The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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March 2013

Teacher Tweets

After a few months of mild annoyance at not being able to access Twitter in schools, I began to search for the reason that BPS blocks it. Ironically, searching for “twitter” on the the BPS website yields only an exhortation at the bottom of a welcome page to follow BPS on Twitter. Googling for it didn’t help either.

I think blocking Twitter in schools is silly. Firstly, students (and teachers) are simply going to access it on their phones anyway. (And if you think cell phone bans work… well, we try.) More importantly, there are a lot of great reasons to be using Twitter in the classroom. I’ll list my top three here:

  • Posting additional enrichment content. I created a separate twitter account for my teaching which I use to post additional content that we couldn’t get to in class, such as videos, articles, podcasts, and more. Sure, I post these on a class page, but that is not enough… if you think students are visiting your class page for anything except checking grades, I’m skeptical. The reason is that the contemporary app-flooded internet has made all information “me-centered”; there is so much information that comes to you (via social media feeds and apps that push content directly to phones) that there is no time or reason for many people to actually actively seek out information. So I think we should play the game; make some of that pushed content our content too. Which brings me to…
  • Communicating with students. Building positive relationships with students means communicating with them in the way they prefer, which is not email or even blogs anymore. It’s through their mobile devices, which every single one of them has. Twitter provides a way to directly reach students, broadly or individually, WITHOUT having to know their phone numbers or giving out yours. (This has been very useful for coordinating The Free Knowledge Stand.) This communication is real time and can include links to information and content around the web. Moreover, Twitter is not just “their” preferred medium of communication.. the new wave of incoming teachers grew up with social media too.
  • Connecting with real world information. With all the teacher buzz I hear about “bringing in real world examples” and “relating science to the lives of our students” it really does seem asinine to have our fingers in our ears about social media in the classroom. Check out my Twitter lists for Science and NASA, for example. You can set up similar lists on any topic or search tag you choose. Which means that Twitter will hand you a real-time, instant, and broad survey of the individuals and institutions discussing ANY TOPIC YOU WANT right now… and its good odds that the best sources among these will be linking to all sorts of information and resources too. Why not include yourself in this discourse? Why not include students in it?

Certainly there are good reasons to block certain information in schools. However, I think Twitter is less likely to be used distractedly (so long as cell phone use remains regulated) for a number of reasons. for example, Twitter is less “social” (in the personal sense) than Facebook, because there are no extensive profiles, albums of photos, lists of interests, time-killing apps, etc. Put another way as I wrote in an earlier post, Twitter is about ideas, not people. And while one certainly can use Twitter for personal communication, there is little difference between doing so and a group text — which is usually more immediate.

Beyond content filtering, there are other challenges. For example, I can see why districts would be uneasy about opening a channel that would allow interaction between teachers and students outside of the clear(er) legal lines of the physical classroom. But the world is changing way too fast to hang onto that fear… the solution could be as simple as a central set of guidelines for use to which teachers agree and a liability waiver.

This year, a Twitter account for my classroom is an experiment. I introduced it late in the year, without a clear plan for what would be on there. As a result, I am not surprised that the engagement is limited to just a few students. However, next year, I plan to incorporate it right from the start with a clear outline of what kinds of information will be posted and why.

I plan to blog the results this fall.



Boskone: Dataliths – Digging the Idea of the Programmer/Archaeologist

 

Dataliths: Digging the Idea of the Programmer/Archaeologist
Our GOH Vernor Vinge has posited that as computing-based civilizations age, layers upon layers of legacy code build up in vast — let’s call them dataliths. Who gets to dig through them for valuable info? How do they do it? Isn’t our data already in pretty deep doodoo in this regard?
Janice Gelb (M), Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Gary D. McGath, Dana Cameron

Stross opens by mentioning that we are obsolescing file formats at an ever-growing rate. Some of this is intentional, related to corporate greed, media consumption, and encryption, and DRM. Brings up the example of Microsoft’s .lit format, which was trying to compete in the ebook market but then was discontinued. Now the license servers for the protected format have been shut off, because there is no financial incentive to keep them up, which means that content that people bought in .lit is now unreadable.

McGath points out how ironic it is that we are in an age of so much data, yet so much of it is actually inaccessible. Calls it an approaching digital dark age.

Stross starts nerding out about an idea he has had for super-compressed solid state information storage, called memory diamond. Carbon-12 would be a 1 and Carbon-13 would be a 0 for example, and you could compress information into a very dense space. Note: I think this is a cool idea, but I also note that it still considers information storage in the paradigm of binary digits. What about quantum computing, which is near on the horizon? Or other natural phenomena which have many more possible states that two, and in which information could be usefully embedded?

Vinge talks about how we have so much redundancy of information. The same file has zillions of copies around the world, all of which have to be stored. He then moves to a larger topic of what do we do when civilization falls? How will we preserve our knowledge and culture for future generations and civilizations? We can’t rely on a particular data format that is proprietary and would never be resurrected. We would need stacked layers of ever more complex generations of data, that could be read and reinterpreted after a fall.

Cameron (the archaeologist): We would need something like a Rosetta Stone for data, for future civilizations to access our culture. I am trying to think about what an archaeologist of the future would want to know, and how best to store and format that information for them.

McGath counters that it is a tricky thing to try and determine the line between what we want to preserve and what we should preserve.

Cameron: culture through the eyes of individuals is the holy grail of archaeology and anthropology. With data we have an amazing opportunity to have that continuous spectrum of the broad down to the specific and then back up again. Even the mundane details of everyday life would help inform theories and ideas about the macroscopic scale system.

Stross wonders about convergence instead of divergence, citing figures that 80% or so of the operating systems out there have converged to either iOS or Android, and these have very similar architecture and heritage. (iOS is from Unix/BSD line and Android from Linux). Note that he is including the huge number of mobile devices out there, which more and more are outnumbering actual “computers” in the desktop and even laptop sense. 

Audience questions conclude with interesting discussion about the role of libraries, particularly public libraries in storing, archiving, and retrieving the data of an age. Calls for innovation on this front.



Video: Universal Design for Learning

Great video in Inclusive Practices class today, talking about Universal Design for Learning.

What I love about the UDL philosophy is that it makes a very common sense appeal for designing learning experiences to be as broadly accessible as possible — the idea that we ALL benefit from increased access. To place it in the architectural analog: Certainly someone who relies on a wheelchair for basic mobility is really going to benefit from a building that incorporates seamlessly integrated ramps in addition to stairs; however, doesn’t the fully-abled person pushing a stroller or a cart full of items also benefit? In other words, universal design makes the process of access easier for EVERYONE, without changing the end goal.



Review of “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)Hyperion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes science fiction fans, you can in fact have it all. Far-thinking ideas, imaginative world-building, hard-SF space combat, deep character arcs, compelling portrayal of AI, strong motifs dealing with human questions, beautiful language, an element of horror, and the most essential component: a well-written story. This novel delivers on all of these components.

Hyperion made my to-read list after appearing on NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books, I saw it on a used shelf in the Huckster’s Room at Boskone 50 for $2 and snagged it. Dan Simmons’ novel becomes, so far, the only science fiction novel to hold a five-star rating in my GoodReads*.

Fans of literary science fiction… read it.

(*Note: Neil Stephenson’s Anathem initially held a five-star rating, but was subsequently demoted. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep was a contender briefly, but ended up being rated four stars as well. Both of these novels, though far-thinking, enjoyable, and also appearing on the NPR Top SF/F list, fall just short of five stars on the same count: I don’t believe that they are well-written in a literary sense.)

View all my reviews




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