Tag Archives: random musings

Wikidata driven timeline⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

I have been to a couple of wikidata workshops recently, both involving Ewan McAndrew; between which I read Christine de Pizan‘s Book of the City of Ladies(*). Christine de Pizan is described as one of the first women in Europe to earn her living as a writer, which made me wonder what other female writers were around at that time (e.g. Julian of Norwich and, err…). So, at the second of these workshops, I took advantage of Ewan’s expertise, and the additional bonus of Navino Evans cofounder of Histropedia  also being there, to create a timeline of medieval European female writers.  (By the way, it’s interesting to compare this to Asian female writers–I was interested in Christina de Pizan and wanted to see how she fitted in with others who might have influenced her or attitudes to her, and so didn’t think that Chinese and Japanese writers fitted into the same timeline.)

Histropedia timeline of medieval female authors (click on image to go to interactive version)

This generated from a SPARQL query:

#Timeline of medieval european female writers
SELECT ?person ?personLabel ?birth_date ?death_date ?country (SAMPLE(?image) AS ?image) WHERE {
  ?person wdt:P106 wd:Q36180; # find everything that is a writer
          wdt:P21 wd:Q6581072. # ...and a human female
  OPTIONAL{?person wdt:P2031 ?birth_date} # use florit if present for birth/death dates  
  OPTIONAL{?person wdt:P2032 ?death_date} # as some v impecise dates give odd results 
  ?person wdt:P570 ?death_date. # get their date of death
  OPTIONAL{?person wdt:P569 ?birth_date} # get their birth date if it is there
  ?person wdt:P27 ?country.   # get there country
  ?country wdt:P30  wd:Q46.   # we want country to be part of Europe
  FILTER (year(?death_date) < 1500) FILTER (year(?death_date) > 600)
  SERVICE wikibase:label { bd:serviceParam wikibase:language "en". }
  OPTIONAL { ?person wdt:P18 ?image. }
GROUP BY ?person ?personLabel ?birth_date ?death_date ?country
Limit 100

[run it on wikidata query service]


I’m still trying to get my head around SPARQL, Ewan and Nav helped a lot, but I wouldn’t want to pass this off as exemplary SPARQL. In particular, I have no idea how to optimise SPARQL queries, and the way I get birth_date and death_date to be the start and end of when the writer flourished, if that data is there, seems a bit fragile.

It was necessary to to use florit dates because some of the imprecise birth & death dates lead to very odd timeline displays: born C12th . died C13th showed as being alive for 200 years.

There were other oddities in the wikidata. When I first tried, Julian of Norwich didn’t appear because she was a citizen of the Kingdom of England, which wasn’t listed as a country in Europe. Occitania, on the other hand was.  That was fixed. More difficult was a writer from Basra who was showing up because Basra was in the Umayyad Caliphate, which included Spain and so was classed as a European country. Deciding what we mean by European has never been easy.

Given the complexities of the data being represented, it’s no surprise that the Wikidata data model isn’t simple. In particular I found that dealing with qualifiers for properties was mind bending (especially with another query I tried to write).

Combining my novice level of SPARQL and the complexity of the Wikidata data model, I could definitely see the need for SPARQL tutorials that go beyond the simple “here’s how you find triple that matches a pattern” level.

Finally: histropedia is pretty cool.


The Book of the City of Ladies is a kind of women in red for Medieval Europe.  Rosalind Brown-Grant’s translation for Penguin Classics is very readable.

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Thoughts on Support for Technology Enhanced Learning in HE⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

I was asked to put forward my thoughts on how I thought the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning should be supported where I work. I work in a UK University that has campuses overseas, and which is organised into Schools (Computer Science is in a School with Maths, to form one of the smaller schools). This was my first round brain dump on the matter. It looks like something might come of it, so I’m posting it here asking for comments.

Does any of this look wrong?

Do you/ have you worked in a similar or dissimilar unit and have any suggestions for how well that worked?

What would be the details that need more careful thought?

Get in touch directly by email or use the form below (if the latter let me know if you don’t want your reply publishing).

Why support Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL)?

Why would you not? This isn’t about learning technology for its own sake, it’s about enhancing learning and teaching with technology. Unless you deny that technology can in any way enhance teaching and learning, the questions remaining centre on how can technology help and how much is that worth. Advances in technology and in our understanding of how to use it in teaching and learning create a “zone of possibility,” the extent of which and success of how it is exploited depend on the intersection of teacher’s understanding of the technologies being offered and the pedagogies suitable for their subject (Dirkin  & Mishra, 2010 [paywalled ? ]).

