Back to the Classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I’d be interested in running a workshop for year 12 students as part of the ESRC* Festival of Social Science.  This was organised as part of the University of Southampton’s Learn with US (Outreach) programme which I’d quite like to do more work with in the future.  The theme of the workshops was looking at how technology, and mobile phones and devices in particular, are being used in social science research.  As part of my research, I’m looking at networks and network (or graph) theory, so I thought I could have a go at teaching that.  I find networks fascinating, AND I knew I had some excellent resources that could be adapted for use with students, so why not?

I’m also really keen on promoting the idea that a) computer science is for women too, b) web science is an excellent way of combining the social sciences with computer science, and c) age is no barrier.  A teacher who was accompanying a group of students also told me that, as well as being a role model for girls, I was also showing students why being able to write code was so important as it could have a real practical benefit.

I really miss being in the classroom.  Why will be the subject of another blog post, but suffice to say that, for me, there’s something exhilarating about putting things together (in this case, a PowerPoint and some handouts to guide students the through some actual hands-on work) so that I can deliver knowledge in a way that I hope is interesting.  I like being in charge, in my own space, directing my own personal show.  It’s also a really good chance for me to consolidate my own learning, which is one of the benefits of teaching.

The students were, of course, excellent.  They were made up of groups from several schools – one or two local, others from further afield.  It was really interesting to observe how different as groups they were from one another, which I assume reflects both the socio-economic background they were drawn from (and is almost certainly directly related to the catchment area of the school) and the ethos of the school itself.  The interactions between them, them and their teachers, and with me was markedly different from session to session.  Having only taught in one school before (and not really being detached enough to just observe), it was a fascinating experience for me.  It was, though, overwhelmingly positive and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I’m sure they left with a positive view of the University of Southampton, and I hope they were inspired by my workshop, and the others they attended.

By the way, the resources I used were borrowed and adapted from the ‘Power of Social Networks’ MOOC** that has just finished on Futurelearn.  It’ll be repeated though, if you fancy a dabble into the world of social networks.

*Economic & Social Research Council

**Massive Open Online Course

Learning

I’m a slow learner.  By that I mean it can take me a while to put all the pieces together so I can see the whole picture.  If I was a detective, I’d be the plodding kind that takes ages to interrogate every witness, look at every piece of evidence, and use one of those huge pin boards to visually represent the case.  I wouldn’t have a Eureka! moment part way through when I could suddenly see whodunnit and spend just a few seconds demonstrating how everything that remained fitted together.

I’ve just spent the best part of three months teaching myself to write code so that I can copy blog posts from over 800 bloggers, together with the date the blog was posted and the title.  Actually, in the end I’ve written code that will do that for most of the blogs in my list, for reasons I’ll explain in the next post.

Writing computer code to do a variety of somethings, and do them in the right order, is hard.  I’ve been using Python, which is pretty straightforward and relatively easy to read if you’ve never seen code before.  While lots of things still happen ‘under the bonnet’ so to speak, the commands that make those things happen are pretty transparent.  It does exactly what you tell it to do, and executes your commands in a precise and logical order.  This is how it works:

(1 + 2) + (3 x 4) = ?

3 + 12 = 15

It will do the calculations in the brackets first before moving on to the second stage, where it adds the totals from the bracketed calculations together.

A similar instruction in Python would be:

if len(blogPostTitle) > len(blogPostDate):
blogPostTitle.pop()

So, if the length of the list ‘blogPostTitle’ is greater than the length of the list ‘blogPostDate’, remove the last item in the blogPostTitleList.  The second line is indented so that Python knows it must execute this line of code before it moves on to the next.  My code goes through a sequence of instructions, not all of which have to be carried out if certain conditions aren’t met, and it must execute this code several times before it can move on to repeat the process – in my case, on every item in a list – before it ends.

Typing it out like that makes it sound extremely simple, but the form of words, and the sequential structure of those words, have kept me occupied for weeks.  I’ve no doubt someone with a better grasp of maths than I have would grasp the logical structure behind it, and learn the language, much faster than I.  In fact, a long piece of code that does a specific thing can be labelled as a ‘function’ and given a name, and called on to do its work using just the name, saving you from copying and pasting all the code again (and having to make numerous corrections if it needs amending).

During the course of this project, I’ve written a bit of code.  Searched on Google for how to write the next bit of code.  Read bits from books on programming.  Searched again.  Written a bit.  Got one little thing working (like putting all the URLs in a list Python can read).  Written the next bit of code.  Or rather, tried, and repeated the process above several times over.  And believe me, reading coding solutions online, when you’re a coding novice, is less than helpful.  Just knowing what key words to put into your search is a major leap forward.  Finally, I ended up drawing diagrams of what I needed my code to do, printing it out and cutting it up with scissors so I could visualise the sequence of events and the result if I changed anything around, and then I went back to that last piece of working code I put together and I could see the final thing I needed to do to make it work.

