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Borrowing computers January 31, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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laptops  Several years ago, when I was still a Masters student and a teacher in a local high school, I asked the staff at the Instructional Technology Facility if I might borrow a laptop since I had to make a presentation in Atlanta. They expressed some shock that I, a mere Masters student, would dare to ask for such an expensive piece of equipment. I suggested that I was beholden to the college since I was working on a degree and that I was surely a trustworthy person since I was a teacher and responsible for children. Those arguments did not wash; besides, they did not even have a laptop to loan anyway.

Today, teachers in some districts are expressing some dismay that they are not allowed to take their school laptops home to continue to work on projects for their school or their districts. If you know a teacher, you know that our day does not end when the children leave the school. Many of us work throughout the weekends as well so it makes sense to let us carry on using the tools we have at school.

There are hundreds of valid reasons why a teacher might have to take a laptop off school property over the weekend, but now lawyers in some districts are telling teachers that the district is putting themselves in jeopardy by allowing teachers to take a these tools off campus. They worry that the machines will be stolen and are not sure who would pay for the replacement.  This issue really rubbed some of my discussion list members the wrong way. One responded:

“Tell your admin to get a backbone and look for reasons give the teachers 21st century tools on a 24/7 since teachers work 24/7, instead of sniffing around for reasons not to help the teachers.? 

Another reported this in his district they have an accounting form that indicates change of location of equipment. This form, easily acquired and submitted allows teachers to “check out” items like computers. The form also releases the liability of the teacher in the event of theft as the district still claims proof of ownership. Some districts require teachers to pay for replacement or repair using their own personal insurance. Other districts offer teachers the opportunity to buy an annual insurance policy for twenty-five dollars. One teacher reported paying in weekly installments until the cost of the laptop stolen from his car had been recovered. Responsibility certain goes both ways.

It seems prudent for schools to have an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that outlines staff responsibility but the bottom line is that schools have the responsibility to realize that teachers will need these machines after hours. Teachers need to realize that they have responsibilities when using the machines, such as to avoid breaking license agreements by downloading or installing non-approved software. 

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New ways of writing January 30, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Online Tools.
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books   The blog is turning writing on its head. Today, I am working on a book review, written in solitude and with a three month deadline. I have spent three months pondering the book and, in the tradition of the old style of writing, I will put my words on paper for a reviewer in Germany to decide if they should be published or not.

Colleagues over at Weblogg-ed News commented on the new directions journalism is taking and how writing process itself is changing. Swiss journalists investigating recent riots in France would take initial drafts of their writing, post it on a blog, and invite comments. The comments led to deeper investigation and subsequent drafts inspired more comments.

In my own class, now that we are using blogs, I have heard from four students already who have commented on things a guest speaker said. Usually I have received no feedback whatever on my regular speaker. As a result, the next time he comes in we will make a special focus on the parts of his talk that really resonated with my students this semester.

Feedback in a university classroom makes perfect sense. Just like feedback from a newspaper’s audience can change the way articles are written and researched, schools should be changing just as much and inviting feedback along the way, not just at the end of the course.

Of course, there are limits to this method of writing. It is a highly energetic form of writing in comparison with the way I am writing my book review. If I wanted to write in this way, by engaging a community of potential readers about the topic, vocational education in Europe, I would have to seek out an audience of blog-reading educators who would find bits and pieces of my review interesting enough to comment on. Even then, I would miss the French and German readers unless I could post simultaneous translations.

What this means to schools is that basic assumptions of education and what it means to write and research are being challenged to the very core. Some bright and influential people are beginning to take notice. Frank Levy, an economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is reaching out to educators and those responsible for educational policies by pointing out that finding and synthesizing information is more important than memorizing dates, something educators have been saying for ages. And failing to teach kids how to navigate in the knowledge economy is “like putting them on the track without the locomotive.?

Generation Oregon Trail January 29, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Students.
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gen OT   With some surprise I noticed an odd theme emerging from the blog entries of my students this week. Upon reflecting on their earliest educational technology experiences, many of them mentioned Oregon Trail as one of their first exposures to decent software in schools.

This excellent simulation from MECC pitted students as characters in living in the Eastern United States as they prepared for then made the journey across the continent to Oregon. If you pack incorrectly you might starve, break an axle and become stranded, or freeze to death. Students seemed to like the characters and the story. I was surprised at the fondness of the memories this software appeared to have for my students.