Current examples of potential enhancement which is largely unsupported (or supported only by ad hoc provision) include

  • Online exams in computer science
  • Formative assessment and other formative exercises across the school
  • Providing resources for students learning off-campus
  • Supporting the delivery of course material when students won’t attend lectures
  • Providing course information to students

Location of support: in School, by campus, or central services?

There are clearly some services that apply institution wide (VLE), or need to be supported at each campus (computer labs), however there are dangers to centralising too much. Centralisation creates a division between the support and the people who need it, a division which is reinforced by separation of funding and management lines for the service and the academic provision. This division makes it difficult for those who understand the technology and those who understand the pedagogy of the subject being taught to engage around the problems to be solved. Instead they interact but stay within the remits laid down by their management structures.

There should of course be strong links between the support in my School and others, central support and campus specific support, but an arrangement where these links are prioritised over the link between support for TEL in maths and computing and the provision of teaching and learning in maths and computer science seems wrong.

What support?

This is something of a brain dump based on current activity, in no particular order.

  • Seminar series and other regular meetings to gather and spread new ideas.
  • Developing resources for off-campus learning (currently we need in CS to provide support materials based on existing courses for a specific programme) these and similar materials could also be used to support students on conventional courses who don’t attend lectures.
  • Managing tools and systems for formative assessment and other formative experiences, e.g. mathematical and programming practice.
  • Developing resources and systems for working with partner institutions who deliver courses we accredit, some of which may be applicable to mainstream teaching.
  • Student course information website: maintenance and updating information, liaison with central student portal.
  • Online exams, advice on question design and managing workflow from question authoring to test delivery.
  • Evaluation of innovative teaching (where innovative is defined as something for which we are unsure enough of the benefits for it to be worth evaluating).[*]
  • Maintain links with development organisations in Learning Technology, e.g. ALT and Jisc and scholarship in areas such as digital pedagogy and open education which underpin technology enhanced learning.
  • Liaise with central & campus services, e.g. VLE management group
  • Advise staff in school on use of central facilities e.g. BlackBoard
  • Liaise with other schools. There is potential to provide some of these services to other schools (or vice versa), assuming financial recompense can be arranged.

[*Note: this raises the question of whether the support should be limited to technology to enhance learning, should address other innovations too.]


This needs to be provided by a core of people with substantial knowledge of learning technology, who might also contribute to other activities in the school.  We have a group of three or four people who can do this. It is a little biased to Computer Science and to one campus so there should be thought given to how to bring in other subjects and locations.

We would involve project students and interns provided this was done in such a way as to contribute sustainable enhancement of a service or creation of new resources. For example, we would use of tools such as git so that each student left work that could be picked up by others. As well as supervising project students within the group we could co-supervise with academic staff who had their own ideas for learning-related student projects. This would help keep tight contacts with day-to-day teaching.

Funding and management

This support needs an allocated budget and well controlled project management. Funding for core staff should be long term on a par with commitment to teaching within the School. Management and reporting should be through the Director of Learning and Teaching and the Learning and Teaching Committee with information and discussion at the subject Boards of Studies as appropriate.


Dirkin, K., & Mishra, P. (2010). Values, Beliefs, and Perspectives: Teaching Online within the Zone of Possibility Created by Technology Retrieved from https://www.learntechlib.org/p/33974/



Comments Please

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Flying cars, digital literacy and the zone of possibility⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

Where’s my flying car? I was promised one in countless SF films from Metropolis through to Fifth Element. Well, they exist.  Thirty seconds on the search engine of your choice will find you a dozen of so working prototypes (here’s a YouTube video with five).

A fine and upright gentle man flying in a small helicopter like vehicle.
Jess Dixon’s flying automobile c. 1940. Public Domain, held by State Library and Archives of Florida, via Flickr.

They have existed for some time.  Come to think about it, the driving around on the road bit isn’t really the point. I mean, why would you drive when you could fly. I guess a small helicopter and somewhere to park would do.

So it’s not lack of technology that’s stopping me from flying to work. What’s more of an issue (apart from cost and environmental damage) is that flying is difficult. The slightest problem like an engine stall or bump with another vehicle tends to be fatal. So the reason I don’t fly to work is largely down to me not having learnt how to fly.