I strongly suspected that getting to grips with code would improve my maths skills, and I was right.  It really made me think about the sequence of events as much as the language used to describe them, and of course if you want to be any kind of an engineer, you have to understand the rules of logic.  I feel as if I’ve really actually learned something properly, and that was one of my main goals in doing this PhD.  I’ve levelled up.

code

My personal blood, sweat and time, but no tears.

Rome

This time last week, I was probably on an aircraft waiting to fly back to Gatwick, following five days in Rome.  It seems like a long time ago now.

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He’s got wood.

You really can’t take more than three steps in Rome without stumbling over some ancient ruins.  They’re everywhere.  Often, they’re just some pillars, supported by metal bands and standing among weeds and rubble, usually up against more contemporary buildings.  I don’t doubt that just a few feet beneath the pavements, so much more remains undiscovered.  The point is, you can see so much without paying a penny, like the Trevi Fountain, which is pretty much what we did.

I didn’t bother to do any specific research before I went.  I watched Mary Beard’s series on BBC4 when it was broadcast.  I wanted to just look, and take it all in.  And it really is spectacular.  My general photos are here.  The river you can see is the river Tiber – the Tiber!  I don’t know why this excited me so much, but it did.  I wish I’d kept up with Latin, though.  Just the street names can tell you so much, but I might have been able to read some of the inscriptions and graffito.

Anyway, out hotel was this one, which was central for everything and very comfortable.  Mind you, it was a bit inconsistent.  My room was right at the top, with my very own balcony, and very spacious for a single room.  Wifi was pretty near impossible to get, though.  My travelling companions had single rooms each, both of which were smaller than mine (although one had a queen(?) sized bed and a door that was incredibly difficult to open.  The other was more like a cupboard and had a leaking bidet.  And none of our rooms were in the hotel we originally booked, which was this one.  For some reason, they’d made a mistake and had to move us.  The Helvazia was more central, but further away from the Colosseum and the conference venue which is the reason one of us was there in the first place.

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Even had a lime tree…

In fact, the mistake with the hotel booking came at the end of a day that had started with the rail strike meaning that I had to get a taxi to the station because my train was cancelled, then the aforementioned taxi hit a cyclist who had come tearing out from a park straight across the road (and was wearing his earphones….), and then the train to Gatwick was cancelled as well so we ended up getting another taxi (fifty quid each) to the airport because we didn’t want to take any more chances with public transport.  Sigh.

I didn’t find Rome as expensive as I thought it would be, which probably says more about how prices have risen generally than anything else.  We are really well (apart from the last evening, which was ok but not up to the standard of previous choices).  We ate here (which was my favourite, and by far the cheapest, especially with wine at 7 euros a litre) on the first evening; lunched here on Thursday (lovely, freshly cooked food but very uncomfortable seating if you have anything other than a small bottom); a Sicilian restaurant Melo on Thursday evening; and here on Friday evening.  The Constanza was something special.  Not only was the food and wine excellent, but the restaurant itself is partially in the remains of a Roman theatre.  Saturday was a bit of a disappointment.  We wanted to go to a place that made pizzas fresh and right in front of you, but unfortunately it was full, complete with queue of people waiting for a table

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The Tiber!

Two spectacular places we did pay to visit were the Colosseum and Trajan’s Market.  My Colosseum pictures are here.  Trajan’s market (photos here) was originally directly linked with the Colosseum.  The magnificent horse sculptures you can see are modern, and part of a touring public exhibition, the Lapiderium.  Given that I hard a tour guide say that more  ‘exotic’ animals were dispatched for public entertainment (and probably by ‘accident’ in the chariot races) in the Colosseum than at any time in history, I thought they were a poignant reminder of how cruel human beings can be.20161015_180440I would definitely go back to Rome again.  I didn’t see the Sistine Chapel,  or visit any of the art galleries.  I’d do some more research as well, and visit something with a bit more knowledge under my belt.  Oh, and I’d take several pairs of comfortable walking shoes and loads of pairs of socks.  Walking around Rome is incredibly hard on your feet, paved as it is with small granite blocks  if you’re lucky, crumbling concrete and tarmac if you aren’t.  It’s the best way, though, as nothing is especially far away and public transport looked packed and tricky to negotiate unless you speak some Italian.  I wouldn’t like to be there in the summer.  It was very warm even in October, and busy.  I can only imagine how hot and crowded it must be July/August.

