Monday, November 5, 2007

La plus ca change

The more things change, the more it stays the same.

I recently saw this video from the 1940's on progressive education, and it seems very much that 60 years later we're still fighting the same battles. As David Warlick points out, Michael Wesch has another amazing video out about how the students in his first year Ethnography class.

More evidence that students have changed dramatically, but schooling has yet to keep up.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tropical Cyclone Gonu

Wednesday Tropical Cyclone Gonu hit here. Not so much as hit here as gave the country a long sideways pummel. The rains started at around 4am and continued until about midnight. The weather probably was at its most extreme from noon to 4pm.

Like Katrina, the hurricane was about category 5, however by the time it here it had dissipated down to a category 1 or 2. Like Katrina, the devastation was not caused so much by the storm itself, but by the flooding that accompanied it. With Katrina it was the failures of levees. With Gonu it was the overflowing of the wadis (normally dried up riverbeds with their sources in the mountains). Some friends of ours reported that they saw a dump truck being swept away by the force of the water and it was just being rolled like a Tonka truck. . In other parts of the city whole sections of the expressway were washed out.

At school, the on campus housing got about an inch of mud when the wadi their housing backs on overflowed. Fortunately there was a solid retaining wall in place, and all the teachers and their families were in the school at the time so no one was hurt. The church across the street from the school was buried in mud. It came within 2 feet of the top of the door. The Toyota workshop next to the church was basically swept downstream. Cars and trucks are strewn all over for about a kilometer. Some buried up to their roofs in sand and muck

We thought we were weathering the storm very well. Until about 6pm, everything was working very well. We had power, electricity, water, telephone and an ADSL connection. The worst of the storm seemed to be over. Then the power went out. It seems that the generator that powers this area used natural gas which was piped in through a pipeline that ran through a wadi. When the wadi flooded, the pipeline broke, and cut off the supply of fuel for the power station. That took 48 hours to repair. We had just checked into a hotel when we came back to get clothes, and saw that the power was back on. A couple of nights make you appreciate air conditioning all the more.

More serious than the electrical outage is the water outage. Water has still not yet been restored. Fortunately we have a stockpile in that we have a water tank on our roof. As soon as we learned that the tank was not being refilled, we took water conservation measures, and still have about 2/3 of a tank. There are rumours that trucks belonging to have been mobbed and others are receiving police escorts. Since initially writing tis, the water has come on for a while and then been turned off so another district can get water.

The infrastructure of the city on all levels took a massive hit. This included the communications infrastructure. In the aftermath of the storm, the phone network went down. At our house it was out for two days. The GSM (cell phone) network was iffy at best. This meant that the school had a hard job communicating with the staff. Not to mention the problem with cell phone batteries dying. With electricity still out at school, and our mail server on campus, communications between the school and wider community are not where need to be. One of my jobs over the next few days is to start looking at some ways to address this issue.

Lessons learned: Two post hurricane stressors were lack of cash as phones and therefore ATM’s were down. Next hurricane, I’m going to make sure I stock up on some cash before hand. Also the half tank of gas in the car was a stressor. I’ll make sure it is full. We had only one cell phone as my Treo suffered an unfortunate accident the week before, and we were constantly switching SIM cards. It might be good to have at least the same number of cell phones as the number of SIM cards in the future. Also good to have is a car charger for the cell phone. Other than that the stocking up with water and flashlights worked out well. Once power is back on at school, I’ll need to start unpacking the lessons learned on the school side. One thing I need to learn about is the difference between a hurricane, cyclone and typhoon. My current theory is that it has to do with which ocean spans them; hurricanes in the Atlantic, typhoons in the Pacific and Cyclones in the Indian. That is just a working theory for now.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


Lee LeFever of Common Craft has come up with another great video, explaining wikis.

Planning continues on the technology strand at the NESA Leadership Conference in Bangkok using a TikiWiki. Others have started to use the edit button and move away from the comments. The other tech coordinators and directors are starting to create what will be a really good strand.
I also realized today that blogs were he answer to a problem that were plaguing us in Blackboard. The problem was that teachers wanted to use the results of a discussion board from one year to the next. In Blackboard, once users are deleted, their postings disappear. This was a problem in that the course where the students were posting was a Grade 12 course, and the student accounts (and therefore the student postings) were deleted at the end of the year. Moving that knowledge to a wiki will result an ability for students to stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

