Archive for the ‘Information literacy’ Category

Parentpay part 2

June 23, 2016

While it’s on my mind – one other slant on the ParentPay issues from the previous post.

ParentPay themselves have been engaging with some of the discussions of their product on social media.  All credit to them for doing so, and I hope that they can use this to sort out the product (though my recommendation would be just that they go back to the previous version).  But a lot of what they’ve written so far either suggests that they expect users to accept the new system once they are used to it, or that they would have hoped that users would have been more prepared for the changes thanks to information that had been provided.  Of course, ‘you’ll like it once you are used to it’ and ‘you would be able to do it if only you had paid attention’ are two of the most irritating things that a parent can say to a child…

Unfortunately I’d take issue with both the arguments advanced by ParentPay.  Far from users getting used to the redesign, I would expect some people to get more frustrated with it as time goes on, simple because they’ll get to resent the increased number of steps required to make a payment.  And I’ve revisited the briefing and particularly the video issued before the change.  There are repeated references to my account as a single pot within which you can keep money.  Nowhere is it explained that this is in addition to your existing dinner money balance, that you need to move funds through it whether you want to or not, and that some simple transactions will be more complex than before.

So I hope that the engagement in social media does result in some worthwhile changes to the system, and hope that they happen quickly.


ParentPay problems

June 18, 2016



Here’s a thought experiment.  You are working for a major automotive company and wondering how you can improve a car that you manufacture.  Extensive focus group research has revealed that some customers would like a satellite navigation system as a standard feature.  So, with a great fanfare, you release a new version of the car with an integrated satnav.

The problem is this: the technical people who designed the satnav forgot to take into account that people might want to drive the car somewhere familiar, and just not use the satnav.  So you post on your website a PDF containing detailed instructions for the sequence of eight buttons you need to tap at the start of a journey where you don’t want to use the satnav.  A few drivers seem upset at having to go through this extra stage which they didn’t need before, but you’re sure that’s just resistance to change which will subside.  After all, how difficult can it be to follow a set of instructions?

Unfortunately there’s another snag.  After the seventh tap, drivers are getting the impression that the system should be ready to go, so there are instances of people calling the AA, and cancelling visits to their grandparents, because they have missed the eighth tap and the system won’t let them release the handbrake.  So you add another step, which is that when you first get into the car, the satnav displays a screen reminding you to do the eighth tap, which you need to dismiss before you can go any further.  But drivers are still calling the AA and missing their grandparents, because that extra step occurs as soon as you get into the car, and once you have sat down and fastened your seat belts and checked whether anybody remembered to pack a box of chocolates for the grandparents, you’ve forgotten about the need to do that final tap.

This may all sound fanciful, but it’s not much different from what’s been happening with the ParentPay platform used to pay for dinners, school trips, and so on at schools up and down the country.  ParentPay have just introduced a new feature, called ‘my account’ in response to customer research.  While I have some difficulty in reconciling their explanation, that according to their research parents want to maintain a single account with a running balance, with the fact that I now need to maintain two separate balances and move money between them, the real problem is that even if I don’t want to use the ‘my account’ feature I still need to go through a much more complicated procedure than before, because I still need to pay money into ‘my account’ and then transfer it to the school as a separate transaction.

While I found this annoying, I also thought that complaining about needing to go through extra steps to pay for school dinner is what’s regarded in Internet circles as a first world problem.  And I then read that children were going hungry because of the poor redesign of the site.

I actually liked the previous version of ParentPay.  It might have been no paragon of good human-computer interface design, but it allowed you to pay for a school trip or school dinners with two clicks and typing in the security code on the back of the credit or debit card.  I did see ParentPay’s announcements that a new feature would be added, but nowhere did I see an explanation that the simple payment process that I was used to would be removed.  From a user’s point of view, it would be simple to add one extra option in the process, so that you could choose either ‘pay by card’ which would take you to the old version or ‘pay from account’.  Ideally you should be able to set ‘pay by card’ as a preference, so you could completely ignore the ‘my account’ feature if you didn’t need to use it.

So please, ParentPay, redesign the site and at the very least ensure that it’s no more difficult to use than it was before.  And accept that, even if this was done with the best of intentions and even if it appeared to be OK in your preliminary testing, it really isn’t working in practice.

