Development diary 2019

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June

7th - 10th - GitHub Pages
Following on from the weekend work learning about Jekyll, I completed migration of the https://naturalpartnersproject.org website from WordPress on my Centos server in London to GitHub. Using jekyll, and some css, the site is now database free and much faster rendering. I also made a similar migration of https://sptr.net and shut down the webserver on that domain, taking the LimeSurvey and attached sites with it. The server remains only now as a mail server.
1st to 2nd - Jekyll
I have some repositories on GitHub, one of which is where I maintain https://git.cullaloe.net. At the IoP Stirling conference last week, I was reminded that github now provides, since its acquisition by Microsoft (the biggest global contributor to Open Source Software[1]), a free platform for static websites. I spent some time this weekend digging in to Jekyll (the generator used on github pages), with a view to moving away from the pony-a-month web hosting that I currently use to a more sustainable model.

May

31st - Optical Tweezers and the Nobel Prize for Physics
Prof Miles Padgett talks about optical tweezers at the IoP Summer School 2018
I went along to the IoP Summer School evening lecture at the King Malcolm, close to my home, at the invitation of Stuart Farmer, where I enjoyed a talk given by Professor Miles Padgett[2] on optical tweezers, for which Arthur Ashkin received a third of the Nobel Prize in 2018 at the age of 98, the oldest person to receive it. Miles' talk was as dynamic and practically-focused as one would expect from a good university teacher.
31st - The Principled-Pragmatic Axis
In email conversation with a physics teacher, I related an approach that I teach to students that is designed to help them come to terms with some of the conflicts they may face in their careers. I wrote this up for reference in a page on this wiki.
29th - Institute of Physics Stirling Meeting
IoP 2019 Stirling Banner.jpg
I managed to make a hole in my visit schedule to attend this annual CPD event for physics teachers in Scotland organised by the IoP. This year's event was introduced by Grant McAllister, who had the undoubted pleasure of presenting one of his former pupils, Dr Isla Barnard, University of St Andrews, who gave us the first physics talk on the Sloan Digital survey.
SDSS: All of the imaging from this survey is now done, and "all that's left is the data", but there's a lot of data. What is brilliant is that the data is publicly available for analysis and exploration through the SDSS Voyages website. This resource is full of activities for teachers and students, as is the SkyServer site which provides a means to explore little bits of the deep space survey through an online interface. Links to other resources[3] included a navigator, a viewer, and a detailed plate viewer to enable a deep dive into the far reaches of the universe, well beyond our own galaxy. It was great to be reminded of the scale of things and how far we have gone in exploring it. There are 500 000 galaxies in the Sloan Survey data, and the sample plates shown in the linked sites have a coverage of approximately the width of your palm held at arm's length.
Defying Gravity: Laura Thomas gave us our first pedagogy talk which included news and projects from the Institute of Research in Schools with which she is associated. This is a fantastic project that gives schools and teachers the opportunity to involve their pupils in real science: not playing at it, but actually doing real research, with the opportunity for young people to get their names on published scientific papers. One of the current projects is to help identify potential targets for the JWST. Another example, as is SDSS, of citizen science opening up the once seemingly "closed" world of the scientist.
The second pedagogy talk was called Why bad movie science is good for you, given by three blokes calling themselves "Auld Reekie Astro" Mr M Black, Dr A Bruce, and Dr W Taylor, who all work at the Edinburgh Observatory on Blackford Hill. This was a light-hearted discussion of the best and worst science seen in Hollywood movies, with some number crunching to analyse the data presented in films such as Armageddon and Moon. These guys were funny, but showed a really fun way of engaging in critical evaluation of popular media. They have a podcast, which I listened to on the way home from the conference and is worth subscribing to. Follow them on twitter.
Fake news: Prof Anu Ojha of the National Space Academy gave a passionate and engaging presentation with a tag of "The Secret Rulers of the World" which helped reset some popular misconceptions. He used some really good examples, such as how far away space is: not a long way "up there", but closer than Leicester. The Apollo missions[4] were also examined, and the contemporary fad of thinking that these were faked. His point is that these "fake news" ideas are so easily trashed, and that we all need to insist on the validity of peer-reviewed published data over weak and unsubstantiated assertions, no matter how feasible they may sound to an unscientific mind. His clear message is that educators have a particular responsibility to teach young people how to critically engage in what they read, or are told. Anu took the opportunity to tell us about the Astro Academy's Principia project, which is another science education programme. It has done good work with Tim Peake's ISS mission.
After lunch, and a quiz[5] the conference keynote was given by Dr Joachim Harnoi-Deraps of Edinburgh University, a post-doc I met during a visit by this year's PGDE cohort to the observatory. Joachim's talk was a fascinating lesson on dark matter and to a lesser extent, dark energy. He described how Einstein rings around a black hole help us to map dark matter in the universe, with data from the SDSS and other data catalogs. These can be used in large simulations to do the mapping, with one recent example being the TianNu N-body simulation. Models still possible include modifications of gravity to explain structure growth on such scales. A fascinating talk.
This was an excellent conference that, in addition to the sessions described above, gave me a good chance to connect to the community of physics teachers, which now features a good number of my own former students, making their way.
22nd to 27th - OpenLearn Getting started on classical Latin
I followed this short introduction into Classical Latin, not so much for the Latin as to gain a refresh on my English language, particularly parts of speech and formal sentence construction, which form part of it. It was fun and useful.
19th - Photography Panel submissions
My IPE 162 Panel
This week sees the closing date for submission of my final assignment for the OU course TG089. I have also finalised, mounted and shipped my panel for assessment by the RPS in June for the LRPS distinction[6].
To make it the best of three, I have entered a series of images to the IPE in July (right) under the statement, "The colours of the water characterise a place as much as any icon", or something like that. The idea is that these images all feature something iconic in the location, whether it be a gondola, bridges or a rock, but it is the colour of the water in each image that is the subject.
11th - OCA Key Ideas in Photography
This is an online course comprising video lectures and readings as a taster for anyone considering taking a degree in photography. Whilst I am sure I have neither time nor money available for such a venture, I thought I'd play out this pipe dream while I wait the feedback from the recently completed OU course TG089 (see below). The OCA BA (Hons) degree was the one my cousin's husband took when he retired from industry which seems to have given him some meaningful satisfaction in pursuing his photography, and not a little success in exhibiting. This key ideas course was rich and interesting and a very nice introduction to further study, which I may yet pursue. It has helped me see my own photography with a little more depth, which is useful as I put together a panel for an attempt at an LRPS distinction in June. Next steps are to follow the series of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" on Youtube[7].

