HOW STATS GOT ITS GROOVE BACK

Some people hate Mathematics. This disdain they transfer to anything that sounds like Mathematics. In University, I met some undergraduates who actually opted to study Psychology because they felt it had nothing to do with Mathematics. Unfortunately, they would be forced to spend three years learning statistics. Naturally, the fear of Mathematics in primary school is transferred to the fear of statistics in secondary and tertiary level. Psychologists have coined interesting names for this negative relationship with one of the most basic subjects invented by humans – statisticophobia or statistics anxiety. Which ever you prefer, it describes negative feelings and thoughts some people experience when they encounter statistics in any form.

I dare say there are good reasons for this attitude. The way statistics has been taught has always been a key problem. Not many Mathematics teachers share the view of Arthur Benjamin, the Mathematics genius who is of the opinion that statistics is at the apex of Mathematical knowledge. Many teach Statistics as an extension of Mathematics, without bothering to explain the implications it has on everyday living. Many do not know Statistics started as an attempt by government to better understand and grasp with problems such as population, resource allocation, public health etc., which is why it is ‘state mathematics’, coined from the Latin for ‘state’.

 

If I were a Statistics lecturer, the first material I would hand my students would be Hans Rosling’s The Joy Of Stats. This beautiful documentary is a historical and functional discourse on Statistics. In it, the Swedish professor revealed that Stats is the principal tool citizens now use in monitoring government, an irony given the fact that government invented statistics to monitor citizens. Function should precede instruction. Students need to see the practical application of what they learn. More importantly, they need to be shown ways of applying this knowledge. With Statistics this is very easy.

Another thing I would do is discard with calculations. Yea, I said it! I would only teach computational statistics. Programs like SPSS, STATA, EXCEL etc should be the basic method for solving statistical problems in Nigerian classes because that way we can crunch more data and solve problems like the rest of the world is doing. At higher levels we should be thinking about R and MATLAB.

Statistics should be taught as the language it is. The way we discuss football, governance, public issues is interwoven with statistics. Oddly, most people don’t even realise it. If you follow trends on Twitter, check the past results of a club before making that stake, or visit BudgIt, you are using stats. It becomes oxymoronic to be afraid of something we use, something we rely on even. Thankfully, the internet may be the game changer.

One of the psychological methods used in treating phobias is flooding, a process which involve exposure to the object of phobia.  This is exactly what the internet does with stats. This exposure therapy takes the form of infographics and other tools of data journalism available online. The coming of age of data journalism as a field and data visualisation as an art meant statistical analysis and presentation did not have to be boring. What was unprecedented was the way the internet would blend with data journalism. Statistics became the new cool as bloggers, sportscasters, businesspeople, health officials, and government workers turned online for data. Words that were relegated to data science texts are now common internet lingoes. People now talk about analytics and trends, half-knowing the statistical implication.

New tools and platforms have sprung up in the past decade to ensure Statistics maintains its rightful place in public discourse. Governance is been redefined as the likes of BudgIt simplify otherwise complex government data. If you want to be very cool about it you can also listen to http://www.datastori.es and hear Enrico Bertini and Mortiz Stefaner talk about data.  Indeed, stats has gotten so easy we can talk about it. How cool can a subject get? Stats teachers and visionaries are accessible we can follow them online. Seun Onigbinde and Alberto Cairo are two individuals I may not have access to in a world without the internet. What’s more, there are online courses on platforms like coursera.com where statistical programs like SPSS, STATA, and R are taught. Bottom line: you can teach yourself stats.

The internet has made statistics conversational From a psychological viewpoint, this is therapeutic. Statistics anxiety will diminish gradually as we find more cool ways to use data in solving the problems around us and letting people know about it. Soon we may have to worry about Statisticomania.

 

MOOCs: Tapping Into The Future Of Education

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Imagine a world where lecturers do not embark on strike, a world where you have access to some of the best lecturers from the best schools in the world, a world where knowledge is affordable and accessible at a reasonable cost – a computer and internet connection. If you are still imagining this world, you are wasting your time – it is here. A collaboration of forward-thinking educators and software developers has led to the creation of the platform known as MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses).

