Course finished

After an action-packed couple of months, the first presentation of Statistics: Unlocking the World of data is over. Thank you to everyone who took part in the course, building up a community of over 12,000 learners looking to improve their knowledge and understanding of statistics.

The feedback we’ve had so far has been positive, but we’ve got plenty to work on before we run the course again. Watch this space to find out when the new, improved Statistics: Unlocking the World of Data will be launched!

We’re live!

It’s official, Statistics: Unlocking the World of Data is live! Over the next six weeks, over 7000 learners from over 160 countries will be joining us on a journey into the heart of statistics, the discipline that allows us to analyse and interpret the data that surrounds us.

This week on the course, we will be focusing on ways of presenting and summarising data, so that we can better understand it.

Still not signed up? It’s definitely not too late! Just click here!


Statistics is full of paradoxes and counter-intuitive results. This, combined with complicated formulae and formal notation, can make statistics seem unduly confusing and difficult. Our aim in Statistics: Unlocking the World of Data is to bypass some of these formalities and give you an intuitive and deep understanding of this fascinating subject.

Throughout the course, we’ll give you opportunities to discuss ideas and problems with others on the course, both within the edX platform and on social media, but we will also be embedding interactive applets throughout the course. These applets, created using GeoGebra, will allow you to engage with the course content, and reach a full understanding of the topics presented.


An applet to see how the ‘shape’ of a data set affects the different types of average value

These easy-to-use applets will allow you to play around with graphs and charts, undertake experiments, look deeper into paradoxes, and get to grips with statistical testing. Some of our favourites so far are our ‘duck catcher’ app where you can try out the capture-recapture method for yourself, and an app allowing you to see the likelihood of false positives and false negatives in a medical test.

It’s just over a month until the launch of Statistics: Unlocking the World of Data – don’t forget to enrol now!

Video editing

If you’ve ever had to watch 3 hours of yourself on film, then you might understand how excruciating the past few weeks has been for us – it’s video editing time! Each video has to be checked, not just for sound and video quality, but also for factual correctness (even experts make mistakes sometimes), consistency, and to make sure we’re communicating the points we need to communicate.


Sometimes bits of footage that shouldn’t be there sneak their way into the rough edits…


So what now? Rough edits watched, we next have to produce any images, diagrams and graphs that need adding into the videos. Tim, our fantastic cameraman and editor, will make any changes needed, and after a final sign-off the videos will be sent off for subtitling. The subtitled videos will be publicly available, so watch this space for a sneak preview of the course videos! And don’t forget to sign up if you haven’t already!

Enrol now!

After months of hard work towards the creation of Statistics: Unlocking the World of Data, we have reached a very exciting milestone – enrolment is open for the course! Visit our page on the EdX site and sign up here.

So what does that mean for the team? A well-earned rest? Not quite! Although our filming is finished, we still have final edits to make, and the rest of the course content still needs to be shaped from the many ideas, activities and resources we’ve accumulated over the past 9 months.

We’re coming soon…

It’s official… we’re coming soon!

Tonight we attended a celebration evening for the University’s central MOOCs team. It’s been four years since the University of Edinburgh delivered its first online courses. Now, the University has created 35 MOOCs, reaching an audience of more that 2.5 million, in all but 8 countries in the world, and involving over 100 members of staff.

For us, the occasion also marked a special celebration, as it was the first time we saw our course advert in print. It won’t be long before our course landing page is set up on the EdX site, and you can sign up to take part!

Incidentally, the celebration was held in the University’s Playfair Library, which is named after its architect: William Henry Playfair, nephew of William Playfair who pioneered the visual representation of data.

Building a course

Filming is over, and we’re now on to the ‘course build’ phase. Although our videos will form the skeleton of the course, we still need to integrate them with written explanations, examples, activities and problem sets. We have a huge amount of work ahead still if we are to make this course successful, from structuring content and planning activities to writing text and creating graphics and interactive applets. Luckily EdX makes compiling content as easy as possible for us.


The EdX Studio

We manage and build our course through EdX Studio, the editing side of the EdX platform. Studio has a very clean interface, and a comprehensive but easy-to-use instruction manual. It’s very easy to add simple quiz questions, written content and images, and if we want to add anything more complex we can edit the html or embed iframes. This will be particularly useful when we come to embedding applets into the course.

