Thursday, December 02, 2010

Root and Fruit

I love it when ideas take root and bear fruit.

A history teacher I work with ran with my suggestion to, "have students experience history, not just read about it." In his WWI-on-the-home-front unit, he had his students create a weekly menu, and list out the ingredients.

Then he posted the ration points available, based on a wartime document from a typical midwestern town one week in March, 1943. Flying eyebrows and colorful language ensued. One group had decided to keep chickens in the yard; no points spent on eggs or chicken. That prompted a family-lore recollection: During the war, the family kept chickens on the vacant lot next door. Each day, the hens were lifted. If there was an egg, it went into a pocket. If there wasn't an egg, the bird got its neck wrung and went into a basket. Produce, or else - there's a war on, buddy!

Another group blew two months' worth of points for a single week's menu. "Enjoy the feast, because you're going to be mighty hungry in a couple of weeks."

Student: "How come there are no points for bread?" Instructor: "There are points for flour. You can bake bread."

Bottom line: They "got it."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mbele Tse’ Tse’aar - The African Wise Man

Background: This Christmas, my church will donate mosquito netting to a village in Africa to help prevent malaria. The worship coordinator decided that an African theme to the service would be nice. She wanted to have the children come up and be told an African Christmas story. The problem is, of course, that the Christmas story isn't African. But there is a lgendary tie-in to Africa....
Mbele Tse’ Tse’aar - The African Wise Man

Many, many years ago, in the east of the vast land that is now called Africa, there was a great kingdom called Ethiopia. Their rulers were noble and wise, and they built great cities. The stories were told of how Tse’ba, an ancient Queen of Ethiopia, had won the heart of the great King Sh’lomo of Yi’isra’al, far to the north. Egypt, the glory of her Pharaohs and pyramids long past, bowed to the East African Kings. The Romans, who had conquered so much of the Known World, left Ethiopia alone. The people of Ethiopia lived in plenty and peace.

It was into this world that Mbele Tse’ Tse’aar was born. From an early age, Mbele was taught how the heavens direct the hands of men, telling them when to plant, when to expect the rains, when to harvest. He learned how the stars and moon wheel in the great dome of the sky, how the Wandering Stars (the ones the Greeks called "planets") move among the constellations, and how to use their motions to predict the change of seasons. He also learned to watch for signs and portents, unusual happenings in the sky, portents of change.

Mbele grew wise in the ways of his people, earning great honor for his ability to read the stars. A learned man, he knew of the prophecies recorded by the people of Yi’isra’al, whom Queen Tse’ba had adopted as her own. These prophecies foretold the birth of a great King, a King of Kings, who would rule the whole earth. Mbele hoped that he might one day see the heavenly sign of this King’s birth, but he did not really expect to live so long.

One night Mbele was holding his hands up to heavens to measure the distance between the White Wandering Star (the one the Romans called Venus) and the Red Wandering Star (the one the Romans called Mars), when he saw something new!

A faint, fuzzy spot of light had appeared where nothing had been before. Mbele took careful note of its position.

The next night, he looked for the fuzzy light. It had moved! The Wandering Stars were where he expected them to be, but this new, fuzzy star... was not.

The next night the fuzzy star had moved yet again. When day came, Mbele spoke with the elder sky-watchers. Together they consulted the records of their people. Fuzzy stars were rare indeed, sometimes taking on terrifying appearances. And more, they always seemed to appear at times of great change.

Mbele did not sleep well that night, nor for many nights thereafter. The new star continued to move across the heavens in a steady northward path. By the time of the new moon, Mbele had decided that this new star heralded the birth of the Great King predicted by the ancient prophets of Yi’isra’al. He resolved to travel to meet the new king.

At that time, the greatest and most knowledgeable of the sky-watchers lived in the ancient land of Ur, between the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the land where civilization itself began. Mbele arranged a to join a caravan of traders to that distant land, where he hoped to consult with sages even more wise than he. After many weeks’ journey he came to the sun-baked city, built around a tall, stepped tower. At nightfall he climbed the steps and greeted the sky-watchers there, who were taking their measurements of the heavenly bodies, including the new star. They listened with interest as Mbele told of his observations and his travels.

Mbele was chosen to be part of a delegation to travel to Yi’isra’al to greet the new King. The journey by caravan was long. They traveled by night, following the star as it grew into a flaming arrow pointing to the west. They came into the land of Yi’isra’al and sought the King, Chah’rod. Chah’rod was a jealous king. He was alarmed that a new king had been born, and especially that the birth had been announced in the heavens. He inquired of his own wise men where the King was to be born. Consulting the ancient writings, they told Chah’rod that the King was to be born in Beit Le’chem. King Chah’rod asked Mbele and his companions to find the newborn King, and then return and tell him where the child might be found.

Of course you know the rest of the story: The Wise Men found and worshipped the baby Y’Shua, the new-born King, giving him princely gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned by a dream that Chah’rod meant harm to the Child, they returned to Ur by another path.

You might think the story ends there. But decades later, Mbele traveled even farther east, to the land called India - as ancient as Ur, and as learned in the ways of the stars. There he met a man from Yi’isra’al, called To’mas, who told him an amazing tale: How the child Y’shua born in Beit Le’chem many years ago had grown into a great teacher and healer. How he had angered the religious rulers and had been put to death, and how he rose again after three days. To’mas had doubted the story until Y’Shua appeared to him in the flesh.

To’mas carefully explained to Mbele how Y’Shua had fulfilled all the prophecies of the ancient prophets about the King of Kings. He explained to Mbele that if he trusted in Y’Shua, that all his sins would be forgiven and that he would spend eternity in the presence of the Creator of the Heavens. Mbele received this Good News with great joy.

The tales record that Mbele T’se T’aar, later called Balthazar, was baptised by Thomas the Doubter, who brought the Gospel to India.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Where the heck have I been?

On Twitter, mostly (just passed 21,000 posts).
There, I'm talking to nearly 1700 folks. (Not necessarily talking WITH them, mind you...)
Here, I'm mostly talking to myself.
Not that that's a bad thing.
And in my defense, August and September were VERY busy. Still, six posts since the beginning of the year is pretty pathetic. Am I unable to think more than 140 characters at a time?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Refudiation

Some folks want to build a mosque on the 9/11 Ground Zero site. While we're at it, why don't we also:
  • Give the Alamo to La Raza to use as a training center
  • Erect a Shinto shrine to Emperor Hirohito over the U.S.S. Arizona
  • Put up a statue of General Sherman in Atlanta
  • Build a Biergarten at Auschwitz
  • Use the Kabba as the cornerstone for a new Temple on Temple Mount
  • Turn the Dublin General Post Office into a vacation home for the British Crown
  • Build a US Army base at Wounded Knee
What part of insult don't these people understand?

Friday, June 25, 2010

My most popular post, by far

I'm pleased that I keep getting comments on my February 2009 post, "The Upside-Down Pop Quiz". I am curious, though, what route people take to it. Is it turning up in search engines? Under what keywords? Did some influential edublogger link to it? I wonder as I wander...

Monday, May 03, 2010

Here's wishing you a happy voyage home, Dad.

Dad passed away Saturday morning.

Considerate of others to the end, he hung on until I arrived Friday night, (weather delays be damned), and then kindly gave me and my sister all day Saturday and Sunday morning to "do stuff."

Through the wee hours I sat as his bedside reminding him of the good times we had fishing, cooking, camping, Scouting. I chuckled that not a day passed that his voice didn't come out of my mouth. I reassured him that "the kids were alright" and that all would be well. He'd done his job. Several times I looked into his eyes and I know that he saw and heard me. On a couple of occasions as I just sat next to him I looked up and saw him looking at me. I met his gaze and he gave me a slow blink, as if to say, "Ya done good, Aggie."