March - April

20th April - Urban Landscapes workshop
Another RPS workshop run by Stuart Sly. This time Edinburgh was our playground, and again there was a focus on the use of filters to help high contrast situations presented in landscape. As before, I learned from others on the workshop, not least how to approach and see good street images. One example below.
Special lunch menu
4th March - 17th May - TG089 Open University Course
This joint online course is run by the Open University and the RPS and is called Digital photography: creating and sharing better images. I have almost completed the course units and prepared a draft panel of photographs for the assessment. I don't really like the collaborative model of these kind of DIY teach yourself courses, not because I am a sociopath[8] but because the little feedback and commentary I have received from other students has been utterly useless. Photography is subjective at best, even in the hands of well-read and experienced professionals. Here we see the Dunning-Kruger effect in full flow.
28th March - IoP Network Meeting
This meeting focused on the Higher Assignment and included presentations and ideas from a number of different teachers. The networking was good, as usual, and it was particularly pleasing to see a number of current and former students at the event (and the curry beforehand). Of particular interest was Drew Burrett's sharing of cognitive science strategies for pupils which are part of the resources available at http://learningscientists.org.
6th, 12th March - Moodle software update
Updated the VLE software to Moodle 3.6.2+ (Build: 20190301), then 3.6.3 (Build: 20190311).

February

23rd - Winter landscapes workshop
Another photography workshop, this time run by Stuart Sly through the RPS, in which we visited Lochs Chon, Ard and Arklet. There was a focus on the use of filters to help high contrast situations presented in landscape by winter weather conditions and although the weather was mostly quite mild, there was enough challenge to learn something. For me, the evaluation of the histogram before selecting a grad was the key learning outcome of the day. It was great also to learn from other delegates throughout the day.

Loch Ard Boat House by Nick Hood on 500px.com

20th - Online Mailing Group
The mailman solution I created for STEM ITE tutors last month has turned out to be just too buggy to be relied on in production[9]. I have shut that down and launched a group using groups.io. This is a free service at our scale and seems to just work flawlessly out of the box.
11th - Land of Light Photography workshop
With my partner, I took a morning workshop, starting at dawn at Loch Ba, down to River Coupall for Stob Deargh and on to the three sisters by the hidden glen. As is often the case with these learning-focused workshops, there were not too many "keepers" in the set of images I captured during the workshop but a lot learned through experimenting and trying different techniques and strategies. The workshop was run by Tom Szatewicz. Here's one:

