MOOCs and stats, comparing cows and chickens

23 January, 2013

I’ve recently completed my first MOOC (massively open online course) – an introductory Cryptography course on coursera.org, created by Professor Dan Boneh of Stanford. The course, in general, was excellent. It offered much more than a taster of the subject (for those of us who completed it), and I plan to take part in the follow-up course that is due to start in April.

There are many claims being made about MOOCs, both positive and negative, and of course there are differences between taking a course as a relatively anonymous online user, than the standard experience of enrolling at a college or university. I intend to get around to writing something fuller on these at a later point.

However, I want to address one criticism that keeps on being made – the high “dropout” rate from free online courses. This is a criticism that I believe is invalid, because it is not comparing like with like.

I suppose, before going on, I should come clean and admit that I have been one of these dropouts (on several courses). In one case, I started the course intending to complete it, but decided that I did not have the time to devote to it at that point. In other cases, though, I enrolled simply to get a better idea of what the course was like, and help me decide which course I really wanted to be doing.

I would argue that this is more similar to browsing books in a library or a bookstore, than it is to enrolling on (and dropping out of) a traditional course. Standard university or college courses usually require some commitment (monetary, or in application time), to enroll. For a MOOC, it just takes a few clicks of the mouse. And I think it’s likely that the better idea students have about the level and requirements of a course, the greater probability they will have of completing it successfully when they really do commit.

More fine-grained data is needed about the motivations and circumstances of students signing up for such courses, before any valid comparisons can be made about retention and completion rates. MOOCs are certainly not an educational panacera, but they are a welcome newcomer to the neighbourhood.

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That’s the wrong apology, Mr. Clegg

19 September, 2012

Nick Clegg must be making life very hard for political satirists. Of course, it is unusual for a politician to apologise for anything, especially for breaking promises. However, Clegg is not apologising for his party’s failure to live up to their promise to prevent the rise in tuition fees. He’s apologising for making the promise in the first place.

Apparently, the Lib Dems’ new commitment will be to make no commitments (or at least, none that may be hard to live up to). It is a commitment to no principles, no standards, no values other than self-interest. Of course, going into government with the Tories made that promise impossible to keep. But they had the option not to to so, to commit themselves to opposition. They may still have failed to prevent the rise in fees, but they would have retained their integrity and not enabled a government committed to shifting the cost of the crisis onto ordinary people.

Of course, Clegg says that the reason he shouldn’t have made the promise is that it “was so expensive when there was no money around”. But that is a lie. We know that billions are lost to the country from tax avoidance by large corporations and the richest fraction of a per cent. And we know that pay at the top has risen by 50% while average pay has stagnated or decreased in real terms.

We should’t treat this apology with contempt because it is an expression of weakness. After all, being strong in the wrong cause is nothing to be proud of. No, we should treat it with contempt because it is the wrong apology to make. If this is political honesty, then it almost makes me yearn for ordinary decent hypocrisy.

Science Fiction, the long and short of it

17 August, 2011

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I read a passingly large quantity of science fiction, and was musing about some of the books I’ve been reading recently. One of the things that they have had in common is that they’ve been long. This seems to be a trend with present-day sci-fi, and I’ve been wondering what that’s about.

My current read, Michael Cobley’s Orphaned Worlds is over 600 pages in paperback, slightly shorter than Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detail. Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World is a relative lightweight, at just under 500 pages, while Stephen King’s Under the Dome (arguably more sci-fi than horror) weighs in at nearly 900. Much of recent fantasy literature is even longer.

It may be that this is what publishers are commissioning, either in the belief that the reading public measure value-for-money in pounds per inch, or because this is what they have been told in focus groups. Perhaps the authors are being paid piecework, by the word. Or, it could be that this is an attempt to be taken more seriously, to imitate “proper” (non-genre) fiction (though this this year’s Booker Prize shortlist is is quite varied in length).

I am not convinced by the trend. Surface Detail is multi-threaded, like many of Banks’ novels. But in this case, it was taken so far that it became rambling. While I found two of the threads compelling, others struck me as, frankly, boring. Cobley, on the other hand, falls for the temptation to over-explain things. Orphaned Worlds is the second in a trilogy, and (perhaps in fear of alienating the new reader) features long summaries of what happened previously.

And I realise that I like short books. It’s not that I have an aversion to length as such, but many long books could have been improved by the craft of a good editor. My favourite writing is stripped down, with all the inessentials removed, prose tending towards poetry. “The challenge is always to capture that essence in the fewest possible words.” (Mary Ryan).

The most memorable science fiction I have read include Arthur C. Clarke’s classics Rendevous with Rama and Childhood’s End at less than 300 pages, while Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants comes in below 200. When it comes to Banks, even, the work that I rate most highly is The Player of Games, at 309 pages, 10 shorter than Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. In fact, I cannot think of a single science fiction work of more than 400 pages, which would make it near my top 10, and some writers (e.g. Philip K. Dick) have done their best work as short stories.

Certainly, shortness is neither a sufficient nor necessary criterion for quality. Superb long fiction does, of course, exist, while I found Feersum Endjinn (also among Banks’ shorter tomes) close to unreadable. However, I’d like to make the case that, frequently, small is beautiful. And a lot easier to carry in your pocket.

