Sunday, December 29, 2013

Get a better price selling your house

In Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner the authors show that there is a failure of alignment between what you as the seller and the estate agent want.  Yes, you both want a high price, but with typical fees running at 1% or less an extra £5,000 on the sale price is only worth £50 (or less) to the estate agent.  They show that estates agents when selling their own properties typically keep their houses on the market longer and get a higher sale price.  How much additional effort will an estate agent consider putting in for £50?  They are better off selling quickly at a slightly lower price and selling a few extra houses each year.  This is the misalignment between you, as the seller, and the estate agent.  They want the greatest annual income, you want the highest price on your house.

When I was selling my house I therefore decided that it would be worthwhile taking account of this and changing the fees that were payable to the estate agent, so that our interests were better aligned.  This would mean that if the house sold for a higher price the fee payable to the estate agent would be considerably higher, but that I would also receive more money (win-win).

To do this I had to determine a reasonable sale price, which I did in the usual fashion of asking several estate agents to give me a guide price for the sale of the house.  The prices were similar, so I worked from the average.  I then asked the estate agents for their fees, which were all 0.75%.  This was at a time when most houses were selling for 10-15% less than the asking price, so I would be happy to even get the asking price.
With this information I worked out a formula which would give the estate agent an advantage if they sold the house for the asking price or better.  Specifically I chose 0.5% fee for the first 95% of the asking price and then 10% of anything above that, giving a break-even price 97.25% of the original offer price.  Anything above that and the estate agent would make a greater profit, but given the market we would also do better.  I offered this deal to all the estate agents that I had asked for estimates, and only one of them was willing to be flexible and try the formula rather than their fixed percentage.

In the end we sold the house at the asking price, but in a rising market I would expect to do even better.  Of course, the estate agent does better too, and you have to be happy to see a larger slice of the asking price going to the estate agent than you would with the ordinary fee structure.  But the point is that you sell the house at higher price because you have made it worthwhile for the estate agent to invest additional effort in selling your house, rather than going for the quickest and easiest sale.

Friday, December 20, 2013

FutureLearn Web Science MOOC

This was the first MOOC that I have taken on the Futurelearn MOOC platform.  I commented on the platform itself in my previous post, here I want to look at the course itself, and how it worked within the platform.

There was much interesting material in web science course, which looked at both the technical and the social aspects of the web, as it was led by professors Les Carr and Susan Halford.  I have known Les for some years, which may colour my view of the course.  

It was a shortish MOOC, six weeks, with each week looking at a different aspect of web science:

  • The History of the web, in part looking at different types of history (techno-rational or socio-technical) as well as some of the key events and processes; asking questions like was it inevitable that the web emerged looking the way it does? and arguing that the free, open nature of the web (Tim Berners-Lee "gave it away") was vital to its success.
  • Using analytics to understand what is happening on the web, and the limits that analytics imposes (as well as some other methods such as anthropology).
  • Security and crime. 
  • The web in democracy - how important, for instance, was the web in the Arab Spring of 2011 or the earlier revolt in Iran for instance.  I reviewed the book on Revolution 2.0 mentioned in the course.  This also raises questions of surveillance (barely addresses and as far as I could see not widely commented on in the discussion.  Also looking at open data and new ways in which data can be used once it is available to hold governments to account.
  • "Digital economy" which looked at big data (how the web provides huge amounts of data and access to data that used to be effectively inaccessible (such as government data), the web in recruitment (how might your profile affect your success in seeking jobs) and retail.
  • The future of the web, and especially the semantic web.

Each week started with an introduction by Carr and Halford , which was mostly helpful, though by week six I was tired of hearing that Les Carr was proud to be the first professor of web science at Southampton University.  The weeks also closed with a "discussion" between professors Wendy Hall and Nigel Shadbolt; the discussion is in quotes as it seemed to be cutting between two completely separate presentations rather than an actual discussion, which meant that they were not really building on each others ideas.  While these discussions were interesting a real discussion would have been much more so.

In between these where a variety of chunks which included videos, readings, discussions and a couple of exercises presented by a wide variety of people including lecturers and PhD students.  

