Thursday, 24 April 2014

Shakespeare: Why is he important?


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This week Shakespeare would have been 450 years old, and his plays and sonnets are still studied across the world. To many people, reading Shakespeare is a bit like Marmite-you either love it or hate it, but there is no denying the influence he has had on the English language of today.

William Shakespeare is one of the most prolific writers in English history, and many people still enjoy reading and watching productions of his plays. His sonnets are popular wedding readings, particularly Sonnet 18 ‘Shall I compare thee to a summers day’. Some of his most famous plays have been made into blockbuster films and form the basis of many other story lines-how many times have we heard the phrase ‘It’s the modern day Romeo and Juliet!’

NEC tutor Julia reminds us that Shakespeare's plays never seem to age ‘You only have to consider the problems of the teenage years if you have young headstrong siblings to engage with 'Romeo and Juliet' or to turn on the news and listen to the endless political rivalry to enjoy, 'Julius Caesar'.’

Of course it wasn't just plays that Shakespeare was famous for, his sonnets should not be forgotten, as NEC tutor Liz reminds us. ‘Sonnets; those wonderfully structured and mysterious poems which tell us so much about the human condition.’

It’s not just the plays and sonnets themselves that stand the test of time, phrases and words coined by Shakespeare still appear throughout the English language.

Even if you’re on the ‘hate it’ side of the fence, chances are that you use some of Shakespeare’s own phrases every day. For example the play ‘Measure for Measure’ which is studied as part of A level English Language and Literature offered by NEC, is believed to be the first time the word ‘belongings’ was used, and the first appearance of the phrase ‘Refuse to budge an inch’.

Another play studied in A level English Literature offered by NEC, is Othello. This is where the phrases ‘Forgone conclusion’ and ‘Wear my heart upon my sleeve’ are believed to originate. It is also believed to be the first time jealousy is referred to as ‘the green eyed monster’.

There are too many phrases to mention here, but some others that are so ingrained into our everyday conversation that we forget their origins, are:
  • A sorry sight (Macbeth)
  • What’s done is done (Macbeth)
  • Truth will out (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Own flesh and blood (Hamlet)
  • Laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • Heart of gold (Henry V)
  • Eaten me out of house and home (Henry IV)
  • Lie low (Much Ado About Nothing)

NEC tutor Colin points out that our language also contains phrases and sayings which sound as if they derive from a Shakespearean source, he says ‘I couldn't help thinking that Shakespeare's imprint on our language is so strong that we seem to find it even if it is not literally there!’

Next time you think to yourself 'I wonder where that phrase came from?' Spare a thought for William Shakespeare, there's a good chance he had something to do with it!

Visit our website to learn all about NEC and our work, and to browse our full range of flexible distance learning courses. You can keep up with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Open School in a Box – a first look at our technology

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Fig. 1: Parts for two more prototypes

This week’s blog is written by Dick Moore and will be talking about the technology involved in our Open School in a Box project, funded by the Nominet Trust.

If you are not sure what the Open School in a Box (OSB) project is all about then our last month’s blog post here explains it all. The project has now started in earnest and we are just in the middle of our alpha trial of the technology.

Before telling you what the alpha trial is intended to look at, I thought we might take a look at why the project selected wifi rather than another networking medium to distribute its content. We have heard much about 3G and 4G broadband connections, and for those lucky enough to live in a 3G or 4G zone and able to afford a 3G or 4G contract there is no doubt of its convenience while on the move. For the rest of us, wifi is our preferred connection of choice for the following reasons:

  • smartphones, tablets and most laptops can access wifi with no additional hardware
  • connectivity is not limited to a particular supplier’s infrastructure
  • wifi is provided free or at low cost with plenty of hotspots in every town and business
  • it’s low cost for organisations to deploy and maintain, even in old or listed buildings
  • connecting to wifi is now such a familiar process, it is thought to be easy
  • modern wifi (802.11n) can deliver five times the speed of the previous standard 802.11g by using multi input output streaming with a wider range and higher throughput.

Wifi connectivity is likely to be the connectivity solution of choice for the foreseeable future, and when we look at what is going on at grass-roots level it’s clear at least to me that wifi rather than 3G or 4G connectivity is powering the mobile revolution. People are selecting their hotel, coffee shop, and even their next house move on the basis that it has broadband and wifi.

The alpha trial

The first week of the alpha trial of the new prototype of the OSB has just ended and was designed to test if, once out of range of public wifi, people could connect, interact and download material. It will come as no surprise that not all our alpha trial users found it easy to connect or play videos, however for those that could (over 80%) the speed of rendering was rated good or very good, and the large majority managed to play video, view content and interact with our trial content.

The content rendered across a range of devices including iPhones, Android devices of various brands, tablets, laptops, PCs and Macs.  An additional complication was that each of these devices came with different browsers: in common use are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in many versions, Safari on Apple devices, Firefox and Chrome. It is not a surprise then that the alpha trial threw up some issues!

The key issues identified in the alpha trial were:

  • some users found it difficult or impossible to connect to the service using the same device as other users who managed with ease
  • some users failed to play the video content, again this was not device specific
  • some devices such as BlackBerries and Kindles failed to connect at all
  • the content rendered differently on some devices and in a form that made it unusable.

We have yet to fully analyse the results but having this data will underwrite the final quality of service and enable us to address these issues early in the project. The alpha trial has confirmed that we have an architecture that works which enables us to build out a couple of additional prototypes.

Our next stage will focus on delivering our courses, IGCSE English and IGCSE Maths, in a way that can be rendered across the widest range of devices possible while providing a compelling experience for our students. This is a non-trivial task, but NEC has been innovating in the field of distance learning for over 50 years. The OSB project is the latest in a long line of NEC learning innovations and has the potential to give that critical second chance of getting a Level 2 qualification in English and Maths, the two qualifications that open the doors to so many occupations.

