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August 19, 2010

A–Level Results Day

ORIGINALLY POSTED: 18th August 2005

In about 8 hours time, there’ll be a horde of 17 and 18 year olds prancing around in pubs all over the country, getting completely leathered and acting like prats for no apparant reason, and that reason is that today is A-Level results day. What it also means is it’s the annual Mat-gets-angry-at-the-idiotic-paper day.

I’m sure we’ll see a greater pass rate coming out of A-Levels, or at least something similar coming out than the 96% that we got last year. Then respectable newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Daily Express will go on a big mother of whinging campaign in order to point out the fact that A-Levels have been dumbed down and kids these days are stupid and whatnot.

Seriously, I can’t think of anything that gets me so angry as this, and I get angry at a lot of things. But I specifically have to try and avoid the statistics and any newspaper on this day, particularly the aforementioned Tory-biased trash (I specifically mention the Tory newspapers simply because they’re the most harsh on the results as they see it as an evil Labour construct). Luckily, since they’ve decided not to release the statistics first it means that the students can actually get their results before being told they’re worthless.

You go up to any A-Level student and tell them that their exams are easier than the previous years, and see what kind of response you get. When you get a giant stick in the eye, you’ll bloody deserve it.

Now, of course I have to have some kind of argument to back all this up, so:

There’s no definitive evidence the exams are easier

The evidence that exams are easier than previously is based entirely on the fact that more people pass than the previous year, and also the fact that there are uptight people who probably failed their A-Levels who feel like their qualifications are devalued just because someone else dares to pass them several years later.

How can you base exams being easier on that? It’s impossible to guage this – you’d have to give a student the exact same knowledge, and give them exams over a 10 year period with exactly the same syllabus, and then scale it up to around 1000 students at least and look at the marks for it. It’s just impossible to make such a sweeping statement.

Competition is greater

More people are going to University, so more people are placing a high valuation on their A-Level marks as they are necessary to get into University. If you weren’t going to a University that required ABB in your A-Levels, would you try as hard as if you required BCC? Quite simply, with competition being greater, particularly for the most popular Universities, there is more incentive for people to try harder, and this would probably be reflected in the results for A-Levels.

Stability breeds higher passrates

The syllabi for the major A-Level subjects has remained the same for many years now with only a few very slight differences, particularly since modular AS/A2 style A Levels became the norm. This has meant that teachers have become better at teaching them – simple as that – they know the material and they know the kind of things that are going to come up in the exam. They’re able to refine their techniques, which increases the competence of students.

The exam system is flawed

It’s been discussed many times, and it doesn’t just apply to A-Levels but to all non-Vocational qualifications (and to Vocational qualifications to a lesser extent) because there is an inordinate amount of emphasis based on core knowledge of the subject (memory based questions) and much less emphasis on knowledge of the application of the subject. Personally I can take experience on this: an exam such as Artificial Intelligence or Computer Graphics this year is based on a lot of memory, memory of techniques and whatnot. I got some pretty poor marks on these exams compared to my coursework marks. In the first year, my Programming for Computer Scientists module (although too long) asked questions that asked you to write programs to solve a problem – something that simply can’t be remembered – and I got 95% on that module, meaning I got something like 102% in the exam when you take into account my coursework mark.

As this continues, teachers become more demoralised with teaching practical knowledge of the subject and teach their students to pass their exams – giving the fact by fact point by point knowledge required to get a good grade in an exam these days. The problem is that teachers (or lecturers, for that matter) who teach their subject matter “properly” in a practical sense and then set an exam in the same vein are actually not contributing to the system, if for no other reason than their students will get poor marks.

The State/Private School System Skews Results

Private school students are more competent because they have better teachers, more pressure to succeed and generally are given more opportunity to succeed than a student at a state school. Should this mean that private school students are marked on the same scale as state school students? At the end of the day, you’re being marked on overall knowledge of the subject matter (which is going to be higher for a private school student) rather than actual skill, talent or potential, which simply isn’t graded in the current system.

Of course, when it comes down to it, your education is only as good as your last qualification. If you leave school at 16, your GCSEs/GNVQs are going to be the thing that employers take into account. At 18, yourGCSEs are almost entirely pointless – your employer is only going to take into account your A Level grades. Once you have a degree, your A Level degrees are a moot point, they may show some grounding in a subject you didn’t take to degree level, but the thing that they’re going to look at most is your degree classification and where it is from.

Good luck to Kendal, my sister, who is getting her A-Level results today.

Edit: This blog entry is 5 years old. Today, my brother got his results today, and had to go through the traumatic event of UCAS/his Uni declining his firm offer despite him achieving the necessary points.


January 27, 2009

Twitter is not fit for (my) purpose(s)

For people who aren't aware what Twitter is (and they must be few and far between after mentions from high-profile users Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross), it's a "micro-blogging" service. Users are given a box that they can type up to 140 characters in and nothing else, and can "Follow" other users to receive their "Tweets" on their own page. I myself have been a member for nearly 2 years now, and what started out as a bit of a novelty in the beginning has lately begun to get on my nerves.

