Category Archives: Web 2.0

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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Filed under LaTeX, Social software, Teaching, Technology, Web 2.0

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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Filed under Christianity, Family, Personal, Social software, Technology, Twitter, Web 2.0

Get your widget on

Wolfram, Inc. has just rolled out its newest creation: Wolfram|Alpha Widgets. These are small “apps” that execute a single W|A query using user input, without actually loading the W|A website. In just the last few days since W|A widgets have been around, hundreds of them have been made, from widgets that find anagrams to widgets that calculate comparative economic data between two states to widgets that take derivatives. Each widget also comes with the option to customize, share among social media applications (21 different services are represented), or embedded in popular blogging and wiki services such as WordPress and Mediawiki. (Sadly, there’s no WordPress.com embedding yet.) Take a look through the gallery at what’s been done.

What’s really exciting here is that you don’t need any programming knowledge to create a widget. You start with a basic W|A query, then highlight the specific search terms you want to turn into user-defined variables, and the graphical tools on the website do the work. In other words, if you can perform a W|A query, you can make a widget out of it in short order and then share it with the world via social media or embedding on a blog or wiki.

There’s a lot of potential here for use in teaching and learning:

  • The ability for anybody, with or without programming skill, to create widgets from simple W|A queries opens the door for creative technology projects for students at almost any level. An instructor could assign a project in which students simply have to create a widget that does something useful for the class, for example to generate a comparison of two stocks in an economics class (though that’s already been done) or generate a contour map of a two-variable function in a multivariable calculus class. Students work in teams to create the widget and then post on a class blog or wiki.
  • Instructors can easily add a W|A widget to a homework or writing assignment for easy generation of data from user-defined sources. For example, a standard exercise in precalculus and science is to determine when a sample of a radioactive substance is reaches a certain mass, given its half-life. In textbooks, we have to stick with one element and its half-life. But an instructor could now create a widget where the student enters in the name of an element or selects it from the list, and the widget spits out the half-life of that element. The instructor can alter the problem to say, “Pick your favorite radioactive element and use the widget to find its half-life. How long until 10mg of that element decays to 8mg?”

I’m very excited about the shallow learning curve of these widgets and the consequent potential for students to make and play with these things as creative components of a class. Here’s a screencast on how to make a widget, in which I do a complete walk-through of the creation process.

What are some other ways you could see Wolfram|Alpha widgets being used effectively in a course?

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Filed under Calculus, Educational technology, Math, Teaching, Technology, Web 2.0, Wikis, Wolfram|Alpha

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

The blogging VPAA?

I was thinking over the session coming up at Blog Indiana by John Oak Dalton titled “Chancellor 2.0” which promises to address “existing and emerging obstacles of CEO-grade context” [sic? Was that supposed to be “content”?] for Twitter. In other words, it sounds like the session will be about how to get your college’s upper administration up and running with blogging and tweeting. I’m curious to see what Dalton makes of this, because his home institution seems to have embraced blogging and Twitter at a scale you don’t normally see from a university. Even the chancellor tweets.

I’d love to see more college administrators blogging or twittering, using their real names, making no secret of their institutions, and writing honestly about their successes and struggles in the work that they do. There’s no faster track to giving higher education a measure of transparency that it badly needs than this. That transparency is needed both inside and out.

On the inside, faculty benefit from having a window on what the administration is doing, rather than having an administration that lives and works behind a wall of separation. Students, for whom college administration is especially important but also mysterious, would benefit too. And as faculty have a tendency to objectify administrators and turn them into lay figures to complain about — a mirror image of what many students do to faculty — anything that administrators can do to show people their human side (up to a point, of course; there’s still such a thing as “too much information”) helps the organization operate better.

On the outside, the general public has cultivated such a distrust and dislike for higher education — and can they be blamed, the way we act sometimes? — that giving them that same window on administrative operations would be an honest, unilateral step towards reestablishing the trust that ought to be shared between town and gown. And if I were a parent with a child about to start college, the administrator and faculty blogs would be a valuable source of information about what the college is really like.

If I were a college administrator (not that I’m looking to become one), not only would I be blogging and Twittering regularly, I’d encourage the people who work under me as well as faculty to do the same. I’d be trying to make sure the resources are there to make it happen — dedicated server space for faculty and staff to have their own WordPress installations, and so forth — and most important to make sure that they have permission to speak freely. Imagine what it would be like if your official college blog posts or tweets could be used for your benefit towards tenure.

Are there other college administrators out there who blog or tweet? Or any administrators out there reading this post who don’t, and would care to explain why not?

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Filed under Academic freedom, Blogging, Higher ed, Life in academia, Social software, Technology, Tenure, Twitter, Web 2.0

Blogging Indiana

blogindianaJust a programming note: I’l be attending the Higher Education Summit at the Blog Indiana 2009 social media conference on Thursday, August 14. Blog Indiana is held in the Informatics building on the campus of IUPUI. The main conference runs both Thursday and Friday and there are some good speakers lined up for all the sessions. The Higher Education Summit will have talks on topics ranging from Facebook-enabled classrooms to how to get your college’s Chancellor to Twitter.

If you’re coming, leave a note in the comments and maybe we can turn it into a meet-up.

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Filed under Blog announcements, Blogging, Social software, Technology, Twitter, Web 2.0