Friday, April 29, 2005

The truth is out there: trust no-one

This blog entry was inspired by something that Will Richardson posted as Skepticism R Us. He was responding to Jessamyn on Wikipedia and both (I think) were asking, "Can we trust Wikipedia?" This is my response...

Wikipedia logoRemain skeptical. Constantly check your sources. Agreed, but how do you check for authenticity? One of the basic ways I bang on about to teachers and students is to ask who is providing the information and what authority do they have to do this?

I once heard a speaker at a conference say, "Everyone is an expert in something". I would agree with this up to a point and presumably Wikipedia relies on this being the case - lots of people, knowledgeable in narrow domains, co-operating to produce something greater than the sum of its contributor's parts (if you'll pardon the expression).

I worry however that there is no easy way to check the credentials of Wikipedia contributors. Is that being unfair to single out Wikipedia for this criticism? Obviously I can't check the credentials of everyone that creates or edits the information I access, so I use shortcuts. For example, I will tend to trust the Encyclopaedia Britannica even though I don't know anything about the individual contributors. I trust it because of its reputation and because of its quality control procedures. While I may come to respect the reputation of Wikipedia over time, I remain concerned about the quality control.

I was partly reassured on Wikipedia's reliability by Jon Udell's screencast on the Heavy Metal Umlaut. I was impressed to see how the community reacted to an act of vandalism, how the less relevant material was sidelined and how the community worked together to create a more effective way of displaying information. It was impressive. However it also provides an example that can be used to illustrate my concern.

Spinal Tap logoI'm worried (albeit only very slightly worried) by the addition of the information on n-diaeresis (i.e. the umlaut above the "n" in Spinal Tap). Wikipedia says "This is a construction only found in the Jacaltec language of Guatemala..." Interesting, but is it true? I have no easy way to check. It is so delighfully obscure and far enough off the topic of the wiki entry that I wonder how many people reading the page will have the expertise to challenge or check this statement. I can't easily check out the person who added this information. A quick look on Google didn't refute the information, but a good few of the entries referred back to the Wikipedia entry. So is it true? I still don't know, and it would take more effort than I'm willing to invest in this example to check it out.

I banged on about the importance of truth in a blog entry recently. What this consideration of Wikipedia has reminded me is that truth is important, but working out what is true in any given situation is the tricky bit!

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Upside down and downside up

I came across some websites the other day about ambigrams. "Ambi-whats?" I hear you ask. Ambigrams are words or phrases that exhibit some sort of symmetry; a word or phrase that can be read in more than one way. Still in the dark? Well, as we say in Scotland, "It's better felt than telt!", so take a look at John Langdon's site and then come back here.

Own up. How long were you away? I got sidetracked for the best part of a morning by this site and others like it. They are amazing, aren't they?

I found John's site because of a book I'd been reading (I'll say more about the book at the end). There's good stuff on this site, but the reason I decided to write this blog entry was because of a site he linked to: Scott Kim's site, and in particular the Inversions section. Spining ambigram that says Teach then Learn

I liked his Teach/Learn ambigram (although I would have gone for Learn/Teach). It's a good visual way to point out the stupidity of the statement, "I taught them, but they didn't learn!"

What really caught my eye though was his suggested Classroom Activities. He lists some simple ideas that will help students play with words, design and symmetry. Brilliant! Unfortunately the High School gallery link that Kim gives seems to have disappeared, but I did manage to track down the new location of Mike Naylor's gallery.

I could see these activities working in Art or Maths to help with the exploration of symmetry, but, being a Computer geek, I especially saw its possibilities for developing ICT capabilities in a meaningful and fun context. That's where I spent most of my time. I fired up a paint package and tried to create an ambigram of my name. First I typed my name, copied it, rotated the copy and then put them one above the other. An ambigram of MuirA bit of copy and paste fiddling later it became clear that the "d" at either end of David made a bit tricky for someone as artistically challenged as me! However Muir proved to be more promising, especially once I decided to use an Old English font. It still needs a bit of work, but I think this has possibilities. Certainly it has convinced me that I could have a go at it freehand, or fire up a draw package and draw a neater version that would work. I had great fun playing with this and I think students would have great fun too.