Things you need to know about Twitter

  • There are a lot of users. Probably into the tes of millions at this point
  • Increasingly more celebrities are joining, and are goading other celebrities into doing it. As well as the aforementioned Fry and Ross, there are people such as Russell Brand joining in
  • Twitter is famous for its outages, usually because they happen when it's busy. Notoriously, it launched with a bad architecture and no suitable plan for scaling the service, and the "Fail Whale" (an image used on the error page) has its own cult.
  • Twitter is highly addictive (and I'm addicted)

Things that work really well

  • It's yet another step towards decentralised, social news. What started with blogging has been continued into micro-blogging (it's easy to "tweet" with a mobile phone and sites such as Twitpic allow you to send images to it and have them auto-twat). When the plane crashed into the Hudson River, a user took a picture and posted it to Twitpic almost immediately after it had happened, and this was run on a lot of news networks.
  • The concept of a very low-effort service works remarkably well. Having a Twitter stream that contains a stream of consciousness and cool links has basically zero effort, similar to updating a Facebook status.
  • Because so many people are on Twitter, there are usually people with similar interests to follow. I follow a lot of people in the Communications Office at the University (@tomabbott, @ellielovell, @lovelychaos, @jamiepotter, @juliapidgeon) because I like to hear what they're getting up to, and equally I follow some "power users" of the software I work on for the same reason.

Why it doesn't work for me

I like Twitter. I like to read my friends' thoughts, and what they're getting up to, and see interesting links that they post. I like this so much that I even wrote my own instant message program that gives me all the tweets my friends make and lets me reply to them. This works really well:

Twabber

However, this isn't something that I should have had to do. The one rule of Twitter that has been proven true time and time again is what Twitter give, Twitter taketh away. When I started using Twitter, it had its own IM "bot" which you could subscribe to and get updates from, in exactly the same way (but with a little more functionality and not requiring me to run it on a server!), but they took it offline and it never came back. They also launched with SMS support - you could text Twitter a status update, and your friends could as well. This was taken away for the majority of world users (in the UK, you can send a status update but you can't receive anything) - making the service fairly useless without an Internet connection.

Another problem I have with Twitter is the rampant (and rapidly spreading) commercialisation of the concept of "tweets". Much in the same way as companies paid people to blog on their behalf back when it was "cool", companies have their own Twitter streams, and advertise seemingly under the noses of people. Stephen Fry, for example, generally comments about the latest piece of technology he's bought. If he gives it a good or bad review, that influences thousands upon thousands of people - this is fair enough, if you're trusting enough of Stephen Fry to respect his opinions. But what of this so-called "Twitterati"? These people are only famous through Twitter, and seem to be in an endingless arms race to get more "followers" so their messages can get through to more people. Digg's Kevin Rose posted a blog post on "10 ways to increase your Twitter followers" - a complete bastardisation of the entire concept of Twitter. The only reason to have more followers is ego massage or profit, and you can be sure that for a lot of people the second reason is the primary. Carsonified (who run technology conferences) launched a competition recently (and then rescinded it) which was a Twitter-backed glorified pyramid scheme; Tweet an advert for their conference and then force your friends to re-Tweet it, irritating just about everyone in your friend stream with a constant invasive advertisement. Whilst Carsonified is a company benevolent enough to admit they were wrong, what happens when Apple says "get 20 people to re-tweet a link to the new Macbook Air and you can win one"?

Recently there has been a rise in so called "Twestivals" - meetups between groups of "Tweeple". There's one in Birmingham in February that @ellielovell, @lovelychaos and others are busting guts to promote and help organise. I, myself am uneasy with the concept as a whole, and this is from the standpoint of someone who has helped organise and been to this kind of meetup of Internet communities before. They're actually great fun, people with similar interests come together and discuss seemingly random and sprawling topics. However, none of the meetups I organised ever had a sponsor, and none of them ever charged an entrance fee (which will go to charity). Also, isn't the whole point of Twitter that these people don't have common interests? Twitter have done a good job in making the service accessible to lots of people, so why not just throw a party - there's no reason to have it related to Twitter at all.

This also relates to the main problem that I have. For me, the whole concept of Twitter doesn't work at all. Whenever I go over following around 50 people, I drown in the amount of tweets and end up un-following people. This is because Twitter's biggest strength (its simplicity) is also, in my opinion, its biggest flaw in the lack of metadata. When I follow people, I don't want to follow everything, I just want to follow certain topics, or possibly exclude certain topics. When I follow @ellielovell, I want to hear pretty much everything because it's usually interesting, but I don't want to hear anything about Twestival because I'm not going. When I follow @ryancarson, I want to hear interesting technology snippets and commentary on the industry, but I'm not really all that bothered when he's down the pub. TweetEffect actually monitors the effect on the number of "followers" a person has based on their previous tweet - it's a little hard to follow but personal tweets tend to lead to a large downward trend in the number of followers, so I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing that I could exclude these tweets. The problem is the de facto method of "tagging" a tweet doesn't work because too few people know about it and it eats into your 140-character limit (plus, you can't "follow" a certain tag for a certain person). People get around this by having multiple Twitter accounts occasionally, but usually not, and this isn't really a solution. The reason I don't follow more than 50 people at once is simply because the whole concept of Twitter means that I can't.

Anyway, I'm off to Tweet about this blog post. I'm not sure whether I'm ranting about Twitter, or whether I'm just disappointed that I don't think the concept fits my needs. I sometimes feel like I under-utilise the tools available on the Internet - I don't feel like Twitter is a suitable social network for me, like I don't feel that subscribing to RSS feeds in a feed reader is very useful. I only subscribe to 5 or 6 RSS feeds and I don't use a feed reader at all - I use Live Bookmarks in Firefox to get a current state of "What is the feed showing now?" - maybe I'm just Doing The Internet Wrong.


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I’m a Web Developer in e-lab, part of IT Services at the University of Warwick.

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