The Science of Persuasion Michael Edmonds Apr 23

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A while ago I wrote several blogs looking at how a knowledge of psychology can be used to persuade us to do things (e.g. here and here). Recently I came across the following animated presentation which concisely and cleverly describes key methods of persuasion.

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The Men Who Made Us Fat Michael Edmonds Apr 22

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Over the weekend I watched a documentary series called “The Men Who Made Us Fat”, playing on the BBC Knowledge channel (but also available on Youtube). It is a fascinating look at how the food industry has used marketing to alter our eating habits, fought against attempts to regulate unhealthy foods and engaged in dubious practices to make unhealthy foods look healthy. It also explores the science which has been used and abused over the past century to promote industry aims, and the sheer idiocy of allowing the food industry to have a major role in determining government policy (my favourite quote from the documentary is given below).

“Putting the food industry at the policy table is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.” Professor Simon Capewell, University of Liverpool

Episode 1 looks at how consumption of sugary drinks and treats was introduced (and encouraged) into modern society and how the misguided focus on fat as “the” cause of obesity concealed the role that sugar and related substances such as high fructose corn syrup have played in weight gain. It also describes the way influential food organisations twisted science to their own ends.

Episode 2 explores the history of “supersizing” portion sizes, a technique that began in cinemas and then spread through the food industry, encouraging restaurant goers to eat more and shoppers to get better “value” by buying larger quantities of processed foods.

Episode 3 examines how the food industry have manipulated the interest in healthy food to portray many foods as being healthier than they are and how they have resisted regulation and attempts to provide consumers with ways to better assess the nutritional value of foods they consume.

Throughout the three episodes there are interviews with those on both “sides” of the argument – those concerned about the growing obesity epidemic and representatives of the food industry who apparently believe they have played no part in the increasing number of overweight people in society. Many companies argue that it is up to the individual to regulate their own consumption of foods, however, I find this argument to be somewhat disingenuous when over time the food industry has applied a wide range of psychological techniques to persuade consumers to buy more – that seems like a very unfair advantage. The views put forward by some industry representatives are often defensive and seem quite distant from reality. Check out the short interview in the video below from 18 minutes and 30 seconds.

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There Must be Board Games in Heaven Michael Edmonds Apr 14

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Advocates of the paranormal often complain that skeptics are close minded, so in the spirit of open mindedness I wondered what might be another explanation (other than chicanery or delusion) as to why mediums and psychics appear to communicate with the dearly departed through vague statements, and asking if anyone knows someone with the initials “J” or “M”.

The only explanation I could come up with is that there must be board games in heaven. Hence when communications come through from “our side” they are responded like a board game. Injuries are communicated through charades, for example, with the holding of abdomen or head. This, of course, makes diagnosis fairly vague, as there are quite a few things that can go wrong in the abdomen or head, but this may be enough to satisfy their grieving kin.

The identity of the dearly departed appears to be communicated through some sort of word game, perhaps using scrabble tiles? This of course could explain why mediums can’t always get things right, perhaps in their hurry to communicate the deceased accidentally holds the letters upside down leaving the poor medium looking for a Mary or Margaret instead of a Wendy?

Of course if the hereafter is filled with board games, for some it might be more like hell than heaven…



Future Learning Spaces Michael Edmonds Mar 31

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Last week I attended a two day conference on New Generation Learning Space Design. It was absolutely fascinating hearing from academics, managers, facilities staff and architects about what is currently being done with regards to learning spaces in tertiary institutions. I was also surprised to see that a number of institutions have staff whose job it is to create such learning spaces, for example, the University of Sydney have a Director of eLearning and Learning Space and Queensland University of Technology have a Director of eLearning Environments and Technology Services.

During the conference a number of common themes emerged, including:


1)   Learning goes beyond the classroom

Associate Professor Rob Ellis, Director of eLearning and Learning Space at the University of Sydney described how learning goes beyond the formal space of the classroom. His presentation outlined how learning could be divided into three equal components – formal learning on campus, informal learning on campus and informal learning off campus. (Note a subsequent speaker also pointed out that distance learning could also involve formal learning off campus as well). These three modes of learning need to function together coherently and as seamlessly a possible – a speaker later in the conference talked about a personal learning plan being central to this structure.

In order for students to successfully engage in informal learning on campus there must be spaces available that meet their needs – spaces that are comfortable to work (and socialise) in. This can include access to wireless and powerpoints for their devices, kitchen facilities, and even the ability to lie down and take a nap. Students equate comfort with institutional respect – they need to feel appreciated by the organisation rather than treated as a commodity. Several attendees referred to such spaces as the student equivalent of airline lounges such as the Qantas lounge or Koru club.

Informal learning on and off campus also needs to be supported with e-learning, through platforms such as Moodle and applications such as e-portfolios, Facebook and Youtube, for example.


