Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – A GTD episode

About eighteen months ago, I came across a website called 43 Folders, which in turn introduced me to Getting Things Done, which is the title of a book by David Allen, but more importantly it's a work management system, and eighteen months ago, GTD could not have come at a better time – I was up to my ears in work, and struggling to cope.

One thing that I changed was how I was using my PDA (a Palm Tungsten T5). But here I ran into a problem – the T5 works nicely with Palm Desktop, but not much else. My personal choices re software didn't really help – while I like the Mac platform, I don't really care that much for Apple's applications, so I use Thunderbird rather than Mail, and Firefox instead of Safari. As for iCal, I find its tendency to overlap translucent panels a visual eyesore, so I left it well alone.

Of course, this meant that I could not take advantage of the integration that Apple had built between iCal and Mail.

Fast forward six months, and now my Mac-centric workplace has a centralised calendar solution that most of my colleagues subscribe to through iCal. (I'm still resisting iCal, of course, and using Sunbird.)

It comes as a rude shock a little later on to find that iCal can't handle the volume of data being delivered from the calendar. The solution - scale back the data being delivered from the calendar. (Those of you who are shaking your heads at this – yeah, I know, but it wasn't my decision.)

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to improve my work practices, and I've started using Quicksilver instead of the dock and tags rather than nested folders. I've also found GTDTiddlyWiki (by Jeremy Ruston), and using it to manage my projects. Small tasks, however, still live on
my T5. The separation is a bit clunky, but I'm living with it.

But I'm now noticing more GTD-related software appearing. "Kinkless GTD", a set of applescripts for OmniOutliner Pro, iGTD. Time to look into this more closely.

iGTD at first glance doesn't seem to be offering much more than GTDTiddlyWiki. But the devil is in the details, as they say, and there are a couple of key details here - iGTD interacts with two other apps that completely change the ballgame.

The first app in question is Apple's iSync. Naturally, iSync doesn't want to know about Sunbird, but it is tight with iCal, so items in iGTD get synced with iCal. Nice.

The second app is QuickSilver - I can hotkey into QS, switch to text mode, then drop my text into iGTD's inbox, and I'm done and back onto whatever I was working on. Apart from the actual text for the entry, only 7 keystrokes are required.

As nice as this is, the real key to making this work (for me, at least) is getting iSync to talk to my T5. This particular step proved to be the most annoying - what looked like it should work quite easily just wouldn't. I had to dive into Apple's online support forums to find the answer to a very unhelpful message, to wit, that either I had not properly installed Palm's HotSync Manager or I had never run it - wrong on both counts. (It was in fact a permissions problem, but nothing in iSync or its Help files pointed in this direction.)

Having gotten iSync and the T5 to finally talk to each other, I now have a single system (at least in terms of the digital stuff - the paper war on my desk is another matter) that works well.

And yet I'm now looking at an early version of Things, and I like what I see. If Cultured Code add support for QuickSilver and synchronisation that I can make work with my PDA, I may well switch.

So, to sum up: iGTD + iSync + Quicksilver is good; iSync's flightiness with Palm devices and the effort required to find the solution is bad; iCal remains ugly.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cyberbullies... and their Mums

On Monday I attended a seminar led by adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg on cyberbullying. The one thing that really stuck with me from the day was the problem of boundaries.

Once, the distinction between "school issues" and "home issues" was reasonably clear-cut. If it happened in the school (or on the way to or from school), e.g. a fist-fight, it was a "school issue". Otherwise it was a "home issue". (Yes, I realise that it was never that clear-cut, and there were grey areas, but for most students most of the time, the distinction was a fairly clear and obvious one.)

Enter the Internet, email, instant messaging, mobile phones, SMS. Suddenly the distinction between school matters and home matters is lost in a techological miasma.

Little Miss X and her friends are cold shouldering Student Y at school, but also sending spiteful text messages late at night - is the text messaging a school issue, even though it happens outside the school grounds outside of school hours? The answer would seem to be "Yes" - the actions outside the school are intimately connected to the actions and relationships inside the school, and schools that decide not to deal with these things run the risk of being sued for neglecting their duty of care. BUT (and it's no small 'but') we are then confronted with students and parents who want to argue that the school should not be involved (these are of course the same parents who wouldn't hesitate to pursue legal action if if were their child on the receiving end and the school decided not to act).

So the boundaries have been blurred and we now have students and their parents who want to draw the boundaries where it suits them.

