Category Archives: Software

Computers, the Internet, and the Human Touch

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This article first appeared earlier this week on the group blog Education Debate at OnlineSchools.org. I’m one of the guest bloggers over there now and will be contributing articles 1–2 times a month. I’ll be cross-posting those articles a couple of days after they appear. You’d enjoy going to Education Debate for a lively and diverse group of bloggers covering all kinds of educational issues.

It used to be that in order to educate more than a handful of people at the same time, schools had to herd them into large lecture halls and utilize the skills of lecturers to transmit information to them. Education and school became synonymous in this way. Lectures, syllabi, assessments, and other instruments of education were the tightly-held property of the universities.

But that’s changing. Thanks to advancements in media and internet technology over the past decade, it is simpler than ever today to package and publish the raw informational content of a course to the internet, making the Web in effect a lecture hall for the world. We now have projects such as MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, and countless initiatives for online education at US colleges and universities providing high-quality materials online, for free, to whomever wants them. It brings up a sometimes-disturbing question among educators: If students can get all this stuff online for free, what are classrooms and instructors for?

Tech author Randall Stross attempts to examine this question in his New York Times article “Online Courses, Still Lacking that Third Dimension”. In the article, Stross mentions “hybrid” courses — courses with both online and in-person components — but focuses mainly on self-contained courses done entirely online with no live human interaction. He correctly points out that learning is an inherently human activity, and technologically-enhanced coursework is successful insofar as it retains that “human touch”.

However, Stross casts the relationship between computer-enabled courses and traditional courses as a kind of zero-sum game, wherein an increased computer presence results in a decreased human presence. He refers to universities “adopting the technology that renders human instructors obsolete.” But it’s not the technology itself that makes instructors obsolete; it’s the adoption of practices of using that technology that does. There are numerous instances of traditional college courses using computing and internet tools to affect positive change in the learning culture of the institution. There are also plenty of cases, as Stross points out, where technology has replaced human instructors. The difference is an administrative one, not a technological one.

Nor is the supposed obsolescence of the instructor all technology’s fault. If universities and individual professors continue to hold on to a conception of “teaching” that equates to “mass communication” — using the classroom only to lecture and transmit information and nothing else — then both university and instructor are obsolete already, no technology necessary. They are obsolete because the college graduate of the 21st century does not need more information in his or her head to solve the problems that will press upon them in the next five or ten years. Instead, they need creativity, problem-solving experience, and high-order cognitive processing skills. A college experience based on sitting through lectures and working homework does not deliver on this point. The college classroom cannot, any longer, be about lecturing if it is to remain relevant.

And notice that an entirely self-contained online course can be as “traditional” as the driest traditional lecture course attended in person if it’s only a YouTube playlist of lectures. What matters regarding the effectiveness of a course isn’t the technology that is or is not being used. Instead it’s the assumptions about teaching and learning held by the colleges and instructors that matter, and their choices in translating those assumptions to an actual class that students pay for.

What we should be doing instead of choosing sides between computers and humans is finding ways to leverage the power of computers and the internet to enhance the human element in learning. There are several places where this is already happening:

  • Livemocha is a website that combines quality multimedia content with social networking to help people learn languages. Users can watch and listen to language content that would normally find its place in a classroom lecture and then interact with native speakers from around the world to get feedback on their performance.
  • Socrait, a system proposed by Maria Andersen, would provide personalized Socratic questions keyed to specific content areas by way of a “Learn This” button appended to existing web content, much like the “Like This” button for sharing content on Facebook. Clicking the button would bring the user to an interface to help the user learn the content, and the system contains social components such as identifying friends who also chose to learn the topic.
  • I would offer my own experiments with the inverted classroom model of instruction as an imperfect but promising example as well. Research suggests this model can provide in significant gains in student learning versus the traditional approach to teaching by simply switching the contexts of lecture and activity, with lecture being delivered via video podcasts accessed outside of class and class time spent on problem-based learning activities in teams.

Rather than view college course structure as a pie divided into a computer piece and a human piece, and fret about the human piece becoming too small, let’s examine ways to use computers to enhance human learning. If we keep thinking of computers as a threat rather than an aid to human interaction, computer-assisted instruction will continue to lack the human touch, the human touch will continue to lack the power and resources of computers and the internet, and student learning will suffer. But if we get creative, the college learning experience could be in for a renaissance.

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Filed under Early education, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Peer instruction, Software, Teaching, Technology

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

Jott as a diction-checking device

I’ve blogged before about Jott, the web service which lets you call in and leave a voice message, and then it transcribes it to text and emails it to you or others you want to contact. I use Jott quite often in lieu of a voice recorder for quick thoughts that might be actionable. When I want to catch an idea, I get my cell phone, hit “5” on the speed dial to call Jott, then talk through my message. A few moments later, I get a transcribed version in my GMail inbox which then gets reviewed at my next GTD weekly review.

