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Fast Wiki March 31, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Online Tools.
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kaloogian   A funny thing happened on the way to the elections yesterday.  A candidate for office in California's 50th District, an assembly member named Kaloogian posted a photograph purporting to be a calm and peaceful downtown Baghdad street. Bloggers and others were a little suspicious of the photographs and did some investigation.  It turns out the photographs were not of Baghdad, but rather shots taken in a Turkish city.  Bloggers on the left were delighted and gleeful about this obvious attempt to bamboozle  visitors to the candidate’s web site, but what really intrigues me about the whole incident was what happened later on at wikipedia.org.

Wikipedia is an insanely fast-paced and growing online encyclopedia constructed by you and me.  It is possible to visit the site and update, add, or change information that already exists online.  This ability on the part of editors to alter immediately entries in wikipedia is both its strength and its inherent weakness.  It is its strength in that editors can quickly incorrect information that is incorrect and update information that is out of date.  For example, a couple of days ago, the White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, resigned and his job was taken over by a fellow named Josh Bolton.  If you look at the entry in the wikipedia for White House Chief of Staff you will find Josh Bolton's name there and references to the departing Mr. Card.  That update to the entry was made within minutes of the announcement by the White House.

This takes us to the candidate for California's 50th District seat.  When it became apparent that the candidate may have been trying put one over on the eyes of the voters, he quickly changed his web site. However, those following the incident quickly added a new term to wikipedia.  That term, Kaloogian, is a noun referring to a term that describes a false or out of context photo used in order to advance an agenda.  The fact this appeared in wikipedia within 24 hours of the story breaking is obviously a deliberate attempt to seed the English lexicon with a new term for political ends.

The people who run the wikipedia are quite familiar with this tactic.  They are also familiar with the fact that English is a growing language.  This particular entry has been cited for potential deletion, but before it can be removed the action is open to online discussion by wikipedia contributors.

Perhaps a new phrase for that online encyclopedia might be the transitive verb wikipediaed, which means to insert short-lived and topical references into wikipedia in order to advance a political agenda or make fun of another party.  What political operatives, sometimes fail to recall is that almost every trick used to advance your cause and just as easily be used by the other guys.

I hope you will remember where you read this when the candidate of your choice receives an unflattering treatment in wikipedia.  


Log me in March 30, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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privacy   We recently started using a software tool called logmein.com to keep track of some of our computers remotely. We have faculty members who borrow machines, get into trouble, and then call us on cell phones expecting us to walk them through the steps needed to resolve their crisis. We thought this tool might help

This online tool allows us to connect with a computer remotely and, using Active X controls, take over the machine. This is the free version of the software. The more expensive version will allow us to transfer files and folders between machines, broadcast files to multiple machines, and much more. I used the tool once or twice to retrieve a document I had left on my office computer.

We have used a similar tool in the computer lab to get an overview of the lab remotely. NetSchool Support enables us to transfer files and view every desktop in the lab at the same time. Occasionally a casual global glance around the lab reveals some disturbing browsing on the part of students. Now it was never my intent to police the lab for pornographic pages that appear on desktops, but I do encounter them. Usually all I have to do is sidle over to the user who is usually sitting on a machine with a monitor facing away from me. Often they turn off the machine and quickly leave the lab. That is usually all I need to do to remind them that they were using public machines and had signed a document stating that they would use the machines for academic purposes only.

The reason I mention this is that logmein.com raised the question on the part of some of my colleagues about privacy. One person suggested that I leave a note on the machine that I could remotely visit their machine at any time. I suppose it would be helpful but I do not even have enough time to keep up with my reading of blogs and e-mail much less monitor how people are using the computers.

Right now, I only have a few machines logged in while I am experimenting with the software, but if the program expands, I will certainly have to address this issue.  

