Sunday, April 28, 2013

MOOCs - Are They Worth The Paper They Are Written On ?

Statistics One | Coursera
Statistics One | Coursera (Photo credit: AJC1)
The rise of MOOCs, as popularised by Coursera and being rapidly followed by a number of other university affiliated or independent learning companies, has led to a number of questions concerning the internet and its place in education.  Many voices in traditional education have raised the concern that the easily accessible MOOCs are not only diverting vital funding away from traditional education, but that they also do not keep students engaged and that a tiny fraction of on-line students actually complete each course.  Added to this are concerns that MOOCs are not as rigorously academic as traditional further education or traditional distance learning such as The Open University.

My personal perspective on MOOCs is that that some of these concerns are entirely valid, it is for example ridiculously easy to drop out of a MOOC when compared to dropping out of a brick university - you just stop logging on to the site.  No interviews, no pressure from fellow students or lecturers to continue, just go back to playing CoD instead.  The ease of signing up for MOOC courses, you just log in, provide an e-mail adress and that's about it, influences the ease of dropping out.  Of the four MOOCs I have signed up for, I have only completed two of the free courses.  I am not however about to drop out of The Open University to whom I have paid hundreds of pounds in tuition fees.  Free and easy can mean fast and loose.

Ivy League logo
Ivy League logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The question of academic quality is probably less easy to answer.  At the better end of the MOOC spectrum there are prestigious universities putting forward highly respected lecturers, many of whom have numerous specialist papers and other publications to their names.  You would assume that educational institutions who are either Ivy League or Russell Group members, or those who are not, do not want their reputations besmirched by peddling sub-standard educational material.  At the lower end of the scale there are a number of organisations offering MOOCs whom you will probably never have heard of, and of which an internet search provides little in the way of encouraging information.

It is probably best then to choose a MOOC presented by a high quality and respected educational institution in order to ensure that the information you will be receiving is of good quality.  But will this in itself ensure that the MOOC is worthwhile ? No. The most basic ground rule of all MOOCs is always going to be that you only get out what you put in, and in this way MOOCs perform in exactly the same way as any other method of education.  Those that work hard, engage the most, read around their subject and do a high volume of research for their MOOC essays and projects are the students that stand to gain most from their learning experience.  The students that just watch a couple of videos and then perform a perfunctory cut and paste job on their submitted work will gain little by way of retained information from the course.  The biggest problems with many MOOCs as they stand is that both of these styles of student might well pass their course.

As MOOCs are free to use, and tutors are not being paid a wage to mark essays, then must perforce rely on a peer marking system to generate results.  I mark four essays and I am guaranteed that someone will mark mine.  The pitfalls here are many and obvious.  In marking other people's essays; have I understood the concepts involved and the issues raised.  Obviously I do not have the depth of historical knowledge possessed by Jeremy Adelman,Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture at Princeton University, yet here I am scoring essays on 15th century diasporas. I don't have the cultural and musical experience of Dr. Carol Muller, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania, but the MOOC course was happy to have me grade the submissions of my fellow students.

University of Maryland to Offer Four Free Cour...
I would argue though that although there are quality problems with the MOOC grading systems, the courses themselves do offer well researched and good quality educational material, bearing in mind my earlier point about which course you choose.

So far I have taken part in four MOOCs, and have passed two of the four.  'Listening To World Music' presented by Dr. Carol Muller of University of Pennsylvania was a 7 week course which introduced the student to world music from South Africa, Tuva, Kalahari, Central African region, Cuba and Aboriginal Australia and it was fascinating.  Muller talked about the music, its social and cultural meaning, about how each style of music had reached western ears, how this had become an exchange of ideas and to what extant the music or musicians had changed because of it.  Similarly 'A History Of The World Since 1300' was an in depth and enthralling exploration of major world events told from a far less Euro-UK-centric point than I am used to receiving.  I am really sorry that I didn't manage to finish this one.

