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Visualizing Web Pages May 28, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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(Author's Note: I apologize for my absence over the past two weeks. Whatever I had knocked the wind out of my sails and made the writing process seem less like a great adventure and more like a dark dull chore.)

663   A few years ago, I attempted to explain the structure of a discussion list with the analogy of a feather boa. The inner thread was the temporal axis. Each feather represented a discussion topic. Some discussion topics were brief and airy while others were fat and lengthy. They all fed into the boa and added to the complete experience. The list went in no particular direction but the sum total of the words written on the list went toward the definition of itself in cyberspace and cyber time. The list took on a shape and form and the best analogy for me was the feather boa.

Now I have encountered a great tool for visualizing a simple web page. http://www.aharef.info/static/htmlgraph/  This tool excites me as it might help in the analysis of my discussion lists at another time. This tool requires you to simply type in a web address (URL) and then an embedded applet translates the different links, images, tags, tables, block quotes, and other elements of a web page into dots of color connected to each other.

In the image above you can see a map of a class I am teaching this summer called “Computer Applications and Educational Administration.” Since I have use the block quote function to neaten up the page, you see a core of orange dots surrounded by link to the article and the occasional web page with forms and a very few images. Try inputting a few of your favorite sites into the tool and watch as your web site evolves. Some of my favorites to try are apple.com with its simple look and so many links to forms that one part resembles a yellow sea urchin.

tawl

This image represents the archives for my discussion list and had not finished loading. It would have kept going for 10,000 archive entries so I stopped it when the pattern emerged.

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Rules May 15, 2006

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Lessons about running a lab

  1. Machines break
  2. Machines grow obsolete
  3. Challenges are either increasingly complex or increasingly tedious
  4. Media stocks deplete
  5. Machines disappear
  6. Neither faculty nor students believe rules apply to them
  7. Web cams give guests the heebie jeebies.
  8. Paperwork will never end
  9. Coffee grows cold
  10. The shorter the time remaining in the semester; the shorter the nerves.

Experience counts May 14, 2006

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moviemaker   This afternoon, I experienced a case study in experience. A dear friend who was recently married wanted to make a PowerPoint slide show of forty of her wedding photos. She took six hours to make sure the music and the photos synchronized. That meant only that there were enough photos to bridge the length of the song.

She wrote today asking for a little help in making the presentation loop. That was a snap but I suggested she might consider MovieMaker. I had just finished making a forty-slide movie using that software. I had created a PowerPoint a year ago for my daughter’s friends, but to celebrate her graduation from fifth grade I thought it would be nice to make a few movies. The steps of converting the PowerPoint were very simple.

First, I saved the PowerPoint as a jpg image file. Selecting this option prompts PowerPoint to ask if you want all the slides or just the current one. Well let us just take all, shall we? PowerPoint created a file for me, which I placed on the desktop.

In MovieMaker, I set up a new project, imported the images, and imported a short piece of music by Mark Mothersbaugh from The Royal Tenenbaums. I dragged the music onto the timeline and selected “create AutoMovie.” A few minutes later, the software had placed all the slides into the same order in which I had imported them from the original PowerPoint. Each slide had some random transitions based on the way the program perceived the beat of the music.

The whole process, with a few tweaks to add a few special effects, took about ten minutes. I am looking forward to sharing MovieMaker with my friend. When she sees how easily and professional her slides can look, I think she will begin using it for some of her lecture slideshows.

Back from the brink May 13, 2006

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silvermouse   It is a funny thing what strep can do to your interest in running a few words together to form a sentence. When my daughter had her sleepover last weekend, one of her little friends brought in the strep virus. Somehow, both my daughter and I picked it up. I was feeling odd on the Tuesday and came home for a sleep. Meanwhile, her mother had already brought her home.

We both slept. I had an hour’s nap while she slept for much of the day. It was not until the next day that we found out we had strep. Therefore, with much catching up to do, I had to abandon the blog this week. I am almost feeling ready to tackle some of the many issues that have arisen in the world of educational technology and there have certainly been a few.

First, I have to make another staff movie. On Tuesday, I will be the Master of Ceremonies for the Staff Advisory Council Luncheon and Awards Ceremony. I had made a little montage video of shots of every staff member in the building. Almost. It turns out I had missed a few administrative assistants. In a building like ours, there are always comings and goings. In fact, I had hired a replacement for my own right-hand man, Rick. After three weeks of juggling work in his absence, his replacement started.

It could have been the people, it could have been the workload, it could have been a hundred factors, but they all conspired to sour the experience for him and after three days, he tendered his resignation noting the job was suited to three people or a young hot shot.