Buachaille Etive Mòr by Nick Hood on 500px.com

8th - AI and Lifelong Learning
Rebecca Eynon Seminar Feb 2019.jpg
A Digital Education seminar given by Prof. Rebecca Eynon. This seminar was introduced by Prof. Sian Bayne and described the work Rebecca and colleagues are doing in examining the use of AI in education, specifically in life long learning. She described the fragmented landscape of AI, including the variation in understanding of the meaning of the term "AI" even amongst its practitioners. There is much hype and rhetoric around AI and the promises inferred for it, fuelled in part by oversimplifications of understanding of education. Commercial interest dominates as individualisation intensifies due to the central prominence of personalisation (in my view, a consequence of market forces, which exacerbate the perception mentioned briefly by Rebecca of social divides). She called for dialogue and highlighted that there is a tendency to ignore learning science in favour of computer science. She cited reasons for stakeholders to work together (more) including the availability of data, the potential for reach and the opportunity presented by AI. Her agenda for change was characterised by a number of perspectives including social justice, and the potential for the improvement of many lives through smart city data making visible solutions to difficulties experienced by citizens. An interesting Q&A session considered further potential in public sector education, which got me connected to one fo the leadership team at Newbattle High School, where some movement in this direction is starting. Follow-up will include further connection to the Newbattle centre for innovation and an examination of an open data tool, neo4j. My notes taken at the time are on the right.
5th - Two seminars on smart solutions
I attended two unconnected events today which were related to the application of technological solutions to perceived problems. The first was a seminar given by Dr Kobi Gal entitled "Keeping the teacher in the loop: AI technologies for supporting exploratory learning environments". This was one in a series of digital education seminars at Moray House and was introduced by Prof Judy Robertson. Kobi is from the Centre for Intelligent Systems and Applications at the University of Edinburgh.
The presentation considered opportunities and challenges, particularly in the context of using tools for distance learners. What Kobi described was that students don't like participating in course forums (this is my experience also). He made comparison with modern tools like Nota Bene which works to provide a collaborative space for students directly from within the course materials presented online. It allows interactions to be mapped to the content. Group learning was presented as another problem although modern approaches tend to move group learning from face-to-face in the same physical space to more complex constructions with allocations of differentiated roles, for example, in groups. Kobi gave an example of this approach where students work together using a Google document, allocating roles to each other such that they could capture the essence of a lecture or tutorial. From this, of course, there is no evidence to the teacher that any individual learning is taking place. Each student within the a specific activity has a task such as taking down notes or focusing on illustrations. This requires concentration on a narrow aspect of the experience, and removes each of them from the overall holistic experience of the lecture designed by the presenter. Kobi also described the use of online labs which substitute real world laboratory experience for the use of simulations and virtual labs instead. No matter how realistic or haptic these may be - and some of them are very clever - there are some real problems with the pedagogy of this particular teaching approach. Clearly, the methods are feasible for large or distributed cohorts but it cannot be claimed that the learning is equivalent to the full experience of the real world environment.
The opportunity presented is that all of these methods create data which can be used, manipulated and analysed by AI tools. Kobi presented a picture, which surely must have been designed to provoke, of a utopian/dystopian technology-enabled classroom of the future in which children were playing happily at terminals as the lone teacher spoke to a single pupil. This provoked a reaction from members of the audience: the picture is appalling in many ways, not unlike the classroom picture by Villemard in the series [wikipedia:En L'An 2000|]. At best, it is naive: these are several examples of very poor teaching models presented as the paradigm of education in Kobi's introduction. What he was trying to explain to the audience was the domain of the exploratory learning environment is where his work is taking place: his research brings AI to these spaces that integrates with the data on student actions in such a way as to provide teachers with extra "eyes in the back of their head" so that the teacher can take appropriate steps or make interventions (including not intervening) in order to progress learning and engagement. The rest of the presentation gave specific examples of exploratory learning environments and how his work is enabling them to be enhanced. Examples included TinkerPlots and Geogebra, both data visualisation tools which can be used in collaborative enquiry in a learning context.
Kobi's work is interesting and important but betrays a gap in understanding of pedagogy that could easily be addressed through dialogue with educators. He takes a stance that recognises that there is a need for a good teacher in a learning environment: "we don't know what makes a good teacher tick" (I could tell him), and "we aren't trying to replace the teacher". The tools he is creating might be useful in the exploratory learning environment he is working in - my concern is that such environments are good for the business of scaling up training, but they may not be good for learning.
The second event of the day was the RSA Edinburgh event on Smart Cities, which was principally a lecture by Dr. Luca Mora of Napier University. The event was introduced by several people, some of whom remained nameless (as if we ought to know who they are, in proper provincial style). This was my first RSA event in person and it was a surprisingly amateur affair, with a self-important lady chairperson and the MC who told us at least 8 times that he lives some of the year in China. Luca's presentation was anything but amateur or provincial, as one would expect from a good academic talking within his area of expertise. He talked about the concept of smart cities and how data and the analysis of it provides information that can be used to inform choices made, not only in planning and delivery of services but it also has the potential to inform the choices made by individuals. I wasn't particularly interested in the nomenclature of various models of participation used in this sector (double-, triple- and quadruple-helix, for example, to designate two, three or four interest groups working together). Every club has its shibboleths.
The talk addressed ways in which technology is being used in cities around the world to tackle air pollution, provide information on wheelchair accessibility and food security. These innovations require political will and commercial cooperation to be successful. The Q&A session at the end brought the focus to individual agendas in the room which, ignoring some gratuitous attention-seeking, seemed to be based in genuine concern for the potential that technological innovation has for exacerbating social divides. One example was the comparison between those who have instant data on their package ordered online, including the name, photo and time of arrival of the delivery driver, and the healthcare client who waits at home for arrival of a nurse to provide care. A cynical view was expressed that the citizens[10] only care about when their bins are emptied but herein lies a missed opportunity if that is the scope of your engagement with smart cities. Our citizens should care about when the bins are emptied, yes, but they should also care about what happens next - and what responsibilities they have in that process.
So, these two events illustrate the need for greater awareness of what is happening in education and in our environments. Our innovators need to understand more fully the context in which they are working and those they serve (or ought to be serving) need to be more aware of their choices within that enhanced society we are building. Technology can provide a means for greater data availability but that data must be known and understood in a way that improves the quality of those choices.
My notes from both events are below. As ever, errors and omissions are my responsibility. Use at your own risk.

