Malleable Musings

January 4, 2012

A stamp collection for 2012

Filed under: Life at home — Brendan @ 12:38 am
I hope others have had as relaxing a Christmas break as mine.  It’s been nearly two weeks of total R&R with two major highlights.

1) My kids quoting back bits of the Royal Institution’s #xmaslectures whilst at the dinner table.

2) My youngest, Ciaran, starting a stamp album.

The latter came about because Horrid Henry took an interest in a rare stamp called the Purple Dragon.  Suddenly the questions were flying think and fast.

“Dad, is the Purple Dragon a real stamp?”

“Dad, what’s the most expensive stamp in the world?”

“Dad, what’s the rarest stamp in the world?”

“Dad, did you collect stamps as a kid?”

Thanks to Google I was able to give him some sort of answer to the first few questions and then I admitted that yes I dabbled in philately as a kid but that my stamp albums were probably in the attic at Granny and Grandad’s house.

About a week later on arrival at Granny and Grandad’s house the first question was, “Grandad, can I look at Daddy’s stamp album?”.  A bit of routing around by my dad resulted in little Ciaran spending the rest of the day staring at 4 battered old albums (two of which belonged to my dad).  When we left a couple of days later we brought them all home with us.

The albums were in a bit of a state. There was a pile of stamps that had fallen out and were loose and a few pages in one album that were showing some signs of damage.  The little one and I talked through what we might need to do to sort out the mess.  I knew at the very least I’d have to move some stamps in to a new album and/or do a bit of a temporary repair job on some of the battered pages.  So, after a bit of discussion Ciaran decided that he wanted to build up an album of his own.

His older brother was most put out on Bank Holiday Monday.  He couldn’t play on the Wii because Ciaran wanted to go into town there and then to go shopping? to get … stamp hinges?

As well as the hinges we picked up, a new album and an assorted pack of stamps featuring sports themes to start his collection.  I’d already decided that  it might be a nice idea if the first few pages of Ciaran’s collection covered the Olympics as my dad had a couple of pages set out like this in one of his albums which needed attention and we had just entered 2012, an Olympic year.  We managed to get sheets together for 1972 Munich, 1980 Moscow which looked pretty good and cobbled a few stamps together for a few other games (although there’s a noticeable absence because I think I stopped collecting stamps just before the 1984 Games).

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Ciaran came in from school this evening and went straight to his album to look at his stamps.  I wonder how long it will last?

Also I wonder what it will be like  to collect stamps in the internet age.  The last time I collected stamps was more than twenty years ago.  Things have moved on as the following tweet reminded me:

P.S. Google Googles seems to work on some stamps, e.g. scanning a Penny Lilac worked and took me straight to the Wikipedia page, but it struggled with a Penny Red thinking it was a Penny Black.


December 10, 2011

Number Squares

Filed under: Excel, Life at home — Brendan @ 10:01 pm

My eldest (aged 7) had a sheet of number squares as his homework last week.  It was like pulling teeth trying to get him to fill it in.  He hasn’t really got the hang of his times tables yet.  He’s OK on 1x, 2x, 3x, 5x, 9x, 10x but the others currently leave him flummoxed.

I think number squares are great but for them to be useful I think you need to be able to complete them quickly, know immediately whether you are right and wrong, and then try again.

I wondered about printing out a whole load of copies of different number squares but as I was making them I started thinking if there was an easier way of getting him to engage with this type of activity.  So after a few minutes thought I threw together this quick Excel spreadsheet.

I decided it would be helpful to have something that he could complete on the machine as it has a couple of features that beat a dead wood version:

1) A in built timer.

2) Conditional formatting to provide immediate feedback so that he knows whether or not he has got the sum right or wrong.

I showed it him this evening and his first reaction was, “Oh no not a number square!” However something interesting then happened.  His younger cousin (age 5) asked me to write out some sums for him.  Then once he’d done his sums he came and sat down next to my eldest and encouraged him.  Then my youngest son (age 6) started to take an interest.  Suddenly they were collaborating and it had become a game with each taking turns to try and get the answer right.

I doubt it’s ever going to take over from Moshi Monsters or Club Penguin as his game of choice but it is nice to see it being used.

If it gets more use I probably ought to do another macro to reset the square, i.e. distribute new numbers in the first column and row.

However, it works OK for now.

December 4, 2011

HE Global

The Chancellor’s Autumn statements last Tuesday had a couple of impacts for Higher Education.  However it wasn’t the  £200 million boost to science funding that caught my eye.  It was paragraph A 80 of the Autumn Statement Document.

