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Dulling the Knives…

March 28th, 2009

I had an extremely disappointing day yesterday. 

Some background: I’ve been teaching my Grade 8 classes about information management since the beginning of January. We started off with spreadsheets, and are wrapping up now with a unit on databases. I’ve been really happy with how things have progressed. We’ve been doing some really innovative things, and I’ve learned a tonne in the process. Judging by the work students have been submitting, so have they.

Yesterday was supposed to be the last lesson.

I had planned something awesome. In the previous semester, some of the things we had touched on, through journal entries, collaborative activities and extended research projects, were cloud computing, software-as-service, hardware & software, interface design, and business models in the tech. industry. Yesterday, we would have brought everything together through an interview with a business owner.

I had lined up a speaker who writes web-based data-management software for businesses. He co-founded a company just over 2 years ago, and I’ve watched (and helped) his product grow into something quite polished. He has designed, built and secured his own technical infrastructure, and has an extremely impressive workspace, running on a high-end platform. He makes human interface decisions on a day-to-day basis while designing software modules, and his product is completely database driven. He makes his revenue in large part through subscriptions – not by selling his software outright. And he’s managed to attract several fairly big clients.

Great software.

Great software.

I planned to set up an iChat video conference between him and my class. I would project the video chat onto the board so everyone could see. iChat Theatre would enable him to share photos of his office, and his hardware back-end. Screen-sharing would allow him to demonstrate his software, and then fire up his database server and give us a peek under the hood. We’d be able to discuss hardware, software, interface design, relational databases, and business models, all focused around a living example of what we had studied. The opportunity for reinforcement and learning would have been enormous.

“Would have.”

A week ago I started preparations to get this thing off the ground. I researched all the ports I would need opened for iChat, and compiled a list to submit to our I.T. department. The response? It would be too complicated to set up for just one lesson. I pleaded for alternatives, knowing there’s always more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to networking. Nothing worked. Finally, three hours before the lesson, still trying to ‘get out’ over the right ports, I phoned my speaker and cancelled the conference, indefinitely. Instead, I showed my students how relationships work in Microsoft Access, and then we started a unit on publishing.

My students have no idea just what they missed out on yesterday. As for myself, I was so upset that I was tempted to simply run out and buy a mobile internet stick from my ISP, so this would never happen again.

I have a huge chip on my shoulder when it comes to I.T. administration in education. In all my experiences, there seems to be an overwhelming bias against teachers. Because we are percieved to not have the formal qualifications, we are treated as liabilities – not assets – by network admins.

I’ve worked in the I.T. industry going on 8 years. I know how to program in several languages. I do graphic design. I create web applications to interface with database servers. I’ve been hired by the government, the military, higher education, and the private sector. I’ve set up networks. I’ve designed database schemas. I have a broad base of knowledge, and if I don’t know how to do something, I can get in touch with about half a dozen people who can help me.

I understand that there are a lot of people out there, working as teachers, with little to no technical knowledge. But I’m not one of them. Without a flexible network policy, and without a constant dialogue between teachers and administrators, I’m forced to abide by the same (suffocating) restrictions imposed on others ‘for their own good’.

In education, network administrators are supposed to be enablers – those that make things possible, not those that explain why things are impossible. There are times when exceptions are necessary. An inflexible network policy only stifles innovation. It imposes mediocrity. It dulls all the knives in the drawer, so nobody gets hurt. 

All I wanted to do yesterday was slice some bread.

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What keeps me up at night.

March 22nd, 2009
This misses the point entirely.

This misses the point entirely.

Assessment is the part of my job that I enjoy the least.

By a wide margin.

I’ve taught math in the past. Presently, I teach I.T. and History. All three are completely different animals when it comes to assessment, and each poses a unique set of problems that manages to keep me awake at night.

