Sunday, April 10, 2016

How to plant summer window boxes

This is my method for window box planting, perfected over many years, with "how-to" pictures.
To save money on plants, I often buy smaller ones in April, but keep them in the greenhouse until the last frosts are over around May 15th. B&Q is usually best value and range, but I also use Woodies, Dairygold, Hanleys and Kiernan's, as well as The Pavilion.

You will need

  • A big space to spread stuff out
  • A tarpaulin so everything doesn't end up covered in compost
  • A bowl of warm water, washing up liquid and scrubbing brush
  • Pieces of broken crock
  • Farmyard manure
  • Topsoil
  • Compost
  • Slug pellets
  • Osmocote long-acting fertiliser
  • Water crystals
  • Plants
  • Gloves
  • Watering can/hose
  • Bucket of water

Wash the boxes

This is to avoid diseases and pests from last year and make them look nicer on the outside. When you've washed them, lay them on the tarpaulin the way that the windows on your house are arranged so that you don't forget which colours will be next to which, or where you might have a shadier window that needs different plants.

Prepare the bottoms

You need to put crocks over the drainage holes. Wait, did I forget to mention, check that your window boxes actually have drainage holes? Some cheaper ones do not. You can get someone good at DIY to drill holes if needed, otherwise your plants will drown. If you don't use curved bits of old broken pots and plates over the holes, roots will block them and... your plants will drown.

For the bottom of the pots, I usually use a mixture of organic farmyard manure and topsoil. If you only use compost, when it's dry your plants will not get enough water, and also the boxes may not have enough weight to be stable on your window sill in a gale.

"Magic" ingredients

I find that if you want your window boxes to last, you need to add water crystals to ensure the plants stay moist, and also osmocote slow-release fertiliser. Slug pellets to dress the tops of the soil after planting are also important. 

There is at trade-off between environmental damage caused by effective chemical slug pellets, and loss of plants to slugs if you go a more "organic" but less effective route. Each to their own on that debate! I add the fertiliser and water crystals to the topsoil/manure layer before planting.

Designing your planting

Just get all the plants out and lay them roughly in position, thinking about colour, which windows get most sun, and which side of the box is the "front" where you will put the trailing plants. Move them around until you are "least dissatisfied". It will never be perfect. I use surfinias, fuchsias, osteospermums, trailing lobelia, verbenas and I'm fond of good old reliable yellow bidens too.

Get your fingers dirty!

Some plants these days are raised in "tea bags", small individual paper mesh containers of compost. These need to be removed carefully before planting. I like to then soak every plant's roots briefly in a bucket of clean water before planting. Gently loosen the plant's roots before placing it into the box.

The next bit is messy. Shovel in the potting compost, firming it around the roots and making sure there are no "holes". I usually push the trailing plants like lobelia in last of all, directly into the potting compost. At this point your boxes probably look awful and you think you did it wrong. Don't worry.  They just need watering.

Water well

Once you spray off the boxes ,all will be well.  I usually use a watering can from the top followed by spraying the sides of the boxes with a hose. Don't use too forceful a jet. Test the hose first - I find a gentle spray with a circumference of about 6 inches works well. After watering, sprinkle on the slug pellets or other slug and snail prevention.

Now they are ready to go to their final location. If it is a damp summer, I use old bits of floor tile to raise up the window boxes just a small amount to assist in drainage.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Retrospective edit 2016: after EDCMOOC, I did an absolutely fantastic Statistics MOOC run by Princeton which I completed with test scores of over 95% as well as completing OcTEL.  if you want an example of how to do a MOOC right, try those ones.

Times Higher Education piece - what I actually said to Chris Parr about #EDCMOOC ... (Chris' summary quote is fine, it's just I did say a little bit more than that...) and by the way, I'm getting on better with the #OcTEL MOOC despite still being very confused...

  1. You were disappointed by the edcmooc – in what ways did it fail to reach your expectations?
    The content did not match the title or course description. There was too much video content. The navigation was poor. The time estimate per week was heavily underestimated.
  2. What was the best thing about your Mooc experience?
    Contact with others via my own blog and MOOC discussions.
  3. And the worst?
    Not completing the course
  4. Did you involve yourself with your Mooc’s community or study independently?
    Mainly independent - I think a study group would have helped but my schedule didn't really allow it and due to the navigation issues I never spotted the study groups until the rot had set in...
  5. What would you change about your MOOC?
    Improve the yield of completion - use the technology currently in place in the IT industry around tracking helpdesk requests and supply chain issues to improve "picking up where you left off" (progress), improve general user experience and website navigation, use analytics to spot how people are contributing and where problems may lie. Signal core content in a more obvious way. Make the assessment methods clearer in the course description so people don't sign up without understanding what they are committing to. Do not rely on a lot of video content as it is hard to complete for time-pressed learners.
  6. General comments.
    Great project, all kudos to Edinburgh for trying it. But the overall effect for me was knowing that I don't want to do an elearning course they run that I had previously been interested in taking. I think that's a good thing, for me and for them. I think MOOCs are the "book clubs" of education at the moment. Probably there will be a bifurcation into general study group activities on the Internet (particularly for recent or esoteric topics) compared to more "certified" and "instructor-led" MOOCs that use the best of blended learning techniques but on a larger scale.
I was also discussing with (redacted) earlier today the information from The Chronicle about HEI views of MOOCs. I think part of the problem is related to the inability to value, train and reward tutorial/teaching assistants for working on eLearning courses. There are a whole set of skills that can overcome the technical problems with MOOCs that exist already in the IT support sector. What there isn't is much recognition that moving in this direction will mean HE has to start properly paying and rewarding people who "teach" online but aren't tenured... old problem, unlikely to be resolved any time soon. :)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Quitting #edcmooc

