It’s alive, alive!


Watch this space!

End of an era

This is the last posting to this blog, probably for a very long time.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve not posted anything here for a while.  This isn’t due to a shortage of things for me to post about, but they don’t fit the ‘two cultures, one mind’ philosophy that kicked this blog off way back in December 2006.

I’m also about to start on a really interesting phase of my academic life, as I move from the ‘taught’ part of my PhD, into the big, scary thesis stage.  I think it’s really important that I do write during this journey, so I have created Andy’s PhD Blog.  I really hope to write to this much more regularly than I have managed here.

Thanks everyone for popping in, I know this blog has had a small following, and maybe my PhD-exclusive blog will have an even smaller readership, but as it’s purpose is not really publication, but to chronicle my own journey, this worries me less than I would have thought.


iPhone Tracker results

I’m sure anyone with an iPhone is aware of the iPhone tracker application.  I guess this is a good example of ‘the innocent have nothing to hide’… here’s my map – click to embiggen.

The strange quirk is my heavy presence seemingly in Amsterdam!  I think this is when I use my Three ‘mi-fi’ to connect my iPhone, when the o2 3G signal is particularly poor.  Either that or when I’m asleep a soft drugs dealer borrows my phone and hops over to Amsterdam to carry out a quick deal.

It’s interesting how well last years summer holiday in France is tracked, and the ‘world view’ confirms that I did indeed head to Florida and Tunisia with my iPhone.

Interesting stuff, maybe I’m naive, but if Apple say that this is gathered anonymously, I believe them.  I know however  there are security implications, and some people may be worried by this, and Apple’s silence is becoming a little ominous.

International man of mystery

Well, a well traveled Briton at least.  In the space of a fortnight I will have accumulated nearly 1500 miles of travel, which is a lot for a homeboy like me.

Last week, I was in Lancaster for the second, and final, PhD residential experience.  Of the twenty-five who started the course, we’re now down to effectively sixteen.  Attrition rates are traditionally high on higher degree courses, and whilst it was great to meet everyone again and renew our commitment to the course, it’s also a little sad that so many have dropped by the wayside.

The week itself was busy, both socially and academically.  I’ve mind mapped like there’s no tomorrow, been confused by some discussions, and had foggy ideas clarified by others.  One important element was the discussion of our ‘Part 2’ ideas, the thesis which I’ll be working on from the end of the year through to the end of 2013.  I have the germ of an idea, which wasn’t completely laughed out of the classroom, which I’m pleased about.

This week has been manic so far, writing online lectures and resources, and also catching up on Open University marking – I couldn’t do this the weekend as one of my PhD colleagues stayed for a couple of days – great fun but I have been playing catch-up which has only just eased itself.

Tomorrow will be an interesting day, a crack-of-dawn train down to London to a legal practice, this time to look at some risk-assessment software and look at risks that the Charity sector face.  It’s been a long time since I’ve done something like this, though it used to be a regular part of my job evaluating software packages.  It will be interesting to see how many awkward questions I can ask.

The it’s the glorious weekend, when I hope the toughest thing I’ll do is battle with Morrisons and hang out some washing, before flying off to Edinburgh next week for ICPD2 – not as I thought at first one of the lesser known droids in Star Wars.  I’ve already written about this, so I won’t bore you again, but it could be an intense, but fun packed few days.

Then we’re into Easter breaks, and with bank holidays and royal weddings I don’t have a full week at work for a good while… around this time though the next part of my PhD starts.  I’ve already accessed many of the readings, and this is a subject that does interest me.  I’m looking forward to this, the last substantive module in the ‘taught’ part of the course.

So, if anyone emails me and gets an ‘out of office’ reply, then you’ll know why over the next few days.  As Trillian says, we’ll have normality – “just as soon as we know what is normal anyway”.

Radio 4 Extra – The First Weekend

I have spent much, some would say too much of the weekend listening to Radio 4 Extra, the successor to Radio 7, or as some of us will still think of it due to early publicity, BBC 7.
I actually set my alarm for 5:55 on Saturday morning so that I could hear the switch over, and see if my digital bedside radio (one of two by my bed actually, for complex reasons) would change the name automatically.

Maybe they could have chosen a better start to the station than a play by George Bernard Shaw, but remember that the start of channel five was heralded by the Spice Girls singing 5-4-3-2-1 so at least it’s an improvement on that.

There is much to like about the new schedule. Comedy and drama seem to have a roughly 50:50 balance in the new schedule, with space for more 90 minute dramas. Whilst none of these yet have been my cup of tea, that isn’t the fault of the programme planners. Sci-Fi is still planned for 6pm and midnight, and in a shamelessly popularise move, the heavily plugged Torchwood dramas, all of which I have heard before and have varying levels of success are leading this.

