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Why aca­dem­ic free­dom must be pre­served: Uni­ver­sity of Sydney law lec­turer Ben Saul writes about pre­serving aca­dem­ic free­dom from polit­ic­al inter­fer­ence.

19 Aug 2008 | No comments

Naked short selling drama retold

Wiki­pe­dia kills Greatest Show On Earth – “[T]here was an Wikin­vest­ig­a­tion. And a Wikicourt­case. Like we said, Wikimad­ness.” Patrick Byrne has been waging a battle against naked short selling for some years, and togeth­er with Judd Bagley, he has accused fin­an­cial journ­al­ist Gary Weiss of gam­ing Wiki­pe­dia to dis­cred­it his views on naked short­ing. Bagley has been banned from edit­ing, but Byrne and Bagley have accused Weiss of edit­ing Wiki­pe­dia under vari­ous accounts. When there was “sig­ni­fic­ant evid­ence that tied these accounts to a real-life iden­tity”, there was an invest­ig­a­tion, and after fur­ther sock­pup­petry, the mad­ness was put to an end.

Oth­er men­tions

Oth­er recent men­tions in the online media include:

From the Wiki­pe­dia Sign­post.

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(As you may know, I write the “In the news” sec­tion for the Wiki­pe­dia Sign­post. From this week onwards, I’ll be post­ing up the ITN sec­tion on my blog as well as hav­ing it pub­lished in the Sign­post.)

Pro­fess­or says Wiki­pe­dia crowds out expert know­ledge

Wiki­pe­dia breeds ‘unwit­ting trust’ says IT pro­fess­or — Deakin Uni­ver­sity asso­ci­ate pro­fess­or Shar­man Licht­en­stein believes that the increas­ing use of Wiki­pe­dia cre­ates blind trust in inform­a­tion, to the det­ri­ment of valu­able know­ledge and expert opin­ion. She says that Aus­trali­ans already dis­respect intel­lec­tu­als and aca­dem­ics, but she asks us to con­sider wheth­er we would use a trained brain sur­geon or a stu­dent who has just read Wiki­pe­dia for brain sur­gery. She notes that Wiki­pe­dia prides itself on being built by groups of lay cit­izens, and experts are unlikely to con­trib­ute any­way because they would expect to be paid. Cred­ib­il­ity of Wiki­pe­dia art­icles is ques­tioned because of the form­a­tion of “elite” edit­ors and admin­is­trat­ors, a trend that has caused grow­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Wikipedia’s edit­or­i­al pro­cess, lead­ing oth­ers to cre­ate com­pet­it­ors to Wiki­pe­dia.

Oth­er men­tions

Oth­er recent men­tions in the online media include:

  • Wikipedia’s Zealots — An edit­or who receives per­son­al com­mu­nic­a­tion about a scientist’s views on glob­al warm­ing edits Wiki­pe­dia to include these com­mu­nic­a­tions but is rever­ted by oth­er edit­ors.
  • Sci­entif­ic cita­tions in Wiki­pe­dia — The pat­tern of cita­tions on Wiki­pe­dia is com­pared with the Journ­al Cita­tion Reports, which counts journ­al cita­tions; Wiki­pe­dia is increas­ingly using struc­tured cita­tion markup.

[As pub­lished in the Wiki­pe­dia Sign­post]

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This semester, we’ve been tak­ing a course called “Algorithmic Game The­ory”, which is the broad area that my thes­is top­ic belongs in. Although Tasos is the course coordin­at­or, and lec­tured the first couple of lec­tures, the bulk of the “lec­tur­ing” has fallen to the stu­dents in the course.

Last week was my turn, and I did my talk on evol­u­tion­ary game the­ory. I had been inter­ested in that ever since I read Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, where he makes use of evol­u­tion­ary game the­ory, albeit in a non-math­em­at­ic­al way, to explain his ideas for the evol­u­tion of genes. In a nut­shell, evol­u­tion­ary game the­ory allows you look at the evol­u­tion of strategies/​genes/​behaviours in a large pop­u­la­tion of organ­isms. For example, can a mutant gene over­take an incum­bent gene? See the link before for more inform­a­tion, or read my lec­ture slides: evolutionary.pptx, evolutionary.pdf.

Now, onto the second half of the post’s title: why I’d hes­it­ate to use Power­Point again. I’ll begin with a cla­ri­fic­a­tion: why I’d hes­it­ate to use Power­Point again where I need to use equa­tions at all. (If you’re an Open­Of­fice fan and you’re begin­ning to smirk, here’s some­thing to wipe your smirk off: Open­Of­fice Impress fails to impress me even more dra­mat­ic­ally. Sorry.)

I’ve been using LaTeX with Beam­er for my present­a­tions this year, and I’ve had a good exper­i­ence with it so far. Why did I use Power­Point? Mainly because I haven’t used Power­Point 2007 for any real pur­pose so far, and secondly, because I saw that Word 2007 had a new flashy equa­tion edit­or that’s kind of nice. It was a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment for me when I had fin­ished writ­ing all the slides with no maths to find that Power­Point some­how failed to inher­it this. Back to old Equa­tion Edit­or. I hate it, so I took to doing the equa­tions in Word and then copy­ing them over as pic­tures. The main prob­lem with all this is that, for a math­em­at­ic­al present­a­tion, equa­tions should not be treated as pic­tures. Power­Point and Open­Of­fice both lack the abil­ity to insert equa­tions as inline text, and that frus­trates me to no end. Anoth­er minor little gripe is that there’s no in-built way to have nav­ig­a­tion bars like you do in Beam­er.

