Ye Olde Journals

I got to experience essay writing from a different perspective this week. I have been producing a critical analysis of psychoanalytic therapy, and to my dismay, it seemed that all the journal articles that had relevant abstracts were stuck behind a firewall of some overseas journal.

A couple of those were still available however in the Bangor University library archives, and, sure enough, after a couple of days the porter was able to fetch me them.

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It is really thought provoking to realise that once upon a time, this was how research was done. When I opened the 124th volume of the American Journal of Psychiatry, I saw that it had last been drawn out on June 1st 1977. That was nearly 40 years ago!

To literally turn the pages of history, the contrast between the research then and now shows the advancements which have taken place over the years. One article referred to the success of a hospital ship in treating psychiatric patients from the Vietnam war, for which the authors carried military credentials.

How incredible it is now that we live in an age of information abundance, where we can search all the journals of the world in a matter of seconds. How astounding that the problem we have now is that there is too much information to know what to do with? How quickly does the amount of information in the world double? Or how soon does its half life take hold?

I can’t imagine what it would have been like living 40 years ago in a paper journal and type-writer world. I wonder if it was actually quite therapeutic; perhaps a more mindful experience? Back when the boundaries of having completely searched ‘everything’ could be met once you had skewered through the indexes of the library.

Yet this was a time when so many of the fundamentals of psychology were being established. Beck’s inventory, behaviourism, the magic seven, plus or minus two, and Anna Freud to name a few. What is the best way to utilise the tools we have now? That we might not loose the forest in the trees.

Dead Salmon Social Perspective Taking

I read a paper today in the British Medical Journal presenting a compelling case for a randomized controlled trial to measure the effectiveness of parachute use as a medical intervention to prevent injury when jumping from an aeroplane (Smith & Pell, 2003).

Their reasoning was as follows:

  • No such trial has been done before
  • The perception of the success of the parachute is based solely on anecdote
  • Natural history studies show that free fall without does not always result in an adverse outcome, therefore there is not a 100% chance of mortality when not using a parachute
  • There is also not a 100% chance of survival when using a parachute
  • In all other medical interventions not having a randomized controlled trial would be unacceptable
  • Current industry trials are subject to selection and reporting bias, as well as conflicts of interest.

All in all, there seems to be plenty of reasons why a randomised controlled trial should be carried out, so as to determine more appropriately the efficacy of the parachute… Except for the fact it would be stupid. And that, leads me on to the post-mortem Atlantic salmon.

Bennet, Baird, Miller and Wolford (2009) compared fMRI results of a dead Atlantic Salmon to a group of normal participants in a social perspective taking task.

Image Credit: Bennet, Baird, Miller and Wolford, 2009

The blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal experienced a significant change during the presentation of stimuli compared to at rest (t(131) > 3.15, p(uncorrected) < 0.001). An 81mm3 cluster of active voxels was identified on the Salmons brain cavity, and another smaller cluster was identified in the Salmons dorsal spinal column.

After the same t-tests were done using Benjamimi-Hochberg and family-wise corrections, both with a type 1 error rating of 0.05, no significant results were found. With those error ratings adjusted to 0.25, there was still no brain activity in Mr Salmon.

So, we have two daft studies here, both of which tickled me. It shows the importance of the correct use of advanced (and less advanced) statistics. It’s important to have a firm grasp of the statistical techniques you are working with, or you can very easily end up with errors. This is especially so in the case of the Salmon where such a large number of fine readings are recorded that without an element of realism being considered during the analysis, obvious statistical errors pop up.

And of course, the same level of realism is required at the opposite end of the spectrum, when you ask if we really need experimental control at all. I am impressed with how statistics allow researchers in the social sciences to measure population variables with precision. I don’t even pretend for one minute that I have an in depth understanding of all the methods covered even at undergraduate level, but I have learnt the value of getting stats right. It is important to properly reflect on what statistical tools are genuinely necessary to answer the research question, and of the ones you choose to use, it is important to understand the intricate details.

What Do We Value?

Photo Credit: Tax Credits

Photo Credit: Tax Credits

In a recent seminar we concluded that some of society’s values are misaligned. In a world where some economically developed countries are now developing robots to care for their elderly while one can be paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for making yet more money through the financial markets. Consider that also in terms of education. We say we want to deliver value for money in an education system, which we do through batch processes, shipping students through to get the best ‘value’ for money. Interestingly, some less economically developed countries scratch their heads because they can manage to empower their students with an individual laptop each while we, well… can’t.