An example of this is the case of Anna Drakers, an Assistant Principal of a school in the US who appeared on the Dr. Phil show after two 15 year old boys created a false MySpace account in her name, and then loaded it with defamatory information. Ms Drakers is now pursuing a civil action against the families of the two boys.

The question that was put to us in Michael Carr-Gregg's seminar was whether or not Ms Drakers was right in her pursuit of legal action. Recent neurological research informs us that the brains of 15 year old boys are not sufficiently developed to fully anticipate and evaluate the consequences of their actions. Anyone who's taught 15 year old boys for more than 5 minutes will agree that 15 year olds and stupid decisions go hand in hand.

It's no simple matter to determine whether or not Ms Drakers' action are reasonable or simply motivated by revenge. The action taken by the school was very limited, but the authority the school was allowed to exercise was limited to begin with.

We heard parts of letters from the families. One sounded generally remorseful. Another included this: "He is a good boy and has been a good boy, and the price he is paying is not equal to his actions. There is no possible way I, or any other parent, can monitor every action."

What caught my attention here was that there is an implicit acknowledgment that the actions of the boy are the responsibility of the parents. If the responsibility DOES lie with the parents, is civil legal action then unreasonable? Could Anna's decision to pursue this action constitute a "shot across the bows" of other parents, a wakeup call to them that they need to be looking carefully at what their kids are doing online (not to mention reinforcing their understanding of what is and is not acceptable conduct).

What about a reverse scenario: if the boys had done the same thing, but about someone outside the school (someone's mother, perhaps) and they had done it on the school's computers during school hours, would anyone blink if the defamed person sued the school for being negligent? Would they accept from the school the defence that teenage brains are not fully developed, teenagers make dumb decisions and the school cannot be expected to monitor every single action? I rather doubt it, but if the argument is good enough for these parents to make, why would it not be good enough for a school to make?

Drakers maintained that the issue was not about money but about accountability. The unanswered question in the whole thing was exactly who's accountability is being discussed. Can these boys be held to be completely accountable for their actions, or does the incomplete development of their teenage brains preclude this, in which case, to what extent can and should the parents be held responsible?

Pesonally, I think that the parents should bear a fair amount of the responsibility for the boys' actions - the question is how this should happen. Unfortunately, in Western society, it usually does end up taking the form of legal action.

All of this points to a need to educate parents as much as we educate the students - maybe even more so.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Learning, Conversation and the Web

I found this via Stephen Downes' website: Learning is Conversation - Revisited.

There's a lot to like about this blog post - I've been working on some materials for a workshop I'll be doing with colleagues, and in thinking about how the Read/Write Web impinges on learning in the 21st century, the significance of dialogue as a fundamental component of education has been very much in my mind. That post, and the original its drawn from, nicely capture the essence of such conversation in a wired school setting.

Of course, not all learning is conversation - some learning is definitely experiential. But the lion's share of learning that happens in schools is through discussion among teachers and students. Recognising how the Read/Write Web fits into this picture is something that schools simply must do.

The last line from John Pederson is spot on:
We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Programming and idle thoughts

One of the things that makes me sad about Mac OS X (not that there's many) is the demise of certain tools that were available to me under OS 9 for teaching students about programming.

I used to teach students in Years 9 and 10 about HyperCard and HyperTalk - the lack of proper colour tools was a pain, but HyperCard was nevertheless a joy to work with and a fantastic programming environment for students.

I also used Think Pascal with Year 11/12 students. I learnt Pascal at Uni (after suffering a bad case of FORTRAN) and it gave me a great appreciation for clarity and readability of code.

But as they say, that was then, this is now. The world now hums to itself through the Internet, and HyperCard and Think Pascal are relics from a previous life, no longer relevant to computing in the 21st century.

And that is sad, because under OS X, there's no obvious replacement for HyperCard, and no Pascal IDE I would use with students. You can still do Pascal programming on a Mac (using Xcode and FPC or GPC), but it's not something for beginners to tackle. If someone develops a nice IDE suitable to use with high school students (and I'm hoping that LWP by Ingemar Ragnemalm will eventually fill the bill), then Pascal is back on the table, but not before then.

Which leaves me in a quandary about what to do with my senior classes.

Here in New South Wales, senior computing courses have always mandated particular programming languages for students to learn. Once, the choices were BASIC, Pascal or Logo. Now, the Software Design & Development course specifications say:
"The syllabus does not prescribe a single coding language for implementation of programs but advocates a range of high level languages."
Sure, except that further into the document we see some pretty interesting specifics. Under "General Language Requirements" we find:
Appropriate Languages:
• Pascal, a structured version of BASIC.
Hmm, Logo's vanished, but I'm not surprised - it was too widely regarded as a child's programming environment (even though it wasn't). But why not C? Or Python?