Professional Writing March 29, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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Rick  One of my favorite writing strategies is to let the writing sit overnight or for a period of a few hours if there are deadlines pressing. It is inevitable that when I return to the piece, prepared to press the “send” button, some nuance will have presented itself usually in the form a little too much ego floating to the surface. Sometimes my initial agitation with something would still be showing through in the writing. There certainly is nothing wrong with agitated writing and writing that demonstrates emotion, but it does not always have its place in a business or professional setting. Some people would say it never has a place in such a setting.I spent the last two weekends reading 53 grant applications to Hewlett-Packard from institutes of higher education. Without sharing details of the grant proposals, they were all vying for a classrooms set of tablet PCs. The main instruction to them was to justify and rationalize why they needed to have these tools in the classroom. I must say that, for the most part, the writing was cohesive and clear, although you can certainly see individual personalities in their writing. This type of writing is supposed to be dry and professional, but I was surprised at the ways people found to generate enthusiasm for their program and their proposal. Although most of the grant applications never reached the cacophonous crescendo expected from a televised appliance salesperson or used car dealer, in the subtle language of grant writing some came serenely close. When the representatives of the institutions writing the grant refers to their host institutions as cutting edge, at the forefront, or unequaled and unparalleled then my perception of their institution is automatically on guard. It is much like interviewing for a posted position and the candidates go out of the way in the first few minutes to highlight their hard work ethic or brilliant innovation.

Unfortunately, I am going to be experiencing the same thing next week as one of our most highly prized employees is leaving for a job at another college. Our College did not challenge or reimburse his skill set as well as he expected. That means I will have to do a little more juggling than I expected to do this week, but I will get the opportunity to meet some new potential employees. Last year we had over 77 applications for the job. Wish us all luck at finding the right person and, if you know him, wish Rick all the best.

Science Fair Outreach March 28, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in General Comment.
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Science fair   I wonder sometimes how many opportunities for good public relations are lost because they require little bit of effort and legwork. Last year, when I was judging entries for the Science Fair, I kept seeing educationally related projects. Many of those projects from students in the younger grades related to analyzing the differences in studying with either classical or rock music in the background. Some of the more ingenious projects involved in teaching animals and in one case, a fish, to read. Reading, in this case, defined as the response to a symbol on a card.

Last year, I strongly suggested to our College of Education that we consider the Science Fair as an outreach by sponsoring a small prize for a student in Middle School or High School who produced a Science Fair project with a focus on learning, either the act of learning, or the act of teaching. Although several people embraced the idea to a degree, we never followed through as an institution.

I do not blame the institution; I blame myself for missing the timing. I think I presented the idea of a little too soon. In addition, the idea requires somebody to physically judge. I suspect I will be the one looking at hundreds of exhibits for that interesting one or two that focus on learning and how we learn, and how we teach. Perhaps I can gather some colleagues to join me.

I think we in the college right now are starting to feel a little burdened by our workloads and perhaps that is another reason why we have not followed through with this very easily accomplished act of outreach to the community. I believe I will mention this to the Dean again and this time set a timetable up for action.

Open Wide, Gift Horse March 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Funding, Online Tools.
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katrina   Last week, the news announced that Mrs. Barbara Bush, mother of the current president, was supporting victims of hurricane Katrina by giving money to the Houston area schools to spend on an educational product marketed and sold by her son, Neil. Without trying to cast aspersion on Mrs. Bush’s largess, she appears to have found an excellent way of transferring some of her estate to her son, indirectly of course. I know my colleagues will ask me about this because of my position as Director of Technology and a doctorate on this very topic, the purchase of software by school districts. From an ethical point of view, I suppose my answer will not make some people happy with me. Mrs. Bush is a private citizen and as such is free to give her money to whomever she wishes with whatever stipulation she desires. The Houston Independent School District is also free to turn that same money down if it disagrees with stipulations set by the donor.

The act of rejecting such a gift might have negative fallout. However, one solution to what could be construed as a sticky situation would be for the school district to accept or purchase several sets of software and test it on a few select classes then make a decision to purchase it district wide or to recommend it for purchase by other districts by providing testimony to its effectiveness.

The sticky part of this situation is that the district had already accepted 15 of the programs two years earlier, and wrestled over conflict of interest concerns at that time. If the district accepts the software donation, they are explicitly endorsing the software and providing entrée for it into one of the two major educational markets in the United States. The state of Texas as a market for textbooks drives textbook adoption policies across the entire country. Texas and California followed closely by New York are the three largest textbook markets. Textbook publishers ignore them at their peril.

The same goes for publishers of educational software. Acceptance into these markets means a dominant place in the panoply of educational software publishers and access to many other business opportunities. Mrs. Bush is also an educational beneficiary in a number of universities example she has sponsored the Barbara Bush chair in reading at a Texas University. She has made a very canny business decision to support her son and has wisely avoided contributing to the Bush-Clinton Katrina relief fund, choosing instead to donate to the Bush-Clinton Houston Hurricane Relief Fund; her request was that victims of hurricane Katrina use this educational software.

