Starting Honours

I recently graduated from my undergraduate degree (a Bachelor of Information Technology) at the Queensland University of Technology. It was an exciting, frenetic two and a half years. But my academic career is not yet over – I’m starting my honours. I’ve had some good advice that a good way to develop yourself during higher degree research (HDR) is by blogging. More or less specifically this was about reporting on your research, but I think it would be good to visit how I would have started my honors (and approached my undergraduate degree) differently. This is advice or realizations I didn’t have until I’d started so I though the were a few things worth sharing. The great thing is that I don’t necessarily think these suggestions are just as applicable to undergraduates.

1. Make Academic Contacts Quickly
To be fair, this isn’t something I had a problem with – it’s more or less an identification of a theme. I was only able to get the project I have through contacts. Know what you like to study and really get to know the academic who specialize in this at your tertiary education institution. Ask questions and be interested – even for undergrads, there are so many opportunities that come out of connections with your academic staff.

2. Use mind maps/Express what you’ve learnt
This is one thing I wish I had of tried earlier. I am in the process of understanding my topic (which is fairly complex and more than sufficiently nuanced). Nothing makes sense until you find a way to express what your researching and reading. Mind maps worked well for me (thanks to my primary supervisor for the idea). If your university or library offers courses on this topic, attend it.

3. Print Stuff
This is horrible for an IT student to say, but sometimes reading on paper is just so much easier than reading off a screen (as ironic as that is while you read this on a computer or mobile device no less). While printing prices are truly astronomical at universities, ask your project supervisor or faculty librarian if there is something else you can do about printing. Academics and librarians understand that you’ll want to print research and from my experience, they all go out of their way to help.

4. Use EndNote (or similar)
I can’t believe I went through undergrad without using this once. While I’m not using it extensively yet, I will be. EndNote is such a powerful tool to keep a track of all your references and documents relevant to your research. When your dealing with HDR, this is a godsend. Take a course in it if your Library offers one, or ask your faculty’s librarian for help. Just use it and be amazed.

5. Ask Questions
If there is something which you can’t answer, ask your supervisor/s. They are there to guide and help, especially for honors and masters students where this will likely be your first piece of original HDR. Just know what you need to know and ask.

Hopefully these five tips are useful for undergraduates and HDR students alike. What are your recommendations and tips for students undertaking honors, masters or PhD research?

Developing for iPhone

I have finally found myself with some time to (begin) learning iPhone development. I have said (numerous) times before that I was learning, but I am actually getting to understand it this time. Perhaps attempting it several times before, failing and returning to it some time down the track is allowing things to sink in. Being me, now is the perfect time to share an update on my progress here on the blog.

In my last post on the topic, I mentioned the tools I was using to learn the development. Some seem to work well, others not so much. What is working for me are video tutorials. These actually make sense as you get to see and hear what is going on. I would recommend a video course as the best way to use this method – while I could foresee it working if you search YouTube, it would likely take a significant amount of time to find really great tutorials which fit together nicely.

The other thing that worked well for me was just mucking around. I took some of the ideas from the tutorials and books I was relying on and adapted them and mashed them up to develop little applications that would let me put ideas together. Don’t be afraid to spend time developing these apps you can throw away – being able to throw them away at the end is a great benefit. If you get frustrated, you can just start another.

One thing that hasn’t worked well for me is a book. While it is good as a reference, it is too difficult to learn well from these books. It’s not dynamic and sometimes it is a drain to be flipping back and forward between a book and Xcode. I would still use mine as a reference, not so much as a development tool.

Here is proof of my work: the first application I wrote from scratch myself without any assistance from any of my learning tools and resources. It’s basic, and the idea of Moods is itself based on a tutorial – I adapted the idea to something I was comfortable in doing myself. The app simply has a few buttons with various moods, which display a pop-up (UIAlertView) with some pith statement about your selected mood.

A basic app I know, but I needed to learn a lot to get to this point, including:

  • Selecting the right iPhone app template
  • Memory management
  • Sending messages to objects in Objective-C
  • Instantiating new objects in Objective-C (for the UIAlertViews)
  • Using the @property and @synthesize directives

By mucking around, I think I learnt the most through this app. I’ll keep working on my skills with iPhone development at least through the end of the month (I found a great TED talk video by Matt Cutts about trying things for 30 days and the impact that makes on learnability and achieveability of goals – definetly worth a watch). I’ll keep you updated on my progress, of course.

What language or SDK are you trying to learn now? What worked and didn’t work for you when you were learning to develop?

Vlog – Ice Skating Amazingness

Although I haven’t done it in a long while, I really do enjoy creating vlogs. Especially when those vlogs involve filming myself while participating in dangerous sports. Like ice skating.

The Alpine Winter Festival is currently on in Brisbane and a friend (who features in the blog) decided ic skating would be a fun idea. Of course I said yes (I love trying new things). Shame I haven’t been ice skating; I should add I am not terribly co-ordinated either.

The result of me attempting to ice skate and vlog simultaneously is included in the video below. Make sure you Like it if you think I am an *amazing* ice skater :)

What State Public Education Can Learn From RateMyTeacher

I happened to be watching Channel News’s 6pm Brisbane bulletin on Tuesday and a story caught my eye – a report popped up talking about a web app called RateMyTeacher and how various stakeholders (schools, teachers, education unions and students) are reacting. The overall reaction was very negative from the viewpoint of institutions (clearly students were having a positive one from the gaps in the story, thank you mass media).