The short and sweet four week 'E-Learning and Digital Culture' MOOC from University of Edinburgh presented a mix of textual information with video lectures, short films and audio in order to look at the future of e-learning and the theories surrounding it. I passed this one.  In two weeks I am beginning another MOOC, 'Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights' presented by Jamie Pope, Nutrition Instructor at Vanderbilt University, again in conjunction with Coursera.

To sum up, a MOOC is only ever going to be as good as the student makes it. If you are planning to go down the MOOC route in order to expand your education it will help if you are already self-motivated, the easy going nature of free online learning isn't ever going to force the unwilling to write essays.  They are marvellous tools though. The idea that you can now 'sit in' on lectures given by some of the world's most prestigious universities is fairly radical.  Choose a course that suits you, work at it as you would work for a brick university and you will come out with something worthwhile, at least in terms of personal achievement.

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Friday, April 26, 2013


Diwali Festival of Lights at Harmandir Sahib
"Resonances between religions are not evidence of a historical or causal relationship" - Nesbitt, E., (2005) Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Terry Pratchett
Cover of Terry Pratchett
'Quick, you must come with me,' she said. 'You're in great danger.'


'Because I will kill you if you don't.'  - Sourcery, Terry Pratchett.
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I Always Run Away

050 Rincewind and Death closeup
050 Rincewind and Death closeup (Photo credit: steeljam)
'No, really, I'm a terrible coward, I always run away." Rincewind's chest heaved. 'Danger has stared me in the back of the head, oh, hundreds of times.' - Sourcery, Terry Pratchett.
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Blood, Mud and Sweat

Crossing the finishing line at the 'Over the Odda'.  Photo by  Andrew Siviter.

I was ever so glad that the race had come to an end.

You Wonderful People

The World Health Organisation (2007 report) says there are 314 million people in the world who are needlessly blind.

Last week I stumbled round a 10k cross-country race. Last week you wonderful people gave £200 to Sightsavers because I did so.

£200 will pay for four adults or children to have cataract operations.

£200 will pay for 10 Braille kits for people who are permanently blind.

£200 will pay for over 24 Trachoma  operations.

Sightsavers work in some of the poorest parts of the world.  They help people to live more normal lives, to be able to function as others members of society and to work and pay their own way.

Over the next few weeks, some people that you and I have never met, and that we probably never will, will regain their sight because you were generous enough to give away some of your hard earned money.

That's really rather good isn't it.  We've gone without a bottle of wine, or a new shirt, or a dinner out and because of it someone else who is far worse off than us will be able to see for the rest of their life.  You're all wonderful people, many thanks to all of you for helping.

Justgiving for Sightsavers

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Over The Odda - Over and Out

Yesterday was the race day, the initial running of the Over The Odda 10k set around lovely Hawksworth village with a quick detour out to bits of Menston and Guiseley.

Firstly the good news, I did finish the run and didn't quite come last.  There isn't really any bad news but the actual run was a lot harder than I was expecting.

At the start, oh yes, it's all smiles now.
Before the race began little packs of people from the 170 strong field were gathering to display their colours. Various running clubs were represented, all resplendent in their team colours.  Some people were actually running a few laps of the school field in order to warm up for the event. Madness! Why would you want to run further.  I was warming up more slowly with a cup of weak coffee and some last minute application of Vaseline to the nipples.

The race began downhill, the elite runners flying away from the start.  Two fields later we were all huddled together queuing to get over the first of many stiles we would encounter, and again two fields later on. Well this isn't so bad, you run a few hundred yards, then get to stand around having a breather.

The field of runners was now nicely strung out in single file as we descended into Birks Wood where the race organisers had kindly imported all the mud in Yorkshire for us to run through.  Ankle deep, trainer removing goo was the order of the day as we puffed and panted through the woods,  I say puffed and panted, except for the two ladies ahead of me who managed to run the whole 10k while keeping up a constant chatter about the likelihood of their respective offspring gaining decent exam grades this summer, remarkable.  I find that when running I can either run and breath, or I can talk and stand still, but never the twain shall meet.

