Blog General comments

How the UK was “all astonishment”

Statistics is the study of the collection, analysis, interpretation, presentation, and organization of data. Interpretation is the act of explaining, reframing, or otherwise showing your own understanding of something. Well that all sounds straight forward enough in our statistics-obscessed society and lord knows we’ve had enough of it in the UK over the last few weeks building up to election day. On May 7th the Nation trotted along to the polls.

Election race

So, after weeks of numbers, facts, hypotheses and interpretations, at 10pm on election night you could hear the collective gasps of an entire Nation that clearly, no surely not, it couldn’t be, the statistics had all been wrong! As Lizzie Bennett would have said, “I am all astonishment”, except I’m sure the Nation was not so polite in its living rooms. But how? Well that is easy. Humans are involved. Obviously. (Full video is well worth watching –, TomoNews US).

The Guardian predicted Conservatives and Labour on an equal footing. UK Polling Report and Electoral Calculus are also both licking their wounds and puzzling why everything was so inaccurate.

I’m not really an expert but spend a fair amount of time playing with data doing bits and pieces of research. A Radio 4 show today really intrigued me: ‘More or Less‘, that featured an election special. Listening to the pollsters – the people that publish the numerous and tedious polls about things – It got me thinking how the election was adulterated.

Problem number 1
Polls rely on sampling the population. They might grab a big bunch of people to question and then match responses to what they believe a ‘representative’ population to be. This is all based on previous experience, models and assumptions, and at this point, a tiny little bit of error can be introduced. Making big interpretations from small samples is always dangerous.

Problem number 2
Polls rely on asking people their intended actions. If you poll me now, I’d tell you when I visit the supermarket tomorrow I shall buy a packet of Haribo Tangfastic. But what it won’t predict that when I get there, if there is a 2 for 1 offer on Fizzy Sea Monsters, I might just change my mind. So basing anything on people’s claimed views and opinions adds a little more error.

Problem number 3
System corruption. We see this in any system of measuring and I’ve written about this before with the National Student Survey. The more organisations relies on the outputs of surveys for for strategies and decision making, the more corrupt the process of gathering will be. We see this in education and healthcare all the time. I haven’t quite thought through the polling business yet, but this might have come into play.

Problem number 4
The pollsters interviewed on the Radio 4 show admitted that while interpreting and publishing data, they keep an eye on each other’s conclusions. I guess we do this in science a bit and nobody really wants to be a maverick with outlandish views – there is always pressure to be part of the set. So if we have a bunch of polling companies all seeing what each other is doing and tempering their observations accordingly, it is generally going to end as an inaccurate amorphous mash. I call this the ‘plasticine’ effect – we may start off with individual ideas and colours, but it is easier to follow the crowd and we ultimately end up a brown sludge colour.

Problem number 5
The media. Notorious for not every accurately portraying or communicating findings, this just adds an extra layer of sludge. The result – the entire Nation duped and not at all looking the right way. A bit like the famous video clip of the crowd at Nasa watching the Space Shuttle take off. They were looking the wrong way and the clip hilariously shows the shuttle taking off behind them!

I would probably conclude that someone somewhere knew about this all along. The prize however for best ‘Election Night Look of All Astonishment’ does how ever go to Al Murray at the Thanet South count.

Al Astonishment

DS106 General comments

My First Birthday!

It is the 20th May 2014. It is my FIRST anniversary of DS106. And my dad would also have been 81 years old today.

My First Daily Create
My First Daily Create










This blog isn’t an original idea and there is a slight trend for DS106 articles as ode to our parents and marking multiple anniversaries such as Cogdog’s mum on 9th Feb (sharing b’days with David as it happens).

Well it would be easy just to write a blog post about how I cannot believe how I’ve only been doing DS106 for a year, or rather, it has been doing me! The almost embarrassing fact that my 1GB folder has 665 items in it! And that isn’t counting music, video and photographs. I am quite amused that the Giant Baby crawling through Vancouver was created at 23.37pm, which was certainly not my first near “all nighter”. Most of the songs and videos can be blamed for that and I remember going to sleep finally as the dawn was breaking after completing “Song Number Inflation“!

It has made me think about the power of digital art and the creation of legacy. I feel slightly sad that my dad was pre-digital and I don’t have much of his art apart from a few precious paintings. Pop was a great musician, and I have no recordings of his piano playing, and only one poor photo of him playing the piano. How I wish for a bit more.

Pop's Art
Pop’s Art

I do have a few of his paintings and did photograph some of them before the remaining 300+ oil and water colours were finally uncovered and removed from the back of his wardrobe. His wardrobe was his Flickr!

