Outlines Are Not All Equal

A short essay is not the same as a long essay. A presentation is different too. So is a dissertation.

That means your preparations need to vary. How you approach each assignment is important.

Outlines are a great way to build an idea of what you want to produce. Here are some brief notes on how your outlines could differ, depending on which type of coursework you are working on.

(photo by anselm23)

Post-It Outline. One way to prepare that essay. (photo by anselm23)

Short essay

Start with bullet points of the major arguments you wish to make. If you have too many ideas, either condense them into themes or brutally remove all but the very best. Your main tasks are a clear focus and awareness of key points.

Be aware of brevity needed in such a short space and plan accordingly. There’s no need to outline with the aim to cover every possible base. Highlight your most important areas with one or two clear examples.

Work from there and continue working concisely and to the point. When you’re getting too detailed, it’s time to scale back.

Long essay

This essay contains more room to explore. Most essays tend to come under the ‘long’ description, so stay focused. It’s easy to ramble and move away from the question under discussion.

An outline allows you to stay on track and on message.

Ensure each bullet point you make is related to addressing the question. At each stage of the outlining, refer back to the question.

For every major argument you wish to tackle, give sub-headings that relate to proof, examples, counter-arguments (and how you’re dealing with them), quotations and references, and key descriptions of topics and themes.


You’re dealing with more than text here. You’ve got your voice, use of technology and slides, interacting with an audience, and so on.

In terms of outline, you need to prepare for all these things. That means a sharp eye on admin and peripheral issues. Your initial outline must cover use of equipment, size and layout of room, handouts, software use, Internet availability, and so on. While none of this is about your actual subject, it’s all relevant to the way you’re conducting yourself. Best assess the situation early, rather than five minutes before you’re due on stage!

As for content, think like you should a short essay. Your main aim is usually to highlight major arguments and workings as effectively as possible. Alternatively, you might be discussing an experiment or some findings you’ve made. All these examples require bold points and clear detail.

If you need a vague outline to play with, pick a start, middle and ending. In other words, introduce, elaborate (tell stories), and conclude. You may also like to quote something in keeping with your presentation at the beginning in order to set the scene.


Assuming you have agreed a dissertation topic, the most important initial outline is the structure. In what order will you present the themes and arguments? Work out the flow of the dissertation before anything else. Each part should follow on from what has come beforehand.

Spend considerable time outlining for your dissertation. It’s worthy of a post in itself, because a dissertation outline is far more detailed than that of a single essay.

Thankfully, in finding a topic, you should have developed some form of basic outline as part of the process.

Practical work & experiments

First off, develop a plan of action and a rough order of play. What needs doing, how should you prepare, and why are you doing this?

Next, explain what comes afterwards and what you’re going to do with your results and outcomes. If you are being assessed for a written element of this work, make another outline plan for that subsequent assignment.

Seminars & weekly reading

Advance outlines work for some students. Think of it like a timetable without rigid times. The timetabling aspect can come later. What matters in your outline is getting to grips with what you want to know at the end of your week, the books and papers you have earmarked, the questions you want to cover before, during and after seminar sessions, and any problems you may encounter.

You may have a better way to prepare for your regular work. If so, great. If not, see if an outline helps get you closer to the work at hand.

For some, a list is enough. For others, a strict timetable is required. Whatever the case, you can outline anything, so give it a go no matter how small your project is.

Are you a keen outliner? Share your outlining tips in the comments below.

Digital Interactions and the Ways We Perceive Them As Humans

[Martin’s note: A slightly different post today. This is my submission for #edcmooc, a University of Edinburgh MOOC running via Coursera. It’s a wordy ramble about digital interactions and being human. If you are interested in that type of thing, I hope you enjoy it.]

Technology (photo by iMaturestudent - Andy Mitchell)

Technology (photo by iMaturestudent – Andy Mitchell) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Subjectivity blurs. Without definitive meaning, terms like utopia and dystopia are not separable and boundaries between the human and the posthuman are not clear.

