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Content v. Delivery [1] July 31, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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mary d   Mary I. Dereshiwsky of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff produced and taught one of the best courses I have ever taken. The course dealt with the development of a research project from beginning to end. For me, the content was what I came for. The graphics were a little silly, many line drawing cartoons to demonstrate a few concepts in a lighthearted way and to transition the student from one section to another.

We exchanged a huge amount of electronic mail and made use of a site called Caucus to share thoughts and ideas with the five other students in the course. It was intense and it was fun but it was, technologically speaking, very simple in design.

The course was effective for me because the assignments were challenging, relevant to the topic, personalized, and criticism was prompt, appropriate, and insightful. I have all the notes still collected in a binder. Some of them did not even come through correctly and the professor had to fax a few chapters to me.

Last January, EduCause released an opinion piece that I wish I had read earlier. The Myth about Online course Development by Diane Oblinger and Brian Hawkins set out to draw a stark line between the professor and the instructional technologist. In this symbiotic relationship, the technologist would choose the graphics, take care of the nuances of the ways in which the course will parse our information to students, and will even suggest when it is more efficient and effective to use blogs versus course management systems.

I must address a major problem with this attitude and, I suspect, by doing so I stand apart from my fellow technologists on this topic.


Schoolyard Technology July 30, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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field   We spent a lot of time watching the weather radar yesterday as we watched our backyard begin to look like a small lake. I had not seen such a thing since some of the heavier rains I experienced in Japan. There, I watched our schoolyard fill with water and was impressed with the technology of the Japanese school field.

In Japan, the vast majority of school fields are made of a rough sandy grit. From above they are dirty brown rectangles but their efficiency is invisible. First, I have spent my share of time as a teacher running across uneven fields of grass in Canada and United States. Stones, weeds, uneven grass coverage, oddly placed sprinklers, and trash are features in one corner or another of every field with which I have ever been acquainted.

Granted, they look pretty from a distance and the Japanese fields are a bit of a shock to the North American sensibilities. However, the time it poured a heavy rain on the field was the moment I began to view them differently. When the field began to fill with water there were no uneven areas. The water was not sloshed to one end or the other. It filled up perfectly evenly. This told me someone designed the field to last.

The rains from the past weekend we received on our brown stone yard caused hundreds of weeds to sprout within a matter a days. The students in Japan never had to pick weeks on their fields. I am not sure if chemicals were what kept the field weed free or perhaps it was that the sandy covering, I am still not sure what the field consisted of, was so densely packed that nothing could grow in it.

Teachers and students used the Japanese school field for almost everything: parades, soccer, softball, track and field, calisthenics, and group berating sessions. All these events and more were all on the field. There were almost no signs of activity once the group left the field. I found the flexible functioning of the field most refreshing.

Finally, once the rains finally stopped and we had a moment to enjoy the small lake in front of the school the picture did not last long. Without draining off one end of the field and creating a muddy mess, the water simply worked its way into the gritty sand. An hour later, it was firm and dry to the touch.

You may not think of a field as educational technology, but the technical skills that created that field and the thousands like it across Japan are just as relevant to a discussion of educational technology as the computer is. If you look for it, you can find it in surprising places.

Limited data July 29, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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radar storm   I am convinced the major difference between scientists and non-scientists is the way they deal with the data presented to them. The other day, a colleague wanted to know if it was going to rain in the late afternoon. He called up a radar image of storms in the area and saw several large cells about 100 miles north. He asked for my opinion.

One of the first things you learn in the scientific world, and it begins with basic geometry, is that a single point is not a line. You get two points and you have a line segment. You get three points and you have a pattern you can use to project with some certainty into the future.

Returning to that radar image we were looking at, there was no way to tell if the clouds were heading toward us or away from us, but the image that the rain was not overhead at that moment comforted him.

I wonder if this is what guides political reasoning. If things are relatively fine for our limited dataset then we are more likely to conclude that everyone’s dataset is doing just fine. All it takes is a tipping point and a direction for it to tip to change opinion. I guess that is why advertisers spend so many millions of dollars on advertising. Apparently, in real dollars, we are spending eleven times the amount for advertising than we did just fifty years ago. That is a lot of opinion being altered.

Back to the radar image, by pointing my colleague to www.intellicast.com and setting up a loop he was able to see that clouds were indeed moving our way. We calculated the speed and inferred that direction and range then decided there was a thirty percent chance of being rained out. Those odds were good enough for him.