Mining data for musical tastes

January 26, 2016

This exercise carried out by the BBC is an interesting indication of how data can be used.  It’s based on musical preferences, which are of course easily measurable given that downloading from the Internet has for many become the default channel for listening to recorded music.  And in this case it’s based on use of the music recognition app Shazam, and I would speculate that using data collected through Spotify or iTunes might throw up somewhat different results.  Intriguingly, London’s musical twin city is Kaiapoi in New Zealand (pop around 10,000).  It’s a pity that for London at least the BBC’s data wasn’t able to identify musical tastes associated with particular areas and to generate more specific twin cities for these.

What makes a case study?

March 19, 2015

This is the season when the undergraduate final-year students who I teach are working on their projects, and many of these projects are based around one or more case studies.  The idea of a case study is very well establshed as an approach to teaching in business and management, on the basis that potentially every management situation is slightly different, and by looking at a range of different situations, you will acquire the skills and understanding to deal with whatever challenges your subsequent career throws at you.

There is a lot of academic work around about when it is appropriate to use case studies, and how the observations from a case study can be applied more generally.  So it’s a complicated subject, but as is often the case there are a few relatively simple things to remember:

  • A case study doesn’t tell you anything about the prevalence of the effects or behaviour that you observe.  Think of it this way: when the Sun runs a story about somebody claiming benefits while living a luxurious lifestyle, this is a case study.  It tells you nothing about what proportion of people claiming benefits are indeed living luxurious lifestyles – merely tells you about one approach which somebody uses to do this.  Lest this looks like a dig at the tabloid press, the same point could be made about newspaper articles which focus on people who aren’t getting the benefits they deserve
  • You should be able to say something about why a case study is interesting, and also how the lessons could be applied in different contexts.  So (given the point above) James Blunt’s irritable open letter about his upbringing and career probably doesn’t say very much about social mobility, he makes an interesting point that boarding school and a spell in the army isn’t necessarily the best start for a career in pop music.  So you could read James Blunt’s career trajectory as a case study of a rather unusual post-military career
  • You really need to have some observations of how a case study might be ‘generalised’ even if the message is that your case study isn’t typcal.  So are there particular challenges that might be encountered in a different context?  If you are drawing on some management theory, are there ways in which the case fits, or doesn’t fit, the theory which might be reflected in different cases.

This guidance is particularly aimed at anybody writing up case studies as part of a taught degree in business or management, but of course might be relevant more widely than that.

Read around the clock

May 23, 2014

There’s a rather charming item on the BBC website this week about the emergence of the 24-hour university library – including the intriguing piece of trivia that Reading University’s library opened in the same month as Terence Conran’s first Habitat store.

My institution offers 24/7 opening at the main university library in the immediate run-up to exams.  I usually stress that the most important part of the 24/7 library is the availability of electronic resources – although those include an online catalogue.  So, if you’re interested in Russ Ackoff’s ideas on knowledge, and want to refer back to his original writing which is only available on paper, you can establish from home whether the paper item is in stock, and then come in to collect it.

But the BBC piece about the library in Reading is also a salutary reminder that a library isn’t just about its contents, and that the need for a congenial place to study is as relevant as it every has been

Ideas behind the MOOCs

December 7, 2012

George Siemens is one of the most prominent proponents of MOOCs at present.  While I’m not convinced by all the links that he draws between innovative education and changes in society, in this TED talk he does provide a powerful explanation of the thinking behind new approaches to learning online (the course for educators that he describes is a MOOC)

For as long as distance education has been available (and that includes correspondence courses going back at least as far as the 19th century) much of it has been devoted to providing education to groups who wouldn’t have been reached by more traditional approaches.  An interesting consequence of the interest in electronic tools for learning is the number of influential thinkers who are based in remote parts of Australia or Canada, or who work with students who might be classed as ‘widening participation’  Working inAthabasca University, which is an established distance learning institution based in Canada, George Siemens falls into both these categories, though the TED talk is worth a browse for the bit at 2:47 where he explains where he comes from originally, and why that matters.