Around 6:30, his breathing pattern changed. At the suggestion of the nurse I called my sister and held the phone up to his ear. He took a sharp deep breath and closed his eyes. I sang "Anchors Aweigh" to him as he sailed, just as he used to sing me to sleep.

Later, dozing at the hotel, I had a flash of an image: Dad dancing with his beloved Kathleen, his wife late in life, and then with my mother, who passed away decades ago. He was in the prime of life and had that mischievous look in his eyes. Mais oui, he was surrounded by family and friends at the biggest fais do do you ever did see, cher.

Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lost Nation Airport

Remarks delivered at a public hearing before the Lake County Port Authority and the Commissioners of Lake County, regarding this report.

Lost Nation Airport is an irreplaceable part of the business transportation infrastructure of this area. While the study looks at the profit & loss and payroll of the airport itself, it's not clear whether it examined the secondary economic impact - the increase in productivity for local businesses who use the airport. More than 80% of general-aviation flights are business-related, carrying line managers, technicians, and salespeople.

Here's a typical scenario: You're an account manager for a Painesville manufacturer. Eight o'clock Monday you get a call from your customer in Dekalb, IL. He needs you and an engineer on-site as soon as possible. If you drive, you get there at the close of the business day. Work into the night to solve his problem, drive back the next day. You're gone two days and with IRS milage rates, it's a $500 trip.

You could fly commercial. But by the time you drive from Painesville to Hopkins, park, and convince Security that you don't have a bomb in your BVDs, you've missed the last direct flight to Chicago. Your best option connects through Cincinnati. You get to O'Hare at 3:30. By the time you rent a car and drive out to Dekalb, it's the close of business. You don't save any time flying commercial, and the trip costs $1200.

But if you can rent a plane at Lost Nation, you're off the ground by 11:00. You fly direct to the Dekalb Municipal airport. The airlines only serve 250 cities, but there are five thousand local airports across the country. By 2:30 you're solving your customer's problem, instead of cooling your heels with a Cinnabon in Cincinnati. At the close of business, you're wrapping up instead of just arriving. You fly home that evening and you're back at work Tuesday morning. You've saved an entire business day for two key employees, and the cost of the trip is half of what it costs to fly commercial.

Business aviation means business productivity, which means jobs. Now more than ever, the Lake County economy needs the Lake County Airport.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

So now I'm a music reviewer

De-metaling after taking DrummerBoy to a show at Peabody's. Scale the Summit, Devin Townsend, Cynic, and Between the Buried and Me. We were right up front, and I mean RIGHT up FRONT. We used the first moshing to get up to the 2nd row and I braced against the stage for the next three hours. DrummerBoy sat on stage for the last set.

I liked Scale the Summit. Soundscapes of prog-metal. They'll never headline an arena, but in 20 years they'll be co-billed on the Dream Theater reunion tour.

Devin Townsend... imagine Lord Voldemort as a (really talented and REALLY happy) metal singer with a big mourth full of large teeth and a rubber face. Devin loves his job, it really shows. During one song he yelled, "I WANNA SEE A MOOOSSHH PIIIT FROM THE FROOONT TO THE BAAACK!!" then said, "No, just kidding. Group hug." Seems like a really fun guy, and he's got amazing vocal chops. Two octaves plus demonscream, I have to give him the props.

Cynic is psychedelic yoga prog-metal. Yes, really. They had the crowd do a basic yoga stretch mid-set, then played a song to "take you into your mind" and "let you focus on your breathing". Far out, man. Good music, but please lose the Vedic/Zen tutorial voice-over between songs. I do overtly religious music, but only in venues where it's expected (i.e., church, Sunday morning.) I expected them to end the set with "Across the Universe."

BTBAM was... impressive. Incomprehensible, mind you, but very impressive. Baritone screaming alternating with lyrical guitar work. I liked the bluegrass bit they did 2/3 through. That shows confidence. The band members stuck around after to shake hands and be nice.

All in all, it was an interesting evening, and I was very glad to have had the earplugs.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A musing on mathematics and the existence of God

Either humans are capable of understanding everything in the universe or we're not. Given the facts of our fallible, fragile, and finite conciousness and comprehension, "we're not" is far more likely.

Just have a look at the Euler formula: e^ipi+1=0. It's a beautiful mathematical expression that contains all the fundamentals of mathematics: the fundamental constants e, i, pi, 1, and 0; and the fundamental operations addition, multiplication, exponentiation, and equality.

The constants in this elegant equation are all vitally important for describing and understanding reality. One is unity - existence iteself. Zero is nothing, except that it's not really nothing. (I had an interesting discussion a week or so ago with a very smart friend who noted that zero actually carries more semantic meaning than one. In a digital signal, no-voltage can mean Zero, or it can mean Off. Which is which makes a big difference.)

Pi of course is the ratio of the radius of a circle to its circumfrence. E is the natural logarithm, which is useful in all sorts of calculations involving real-world phenomena such as fluid flow. And note that both e and pi are by defintion irrational numbers - in any base number system (except base e or base pi), their decimals repeat *infinitely*.

And then there's i, which again is very useful for describing real-world phenomena, especially fractals, which shows the similarity between the jaggedness of the cost of Norway as seen from space, and the jaggedness of a pebble in a fjord when seen under a microscope. i is defined as the square root of negative one, a number that cannot exist in the real world. It's called "the *imaginary* number."

So... if the infinite, the irrational and the imaginary are so valuable in describing the reality that we *can* understand, why is it so difficult for people to accept the existence of an infinite, trancendent, and unseen God that we *cannot* understand?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bleg for the Big Apple

My son has the chance to go to New York City with his Honors Social Studies class.

To raise the $500 he needs, he's selling candy bars for $1 each. (We buy them wholesale, he makes about .50 on each one.)

If you'd like to buy a few, please click the PayPal button and send me your sweet tooth preferences and shipping info. (We get charged a 3% fee for credit card payments.)

Thanks in advance for your support!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An AUP for kids

For your consideration...

-------------------------

Parent-child agreement regarding the use of electronic communications devices and services



A. Definitions



1. The terms us, we, and our refer to the parents.

2. The terms you and yours refer to the minor (under age 18) child or children.
3. The term electronic communications devices and services (ECDS) is to be interpreted as broadly and inclusively as possible, including (but not limited to) laptop, computer, desktop, netbook, iPhone, iPod, cellphone, mobile device, internet, web, web-based service, website, online, social networking site, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, email, IM, AIM, SMS, texting,IRC, chat, etc.
4. The term data is to be interpreted as broadly and inclusively as possible, including (but not limited to) documents, files, MP3s, photos, pictures, movies, videos, texts, messages, posts, programs, applications, plugins, etc.

