Why academic freedom must be preserved: University of Sydney law lecturer Ben Saul writes about preserving academic freedom from political interference.
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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 recent mentions in the online media include:
- Encyclopaedia Britannica To Follow Modified Wikipedia Model – A new, interactive version of Encyclopaedia Britannica will have expert-contributed content, user-created content and the Encyclopaedia itself.
- Wikipedia’s Co-Founder Wants to Make It More Useful to Academe – Jimmy Wales says that Wikipedia entries are “remarkably better” than what they were several years ago, and says that a flagged revisions feature “could be cited more comfortably by an academic”.
- Government buffing Prentice’s Wikipedia entry – Edits to the Wikipedia article on Jim Prentice, Canada’s Minister of Industry, from within Industry Canada were discovered by Michael Geist.
From the Wikipedia Signpost.
(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 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]
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.
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.