Category Archives: Social software

Three things I wish Google Documents would let me do

Let me preface this article by saying that I really like Google Documents. It’s a fantastic set of tools that extends basic office functionality to the web in really compelling ways. I’ve been incorporating Google Docs pretty centrally in my courses for the last few years — for example, I no longer hand out paper syllabi on the first day of classes but instead write the syllabi on GDocs and distribute the links; and I’ve given final exams on Google Docs with links to data that are housed in Google Spreadsheets. I love being able to create a document on the web and just leave it there for students (or whoever) to come see, collaborate, and comment — without having to keep track of paper and with virtually zero chance of losing my data. (If Google crashes, we have much bigger problems than the loss of a set of quiz data.)

But like anything, Google Documents isn’t perfect — and in particular, there are at least three things that I wish Google Documents would do that would push my really like-ness to unqualified love:

1. Bring back the old Equation Editor. A couple of years ago, Google rolled out an equation editor for Google Docs that was just beautiful — a small editor that had point-and-click features for adding equations and the ability to parse \LaTeX commands. In other words, it was a mini-\LaTeX editor built right into Google Docs that would implement almost any of the essential functionality of \LaTeX, including matrices, multi-line equations, and more. I remember discovering this editor two years ago and promptly writing up every single one of my linear algebra activities as Google Documents. Then, inexplicably, Google replaced this sweet \LaTeX goodness with a stripped-down equation editor that pales in comparison, supporting only a tiny fraction of \LaTeX‘s command set, and in particular no matrices or multi-line equations. And the “new” editor is clunky and doesn’t seem to produce very good results. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of why this change to a clearly-inferior editor was made. It can’t be because it was overtaxing Google’s system! This is Google, for goodness’ sake, and it’s 2011 — can’t we have a real \LaTeX editor for Google Docs? There’s already one for GMail, you know.

2. Allow comments and discussion threads on PDF’s uploaded to Google Documents. From a teacher’s perspective, one of the most compelling possibilities for Google Docs is to have students upload their class work on Google Docs and then initiate a running discussion thread on that work. Such a thing would replace the usual system of handing in work and having the teacher write comments on it, thereby turning the grading process into something more like a conversation. You can do this with documents created in Google Docs. But if you want students to create mathematical work — since, as I just noted, the current equation editor for GDocs doesn’t get the job done — students would have to create their work in MS Word or \LaTeX, convert to a PDF, and then upload it. No problem, except that discussion threads and comments aren’t allowed on uploaded documents. The option simply isn’t there in the menu system. Google acknowledges that comments and comment threads are only available on newly-created documents, and functionality is coming for older documents — but no word on uploaded documents. If this could be made to happen, grading student work suddenly gets a whole lot more interesting (and valuable for students).

3. Auto-shorten URL’s of links to documents. OK, this is pretty minor, because all I have to do is copy the URL given to me by Google and run it through bit.ly. But since Google already has its own URL shortener, why not just auto-compress the URL using that shortener at the moment the URL is generated? It saves a few clicks and makes users happier because we don’t have to deal with URL’s that are multiple dozens of characters long. And more practically, it makes Google Docs easier for novices to use — many new users (I’m envisioning a good portion of students in my classes who I’d like to get to use Google Docs) have no idea that URL shorteners exist.

What else would you add to this list? Better yet, are there hacks or workarounds that resolve these issues? (Or, thirdly, am I just mistaken on any of this?)

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Four lessons from my Lenten social media fast

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This past Sunday was Easter, of course. Easter marks the endpoint of Lent, and therefore it was the end of my 40-day fast from Facebook and Twitter. I do admit that I broke cover once to announce my upcoming job change, and will also admit that I lurked a lot on both services during the last 10 days or so, reading but not commenting. Otherwise, though, I did manage to stay off both Facebook and Twitter for the duration (auto-posted tweets didn’t count).