B. Assumptions

1. We love you and want the best for you, now and in the future.

2. We expect the best from you, now and in the future.
3. You're a Good Kid and worthy of our trust.
4. We recognize that the 21st century is a different place than the age in which we grew up, and that the world you will inhabit as an adult is one that we can scarcely imagine. We have the responsibility to prepare you for that world. We hope that you can see what a daunting task that is for us.
5. The fluent and correct use of ECDS is an important skill for the 21st century. In learning these skills, you will make mistakes. Our job is to help you learn from them.
6. The digital footprint you create is global and permanent. You can expect potential dates, friends, coworkers, employers, and customers to look you up online.
7. As your parents, we are legally responsible for you and for your actions.
8. The application of law as regards ECDS is still evolving. Teenagers have faced lifelong branding as felony sex offenders for sending racy cellphone pictures to their friends. Others have been sued for downloading music.
9. As your parents, we have the legal authority and responsibility to impose appropriate discipline for misuse of privileges.
10. We have a legal and moral responsibility to notify the appropriate authorities if we have knowledge that a minor is (or might be) in danger.
11. You have no expectation of privacy as regards the use of ECDS. We have the right to access your websites, hard drive, cellphone, iPod, etc. at any time.
12. Your access to ECDS is a privilege and not an entitlement, and may be revoked by us in part or in whole at any time, for any reason, without recourse by you.

C. Terms

In order to have continued access to ECDS while a minor child living at home, you agree to:

1. Provide us with a correct and complete list of all websites, services, subscriptions, devices, etc, together with username and password for each
2. Keep that list updated in a timely fashion.
3. Remove data that we deem inappropriate.
4. Cancel memberships or subscriptions that we deem inappropriate.

For our part, we agree to:

1. Not eavesdrop unreasonably on your conversations with your friends.
2. Not reveal personal confidences unless a person's safety is in danger. (See B.10.)
3. Not post under your name without clearly identifying ourselves as your parents posting under your ID.
4. Not remove material posted by you without notifying you.
5. Not permanently cancel, revoke, or delete accounts or data without your agreement, unless we deem it necessary to protect you.
6. To listen to your reasonable arguments regarding our decisions and actions.

----------------------

Now, I think this is a pretty reasonable agreement. When I proposed this to my teenage son, he protested that that this would give us access to his friends' Facebook information that they had agreed to reveal to him, but not to us.

Interesting argument.

What's your take? (I have my own opinion, but I'll reserve it pending comments.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

The "New Normal"?

This was originally posted to an email list of educators who are ruminating on the future of educational technology in the light of Blackboard's acquisition of ANGEL.
Riffing on Neil's #5 (you only make one major change like this in your career / no one ever got fired for choosing IBM) and Joe's note re long-term company viability....
The comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" had a story arc (still ongoing) involving a character who developed terminal cancer. When she entered hospice, she remarked to her husband, "So... this is the 'new normal'."
"New Normal"...hmm.
I'm creaky enough to remember a startup company (a spinoff of the implosion of Control Data) that marketed a cool little CBT authoring application for the Mac called "Course of Action." For developers of interactive multimedia computer-based instruction, Authorware was *not* the greatest thing since sliced bread.
It beat sliced bread hands-down.
Partly as a result, Authorware was soon purchased by Macromind, Inc. (a larger company that had a world-beating animation program for the Macintosh called Director); the merged company being called Macromedia. Macromedia was HUGE. They OWNED the market for interactive multimedia.
Then Tim Berners-Lee and a few friends came up with HTML and HTTP.
Authorware and Director did not do well over HTTP.
Anyone here still use Director or Authorware?
Now, most of us are used to the idea that Things Change. We're pretty much okay with that, and we're pretty good at explaining changes - that's why we went into this business, right? (Okay, it's why *I* went into this business. YMMV.)
But we went into this gig expecting the changes to be incremental, not fundamental. We did NOT expect the world to turn upside-down every few years (Howard Rheingold and John Perry Barlow excepted).
But look what's happened:
The World Wide Web
cellphones
broadband
iPods
wikis
blogs
VOIP
RSS
YouTube
iPhone
UStream
Twitter
Skype
Wordle
et cetera, et cetera, in saecula saeculorum, ad confusium eterna...
Stop.
Take a deep cleansing breath.
Nothing has changed. Nothing (really important) will change.
Really. People are still people. We all have the same basic physiology and psychology as the ancient Greeks. We all have the same basic hopes, fears, and aspirations. Our tools are different than those of our forebears. But like all tools, they're just tools. They let us do some things (affordances) and don't let us do other things (constraints). But regardless, they are merely tools. It's what we do with them that matters.
The tools we use for learning still let us:
* Examine and explore content,
* Communicate and collaborate, and
* Assess and report our understanding.
We need to remember that the differences betwen tools we used a few decades ago, and the tools we use now, are superficial. We (and
faculty and students) need to focus on the processes of teaching and learning.
But as we know, people tend to have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.
So how do we get the folks we support to stop panicking over the beetles in the bark, and lift their heads up above the forest canopy to note that the sun still rises in the east?
As I see it, that's the real challenge.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An observation about the Maersk Alamaba incident

Reports indicate that the Navy did not act immediately against the pirates - even when the boat containing FBI negotiators was fired upon - because President Obama had made it clear that only a "peaceful resolution" to the incident was acceptable. He later amended that to indicate that deadly force could be used if the Captain's life appeared to be in imminent danger.

The way the situation ended should make it clear that the U.S. Navy does not deliver ransom to hostage-holding pirates unless it is authorized by the President.

But when so authorized, the Navy delivers it quickly: At 2,900 feet per second.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Business Aviation gets the JetBlues

Small commercial carrier JetBlue jumped on the "Flying CEO" zeitgeist with a series of clever YouTube ads that poke fun at the image of CEOs who don't want to mingle with the hoi polloi. You can see them here, along with the unamused reaction of one self-decribed flying CEO.

The alphabet groups that promote business aviation seem to be taking a dim view of the ads. That's an entirely understandable, perfectly predictable response.

And it's dead wrong.

It perpetuates the popular image of CEOs as whiny rich men who are only interested in their money and their toys, with the business aviation industry being the chief toymakers.

Might I suggest something such as the following:

Scene - outdoors, general aviation airport. Middle-aged man in suit (carrying jacket, tie loosened) is walking across tarmac to an airplane, speaking to camera.

"Hi. I'm a corporate CEO. That means I make decisions every day that affect the people who work for my company. If I make a bad decision, they suffer the consequences. So, I try to make smart decisions - and wasting time is not a smart decision."

*looks directly at camera*
"That's why I don't fly on JetBlue."

*gestures at aircraft behind him*
"This little airplane gets me into more than five thousand small airports across the country. That's where my customers and suppliers are - nowhere close to the big airline hubs. And when I need to get someplace right away, I don't have to wait around for the next available flight. As a matter of fact, a customer in another state called me early this morning with an urgent problem. If I had to fly commercial, I'd be lucky to get there before noon, and really lucky to get home in time to put my kids to bed tonight. Most of my day would be wasted at the airport. But with this business tool, I can see my customer this morning, and be back in the office this afternoon. That's a smart decision."

*boards steps, looks back at camera, shrugs*

"I get to keep my shoes on, too."

Hat Tip Benet Wilson, via Twitter

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Links at LinkedIn leave me a little sad

I recently realized that the professional SN site LinkedIn has discussion threads.

So today I was looking at this discussion about this article, and in the course of the discussion someone asked about this study, which she described as having "debunked reading and math software."

Now, five years of my career was spent making reading and math software for schools and para-schools. Really good reading and math software. Software we worked extremely hard on. How hard? In the project plans, I budgeted forty-five minutes for each multiple-choice question. Why so much time? Well, each individual incorrect answer choice was designed to tease out a specific misunderstanding of the topic at hand. Further, each incorrect answer choice was specifically remediated in the wrong-answer-feedback, without giving away the correct answer. After being written (a tough job in its own right) the question text had to be tagged, coded, compiled and tested. 45 minutes each.

We also developed an umbrella-sort mechanism using the magic of Regular Expression text-string comparison to do a reaonable job of analyzing free-entry text responses, going far beyond the typical exact-match of text-entry items. (Did I mention this was done on DOS on a 386 CPU, not using semantic cloud computing or neural networks?)