The shock­ing thing is that most lec­tur­ers in aca­demia, such as the School of IT, con­tin­ue to use Power­Point even though the set of tools it provides for tech­nic­al present­a­tions is min­im­al. (If you’re doing a sales pitch with pie charts and dot points, it’s fine.) Unfor­tu­nately, this just means there’s little incent­ive for Microsoft to go and improve the tools for this import­ant mar­ket seg­ment.

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The Uni­ver­sity of Sydney Fac­ulty of Law recently passed a series of changes to the teach­ing of under­gradu­ate courses. The changes are out­lined in SULS’ email (repos­ted on their web site), and the SMH pub­lished an art­icle about it togeth­er with com­ments from stu­dent rep­res­ent­at­ives. Per­son­ally, I don’t place too much weight on the com­ments in the art­icle, because it’s the kind of ker­fuffle stu­dent politi­cians love to stir up.

In sum­mary, the con­ten­tious changes are:

  • A reduc­tion in teach­ing load of aca­dem­ics by 25%
  • An increase in aver­age class size from 40 to 70

I must admit that my ini­tial response to the news of the changes was that of aston­ish­ment and dis­be­lief — dis­be­lief that my return to law school next year will be poten­tially made even more unpal­at­able. From the response so far, I think I can say with some con­fid­ence that a large pro­por­tion of the law stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, on hear­ing of the changes, had sim­il­ar thoughts. Indeed, this had me think­ing about wheth­er I should con­tin­ue on to law school after hon­ours after all; a trans­fer to UNSW does already have its attrac­tions, such as its pretty new law build­ing.

A key attrac­tion of the Sydney Law School has been its claim of “small group teach­ing”, which was pion­eered by UNSW Law School (which has had this mode of teach­ing from its the very begin­ning). Indeed, with cur­rent aver­age class sizes of 40, this is com­par­able to the aver­age UNSW class size.

The sup­posed attrac­tion of small group teach­ing is that it allows for great­er inter­ac­tion between the lec­turer and the stu­dents, where the les­son becomes inter­act­ive, a two-way street. How­ever, from exper­i­ence, the bene­fi­ciar­ies of this sys­tem are a minor­ity (unfor­tu­nately). Even with the incent­ive provided by class par­ti­cip­a­tion marks, the pro­por­tion of stu­dents who act­ively inter­act with the dis­cus­sion at hand is typ­ic­ally small. Fur­ther­more, there is no get­ting away from basic lec­tur­ing — sure, a large part of the mater­i­al is delivered via the read­ings, but a good lec­turer will rein­force the read­ings by cov­er­ing them in class as well; repeated over a num­ber of small classes, this is inef­fi­cient.

The increase in aver­age class sizes does not neces­sar­ily mean a sig­ni­fic­ant loss of “air time” for stu­dents. No sane lec­turer would both­er hold­ing dis­cus­sions in a room with 70 people. The increase in effi­ciency of deliv­ery of lec­ture-type mater­i­al pos­sibly even coun­ter­acts the reduc­tion in total class time. As the exper­i­ence with the revamped second-year con­tracts course demon­strates, an aver­age class size of 70 does not mean that all classes will have 70 stu­dents in them (the aver­age law stu­dent has a poor grasp of stat­ist­ics prin­ciples, I fear). In con­tracts, as I was told today, they have lec­tures of over 100 stu­dents (filling a Carslaw lec­ture theatre) and sem­inars of 10 stu­dents, where they work through prob­lems. This is pre­cisely the enact­ment of what I dis­cussed above — by remov­ing the inef­fi­ciency of repeat­ing lec­ture mater­i­al, the small group teach­ing com­pon­ent is allowed to flour­ish.

As anoth­er friend poin­ted out, the declar­a­tion by the fac­ulty would not mean an imme­di­ate change — because there are only a few rooms at the law build­ing that can facil­it­ate lec­tures of 70 stu­dents. The res­ol­u­tion prob­ably had the move to main cam­pus in mind, where find­ing such teach­ing space is less of a prob­lem.

Just keep in mind that I’m not say­ing that I agree in full, or even in part, with the changes. All I’m arguing is that the changes do not neces­sar­ily mean hell on earth for law stu­dents at the uni­ver­sity, or at least a reduc­tion in teach­ing qual­ity. There may be well-foun­ded reas­ons, and even if there aren’t well-foun­ded reas­ons, the changes do not neces­sar­ily have an effect on learn­ing either. I don’t claim to know more about the situ­ation than any­one else, and as the Dean wrote in his terse let­ter back to SULS, don’t make such a big fuss out of it if you don’t know the full story — speak­ing of which, per­haps SULS could learn from their own hand­book about how to do well in nego­ti­ations.

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