Education export opportunities – The Government will launch HE Global, an online portal providing information and advice to higher education (HE) institutions on expanding abroad. It will also develop a vehicle to bring together government, the HE sector and industry expertise to package and sell education offers overseas.

My initial reaction was, “Oh great – another website.”  Then I thought about the timing.  The Autumn Statement was delivered on the first day of the EducationUK Partnership meeting, probably the leading conference for those working in UK HE international student recruitment.  From talking to colleagues who attended I don’t think HE Global was mentioned to delegates in Edinburgh.

This therefore sounded like it would be a UKTI-led initiative whose usefulness would depend on who was actually doing the work.  When I was doing international office type work I never really found the UKTI to be all that helpful.  Most of their staff didn’t really seem to understand the issues that HE institutions face when working overseas, or what they are trying to achieve.  I’d used them in the past to arrange Ambassador’s receptions and I also read their briefing notes, like these ones for Singapore (2010 and 2011).  For me these Singapore notes are particularly interesting as I’d sat through intelligence gathering meetings between UKTI consultants and Singaporean HEIs, having been invited in to the meetings by the Singaporeans.

Therefore I was gladdened to see a note on the International Unit website on Friday saying that HE Global is an initiative that they are involved with.  From the site:

The HE Global is a web portal and will give users:

  • better knowledge of foreign market opportunities,
  • clearer and coordinated services of government and partners’ services,
  • better understanding of foreign quality assurance and accrediting systems,
  • access to finance and insurances to reduce risks and
  • access to key information to help HEIs assess risks and carry out due diligence before undertaking TNE activities.

Points 2-5 certainly look interesting therefore I’ve already emailed Alex and will be watching out for the launch on 25th Jan.

November 28, 2011


Filed under: International Student Recruitment — Brendan @ 6:38 am

The 1994 Group recently released a new report, Strategies and trends in the internationalisation of UK universities (pdf).

It’s a pretty straightforward read and has already generated a few headlines in the trade press, of the sort that there is scope for research-intensives to set up abroad and that the Government needs to do more to help universities internationally.  This certainly isn’t a new idea, several people have criticized the White Paper for not covering the international aspects adequately.  Indeed Million+ did a report entitled International Higher Education: Missing an Opportunity? (pdf) a long time before the White Paper’s release.

However what caught my eye within the 1994 Group report were the graphs which were based on the offshore student instance count.  This has been carried out by HESA since 2007/8 so there are now three years of data.  However the data in the first year was extremely patchy, as if I remember correctly it was a voluntary return.

Whilst the data quality will have improved over the past few years I’m still not that sure it’s that useful for comparative purposes.  The problem is the inconsistency in the use of definitions between institutions.  This is something the 1994 Group report recognises, point (ii) of Annex B.  [As an aside point (iv) in this Annex is wrong,  University of London International Programmes data is not all submitted to HESA via the Colleges.]

Anyway this is figure 6 from the 1994 Group report.

Figure 6

This lead to the statements like the following.

The Russell Group stands out as the clear leader in campus based offshore provision, but also has a fair amount of distance and flexible learning.

The 1994 Group report had already picked Oxford Brookes as a bit of an outlier.  So I wondered what would happen if we removed one institution from each mission group and came up with the following graph.  (Leicester, Nottingham and Sunderland in case you are wondering.)

Revised Figure 6

As you see a slightly different picture emerges.  Among other things it made me wonder whether there is much that can actually be said at the mission group level or if these rough groupings are already quite broad churches.

November 26, 2011


Filed under: Tools — Tags: , , — Brendan @ 1:16 am

Recently I’ve been working on Stage 1 of the Course Data Programme which was about determining whether we can implement XCRI-CAP, the eXchanging Course Related Information – Course Advertising Protocol.

As background JISC gave £10,000 each to 58 Universities, 35 Colleges and 2 Institutes to undertake a Self-Assessment Framework about their state of readiness to publish XCRI-CAP XML feeds. Their hope was that around 80 institutions will progress to Stage 2 (a further 15 month project to implement an XCRI-CAP feed) with each institution being funded to the tune of £40-80,000. (For a reference point, that’s the same amount of funding that a University will get in 2012-13 for 26-53 Band B students, e.g. first year medical students.)

I’ve been working on this with David, a fabulous TULIP intern, who has also been helping me with a bit of initial thinking and information dissemination about the Key Information Set (KIS).  Together, David and I have now read as much as we can about XCRI-CAP and have attended a number of online Eluminate sessions and a face-to-face session at Aston University.

My perception is that several universities signed up to explore XCRI-CAP as it was originally sold as being a helpful step in delivering the KIS.  However I think many universities might now see the connection.