I’ll have to say my first real tweet after breaking the fast felt awkward — like I’d been out in the wilderness for 40 days and had stepped back into a once-familiar place with people who had never left. I’m gradually getting back into the swing of it, but I also feel like I have a much different perspective on my social media involvement after giving most of it up for 40 days. I’ve learned a few things about the role of social media in my work and life:

Lesson 1: Denoising your life is good. I found this out within days of starting the fast. I didn’t realize until I gave Twitter and Facebook up for a few days just how dependent I’d become on checking status reports every few minutes, not to mention creating status updates myself. There is a tremendous amount of time bound up in these little 2- to 5-minute bursts of social media that I really benefitted from reclaiming. But more than that, I found that once I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter, the pace of my life slowed down several notches. I felt less hurried and more relaxed. When you make yourself try to keep up with a continuous stream of status updates, you soon begin to feel like Lucy and Ethel on the candy wrapping assembly line:

But that’s not all I learned.

Lesson 2: Getting rid of the noise is good, but losing the signal in the process is not so good. Many times over the last couple of months, I’d catch myself leaning over the keyboard about to compose a tweet asking for help or ideas on a question, or looking at Facebook to see what my friends all over the world were doing. But I had to catch myself because I was on a fast. I learned through all this that I really value the thoughts and ideas of the people and groups I follow — these thoughts and ideas enrich my life, fire my imagination, make me laugh at silly stuff, and generally make me a better person and professional. I missed all that, and the people behind them, a lot.

Despite the value I place in my connections, I also learned that:

Lesson 3: It’s good not to share everything. I remember quite clearly having lunch with my dissertation advisor one day, and he gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: Always keep secrets. Work on things that nobody knows about but yourself. While sharing is generally good, and while the power of being able to share yourself quickly and on a large scale through Twitter and Facebook creates a powerful opportunity to connect with others, I think there’s a point of sharing past which the individual starts to get diluted. For example, during the first couple of weeks of Lent, I attended the ICTCM in Denver. There was no tweeting from there, although there was ample opportunity. Instead, I kept notes, talked to people, and made myself social in real life. It was good, and I think it would have been less good if I had taken time away from the here-and-now to tweet about the here-and-now.

Then, the Wednesday after I returned from Denver, I noticed on my right leg a series of painful, angry-looking red streaks going from my lower right calf all the way up to the top of the thigh. I went to the doctor to have it checked out, and they sent me directly to the emergency room, and from there they sent me directly to a hospital room. I was diagnosed with cellulitis, an infection of the subcutaneous tissue under the skin that I probably picked up from walking around barefoot in my Denver hotel room. I spent three days in the hospital getting IV antibiotics around the clock to fight the infection. Had I waited till Thursday morning to go to the doctor, the infection would have made it to my femoral artery and I likely would have gone septic, and it would have gotten considerably worse from there.

I’ll admit it: I was scared, frustrated, and sorely in need of people to connect with during those three days. Had I been using social media, I would have been posting Facebook and Twitter updates, probably with pictures, about as often as I was getting antibiotics. But by choice, I kept this experience to myself, to share with my wife and kids, my doctors, and with God. Instead of tweeting, I prayed and wrote and talked to my wife and children. I watched a lot of Netflix and got some grading done. So while it would have been a comfort to have social media as an outlet for sharing with others, by concentrating my sharing to the real people in my life who matter the most, and keeping the rest a secret (till now), the whole experience somehow has more meaning and lasting power in my memory.

Finally, I learned:

Lesson 4: Social media is a permanent part of who I am, and when managed well it is a powerful force for good. Early on during Lent I realized I liked the slower pace of life so much that I wondered if I would go back to Twitter and Facebook once it was all over. Honestly, I can’t see giving those two services up. I’ve carefully groomed and built my list of people and groups to follow so that whenever I look in on the Twitter update stream, I learn something. Facebook is the same way except on a more personal level with friends from real life. So I can’t see just giving these things up. They are an antidote to stagnation. But I do like taking a more minimal and focused approach to engaging with social media — which, by the way, leaves me more ideas and energy for blogging — so that the signal-to-noise ratio is high.

So ends my Lenten social media fast, with results that I consider successful. I feel that I’m now more apt to use social media outlets to grow and learn and connect in positive ways, less prone to share indiscriminately and inappropriately. Like most things, it takes some time away to help you appreciate what you have.

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Why I am giving up Twitter and Facebook for Lent

I don’t often write on CO9’s about my faith, so I hope you’ll indulge me for a bit. Since this is also a post about technology, I figured it fits. This has to do with Lent.