You can be ruthlessly objective when grading a math test or homework assignment: the requirements are clear, and there is (generally) only one right answer. Your numeric grade in math represents the extent to which you measure up to perfection. Plain and simple. Cold and calculating. Not particularly friendly. 1

Try throwing around a word like ‘perfection’ in a history class and you lose your credibility in an instant. In a course designed to teach students that there ultimately IS no ‘right answer’, you can’t take the mathematical approach. So how do you assess? What does that magic number represent? The extent to which you demonstrate reasoning and critical thinking skills? Well, yes. But good luck determining that objectively.

Take a moment and give your own reasoning skills a grade from 0 to 100.

… See what I mean?

What does assessment mean when it comes to  I.T.? The canned answer is “problem solving skills, naturally.” But are problem solving skills any easier to assess than reasoning skills, or critical thinking skills?

Skills are at the heart of assessment, but most assessment instruments do a poor job assessing skills. Unless you intend to measure content retention as a ’skill’, there’s really no point in giving closed-book, timed history tests. The same goes for math tests that don’t ask you to show your work. And the idea of a written I.T. exam is just laughable.

If you want to measure reasoning skills, assess the questions your students ask. If you want to measure critical thinking skills, give your students the tools and watch what they do with them. If you want to measure problem solving skills, pose a real problem, step back and watch. It’s fun.

Now, give your problem solving skills a mark out of 100.

Annoyed yet?

  1. I’m aware this is a contentious statement. In reality things are much more complicated, and good math teachers do what they can to employ alternative assessments. Collaborative work, portfolios, and independent study projects are great tools to this end. But how often do you see them stand in place of quizzes and tests?

4 Responses to “What keeps me up at night.”

  1. John says:

    Ever read “That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession”? It reminded me of what you were talking about.

  2. Ari says:

    Just added it to my list of things to read someday.

    I really do think you can assess reasoning skills. They’re certainly observable – some students reason better than others. They ask the right questions, and make statements they can defend based on evidence. Others don’t.

    Curiously enough (not really), the former students are also articulate, rational, and critical of the world around them. The latter tend to live in (meander aimlessly through) the present…

  3. Krystn says:

    There was an article posted on msn recently about high schools that no longer use grades. Instead, the teachers write up formal assessments for each student. Their transcripts end up being about a foot thick, but it’s something their attempting to do to get rid of the old grading system.

    Have you heard of this?

  4. Ari says:

    I have indeed, though probably something similar to what you’re describing.

    The schools I’ve heard about are part of an organization called ‘High Tech High’. Rather than assessing with numbers, the idea at these schools is to have students create portfolios, and learn through projects. Assessment is ongoing, and takes the form of progress reports and constant feedback. It’s also authentic, because all the projects try to involve the community, by bringing in government officials, business owners, etc.

    Check them out: http://www.edutopia.org/collaboration-age-technology-high-tech

    I want to work there.

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I made the jump.

March 21st, 2009

Wordpress Logo I just installed Wordpress on my server.

After gazing enviously at countless friends’ blogs, with their fancy features, consistent behaviour, sophisticated database schemas and out-of-the-box W3C compliance, I finally decided to scrap my home-grown blogging platform and stand on the shoulders of giants.

And it’s great.

Some background:

I wrote my first database-driven journalling platform back in 2001, when I was still in high school, using ASP, VBScript, an Access database and an IIS server. At the time, I did it just to see if I could. It was extremely basic, and extremely proprietary. I learned the value of platform-independence years later, and made the switch to PHP / MySQL / Apache, about the same time I put down the Kool-Aid and purchased a Mac. I decided to write a new blogging platform to help learn how to script in PHP. PHP is ugly.

I finally got something up and running about a year and a half ago, and the front-end worked reasonably well. But the back-end was a mess. So much so that I just couldn’t bring myself to use my own tools to write new posts. So for the past year and change, this journal has stagnated.

Time to start over.