The young hot shot started yesterday so that freed a little time for me to word on making an addendum to the first staff movie. It is a hoot with the majority of clips taken from the cutting room floor, so to speak. I even have my daughter included. I ended up missing just one person and she really wanted to be in the film, so I had my daughter call to me that Sherry M. was on the phone and sounded upset.

The point of the films is to praise the staff for working so hard during the year. I will also be giving out the third annual Silver Mouse Awards. Two silver plated mice to the administrative assistant who had most impressed me with technical competence. Usually the winners are surprised. Eventually, everyone in the building will have one of these awards. The secret is that they are roller ball mice and most of us prefer to use the optical kind. Photos of the ceremony will be in a future blog.

In Praise of Clean Desktops May 6, 2006

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desktop   A couple of decades ago, during an interview for a position of Special Education chair, I encountered a principal who was so organized that he developed a reputation for clarity and neatness in expression and action. During my brief interview in his office, I noticed his desktop was remarkably free of paper and the other examples of detritus that we pick up during the course of a day’s work.

At the time, I worried that he was too neatly organized. Such neatness suggested aloofness and distance from the daily hurly burly of life in a bustling high school. This sort of clutter free environment extends now, for me, the computer desktops. I have fewer than six icons and folders on my home desktop with the occasional work document parked there to remind me of work left uncompleted.

I have also witnessed some of the most cluttered desktops I have ever seen and now I think that a cluttered desktop may reflect a cluttered mind. One of our professors has pasted perhaps forty or fifty icons on an already cluttered desktop. It has the most complicated desktop image of a wildly overgrown cactus garden. If you wanted to find something, you would have to first discern where the icon ends and the desktop begins.

I am not sure if there is a correlation between a cluttered desktop, either computer or physical workspace, and a busy life but some sort of correlation link seems to exist. On the other hand, perhaps it is like the barber with the shaggy hair. The person who does the most work has the least time to play around with making his environment neat.

Mushroom rings May 5, 2006

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Fairy rings   When I used to live in a place with thick lawns to mow, one of the things that surprised me was the occasional sudden appearance of rings of mushrooms in the dewy morning grass. They had not been there the day before and their perfect circular appearance was a great treat for the eye. Then I mowed them down.

As I walk about the computer lab, marveling at the way students had pushed the computers askew, streaked the screens with marks of fingers, and caused the general migration of yellow chairs from one part of the lab to the other, I encounter my own version of mushroom rings. Despite my admonitions, I see the green Limewire icon on the desktop. I find Yahoo Messenger and Yahoo toolbars. I see news and strange desktop images and strange new clusters of icons from recently installed programs.

Some experts in the field would have already urged me to lock the machines down but since this is a college of education and I want students to get to learn how a computer works, I made the decision to tolerate occasional infractions of lab policy and simply took a few seconds to remove the offending software. We finally have a solution that is affordable and manageable.

Next week we will purchase Deep Freeze. This software solution is akin to putting on rubber gloves, messing around with all sorts of gore, dirt, and paint, then stripping off the gloves. This software effectively “freezes” the set up of the computer so you can add programs, move icons, change data, reset the machine any way you wish. When you re-boot the computer, everything is set back to the way it was.

Of course, there are ways to add updates for the operating system and the anti-virus. If some one in the lab were to bring in a virus or download some nasty software that would disrupt the desktop, a simple re-boot will bring everything back to the way it had been. I visited a lab on campus that was using the same system and it had totally changed the way she maintained her lab.

Smart? Boards May 4, 2006

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smartboards   Later in the day, during Elliot Soloway’s visit to Tucson, I was part of a small team that visited our new charter school site. The college is setting up a charter school for grades 6 to 12 beginning with grade 6 and 7 then adding a grade a year. We are using an abandoned Learning Center on the south side of Tucson.

The building is undergoing repairs but the good news, as far as technology goes, is that there is a small computer center with plenty of drops for multiple computers. At this point, there are 15 Ethernet outlets in the wall and, with special switches, we could easily accommodate more connections without degrading the bandwidth usage too greatly.

Eliot suggested that the first year or so we should rely on a wired solution and eventually move to wireless. It makes sense to use the extant technology architecture, especially if they ever consider moving to other facilities closer to the university.

The concept of a handheld-centric school still holds a great deal of potential for teachers and students. The key element would be intensive training for teachers and all users of the technology. The goal would be to have a parallel set up so we could train teachers on the technology in a corner of my facility. One surprise I did not anticipate before my meetings with Dr. Soloway was his lack of interest in SmartBoards. These boards are like interactive whiteboards where you can display your computer screen on a board for students to see. Students also have the capacity for interacting with the screen for all to see.

