Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘statistics

The tweet and report above are fodder for anti-vaccination Facebook groups and taxi uncles alike. The headline is irresponsible because it implies causality. However, no other factors for the death were explored or considered in the tweeted article.

Contrast the lack of context and information to the tweet thread below.

If I had to fault the tweet, I would point out that it did not immediately provide sources for the numbers. However, a Guardian article in the second part of Dr Clarke’s thread reported:

The MHRA, which collects reports of side-effects on drugs and vaccines in the UK through its “yellow card” scheme, told the Guardian it had received more notifications up until 28 February of blood clots on the Pfizer/BioNTech than the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – 38 versus 30 – although neither exceed the level expected in the population.

The MHRA is the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the UK.

The actual numbers of blood clot cases will vary over time, but the fact remains that the incidents are so low as to be below actual chance. What does that mean?

In an actual population, a certain number of people would naturally get blood clots. Take this thought experiment: We inject the entire population with saline that mimics blood plasma that has no drugs or vaccines in it. The result: More people will get blood clots with that saline jab than the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine.

The AZ vaccine use is new and the blood clot cases might rise. But for now the data indicate what Dr Clarke and others in the Guardian article have said — it is safe to use, not using it is dangerous.

Thankfully some good sense has prevailed since I started drafting this reflection. The BBC news report below revealed how the EU has declared the vaccine to be safe for continued use.

Video source

I have two takeaways from reading both news reports. The first is the image quote below.

It's easy to lie with statistics, but it's hard to tell the truth without them. -- Andrejs Dunkels

My second is a parallel in teaching. Just as CNA was irresponsible for its misleading article, it is just as bad to teach content without context. While the use of vaccines has regulatory bodies that will correct wayward action, everyday teaching does not.

The AZ vaccine might see a quick comeback with investigation and regulation. But teaching that focuses primarily on content and teaching to the test has a long term detriment — it nurtures students who cannot think for themselves.

I had to venture into town late one evening and I decided to look for a place to have some supper. I found a place that was stocked like a library.

In between mouthfuls of dessert, I chanced upon Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan. His storytelling drew me in and I am looking forward to him fleshing out this quote:

It’s easy to lie with statistics, but it’s hard to tell the truth without them. — Andrejs Dunkels

I was not looking for this book. I do not think I need to read this book. But I want to because it seeks to correct misconceptions with good stories and examples.

I did not actively seek out the book. Serendipity lies in uncovering gems when I am not looking for them.

Serendipity is digging for worms, but finding gold instead.

Some people’s eyes glaze over when shown figures and statistics. Some hearts might harden as it is easy to focus on the numbers instead of considering the people that make up those numbers.

Case in point: The debate about the number of deaths resulting from Hurricane Maria last year.

Video source

This segment from the video above was one method to estimate the number of deaths in the aftermath the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico last year. But they might not mean much to the neutral or uninformed without a human face and story.

Video source

The journalist near the end of the news report took care to describe a couple he had followed from last year. The couple survived the initial onslaught, but the husband succumbed to “the stress (and) the fumes from the generator”.

Narratives do not just complement, they illustrate more richly. They connect readers, listeners, and watchers with what matters — the human condition.

This blog normally get a spike of views during or right after conferences. So I expected this week’s spike to be related to the my talk and panel at Educon Asia’s 6th Higher Education Summit.

Instead, something I reflected on two weeks ago took top spot this week and cause the spike, The pedagogy of Twitter chats.

It takes just a handful of tweets from a few regular readers of this blog to draw in the normal numbers. At last count, that blog entry had 21 tweets. Obvious cause and effect.

It has also been a month since I have started monitoring my Twitter dashboard.

The small rises seem to be associated with tweet chats I participate in.

I have a Twitter-based reach of about 27,000 to 28,000 per day. The day seems to be optimized to US time and it is tempting to repost tweets to suit that time zone.

I have already noticed that readers of my blog originate from the US when I check the blog stats in the morning. Later in the day, the readership shifts to Singapore and the region.

But the anglosphere is already saturated with edubloggers. Perhaps I should just focus on what I can do here.