Taxonomy of Knowledge

David Weinberger's video (based on his new book Everything is Miscellaneous) represents a whole series of new powerful ideas. Equaly interesting are his series of interviews with physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga(founder of he Daily Kos), Arriana Huffington (founder of the Huffington Post), Jimmy Wales (co-founder of Wikipedia).
The main threads running through all of these is how everything has changed. "Web 2.0 changes everything" is a common rallying cry among Educational bloggers, but the how is often missing. I believe that David Weinberger is starting to put his finger on it. According to him, there are three orders of data. There is the data itself, say the pictures in an archive. There is metadata, the card catalogue. But when data and metadata are digital, they become interchangeable. For example, if you know that Charles Dickens wrote a Tale of Two Cities, you can Google and the four or fifth hit gives you the text of the A Tale of Two Cities. Conversely if you knew the line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", but were unsure of its source, you can Google the phrase and see that it was written by Charles Dickens. Weinberger's important observation is that metadata is what you know. Data is what you don't.
In terms of Web 2.0, Weinberger mak. es two observations. Firstly that all taxonomies are arbitrary. There is no perfect order, waiting to be revealed. If everyone can organize their own knowledge in any way they see fit, that is incredibly liberating. The Web 2.0 tool that allows users to do this is tagging. As I was writing this I realized that tagging is a constructivist tool. It allows people to attach their own meaning.
Secondly, he notes that traditionally editors have exercised power by controlling what goes on the front page of a newspaper. Thanks to Web 2.0 tools, everyone is their own editor and can use tools like NetVibes to pick what stories they want to see, and in what order. To me that is a revolution on par with Martin Luther's "Every man is his own priest," and sums up very well how Web 2.0 changes everything.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

iPods in school debate

We had an interesting discussion in a High School faculty meeting today. The debate was what to about "personal listening devices" at school. Some faculty were in favour of banning them altogether. The reasons being:

  • The historical reasons were:

    1. There is a very real possibility that students can damage their hearing.

      • Teenagers being the creatures they are need to see immediate consequences. Deafness /impaired hearing five ten years down the line is not on teenagers' timescale.

      • Volume and length of exposure are the key factors. Should we do what we can to reduce exposure?

    2. There is a concern that students were not socializing with each other. when they were jacked into their iPods they weren't connecting with each other. Not the environment we want to promote at school.

    3. There was a concern about the students listening to explicit lyrics that were inappropriate for school, and listening to such lyrics would not be conducive to engaging in constructive dialogue with their peers

  • Additional concerns

    1. The need for students to spend sometime unplugged, in that they ar eplugged in so much of the rest of their day. The converse of this argument is that allowing iPods in school helps make school like the rest of their world.

    2. The possibility of students using iPods to cheat on tests and exams as witnessed by this article
    3. Some students are not using the personal listening devices responsibly, ie. walking past people without exchanging basic civil greetings like "good morning"

On the flip side, certain faculty members were arguing:

  1. The current policy of no personal listening devices at school from 8:30 to 3:30 (school hours) except under the direct supervision of a teacher was basically unenforceable.

  2. There are perfectly valid reasons to listen to an iPod at school, especially when teachers assign podcasts to listen to such as in Easy French

  3. The students are social about their listening devices socially, often sharing a pair of buds between two people

  4. If not at school, where else can we teach students to use these devices responsibily

Good analogies abounded.

  • When one is reading, one is immersed in a world of one's own

  • Students may be reading objectionable material, but we don't censor that

All in all it was a very good discussion. In the end, the decision was to reframe the school rule so that students are allowed to use personal listening devices at school during their free time, and in classes only with permission of the teacher. I can clearly see the arguments on both sides of this debate. The only one that I have trouble with is the cheating argument. Why are we testing students on rote memorization? Why are we not looking at what value the students can add to the content with which they are working? The health argument especially caused me to rethink allowing students to use their iPods in my computer literacy class while they do their typing. I had always thought of it in terms of the music being an incentive for them to engage in what would otherwise be a dull repetitive task. I need to think some more about the effects it has on their hearing, or at the very least monitor more closely decibel levels.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

What I've Been Working On

The last week has been very busy. Bad Internet access at home. We were not able to connect until after 9:30pm, so I got very little web work done at home. The NESA Virtual Science Fair has been running in virtual mode for the past week. Stuart and I developed an on-line judging system where the judges log in, access their teams' Blackboard sites and post their scores on-line. Some minor hiccups. Learned about php and timeouts, but other than that the coding I did worked as it should have, and Stuart has been able to have real-time data on the 47 teams that made it to the final round. This is a significant improvement over managing three judges per team, with three rounds, and one spreadsheet per team per round. (It would have been almost 150 spreadsheets).

Just to keep things interesting I volunteered to move the timeline for the 5th Grade Virtual Science fair up a year, and quickly cludged a simplified version of the NVSF judging software. This goes live May 15th.

The other neat project on the NESA end that is off the ground, is planning for the NESA Fall Leadership Conference. We're working on developing a technology strand for tech directors and coordinators from the region. Lynne Schrum is going to be the facilitator for two 3 hour sessions. One with the admins and one with the tech directors. We're doing the planning for this as a Wiki. The interesting thing for me is how far we are behind as a region on the Web 2.0 front. Most of the tech directors are using the wiki like a threaded discussion board. No one has hit the edit button yet. This has me a little discouraged, but ultimately I know this is the professional development that we need.

