Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

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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.

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!

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.

24 hours with a Kindle

Last Friday I really needed cheering up.  There was no sign of my cough/cold clearing, I had a bad headache developing, and the prospect of returning to work did not fill me with the usual joy.

So as is usual I headed over to the Amazon site, to see if there was anything that particularly grabbed my attention.



I looked again at the Kindle site.  Most requested wishlist item, most number of five star ratings.

But I already had 2 x 3.5” Kindle readers (iPhone and iPod touch), and my iPad too.  Did I really need a 6” device?  Even one which could download from (almost) anywhere in the world (though interestingly not Tunisia, which seems to be having one or two problems of its own since I came back).

The following morning (I paid for express delivery, did I mention that I really needed cheering up), the Kindle arrived.  After making a bit of a fool trying to remove the second cellophane cover from the front of the device, I realised that I was actually looking at the e-ink display showing it’s ‘welcome’ message.


Nothing can prepare you for the clarity of the display.  It really is pin sharp and a different experience.  The closest comparison is that reading a book on the iPad is like reading a hardback book in terms of weight and size.  The kindle is a paperback book.  One that fits into a pocket and carry anywhere.

The user interface – to be honest this needs some work.  I love the big ‘forward’ buttons and the slightly smaller ‘back’ buttons, but searching and highlighting needs to be improved.  I know the iPad is a touch screen and so the UI is always going to be different, but I think more can be done here.

Alas, my posting title ‘24 hours with a Kindle’ was prophetic.  The next morning something happened to the display, and became a mass of horizontal and vertical lines, like Etch a Sketch on acid.  The device was still working behind the screen, but it was unreadable.  I guess I was unlucky, though subsequent Googling does seem to indicate some screens are very fragile.

Amazon have been great however, and arranged for DHL to collect the device from my home, and have confirmed that a refund for the full amount is being made.

As soon as the credit does appear back on my card, I will be purchasing another Kindle (the same model with 3G access).  I now also have a thick neoprene case waiting for my new Kindle (I’ve used something similar to protect all of my laptops and iPad).

I’m looking forward to showing the device to my friends (and taking some photos!), but there will be a short delay.

Autofocus revisited

Nearly two years ago I started to use a productivity system called ‘Autofocus‘, designed by Mark Forster of ‘Get Everything Done’ fame.  though I used the system for a while, and a month later was still enthusiastic about the system, As frequently happens I stopped using it after a few months, and resorted again to trying to keep everything in my head.

My new lecturing position is different to my previous one however, and whilst I do have some regular teaching, I also have intensive block weeks which require a lot of preparation, and also have distance learning students who I may not see face to face, but do have to regularly monitor.  Because of this, it feels like I am ‘juggling’ my workload a lot more than previously.  Clearly I needed to think again.  I tried a simple to-do list but this didn’t work for me.

So I’ve gone back to Autofocus, and writing down everything I need to do.  It’s very early days yet, but at least at the end of the day I can turn around and say ‘this is what I’ve done’ – Five items off the list yesterday, and two today (three once I’ve completed this blog post).

Why does Autofocus work for me?  I like the idea that there’s no prioritisation, you do what you ‘feel like’ at the time.  If you get bored with a task that’s OK too, you simply cross it off the list and add it to the bottom.  At the end of a page, you look at what you need to carry forward and write it again, if you don’t feel the need to do it, then highlight it (to show it’s never been completed), and forget it.

Mark Forster acknowledges that it’s no good for regular time-bound activities, but for anyone that has some degree of freedom in what they do, I can recommend it.

Asus eee 701 and Jolicloud 1.1

You wait months for a posting, then two turn up at once.  This is me flexing my techie muscles, a slightly rarer event than it used to be.

It was nearly two years ago that I bought my Asus eee PC, and I’ve always had performance problems.  I’ve fought against installing a linux designed for netbooks on it, though I have dallied with ‘live CD’ installations.

So the poor eee remained unloved, only used occasionally by house guests.

In November I decided to bite the bullet, and did a complete install of the Jolicloud OS onto the machine.  The installation was a breeze, though I did have to drop to the command line for a couple of ‘sudo’ commands for a problem which isn’t worth reporting here, as since then the OS has been upgraded to 1.1, of which more below.  My desktop is shown below.


Jolicloud works on two principles –

  1. The PC will be connected to the Internet most of the time.  As such, there is no differentiation between web-based applications (such as google docs), and ‘on machine’ applications (such as Skype).
  2. Automatic updating of all these applications is handled by Jolicloud automatically.  Every so often you’ll see a twirling progress wheel, and as if by magic you have the new program/OS update.

You can also access your desktop, and all of the ‘cloud’ applications via any ‘chrome’ browser.  As I’ve connected to Jolicloud via my Facebook account, one click and I have my netbook’s desktop wherever I am.  To be honest this is of limited use to me, but it is a handy feature to have.

Today Jolicloud released Version 1.1 of the software, which promises performance improvement (though I was already really pleased with the performance, boot up to Internet access in less than a minute), improved battery life (that’ll be nice!) and generally improved front end.  I wish I could include a screen shot, but the estimated 1.5 hour install process has so far taken 4.5 hours and is still going (the progress bar is moving, but very slowly).

Jolicloud is now touting the new OS as the answer for a wide range of low-spec machines, including old machines and touch tablets, and have therefore developed a ‘cloud’ operating system months (or even years) before Google and their Chromium operating system.

And if you want, you can even buy a Jolicloud-branded netbook (a Jolibook), though this still seems a little expensive, when you remember there’s no license costs.

Once I’ve given OS 1.1 a go I will let you know how it compares to the previous incarnation, but you can download it now and try for yourself.

I’m back!

Just a quick note to let everyone know that I’m back on this blog, and will start posting some new stuff real soon. It’s been a very busy couple of months, but I’m keen to re-activate this blog as I’ve moved into a new job within the university.
I’ve also got a backlog of technical wizardry to share, as well as posts relating to my new role as a lecturer in Birmingham City Business School.
Watch this space!

Mini post

Just a quick post to let you know that I’m still here.  I remember, not that long ago, when the time after marking, exam boards and setting resit coursework and examinations was a period of consolidation and reflection.

Not any more.

Anyhow, I’ve passed the first part of my PhD, if not with flying colours then at least I’m still on track for the PhD route.  I’m planning on submitting it to a journal for publication, after I’ve ensured that it’s suitably anonymous and removed the reflective element.

I’ve been running resit sessions for students who were not successful first time round.  So far, attendance hasn’t been great.  It’s been better for the exams which I’ve been invigilating, which bodes well – the first step towards passing a module is turning up for the exam.

I’ve also been doing shedloads of reading for the next module on my PhD, my current working title for the next stage is “Can Technology Enhanced Learning help Universities Support International Students throughout their studies?”

Oh, and almost forgot, I’m the proud owner of an iPad…. case.  The iPad itself will have to wait until my 40th birthday, as it’s a present from my parents.  I told them it was too expensive, but to be honest I didn’t take that much persuading.