I think that the course content had been well thought through, but the course structure less so.  How much this was a result of what FutureLearn could do (when the course was being built) and how much of this was down to the course leaders I cannot tell.  However, the course was extremely linear (start at chunk 1 and work your way straight through to the finish).  This may in part be down to the FutureLearn, as at the bottom of each unit there is next / previous; if you want to go elsewhere then scroll to the top, go back to the course menu and choose another chunk.  That is, it is possible to do them in a different order but it is not what the structure offers.  Also, apart from during the multiple choice tests at the end of the modules there was very little cross referencing (within or between weeks), and little encouragement to return to earlier discussions.

I feel that the return to earlier discussions is almost discouraged, as at the end of each chunk you mark it as completed (ie it is suggesting that there is no need to return). 

The other great weakness was the discussion, but I think this is due to the weakness of the tool.  You can make postings, and you can comment on the postings of others, but unless you go back to the discussions and trawl through them to find your postings it is impossible to see if they have been commented in.  There is no notification that someone has commented on your posting, which makes discussion very difficult though some of us did try.

However, in spite of the limitations of FutureLearn I enjoyed the course, and will try some others; though not many more until the discussion forum is improved.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wael Ghonim: Revolution 2.0: The power of the people is greater than the people in power

While undertaking the Web Science MOOC on FutureLearn I came across a reference to the above book, which I decided to read, and mostly it was riveting, anyhow a review below...

There have been different outcomes from the various uprisings that have occurred across the North Africa and the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring.  In Tunisia (where it all started) there was transfer of power and some change, in Libya there was a civil war which seems to continue at a low level.  In Egypt there was a transfer of power, then elections and a counter-coup when the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, and of course in Syria a vicious civil war.
This autobiography by the creator of the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said". Khaled Said was murdered by the security forces, and (perhaps unusually) there were witnesses who were willing to say what they had seen.  Images of his beaten body and face were appearing on the Internet and various sites (including other Facebook pages) were set up to commemorate him and to campaign for justice.
The covers both Ghonim's political awakening and the events that happened in the run up to the revolution in Egypt.  It is a mixture of the politically naive and the extremely honest for the most part. It explains how and why he set up the page, while deliberately remaining anonymous as he wanted it to be about the idea, not about him.  Ghonim is a well educated young person who works in marketing for Google, and hence has both technical and marketing skills which he used to build and promote the page (although keeping Google out of it completely).  He was in contact with various "activists" and between them they hatched up the plans for demonstrations culminating in one on Police Day (25 January 2011) and advertised it on Facebook and other places.  There were then calls for continuing demonstrations, most of which Ghonim missed as he was detained by the security services and held blindfolded in solitary confinement for 11 days.  This is the most shocking part of the book, even though he was not as badly tortured as many of the other people detained.  Shocking both because of the treatment he received and shocking as well because earlier he had talked about his gratitude to other people who had been detained and not given his name.  Almost immediately he starts to give names and information.  Would I be any stronger or have done anything different?  I don't know.

It is written in the first person, and includes a large number of extracts from his Facebook page, together with the number of likes, comments and accesses and you can see the number growing to over 1.5 million at its peak just before the fall of Mubarak. There are times when I think he overplays his naivety.  For instance, at one point he says "I am stronger than Hosni Mubarak. I am stronger than Omar Sulaiman", claiming that this was speaking as a demonstrator.  Equally, in the book he projects himself as the moving force in the way he tells it, though he is careful throughout to explicitly say that his is only one voice and to name some of the other people who were involved.

While I think that he overplays his hand in responsibility for the revolution his description of the way in which the Internet was used to raise consciousness and in particular to overcome the fear of the security forces is very interesting, though his suggestion that it was an entirely new form of revolution (2.0 without an agenda or leaders, simply requiring change) is naive.  Certainly, if you want to understand the background to the revolution then this is not the place to start. But if you want to know how to felt to be caught up in the events then it is excellent.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Having nearly completed the Web Science MOOC on FutureLearn I thought that it would be worthwhile passing some comments.  In this post I will comment on FutureLearn itself, and later I will comment on the Web Science course.

FutureLearn is not dissimilar to other MOOCs, it works smoothly and well in general, though they do seem to be using rapid development (or perpetual beta) as the delivery method with the result that some things do change as you go along (the ones I noticed seemed to alter where the discussion appeared).

