Monthly Archives: August 2011

More on e-textbooks, plus Cognopedia

A very small update just to point interested readers to a few things I’ve found recently.

Firstly, you may recall me blogging about e-textbooks for students previously, here and here. have just published a couple of articles relevant to this topic. Firstly, they have an opinion piece here which unfortunately comes to the conclusion that publishers are failing to drive along the adoption of e-textbooks at the moment. Interestingly it mentions that many students are already pirating textbooks (downloading them from torrent sites, etc.). Yet another example of how traditional media companies are always behind the curve when it comes to new technology, which forces users to seek illegal routes for what they want to do. The other piece (here) is a run-down of the major pieces of e-reader (e.g. the Amazon Kindle) and tablet (e.g. Apple’s iPad) hardware available at the moment – a nice piece as it compares both classes of device side-by-side.

The other tender morsel which I shall try and tempt your jaded mouse-finger with today is a site called Cognopedia, which is essentially a wiki-like site, but entirely focussed on the brain. Seems to have a lot of good information, and a lot of good embedded videos and multimedia on various topics. Worth checking out. Credit for bringing this to my attention goes to the never-less-than-excellent Mo Costandi (follow him on Twitter: @mocost) and also the relentlessly sublime BPS research digest (here). If you’re a psychology student or a psychologist and you don’t already subscribe to the BPS research digest blog, then you are definitely, definitely missing out.

How to Program Experiments 1: Cheating with Powerpoint

And here we finally are; it’s something I’ve been avoiding getting around to for a while, because it’s such a big and complicated topic, but to a large extent it’s the raison d’etre behind this entire blog, so I knew I’d have to roll up my sleeves and get down to it eventually. The topic I’m referring to is of course, how do you make a computer perform those nice cognitive-type psychology experiments? How do you get it to put pictures, words, or videos up on the screen, collect responses, store the data and do it all with accurate timing? How, in a nutshell, do you make a computer your all-singin’, all-dancin’, research-data-collectin’ bitch?

As I said, this is a massive topic, so before getting into specialised software and ‘proper’ experimental programming we’re going to start slowly, and we’re going to start with some techniques for using a piece of software that’s on practically every PC – Microsoft Powerpoint. Powerpoint is essentially just a program for presenting multimedia (words, pictures, video, sounds) on a screen in a nice professional way, so we can use it for presenting some simple experimental stimuli. The one thing that it won’t really do is collect input from a participant (except the standard ‘advance to the next slide’ input), which is a pretty big limitation for experimental purposes, but can be worked around.

The best ways of explaining how to use Powerpoint are by example, so I’ve created a couple of illustrative slideshows.

The first one is a simple rating task, where pictures of faces are presented, and a Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) is presented on-screen underneath each picture, like this:

Read the rest of this entry

Automatic Essay Marking

The absolute worst experience for any educational professional is to sit down on an evening or a weekend (it always seems to be an evening or weekend, when you should be doing something more enjoyable) with 100 essays or exam scripts, all on the same topic, and slowly, resentfully, plod your way through and grade them. It’s hell. At times like that I would have been willing to cut off a finger if somebody could have showed me a way that they could all be marked automatically.

Well, recently it seems the prayers of educators may have been answered. Several companies are working on software that automatically gives marks/grades to written assignments. This article covers the basics, but briefly, students can upload their work to a web-portal, and get instant feedback on their written work. One particular company has produced a piece of software called ‘SAGRader‘ which they claim uses artificial intelligence and NLP (Natural Language Processing) algorithms to effectively ‘read’ the essay, and thereby provide much more detailed and specific feedback on the content. Such a system should in theory be able to not only grade on simple things like spelling and grammar (Word processors have been detecting and correcting these things for years) but on the actual semantic content of a piece of work. If it works, this would be a massive help, and the numbers and testimonials on the SAGrader website do seem to suggest that it works. What you have to remember is that human graders are massively fallible so, to be useful, a piece of software doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be better than human graders. Read the rest of this entry

The student essay as an assessment technique – an obsolete technology?