I'm going to delete these MOOC blogs in a couple of weeks because they aren't interesting.

Gave up #EDCMOOC, but may browse the remaining two weeks of content, because:
  • The induction was poor and the first week I was completely confused about what to do.
  • The assessment was not made apparent until week 2, when it turned out to be "whatever you're having yourself" and to involve something which would be very time consuming to do well (a "digital artefact" with the examples produced by full time students in week 2, and I bet they took a good bit of time to create… They mainly involved recycling the confusion of the MOOC participants)
  • The navigation remained unclear although they did add a page to try to help the confused. Why isn't it responsive to your progress? The design involved a great deal of scrolling and remembering.
  • It didn't do what it said on the tin. It wasn't about ELEARNING and digital cultures, it was in fact about linguistic structuralism and ideas of humanism. 
  • There was far too much content and much of it was duplicated or same-y. There was too much video which is time consuming because you can't scan it like text to find out if it is worthwhile. Content needs to be more clearly signalled as crucial, core and optional.
  • The time effort was way underestimated at 3-4 hours per week
  • The forums were full of thousands of people making introductory comments. Hard to find the popular threads where any concrete points were being argued.
  • Because I found the first week so confusing, which took a lot of time, I never got around to trying the study groups. They may be the answer.
  • The introductory hangout was disastrous in signal to noise ratio.
  • There was lots of confusing antonymic argument - black and white is never interesting. 
Bottom line, I wasn't learning anything I found useful, so last night I sewed my veg seeds instead of sitting down to the computer…

One interesting point. Some MOOC proponents believe they are actually marketing tools for the institution's conventional courses. I had considered trying to find time/money to do the Edinburgh MSc based on some of the student work I've seen but definitely would not follow that option up now. I think that's a good thing, both for me and for Edinburgh!

One sad point. There was actually no content I saw other than Clay Shirky's piece, which I'd already read previously, that I have felt the need to bookmark or remember from this MOOC. Steve Fuller's TED talk was a great 15 minute summary of ideas on what it is to be human, but this isn't what I thought we were going to be learning about... 

Would I have been better off just looking at TED talks with the time I spent on #edcmooc? Probably.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

#edcmooc Week 2 "the brothel of non-learning"

So well, I still don't have much clue what this MOOC is about. I spent hours wading through the content (3-4 hours a week my a**e).

Apparently this week we have learned that metaphor is a lens just like determinism. Funny, I thought determinism was an epistemic philosophy whereas metaphor describes an implicit comparison between two unlike things that actually have something in common. I don't know what either has to do with eLearning and digital cultures unless your course team happens to be interested in linguistic structuralism. I didn't sign up for a course in that as I'm not interested in that topic… am feeling a lot of my time has been wasted but keeping going because I don't want to drop out of a third MOOC in a row.

We watched yet more video clips which insisted on viewing the word in antonyms (utopia/dystopia) instead of authentic complexity.  We had to watch some marketing videos about new technologies like Microsoft Surface. These all majored in instant and unrealistic solutions to issues like chronic illness and health information. They reminded me of 1950s TV ads in their strenuous attempts to normalise the strange and make it unthreatening and "must-have".

Then we had to watch clips that I think were supposed to represent typical stories of fear about technology such as being "stamped" or chipped in some way and therefore followed by authoritarian powers or where deeply human processes (like dating) had been in some way mechanised. These were amateurish in production values and storyline. I found them boring, and regarding dating rather silly as this is one of the successes of the Internet, with over 1 in 8 US marriages now arising from online dating.

On the course forums there was comment about people's distress in finding they were small voices in a multitude of similar comments and that somehow this was dehumanising. I found the forums just lots of examples quoted of creative works mostly using technology as a proxy for the innate nastiness of human nature. The basic week 1 concept - dichotomy of utopia/dystopia with the involvement of technology - was not actually a useful way to illuminate how we respond to technology because it was a shallow stereotype, and the connection to learning and digital cultures was unclear. Since the assessment (in as far as it was possible to understand what was being asked) was that you "make a comment" the result was a cacophony of quantity over quality. Where there were quality responses it was impossible to get time to investigate them thoroughly - also dissatisfying.