I’ve always known that it’s important to keep a blog if you want to establish an online presence. Employers value it, and it’s an essential part of one’s overall brand. My home-grown solution… well… sucked. And I lacked the wherewithal to fix it. So I took the plunge over March Break and installed Wordpress. The back-end sold me. I haven’t looked back.

Migrating everything over took about 2 weeks, and I learned a tonne about WP in the meantime. Some thoughts on the whole process:

  1. Your blog’s root directory is permanent. DO NOT bury deep inside your web server. It’s painful to move it out, afterwards.
  2. Trying to trace Wordpress’ boot sequence is an exercise in futility. You’re shuttled from index page to index page, and nested functions from like 5 different files somehow generate your content for you. But damned if you want to know how.
  3. I need to learn a LOT more about CSS. Boy am I ever out of touch.
  4. ‘rel=…’ attributes are indispensible, and I need to figure out what they actually are.
  5. Lightview is the hottest overlay viewer out there.
  6. What are trackbacks and pingbacks, and why should I care?
  7. AJAX. Need to learn. Desperately.

Hopefully, now that I have a decent back-end to manage my journal entries, I’ll be posting less sporadically.

Like, maybe more than once a year?

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Why Luddites shouldn’t handle policy decisions.

March 23rd, 2008

I couldn’t let  this one pass by without comment.1

 A first-year student at Ryerson University faced an academic misconduct hearing this month for alleged ‘cheating’ over Facebook. Chris Avenir was ‘caught’ moderating a study group for students enrolled in a chemistry course.

When did this become a crime? Students at most universities (including Ryerson, I know for a fact), have department-endorsed study rooms where students come and go at will, swapping notes and exchanging solutions. This is virtually the same thing.

Thankfully, Avenir wasn’t expelled, but in what I view to be a gross injustice, he was given an F on an assignment and a note in his permanent record, stating he was disciplined. And they’re touting this as a huge victory for students at Ryerson, because he could have faced 147 counts of academic misconduct instead.

There is a huge problem here, and it doesn’t have to do with cheating online. The problem is that Avenir’s chemistry professor insisted that students work independently.

The expectation that students work on their own, in a vacuum, to solve problems and complete assignments belongs to a model of learning that became obsolete in the 19th century. No student is an island anymore, and nobody gets anywhere meaningful in complete isolation.

The professor, and likely the entire Faculty Appeals Committee at Ryerson, belong to an era where independent work was still valued. They also belong to an era where talking pictures were all the rage, computers were giant machines that filled entire rooms and took 5 hours to perform calculations on punchcards, and people still paid typists by the page to run off copies of their theses.

See a problem here? These people have no business shaping educational policy at a 21st century post-secondary institution. Their values are out of place, and so are their conceptions about education.

If anything, the 21st century will be all about collaborative learning and problem solving. It will be about groups of students working together, pooling all their resources, to tackle problems an entire order of complexity higher than any of them could solve alone. Good educational policy should reflect this. It should encourage students to ask each other for solutions, not penalize them with draconian policies when they’re caught doing what they’ve been doing for at least 2 decades already.

In an era where one of our world’s foremost minds has no qualms about posting his life’s work online, and calling on mathematicians, physicists and particle theorists to read, refine and augment it, you would think that a few stodgy professors at a university claiming to be at the cutting-edge of applied sciences might want to rethink their stance on collaboration.

They’re probably too busy trying to open an email attachment in WordPerfect format.

  1. By the way, thanks, CBC, for the wonderful site re-design, that offers no formatting-stripped print option. I guess I missed the memo when this became acceptable practice for reputable online news sources…

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Dear iCal team,

March 12th, 2008

iCalLet me preface my remarks by commenting (like many Mac users) on how much the platform and its software have enhanced my productivity. I have a deep appreciation for the consistently good software that Apple releases, and I miss no opportunity to evangelize on your behalf.

Leopard has been a huge step forward in a lot of ways for me – it’s made me an even more efficient and effective computer user. But something has been bothering me consistently ever since I upgraded months ago, and it concerns the usability of iCal version 3.

