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Puppies and software April 30, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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dalai   It has been an interesting week for us. Last week I put out a call to some friends who raised dogs and asked they had any puppies available. Without even replying to my e-mail, the breeder sent my message to somebody else who, it turned out, did have a puppy available.

After performing a series of searches on the Internet for a dog similar to the one who died last January, Peppy, we finally found just the right dog in need of a home. On Friday, we brought Dalai home for the first time. Since she is a Tibetan terrier, my daughter and wife decided to name her Dalai, like the Dalai Lama. However, in this country, we hear Dalai mistakenly pronounced as Dolly, so we have named this little dog Dalai and will pronounce it as Dolly.

For what I have heard from several of the readers of this blog, they often wonder how I am going to turn some insight into my life into something to do with educational technology, aside from finding the dog through Internet connections. To my way of thinking, adopting a technology or adopting a dog are sometimes very similar experiences. I have access to Dreamweaver and many other Web design tools, but I prefer to use FrontPage to all of the others. Right now, that software suits my lifestyle, my work habits, and my needs. Therefore, even though one software package might be wildly superior to another, I am prone to sticking with a tool I know and can use very easily.

When a professor sends a job my way that requires the development of a web site or a survey, it takes me almost no time to do the job. Well, it certainly takes time, but the amount of mental labor required to complete the task, is very small indeed.

Just like getting a new dog, one fits the existing dog door and fits our lifestyle already. It may be her size or her disposition but, like software, I stick with whatever it fits my lifestyle as well. This phenomenon may very well explain why some teachers do not use certain software, make web pages, or use labor and time saving programs. It may be because they are simply used to doing things one particular way and not another.

Could it be that simple?

New Tool: SketchUp April 30, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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sketchup   It is Sunday again and that time to share a new tool with you.

Software that can make my crude sketches look professionally created is the software I will praise without limits. When that same software is easy to use and free, it leaves me deliriously enamored. I recently was able to install SketchUp from Google that is a great online drafting program. What is even better about it is that you can coordinate it with Google Earth.

First, SketchUp allows you to draw buildings and color them if you wish. The software comes with an interactive training that walks you through all the tools in the program. What is really quite fun about the software is that you can find your house, for example, in Google Earth, extract it into SketchUp, and create a three dimensional model of your house or apartment building. You can than drop that same model back into Google Earth. It is quite amazing.

Cold coffee April 28, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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icecoff   Sometimes it feels as though students and faculty circle my office in a holding pattern waiting for their chance to swoop down and ask a question. Please do not mistake this observation as whining since I love being able to assist where I can. It is just that some days it takes me hours to make a cup of tea. I start by picking up a teabag at 10, get around to boiling water by 11, re-boil it at 12 and 1, give up entirely by 2 and choose, instead, to finish up the cup of coffee still sitting on the corner of my desk that was hot seven hours earlier.

At least I get to meet some interesting people, help with some new challenges, and know I am providing a needed service where. I also do not have to sit through interminable meetings throughout the day. I discovered today that where my office can be of greatest use to students and faculty in the college is by helping them sort through the myriad of technology choices they face.

The case in point for this came today when a graduate student came in waving a VHS tape but was not sure what she needed to do with it exactly. All she knew was that her research was on this and many other tapes, they were too bulky to carry around with her, and she needed to be able to share some of the video in PowerPoints and some of the audio needed to be removed and stored separately.

To determine this took several questions that, to some of our clients, sound like challenges to their research or even their intelligence. I calmly ask my four, five, or six questions until I get to the root of what they really need. In the case of this graduate student, we were able to digitize a short segment of video for her. In a stroke of luck for her, rather than record an interview with her subject on a completely different media, she just left the videotape running and captured the subject’s voice. I was able to extract that audio with ease and create an mp3 for her. She left with a copy of her treasured video and a CD containing a video and a separate audio for later analysis.

The next step is to teach her how to do the process herself and to teach my team how to ask the same questions so we get to the same happy place with everyone.

Siblings leading April 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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siblings   Maine’s seventh and eighth grade students are getting new laptops. The old ones, a little worn around the edges, are being sold for forty-eight dollars apiece. My first thought was that my Central American teachers would jump at that price. The price is so good that the very school districts that are getting new laptops are willing to pay for the old ones too.

This makes sense when there are dozens of uses for an old laptop. A younger sibling could use the machine as a starter computer. I think Apple should be paying the tab for these machines to create brand loyalty in a new generation of users.

Another interesting thing about the new generation of computer users is that their older siblings have led the way and pushed the envelope of acceptable practices. The result is that now school districts, at least in the state of
Virginia, are requiring school superintendents to teach internet safety to all schoolchildren. This new law followed on the tail of allegations that MySpace and other social networking sites might be a source of problems for students who share images and swap stories online.

Two colleges in California are going to block MySpace and are calling it a bandwidth hog. The University of
Arizona recently gave a lunch hour talk on the effects of MySpace on sports teams. It seems students at schools of the opposing teams look up the MySpace profiles of competing athletes in order to shout derisive things at them in an attempt to shake them up. That one factoid alone, the potential loss of a berth in the NCAA’s March Madness series might just be enough to block MySpace.
Of course, if someone wanted to drive MySpace into the technological dustbin they would just have to start a word of mouth campaign that the place was no long cool and was becoming populated by university officials, police officers, curious grannies, and perverted pretenders. But then again, it just might drive MySpace underground. A simple name change and some sort of secret handshake will keep it going, but just off the radar screen.

Indigenous languages April 26, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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zepeda   Hurry. Get people you know who are in their 70s or 80s to sit in front of a microphone or a video camera and let them tell their stories. You may not think much of the stories right now, but someday they will be national treasures. It is not a new idea but it is a good one and we need to be reminded on occasion. My father has amazing stories of wandering through Europe after the war ended. He still describes the work of removing and returning bodies from the beaches of Normandy many months after fighting had ended.

While sitting in the qualifying examination for a student today, one of the participants, a scholar of indigenous languages, raised an interesting point. Too often, she had seen the promise of computer technology fall flat as a way of enriching or teaching indigenous languages.

This scholar, one of 3,000 or so speakers of the Tohono O’odham dialect and a recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, relayed how very often the computer programmers were simply putting up numbers and colors on the screen and having them fly around.

The student shared her experience of watching a student play with the word “butterfly” in Navajo. She made it multicolored, changed the font and the size, and did whatever else she could do to play with her newfound word. I wondered if seeing the word on the screen would validate her fledgling understanding of her culture and native language.

There is a great deal of validity in what both the scholar and the student brought to the discussion of indigenous language. At the heart of it there is the keen sense that both expressed that if computers are to be used to teach the language the experience cannot be passive or static. There must be interaction. The experience must be organic.

I brought up the wiki and the blog as a tool for sharing information and elaborating on a rich database over time. There was some hesitation that elders would spend much time interacting with a keyboard to create a blog or a web site. I wonder what might lie at the heart of that levity. Perhaps it would be the lack of keyboarding skills or a general lack of exposure to computers.

I think given the opportunity, perhaps with voice-to-text software, and framed as an opportunity to tell stories for posterity, you might see something quite remarkable happen.

Zenith classes April 25, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Students.
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senith   My students are churning out overdue work for me faster tan I thought possible. Who says students today do not know how to calculate in their heads. When the total points possible is 586, my students had it worked out to the decimal what they needed to get an A or a B. They did not bother working out any lower grades because, gosh darn it, they were going for the gold.

They will do fine. I recall my wonderful ninth grade homeroom teacher, who was also my math teacher, commenting years after I left her class, that my year was just the best she had had in ages. They come in cycles, she calculated, of seven years. My class was on the zenith of the cycle.

Over my years of teaching, I have experienced those zenith classes; I am still friends with some of those students. I have also experiences a few of the nadir classes. This year I had my zenith class. They were charming, polite, supportive, enthusiastic, and energetic. I am looking forward to seeing they all graduate in a few years and become teachers.

One young person, in response to an assignment that was relatively straightforward, found a series of lesson plans that looked identical but she pointed out one major difference between them that she thought would be a gold mine for new teachers: timings. The math lessons she found had timings for how to go about running the class. One lesson, for example, gave a suggestion of ten minutes of independent work before the teacher should check for answers on the first questions. This is something that comes quite naturally for experienced teachers. So much so that we forget that timing is something one learns through experience. Of course, the danger is in having too descriptive a lesson plan when a prescriptive one is called for.