 

A Bold History

Simply put, MOOCs are courses aimed at large scale interactive participation and open access via the web. According to Wikipedia, they evolved from the attempt by schools such as UKeU to provide education to a larger audience than the school walls could contain. Although the UKeU’s effort met with failure, it set the pace for other successful MOOCs.

 

Modus Operandi

Lectures are delivered mostly through recorded video. Every week, new lecturers are prepared on the course and downloaded by students. Also, assignments are handed out this way. The advantages of this kind of teaching cannot be overemphasized. Students get to review lecture materials repeatedly till they grasp the concept. Those who join courses late could also catch-up by watching previous videos. A short coming of this method is that interactivity is limited. Some MOOCs have dealt with this hurdle through live sessions on Googleplus. An example is a course I took on creative writing offered by Ohio State University on the coursera MOOC. Lecturers held scheduled live interactive hangout with students on Googleplus with students. I was able to interact with lecturers who normally might be too distant or unaffordable for me.

 

Another method the interactivity problem has been solved by MOOCs is through forum. Some MOOCs have forum where students, graduate assistants, and sometimes lecturers discuss on issues that were not addressed by the lectures. Sometimes these forums are a cauldron of ideas, students familiarize and discuss problem points in courses. Graduate assistants and lecturers chip in when they feel the issues are beyond the students. Another form of interactivity encouraged by MOOCs is Meet-ups. A meet-up is a prearranged gathering, a sort of conference of students in the same geography offering the same MOOC. I once organized a meet-up for Lagosians in Surulere offering a design course I enrolled in.

 

Benefits

 

A major benefit MOOCs provide is access to licensed software. I have downloaded different software by virtue of enrolling in one MOOC or the other. The beauty of this is that it is legal and motivating at the same time. One major aspect lecturers in Nigeria continue to fail students is by theorizing knowledge instead of opening students up to practical ways of applying this knowledge. One discipline where this happens a lot is statistics, where there are many (free) computational software that can aid analysis of problems without much ado. In most Nigerian schools, lecturers are still stuck in the old (boring) ways of solving statistical problems – manual calculations. Computational programs such as SPSS, SAS, R, etc are the preferred methods of data analysis in MOOCs. Students are offered links to download software without any charge. I have downloaded SAS, R, Gephi, Python, Processing, and other software through participating in one MOOC or the other.       

 

Furthermore, ebooks and other lecture materials are open-sourced to most participants.

 

Limitations

As good as it sounds, MOOCs cannot take over the traditional classroom. Certain courses cannot be properly taught without direct interaction with students, for example, Medicine, Engineering, etc. Also, to participate in a MOOC, one needs steady internet connection and power supply.

Another drawback is that some MOOCs are not entirely free. You could download tutorials for free but certificates are paid for. This, to me, is not a bad idea since money is needed to run these ventures.

   

Wrap-up

MOOCs have a lot to offer a country such as ours, which is in dire need of revamp in its educational sector. The Nigerian student has a lot to gain by rubbing minds with scholars from other climes. I end this article with a list of some of the best MOOCs available.    

 

 

THE OTHER SIDE OF INTELLIGENCE

Suddenly, the boy in front of me left the hold of his teacher and mounted the stationary bicycle close by. He started riding vigorously in spite of appeals by his teacher to go for breakfast. The boy was so engrossed in his little world nothing seemed to reach him, including the teacher’s implorations. “He must be autistic”, I said to myself. My eyes wandered to other parts of the refectory where I saw children eating, others had cases so severe they had to be fed. It was a moving sight.

Before I set out that cold June morning with other members of my class, 300 level psychology students of the University of Nigeria, and Dr. Euckay Onyeizugbo, our supervisor, my only contact with mental disabilities had been in textbooks and television. I had read that mental retardation is a generalized disorder appearing before adulthood, characterised by significantly impaired cognitive functioning and deficit. Yet, this knowledge was not enough to prepare me for the dimension of challenge and pain I would witness on the visit to the Therapeutic Daycare Center, Nike, Enugu.

Upon arrival, I was astounded by the beauty and serenity of the facility. But, even more inspiring than these were the beautiful minds that resided there, and the teachers who were devoted to helping them scale their intellectual hurdles. Students here were classified as mentally retarded, and the facility had been conceived by Mrs. Hildegard Ebigbo to assist these individuals in a society that really did not care. She, a German by birth, had married a Nigerian and contributed this school to the society – her altruism inspired me.

