Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Disillusioned with politics and politicians

It's never been my intention to use this blog to post political views but I've just been watching the 10 o'clock news on TV and seen an exchange between David Cameron and Ed Milliband at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons. It was yet another example of 'yah-boo' politics with no meaningful debate and no real outcome. It's not really any wonder that ordinary people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics as we watch our political leaders play to the cameras and bend and sway to the whims of the media and  corporations.

I've recently finished reading Damian McBride's book, "Power Trip: A decade of policy, plots and spin". McBride was Gordon Brown's press officer. In other words a spin doctor. Regardless of your political views it is a fascinating insight into the world of policy, and government decision making.

In the final chapter McBride, who was forced to resign in 2009 following revelations about his rather questionable practices, reflects on the current state of British politics. Setting aside any views of him personally,  I think he summarises the situation perfectly:

"Our political system is set up to expose human frailties.....  It's the cut-throat competition to be selected, elected and promoted, and the macho bear-pit of parliamentary debate; it's the booze-fuelled largesse and the late nights of Westminster, and the ever growing distance from the people that put you there; it's the worship of money, praise and favour, and the desperate kowtowing to those - including the media - who dispense them; it's the short-term motives behind most decision making, and the partisan impulse to disagree for disagreement's sake".

What a damning indictment of modern politics that is.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Using Google Docs in the classroom

I've been aware of the potential of Google Docs for collaboration for quite a while but I had never really considered the use of Google Docs for classroom activities.  That is, until a few weeks ago...

I run a final-year undergraduate module called Building Adaptation and Conservation, in which students are required to consider the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.  The students are generally well engaged and fairly opinionated, which makes the module enjoyable because the subject lends itself to a lot of discussion.

I wanted to run a class exercise in which students work in groups to discuss the preparation of a conservation plan.  I gave a lecture in which I explained the purpose of conservation plans and identified the key components of such a plan. In previous years when I have run a similar exercise, students formed themselves into groups, discussed the topic, made notes within their group and then fed back to a plenary session. There was no formal capture of the outcomes of these discussions.

It occurred to me that Google Docs could provide a means of addressing this problem. I knew there would be a maximum of fifteen groups in the session, so beforehand I created fifteen documents in Google Docs which were identical apart from the document heading, which simply indicated a group number. I then created a separate link to each Google Doc from within Blackboard (our virtual learning environment) and made these links available to all students on the module. I also made some example conservation plans available to the students via Blackboard. I asked students in advance to bring devices with them to the session from which they could access the internet. 

I presented a case study based on a real Georgian building in central London. I outlined some of the key features of the building and showed the students a series of photographs. Once they had formed their groups I allocated a number to each group by simply giving the group a slip of paper with a number on it. Each group then had to access a specific Google Doc on Blackboard and add information to the document. 
Specifically, I asked each group to consider:
  • How would you go about preparing the conservation plan?
  • What information would go in to the conservation plan?
  • What format would the conservation plan be in?
  • How could you present information in a way which can be understood?

Screenshot from Blackboard showing access to Google Docs

The students appeared to engage quite well with the exercise. They were able to access Google Docs on a variety of devices including laptops, tablets and smart phones. Once the exercise was complete I was able to open individual group documents on the screen at the front and talk through some of the issues identified. 

The advantages of using Google Docs were as follows:
  • Groups had a ready-made template in which to enter the outcomes of their discussion immediately.
  • Individual members of each group could all add information to the document simultaneously as long as they had a suitable device with them.
  • Once the exercise was complete all members of the group had equal access to the document they had prepared.
  • All students had access to the documents produced by other groups, thus enabling them to benefit from the input of the entire class.

I think this worked rather well as a means of capturing the discussions, and was much better than students simply writing their ideas down on a piece of paper and not really sharing that with anyone else. 

I'll be using this approach again.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Are our undergraduate construction students really ‘digital natives’?

In the higher education world we often hear that nowadays the students joining our courses have grown up immersed in digital technologies and are already highly proficient in using these technologies. They are the so-called ‘digital natives’ whilst the older generation are the ‘digital immigrants’. I realise that these ideas have been challenged but in my experience it is a widely held view that young people entering higher education are very ‘tech-savvy’ and don’t need any advice from us about the use of technology.

I wanted to get the students’ own views on this issue in order that we can adapt our provision to cater for students’ needs. At the start of the academic year last month I conducted a survey of all new students joining the Construction Studies Undergraduate Programme to identify the level of access they had to computing and how familiar they were with various technologies. The programme comprises five honours degree courses in construction-related disciplines, namely Architectural Technology, Building Engineering, Building Surveying, Construction Management, and Quantity Surveying & Commercial Management.