I've also been working on reworking our library web page. This is not yet finished. I had a frustrating time last week trying to upload from school different changes. The idea is that the web page is going to be database driven. I've got the drop-down menus working, but not the database query. Instead of seeing error codes that can inform me about what is going wrong, all I am getting is a network error. I suspect that it is the error checking and recursion I was trying to code, but it is not yet ready fro prime time. All in all a very eventful week.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Streaming music

I took a listen today to In comparison to pandora, it has some definite strengths. If you create stations on the band "Blue Rodeo" in both of them, the results are very different. Pandora picks up on the country aspect of Blue Rodeo's music and takes you down that path., picked up on who they sound a bit like and I think with whom they've toured, so bands like Great Big Sea, and the Jayhawks were coming up as well as artists like Simon and Garfunkel and Tom Petty. To my ears, this is a better match, so may have the better algorithm, however they do not have the better library.

My favourite station on pandora is "Theolonius Monk." This consistently delivers excellent jazz that for me is very listenable. Attempting to create this station on yields a "Not enough content to play this station." I am still torn between these two.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Cognitive maps of searches

Thanks to Kevin Honeycutt I discovered Kartoo today. Kartoo is a search engine that creates a visual map of how your search topic is related to other things. It also generates a list of related search terms if you want to refine your results even more. This is very much in the theme of making implicit connections explicit, but it also starts to give some insight into how the engine searches for results. It also gives a representation of what is linked to what, and a list of alternative search terms. All vital tools that our students need.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Random thoughts

Lately in my computer literacy class, I've been sharing some of the things that come up, that may be of interest to my students.

Today are two things that I am going to share with the students today. One is an email that I received from my mother. It was about the dangers of plastics and the fact that dangerous chemicals can be released when they are frozen or microvaved. A quick trip to Snopes revealed that this was a hoax. Is this something that computer literate students should know? Definitely. Is in the curriculum. No.

The second is a really well done representation of what RSS feeds are and how they work.
There are two types of Internet users, those that use RSS and those that don't. This video is for the people who could save time using RSS, but don't know where to start.

This too is something that is not explicitly in the curriculum, but it is something that computer literate students should be able to know and do.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Facebook posting

Over the weekend, I was exploring facebook. (I know I am late to the web 2.0 party). I started to explore a bit around schools that I went to, and schools that I worked at. I came across this group page (registration required) published by last year's grads of the school I worked at last year. The page describes all sorts of parties and all sorts of rules that they had broken over the course of their time at the school. It also takes a nasty turn and singles out particular staff members for ridicule and abuse.

I did 2 things, I brought this page to attention of the administrators at the school. They basically shrugged it off as not being within their realm. I also brought it up for discussion with my computer literacy class. They too believed that the school should do nothing.

I am still not convinced. It seems to me that we as a school did not do a good job of preparing these grads, especially one in particular for ethical use of new technologies. It also seems that if the poster is still in the country, he could be called in and basically shamed into modifying the comments. I believe that if you post things in a public space, you should be prepared to stand by them, and you should not post things about other people that you would not want them to read.

On the other hand, these comments represent immediate feedback about the experience that these students had at the school. Certain teachers did have a reputation for not being effective in the classroom. Certain secretaries were unpleasant to deal with. The school policy was to delete email accounts in the fall following graduation. I can't help but thinking however that to air this on facebook is inappropriate. There are alternative methods to get one's message across, and ones that are not as hurtful. What do you think? Should the school intervene in this case?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Knowledge Representation

Conrad Barski has written an excellent piece on how knowledge is represented to the computer. Beyond the content, is the way the argument is developed. Instead of a standard adversarial piece presenting two opposing positions, He's developed a really good model of how three poles can have interplay between each of the three dichotomies, with the ultimate goal being the centre between all three. Excellent visual imagery and very effective metaphor.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Standardized Testing

Had an interesting experience today with contrasting two types of testing. Our elementary students are engaged in using the NWEA's Measure of Academic Progress. This is an adaptive test that is standards based. For the students, it means they keep on getting harder questions until they start getting wrong answers. Once they are getting about half of the questions right, the system is able to establish a level for them. Every student gets a unique test that is tailor made for them. Tests are untimed and students have as much time as they desire. Results are available in about 24 hours.

In contrast, this afternoon I proctored an ITBS test. This is the same old format as when we were all in school. Test book, fill in the bubbles. Limited time.

Both of these modes of operation are unusual for me. Seeing kids working quietly and individually is not what I'm used to. I'm used to a lot more chatter between students, and a lot more working with students to help them master materials and concepts. How can collaborative skills be measured? How often are students going to be asked to rely on what they've learned? I wonder if it is possible to create a standardized test where one gives a group of students an entirely new task and ask them to come up with a solution. In some way measuring their ability to learn within certain constraints. That seems like a better measure of the skills they'll need.