My life is shaped through the interactions that take place and my interpretations of those interactions. Digital interactions extend beyond the physical and material, yet have room for creating crossover, as demonstrated in Avatar Days.

Avatar Days highlights online characters walking around a real world, yet they do not interact with the people around them. Even waiting in line in a supermarket queue, the film does not show a transaction at the counter. Despite appearing to the outside world, the avatars looks noticeably distant and detached. What is real is unreal and vice versa.

Does this make us different as humans? And at what point do these changes allow posthumanism to exist, if not already?

I suggest that technology alters behaviours in communication more than it alters the people communicating. Learning itself hasn’t evolved into something unrecognisable, but the methods available to us to facilitate that learning have grown. What was once only possible face to face is now possible with no other living person present, or with other people participating all over the world at the same time. People must still analyse the detail, find enthusiasm to get the most out of the resources, and have reason (and the choice) to be a part of something.

Transmitting a message from one side of the world to the other has become faster, easier, more accessible, and ‘closer to the real thing’ than ever before. Break it down and it’s still transmitting a message. Conversation is still conversation. Information is still information.

Conversations and information transmit with speed and ease, reaching a growing number of people. Before publishing this artefact, I saw David Hopkins’ submission for #edcmooc. His presentation linked to a video that is rather fitting.

Isaac Asimov’s vision is playing out now. This is made possible by technology, yet it happens through our actions, interactions, and collaborations. Creative links to what has been can help create what is to come.

The Harlem Shake meme gripped the attention–and creativity–of many people around the world in a short space of time. Within days, thousands of videos were being posted online. Each video an artefact. I considered a few alternative versions in the hope that other people had already created them:

The videos existed. Other people had experienced similar thoughts to my own and I was able to see this using a single search term for each in YouTube.

Digital cultures and interactions start to show–almost in realtime–that we can get along together, create together, converse together, and experience so many things as a collective. By the same token, when overlap doesn’t appear, tensions are such that our own reality finds it difficult to make sense of another person’s reality.

Jonathan Haidt describes this in The Righteous Mind:

“Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or running a society.” [p.110]

Under Haidt’s scenario, out goes common sense, truth, and a sense of right and wrong. However, their removal is practically impossible in our own sense of reality and in the collective (and divisive) nature of the world.

If we are so different amongst the similarity, where does being human end and posthuman begin? Indeed, at what point does a transhuman condition exist? If transhumanism is an ongoing project, when did it begin and who decided?

Don Tapscott ponders the link between human and computer:

“I have written often about today’s smartphones evolving into digital co-pilots, our constant companions that will help us get through the day. [Ray] Kurzweil sees such devices shrinking to microscopic size and residing within our bodies. Will we have tiny computers in our bloodstream, ever alert for something amiss? These devices will be our links to what is now called the cloud, the vast computing power of the Googles, the Amazons, the Apples and the IBMs of the world.”

Would these devices–inside the body–achieve posthuman wonders, and how do they compare to medical advances of the past, such as radiology, keyhole surgery, and many different drugs? The Transhumanist Declaration states, “Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future”. But what of the past?

The possibilities here are theories and philosophies, despite the transhumanist desire to introduce a practical angle. They are subjective because the focus is on concepts, not facts. When answers are not forthcoming, we are left either to ask more questions or to fill in the gaps with our own answers.

Michael Stevens, of VSauce, says that “we are all alone in our minds” [at 2min 9sec].

Contradictions are at play. Are we connected or alone? How about connected *and* alone? A binary view is unsustainable. Similarly, the future will be neither utopic or dystopic. Utopian and dystopian narratives, on the other hand, will likely live on, because text is powerful. The imagination can open doors to characters and actions that we may never see with our own eyes. Does this make sense? How real is a memory? If our memories could be captured and transferred to another being, how real is any of it?

The struggle to decide what is real will never go away because we cannot know anything beyond our own self. Adding to the confusion, perceptions of self are liable to change with every new experience. The tendency toward narrative explanations of what we encounter in life skews reality anyway. My reality is mine alone. Your reality is foreign, no matter how much we seem to agree. Empathy can enhance the simulation, but does not make it real.