Nerdfighting, numeracy, and the New York Times

November 15, 2012

I’ve blogged in the past about five thirty eight, the site which aggregates opinion polls particularly in connection with American politics.  I’ve particularly noted the site’s readiness to engage in ‘nerdfights’ (their term) in connection with issues such as the 2010 general election here in Britain, where they might have disagreed – in the most constructive, scientific, spirit – about methodology.

These three related changes occured between the 2010 British general election and the 2012 American presidential election:

  1. Nate Silver, who created fivethirtyeight, changed from being an independent blogger (and, cleverly, one who could set up with a limited infrastructure, because as a poll aggregator he didn’t need to go out and canvas voters himself) to one whose site was hosted by the New York Times.  So this was a neat example of an individual blogger being ‘adopted’ by traditional media
  2. Through the election campaign, he produced figures based on his own model, and on understanding the workings of the electoral college which appoints the president, both for the probability of each candidate winning and for the result that he would expect if the election took place on that day.  His prediction immediately before the election proved to be remarkably accurate – making Nate Silver into something of a hero in some circles at least
  3. Perhaps because of his success, he has also become a rather controversial figure, almost as though political punditry and scientific analysis were two contrasting and incompatible approaches…

There’s a nice discussion of some of the scientific background to this on one of the Guardian’s science blogs.

Meanwhile the fivethirty eight site itself is back to analysing predictions about basball scores, which is where Nate Silver’s statistical analysis started.  And its accuracy in terms of the presidential election is a great illustration of the value of data and the usefulness of numeracy.

The AA’s old gold

November 14, 2012

Last week I was sent my annual renewal notice for the AA, which operates principally a motoring breakdown service and is now part of the same venture capital group as Saga, purveyors of travel and insurance services specifically aimed at the over-50 age group.  As a member of some years’ standing, the notice told me, I’m now classed as a ‘gold member’. In the leaflet explaining this, the ‘G’ of gold is represented by a squiggle so that the remaining letters appear to say something about ‘old membership’.  Is this a deliberate joke or a corporate Freudian slip I wonder?

Whatever happened to upmystreet?

October 23, 2012

For many years one of the most interesting websites that I used in explaining the power of the Internet was one called upmystreet.  You could input the name of a place, or most usefully a postcode, and find out useful data about the particular place.  It was a nice teaching tool, because with a group of students I could ask for a few volunteers to tell me their postcode and watch while I found out what was their streets were like.  It was a good illustration of what I term universal access – the effect that the Internet made information available to everybody when in the past it had been the preserve of specialists, in particular the ACORN classifications, which have been used for many years to .  Because it combined a range of data sources, it helped to bring to life the complexity of knowledge, and the intricacy of the picture that you might hope to build if you were finding out about an area which you don’t know well.

However upmystreet has now disappeared and the website redirects to Zoopla.  Now I’ve blogged about Zoopla before, and there’s a lot ot like about it, notably the web 2.0 characteristics that it combines data from different sources, and that it invites users to contribute and to refine the data.  It’s a better route than Google streetview if you want to find the street view of a particular address – just choose the address and click over the streetview tab which appears for a property.  It gives you a model for calculating home values and is quite transparent about how this is done.  It creates a Z-index for a particular postcode which is just a simple bottom-line figure which tells you the average value of each home in the postcode area.

But the Z-index is also afflicted by the same weakness as many other simple bottom-line figures: it doesn’t tell you about the area in any depth.  There are more detailed statistics about price trends, but Zoopla is unashamedly a property price website and the detailed data is all about house prices and rental values.  Click over ‘local info’ and you will get some neighbourhood statistics, but these are ones which are widely available and which refer to a large area – in London to entire London boroughs with populations of perhaps 300,000.  Again, as I’ve mentioned before in my blog, many London boroughs cover a diverse range of areas and the average statistics for the whole borough are fairly meaningless.

As far as I can tell there’s now nothing on the web which offers you the sort of demographic information that was once available at a postcode level.  Which seems a pity.

Adjudicating on plagiarism

June 12, 2012

Plagiarism is a big issue in higher education and one of the key concerns is that students often genuinely don’t lack a clear understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and what doesn’t.  So it’s reassuring to see this recognised in the forthcoming report from the office of the independent adjudicator as covered in this Guardian piece – and my personal view is that the topic is a bit more nuanced than some of the ‘below the line’ comments would suggest