And under "Event Driven Languages" we have:
Appropriate Languages:
• Visual Basic, Hypercard, Delphi (limited functions only), REALBasic.
Hypercard? Someone needs to check their calendar. And where's Javascript? Surely it would have to be the most obvious choice for an event driven language. And all you need is a recent browser and a text editor.

Finally, the pièce de resistance, under "Prototyping and Rapid Applications Development":
Appropriate languages:
• Visual Basic, Hypercard, Delphi (limited functions only), Access, Filemaker-Pro, REALBasic.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Simple Wrong Answer


Disclaimer: I am not aligned with any political party, nor do I advocate for a particular political position. The views expressed here are specifically my own. They are not endorsed by my employer or reflect any position on their part.

Reading through the transcript of Kevin Rudd's interview on the 7:30 Report, I got angry. Yet another politician who wants to fiddle with education in this country for political reasons that have nothing to do with improving education per se. We've already been lumbered with Brendan Nelson's ill-conceived notions of how student reports should look and the absolutely reprehensible tying of Federal funds to its implementation. Now Kevin Rudd's making noises that show he's cut from the same cloth.

Rudd's promising a "revolution". When Kerry O'Brien pressed him for details, Rudd threw out the following guff:
"This whole proposal I put out there today is about how we deal with this gaping hole in Australia's economic performance, and it's the decline in productivity growth ... the most effective way of building productivity growth is to invest in human capital, and that's where the data for Australia has been going backwards."
Gaping hole? Well, I'll let the economists chew over that one. But as for the going backwards part, that I'll buy into.

What does Rudd offer as evidence for this assertion?
"...let's look at what's happening in early childhood education. There are 30 countries or so assessed recently by the OECD - this is how we get in at the ground level for educating our young Australians. What we do with four year olds, for example. Guess where we come out of the list of 31 countries which have been assessed and measured by the OECD? Stone bottom last. That is a rolled gold failed performance. We have to lift the game there."
No mention of exactly what was being assessed and measured - a little searching on the web brought forth some interesting data about the OECD/PISA study Rudd is referring to. The study assesses and measures a wide variety of things, per capita expenditure, expenditure as a proportion of GDP, class sizes, literact levels in Reading, Mathematics and the Sciences, public versus private funding levels, and lots more. So what was being measured in the example that Rudd gave? From what I could find on the web, Australia ranked last out of 20 countries (not 31) in spending on early childhood services.

But I also found a few other things from the same study. Australia's results in overall Reading Literacy - 4th. In Mathematics - 5th. In Scientific Literacy - 7th. Not too shabby for a county that is apparently going backwards. And the really interesting part is the three countries that spent the most on early childhood services (Denmark, Sweden and Norway)[1] fall well down the list. [2] Denmark, spending 2% of GDP on early childhood, education and care, more than any other country, ranked no higher than 12th in the above categories. This in itself raises some interesting questions, but somehow I doubt Kevin Rudd is going to bring them up himself. Rudd's game here is only to highlight results that 'support', however tenuously, his assertion that the Howard government is doing a bad job. Naturally the positive results will get a guernsey somewhere along the line to make the argument about what a great job the government is doing. No wonder Mark Twain quipped "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics".

Rudd went on:
"...we have, against all the measures from early childhood through to universities, a problem in terms of the quantum, of the investment in these areas..."
So this revolution will be about spending more on education? Yes and no.
"...I'm not proposing a blank cheque to the sector, I'm proposing conditions be attached because the parallel part of the education revolution I'm talking about is lifting the standards, lifting the actual quality of the outcomes, the outputs of our education system. More money, but in exchange a better performance, and that's the way we intend to go."
Here we have it - another Brendan Nelson moment. Notice the weasel-words - we've gone from our rolled gold failed performance in an unstated category to an investment problem to lifting the quality of the outputs of the education system. With performance levels attached to the money.

And what's driving this?
"My job, as the alternative Prime Minister of the country, is to put forward a practical program for schools, for vocational education, for TAFEs and for universities which achieves the nation's objectives, which is about raising productivity and underpinning our long term prosperity."
O'Brien actually asked a good question in response to this:
"Labor's Achilles heel at this election will again be its credibility as an economic manager. On the other hand, the polls always tell us that Labor rates well on education. Is that why you've identified education so strongly as an economic issue, to bolster a perceived weakness with a perceived strength?"
Exactly! Rudd's reply was quite revealing:
"No, not at all..."
but 10 seconds later in the same answer,
"...What I'm talking about is this on micro policy, most particularly, how do we boost productivity, how do we do it through human capital investment, how do we raise the quality and skills of our work force for the future economy, that is the core of the productivity debate..."

