On the recording of lectures

I’ve been using Camtasia, a tablet PC (old style laptop one) and dictaphone to record lectures for about 4 or 5 years. I forget how long. I started by recording audio only, but after getting the tablet PC have moved to full screen capture. I upload processed versions of these captures to my modules. Processing is really topping and tailing with a small amount of editing if we’ve been doing lots of problem solving or if a situation has arisen that warrants it.  I generally make the recordings available to those who have attended or who have been absent with good cause and its not unknown for me to set selective release to those people who were there. I’m never happy enough with how a session has gone to contemplate using the lecture capture the following year as a flipped session. Also, I think short recordings are better than long recordings for flipping. I ensure my screencasts are produced with a table of contents (from the powerpoint titles) and a controller to allow pause, fast forward and rewind. The annotated notes may also be downloaded.

I’m starting to question the wisdom of lecture capture however. At first I believed it was a viable solution to the ‘problems’ with traditional lecturing – too much information, sage on a stage, and very passive. I felt that for complex topics, students would welcome the opportunity to revisit the explanations give, or supplement the notes they took with more detail, and that those who couldn’t write as fast or who were absent could catch up. For complex topics, I’d rather create a specific screencast but I struggle to find the time to create those resources, and I really hate recording things in my office. So the lecture capture seemed a good trade off.

But the passive nature is starting to really really bother me. Sitting re-watching lectures as if they were some kind of educational box set is not revising. It sure as hell isn’t learning.  And despite my seemingly formidable knowledge of many TV box sets that I have watched repeatedly, I suspect that my students generally lack the stamina or time to watch my lectures enough to really memorise the content! Yes I know, I could be flipping or some hybrid version, greater interactivity… I should also be doing 50,000 other things as well and converting some courses to more interactive versions is not high enough on the priority list at this time.  But at a time where more and more institutions around the country investigate or continue to use lecture capture technology as standard, these are questions worth asking because a great deal of lecturing is still conventional and now being captured. And lecture capture is, by all accounts, very very popular with students.

Sitting re-watching lectures is not revision. It’s learning the lecture which, at best, is an outline of the material designed to be complimented by trying examples, reading around the topic, and challenging, consolidating and improving subject knowledge. Yes it’s great when you can re-watch that complex derivation, or watch the mechanism being drawn more closely to really see the specifics, but you have to go beyond. Our intended learning outcomes are designed to define what 40%, the barest of passes is. Maybe it would be better to consider the lecture in the same light – learn the lecture, get 40%. Have knowledge of multiple concepts in isolation but fail to build a framework of understanding where they are interlinked, complementary and amenable to tackling complex problems.

So that’s my line this coming semester: learn the lectures and you might got 40% if you do a half way decent job of it. Attend the problem classes and try the problem sheets, and you’ll head towards 60% but if you want to break 70%, if you want to head into 1st class, do more.Do every example you can find. Read the recommended reading and start to develop a deeper understanding. Take responsibility – your learning comes down to your effort, not my effort in a short series of lectures. I’ll be trying to convey a sense of a fairly complex topic in a non-ideal room while you all struggle to wake up or struggle to stay away depending on which side of noon the class is. If we acknowledge the non-ideality of the situation, we might get somewhere. And I’ll keep recording for now.


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End of week 9 update

No matter how determined I am to ‘write more’ of any sort (and there is a direct correlation between the quantity of writing here and the quantity of work done on drafts of papers – more blogging = more writing), semester has ways of ending the best will.

I have been travelling a little for work to attend a committee meeting at the RSC and to do a programme validation. I’m amazed that (a) I can find days with nothing scheduled to travel, and (b) just how tiring a simple train or plane trip can be for a day.

I have been writing new lectures at a ridiculous rate (at least 1 new prep per week this semester, some weeks up to 3).  It is hard going developing new-to-me content, worse still when some is new-to-my-uni content meaning there are no previous lecture notes to use as a road map.

I have been working on the paperwork for a new degree programme here and find that writing programme specifications kills any other writing ability temporarily.  Reading may module proposals, trying to figure out what regulations are needed and giving the programme handbook a wide berth until the other components of the course are finalised.

I was happy to see  one of my posts featured in this month’s Nature Chemistry Blogroll column (http://blogs.nature.com/thescepticalchymist/2014/11/blogroll-moving-on-up.html). It was my begin again post of a few weeks ago, http://www.possibilitiesendless.com/2014/10/begin-again/. (Was that just a few weeks ago? Seems much longer).

