Monthly Archives: July 2012

Care and Maintenance of Gadgets in the Wild

We sometimes act as though our shiny gadgets are thoroughly reliable constants. By simply living outside of the norm, I constantly expose my computer equipment to difficult circumstances. As a friend said “Your gadgets are tested more than any tool since Deliverance.” Paddle faster?

A few ridiculous equipment circumstances from my own life:

  • My iMac regularly develops a film of condensed water that blurs half of my screen, making HD or retina display options seem completely optional. Do they make Rain-X for computers?
  • An inch and a half long hornet somehow committed suicide in the backside of my eMac. The hornet was much larger than any vent, so it was a mystery how it gained entrance.
  • A mud dauber (another wasp-like flying insect) plugged the headphone jack on my iPad with mud while attempting to build a hatchery for its young.

Living in humid Virginia in a log cabin is at times difficult on the body… but it’s hell on my gadgets. There are other challenges as we move further outside Western suburbia. When traveling to Ghana last year I carried a used laptop as a gift to my host. While she had some correct electrical adapters, she didn’t have a sufficient surge protector. The power cable overheated, burning out the power adaptor and rendering the laptop temporarily unusable. Thankfully as I traveled with the laptop I didn’t run into the problem that my friend had with another laptop in Israel. A Palestinian friend had passed along a laptop in hopes that she would be able to repair it. The Israeli border patrol stopped her and wanted to know why she was traveling with a non-working laptop with a non-US power supply. She was questioned for quite a long time while they ensured that she was not ferrying an explosive device.

It’s easy to think that we can ship extra computers to the underserved corners of the world and fix access problems. It’s not that simple. Any computer, including mine, not housed in a tightly-sealed, climate and environment-controlled building, is at the mercy of insects, humidity, dust, heat and a myriad of other concerns. Electrical surges and differing currents wreak havoc. Security at schools continue to be an issue; computer labs set up previous years by other visitors were robbed. Even when all these hurdles are surmounted, basic maintenance remains a problem. Older computers are likely to have hardware malfunctions and updating software through dial-up Internet connections is challenging.

It’s critical, and inevitable, that computers will continue to penetrate to all parts of our globe, but it’s likely that we’ll bypass many of the challenges that desktop models give us and instead replace it with mobile and cellular technologies. As the world moves to mobile, it’s hopeful that we’ll have more durable gadgets with fewer environmental and maintenance issues.


Too Many Apps

It’s only been four years since the Apple app store was launched, but there are over a half million apps available. In addition there are also all the apps that are embedded in websites and in Google’s store. How do we possibly focus on getting our key tasks done while being told that we need to try this or that new life-changing app? Here are some techniques that I’ve been using to good effect:

Reading Headlines
I don’t read every blog and article the moment it comes out. If I read tech blogs everyday I’d get whiplash. Every new app and tech company is going to change the world. Except they don’t. I wait for the hue and cry to die down and let others weed out the technologies that won’t last. I resist the need to try every last fix-all solution by remembering my History of Ed Tech professor showing us the lantern slide, blackboard, tape player, TV, etc that was going to change the education world and bring in a golden age of human development.
Asking Questions
When a technological break-through lasts long enough to make it worthwhile to invest, I ask friends who I respect what the educational applications are, what the limitations are, and what’s the likelihood that it’s going to be around for a while. Even if there is no cash cost for using a tool, the time and energy that a user spends learning the tool has a price and that becomes a complete loss if the app is going to be absorbed or cut (e.g. Google Wave).
Rejecting Tools (even popular/useful ones)
There are some services that I don’t I need. Spotify is probably great, but I haven’t been convinced that it will add value to my life. I like music, but I’m not an audiophile. I often want it to provide background to other productivity. I mostly don’t want it to bother me. I’ve collected a pretty good iTunes library and I’ve curated some pretty great Pandora stations. I know that Spotify probably is great, but I’m cheap– I don’t want to add another subscription to get the features that really set it apart from competitors. I also want to minimize the amount of time that I spend taking care of my technology– each app that we install means another tool with its own updates, subscriptions to manage, privacy to consider. When we adopt and adopt again we’re devoting more of our time to means not the ends. I’ve got 3-4 ways to listen to music I like already, I’m not sure that I need to add another.
Following Instincts
Sometimes a new app just seems great, a no brainer. If it’s appealing, easy to use, with a clear educational component– then yes, I use it– hello I don’t reject apps just because they’re new. I’m not a crazy luddite. I hope that I am merely a thoughtful luddite. Following my instincts has made me reject any locator type program like foursquare as creepy and unneeded even before I read articles like this.
Investigating on Need
I figure out what I need to do before searching out the app. I don’t find an app and try to shoehorn it into a curriculum or task just to say that I used something new. Using this method we’ve found apps to calculate percentage change, to create secure passwords and teach students how to use javascript.

One technique that has proven invaluable for me is accepting that I can’t stay abreast of every innovation. I shift the focus back from the shininess on the web, and back to the reality of what I really want to do and accomplish. Freeing myself from being an early adopter has definitely reduced my anxiety about what I am missing.

