Friday, 30 July 2010

Can't See the Wood for the Trees

Yesterday my colleague and I were contemplating general web design - in advance of designing new Moodle themes for a Moodle hub we are working on. The conversation ventured off into looking at web themes in general and he showed me the wonderfully elaborate theme on Web Designer Wall. We wondered if this was a WordPress theme or not...

And we searched and searched the page and couldn't find mention of WordPress anywhere.

We both looked at each other convinced that this must be a WordPress blog. When we looked back at the screen there it was: a large WordPress icon in a box about half an inch high by an inch and a half long - containing "WordPress" in big letters.

How did we manage to miss that?

Have you ever lost a piece of paperwork on your desk only to have a colleague come along and point to it right there in front of you? I don't mind admitting that it happened to me the other day. How did the paperwork come to be invisible (at least to me) until someone pointed their finger at it?

I've had a long interest in cognitive psychology - and especially the design of user interfaces both screen-based and otherwise.

If you haven't listened to the interviews with @moodleman Julian Ridden on Moodle Mayhem then a) you should because Julian knows his stuff and they are fascinating listening and b) Julian talks in detail about the design of the Quantum Riverview E-Learning Portal. Umm... should that be a), b) and c)?

What interested me about the Moodle Mayhem discussion is that Julian mentioned he'd put all the blocks on the right and the main content on the left because English readers have a left-to-right reading order (as above). That set me thinking: would this affect the way a user would interact with the site?

I'm a big fan of the research carried out by Donald Norman - author of one of my favourite books The Design of Everyday Things. Basically Norman asserts, based on his research, that users seek "cues" (typically "visual cues" but they could be audio cues) based on the task they want to carry out.

Then there is the notion of actually reading from left to right...

Those who know me will be aware that I worked for a time with the blind and the visually impaired. Braille readers are actually few and far between but the remarkable thing is that in just the same way we read ahead as we read a sentence (less confident readers don't manage this as well which is why children's reading sounds... so... stilted) so Braille readers will actually read with two hands - the leading hand reading ahead. I guess the same is true with music sight readers (hats off to my mother-in-law who can play the piano like this). Check out the interesting work done by Thomas Wolf in the 1970s here. Wolf suggested there are (I guess obviously) lots of cognitive processes going on - perhaps the most powerful being pattern recognition, interestingly. Though again, with music, this is left-to-right reading order.

Have you tried speed reading? If not then the idea is that you open the page of a book, place your finger in the very middle of the page under the first line and focus your sight in the middle of the page as you drag your finger down it (your eyes following your finger down the page). The idea is (and I'm not sure how efficacious this actually is) that your peripheral vision will recognise word patterns - or the sense of the patterns - and you'll be able to get a feel for the content without having to read it properly. That doesn't involve scanning from the left to the right.

But there is a deeper level at which Julian's very interesting point about left-to-right reading order works extremely well - and that is the relationship between the visual and a description of the visual, read from left to right. I'll try and explain what I mean...

I don't know how many readers are familiar with UK television "celebrities" Ant and Dec?

Ant and Dec are both very popular here in the UK but, with the best will in the world, neither Ant nor Dec individually have too recognisable TV personalities (I'm sure they're wonderful company in real life). To overcome that tricky problem all their publicity photos have them stood, from left to right, in the order Ant... then Dec.

If you don't believe me then do a quick Google image search for "Ant and Dec" to see what I mean.

Are you a Moodle theme designer? What metrics do you use to judge usability? Have you carried out any usability studies? For example, there's a great thread on here.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Not what you know but who...

Followers of mine may be aware that I'm currently working on the design of a world-wide network of Moodles for a group of international schools. The first Moodle is to be implemented in Poland, a country with very strict data protection laws. The upshot of those laws is that it's far easier to install the server in the Polish school. So we've identified the hardware and, for the sake of consistency across the rest of the group, we're going to be installing RedHat. We receive some pricing strategies from RedHat and as we're checking over subscription costs there is mention of "2 sockets" - in brackets - on the quote.