In the Christian church year, Lent is a season in which believers participate in acts of personal sacrifice to help us prepare for Holy Week. Lent begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter, which is on April 24 this year. I haven’t always given something up for Lent, but this year I’ve decided that I am giving up Twitter and Facebook.

It may seem silly to use abstinence from social media to commemorate the sufferings of Christ, but there’s a serious twofold purpose to my choice.

First, in giving up Twitter and Facebook, I am seeking to recover time that I am spending in 15–30 second increments and re-invest it elsewhere. If you took all the little bursts of time I spend checking Facebook and Twitter in a given day, I think it would add up to about an hour. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a lot more than an hour. I can do a lot in an hour: pray, read, spend time with the kids, or just be still. Right now I complain that I don’t have enough time for these things, but in fact I do.

Second, I’ve used Facebook and Twitter status updates to vent out all kinds of behavior that are best left off the public record, and I’d like that to change. In particular, I think back to the tweets that followed this one a few weeks ago. It was an outburst of anger toward a student comment on the MATLAB course blog that shouldn’t have been posted. While I deleted the worst of the tweets in that series, I looked back on that rapid-fire set of tweets the next day and I recoiled at the ugliness of it. That is not the kind of man I would like to be.

Although the idea of giving up Twitter for Lent popped into my head after that incident, it’s certainly not the only time I’ve engaged in character assassination or whining or self-indulgence or attention-seeking on Twitter or Facebook. It can be frustrating. There is so much good to which these social media outlets can be put, like sharing interesting links, making connections to old friends and new friends who share my passions, and discovering new ideas from interesting people. But it’s also a fact that I’ve used the quick-hit nature of Twitter and Facebook to share things that I ought to be sorry for even thinking.

I’m hoping that by stepping away from social media for a while, I will starve some of those tendencies to act immediately upon the impulses to bash, whine, hurt, indulge, or emote and give myself instead a chance to fill the space with better things. I’m thinking of how Luther explains the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism. For Luther, each commandment is phrased explicitly in the negative (e.g. “You shall not murder”) but implicitly carries with it an equal and opposite command given in the positive (e.g. instead, we should help and support our neighbors in every physical need). In fact the Catechism’s entry for the Eighth Commandment really gets at the heart of it:

The Eighth Commandment.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean?–Answer.

We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

That’s what I’m shooting for here.

So between now and April 24, I’ll still check for and respond to direct messages on Twitter and Facebook (because those are really more like emails than anything). Also, my Facebook group I set up for my academic advisees will still see action because that’s more job-related. Some things that I do which auto-post to Twitter and Facebook, like when I post a YouTube video or publish a blog post, I’ll leave up and running. But otherwise no posting and no @-replies until April 24. If you normally get in touch with me through Facebook or Twitter, please use my email instead: robert [dot] talbert [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Google Wave and disruptive simplicity

Google Wave

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Google today announced that it will be suspending development on Google Wave, the communications tool it launched last year. Wave attracted unprecedented hype in the run-up to its launch, with Wave invites serving as a kind of geek status symbol and going for $70 on eBay. But despite the initial enthusiasm, Google reports that Wave “has not seen the user adoption we would have liked”.

I used Wave once or twice once I managed to get an invite. It was one of the most befuddling experiences I have ever had using technology. Wave was supposed to be a sort of combination instant messenger, email, and file-sharing software platform with social media inputs and outputs. But like a lot of attempts to combine existing  services and solutions, instead of being “both-and”, Wave ended up being “neither-nor”. You could IM with Wave, but it lacked the simplicity of a basic IM client. You could send messages with Wave like email, but why do that when users already had GMail? You could post maps and files, but in my experience anything beyond basic messaging was buggy and complicated. I saw somebody say online that the feeling they got using Wave must be like the feeling elderly people get when they have to use computers at all. That sums up my experience with Wave pretty economically.