The zone of possibility

In 2010 Kathryn Dirkin studied how three professors taught using the same online learning environment, and found that they were very different. Not something that will surprise many people, but the paper (which unfortunately is still behind a paywall) is worth a read for the details of the analysis. What I liked from her conclusions was that how someone teaches online depends on the intersection of their knowledge of the content, beliefs about how it should be taught and understanding technology. She calls this intersection the zone of possibility. As with the flying car the online learning experience we want may already be technologically possible, we just need to learn how to fly it (and consider the cost and effect on the environment).

I have been thinking about Dirkin’s zone of possibility over the last few weeks. How can it be increased? Should it be increased? On the latter, let’s just say that if technology can enhance education, then yes it should (but let’s also be mindful about the costs and impact on the environment).

So how, as a learning technologist, to increase this intersection of content knowledge, pedagogy and understanding of technology? Teachers’ content knowledge I guess is a given, nothing that a learning technologist can do to change that. Also, I have come to the conclusion that pedagogy is off limits. No technology-as-a-Trojan-horse for improving pedagogy, please, that just doesn’t work. It’s not that pedagogic approaches can’t or don’t need to be improved, but conflating that with technology seems counter productive.  So that’s left me thinking about teachers’ (and learners’) understanding of technology. Certainly, the other week when I was playing with audio & video codecs and packaging formats that would work with HTML5 (keep repeating H264  and AAC in MPEG-4) I was aware of this. There seems to be three viable approaches: increase digital literacy, tools to simplify the technology and use learning technologists as intermediaries between teachers and technology. I leave it at that because it is not a choice of which, but of how much of each can be applied.

Does technology or pedagogy lead?

In terms of defining the”zone of possibility” I think that it is pretty clear that technology leads. Content knowledge and pedagogy change slowly compared to technology. I think that rate of change is reflected in most teachers understanding of those three factors. I would go as far as to say that it is counterfactual to suggest that our use of technology in HE has been led by anything other than technology. Innovation in educational technology usually involves exploration of new possibilities opened up by technological advances, not other factors. But having acknowledged this, it should also be clear that having explored the possibilities, a sensible choice of what to use when teaching will be based on pedagogy (as well as cost and the effect on the environment).

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Three resources about gender bias⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

These are three resources that look like they might be useful in understanding and avoiding gender bias. They caught my attention because I cover some cognitive biases in the Critical Thinking course I teach. I also cover the advantages of having diverse teams working on problems (the latter based on discussion of How Diversity Makes Us Smarter in SciAm). Finally, like any responsible  teacher in information systems & computer science I am keen to see more women in my classes.

Iris Bohnet on BBC Radio 4 Today programme 3 January.  If you have access via a UK education institution with an ERA licence you can listen to the clip via the BUFVC Box of Broadcasts.  Otherwise here’s a quick summary. Bohnet stresses that much gender bias is unconscious, individuals may not be aware that they act in biased ways. Awareness of the issue and diversity training is not enough on its own to ensure fairness. She stresses that organisational practise and procedures are the easiest effective way to remove bias. One example she quotes is that to recruit more male teachers job adverts should not “use adjectives that in our minds stereotypically are associated with women such as compassionate, warm, supportive, caring.” This is not because teachers should not have these attributes or that men cannot be any of these, but because research shows[*] that these attributes are associated with women and may subconsciously deter male applicants.

[*I don’t like my critical thinking students saying broad and vague things like ‘research shows that…’. It’s ok for 3 minute slot on a breakfast news show but I’ll have to do better. I hope the details are somewhere in Iris Bohnet, (2016). What Works: Gender Equality by Design]

This raised a couple of questions in my mind. If gender bias is unconscious, how do you know you do it? And, what can you do about it? That reminded me of two other things I had seen on bias over the last year.

An Implicit Association Test (IAT) on Gender-Career associations, which  I took a while back. It’s a clever little test based on how quickly you can classify names and career attributes. You can read more information about them on the Project Implicit website  or try the same test that I did (after a few disclaimers and some other information gathering, it’s currently the first one on their list).

A gender bias calculator for recommendation letters based on the words that might be associated with stereotypically male or female attributes. I came across this via Athene Donald’s blog post Do You Want to be Described as Hard Working? which describes the issue of subconscious bias in letters of reference. I guess this is the flip side of the job advert example given by Bohnet. There is lots of other useful and actionable advice in that blog post, so if you haven’t read it yet do so now.