Ever since Twitter released its analytic dashboard to the public, I have gained insights to my tweets like never before.

I learnt about my reach. But reach is not the same as impact, just like teaching is not the same as learning.

So how far might a tweet go?

In his post, What’s wrong with your website? Or your Facebook page or your tweets? Seth Godin recently shared:

It’s not unusual for a thousand people to visit your website before someone buys something. It’s not news if you ask 5,000 Twitter followers to do something and they all refuse to take action.

In ye olde blogging days, the rule of thumb used to be about 100 readers for every person who bothered to comment. That if is you were a blog star. Long gone are those days.

I participated in an #aussieED chat on Sunday at the direct message invitation of someone I met during #asiaED chat. The topic was game-based learning. In response to the fifth question to share what games we used, I tweeted:

I looked at the statistics that Twitter collected 24 hours after the chat. The tweet received 2,570 views (it is currently 3,394; over the next day or two the number will plateau at the 4,000 or 5,000 mark). Click on the screencapture below for a larger version.


The behaviour of tweeters online is telling. My tweet was retweeted five times and favourited 11 times. In plain speak, five people passed it along while 11 kept it for possible later reading or reference.

Of the 16 that did this collectively, only eight bothered to click on the link to investigate the content behind the URL. Three people decided to find out who I was and just one replied to say thank you.

This is not a judgement of the participants of #aussieED. This seems to happen in any fast-flowing, well-attended chat.

The in-person equivalent of this might be like entering an IT show in Singapore or exiting a conference venue only to face a phalanx of rabid people armed with flyers and brochures. You are pushed by the flow of people and you try to ignore the people forcing handouts on you, but you collect some dead trees anyway. The process is perfunctory and thankless.

However, the numbers do not tell the whole story nor do they reveal the impact. It is, as Godin put it, “the horizontal movement of ideas, from person to person” that matters. The impact is in the stories you hear weeks, months, or even years later. You might be acknowledged or thanked; you might not.

But you have to keep going because 1) that is the digital trail/shadow/portfolio you create, and 2) you never know who you are going to inspire.

So is it better to give than to receive in Twitter (or any social media platform for that matter)?

No, if you are expecting thanks and immediate returns.

Yes, if you are self-motivated and want to support a loose but passionate community of learners.

Last week I read a news digest that reported some statistics from a TV programme, On the Red Dot, on Channel News Asia.

The news digest reported:

The programme noted that Blackbox Research’s recent survey of over 700 Singaporeans reflected that at least 23% of Singaporeans thought that tuition should begin before primary school…

If we assume the percentage to be representative of the population, almost one in four people here do not mind if their kids are subject to the tuition regime in kindergarten. Kindergarten!

The digest also reported:

The programme cited figures from Blackbox Research’s  survey that 67% of respondents had enrolled their children for tuition at some point, and only 9% were against extra tuition. According to the Department of Statistics, household expenditure on tuition had doubled from about a decade to S$820 million.

I am not sure if extra tuition means that a child already has tuition for an academic subject and then has additional tuition for the same subject. For example, could this mean that a child has tuition in Math, gets very difficult tuition homework, and gets another tuition teacher/agency to help with that homework? Only one in ten people would say no to this. One!

People spent an estimated S$820 on the shadow schooling industry that is tuition. According to the Education Statistics Digest 2012, MOE spent just over S$1.85 billion on Primary schooling and almost S$2.2 billion on Secondary schooling.

The issue is not whether the spending on tuition might catch up with schooling. The issue is how much money is spent on schooling kids outside school in the blind pursuit of grades.

I find such statistics alarming. It is one thing to raise the alarm, it is another to tell people what to do as they run about. I started thinking about how we might address these issues. I found the statistics so mind-numbing and the issues so complex that I could not complete my thoughts.

But I am certain of one thing: We must ask ourselves how we got this way and whether we want to the tuition story to play out. Like the clues in movie or a novel, the signs point to a bad ending if we do.

If you read a headline like More People Have Cell Phones Than Toilets, you know that it was designed to pique interest and draw the reader as far down the article as possible.