As I said, really good educational software, not just PDFs of worksheets or arcade-game drill-n-kill exercises.



So when I read that some study had supposedly "debunked reading and math software" my hackles stirred enough to send me to read the executive summary of the study. I read a lot of educational research. Not counting the journals I read tyrying to keep up in my field, I'm a reviewer for an international journal of education technology, and over the past several years I've reviewed more than fifty articles submitted for publication. SO I think I'm at least competent to read a piece of research and tell whether its any good.

The ED study is pretty good, though it has some major limitations, which the authors themselves note. It certainly does not "debunk" educational software.

Here's what I wrote in reply:

"Debunking" is rather a strong, and IMO inappropriate word. At worst, the survey reports no significant difference in learning outcomes. That's not necessarily a bad thing. As it happens I also have open on my desktop the site http://nosignificantdiffernce.org , which provides a meta-analysis of hundreds of comparative-media studies. The bottom line is that comparative media studies *usually* report no significant difference in outcomes.

And why should that be surprising? If Medium A and Medium B are both *designed to help learners achieve the same learning objectives*, we should *expect* to see no significant difference.

That said, the ED study reports a good deal of trouble in data collection. There was a serious lack of continuity from year one to year two - over 70% of the teachers dropped out of the study. There were no classroom observations in year two. The survey team administered their own tests where the districts did not, and it is not immediately clear whether the software that was evaluated was aligned to those tests, or whether the instruction given to the control group was tailored to the test.

In other words, is the software taking a hit because it didn't teach something that was on the test? Many of these software packages are highly modularized and can be adapted to fit state or local standards. If the software wasn't set up to teach the content that was going to be on the test (assuming it could have been), it's hardly the fault of the software developers.

In addition, the study authors issue some strong caveats about the limits of their own research. The summary notes: "Characteristics of districts and schools that volunteered to implement the products differ, and these differences may relate to product effects in important ways."

It concludes, "Products in the study also were implemented in a specific set of districts and schools, and other districts and schools may have different experiences with the products. The findings should be viewed as one element within a larger set of research studies that have explored the effectiveness of software products."

If the study authors themselves issue such caveats, it's a little over the top to call it "debunking." Just because it's not a magic bullet doesn't mean it's of no value.

Successful implementation of learning technology does not seek to replace the teacher (except in situations where there is no teacher to replace). Rather, it seeks to free up the teacher by assuming the role of content-provider. This enables the teacher to do what a machine cannot - to connect with the student as a person, to coach and encourage, and when necessary to admonish and correct (can we even do that anymore?)


The commentor to whom I had responded thanked me for my response and replied that she had gotten her information from a comment on a post on the liberal multi-author blog Huffington Post. I followed the link and found her reference in the comments section, which was filled with vitriolic partisan ignorance that is beyond my ability or desire to attempt to remediate.

I really feel sorry for people who are filled with fear and hatred for ideas that are different from their own. Can we not disagree agreeably?

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Upside-down Pop Quiz

Remember pop quizzes? "Class, take out a sheet of paper. I assume you've all read Chapter Three. So let's play the Read-My-Mind Game, also known as Gotcha! Bwahahahah...." Even if you'd done the homework and read the chapter, you never knew if what *you'd* gotten out of the chapter matched what the teacher thought was important. Oh, how we hated them.

A couple of years ago I was designing a new course with a History professor, and inspiration struck. Instead of punishing students for not reading the book (or not getting the "right stuff" out of it), why not provide a positive incentive? We want them to read the book. What do they want that we can provide? Grades! A simple transaction, really: You do what I want, I give you something you want. It's worked for generations of parents and corrupt government officials (until they get caught, anyway). It's called BRIBERY: Read the textbook, and it's worth a letter grade to you.

So we turned the pop quiz on its head. We created untimed, open-book online quizzes for the text chapters we assigned. The questions came directly out of the book, and were designed to be answered while looking at the text. (After all, life is an open-book test.) The quizzes were posted on the class website (Blackboard) the week before the discussion of the readings. Students could take the quiz as many times as they wanted. The feedback to incorrect answers directed students to the appropriate page of the text. We did not give the correct answers. The sum of all the quizzes amounted to 10% of the final grade.

Questions were a mix of high-level, conceptual, big-picture items that required students to integrate ideas across an entire section, and nitty-gritty detail questions that could not be answered apart from the text. Case in point: The text contained a passage from an original source document listing government jobs in Massachusets in 1690. The list included baker, brewer, collector of tithes, person to keep dogs out of church, rebuker of boys, and so on. So we put this question on the quiz: "According to the text, all of the following were government jobs in Massachusets in 1690 EXCEPT..." and then we listed the jobs above, inserting the red herring, "Admonisher of young ladies." Sounds reasonable, but it wasn't listed in the text. (I suppose colonial girls were better-behaved than their brothers.)

Now, I guarantee you, if you ask a question like that on a closed-book test, the students would be lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks, and with good reason. Expecting students to memorize a list like that is completely unreasonable. But it's perfectly reasonable to ask them to read that paragraph closely at least once, in order to kickstart a class discussion of colonial attitudes about the role of government.

Ok, fine, sounds great. Innovative teaching strategy, hoo-hah hurray, golf-claps all 'round. But does it work?

Yes. Emphatically so.

The data showed that most students took the quiz more than once, some up to four times in order to improve their scores. The time-stamps on successive quiz attempts showed how students were driven to the text, forcing them to ferret out the answers. The instructor could see which questions the students had missed, showing which concepts needed extra attention in the lecture and discussion.

In class, the discussions made it very clear that the students had read the assigned chapter, and read it carefully. And since the quiz questions reflected what the instructor thought was important, they were all on the same page regarding both the big ideas and the details. The instructor didn't need to spend time rehashing the chapter content; it became a starting point for the discussion.

So, I commend the upside-down pop quiz to you. Give it a try, and if you'd be so kind, let me know how it works for you.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Yak Shaving Razors - Take Two

List five useful things you know that others might find useful, but might not know. #yakshavingrazors

I got waylaid in my attempt to finish the earlier post, which lead Tojosan a bit off the path I'd intended. The idea wasn't to detail our own struggles with unshaven yaks, but rather to share ideas, tips, and tools that make the yak shaving - or any other activity - a little easier.

Think "Hints from Heloise" or the "lifehacks" tag in delicious.

So... My Five Useful Things to Know:

1. A dash or two of Tabasco improves almost any sauce, soup, or stew. It brightens the flavors. This is especially true of rich, creamy sauces such as alfredo.

2. Saliva is a remarkable cleaning solution. In reading about the recovery and resoration of rare artworks, you sometimes see the phrase "a mild, aqueous enzymatic solution," as in, "centuries of grime were carefully removed from the priceless painting with a soft brush and a mild, aqueous enzymatic solution." That's not magical mystery mix, but good old fashioned spit. Saliva is mostly water (aqueous) but contains lots of enzymes that break down and soften all manner of organic compounds (aka "pre-digestion"). So before breaking out the tolulene or MEK, rub a little spit on that spot. (Unless of course, you dip Skoal.)

3. Stretch out your guitar strings when you change them. The pitch of a guitar string depends on its length, unit mass, and tension. When you're tuning up a new string, the length and unit mass (.55 low E vs .10 high E) are constant, so the only variable is tension. Problem is, when you tighten the string up, it stretches. It literally gets longer, which reduces the tension, making it go flat.
Most materials (including guitar strings) stretch when they are under tension. You can graph the stress (tension) versus the amount of stretch (strain). At first, the stretch is like a rubber band - when you let off the pressure the string returns to its original length. But at some point, the "set" becomes permanent. The string will continue to stretch up to a point, then it won't stretch any more. That's the point you need to get to in order for the string to stay in tune.
So here's how to pre-stress your strings. Tune the new string up to pitch, then pick it up at the 12 fret (the midpoint). Pull it out an inch or so so you can feel it "give" a bit. Waggle it back and forth, then tune it back up. The stretched-out strings will stay in tune.

4. Experienced cooks know this, but here's how to make a nice pan gravy by "deglazing" the pan. Say you're browning some chicken, or pan-frying steaks. By the time the meat is cooked you've got some stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan. (We're assuming it's not burned, just browned.) I used to scrub it out with a scrubbing pad - such a waste of effort AND flavor!

Remove the cooked meat - it needs to rest for a couple of minutes before you serve it anyway. The pan probably still has some fat in it; drippings from the meat. If it's really dry, add some butter or oil, about a tablespoon. Heat the pan till it just barely starts to smoke, then pour in about a quarter-cup of liquid - enough to cover the bottom of the pan about 1/4 inch deep. You can use water, broth, wine, whatever. Use a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan - the browned bits will come up easily and dissolve in the liquid.

Now you have several options. You can toss the pan in the sink, having saved yourself some elbow grease with a Brillo pad. (Booo! as the CommonCraft folks say) Or you can:
  • Serve the pan sauce as is and call it "au jus"
  • Boil the liquid down to concentrate the flavor (this is called "reducing").
  • Mix a tablespoon of flour with some warm water, then add that and cook until the gravy thickens. You might add more broth for volume or to thin it. (Note - adding dry flour directly to the hot pan tends to form lumps - the hot broth cooks it up into little dumplings before the flour can get dispersed.)

5. Write offline. Whenever you're going to write a lengthy post for an online forum, do it offline in Word or Notepad. Because if you're typing right into Blogger or WP and your network connection crashes, you'll lose everything.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Twitter Tag Meme - Yak Shaving Razors

Today my postcard-sending pal Tojosan got tired of the "Several Things About Me" Twitter-tag meme that's been going around. He asked for a more useful topic. I replied, "OK, how's this: List five useful things you know that others might find useful, but might not know. #yakshavingrazors"

Yak Shaving Razors?!?!! Say WHAT?

Yes, Yak Shaving Razors. The term isn't my own, I first ran across it years ago on Joe Carter's old Evangelical Outpost blog. Yak-shaving is something that you have to do in order to do the thing that you actually need to do. For example, I want to move a study desk from the garage into the boys' room. But before I can do that, I have to clear out the back of the van. Why? Because the desk is going where the dresser is now, and the dresser is going to move into the closet, where the old TV is now, and there's a bunch of recycling int he back of the van where I plan to put the TV to take it to get it fixed so it can be used as a dedicated game console... you see where this is going?

So a Yak Shaving Razor is a tool or a tidbit of information that helps you get things done.

With that introduction out of the way, here's my list of Yak Razors.... dang. Lookit the time. I need to call in an order of Chinese takeout so we can eat before taking the kid to basketball practice...

Hey, who let that yak in here?

Friday, December 19, 2008

I'm nearly famous on #TCOT

So I signed up at Top Conservatives on Twitter. Much to my shock and dismay I started out ranked in the 50's but as more folks joined I've moved down, currently 159. Out of over 1600, tough, that's not bad. Plus, I gained over a hundred followers on Twitter. Whaddya know...

They've put up a Drudge look-alike site (http://206.130.122.75/ - the DNS isn't resolving yet) and lo and behold, I'm on the blogroll. (Just for the record, @michaelpleahy, I've never liked the look of Drudge's site. IMO that Courier-bold font is just plain ugly and hard to read. YMMV)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Well, that was scary

So we get home after a long night. I'm just a bit winded, so I reach for the inhaler in my pocket. As usual, I blow into it before taking a puff - learned that trick after inhaling a bit of pocket lint. Puffer to mouth, squeeze, inhale-

The instant I take the puff, I feel SOMETHING in the back of my throat.

DEEP in the back of my throat.

IN a VERY BAD PLACE deep in the back of my throat.

Much hacking, gagging, etc. ensues. "Dad, are you OK?"

"No!" I gasp. (I note that I can move air, and that this is a Good Thing. I had been contemplating how to give myself a Heimlich.)

A laundry basket, then a trash can appear in my tears-on-glasses-blurred field of vision. The noises I"m making, it's clear Dad's gonna blow chunks. Or eject a hairball. Or something, but get the man a trash can.

Cough, hack, hack, cough... the THING goes down. Sort of.

"Water!" It appears, is consumed, helps somewhat.

"Kids, I think I just swallowed a quarter." I contemplate driving myself to the ER, leaving kids home alone all evening. Suboptimal.

I do a FOD check of my pocket contents and the little dish into which I dump pocket contents. I also check to see if a US Quarter will fit sideways into the opening of an inhaler, because it feels like I just swallowed something that size. (It doesn't.)

FOD check reveals that of the four tire-valve caps I had had in my pocket (I'd put air in the tires earlier, but did not replace the valve-stem caps), only three can be accounted for.

After several careful breaths, I'm fairly sure that I did not inhale one of them into my lungs, but rather swallowed it (THANK YOU, epiglottis!).

I do hope that stomach acid dissolves that particular kind of plastic.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Cleaning up under Obama

I was looking at Obama's transition-team site change.gov, looking for some hope. I came across a section of promises to families where Obama says that a person who works full-time should not have to live below the poverty line. Sounds noble enough. Current minimum wage pays around $13,000 for full-time work, and the poverty level for a family of two is $14,000. So, Obama wants to increase the minimum wage. Sounds good for the worker.

But let's run some numbers,and see how this works out for the person who employs the worker.

Since the plumbing business is in a slump, let's look at a hypothetical office-cleaning service with 55 employees. 5 employees make $30,000 - they're the office folks who keep the business running, doing the the account management, ordering supplies, accounting, etc. 10 employees make $10/hr, or $20,000/yr - the shift managers. And there are 40 workers who are paid minimum wage. (Let's face it - while cleaning offices is honest work, it's not particularly difficult or demanding work.) That's $6.55/hr now, going up to $7.25 next summer. Assume a full-time worker works 2000 hours a year.

So the administrative and supervisory team has a combined payroll of 5*30k + 10*20k or 150k+200k or $300,000. The workers have a combined payroll 40*2000*6.55, or $524,000.

There are 20 teams of two workers each, with a shift supervisor responsible for two teams. Each team works all night cleaning office buildings. The cleaning service charges $200 a night. Labor and supplies costs run about $150 a night, which yields a profit of $50 per team. Times 20 teams, that's $1,000 a night. There are 260 business days in a year, so that's a tidy profit of $260,000. Nice, huh? Too bad he'll have to pay an extra 3% in taxes.

Wait - the front-office team has to get paid. Their payroll is $150,000, so the net profit is down to $110,000.

At least he doesn't have to worry about that tax bump from 36% to 39%. But he does have to pay taxes, which cuts profit down to $70,400. Social security takes another 7.6% of the gross, reducing profit to $62,000. Worker's comp insurance comes out of that. Let's say that the premium is $5 per employee per week. That's 5*52*55 or 6875, round it to $6800. So the net profit is now $55,200. That's what the business owner takes home.