If teachers ran it properly, students were to have read a short story called Dear Rachel about a pioneer girl traveling on a trail to California. Foods in the game were authentic so it would not have been unusual for a teacher to bring in beef jerky, nuts, and dried fruit. Students were also encouraged to invent games to play along the way, fill up a journal with insights, and engage with maps. The simulation was supposed to take the whole day or you could spread the 2040 mile journey over the six months it was supposed to have taken the characters.

Despite the general enthusiasm for the game and educational activities, a few critiques have pointed out culture bias inherent in the game. Bigelow (1997) in Language Arts argued that the game was “sexist, racist, culturally insensitive, and contemptuous of the earth, imparting bad values and wrong history.? Bigelow based his conclusion on the limited range of characters available, their actions and potential, and their roles. When most of the Native American characters take on role of enemy his point is well taken.

Despite that, there is a generation of students in my class who nod with understanding when I say, “Joseph got lost hunting for Bison and Sally’s caught the Scarlet Fever so it’s not looking good.?

To err is funny January 28, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning.
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client   There are certainly times in my day when work gets very frustrating. It usually boils down to the fact that there are new terms, machines, and basic concepts that people need to work into their way of thinking. I am always impressed that people come to computers with dreams and visions. They know how they want things to look and to be. Then they meet the limitations of computers and must satisfy themselves with something less than what they imagined.

This morning I spent some time reading clientcopia.com, just hitting random quotes from computer service people dealing with what they call stupidity. In many case the humor comes from people who do not realize how things work asking questions of people who have a thorough understanding of how things work. In fact, the stories are not really humorous. They are more of a vent for frustrations or, worse, a change to sound like an IT snob.

My frustration with these kinds of sites is that they snigger at people who know quite a lot about many things, but have become a little muddled about a computer term new to them. It is much more fun to laugh with someone who usually knows a great deal about computers but has made a mistake. Yesterday a colleague grabbed a speaker that was shaped like a champagne glass. He said he needed it for a project but didn’t say any more than that. I wondered why he needed only one speaker. After an hour he came down saying he couldn’t get the microphone he had borrowed to pick up sound. We laughed over that because he could handle it.

Certainly I make dozens of verbal slips each week but I would like to think I learn from my mistakes. I still laugh inside at people who print e-mail and hand the printed copy to co-workers and giggle a little at people who order PowerPoint machines when they mean digital projectors. Computers are changing all the time and the learning curve can be steep at times. The trick is to remember that when someone says something that seems remarkably naïve and silly, it is really their attempt to speak a language that is totally new to them.  

Touching Space January 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware, Online Tools.
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app1  Twenty years have passed since the Challenger exploded in the blue Florida skies. For some, that moment stands out solid and still, a moment frozen in memory as profound as the news of the assassination of a president. For me, this week reminds me of other tragedies, one on a Florida launch pad almost forty years ago and one over the skies of Texas three years ago.

The fiery death of Apollo One’s crew snapped giddy supporters of manned space travel into the harsh reality that space exploration is dangerous and its potential for disaster very real indeed. At that moment in time, a divide in the community of scientists became apparent. One group saw the necessity for putting humans in space, another saw that robots and remotely manned machines could accomplish astounding science.

If there is some solid middle ground, I have sought to find it, admiring the science and detailed measurements of satellites and admiring the courage and human need to reach out to touch the stars and witness the surface of a new planet or moon in person. My position on the middle ground was validated when a team of astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Station. Human labor in a hostile environment fixed a tool that extended the range and depth of our view of the cosmos.

My middle ground crumbled beneath my feet when the shuttle Columbia tore apart three years ago this week. I was about to introduce our keynote speaker at the annual Teaching and Technology Conference when someone ran down the aisle to tell us the news. The news struck me as hard as a slap and I still recoil a little at the idea of moving to new frontiers off our world. I will leave those dreams of manned exploration to younger and less chastened dreamers.

Delta Blues January 26, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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lappy  “Her name is Delta,? said her note to me. “Please take care of her. She is running slowly and I don’t know why.?

If you want to know why my day sometimes is too packed for writing, Delta is the reason. My team was all out on other business today so I got to have fun with machine issues. I turned on the laptop but had to e-mail the owner to find out the password. A half hour later I had the password and could continue. I could have broken in using a variety of tools, but it wasn’t worth the time.

Once inside the first signs of problem hit me. The Windows XP splash screen came up crisply but it had the word “Professional? under it. That meant it did not yet have Service Pack Two installed. I didn’t know there were any that still did not have it installed.

I got online, that worked at least, and slowly the default home page came up. Too slowly. It was certainly going to be one of those days. I clicked on Tools then Windows Update. After a couple of downloads for the essential tools needed to provide the updates and a requisite reboot I was finally ready to install the 43 essential patches and updates.