After some bogs where shorter runners vanished up to their ears we emerged and ran back up the hill to the school.  The sun was out, this was easily the warmest day I have run on so far this year.  Although I am running in the picture, I was already walking the steep bits.
Just short of 2 miles, back up to the school.

Across from the school we went up a snicket and then down the Odda.  This is where I had a fight with a bush last week coming up.  Going down was scary.  A precipitous slope specially greased for the occasion.  Along with many other runners in the non-elite section I employed a combination of feet, elbows, knees and buttocks to get to the bottom of the Odda.

Beyong that the running was easier for a while.  We crossed some fields and did a loop inside High Royds woods and I felt that in the semi-shade of the trees I was running better than I had so far.  Then suddenly, and most unexpectedly, I was upside-down in a ditch. I'm a big lad, and my sudden loss of footing and plunge down the bank both befuddled and winded me for a moment.  Apart from a new set of scratches on my shoulder to match the ones on my shins I didn't seem to have broken any vital bits, so I knocked off the mud and twigs and stumbled on.

Coming in to Hawksworth (photo J Redding)
Coming down the Odda had been really hard, but the steady grind up Thorpe Lane was grim going.  I did quite a bit of walking between here and the finish.

A nice shade of beetroot (photo J Redding)

As I plodded down through the woods back to Hawksworth village I saw the most welcome sight of good friend John and his daughter Natalie.  I've often heard marathon runners saying how the support of the crowds lifts them, and it is true, having all the marshals applaud as you struggled past and seeing friends who taken part of their day to come and support your efforts does inspire you and keep you going.

A lap of the school field then and it was all over.  I had completed the first serious race I have taken part in since doing the Chevin race in about 1986.  I was knackered, sweaty, sore and muddy, but I'm pleased that I managed it.

I have run 10k+ in training, but running in the race seemed much harder, I think this may be that subconsciously you try to match your speed to the people around you rather than just plodding along at your own pace.  Normally when I run I listen to some music, but I opted not to do this for the race, I think this was a mistake and if I race again I'll treat it as more like a normal training run.

I would like to thank Emma and her amazing team of volunteers for putting the event together.  All the event team were marvellous, kind and helpful and while the elite guys must have whistled through the checkpoints the marshals kept on applauding us and cheering us on, it really made a difference.

Regarding the start and the backlog at the first stiles, I wonder if there would be some way in future Odda's to stagger the start ? Perhaps setting off the elite club runners first and then having a 'fat old lads' section starting later ?  I also found descending the Odda just a little too difficult.  I have to balance these observations against the fact that I'm a plump, slow, middle-aged bloke, the experience that the proper runners had was probably quite different.

 A huge thankyou to all my sponsors, we raised about £200 for Sightsavers, I'll do another post about this.

Would I race again then ?  Yes.  Although next time I'd like a flatter route.  Would I run the Odda again ? I'll tell you this time next year.
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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Surreal Swimming

A watering can made of plastic.
Beard watering device
Being retired, a gentleman of leisure, I currently have a lot of time to spend with my nephews and nieces, so on Monday I took Joe walking, yesterday I went swimming with the twins.

What wonderful and surreal little creatures three years olds are.  Jack spent quite some time with a plastic watering can soaking my beard to make it grow more before telling me that he could see custard on the ceiling.

Alice then picked up on the custard comment, adding that she could also see a sandwich on the ceiling.

"What sort of sandwich is it ?" I asked, playing along. "A ham sandwich ?"

"Silly uncle Mikey," she replied, followed by "It's a bread sandwich."  Cue hysterical laughter from Alice.
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Walking Yorkshire - Pen-y-Ghent

Nephew Joe had been passed into my care for the day so we thought a quick jaunt up one of Yorkshire's most travelled peaks would be a good day out.  It was blustery at Horton-In-Ribblesdale, the wind had become stiff as climbed the lower slopes, and by the time we had made the last turn for the summit it was a constant, pounding force, like trying to walk forwards into a jet engine testing tunnel.
Mountain boy.

