Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Imagining better worlds through virtual worlds

Professor Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, continues to do admirable and innovative work. In this post he manages to articulate the need to stay in touch with the subjects of his thinking and research by creating an avatar in Teen Second Life and humorously addressing the question of whether he should cornrow his beard, which has become the subject of much fascination in this virtual world. He perceptively recognizes that different types of media shape interpersonal relationships and created his avatar in an effort to counter his presence as someone talking down to the Second Life participants on the projected video monitor you see in the picture. In addition to projecting his real self via video conference he also wanted to participate as a virtual person to be on the same level as the other participants. In his words, "Too often, adults talk about kids, maybe even speak to youth, but they don't talk with them. And becoming an avatar seemed like the best way to signal my desire to speak on the same level with my audience. Anyway, it made sense to me."

The event in the picture is a remarkable thing in itself, a conference I think hosted by the Global Kids' Digital Media Initiative, which I think is sponsored by UNICEF, or connected in some way. A lot of speculation here but the whole community looks very interesting and promising to me, like people trying to develop a very positive use of the most cutting edge technology, trying to bring kids from around the world together and, to paraphrase Jenkins (I can't find his quote) "bring what they learn in the virtual community back to their real communities." This post by Eliane Alhadeff on her blog seems to explain it all very well, I just couldn't get through it because some flash player script was driving my aging iBook into the ground.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Digital Picture Frame

This is cool, a great present for my dad. I took an old Dell Latitude L400 and stripped off the plastics from the motherboard and the LCD, removed the speaker, internal wifi, keyboard and touch pad and glued it to a wood frame I put together. I'm currently gluing on the plexi to cover the front frame. I just have to figure out how to make the power button accessible without having to open the front frame. Once on, the laptop boots straight into the only account on the machine. Slickr is in the startup folder so it runs as soon as the desktop is loaded. Slickr is set to access my Flickr account and search for my private photos with a specific tag I gave them. So my dad can watch photos load onto his picture frame as soon as I upload them. Here are some more photos of the project.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Harder the Problem, the Sweeter the Solution

Or something like that. A pair of students in my 7th grade robotics class spent the last one-and-a-half classes stuck on a really frustrating problem. While the rest of the class went to town making brilliant windmills exploring the physics of centrifugal force (it that's what it's called, I took Physics for Poets in college), and pushing the limits of early Logo program writing I was knocking my head against the wall helping this team get their RCX to successfully complete the beep test. The tower would send the signal, the RCX display would show that it had received it, but then the program would say the interface is not connected, meaning the tower hadn't received the proper confirmation signal from the RCX. I tried swapping RCX's, towers, computers, user accounts, all to no avail. Finally in the middle of class today I remembered hearing two years ago that fluorescent light can interfere with the infrared signal transmission. So on a hunch I told them to put the RCX and the tower on the floor under the table and it worked! Never has victory tasted so sweet. That problem was really getting under my skin. I told them several times that their frustration was a great sacrifice to the learning of the community because it allowed us to learn about a really tough problem.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Media Education and Participatory Culture

I've been reading Henry Jenkins' blog about media and participatory culture. It's constantly illuminating. He's published a paper he did for the MacArthur Foundation entitled "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century," available in installments on his blog and as a pdf from the MacArthur Foundation web site. It offers three very solid reasons that media literacy must be taught thoughtfully and explicitly:
  1. The participation gap: While most children have access to computers, those who must rely on a library or school for internet access aren't able to consume and produce their own media to anywhere near the degree that those with their own computers and internet access can.
  2. The transparency problem: Children are more savvy in their consumption of digital media than grown-ups but lack the critical skills necessary to understand how media are being produced and what interests lie behind their production.
  3. The ethics challenge: Kids' involvement in online media production is usually unmediated by adults and therefore they have little guidance in making ethical decisions about the consequences of what they produce.