People are making many decisions in education these days based on just the initial tip of the potential dataset. They are also drawing conclusions and making decisions based upon data from sources that are constantly changing. In my world of educational technology, I cannot accept many conclusions as relevant to today if researchers gathered the data before 1995. After that point, classrooms changed quickly, computers changed dramatically, and schools became wired so that the entire analytical equation changed.

Junior Editor [3] July 28, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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reading   “Maybe the boy could explain what he got.” I had tried too hard to belt a home run. She knew the novel was concluding. She could sense that I was about to tie up the last of the loose ends, but I had muddled the words. I had overstayed my welcome as an author. My daughter, the reader, wanted one more chance to spend some time with a character in which she had invested emotional energy. She wanted to hear from him, not me.

I thanked her enormously for her excellent suggestions and she knew I was impressed with her insights. I needed to understand the common thread of her critique. The four main problems with the book she brought to my attention dealt not with the description, the plot, the mechanics, the vocabulary, or the setting. Of course, if those had been muddled I would certainly have heard about them.

For my daughter, a true representative of the audience for which I was writing, it was all about relationships of the protagonists. She needed to be included in their jokes and their fun. She needed them to be true to themselves. She needed adults to respect them. She needed them to spend speak to her and respect the time she was spending with them.

For me, the teacher, it was all about engagement. Knowing the book she was reading was a malleable and living thing that she had permission to alter and change as an editor, engaged her. She read, the reacted, she suggested changes, she opined, and she wrote. Her engagement with the text brought her to higher orders of thinking. She tap danced across the length of Bloom’s taxonomy and grew a little self-esteem along the way.

I am not so certain that I would ever get authors to part with their rough drafts of manuscripts, but I could certainly see the potential. Perhaps the middle school editors would make different choices for some of the characters we have come to love over the years. It would certainly be interesting to see. It would also be quite engaging.

Ahhh. . . coffee! July 28, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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We migrated the following entry from our family blog because of heavy demand. Enjoy.

Along the lines of “How to make a dirty dog” we bring you “How to roast your own coffee beans.” We recently learned this rather easy process and wanted to share it with you.

Step 1

I purchased green coffee beans from www.u-roast-em.com. They come in 1, 5 and 25 # bags. I bought a variety of 1# bags to experiment with.

Step 2

Measure out about 1/2 cup of green coffee beans. They double in size during roasting.

Step 3

Pour the green coffee beans into a popcorn popper for roasting. I used a West Bend Poppery II model purchased on Ebay for $20 (that included shipping.) They don’t manufacture them anymore, but there are plenty available second hand. This is the preferred model according to the experts. You can also roast them in the oven or in a regular old stovetop skillet.

Step 4

Green coffee beans are ready for roasting in the popcorn popper. Turn on the popcorn popper, open a window and turn on an exhaust fan. This process creates a lot of smoke, which we discovered when the smoke alarm went off!

Step 5

The chaff (stuff covering the bean) is expelled during roasting. After you hear the first “crack” you have a light, “City” roast. Just as the 2nd “crack” starts (it’s more like a crackle) you have a darker, “Full City” or “Vienna” roast. After the 2nd “crack” has finished and the beans turn quite dark and a little oily you have a “French” roast. Once the beans are almost black and very oily you have an “Italian” or “Espresso” roast.

Step 6

Cool the freshly roasted beans by stirring in a colander. Be sure to keep the beans moving until they cool as they will continue to roast if they are not cooled immediately. Do not brew right away. Let the beans sit for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. We roast in the afternoon the beans we will use the next morning.

Step 7

Grind the beans in a coffee grinder in the morning and, for the best cup of coffee, we suggest brewing in a French press. They are cheap, don’t use any electricity and make an excellent cup of coffee. It is stronger coffee, though, so if you don’t like it strong, use fewer beans or grind the beans for less time to have larger grounds.

Step 8

Enjoy a cup of fresh roasted coffee and then tell all your friends and family about it through your blog!

Junior Editor [2] July 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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reading   A few days passed and she called me into her bedroom to discuss her concerns. In the novel, a local businessperson sponsored a writing contest. Another character, their teacher, introduced the contest. The students in the class then discussed it. Just like in an online chat room, if you get too many characters discussing something, the flow of the conversation starts to become a little brittle and disjointed.

The fact that too many characters were talking at once had bothered her. The issue was not that the concept was difficult to understand. I was dead wrong on that point. The issue was that if the plot device was important, it should stand independently. The introduction of a new character, consumes emotional energy for a younger reader. My daughter was processing the new characters and their effects on the overall set of relationships. The plot device was background noise that the shifting interpersonal landscape had buried.