An hour later I was ready to install Service Pack Two. After an hour it was still running sluggishly. I saw that the laptop was running an antivirus program but I didn’t trust it. I then installed Microsoft’s Anti Spyware from microsoft.com/downloads. It took a little effort to get it running but off it went and performed its scan. Thirty minutes later I had my culprit. The machine had five incidents of Spyware which I promptly removed. One of these was related to Kazaa, a music file sharing program. I wondered who used this computer last.

Once the spyware was off I manually removed some programs using the Add/remove programs. Off came a few search bars and a media viewer called Viewpoint. Since the computer was still running sluggishly I started it up in Safe Mode and run our anti-virus client in safe mode. It beeped every time it found a virus and removed it. Seventy-five beeps later I thought it was clean. To be safe, I ran an online scanning tool from safety.live.com, a beta site from Microsoft. That found 3 viruses with 35 files infected and noted the disk was 25 percent fragmented. An hour later I tried installing Sophos Anti virus. A previous installation of MacAfee was blocking it. I removed MacAfee and finally got the antivirus program to work but only after downloading and running a tool to totally remove earlier versions of it.

Thank goodness I can multitask because a dozen other things were happening, including one major crisis that I will write about tomorrow once I check with a few lawyers. I was able to hand Delta back to her owner just as I was leaving. When I mentioned the music sharing programs and having to remove Napster, she scowled and said simply, “Those imps. Leave town for a day and this is what you get.? I mentioned there was a corrupted article in the printing queue also and she just rolled her eyes. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Podcasting January 25, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Online Tools.
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podcast  I had tried on three occasions to drop into our University of Arizona Faculty Fellows Speakers Series during lunch. Unfortunately, I was held back each time by demands on my time back at the office. Now, rather than bemoaning the fact that I am sometimes too busy, I can simply listen to the series using podcasting technology.
This technology is certainly going to be helpful once we figure out how best to make it work. I tried downloading one of the podcasts for the series and was surprised at its size, 120 Megabytes. I plugged it into winamp and managed to hear it but at 45 minutes, the file size seemed too large.

I asked around to discover that it really played best in Real Player. After downloading and installing RealPlayer, making sure I neither loaded their many add-ons nor subscribed to their newsletters, it played very well and, much to my surprise, it played back in video format as well. Thus, the large file size.

What was interesting to me was that all I needed to do to satisfy my curiosity, was to take one look at the speaker’s face then I buried the presentation under several windows and let the audio take over. Perhaps it is because I am not much of a television watcher anymore, but I enjoyed the presentation just as much in the audio only format.

I tune into regular podcasts almost as soon as they are released. For example, every Saturday I listen to a science show called Quirks and Quarks from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I had been a regular listener until I came to the United States over a decade ago and I am delighted to get back in touch with a show from my younger days. I never had the need to see the smiling faces of the speakers.

One more benefit of podcasting, for me, is that my time is often pulled so thinly that I rarely can fit in the time for the whole presentation in one sitting. It took me four attempts to finally finish the presentation and it was worth the effort.
A couple of my colleagues and I have threatened to sit around one afternoon with a digital recorders and simply share what we have been up to. Of course, we think we are brilliant; now all we need is an audience to agree.

Empty Seats January 24, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Students.
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same   In last week’s Los Angeles Times, faculty raised an alarm about educational technology. This time it was about classroom absenteeism. With so many lecture materials now online, including readings, notes, and even podcasts of the lectures, some faculty are noticing a sharp rise in absenteeism. Some universities are building in a standard lag time between lecture and publication of podcast to improve numbers of students in seats.

One teacher noted attendance in her classes dropped from about 65 percent to only about 35 percent. “Too much online instruction is a bad thing,” she said. There is a battle beginning to rage in higher education between proponents of “clicks and proponents of “bricks.? The divide was heralded years ago in marketing circles as more consumers shopped online and did not visit the physical store. “Bricks? instructors are trying different strategies from introducing pop quizzes to offering extra credit for attendance.

This complaint begs the question of whether it is important for students today to attend in person. If you are a student in the darkened corner of the lecture hall, will you really attend to the topic better than if you were carefully reading the materials in your dorm room? Are all professors that brilliant as orators? What do they offer in person that they do not offer online?

Of course, this discussion reminds me that professors are still struggling to figure out how to teach online. Posting materials is not how instructors should run online courses. You might as well post readings and assignments on your door for all the effective education that will provide. Instructors should be encouraged to become more “click? oriented. They should be using chat areas, discussion boards, video boards, student blogs, and all the other varied tools available to them.

