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Jeeves Fired February 28, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Online Tools.
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jeeves  Yesterday I read a piece in my backlog of e-mail that the AskJeeves.com search site had fired Jeeves the butler. It seems the original idea of providing a tool for users to ask questions in natural language, such as “What is the capital of Morocco?? did not work out as well as they had hoped.

Now the folks at ask.com have re-tooled their web site to highlight their perception that they are a better search engine than Google.com. Coincidentally, one of my students did a search engine presentation today and her choice of engine was Teoma.com. However, that site has been absorbed (I am not sure if purchased is the correct word) by ask.com.

We all determined to see what the fuss was all about and, to our surprise, we quite liked the site as a class. Ask.com had neatly laid out search organization in a box on the right-hand side of the site; it had organized it logically and intuitively including links to bloglines.com and the tools that many of us deemed essential to searching on the web.

I may just have to retired Google for a while.

ASIDE: Education Week will publish my reflections on curriculum from a previous two-part post titled “Seeds in Winter.?


What you see . . . February 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Students.
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space   Photographs can lie, and it’s a good thing too, sometimes. In this month’s Sky and Telescope magazine, the editor began his editorial reminding us of this fact. Images of nebulae are so much more spectacular and intriguing when photographers add false colors and tweak the limits of the spectrum to bring out previously unseen features.

I thought about this recently as one webmaster tried to show how deceptive and deceitful a politician was by bringing out a campaign photograph that had been taken with his cat on his shoulders. Someone had removed evidence of a collar and leash on the cat using some very basic digital photography tricks. The point was being made that the politician was a deceitful. Using a simple editing tool, the pundit brightened the photo to reveal blocks of black added to remove the leash.

It gets better. I looked for the same photograph online and the only ones I could find all had the leash in full view. Who was being deceptive? One is left to wonder just what is real any longer. We trust our eyes but our eyes can easily mislead. Editorial judgment can crop the truth right out of a photo these days.

And then there are the photographs I have on our family blog of our recently deceased dog, Peppy. In conversation this evening with my wife, it dawned on me that I was only including the photos I took in which she looked better than she actually was. A little cock of the head suggested playfulness so I included that photo. In reality, she was probably tired, cranky, and ready for me to stop bothering her with the camera flash.

Together, we looked through some of the photos that never made it to the blog and realized that she really and truly was a very old dog. One hundred years in doggy terms. Looking at them and at the truth they conveyed, reminded us that she had lived a very full and very happy life, right to the very last day.

I will take that story to my students, all of them future teachers, who will one day look at images in a news story and have to interpret the validity of the shot, the decision that was made to include it in the story. Was it cropped and framed to elicit some effect. Is the audience being manipulated? Is information being distorted? Will we someday look at a photograph of a politician framed with an accidental halo of light and wonder just how accidental the image really was? Our students are ravenous consumers of information and they swim in a sea of it. As teachers, we must help them to be more discriminating and questioning about their diet.

Stamps February 26, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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stamp  On Saturday we took my parents out to dinner to celebrate their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary. We treated them to a bit of surprise courtesy of Canada Post/Postes Canada. One of the services they offer is the ability to create your own stamp.

Using an excellent photo taken while they were on a cruise last year, we created a stamp using one of the two main templates Canada Post provides. One of the features of the service is that you can not only produce sheets of stamps, you can also create a half page suitable for framing including one stamp. The stamps are valued at the current domestic postage rate in Canada. We thought it was a great way to show them how proud we are of them. For their fiftieth anniversary we received messages from the Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Ontario, the Governor-General, and even President Bush.

A decade ago, I would have had to write letters to the office of these governmental representatives. Now, with online access, I was able to arrange for letters of recognition from a half dozen dignitaries very easily and quickly. The whole process took less than an hour. The Queen will send letters of recognition on your sixtieth anniversary so we are looking forward to that one.

In the United States, we can arrange for stamps through a private company (stamps.com) working in conjunction with the US Post Office. The cost is about ten dollars more for a sheet of twenty than you would pay for regular stamps at the post office.

Of course, if you were even mildly creative, you could do some decorative printing right on the surface of an envelope and use regular domestic stamps. There is a great deal you can do with a color printer and some decent software like Publisher.