Jott’s capabilities as a speech-to-text converter are impressive, but it’s not perfect. When I get a mis-transcription, sometimes I wonder whether it’s Jott’s fault or whether it’s something having to do with how clearly I am speaking. Take this recent message for instance. I had just finished teaching a section on exponential growth and decay in my calculus class that meets this summer. I wanted to leave myself a quick note for my GTD review about things I needed to work on with the presentation for this section. Here’s what I said:

I need to edit the 3.8 presentation. The example on Newton’s Law of Cooling didn’t quite work. Need to add a question as to what the C represents in Newton’s Law of Cooling. It just went too long. I think one decay example, one growth example, one Law of Cooling and that’ll be enough. Maybe flesh out a little bit more what a differential equation is, they were a little lost.

Now, on the other hand, here’s what Jott thinks I said (differences are in boldface):

I need to edit the 3.8 presentation. The example on Newton block cooling didn’t quite work. Need to add a question as to what the C represents in Newton block cooling. I just went too long I think one decay example, one growth example,in block cooling that’ll be enough. Maybe flush out a little bit more for the differential equation is, they were a little lost.

Newton block cooling“? I went back and listened to the voice message and, to me, I am clearly saying “Newton’s Law of Cooling”, but Jott went 3-for-3 in transcribing this as it did. That makes me wonder if my students would hear me say “Newton block cooling”. Students are more intelligent than a computerized speech-to-text processor, but still, if this advanced technology is convinced that I am not saying “law of cooling” but “block cooling”, there’s a pretty good chance I am not being clear enough.

So perhaps Jott would be useful as a diagnostic tool for a speaker’s enunciation and clarity — if there’s 100% agreement between what the speaker actually said and the Jott transcription, then there are no problems with clarity; otherwise, there might be.

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Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Social software, Software, Teaching, Technology

Rapture 2.0

We’ve all wondered from time to time, “Suppose the Rapture happened tomorrow, and some of my loved ones got left behind. How could I be sure I could send them Gospel tracts and personal information after I’ve been taken up to Heaven?” Well, wonder no longer: for just $40 per year, you can use this new web service to upload up to 250 MB of documents and 62 individual email addresses to send them to in case of the Rapture. (Or rather, in case you get Raptured and your friends — or at least the people you think are your friends — don’t.)

Here’s how it works:

We have set up a system to send documents by the email [sic], to the addresses you provide, 6 days after the “Rapture” of the Church. This occurs when 3 of our 5 team members scattered around the U.S fail to log in over a 3 day period. Another 3 days are given to fail safe [sic] any false triggering of the system.

We give you 150mb of encrypted storage that can be sent to 12 possible email addresses, in Box #1. You up load any documents and choose which documents go to who [sic]. You can edit these documents at any time and change the addresses they will be sent to as needed. Box #1 is for your personal private letters to your closest lost friends and relatives.

We give you another 100mb. of unencrypted storage that can be sent to up to 50 email addresses, in Box #2. You can edit the documents and the addresses any time. Box #2 is for more generic documents to lost family & friends.

The cost is $40 for the first year. Re-subscription will be reduced as the number of subscribers increases. Tell your friends about You’ve Been left behind.

The triggering mechanism for this messaging system sounds eerily like pushing the button in the Hatch on LOST. Let’s hope that those “team members” don’t get bored too easily or decide to yank a whole lot of people’s chains by “failing to log in” one week just for jollies.

I suppose the “encrypted storage” is in case the minions of Antichrist tap in to your loved ones’ email accounts and find The Four Spiritual Laws sitting there as an attachment. But it’s kind of amusing that only 150 MB of your document space is encrypted. Use the encrypted storage for the friends and loved ones you want to keep safe from the Antichrist; use the unencrypted storage on people you only kind of want to see saved but really don’t care if they get arrested and imprisoned or whatever, for possessing the documents which you so kindly foisted into their inboxes without their consent.

Of course, this could all be done for free (and without relying on a pesky team of designated email-signer-inners “scattered across the US”) with a proper mix of GMail, PGP, and perhaps a little scripting to make sure that the email gets sent after a certain time period. But where’s the fun in that?

Seriously, the theology (premillenial dispensationalism) is wrong; the business model (getting impressionable people to drop $40 into a totally unnecessary storage/messaging system) is basically immoral; and the technology (“encryption” with no specifications on the algorithm or descriptions of the server configuration, for example) is suspect and most likely not even necessary.  But do go see the whole site, because it’s not often you get to see a confluence of wrongness from three different directions in such a spectacular way.