I think this paper is huge. It takes a while to digest, but is really worth the time.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Wanted--Positive Web 2.0 Experiences

My 5th grade classes are just finishing an exciting project extending their learning in humanities class about North American native cultures during colonial times. After posting a Pivot Stick Figure Animator animation depicting an activity from a tribe's daily life and writing an explanation of the activity on our class forum in Moodle the students have been commenting on each others' projects. Aside from the obvious hard work and thought that has gone into the projects, the students' comments on each others' work have been remarkably and almost all positive and supportive. This took me by surprise because as a grade these students have just been through the ringer for a lot of negative social behavior they've been engaging in with Club Penguin accounts, text messaging and email, and they are only 9 years old! Although we didn't intend to create a positive social experience using technology and we didn't encourage them to be positive at all in their feedback they've readily taken up this opportunity to use technology for positive social ends. As one student said in her project writeup, "This tribe reminds me of (our school) because on the weekends we are away from each other, but when we come together we’re just like the Chickasaw tribe one tight community." Now, isn't that sweet?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Essential Free- and Shareware for Kids

Yesterday I brought home a free, old, but working laptop from work to give to my 7-year-old daughter to use. Right away I started installing her favorite programs she's been using on my laptops and she's so excited to have her own system to use them on. Putting together this little package for her all at once got me to thinking that there's some really amazing free and cheap software out there that gets kids' creative juices flowing and lets them experience the unique power of computers at their level. Here's a list of what I put on for her:
I know there's a ton more stuff out there, but this is where I've started.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Generation Gap

I encountered a clear generation gap recently as I led a workshop for teachers in my school. I was explaining and showing them how they how to guide their own professional development during the summer by using Technorati to find blogs on topics of professional or personal interest to learn about them on their own time. When I tried to get a sense of how many people were familiar with blogs a 20-something teacher said she used them all the time, especially to "keep in touch with her friends." When other teachers expressed confusion at this she went on to explain how every day she checked in with several of her friends' myspace or xanga pages to see what they were up to, quickly pulling up a page and saying, "see, here are pictures of my friend's new baby that he just posted. It's so easy to put up pictures and stuff so everyone can see them right away." A few teachers in their 40's and 50's had a near disgusted reaction to this, making faces and saying, "That's so impersonal! I could never keep in touch that way!" I only use blogs for information, not to keep in touch, but I've known about the communication habits of younger people for a while. What was interesting for me was that we're so inundated by negative publicity about social networking sites that we don't realize that most people are using them for very positive communication habits if we haven't adopted these new habits ourselves. It's important to keep an open mind!

As it turned out, the offending teachers later apologized when they realized they had been kind of rude, so any ruffled feathers were unruffled by the end of the day.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Media Literacy Rules 1-3

Rule No. 1: Check a second source.
Rule No. 2: Check another source.
Rule No. 3: Check another source.

Students have to get used to looking at multiple sources when looking up information on the internet. I've come to believe this is the number one best method for finding dependable information. Adults--all internet users--have to learn to do this, and stop giving credence to the notion that just because something is published on the web it's true.

Case in point, I was looking for an ipod recently and happened upon "theipodseller dot com," to which I'm not even linking, it's so dripping with scam. The site boasts 40% discounts on various ipod models because they are going out of the ipod reselling business. The too-good-to-be-true discounts should scream scam so loudly I shouldn't have given the site more than a cursory glance, but because I wanted them to be true I gave the site enough time to do a little background check. Googling "complaints theipodseller" gave me a message board that's collecting info on Apple-related scams. Scrolling down to May 19th you see a list of reports on this site and people have posted their own research about the it, such as the whois info and mentions in articles. The gist is that the domain registrant is connected with several sites that claim to be selling other products for short periods of time and then disappearing. The thing people thought was so weird is that when you actually try to order an ipod you're only able to give them your name and email, no credit card. So my guess is that this is just a mechanism to collect emails to sell to spammers.

The moral of the story is...always get a second opinion, or more.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Logo Freeware: MSWLogo

I went to a Logo workshop last week in which the presenter had intended to use MicroWorlds but hadn't gotten it installed yet, so I was treated to something better: MSWLogo (Microsoft Windows Logo), a freeware product by Softronics. In terms of features, MSWLogo is more limited than MicroWorlds but having the limitations actually helped me understand more about programming with Logo. Whereas in MicroWorlds you are freer to organize your procedures (functions) in one long column on the right or in a turtle's "backpack," MSWLogo requires you to save each procedure separately and it's stored out of sight. Then you call it from the command line or from a button. What this helped me to think about was the need to program a project in functions that are written separately and called upon when needed in one "super-procedure" rather than jumbling everything up in one procedure, which is encouraged in some MicroWorlds projects I've seen and taught. The idea that one should structure one's code in separate containers is a very important one, I think, and hasn't been readily apparent to me until now.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Robo-Expo 2006

