All posts by giovanna

21/10/2014 - First year students and Gapminder

maybe I take things a bit emotionally but how to do otherwise

so here is the story from the first year students today

those who are using Gapminder are really into it

I decided that at each session we should have one or two students coming to show something they have find out, so far we have always found the way to combine data with concepts and theory, being it discussions on GDP and its limits, or on the development index, poverty, inequality, and the students start getting the idea - theory is much nicer when supported by data =Gapminder

so I asked the same question today 'has anyone found something interesting to show us', and then silence and so 'okay you have half minute to decide who has found something interesting, before I do' which they find scary and funny at the same time and usually it is a mix of volunteers and forced volunteers who come out

so today one said I have found something, and he presented and gave us a talk for 20 minutes - of course with a bit of inputs from my side, to give more structure and clarify or deepen the discussion around specific points, but I felt like by the end of this semester he could be confidently showing to other students (other classes?) how to use Gapminder in order to discuss development! and I know a bunch of other very keen students could do the same.

what he showed us came from curiosity after our last lecture (Rosling TED) and a lecture on political science with Tom (the one colleague who is using projector), and he had merged the two to compare China and US, and show China growth over time, and discuss the 'catching up' (which we are yet to discuss using Rosling's 'Asia rise when and how'), and what possible 'threat' could a big country like China pose to the world the moment that it becomes the big super power but doesn't care for human rights and decide to impose its authority using military force (and of course discussions around Hong Kong fitted well here)...

he had prepared a very small piece of paper dense of notes and kept our interest high discussing history and zooming into the data (Mao vs Deng's policies, with a bit of my help - but he had seriously looked into history to be able to explain trends!), GDP but also living standards, pollution, etc. so asking questions to the audience 'what is China doing for the environment' and 'is it therefore development' etc.

what I like of this class, there is real appreciation of good work, and the clap he deserved was spontaneous. how good.

there is this other one, he came as volunteer the first time, he was the first one to come and ask for help with Gapminder/Dropbox installation, he has now found a new laptop after trying with his brother's one, he has gone to see Danny & Zach for extra help. he cannot speak good English and i feel like hugging him each time he tries.

and each time more of the students who have never made interventions raise their hand.

they are worth each single minute I go up there and do my best to keep them motivated and involved, and though I feel exhausted I just wish I had double energy and more to give

not easy to not get involved emotionally

25/09/2014 - Correspondence with Prof. Griffiths, Leiden University, on sharing materials through MOOCs

Dear Richard

Thank you very much for your kind reply, for the information and encouragements.

I have used today two of the video clips you developed, in a module called "International Development" which I teach to third year students in the department of Development Studies. I did follow the exact instructions you give in your email, which I happened to read on the day after emailing you, in the web page indicated at the end of the video clips.

Before sharing with you impressions from the experience I think I owe to explain a bit more how I used your videos, and give some information on the context - Apologies for the long email... I am hoping it will answer your question.

The tools I use in class include videos (mainly your materials and relevant TED talks), data sources (e.g. the "" and others) and a software for data visualisation (Gapminder, developed by Hans Rosling's team in Sweden). The aim is to provide students with a practical, evidence-based approach to learn the subject while at the same time stimulate their thinking, and of course keep their interest high and give them an enjoyable experience.

This is pretty much exceptional in the context of a public university here in Kenya where teaching is still very traditional and lecturers rely mostly on not-so-updated textbooks, and the only source of knowledge for students are (unfortunately often bad) lecturers' and their notes. Students who join the university in their first year are usually keen and bright, some still are so in their fourth year, but many more become sadly passive and much enthousiasm and willingness are killed in the process. Such a shame.

You ask for an evaluation of this 'experiment, well I asked to my students for feedback, to say openly whether they find this informative, useful and enjoyable. The response by the students is overwhelmingly positive. Your videos are powerful learning tools, I can use them not only to provide students with high-quality knowledge and to engage them, but also to enable them to build a set of skills which they lack - And while I didn't have any doubt on the former results, the latter is a discovery that became clear today while I was running the 'experiment'.

I gave to the students a number of questions before playing the videos, which could be answered while listening, I did this to keep their focus and attention high. I then realised that while learning about the topics discussed, they were also at the same time building listening skills, the ability to pay attention to details, the skill to select information, to summarise it and take note effectively. Not least, a better understanding of proper English pronunciation. And these skills are at least as important as the knowledge they are gaining.