The survey yielded a total of 99 responses out of a total intake of 129 students so it is obviously just a small snapshot from one programme in one university. Nevertheless, it does produce some interesting results. Here are just a few of the key findings:
  • The vast majority of students (93%) have access to their own laptop. The majority of these devices run the Windows operating system.

  • Only around half the students currently have access to a tablet device.

  • The overwhelming majority of students (95%) have a smart phone. Around a half of these are iPhones.

  • Use of social media is nowhere near as widespread as we might expect. Whilst most students have a Facebook account, around two thirds of them post to Facebook rarely or never. Around 40% of students do not have a Twitter account and of those students who do, most of them rarely ‘tweet’. Google+ is only used frequently by around 20% of students.

  • 95% of students have never maintained their own blog. Similarly, around 95% have limited or no experience of using wikis, and almost 90% have limited or no experience of using discussion boards.

  • 95% of students have limited or no experience of using social bookmarking (such as Diigo or Delicious) and almost 80% of students have limited or no experience of using image hosting services (such as Flickr).

  • Around half the students do not use any form of cloud storage.

  • There is very limited use of ‘productivity’ web apps such as notetaking apps (e.g Evernote) or ‘to-do’ list apps (e.g. Wunderlist).
What does this tell us?
In my view this suggests that we cannot simply assume that our students are highly proficient in the use of digital technologies. I think our courses have to incorporate guidance on digital literacies and the effective use of digital technologies so that students can get the most from their studies and be better prepared for the professional world.

Further information
A document summarising the responses to the survey is available in PDF format here.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A good read...

I’ve just finished reading Alan Johnson’s book about his childhood up to the age of eighteen. Alan Johnson is a Labour MP who held senior cabinet positions in the last government, including Home Secretary. He was born and brought up in Notting Hill in West London in the 1950s.

Nowadays Notting Hill is home to several senior politicians, and indeed David Cameron had a house there prior to becoming prime minister. An average family home there would probably set you back around £5 million so people understandably think of Notting Hill as a very well-to-do area. What many people won’t realise is that 60 years ago the area was a slum. Johnson lived in abject poverty with very little support from a feckless father who abandoned the family. Living conditions were apalling by modern standards, with damp rooms, no heating, no proper sanitation and shared cooking facilities. His mother, who battled constantly against ill-health, worked at several jobs to scrape together enough to feed him and his older sister.

Despite the sadness, the story is ultimately about love and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Given the choice between a prime minister who lived in Notting Hill in the 1950s and one who lived there in 2010 I know which one I’d choose.

Alan Johnson - perhaps the best prime minister we never had.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Five things I've learnt on my Revit training course

This week, along with several colleagues from the Dept. of Property & Construction at the University of Westminster I’ve had three days of training in Revit, an architectural 3D modelling package. The training has been provided by Cadassist, and our trainer, Aaron has been superb - he is clearly extremely knowledgeable and experienced, not just in this software package, but also in many other relevant packages which often run alongside Revit. He presents the course in a very clear manner and is very patient with those of us who don’t quite grasp the concepts immediately.

The course has been a real eye-opener for me. I was aware that Revit (and similar packages) offered a whole new approach to the design process and the management of the information associated with a building, but this week I’ve had a glimpse of the real potential of this technology.

So here’s the top five things I’ve taken from the course:

  1. This technology has the potential to genuinely change the way the industry operates. When used effectively it will not only change the design process but will also integrate production, cost control and built asset management and will facilitate real collaboration between all the parties involved.

  2. Our students have to become proficient in this technology. It is them who will have the power to change the industry.

  3. All construction professionals should develop a good working knowledge of this technology, not just those involved in design.

  4. The technology has massive potential to change the teaching of built environment disciplines. For example, I teach construction technology and I can see fantastic possibilities for making the subject easier to understand for students.

  5. Regular use of the technology will be essential to retain and develop proficiency. I am going to have to keep working with Revit otherwise I will simply forget it.
Looking at the screenshot below, it will be apparent that I still have a great deal to learn!!

Monday, 16 September 2013

30 things that make you second-generation Irish - The Irish Post

Link: 30 things that make you second-generation Irish - The Irish Post

This might be a lighthearted piece by @RobBrennan82 in the Irish Post but it’s amazing how many of these resonate with me. What I find particularly funny is that most people who aren’t 2GI (second generation Irish) probably won’t understand them at all!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Orla’s first visit to Loftus Road

John and I made our usual trip to QPR yesterday but we were accompanied by some friends, including my Goddaughter, Orla who was attending a match for the first time, despite having broken her wrist last week. She really enjoyed it and she brought us some luck as we beat Birmingham City 1-0.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Interesting perspective on LinkedIn

Came across this (very lengthy) article about LinkedIn via a tweet from @jjn1

It’s adopts quite  a cynical tone about LinkedIn and I must confess that, to some extent, this chimes with my own view. I’ve always been sceptical about the value of LinkedIn for those seeking to boost their career prospects. I particularly dislike the recent trend of ‘endorsing’ people for particular skills or talents. I have a whole stream of notifications in my LinkedIn inbox informing me that someone has endorsed me for this or that.