It might be difficult to assure the former first lady that victims of Katrina would actually receive the software since it is a tool used with an entire class of students. Such a software package is not content-poor software, such as a word processing program or spreadsheet program. It is content-rich software and, as a result, can dictate the direction curriculum in schools adopting it will take.

School district officials should do the right thing and attempt to retain their integrity and independence when it comes to curriculum. Acceptance of such gifts with strings could quite easily lead to pressure from fringe groups to accept their curricular tools into the schools. Pick your boogeyman, Intelligent Design or Secular Humanism; the door is open to either.

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if you have some doubt that the four-legged creature in front of you is a horse in the first place. 

iPod March 26, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware.

iPod   Last week, I suggested I would start sharing new software tools and toys on the Sunday blog. I usually like to talk about free things, the great applications you can find online that cost nothing. This week, however, I have to admit that I purchased an iPod for my wife for her birthday. I am not sure why I held off purchasing such a fascinating tool for so long, but I believe the truth is something to which I have already alluded. I don't like to spend money. I spend my days trying to stretch the technology penny for faculty and students and try to make wise and economical purchases whenever possible.

I suppose it really should come as no surprise to me that I have not purchased an iPod for the same reason. I keep thinking there must be an inexpensive way to download and play MP3 music and podcasts. I should note that there are many ways to download and play music on your computer already. Therefore, even though I know it is possible for students to simply click on a link and download a podcast, I have been trying to find a way of making sure students can listen to these podcasts easily and without the need for an iPod or some other expensive tool.

Now that we actually have an iPod in the House, I find the process of updating podcasts and downloading them on to my, I should say my wife's, iPod are making me feel like I'm partaking of a guilty pleasure from using this new toy.

Yesterday, while reviewing grants for Hewlett-Packard, that is another story, I transferred almost 30 CDs from my wife's collection to her iPod. Most of the CDs transferred well, but I did find that some of the older ones were not reading as well on my computer I thought it must've been a version issue. It turns out in four of the five cases, that somebody, probably the five-year-old who used to live in this house and who is now an 11-year-old used the CDs for an art project and severely scratched them. I think it will not be too difficult to find James Taylor's Greatest Hits somewhere or other. He is still a popular singer. I stacked the CDs in the living room so my wife would have a visual of just how much music was stored on her iPod.

It is a strange blend of hands-on and high-tech tasks when one sets about transferring an entire CD collection over to an iPod. There is the physical routine of inserting the CD into the computer and clicking the appropriate buttons and waiting. There is the knowledge that you are transferring millions and millions of bits of data soundlessly and weightlessly across wires and into a machine that will play in these sounds back for your entertainment purposes. I am not sure why I am still so in all of that process. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am an early adopter of many new technologies, not all of them, but for quite a few technologies when I think they can be useful to my life or work.

Bad Breakups March 25, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.

dontdate   Yesterday one of my students came to me concerned about her grade. She was also concerned that I had not been grading her blog entries. It turns out, because of a communication error, I had never and added her blog in to my RSS feed on www.bloglines.com. She was actually one of the more prolific writers in the class. She was a little concerned that I had not responded to her writing. I certainly rectified that right away.

My student had lately been suffering from the mean reds. I had never heard this phrase before, I correct myself, I had heard the phrase before in the movie Breakfast at Tiffanys but had long since forgotten it.

You may recall from the book and the movie that, unlike the blues, the mean reds are an angst-like feeling of hopelessness, confusion, and desperation. One of the things that cause the mean reds for my student was a very bad breakup. Now affairs of the heart are tricky thing in general and frustration can certainly reign in one’s life for a while following a bad breakup. The Internet is creating a new wrinkle in that whole process.

My student directed me to a site called don’t date him girl. This site is designed for women who have been jilted, dumped, abandoned, turned upon, and generally left sitting on the raw end of a bad relationship. They are encouraged to document in brief anecdotes their case and urge everyone else to avoid dating the man who just hurt her.

On the one hand, this is extremely empowering but on the other hand, there is a lot of potential for abuse of the system. What is to stop somebody from writing a vitriolic piece about the other party in a relationship that just did not work out? Actually, the man at the subject of the piece has the opportunity write a rebuttal to the anecdote. However, the offended party who initiated the anecdote does get a chance to respond to the rebuttal.

