What do you want to know about…?

There’s often a difference of opinion about engaging children in science (or indeed, any topic) by asking them what they’d like to know. I have a view on this based upon reflection on explicit use of things like KWL grids and other “what do you want to find out about” approaches. This view is that the stimulus or experience that is used to engage learners should generate questions for them: something much more subtle than “what do you want to know about blast furnaces?”. for example. It is hard to ask meaningful questions about something you have little knowledge or experience of. A good teacher will give the learners enough enculturation into a new topic such that they can ask useful and meaningful questions. This means that the questions aren’t restricted to the start of a topic: explicit use of them is needed throughout the topic, to progress learning but also more closely follow the learners’ interests. I wonder what you think of that.

(from a comment on a student journal)

Catholic Interference in Education

I was asked this week to provide a reference “to testify to [a person’s] religious belief and character”. I refuse to do this, not least because I can’t testify to anyone’s religious anything but also because I am not comfortable encouraging the interference of any church group in education, in particular the Catholic Church, infamous for interfering with children.

The Scottish Catholic Education Service website has this:

The relevant legislation on the management of denominational schools in Scotland states: “A teacher appointed to any post on the staff of any such school by the education authority. . . shall be required to be approved as regards religious belief and character by representatives of the church or denominational body in whose interest the school has been conducted.”

My difficulty with this is that is goes directly against what we are trying to do in education. Indeed, lawyers advise that it is…

unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of age, sex, race, disability, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, and religion or belief

It is clear that employers have no right to discriminate on the basis of religion and that if asked, teachers should refuse to provide this information. The anachronism of church interference in education needs to end now.

 

Gender stereotypes emerge early

I read a recent paper on gender stereotypes that interpreted research data from studies of 400 children which identified the emergence of gender stereotypes – the association of “brilliance = males” – from the age of about six years of age. Although this research was conducted within a US cultural context (which one was not indicated in the paper), the findings reveal that these beliefs, and the self-selection by girls of areas of interest that are not seen as “very, very smart” like physics and psychology, are inculcated culturally from an early age. The paper does not try to identify where these stereotypes are from: early years educators are implicated but it’s clear that these beliefs are deeply rooted by the time children reach secondary school. It is a huge ask of physics teachers to take responsibility for mending the gender gap in their classrooms.

Bian, L., Leslie, S.J. & Cimpian, A., 2017. Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science (New York, N.Y.), 355(6323), pp.389–391.

Open Badges Closed

Well, that was another massive waste of time. For all the hype and hope of having truly transportable awards for training and achievement, backed by Mozilla, no less, the current state of play is pretty disappointing.

I’m running an online resource for some of my students using Moodle, and have been experimenting with badges for minor achievements to help them remain motivated in an unpressurised way, in what is otherwise a highly pressurised programme. Feedback from them has been that the badges are just a bit of fun, really, and not a significant feature of the course. However, talking to one of the students recently revealed that if the badges were to be publicly show-offable, such as on a LinkedIn profile, then they would add a new level of significance that might help them work just that little bit harder to earn these little digital stickers.

Enabling the backpack link within Moodle and trying it for myself (yes, I have awarded myself one of my own badges, for testing purposes obv), I discover that the whole open badges thing is now dead, having been abandoned by Mozilla. Simple issues such as having multiple email accounts within the backpack remain of no interest as the whole idea withers and dies.

Shame. This whole internet thing seemed like a good idea when it was new.

Global Search for Moodle on Centos

My students are using a Moodle VLE to access resources and teaching materials and it became evident that some kind of global search function would help them find things quickly, especially later in the programme when they come to write their assignments.

I’m running Moodle on a CentOS 7.3 virtual private server with Plesk Onyx. The server hosts several other sites running WordPress, bespoke PHP and some other bits and pieces including the usual mail services. Some of the containers require the OS-standard PHP5.4 but a recent upgrade to Moodle 3.3 required me to switch the container to PHP 7.0.

Installing Global Search was a little tricky because of the multiple PHP versions running on the server, but I eventually figured it out to these key steps:

Install the Solr Server

$ cd /opt
$ wget http://apache.mirrors.nublue.co.uk/lucene/solr/6.6.0/solr-6.6.0.tgz
$ tar zxvf solr-6.6.0.tgz
$ cp solr-6.6.0/bin/install_solr_service.sh .
$ rm -rf solr-6.6.0
$ ./install_solr_service.sh solr-6.6.0.tgz
$ chkconfig solr on
$ su - solr -c "/opt/solr/bin/solr create_core -c moodle"

You should be able to visit http://your-domain.tld:8983 to verify the Solr server is running OK.