Their online personae should evolve enormously to the point that it would not be inconceivable to leave their lecture hall persona in the dust. I am concerned that policy makers will somehow restrict the development of online teaching and enforce some arcane seat time rule.

Open heart; open blog January 23, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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heart   Last night, a colleague from a discussion list asked me for some help setting up her blog. She wanted to focus on literacy issues and children’s literature. Her daughter suggested she set up a blog and they chose MySpace.com.

My immediate reaction was that MySpace.com might not have been the best place for her, a serious teacher, to park her thoughts and ponderings. Eventually she wrote back to admit that MySpace.com was beginning to look like “a place where 16 to 30 year olds could meet people online.” I recommended blogger.com and wordpress.com as excellent starting places. There is something a little disconcerting about hosting services like MySpace.com and I am still not sure why I feel this way but let me share three observations.

One came on the heels of a tragedy. A teacher, Will Richardson, wrote in his blog, Weblogg-ed, that a popular student his school was recently killed in a car accident. Kids in the school began posting images and poems of remembrance for the student on their MySpace.com sites and linked to other similar remembrances. There was a huge outpouring of online grief. Just to be clear, it is as valid an important thing as face-to-face grieving is. I have no doubt about that. I still feel a little awkward about expressing emotions so freely online. This may be my status as a digital immigrant kicking in but I think it might be more than that.

I wonder just how those immediate outpourings of emotion will affect our society. I visited a site called grouphug.us and was both unimpressed by the online anonymous confessions. I expected to see many of these confessions. There were those about unrequited love, frustrations with the world, with family, with love, and with supervisors. I grew a little uncomfortable at the things people felt the need to scream, safe in their anonymity: masturbation fantasies, anger at women, anger at themselves, and anger at the world. Of course, some of the writings are poetic impulses and the forum is a chance to express and strengthen a poetic voice. My concern is that you cannot contact the authors of these pieces of emotional shrapnel. You cannot reach out to them and offer them a hug,  but you can reach out and attempt to contact authors on MySpace.com. That leads me to another observation.

Last week a young woman in my computer lab was working on her MySpace web site. I stood over her shoulders and made small talk about her site and photos. She stopped mid-way through her typing, a little uncomfortable that I was reading her words in person. Why could I not read her words in person that are freely available to hundreds of thousands of anonymous readers online? I am still working this out.

GPS Fun January 22, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Unintended Consequences.
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gps   Geocaching is a popular activity for many people. Some involve their whole families. In a nutshell, geocaching makes use of a tool, a GPS locator, to help you to find an object placed somewhere in the world by another geocacher. Often it is a bucket or a box that is largely invisible to a casual viewer, perhaps out in the middle of an empty field, so it will be generally undisturbed. The box is to contain trinkets you can exchange with trinkets of your own to prove you found it. It also often contains a log book so you can date when you found it. The log book is essential for people trying to accumulate as many geocashes as they can.

Sounds fun if you have a Global Positioning Device, which I do not, but sometimes things can go awry. Last week, Scot Tintsman of Boise, Idaho, was returning to fill his dark green bucket with geocache trinkets when he encountered a police barricade. You can read the rest of the story in the Sunday papers today (and here). Bridge maintenance crews found the bucket and called it into police as a suspicious object. When Scot tried to explain that the object was his he almost got himself shot when he took out his MP3 player in an attempt to turn it off. Police thought he was about to detonate what might have been a bomb.

All is well now and the police in Boise got to teach a lesson about how one should not play games at, in, or near critical infrastructures like bridges, government buildings, or nuclear power plants. This information should not have been news to the many thousands of regular geocachers around the world. Their web site, Geocaching, specifically warns their members about safety.

For those unfamiliar with the devices, they are enormously helpful tools and have been in light aircraft, for example for almost two decades. I would have benefited from having one with me the week I was abandoned in Northern Ontario when the plane that was supposed to pick me up went missing. The pilot was fine. He had a bad alternator, a good radio, and a map so he just walked out of the bush to the highway. My work partner and I had no radio or map besides the small scales ones needed for our work as tree counters. A GPS device might have gotten us out of the forest a little faster.

I wonder if they will even before inexpensive enough to change the face of orienteering, a great sport where you have to run long distances to locate key points in a forest using topological maps and a compass. “Okay, class, you have your ten location points pre-entered into your GPS device, you and your partners have one hour to find as many as you can, and return to the base. Have fun.?