In exchange for providing over four dozen jobs and keeping twenty office buildings clean, he gets a decent middle-class, just-above-the-median paycheck of about $55,000. Livin' the American Dream.

But next summer the minimum wage is scheduled to go up to 7.25/hr. That will bump the payroll of the hourly workers to $580,000, an increase in direct costs of $56,000, or about 9%. As you can see, the business is going to have to increase what it charges the customer by about 9%. That's gonna be a tough sell, because the buildings are not going to be 9% cleaner.


Now let's look at what Obama's plan does to this business. He wants to raise minimum wage to $9.10 an hour. The minimum-wage boost increases the payroll of the hourly workers to $728,000, an increase of over $200,000. That $200,000 will have to come from somewhere.

The business owner could raise his rates, say from $200 a night to $280 a night. But increasing his rates by 40% just might result in his customers reducing their demand on his services - after all, they have budgets, too.

He could cut payroll. Each worker now makes $13,000 a year. A shift supervisor is needed for every four workers, earning $20,000. He could lay off six teams - 12 workers and 3 supervisors, saving $216,000. Of course, that reduces his ability to earn money, because instead of having 20 teams now he has only 14. So his gross is now down to $700 a night, $182,000 a year. The administrative payroll is $150,000... looks like someone in the office has to go, too.

Change? You betcha.

Hope? Notsomuch.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Formation of a Fiend

This is based on an original short story by DrummerBoy. The original was dashed off in 40 minutes for a middle-school writing competition last year. (Students are given a short prompt such as "transformation" and have to write a story in 40 minutes based on that prompt.) I could not resist taking a couple of hours to fine-tune things, give the tale just a little more punch. But although many of the words below are mine, it's still his story. Enjoy.

-----

The blade loose in my hand, I approach the operating table. It is draped in absorbent, disposable paper. The paper is dry now, but soon it will be soaked and stained. Spread out nearby, an assortment of shining instruments; each with its own edge, its own point, its own purpose, its own part to play in tonight's work.

Grim work, yes. Grisly work, certainly. But needful work, oh yes. Most needful. Tonight a Fiend must be summoned. And that summoning requires a sacrifice.

Immobile on the table, round and ruddy, turgid with new life, she awaits. I selected her carefully from her among her sisters, chose her especially. My free hand gently caresses her gravid curves. I examine her closely on all sides, seeking imperfections, irregularities, sources of inspiration. Ah, here… So. Mmm, there… Yes.

I pick up a marking pen and begin tracing lines on the smooth skin. The dark ink will guide my bright knives. I smile in anticipation as the shape of the Fiend emerges onto her flesh.

Now, the plan complete, I lift the knife to make the first cut. There must be no hesitation. No trepidation. No doubt. No pity. I place the point of the knife on the mark and plunge it down. There is no scream of terror, just a vaguely wet sound as the blade sinks in. I work the serrated edge up and down, around the curve, following the inked line in a circle. Within moments I have freed a section the size of my palm. I lift it, revealing the hollow space beneath.

The sight that greets me could turn the strongest stomach. The orange cavity is filled with stringy flesh, slick with juices. Pale encapsulated embryos cling to the fibrous strands. A rich, sickly-sweet aroma fills the air. It is not the smell of death and decay, though that will come as surely as the first frost of winter.

I lift a shining, curved tool that could be a large spoon, were it in a kitchen. The sharp edge loosens the clinging strands from the interior cavity as I work it around. I scoop out the loosened flesh, plopping it wetly into a basin to be discarded.

My work is grim, but it is not without purpose. Tonight, the veil between this world and the next becomes thin. When night falls, my oh-so-normal neighbors will be transformed into hideous creatures, prowling the streets in search of plunder, mischief, or worse. Spirits, demons, monsters, and darker things will emerge from the shadows. Even the children – especially the children – will be taken up in the madness. This Fiend, carved by my hand from living tissue, is the only possible protection for my home and loved ones. As the sky begins to darken, I hurry to finish.

My arm is weary from the labor of emptying the thick-walled womb. Finally it is left a hollow shell. Taking up a small knife, I begin to shape the face of my Fiend. Tracing the marks, I alternately slice, shave, and saw. I lay my tools down and assess my work. The eyes have no trace of humanity, no pity. The mouth – a leering, fanged slit – threatens to open wide and devour anyone who approaches too closely. It is not perfect, but then, no work of Man ever is. My prayer is that it is good enough. It must be, for the sun has slipped below the horizon.

One last, critical step remains. To bring the Fiend to life and enable it to guard my keep this night, I must invoke the First Power of the Ancients – that discovery that first set Man apart from the rest of Creation. Where my previous labors had borne with them the risk of shedding my blood, now I must take care lest my flesh be seared.

I take the Fiend outside into the gathering gloom. I position it carefully so that it can be clearly seen from a distance. (While many Guardians do their best work unseen, the Fiend is useless unless the foe can see – and fear – its glowing eyes.) Already I hear the mobs, assaulting my neighbor's homes, demanding tribute. No more time!

Quickly I kindle the ancient flame and plunge the burning brand into the belly of the fiend, where a prepared wick awaits. The flame leaps up and threatens my fingers. No matter. The consequences of failure are far worse than a few blisters. The wick sputters, then ignites.

The Fiend springs to life, its eyes casting an eerie glow across the night, defending my domicile against the ravening hordes that even now approach my door as I sit back, safety now assured. Warily they approach to the edge of the Fiend's light, creatures of nightmare, refugees from Faerie, half-imagined horrors bearing sacks already bulging with sweet plunder. In ragged unison they raise their shrill voices.


"Trick or treat!"

Friday, October 17, 2008

Plumbing the Numbers on Obama's Tax Hike

Senator Obama told Joe the Plumber that if Joe made more than $250,000, his taxes would go up by 3%. That money would then be redistributed to folks with lower incomes in the interest of "fairness." For the moment let's leave aside the "fairness" of the government taking money from people who are willing to work longer and harder than most in order to give it to people who perhaps aren't. (Yes, I know there are folks who work their tails off and just can't seem to get a break, just as there are folks who were in the right place at the right time and stumbled into a gold mine. Set that aside for now.)

What bugs me is this: if Obama is going to raise taxes on JUST the top 5% and give the money to the poor, how far will that really go? Will it really make a difference?

Being a lazy blogger unwilling to find undisputable, authoritative data via Google and Wikipedia, I'm gonna SWAG some numbers: There are about 300 million people in the US. Given the large number of kids and retirees, let's say that 1/3 of them earn income. (It keeps the math simple.) Obama is going to raise taxes by 3% on the top 5%, those making more than $250,000 a year. That's 5% of 100 million, or five million "rich" people who get to pay more taxes. (Note that this is Obama's definition of rich, not McCain's.)

Five million business owners and successful investors will get their taxes raised by 3%. What will that cost them? Well, obviously, it depends on how much they earn. But we want to keep this simple. We know that the very, very rich - the people who earn billions - manage to shelter and hide most if not all of this income from the taxman. And let's face it, there are darned few of them. The vast majority of those five million are small and medium sized businesses who have a handful to a few dozen employees. So let's pick a number, say, $500,000 to represent the average income for this group.
Obama's going to take an extra 3% from each of them. For every hundred bucks they earn, he takes $3. For every $100,000, he takes $3,000. So (taking an average) Obama is going to collect $15,000 a year from each of five million small business owners.

What will that cost them?
$15,000 is a year's wages for a person earning $7.50 an hour.
It's half the starting salary of a college-educated professional employee.
It's the cost of an advertising campaign that keeps a several marketing professionals employed for a month, and feeds business to printers, bulk-mailing service providers, newspapers, radio and TV stations, and so on.
It's two years' depreciation on a piece of capital equipment that will help a manufacturer compete against offshore companies with lower labor costs.
It's the cost of a year of college for their kid - or themselves.
$15,000 taken out of their pocket.