A great context for developing a range of skills in (at least) Maths, Art and ICT... and it's fun! What more could you want from a classroom activity?

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Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

{Rant warning!}
The book I where I first came across ambigrams was Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. Yes that Dan Brown; the one that wrote the Da Vinci Code. There are various things I don't like about these books, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the story. However, it seems to me that some of the people getting most excited about this book have forgotten that it is a work of fiction; a misunderstanding that Mr Brown seems keen to encourage. As far as I am concerned, Mr Brown has a poor grasp of Biblical theology and a distorted understanding of the conflict between religion and science, however as a plot device, these "failings" allow him to tell a good story. As long as you read it for what it is (a story) rather than for what it is not (a theological treaties or a scientific paper) it is reasonably good fun and can stimulate discussions on science and religion with people who might not otherwise talk about these topics.

A more serious concern I have is with his characters' disregard for the truth. I'm not just talking about the religious characters he has created but I am especially concerned by the "heroes" of the books: the historian and scientists. In both the books of his I've read, the main character seems to say something along the lines of, "It's all a lie, but I'll not tell people because the lie is making them do nice things and it's nice to be nice." Bah, humbug!

The truth is important. In the UK we are in the middle of an election campaign just now. I want to know if what the various parties are saying in their manifestos is true? Can I trust them to do what they say they are going to do? I don't want to be told after the event, "Yes we lied to you but it made you feel better, so that's OK."

The truth is important. A fair bit of what I have been doing recently with teachers on the Internet has been about this very point. How do you judge if something on the Internet is true or trustworthy? I use examples like Teaching Zack to Think, a Tale of Two Cities, Deconstructing Web Pages and David Warlick's material on Literacy in the 21st Century to help explore this issue.

The truth is important and it is important that we help our students learn to have a respect for the truth.
{Rant off: Normal service is now resumed!}

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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Finding My Way

The last post was too long... and still I forgot one of the things I wanted to say. The tag clouds reminded me of a technology I saw a while ago that never came to anything: the navihedron. The idea is that links are placed at the vertices of a 3D shape. Click on a vertix and the navihedren rotates to put that link in the centre of the screen.

Radiating out from each vertices are links to other, related, topics. As the clicked on topic swings into view, it brings these related topics along with it. The idea is that you should never be more that two or three clicks away from the information you want.

I thought this was an interesting idea, but that it was probably too complex to be of much use. Unfortunately, the man who invented this form of navigation died at a young age. I'm not sure if development stopped when he died, or if other people thought it was too complex too, but I could only find one examle of navihedrons in action. It is on the MARCEL website. Click on one of the circles round the edge and watch it swing onto cente stage. Click on the one in the middle and a new navihedron appears bringing a new set of related terms.

What do you think? Interesting? Too complicated? Too confusing? Just right? Is a tag cloud easier to understand and use?

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I've looked at clouds from both sides now

Last week was hard (see previous two posts) and this week was very busy, but I thought it was time to climb back on the saddle and send another blog entry.

Tag clouds: I think I knew what they were before I knew what they were called. I read a couple of blogs about this recently and it started me thinking.

The first time I became consciously aware of the term tag cloud was in Jeffrey Zeldman’s post Tag clouds are the new mullets. He linked to a few others, but I knew I’d already seen it on and Flickr. I also went back to David Warlick's blog entry More Right than Wrong. In it, he describes how impressed he was with the idea that he wrote his own program to produce them for the blog software he maintains.

{Just to note in the passing, that's why I'll never be an international educational speaker. I see tag clouds and think, "Interesting". David Warlick sees them and thinks, "I could do that!" I am interested in how children learn to program (in general, the answer is, "badly"!) but Seymour Papert thought, "I know, I'll write the Logo programming language."}

Tag clouds are eye-catching and only vaguely useful and yet there is something strangely interesting about them. The main thing that captured my attention about tags though was John talking about a flat hierarchy. It sounds like an oxymoron (like military intelligence) but it chimed with other stuff I'd been wanting to blog about. I've wanted to talk about desktop search utilities for a while, but John's blog on flat hierarchies pushed me into actually doing this blog entry instead.

