Archive for July, 2009

A possibly misleading average

July 18, 2009

Transport for London has been surveying Londoners about their driving in connection with work, and I received a survey.  In the last year I drove to work appointments on just two occasions, covering a total of 50 miles.  This is a fairly typical year for me, so I dutifully entered my average business mileage on the form as one mile per week (and added a note to say how I’d arrived at that figure)

Strange spam

July 18, 2009

Over the last couple of months I’ve had a series of curious unsolicited emails.  Superficially, they don’t look like ‘spam’, but they do follow a pattern.  Here’s a typical one:


What is country code for usa if dialing from europe?
I need a little help/direction before I can start. Any nuggets of wisdom would be absolutely great and very much appreciated. Please point me in the right direction.

Thankyou. Warmest Regards, James’


It’s polite if a little naive in its wording, and since it would be very simple to send off an email with the answer (‘1’), it’s tempting to do so.  But Mr Gazprom appears to be a prolific emailer.  Adam Kuban, who blogs about pizzas and hamburgers in New York, had a whole series of emails from that address, signed off with a whole range of different names, and with different queries.  He’d also had one from WinstonFinancial (I got one from them as well) asking ‘how much does a catering cost?’   Catering for a birthday party, or a wedding, or a conference of psychics?

All these come from gmail addresses and follow a common style even though the wording varies considerably.  I assume that these are being sent out to ‘harvest’ active email addresses – if you reply you’ll confirm that your email works and your address will become more valuable to people sending [other sorts of] spam.

So if you get one of these, please don’t reply.  But I’m also intrigued as to how these messages are constructed – whether somebody actually writes them, or whether there’s a programme that can generate loads of these with enough variation that they avoid spam filters.

Update (20 August) – this is now explained at


July 14, 2009

Welcome to my blog.  I’m using this to support my work as a lecturer at Cass Business School, so you should find that the entries refer either to topics that might be of interest to my students (usually connected with managing innovation and technology), or to teaching and learning in higher education.

Apart from this entry, all the entries appear in chronological order with the most recent at the top.  You can use the list of categories, which should appear to the right of the window, to search for entries relevant to particular subjects.

Please feel free to post comments, but note that these are moderated, so they won’t appear until I’ve read them, and I reserve the right not to post a comment without giving a reason.

Coffield’s critique of learning styles

July 10, 2009

One very significant criticism of learning styles was raised by Frank Coffield, of the Institute of Education, a few years ago.

The report can be downloaded free as a PDF by going to

Before going further I should note that I don’t know enough about psychology to comment on the soundness of the report’s criticisms of the theoretical foundations of learning styles, and note that some of the approaches discussed in the report have a broader application than purely to learning, notably the Myers-Briggs type indicator which is a very widely used psychometric classification.

Even though I tend to favour taking account of learning styles, while Coffield is critical of them, I found a lot to agree with in the report.  I think learning styles should be treated with caution, I’m deeply suspicious of any instruments for assessing styles which are so precious that they can only be administered by somebody with specific qualifications, and I’m aware that students could feel restricted by being classified – if they’re classed as favouring one learning approach they could become blind to anything delivered in a way which suits a different style.

Nevertheless I have found that getting students to review their learning styles can be a useful reflective tool, particularly when they first start at university.  It encourages students to think about their learning process, and to realise that their colleagues might have dramatically different preferences in how they participate in their course.  In a small way, it helps to smooth the transition from school to university.  I’d like to think that would boost student satisfaction in a measurable way, through more favourable responses to course evaluations, and lower dropout rates, but without a controlled experiment where you’d keep everything else the same and only introduce a learning style analysis you can never prove it. 

Coffield and colleagues are right to warn of the danger that using learning styles could lead to students being pigeon-holed as particular types.  But that should just be a warning; in general, recognising one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and competences makes sound educational sense.  Applying the report’s logic and taking it to extremes, you wouldn’t praise or reward a student for being good at maths, lest they became typecast as somebody with numeric strengths.  So of course students should recognise that they can change, and that they don’t necessarily fit the archetypes implicit in particular learning styles, but they could still gain something through awareness of their preferences.

Moreover people use all sorts of different approaches to assert their own individuality.  If it’s acceptable for somebody’s self-image including being a tennis player, or liking the music of J S Bach, or driving a Mini, then surely it’s acceptable for somebody to include being an ENTP in Myers-Briggs terms, or a visual learner, as part of their self-image if that works for them.

Learning styles

July 9, 2009

One area that interests me is the range of different strategies and preferences that people use when learning – what are often known as learning styles.  There are numerous classifications of these, notably VARK (visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic) which we’ve found useful with students in higher education – includes a questionnaire which is valuable for self-reflection among students, the Honey and Mumford classification which is popular in management development – see – and also approaches deriving from Howard Gardner’s ideas on multiple intelligence – is a good summary of these. I note that learning styles based on Gardner’s classifications are discussed at my children’s primary school as early as year 3 (age 7-8).