Cheating February 25, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Online Tools, Students.
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cheater  On Friday, one of our departments had graduating students take their final Comprehensive Examinations. Gone are the days when they would be scratched out on paper. I brought in five laptops for the writers. The department Admin brought in fresh diskettes but was surprised when I told her most laptops these days do not have floppy drives.

There were several solutions to her dilemma which I proceeded to tick off. The one that worked best for her, though, was to bring down a portable floppy drive so she could transfer each completed examination to its own disk. I have stopped questioning my Administrative colleagues and have learned to become satisfied with the idea that if it works for them I won’t press for other ways of accomplishing the same task.

As I set up the laptops I disengaged the wireless function so the students could not get online to research the answers to the questions. Access to the Internet has become an issue with examination proctors. In a nearby college, one candidate discovered he had access to the Internet during his comprehensive examination and then entered the entire question into the Google search engine. He downloaded several articles and even e-mailed a colleague for some feedback. And even though floppy diskettes were not allowed, he managed to slip in a thumb drive with notes on it.

This is not just hearsay. What the student failed to realize was every time he got online he was leaving behind a history of links visited and the times he visited them. Every search he entered into Google was stored in its entirety. Every site visited was recorded. When he trashed the PDF files he retrieved online, there was still a record of it. When he inserted his g:\ drive into the computer, there was a record of it in Word. When he called up Yahoo to check his mail, he left his address behind.

There are tools available to clean your tracks and you can do a decent job even without fancy software. But there is no replacing good common sense and hard work. Despite a detailed chronology of computer activity that was constructed based on this person’s cheating, he still sought an academic appeal. The gun was smoking and the knife still dripping. There were witnesses, photographs, video surveillance, and a self confession but he still sought an appeal.

Hope springs eternal.

Thirty Years of Damage February 24, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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wrestle I came across a photograph of myself on the Markham District High School Wrestling Team around 1975. I was a third string wrestler, at best. In my weight class there was an All-Ontario champion and a Regional champion. It was my first year as a wrestler and my first time to learn how to stick to a training regimen.

The coach, a pro football player named Houston, told us all that if we stuck with the program we would all be the fittest we had ever been in our lives. He was right, of course. I ran, stretched, did calisthenics, and practiced moving every muscle in my body. It was great. I felt like I was floating through the day, until practice came.

What is really interesting about this image is that it was so faded when I first found it. Not only that, but it has a tear across the center, a gouge near my leg, and staple holes from when it was first stuck to the bulletin board next to the change room. How it did not get more mutilated, I’ll never know.

I scanned the image at 600 dots per inch (dpi) resolution and using Microsoft’s Photo Editor, I was able to smudge out the rips, and blur some of the holes into irrelevancy. I am sure there are some professionals who have even better tools for doing this job. If I had my choice and time, I would have electronically removed little pieces of the original image and pasted them over the damaged parts then smudged the joins.

In any event, I am quite happy with the results considering the horrible damage with which I began.

Videoconferencing Takes Off February 23, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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ineen   There have been a number of developments recently in desktop videoconferencing. We have been using Breeze in the College, but lately I have been noticing a real degradation in quality of video and much more freezing of the conference. I use MSN Messenger for contacting my family, and I have recently been using Yahoo Messenger to communicate with friends as far away as Egypt and Angola. The video service is usually pretty crisp and not at all jerky. Apparently Skype is now doing video but I have not checked on it lately.

I still would like to try two new services: Ineen and Sightspeed. Ineen will allow multiple videoconferences and that is certainly a feature we could use in the college. Sightspeed has both free and subscription services. One of the benefits is that you can leave VideoMail in a mailbox. With the number of students learning American Sign Language in this college, I would think a Video Mailbox would be a great idea.

There are so many excellent services available. The one I would like to see now would be the one that can allow me to videoconference with anyone, regardless of the service they use. My goal for this summer’s Educational Leadership course that I am teaching is to run as many online conferences as possible to get students into the mode of working and collaborating online. We will have to see how that goes.

E-mail Ignorance February 22, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Students.
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client   Some people, paid as teachers and called teachers, are simply not teaching. This weekend, a colleague on a discussion list shared her frustrations with a statistics course. The section she took the previous semester had one of these non-teachers. She wrote: 

I would make appointments to do the make up exams and handed in all homework… I NEVER got a single thing back from the instructor, he would not show up to administer the tests, he never returned phone calls (He later told me, glibly, that he didn’t know how to use his voice mail codes) and ignored email. 