But there are some criticisms. Repeats within the day are still to frequent, and for the moment appear unpredictable. I am sure over time I will start to notice when the repeats are scheduled, and this weekend was exceptional in the amount that I listened to, but there’s still to many. There is a good argument to be made that with iPlayer there is no need for any repeats, but I know a schedule has to be filled.

And the 10:00 Saturday evening comedian stand-up slot is a good idea, but to start with a frankly filthy routine by Whoopi Goldberg, which dealt with ‘lady parts’ for much that I was able to listen to (about 10 minutes) – I was glad to switch to Family Guy for something more cerebral.

I am away all this week, but have packed my little Pure Mi radio in my overstuffed gadget bag, and will enjoy listening to the new schedule. I did really enjoy waking to Dick Barton, special agent at 6:45, and even forgave the whimsical (i.e. boring) Ballylenon at 7:00 – after eight years of big toe/little toe/cbeebies in the morning, I’ll forgive much – except for King Street Junior, for which I have a personal hatred that goes beyond the rational.

So I would give Radio 4 Extra 7.5/10 for its first few days. Room for improvement, but could have been much worse.

More conference fun

As I’m going to be very busy next week at my second, and final residential week for my PhD, I thought I would take the chance to make a quick blog posting about some academic conferences that I have an interest in.

Firstly, a couple of weeks after I return from Lancaster, I’m off up North again to Edinburgh, for ICPD2, or 2nd International Conference on Professional Doctorates.  This is conference is a ‘light’ touch for me – it’s been nearly four years since I’ve attended a conference and this is a gentle introduction back into these sometimes surreal experiences.  I’m giving a poster presentation and talk.  The poster is directly related to the first part of my PhD.  Click below to embiggen the poster, though note that this is a large file!









The poster was prepared using the excellent software PosterGenius which has recently been ported to the Mac.  This has saved me so much time, and I would recommend to all students preparing any sort of poster presentation.  It’s not cheap, but the poster above took me a morning to produce, though most of the text was already prepared.  Printed at the university (£11 for an A1 print, with a free postal tube), the finished product is now winging its way to Edinburgh, to sit in an office until the 20th April.  What can possibly go wrong with that!

My University is generously (in this day and age) paying my conference fee, and the Open University, through the ‘AL’ development fund for tutors has agreed to pay my flight and accommodation expenses, which was great to hear.  I know that conferences are seen as ‘jollies’, but I have got so much out of the ones I’ve been to before.

And much later in the year, I’m planning to submit an abstract and paper to Relive ’11, Researching Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments 2011 at the Open University.  This will be a paper based on research I have carried out in Shareville, a virtual environment.  Again, I’ve been told if my abstract is accepted that my conference fees will be covered.

But long term, I’ve had to sit down and have a good think about what I’ll be spending most of 2012 and 2013 working on, my ‘part 2’ thesis for the PhD.  Whilst we won’t be committed to our subject until the end of the year, we as a cohort are being asked to think long and hard at the residential about what we would like to do.  I think I’ve a good idea, and will share this with my cohort next week.  I don’t want to give too much away about it at the moment, in case it gets shot down in discussion, but I will share as soon as I can.

Am I an academic researcher?  No, not yet, though I am making the first steps, and I can see my writing style and rigour improve with each paper I write… I have two more ‘mini’ projects to complete this year and then it’s the 50,000 word thesis (though I’ve just written 500 words here, so I’ve only got to multiply this by 100, right?).

Now it’s time to curl up with my Kindle, and for a change do some more reading, but of a less cerebral nature.

Radio 4 Extra – more information

Information is slowly emerging about about the upcoming switch from Radio 7 to Radio 4 Extra.


It appears that the switch will happen in the ‘first week in April’ – information about the new Archer’s spin off points to this date.  You’ll also see that I’m one of the few people who’s written a comment in support of the new programme- the first time I have been moved to do so on the BBC site (check out comment 11 on the posting).  For me, this couldn’t be worse timing assuming the ‘first week’ of April is the 4th April.  I’m in Lancaster for my PhD residential, though I will of course be taking a radio with me.


We don’t know much about the schedule yet, though I guess like all Radio programmes it will be published a week in advance.  Ambridge Extra will be on twice a day, at 10:00 and 14:15, so that seems to indicate that there will be repetition as there is now, though could we hope for maybe a little less (8:00, 12:00, 19:00 ‘classic comedy’ for instance, if I’ve had a hard day in front of the keyboard it’s possible if not likely that I will here each of these repeats, and be able to act as a prompt to The Men from the Ministry).  It’s unclear too what will happen to current programmes which haven’t finished their run.  I’m enjoying The Navy Lark, and whilst each episode is pretty well interchangeable, it would be a shame if they can’t complete the entire run.  I do hope that they keep the zoned programming though, it’s nice to know that I can turn the radio on at (say 10pm), and know there’s going to be comedy, or if I’m unfortunate Heated Rollers.