Finally, to wrap up, the Dean took possession of my review of online instruction but wanted to have a better idea of what the exact response rate was. It turns out we hit 76 percent responses. Many scholars consider such a rate good for many research studies. However, this was supposed to be a command performance, a review of the college and its use of online instructional tools. I suppose I could have made thirty telephone calls to get one hundred percent, but I wonder if my colleagues would consider a perfect response rate questionable. There is always next year to find out.

Pandora April 24, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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Pandora   This evening, one of my video podcasts highlighted the web site called Pandora that supposedly had figured out the musical genomes of thousands of songs so that you could create something like a radio station that would play songs that were similar to a particular style you enjoyed.

I created a few stations based on groups like Cowboy Junkies and The Beatles and another couple based on the relatively obscure music of Mark Mothersbaugh and Nick Drake. The resulting stations as determined by their algorithm pulled in some groups and singers I had never heard about before.

So why can we not create something similar in the world of poetry. If I suggest I like the poetry of e. e. cummings I might get some great recommendations, perhaps the poems of Ted Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and Anne Sexton based on thematic treatments, rhythm, length, meter, and style. Why stop there?

Perhaps students could suggest a few favorite people with some great biographies and receive, a few minutes later, a selection of similar biographies based on readability, theme, idealism, and length of book. Why stop there?

Bernice McCarthy created a system called 4MAT for designing lessons. Based on the learning styles of students, the lessons would touch on each of four main learning styles so that everyone in the class would receive equal attention to their learning styles. Those styles, by the way, were Inspiration, Guided Practice, Independent Practice, and Synthesis. Using the same system that Pandora used to find related music, what would stop students from tuning their learning so that the assignments and readings to their learning styles? Teachers could present assignments with vocabulary geared to their reading level and gradually ratcheted up based on their evolving skills.

There actually is very little standing in the way of this happening, only the will of the teachers and school administrators to make it so.

Computer-less teachers April 23, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in General Comment, Students.
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teachers   A few weeks ago, I shared the following quotation with my students, “Technology will never replace teachers; but teachers who use technology will replace those who do not.” I posted it to let my students ponder the implications. For the most part, I stayed disengaged from the quotation itself and just absorbed my students’ reaction to it. They seemed to support the concept if I counted the number of “Right ons!” correctly. This evening, I read the first negative response to the quotation, and this from a respected leader in the field of educational technology.

It was this leader’s perspective that the quotation was fundamentally flawed. He found his evidence in the many teachers he had over the years who engaged their classes without even a piece of chalk. We have all had teachers like that at one time or another but there might be another 99 percent of the teachers who cannot hold their classes so spellbound without some sort of support. They might need an image they have found to open a mind. They might need to play a recording of a poem to share its rhythm and beat better than they ever could. They might need to share a music video, a television commercial, or a news story to prompt a discussion more concisely that they could with words alone. They might need to reference a web site to reinforce and elaborated on something said in class.

The more I think about it, those teachers who tell stories and hold their classes spellbound might not hold every student so well. Those teachers are lucky if they can assess how well their students understood the concepts. I suppose their classes are small enough and their questions to them perfectly formed and answered by all. Those teaches are lucky because they could bring a life of experiences and insights to the class and boil them into brilliant and insightful stories and were not stuck with a lackluster curriculum or set of standards into which they had trouble breathing life. Those fabulous teachers were obviously able to create assignments for students perfectly tailored to the cognitive needs of every brain in the class. I am all in favor of giving computer-less teachers a chance to cast a spell and good luck to them.  

My point about educational technology is that those of us unable to hold a class spellbound two hundred days a year can gain a fighting chance of keeping a student in school by using these tools to engage, empower, and occasionally entertain.

Adjusting the focus April 22, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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focusToday I was supposed to take my family to Kitt Peak to do some stargazing. A group of Boy Scouts bumped us because somebody in the system overbooked. Okay, that was the full extent of my vent except to mention that the Earth is passing through a comet debris trail and we were expecting to see about ten meteors an hour.