Pop was never really interested in painting and drawing until later life when he was rendered near housebound with illness for ten years. That didn’t stop him enthusiastically embarking on creating art, especially as his arthritic fingers made him give up the piano many years before. But this isn’t a story of sorrow, he was a hugely positive and enthusiastic person – always – and I never once heard him complain.

He had the brain the size of a planet and would be devouring books by Velakovsky one minute and laughing ridiculously to Tom and Jerry the next.


I’m a bit undecided about whether we should all go and create digital legacies though.

The negative. I do feel slightly guilty!
I do feel guilty that I am clogging up the internet with “stuff” that is all taking energy and electricity to maintain on servers and wires, using precious natural resources. I have the feeling that one day the planet will get so heavy with servers it will just fall out of the sky. Hopefully one day sustainable resources, disposable computers and green technology will catch up.

The positives.
Digital imagery is used in therapy for dementia and to enrich people’s lives in care homes. Capturing a bit of a digital legacy might be hugely significant in later life which might sound a bit morbid, and links to something else I think about is we should be so much better in talking about that kind of stuff.

Another positive.
When I first got involved in open educational resources particularly in the SCOOTER project, some of the most joyful resources were those contributed by retired staff – eminent professors involved in sickle cell disease which was the focus of the project, who more than welcomed their materials being captured for others to use.

In fact sit and imagine the huge amount of not just physical waste that is discarded when an academic retires, but that the work on their PCs that just get skipped and erased. Their academic legacy obliterated in a thrice. We should be thinking about this more earnestly. I did a fag packet calculation when I left my last job of 7 years, the module and lecture preparation totalled about £30,000.  Scrapped. In the bin, apart from the stuff I released as OERs and now can reuse, and so can others.

A positive.
Making art dammit for me is an alternative to television, so perhaps there is a case there for electricity at least being being offset.

A negative.
Where does work stop and leisure start these days? DS106 has given me more in terms of professional development – technology, learning innovation – to support my university work. It isn’t necessarily the personal expense of computers, gadgets and electricity that gripes me, but a part of me feels a bit reticent, and it might be that I’m perpetuating this expectation that we should all work in our own time these days, and we are perpetuating longer and longer working hours for the next generation.

Another negative.
There is so much hoo-ha over privacy on the internet and so many important questions not being asked, what also worries me is the signatures and foot prints that I will leave behind? What happens to all your personal accounts after you’ve gone? I do worry about this and have every thing in a single spreadsheet with all my computer accounts along with all my important personal papers. From time to time I also have a purge and get rid of old blogs and accounts I no longer use. But I still worry about data privacy, my foot prints and risks in the future, although to what, I’m not quite sure.

This is starting to get creepy.
Having looked up digital legacy on Google now I am totally creeped out by the companies offering to manage your digital legacy and video yourself for after you are gone from this mortal coil. That is as creepy as cryogenic storage…..uuggggh.

But art is good right?
This is a silly conversation I’m having with myself. If pop was here, we could thrash it out good and proper, and he certainly understood more about the evolution of the planet and global changes than most and would probably argue that our little imprint is immaterial, or maybe not.

It is a strange concept that for my generation and younger that when we die we will leave behind this online personality and reflection of their life. I can only think that would be extremely upsetting and disturbing. My reflection of Pop is purely in my memory, with one or two artefacts, and occasional occurrences that I believe to be a spiritual essence of him, and that is fine and I can dip in and out of that when I please.

Pop's Art
Pop’s Art










Blog General comments

Day out to the National Museum of Computing, Bletchley.

What a day at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley. Just on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, we have all heard of Bletchley Park and the quest to decipher the German Enigma coding during World War Two. For me, it was across the car park in the army huts that housed the National Museum of Computing where the big story was hiding, and for some reason, one that is somewhat untold.


flickrSLiDR/ Bletchley Park Album

The story starts at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent

In the first part of the museum I was surprised to see the name of the village in Kent where I went to primary school. Capel-le-Ferne was a lofty inhospitable place set between the Dover and Folkestone cliffs. (It was there where I fell in love with the tenor saxophone and developed my hate for swede). It was one of a series of coastal gun batteries and signal centres in the South East. People worked there on the look out and listen out for German bombers, and they would direct messages via telephone or teleprinter to the air base in nearby Hawkinge to launch the Spitfires and Hurricans to attack. I came across this story on the web by Dalma Flanders about her time in the WAAF’s Intelligence Service and she was stationed in Capel living with a civilian family. Dalma listened in, deciphered code, and passed on messages. She spoke German and later was trained in Dutch.