The first class we visited was filled with children who had hearing, speech, and learning impediments. Sign language was employed to escape these barriers. When the teacher asked a student to read (in sign language), a young girl rose to the challenge. She did a good job and was rewarded by our applause. Meanwhile, another girl sat, laughing inaudibly throughout our stay in the class. There was something touching about the silence imposed on these young boys and girls by their impairments.

The sound of crying welcomed us into the next class. The crying child was been placated by a special teacher. There were nine children in this class, grappling with different mental challenges. I watched saliva travel down the mouth of a boy who had Down syndrome. When his teacher tapped him, he started to attention. Some of the children watching laughed at him. Albeit, his attention was short-lived: before I left the class he was dozing off again. Another boy listened with rapt attention to the teacher. I was saddened, however, when I looked into his book – his writing was illegible.

Growing up, I had enjoyed “scribbling the hours away”. I did not know the amount of intelligence required to engage in such trivial activity. I understood this when I saw this challenged children. I grew up with a brother and a sister, eventually a second girl came into the family three when my mother conceived her final issue. I was sixteen then, thus, my childhood memories only had Charles and Amarachi mostly. Charles was almost two when I was born, I was over three years when Amara came along. We loved reading, we enjoyed scribbling. Seeing these children in the therapeutic center battling to initiate such simple activity was painful.

Music boomed from the special nursery class. There were about five pupils there. Two, judging from the peculiar features of their faces, had Down syndrome. Another cried inconsolably despite efforts at soothing her. In the midst of these, the singing continued. Sooner or later, I reasoned, the crying child would join the chorus.

Later, we visited the therapy center which looked no different from a playroom. The “toys” there were designed to aid the development of the children in specific areas. I saw a boy walking on a zigzag balance, the unsteady nature of his walk seemed to be characteristic of cerebral palsy. He was assisted by a guide who ensured he did not fall as the device adjusted. There was also a tent which was attached to a tunnel. Children were made to crawl into the tent via the tunnel to strengthen psychomotor development. Seated at a corner was a boy, he screamed when we approached. Our guide explained this as the “autistic tantrum”. Then, I understood why the teacher I had seen earlier did not drag the boy from the stationary bicycle.

As sad as it seems, this story is not a tragedy.

Later, we moved to the workshop session, about five minutes away. There we saw mentally challenged individuals, who could not cope with the rigours of classroom rigours, asserting themselves as they took on sewing, carpentry, shoemaking, waterproof making, foot-mat making, and other endeavours. There we saw a girl with Down syndrome expertly weaving a basket. In another session, we would encounter a young man whose dexterity on the sewing machine was nothing short of fascinating.

Indeed, it was a joy to watch these individuals sew, cut, hammer, measure, and laugh as they accomplished these tasks. We learnt that the uniforms worn by the pupils of the school were sewn there.

As I journeyed back to Nsukka, I pondered over my experience. In spite of irregular power supply, in defiance of inadequate funding, the passion of one woman, Mrs. Hildegard Maria Ebigbo, had given birth to the establishment of a home for these challenged children. I thought about corrupt politicians, I also reflected on the affection and devotion of the teachers in the Daycare Center.

Finally, as I drifted to sleep, I thought about the motto of the center: Love, Patience, and Care.

LEARNING THROUGH GAMES: A psychological analysis of Lagos Monopoly

Judging by the success of Homo Sapiens, one could argue that the progress of most species depends on how fast members learn, and their efficiency in handing down these knowledge across generations. Among humans, several media are employed in this quest, not the least being games which may have been conceived primarily for entertainment. According to the Institute of Play, “games and learning enjoy an association that predates digital technology by thousands of years”. The fact that games are still endorsed as educational tools is testament to their efficacy.