Our individual minds cannot penetrate another, yet control over others is apparent at the same time. Theory of mind has, by definition, not reached reality. Correspondingly, perceptions of the material do not give way to the digital, even though technology brings greater choice and ease over (attempts at) personal exchanges. It is our sentience that stops the binary of one thing over another. Be it utopia and dystopia, human and posthuman, or otherwise. Subjectivity blurs.

How To Make the Most of YOUR Student Experience

Q: What is ‘the student experience’?
A: It’s what you make it!

This week, I held a workshop at the University of Glamorgan about ‘the student experience’.

I’ve mentioned Glamorgan in the past for their brilliant Glam Insight, where students write about their time at the university and their experiences while they study.

The students make clear how different their lives are, how varied their experiences are, and how wide-ranging their opportunities are.

In the workshop, I asked four questions. They are covered in the presentation below. But if I could sum things up as briefly as possible, here’s what I’d say in a nutshell:

  1. What IS ‘the student experience’?
    Nothing in particular. Reclaim it as your own. Ask what you want and why you want it.
  2. What should young people consider when applying?
    The bigger picture first, and only then the fact that they would like to live in nice halls.
  3. Why do students leave?
    Not enough subject research and not enough knowledge of what’s on offer.
  4. How do students make ‘the student experience’ work for them?
    Be selfish, open up to change, and be prepared to fail.

Question 4 is the big one here. If you want to skip the Prezi presentation itself and get straight to the good stuff in the archives, I’ve got the top 10 tips on making the most of your experience underneath.

“The Student Experience” on Prezi

How do you make the most of
‘the student experience’? 10 Tips

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others. The Student Experience is YOUR experience.
  2. Be involved!
  3. Seek out new opportunities and experiences rather than waiting for them to come to you.
  4. Embrace failure.
  5. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, keep going.
  6. Take your experience seriously, even when you’re having fun.
  7. Enjoy the benefits, but do remember you can have too much of a good thing…
  8. Embrace the unknown. Prepare for the unknown. But don’t fear the unknown.
  9. Look beyond employability. Look beyond the piece of paper you get at the end of those years.
  10. Focus more on yourself, less on the degree. “Your degree isn’t the source of awesome. You are.”

Story Time

Imagine someone asks you how to do something you’re brilliant at.  Obviously, you know how to respond.  After all, it’s something you’re brilliant at.

You could just give the answer.  That would make sense.

Instead, you tell a story.  You explain how you started learning to be brilliant years ago.  Your humble beginnings would have never led you to expect things turning out the way they did.  You throw in a joke about the biggest decision you had to make as you were developing your skill.

In the end, you don’t explicitly answer the question.  But the person who asked you walks away happier than they would be had you simply stated the answer.

Storytelling is powerful.

original photo by Sepulture

original photo by Sepulture

I’ve read countless times how good writing comes through telling stories and I love telling stories when I’m with others.

I know I don’t tell enough stories when I write here, so I must try harder. Good writing comes through telling stories because you’re expressing as opposed to explaining.  The expression does enough explaining and it’s memorable too.

Stefan at Study Successful posted an awesome piece on answering another person’s question with a story.  A story can work so much better than an answer. He explains:

“When you are giving the answer, you won’t help those people. You will help them right now, but you won’t help them in the long term. In about two weeks, they will come to you again, with the same type of question. You can’t answer the same question to the same people over and over again, there needs to be a long term solution. So, tell a story instead.”

This is a great point.  A book of facts is just a book of facts.  Hard to remember, boring, lifeless.

Shape those facts inside an anecdote and the information is suddenly memorable, exciting, alive.

How about incorporating a story in a presentation?  As you see, a bit of entertaining academia can go a long way!

Not every question needs a tale in reply. However, for someone to relate fully to a problem, a story works wonders.  You help out when you offer information, but you inspire when you give that information a reference point to associate with.