2)   The modern student

Many students own more than one mobile device (mobile phone/iPad/Tablet/laptop). Such devices provide students the opportunity to learn when and where they like, if resources such as recorded lectures, online notes, references and quizzes are available. Younger students often prefer to learn collaboratively and in a comfortable environment, and many universities are trying to accommodate this by setting up areas with kitchen facilities and a range of furniture including chairs, desks, tables, cushions and beanbags in order to allow students to customise their informal learning on campus. Choice is important to most students.

By providing for the needs and comfort of students the idea is to create a “sticky”/”Velcro” campus where students will linger longer and engage socially as well as academically.


3)   The learning space/technology/pedagogy nexus

Optimum learning will be achieved where the learning spaces, technologies and teaching pedagogies work in synergy with each other. Academic staff needs to be involved in the design of new learning spaces, and supported when they are first used. Some universities have installed phones in new rooms with a direct line to ICT for assistance with new technologies – one (Queensland University of Technology) even has cameras in each rooms so their technology staff can see what is happening on the screen of each room so they can better help tutors with any technical issues over the phone.

Effective design of new spaces is best achieved by involving a wide range of interested staff – academics, library, timetabling, e-Learning etc.


4)      What do New Generation Learning Spaces (NGLS) look like?

Features of the NGLS’s shown at the conference and on a tour of the recently upgraded University of Technology in Sydney include:

  • Transparent walls between the classroom and hallway
  • Large rooms with multiple monitors around the wall. Monitors can either show what the tutor is talking about, or allow the students to do group together using the screens separate from other groups
  • Some institutions favour movable interactive screens.
  • Technology available to allow tutor (and students) to transmit what is on the screen of their device to a large screen in class
  • One institution is using foldaway podiums.
  • Screens outside rooms show what classes are booked in there and when. A central booking system online also allows students to book rooms for meetings and study.


5)   “Open plan offices” or “free range” office space?

The suggestion to move to an open plan office space draws universal resistance from academic staff as it conjures images of a “battery chicken” arrangement of desks. It is also typically seen as an institutional attempt to save space. Mark Freeman, an Associate from architectural firm Gray Puksand, used the term “free range” office space to describe an innovative approach to office space – rather than clinical and uniform arrangements of desks, he described the movement away from individual office spaces as an opportunity to introduce variety into the shared office environment through a mixture of desks, tables, couches, storage systems and meeting rooms which can cater for the different needs of staff. Just as students equate comfort with institutional respect, so will staff.


A New Generation Learning Space Design conference has been held annually in Australia for the past 4 years. While it is somewhat expensive to attend, my experience is that it is definitely worth it for anyone involved in significant building upgrades at tertiary institutions.

Sci Fi Friday – Spaceships Quiz Michael Edmonds Mar 07


I love science fiction. It takes us into new worlds and can present interesting scientific and ethical dilemmas.

And sometimes todays science fiction can become tomorrows scientific fact (e.g. Star Trek communicators)

And the spaceships are so cool. While some don’t appear to obey the laws of physics they are awe inspiring as they speed across galaxies, through wormholes and stargates. So I thought I would create a little quiz about star ships.

Which TV programme/video game do the following spaceships belong to?

 1) The Enterprise D

2) The Liberator

3) The Whitestar

4) The Normandy

5) The Palamino

6) Ranger 3

7) Destiny

8) Jupiter 2

9) Moya

10) USS Saratoga

And just to finish, space craft that do obey the laws of physics

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Kiwibots – New Zealand Nationals Michael Edmonds Mar 04

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Over the weekend I attended the Kiwibot Nationals – where high school students from around New Zealand compete against each other to score points using robots they have constructed themselves. It was fantastic fun to attend – what better way for students to get engaged in science/engineering/computer programming.

The video below shows the final rounds between two blue team robots and two red team robots. The full rules of the game are hard to explain in a single blog post, however, a few key points are:

  • the first part of the game is in autonomous mode – where the robot moves in a pre-programmed fashion. This is then followed by 1 minute and 45 seconds of driver controlled competition.
  • points are scored by getting coloured balls in different parts of the field, by getting the smalleer hex balls into the cylinders on the right hand side of the arena, and high points are gained by hanging a robot off of the coloured beams on the left side of the arena.
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In addition to the actual competition, separate prizes were also awarded to teams with the most creative, most robust, best programming and other prizes.

Welcome to the World of Kiwibots Michael Edmonds Feb 23

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This afternoon I went along to my first Kiwibots event, a regional competition for the Canterbury region.

For those not familiar with Kiwibots, it involves students using the Vex robotics kit sets to build robots and then compete against other teams in an arena to score the most points in a task that varies from year to year. This year each team is made up of two robots and their operators to move coloured balls in different parts of the arena to score points. There are several different ways to core points and as such the robots built by different teams can vary significantly depending on their strategy for scoring points.