TIMES FIVE MILLION

What will that cost our economy?

But, but, but! Obama says. The money that the government takes will be used to Do Good! It will be redistibuted to the less-fortunate, to those who are unable (not to say unwilling) to earn those Richie-Rich (or upper-middle-class) incomes.

Okay.

I'm all for a social safety net. Again, leaving aside the "fairness" of the Robin Hood mentality, HOW MUCH GOOD WILL IT DO?

Five million taxpayers involuntarily contribute $15,000 each. That's $75 billion. Seventy-five billion dollars taken out of taxpayers pockets to be redistributed. $75 billion taken out of the economy.

How far will it go? Let's say that 10% of all Americans live below the line that Obama will draw. So ten percent of 300 million, or thirty million people, will get checks drawn on the Bank of the Upper Middle Class. Thirty million people will share $75 billion (this assumes zero cost to administer the program). (75*10^9)/(30*10^6) = (75/30)*(10^(9-6)) = 2.5*10^3.

Thirty million people get $2,500 each.

What can you do with $2500?

If you are a fiscally-responsible individual, you might spend it on...
Several months' rent in an apartment.
A couple of mortgage payments.
A couple of months of child care.
A few month's worth of groceries.
A semester or two of community college.
Downpayment on a halfway-decent used car, or cash for a "beater".

These are well and good things, but will they really make a fundamental change in someone's life? Yes, it'll help in the short run. And for some this would provide enough breathing room to get their legs under them. But for most folks living on the ragged edge, it's not really a game-changer. (I know; I've been there. It astonishing how far a thousand bucks doesn't go.)

However. I really hate to say this, because I know how it's gonna come across, but...

I've known folks who tend to make poor financial decisions (and therefore will never get into the middle of the middle class, much less the top). So I know that a good percentage of that thirty million will also decide that $2500 buys:

A hi-def TV
A good dirt bike
A killer stereo and light package for the car
Several months' worth of beer and smokes
A stack of lottery tickets
A "blow-the-wad" trip to the local casino

Call me classist if you wish, but I've LIVED with folks who make these sorts of buying decisions with much smaller windfalls. Folks who let the water or gas get turned off, but they pay the cable bill and keep the beer fridge full.

Yes, you could argue that the money is going back into the economy, stimulating "trickle-up" economic activity. But if we want to plow seventy five billion dollars into the economy, who do we want making the spending decision? People who have experience handling money? Or people who don't? People who are going to use it to pimp their ride, or to grow a business and create jobs?

Does it make sense to take $15,000 from a business owner and employer and divvy it up between six other people, none of whom have his business savvy, some of whom he wouldn't hire to sweep the floor? If YOU had $2500 just laying around to invest, would you rather give it to Trailer Park Tommy, or Joe the Plumber?

I dunno about you, but I'd go with the guy with the plunger.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Online calculus

A couple of profs in the Math department here are kicking around the idea of creating an online Calculus course.

When I took calculus (shortly after Newton invented it), it was taught in a huge lecture hall. The professor spent the period with his back to the class, writing equations on the chalkboard and saying things like, "It is therefore intuitively obvious that..." (Have I ever mentioned that Calculus was one of the reasons I switched majors from engineering to education?) That's not the way it's done here. Class sizes are small, and the profs really interact with their students on the fly.

That's one of the reasons that Calculus is one of the courses that students like to take at a community college. Still, we could reach more students if we could put the course online, or perhaps in a hybrid format.

One of the profs (call him Luke) is using Adesso CyberPads in his F2F classes. Students can hand-write their homework on paper using the special pen and the electronic pad. The CyberPad creates a digital image file that the student can then sent to the instructor. This is very handy for classes that meet once a week or Monday-Wednesday. If a student has a question on Wednesday night she doesn't have to wait until Monday.

Luke has proposed that we create an online Calculus course around this tool. He's got serious questions about how to structure the instructional content, because his teaching style is extremely hands-on. We hashed thing over during lunch last week with two other professors from the department. One of them (call him Vince) was vocal in his opposition to "canned" online courses that consist of nothing more than a publisher's Blackboard cartridge. yesterday he wrote:

It may have taken me a couple weeks, but here's my opposition to on-line courses as they are currently done at LCC. There's a TV in my classroom. What do you say if instead of me lecturing in Calculus, I just put in the DVDs that come with the book and we watch them as a class? What would people say about that kind of education? In many ways, it's better than on-line, isn't it? At least the students can pause the DVD and I can explain things to them. At least the learning is "synchronous" and they can interact with each other. Plus, I'm available during office hours and via e-mail. Somehow, I don't think people would think very highly of this kind of learning environment. I'm sure students would complain, and people like Jim would lose respect for me. Could I honestly say this is in the students' best interest? Would people honestly believe that this is academic freedom? Somehow, I don't think so. So, how is on-line, especially how it's done in our department, any better than this?

Valid issues. I asked him if I could open the discussion to the wider community (that's you) and he agreed. Here was my initial response:

Vince raises some very important issues.

There is currently no central authority regarding the content, format, or quality (however that is measured) of online courses at Lakeland. The quality of an online course is up to the instructor and the department. As a result, we see a wide variety of online coruses. Some instructors create their course sites entirely from scratch, including self-produced multimedia elements such as narrated powerpoint presentations, recorded lectures, or videos. Some departments have developed standard templates for high-enrollment courses, and instructors have little leeway in the way they facilitate the course. Some instructors use a publisher's course cartridge (which can vary in quality from abysmal to outstanding), and do little other than monitor students' progress. Others extensively modify and rearrange the pre-created content, putting their own spin on it, and use the online forums to facilitate deep, reflective, substantive class discussions.

Classroom teaching shows the same range. Some instructors read out of the book or off the powerpoint slides, some just work problems with their backs to the class, others are dynamic and engaging, responding to the students.

The online environment isn't any better or any worse than the classroom. It's just a different set of affordances and constraints. The question is, is it possible to leverage the affordances (and work around the constraints) in the particular knowledge/skill domain? What do we give up, and what do we gain? What CAN we give up? What must we NOT give up?

A common reaction is, "I can't give up the ability to respond in real-time to a student's question." But let's drill down - what's *really* at issue there? The root principle is that we want to identify the moment that a student gets lost, and at that moment, bring them back on track. But it's not always necessary to repeat information or give an alternate presentation. Sometimes the student just needs a little more time to work out how you got to Point B from Point A. Can we do that online? Sure. It's just a question of how we want to do it.

So - what do you folks think?

Monday, September 29, 2008

CCK08 Connections

Well, it's about time I got off the dime and wrote something longer than 140 characters...

For the past couple of weeks I've been following along haphazardly with George and Stephen's Excellent Adventure, aka CCK08. Now, my attitude towards theories of teaching and learning mirrors that of M. David Merrill (see P. 59, #10), so I've been letting a lot of the heavy discussion pass by. But last week's notion of overlapping networks has sort of stuck. I'm a big fan of James Burke's "Connections" series, where he shows how seemingly-unrelated things are actually deeply intertwined. I like that sort of thing, even when the connections are a bit tenuous.

John Connell writes about a young man expressing himself through the medium of music and video, linking it to the notion of "postliteracy." In the comments, Jenny Luca asks whether it is just literacy, as practiced in the 21st century.