Some people will tell you this is the natural flow of things. That that is just how it is. That the refuse collector (who really keeps our streets clear of rats and disease) doesn’t warrant such a high salary. Or the teaching assistant, who might be the difference between children achieving a meaningful role in life, or being left to fail. It’s all to do with our values. It asks the question: what do we value? Do we desire for every child to find purpose in life? Or do we value ‘get rich quick’ schemes based on leverage and speculation?

The problem is that this question seems too anecdotal. Is there any variables, or any break down at all that could give it some depth? I think there is. Look at how businesses measure value? Typically in terms of cost I would say. They ask: for every pound I put in, how much do I get back? It drives their decisions of who to hire or what equipment and raw materials they might choose to use. So value might be what you get back to what you put in. And good value typically means you get back more.

The value of return is measured in more than money. If you value a £300 set of Bose headphones, the sound quality must be worth more than £300. Although, can you put a price on quality? Where society’s values are mixed up then is the worth they place on individuals. It looks to me that we place our worth on things, not people.

I also believe that this applies to education. Not just for teachers and commissioners, but for learners. As a higher education student, what do I value? How do I value my time? Or entertainment? What types of work or study are likely to yield the largest dividends in the long term? And it is in no way clear cut. Ask anybody the right leading questions and they’ll tell you they value study. Which is right, if one wishes to do well; more study typically leads to a more empowering job. But we all need balance, so a measure of recreation and entertainment also yields increasing returns.

We need to carefully discern how to value each, and I think it is something that can only be learned individually after one has selected one’s own overarching values of getting a good education.

Value is so much more than monetary. There are things which are somewhat priceless, but wherein we will experience a ‘law of increasing returns’ for putting resources into it.

Research Methods Blogs

icon-36401_640Two years ago at the start of my degree, a portion of our research methods grade was based on writing a bi-weekly blog (and comments) on research methods in psychology. There was some pretty common traps that students starting out on their academic writing fell in to.

Firstly, we had about a thousand blogs on ethics, validity and whether outliers should be removed or not. Because of this it did make me wonder what there was to write about beyond this. Two years on I think I have the answer, and it has been a light bulb moment for me as I contemplate gearing up for a higher academic work load.

Imagine you are a PhD student, and the first phase of your study is to read a whole pile of journal articles which you will then need to understand and use to plan your own research.

If you take your highlighter to it in depth you’ll be reading for far longer than three years. If you read merely to say you did it your recollection will be similar to that of attending lectures. If you want an idea of what results were found, then the abstract and elements of the conclusion often do the job for you. My question here is: what are you actually reading for?

As we blogged for our science of education blog this semester I eventually worked out that there was good marks to be earned by critiquing the evidence already cited by other students. Looking out for things like conflicts of interest or invalid measures. In short, marks came from evaluating the research methods.

I’m seeing the same pattern as I’m starting to write my dissertation. Prior to my academic blogging experiences I was stalling for what to write, anxious about the task ahead of writing a good literature review. But when you see a 2000 word literature review as no more than 10x 200 word critiques (blog comments) the job seems a lot more manageable.

This perspective of examining the research methods gives purpose to the review I am conducting, as it really does set the stage for my own research. It shows the challenges to overcome and the cause/effect relations between different variables and study techniques. And in doing so, your work then carries the general results and findings thus far.

Now I don’t claim for one second that my undergraduate work compares like for like with the work of a PhD student. However undergraduate learning is a taster, modelled around high level academic study, so these ideas seem to take me a step closer to developing professional skills. Academics aren’t there to memorise literature. They definitely aren’t there to copy it either. You’re trying to seek and sense so that you can add new value later on. Considering, evaluating and comparing the research methods looks like a really balanced way to objectively evaluate research to expound on its potential.

Web 2.0 Model and Real Learning

Last week I gave a talk about how the Raspberry Pi computer models the psychological concepts of the MUSIC model (Jones, 2009), and also semantic encoding and social networking.

While I was speaking, something occurred to me. There are two factions of opinion to the use of technology in education. There is the movement to put the capitalistic, closed source and blatantly expensive iPad into our classrooms, and there are also products such as the Raspberry Pi, which are cheap, open sourced and have undergone a huge level of development from hobbyist programmers.