Indeed, when we met with others in my institution to talk about the XCRI-CAP programme we found ourselves with more questions than answers:

1) Why are JISC really running this project?

We just couldn’t work out why JISC wanted to run the project in this way.  After all, as Tony Hirst has pointed out there must be a cheaper way of achieving the same results.

The explanation given at the Aston session was that JISC need to encourage as many institutions as possible to publish XCRI-CAP feeds in order to get the XCRI-CAP standard adopted.

2) Is now the right time to invest in XCRI-CAP? Especially when:

a) XCRI-CAP still needs to go through the standardisation process.  XCRI-CAP is the only part of the wider XCRI information model that is being pushed through a standardization process.

b) It is difficult to see that this standard has or will be adopted by external course aggregators, even though Allan and other members of the Course Data team have been talking to UCAS, Hotcourses and others.  Without this XCRI-CAP will remain a solution in search of a problem.

c) The recent White Paper had focused so intently on traditional undergraduate students and is going to cause a lot of extra work for staff in marketing, registry and planning functions.  These are the exact staff whose experience we would need to draw on in order to implement XCRI-CAP.

3) How exactly will implementing XCRI-CAP help us with the things we will have to do, like implement the KIS?  Like Bonnie Ferguson at Kent, David and I had fairly quickly identified that although both XCRI and the KIS are based on XML the overlap was probably not that great. Especially because the idea of what a course is, and the type of courses covered, will differ so much.  Within Stage 2, JISC would like us to focus on creating an XCRI-CAP feed for non-UCAS courses, especially online and distance learning courses (thanks to Dave White et al. for making point 4). Whilst my institution has plenty of these courses, I wouldn’t rate creating a course feed for these courses right now as the highest of priorities.  It’s not that it wouldn’t save us time and effort.  I know it would.  In a previous life I was the lucky so and so who had to fill in spreadsheet after spreadsheet of course information for various websites and course finder tools (at the time this included mainstream providers like Hotcourses, Studylink, FindAMasters, DegreeInfo, DLcoursefinder plus a range of more specialist websites that listed sector specific courses).

4) What’s the business benefit for our institution in moving to stage 2 other than JISC giving us some money?  Whilst at the face-to-face session Aston, I was fairly honest with people that I couldn’t see us progressing on to Stage 2.  I explained that I was struggling with the cost-benefit analysis and business benefits.

Despite my nay-saying attitude I found the day at Aston, really interesting and a welcome break from the usual routine of the office.  It’s the first time I’ve been to a JISC event in person and it was certainly an interesting experience, partly because of the sheer diversity of the participants.

I thought that Ruth the JISC Programme Manager did a sterling job in:

  1. skipping around the arguments around the commodification of HE;
  2. explaining the benefits of moving data to a standard more open format;
  3. pushing the idea that such formats should be perceived as an opportunity not a threat (although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with her that it’s an opportunity for institutions to show their distinctiveness); and
  4. selling stage 2 of the programme.

I also enjoyed talking with other members of the programme team.  I was fortunate to have both Rob and Kirstie leading the discussion on my table in the morning session and had a good chat with Allan about external organisations just before home-time.

The discussions with staff from other institutions were also really helpful.  After lunch I joined a table who were all using SITS as their main student database. In a sense it was reassuring to hear a set of similar perspectives and issues. However it may not have been the best use of my time.  I’d already got doubts about using SITS as a sole system because I’d read the Bolton case study on the XCRI knowledge base which explained:

Within the existing SITS system, data structures are in line with HESA and HESES returns, but not linked to the data structure and content required for marketing. The IPP (Institution Programme Publishing) module of SITS was available but had not been implemented. Internal developers felt they could achieve a lot more if they had better control over the database structure and built their own schema mapping out all the connections.

Since the day at Aston my view has softened quite a bit.  I always thought that XCRI-CAP was  a good idea in principle, but it was only after the Aston session that I managed to identify a business benefit or two.   I am still a little concerned that XCRI-CAP could prove to be diversionary and the benefits may not be all that tangible.

I think what worries me most is that there’s no mention of XCRI or XCRI-CAP anywhere in the outcomes of the consultation and next steps document for the Provision of information about higher education which HEFCE published in June.

It will therefore be interesting to see whether or not JISC reach their target of 80 institutions implementing an XCRI-CAP feed.  From Twitter I’ve seen that several people (Bedfordshire and Edgehill included) have submitted bids to Stage 2 but last Friday I was in Bath at a 1994 Group event.  Several  people who had been involved in Stage 1 were there and I was left with the fairly clear conclusion that I was the only one (of that group*) who was going to be working on a project plan for Stage 2 over the weekend.