In the video John lnked, a young person is playing Pachabel's Canon on an electric guitar. I've seen the video before (as have several million other YouTube viewers), but this time the context caused some lights to go on.

John describes the video as having "low production values." I disagree. The video is very well-made for its purpose. The image is well framed. If you are a fairly-skilled guitarist wanting to learn this piece and you have the tabulature, this video gives you very useful information without attempting to be a typical "guitar instruction video." The scene is backlit so strongly that it is almost washed-out. As a result, the player appears in a golden halo of light, with few details of the room discernable. The player's identity is obscured to the point that even gender is not obvious. The hat is pulled low over his or her face, concealing his or her identity except probably to a few close friends. Instead of the typical amateurish "sitting back from turning on the camera" and "reaching forward to turn it off", there are opening and closing credits (with music!)

As an example of a YouTube video, it's *extremely* well-done. Or to put it another way, it demonstrates the "literacy" of making video for YouTube guitarists

The video is also ironic in the connections it makes - and breaks. Pachabel's Canon is a venerable piece of classical music that requires only moderate playing ability, but the modern rock arrangement in the video requires a fair amount of technical skill. In addition, the fast legato arpeggios are played with a sweep-picking technique that mimics violin bowing (many rock guitarists are fans of the great 19th-century violinist Niccolo Paganini).

Now - how many folks are geeky enough to pick up on that bit of irony? Probably not a lot. Was that connection intended by the young performer? Almost certainly not. And that brings us to the connection between Norse Sagas, the Bible, and Weezer.

You might dimly recall from some grade school literature unit that the Medieval Norse (aka Vikings) wrote these long, bloody poems called "sagas." (It would also be accurate to describe them as "bloody long" poems.) The sagas made great use of a literary device called kennings. A kenning is a metaphorical set-phrase such as "sea-steed" (sailing ship) and "swan-road" (ocean). But the kennings were not just general poetic riddles; they had very specific cultural connotations - baggage, if you will. So a kenning that refers to a shipwreck doesn't refer to just any shipwreck, but the shipwreck that tragically took the life of the young man who was fleeing his father's undeserved wrath and and and... they packed a lot of meaning and emotion, these kennings. You can think of them as a sort of cultural zip file. The listeners (sagas were originally an oral tradition) "got" the deeper references because they were literate in the context of their culture.

I'm thinking that this cultural awareness is a pretty key concept.

For example, a great deal of Western culture (and I don't mean rodeos) is based on the Bible. But a lot of folks nowadays aren't all that familiar with The Book. Case in point, the phrase "The writing's on the wall." Where does that phrase originate? The situation has gotten to the point that schools are starting to teach classes called "The Bible as Literature" in order to acquaint students with their greater cultural heritage. These students may not understand "mene" but they sure understand "meme."


So what does this all mean? Good question. I think I'm still constructing that.


Oh - for a different take on Pachabel's Canon (complete with its own set of musical memes),watch this.

This post was lovingly handcrafted in Notepad, since Blogger's crummy WYSIWYG editor doesn't work right, and doesn't put target="_blank" in its hyperlinks. And folks wonder why I don't post more often...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Salami-Scented Puppy Poots

Also posted at Dadosphere.

Ah, the fun of getting into the back-to-school routine. The packing the backbacks. The setting out of the clothes - and the shoes - and the socks - and the underwear. The making of lunches. The parental verification of said lunches to ensure they do not consist solely of Rice Krispy Treats and Little Debbie Nutty Bars.

Actually, the kids are pretty good about their lunches. Herself (the 5th grader) and Mr. Brown (the 3rd grader) got out the new half-pound package of salami and made their sandwiches (two slices of salami between two slices of bread, no condiments). They packed some fruit, filled their water bottles, and packed it all back in the fridge. As I said, good kids.

Good, but not quite perfect. They put *almost* everything back into the fridge. But something was forgotten, something left behind.

But it was not neglected for long.

I came back into the kitchen a few minutes later, and found Duke the Amazing Canine blissed -out under the table, loving licking the inside of the now-empty salami package. He was in hound-dog heaven.

I summoned Herself. The following conversation ensued:

Herself: "Duke! You're not supposed to eat the salami!"

Duke: "Buurp!"

I kid you not. It was *perfectly* timed. That dog has a future in stand-up comedy, I tell you.

That's a good thing, too. Because now, several hours later, it's quite clear that Glade *won't* be hiring him to develop new air fresheners. :-/

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hello!

I really didn't intend for a month to go by with no posting. I've actually been pretty busy given that it's summer.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Word art

Wordle.net is a cool site that creates a word cloud based on text that you give it. Here's what happens when you feed it the text of Ephesians 1, and the text of Romans:



The fish shape just sort of happened on its own.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sometimes the lights go on after lights-out

Sometimes you Just. Want. Them. To. Go. To BED!!! But you should never (Never!) pass up an opportunity to talk to your teenager. Even when you know that tomorrow AM will Not Be Fun as a result.

The Karate Kid boarded the Clue Bus tonight:

Last year he was State Champ in his martial arts division. But as he approached his teens he decided that he was bored in karate class, and didn't really want to go, and, and, and. He hasn't really focused on martial arts in about six months.

So tonight we're talking about this and that and the other thing, and I offhandedly remind him just how gifted he is in martial arts. (He really and truly is, and that's not just Daddy pride.) He gets inspired to get physical. Ignoring the fact that I've told him to go to bed already - twice - I help him stretch (his foot reaches over my head!?!)

He then heads downstairs to work off some energy on the punching bag.

Ten minuntes later he comes back upstairs, red skinned, sweating, in tears. His leg angle is All Wrong! His foot is like This and it should be like That! "I. Can't. Do. Anything!!!" he wails. That's right, kiddo. No matter how gifted you are, if you don't use it, you lose it.

I give him a cool wet washcloth for his face. Send him to bed. A few minutes later, the light is still on. He says needs to listen to some music and write down his goals for the summer.

That's cool by me.

Friday, June 06, 2008

I'm not an edupunk

"edupunk" is an idea that's been tossed around recently on Twitter and various blogs.

It seems to resonate with a lot of folks, embracing the ideas of do-it-yourself, anti-authority, share and share alike, and so on. The anti-corporate part of it resonates with Blackboard-bashers as well.

But though I share many of these values, I'm just not comfortable with the label. It carries a lot of baggage. We don't really want total anarchy in the classroom, do we? We do have goals and objectives for our students, don't we? We may rebel against giving multiple-choice tests, but we do want students to know that the Civil War happened before WW2, right? Is CBGB really a learning environment that we want to emulate, with used needles littering the vomit-stained floors? (Given, there are some students stuck in facilities not much better.) Is Sid Vicious really a better role model than Jaime Escalante?

I just can't get into punk as a model for learning. I never was a punk; I never wanted to be a punk. But what if we took some of those ideals and recast them slightly?

Yeah, that's it. I'm not an edupunk. I'm an edufolkie.



Besides, at my age it's a lot easier to grow a ponytail than a mohawk.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I wrotez another poem!

A friend at work had a baby shower not long ago. It's her second child. I found out about it at the last minute - she works in another department and word didn't filter over to me until the very last minute. I didn't have time to run out and buy her a present, so I sat down and wrote her a little poem:

You're an old hand by now
You know how it goes:
The burping, the bathing,
The playing with toes.

You've got all the gear
A new parent can use
The teether, the toys,
All in soft pastel hues.

You've been there and done that,
It's same-old, same-old.
Same song, different verse,
You're on a parenting roll

You don't need my advice
So I'll say not a peep,
But just leave you with this:
While you can, get some sleep!