And I’m counting down to my own version of ‘black Friday’ – the day when all my coursework is due! Somehow I managed to schedule work from three different courses to come in 4pm, Friday week 11. This gives me time to mark things over the holidays but fingers crossed that no disaster befalls the submission software! I always forget that proximity to deadlines increases the number of student questions that require prompt responses…


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If I had a million dollars…what I’d do!

£50,000 is an interesting sum for UK academics – it’s just about enough for a PhD studentship funded at RCUK rates and some consumables (potential issue with fees but not a major one). It’s probably about enough for a 1-year postdoctoral researcher or 18 months of a graduate research assistant. It might well be sufficient for teaching buy-out for a year’s sabbatical and expenses. It could also be a large number of summer studentships, all or part of a shiny bit of kit, or a means of accessing facilities at another institution.

So what would I do? A postdoc or research assistant would be more use to me really than a PhD studentship. A 12-18 month position to get some initial data on a couple of projects that would allow for initial publications and future funding applications. I’d shy away from a PhD studentship because despite the longer term benefits of training someone, I’d rather  focus on the research. I have a few project ideas brewing and it would be really nice to get a dedicated person to tackle them rather than the piecemeal effort I make, balancing everything else.



Posted in Academia Nuts, grant hell | 1 Comment

If I had a Million dollars….

Thought experiment for academics:

If someone handed you £50,000 (approx 65,000 euros and $80,000 US), what would you do with it?

Would you use it for work related purposes? Perhaps a sabbatical, pump priming a pet project or funding a research worker. Assume no constraints and no ‘overheads’ can be taken from the money.

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Chemical Shortcuts

I was writing some lecture notes this morning when it occurred to me that I’d probably never told my students of some shortcuts that are really useful. I was trying to draw structures for a synthetic route towards paclitaxel…trying is the operative word unless you are aware of what a SMILES string is and the fact that you can copy-paste that through paste-special in ChemDraw and other programmes and the structure will be drawn for you. In the case of paclitaxel derivatives, that’s hours of pain reduced to seconds of smugness.

The best source of SMILES or InChI strings is ChemSpider (www.chemspider.com) that has all kinds of useful information as well as that bit. What I didn’t know before writing this post was that SMILES (apart from creating a great many smiles at the sheer simplicity of complex structures) stands for Simplified molecular-input line-entry system, and InChI, International Chemical Identifier.

Another simple trick when looking for scientific journals (or making quick references in work ahead of proper referencing) is to copy-paste the DOI of the article rather than the reference. Digital Object Identifiers (http://www.doi.org/) are found on most reputable articles (and probably most disreputable ones as well, but hey) and can be a very quick and easy way to keep tabs on references electronically. They are found on most journal articles, their websites on the publishers site, and are readily googled to find the full text.  Of course, they do not replace the proper reference in the desired format but they do make wrangling a reference collection in early drafts much easier.

I can’t think of any more at the moment – any suggestions?

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REPOST:The Ritualistic Nature of Literature Searching

I’m reposting this today as I’ve got a session with our 2nd years on information literacy this afternoon. We’ll be covering Web of Science searches along with other hints and tips for wrangling the scientific literature.

First published February 9th, 2009 on v2.0…

It has just gone 8.30am and on this snowy Monday morning I have reached my desk, set my shoes to dry on the office radiator and booted the computer. Before I make my first cup of tea of the day, I’m blogging. Procrastination? Actually, no, let’s call it a plea for help.
The first thing I do on Monday mornings is log into Web of Knowledge and search for ‘dendrimer’ with Latest(current)week setting. I know, you’re thinking that there is nothing unusual about this. Perhaps you’ve seen my profile and noticed that part of my research is to do with these dendrimer things. It is only natural that I’d search for recent papers published that may be relevant. No, the problem is that I do this every Monday morning that I’m at a desk with a computer, and I have done this ever Monday morning (except for holidays and brief unemployment) since the turn of the millennium.
It has never occurred to me to automate this search in any way, shape or form. It has, if I may suggest such a thing, become a research related ritual. The difference this morning is that it struck me as odd.
As keyword searches go, it is pretty lousy. One lonely keyword spanning a whole subfield of chemistry. No specification for biomedical applications, or environmental metal stuff, no acknowledgment that other keywords may yield relevant results (for example: polymer, hyperbranched polymer etc), and that combinations of them may be quite efficient.
It doesn’t work, yet I do it weekly. One task for today: find a better way! Will update later…