As we drove quietly to her summer art program, she read quietly in the back of the car. “Dad. You know the part when they talk about the satellite?” She had reached the part of the novel where the characters witness a rarely seen satellite. The point is essential if the reader is to understand one of the characters. In the novel, the satellite broke into two parts and remained connected by a tether. It turns out she understood that part just fine. In my research, I even found and used the actual names for the two parts of the satellite. This was partially a way to get students to research ahead of the story using the Internet. It was also an attempt to slide in another scientific fact.

“Why are they named ‘Ralph’ and ‘Norton’ in the book?” That question stopped me in my tracks. I might just as well named them ‘Heloise’ and ‘Abelard’ for all she would recognize the names. I explained the old television show ‘The Honeymooners’ but realized that my explanation was already in the novel and that had not helped her. To my credit, I allowed the characters to be equally as baffled then left it. “Dad,” my daughter  offered, “You could have the kids say the satellite should be called ‘Rod’ and ‘Todd’ from ‘The Simpsons.’”

Of course, the scientist the kids were talking to would then be the one who was baffled. This was important for my daughter because it put the kids on an even ground with the adult characters in the book. I had been treating them and their thoughts with respect and seriousness, but a reference to the early days of television pushed her a little off balance and changed the relationship between the characters in the book and the adults they met.

Finally, she reached the end of the book. Along the way, she had given me kudos and praise. She swore she was enjoying the book and I admit I was delighted to see her reading something I had written. With only two pages remaining, I thought my ending would knock the book out of the park. She read the words and simply closed the book or, at least, neatened the bundle of pages. “Well?” I asked.

She was silent for many minutes. “I don’t understand the present he received.” In the epilogue of the novel, the main character receives a gift from a scientist he had helped. I had meant the surprise gift as a remembrance of the adventure they had had together. My daughter thought the writing was confusing and needed to be more exact.

Conclusion tomorrow . . .

Junior Editor [1] July 26, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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reading   Attention struggling novelists and short story writers, teachers want your rough drafts. Who needs spit and polish? Who needs refinement and sophistication? Who needs well-rounded characters and incisive description? Well-written novels and novellas have their place on bookshelves, but rough drafts have their place in the classroom.

Recently, I found a novella I had written eight years earlier and left languishing on a shelf. As my daughter grew into middle school, she also grew into the novella. When I discovered the manuscript, I thought it would be fun to get it published finally so I updated the plot a little and wrote in my daughter as one of the protagonists.

I gave the novel to her to read, which she promised to do right after she finished High School Musical. It was not my intention to push her, so several days went by before she picked up the book again. She began to read with a look of serene concentration. Every flip of the page added to the nerve-wracking experience of watching her at her first job as an editor.

The first thing I learned about the experience of having one of my intended audience read the book, was that I wanted to know different things than she did. I wanted to know if she understood the plot. I wanted to know if she could understand the characters clearly and if she could relate to them. I wanted to know what she did not understand about what I wrote. Clarity, I believed, would lead to comprehension and enjoyment of the book.

It turned out comprehension was low on her list of priorities. A casual conversation about her perceptions of what was happening in book demonstrated that she understood the words just fine. I worried that they were too easy and perhaps I had written at too simple a vocabulary level. The story began with a bit of a mystery. Two boys discover crop circles in a nearby wheat field. I determined it would be a field of wheat after doing a little research.

I had discovered that Durham wheat was gown in Arizona and that came as a surprise to me so I included that fact. My daughter, however, did not really care about the details of crops. The description of the news crew covering the discovery of the crop circles caught her attention. Her first comment to me was not about wheat but about how the kids reacted to being on television. Their humor resonated with her in ways I had not expected.

My daughter is very polite and a decent judge of human nature. When she wanted to offer a serious concern she had with the book, she buffered it through my wife. “Your daughter wants you to know that on page twenty-one the characters seemed a little, her word, ‘dorky.’”

It took a little back and forth on this with my patient wife as the intermediary, but apparently, when the characters were looking up at the Tucson skies at night, they named some stars. They mentioned Betelgeuse and Alpha Centauri, for example. Having been a teacher for twenty years, I thought I would slip in some vocabulary stretchers and perhaps a few scientific facts. My daughter caught on to that ploy immediately. She eventually defined ‘dorky’ as meaning ‘showing off a little too much’ and that did not sit well with her.

More tomorrow . . .

