Saturday, 24 May 2014

Surface Pro 3 Thoughts

As an educator, I think a lot about how students can best learn. In a technical subject like physics, my main concern is that students learn concepts rather than simply ingest large amounts of information. Part of getting to know physics is being familiar with the equations and formula, knowing how the various variables relate to each other and being able to manipulate them to derive key results. It may sound like a case of, " When I was a lad...", but I think that "chalk & talk" with students taking comprehensive notes, can be more effective for learning quantum physics, for example, than watching a set of Powerpoint slides and relying on printed notes. After all, a student could simply open up a textbook to get all the information they need, what they should try to learn from a lecture is understanding.

New research has suggested that even the act of writing, rather than typing notes leads to better educational outcomes, especially conceptual understanding. I think it is a very important question given the massive changes in education due to technological progress. In the drive for efficiency in a massified higher education system, the presumed advantages of Powerpoint and electronically supplied notes are understandable. However, can we utilise technology to enhance learning quality, not just quantity.

With this background I am very interested in the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (SP3), a device touted to be able to replace both a tablet and a laptop. The main features are a 12" high resolution screen, an active pen for notes and drawing, a full PC operating system, and a powerful processor. The basic form factor is a 9.1mm thick slate/tablet, but the addition of a type cover allows laptop functionality together with an integrated kickstand to prop up the screen. Depending on your own usage pattern, this may work as a decent laptop replacement. If I need to do any serious typing on my current laptop, I will sit at a desk so the SP3 form factor won't pose an issue. If you do type a lot with a laptop in your lap, then it may not be as comfortable with the SP3 than a conventional notebook computer, but "your mileage may vary".

What attracts me most to the SP3 is the possibility of having a high resolution, fairly lightweight, powerful slate for reading papers, annotating PDFs, taking notes, and giving handwritten lectures. The SP3 seems to have finally hit the right specifications for a device that can adequately fulfil these functions. I previously had an 8.9" penabled convertible notebook that was slightly heavier, had worse inking capability, and was considerably slower. This showed glimpses of the possibilities enabled by electronic ink but the technology was not at the stage to make me give up paper and pen. At least from initial impressions, the SP3 could be the device to finally fulfil that promise for a large sector, not just for current niche markets.

What many commentators fail to see is that the SP3 represents a new way of using portable electronics. Sure, it tries to accommodate conventional laptop usage patterns but one needs to remove the blinkers and consider new capabilities not available to a separate tablet and laptop. In the educational context, having a large electronic-ink-enabled slate on which to make notes synced to the cloud and made instantly searchable represents an opportunity to combine the advantages of old-school handwritten notes but with the convenience of digital storage and retrieval. There are other penabled tablets and convertible laptops out there but the SP3 is the first to really hit the sweetspot in terms of size, weight, power, and support. It might have taken Microsoft three attempts but I think the SP3 was worth the wait.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Exam Depression

It's that time of the year when students and academics both find themselves in low spirits. The students as they have to take exams, academics because they have to mark said exams. And every year I sit down to a large pile of exam scripts and consider alternate careers where I do not have to deal with the despair of seeing the same desperate attempts encoded in barely comprehensible chicken scratchings.

As an educator I wish to see my students improve, not just in the knowledge they possess but more importantly in the skills needed to make the most of that knowledge. The biggest paradigm shift that students face when progressing from high school to university is the change from simply recalling facts or formulae to being able to understand, reason with, explain, and utilise knowledge, often in situations for which they have not been explicitly shown before. Dealing with the unknown, making judgements, and synthesising new solutions should be critical skills that our students should display.

Unfortunately, even at advanced stages of the undergraduate degree, a large proportion of students are showing that they are still stuck in the old paradigm. Students are thoughtlessly applying formula, they do not understand what the variables represent, use formula in inappropriate contexts, make crucial sign errors that would be obvious if they understood the underlying physical situation. When asked to explain or derive a physical relationship, they just randomly manipulate formula (valid in a regime explicitly not appropriate in the situation presented) without examining the physical basis of the phenomena, leading to entirely erroneous results.

Worrying is also the inability to recognise patently wrong answers that are many orders of magnitude out, e.g. the volume of a Krypton atom being half a cubic metre, or that a buoy requiring a terrawatt of optical power to be visible at a range of 5km. Mistakes happen, especially under exam conditions, but not being able to make physical sense of the numbers calculated speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding of basic concepts.

I do not know what can be done practically. Perhaps 12 or 13 years of prior conditioning through primary and secondary education cannot be undone effectively even in 3 or 4 years. But I'd suggest these general steps:
  • Improve mathematical skills. The maths should be the least of your worries allowing you to concentrate on the physical content
  • Put in the effort. Do lots of examples, without reference to solutions. Do difficult problems, stretch your thinking. Learn from your mistakes.
  • Explain to others, discuss things. The best way of learning is trying to teach it to someone else.
  • Integrate your learning. Make connections between subjects. Use knowledge in one area to help learn another.
For all the government rhetoric about universities supplying skilled workers for the economy, we're failing the basic principles of higher education, that of producing graduates who can think critically and effectively.