Posted in Academia Nuts, Chemistry, Publications | 14 Comments

REPOST: All the pretty colours…

One of the most spectacular chemistry experiments is flame tests. I think it’s a particularly elegant experiment, and also one that can easily be done in high schools. I remember doing it when I was about 14 or 15, as part of standard grade chemistry. It is very simple; you take some wire, clean it in concentrated acid, dip the wire in acidic solutions of various metal salts and then put the wire in a blue Bunsen flame. It has some of the key components of a good chemistry experiment – acids, Bunsen burners and pretty colours. In a similar manner to fireworks, different metals burn with different coloured flames. I’m sure that my standard grade chemistry teacher had a sense of humour when she suggested to us that we leave sodium until last for it was hard to see. Yes, the bright and vivid orange colour was quite surprising coming after potassium’s pale lilac, strontium’s red and copper’s blue green.

I was thinking about this during a lab session last week when we were looking at exothermic reactions. OK, we were looking at some really great demonstration type experiments including thermite and the potassium dichromate volcano. More about them another time. We were also doing the screaming jelly baby experiment, also known as the jelly baby rocket or rocket to the moon. Simply, this involves taking a boiling tube, clamping it at a 45 degree angle, filling it with some potassium chlorate. The potassium chlorate is melted with a Bunsen burner and the whole thing is done in a fume hood. Once molten, half a jelly baby is dropped into the boiling tube and a rapid and spectacular reaction ensues as the sugar reacts creating flames, sparks, sometimes a roaring noise and lots and lots of smoke (one good reason for the fume hood). We noticed that the Bunsen flame, still set to blue, turned lilac due to the quantity of potassium ions in the smoky atmosphere. It was pretty impressive really, and despite watching 5 or 6 groups of student perform the experiment, never lost its magic.
There are lots of simple, elegant and impressive chemistry demonstrations like this, often used to bribe potential students at university visit days and enchant more disruptive classes at school. They are also the things that people remember most strongly about high school chemistry.

First Published May 19th 2009, on version 2.0!

Posted in Chemistry, lab mahem | 2 Comments

On the process of doing research.

Question: if you are the first person in the known universe to attempt a reaction, why on earth would you assume that the reaction has worked and progress to the next step without characterising your product fully?

I appreciate that undergraduate labs are often ‘illustration of concept’ labs that have been designed and further refined to work properly with only a tenuous link to experimental technique, but there seems to be a major logical gap between the idea of carrying out research and verifying that the experiments have worked. This comes up from time to time with students and it always makes me stop and wonder what’s going on. And where’s the curiosity? Where is the drive to prove that you were the first to do a reaction and here is the best possible evidence to support that? That’s probably more to do with ego than curiosity but still.

I suppose the flip side is far bleaker – when did I become more cynical that my working assumption is that a reaction has not worked ? And I assume that I need to analyse it fully to determine just how much it has failed before varying something and trying again! Perhaps the more optimistic approach is better, but then there is the disappointment…

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The role of repetitive examples: practice makes perfect?

A few months ago, I read a journal article that I have subsequently lost track of. It was on cognitive demand/overload and related to calculations. If I recall correctly, it showed that the simplest type of calculation is essentially using an equation in its presented form (e.g. speed of light = wavelength x frequency) with all quantities in their most appropriate units and giving an answer in the most straightforward units. The most complex was then using multiple equations requiring manipulation with quantities in units requiring conversion and an answer requested in different units again. If there were more subtle points to the paper (or if anyone can recall it before I get to my office and see if I printed it for the file), please let me know.

It got me thinking, as do many such papers that present something that is perfectly logical once it has been pointed out to you. Mainly I was thinking back to high school maths where new concepts would be met with multiple examples of increasing complexity before any type of context has been applied. I thought I’d give this a go this year with my 1st year spectroscopy. We do a lot of equations and there can be a good amount of additional complexity added in through unit conversions and the like. For each equation (mainly the equations of light) I came up with exercise sheets that started with using the equation in the presented format with quantities in appropriate units. The final exercises involved rearranging the equation, and generally converting the units of the starting quantities and often the answer. These were uploaded to the class blog along with the answer sheet (numerical only) and highlighted to the students that were struggling a little more with the maths. Problem sheets and exam style questions were then used in workshops and for class test preparation that put the maths into the spectroscopy context.