That attitude is enough to rattle my chains of memory all the way back to a conversation I had with a professor six years ago. She admitted with pride that she never answered e-mails when she first received them. She also could not understand how students would get upset if she did not answer promptly. She thought it absurd and reprehensible that these upstart students would use the pretence of e-mail to make her somehow feel inadequate as an educator and she would have nothing of it. She had dug in her feet on the issue and that was that. 

My own personal philosophy is to respond to e-mails as quickly as possible to let the people at the other end know I am trying to deal with their issues. I try to give them a little heads up on how long it will take me to do the work or I offer brief suggestions on how they might resolve whatever problem they have been trying to work out. 

The results for me have been an increase in work. People seek you out when they know you will be helpful. The bad news is that there has been an increase in work. At least, I think there has. If I can resolve an issue right away then it clears out my queue of things to do and I am not looking at the message sitting in my tray begging for a response but, on the other hand, if I do wait a few days to answer, people get edgy and a little irritated. As my predecessor once said, “It’s your own fault.? However, what is not our own fault? In some respect, we are responsible for our own personal pile of stuff. It was my choice to answer e-mails and be helpful and it served my need to develop a reputation. It was my predecessor’s choice to write two books, one after the other. As a result, ignoring requests for brief pieces of his time earned him a different sort of reputation. We live with the choices we make. 

Boxed Scientists February 21, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.
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Scientist   There is a neat little site on the web called “Who’s the Scientist?? in which seventh grade students describe a scientist and sketch one, then visit the Fermi Lab and meet working scientists. The descriptions shift from nerdy and geeky to cool and interesting.

I think that such a transformational shift is something that educational technology, specifically Information Communication Technology (ICT), can and should be doing in the classroom. When you can bring “in? to your classroom a scientist, explorer, politician, professor, executive, police officer, or actor using a web cam or e-mail then why not do it? The benefits to the students might be a slightly better understanding of a process, theory, policy, or career but the overwhelming benefit would be the opportunity to interact with a human being.

We tend to box people, staple labels onto people and ignore their years of life and experience to make the label stick and work for us. When I was a young teacher, I was Mr. Poetry then I began teaching a class in Science Fiction writing. I became Mr. Sci-Fi. When I began teaching more Special Education classes, I became Mr. Special Ed. It did not matter who I was or what I had been interested in, for people who were meeting me for the first time, they had to print up a mental label and pop me into the box. Now I am Mr. Technology. That is fine with me since the label allows me the opportunity to enter seamlessly conversations of my peers.

Students receive boxed and pre-packaged views of what people really are. They base these views upon what they do now and what we see of them. Get to work alongside a scientist for a while and you will see the person the scientist is. This theory goes for anyone. Work with a custodian and you will learn about that person. Work with a police officer, a doctor, a mechanic, an artist, and you will find out about the person. It seems basic, I know, and too simple a concept, but when students try to find their way in life they are always startled to learn that career people are not the career caricature promoted in the media. We cannot blame the media; the stereotypes are shorthand. They are colors in a writer’s palette. The simplifications help the writer to guide us to the message at the heart of the story faster.

The problem with stereotyping is that there is less “gray? and more absolute. There is one opinion and there is the opposite opinion. There is very little “in between.? When you enter for the first time the world of the caricatured scientist or career person, you have cognitive dissonance and you try to match your preconceptions with the new data hitting your senses and your mind.

When you think of the act of bringing in a guest speaker from that perspective, it makes the Adopt a Scientist programs [more links here and here] even more important. You may be cracking a young person out of a stiff and distorted view of the world and making those young people a little more sensitive to new ways of thinking and giving them the opportunity to use their brains.

Seeds in Winter (Part Two) February 20, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.
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 Part Two of a Commentary for Education Week (continued from February 19, 2006) 

The best example of this marvelous integration of insight and inspiration with creativity and curriculum occurred at an Open House one winter. Teachers invited students to take 16-millimeter movie film that they had chemically stripped of images so it was just clear acetate. We students then took markers and dabbed dots of color in the blank frames between the film’s sprockets. After some minutes of filling the frames with dabs of color, random dots, and heavy lines, the teacher ran the film through a projector and played, as accompaniment to the riot of colors, an Invention by J. S. Bach played on the Moog synthesizer, an invention that was also quite new and radical at the time. It was wonderful and it was eye opening. Years later, I am able to describe the moment as a transformational experience.