While the theme of the story seemed to generally support the cause of the institutions and organisations just mentioned, I think these institutions are missing out on key learning. As with any adverse situation, a threat can be turned into an opportunity, but it is too easy to see the issue as bad and simply shut down in the face of slight adversity.

After a bit of study in IT at the Queensland University of Technology and a bit of experience at this institution, its clear to see a number of things that the above mentioned institutions could learn:

  1. Teachers and education institutions are no longer in a protected environment – they are now in the world of commercial organisations on the web
  2. You can’t hide on the web – you need to be open and ready to react
  3. You can learn from your people and your customers – have a way to listen to them and genuinely act on their feedback

Addressing the first point here – it has long been known that most of the content about a company on the Internet is not written, let alone controlled, by this organisation. In a book I am currently reading, What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis, Jeff talks about how easy it is for people to write about your company. And we know that a dissatisfied “customer” (students and their parents are education departments’ customers) will tell anyone and everyone about their experience. Like any incorporated business before them, governments can no longer hide from people’s feedback. Its a powerful tool for an education department’s customers to communicate with their customers. There might be something horribly amiss and the customer has no way to report. But they may also be giving a compliment. You need to take the good with the bad and be prepared to manage all situations with panache, not by hiding in your shell and becoming defensive (as is the case with the story I saw).

This leads me to the second point – you have to be open. In the book by Jarvis (see above) he talks about how Dell turned a PR nightmare into one of the best things to happen to the company. Ever. They were hit by a blog storm from unhappy users finally giving up on Dell Support and expressing their true feelings about the company openly for everyone to hear. The company was hit hard. But they didn’t just sit around, complain, close up and become defensive. Dell turned this threat into an opportunity by starting their own blog and started communicating with these unhappy users. And they did this with good intention and good execution. They were forthcoming and honest. And they listened. it worked. The company made a full recovery and gained market share and brand equity from the change.

It’s time for governments and education institutions to stop shielding themselves in politics and red tape. The Internet is even too open for you to control the message, so get in there and manage it the best you can. In the case of RateMyTeacher, the government and education organizations (including the unions) need to open up and talk to their dissatisfied customers. Turning the discussion into an honest two way exchange can create a lot of value for the parties involved. By actually making a concerted effort in engaging with customers, the government and the education organizations embroiled can start to understand and control the situation, which is their fundamental need.

Finally, if these organizations really want to get the issue under control, they need to do something about it themselves. My idea seems crazy – create their own version of RateMyTeacher. But hear me out. At QUT, we undertake a survey every semester called the Learning Experience Survey (LEX). This is an opportunity for every student to have their say about each of their units and the teaching staff attached. Students are given control over the feedback. And while you may think students who hold a vendetta against an academic abuse the service, this doesn’t hold true in reality. Given the responsibility, student feedback is constructive (as a staff member at QUT, I hear this side of the story; on that note, I should also disclaim this post as supporting any of views of QUT. I’m writing this from my own opinion, experience and knowledge). Academics love it; it helps them learn, grow and improve their units for the next intake of students.

This kind if service is something I would have loved to have had access to at school. I had wonderful teachers, and my feedback would have been overall positive, but I would have loved to have provided anonymous feedback about content and teaching style from time-to-time. Given this tool, I know students would engage more and everyone, students, teachers and supporting staff, could learn a lot from just listening to their customers – a basic of marketing. With a little Web 2.0 magic, this kind of service would be extremely straightforward and inexpensive to implement in schools nationwide.

While I am not defending students posting slander in anyway (that is a separate issue which would be interesting to visit soon), education departments and unions are missing an opportunity to improve their fundamental services by shutting down in the face of this (slight) adversity. By leveraging adversity and changing a threat into an opportunity with a little Web 2.0 and Gen Y nous, there is a way to incorporate student feedback into the improvement of learning experiences and environments. That is something, I think, we can all agree is the mission of education institutions.

Clean a dirty iPad 2 Smart Cover with an eraser

If you are anything like me, your Smart Cover is a saviour for your investment into the Apple tablet; without it, my screen would likely already be damaged in some way or another. My fluorescent green Smart Cover, while a great protector and feature of my iPad, it really does take a beating. My iPad floats around in my bag with all of the other things I happen to take to uni (folders, Livescribe books, textbooks and sometimes my MacBook Pro). This leads it to collect all sorts of grime on the Smart Cover’s polyurethane front.

I have no real idea of what to do to clean it up – it had become quite unclean in the few short weeks I have actually had it. I was sitting at my desk when I was holding on to a rubber (or an eraser, depending on who you are and where you are from) when the idea struck me  – why not use the eraser? I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but after a few moments, all the gunk that had built up over the life of the cover came off easily. See the image below (sorry it isn’t amazing; my iPhone and desk lamp don’t like each other much). Note this approach may not work for permanent marks like those made by biro and marker pens, but works for general everyday grime.

The iPad Smart Cover can be cleaned with an eraser. The dirty areas are in the red squared. The clean panels are on the right.

But it just goes to show the best solutions are the simplest ones.