January

30th RSE IDL Conference
RSE .jpg
An Interdisciplinary Learning conference was held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which I attended with a number of colleagues and two students from our PGDE Science cohort. Their poster contributions can be seen here and here. The conference had been organised by Prof Colin Graham, who introduced the day and the conference hashtag #IDLconf2019.
Heather Reid chaired the first session which comprised two keynote addresses by Professors Ian Goldin and Carl Gombrich. Ian looked to the future by examining trends in population and its mobility; considered data in the cloud as a driver for innovation; and globalisation as an accelerator of change that also leaves people behind more quickly. Ian examined quite a lot of global data trends for us which included a lot of reasons to be cheerful about being alive right now, and a good number of reasons to be concerned, including Trump and Brexit and the entangled nature of us all that demands greater global governance in order to protect our environments and societies. Carl's talk looked more to the impact of cultures and destinations for young people - what it means to be human in today's world, where new literacies (graphicacy, for example) emerge alongside new skills like making connections. The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, spoke to us[11] before introducing young people from CalderGlen High School to talk about their IDL project.
After coffee and networking, Professor Walter Humes chaired another session with Prof. Mark Priestley, who spoke about knowledge and disciplines in the curriculum[12], and a Finnish Educational consultant, Päivi Nilivaara who described curriculum change in her country. Mark was right on the money in a number of areas, including stating the truism that curriculum isn't a product, it's what is actually done in schools.
I attended a workshop on implementing IDL in a secondary school before lunch, and another after[13] which I thought was very weak in its handling and presentation of data. Things improved significantly when Keir Bloomer took the chair for a session on IDL in the context of school improvement, which featured Andy Hargreaves' excellent talk on progression in education and its provision in Scotland, particularly connecting it to themes of equity and social justice. The day ended with a reactions panel formed by younger participants at the conference, who were questioned by Stuart Monro in a friendly and expert manner to bring out some wonderful insights into how the day had been for them, and how they see IDL in their contexts. Of particular interest for me was the assertion by one of my PGDE Physics students, that "we do a lot of IDL at Moray House".
25th Digital Education Seminar
My notes from Prof. Ainsworth's seminar
Prof. Shaaron Ainsworth "What (and why) can we learn by drawing?". This seminar was hosted by the Centre for Research in Digital Education at Edinburgh and introduced by Dr. Andrew Manches. My notes are on the right (click for bigger or to download). The seminar was of particular interest to me because of the importance I place on graphical representations in my teaching. The seminar looked specifically at drawing in the sciences as a tool for learning and examined some of the research that looks at it. Two specific strands of the presentation considered drawing as a learning strategy and drawing to communicate. As a learning strategy, the evidence shows that drawing (as compared to not drawing) has an effect size of 0.41 on cognition and 0.37 on transfer. It is a process that goes beyond learning to help construct new understanding. This is a subtle point that I appreciate from recent work using inquiry graphics in PGDE and teacher CPD. For communication, drawing is seen as a useful assessment tool, and again, this has been my experience also.
Over the next few weeks, I will (with my colleague Laura Colucci-Gray) be further developing and using visual methods to help students engage deeply with themes in education relating to STEM and sustainability. We will be using inquiry graphics methods and a model based in deliberative democracy to expose and engage student science teachers in this.
19-21st Set up Lists Server (Mailman)
At the SUSS[14] tutors' meeting, I suggested that to help us remain in touch with each other, for support or information, that the tutors should have their own mailing list like SPUTNIK. I offered to set this up at sptr.net and have done so over the weekend using mailman on Centos. I'm still ironing out wrinkles but will have it up and running today. Most of the configuration has been done using the Plesk admin panel on my server, which is simpler and less risky than doing it manually. I have had to do some work at the command line to install wildcard certificates from Let's Encrypt, and a bit of manual tweaking of the links to the archive pages, for example.