Not that it mattered particularly but my colleague and I wondered what, exactly, "2 sockets" meant in this context. So we did the obvious: have a look on the RedHat website, followed by Wikipedia. Neither really helped so we then we widened the net to generally Googling for any information on sockets. Not surprisingly we just got a lot of information on TCP sockets and electric wall sockets (and we were guessing it wasn't anything to do with those).

The next step of our quest interested me from an educational point of view: we had a competition between us to see who could get the answer first. My colleague went immediately to Skype to speak to one of our technical guys in Poland. I went straight onto one of the IM chat rooms I'm involved in (Prosody, in fact). I happened to learn only yesterday that one of the regular visitors to the Prosody chatroom works for RedHat and he was able to give me an answer straight away. Our guy in Poland knew the answer, too.

As it turned out (and I guess lucky for the sake of office harmony) we both got the answer at about the same time.

What's the point to this story? Well basically that the two of us sat in the middle of England had no idea what "2 sockets" meant with regard to a RedHat server installation but in our social group we managed to get an answer within about 60 seconds. What I am thinking is that this is, I suppose, a pretty clear example of learning in a peer group.

Then this afternoon I read a recent blog post on the new TDM blog (here) in which Derrin Kent mentions "We CAN learn without any teacher / course, though. We CAN learn without a formal course. We can do this alone or in peer groups." Which is true... because we did this morning.

Derrin also says "But…. we are unwise to learn without recording what it is that we are learning." Which is also true... but that isn't necessarily why I'm blogging about it now.

But I'm also minded to mention that there is nothing new in this idea of learning in a peer group. As the popular saying goes: it's not what you know that's important. It's who you know that matters.

Is it true that it's not the social group itself that's important but who is contained in it? How is it possible to ensure that your social group contains the person who is going to know the answer to the problem you haven't had yet? What do you think?

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Certainty of Chance

I was struck with an interesting thought I heard on the radio the other day: if you want to be lifted from poverty then it is a good idea to play the lottery.

What might be a morally corrupt statement is mathematically sound because if you don't play the lottery then you have no chance of winning it. For those of you interested in a little bit of further reading (which I'm sure you all are) then take a look at the excellent article here.

I've always been facinated by chance. Here is a true story I use in my teaching... which by chance is very similar to a scenario Derren Brown describes in his book Tricks of the Mind.

When my youngest son was born I was approached by the paediatrician asking if they could take a blood sample because they had performed a test and it seemed he might have Thalassemia. This is a disease that effects 0.1% of the population and the test is approximately 90% accurate. His test had come back positive and they wanted to retest.

The question: should I be worried?

Well... assuming that 0.1% of 60,000,000 people have the condition then that's 6,000,000 people. If they were all tested then 90% of 6,000,000 people would get a positive result. That's 5,400,000 definite positives.

However, 10% of 54,000,000 people would also get a positive result (albeit a false positive) - so that's 5,400,000 people who definitely don't have the condition but are told they have.

So in fact there is a roughly 50/50 chance of my son having the disease.

Odd, isn't it?


There is a postscript (as there tends to be with my teaching). When he was older we finally got access to his medical records when it transpires that my young son was actually being used as a control for a piece of medical equipment that the lab technicians were worried might be giving false positives.

Statistically-speaking, was this a sensible test for the hospital to carry out?

What do you think?

Monday, 19 July 2010

Planning for failure

I'm currently helping with the design of an international virtual learning platform network (a network of Moodles). The Group IT Project Manager has asked me for some estimates of how long I think particular tasks will take. And that set me thinking...

My assumption, of course, is that the people executing those tasks know what they are doing, won't fall ill, won't do it wrong, won't have a mishap, etc, etc. Every task you plan has what accountants call "a cost" (and that's not necessarily a financial cost). Before embarking your team on a particular task you have to weigh up the costs. It is an important exercise because sometimes the least obvious course of action is the one with the smallest cost.

We're obviously building in some contingency... but how much contingency? There are some rough rules-of-thumb that project managers use (true cost of a human resource roughly equals salary x 2, for instance). But what about when something happens to your project that you just haven't legislated for?

