Saturday, October 30, 2010

No the world has not come to a halt...

A nasty little virus put a kink in things....hope to catch up on the postings soon! There is plenty to report.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Apple Store iPod & Educational Apps Investigation

A little over a week ago I reported on my hair pulling attempt to learn about Android by a visit to a Verizon store. Shortly thereafter I visited the local Apple store to compare apples to ... err...

It took two visits to be sure that what I experienced the first time was for real. Let's put it this way: Apple wins the prize. Hands down. The first visit had a straightforward plan: go listen to one of their "workshops" on the iPod Touch and play with one to compare it to the Android devices. Look at the educational applications. It was a relatively calm weekday evening at the mall.

Over two hours later (at least) I stumbled brain dead out of the store... it wasn't just the hoards of massively friendly and knowledgeable blue shirted squadrons that politely offered to assist me, left me alone if I wanted to just play, and used technology (!) to summon expertise if they didn't know the answer to one of my questions. But the guy who had the honor of leading the workshop let me quiz him for an hour and a half about the iPod, the apple developer program, the hardware platforms, the applications, the functionality.... he looked a bit worn out by the end, but carried it off well.

It became clear that another trip was in order. So this time I hit the store on a weekend afternoon - busiest time. Clipboard, pen and water bottle in hand. Same customer service experience.  A swarm of knowledgeable blue Apple people, and in spite of having to tactfully elbow lots of kids away from me who wanted "my" iPod to play with, I managed to take 5 pages of detailed notes virtually unmolested. And then I hit the iPads for comparison.

But let's get down to the main point, before you think I've been totally dazzled by glitz and all the friendly faces. (Not that I have anything against friendly faces and fun gadgets)

Compared to the Android online app store, I found the Apple online store easy to use, and I found not only a whole section dedicated to Educational applications, but today they were highlighting Special Education applications. I pored over them. Read reviews. Compared content. Tried to find out how many were in the library, but that is the one question no one could tell me.  A lot obviously. Although the search engine doesn't support boolean operators, it does a credible job if you have some idea what you would like to find. Most of the educational apps were so cheap I found myself thinking: how does anyone make a living off of .99 cent applications? or $1.99. or $2.99.

Then I remembered the educational (and other) app developers I've chatted with in the last week or so. They don't make a living off these apps. Well, none of the ones I spoke to anyway. They create them because they enjoy the challenge, and feel it is a good thing to be helping other people at the same time. Sure, they get PR from their work, which no doubt they put to good use in some other endeavor, but that seems only fair.

Suddenly a Buzz Word hit me: digital literacy. There is lots of talk about the need to get the public more digitally literate. Well. When using an educational application (as opposed to a shoot-em up game) these kids are becoming fluent with modern technology, sophisticated technology. HA!  In the hands of pre-schoolers and elementary school children. This is putting the hardware to good use. And the surface of the possibilities here, to use cutting edge devices with creative applications, is only just being touched (oh.....that is a bad pun.....sorry).

I am reminded that it doesn't take big projects, corporations and scads of people to make a difference. Very small scale (I looked them up) app developers who sell .99 cent applications, are working at the grassroots level. Their efforts add up - all those applications and I don't have space to copy in many of the happy reviews posted by users (words like "love" and "thrilled" and "can't wait for more" abound). People want educational applications. Good ones. So as to the comment in my prior post that one researcher claimed that people don't think highly of educational applications - my anecdotal evidence is telling me that yes, they do, if there are good ones to choose from.  Kids learn some content (alphabet, foreign language, math, motor skills etc), kids start on the road to becoming digitally literate without knowing that is what they are doing. Good stuff.

I've got some school administrators and teachers lined up to talk to soon about their perspective of using iPod and iPad applications in the classroom. Can't wait.