Back in the content section we were asked to read Johnston on the use of metaphor concerning the Internet based on a literature search she had carried out. Where exactly is Johnston's evidence that people (as opposed to academic authors) do not use the same type of physical metaphors in relation to other concepts that we do about the Internet? I don't personally think of the Internet in metaphorical terms at all. I think of it as physical computer networks that I cannot comprehend which do not need a metaphor, but which tend to reflect  in their final effects unchanging human characteristics (mostly nasty ones) derived from our biology.

Then we watched Anna Mae Newitz describing typical fear storylines about technology in science fiction  
1. Hive mind - is it smart or stupid?
2. Spies are watching you through technology. 
3. Mind control. 
4. Can't stop the signal (broadcasting your thoughts/not able to prevent mind being controlled).

My question: how does this relate to the reality of the Internet?
  • The elite with access to the Internet can find special information/products/recommendations/advice.
  • Things are cheaper and easier to get.
  • We can connect and learn and work despite distance
  • There are also possibilities to do evil - 3d printing of weapons, porn, ubiquitous advertising etc. There is also the shallowness argument (lack of deep thought, analysis due to constant flicking between content).

Netflix might make a good pro and anti argument - gets rid of advertising, gives you choice but the Netflix company gets an enormous amount of information about how people are watching content which could lead to an Eli Pariser like movement towards filter bubbles.

Then we looked at Clay Shirky talking about MOOCs. He mentions self-scoring tests as a key feature of MOOCs. Quizzes would have been great on edcmooc. I am adrift armed only with a sense of scepticism…

Love this: Shirky's MOOC Criticism Drinking Game: take a swig whenever someone says “real”, “true”, or “genuine” to hide the fact that they are only talking about elite schools instead of the median college experience. And this: "The large lecture isn’t a tool for producing intellectual joy; it’s a tool for reducing the expense of introductory classes".

So… My digital artefact should perhaps be about ways of using IT industry and supply chain techniques to improve MOOCs? Starting point Shirky: "For colleges, this means more graduate and adjunct instructors, increased enrollments and class size, fundraising, or, of course, raising tuition."

To counter Shirky we had a self-serving grad student lecturer called Bady who aspires to tenure and supports the status quo. He had no real arguments and in the main just criticises Shirky's writing style. He ends: "Beware anyone who tries to give you a link to WebMD as a replacement for seeing a real doctor." Yet actually a lot of people use the Internet to aid them with useful health advice. Support groups anyone? I personally used it in an emergency medicine situation and it probably saved me about 8 months more severe disability than I actually experienced. Internet 1, Bady 0. To use the gamification metaphors we are supposed to be learning about.

I've saved the worst of week 2 till last. An hour of Campbell Gardner. And I want to admit straight away I fell asleep for 10 minutes in the middle. Here we're apparently contrasting 
"schoolers" and "yearners" - the latter want deep change in education through tools like MOOCs rather than former who produce "blogging assignments" where you continue the same model with technology plastered over. Which is characterised as "the brothel of non-learning". 

I see yet another spat between the trainers and the educators. People want value for money in their learning. Employers now expect their employees to train and retrain themselves in their own time largely (portfolio careers?). This is one of the environmental factors that MOOCs are a response to.

Campbell seemed to be stuck in a metacognitive loop which is all about how clever his students are (and by implication he himself is). My sci-fi metaphor for his talk would have to be the introduction to Kubrick's 2001. Campbell is conflating  tool-using with learning. Apparently it's all about hospitality to provide an ecology of yearning. This is just a plea that in a nice world education should be pointless. Sorry, mate. You've been disintermediated and this model is dead.

The course organisers in their introduction imply that Campbell is describing the "utopia" of open learning. They ask us to reflect on what open learning means to us so here goes:

  • Clear navigation and achievable assessments
  • Well-selected and relevant content
  • An arc of imagination and progress that is clear throughout the course
  • Low cost
  • Flexibility in time and place
  • Interesting networks of connection
  • Economic and intellectual benefit
  • Hospitality doesn't come into it anywhere.

I don't think the list above is rocket science. In one of the optional articles: "It is unclear how much Coursera students actually study. Ng estimates that 40 to 60 percent of those who register in a typical course might attempt the first assignment. Perhaps 10 to 15 percent might finish all the work." This is a very poor yield in supply chain terms. Why write off MOOCs without trying to come up with some guidelines and suggestions to improve the yield? The days of education for the sake of education in a world of limited resources and a hollowed-out globalised professional class are numbered.