According to a UN report, 6 of 7 billion people in the world have cell phones, while just 4.5 billion have access to a toilet or latrine.

I have no doubt that there is some truth in the statistics presented, but the numbers also hide other facts. The article conveniently avoids the fact that quite a few countries have mobile penetration rates that exceed 100%. This means that owners have multiple mobile devices. This also means that there are some people who do not have these devices.

Here is another headline of similar design: More New Androids Than Babies.

Every day more than 1.3 million Android devices are activated — which is way more than the 300,000 babies born daily

It is tempting to draw quick conclusions with the numbers, e.g., platform domination, four devices for every child. But what exactly does that statistic do?

If it is designed to impress, so be it. If you use it unprocessed to inform decision or policy, then far from it!

Any educational institute worth its salt will have “usage” data of its LMS. I say “usage” because such reports tend to be technical, e.g., how many courses are online, how many instructors use what tool. But this does not reveal HOW the tools are used pedagogically or if they are even used well.

I often draw an analogy to how our land and transport authorities might cite how extensive and well-connected our roads and rails are. They might provide very impressive statistics on accident rates, traffic flow, train frequency and so on.

IMG_6203 by gurms, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  gurms 

But the stories are missing.

Stories like how a father might get trapped in hour-long jams getting home from work in what should be a 15-minute journey. Every day.

Stories like how a mother-to-be has to skip a few crowded trains before finally getting on only to be denied a seat. Every day.

These stories are varied and there are many of them. More often that not these stories are not told.

The statistics are important and they can be impressive. But numbers can lie. So can photos, videos, and stories. But they should be used judiciously to paint a more complete and honest picture.

If not, we kid ourselves at best. In a worse case, we use an inaccurate picture or projection to perpetuate lies or to create bad long term policy.

This is a snapshot of a Digital Life article (11 May 2011) reporting how often people look at their phones. The gist of the article: The new marketing medium is the mobile phone.

Those in advertising would certainly sit up and take action. Those in education? Sadly, not so much.

If on average a user actually looks at his or her phone 150 times a day, why don’t we take advantage of that for teaching and learning? And if we want to take advantage of that contact time, how do we change the way we teach so that they learn in meaningful microbursts?

Video source

More statistics on mobile phone use you can shake a stick at! Everywhere except in education…

If you do not follow social media in education, then these statistics might seem startling.

From an article titled The Changing Role of the Teacher in the 21st Century:

…students are exposed to more information by the age of five than their grandparents were by the age of twenty… This means that children entering kindergarten today have been exposed to more information than their grandparents were two years after graduating high school.

From the Did You Know? video series (I prefer version 3 to version 4):

It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.

I could not determine the source of the first claim, but the Did You Know wiki had sources for the second (opens in a PDF).

Then again, you might not be surprised, especially if you have kids who attend school. You’d probably sing along with Louis Armstrong: “They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know” (a line from What A Wonderful World). The fact is that our kids will not only be exposed to more information but also richer information that they will need to learn how to process.

But I think that some teachers and teacher educators haven’t got the memo since they attempt to only deliver instead of also discover. They continue to just employ teacher talk instead of designing learning activities that go beyond the confines of the class, tutorial or lecture room.

What’s startling is that teachers do this despite what they see around them. And the reason for maintaining the status quo? Teaching to the test. Why should tests hold you back from educating your charges? Who is to say that novel ways of teaching and learning won’t help in tests? In what could not be more timely, I offer a teacher’s argument by way of answers.

I certainly don’t let the tests in the course that I facilitate hold me back from trying out new and better things. These strategies not only provide an alternative model for young teachers, they also help them learn more meaningfully and reflectively. I know that am not alone with this working philosophy and here is another teacher who describes what he does.

Does it take more time to facilitate more learner-centred approaches? It might, but once learners internalize social, cognitive and other procedures, they’ll keep pace with or even outrun those taught traditionally. I have the same 11 or 12 sessions with my classes, but I know they learn and do much more.

I think that the only startling statistic is how few like-minded practitioners there are. But thanks to my personal and professional learning network, I know who they are and draw inspiration from their energy and creativity.


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: