Book #33 Flat Squirrel by Fiona Faith Ross

I was going to start by saying I don’t usually read children’s books – but that is not true. I read hundreds of children’s books a year, but they are largely library books we take out for pre-school grandchildren, and they don’t count in my 50 book target! Flat Squirrel is different it is aimed at older children – I would guess 10 years plus. I also know the author from when she studied at the University of Reading, and I got mention in the book’s acknowledgements.

The hero Duggan is a flying squirrel who due to an accident cannot fly. The book covers his adventures as the supply of nuts is threatened by human development. Duggan has some very human characteristics and makes mistakes, but he is brave and able to overcome his difficulties. He is very likeable and the story is fast moving which kept me engaged.

When my pre-schoolers are older I will be sure to get them a copy of this book.


Emeritus or Emerita

When I retired I received a letter saying the Council of University of Reading had agreed to the conferment on me of the title Professor Emeritus,  I also had an email from one of the admin people saying: “You may use the title Professor Emerita from now on if you so wish.”

These two communications highlighted to me a problem for retired female professors, whether to use the word “Emeritus” or “Emerita”.

I consulted the Internet which did not add any clarity as it suggested both were acceptable. So I consulted a colleague in Linguistics who is also a Professor so is likely to face the same problem and she said:

“…you are female, therefore Emerita is more appropriate! Emeritus is not really gender neutral as Latin isn’t… But if other women have chosen to be Emeritus, then it’s OK either way (but a female Emeritus is irritating to linguistic purists!).”

So in an effort not to annoy linguistic purists I have settled on using “Professor Emerita” on the signature line of my University email.


End of Week 1 – Casting on?

We are now on the third run of Begin Programming. We have made some changes to Week 1 to make things easier but  there are still people who are having problems, it was not helped by Google doing an update during the first morning of the course. I’ve updated an earlier post to highlight that we do understand the frustrations.

The main activities of the week involved downloading and installing software, which some participants sailed through and others found it very challenging. I am reminded of the difficulties faced with other everyday activities:

  • Cooking that special dinner, you need to make sure you have got all the ingredients and equipment, then to follow the instructions carefully. Rookie mistakes include missing a step and forgetting to turn the oven on!
  • Making self assembly furniture, where again following the instructions carefully. Rookie mistakes include not realising you need a screwdriver, of discovering the furniture is too big for your room.
  • Almost any craft project, which can have tricky instructions. I knit and sometimes I need to read and re-read the pattern, then watch a couple of videos before I understand what I have to do, then I get distracted while knitting and make a mistake that means having to pull rows out – very frustrating.

The point is that almost anyone can do these things, and we all have experienced the frustration of something going wrong!

However life is made more difficult with the fact that people have different computers with different hardware configurations, and existing software installed, so it is not possible to personalise the instructions to take allowance of the individual circumstances, which again can be linked to everyday activities:

  • Recipe instructions assume that you have certain utensils and that you know how to use them. Temperatures maybe given in Gas mark numbers but your oven may be powered by burning wood.
  • Self assembly furniture instructions assume you have the original materials, but you may be trying to use other materials.
  • The instructions for the knitting assumes you are using the same brand of wool as the designer used, but you may be using an own brand.

I guess what we will discover over the next few weeks is how many of our participants have passed the stage of casting on and for how many we are going to be assigned to a carrier bag in the back of a cupboard.

But rest assured I do know how frustration feels!


Book #9 – Geek Sublime

“Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software” by  Vikram Chandra is definitely an interesting book. I saw mention of it on an email list, and it looked fascinating in reviews, so I bought it.

Vikram Chandra is a novelist and also a programmer and this book combines both these aspects.  The book is made up of linked essays about programming and natural (human) language (mainly Sanskrit). The programming part largely matched my experience and was easy to read,  I found the bit about natural language somewhat heavy going. I suspect that someone with a linguistic background would have reverse view.

There are some quotes which I think people who are taking our FutureLearn course (Begin programming: build your first mobile game) might relate to:

  • “Programming is very hard, and doing it requires a deep concentration in which I become quite unaware of my surroundings and myself.”
  • “When I am trying to follow a bug, to understand its origins, time collapses. I type, compile, run, decipher a stack trace, type again, compile, run, and I look up and an hour and a half has gone by.”
  • “If you’ve ever written code, the fact that so much software works so much of the time can seem profoundly miraculous.”

Supporting learners (part 2)

Part way through the first run of Begin Programming I wrote a blog post: “Supporting learners learning in a FutureLearn MOOC” quoting from FutureLearn:

 “An intensive tutoring model can’t work for massive-scale free courses, so we need to offer online support without a large network of tutors. The solution is to harness the power of the community, where learners can make immediate use of their newly acquired skills by sharing their knowledge with their peers.

Following other learners is part of a powerful system we are building that will allow you to acknowledge good contributions and promote people who offer helpful advice, and to develop your own reputation. In this way, success comes not just from passing an assignment and completing a course, but also from making a contribution to the FutureLearn community.”