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XKCD or OER for critical thinking⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

I teach half a course on Critical Thinking to 3rd year Information Systems students. A colleague takes the first half which covers statistics. I cover how science works including the scientific method, experimental design, how to read a research papers, how to spot dodgy media reports of science and pseudoscience, and reproducibility in science; how to argue, which is mostly how to spot logical fallacies; and a little on cognitive development. One the better things about teaching on this course is that a lot of it is covered by XKCD, and that XKCD is CC licensed. Open Education Resources can be fun.

how scientists think


hypothesis testing

Hell, my eighth grade science class managed to conclusively reject it just based on a classroom experiment. It's pretty sad to hear about million-dollar research teams who can't even manage that.


Blind trials


Interpreting statistics


p hacking


Confounding variables

There are also a lot of global versions of this map showing traffic to English-language websites which are indistinguishable from maps of the location of internet users who are native English speakers





Confirmation bias in information seeking



undistributed middle


post hoc ergo propter hoc

Or correlation =/= causation.

He holds the laptop like that on purpose, to make you cringe.



Bandwagon Fallacy…

…and fallacy fallacy


Diversity and inclusion


On the first day of Christmas⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

Prompted by

and with apologies:

On the first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A testable hypoth-e-sis

On the second day of Christmas
My truelove gave to me
Two sample means
And a testable hypothesis

On the third day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Three peer reviews
Two sample means
And a testable hypothesis

On the fourth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Four scatter plots
Three peer reviews
Two sample means
And a testable hypothesis

On the fifth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me

(I always thought the carol went down hill from there)

New projects for me at Heriot-Watt⤴

from @ Sharing and learning


I’ve been at Heriot-Watt University for many years now but haven’t really had much to do with the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning here. A couple of new projects might change that.

The Learning and Teaching Strategy for the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences mentions using technology to create a more student centred approach to learning, and also reshaping the soft learning environment to meet challenges raised by things like delivering courses across campuses in Edinburgh, Dubai, Malaysia, and with learning partners around the world. So it references ideas like the use of khan-academy style videos where appropriate, effective use of formative assessment and feedback and use of the virtual learning environment to facilitate student interaction and collaboration across those different campuses.

To put this strategy into action the School has set up a working group, which I am convening. The approach will not to be prescriptive and dictatorial, that wouldn’t work; we want to focus on identifying, nurturing and disseminating within the School the existing practice that aligns with those strategic aims. We also want to bring in ideas from outwith the School that can be realised in our contexts, they will have to be practical ideas with demonstrable benefits (I’ll still do explorative researchy things, but through other work). We started work a couple of weeks ago, with two initial tasks: 1, a survey to identify what people are already doing that might be worth sharing and to identify what ideas they would like help progressing; and, 2, an internal show-and-tell event to discuss such ideas. I rather hope that the event isn’t a one-off, that it leads to other similar events, and also that the practice we find through it and the survey can be made open so that we can interact with all the other people doing similar at their own institutions.

Coincidently, I have also been asked to look at automated assessment, especially in exam scenarios in Computer Science. We have run electronic exams in the past, and many staff appreciated the automatic marking, but the system that we used until now is no longer available. So I shall be working with colleagues to try to find a replacement. I haven’t worked much with online assessment before, but I think there are three related but separate strands that will need following: 1, the software system, its functionality and usability; 2, policy issues such as security for high stakes assessment; 3, pedagogic issues. Clearly they are interdependent, for example if your pedagogic considerations lead you to decide that students should have access to the web during exams, then the security issues you need to consider change.  My feeling is that only an off-the-shelf system will be sustainable for us, so I’m looking at commercial and open source systems that have already been developed. However, Computer Science obviously has a very particular relationship with the use of computers in teaching and assessment that may not be exploited by general purpose computer aided assessment.


WordPress LTS?⤴

from @ Sharing and learning


A question: does WordPress have anything like the Long Term Stability branches of Ubuntu?

The Cetis website is based on WordPress, we use it as a blogging platform for our blogs, as a content management system for our publications and as a bit of both for our main site.  It’s important to us that our installation (that is the WordPress core plus a variety of plugins, widgets and themes) is stable and secure. To ensure security we should keep all the components updated, which not normally a problem, but occasionally an update of WordPress or one of the plugins causes a problem due an incompatibility or bug. So there is a fair amount of testing involved whenever I do an update on the publications site, and for that reason I tend to do updates periodically rather than as soon as a new version of each component is released.

Last month was fairly typical, I updated to the latest version of WordPress and updated several plugins. Many of the updates were adding new functionality which we don’t really need, but there were also security patches that we do need–you can’t have one without the other. One of the plugins had a new dependency that broke the site, David helped me fix that.  Two days later I login and half the plugins want updating again, mostly with fixes to bugs in the new functionality that I didn’t really need.