I use iCal on a regular basis, both as a schoolteacher and a university student. On Tiger it was extremely easy to create events and access / edit information related to them. I’d often have to make changes to the time of an event, or its recursion settings, or its notes. If the event drawer was visible, changing any of these things involved at most two clicks.

In Leopard, however, not only do I need to double click on an event after it’s been created to view it, I next have to click on the ‘Edit’ button, and then click once more on the element I wanted to change. In addition to all these clicks, the event editing callout never appears in the same place twice, which means a different mouse motion is needed each time. These features violate a number of interface design principles – recognition over recall, consistency, flexibility & efficiency of use, and user freedom.

Conversely, the events drawer seems to me to be an excellent interface design decision: it allows users to access events in the same way, in the same location, in any view; it merges viewing with editing in a convenient and intuitive way; it doesn’t cover up other events in neighboring cells during viewing or editing; and it offers a much more spacious area to display event information.

As far as interface design goes, it’s obvious to me that the better event editing interface is in iCal on Tiger. I’m sure there are even better solutions out there, though I don’t pretend to know what they might look like; nevertheless, I’m convinced that what replaced the event drawer in Leopard is a step backward for usability. Using iCal has become a frustrating chore, and an uncharacteristically unpleasant step in my workflow. Please bring back the event drawer and its intuitive design, or alternatively, an even more innovative interface.

Ever since I switched to the Mac platform, working on even the most mundane tasks has become a pleasure. The only real exception is when I’m in the iCal environment.

I hope that, in the future, I won’t need to qualify this statement. Thank you for all the work you’ve done to make my life easier. Keep up the innovation, and thanks for reading.

Best regards,


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Classrooms in the Future

March 6th, 2008

It’s no secret – I don’t write enough on my own. Someday I’ll overcome my perfectionism and take a more relaxed, casual attitude towards writing. Hopefully soon.

For now, here’s something I wrote for my technology methods class, in response to the following discussion question:

Technology has had a tremendous impact on the educational environment in recent years. It has changed the way that teachers teach and students learn. What will a classroom look like ten years from now? What about 50 years from now?    

*     *     *   

We are moving towards a society that values information and innovation over specific skills. I believe that as we move into this future, our focus in the classroom will shift from content to process. What I mean by this is, the content we teach will gradually matter less than the process whereby students learn (reflexively).

    We are at the brink of an age of unimaginable scientific and cultural self-realization. The keys to unlocking this age are innovation, creativity and forward-thinking. If we force our future students to learn at a pace slower than that of technological advancement, we will never unlock this future.

    I will be disappointed if, in fifty years, students are still learning mathematical computation skills like long division in math class, or learning orthography and grammar in language arts. I will be disappointed, because it is unnecessary. We have moved to a point in history where we can trust technology to do the grunt work, and focus on higher-order concepts at an earlier stage in our development. If every cohort of students has to re-invent the wheel (learn long division, worry about grammar and spelling), future generations will be doomed to stagnation.

    In ten years, I would hope that 3rd or 4th grade students are learning algebra and computer programming in their classrooms. With the help of technology, these students will be able to make connections that would take years to make otherwise. I would hope that, in the future, high school students learn what today’s students learn in university. Imagine what higher education could yeild if students - going in - already knew first or second-year chemistry, biology and applied sciences.

    In another half-century, I hope that the keyboard and mouse are abandoned as anachronistic. I hope great strides are taken to facilitate written communication in English (or whatever language becomes the lingua franca of the future). I want to see technology facilitate the arduous process of articulating, communicating and translating a great idea across the world.

    I am convinced, as my colleagues are, that the classroom of the future will not change in the most fundamental way. It will still be an environment that provides students with the tools of discovery and innovation. And like most future-minded thinkers, I care less about the content than the process. What the classroom of the future will look like is of secondary importance to how it will function.