Both of them have landed up with a top product but for different reasons. There’s a culture in the Apple organisation for making things such that they can persuade people to want them. From that perspective, they can’t go wrong. But they have made a product and a framework that is simple to use, and allows for plenty of sharing. While you are often roped into subscribing to a lot more of the apple ecosystem than you might like to (think proprietary peripherals), it works, and it is an enjoyable experience to use.

Now the Pi on the other hand has a crowd sourced developing model. The genius to this is that average Joe is empowered to do his own coding. Thus the scope for innovation is practically unlimited. Through this we’ve seen numerous teaching models and novel ideas that make the Pi a true sandbox for creativity.

I read an interesting article this last week also about web 2.0 culture. Web 2.0 has done a lot more than merely make the internet interactive. What is has done is streamline discussion and empowered the individual to speak out. Retweets and reblogs amplify topics and the freedom of speech that web 2.0 affords, along with its audience and network of critics means that crowd sourced innovation and power is easily found. It is not hard then to see how the pedagogical support for the Raspberry Pi and other open source tools have only gotten better.

Jon Husband (2007) talks about how such learning can be likened to a fishnet. As you will see from the image below a fishnet can be lifted up and let down from varies nodes, creating short term and flexible hierarchies. The internet is “all periphery and no centre” (Hamel, but see Husband, 2007), yet there is times when a centre of control and direction is needed. But as the fishnets movements are governed by the waves of the sea, so too must the educational and commercial institutions adapt with such flexibility to make the best possible use of people and learning opportunities.

Picture Credit: Hamel (see Husband, 2007)

Picture Credit: Hamel (see Husband, 2007)

I am sure apple must have a similar such culture within their organisation, which has produced a fantastic product. I must say however that while the iPad is a tool; a means to an end to create something else. On the other hand, the Raspberry Pi’s open nature has empowered people to a level of unprecedented opportunity to dissect, understand, create and share.


Social Media in the Workplace

networkI have spent a lot of time studying the use of social media in relation to education, and I have concluded that it is very useful. Evidence suggests that crowd sourced projects (such as Wikipedia) actually work, and contain a lot of depth in their articles. The manor of empowering individuals to connect with experts and peers, to share and to discuss, leads learners to enter the flow experience and benefit from intrinsic motivation.

But where does that fit in with employers? Surely it would be a significant turn off to a recruiter when Jimmy the graduate enters and starts lobbying colleagues to use twitter, or to blog on a public forum about day to day operations? It might be fair to say that while academic can benefit from tearing down walls, an element of business success surely comes from keeping them up.

An article by Rachel Happe (2013) provides a good synopsis of the ‘what’ social media can do. And it needs to be noted that social media is merely the vehicle through which it is delivered. Too many people have seen the ‘like us on Facebook’ ads on the back of the breakfast cereal box, or have seen someone on Facebook repost some meme and equated that with social media’s benefits. But the real benefit (and this is why SM is only the vehicle) is in the human relationships that it quickens.

Building relationships is the essence of a dynamic organisation. Experiential learning is essential, but cannot be transmitted via lecture or writ. What you need is the person. Not only do you need the person, but the person needs to be empowered to share. Now think about the reasons they might not share? They might be dissatisfied with their job, they might have fear of becoming dispensable, or they might feel animosity to the person needing the information. Trust and unity are the principles behind the networked organisation for which SM is the vehicle. As I said before, the university benefits from taking down its walls to the wider world. The business could benefit from at least taking down walls within.

Empower the employees to make their own connections. Let them have fun and communicate over their areas of expertise. Regardless of the medium used (email often still suffices) it is the intrinsically motivated and connected workers who have the flexibility and connections that let the organisation solve problems dynamically – in a whole new way.

I don’t even think this is a surprise for a lot of businesses. People have been talking about networking for years. But often it is still an uneasy topic to approach. Still, for motivation and new solutions let these principles be born in mind. The work in education, and according to Harold Jarche (2013), learning is the work!

Internet Identity: Fear of Failure

This week I had a fantastic opportunity to attend the ‘Flexible Teaching, Flexible Learning’ conference at Bangor University. I was particularly moved by the keynote speaker, Steve Wheeler from Plymouth University.

I am already doing research on social networks and connected learning and the way Steve talks about it is just music to my ears. Let me share some of the points that he put across so elegantly.

People were never designed to be factory taught or put to work in batches. There’s just something that doesn’t resonate through drill or monotony. The most ‘optimal experience’ takes place when we are challenged at a level that corresponds to our skill level. That is why the production (or synthesis) as opposed to a consumption centred model of learning leads to better understanding and higher creativity.