I understand that there will always be updates required to fix bugs and security issues, but the plethora of updates could be mitigated in the same way that it is for Ubuntu. Every couple of years Ubuntu is released as a Long Term Stability version. For the next few years, no new features are added to this, it lags in functionality behind current version, but important bug fixes and security patches for existing features are back-ported from the current version.

So, my question: is there anything like the concept of LTS in the WordPress ecosystem?


Euclid in colour and technology for learning⤴

from @ Sharing and learning


I work in the area commonly known as Learning Technology, or Educational Technology.  I don’t have much time for trying to pin down what exactly constitutes “technology” in that context, and certainly none for considerations like “printing is technology, does that count”.  But today I bought a book which does quite literally(*) illustrate advances in printing applied to learning.

euclid2The book is a reprint of the Oliver Byrne’s The first six books of the elements of Euclid in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners which was first published in 1847. Instead of the conventional referencing of lines, shapes and angle by letters used in geometry text books. So instead of:

Proposition 30: Straight lines parallel to the same straight line are also parallel to one another.

Let each of the straight lines AB and CD be parallel to EF.
I say that AB is also parallel to CD.

Let the straight line GK fall upon them. Since the straight line GK falls on the parallel straight lines AB and EF, therefore the angle AGK equals the angle GHF.
Again, since the straight line GK falls on the parallel straight lines EF and CD, therefore the angle GHF equals the angle GKD.
But the angle AGK was also proved equal to the angle GHF. Therefore the angle AGK also equals the angle GKD, and they are alternate.
Therefore AB is parallel to CD.
Therefore straight lines parallel to the same straight line are also parallel to one another.

This book has:euclid1

Colour printing of books was not common in 1847, it only became commercially viable after the invention new printing techniques in the C19th and mass production of cheap synthetic dyes, starting with mauvine in 1856, so this can fairly be called advanced technology for its time. Like many uses of technology to enhance learning, when colour printing of text books did become commonplace, it wasn’t used with the same imagination as shown by the pioneers.

* except, of course, that “literally” means according to the written word and this is a book of pictures. #CetisPedantry


You are free to adapt the What is Schema.org briefing⤴

from @ Sharing and learning


Editable files for the What is Schema.org briefing are now available from the Cetis Publications site. The process of enabling editable copies of this publication has leads me to some reflections on the publishing workflow behind it.

We published What is Schema.org? a Cetis briefing paper for LRMI in June, as with most of Cetis’s publications it is covered by a CC Attribution licence so, according to the terms of that  licence

You are free to:
Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format
Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material

However,  it was published as a pdf, which a colleague of mine says means “pretty damn final”, so you would have found it hard to take advantage of second of those freedoms.

Why was it published only as a pdf and not as a .odt/.docx file like many of Cetis’s other publications? Well, I decided not to run risk the of head injuries  and masonry damage that comes with trying to do page layout in OpenOffice or Word, and prepared the pdf using an open source desktop publishing package called scribus.  On the whole I’m happy with that.  I could have released the scribus files when we published the document, but, firstly we were in a bit of a hurry and I didn’t have time to check that the text file assets had been synched with any in-page edits that had been made in the last round of proofing (I’ve done that now, so here is an archive of the assets and other files you need). I’m aware that not everyone will find scribus to their taste;  the original text was created in Google docs, which many people might find a better starting point for making changes to the text (because it is). The Google doc text had got well out of synch with the text in scribus and the final pdf.

So,  I have made sure that the Google doc has the same text as the published pdf, and have set the sharing on it so that anyone can see it and can make a copy to edit themselves (here it is). I did consider other possibilities, such as version control repositories e.g. github, but in this case I don’t think I want version control. People will make their own edits to suit their own purposes, I hope. In other words, forking is good, I don’t envisage pulling updates back into the Cetis version too often. I have also made a promise to myself not to start on the page layout for the next briefing (What is LRMI? in case you’re wondering) before the text is fixed, so that the Google doc and Scribus files for that don’t get out of synch.

I’m still not entirely happy with the editability of the images. They were created using Lucidchart. You can get the output as png files through either the google doc or the scribus archive, they’re better than nothing but I suspect that svg versions might be more useful.

Is this worth it? Personally I think so, otherwise I might as well use Creative Commons licences with the No Derivative restriction, which I choose not to. In this case, I know there is interest in creating a version that covers schema.org in RDFa as well as microdata. That would be an update worth publishing through Cetis.