Thank-you to those that participated in the alpha trial!

For more information about NEC, visit our website to learn more about the work we do, or to browse our wide range of flexible distance learning courses. You can keep up to date with all the latest news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Top tips from our expert tutors on how to prepare for your exams


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It’s coming up to Easter, and for learners studying general education courses the summer exam season is starting to loom. Here at NEC we thought it would be a good time to put together some revision tips for those of you who will be sitting exams this summer.

First, a tip from Ros Morpeth, CEO of NEC: “Don’t delay, start today! Beginning your revision early not only reduces the chance of any last-minute rushing, but also means you have a safety net of extra time to allow for any unexpected emergencies that might come up. The more time you give yourself the better your preparation will be, the more confidence you will have in the exam, and the higher likelihood that you will do well.”

Here are some of the excellent tips our subject tutors have shared to help you make the most of your study time in the run-up to summer:
“Review the contents of your textbooks so that you have an overview of the course. Do the same with each specific topic that you have selected for revision. Follow your own selection of topics covered in the textbooks. Examine one topic at a time and digest it. Look where the author has highlighted points.”
– Phillip, Law and Government and Politics.

“Marks are awarded in the exam for the correct use of terminology so make sure that you understand the key terms listed at the end of each topic.”
– Alison, Geography and Environmental Studies.

“Mathematics students should remember ABC:
A stands for Answer. Make sure that your answers are supported by working.
B stands for biro. Write your answers in dark ink and NOT in pencil.
C stands for calculator. Before entering the exam room, make sure that your calculator is on the right mode. (A quick check is sin 30 and the display should be 0.5 exactly.)”
– Graham, Maths.

“Remember the ‘Five Times Rule’: until you have gone over something five times you are not guaranteed to remember it!”
– Janet, Biology.

“Do something active - do more than just reading through the course material and your notes. Write down the main points of a topic, then try to do it without looking at your notes. Check you have done it correctly; if not, do it again until you can get it all right from memory. Some students find it useful to record themselves reading their notes out loud, then listening to them in the car, gym, doing housework, etc.”
– Josie, Biology.

“My main points are, to read the question carefully and underline the key words like,
'How' meaning how does the writer use language to create meaning.
'Compare' which also means discuss the similarities and differences.
'Explain' meaning to discuss the effect on the reader without narrating the story.”
– Valerie, Classical Civilisation, English and Sociology.

“While it is not subject specific I do think that students need to be reminded that rest, relaxation and practising calm breathing techniques are very important. Doing deep breathing exercises helps the blood flow round the system more efficiently… and the brain works better.”
– Ruth, Philosophy.

“My advice is to revise in manageable bite-size chunks. Summarise revision using bullet points or mind maps or even cartoons. Do not revise in isolation - be aware of the type of questions you might be asked so that there is focus and organisation to your revision. In addition, allow time nearer the exams for short term revision to ensure thorough knowledge and understanding - in other words to go over what you originally revised.”
– Steve, History.

“Two fairly obvious ones is get some past papers and maybe request your tutor to mark a past paper for you. Divide the marks available by the time available and try to allocate your time per question accordingly.”
– Dave, Accounting and Business Studies.

“Make sure you have completed all the assignments before you sit your exams. In this way you will have covered all the work you are likely to see in the exam. Practice by downloading some old exam papers off the web. Usually they are free and answers are provided.
The night before your exam stop revising at 8 pm, have a warm drink and a chocolate biscuit, watch Corrie and go to bed!”
– Alan, Maths.

Want to find out more about our tutors or their subjects? Visit our website to learn all about NEC and our work, and to browse our full range of flexible distance learning courses. You can keep up with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Learning rocks for Labour candidate Billy Lunn



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Indie rock and politics are the two public faces of Hertfordshire-born Billy Lunn.  In between writing and recording a new album for his band The Subways, Billy is out and about in his adopted home town of Ware, meeting voters in preparation for next year’s town council elections.  What Billy’s audiences and voters don’t see, though, is his passion for English literature and language.  His heart is set on studying English or linguistics at university in two years’ time – quite a change from the highs of the last 10 years, playing Glastonbury and appearing on the David Letterman show in the US.

By his own admission, Billy hasn’t always been an academic high achiever: he left school  at 16 with ‘very middling GCSEs’ and formed The Subways soon afterwards with his brother and then girlfriend.  That’s all changed since he returned to learning in his mid ‘20s, convinced that he had missed out on education earlier in his life.  First he took an access course at his local further education college and ‘absolutely loved it’.  Just two years later, his work is of ‘A’ level standard, rapid progress he attributes to NEC.

There are often hours of travelling and waiting around with the band, time that Billy thought he could put to good use learning something new. He first heard about NEC through fellow Labour Party member Tony Dodds, who is also an NEC Trustee, and signed up for an AS level  in English language and literature. The exams are in the summer and he plans to sit the ‘A’ level next year.

Billy says: ‘I realised straight away that NEC offered everything I was looking for – impressive course materials, structured feedback on assignments and a personal tutor. Distance learning is all about self-discipline. You have to put time into planning your learning and to want to be productive, but I’ve always prided myself on my organisation and determination. Studying and touring with the band has been hard work, but really rewarding.’

Learning is infectious, at least in Billy’s case. His wife is studying for a creative arts degree at the University of Hertfordshire.  Friends and members of his family are so proud of what he’s achieved that some of them are thinking about doing a course themselves.  For Billy, there’s plenty to look forward to: exams in May and a new album later this year and an election and ‘A’ levels next year.

If Billy’s story has inspired you to fit learning into your own life, you can find out more about NEC and the wide range of flexible distance learning courses we offer at our website. You can keep up with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.