Tag Archives: Software

Active learning is essential, not optional, for STEM students

This article (1.2 MB, PDF)  by three computer science professors at Miami University (Ohio) is an excellent overview of the concept of the inverted classroom and why it could be the future of all classrooms given the techno-centric nature of Millenials. (I will not say “digital natives”.) The article focuses on using inverted classroom models in software engineering courses. This quote seemed particularly important:

Software engineering is, at its essence, an applied discipline that involves interaction with customers, collaboration with globally distributed developers, and hands-on production of software artifacts. The education of future software engineers is, by necessity, an endeavor that requires students to be active learners. That is, students must gain experience, not in isolation, but in the presence of other learners and under the mentorship of instructors and practitioners.  [my emphasis]

That is, in the case of training future software engineers, active learning is not an option or a fad; it is essential, and failure to train software engineers in an active learning setting is withholding from them the essential mindset they will need for survival in their careers. If a software engineer isn’t an active learner, they won’t make it — the field is too fast-moving, too global, too collaborative in its nature to support those who can only learn passively. Lectures and other passive teaching techniques may not be obsolete, but to center students’ education around this kind of teaching sets the students up for failure later on.

One could argue the same thing for any kind of engineer, or any of the STEM disciplines in general, since careers in those disciplines tend to adhere to the same description as software engineering — a tendency toward applications (many of which don’t even exist yet), centered on interaction and collaboration with people, and focused on the production of usable products.

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Filed under Critical thinking, Education, Engineering, Higher ed, Liberal arts, Teaching

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.


Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Software, Technology

Ed tech for commuter students

The ICTCM is coming up fast, and I’ll be there, mostly to give a talk on using wikis in upper-level math courses (like this one from my topics course in Cryptology) and take a minicourse on Camtasia. But I’ll also be checking out the latest and greatest (?) ideas and products in educational technology. One general category I am quite interested in is making all this technology that we use — especially computer algebra systems — portable and accessible from all different locations, in particular so that commuter students aren’t left out of the loop.

The fact that commuter students are left out is a growing concern for me, at least. We have Derive and Maple installed on my campus, but it’s a network install — and you have to be on campus to use it. Some campuses have a network installation that works from off campus, but we (and other places like us) also have a network that cannot be accessed unless you are physically on campus. (I suppose that theoretically, if you’re in wi-fi range of campus you could get on.) So, we give all this training and emphasis on computer software, and then what happens if you live in Indianapolis and have to drive an hour to get here?

Having all this fancy technology doesn’t do any good if a growing population of students (commuters, especially those who are older students with kids who can’t just drop everything and drive to the campus library at any moment) can’t even get to the software when they have the time to work. (Which if they have kids, is usually after the kids are in bed.)

There are some promising and free web-based applications, like xFunctions and the Integrator, that do the sorts of things that previously were restricted to locally-installed CAS’s and high-end graphing calculators. But I’d like to see more. Sage looks good too,  but it’s a little too raw for the average student at this point.

If you’ve got thoughts or examples of commuter-friendly technology like this, leave them in the comments.


Filed under Course management systems, Higher ed, Math, Software, Teaching, Technology

Software! Software! Get your fresh software!

Lots of activity on the software front lately.

OmniFocus, the GTD app which I wrote about here, was released in version 1.0 today. I’ve been very satisfied with OmniFocus since settling on it for my GTD needs, especially since I managed to combine discounts to get it for under $20. I don’t know how many of those discounts are still available, but definitely the educational pricing is still there (though you have to look around for it at the Omni web site).

Bento, called the “missing database from iWork”, was released out of beta today as well. I’ve been demoing Bento for the last few days as a tracking system for students, and it’s very nice and visual. But I found the $49 price tag to be a little pricey, especially when the entire iWork ’08 suite is $79.

Sage, an open-source computer algebra system comparable to Matlab, has been gathering lots of buzz. With all my issues with Maple 10 not working under OS X Leopard, I’ve made learning Sage to be one of my January projects. I’ve got it downloaded and installed — which was no small feat, since there is no DMG package for OS X and it has to be built from source — but I haven’t had a chance to test drive it much. More later if I do.

Jott is not exactly software but rather a voice-to-text service that is really quite amazing. You call up a central phone number, address your voice message using voice commands, and then speak your message — and Jott converts it to text and sends it to the addressee as an email, SMS message, or both. You can also set Jott up to post to Google Calendar, Twitter, even blogging services (which unfortunately excludes WordPress.com). I used to want a digital voice recorder for capturing thoughts for my GTD inbox while not able to write things down or get to my laptop, but now I just call up Jott and have it send me an email. Brilliant — and free! (This has been around for a while, but I realized I hadn’t blogged about how enthused I was about it.)