It is said that it's a rare day when you cannot fly a kite on the summit of any of the Three Peaks, kite flying on Monday I think would have involved the flyee being pulled off the summit to a painful, if not fatal, descent on the boulder strewn steep east slopes.

Pen-y-Ghent summit looking towards Horton.
We were on the top in 1 hour 15 mins, to be honest, that was only because I was slowing Joe down.  With his boundless 12 year old energy Joe had taken to running up some sections of the path, then running back down to where I was slowly panting my way up.

Pen-y-Ghent summit and trig point.

The wind at the top was really quite impressive, either blowing full face on and trying to force itself into your lungs, or tearing sideways across your face with the alternate feeling that the air was actually moving too fast to breath.  Down in the valley it had been pleasantly warm, up on the top the wind was bitterly cold.

On the way back down we had a short detour to peer down Hull Pot before getting back to the village, where, as we were at the wrong end of the Easter holidays, the Pen-y-Ghent cafe was sadly closed, so no tea and fruit cake for us.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

WeightWatchers 5%

WeightWatchers 5% weight loss card.
I have been attending WeightWatchers, and following the health program, for 5 weeks already.  At last night's meeting my weigh-in revealed that I have managed to shed 1 stone and 2 lbs, go me! I'm rather impressed.  I have also managed to shed over 5% of my initial starting weight, for which I got an honorary mention in class and a card signed by the group leader.

I have followed the plan every day, making note of what I have been eating and trying to plan dinners ahead so that I am more in control of what I'm stuffing in my mouth.  My next goal is the 10% loss achievement which I think is do-able if I keep counting ProPoints and also keep up the the steady amount of exercise I've been doing.  The points system works well, and with the weekly bonus points I can even have a night like last Saturday, which involved a whole bottle of red wine and a sumptuous amount of Chinese food,

Do I feel any different ? Well, I fastening my belt one notch further on, and I definitely feel there is a little more space in my hiking coat - it isn't stretched tight over my belly any more.  I am fitter as well, not really as a result of WeightWatchers but rather because of the running and hiking.  I managed 5 miles last week without feeling that I was about to expire en route, despite the incident involving a gorse bush and bramble thicket.

All is well at the moment then, now if someone would just give me a job...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Lost In Action

Distance (Photo credits:
Training on Saturday morning was fun, he says from between clenched teeth.  Meg thought I should do some cross-country training to get myself a bit more used to the conditions underfoot.  I set off on the roads, and then at High Royds I plunged into the woods and did the back half of the Over The Odda route in reverse.

This was going sort of fine, I was splashing through the mud and coping with gates and styles, until at the foot of the Odda I inexplicably lost the track.  I cannot explain, one moment I was jogging across fields from style to style, the next I was lost on a gorse strewn, mud-slick, 1 in 2 ascent.

Unable to discern the route from amidst the bushes I pushed on upwards.  One false step proved to be my undoing, I slipped sideways and into the waiting clutches of a triffid. As the lurking plant horror shredded my shins with its razor sharp spines I desperately tried to get of something to get me back upright only to find that everything at floor level was brambles, everything above that gorse.

With lacerated lower limbs and impaled palms I fell over the last style and re-discovered the path.  The wrong path as it turns out, minutes later I was stuck overlooking Hawksworth Quarry with no visible route down.  An amount of re-tracing my steps accompanied by almost constant swearing saw me back to another path which although it descended at a precipitous angle and was lavishly coated with half rotted leaves giving it all the traction of a child's slide covered in WD40, did project me back to the road in the middle of Hawksworth.  And apologies to the startled driver who had to brake so suddenly to avoid the blood-streaked, mud-coated shambling apparition which loomed out of the hedge into the road.

Saturday's training run. 

Anyway, I made it home, and the plus side is that I am confident I can now do the distance, running up steep and muddy hills though is still going to be a very slow affair.