This weekend I took my afterschool robotics class to Robo-Expo 2006, at Nightingale-Bamford School. It was the first time my school has had a team participating in any robotics event, and we had a great time. While I did learn some lessons about putting a team together to create more cohesiveness among the members (make T-shirts!) we did get a good response from Robo Fido (pictured above), which uses reflecting sensors to sense when it is at the edge of the table so it can back up, wag its tail, and go another direction. And our line following robot (pictured below) managed to successfully navigate two of the three line following courses. All in all it was a great first robotics event experience.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Right Balance

Yesterday's 7th grade robotics lesson was one of the best I've had. The key was finding a balance between showing them how to do things and giving them choices. I've been frustrated in the past with my short class time (43 min.) and have felt forced into feeding them all the code they need and pre-building robots becasue it seems that they have just enough time to take that and make it work.

What was different yesterday was giving them the pieces they needed with photographs of a simple hoisting mechanism (a switch to press, motor to turn a spool with a string attached to a hook) and the most exciting part, three possible ways to use "waituntil" or "if" or "ifelse" to direct the switch to activate the hoist. While they all used the first option and didn't explore the differences in the commands, what worked really well was that every group came up with a different way to do it, some using two switches, one for up, one for down, and some wrote a procedure to make it go up, then downloaded another procedure to make it go back down. The latter is obviously less effective, but for a unique, student-created solution, it was very exciting to see.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Project-Based PD for New York Teachers

I just went to the Fordham University Regional Educational Technology Center (RETC)'s free conference for teachers, Tech to Go V. It offers short workshops on a variety of tech integration ideas that are meant to be low-cost and easy for teachers to implement. While I was familiar with everything I saw in the four workshops I attended, I was happy to pick up a few tips here and there (video making without a camera! just still images and narration, just never occurred to me) it was great to see that the focus of the conference is on project-based learning. They seem to have a fairly wide reach among New York public school teachers and the conference was well-attended (~500?) so it was good to see teachers being exposed to great software like Audacity. At the end of the keynote I took the mic (it was offered) and volunteered the resource Odeo, which people seemed very interested in.

Just one downside: one workshop presenter started his workshop with an idea lifted straight out of Tufte's “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” without giving Tufte credit. I share the same enthusiasm for this book as the presenter and think the example of converting President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to a slide show is very funny and makes a good point, but it's just so basic to cite your sources, whether you're publishing or presenting. This is just bad modeling for his students, two of which were assisting him by showing their own tech integration projects, as well as for us workshop attendees.

Friday, March 31, 2006

How to begin programming

I just finished converting Reading Pen Pals-a web site I made 4 years ago as a class project (my first!)-into a database web site using PHP/MySQL. It felt like a huge project but went much faster than I thought it would, only a few days. I learned a few things along the way that seem like good lessons for teaching programming to children. I'm not a programmer by training, so I figured my way through the problems I encountered in this project without having much understanding of why the problems existed. So as I reflect on what helped me out, some key points that might help kids come to mind:
  1. Most importantly, look for patterns. I often didn't understand how the syntax worked from the tutorials I used, but seeing similarities in different tutorials allowed me to make good guesses.
  2. Make it work, then make it look nice. Actually, I already tell this to my students, whenever I get a chance. It was really helpful to set up a very small-scale version of what I wanted at each step and make sure it worked, then add features one at a time and only in the end did I make it look the way I wanted. That helped me avoid having to re-do a lot of work unnecessarily.
  3. Patience. This is the hardest thing for kids to maintain. Encountering problems is frustrating and even systematically doing the second point takes lots of patience and restraint. In many cases the problems are interesting and some even teach you something about how computers and the internet work, so if you can enjoy that along the way you're benefitting in more ways than you expect. One problem I havent' yet solved about this project was getting the PHP mail function to stop escaping quotes in the email messages. This gave me a window into the nature of information transmission on the internet and how protocols are set up, though it was just a starting point for learning a lot more.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Technology for Really Dumb Dummies

I'd been following the story of Barbara Bush's Katrina donation being earmarked for her grand-nephew Neil Bush's junkware company, Ignite! Learning, with the vague interest I have for most of the numerous scandals of the Bush administration. Then a TPM post with a reader's description of clueless and entitled Neil's visit to his lower-east side middle school piqued my interest in what his company's deal is. It turns out their main product is called a COW (Curriculum On Wheels), a bulbous box on a rolling stand in which they've managed to stuff a "computer, projector, and speakers)" and "comes pre-loaded with all of Ignite!'s Science or Social Studies courses."

