; the ILC, CLT, LATEU, TELE and most recently CITE. I think ILIaD is my favourite so far, but maybe that’s only because I’ve always been interested in the Greek myths and the tales of the Trojan war.

For those of you without the benefit of a classical education, the Iliad is Homer’s epic tale of the forbidden love between Paris and Helen of Troy, the wrath of her husband King Menelaus, the gathering by King Agamemnon of the greatest warfleet ever and the subsequent 10-year siege of Troy (the kingdom) and fair Ilium (the city). Both sides displayed the greatest heroism as well as despicable brutality and essentially fought each other to a bitter stalemate. It was only the cunning of Odysseus and his plan for a wooden horse that finally allowed the Greeks to take the city, burn it to the ground, slay and enslave its citizens and reunite Helen and Menelaus. A second epic tale, the Odyssey, tells of the ten year journey home for Odysseus as the gods and fates blow him this way and that.

If you want a highly readable version, I recommend Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by the excellent Alan Lee (who did much of the visual design for the Lord of the Rings movies). There is a companion volume, The Wanderings of Odysseus. Do not under any circumstances watch the execrable film Troy, with Brad Pitt – we’re still waiting for a decent retelling, but the all-star 1971 The Trojan Women tells of the aftermath from a female perspective.

ILIaD’s mission is to ‘revolutionise education’ at the University, perhaps by using the trojan horse of learning technologies to infiltrate new pedagogies into the ivory towers of academe? Let’s hope it doesn’t take us ten years!


October 13, 2014 at 11:15 am | Posted in Uncategorized, waffle | Leave a comment

This post should mark my return to this TELic blog after an absence of around 18 months. In the interim I have been heavily involved in the production of FutureLearn MOOCs for the University, so to start with there was lots of interesting stuff that I couldn’t talk about (commercial confidentiality) and then so much to do that I simply didn’t have time to post about it. There may well be some reflective catch-up posts about that experience, but for now I just want to write a few quick reviews of online ‘student response systems’ that facilitate in-class voting and feedback.

Oh, and the unit I belong to has transformed from CITE (Centre for Innovation in Technologies and Education) to ILIaD (Institute for Learning Innovation and Development). Onward and upward!

Real snail mail

December 3, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment

Snail with RFID tag attached to its shell

Yesterday I was surprised and delighted to receive a thank-you email from a friend in response to an email I sent him over four years ago by Real Snail Mail, the “world’s first webmail service using live snails”. This is an art project that aims to get us to reflect on the impact that the speed of email communications and the expectation of an immediate response by deliberately slowing down the whole process. Messages sent using the service zip at the speed of light along the fibre-optic nerves of the internet to their server, where they join a queue and wait… and wait… and wait. Real snails live their slow lives in an artificial garden, and every now and again one passes over a pick-up point. If the RFID chip attached to their shell is empty, they pick up 10 emails. At some later point in their monopedal journey they will pass over a drop-off point which retrieves those messages and once again accelerates them to the speed of light on their way to the inboxes of the recipients. The project is currently exhibiting with a new enclosure in Maribor, Slovenia as part of the Soft Control: Art,Science and the Technological Unconscious Exhibition. The 30 snails recruited as digital postmen (and postwomen – although it is difficult to tell with snails) have significantly increased the bandwidth of the system and so now at last my message reached the front of the queue and was diligently (but slowly) carried across the garden by Agent 167 aka ‘Cvetko’ and delivered in around 18 days. Thanks!

Share and Enjoy

September 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment
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CITE, the Centre for Innovation in Technologies and Education at the University of Southampton, has been recruiting and this week marked the arrival of  Kate Dickens, who I’ve worked with at the University on and off  for the past umpty-cough years. She was looking through my blog and made some excellent suggestions about improving its navigation and usability, which haven’t been changed since I set the blog up in 2009. So, gone is the drop-down category list, replaced by a list of categories (sadly, I see that the most numerous category is ‘waffle’), and the tag-cloud has been replaced by a list of recent posts. Perhaps the main change is the addition of sharing  and like buttons to each post and the home page, so that the blog at last integrates with social media.

Share and Enjoy” is, of course, the company motto of the hugely successful Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division. Glad to be of service.

The first website

August 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment

My office door and the one next door

I came across a link today to a reconstruction of the first ever website put together by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. It includes a handy list of all the other sites that you might want to visit – so no need for Google then. Mind you, I can remember when Yahoo was a hand-coded page maintained by a couple of grad students and the exitement when Netscape was released.

As an aside, I’m thrilled that my office is next door to the one used by Tim Berners-Lee when he visits Southampton (he has a Chair in Computing Science here). I’ve not seen him yet mind you, but one day…

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