More on epetitions…

13 August, 2011

UPDATE: The Keep Our NHS Public petition is now live. Please sign and publicise it.

A week ago, I posted some comments on the government’s new epetitions system. Among other things, I reflected that no progressive petitions had yet been allowed that reflect what I perceive to be the feelings of the general public about the NHS. I had put forward “Keep our NHS Public” petition, but had yet heard nothing about it. Since then a few progressive petitions have been raised (Free Dental Care on NHS, Abolish NHS prescription charges and End Private Sector Involvement in Health and Social Care)

Having still heard nothing back, I have now re-submitted my original petition under the title of Keep our NHS public:

The NHS is in crisis, but it is a crisis that has been created by successive governments over the last 30 years. The ideology of privatisation – Internal markets and PFI schemes – have imposed unnecessary costs on the organisation and swallowed up much of the extra funding that has been pumped in. Outsourcing of services such as cleaning have resulted in dirtier hospitals and a poorer service for patients.

We call on the government to:
* Scrap the current Health and Social Care bill, as called for by the annual representative meeting of the British Medical Association.
* Commit to a comprehensive, publicly funded and publicly provided National Health Service, free at the point of use.
* Ensure best value for the tax payer by funding all new projects directly, rather than via PFI schemes.
* Recognise that promoting, or removing barriers to, competition, is not a valid part of the role of body regulating health services.

This time, I have received an acknowledgement by email, so hopefully I will be hearing something within the next 7 days. It may be that it is disallowed, being similar in several ways to the latter petition I linked to above, so in the meantime, let’s see if we can get that one to 100,000 signatures as quickly as the rather less progressive one to stop the benefits of people convicted of rioting.

Democracy, petitions and agendas

6 August, 2011

Last Thursday, the British government launched a new e-petitions site to replace the one that used to live at number10.gov.uk. The Guardian‘s report of this was headlined Death penalty could be debated in Commons after e-petition calls, and a surprisingly similar story was later printed in The Metro. At least the latter story had been printed after the launch of the site, and the journalist had done a little checking. The article made reference to the number of signatures on the petitions, which were failing to support the suggestion that “a groundswell of voters” support the return of capital punishment.

The Guardian story, by contrast, gave every appearance of being that laziest form of journalism, the recycling of press releases (often dubbed churnalism). I visited the site as soon as I read the story, to find that it was not yet live. A notice on the front page informed me that it was to be launched that day. Just a little endeavour on the part of The Guardian might have have led them to conclude (as I did) that there was no substance behind the headline. Since the site has been live, the most prominent Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment has had significantly more signatures than the top three petitions to restore it. As I type, the figures stand at 15,780 signatures against vs. 10,743 for. We shouldn’t be complacent about this, and I would encourage everybody to add their e-signatures to Martin Shapland’s petition, but as it is the hopes of “Guido Fawkes” seem to be fading.

A more interesting aspect of the story, though, are the words of the leader of the Commons:

Sir George Young warned that it would damage democracy to ignore strong opinions among members of the public “or pretend that their views do not exist”.

The government has, apparently, set a threshold of 100,000 signatures. Any petition passing this figure will go forward to the Backbench Business Committee, who will consider whether it gets debated in parliament. Clearly, George Young was hoping for a stream of reactionary petitions, that would give the government legitimacy to push through measures that are a Monday Club member’s wet dream. Here, they may have shot themselves in the foot.

On March 26th this year, between 250,000 and 500,000 people marched through London to protest against the government’s savage cuts to jobs and public services. If the trade union movement can get such numbers to travel from across the country, to make their voices heard, it should be an easy matter to get less than half that number to sign a petition online. Prominent petitions in defence of the NHS, against cuts, against tax avoidance could be propaganda victories against the Tories. Even if the petitions never get debated, business committee papers should be available, where they will have to give a reason.

However, all that assumes that the system is administered fairly. Will those (potentially embarrassing) petitions ever make it onto the site? It is instructive to look at those petitions that have been created on the NHS. It beggars belief that these petitions represent the true feeling of the British public on our health service:

  • NHS should not be free to all (19 signatures)
  • NHS Priority for Workers (8 signatures)
  • NHS Rules for eligability for free healthcare. (14 signatures)
  • Stop suing the NHS – an alternative petition with a solution (71 signatures)
  • STOP THE NHS’S DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ALZHEIMERS SUFFERERS! (45 signatures)
  • Opt-Out Organ Donor System (55 signatures)
  • Fine patients who fail to attend hospital/gp appointments without giving prior notice. (35 signatures)
  • (four petitions that were not really about the NHS have been omitted from this list)

I am sure there must have been petitions created on the site, calling on the government to withdraw the current Health and Social Care bill, and reverse the process of creeping privatisation that has led the NHS to its current crisis. In fact, I know there has, because I created one titled “Keep Our NHS Public”, yet I am still waiting for the promised email about this.

My petition may simply be stuck in a queue, alongside tens of thousands of others. Maybe the bias in the current petitions can be easily explained by the government inviting a few of their mates to create petitions for the launch day. Or maybe not. I’ll keep you informed…