Unplug the Games: The value of human to human play

This summer we’re teaching a series of optional free camps at Computers4Kids. The goal is to provide a fun and engaging experience, but also introduce concepts that might pique the students’ interest. Last week I observed a phenomena that I had noticed before — a definite lack in students’ problem-solving skills. This wasn’t in an unfamiliar content area, but a simple game of 20 questions where the items were familiar animals, foods and objects. It was hard to watch the student stymied by the task. He wasn’t able to construct questions, even with prompts, that would lead to him guessing his hidden animal. He seemed frustrated and embarrassed, but other students lent him support and he was able to succeed eventually. This game that seemed so familiar to me and most of the students was clearly foreign to him.

Observing this interchange made me think about how important games are to children’s development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. How many hours of my childhood  journeys were occupied with searching for objects that started with certain letters or fit into different categories, guessing a word, or out-spelling the driver? Thinking about strategy, getting tricky, and being clever were all skills that offered gratification and reward. Successful thinking was play and fun. It was valued.

Certainly many of these experiences can be duplicated on smartphones. There are plenty of free or cheap apps with guessing games built in, some lacking a few key components:

  1. An authentic feedback loop. It’s more gratifying to hear a peer or adult congratulate you for fresh thinking or more efficient guessing than canned computer feedback, no matter how intelligent the system is.
  2. Evolution of gameplay. When you’ve planned the same game mile after mile, you begin to shift the rules and boundaries to keep the gameplay challenging and new. The negotiation of the rules to keep play fun, challenging, or to make it appropriate for different levels of players is a critical skill for young players.
  3. Reading the opponent. When people play games against one another, they observe the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s play. Predicting a player’s next steps is often crucial in competitive games. Being able to parse the psychology of a colleague is a valued skilled in real life.
  4. Spontaneity. Humans almost always bring a sense of unpredictability to gameplay. While a computer algorithm can be analyzed and predicted, humans tend to ignore logical steps and respond “irrationally”; sometimes a perceived “losing” move is a strategically savvy one. Many computer programs aren’t equipped to play the long game.

Certainly I don’t disdain computer games and apps completely. I can’t stop playing a Tetris clone on my phone, but I see that games still need to come out of the digital sphere and into our human one. Sitting in the backseat affixed to the smartphone is no substitute for playing a game of I Spy out the window. Just because an activity is lo-fi, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.

Education Online

Just a month ago our sleepy college town was rocked by the announcement that the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, was unexpectedly resigning. The intervening weeks saw vigils, rallies and protests and eventually the reinstatement of Sullivan. Conspiracy theories about the business school, wealthy donors and even Sullivan’s weight abounded, but despite the secrecy that cloaked the Board of Visitors’ (UVa’s governing body) actions, one undeniable theme was the desire to move quicker to implementing online courses. Responding to the brouhaha, Jordan Weissman presents a cogent argument about why online courses will not suddenly replace the traditional “brick and mortar” experience. The comments section includes vigorous discussion about the comparative values of both. The comments illuminate the wide range of current philosophies about college and education, and several discuss how introductory college courses could transition from face to face to online formats similar to the Khan Academy curriculum — which consists of online, video-based tutorials and short courses.

I’m not a huge fan of Khan Academy. I recognize its incredible value and what a remarkable resource it is. My problem is that it should be viewed as a tool in our teaching and learning repertoire, but instead it’s positioned as the savior of a broken educational system. Show me the students who feel Khan Academy unlocks their inspiration and stirs their passion for a subject. The most enthusiastic recommendations for Khan Academy are from students using the videos and practice to pass a standardized test in a subject in which they are struggling.

I’m passionate about the word and concept of education. I feel deeply responsible for “leading out” the best qualities of students. The typical format of many online classes is simply a data dump of facts. If that is the purpose of our colleges and universities, then online classes would be completely appropriate. However, if our goal is to create an informed and thinking citizenry (which I am beginning to think is NOT the goal of many of our institutions), it is a mistake to use instructor-led lecture followed by multiple choice standardized tests to assess knowledge acquisition.

It’s certainly possible for face to face instruction to have the same shortcomings as what I’ve ascribed to online learning. However, facilitating and creating quality online curricula is even more challenging than teaching face to face. In the classroom the teacher and students can interact in a synchronous exchange of ideas full of facial and body cues, aiding full discussions. Trying to emulate that online is challenging and time-consuming. When I taught online, I spent a great deal of time writing personalized comments and rebuttals, seeking to engage students and encourage them to revisit their quickly scribed reaction papers. Much of the time was spent developing a personal connection with each student — much easier in the real world with eye contact, a smile or a quick chuckle together. Once that critical relationship of trust was established, my constructive critiques and guidance were much better received. My students got much more out of this than having a series of multiple choice tests, or writing responses that disappeared into the ether, but these kinds of interactions require a small teacher:student ratio, committed teachers, and commiserate pay.

While the Sullivan/UVa turmoil was deeply personal for me, there are broader implications for our educational systems, our cultural institutions and even our society. When Sullivan’s resignation was first announced, “philosophical differences” between her and the Board were cited. Although that justification was decried as insufficient, I believe that no truer words were spoken. I fear that much of the push for online classes is in service of corporate concepts like “efficiency” and “return on investment (ROI)”. I fear a time when education is only valued for quantifiable returns, and contemplation, reflection and the study of the deeper arts of the human existence are abandoned for the sake of memorization of quick facts and software tools. There is no question that there are real economic concerns related to tuition costs and the ability for college graduates to find meaningful, remunerative work, but the economy and money are not the only factors that drive our society. We will inevitably embrace online learning, but we owe it to ourselves to be thoughtful in our implementation and create opportunities beyond rote memorization.