Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category

Book review: Brunel by LTC Rolt

January 30, 2014

LTC_ROLTShort review
Excellent read on 2 levels: the actual biography is really enjoyable and authoritative because of Rolt’s access to Brunel’s papers; and the introduction describing how Rolt’s hatchet job of John Scott Russell (the “other” engineer on the failed SS Great Eastern project) is probably unfair is fascinating from a historical/interpretation point of view. Overall, I came from a position of relative ignorance about Brunel’s life and work and was surprised at how unsuccessful Brunel was a commercial engineer (though his innovation is almost unrivalled).

Long review
Somehow, I have now been a lecturer at Brunel University for 3.5 years. It seems like only yesterday that I was starting this blog as a postdoc at the University of Manchester. In those 3.5 years my responsibilities have expanded (at home and at work) so, as I said in my last post, blogging has taken a backseat, which is a shame as I quite enjoy it.

The point of a brief autobiographical introduction is that my knowledge of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s life and work was relatively low when I took the job here at Brunel University. I knew he was an official, BBC advocated “Great Briton” but that was about it.

I did have a little go at addressing the conflict of being a climate scientist at a university named after one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution on my work blog recently (and in a talk for the London Science Festival) but I still felt that I really needed to find out more.

So I picked up a relatively old biography – LTC Rolt’s Isambard Knigdon Brunel, first publsihed in 1957 – which is still considered authoritative as Rolt had unprecedented access to the Brunel archive.

I’m glad I did. It’s really well written and has a nice mix of quotes from contemporary documents and descriptions of the engineering projects alongside important personal events. It flows really well too, which is surprising given the temporal overlap of much of Brunel’s work: I’ve tried to summarise this overlap in a little timeline that you can see below.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

The timeline also demonstrates how Brunel’s work was very intense (in a relatively short life – 1806-1859) and covered a wide range of areas: tunnels, bridges, railways, ships and other projects.

As an academic, I was quite interested in Brunel’s “impact”. What surprised me was that relative few of his projects were successful commercially. His ships were all failures commercially. The Thames Tunnel was a death trap that was never used for its intended purpose. The Great Western Railway’s legacy is somewhat tarnished by the “Gauge Wars”.

Perhaps this is a harsh summary of his work but it made me feel a bit closer to him: he wasn’t a great businessman but he was a successful innovator and researcher. His ideas were ahead of their time and were difficult to monetise in that period. His longer term legacy was much more important and changed the way that engineering was done globally.

Perhaps the most interesting passages in the book are those relating to John Scott Russell, who worked on one of Brunel’s biggest failures: the SS Great Eastern. Rolt tries to argue that Scott Russell was the villain in that piece and deliberately tried to undermine Brunel’s ship. However, the excellent introduction (by RA Buchanan) highlights some of the flaws in Rolt’s argument and supposes that Rolt’s position was driven by his desire to absolve Brunel of the SS Great Eastern’s failure and was biased by the contents of the Brunel archives.

Overall, highly recommended reading.

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Some thoughts on MOOCs

July 3, 2013

Coursera-LogoI’ve recently finished a Coursera Massive Online Open Course, or MOOC, called Introduction to Sustainability, which was run by the University of Illinois.

I completed it as a student, that is; as far as I can tell, Coursera MOOCs, whilst being “open” from the student side of things, appear quite elitist from the delivery end. So Brunel University might not meet their requirements as a provider, although I think they say that they consider providers outside their preferred group on a case-by-case basis. So maybe, what with my department – the Institute for the Environment – winning the Queen’s Anniversary Prize recently, we could be seen on Coursera one day! (And other platforms are out there: EdX; FutureLearn.)

Anyway, I’m very proud of myself for getting through the course as it involved quite a bit of work over an 8 week period when I was, amongst other things, delivering two MSc modules as a lecturer, going to China for 10 days and doing all the usual lecturer-type research and admin things. Phew!

I then foolishly started another 2 MOOCs as a student, including Climate Literacy. One of these I completed and the other I dropped out of (that was Climate Literacy – it was good but I had too much other stuff on to be able to complete it).

So the point of this post is to share some thoughts on the course, provide some signposts to other interesting looking climate related MOOCs that I might have a go at and perhaps think about how MOOCs might fit into the future of Higher Education.

Money

One of the key issues with MOOCs is how to make money from them and there’s a list of “Eight Possible Coursera Monetization Strategies” that I’ve seen in a few places. These seem to be direct monetisation techniques where I would have thought that the most obvious route would be via increasing awareness of your university’s courses and increasing recruitment that way. Indeed, the first message I received from the Sustainability MOOC organiser following completion was an invitation to another course that had a fee.

And why not? It clearly takes a lot of time and effort to put these courses together and if you have a group of potential students who are interested in what you’re teaching then perhaps I’m surprised that paid-for courses weren’t mentioned earlier and/or more often. (In fact, one of the other MOOCs I’ve started since completing the Sustainability one [not Climate Literacy, I might add] were much more aggressive with promotion for their paid-for courses. Unfortunately, their MOOC was a lot less slick than Sustainability [e.g. quiz questions incorrect, delay in starting] so I can’t imagine it’s a great advert for them.)

Sus_stateStill on the money theme, I almost stumped up the $39 for the “Signature Track” which is offered with the Climate Literacy MOOC – this requires you to jump through some hoops every time you do an assessment to prove that it’s you taking the tests. I’m not quite sure of the advantage of this. I suppose the current “Statements of Accomplishment” would be pretty easy to copy if you really wanted to – see mine to the right – and if the Signature Track gives you something that can be more rigorously linked to your profile then that would be nice. But then this could be solved by making user profiles public with grades of the MOOCs you’ve completed, which I don’t think they do right now. Either way, I’m glad I kept my $39 as I didn’t finish that particular course anyway!

MCQs

MOOCs naturally rely heavily on Multiple Choice Questions for assessment as they can be marked with no human effort. However, I quite often found the questions to be ambiguous – especially when I knew quite a lot about the topic of the question; this was true for both the Sustainability and Climate Literacy MOOCs. Naturally, the instructors want to set questions that require some thinking. For example, one of these question and answers sets is better than the other:

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Kofi Annan
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Tony Blair
d) Surakiart Sathirathai

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Banana
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Sponge Bob Squarepants
d) 42

The next level of question would be where there isn’t one indisputably “right” answer but where the question requires some thinking and is open to some interpretation. This requires even more thinking on the part of a student (and instructor) as an answer that the instructor deems as wrong could be right in certain circumstances (or vice versa). There then becomes an element of second guessing the instructor to put answer that you think they would say was “right” rather than the answer you think/know to be “more right”.

I hope that this isn’t to confusing a point or taken as a specific criticism of the Sustainability MOOC; it is a general point that setting good MCQs is very hard (and fundamental to the success of the MOOC structure).

Instructions

I’d like to think that I’m quite good at reading instructions and following them. Despite this, I managed to incorrectly do one type of assessment (the “Forum Achievement”) 2 weeks in a row in the Sustainability MOOC. By the time I’d worked out exactly how to do it (it was a little complicated!) I’d been given too many penalties to make it likely I’d pass the MOOC via that route (there were 2 other routes, fortunately). So, my point is, that instructions need to be really clear or else people will drop out/fail through little fault of their own. Maybe this feeds in to…

Low completion rate

The Times Higher recently reported that MOOC completion rates are below 7%. I’m not really sure why you’d expect completion rates to be high: it’s free to sign up and there is no consequence of dropping out. And “drop outs” may just be people who found out what they wanted to know and then didn’t complete the assessments. Although, one MOOC they reported on had a 0.8% completion out of 83,000 starters, perhaps that’s a bit worrying. [A point as an aside: are there many stats on MOOCs made available yet? I’d like to have a look if there are but haven’t stumbled across any yet. UPDATE (5/7/2013): Katy Jordan’s analysis on this is really good!]

Massive!

Maybe I hadn’t appreciated how big these beasts are: following Week 1 of Climate Literacy I had a quick count and there were over 4,000 posts in the Discussion Forums. That is big.

“Inspiration”

I got the feeling that I was not the only lecturer/academic sitting the MOOC. A lot of the buzz around MOOCs is probably within the Higher Education sector so I’d suspect that many of us are seeing what they involve. And I was inspired by what I saw. I added a session to one of my modules that was based on some of the reading I did during the MOOC and I may even record some supplementary lectures for my modules in our Virtual Learning Environment. I think that the MOOC has given me confidence to push more of the “information transfer” sessions online and use contact time for more interactive/problem based learning. This latter area is something that I think MOOCs will always struggle with, despite…

Peer Review

As well as MCQs, a lot of MOOCs use peer review to mark work (e.g. you write a short essay and another student on the MOOC marks it). They tend to take an average of a group of peers but you’re still a little at the mercy of the random selection of peers. And with such large groups it must be very hard for moderators to deal with abusive/bad peer reviewers – there could be 10,000s of peer reviewer comments in the early weeks of a MOOC.

Overall…

…I’m quite impressed by how much the MOOCs made me think and learn and I’ll be keeping an eye on how they develop. I’d certainly be happy to see applicants to our MSc courses taking MOOCs in preparation and as evidence that they are motivated to study.

Finally…

Some other interesting looking environmentally themed MOOCs on Coursera:

In the immortal words of Father Jack Hackett…

March 25, 2013

180px-Jack_award“Award! Award! Award!”

To be more specific: I found out a few weeks ago that I’ve been awarded the Royal Meteorological Society‘s (RMetS) Michael Hunt Award, which is “for excellence in increasing the understanding of meteorology or its applied disciplines among members of the general public”. Get me!

And don’t worry, I’m sure it wasn’t given to me for this blog, which has only rarely been updated in the last year or so – I blame having kids and my change from postdoc to lecturer, which have occurred since I started blogging. I also do other outreach/public engagement things like school visits, Skeptics in the Pub talks, science festival events and wotnot. It’s usually a lot of fun and to get an award for doing it is great!

Oddly enough, though, my previous post on this blog was slightly critical of a recent RMetS Meeting on climate change communication; I’m glad that they didn’t hold that against me!

So, to continue that theme, I thought I’d make another couple of points about RMetS and how it communicates with the outside world…

Most of RMetS’ effort goes into their meetings and publications, which are excellent for academics but what about everyone else?

I know that they run events in schools and at science festivals, which is great.

The previous RMetS Chief Exec had a blog for a while (it was quite fun, I enjoyed the posts about his watch) and it’s now become a more general society blog but I think that there’s still room in the weather and climate blogosphere (ugh, never though I use that word seriously) for coverage of big issues. For example, The Carbon Brief has only been going since 2011ish and it has become an excellent resource. Whilst I suspect that RMetS want to keep it a bit more light-hearted, there’s still some low hanging fruit here that I’m sure RMetS could grab. Even the columns in the (recently departed) “theWeather” magazine would have made excellent blog posts that I’m sure would get widely read but they were never (as far as I know) made available online.

I loved “theWeather” magazine and it even won an award or two but, given the way that publishing and reading habits are changing, perhaps it wasn’t the time to launch a subscription only print magazine.

I just hope that the RMetS can find more of a place online where most people do their communicating these days, particularly in terms of climate change. (Whether that’s a good thing is another matter!)

What I would do is set up a network of early career meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers etc. to run a collaborative blog on the RMetS website. One of the most interesting and exciting things I’ve done outreach-wise was the EPSRC-funded (now EPSRC-non-funded) NOISEmakers ambassadors scheme. It was great meeting up with scientists that you wouldn’t normally work with and discuss ideas (perhaps a little bit like the JASONs but not as serious!) In my case, this led to writing some nice general audience pieces, starting my own blog, networking with other people about communication and even working on papers and research proposals with people I met through NOISEmakers.

Finally, I also thought I should find out who Michael Hunt was and found this clip on youtube, you can see Hunt at 3.39, he’s got a good look!