In the middle ages, the game of Chess was used to teach noblemen the strategies of war. In the same period in Southern Africa, a game called Morabaraba was used in teaching herd boys an appreciation for tactical thinking. One might be intrigued by the fact that the educational value of games is appreciated by several cultures. However, A.M. Mood and R.D. Specht in their influential paper, “Gaming as a Technique of Analysis”, gave an explanation for this when they observed that “a game can easily be made fascinating enough to put over the dullest facts”. This insight might be implicated in Elizabeth J. Magie Phillip’s creation of the Landlord’s Game in 1903: her intent was to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies. In 1935, the Landlord’s game had fully evolved into the game we now know as Monopoly, and Charles Darrow received credit for the feat. Later that decade, Scrabble was launched by an American architect Alfred Mosher Butts who wanted a medium that would explore anagramming skills and chance as well.

These games are household items in parts of the West, however, the invasion seems to have arrived Africa. After all, South Africa and Morocco both have their own versions of Monopoly. Late last year the invasion arrived Nigeria when Lagos became the first city in Africa to have its own edition of Monopoly. Nimi Akinkugbe, head of Bestman Games, distributors of Lagos Monopoly, hopes to use the game as a medium to curb certain societal ills such as corruption and traffic offenses. When interviewed recently on a Unilag FM program, Young and Cerebral, she explained that Lagos Monopoly “is about penalizing negative behaviour and rewarding good behaviour”. Does she have any chance of realizing that dream? Well, the psychology behind her adventure seems to answer in the affirmative.

The first argument in her favour comes from developmental psychologists of the Gestaltist School. In his Mind and Society, Lev Vygotsky, the renowned Russian cross-cultural psychologist, who is also famous for his works on the psychology of play, reviewed the Gestalt position on child development: the learning process enables an individual to transfer general principles discovered in solving one task to a variety of other tasks. From this point of view, the child, while learning a particular operation, acquires the ability to create the structures of a certain type, regardless of diverse materials with which she is working and regardless of the particular elements involved. Thus, it is not illogical to propose that individuals can learn proper behaviour through a medium such as game, in this case Lagos Monopoly.

In her CNN interview, Nimi tolled this line of thought when she explained that part of the motivation behind the game’s design was the education of Lagosians on responsible behaviour. In fact, the game is structured to achieve that purpose.  For instance, in Lagos Monopoly a one chance card reads: “you’ve been caught driving against traffic. Report for psychiatric evaluation”. Another card goes: “for attempting to bribe a law enforcement agent, pay a fine”. Other cards punish behaviours such as illegal parking, while some reward good behaviour such as using the overhead bridge.

Rewards and punishment have an integral place in the psychological practice of behaviour modification. This is an offshoot of the Law of Effect proposed by Edward Thorndike in 1911 which, simply put, states that behaviour met with positive consequence tend to be repeated while behaviour met with adverse consequence tend to not be repeated. However, it is not as easy as it seems, for human behaviour is also mediated by other factors such as motivation (am running late I have to use the one way), sensation seeking (I’d love to know what it feels like to run across the highway) and plain stupidity (I can park anyhow, anywhere, anytime). This also explains why no matter how stringent sanctions are, there will always be deviants in society, people who cannot delay gratification or hide their stupidity.

The Swizz developmental psychologist Jean Piaget taught that the development of moral judgement in children is connected to their ability to understand rules in a game. This is the strongest point in support of game-based learning, it also reveals part of its weakness – games are best used in teaching children. In the case of Lagos Monopoly, the adult who is fined for illegal parking in the game but gets away with it in real life may eventually regard Lagos Monopoly as just a game. Thus, it is with children that this method of learning seems to work best. For they have not been exposed to the irregularities of society and might be conditioned through gaming to engage in proper behaviour. Common knowledge dictates that habits die hard, including the good ones.

In the case of adults, real life fines and sanctions remain the best method of behaviour modification. However, my problem with this method is the fact that the fervour with which LASTMA and other agencies are operating now might diminish, leading to relapse on a societal scale. To me, the best antidote remains good habits fashioned through learning.

So, Lagos Monopoly stands a good chance of helping Lagos state produce compliant citizens. Apart from teaching them financial intelligence, it would inform about geography and extant laws. However, it might achieve best impact on younger members of society. For those who feel it is not tailored for young citizens, perhaps I am throwing the gauntlet for you to develop a version tailored for them. Until then, Lagos Monopoly remains our best shot.