I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for april 2014

Adventure, human nature and the fashion of the day

2014-04-30 by Nick S., tagged as dependence, experience

I was recently without Internet access at home for a week, apparently due to flooding at my local telephone exchange. I've heard that some people get very upset at losing their connectivity even for periods much shorter than a week, most recently in a Conversation article from Michael Cowling claiming that "we are all connected, every minute of every day, and without your phone you are on the outskirts of everybody else’s new, more digital, world." The local newspaper also ran a suitably angry headline on a stand outside my local newsagent towards the end of the outage. (I didn't read the newspaper itself.)

Frustrating as the lack of connectivity might have been on occasions, I actually found myself enjoying the adventure of a daily trip to the local library or city mall, where I could check my e-mail using WiFi services provided the local council. (I used to wonder what use public WiFi would be given that we all have Internet connections at home anyway, but now I know.) I was reminded of the days of dial-up modems, when connecting to the Internet was a minor treat, and I maintained a list of Internet-things-to-do to be serviced by dialling in for a couple of hours every day or two. The only really annoying thing, in fact, was that I fell behind in my Coursera studies due to an inability to download course videos over the public WiFi network. I was almost disappointed when the fault came to an end and the adventure was over (though I did catch up on my studies.)

One might suppose that I'm quite a different person to the smartphone-driven folk that inhabit the world described in Cowling's article. I'm certainly older. On the other hand, I presume that the video that Cowling presents to support the quote at the beginning of this entry is staged — not even the youngest and most gadget-conscious of my acquaintances or students behaves anything like the folks shown in it, and I'm sure that most people would regard those folks' behaviour as anti-social and obnoxious.

I recently went on a camping trip during which I was told that a young camper fitting Cowling's description had, in the process of this camp, discovered that she could, in fact, enjoy time without her gadget. One can speculate that I've just had twenty years longer than her to find this out, not to mention first-hand experience of a time when everybody went without a mobile phone all the time.

Perhaps being without the Internet appeals to a similar part of us to that to which camping appeals. I don't suppose I'd want to be camping indefinitely, though maybe I could if I had to given that I'm of the same species as ancestral humans who reached every scrap of land except Antarctica without motorised transport, electricity, or even agriculture. Similarly, my younger acquaintances can surely go without their phones for a bit, and might even enjoy it up to a point, given that all of us did just that only twenty years ago. We just need to remember that there's more to us than the fashion of the day.


2014-04-11 by Nick S., tagged as buzzwords, education

I had intended to wait until completing my Coursera course on university teaching before writing another comment on massive open on-line courses, but today read some words from recent ex-Vice Chancellor Jim Barber in The Australian's higher education supplement (Seven lessons of survival in an online world, 9 April 2014, p. 29) that prompted me to write earlier. Barber, along with some elements of the course I'm studying, seem to to believe that there is something terribly wrong with university education, has been for years if not centuries, and that the whole business is about to be swept away by fantastic new approaches and technologies that will have our students dancing in the streets with joy, not to mention heads full of knowledge.

Coursera's course being presented by American-accented lecturers at Johns Hopkins University, I was much reminded of the complaint that "Americans don't understand irony" as I learned about the need for innovative teaching techniques from a talking head with slides, and "discussed" the value of learning in small groups with hundreds of other learners on the discussion boards. Barber himself thinks that anyone "who continues to believe that the purpose of a lecture is to transmit information [needs] to be dispatched to a re-education camp" though he doesn't state what he thinks the purpose of a lecture actually is. (He may mean "class" rather than "lecture", since I take the very definition of the latter to be the oral transmission of information from the speaker to the listeners.)

Teaching Americans about irony and lecturers about communication aside, I actually found the course interesting and informative, with a good balance between delivering established knowledge, enabling student thought and discussion, and providing exercises that put relevant skills into practice. But this leaves me only more puzzled as to what Barber and his fellow revolutionaries are on about: I learned engineering using much the same combination of techniques twenty years ago, and it's no surprise to me that people use them, because they work (at least for me, and the many students who've successfully completed courses at my current instituion). Sure, they're on a web site instead of in a classroom now, but I wonder where the revolutionaries have been if they think that such techniques appear only in science fiction.

Sorel Reisman, writing in the April 2014 issue of IEEE Computer (The Future of Online Instruction, Part 1, pp. 92-93), seems to me to have a much better grip on the state of on-line education than many of its enthusiasts: he observes that MOOCs are simply learning management systems that support large enrolments, and that learning management systems are themselves simply content delivery systems tailored for educational content. He himself thinks that any real advances in on-line education must come from what he calls "adaptive learning", where the learning system adapts to the needs of individual learners. (Coursera's course recommends more or less the same idea under the name "personalisation", but the focus there is on how human teachers can provide it.)

A recent conversation with an experienced high school teacher told me that the same phenomenon exists in other schools: every now and again, revolutionaries come to school and ask teachers to "update" their methods with techniques that teachers have been using for decades, possibly under a different name. Perhaps such practices could use a buzzword of their own, maybe retrovolution?

Winning the lottery and other certainties

2014-04-06 by Nick S., tagged as employment

Every now and again, someone who knows that I'm a software developer, but is not a software developer him- or herself, tells me about how much money certain software developers make by developing mobile applications (or, in one recent case, web sites). Knowing quite a few software developers (including myself) who are somewhat less wealthy than the heroes of these stories, I've come to suspect that telling the stories is akin to telling an out-of-work actor that Tom Cruise makes millions of dollars starring in Hollywood blockbusters. Sure, a select few people do make millions of dollars by hitting upon the right software or being picked up for the right films, but most of us surely have much more modest prospects — just ask your average actor.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a happy, but measured, story along these lines in its "My Career" section (Dotty over phone apps, 29-30 March 2014, p. 13). It's not completely clear to me what the hero of the article is actually employed to do, but the thrust of the article is that he has successfully converted an interest in computing into a career by finding work with an iPhone app developer. In that sense, he doesn't seem much different from me or a lot of other computer scientists: we started out with an interest in computing, got degrees in it, and ended up working with computers in one capacity or another. I imagine similar things happen for people with interests in other things, at least some of the time.

To its credit, the SMH story doesn't make it out to be quite so easy as my non-developer colleagues sometimes seem to think it is, and nor is its hero made out to be particularly wealthy. Nonetheless, My Career and similar publications only interview winners: people reading the employment pages of the newspaper aren't likely to be seduced by the lives of sessional academics, out-of-work actors and other frustrated folks.

I suppose a gung-ho business type might say that I lack the entrepreneurial spirit required to create an opportunity that would make me rich. Perhaps I do: I'm typically risk-averse and I didn't take up engineering because I was interested in running businesses (or, for that matter, because I expected to be wealthy). But I think such gung-ho-ness might also be glossing over the part of the definition of entrepreneur that involves being the one who bears the risk of an enterprise. Cherry-picking the fates of successful entrepreneurs, who accepted the risk and won, ignores the fate of the many entrepreneurs who accepted the risk and lost. The result is the dubious supposition that entrepreneurial behaviour is a sure path to wealth.

Coincidentally, the April 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum contained an insert full of advice to job-seeking graduates that nicely illustrates this sort of cherry-picking, apparently unconsciously: three short articles outlining all the wonderful job opportunities that exist throughout the world are followed by a long article (How to Stand Out in Your Job Search) describing how graduates can stand out from the hundreds of other graduates also seeking such opportunities. Sure, someone out of those hundreds is going to end up with the job, and you have to be in it to win it, but surely no level-headed assessment of such competition could conclude that everyone, or even many people, are destined to win.