If anyone would still like to sponsor me, I am running for the charity Sightsavers.

JustGiving - Sightsavers

Many, many thanks to everyone that has pledged money so far, I really appreciate all your generosity.
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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Book Review : Dark Shadows Falling - Joe Simpson 10*

Simpson provides an expert insider's account of the state of top level mountaineering in the late 1990's. He is scathing in his criticism of methods, groups and individuals whom he believes have departed from the true spirit of high altitude mountaineering into a win at all costs and profit mentality.

Simpson discusses the disastrous 1996 Everest expeditions, also well covered in John Krakauer's excellent book 'Into Thin Air', railing against what he sees as an unforgivable lapse of basic human ethics in the face of personal ambition.

Also mentioned is the harrowing death of a climber on Everest in 1992 who died only yards from other climbers who were safe inside their tents, and Simpson weighs all these things against his own determination to climb a new route up Pumori.

Simpson's writing is terse and heartfelt, his clear moral stance a clarion call for all those involved in potentially dangerous pursuits.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Weighing In

Cover of "Soul of a Chef"
Cover of Soul of a Chef
Three weeks of WeightWatchers and 11 lbs lost, I am hoping to have dropped a stone before I 'compete' in the Over The Odda at the end of nest week.

The system seems to be working for me so far.  I have been doing plenty of exercise in addition to following the food plan so that has undoubtedly been helping.  I like the fact that the plan has a pool of weekly bonus points so that every so often you can spend them on a Chinese takeaway for example, or perhaps having numerous pints of bitter before bouncing around in the crowd at a rock gig.

There are two things that I could do on the plan to really cut down on ProPoints, if I was a vegetarian teetotaller then I'd find it hard to eat my daily points allowance.  Red wine and red meat though are two of the finer things in life so I am highly unlikely ever to give them up.

I sometimes think that my WeightWatchers leader looks at the points tally from the wrong perspective, only last week she said that is we tallied our points carefully we might have enough left over for a glass of wine.  Have enough left over ? I have the wine and then see if I can afford to eat.

This week I have eaten a lot of beef, which is expensive in ProPoints.  Beef though is fantastic, and I am still using up stock from the catering business so on Sunday we had a roast beef dinner (14 points including roast spuds and gravy) and for half the week I have been using up trimmings from the rib of beef in other dishes.

I made two recipes from Michael Ruhlman's The Soul Of A Chef, pepper and corn pancakes and a chilli BBQ sauce.  It is an American book so the recipes are in cup sizes.

Pepper and Corn Crepes, makes 8-10 medium sized crepes.

1/2 cup sweetcorn
1 cup chopped red and green pepper
1/4 cup chopped spring onion
1/2 cup plain flour
2 eggs
4 fl. oz. milk
salt and pepper
oil to fry

Pop everything in the blender and process until you have a smooth batter.  I dry fried my crepes in a non-stick pan to avoid the extra oil coast, we had two each filled with shredded beef.

BBQ Sauce

1 tsp olive oil
1 cup chopped red onion
2 tbsp chopped garlic
2 tbsp chopped jalapeno
1/2 cup crushed coffee beans
4 fl. oz Worcestershire Sauce
4 oz tomato puree
1 fl. oz sherry vinegar
1 fl. oz balsamic vinegar
1 cup brown sugar
2 fl. oz cider
4 fl. oz veal stock
1 tsp flaked chilli
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander

Sweat the chopped onion, jalepeno and garlic, when soft add the dried cumin, coriander and chilli and sweat for 2-3 mins, then add everything else and simmer for about an hour.  The original recipe said to strain through a chinois, but I just blended it.

I didn't have all the ingredients on hand, so I substituted white wine for the cider, and chicken stock paste (Knorr) for the fresh veal stock and the recipe worked just fine.  It is quite spicy so you don't need a lot.