Filed under Software, Technology

Possible fix for Maple 10 and Leopard

After getting some pretty lame advice from Maplesoft before, I emailed their tech support again regarding the Maple 10 vs. Leopard issue. (Namely, that Maple 10 dies a quick death every time I try to open it in Leopard.) This time, I got back some advice that actually seems to work. Here’s the text of the response email:

Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard) is not currently supported by Maple. There are
plans on adding support for this OS to a future version of Maple, but
this does not include Maple 10 or Maple 11.

Users with Maple 10 and Leopard may find they need to edit the
info.plist file which is part of the Maple 10.app package. In order to
do this ctrl+click on the “Maple 10.app” and select “Show Package
Contents”. Then open the “Contents” folder. Open the info.plist file
with a text editor and search for “1.4+” and change this to “1.4*”. Save
this file and try to start Maple 10.

Note you may have to change the permissions for the “info.plist” file,
“Contents” folder, and “Maple 10.app”. You can do this by ctrl+click on
each file, “get info” and at the bottom in the section “sharing and
permissions” ensure that all users have “Read & write” access to the

I did all the stuff mentioned here and Maple 10 did actually come up and try to start. Unfortunately, the last advice I took from Maplesoft on this issue was to uninstall and reinstall the software, which means I am missing my license file — and Maple won’t run on any system without one. So I need to get a copy from the guy at school who is in charge of the licensing. But it looks like this solution is at least getting the program to start.

It’s still hard to believe, though, that a software company as big as Maplesoft — and which has a massive user base with highly diversified platforms in use — simply doesn’t support OS 10.5. That’s kind of lame.

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Filed under Apple, Software, Technology

Sticking with OmniFocus

As I’ve blogged recently (read the comments to that post, too), I’ve been trying to decide once and for all which computer-based system I was going to use for my GTD setup. In the end, after experimenting with Yojimbo and spending all day yesterday in a fling with iGTD, I decided to go with the forthcoming official release of OmniFocus for my GTD system.

First of all, I’ve gotten very familiar with OmniFocus. I was one of the very first alpha-testers (that’s ALPHA, kids!) of the software when the “Sneaky Peek” versions were being made available back in the summer. I’m even a former Kinkless kGTD user, and a current OmniOutliner Pro and OmniGraffle user, so I’m a big fan of OmniGroup’s work and quite comfortable with their design philosophy.

Secondly, the cost factor turns out to be not nearly so much of an issue as I thought. The final “retail” price of OmniFocus is going to be $80, which is pretty steep. But it turns out that I was able to take advantage of three different discounts on this product. First, until early January, OmniFocus is available for pre-order at half price for $39.95. Then, there is a discount available on top of this half-price deal for licensed owners of OmniOutliner Pro 3 which drops the price $10 more to $29.95. Then, on top of those two discounts, there is educational pricing for students and faculty at schools and universities. With those discounts, my final price for the pre-order of OmniFocus was a whopping $18.71.

So, why not go with Yojimbo or iGTD?

Yojimbo is nice, and although it’s not a piece of software designed for GTD, it can be hacked into a reasonably solid GTD system with little effort. But there were just enough features that were just plain missing from Yojimbo that made it hard to work with, IMHO, over the course of the two weeks that I demo’d it. The biggest missing features were the simplest ones. For example, you cannot manually reorder the items in the left sidebar or items in the front-center pane. This forced me to resort to creative naming schemes so that, for example, Next Actions always showed up at the top of my task lists above just plain Tasks. After a while, this got to be time-consuming.

In the end, I realized Yojimbo wasn’t going to work for me because I was simply thinking too much about the system. GTD is predicated on the idea of making the act of collecting and managing your “stuff” an almost subconscious act. David Allen in the GTD bible says something to the effect that the quality system you use is inversely proportional to the amount of energy you spend thinking about it. And I was expending a lot of energy making sure that I’ve remembered to properly tag each task, that I’ve promoted tasks to Next Action status in all projects (because Yojimbo won’t do that automatically), and so on.

But let me emphasize that Yojimbo is really good at what it’s designed for, which is organizing stuff in general. One thing that Yojimbo has going for it GTD-wise that OmniFocus doesn’t (as far as I can tell) is that I can put my tasks AND my support materials in the same place (= project folder) in the software. I’ve found that my task creation, and my choices for Next Action, were much smarter when I had the support materials right there in the same spot that the tasks are going to go.

What about iGTD? After reading a comment on my Yojimbo post and checking out the iGTD website some more, I downloaded it yesterday and played around with it some. It’s much-improved since I first demo’d it several months ago. It still hasn’t fixed the problem, as I see it, of having a GUI that is very, very busy and sometimes counterintuitive. (What’s that “Effort” bar supposed to be?) But you do have the option of removing some elements of the GUI, at least. And the free price tag is awfully compelling.

