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Archive for March, 2008

Why Luddites shouldn’t handle policy decisions.

Sunday, 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…

Dear iCal team,

Wednesday, 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,


Classrooms in the Future

Thursday, 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.

Review: SMART Notebook on OS X Leopard

Wednesday, 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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