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Smoothing the surface April 14, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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smooth   The details beneath the surface of educational technology make it so challenging and intriguing to my students. After working almost non-stop yesterday with a series of students and their issues, I suddenly realized their motivation. They are trying to work amazing feats behind the scenes and make the result appear effortless.

At 6:30, I helped a student edit a video of an interview with a former Intelligence officer. He took an hour of tape and worked very hard to edit out what was irrelevant, smoothed out the edits with cross fades, and made sure his quotations were readable on the computer screen. When the CD is finished, it will be smooth, understandable, and not lose viewers impatient at wading through banter to get to the meat of the interview.

At 8:00, I met a student who had been working on a survey for months. After carefully constructing his questions and the overall design, he now needed to make the data drop carefully into columns he could later analyze. He designed the survey so he could work effectively with the resulting data, prove hypotheses, crunch numbers, generate graphs, and write an effective paper. What his respondents saw was a simple series of questions.

At 10:00 I worked with a student who simply needed to open Word on her laptop. Two hours later, after fishing around for the reasons for the failure, attempting to install patches, reading support documents, and poking through layers of the computer’s registry, there was nothing to be done to breath life back into the only thing she wanted, the chance to work on a document.

At 12:00, a researcher from the state school for the deaf and blind sat with me to determine how difficult a particular project would be. She wanted teachers and parents to submit answers to a survey they had used before, but this time, she wanted the data tabulated differently so the results would show not only a chronological age of the child but a developmental age. Once again, the major effort of the task would happen well behind the scenes.

At 1:00, a professor reported problems printing. The solution was something hidden behind the task of hitting the print button. Replacing one corrupted printer driver was all it took to get him working again.

The stream of students, researchers, professors, colleagues, and others continued unabated. I wrote to my wife that I had been carrying a dry tea bag around since ten waiting for a break in the action.

At 2:00, I had to create an affiliate account to arrange for an e-mail address for a new employee who had not yet received one. This task involved going through two account administrators, a dean, and a programmer. The result was an e-mail address but we expended a large effort just to make that simple thing possible.

At 2:30, I received a call of frustration from the Business Office as they tried to make a few key links work on a web page. They had tried to make them active since mid-morning but something was just not working. They needed to call in “professional help.” When I returned their message, I wondered with them if the professional help they needed was more psychological than technological. A minute in, we had discovered the problem: a few misplaced percentage signs.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with my own details behind the scenes. For some reason my video podcasts (vodcasts) were getting error messages. After many attempts to figure it out through researching the net, it finally became apparent; the Apple video compression I had applied to my historic College film clips would not work on a PC without converting them first.

So what motivated us to work on these projects so diligently? I am beginning to think it is two things: the joy of working through a problem to make something function and the joy of presenting a clean and clear image of our work to the world. Perhaps this need is what drives us to dress up, or work out, or read to improve ourselves. Perhaps this is why I memorized William Butler Yeats when I was sixteen, so I could recite from memory at a meeting. Perhaps we are feeding our egos; perhaps we are just trying to reflect what the best within us is.

I like to think we have an innate need to dig into the mushy, dirty, tangled, chaotic world of numbers and ideas and pull from it all something so clear, calm, clean, and bright that it makes sense to us and makes sense of our rough edged world.

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