Wave was a bold attempt to abstract the entire idea of “messaging” into one coherent service. But it lacked one very important thing that makes disruptive ideas stick: simplicity. It really doesn’t matter how innovative or disruptive your technology is. The plain truth is that if it’s complicated, nobody is going to want to use it. Nobody, that is, outside a small circle of enthusiasts who appreciate the technology for what it is. There’s nothing wrong with being an enthusiast. But most people are not enthusiasts, and so it’s no surprise that Wave lacked user adoptions when many people who tried to use it couldn’t find a problem it could solve that wasn’t already solved by something simpler.

Google loses nothing by canceling Wave, of course, and in all likelihood we’ll see Wave re-emerge down the line as something that really does change our lives. Google would do well to remember that it’s the simple things that tend to be the most disruptive.

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ICTCM underway

It’s a beautiful day here on the shores of Lake Michigan as the ICTCM gets underway. It’s a busy day and — to my never-ending annoyance — there is no wireless internet in the hotel. So I won’t be blogging/tweeting as much as I’d like. But here’s my schedule for the day.

  • 8:30 – Keynote address.
  • 9:30 – Exhibits and final preparations for my 11:30 talk.
  • 10:30 – “Developing Online Video Lectures for Online and Hybrid Algebra Courses”, talk by Scott Franklin of Natural Blogarithms.
  • 11:10 – “Conjecturing with GeoGebra Animations”, talk by Garry Johns and Tom Zerger.
  • 11:30 – My talk on using spreadsheets, Winplot, and Wolfram|Alpha|Alpha in a liberal arts calculus class, with my colleague Justin Gash.
  • 12:30 – My “solo” talk on teaching MATLAB to a general audience.
  • 12:50 – “Programming for Understanding: A Case Study in Linear Algebra”, talk by Daniel Jordan.
  • 1:30 – “Over a Decade of of WeBWorK Use in Calculus and Precalculus in a Mathematics Department”, session by Mako Haruta.
  • 2:30 – Exhibit time.
  • 3:00 – “Student Projects that Assess Mathematical Critical-Thinking Skills”, session by David Graser.
  • 5:00 – “Visualizing Mathematics Concepts with User Interfaces in Maple and MATLAB”, session by David Szurley and William Richardson.

But first, breakfast and (especially) coffee.

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Filed under ictcm, Maple, MATLAB, Scholarship, Screencasts, Social software, Software, Web 2.0, Wolfram|Alpha

Is Khan Academy the future of education?

Salman Khan is a former financial analyst who quit his day job so that he could form Khan Academy — a venture in which he makes instructional videos on mathematics topics and puts them on YouTube. And he has certainly done a prolific job of it — to the tune of over a thousand short videos on topics ranging from basic addition to differential equations and also physics, biology, and finance.  Amazingly, he does this all on his own time, in a remodeled closet in his house, for free:

I can attest to the quality of his linear algebra videos, some of which I’ve embedded on the Moodle site for my linear algebra course. They are simple without being dumbed down, and what he says about the 10-minute time span in the PBS story is exactly right — it’s just the right length for a single topic.

What do you think about this? What role do well-produced, short, simple, free video lectures like this have in the future of education? Will they eventually replace classrooms as we know them? If not, will they eventually force major changes in the way classroom instruction is done, and if so, what kinds of changes?

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Filed under Education, Educational technology, High school, Higher ed, Linear algebra, Math, Screencasts, Social software, Technology, Web 2.0

Five reasons you should use LaTeX and five tips for teaching it

Over the weekend a minor smack-talk session opened up on Twitter between Maria Andersen and about half a dozen other math people about MathType versus \LaTeX. Maria is on record as being pro-MathType and yesterday she claimed that \LaTeX is “not intuitive to learn”.  I warned her that a pro-\LaTeX  blog post was in the offing with those remarks, and so it comes to this. \LaTeX is accessible enough that every math teacher and every student in a math class at or above Calculus can (and many should) learn \LaTeX and use it for their work. I have been using \LaTeX for 15 years now and have been teaching it to our sophomore math majors for five years. I can tell you that students can learn it, and learn to love it.

Why use \LaTeX when MathType is already out there, bundled with MS Word and other office programs, tempting us with its pretty point-and-click interface? Five reasons.