What Big Data Can’t Tell You

I’ve spent what seems like months writing Python code that will let me download the content of blog posts.  You can  do this using what’s known as an RSS (Rich Site Summary) feed, but that only yields a summary of the most recent posts, when I need the whole post, and every post the blogger has written.  In some cases, this goes back years.  It’s been a painful process, and will be the subject of my next blog post, but just for a bit of ‘fun’ I thought I’d look at the comments feed instead.

A while ago, Tom Starkey (@tstarkey1212) asked on Twitter if there was any way of finding out which Edu-blogs might be the most popular.  One way of finding out might be to look at the number of comments made on posts, so I thought I’d use the RSS feed this time to download the latest ones and have a look.  I wrote some Python code, and bingo! there they all were in a nice tidy spreadsheet.  There are some issues, though.  Quite a few, actually.

  1. I have no idea if I have the http address of every Edu-blogger out there.  My source was the list in a spreadsheet provided by Andrew Old .  How complete it is depends on a) whether you’ve heard of Andrew, or b) whether you’ve heard of him but don’t want to add your blog to ‘his’ spreadsheet.  Still, there are over 800 blogs on there so it’s a big enough sample to be getting on with.
  2. The information I needed was the blog post title, the name of the commenter, the date the comment was made, the comment itself, and the http link to the comment.  The link is important because it contains the title of the blog site.  RSS feeds yield particular information as they’re kind of standardised.  However, the title of the blog post contained in the link, the bit in bold in fact: https://sarahhewittsblog.wordpress.com/ isn’t always the actual title.  Nor is it always after the //, so any attempt to automatically extract the title based on its position in the http address was difficult.  When you’ve got over 8000 rows in your spreadsheet, you so want to automate the process if you can.  I chose not to, because….
  3. The name of the commenter might also be the title of the blog.  In fact, this was the case for quite a few posts, something that only becomes obvious when you slowly scroll through each of those 8000-plus rows.
  4. The name of the commenter should be the very last item in the field yielded by the RSS feed.  In theory, it should be easy to extract because it would come after a comma or possibly even a | symbol.  So, I could write some code that would iterate over every one of those 8000 rows and just extract the commenter’s name and put it in a separate column, right?  Wrong.  Some fields were truncated because they were too long.  Relying on commas to demarcate the right characters risked getting the wrong information.  Sometimes there was nothing more than a space.  In the end, I did it manually, copying and pasting.  That also helped me to identify names that related to the blog title and the name of the commenter, so I could match them up.
  5. Finally, the most obvious thing.  Not everyone who read a blog leaves a comment.  In fact, I’m willing to bet most people don’t. And if they do, I bet they do it via either posting a link to the blog with a recommendation, or simply retweeting the link that brought the blog to their attention in the first place.  The only way of knowing who reads a blog is in the hands of the blogger themselves via their stats pages, or possibly Google with their page link algorithm.  Still, I think the real proof (in spite of what some bloggers have claimed) lies in those stats.  And given I’ve been accessing some sites repeatedly in an effort to see if my code works, there may be some glitches there as well.

In spite of all this, I gathered my data and used NodeXL to produce a graph.  Three, in fact.  The basic one is here and is best viewed using a laptop or PC.  I’ve made some notes based on the graph metrics (graph-notes) and there are two other versions here and here .  Again, it’s best you view them using a laptop or a PC.

Finally, if your blog isn’t on Andrew’s spreadsheet, and you want to see how it compares with everyone else’s (or you’d like me to include it in the data I’ll be using for my PhD) you can either add it yourself or let me know the address and I’ll add to my own records.  I intend to anonymise all my data before I publish it because I know how sensitive it is even though it’s public (I’m an ex-teacher myself).  Or you can send me your viewing stats because, after all, they paint the clearer picture.

The thing is, though, that while it’s easy to think your blog might the one that’s influencing everyone and getting them ‘on your side’,  knowing and proving it are completely different things altogether.

A Mini Review

I’m a bit behind with my blogs, I know.  This is an attempt to try and catch up a bit, pending a longer post tomorrow that will for the bare bones for a chapter in my PhD.