Oh...the same guy who let me frizzle his neurons for so long on my first visit was not only in the store again today, but came up to me to say "hi" and "how are you doing" and could he help me and...well....a lot more brain cells were worn out between the two of us after that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mini-monsoon does not stop attendance at APCS Principles Class; Podcasts available too

For those of you still curious about details of the content of the APCS Principles pilot course, I am very pleased to be able to point you to where you can see and hear podcasts of every lecture. Go to the podcast site at UCSD and look under the course list for CSE3 - Fluency/Information Technology. You can click through to a listing of all of the course lectures and pick which one you want. You are able to hear instructor Beth Simon and see the slides she puts up, complete with her interactive note-taking on them during class. You can experience some of the interesting and innovative pedagogic techniques I have been discussing.  

If you have never listened to a Podcast there are instructions available for you to read about how to do it. Generally class podcasts come down shortly after the course completes to make room for new course podcasts, so if these interest you, don't wait until January!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. In two weeks the students will be taking their midterm. One of the pedagogic goals Beth has is to do everything possible to help students prepare for the midterm. She is thinking about, and has begun to implement, some strategies.

Beth has been encouraging students to utilize all the resources available to help them since the beginning of class, and yesterday she took things one step further. She used the technique of clicker questions to ask the students to click in about how they  felt they were doing in the course - with the promise that no one was going to look at the individual responses. She asked them [brief paraphrase] "How are you doing?" and the choices were [also slightly paraphrased for brevity]:

a) Doing fine, I totally understand this stuff
b) Doing fine, I have had to work at it, but I'm pretty sure I get the concepts
c) Not sure I know the concepts as well as expected
d) Pretty lost
e) Have no idea

Note that grades had been posted a few days before so that students could see their personal cumulative progress from the point of view of their instructor. They were also able to see the course distribution and compare where they were in relation to the rest of the class. Armed with that information, they were now asked to report spontaneously how they felt they were doing.

The responses, as percentages, were as follows:
a) 8%
b) 36%
c) 39%
d) 10%
e) 7%

Though these percentages are opinions, which are influenced by various factors (confidence, self expectations, were they paying attention to the question?) they give everyone something to mull over.

Beth would like to see an additional 20% in the b range on this question. So she reinforced then and there the resources available to students - of which there are many. Many alive and breathing resources. Beth spoke more about the best ways to prepare for the exam - practically giving it away by telling them (not for the first time) that the exam would be based in great part on the interactive clicker questions they worked on during every class. These questions cover content, as well as design, debugging and abstract thinking skills. Students are able to return (via the podcasts and hardcopy access to slides) to the clicker questions and re-take them live.  Not just look at the question and answer. Clicker success rates on questions are going up although Beth would like to see them consistently at the 90% success range. Beth even said that she would be lonely in office hours if no one came - which created smiles across the lecture hall.

This brings up another point. All the evidence indicates that the students love coming to class. We are having very weird weather for October in San Diego. Normally at this time of year we are dealing with the famous Santa Ana winds and threat of wildfire. It rarely rains in October. Well, it has been raining. And raining. And raining. Yesterday there was a deluge reminiscent of living in the Pacific Northwest (I feel qualified to say that, having lived there). Umbrellas? Who has umbrellas here? Nonetheless, the lecture hall was filled - Beth can verify this numerically because she can see on her personal display how many students are in the lecture halls via the clicker registrations. Students came out for class and were as dynamic and engaged as ever (although damp).

While she works on the issue herself, Beth would also love to hear any creative advice (via this Blog) about what to tell students to do to help themselves prepare for the midterm.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Technology & Society Assignment #1, Digital Responsibility: How Students Responded

AN ASIDE: just recently someone posed a question on one of my earlier posts about the course content of the APCS Principles pilot class that has (and will continue to) appear as a regular discussion topic here.  I responded via  comment. If you want to see that information yourself, read the post and comments from September 30 .

And now back to our featured topic of today.

The students in the APCS pilot class completed their first Technology & Society (T & S) assignment. The instructor (Beth Simon) is very pleased with the results and is at work on plans to build upon the positive outcome as part of the next T & S assignment.

As a prelude to that plan, I want to give you some additional information about the results of this first assignment  which concerned Digital Responsibility. Students were asked to locate an article that address a topic in this area. They provided a brief summary of the article and listed some "non obvious issues of digital responsibility". Other students responded to their peers' posts.

The breadth of posts and responses even in this large class was impressive. Students did a very good job, especially for a first assignment, in starting to reflect on complex issues.