The finished dinner, two pancakes stuffed with dry fried shredded beef, BBQ sauce and some green beans and broccoli I reckoned to be 14 ProPoints.  I think you could also try converting the crepes into omelettes, more egg but no flour would result in dropping a point, you could also be less generous with the beef and replace some of it with onions or peppers, I had allowed 105g of beef each for 8 ProPoints - this would be the easiest part of the meal to swap out for the best effect.

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Keep On Running

The training is going steadily so far.  On Monday I managed to run the distance I'll need to complete the Over The Odda a week on Saturday, actually I ran a bit further, getting in 11.2k and finishing up a hill.  As I live almost on the top of a hill, wherever I set off to run to, I always have to climb on the way back.

So I can manage the distance, even though I do think I will be tiring heavily towards the end, it's just the hills and cross-country I have to worry about.

The training has not been perfect, I suffered a little damage to my right knee in the mosh pit at The Wildhearts last Friday night and it still looks a little big bigger than my left knee.  Still, if I only went running when I felt 100% then I'd never go running at all.

I am only planning on doing three more runs before the big day, 4-5 miles each time, with Thursday and Friday off before the race.  I'm presuming now that most of the runners will be super keen, ultra-fit types who normally run marathons, and that neither the 100 year old Sikh chap or the guy in the deep sea diving suit are competing, so I can expect to finish last, and probably by some time.

David Shepherd performs Nelson with the score at 111.

I have been given the race number 111 and am assured that this was just by pure chance and not that they rate my chances at the Odda as being roughly the same as a seventy year old cricket umpire standing on one leg.

I am still raising money for Sightsavers, if anyone can sponsor me please click on the link below.

Just-Giving - Over  The Odda for Sightsavers

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Man Of The Soil - The New House Episode #6

In a couple of months I hope to be able to bring you some 'after' photographs, but for now, these are the 'before' pictures.  When we moved to the hill I bought some packets of seeds with the intention of creating some wild flower beds that would attract butterflies and bees. Attracting hordes of flying insects wasn't a universally popular idea in the Jarvis household it must be said, but hopefully they won't bother her too much or the hard work put in on the attracting bit may well be undone by a rolled up copy of the Indy.

Here's a thing, it does seem that if you buy packets of seeds that are designed for children, you seem to get just as many seeds in the packets but you only pay half as much.  I mixed up the three packets I had bought, watered the beds and have sown the seeds spacing them as best I can allowing for fat fingers and a grumbly back (due to two hours in the mosh pit last night) which won't let me bend very well.

The seeds should have gone in weeks ago, but the garden has been under a couple of feet of snow until this week, and it was only this afternoon that it felt warm enough to potter around outside.

A tiny bed at the front corner of the house.

The longer south facing bed in the back garden.

At the back of the garage.

The bed behind the garage does not seem to get much sun, and also suffers from small things continually digging holes in it. Mice, voles, shrews or moles, it could be any or all.  We definitely have moles in the back garden again, despite installing a mole scarer, you can see the surface tracks they made during snow cover in the middle picture.

I don't know what any of the seeds were as there were no hints on the packets.  I am hoping for a summer-long riot of colour, and all for six quid.  Mrs J has trimmed all the pot plants and tidied up the paths, it's looking quite presentable now, here's hoping for a better summer than we had last year.

Tiny Rabbits

We had three small rabbits living in the front garden when the weather was at its worst at the back end of March.  I don't think any of them have survived.  I found one frozen to death in the flowerbed, some form of hungry death came for another, digging it out of its rose-bed burrow in the night and eating it, and the third has also gone.

We do have a handy disposal system for rabbit corpses here on the hill, just chuck them over the wall into the field and the local pair of red kites will happily eat the remains.

I Have A Business Installing Styrofoam Nuns

Nah, You're Alright - McDonald's Advert Remake [HD 1080p]

Well, I should sleep easily after seeing that.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Paolo Di Canio

Just waving to a friend in the crowd ?

Paolo di Canio, lovely chap, likes children and small animals, good footballer and steady manager.

And fascist.

As the song goes..."My Grandad didn't vote for fascists, he shot 'em."