It’s certainly not the best project plan I’ve ever been involved in, but we did manage to submit something relatively coherent and we would have a good team working on this so you never know we might just get lucky…

* I’m sure that a number of 1994 Group institutions have put in a bid for Stage 2, however their bids weren’t being led by their Planning Offices.

November 20, 2011

Hello blog my old friend….

Filed under: iphone, Life at home — Brendan @ 11:55 pm

I’ve come to talk to (/through) you again….


A lot has been going on in my life over the past little while and I just haven’t found the time to blog, or tweet or read (or do other stuff) as much as I would have liked.  In summary:

  • There’s been more uncertainty than usual about the future in the sector in which I work.
  • I’ve been learning a lot about a new job.  I think I’m now beginning to find my feet but I still feel like Donald Rumsfeld.  Not knowing what I don’t know, or something like that.  [As an aside the new job is located in a lovely swanky office, the only downside of which is that it has been a bit of a Faraday Cage, which again hasn’t helped.]
  • I’ve (hopefully) been helping the new people in my team at work learn a lot as they start their new jobs.
  • My kids aging process seems to have speeded up exponentially.  I love this as I’m spending more time with them, as for example, they don’t keel over in the middle of the day for an afternoon nap anymore.  Additionally we’re doing more active things that I like, the latest favourite activities are bike rides and playing hockey.  However it does mean that I don’t have as many of those little spaces in the day which in the past I would have filled with a bit of electronic reading or writing.
  • Finally, I made the switch to Android as my old iPhone finally packed in.  The home button had more or less stopped working and I decided that fixing it would probably be a bodge too far.  I have tried to blog occasionally and have several unfinished posts, one of which is a post in which I try to justify logically why I moved from iOS to Android but I think the truth is that I just wanted to give Android a try.  So far I doubt I’ve really used more than 20-30% of the  features that the phone and the associated software provide.

All of this has meant that I’ve had to think carefully about what I spend my time doing and blogging has lost out.  Incidentally I’ve also found myself playing more Android games than I ever did on the Phone and have lost a few posts in the Android mobile version of WordPress (through my own user error).

However it hasn’t helped that a lot of what I would have wanted to write about doesn’t necessarily feel like a safe topic and so I’d have to be very careful*.


* However, it is good to see people who hold held similar positions to mine at other institutions starting to blog.  I’m sure that now the dust is starting to settle on the White Paper I might be a little more active again.

<postscript written on November 20th 2011>

What a waffly justification.  Simple truth is, I’m out of practice.  So much so that I  didn’t even manage to press publish on this post back in  September or whenever it was originally written.


November 20, 2010

Augmented Reality Vodka

Filed under: iphone, Life at home — Brendan @ 9:47 pm

I was wandering around my local ASDA supermarket today when I saw three things that really interested me. The first was this:

Smirnoff Alternative Reality

There’s a description of what it does here. In brief you hold the bottle up to your webcam and line it up with an image on the Smirnoff webpage (requires Shockwave plugin) and an augmented reality piece is launched. I’m not a vodka drinker so I didn’t buy a bottle. However I was able to simulate the effect using the above picture which I’d taken on my iPhone. There’s a quick ScreenR video (no sound) of what happens.

My thoughts: Although I’ve played a bit with AR before this was the first time I’d seen a brand using it. I thought it would probably be a good talking point, but it’s very gimmicky. What does it add to the brand experience. And, I wonder how many people will actually go to the trouble of doing this. QR codes, which are probably easier to understand and use, still haven’t taken off so surely AR is just a step too geeky isn’t it?

The second was that they were demonstrating the Xbox Kinect system.

My thoughts: I was reminded how I felt when I saw my first touchscreen. This is a possible game changer. I’d heard about this technology about a year ago from Ben Watson of Microsoft Learning at a conference (see video 5A) however it’s the first time I’d seen it in action and I for one was impressed.

The third thing that captured my attention was a branded 1TB USB drive for £50.

My thoughts: Initially my reaction was I’m sure there’s cheaper out there if I bothered to look. Then I was reminded of my first hard drive. A 20MB External drive. I think it cost about £600 back in the late 80’s. At the time this amount of storage just seemed obscene. Today I carry 400x that amount of storage onboard my two year old phone.

Overall, as I left the store my mind was buzzing thinking about the crazy speed of technological evolution. So much so I nearly forgot the milk!

September 12, 2010

Leicester West

Filed under: simple hacks — Tags: — Brendan @ 9:08 pm

Someone mentioned to me that they had been asked how many applicants and students originally came from the Leicester West constituency.