I was set thinking on this path on Friday last. We had our family evening planned when I had a phone call from home to say my wife was stranded at the local hardware store because she had lost her car key. This is an innocent mishap that then has a cost (financial: more wear and tear on my car; more fuel needed for my car to fetch the spare key, and practical: late back home means late supper; late supper means late feeding of now irritable family members which means... and so on).

Like my plans for Friday evening, project plans assume everything is going to according to that plan. But that's not always the case. We're in a period when the world ecomony is still parlously close to crashing around our ears and one of the reasons put forward is that economic models assume that people behave in rational, sensible ways... which, of course, they don't. It's called the "efficient-market hypothesis".

When I'm reporting my timescales for tasks in our Moodle project I'm working with what one might call an "efficient-project hypothesis". I guess what I mean by that is that not only do we assume that all the players work in the most effective way possible but also (and possibly more importantly) that any project will only be as successful as the information available at the time (in fact EMH comes in three flavors, weak, semi-strong and strong - essentially to do with the amount of information available).

If I assumed that everyone working on the project didn't know what to do and everything that could go wrong did go wrong then how long would the project take to complete?

Erm... if I did that would I still be in a job?


I am interesting to hear your thoughts.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Respect My Authority

For this post you'll need to know about math operator precidence so very quickly: the basic math operators are add, subtract, multiply and divide. You have to be careful to use the operators in the right order. Here's an example so you can see what I mean...

What is 14 x 2 + 3 ?

Well, 14 multiplied by 2 is 28. Add 3 to 28 gives 31. Easy.

But I speak English and we read from left to right - called a "left to right reading order". What about languages that have a right to left reading order? Then you would add 2 to 3, giving 5... and then multiply 5 by 14 giving an answer of 70. Ahh... now we've got two completely different answers. Who's correct?

The solution is to have a worldwide convention: carry out operators in a certain order then we don't get different answers. The convention is Brackets, Indices, Division, Muliplication, Addition, Subtraction... BIDMAS. If everyone carries out mathematical operations in that order then we'll all get the same answer.

So I'll pose my students the same question: what is 14 x 2 + 3 ?

Then I ask...

"So you say the answer is 28 and I say it's 70. So who is right?"

And, invariably, with some hesitation, they'll tell me I'm right.

When asked why I'm right the answer, invariably, is that I must be right because I'm the teacher.

I'm completely wrong, I've told them the reason why I'm wrong (but, of interest to me, I haven't explicitly told them I'm wrong). They know I'm wrong - but they can't bring themselves to question my authority: "You must be right because you're the teacher".

I close this aspect of my math teaching with a bit of sage non-mathematical advice: always have the courage of your convictions.

I'm very interested in exploring the pupil-teacher relationship - the nature of authority and respect. Is this something you've tried exploring in your teaching? I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Reflecting on Reflecting - PRINCE2 and issue logs

Of course there's nothing new under the sun, and whilst filling out an issues log this morning (for a PRINCE2-supported project I'm currently working on) I was taken to writing this short post on reflective learning.

I don't know how much you are aware of PRINCE2 but if you are going to be working on a UK/Westminster government contract then it is pretty much expected that you will follow the PRINCE2 method. If you're interested then take a look at the UK's Office of Government Commerce (OGC) website, here.

One aspect of the method I'm particularly keen on is the issues log. Anyone involved in the project can add an issue to the log. These are the curve ball problems from colleagues - can often come at you from nowhere and bring a project to a dead stop until they are resolved.

Issue logs are simple affairs, often just a spreadsheet with columns for description, target resolution date, &tc. The column I'm most interested in (from an educational point of view) is the oft-forgotten one at the end: Closure Comments.

Closure Comments is the project manager's opportunity to reflect - hopefully sensibly, coherently, and with a critical eye - on how that issue came to be missed, how it was resolved, and why, if necessary, the target date for resolution was missed.

It's the part of the job of project management I find the most interesting and challenging: having to justify to everyone - including myself - the decisions I make.

But it's a very powerful teaching technique I also apply to teaching math (if you've Googled me then you'll realise I wear lots of hats - hence the name of this blog). For instance, I could ask: "why did you factor a quadratic that way?" or "tell me at each step of adding two fractions together what you are doing and why you are doing it".

Have you tried this technique in your teaching? What have been your experiences?