    If we want to solve the world’s problems, we can’t afford to spend a quarter of our lives learning to do what a machine can do faster and better. We need to stand on the shoulders of giants, and trust them to help us reach those heretofore unattainable heights.

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Review: SMART Notebook on OS X Leopard

March 5th, 2008

  I fundamentally think that the idea behind SMART solutions is a great one. The consumer electronics industry is all abuzz over touch-screen technology, and it’s no question that many devices are heading in this direction in the coming years.

I also think that the principles behind the software, and its ideal functionality, are well thought-out. SMART Notebook provides a potentially complete feature set.

What I take issue with is completely under the hood. While 99% of all educators that use SMART Notebook will never complain about this sort of thing, I do find it sufficiently frustrating to air my concerns here.

SMART Notebook was designed, as all Windows applications, to be a stand-alone, self-contained application. As such, it has its own proprietary file format, and doesn’t “play well” with other applications.

My problem is precisely with this philosophy of software design. I believe applications should be treated as environments that perform one task, and perform it well. Abstracted this way, one would construct “piped” workflows that take the output of one environment and channel it into the input of another. What this would mean, for SMART Notebook, is that as a software environment, it would be able to tap into system level APIs that draw on the resources of other application environments. It could import and export files of any type, display schemas for files that were organized elsewhere, and rely on other applications to perform specific tasks that have been poorly implemented in Notebook’s current manifestation.

Software shouldn’t be envisioned as a vertical system. It should work laterally to provide the most effective user interface.

And yes, I’m especially bitter over this because Notebook was developed on Windows, and simply ported over to the Mac, without paying any attention to the Human Interface Guidelines that all self-respecting Mac developers follow like a bible. It doesn’t behave like any other application on my computer, and so I actually find myself discouraged from using it.

I sincerely hope SMART Tech. raises its development standards with version 11. As far as Windows programs go, it’s a fine piece of software – but the Mac platform is a little more demanding in its interface standards.

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Welcome to STU. Here’s a pin.

September 7th, 2007

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This was a nice touch and a great way to start a year. I love this university.

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Drive the Truck, Not the Body.

August 6th, 2007

Basically the day that my tasking with the Tattoo ended, all the guys from the PLF piled into a van and drove out to Gagetown to begin a month-long, driver-wheeled course. We learned how to service, maintain and drive the LSVW and MLVW (2.5 and 5-tonne trucks); I should note that I don’t presently have a civilian driver’s license, nor had I ever driven legally before this course began. Of course, this didn’t stop the course Warrant from placing me in a crew with the only two francophone students, so I could translate what I wasjust learning as I learned it. Or from subsequently moving me to the francophone section when a French instructor (who naturally spoke an incomprehensible variation of Acadian) was brought on. You’d figure the course staff would avoid piling more problems at the feet of the non-driver…

The MLVW, fording a giant puddle

The MLVW, fording a giant puddle

Anyway, we all clocked 1000+km on two trucks, driving offroad, on highways and built-up areas. Some people just had a smoother experience doing so. I can also confirm that driver-wheeled courses are in fact as relaxed and laid-back as everyone claims. Here are the pictures to prove it. You can also visit the project page for video of what non-commissioned army grunts do in the field with way too much free time to kill.

Thanks for the memories guys.

Oh. I also wrote an article about the course for some army bulletin.

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Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, denouement

July 22nd, 2007

I’ve been working on the back-end of this site for some time now, and have finally reached the point where it’s no longer a pain in the ass to add posts, upload photos or share files. So I’m doing all three.

Click here for photos and video from the Royal Nova Scotia International Tatto. This is an annual military/civilian show with acts from roughly 15 countries. The Canadian military component was made up of personnel from army reserve units from 36 Brigade, the HMCS Athabaskan navy ship, and various air force PAT platoons from across the country. Our contracts lasted for about a month, most of which was spent rehearsing. That’s all I’ll say by way of introduction. Enjoy the pictures. Here’s my favourite:

Live from the stage floor

Live from the stage floor

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