Whilst our student record system holds all manner of data it naturally enough doesn’t record an applicant’s parliamentary constituency. Therefore I spent a bit of time investigating the data this weekend and downloaded some data and re-combined it into a lookup database.

The files I took were the National Statistics Postcode Database (NSPD) Open, August 2010 edition
and the Westminster Parliamentary Constituencies file.

This then allowed me to produce a simple database that told me that 2,156 LE postcodes from the NSPD map to the Leicester West constituency.

It’s the first time I’ve looked at any of the OS/ONS data and it’s not obvious which field is which as I haven’t been able to find a key to the data. I’m also not sure that all of the postcodes listed are still valid.

However I think I’ve recognised the key fields that I’m interested in. In addition to the Westminister Constituencies these are the Easting and Northing of each postcode as this will enable me to calculate (using Pythagoras) as the crow flies distance to the University from applicant’s home postcodes.

July 28, 2010

A digression

Filed under: PHP, RSS Feeds, simple hacks, Wordpress — Brendan @ 11:39 pm

I was invited in to a meeting at work a couple of weeks ago in which we were talking about blogging. After the meeting Stu threw a document up on Digress.It.

The document got a few mentions around the place and soon it started gathering a few comments (60 at the time of writing).

Digress.It is a really interesting platform however I think something went wrong with the comments.

I got a call of frustration from a member of the Marketing and Comms team earlier this week, who had been away on annual leave. She was amazed at how many really useful comments there had been. She’d seen some of them but wasn’t sure that she’d read them all of them and she certainly couldn’t do what she wanted which was to print off all of the comments alongside the original document.

I said I’d help and started by working out which RSS feeds were actually functioning (the comments by authors and the comments by numbered paragraph both seemed OK but the later certainly wasn’t displaying properly on Digress.It).

I realised early on that I was never going to manage to script a whole solution and it took a little while, until tonight, when I managed to clear enough time to complete this little digression. So I settled for a quick hack of an existing PHP script with some manual intervention.

What I did was to re-create the document in a Google Spreadsheet alongside the paragraph numbers (which are the keys for the RSS feeds of paragraph comments) and hacked the PHP script to include a request parameter. I also changed the end output slightly so it allowed me to pull down the comments and place them in to the cell next to the original text.

I know there must be a more elegant way of doing this but the document wasn’t that long whilst my time was short and my CSS and PHP skills and knowledge of ASCII/ANSI characters and regular expressions are all a little rusty.

From the spreadsheet it was a simple matter to copy and paste columns C&D in to a table in Word, run a couple of find and replaces, add some minor formatting and hey presto we have something more readable.

It was a nice little refresher for me as I’ve a feeling that I’m going to need to get reacquainted with regular expressions over the coming weeks.

July 13, 2010

Chatham House

Filed under: International Student Recruitment, strangely uncategorised — Brendan @ 8:06 pm

I was up at the University of Nottingham on Friday. Unfortunately there’s no sensible train route from where I live to Nottingham, so I had to drive and that morning the A453 in to Nottingham was blocked solid. It took me well over two hours to cover the 45 miles. Thankfully I’d allowed myself plenty of time, as I was hoping to do a bit of work in the Library, before the event I was going to started. As it was I arrived with seconds to spare – just managing to grab a coffee, pick up my delegate pack and walk straight in to the session. On the plus side I did get to listen to this excellent recording (mp3) of Chuck Hester talking about Linked In. Linked In is a network that I visit once in a while but am certainly not resident in. I’ve never really used it that actively. Many years ago I tried it, I even answered the odd question but I didn’t really manage to connect to a many people. However I think it’s undergoing a bit of a revival. I’ve noticed in the past six months or so that a lot of people seem to be using it more. I don’t know if this is due to the economy (people wanting to make sure they are visible for employment purposes) or if it is down to mobile devices with Linked In Apps becoming more popular. However, Chuck’s talk has made me resolve to give it another go.

The event I was at was called the International Partnership Development Forum, it’s set up as a sharing platform for staff within International Offices who deal with educational partnerships that their Universities enter. I always enjoy meeting people from other institutions who work in a similar arena to myself. Interestingly they have their own Linked In group but it’s not very active yet.

In terms of the session, I may be being overly critical but it seemed to me to be very Partnerships 101 / International 101. I suppose I learnt a few things but I’m not sure it was really worth my time.

What I found interesting, but not surprising about the event, was that we were told the Chatham House rule was in operation. Oh great I thought – more secrets to keep. However I discovered after the event that for the past however many years I’ve misunderstood the Chatham House rule. For some reason I’d always made the assumption that it meant that whatever was under discussion stayed within the room. In fact it means nothing of the sort and you can even tweet.

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