Secure the Solr Server

By default, Solr is open to the world. You might want to secure it by adding this at the end of /opt/solr/server/etc/webdefault.xml:

  <security-constraint>
   <web-resource-collection>
       <web-resource-name>Solr Administration</web-resource-name>
       <url-pattern>/*</url-pattern>
   </web-resource-collection>
   <auth-constraint>
       <role-name>solr-admin</role-name>
   </auth-constraint>
  </security-constraint>

  <login-config>
   <auth-method>BASIC</auth-method>
   <realm-name>Solr Administration</realm-name>
  </login-config>

Create a file in the same directory called realm.properties containing your chosen authentication details (matching the role above) in a single line:

admin: password, solr-admin

Finally, add this just before the last line in jetty.xml in the same directory:

<Call name="addBean">
 <Arg>
  <New class="org.eclipse.jetty.security.HashLoginService">
    <Set name="name">Solr Administration</Set>
    <Set name="config"><SystemProperty name="jetty.home" default="."/>/etc/realm.properties</Set>
    <Set name="refreshInterval">0</Set>
  </New>
 </Arg>
</Call>

Install the PHP Solr Extension

$ rpm -Uvh https://dl.fedoraproject.org/pub/epel/epel-release-latest-7.noarch.rpm
$ rpm -Uvh https://mirror.webtatic.com/yum/el7/webtatic-release.rpm
$ yum install libxml2-devel pcre-devel libcurl-devel php70w-devel php70w-pear

You’ll need to build the extension using the right versions of phpize and php-config for your version of PHP, in my case, 7.0:

$ cd /opt
$ curl -O https://pecl.php.net/get/solr-2.4.0.tgz
$ tar zxvf solr-2.4.0.tgz
$ cd solr-2.4.0/
$ ../plesk/php/7.0/bin/phpize
$ ./configure --with-php-config=/opt/plesk/php/7.0/bin/php-config
$ make
$ make install
$ cp /opt/solr-2.4.0/modules/solr.so /opt/plesk/php/7.0/lib64/php/modules/
$ sudo service httpd restart

Visit the Site administration / ▶︎ Plugins / ▶︎ Search / ▶︎ Manage global search page in your Moodle installation to configure, index and enable the Solr Search Engine.

I am impressed with how quickly this has been used and appreciated by the students.

Scholarly Open Access

I kept a link to Beall’s list on my PhD Resources Reddit and received a comment that alerted me to the post (reposted below) which reported the take-down of this incredibly useful resource.

Science itself is under attack by those governments, corporations and gangsters who profit from ignorance: Beall did a great service by “outing” bogus and fake journals who increasingly have been undermining the robust verification and publication of hard science findings.

The comment on the reddit post is available here and calls for a distributed response that is resilient to the challenges that cannot be sustained by one man in academia.

The post-truth era is here, now. Objective enquiry is under attack.

Beall’s list of “predatory” publishers and journals no longer available

Scholarly Open Access, a popular blog that listed questionable journals and publishers, has recently been taken down. The blog was maintained since 2008 by Jeffrey Beall who is an academic librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver. Incidentally, his faculty page too is no longer available. While the exact reasons behind this decision remain unclear, according to a UC Denver spokesperson, it was Beall’s personal decision to take this step and added that, “Professor Beall remains on the faculty at the university and will be pursuing new areas of research.” Lacey Earle, Vice President of Business Development at Cabell’s International, tweeted that “threats & politics” forced Beall to shut down the site.

Beall’s blog that listed more than 1000 “potential, possible or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” now stands blank, and it is not known whether this closure is permanent. While his efforts at exposing fraudulent publishers were applauded by many academics, his list – popularly known as “Beall’s list” – had been a source of controversy as some open access advocates believed that he was negative toward the model. He also received flak from some publishers and journals that objected to being included in his list. One such publisher is OMICS Publishing Group that threatened to sue Beall with a $1 billion lawsuit for defaming the company.

Cabell’s International, a publishing services company, had announced that it has been working with Beall since 2015 to develop a blacklist of publishers. Hence, there has been some speculation as to whether this was the reason behind pulling down of Beall’s blog. However, the company publicly stated that it is not involved with this incident. The shutdown of Beall’s blog is perceived by many as a loss to academia. Though it received considerable criticism for being overly biased, it was unique in the industry and many researchers considered it to be a valuable resource. It remains to be seen what effect the closedown of this blog has on academic publishing.

References:

Mystery as controversial list of predatory publishers disappears

Why did Beall’s List of potential predatory publishers go dark?

No More ‘Beall’s List’

This post Beall’s list of “predatory” publishers and journals no longer available was originally published on Editage Insights.

The Moray House Sundial

The Moray House Sundial

The Sundial stands again before Old Moray House.

Yesterday, after a year in careful storage, the Sundial Memorial returned to a place of honour and inspiration in the newly re-designed quad in front of Old Moray House.

The memorial was made in 1998 to commemorate 150 years of teacher training and education here.

It stands now to inspire teachers from all over the world, whether just beginning their journey as educators, enhancing it or returning to it, of one of the most powerful aspirations and consequences of being an effective and transformative teacher: know yourself.

Slaughtering Pixies

Well, it’s been quite an interesting couple of weeks. One of the things I am doing this week is to close down the Scottish Physics Teaching Resources site (sptr.net), which for the past few years has provided a vehicle for Physics teachers in Scotland to share all kinds of teaching resources. It has been useful in a time of badly conceived and implemented curriculum change in Scotland.

Why close it down? Two reasons. Until very recently, I was intending to leave the country and work overseas and I was uncertain that I could sustain the required commitment to keep the site functioning well. Plans have changed (and continue to do so on a daily basis) but the community of teachers needs something reliable to help them deliver a workable curriculum. The second reason is that I need to remove as many distractions as possible to enable me to pick up a project I have been trying to progress for the past two years, without having the time to do so satisfactorily. Like the overseas project, it may yet come to nothing but a learning experience, but I have to give it my best shot.