Many students commented on articles about the Assistant Attorney General in Michigan, USA, who has been posting attacks on his personal blog aimed at a gay student leader at the Univ. of Michigan.

Another very popular topic concerned a girl who was cyber bullied not only in life, but after she died as well.
One of the most active sets of conversations concerned online gaming, in particular the situation where a South Korean student apparently was so addicted that he died of exhaustion and possible heart failure. I include the article link.
This topic really seems to have hit home for many students as dozens weighed in with opinions.

As instructor Beth Simon weighs options for following up on this assignment she is reflecting herself on a variety of issues. She would like to not only present another timely societal topic but help students to introspect even more deeply - all students. What are some good ways to do so?
One idea under consideration is to provide students with examples from this assignment of "good" and "better" responses. This approach validates the students' work on the first T&S assignment while scaffolding them to take their thoughts and analysis to the next level. Another idea under consideration is to present students with two very different large scale digital approaches to bringing people together for a worthy cause, yet are based upon very different philosophies. Then ask them to in some way consider the implications and outcomes of each.
Stay tuned.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Android, iOS, Educational Software Investigations

Continuing my background reading about the use of mobile apps in education, today I finished a book on the development and history of children's software ("Engineering Play", author: Mizuo Ito, MIT Press, 2009).

At the same time, yesterday I visited a Verizon Corporate store to get my hands on some Android phones and a personal feel for what an app running on one of those phones might be like. What would a developer be working with from a usability point of view?

The two events (book reading and store visit) intersected in an interesting way. First of all, my visit to the Verizon store was an exercise in patiently experiencing absolutely terrible customer service - I howled about that on Facebook. Nonetheless I discovered a few interesting things. Most notably, in searching through the Android Market, I found no category for Education. Hmmmm. Access to the internet through their store phones was highly restricted, so I went home and tried again. Still nothing. The few educational apps I found were spread around here and there. And there was a note that said to see additional applications I needed to use my mobile device. Well, that wasn't exactly helpful.

Then this morning, in the Ito book, I came across a line (page 156) in which he quoted another publication "people have a low opinion of educational software".

They do?
Do they?

There is some great software out there. Interestingly enough though, I found evidence that the greatest selling "edutainment" software ever created is the Simcity line. Not originally created as educational, many educators have appropriated it for educational use. (Hence the name edutainment)

If you search online, you can find lots of cool software being developed for educational purposes.  Real cross cutting applications - math, science, art ... One of my earlier posts pointed to a company producing software for children with disabilities (DevelopEase).

In a few days I am going to an Apple store to do a similar activity as at the Verizon Store - get my hands on the iX devices and learn about their development program. I want to learn about the iOS from the Apple people. How do their devices support educational apps compared to the Android platform for example. The phones at the Verizon store struck me as not at all well set up for educational applications. Resolution was terrible even on their highest end phone. But since I can't actually use any apps without borrowing or stealing a friend's Android phone, I'm hypothesizing here. I must add though, that Google puts all their developer information online which is very nice.

I'm also going to make a point of finding out if Apple has a app category for "Education" and if not, why; and if so, what is in it. Not owning an "i" device I need to pounce on the store. It should be an interesting comparison of customer service experience too.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Designing for Inclusiveness

As part of some background research into the use of mobile devices in education, this morning I was reading a book called "design meets disability". The lack of capitalization is how the title is written. The author is Graham Pullin, publisher is MIT Press (2009).

There is a chapter that I found disturbing and I'm processing it aloud here. The chapter is called "expression meets information". The author makes several claims, which I paraphrase (hopefully I have not inadvertently mangled his intent - if so the fault is mine):

  • The design of assistive devices for disabled people is often focused on the technology and coming up with a "one size fits all" device.
  • Mainstream culture on the other hand now demands flexibility and customizability in electronic devices.
  • Notions of the individual self, culture, and other factors are not sufficiently addressed in the design of assistive devices.
  • Using assistive devices to communicate as *individuals* - which the mainstream community takes for granted (facial expression, tone of voice, body posture, choice of word and gesture) is not integrated into design as a primary requirement. Perhaps at all.
  • The creation of assistive devices is or should be a very interdisciplinary activity: intercultural communications and diversity, attitudes, qualitative design methods, ethnography, computer science, engineering, and others.
One of Pullin's main points seems to be that while we as a culture value diversity, and design for it in many technological devices (sometimes rising to the level of becoming Bloatware), we toss all thought of encouraging individuality out the window when it comes to devices for the disabled. 