Yet learning styles are controversial – attend a conference about education and some people will tell you that they don’t believe in them, others that they are counterproductive.  Stephen Downes is a prolific blogger on educational issues and his comments at reflect the strength of feeling that the topic arouses.

Personally, I don’t know how much students’ learning preferences are influenced by context, and how much they change in the time that they spend at university.  I certainly don’t know how much these preferences are innate, and how much we can, or should, train students to change them; that seems like an issue that can’t be addressed without taking on the entire nature-versus-nurture discussion.  But I do know that students come in to our university with preferences that are qualitatively different, and that understanding these variations can, in a small way, help us to reach more of those students more effectively than we would otherwise.

Postcodes and generalisations

July 9, 2009

Picking up on the analogy with postcodes in the previous post, here’s an example to illustrate the importance of looking at how people are divided into categories, and also why survey results should be treated with caution.  Last month the borough of Richmond upon Thames in South West London proudly claimed to have the most satisfied population in London.  Now Richmond is a very nice place – spoiled in my view by getting a lot of aircraft noise – but I’d be surprised if the occupants of leafy Richmond were really happier than the occupants of equally leafy Hampstead.  But the survey compares different boroughs.  The borough of Richmond, like some other outer London boroughs, comprises mostly reasonably affluent residential areas.  Hampstead is in the borough of Camden – a much more varied inner London borough where you can find tremendous wealth and considerable deprivation in different places: the observation at that Camden has the profile of a large univesity city is not particularly fanciful.  If you compared the area covered by the TW9 postcode with that covered by NW3, I doubt whether you would find much variation in residents’ satisfaction with their lot.

Another winner in the survey is the City of London, which also shows up as having a high proportion of satisfied residents.  Famously, the City of London mostly isn’t a residential area.  But most of the people who do live there live in the Barbican and Golden Lane flats, so one reading of the survey is that it confirms, as I’ve always suspected, that occupants of these flats like living where they do.  But you couldn’t extend this to suggest that Londoners would be happier if more of us lived in high-density city centre flats.  The Barbican is popular with its residents precisely because it’s a rather unusual choice, and the lifestyle associated with living there isn’t for everybody.


July 9, 2009

The E-learning 2.0 conference at Brunel took place early this week, and was very enjoyable.  One of the keynote speakers was Reynol Junco, who was particularly talking about pedagogic uses of Twitter, but also has done a lot of work on the attitudes associated with different generations.  He draws on the classifications used by Howe and Strauss and described on their website at , and I should say that he includes a caveat that there can be very significant variations within generations.

I’ve also drawn on Howe and Strauss, and have used their term ‘Millennial’ to describe the group born from 1982 onwards.  I would always apply some caution in using their analysis, since I would tend to classify it as popular science, and because it is very American-oriented.  And their perspective is not only purely American, but established Anglo-Saxon-American: the centre of gravity of their historical references skips neatly across the Atlantic some time before the American declaration of independence.

Yet their generations do provide a useful framework for analysis, and my experience from discussions with students has suggested that the generational shifts are mirrored in different countries, even though the cultural reference points vary.  For example in Britain the generation before the baby boomers were unusual – in British history at least – in that many of the men did military service in peacetime.  This mirrors the importance of military matters to the Howe and Strauss silent generation.  Members of the millennial generation the world over share the experience of growing up in an increasingly connected and globalised environment, but for those born in the former communist bloc (of whom there are many studying in London), this is accentuated by their formative years coming after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

You could also argue that it isn’t too important where you draw the boundaries between generations, so long as you divide people into manageable groups.  There’s an analogy here with postcodes, which are very widely used for demographic analysis, but where the areas were defined purely for the convenience of delivering mail.  If one postcode district contains a very wide variety of people, then that’s a characteristic of the district, but postcode districts weren’t defined purely as areas with one particular demographic.

Incidentally I note that Rey Junco did divide the boomer generation into two sub-groups – the older in effect being the group who would have been at college during the 1960s

Phones and change

July 2, 2009

I hesitated slightly before posting this, since it could read as just another remark on how things have changed over the years due to technology, but it’s still worth remarking on.  While hunting for background about GEC-Marconi, I came across the site that contains .  Time was when an office worker in Britain would almost certainly have one of these phones in two-tone grey on their desk and, most likely, an ivory coloured one at home.  In an age when many people get a new mobile phone every year, the quote from an American designer that a phone should look timeless, as it would have a much longer life than many other household artefacts, looks strangely dated.

Apple and design

July 1, 2009

The BBC blog entry at caught my eye, partly because during the recent discussion about the health of Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive officer, it occured to me that Jonathan Ive was actually the person who Apple could least afford to lose, partly because it’s nice to see an industrial designer get some credit, and design is undoubtedly one of Apple’s strengths.

One approach to constructing knowledge collectively…

July 1, 2009

is the collaborative novel proposed at – it’s significant that the authors have come up with a basic idea but are interested in combining all sorts of resources (words, sounds, pictures) to tell a story.