Even if you have not been party to a bad breakup, these anecdotes make for some fun reading, photos included. There appeared to be many married cads out there misrepresenting themselves. Let us hope this site opens a few eyes and raises a few questions.

Science Fair 2006 March 24, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Students.
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winners   Last night, the Tucson Convention Center hosted the grand awards ceremony for the citywide science fair competition.  The evening’s guests were students from kindergarten through fifth grade.  My daughter and her two friends decided to strategize this year and produced a team project.  Their thinking was that, as a team, they would have less competition and a greater chance for an award.

Their strategy paid off in the form of a third-place ribbon for each of them.  Of course, the down side of the team’s strategy is that individuals would not be eligible to attend the International Science Fair as observers as part of the discovery channel program.  The girls were willing to take this chance.

Their project consisted of an analysis of different insulating materials on the internal temperature of a hot box, which they created.  They monitored the temperatures on the inside of the box with electronic thermometer.  Just for fun, they placed a mouse pad made of neoprene in place of the other materials they were using for installation, and discovered that neoprene possessed tremendous insulating factors.

I believe that if the girls had analyzed the qualities of neoprene, perhaps under a microscope, or researched the properties of neoprene on the Internet, they may have placed even higher in the rankings.  As it was, they were quite excited to place at all and proudly walked across the stage last night.  They remain firmly convinced that any one of them could someday grow up to be an engineer or scientist of some note.

On the drive home from the ceremony, we were already planning the project for next year.

Inspired March 23, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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Inspiration Today in class, we had a real teachable moment. With my students’ permission, I shared some of their Inspiration projects with the rest of the class. Two of the presentations stood out. One dealt with the signs of the zodiac and included images, interesting shapes, different colored lines, plenty of details, and a well organized overall construction.

The other inspiration project, dealt with activities at a summer camp. For each of the colored boxes in her presentation, each representing a different rotation on a different topic, one could click on the box and see a detailed note about the activity. The rest of the class was quite impressed and immediately asked the student, “How did you do that??

This exchange of information is exactly what new technologies can bring to education. I took the opportunity to leap on my soapbox in class, and reminded them that in the past students would have submitted writing assignments to their teachers, and rarely would know how they were doing in comparison with other students in the class. They may have submitted a single page document written in pen illustrated with a crude pencil drawing. Meanwhile the rest of the class might have submitted documents that were word processed complete with images captured from their online research.

This interaction is the heart of what technology is doing to learning in the 21st century. Using electronic collaboration tools, students are able to get a sense of where they stand in relation to their peers in the classroom, in the community, and across the country. When one person comes up with an interesting innovation in the use of a tool, they can share that innovation quickly then other students can use it and expand upon in their own work. This creates a new synergy for learning and technology is the key.

A couple of students came up to me after class and said they wanted an extension of time. They wanted to improve and rework their own projects because they had been inspired by the work of their classmates.

Touching the Screen March 22, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware, Online Tools.
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ftir   The other day I used a self-serve cash register to purchase some items from a grocery store. It was not my regular store so I thought I would take a few minutes to try the machines out. This may be a humdrum situation for many people, but I do not do that much shopping so it was still a fun new experience for me. You can ask how I have avoided shopping but the answer is simple. I am married to a bargain-hunting shopper who delights in being able to get the best value for her dollar. Secondly, since I have so few material wants or hobbies I have lost that materialistic edge. As a result, I just do not get into stores very often. 

The touch screen technology available at the grocery store and the building supplies store are simple enough, but today I viewed an online presentation of a new touch screen system that promises a vision of the future as far as this technology and computer technology can go. Look at this brief movie at http://mrl.nyu.edu/~jhan/ftirtouch/ and then find out more about it. 

The developers call it the frustrated total internal reflection (FTIR) technique. It acquires true touch information at high spatial and temporal resolutions, and is scalable to very large installations, according to their web site. 

The potential for visualizing and manipulating complicated data sets is impressive. Will these be coming soon to a classroom near you? I doubt that. However, there are so many potential applications to learning that I can certainly see these appearing at science museums in the near future. I wonder if that is the natural migratory path for these innovations. Perhaps they travel from research lab to science museum then on to university then library then schools then home. I will have to investigate a little more.