While they think this nifty little self-enclosed system is a plus ("You just plug it in and start teaching!"), it's really the worst kind of condescension toward teachers that I can imagine. How stupid would it be to purchase a computer and projector that can only be used for one purpose?!? And Neil Bush as much as admits that he doesn't trust teachers to make their own decisions with technology when he says something I can't repeat here about the COW's dummy-proof design (see the link referenced above). There are just so many things wrong with this product I can't bear to list them all...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Power Point Stifles Thought and Communication

I've been reading Edward Tufte's “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within”. Arvind's comments on 21 Apples cover most of my thoughts, but after this reading and talking I sat down to try out some of the alternate diagrammatical schemes Power Point offers besides bullets and clipart. It's worse than I could have imagined. All of the non-linear organizational charts are so bound by their extreme adherence to form as to make them completely useless for effective communication. They are airtight containers that constrict all content to their own limitations. Let's take a look at PowerPoint's chart madness, or at least a couple samples for now as I'm getting tired.

1. The Target is the most rediculous: This is to be "used to show steps toward a goal." The first thing you notice is that the steps are in the wrong order--bottom to top. There's no way to change this since the text and links are immovable. They beg to be dragged around the shape until they're positioned just right, but they won't budge. You can apply some pretty eye-catching styles to your bullseye, though.

2. The Cycle is meant to "show a process with a continuous cycle." That's fine if the cycle you want to illustrate really has no beginning or end. I tried to flip one of the arrows to show how an event might enter the system, but these arrows are stuck like a tram on a cable. The best I could do was copy and paste one and grab at those weird MS Office graphics manipulation handles until one of them flipped it over. Even then, the most the intruding arrow can do is lie on top of one that's cemented into place. The handles are flights of fancy you can use to distort the arrows into whimsical but useless shapes, like this nice donut I made.

Friday, March 10, 2006

MicroWorlds EX Robotics and Lego NXT

Don't expect MW EX Robotics to be compatible with Lego NXT any time soon. I just received this from Shawn Jesty at Logo Computer Systems:
"We'll begin development as soon as we get a new NXT brick."

I guess that resolves my question of what to be ordering this summer.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lego NXT

The new generation of Lego robotics is due out in a few to several months, from Mindstorms 2.0. to Mindstorms NXT. Read about it at Nextbrick and this great article in Wired.

Tight robotics class

In teaching my second 10-week section of Lego robotics with Logo using MicroWorlds I've started out in a much tighter format than last trimester with this new group of 7th graders. I'm building their basic robots for them (currently a fan, not pictured; that's an old one, student-designed) rather than letting them design and build their own, which is really not the way I think it should be--the class should be about problems in the design and construction of the robot as well as the creating of their programs, and really how these two things affect each other.

Why am I doing it the "wrong" way? My class meets once a week for 45 minutes, well 42 minutes, which includes setup and clean up time. That's a rediculously small amount of time for messy experimentation. Given that my highest priority is that they get to learn as much as possible about programming, which gets messy enough as it is, I need to take some of the building problems out of the equation.

Monday, January 02, 2006

MySpace is not YourSpace

The tussle between MySpace users and Murdoch is very interesting and I'm on the edge of my seat watching it develop. Once Murdoch Inc. bought MySpace, it began meddling in typical cutthroat corporate fashion by blocking all references to competitor YouTube. This was a big miscalculation because of the sudden popularity of the Chronic (what?) cles of Narnia video that users wanted to bring into their MySpace pages. I think there's a lot at stake here, the insidious infiltration of corporate interests into peoples' expanding expectations to have resources available to express their social/creative interests--an impending collision.

Relevance to education? This is Media Literacy 101 as far as I'm concerned and my students need it badly. I'm glad users are seeing the influence of the site's owners, lest they continue to think that owners of social software have only the users' interests in mind.