But this morning, when I sat down to do my weekly review, I fired up iGTD and started to create my contexts and projects in iGTD. All was well until after having added a few tasks to a particular project, I hit Cmd-N to add a new task, and the program crashed and erased everything I had just put in. And this crashing repeated itself half a dozen more times, always after I had added several tasks and hit Cmd-N to add another, losing all my data. I looked on the iGTD message board and several others had this problem and there was apparently no end in sight until perhaps the v 2.0 release, which has not been scheduled yet. At that point, I was really spending too much time thinking about the system. If I can spend less than $20 on a system I know works well and has little to no bugs, I’ll prefer it any day over a free system that works pretty well but has serious bugs I can’t solve.

So I’m casting my lot, again, with OmniGroup and looking forward to learning the full extent of this software they’ve been working so hard on.


Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Software, Technology

Where has this software been all my life?

graphsketcher_20070709112905.jpg I stumbled upon an amazing find a few minutes ago: an OS X application called Graph Sketcher. It is developed and maintained by MIT, and very simply, Graph Sketcher lets you hand-draw graphs on a set of coordinate axes and then manipulate them by changing color and thickness, shading in areas underneath, and so on. You can add text annotations to the graphs and (apparently, haven’t tried this yet) graph spreadsheet data and add best-fit lines.

Why this software blows my mind should be clear to anybody who’s ever had to make up a handout, test, or lab for calculus or precalculus. In doing those course preps, you are constantly needing to make up graphs that have a certain look — inflection points in a specified place, strange asymptotic behavior, jump discontinuities, even just basic piecewise functions. You know how the graph ought to look, but to get the graph, you had to come up with a formula for it, plot it in a computer algebra system, and then export the plot as PDF or a graphics file and then import it into your document. This process is alternately impossible or maddeningly time-consuming. Or you could try to freehand it in a paint program, but those programs aren’t meant for precision, and while you might be able to get the behavior right, the result looks like crap.

But this software lets you just draw the lines where you want them, and then bend them using simple Bezier curve handles. Or you can tell it to plot certain points and connect the dots. Here’s a plot I just drew for a quiz:


I just drew four connected line segments for the curve and then bent them around until I got what I wanted. Voila — instant logistic function with a y-intercept at 2 and carrying capacity at 10. I didn’t have to diddle around with y = \frac{A}{1 + Be^{-cx}} until I was blue in the face. (Even had I been inclined to do so, Maple still doesn’t work under Leopard so it’s moot.) Then one-click export to PDF, and I’m done. How many weeks might have been added back into my life that were otherwise wasted trying to get graphs to turn out right using formulas?

Best of all — it’s shareware. Who says there’s no good software out there for Macs?


Filed under Apple, Calculus, Math, Teaching, Technology

Yojimbo and Getting Things Done

yojimbo-logo.jpgSo obviously I haven’t posted in almost a week, because week 10 of the semester is traditionally the start of Crunch Time, where the ratio of (work load)/(student and faculty preparation) is at its highest point. Later in the semester the workload is actually heavier, but everybody is ready for it so the ratio is lower. Right now, not so much on the preparation side, and everybody is stressed out and working like dogs.

And so there’s no better time to talk about GTD, because in situations like this you really need a system that allows you to get your work done without having dwell on it so much. And you especially need that “trusted system” that GTD champions, so that the scatterbrained-ness that always comes with high load/prep ratio is mitigated by not having all that “stuff” in your mind. If you need a backgrounder on GTD, read this before going on.

The last time I blogged about GTD proper I was comparing some ways to implement a GTD system with software. Specifically, I was reporting on the impending alpha (not even beta!) release of OmniFocus, a GTD app from the awesome OmniGroup (makers of two of my favorite apps, OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner). I was using iGTD and looking forward to trying out OmniFocus. Well, since then, I ditched iGTD and moved over to OmniFocus full-time. For an alpha version of software, OmniFocus is quite nice. There were (and are) bugs but this is going to be a major piece of software, perhaps the next killer app for Macintoshes once it’s in post-beta format.

So OmniFocus is nice, but a couple of weeks ago — possibly out of sheer boredom, or out of a desire to get away from software bugs — I decided to look around at different software GTD solutions. After Googling a little bit, I came upon this post about Yojimbo, a sort of “digital junk drawer” software, and one person’s method for using Yojimbo to do GTD. It looked promising, so I downloaded the demo and have been slowly learning its zen and building a GTD system with it. Yojimbo is pretty impressive, and I’m going to be blogging about my efforts in using it for GTD in the near future, starting now.