Well we know that there are going to be extended versions of The News Quiz / Now Show, and classic Desert Island Discs – so that will be something to look forward to.  Other nuggets in the press release state that some new comedy will be premiered on Radio 4 Extra before its outing on Radio 4.  This is a good idea, given how comedy programmes frequently transfer from the Radio (I listened to Miranda Hart’s Comedy Shop on Radio 2 well before the first series aired on BBC2, and the rest of the world ‘discovered her’).

Catch Up

It looks like there will be more podcasts available for off-line listening (Keri Davies has confirmed Ambridge Extra will be a podcast too), and of course there’s always iPlayer.  Worryingly though, buried in the BBC’s online strategy I remember reading that they were considering ‘spinning off’ Radio from the iPlayer.  If so, this is a mistake – so much time has been spent integrating the two services, and even my mom, who is not a techie can click on the iPlayer icon I’ve put on her desktop and access any Archers episodes she has missed.


That’s all that I’ve been able to gleam, and it seems that even the BBC News site can add little to the current knowledge, they’re keeping this all pretty hush hush apart from trailing the launch ‘coming soon’ fairly heavily on Radio 4.  I’ll resist posting more until actual launch, though if you hear anything, feel free to add a comment below.


Enough Procrastination

I am fortunate, in my day job I have a lot of freedom about how I spend my time, apart from the usual commitments of lectures, meetings, exam boards, boards of studies etc.

The upside of this that I can do what I want, and within reason, when I want.  Autofocus works really well for me as a day-to-day to-do list management system.

However, there are five items on the list which haven’t moved on for over six weeks.  Under Autofocus rules I should delete them, they clearly aren’t things that are inspiring me, and I haven’t really started work on them.  The problem is, they are five new online lectures for a course that the students will expect to be online, complete with supporting texts, talking head videos, and practice examination questions on the 1st June.

So I’m trying something inspired somewhat from Andrew Dubber’s 30 days of ideas, all be it on a much smaller scale.  My ‘five days of lectures’ will force me to write one lecture each day, and make sure that I’ve got all the resources needed, so that a couple of days of polishing  and tidying will get this monkey off my back, metaphorically speaking.

No email, definitely no Twitter, but at the end of each day I will post here how I’ve done, and how I feel about this.  Bursts of intensive creativity are nothing new, NaNoWriMo, which my friend completed in 2009, is an example of this.  If this doesn’t work, then of course I’ll know that I am truly a marathon, rather than sprint runner.

My reward?  I’ve been tempted to invest in another DAB Radio, this time for the office.  After all, it’s been months since I’ve bought one!

Brownhills Brownhills, a wonderful town!

The Health Centre’s up and the Anchor pub’s down.

Brownhills Brownhills, it’s a hell of a town!


Anyone who talks to me for more than a minute will know that I am Midlands born and bred. Friends from down south call me “the Brummie Git”, and when abroad natives have looked at me frustratingly and said “I know you’re from England, but which part?” unable to work out quite where.

I am West Bromwich born, went to school in Wednesbury, and lived in Tipton and Darlaston (and a caravan in Shropshire for six months), before settling for fifteen years in what was always optimistically called the ‘village’ of Featherstone – let’s be honest it’s a huge housing estate the likes of which we rarely see built nowadays.

I knew my neighbours, and the local PCSO who helped me out a a few times with some anti-social behaviour (not mine, just to clarify). But I never felt part of the community, maybe the lack of any school runs, or local shops didn’t help. My only contact with the council was when there were plans to develop another large housing estate on the edge of the village – I was one of the few supporting it, mostly because it would have brought a pub within walking distance of my home.

Time moves on, the commute into Birmingham was becoming less and less feasible (a bus and two train journeys, or sitting on the M6 for three hours a day). And so I looked to move.

Even before I had committed to purchase my new home, I knew a lot about Brownhills and the surrounding area through the activity of Brownhills Bob, a local blogger who pulls no punches about what is great, and what isn’t, about the area. He has since turned into an online friend, and my first point of contact for anything local, much as in the past neighbours would have asked each other for advice.

Looking wider, and through ‘Bob’, local website the YamYam (which used to be a derogatory term for those from the Black Country, but is now a badge worn with pride by many) I’ve become much more informed about what’s happening locally.  I have also been able to request, and receive help from my local councillor, Mike Flower, who picked up on a tweet a couple of months back.