With that in mind, the ubiquitous computing of the postmodern age serves as a tool for the mind, to curate, share and enter into discourse over the how’s and why’s of all things. Never before has the blog or the tweet empowered the common man into a content curator. Never before could people across the world speculate and critique in matters of seconds, and benefit from the enhanced serendipity that comes with the state of flow.

And what’s exciting is that it’s not just about finding information. It’s about being found. With tweets, wiki’s, slideshare presentations and sites such as or linked in, there’s never been a better time for the inquiring mind.

This thought provoking video was shown too, which had been produced by a student in one of Steve’s classes. She talks about her online identity and asks different soul searching questions about why we do what we do, and why we might want to hide such trails.

This is something I found really interesting because I am currently in the process of applying for jobs, and I’ve been considering my own various blogs and social networks that I have written online over the years. Some of them I read and wonder how a potential employer might feel reading them. Even now as I write, I feel to choose my words carefully because of what this could imply. The reality is I don’t drink, or engage in destructive rebellious behaviours. But I have blogged about politics and the economy. In today’s climate these can indeed be dividing topics.

Some might suggest abstaining or moderation; however I can genuinely say that it is through the putting of my thoughts and feelings into words that has helped me recognise the efficacy of my view points. In a very real sense, sometimes you have to go somewhere to more fully understand it, and that includes contemplating the extremities of political opinion. Yet because it is an incomplete work I feel to hide it away from the world in case I be misjudged. The problem with the internet being written in ink is that it leaves little sympathy for mistake.

Another remark of Steve’s that I liked was his acronym for failure. A ‘fail’ is simply a First Attempt In Learning. In the attitude of tearing down walls, why should errors and mistakes made using the fantastic infrastructure for social learning that we have hamper those engaged with the best learning of the day. Can the internet just be a little more forgiving?

Power to the Textbooks

Recently I’ve been wondering about the role of original research. In fact, it has been a question I’ve wondered about since I began studying my degree: we do a lot of research, and we try to chase the original sources, but do we ever really get back to the original research to scrutinize it, or indeed simply to enjoy its simplicity.

Let me give an example. Last week I wrote an article about behaviourism. The bare original research is Pavlov and his dogs. However there’s no simple citation, other than his written works, which, let’s face it, how many people have really read that? I certainly wasn’t about to scour it just to say I did it when everybody “knows” what it says.

The are plenty of simple-written explanations found on sites like or Wikipedia, which do all cite Pavlov’s works. But they are not peer reviewed, and there’s a very real chance you are reading a load of hogwash. In the end, I just accepted that the principle of conditioning was well enough accepted that it didn’t need a specific citation.

So what’s happening here? Do we find ourselves in a bit of a phenomenon that the research is so inaccessible that it sails into anecdote? Where do I get a strong citation for classical and operant conditioning.

textbook meme

To me it’s almost a mockery to just find a research paper that investigates conditioning as evidence for its existance. And textbooks do carry a bit of a stigma to them, likely because when you cited the textbook during an essay it was a tell-tale giveaway that you hadn’t done any novel reading.

The assignments for which the higher marks are obtained through doing extra reading almost do a disservice; they condition a bit of a mental block in the writer that narrows the research down to the peer-reviewed journals. Yet when it comes down to making an argument compelling yet simple, some of the strongest arguments I have heard still go back to the pivotal research such as Asche, Milgram and Pavlov; they are the most effective means by which to demonstrate a principle.

A quote by religious leader Dieter F. Uchtdorf, demonstrates how effective the use of simplicity can be:

The story is told that the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi had a ritual he performed on the first day of training. He would hold up a football, show it to the athletes who had been playing the sport for many years, and say, “Gentlemen, … this is a football!” He talked about its size and shape, how it can be kicked, carried, or passed. He took the team out onto the empty field and said, “This is a football field.” He walked them around, describing the dimensions, the shape, the rules, and how the game is played.

The best arguments come when there is no mark scheme, and no hoops to jump through to get that life changing grade. They are pragmatic. They demonstrate principles in action, and explain the mechanics of how they achieve their merit. So if the textbook is a worthy relay that gives compelling clarity to the original research, that should be every bit available to use in compiling an argument. And actually, I’ve read plenty of papers that do use textbooks in citations. I think we do just have a bit of an undergraduate sub-culture.

If the cap fits, wear it!