I can see how this approach could be really useful for more complex equations – I’d suggest that most of my students tackle the exercises for IR vibrational frequencies, particularly getting practice at calculating reduced mass (kg people!).  I’m not sure, however, how this approach translates in to less mathematical areas of chemistry. It would work really well for organic mechanisms, and balancing equations, but not so sure about other bits.

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Handling Information

We place pretty high value on developing skills in information retrieval and handling frequently conflicting information in our curricula, but we’re not the best at it ourselves sometimes! My ‘mission’ over the past few months has been to reduce the duplication of effort in information we provide to our students. For example, our library operate an excellent reading list service and there is a convenient weblink to the reading list for each module. That reading list is frequently manually duplicated in module guides and in multiple lecture notes. Another example is deadlines for assessment. We produce assessment calendars for each year group with module, short title of assessment, mode of submission (electronic vs in person), date and time. But frequently that information is duplicated into module guides and elsewhere. The problem is that this means that everyone has to remember to go into multiple documents to update something if there is a minor change. I like information in one place so that it is easily updated and easily found by students.

I get a lot of email.  I struggle to sift through it but there are a few things I do automatically – I scan then ignore a great number of emails that come through generic mail lists. Of particular note are the announcement emails sent through Blackboard to update students. We send a lot of them! And that means that students receive a lot of them. If I assume that students get as many emails as I do, it is easy to see why they frequently don’t get the message.

I’ve been trying not to send as many whole class emails or announcements this year and I made a conscious decision at the start of the year to ask my students to communicate with me in different ways. Firstly I set up office hours because I’m not sure students always understand what an open door policy means, but also because it must be really frustrating trying to find academics who are naturally busy and not in all the time. So far few students have taken up the offer of office hours to come and ask questions. Secondly I decided to distribute all teaching materials through the blog function on Blackboard. I felt this would allow me to attach files (lecture notes, annotated lecture notes, problem sheets, exercises and answers)* and write brief comments and posts on the teaching material. I thought this would also let me embed videos, audio and other bits if I wanted to do pre-sessional activities. I also though it would provide a useful forum for students to ask questions about the course. Like most academics, I find that I can get the same question asked multiple times so I requested that questions be asked (via an anonymous comments feature) on the blog post so that everyone can see the answer. I’ll update on this in January when I have a whole semester of blog use to evaluate its effectiveness.

At this stage I have a few comments on Blackboard blogs, features that would make this type of use a lot easier.

1. The ability to alter post dates. This could be permitted through a setting in the options when setting up the blog. I appreciate that this is problematic if the blogs are being used for assessment but it would be convenient to be able to change posts to keep a course’s postings in a reasonable chronological order. I’m working around this by using placeholder posts [e.g. ‘summary of lecture will appear hear shortly’] when I need to upload more content.

2. The ability to schedule posts. My plan was to do a post per teaching session, attaching notes and including the information that would have gone in an announcement or email about what to bring to the session. After each session my plan was to post a summary of the key points of the session, any areas where more clarification was required, annotated lecture notes and exercise sheets as appropriate.  With the exception of the annotated notes and points of clarification, it would suit the way I work better to be able to write these in advance and have them appear. Actually, if I could schedule posts, I probably wouldn’t issue PDFs of annotated notes and would just leave the powerpoint download that can be obtained in the Camtasia produced screencast of the lecture. Scheduling would also be really useful generally.

3. Tagging, keywords, categories or something like it. It would be nice to tag posts with keywords to help students find information. Specific words like ‘exercise’, ‘answers’ and terms for the course ‘NMR’, ‘IR’ etc would make the blogs a lot easier to navigate.

4. A really quick way to see if comments have been made and get to the post to reply to them easily.

I like many of the features that I can access – I find the interface easy (not dissimilar to the other blogging or CMS platforms I use), I like the easy inclusion of audio clips, and the simple upload and attachment of files. And I like having one place to put everything – otherwise it is upload this file to that folder, another file to a different place, got to the announce feature or email to make a message…

*My lecture screencasts are not uploaded to the blog. They are put in the single Blackboard folder required for my teaching.


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