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Archive for March, 2009

Dulling the Knives…

Saturday, 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.

What keeps me up at night.

Sunday, 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?

I made the jump.

Saturday, 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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