Archive for January 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz and Open Access

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on January 14, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a very brief comment about the tragic death, apparently by his own hand,  of Aaron Swartz on Friday.  For those of you who haven’t followed the story, or perhaps don’t even know who he was, Aaron Swartz was an “internet activist” and leading champion of the open data movement. He was  a young man, only 26 when he died, who was prepared to fight for a cause he truly believed in. And to die for it.

Aaron Swartz was being prosecuted for alleged illegal downloads of scientific papers from the JSTOR system so he could make them available to the public. If convicted he would have faced a sentence of up to 35 years in prison.

Whether his prosecution was according to the letter of the law is a question I’ll leave for others to discuss. I’ll just say that it’s profoundly objectionable that the papers in the JSTOR are behind a paywall in the first place, just another example of how the academic publishing industry now actively stifles the free communication of scientific ideas and results that it purports to facilitate.

Aaron Swartz was a controversial character, but I know I’m not alone in thinking that his prosecution  was at the least heavy-handed and at the worst downright vindictive. Academics have been using the hashtag #PDFtribute on Twitter to pay tribute to his courage and to follow his example by posting their own research publicly free of charge.

Astronomers have making their results available in this way for years, through the arXiv.  We have also been paying through the nose for subscriptions to journals that do little more than duplicate the arXiv submission at such a prohibitive cost for access that the public can’t access them. In future we’re supposed to pay huge fees up front to academic publishing houses, to duplicate the arXiv in a different but equally pointless way. Pointless, that is, from any perspective other than their own profits.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve suggested a way to bypass traditional journals and achieve a form of publication that is both open to all and run at a minimal cost to authors. That will be going on-line in the not-too-distant future. One thing remaining to be resolved is the name for the new system. I still haven’t decided on that, but at least I now know to whose name it will be dedicated.

R.I.P. Aaron Swartz (1986-2013).

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Examination Period

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on January 14, 2013 by telescoper

Up early this morning as I have to chair my final meeting of the Board of Studies in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University before heading off to the Sussex-by-the-Sea for a three days of lectureship interviews and related matters. I’ll therefore probably only have time for brief posts over the next week or so.

Today is also the start of our mid-year examination period which goes on for a fortnight at Cardiff University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, whether in Cardiff or elsewhere, especially those who are further on in their courses and for whom these papers have greater importance.

I’m a bit too busy for anything new so I thought I’d just post a rehash of a rehash of an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. The biggest bane of physics education is the way modular degrees have been implemented in this respect…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way we teach modules in British universities fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

Our students take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

This means that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over the last decades with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen in physics. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorising chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period. Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…