  1. \LaTeX looks better. Seriously. MathType is getting better at visual appeal — it doesn’t look appalling any more — but nothing beats \LaTeX for refinement and polish.
  2. \LaTeX is the mathematical typesetting standard in all technical disciplines and in many related fields. Most, if not all, major publications in math, computer science, engineering, and physics use \LaTeX as the preferred typesetting system. arXiv prefers \LaTeX over all other formats.
  3. \LaTeX is becoming a standard elsewhere, especially on the web. Last year, Google Documents added an equation editor that is basically a stripped-down \LaTeX editor with a point-and-click interface. The wildly popular online presentation tool Prezi has said that \LaTeX integration is coming. WordPress.com blogs like Casting Out Nines can do \LaTeX, and so can Wikispaces and several other web services. Online \LaTeX typesetters abound, and more are popping up. The web likes open standards, and since MathML is all but impossible to use, \LaTeX fills a gaping need for free, open-source mathematical typesetting. Which brings me to the next point:
  4. \LaTeX is free. Free as in beer and free as in freedom. You can download it right now for just about any operating system imaginable, and have the full strength of the system available to you at no cost. And this is a system that has been around for 40 years (if you count TeX) and has millions of users, many of whom actively contribute to the further development of the system by writing specialized packages and macros. This is in stark contrast to MathType, which is proprietary and closed, and although you get the “Lite” version bundled in with office software, the full version will set you back at least $37.
  5. \LaTeX is what you make it. You can use \LaTeX with a point-and-click IDE, or you can type everything out by hand with a text editor and compile from the command line, or anything in between. You can tinker with the low-level creation of fonts or just quickly type out a letter. It’s up to the user. Other proprietary programs force a menu-driven point-and-click approach upon you, which you may like but may not like.

Others may add to these in the comments. But if \LaTeX is so great, how come nobody ever seems to learn it until graduate school? I’m not sure, but it’s not because \LaTeX is counterintuitive. It’s not totally obvious, either, but with a little guidance, \LaTeX can make perfect sense even to high school students. If you’re a math or science teacher, make it a project to learn \LaTeX yourself and start using it in your classes, then teach it to your students. Here are five ways to make that a painless process.

  1. Use an IDE or a user-friendly text editor rather than a plain, no-frills text editor or EMACS. For Windows machines, use the free TeXNicCenter IDE that gives point-and-click code insertion (or you can just type the code in) with syntax highlighting. On Macs, use TextMate if you have the money and Aquamacs if you don’t; both of these are text editors with tons of great \LaTeX goodies built in. (In TextMate, for instance, typing begin and hitting the Tab key automatically creates an environment with the matching \end{}. ) On Linux, try Kile. These provide user-friendly interfaces and syntax highlighting that take the edge off some of the learning curve.
  2. Have someone else do the installation and setup, or provide a total handholding guide for doing it. The only really hard thing about using \LaTeX is simply getting it to work in the first place. This is one of the advantages MathType has over \LaTeX, but the payoff is worth it. New users will need to be walked through the whole process in high-definition detail. But once that’s over, the fun begins.
  3. Start small and simple, and build gradually. When first getting students to use \LaTeX, restrict them to just a small, relatively simple document, one that’s mostly text with a little bit of math typsetting required. Small, early successes will convince them that learning \LaTeX is worthwhile. I like to give out my training videos to students and have them learn the system on their own; then have a grace period where students get extra credit for doing their assignments in \LaTeX; and then start requiring it after the grace period expires.
  4. Use it yourself. Students will learn from your example. Try writing your next syllabus in \LaTeX; and your class handouts; and your tests (perhaps using the excellent exam package). When you use it, and students begin to use it, they see that they are producing math that looks as good as what the pros do, and they get excited.
  5. When you give a document made with \LaTeX, also give out the source code that generated it. Students can then look at what you created, ask “How’d s/he do that?”, and get the answer immediately from your code and do it themselves. I myself have learned about half the \LaTeX I know from this method, and adapting/tweaking someone else’s code is a time-honored and very effective means of learning almost anything done on a computer.

Once they are over the initial learning curve and producing beautiful mathematical documents, my students look back on the dark days of MS Equation Editor and wonder, along with me, why anybody would put themselves through something like that. Happy \LaTeX-ing!

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