John notes that although storing information in nested folders is the way we've always done it in computing, it has many drawbacks. The main difficulty can be illustrated by the commonest of problems faced by novice users: the "I saved my work, but now it's gone" syndrome. Almost always it is not that it's gone, usually it's just that the user doesn't know where it is. Saving things in the "correct" folder takes discipline. Even if you are well organised, which I'm not, what do you do with items that fit into more than one category? For example, if I create a Powerpoint presentation that I use with both the BEd students and the PGDE students, where do I store it so that I know I'll be able to find it next year? With the BEd stuff? With the PGDE stuff? In a presentations folder? All of the above? ...

Tags and flat hierarchies cut through this by allowing you to use as many tags as you wish and then use a search tool to let you find what you need. Brilliant! You do the hard work of creating the stuff in the first place and let the computer do the grunt work of storing it and helping you find it later. A very sensible division of labour in my opinion!

There is a problem though. Windoze's search utility is slow beyond belief, pretty dim, and it is slow. (Did I mention how slow it is?) Mac users are probably feeling a bit smug at the moment as OS X has three search options and all of them are better than Windoze search (in my humble opinion). However, desktop search utilities exist for Windoze and they allow you to stop worrying about structuring folders, and sorting stuff into the right place, and concentrate on getting and using your stuff instead. I use Copernic because I got it on a CD ROM from the front of a PC magazine, but Google Desktop Search looks like it does the same sort of thing (I suspect there are others – does anybody out there have a favourite?). They search not just for the names of documents, but are smart enough to look inside most common file formats and search the text within documents too. Most importantly they are fast!

This has to be the future of storing information on computers. I would be more than happy to use a system that doesn't ask me stupid questions about where I want to store stuff, but just saves it and then brings it back to me whenever I want to find it again.

I wonder when (or if) I'll ever get an operating system that takes care of the filing so that I can get on with the creating?

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Blue, Blue, my heart is Blue.

originally uploaded by DavidDMuir.
Still off topic, but beginning to get my head together...

We miss Archie terribly and couldn't imagine living without a dog. So we found Blue! No doubt he will appear in this blog in the future, so I thought I'd better introduce him formally.

He is twelve weeks old and the breeder had kept him and his brother because she couldn't decide which one she wanted to show. He has had all his injections and stuff, so we were able to bring him home with us.

We spent the whole car journey down failing to agree on what to call him. When we heard the breeder had been calling him Blue, we decided to stick with it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Sad news about Archie

Archie on first day of our holidays Posted by Hello

I know this is off topic, and that only about five people read this blog anyway, but I wanted to post some bad news. In a sense it is not completely off topic since Archie has been a part of this blog almost since I started it. The second post I made here had a picture of Archie and when I wanted to play with Flickr, inevitably I sent a photo of Archie and then posted it here.

We got him about this time last year and he was a year old in February... and this morning he died. We still can't believe it.

Take me to the river...

I saw this one-liner the other day and immediately added it to my list of email signatures:
We have enough youth, how about a fountain of smart?
What do you think? Schools certainly have enough youth... but are they fountains of smart?
Smiley face
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Saturday, April 09, 2005

A fail by any other name would smell...?

I love the Backbytes column in the Computing newspaper and since they have started various blogs, I can now read Backbytes' blog even when I'm on holiday. {Yes, I know it's sad!}

I liked this entry on Looking on the sub-optimistic side. You don't fail any more, you just turn in a sub-optimal performance. Doesn't that make you feel better?

This reminded me of the school inspector who asked some children why they weren't doing the harder maths work like the others. One replied, "We're the Primrose group. We're too stupid for that." A rose by any other name? They might be "stupid", but children aren't daft!

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Friday, April 08, 2005

Does "Rip, Mix and Burn" = Education?

I'm on holiday just now, but sad geek that I am, I couldn't resist finding an Internet connection and checking Bloglines. What follows is a holiday influenced, instant response to something I read. I reserve the right to change my mind once I've had more time to think about it.