I am tending to agree with Elliot and the Dean that teachers primarily use SmartBoard technology as a demonstration tool. The technology that engages students the most with the content and with each other is the technology we should focus on.

By the way, Elliot's talk to our Erasmus Circle was captured and we have made it available as a podcast at www.ed.arizona.edu/podcasts.

 

Suspending disblief May 3, 2006

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soloway   Today, Dr. Elliot Soloway of The University of Michigan paid the College a visit. He is helping our Dean set up a charter school in Tucson and we all want it to be bristling with relevant and appropriate technology that will engage learners to their fullest. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once advised people to “suspend their disbelief” when reading so as to more fully engage with the poetry. I take that advice to heart the first time anyone talks about the positive benefits of a new technological tool.

Elliot and I worked out the first steps of a budget for the school’s technology efforts and in the afternoon, we visited the school site to see where the machines would reside. Overall, I was impressed with his vision of using handheld computers to engage students in writing and science projects. However, when it came to reading I was no longer able to suspend my disbelief. It turns out that their plan involves using eReader from Adobe to read electronic books. There are thousands of titles available online free but those are the titles that are in the public domain. Those are the ones published a generation ago.

I am concerned that students will not be able to access some of the newer novels without paying for them. Will students in that handheld-centric school be able to read Lovely Bones or anything by Ray Bradbury? It would be quite limiting to access only literature that is in the public domain. They will be able to read Huckleberry Finn and Red Badge of Courage with an eReader, but will they have access to notes? The notes, added much later can breathe understanding into a difficult text with dated language and antique phrasing. Will there be assistance with difficult passages? Are abridged versions of longer text available in the public domain? My disbelief will remain unsuspended until I can get a few answers to my questions.

DVD memories May 2, 2006

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1962   In Arizona, where I live and work, there are several routes to go about getting a teachers’ certificate. We have three universities and several community college systems. The University of Arizona is in an awkward situation when it comes to granting professional certificates such as we do in the College of Education. We cannot simply hire a slew of adjunct professors with excellent life experience to share through a wide range of short courses. We have professors who are devoted to the subject matter but they have, in addition to their role of teacher, the role of researcher and since we are a university with a research focus, we must require our tenured and tenure-track faculty to research.

This makes it difficult, not impossible, but difficult, to react efficiently to shifting market trends in the needs for teachers in certain subject areas. We, as a college, are a little slower to move and react than smaller institutions. Consequently, our students take longer to finish their programs but get a fuller experience with more hands on interactions with children in the schools. I noticed this today, the last day of classes for my students.

We shared final video projects and discussed the pros and cons of some of the assignments. Since I was tinkering with the curriculum, again, I wanted to hear from them, informally, about a few of the assignments. This interaction and introspection about the curriculum and our teaching practices is something that happens in a research-centric college.

As I watched my students share a few of their movies, I was genuinely pleased to see that they were not simply doing the work for credit or to get through the most courses in the shortest time. One of my students created a DVD of a trip she took to the zoo with the students in a school were she was doing observations. She brought in a pack of DVDs and proceeded to work at the DVD until it exactly matched her vision. Once it was completed, she made twenty-five copies, one for every student in the class. What is more exciting is that she was not the only one to do this. The only visual remnant of my own Kindergarten years is a group photo taken in front of Manhattan Park Public School in late 1962. What a treasure a DVD of a field trip from those days would be today.

There is something to be said about moving slowly through the process of training to become a teacher.

Night walking May 1, 2006

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nightwalk   What with taking on a new employee, dealing with Palo Verde blossoms that are backing up my sinuses, and training a new puppy, life has taken a decidedly busier than usual turn for me. At least I am exercising and technology can certainly help in that regard.

I download a few lectures and shows that sound thought provoking and set off walking almost every evening. If you know me, you will know that I have very little patience for down time and exercise always seemed like down time. Now, I simply plug myself in and walk. I am up to five miles now.

When I get home, I flip on Google Earth and use the measure tool to determine just how far I have walked. I suppose if I wanted to could chart my daily walks but I do not want to go overboard with them. It is funny; I have over 1200 songs on the iPod but I have not listened to very many. I am enjoying the talks. Today, I listened to David Berliner discuss the weaknesses of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Yesterday I listened to a couple of day’s worth of radio shows from Toronto. Before that, I listened to lectures on the Byzantine Empire and began pondering how they might tie into a piece on educational administration and administrators.

It seems to me that the more broadly you listen, the more depth you gain, and the more likely you are to pull together new threads of thought to your own daily musings. The alternative to listening broadly would be to live with the sound of your own echo.