Technological Migraine July 25, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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migraine   While talking with a colleague in the heat next to a lane of cicadas buzzing loudly, probably the most securely soundproofed location on campus, I concluded that I actually know some things about technology. I had been experiencing a little self doubt and feeling that there was simply so much to know and so many aspects to it, from deciding on software, to wiring infrastructures, to wireless, to television, to electronic databases, to security, to safety, to maintenance and updating, to long range planning, to business solutions, to political infighting and managing employees. I realize now that there was a reason for the feeling of being overwhelmed in this business. It is overwhelming.

So, my strategy is to recognize that I do not know everything there is to know about educational technology at the university level and that every day I will strive to learn a little more. My strategy is also to keep firmly planted in my mind that I will learn from everyone and everything that I do around here. I have discovered my solutions, the ones I thought were unique and small potatoes since they dealt only with my small college, have turned out to be tremendously helpful for at least one of my colleagues in a much larger outfit on campus.

The funny thing about the world of educational technology is that if you have some arcane fact about an operating system at your fingertips it can truly save you hours of work if you can pull it up fast enough. So we, in this business, store a huge amount of minutiae about software, hardware issues, wiring tricks, anecdotes about issues, names of viruses, and keyboard shortcuts thinking we may need them. Often we do.

As a result, when I attend campus-wide technology meetings, I am astounded at what other people have to master and the issues with which they must cope. One solution certainly does not fit all around here and attempting to understand some of the larger issues can cause the equivalent of techno-migraines. To deal with those, I simply walked away from one committee I used to sit on. It didn’t help that they met in mid afternoon and I am at my worst at that time of day.

After a year off from them, I am ready to return to their world. I will just drink stronger coffee.

Challenging Paranoia July 24, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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paranoia   Paranoia can be justified when those who attack and malign are getting a public forum courtesy of online newspapers and silly publishing houses that publish vile silliness from people who do not deserve the courtesy of being named.

This morning, a colleague called to express concern that someone was sending pornography from his computer. Another called to express concern that his machine had not been turned off properly. He wondered if I took such concerns seriously. I was in his office with half of my forensic team within a minute of the report.

A quick glance at the error message in the e-mail showed that my colleague’s address had been ‘spoofed’ by a spammer. Send a message to one person in a list and use the next person in the list’s e-mail address behind which the spammers hid. The list the spammers were using was probably about sixty thousand names long. The names cited in the hidden fields of the e-mail suggested an alphabetical list of victims to spam and there was enough space between the names that one could make reasonable conjectures about the total number of names in the list. I am probably off by a few thousand on this particular list but it was not a primo sales gimmick. It was just sad ugly pornographic trolling.

The other colleague turned on his power strip and his compute fired up. This was out of his regular sequence and it disturbed him to think someone may have been using his machine over the weekend. A quick look on a log of activity stored on his machine revealed nothing had happened. He recalled being distracted when he was shutting down on Friday, so perhaps he had disrupted his routine.

Perhaps it is time to study the impact that anonymity, identity theft, and the lunatic ravings in chat rooms and discussion lists is having on our ability to trust our fellow human beings.

What is Best July 23, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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Swiss   Best is, at best, a fleeting concept. It is an artificial boundary. It is the crest of a wave in an ocean of waves. Shift your gaze and it is gone, replaced with another pinnacle of water molecules, pushed up by others.

My daughter, upon emerging from Pirates of the Caribbean, declared it the best movie she had ever seen. We threw other titles at her to no effect. This one was the best. Ever. This evening we watched ten minutes of the Miss Universe pageant on television and she asked which one was the best. I will admit now that Miss Switzerland had my vote. However, my daughter needed to know what made one person better than another. That is hard to say.

On our daily drive together, we sometimes discuss art and we have concluded that there is no best piece of art. There are pieces that are more valuable or that people have paid more for, but the idea of best eludes us.

I have recently concluded that best speech, although possible, will elude people. If you say one true thing to one hundred people, perhaps half of them will say it is utter tripe. Half of the remainder will challenge the truth of the words. Half of that remainder will not understand the meaning. Half of that remainder will enjoy the words, but drift off into their own thoughts. Those that are left will possibly listen.

I may sound a little morose, but I have just been analyzing another article by a writer from an institute in Phoenix who believes in distorting facts and builds, through his words, a wonderland of rhetoric. In his world, best is attainable but only if you follow his way of thinking. I hope people reading those pieces have the intelligence to see through the tripe to see how a skinny little shred of truth can be stressed and distorted. Even the slimmest of statistical evidence can be gussied up, red-lipsticked, shiny-gowned, butt-taped, and lip-vaselined to make it palatable to a larger audience.

What is best can be right before our eyes, but we have yet to realize it yet. What is best is what is honest. And what is honest can be tough to read. Even tougher to write. True words take time.