The German codes always had a strict pattern and they were never particularly difficult to break.

Over to Bletchley, Berkshire

At Bletchley Park was another signal centre but on a different scale. The Bletchley Park old house was where short messages were received and decoded. The man in the museum likened these Bletchley codes to WW2 Tweets. In the buildings that are now part of the National Museum of Computing it was quite a different matter, and entire German plans and strategy documents of up to 10,000 characters were received and ultimately decoded.

Initially, attempts at decoding were all done by hand with equal teams of men and women working around the clock to listen in, record and translate two-tone signals. These were strategic documents relayed between German army officers and Hitler, and unlike Enigma where the nature of the coding machine was understood before the war, the German mechanisms for scrambling these long documents was totally unknown. Hence, the process started in 1939 and it wasn’t until 1944 where the first breakthrough was made.

How did it all work? The two-tone signals were manually turned into a visual trace and then converted to what looked like ticker-tape made of sequences of five holes. The tape was just a visual representation of the code – there was additional activity to decipher these codes. Ultimately, machines would be designed to read these tapes and do the deciphering, and manual conversation from audio signal to message could take from 6 to 8 weeks, by which time the information was possibly no longer valuable.

Bill Tutte and the Code Breakers

We may all be familiar with the brilliance of Alan Turing breaking the Enigma Code, but Bill Tutte was formidable in breaking what was known as the Lorenz Cipher. Imagine, hours and hours of audio signal, miles of paper ticker tape, and how the brain power of Bill and other mathematicians not just began to decipher, but design a replica of the Lorenz Cipher machine used to scramble the code by the Germans is  quite unfathomable. But there was a break through in 1944. The German signaller sending the message made a mistake and had to resend. Second time around he included abbreviations and shortened words. Not only did the vigilant decoders spot a duplicate message, they realised that each new message had a “starter” phrase, and they could then look out for these. This reminds me of DNA code, where there are short snippets of code announcing the start of the important message or information.

From these vague clues, Bill and his team broke the entire code. Now they could do it, they needed to try and be faster.

The Birth of Computers and Tommy Flowers

Tommy Flowers was an electronic engineer who worked at the GPO (General Post Office). The GPO then went on to form British Telecom and the Post Office as we know it today – if anyone remembers the yellow GPO vans and the red Post Office vans? Here my understanding of the electronics fails me, but Tommy ultimately designed a computational machine, using valves, that could read and decode the ticker tape at a much faster speed. Based on binary data and simple logic, the early computers were born. I’m sure I do injustice to what is a great and elegant story. (Images of Colossus, the first computer, and the tape can be seen in the Flickr gallery at the top of the page).

The Destruction of Colossus!

Below was an early iteration of Colossus in what was known as the Tunny (Tuna) Room. The machine went through several iterations and when it began successfully decoding German strategic plans in 1944, it started to have a big impact on the direction of the war and crucially saved lives – on both sides. For  vital manoeuvres such as Normandy, the machine helped keep tabs on advancing German troops, and the crucial decision to bring the event forward was made.

Tunny Room Computer
Tunny Room early Colossus. Animated GIF – you may need to click on the GIF to see it animate in it’s full glory!

A later machine – Colossus Mark II advanced the code breaking process and is housed in the Colossus Room at the Museum. Understandably, after the war all traces of the machines were destroyed. Many years later, permission was given to write a book, and a series of photographs within it prompted people who had worked on the machine to come forward. They set forth in 2002 to rebuild it from plans and photographs, and in 2013 the final – operational – machine was complete. The task was made simpler by the fact all the parts were standard issue GPO components. I personally think the rebuild of the machine is as remarkable and as fascinating as building it in the first place.

Colossus Oscilloscope
Colossus Oscilloscope – an animated GIF that you may need to click on to view in a new window. Oh, go on, you know you want too!









What Next for Computers?

The National Museum of Computing, and its truly brilliant and enthusiastic staff, go on to tell the tale of the history of computing. Early computers were introduced into banking and insurance, and another notable example belonged to a chicken farmer to provide data and perform calculations on the flock and egg production. The gentleman in the room proudly tells us that all the machines in “his” room are operational still today!

In other areas of the museum, the notion of equal opportunities continued, with men and women playing vital roles during the war and then in the development of these machines afterward. The construction of what I think were memory blocks the size of a toaster was by female embroiderers and lace makers who had the dexterity and the patience to weave the wire into the intricate designs required.