As yet, and I accept that this is fairly early there don't appear to be any particularly interesting or novel features in the MOOC.  You register, choose the course and do it in a very linear fashion.

I like the clean, clear design which keeps unnecessary clutter out of the way, and that it works pretty well on my phone as well as on the PC.  I also like that there are discussions for each page, on that page so that the topic and the discussion are closely related to each other; although that does tend to discourage discussions which bridge topics (which topic should you post them against?).

However, I think that it has a long way to go before it becomes a really useful learning platform.  I suspect that many of the things that I am going to discuss are already under development, but here is my pennyworth of things for improvement.

The way that the system works is very linear, not encouraging returning to topics covered or relating to them to each other.  To me this is exemplified by having mark as complete for each section, the implication being that there is no need to return to this section.  I think this is particularly unfortunate as it discourages returning to discussions.

The week is broken down into bite sized chunks (or on this course in some cases nibbles), but there is no easy way of seeing where you are in the course (eg a progress bar along the top or bottom of the page).  Of course, I appreciate that could end up being part of the clutter that FutureLearn enjoys, but it could at least be an option.

My biggest problem is with the discussion tool itself, which discourages discussion rather than post and forget.  posts are not grouped or tagged in any way so that there can be a long list of postings which are either in reverse order of posting or just the most "liked" postings.  The result is that there is very little engagement with the discussion, with people making postings and moving on.  I haven't counted but I doubt that more than a tenth of postings have any comment against them.  Even if you do engage in an actual discussion there doesn't appear to be any form of push technology to tell you that someone has replied to your posting, so that you have to wander through all your postings to find out if someone has replied to them.  Yes, you can see all your postings for all courses on your profile page, but no way of knowing if anyone has responded and hence engaging in discussion.

There is also nothing to help build up a sense of community.  Other MOOCs that I have participated in have been very strong on community building, encouraging the use of other tools such as blogs and tweeting to support each other and share learning, but while one could invent a #tag for the course there is nothing in the course to support this (eg having the #tag listed on each page).

Finally, at the moment it seems to be rather feature poor.  As used in this course there is text, embedded video, links, appended documents, multiple choice questions and the "discussion forum" and that is about it.

I look forward to seeing some of the features as they are added.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Metaphors for change in universities

Having just read Peter Reed's blog posting "The Last (open) Samurai" with its ideas that there either are battles between traditional staff and those who will adopt open practices or perhaps between traditional and MOOCs; and that in the end the "modern" method will defeat the old traditional method I got thinking about the problem of the dilemma. We often pose problems as an either / or. Either we will have open education, or the traditional will survive. Either MOOCs will replace universities or traditional universities will survive. I think that the problem comes precisely from looking at these things as a battle.

I would like to propose a different metaphor - the landscape, nothing new in it of course, but it does offer a different view. If we take the education landscape with its mountains and valleys, its woodlands and waterfalls then there is room in the landscape for development and change without necessarily destroying the existing landscape. If open education (or MOOCs) are going to radically change the landscape they might be damming the valleys or covering the hills with wind farms, but even so some of the old landscape will survive.

To take a historic view (and why not, universities are amongst the oldest organisations that we have) we still do many of the things that would be recognisable when the earliest modern universities were set up across Italy - the lecture and seminar. We still have the exam, but we have added new methods and ideas as they have become available. So I think, as President Bush said "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully" I know open education, MOOCs and universities can coexist peacefully.

But, to be a bit more serious. There are considerable claims made for open education and for MOOCs which are political rather than educational. Every few years we see some new technology (or revised technology) come along and claim that it is going to utterly change the system. We saw this with (amongst others) virtual learning environments, reusable learning objects, open learning, MOOCs.... But, in the end, each of them has been co-opted into the establishment and used to enhance teaching and learning.

A landscape can absorb considerable development. Some of it may be an improvement (a Capability Brown) and some may harm the landscape (dark satanic mills) but few radically change the landscape, and many of those that do radically change the landscape are not changes to pedagogy so much as changes to the educational environment. On the positive side think of the Robbins report or the major expansion under Thatcher/Major/Blair, the abolition of the "binary divide" between universities and polytechnics or the admission of women to universities. On the negative side the reduction in funding per student, student fees and the pressure to perform for the RAE/REF without similar stimuli to improve teaching.