Maybe it’s all just a really clever parody site. Please?

[h/t Cyberbrethren: A Lutheran Blog]

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Filed under Christianity, Social software, Software, Technology

Saturday agenda for the ICTCM

It was a full day yesterday here at the ICTCM, and the day was capped off with a very enjoyable dinner with Maria Andersen and Scott Franklin, along with two of Maria’s friends who (if I understood Maria right) are soon-to-be math bloggers. I have photos and a video forthcoming.

Today will be no less busy:

  • 8:00-8:45: Session on handheld calculating devices over the last 30 years and how they have changed teaching. Very interested in this talk; I’ll have more to say about some of the handheld technology I’m seeing here.
  • 9:00-9:45: Session on using Maple 11 in the advanced calculus and modern algebra classroom.
  • 9:45–10:30: Exhibit hall surfing.
  • 11:30-12:05: Session on labs in mathematics classes.
  • 12:30-1:15: Session on using Geometers Sketchpad alongside computer algebra systems.
  • 1:30-2:15: Session on Winplot.
  • 2:30-3:15: Take a break!
  • 3:30-4:15: Session on blogging with concept maps. Two of my favorite things put together, so this ought to be fun.
  • 4:30-5:15: Haven’t made up my mind yet — either a session on CaluMath or a session on using Geometers Sketchpad in calculus courses.

Unfortunately the internet access I am paying $10 a day for isn’t wireless — or at least, there is wireless but yesterday it didn’t play nice with me. So I won’t be blogging continuously. Which is probably a good thing because I need to pay attention at these sessions. Speaking of which, it’s time to head down to the first one.

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Filed under Calculators, Computer algebra systems, Education, Educational technology, Geometers Sketchpad, ictcm, Software

Camtasia, etc.

I just returned from the Camtasia workshop. The originally-scheduled speaker, it turns out, got stranded in Dallas after that city got six inches of snow last night. (This is Texas, right?) So the conference organizers were scrambling to find somebody with Camtasia experience. I suggested that they go pull somebody from the TechSmith booth in the exhibitor area, and a few minutes later they returned with Dave McCollom and Mike [sorry, can’t remember the last name]. Those two proceeded to put on a fun, engaging, and hugely informative workshop on the fly with zero preparation time. They even ended right on time.  I think that says a lot about the company and the product it makes.

Very, very impressed with Camtasia. It has a simple user interface (very similar to iMovie) and lots of options. My partner and I in the workshop put together a 3-minute Flash video on xFunctions, complete with callouts and transitions and the whole nine yards, and honestly we never really felt like we were working that hard. (For the Flash-haters out there, you can also save in something like eight other video formats, including Quicktime.) I didn’t realize that TechSmith also operates Screencast.com, and you can upload Camtasia-produced movies directly to that hosting service. They also have a connection with Jing somehow, although I’m not completely sure what exactly that connection is. (I don’t see it listed as a TechSmith product, but they had Jing stuff all over the TechSmith booth in the exhibition hall.) (Update: On the Jing website, there’s a blurb that says “A project by TechSmith”.)

Anyhow, Camtasia blows Snapz Pro X (which I currently use) out of the water when it comes to screencasting. The only problem is that there’s no OS X version right now. I can run Camtasia under Windows XP on Parallels; I asked David if I could capture stuff outside the Windows XP window if I were running Camtasia under Parallels, and he wasn’t sure. That’s an experiment for later. But he did say that they hope to release a native OS X version, rebuilt from the ground up, some time this year, and he got my contact info to be on the beta-testing “team”.

Now it’s time to get ready for my contributed paper session talk, which is in about 20 minutes. I’ll report on that later in the afternoon since I have a full slate of stuff until dinnertime.

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Filed under Educational technology, ictcm, Screencasts, Software, Technology

Bento and GTD?

This blog has gotten a lot of search engine hits lately from queries of the form “Bento GTD”. I guess that’s because I wrote about Bento once and I have written a lot about GTD. And while I was demo-ing Bento, once or twice it crossed my mind that an intrepid person could possibly hack it into a GTD platform. But it appears like there is some kind of movement out there for using Bento for GTD. (Or maybe just one person who can’t stop hitting the “Submit” button on his search engine.) Would one of you folks who are searching along these lines mind filling us in on this, in the comments?

I found Bento to be merely OK — more pretty than useful, and I was able to cobble together what I really needed (a searchable, rich-text repository of information on my students) using VoodooPad Lite, which is free. I didn’t think Bento was worth the $79 $49 price tag. But I’m cheap, so that’s not informative.

Update: Bento is $49, not $79. I was getting the price for Bento confused with the price for iWork. That’s still a bit much for me, but again, I’m cheap.

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