Over to the Dekatron!

By this point in the museum I was totally enthralled by the beauty of the machines. The electronics and processes are visualised through flashing lights – all meaning something I guess, and enabling the engineers to monitor the process of the code reading and deciphering, and also to pin-point faults.

The Dekatron has a name straight out of science fiction was another calculating machine with a beautiful array of flashing lights and accompanying sounds. The operator here was clearly at one with the machine and knew every nuance of it. Each valve rotated in a position from 1 to 9 to process a series of calculations. The rest is beyond my comprehension and is best left to the imagination.

Dekatron. Click to see the animated GIF.










Milton Keynes Best Kept Secret!

It seemed ironic that a museum of computing did not provide you with devices and ear phones, and there were no whizzy multimedia exhibits that you find in other museums. NO! It was much better than that because of the stories told by the amazing people who worked in the museum. I am convinced each was in love completely with his computer.

One of the fascinating stories was that during the war and until quite recently the story and importance of Bletchley Park was completely confidential. The museum guide told the story of canteen staff who during the war were specially chosen and maintained confidentially of any conversations that may have overheard. And the canteen was open 24 hours a day, so that is a fair amount of chatter!

When I posted these photographs on Facebook I heard from a fellow saxophone player who grew up in Bletchley and actually worked in the same canteen in the 1960s. Incredibly even then he had no idea what went on there, and neither did the people in the town of Bletchley. It was years later when it opened as a museum that he realised the significance of where he had worked. Here is what Graham said – and believe me he WOULD chat to anyone and is actually a lecturer in  computing today.

Yes we lived just round the corner and people said it was to do with the Diplomatic Wireless Service  … whatever that was.   I must have worked in the canteen in the summer of 1967 or 68.  It was outside the perimeter fence and they came out for lunch.  I did a lot of clearing tables and so I chatted to everyone,  but no one ever discussed anything about what went on inside.

It was really top secret. No one in the canteen ever told me what they did and I never spoke to anyone who knew what went on there. I was amazed when I visited it with my brother a few years ago.

The old house was owned by some old geeser before the war who had some sort of issue with my great grandfather.  Whenever  his name was mentioned ( the secondary modern school was named aftter him) thing went quiet.  However, my parents were really close friends with his chauffeur’s daughter.

This was another world.

Blog General comments Learning & Teaching

BIS – haven’t you missed something?

Anyone reading the BIS report “International education: global growth and prosperity” (July 2013) may welcome some of the proposals within to support international students  including mentions of – introducing an effective loan repayment scheme, clarifying the visa system, and having better quality frameworks for them. Then, as with any education document these days , the report cannot take its first gasp of breath after hatching without mentioning MOOCs (massive open online courses), and they have 15 mentions in the document:

“and their (MOOC) global reach has opened up a new door to education. We need to make sure it is a door to our universities and colleges”.

The report goes on to talk about building the UK brand reputation around the world and seizing opportunities, and….hey, slow down, wait a minute? Haven’t most UK universities and many colleges been opening their doors for some years now through open education initiatives? How come these don’t get a single mention?

The world is embracing open education – MIT started sharing lectures on OpenCourseware over 10 years ago, and 81 governments and states have policies agreed or underway supporting open education for their people, so it shouldn’t be a hard sell as a means of promoting UK education? There is a common language there already and a common goal already toward global growth and prosperity built around open education.



So I’m quite surprised that the document – talking about opening doors – strengthening the use of technology in education – fails to mention the open education activity in the UK and how open educational resources (OERs) are impacting on learners and educators globally. I think they aren’t sexy because 1) they aren’t MOOCs and part of the current hype, 2) they don’t gather fancy education analytics and 3) really, if anyone is honest, the report and MOOCs are about commerce and not auturism.

The problem with OER is they are not closed behind a software platform like so they do not gather any education analytics to support them.  Because OER are open, and sit there on the web, they don’t collect and grow user email lists, which is enough to make any markeeter lick his own eyelids in excitement. Just because you can’t directly measure their economic impact, it doesn’t mean OER have no potential or indeed have not had any indirect financial impact downstream. What you measure is not important, what you can’t measure is, blah de bla.

International links from UK OER programme 

So I just thought I’d mention some innovations from the UK OER programme (Jisc HEA 2009 – 2012) that spring to my mind that have had international impact. This will absolutely not be an exhaustive list! Some of the examples below have had demonstrable financial impact (increased number of student enrolments to university; generation of research income). [For a comprehensive analysis of the UK OER activity read the following report by McGill, Falconer, Dempster, Littlejohn and Beetham (2013)].