  1. I bought an electric bike a few months ago.  The journey to Soton Uni is 2/3 uphill and takes half-an-hour to walk.  This is fine when I have time to spare, and the weather is nice (but not too hot).  If I drive, it takes five minutes, which is not good for a car with an old diesel engine, and I have to move the car every two hours.  As well as having a battery that helps take the effort out of pedaling, my bike also folds in half and so I can store it under my desk.  It’s been reasonably well-used so far, and given that the journey is no more than about 10 minutes, I’m not at too much risk from Southampton’s shocking drivers.  And I wear a helmet and cycle in the middle of my half of the road.wp_20160504_001
  2. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times now, and I absolutely love it.  I have photos to publish, and I’ll put them in an album soon.  I’ve also been to Berlin, and in October I’m gong to Rome.
  3. My beloved car is 15 years old, and this year I paid for the air conditioning to be fixed.  I don’t care what anyone says, this was essential, and there’s nothing more annoying than having something in the car that doesn’t work.  Oh, and it’s also gained a dent that’s classic city damage.  Some numpty has swung into the car parking space beside me and rubbed their bumper up against my front passenger-side wing.
  4. I’ve been on HRT for a whole month.  It’s completely transformed my life  on so far as I’m the person I was when I came here.  I’d been experiencing hot flushes, which was disturbing my sleep, and consequently my ability to concentrate on my work.  Frankly, the jury is out as to the health risks of HRT.  If you don’t have to do a demanding job (or work at all) then you can probably manage.  Otherwise, don’t suffer.  I know my symptoms will return when I come off the HRT, but when that happens will be down to me.  In the meantime, I’m in control and back as a fully-functioning human being.
  5. I have become a really good cook of vegetarian food.  The thing about being a vegetarian is that you can’t just cook what you did before and simply leave out the meat.  It’s a whole new way of thinking about food.  It’s easy, and it’s delicious, and I can honestly say that I can’t get excited over meat-based food any more.  I will eat it occasionally, and I still like the unidentified pink stuff that comes  in the middle of your average greasy sausage roll as much as I ever did.  Just not as often.  My small vegetable garden here is fully planted  up with veggies for the winter, and I’ve applied for an allotment here in Southampton.
  6. After several weeks – months, probably – of writing and re-writing code, I’ve finally written some (with some help from friends) that does what I want it to.  I now know more than I ever thought possible about the structure of web pages and how to deploy Python code to open them and gather the contents.  When I mentioned what I wanted to do to someone from the Uni back in December last year, he suggested that rather than spend lots of time learning how to do it myself, I should get someone else to do it for me.  This goes against my very soul.  I was brought up to be independent and resourceful, to always be in control and to be self-reliant.  the idea of getting someone else to write the code I need….. well, it just wasn’t going to happen.  So I’ve written a bit, tested a bit, asked for help, written a bit more, tested and tested lines of code, and now I have a working model.  Ok, it only works with one set of web pages, but I know I can modify it to work with others.   I came here to learn, and learn is what I’ll do.
  7. I will never cease to be grateful for the chance to do this.  Thank you to everyone who has had a hand in it, whether you wanted to (or anticipated the consequences of your actions) or not.  My dreams aren’t big, but I’m living them.

A Reflection

I submitted my nine month report to my supervisors at the end of June, and a couple of weeks later had a meeting with my lead supervisor and my examiner.  This was conducted as a ‘mini-viva’, which meant I had to have a stab at defending my research proposal and background reading.  In the short time between submitting the report and re-reading it in preparation for this, I could already see some holes and issues, and of course they pointed out some more and we talked them through.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate tests, exams, or judgements on my performance.  I’ve always taken criticism personally, which is why I never went into graphic design when I had the chance.  Having the thing you’ve created (or the words you’ve written) pulled apart and rejected is the very worst thing in the world.  It’s literally like being stabbed in the heart whilst simultaneously being humiliated by being told to stand still for the stabbing after you’ve stripped naked.  On the other hand, I don’t want lavish praise for something that secretly isn’t right either.  It’s a fine line which, I’m happy to say, everyone I’ve met in academia (especially my supervisors) are able to negotiate successfully.  I’ve had no end of ‘well, what do you actually mean by that….. ‘  or ‘something you might like to consider is….’ which is how it should be done.   The very worst experience I’ve ever had was when my Head teacher not only turned down my application to move up a notch on the payscale, but savaged the evidence I’d presented, in front of my head of department, and didn’t stop even when I was in tears and could no longer speak.  That afternoon will forever be etched in my memory.

The reason I mention that is because, as a result of the feedback, one of the areas I need to research in more detail is ‘community’.  My PhD is based on a community of professionals discussing their practice and other related issues in blogs of their own, and on social media.  my approach is, I think, going to be rooted in ethnography (the study of communities from the point of view of an insider/participant) and to that end I’ve been reading this excellent book.  One of the things the author suggests is reflecting on your own personal reasons for wanting to research a particular community, and so here is mine.