Believe me, these skills are hardly built by students in this context: many students in their fourth year are unable to identify relevant information, summarise it and communicate it effectively, and do not pay attention to details (they constantly misread exam questions or instructions); sadly the only thing they become good at is taking note of what the lecturer say in a non-selective, a-critical passive way (and then memorise it for the exam). Students are generally not used to ask questions, are not used to discussions or group work.

So, basing on my experience and not only on students' feedback, the use of your videos is a total success, and I am grateful (in fact we all are) for the materials you developed and made freely available, which bring so much value to our learning experience.

I have discussed with the students the origin of the materials, which also gave me the opportunity to introduce them to the MOOCs. They felt like the world was opening up to them. They hardly knew before where the Netherlands are but they definitely know Leiden University now, and Professor Griffiths there. It would be great to have the chance to meet you on Skype, and a wonderful opportunity for the students.

With much appreciation,

24/09/2014 - The fun of working with large numbers.

we are in the large hall I have the microphone and I am like a TV presenter who walks between people in the audience asking questions and opinions and more and more students take the initiative and want to answer, the microphone and me going up and down makes it sort of funny and students are relaxing.

much enjoyment in watching Rosling introducing Gapminder (the best stats), where students at the beginning complain that "it is too fast" and I say "good, it is great practice, remember you don't need to be able to answer all questions and we are working together, the important thing is to try and try our best etc. etc." so as per schedule we break the clip in 3 parts and 5 questions are given before each part and they get better and better, and it is my "good, very good" or "very good starting point let's try work on it who can help" and so on, and that pushes them and the two hours seem to fly.

so the experiment seems to be working, and although it is early to say it seems to be possible to work with around 200 students, involving them constantly, there is no teaching but a lot of learning through working together, and it is possible to interact even with those sitting in the last rows (who at the beginning raise concerns about not being able to get the microphone!) it seems possible it just requires a lot of work & walk!

but life is not always "landing on a bed of roses" (quoting a Maths Camp student) and so at the end, when we are 5 minutes overtime and we are concluding some of the students give me the time warning (which I had requested), I say "OK let's finish this quickly - Do you have a class?" - hesitation and then a number of students answering "yes" and I ask "fine, at what time?", "at 4" (which means in 10 minutes time). we conclude and I start packing and then one student from the first row say "we don't have any class", so I grab the microphone again and ask to everyone not to move, a few words but it is enough to pass the message, this is not serious, do you need to do that, it would have been okay to say you are tired and it is time to go, this is about respecting each other, I am trying my best to be good to you, to serve you, but if you don't appreciate this and don't show respect why should I do this, such a waste of an opportunity etc. etc.Watching TED talks

and I let them go. not a disillusionment, after all it is about expectations and I don't have any (truly, this is an experiment) apart from seeing some of them finding this good, which is to be seen

but while I am packing I hear more than a voice saying "sorry Madam", from those who did not give the misleading information but also from the others, and this which I did not expect is the best feeling

then a couple of girls come up to the stage they greet and their voice tremble, it is clear they want to say something but none of the two takes the initiative first then they seem to gain courage and one starts "we want to say that we really like the way you teach us, we are getting everything you teach, we are learning, we admire that you left your country to come here and no matter where you will go we will always remember you, be blessed" it is a lot to take in but they go on and further apologise for what has happened and they "hope that I will not be hurt by this" so I feel I should reassure them "don't worry I know these things happen they don't pull me down it is okay"

of course they don't pull me down. if then you have moments like this, how could this pull you down!

today 25 more students asked to join our folder.


23/09/2014 – First session with first year students

Around 180 students present, not everyone is there. We start 1:45 pm, at 4 pm we are still talking, but they will soon leave. The first student sent an email to get the invitation to the Dropbox folder at 3:20 pm. But he is not the only one to send it before we actually finish, 12 do so. And I won't count those who have been sending emails since.

I can't describe the feeling of actually being communicating with 180 students. There was real listening and participation up to the last rows. It will be hard work, the challenge is to keep it up for two hours. But there seem to be a way and I am going to improve on the materials I had already prepared starting from now.

I am learning a lot, and though it is hard work it pays back hundred times more.

A long day, and what a treat to come back home and find that power is there, and I can have a shower and drink cool water.

I'm grateful and happy.