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Try the spare mouse mat test

HERE'S a tip for those of you wishing to check out a new colleague. Ask them if they have a spare mouse mat you could borrow. If they say "yes", beware. This is a sign of a pain in the dowp who is always out of school attending conferences.

I should know. I have been to two such events over the last month of term and got a mouse mat each time. Conference number one was at Stirling University (nice duck pond!). It was organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland for those involved in a local moderation of assessment project.

Once I got my own back for a crack by another speaker about scientists not being happy doing joined-up writing, it was an enjoyable day.

The second conference was at Heriot-Watt University (nice duck pond!). The theme this time was the Scholar programme, an online computer-assisted learning package. There was much talk of the use of ICT in assessment, which linked nicely back to the Stirling bash. Computers are ace at marking multi-choice questions, reasonable at checking numerical answers and, at present, pretty poor at assessing anything else. Give them an essay to correct and they just sit there wishing that you'd asked them something easy, like finding the value of pi to a thousand decimal places. Make no mistake, that is an easy thing to do. It might take a human forever and a day to calculate, but not a PC.

As a student, I studied computing for a time. We did a little about artificial intelligence. This relatively new science had received little funding at that time. Those in charge of the cash, we were told, thought that problems such as getting a machine to see or hear were trivial. They were unable to comprehend that sight was more than image formation and would not listen to the people who told them that seeing involved a hugely complex operation to interpret visual data. Things have moved on, funding-wise, but it is still true that the things we take for granted are those that machines are least good at.

Even physicists have to mark answers that do not have numbers in them and it is pretty darned hard at times. I can't claim that I take much consolation from the fact that I'm exercising a skill that cannot (yet) be implemented on a jumble of silicon and wiring. Must try to rejoice in being human more often.

Meantime, our project has discovered that there is something that is on a par with a teacher when it comes to judging pupil performance. It's a pupil.

Gregor Steele is trying to think of a use for his surfeit of mouse mats

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