And to muddy the waters, he points out that the notion of individuality is very personal (hopefully that phrase is clearly redundant) and sometimes people don't want the latest and greatest "improvement". He uses Stephen Hawking as an example, claiming that the ultra famous physicist has declined an update to his voice synthesizing software, stating that the robotic voice has become "his voice". 

Pullin supports a paradigm shift, that comes back around to the role that computing professionals can play. The author suggests that there is no clear divide between the disabled and not disabled, but that we all exist on a continuum of ability - and that that understanding is what should drive our designs. It isn't just HCI Expanded. (HCI = Human Computer Interaction)

I'm still not sure why I was so disturbed reading this chapter. Perhaps it is the idea that as we work harder to create the "best" assistive devices, we may be doing more damage than good? The author doesn't say that, but that is something I read out of his discussion. I'm going to have to wrestle with this one. There are a lot of things that Pullin does not say outright, but dangles in front of you to consider.

However, and Meanwhile, there is a huge opportunity for interdisciplinary minded computing professionals who want to work in the field of device creation, whether for fun, work or daily living. Software engineering Reqs and Specs would screech to a stop and reconsider traditional approaches to data gathering. It means a whole new way of thinking and working across disciplinary boundaries for inclusiveness. 

The author provides an interesting example to demonstrate that the desired end result is reasonable and doable. He points out that audio books were originally created for the vision impaired, but have now become wildly popular with the mainstream community. Many people like the medium of listening to books. This application crossed over. Whether by accident or intent I do not know. But, what if we always created our work with this idea in mind? 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Weaving Social Issues into the APCS Principles Course

Integrating social issues into the curriculum is, imo (that's "in my opinion" for anyone who doesn't know the lingo), the most effective way to help students consider the fact that computing, and people who use or work with computing, effect the world around them - for good or bad. Social issues are part and parcel of every field (not just computing), every endeavor. Societal impacts need to be thought about, discussed and evaluated. Today's students will someday be running our corporations, serving in government and in countless other ways making decisions that affect the world around them. Sounds a bit cliche but it is very very true.

(Btw  - and that is "by the way" - does anyone know how to make blogger access accented letters? Changing my entire system to French doesn't seem to do it. Grrr)

So it is very gratifying (and exciting) to see that "technology and society" issues are an integral part of the APCS Principles course at UCSD. They show up in several ways.  A certain percentage of each student's grade comes from specific Technology and Society assignments. Each assignment has a short, manageable investigative component, followed by a forum posting about what the student found. Following this there is a thoughtful online discussion between the students on each others postings (visible to the class members but not the general public, for obvious privacy reasons).

So far the results are looking good. Students are actively engaging with the assignments. Given last week's terrible student suicide, it is not surprising that there have been quite a few postings about cyber bullying. I find this a healthy opportunity to encourage students to express themselves on this topic if they wish, in the way that they wish. Their remarks remain within the confines of the course, and the pedagogical goal of encouraging serious contemplation about how technology can be used or abused is met.

Also interesting to me, there have been some postings about the possible ramifications of blogging! Students have been considering the effects of putting one's words out there for the whole world to see - considering the issues surrounding speaking your mind, sometimes in different cultures with different expectations. All of this is exciting and fascinating; students are looking at the use of social media from multiple perspectives. The pros and cons and potential pitfalls. The thoughtfulness of student commentary is sometimes moving and makes me pause.

It is important to point out that these assignments tie into current content discussion in the course, and so in another way demonstrate the linkages between the technical and the social.

Finally, interdisciplinary social issues are being regularly woven into lectures and labs. These occurrences are more subtle but they reinforce the embodiment of the idea that people, the world, the environment are part of design and implementation of programming code.