This post is a bit of a diversion from normal service, but it’s been inspired by some things I’ve been reading recently on essays (or ‘papers’ for my North American readers) and student assessment. The first was this piece on plagiarism and essay-mills, and the second was this piece here. Both highlight some current issues with assessment methods at university/college level, such as plagiarism, something which I’ve also covered before.

So anyway, in keeping (vaguely) with the theme of this blog I thought I’d take a look at the essay/paper as a technique (or ‘technology’ if you will – see what I did there?) for educational assessment and try and determine whether it’s still up-to-date, or as obsolete as a 5-inch floppy disk. Or a 28.8K modem. Or leaving your goddam twitter account alone for five minutes and giving someone your undivided attention during a social interaction. You get the idea.

So, the essay* as a literary format is a curious one. Canonically it has its origins in the 1580s with Michel de Montaigne; probably the first person to describe themselves as an ‘essayist’, although he was apparently inspired by Plutarch. Interestingly, a similar format existed in the Japanese literary tradition since its very early period. It first became formalised as a standard way of assessing students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Read the rest of this entry

The HP DM1-3200SA – the perfect student computer?

A while ago I did a post on how to choose a computer for studying but shied away from making any specific recommendations. This is partly because reviews of specific machines would date pretty quickly, and I didn’t really want to make this site into a load of hardware reviews.* However I recently got my hands on one of these little beauties:

The Hewlett Packard DM1-3200SA. Oooh... sexy.

It’s a Hewlett Packard Pavilion DM1-3200SA laptop. It’s basically like a netbook-on-steroids – small enough to carry around really easily, but with enough power under the hood to get the job done. The screen is 11.6 inches – this might be a little small for a lot of people, but personally I find the 12-13″ range to be the sweet-spot in terms of the compromise between portability and usefulness; it’s also only 1.6kg in weight. It’s got an AMD 1.6Ghz dual-core processor and 3GB of RAM (up to 1.4Gb of which can be allocated to video RAM) so it can handle pretty much anything you want with grace and ease. The 320Gb hard drive and 1366×768 screen are pretty standard features, but not bad at all. HP reckons you can get up to 9.5 hours from the battery, but 7-8 would probably be more realistic – still excellent though. The keyboard is near-as-dammit full-size, and pretty comfortable for typing. My only complaint about using it was the trackpad was a little small (understandably, it’s a small computer after all) and the multi-touch implementation (two-finger scrolling, etc.) was a bit unresponsive. It’s possible this will be fixed in a future driver update though, and to be fair I’m comparing it to the multi-touch trackpad on my MacBook Pro which is best-in-class. Actually, having any kind of multi-touch trackpad on a laptop at this price point is pretty impressive.

Which brings me to arguably its best feature – the price. It’s available now from and a few other places for £319 – an absolute honest-to-goodness, stone-cold bloody bargain! Particularly when you consider there’s a Sony model also available at the moment which has an almost identical specification, but is more than twice the price. So, for my money, I reckon this laptop might be the perfect student computer – light and with enough battery life to make lugging it to a whole day of lectures possible, but powerful enough to handle chewing through editing videos of drunken nights out if necessary.

Here’s the full spec sheet on the HP site, and here’s a more in-depth review from the gadget gurus at Engadget (they gave it 8 out of 10). One last thing – confusingly, there’s an older HP model also called the DM1 with a silver keyboard – don’t get that one, the spec isn’t quite as good – make sure you get one with the black keyboard! Also, if you do get one, the first thing you should do is spend a couple of hours uninstalling all the crapware that HP puts on it as standard – Media players/editors, and Norton trials etc. Ugh – wish manufacturers would stop doing that.

Happy laptopping! TTFN

*Although if any manufacturer wants to send me any of their new sexy gear to review, that would make me very happy. No? Oh well… worth a try.