Enhancing the UK reputation in English language teaching and learning?

The report talks about enhancing the UK’s reputation in English language teaching and learning? Two UK initiatives spring to mind share their language expertise and educational materials openly that could provide a springboard to enhancing our international reputation? The Language Box has OER in around 50 languages, including 300 or so resources to support English teaching. The resource is led by the Universities of Southampton and Portsmouth, and have had contributions from all over the UK. LORO, from the Open University contains around 50 English teaching OER, in addition to several other languages.

UK OER reaching global audiences on iTunes

The report refers to how technology can change educational delivery, and if we want to talk about massive, open and online there are plenty of OER examples. Several UK universities (Warwick, Open University and Oxford) share podcasts on iTuneU. Oxford iTunesU, notably, has had a huge impact – massive in fact, open – truly open and not locked behind passwords and podcasts are downloadable and might help with dodgy internet connections. Just a few points:

  • The podcasts have had over 20 million downloads from iTunes U.
  • There are well over 3000 academic speakers and expert contributors.
  • The global reach is across 185 countries including US and China.

Reaching global audiences on YouTube

Many universities have open education channels on YouTube. One that springs to mind is from University of Leicester YouTube Channel housing science resources and with a focus on genetics as part of their GENIE CETL (genetics education – Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) project. One video on bone marrow aspiration has had over 144,000 views! Is that viral? (Pun intended).

Global visitors to university websites

Talking about how technology can transform education, look no further than the University of Nottingham. They have a huge number of open education activities within their Open Nottingham programme. These include open source software (Xerte course builder; ROGO assessment and feedback platform). The School of Nursing have openly shared over 200 educational resources (reusable learning objects or RLOs –  not just simply filmed videos but carefully constructed and peer-reviewed narrated animations). These reach global healthcare audiences.

Translations of UK OER into Nigerian and Brazilian

OK so I’m promoting our own project here – SCOOTER – involving Professor Simon Dyson at De Montfort University. SCOOTER is growing and still shares educational resources to promote and support sickle cell and thalassaemia education. Professor Dyson’s “Guide to Schools” supports young people with sickle cell in education, and has been translated into four Nigerian languages, and other resources into Brazilian, Spanish and Portuguese.

What about the analytics? Well I can tell you from the Google Analytics embedded onto the SCOOTER webpages, his “Guide for Schools” has had around 1000 views, and SCOOTER receives visitors and comments from around the globe, notably Brazil as the third largest visitor after the UK and the US.

Boosting research collaborations?

Everyone involved in creating OER, and particularly when talking to public and private sector collaborators, will testify how developing mutually beneficial teaching/training materials is always a very fruitful conversation to have. OER is an excuse to talk and a vehicle for establishing collaborations, which is one of the goals of the BIS report. We had a research fellow from the Commonwealth Professional Fellowship scheme work on a sickle cell health promotion game; it has been evaluated in the UK and is currently being developed further for Nigerian audiences.

Also at De Montfort, the Midwifery Open Resources for Education, led by Jacqui Williams, has held discussions with Irish and Afghan educationalists to develop and share learning materials. Incidently, many of the 30 or so midwifery resources on the YouTube MOREOER Channel were created by students themselves as part of their university internships and the midwifery programme.

How to keep up with the global market?

“As the new global market takes shape, the UK needs to move quickly to secure a world leading position”.

The global education market is changing, but markets always change. Companies such as 3M fire products out into the market, and then run with the most successful. MOOCs are the latest innovation, and as new technology emerges, new generations of learners will want to use the next greatest thing. The essential thing here is to base opportunities around good pedagogy (our knowledge of education delivery and design), and to base direction around existing evidence and not just user data. (Do MOOCs help people learn better – who knows. Do lab skills OER help students learn and build confidence, yes!).

To grow our position we are well placed to build on our expertise in open education to support learning and teaching and build global collaborations, rather than just hitching a ride on a passing MOOCwagon.

MoocWagon“Cow Power” – Johnny & Angus Blog
(but I think it is a MOOCwagon really).

Final words (phew, you say).

“By using education to strengthen our relationships with partner countries and build a platform for many other activities to our mutual benefit”.

Those involved in open education already know this! A final example is a set of teaching materials “Fast Track Analyser” developed for undergraduate biomedical science students that double as training for scientists in the NHS. The benefits are mutual, and wide ranging.


General comments

Hello world!

I suppose I should write a few lines although the sun is shining and the pub is open shortly.