I was very impressed by the opportunities that Kiwibots provide for students – not only does it teach them about building and programming robots, it also teaches them teamwork and strategy. Also, despite this being a competition, it seemed a very friendly competition. In Christchurch, it is an event that has been championed by some very dedicated teachers and parents, though this year Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology is getting involved to support Kiwibots in the Canterbury region.

Next week I’m off to Auckland to see (and help judge) the National Kiwibots competition which I am looking forward to. Held at the Vodaphone Event Centre, I am told it is an action packed, almost chaotic weekend. It would be great to see if Kiwibots can be introduced into secondary and tertiary curricula in a way students can gain credits for their work, as it is a very engaging way to learn about mechanics and computer programming.

The picture below is of a previous years’ Kiwibot event.

Key Technology Trends in Tertiary Education Michael Edmonds Feb 07


A recent report has outlined significant upcoming trends, challenges and developments in the tertiary sector (none of which unfortunately offer 3D interactive holograms as shown in the picture above – damn!)

The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition is the latest in a series of reports prepared by an international body of experts in education, technology and other related fields. The latest report focuses on the higher education sector, providing a brief outline of areas of significance along with examples and additional readings.

The first section of the report outlines six “key trends accelerating higher education technology adoption”  and comments on

1) The widespread use of social media and its’ applications in education

2) Development of online, hybrid and collaborative learning approaches

3) Increase in learning and assessments that are data driven

4) Shift from students as consumers to students as creators

5) Agile approaches to change

6) The evolution of online learning.

The second section covers “significant challenges that will impede the adoption of new technologies”. These are

1) The low digital fluency of educators

2) A relative lack of rewards for teaching

3) Competition from new models of education (e.g. MOOC’s – massive open online courses)

4) Scaling teaching innovations

5) Expanding access

6) Keeping education relevant

The third and final section of the report discusses important developments in educational technology, consisting of

1) The flipped class room

2) Learning analytics

3) 3-D printing

4) Games and gamification

5) Quantified self – technologies which allow their owners to track and quantify various aspects of their lives

6) Virtual assistants

The report makes interesting reading. Some of the trends and developments are ones we have already started to use at work. Others are ones that we have thought about but never quite worked out the best way to apply them. The inclusion of examples where other tertiary institutions have tried different approaches and sources of future readings makes this a very useful report.

Evolution vs Creationism – Bill Nye vs Ken Ham Michael Edmonds Feb 06


On the 4th of February a debate took place at the Creation “museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky pitting popular science writer and TV presenter Bill Nye against Ken Ham, the creationist currently attempting to raise funds for a creationist theme park, complete with ark, in Kentucky.

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This debate was controversial long before it took place, with many pro-science bloggers suggesting that Bill Nye might not be experienced enough to take on a practiced creationist. Furthermore, the fact that the evening was fundraiser for Ham’s theme park project also drew criticism.

However, now that the debate is over, many of his critics are now acknowledging that Bill Nye did quite well. Not perfect, as critics are pointing out minor errors and missed opportunities – but then it is all very well to be able see these things from the sidelines and in retrospect.

At the debate, Matt Stopera from BuzzFeed provided self-identifying creationists with a pen, pad and opportunity to write down a question for those supporting evolution, and photographed. The results were quite revealing.

Two of these pictures are shown below. It is worth looking at the rest via the link provided above, to see what creationists see as being valid arguments against evolution.



Popularising Science based on Reality TV Michael Edmonds Jan 30

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In the search for new ways to popularise science perhaps it is time to embrace the trend of recent years towards “reality” TV? The last few years have provided a plethora of formats which could be easily adapted to science, for example,

Master Researcher

Contestants compete in a laboratory environment to complete various tasks with one person being eliminated every week. Contestants will be encouraged to badmouth each other behind each others back and occasionally drop contaminants into each others experiments.


Hells’ Laboratory

Similar to the Master Researcher but contestants have to work in teams (giving them the opportunity for up close and personal insults) with all work is critiqued by a foul-mouthed English lab supervisor.


Dragons Laboratory

An enthusiastic young person stands in from of a panel of 4 people explaining the innovative research ideas that have consumed their life for the past three years only to have it picked apart and criticised.

Fairly simple to do as this is essentially a televised PhD oral.


Man vs Lab

A PhD student is locked in a cavernous lab by his supervisor for a week and is not only expected to complete a scientific task task but must also survive on water distilled from experimental waste water and various edible substances found within the lab.


Laboratory Idol

Lab supervisors compete amongst each other to be the favourite supervisor (laboratory idol) in front of groups of first year students. While clear articulation of complex scientific concepts and friendliness will gain some points the occasional flash of cleavage or bicep flex may also win votes. (However, no twerking allowed!)

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