I was struck by David Warlick's article on Putting Meaning in High Schools. I like the way David thinks and subscribe to his blog feed because he always has something interesting to say. He makes me think... and that can be no bad thing! For example, he makes me wonder how much longer we can go on tinkering at the edges of the way schools work. In particular I was struck by his observation that we are creating more and more ways to cope with disaffected learners. How long will it be before there are more disaffected learners in special programmes than there are learners in mainstream schools? I don't think we are close to that yet, but we do need to take a good hard look at how today's learners work and think and consider what schooling does to help or hinder them. (On a related note I thought Jim Wenzloff's suggestion in I Want it When I Want It, to ask teachers if they've heard of podcasting was interesting. I also want to find out how many pupils there are who've heard of podcasting, or who listen to or create their own podcasts.)

However, I think we need to be careful we don't throw the baby out with the bath water. The rip, mix and burn metaphor is clearly borrowed from the iPod culture. {Warning: Attempt at legal disclaimer follows! :-)} I don't own an iPod, but I have ripped a number of my own CDs to my own computer for my own listening pleasure. {Perhaps not meeting the letter of the copyright law, but I think it is a fair use of my own CDs.} How do I listen to this music? Well sometimes I use the random play - often when I'm working on something and the music is on as background noise. I can see the benefits of this that others report. You get the, "I haven't heard that for ages!" effect and it is interesting to hear the odd juxtapositions that are thrown up. In the past I have also put together the odd compilation tape for a special purpose like a party. {Showing my age in that last sentence with "tape" being the compilation medium!} However, when I really want to listen to music, more often than not I want to listen to the whole CD, in the order chosen by the artists. I suspect that not every artist thinks carefully about the ordering of tracks, but many (most?) do. For example {Warning: aging hippy alert!} Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here builds, develops and revisits themes and it makes sense to listen to the CD in the order that the band originally chose. {As an aside, I am old enough to have a vinyl copy of this album too. My daughters call my record collection, "Those black CDs"!}

To move back to education, a good teacher can create a structure and order material that might be missed in a rip and mix environment. I like David Warlick, but I was convinced his blog was worth reading because I saw him talk about Literacy in the 21st Century. David is a good teacher and I got a lot out of that presentation - more, I suspect, than I would have from doing a rip and mix of what I could find on the Internet on the same topic in the same time. Perhaps that is because I am not a digital native. Maybe if I was thirty years younger I would have a different view, but I don't think so. It is important that we have good teachers!

Don't get me wrong. I can see the value of a Learning Lounge approach for certain learners in certain situations. But I can also see the benefits of a good teacher choosing and structuring an appropriate learning experience. It should not be "either/or" but "both/and..."

P.S. I wrote this before I read David's reply to Viljar Soiland. It is clearer exactly how David sees his Learning Lounges working. I was particularly struck by his comment, "However, in my ideal school, students might as easily be doing the presentations as teachers..." I was saying how important a good teacher is and David reminds me that students can be teachers too. Interesting. There he goes again - making me think!

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Friday, April 01, 2005

Problem solving: hook, line and sinker!

I often complain about how unimaginative we are when teaching children how to program. Clearly the problems for novice programmers have to be simple so that they are achievable for programmers with limited knowledge and understanding... but do they have to be boring? I despair whenever I see a loop introduced by telling pupils to print their name on the screen, followed by asking them to print their name ten times. Good grief! Is that really the best we can come up with?

A related issue in teaching programming is how easy do you make it? Programming is difficult and I don't see any way around that. If you take away all the challenge, all to often you take away all the fun too. People like being challenged, that's why things like crosswords are so popular. I have seen umpteen "programming courses" that simply teach children how to follow instructions instead of teaching them how to create programs.

It's not just a problem with teaching programming. We need to challenge pupils more, excite them and involve them or we'll end up turning them off learning altogether. I was pleased therefore to see two recent entries in the Creating Passionate Users blog dealing with just that issue. (Quite apart from the articles, it's worth visiting for the illustrations at the top of the entries alone!) Read Motivated to learn? and The importance of seduction and curiosity. Think about them, be challenged by them... and have fun!

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originally uploaded by DavidDMuir.
I know you've already seen a picture of Archie (see I say, I say, I say! My Blog has no nose...) but I wanted to play with Flickr.

I need to spend more time with it, but this is my only photo on Flickr just now and I wanted to see how easily I could send stuff to my blog.

Just in case you care, this is a picture of Archie giving a high five to someone... possibly daughter number 1, but I wouldn't swear to that.

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