So whilst I still may know little about my neighbours apart from the nicknames I have given them due to their habits, endearing or otherwise, I feel more of a sense of community now than I have ever done where I have lived elsewhere – for me it makes no difference whether interaction takes place over a garden fence, or via Twitter.

The YamYam is to cease soon after some really great work,  and I will miss it’s RSS feed.

Writing Abstracts – Four Years On

Four years ago, I wrote a blog posting ‘Writing Abstracts‘.  This has been one of the most frequently accessed postings over the years, and as I put the finishing touches to another abstract, I thought this would be a good chance to review, and maybe provide more examples of extracts from my own experiences.

I know many people struggle condensing their carefully crafted paper down to a few words, and worry that the ‘essence’ of their report will be lost.  I guess that because I tend to write concisely anyhow, I seem to have a knack for this sort of thing.

One word of warning, do not try and use the ‘auto summarise’ function in Microsoft Word to help you produce the abstract.  I have tried this several times, and it simply does not work.  The computer cannot know the most important elements of your writing, and invariably focuses on the wrong part of the paper.

In my first posting, I focused on the ‘say what you’re going to say, say it, say what you’ve said’ approach.  I have changed my mind slightly on this, frequently the word count ‘allowed’ for an abstract is too tight to allow this.  It’s really important however to ensure that in the first sentence, that the reader is left in no doubt what the paper is about… this is particularly important if ‘key words’ are not allowed.

Here, I humbly offer three abstracts for work which I’ve written recently.  Number one –

“This small-scale project considers the motivation of students whilst studying for a professional doctorate within the UK Higher Education sector. The literature review notes that motivation can come either from intrinsic or extrinsic factors.  Primary research in the form of two semi-structured interviews support this view, and whilst the literature states that external factors are the primary drivers to many students, intrinsic factors hold substantial value to the interviewees within this study.  The use of Technology Enhanced Learning however has had no significant motivational impact on the interviewees. The research notes that internal motivation is a factor that may require consideration when professional doctorate programmes are promoted.”

This abstract must have worked, as the paper has been accepted for a conference in Edinburgh in April.  The first sentence does pretty well reflect the title of the paper – when I do research I have to admit that I don’t fully read the titles of some papers, but the abstract provides a good chance to reinforce what the paper really is about.

Secondly, a paper which is simply a literature review, with no primary research –

“International students are a valuable resource, providing both financial and cultural benefits to many Higher Education Institutions. The additional support needed by these students is counterbalanced by the significant income that they provide to the institution.
This literature review identifies in which ways, and to what extent Technology Enhanced Learning can support international students through the three phases (presage, process and product) of their learning journey at the institution. Regular and early contact with students, sympathetic support at the start and throughout the teaching programme, and flexibility (within the boundaries of institutional regulations) combined with appropriate preparation during the assessment period are all areas where TEL can support international students.”

One temptation, and a cause for contention in my PhD cohort, is whether references should be included in an abstract.  I strongly believe that they should not be included.  This abstract could have easily referred to the author of the ‘presage, process, product’ concept, but this will of course be referenced in the main body of the paper.  One thing I don’t like about this abstract is the over-use of brackets – I think these were added during the final revisions, and should have left them.  Note that I only use an abbreviation (TEL) after I have used the full version of the term (Technology Enhanced Learning).

And finally, my latest abstract, which is still a work in progress (for the next week anyhow) –

“This small-scale research project formatively evaluates Shareville, a bespoke virtual environment developed by a UK University. The literature review focused on the development of vocational higher education and the historical development of virtual environments. Desk-based research evaluates various frameworks used for the evaluation of technology enhanced learning. Primary research was carried out in the form of semi-structured interviews with three users of Shareville.
A number of aspects in the development and use of Shareville are identified which may be of benefit for others who are developing virtual environments. The specific aspect of the cost of developing virtual environments are also explored – concerns by the developer and content providers of the time and cost taken to develop rich video resources can be mitigated by considering the project over the longer time period that the resources are going to exist.”

This feels a little long at the moment, and I will have to lose a sentence from this prior to submission.  But hopefully this provides a good flavour of the paper, briefly mentions the research methods, and with my golden rule of ‘no surprises’, the conclusion of my paper is stated.

PhD – wise, I’m now 3/5 of the way through the ‘taught’ element, with just two traditional modules left before the proposal and thesis stage.  It is feeling very much like a marathon at the moment (let’s be honest, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to running a marathon).  But with the help of the rest of the cohort, we are getting there.  The next residential is in April, and will be a great opportunity to recharge and re-invigorate ourselves.