What is more important to this ongoing discussion of educational technology is that we were going to see some well-known constellations tonight. What is interesting about constellations, also known as asterisms, is that although they look two dimensional, they are actually many light years apart. If you were to move closer to the asterism, it would appear to shift and distort. What you see and how you make sense of the pattern depends on your perspective. That is a basic construct.

This afternoon, after a walk under some trees, I noticed something wriggling on my shirt. It was a bug of some sort. Unfortunately, it was too small for me to see with my glasses off and too blurry for me to see with them on. My perspective was not working properly to allow me to get a good understanding of what I was seeing.

I have often suggested to my colleagues that educational technology adds an extension to your instructional reach. It is a tool to compensate for any weaknesses. If your vision is blurry, you will wear glasses. Glasses are a great tool. If you cannot reach something, you invest in a ladder. Ladders are great tools. If you want to spread paint on a wall, you get a paint roller or a brush. These tools can help you bring your vision to fruition.

Stars and bugs, ladders and paint rollers, perspectives and tools, all these are colliding together in my professional life. It has been my role and my honor to try to bring the new vision of using technology to assist teachers in the goals of their instruction. When the perspective is absent, my job is to try to inspire, spread contagion, and help my colleagues to draw their own conclusions about the use of technology in their fields of research and teaching.

On Friday, I finally finished my review of Online Instruction. I will save the detailed conclusions to tomorrow, but what I found was an opening. Each department appears to have a unique fingerprint, of sorts, in the manner in which they use online tools. One department uses, to exclusion of every other tool discussion lists and an online readings system from the university library called e-reserves. One department is almost in an identical pattern of use with the exception of a few outliers where one professor has taken on the challenge of using a course management system for a semester. Another department used a robust array of tools in gradually decreasing numbers. For example, 40 courses may use one tool, while 20 courses use two tools, and ten courses use 3 tools, and so on. This department has the potential to lead the way and to inspire colleagues in the college with what they are doing. This department can absorb the impact of a new tool by relying on peers for advice in how to implement it. They can also inspire each other to push the limits of the tools a little.

It appears that perspective is everything. If your department is communicating well, you will likely rely on one set of tools since that is the frame of reference in which you work and the environment to which you were hired.

Perceiving poisons April 21, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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recycled   Each morning, when I flick the switches to power on the lab, I wonder how much power we are using. We try not to turn on the computers until we need them. Despite those few habits of ecology, other nagging issues lurk just beyond our conscious minds that we cannot soon ignore. Last week I calculated how long it takes a new computer to become an old one. In our college, it is about five years. I am sure in other colleges they age even faster; in some public schools I have found working Apply IIe machines.

This evening I listened to a podcast story from the BBC about the vast number of computers that end up completely off the radar. Some businesses donate them to be scavenged for major parts, but others leave the country by the pallet, the pallets leave the country by the ton. Some end up in Nigerian dumpsites while others are broken apart and shipped to different countries.

The scrap metal from cases is highly prized in China but what has become apparent is that circuit boards are being speculatively broken apart in India and China for parts. People are burning or melting wires from the circuit boards. They cook some circuit boards to release their elements. The process, often crudely performed in small villages, also releases toxic agents like dioxins. The process also releases heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury. These toxic agents enter the food chain and the local water table. One village in China has had its water supply completely poisoned. Villages must bring in fresh water now.

Where I live in Tucson, I have friends who moved from the south side of the city a few years back and bought a house with lawsuit money. Their house had been in the direct path of a plume of poison called TCE, trichloroethylene, a degreasing solvent known to cause neurotoxicity effects. This groundwater plume was five miles long and two miles wide. It is not part of a thirty square mile Superfund site designated by the Environmental Protection Agency. If this sort of pollution can happen here with strict regulations and a robust communication network, I shudder to think what money could buy in a poorer nation.

According to the BBC piece, used circuitboards are selling for over five thousand dollars a ton and the business practice is largely unregulated. I know I am contributing to the problem if I fail to ask questions. Perhaps I should delay the inevitable by turning the used circuitboards we generate into wall art. I am sure it would just be a matter of time before they were declared a fire or pollution hazard.

I should investigate this a little.