The one valuable thing I use LinkedIn for is staying in touch with our graduates and keeping up to date with the progress of their careers.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Learning with 'e's: New wine, new wineskins

Link: Learning with 'e's: New wine, new wineskins

A timely blog post from Steve Wheeler @timbuckteeth in which he uses the biblical metaphor of new wine in old wineskins to highlight the problem of trying to provide an education for students who learn in new ways and with with new technologies, whilst still clinging to traditional pedagogies and practices.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Why We Need Digital Wisdom

Link: Why We Need Digital Wisdom

I picked up on this article via Nik Peachy’s Tumblr Blog. The article is written by Marc Prensky in November 2012. Incidentally, it was Prensky who originally developed the metaphors of ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ back in 2001 - a concept which has since been challenged. 

Anyway - this is an interesting piece. I find it quite useful to think of technology in terms of how we delegate portions of our mind, whether that be our memory to external devices, or our navigation skills to GPS devices.

I like the final paragraphs, which summarise the challenges for education:

For our students to get the maximum advantage from technology, we must view such enhancements not only as positive, but as essential. We need to reevaluate what “the basics” are for students’ technology-enhanced minds, and we need to revisit all our former notions of “age-appropriate.”

Some things—human passion, empathy, or yearning—may never be outsourced to technology. But we need to learn to combine these human traits with technology in order to make the wisest decisions in our 21stcentury context. For skills we choose to retain in our heads—such as logical and critical thinking—we need to turn to technology-enhanced ways of learning them, such as programming and online communities.

To do this, we need digital wisdom. The unenhanced human is no longer the smartest thing on the planet.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Last orders for the British boozer | Neil Davenport | spiked

Link: Last orders for the British boozer | Neil Davenport | spiked

I think this article has got it right, both on pubs and on the attitude of young people. I know from my own (often mis-spent) youth that pubs provided an enculturation into adult communities. I know from my own kids that there there doesn’t seem to be any real inclination on the part of young people to go to pubs nowadays. I think that’s a shame. As the author points out, pubs provide a great place for young people to interact with adults and to develop their social skills. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Apps I love: Wunderlist

Link: Apps I love: Wunderlist

I only discovered this app a couple of months ago, shortly before I went on holiday, so I haven’t utilised it to its full potential yet. However, I have a feeling it will become a central part of my digital life, because it is so useful.

It is essentially just an online to-do list, which can run on desktop, tablet and mobile. You can categorise your lists in whatever way you want and add items to lists from any device. There’s also a facility by which you can forward emails from your inbox to generate new ‘to-do’ items.The app has a clean, simple interface which makes it really easy to use.


Click on the title above to go to the Wunderlist website, or download the app at the Google Play store or iTunes store.

Been really enjoying Ben Howard’s album lately. Especially this track.

Deadline Day

Transfer deadline day usually brings a flurry of activity in the market at QPR. Who’s going to end up a QPR player by 11.00 tonight?  Benoit Assou-Ekotto? Chris Baird? Jermain Defoe? Who’ll have left the club? Joey Barton? Julio Cesar?

Well none of us will know for sure until the deadline is passed but no doubt we’ll be glued to Sky Sports News this evening following the latest developments with Jim White.

It’s sad isn’t it!

Constructionarium 2013

Construction students from the University of westminster getting real on-site experience at Constructionarium in Norfolk. Students spent a week on site building scaled down versions of real structures.

My son, the football fan

Link: My son, the football fan

I can really relate to this lovely article from the Guardian last week. It describes the writer’s joy at taking his son to football matches. It’s particularly pertinent for me because it’s about QPR. I love the line where he admits that he has never told his son that “supporting a mediocre football team provides a perfect preparation for real life: long periods of alternating boredom and misery, from which you pluck what beads of sensation you can, punctuated by occasional and almost unimaginable elation”

That just about hits the nail on the head.

This was the presentation I gave at the University of Westminster’s annual Learning & Teaching Symposium on 4th July 2013.

I am the team leader for the Blended Learning & teaching theme of the University’s Learning Futures project, and the presentation summarises progress on the project to date.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

My new blog

Well - here goes.

On two previous occasions in the last few years I’ve tried to get a blog going but have never managed to sustain it. I think I was trying to make the content too formal and consequently I never felt that I had anything significant enough to contribute.

This time I’m having a go with Tumblr, which seems to be much more laid back and encourages short-format uploads, whether they be text, images or links.

Hopefully it will be third time lucky.