My interest in this was sparked two or three years after the incident I mentioned above.  I was sat at home, signed off with stress, and so I turned to Twitter and invested a bit more time lurking around the discussions that were going on, and contributing my own points.

Back then, my account on Twitter was private.  I originally joined Twitter not long after it started in 2006, and enjoyed the banter with the people I found on there.  One or two of them I still talk with today, although I’ve never met them.  A couple of years or so later, and I’d found a community of teachers, some of whom appeared to use their real names, some used pseudonyms, and some, like me, kept their accounts private so as not to be identified by students.  Around that time, I was also ‘warned’ by my Head (the same one) that I should be careful what I said on Twitter, and that she was ‘aware I used it’.  I’ve no idea how.  Maybe she was one of the pseudonyms?  A couple of years or so after that social media use was mentioned in staff forums, and the official local authority guidance directives were delivered.  The bottom line was basically say absolutely nothing about your work, don’t even hint at anything, and it would be much better if you didn’t actually engage at all.  Shortly after this Michael Gove weaponised Ofsted and the culture of fear surrounding social media was suddenly very real.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the head to which I have referred was one of the ones that bought unquestioningly into the idea that if Ofsted said jump, she said ‘how high?’.  I’m not criticising her for that – lots of Heads did the same.  The real problem was that suddenly everything changed.  Seating plans had to be submitted and revised and explained and justified; the same with lesson plans; the threat of a lesson observation (entitled ‘learning walks’) was ever present; books had to be marked and extensive feedback left for the students (who then had to comment and then we’d have to comment on their comment…. . Yes, really.); the amount of data that had to be submitted went through the roof; and on top of all this Ofsted appeared to be demanding lots of group work and student-led activities in a school where behaviour was an on-going problem the senior staff refused to deal with if there was even the faintest chance that they could claim it was down to poor teacher planning, lessons that weren’t engaging enough, or lessons that weren’t challenging enough.  Plus, there were plenty of aspiring middle and senior leaders peddling the latest fad that we were ‘encouraged’ to try as it would be ‘exactly what Ofsted would love to see’, such as flipped learning.  For those of you that don’t know, flipped learning is where you ask a student to watch a video with the knowledge they need at home, and then this is used as a basis for the lesson.  Yes, it’s a great idea a) with students that actually do their homework, b) students with access to the web at home, c) students that are allowed to access the web at home, and d) students that care enough to do the task properly.  If just one student fails to watch the video, the lesson’s activities are already compromised.  If a handful don’t bother, you may as well abandon the lesson.

It’s at this time that I began to seriously question and doubt the things I’d been taught when I was training to be a teacher.  I also realised that the atmosphere at my school was, in effect, toxic, and the only people that were going to suffer would be the teaching staff.  Indeed, a number of staff left or were hounded out; the senior leadership team also changed and became a group of cheerleaders for the Head.  There was nowhere to turn for support.  And then I spend some time on Twitter, and realised that, while Ofsted had put THE FEAR into every school, not everyone was dealing with it in the same way.  Some Heads and their teams were obviously supportive, as teachers in their schools were making clear on Twitter. These were the people that also blogged openly and felt able to discuss the strategies of their own school, and criticise the Educational establishment without fear of being called to account by their Head.  They did it professionally, but they did it.  I would have been too terrified to say anything openly.  The experiences of other teachers were just like mine, and we commiserated together.

There was also a lot of discussion about Ofsted, which spilled over into blogs where the issue could be stated in more depth.  There was much criticism, and many of their ‘demands’ were refuted with evidence drawn from research into pedagogy.  Things like ‘learning styles’ (which my school, among many others, was still holding up as a guide to good practice) were thoroughly debunked.  I felt, I knew, that I wasn’t alone in the doubts I was having, and the toxic work environment I was experiencing.

When I decided I was going to apply to study for a PhD, I knew the area I wanted to research, and I knew why. The discussions three years ago were intelligent, informed and supportive.  Today, I’d argue that they’re even better.  Many people appear to have joined in with blogs of their own, and I think I’ve learned more from them both in terms of pedagogy and a professional mindset than I ever learned when I was training.  When I reach the end, if just one teacher who has been isolated like I was becomes aware of my work, or perhaps reads my blogs, and finds this community for themselves, I’ll be happy.  And if the Educational Establishment realise that there is a community of knowledgeable, reliable and thoroughly professional teachers out there who know their stuff and care about what they do, so much the better.  I live in hope.

p.s. After I’d left, my school went through an Ofsted inspection and was judged ‘requires improvement’ for the fourth time.  The Head resigned.