19th RPS Advisory Day
My partner and I prepared and took along our prospective panels for LRPS to an RPS advisory day at Bridge of Allan. The advice was specific and useful, and also very encouraging. We seem to be heading in the right direction - one thing we really need to sort out is presentation (printing). We knew this, of course, having sweating so much with our £40 Canon over the previous week or so. Generally, this was a challenging thing for us to do, and we are glad we did it.
18th SUSS Residential
I attended the meeting of initial teacher education science tutors at the residential event for students[14]. The meeting was informal and productive, allowing those present to put faces to names, and share perspectives on recruitment and selection and the various course designs that exist across the country. There seems to be a national problem with institutions using staff on precarious and very minimal contracts, resulting in a significant loss of continuity and consistency in applying GTCS rules for degree qualifications for entry, for example. The number of permanent staff in teacher education is now down to only two or three, it seems. This (my opinion) reflects the lack of interest in teacher education in all of the institutions in Scotland, perhaps due to the enormous focus on the REF.
January 1st Centos 7 Server and LAMP on a Digital Ocean Droplet
After spending a lot of hours between October and January trying to debug and solve an issue with SSL on my current service provider, I decided to investigate alternatives that I could quickly spin up. I lost clients to the SSL problem, which was down to over-harsh implementation of security in Apple software on OSX and IoS, and over-zealous lock-down of my own server by a program called Fail2Ban that had been enabled without my knowledge. Oddly enough, I don't really need to change ISP now, but I am liking the Digital Ocean service. There is a lot you can do quickly, and a lot of support in place for people like me, who are in between consumer and professional Linux administrator.

Notes

  1. Apparently. I can't make up my mind about this. I can't tell if it's just the usual American capitalist short-term objective of the annihilation of all competition, or whether there is some genuine philanthropic principle at work. I want to think the latter because I have long history with Microsoft (I am one of the first to gain a Microsoft MCSD in Europe), but I fear the former, because I have a long history with Microsoft.
  2. Husband of "Hello there" Heather Reid.
  3. Isla had set up a temporary website at GitHub pages to easily share the links. This reminded me of how easy it can be to do this, so I investigated this further - see June 1st entry.
  4. I was interested to hear that at its peak, the Apollo mission budget for NASA was 5% of the USA's total public spend, compared with 0.5% today.
  5. The quiz used the popular classroom tool, Kahoot, which seemed to have been invaded by bots at one point. This turned out to be a script kiddy website at KahootSpam, which quite probably launched by one of the delegates. Physics teachers, eh?
  6. This panel was not recommended for the Distinction, although it was very close to the standard, with one image requiring replacement or rework. I'll be doing this quickly. My partner received her Licentiate at the same event, which I am delighted about.
  7. I watched this classic series over the next few days.
  8. I may be. I find most people quite disappointing.
  9. This is the characteristic of almost everything "open source".
  10. Somebody tried to claim that the correct term is subjects. This is clearly nonsense.
  11. Would it be unreasonable to record that he could successfully recall three out of four of CfE's capacities?
  12. the metaphor of "Pillars and Lintels" featured in this session.
  13. Actually, there were three other speakers immediately after lunch in a session chaired by Ken Muir of the GTCS. The speakers were Gayle Gorman, the Chief Inspector of Schools; Janet Brown, CEO of the SQA; and David Coyne of the Centre for Work-Based Learning. None of these three made any statements of significance.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Scottish University Science School

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