I said that while I saw this as important I felt such a community needed seeding and support.

For this run we invited participants from the first run to join us on the second run either to re-take the course or to come and help. We have seen both types of re-joiners and some of them are offering amazing support on the course. There are also many of the new cohort who are also very helpful, we made a point in our first course email of asking  participants: “if you can help please do”.  Some of the help comes in the form “I had that problem and this is what I did …”, some link to solutions they have seen elsewhere in comments, while others do in-depth research to find solutions. The educators and mentors are also present offering help.

Looking through some of the posts there are lots of thanks of the type:

  • Thanks to everyone who has been helping out!
  • All the comments have kept me in the game
  • Many, many thanks …
  • Reading all the comments and help here have really helped me out.
  • Thanks to those who have the expertise and willingness to help. 

Not everyone is happy there are some people who are expecting very personal support, and there are occasional posts like this:

  • I posted a question an hour ago and no one has answered.
  • I am waiting for a reply from an educator.

I guess they haven’t really understood the FutureLearn model!

All in all I am really impressed by the community spirit that is developing, but we will need to work out a plan to ensure that we build this spirit across our courses and across multiple runs.

Teachers and computing

There are some fantastic people out there teaching computing. I had the privilege to talk to some of them at a recent in-service training day. I also know some of our graduate students go on to teach, and on our Saturday visit day I met a prospective University of Reading student who was inspired to study computer science by a teacher who is one of our graduates. But we know that not all UK schools have such good inspiring computing teachers and there are changes happening to move from ICT teaching to computer science.

I wonder if the changes will include the challenges of downloading and installing software such as the JDK and Android SDK we are using in our Begin Programming course. I know that doing such things is challenging, but my heart sinks when I see that someone who is teaching computing is giving up because they can’t do it.

For the record I am accepting of almost all reasons people offer for giving up: they don’t have the time, they don’t like our approach to pedagogy, they had expected the game to work on their iPhone, it is more challenging than they expected, they need more support than is available… After all such courses are free and there is no commitment to complete (or even turn up) when you sign up.

Programming problems – using a search engine to solve them

At the moment it is not possible to search comments on the FutureLearn platform, You can do ctrl-f on a page but often that only covers a small percentage of the total posts. So here is something I learnt from my students that might help.

Several years ago I was in a programming class and one of the students was using the Help system to try and understood why he was getting an error message.  One of the others in class told him to copy the error message into a search engine, and sure enough the most popular return explained why the error was happening.

I think the phrase used was: “Remember Google is the programmer’s friend”.

So if on our Begin programming course someone gets a message like:

 “[MainActivity] ActivityManager: Warning: Activity not started, its current task has been brought to the front”

and wants to know why this is happening they can wade through the other comments and the course FAQ, but an alternative is to put it into the search engine.


There are lots of returns – so it looks like a common problem.

The first answer is in fact the most likely.


So if that matches what is happening the problem is solved and programming can continue. If not it is always worth a looking at the alternatives.

Now when searching comments arrive on FutureLearn there will be less need for this as part of our course, but it is still worth knowing.

A look at who is taking our course (take 2)

We do not have an exact picture of who is taking our FutureLearn course (Begin programming: build your first mobile game)  as when people sign up for FutureLearn very limited data is collected, however we have the results of the pre-course survey and in addition some of our participants have posted some information about themselves in their profiles and in comments.

The pre-course survey was filled in by less than 10% of the people who enrolled and so may not be truly representative, but at least it is indicative, and we can compare the percentages with those from the first run of the course, see my earlier post.


The percentage of younger participants has increased significantly 13% were under 25 on the first run, while this time 28% are under 25. We also know from posts there are a number of children taking the course with their parents, there are teenagers studying as part of a school group and on their own. This younger group is probably responsible for the decrease in the percentage with degrees (but those with degrees are still the majority).


The range of previous experience of programming is diverse, and this is reflected in a lot of the posts on the platforms, some people with a bit of programming knowledge are expanding the code to do all sorts of extra things, while some of the beginners are worrying that they have missed something. But what is really good to see is that when someone posts they don’t understand something there are lots of people willing to try and help.

Previous Knowledge

MOOC Week 1 (take 2)

I haven’t had any time to write about the new run of our FutureLearn course: Begin programming: build your first mobile game ( That is mainly because there is so much going on in the FutureLearn platform I haven’t had time to even think about posting.

But this time we have asked participants to share screen shots on Twitter ( and there are certainly some clever creative people on the course.


Join the gym? Or sign up for a MOOC?

Lots of people sign up for gyms and then rarely or never go.

It seems that MOOCs are somewhat similar: lots of people sign up for courses and then never or rarely participate.

There are of cause differences gyms usually charge for joining plus a monthly fee, while MOOCs are free, and, of cause, gyms are meant to exercise the body, while MOOCs exercise the mind.

Some people do actually use their gym membership becoming fitter and healthier, and people do learn by participating in MOOCs.

So does it matter that some people have a wish to join a gym or a MOOC but never really engage?