Yojimbo is software intended to collect stuff — stuff of all kinds, including but not limited to web links, serial numbers, passwords, text notes, PDF’s, media files, and so on. The basic idea behind Yojimbo is you add stuff to the “library” that is created in Yojimbo, and then you can add tags and labels to each piece of stuff. You then use the tags, labels, and other meta-information about your stuff to organize and search your stuff for whatever purpose you may need. Essentially Yojimbo is a sort of database program to index and search whatever stuff you drag and drop into it.

yojimbo-1.jpgTo the right is a screenshot of my overall Yojimbo library (click to enlarge). As you can see in the large pane, I have some text notes, a web bookmark, a PDF (which is being previewed in the lower pane), an encrypted text note (“Allocation of Problems”), and something with a yellow label at the bottom… more on that in a minute. These are just items that I either authored directly in Yojimbo or added to Yojimbo from outside the software. The PDF, for instance, was a web page that I printed to PDF and sent to Yojimbo; installing the software adds a very handy print menu item that allows you to print anything — anything! — directly into Yojimbo as a PDF. You can then move the PDF elsewhere later just by dragging it to somewhere else on your hard drive.

yojimbo-2.jpgThe real GTD action takes place over in the left sidebar, which contains what Yojimbo calls “collections”. A collection is just a subset of your stuff. Some of the collections (the first five you see here) are program defaults. But the user can create his own collection, and that’s the real strength of this program for GTD.

You see two kinds of blue folders, which are the collections I’ve made for GTD. One has a little tag on top of the folder, and the other doesn’t. The tagged folders are collections that contain only items with a specific tag, so they function much like smart folders on OS X. The untagged folders contain whatever I put in them.

So Yojimbo has a rather simple, unstructured approach to collecting and cataloging stuff. That makes it very flexible and particularly well-suited for GTD, especially if your house rules for GTD may be a little nonstandard — as is the case for a lot of people in academia.

My usage of Yojimbo for GTD is evolving daily — I’ve only had the demo for 12 days — and so what I’m about to describe as my system is a work in progress. Pretty much my system looks like the one I linked to above. Let me explain.

Every project that I have is given an untagged folder. You can see those in the lower 1/3 of the sidebar. The number off to the right of those folder indicates how many pieces of stuff are in the folder. What’s inside those folders? Glad you asked. One of my advisees is doing an independent study with me next semester on mathematical methods in artificial intelligence. Getting that study ready is a project, which in GTD-ese means that it is a large-scale item to get done that involves a succession of individual, atomistic tasks along with supporting material. Here’s what’s inside the folder:


The top thing in the list is a PDF of an article that I want to include as part of the independent study. Later, once I have the study more fully fleshed-out, I will create a folder on the hard drive for it and move that article there permanently. But for now, this is supporting material for the project of getting the study ready, so here it belongs.

The other things in the folder are my actions. An action in Yojimbo is represented by an empty text note with the action listed in the title. If I have notes for the action, like I have for the one highlighted here, I can add them in the text field. The thing to note here are the tags. When I create an action (just Cmd-N inside the folder) I can add a tag to it just by tabbing into the tag field and typing the name I want. The tags are used to indicate the context. For example, the action I have highlighted above involves doing some web searching about projects in support vector machines, so the context is online. Every context ends in an “@” symbol; traditionally, contexts in GTD start with @, but as Robert Foxworthington points out, it works better if you put the @ at the end because of the way Yojimbo auto-completes the tag name.

So now, the moment I entered in that action with the “online@” tag, it not only was entered in to this project folder, but it was also automatically entered in to the “online@” tagged folder. Here’s what’s in that folder:

This way, whenever I am online and need to get stuff done, I can view the “online@” folder and see what actions have that context. (You can Cmd-click multiple folders in the sidebar to see multiple contexts. For example, it would make sense to select “online@” as well as “email@” and “computer@” all at the same time if I’m in my office and online.)

Yojimbo lets you not only tag items but also label them. The difference, from what I can tell, is that tagging is adding metadata to something, whereas labelling is merely adding a visual distinction to an item by means of color-coding the item. You can search by label type, though, so this distinction is somewhat fine. Every next action — the all-important element of GTD which indicates the next physical thing that can possibly be done in a project — is labelled as such with a bright orange label. Every action that is not a next action is labelled with a light gray label. Every action that must be completed today is given a bright yellow label. The labels allow me to quickly distinguish between next actions, regular actions, text notes which are not actions at all, and other stuff when looking in a folder.

Once I complete an action, I simply click on it and hit the delete key, and it goes in the trash folder in Yojimbo. Same for projects that reach completion.

I’m getting more comfortable with Yojimbo and GTD each day, although I don’t think I’ve honed it to quite the level of trustworthiness I would like. There are some things to watch out for when using Yojimbo for GTD and some features that I really wish Yojimbo would add. But there are plenty of positives as well which give Yojimbo an advantage over OmniFocus and iGTD. I’ll write about those in the next article.


Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Software, Technology