My head spun for weeks at the idea that performers could modernize classical music and we could synchronize it with our random splashes of colors. Since then, I have heard Bach played in huge symphony halls on priceless instruments and I have heard him played in small rooms on instruments as humble as a harmonica and a saw. Musicians have interpreted his work for jazz quartets, acappella singers, and even highlighted it with traffic sounds. Every one of these joyful experiences and experimentations began with notations on a page of music and my enjoyment of it all began that snowy night.I was also impressed with the technique of physically drawing on film.

This technique, I learned later, was homage to Canada’s own Norman MacLaren, a superb experimental filmmaker who took film and manually added colors and scratches to great effect. MacLaren’s deconstruction of film and filmmaking led to my own experiments with the adaptation of story to film and later to powerful ways of teaching poetry to adolescents. My teachers showed me that the finished product is, in reality, the starting point. We climb on the shoulders of those who went before us. We use their vision as our tools for exploration and we press onward. What I learned from that one brief experience at an Open House on a snowy winter night in 1973 was that curriculum is simply the leading edge of a powerful process. On that evening, teachers planted seeds for a lifelong interest in my own exploration of the limits of technology in the classroom. From that humble seminal experience, I learned enough about experimental films and music through that single demonstration to propel me forward and begin my own educational journey. That was enough to start me on a path to learning about the physics of animation and color, of music and dance, of writing and beauty.

Most importantly, I learned that curriculum was then and is now a starting point to an adventure. I examine new curriculum and new technological tools in the light of the tension between what is instrumental and what is aesthetic. In the development of curriculum, there should always be the question of whether the objectives inform and inspire or dictate and depress.

Thus it was that one recent February evening, I sat, a little uncomfortably, behind a desk in a middle school classroom my daughter would attend next year and listened closely to the words of her future teachers for signs that they, too, understood that curriculum was just the beginning of her great adventure.

Seeds in Winter (Part One) February 19, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.
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Part One of a Commentary for Education Week (continued on February 20, 2006) 

In the dead of winter, inspiration can blossom. The first visit to my daughter’s future middle school last week reminded me of a similar Open House years before and focused my attention on the nature of curriculum in general.

Before becoming Director of Technology at a College of Education, I was first a classroom teacher of English Literature and Special Education. Over the years, it has become my role in both the college and community to advocate for educational technology, to rail at congress for cutting funds, and to share not only the newest tools but also the best practices of using technology in the classroom. My fervor and fascination with educational tools and teachers who use them comes from almost three full decades of teaching. I feel a special bond with teachers who see potential in a machine because the machine, they know, may help students see the potential in themselves. It might come as a surprise that my earliest formal training in educational technology was a hands-on session on how to thread a 16-millimeter film projector. That was it. That session was a requirement of all graduates from the College of Education I attended.

A guiding assumption about the nature of curriculum informs my work and that assumption began to take shape after one particular event during my high school education. Even in that technology-light teaching and learning environment, teachers were still using overhead projectors and reserving reel-to-reel audio dramatizations of Twelfth Night and King Lear. After years of experiencing the words of Shakespeare in text and spoken word only, you might imagine the thrill both students and teachers had in experiencing the bard’s work in a live performance.

Even if all we had today in the classroom were tape recorders, film projectors, and oversized and overweight opaque projectors, there would still be teachers pushing the limits of these tools and I would be one of them. A few well-placed holes in construction paper taped over an opaque projector will provide a low cost planetarium. Several sheets of acetate and an overhead projector, in the hands of a creative teacher, will evolve into a crude animation to demonstrate a tricky concept. We used what we had.

In my high school, I had the honor of having classes with several excellent teachers who pushed the limits of the tools. As individuals, they tried very hard to bring literature to life and by the time my high school career ended, they had inspired me to follow their example. These teachers encouraged me to examine things I might have taken for granted and use them in new ways. The formal curriculum, for them, was only a part of the journey and the wisest of my teachers knew this. Focusing on a narrow strip of skills they could assess on a summative evaluation was a domain reserved for teachers new to the profession, for teachers with little life experience, and for teachers devoid of creativity in their own lives.

Continued tomorrow . . .