Although EdX make things as easy as possible for us when it comes to building our course, we’re still finding it very slow work to add content. There’s far more to creating content than we first thought. It’s one thing to decide that we want an example to demonstrate a certain concept, but another thing to choose a topic, find a suitable open access data set (or simulate one), write the text, produce images, design and create applets, ensure accessibility requirements are met, design quiz questions that test the correct knowledge, and check everything! Fingers crossed things will speed up with practice.

Gravitational waves – a statistical breakthrough?

Recently, headlines were made with the discovery of gravitational waves – ripples in space and time that were predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity. Our colleague Jonathan Gair, who works jointly with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Mathematics and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland, was part of the team that made this historic breakthrough. Today Mairi interviewed Jonathan about his involvement in the project.


Although gravitational waves belong well and truly in physics, it was statistics that allowed their existence to be confirmed. Gravitational waves are detected using what’s called a laser interferometer. When a reading is detected, the big question is whether a genuine gravitational wave has been detected, or whether the reading is a false alarm caused by background noise. In order to find out, the team had to perform what’s called a statistical hypothesis test.

To do this, the team first needed to know what kind of readings are typical in background noise. Of course, most background noise will give relatively small readings, and it’s rare that background noise would cause a large reading. However, for the team to be certain that their reading was a genuine gravitational wave, they had to take into account even extremely rare high background noise readings. In fact, they needed to ensure that the chance that their reading was a false alarm was less than a one in a billion chance.

In order to check this, the team used 20,000 computers, each running for 100 days, to simulate the equivalent of 200,000 years worth of background noise data. They found that in all of this data, there was no reading anywhere near as high as the reading they detected, and so they were able to conclude that the chance of their reading being a false alarm was far less than one in a billion. This led to the confirmation that gravitational waves exist.

Watch our interview with Jonathan and find out more about the power of statistical testing in Week 6 of the course!

Hidden populations

We’re just home from a long day filming at the beach. Aside from a seagull-poop incident and several drippy ice creams, the day was a great success. One of our main aims was to interview Ruth about her research as Thomas Bayes’ Chair of Statistics.

Ruth uses what’s called the capture-recapture method to estimate the sizes of populations. As an example, we looked at a population of rubber ducks in a paddling pool. How many were there? Well in practice, we could have just counted them, but with real life ducks that wouldn’t be so easy, as they might swim around, and we might not be able to see them all at once. This is where the capture-recapture method comes in handy.


Assisted by Ruth’s son Alex, we took a sample of ducks from the paddling pool, and marked them with crosses, before replacing them in the pool. We then took a second sample of ducks. By comparing the number of ducks that were seen both times, only the first time, or only the second time, we can estimate the number that we didn’t see at all, and hence the total number of ducks.

Alex Ducks.png

This simple method is used in practice to estimate the size of so-called ‘hidden populations’ – populations that can’t easily be counted. Such populations could be groups of animals, but they could also be modern-day slaves, illegal immigrants, or tax-evaders.

Ruth explains a lot more about the capture-recapture method and how she uses it in her research in Week 3 of the course. She was also invited to speak about the method by the London Mathematical Society as part of their 2015 Public Lecture series, and you can watch the video here.

… And action!

Our first day of filming arrived today and, being blessed with a rare sunny and still day, we headed out into The Meadows, a large grassy common to the south of the central university campus.

We began our filming with a video explaining what statistics is and how we do it. Mairi and Ruth had been up late the night before making final edits to the script, which was promptly thrown out of the window as we realised how hard it is to actually stick to a script. Luckily, our cameraman, Tim Askew, is very patient, and also knows a lot of tricks for making the filming easier for us.


After filming in The Meadows, Ruth returned to work and Mairi and Tim headed off into the city centre to film the ‘About Video’ – the video that will appear on the course homepage to tell people all about the course and why they should do it. We took one recording in the middle of Princes Street, but also filmed a ‘safe’ version back in The Meadows just in case there is too much background noise in the Princes Street version.

All in all, it was a reasonably short but exhausting day. We can tell already that the scripting and filming will be tough, but the videos form such an important part of the course that we have to give it our absolute best!