Sunday, 2 September 2012

Using Google+ hangouts for on-line tutorials...

The University has just added Google+ to its suite of Google Apps, and it seemed like a great opportunity to try out using a Google+ Hangout for a tutorial. There's tons of stuff out there extolling the virtues of the web as an educational amplifier (start with Sal Khan's TED talk), and plenty of skepticism. What is clear is that students can't be served up the same dross lectures with dreadful lists of bullet points; lectures to inspire, sure; lectures to give keynote and signposting, sure; but lectures to pass across content - no more! So lectures simply have to be excellent. Why would a student attend  lectures in a local university when they can take them from MIT or Oxford?  Of course, the reverse applies - there may well be lecturers at our University who are brilliant, and would attract an international audience.

Lectures also provide the opportunity for academics to meet with students, and form intellectual connections with them. A corollary of not having tons of local lectures, in my view, is that we must provide the opportunities for small group teaching - tutorials by another name. Hence the interest in using Hangouts, and this post detailing the n=1 experience.

I used a low-end Wacom tablet and the free SketchBook Express software as a whiteboard. I didn't need the shared whiteboard, just a place to write and draw where the students could see, so just shared the SketchBook window.

I started on my MacBook Air and quickly found that the screen size limited interaction with the students, so added a second screen and things improved dramatically - don't think the second screen would be needed on a big screen.

The other issue encountered was etiquette - people not speaking need to mute their microphones, otherwise the background noise from 10 participants drowns out the communication. Students put their hands up to get attention, and then turn their mike on when notified by tutor. I really cannot emphasis the etiquette / protocol thing enough - without it, a lot of time is wasted on "crowd control".

I'd have to say that the overall experience was good - it remains to develop a "booking process" so students can book into a scheduled hangout... I'll update with some thoughts on this next time, as well as some student reaction.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The final year students asked me to write a piece for their Yearbook:

William Osler was a Canadian born physician. Most of you have probably heard the name “Osler” in the context of his nodes (in bacterial endocarditis), or maybe if you’re into rarities, his disease (Rendu-Osler-Weber disease). However that most reliable of sources, Wikipedia, gives us a more rounded picture of the man:

He was one of the "Big Four" founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital as the first Professor of Medicine and founder of the Medical Service there.  Osler created the first residency program for specialty training of physicians, and he was the first to bring medical students out of the lecture hall for bedside clinical training.

He’s the reason you aren’t just taught in a lecture theatre, and he created the first known journal club. In the early part of the 20th century, he published a collection of addresses enttitled Aequanimitas. They are now available online at


The addresses are full of wise advice (though reading them through the social lens of our time does make some of his views seem … dated). Towards the back of the book there’s a wonderful page, where he gives this great advice:

“Well filled though the day be with appointed tasks, to make the best possible use of your one or of your ten talents, rest not satisfied with … professional training, but try to get the education, if not of a scholar, at least of a gentleman. Before going to sleep read for half an hour, and in the morning have a book open on your dressing table.”

He then listed 10 books that would help with “inner education”:

  1. The Old and New Testament
  2. Shakespeare
  3. Montaigne
  4. Plutarch’s Lives
  5. Marcus Aurelius Meditations
  6. Epictetus
  7. Religio Medici
  8. Don Quixote
  9. Emerson
  10. Oliver Wendell Holmes - Breakfast Table Series
The advice – READ! – is sound, but I wonder what this list  looks like about 100 years later? Here’s some that have stayed with me, in no particular order, and with no particular justification - and I’ve expanded the media to include film and the web:

  1. Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men
  2. Franz Kafka, The Trial
  3. Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)
  4. Diva - the movie - directed by  Jean-Jacques Beineix
  5. Salman Khan,
  6. Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
  7. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
  8. Marcus Aurelius Meditations
  9. Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener
  10. Richard Feynman - (be careful, the intellect that’s on display may melt your monitor)

This list, of course, leaves out some of the most important writing of all time - Principia Mathematica, On the Origin of Species, and the papers of Alan Turing …  ‘cos SCIENCE!!!

Congratulations, good luck, and thanks for letting me teach you!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

reactivation day!

Friday, 6 April 2007


I'll leave you with a photo. Zach's right - turn off the bloody date display on your digital cameras!

There's not much more to say about ILC07. There are tons of comments floating around, and all agree on the value of getting together. I would recommend a reading of some other blogs to see how others viewed individual papers and issues.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Well, that was interesting...

So, we've come to the end of ILC07. I have come away with mixed emotions.

The organization and environment were wonderful. Nick L. deserves our gratitude for shepherding all his sheep and arranging the wonderful weather for this wonderful place.

The speakers were of variable quality, and of variable interest. Christophe Rhodes, in his talk "Extensible Sequences in Common Lisp" finished by exhorting the audience to bring Common Lisp into, at least, the 1990's. I don't think his tongue was completely in his cheek. He was wise enough to acknowledge the influence of a number of languages... even Python. Manuel Serrano gave a wonderful and impressive talk on HOP and the delivery of Web applications.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the conference and I learnt much, however I can't help but agree with Edi Weitz:

"(some incidents during the conference) ... confirmed my suspicion that there's a fraction within the Lisp community that is completely detached from what is going on nowadays. They did very cool things in the past, but then they somehow lost interest or they think that everything that came afterwards can't compare anyway so they don't need to bother."

A small group of us finished up at a lovely Thai restaurant, discussing Python, Erlang, Scheme and Haskell. Good ideas are coming from all directions. I hope to be at ILC08 and I'll pay my subs, but I'll expect the ILU board to have their organizational act together (not referring to Nick). It's 2007, and if you rest on your laurels too much, they get squashed.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Dinner last night

The Sidgwick Site Law Faculty building; full of Lispers!

Dinner last night was great. Interesting company (a "quant" who actually was a particle physicist, Alexander Repenning and the MD of Genworks were amongst the crowd). Lots of talk about Common Lisp, the evils of smoking, the coming of Erlang, the tragedy of MCL, and maybe new things from Allegro. Got back to Clare around midnight.

So, onwards and upwards!

Monday, 2 April 2007

What were they thinking?

End of Day 1 presentations, and on the way back to Clare what do I see? This most foreboding building. In a place of such beauty what where they thinking? This is the Library of Cambridge University; one of the great libraries of the world. My deep aesthetic revulsion was confirmed when I was told that the building was used as a location for the Thought Police in a film version of 1984.

A group of us are going our to dinner. I'll try and bring some back in a doggy bag and if Zach scratches his screen hard he might get a taste...

Some compensating beauty: