Monday, June 20, 2011

Computer games as a lens on higher education policy

Trying out the Facebook app "global warfare", it seems that a player can equip his town with various facilities, one of which is a university. Of course, my own biases being how they are, I promptly acquire one and proceed to spend all my resources on upgrading it (which is not something that usually happens in real life, but computer games are there to allow players to indulge their fantasies). Anyway, given a university, a player can then click on "research" and select from a list of topics to devote one's (virtual) academic efforts. Unfortunately, "computational complexity" was not on the list. Instead, I settled for "drilling", which when completed, causes your oil production to increase by 10%. This helps to make sense of the various calls for proposals that emanate from EPSRC; I have a vivid vision of our political leaders clicking on topics like "construction" or "military science" in an effort to obtain a quick reward. Maybe next time I will select "espionage" which could perhaps lead to cryptography, and thence to computational complexity.

Monday, June 06, 2011


Taking a break from marking exam scripts, I am intrigued by this new story about the New College for the Humanities,, reported at the BBC: Academics launch £18,000 college in London, the Guardian: Richard Dawkins heads line-up at private £18,000-a-year university (with howls of dismay in the comments), discussed at Mary Beard's blog here (with some skepticism that I share), and see this new post at the Exquisite Life blog for some more sensible skepticism: “rushed and half-baked”.

I first spotted the story yesterday in a headline in the Sunday Times while at the supermarket, a clue that while this story has sprouted legs, it is not going to go the distance. Surely we should have had some preliminary reports in the Times Higher ages ago (they now highlight it: Top names, top whack: new humanities-focused institution to charge £18K fees".) A new venture of this nature is something that will be interesting to watch; I am not dismayed like the UCU (Launch of new private arts and humanities college is proof government is entrenching 'inequality'), but....

Various things don’t quite compute. For one thing, the numbers. 18k per student isn’t enough to bring in all these top academics, at least not with the sort of commitment from them that might be imagined by an uninformed reader. The USA has better options. Plus, the people who invested in this venture will want some return on investment. The name of the web site seems... poorly considered. “nchum” will get pronounced “en-chum”... also, why use the .org suffix as opposed to .edu, or Over at the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson is still enthusiastic:
The trouble with Britain today, he [A C Grayling, the new master of nchum] said, was that we simply didn’t have enough elite university provision – and especially not in the humanities subjects, where teaching budgets are under such pressure.
But, that’s got more to do with the definition of “elite” — the whole point of elite provision is that there shouldn’t be enough of it. If you create more elite provision, you end up killing the thing you love.

All right, back to the marking.

(Added 7.6.11: this article raises the above financial concern in more detail. This critique of the "money-grubbing dons" has attracted over 500 comments but doesn't address the concern about viability.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Watching one’s own talks on video

For readers who don't get beyond the first sentence, the take-home message is that it’s a great idea to watch videos of your own talks, for the purpose of improving your style and presentation.

The papers we write are very restricted in format. Indeed, a paper is pretty much determined by the result you’ve obtained. You get to name the variables, but that’s about it. Thereafter, you follow the well-worn path of introduction, model, results, and conclusions.

Contrast that with the activity of giving a talk on the work. Do you make jokes? Do you dress up? How much technical detail do you include? Do you compromise on accuracy for the purpose of conveying the intuition? Do you include cute animations in your slides? Do you stand primly to one side of the screen, or do you prefer to pace around? Do you sound informal and chatty, or grand and authoritative? Do you memorize any key passages? Decisions, decisions!

And, there are no right answers to the above questions; the answer depends on who you (and the audience) are, and what you’re talking about. Different approaches work for different people. And here’s where watching oneself on video can help.

I watched the video of my talk at the iAGT workshop mentioned in the previous post (and also here :-). And —this is the key point— various mistakes in the delivery of which I was blissfully unaware were suddenly exposed to the harsh light of day as a result. I then tracked down a video of a talk I gave at Microsoft Research (Cambridge) a few months ago, just for the purpose of gathering more data. The only previous time I watched myself give a talk was at a training session on lecturing quite a while ago, where a group of us had to give short fragments of undergraduate lectures, that were recorded and played back. At the time, the equipment was cumbersome and analogue, so you did not get to study your performance at leisure, at a later date. Also, it’s worth taking in a video lasting half an hour or so, to see if your style changes over time.

As it gets more common to record talks, you hopefully get more chances to do this. If not, maybe you should get a colleague to record one of your undergraduate lectures, or any other similar technical presentation.