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Monthly Archives: September 2009

I’ve just returned from working at the Newcastle Mela where I was volunteering for the Institute of Physics (IOP). Entitled Physics in the Field, this volunteer programme from the IOP aims at getting physics and physicists out of the laboratories, classrooms, observatories and anywhere else it and they may be lurking and into the rest of the world.

Physics, as we know, is the science of… well… everything really, so you should be able to illustrate physics principles with anything. So out come the plastic straws (sound, vibrations), balloons (energy), coat hangers (wave motion), old paperbacks (friction), indigestion tablets (pressure) and bubble mixture (surface tension, interference, turbulent flow).

A great time was had by all I think, certainly I enjoyed it: how can you not enjoy having the opportunity to ask someone to wrap a piece of string around their finger and then stick their finger in their ear… in the interest of science, of course.

If you love something, share it, because extensive experimentation on my part has so far not revealed a conservation of enthusiasm principal.

I spent today in a long discussion on words and phrases and their meanings. Not an idle conversation but one aimed at updating a vocabulary, and then establishing a thesaurus, my particular interest.

For me, my interest in this started in a lunch queue. During a conference in Manchester a couple of years ago, I overheard the two people ahead of me listing all the different ways they had come across intending to convey the concept of widening participation. It was a surprisingly long list and, musing on other similar examples, got me thinking about how we ever understand one another at all, when we use multiple terms to describe one thing and between us ascribe multiple meanings to one phrase.

Added to that, the change of terms that seem to be sometimes no more than fashion, trying to establish a vocabulary that will last is no small task. The thesaurus that goes with it, built on the phases currently in use, is a way of dealing with those variations of phrase without prescribing how people should express themselves.

In the Choice and Change in OER workshop we looked at our own motivations to use Open Educational Resources and were then  taken through a process of working with ‘patterns’ looking at how that might be used in conjunction with the reuse of an OER. ‘Blog Innovation’ showcased a couple of projects that had used blogs and wikis with undergraduates and revealed the usual suspects of enablers (time, cost, support, embedding, access) and inhibitors (isolation, time, firewalls, lack of training).

In the Pedagogic Innovation session there were examples of the use of QR codes from Andy Ramsden (for instance in labeling artifacts with further information) and a contrast of ‘visitors’ and ‘residents’ experience of the web and web 2.0 tools from David White. Helen Whitehead expanded on the ‘Beyond 9 to 5′ community site and Brock Craft explained how sketching had been used to try to elucidate practitioners’ course design processes.

In the Learning Technology session Joss Winn talked about the use of BuddyPress to set up a series of institutional blogs and its versatility. Adam Blackwood illustrated the potential ability of a mobile phone to replace a range of gadgets in the classroom.

The keynote came from Martin Bean, giving us his vision for the OU of which he is soon to become VC. We have all been invited to join Social Learn (, a tool that hopes to bring together social networking and education.

The afternoon session on Redesigning Assessment included Sue Folley’s look at the use of rubrics to make thing easier for both teacher and self assessment, and the use of digital story telling as a method of assessment from Geraldine Jones.

A great opening to the first day with a keynote from Michael Wesch, full of ideas and challenges. He began with the idea of media being more than a tool but something that can actually mediate our relationships (making me wonder if therefore we choose our media with sufficient care). His history of insignificance looked at the possible increasing loss of the sense of self and how this might be manifesting itself through the quest to be broadcast. Wesch suggested an interesting alternative to the term group, using ‘flock’ to better describe the coming together of numbers of people at points when they were traveling in the same direction, followed by their dispersal when their directions diverged. We were directed to the videos ‘A Vision of Students Today’ and ‘An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube’ for further information.

Aaron Porter had several good ideas about how we might use technology to enhance the student experience. He asked if any university of offering students a tracking system for their work (rather like on online order or helpdesk problem), whereby they might see when feedback is offered and those offering it could see that it has been accessed. When students give us feedback are we seen to be responding to it? Since students are known to use social networking tools might  same be used to help students feel part of the academic community? I like the idea of easing the inevitable tensions of approaching group work by allowing students to draw up their own rules of engagement.

Richard Noss talked about several interesting TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) projects including Ensemble (concerned with semantic technologies); InterLife (using virtual worlds to help with transition skills) and Learning Design Support (to help teachers exploit the potential of TEL).

The Semantic Technologies in Education session had us all thinking, not least about what were the problems it could actually solve or was it simply ‘a good idea’ and when realised we would find out what it could do.

The OER Matters session speculated a lot of possible opinions about OER that I have already met through the course of my work. The question ‘Are free resources really free?’ is an important one along with the worry that the apparent economic driver may become the main focus. Though we may all agree that ‘Open Education’ and ‘Educational Resources’ are good ideas, are we really positive about OER and it’s implications?

Tom Stafford of the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield gave a presentation entitled ‘The Learning Brain’ as part of the Cafe Scientifique, York programme.

We started with challenges to the dominant metaphor of the brain as a machine; instead studies have shown it is capable of change and adaptation. Examples of the enlargement of the hypo-campus of London taxi drivers (who have done ‘the knowledge’) and the motor cortex of musicians illustrate it’s dynamic nature.

Although it’s attractive for those who study the brain to want to attribute certain functions to fixed areas of the brain in all subjects, those who sustain brain damage early in life can still become fully functioning because the brain can relocate functions to parts of the brain that are undamaged.

Probably we have also experienced the ‘curse of knowledge’: when you understand something, you can never truly take yourself back to the mental state when when you did not, as learning makes itself invisible.

Although the study of neural networks in the ’80s gave some a false hope that we might be able to build an artificial brain, studies of that technology taught us something important: that learning systems are autonomous. Feeding a cat because he is complaining will result in the cat learning that complaints bring rewards, not what you want to teach the cat but what it learnt nevertheless.

Does coffee taste better from your favourite mug? Well, no and yes. Intrinsically, no it’s the same coffee whatever the mug. However, the mug becomes part of the ritual of taking the drug caffeine. And because caffeine gives the brain a sense of reward without the brain knowing this is only due to the caffeine, the mug become associated with the reward.

So, can you taste the differenece if the milk goes into the cup before the tea or the other way around? Well… find out for yourself at where you can see the results and find out how to carry out your own experiment.

We tend to repeat what we have liked in the past and avoid what we have not liked or the unfamiliar, and this tends to lead systematic bias which can stop us exploring and seeking new experiences. Arguing with someone to convince them that their views are biased is useless, what can work is exposing them to the alternative viewpoint or experience.

The idea of learners as merely receptacles into which knowledge is poured was challenged: what is learned transforms what is doing the learning, and the transformation of the learner is done by the learner, not the teacher.

So gather some of your friends, go to to try some science and enjoy a nice cup of tea (or coffee) into the bargain. Biscuits optional.