"No, not at all" ended up sounding to me very much like a "yes, but I don't want to put it that way".

There's no denying that the reason we have an education sector is in part to prepare people for the workplace. But the raison d'être of education is not to drive economic prosperity. And Rudd is implying that there is a strong correlation between productivity and educational outcomes - which is, in the words of Edmund Blackadder, bollocks. I don't pretend to be an economist, but it's no effort to do a bit of reading online to see what real economists have to say about productivity in Australia, and I don't find any of them talking about lifting educational outcomes as the way to lift productivity.

The OECD studies Rudd appears so fond of also contradict his views. Countries like Japan and Canada have consistently appeared at the top of the tables in these and similar studies over the last couple of decades, particularly in those tables concerned with educational measures (as opposed to levels of expenditure, class sizes, etc.), but their productivity has nevertheless fluctuated just like Australia's. Investment in education and outcomes from education have not been significant determinants in a country's productivity. Attempts to narrow the productivity issue to a single focus like educational performance is disingenuous.

Kerry O'Brien hit the nail on the head - Labor intends to bolster a perceived weakness with a perceived strength. Education in this country can do without this nonsense. Let's hope enough economists and educational leaders, regardless of their political leanings, speak up and make it clear to both sides of politics that this sort of drivel is unacceptable.

As my friend Tony Butz once told me, to every complex question there is a simple wrong answer.


[1] Based on the table appearing here (Figure 5.3, halfway down the page).
[2] From the tables at the bottom of this article.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Drongo #2

Below are some words from a panel on one of those animated adverts you see on various websites.

100% Zero-Footprint? Hey guys, 100% of zero is the same as 1% of zero.

Maybe that explains the "business intelligence" part.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Webpages and Warthogs

I was reading an entry by Josh Porter on his Bokardo blog asking "do MySpace users have bad taste?" and it reminded me of a few things.

The first thing that came to mind was experiences I've had teaching students in IT classes, where we would be looking at building something, multimedia presentations or perhaps databases using Filemaker Pro. And always someone would build something that was flat out ugly. Not just untidy or unbalanced or bland, but downright garish. And I would always ask, "Does that look good to you?" And the reply was invariably, "yeah, what's wrong with it?"

Now, I'm not asserting that my sense of aesthetics is highly refined or some such, I know it's not, but I understand exactly where Josh's question has come from. MySpace is replete with examples of ugly design, but it's not just MySpace where you can find such. The web is full of it. But why?

The comments on Bokardo are well worth reading (read also the comments to a follow-up post "Visual & Social Design") - the discussion of usability vs aesthetics is quite interesting, and poses some good questions about what really constitutes usability in a website. (I can forsee some interesting discussions in my senior classes.) But I don't think the discussion got near the root of why ugly is okay in MySpace (or other websites).

I particularly liked this comment:
I think MySpace inadvertently played in to the kids within us who want to build a rough & ready treehouse. Now, would you be happy enough to put your treehouse together yourself or would you want to get some high end feng shui designer in so you could impresses your teenage friends but lose a lot of the personalization?
This rings true to me, though I don't think it's the entire explanation. Others mentioned the fact that MySpace is predominated by teens, which reminded me of something else.

A few years back, a friend and I looked at the logo of certain organisation and felt it was rather poor. This wasn't just a general feeling on our part - we could clearly pinpoint some significant flaws in the design of the logo.

My friend is a qualified graphic designer, and he approached the organisation's directors and offered to design a new logo for them. They were nonplussed, but agreed to look at what he could come up with. He produced three new logos for them to consider. Several of our friends saw the new logos and were impressed by what they saw. Not so, the directors. They preferred the old logo.

My point? It's not just teenagers who seems to be blind to good design (or bad). So now I'm wondering if having an eye for design is one of those things that for most people requires training or at least significant exposure. Some people can't really tell the difference between a genuine home-cooked Italian meal and what they can buy prepackaged from the supermarket. Some people like instant coffee. And McDonalds. And maybe they always will.

My last point concerns warthogs. Most people will look at a warthog and think "ugly". But ask someone like David Attenborough, you'll get a different answer. (Yes, I have been watching a few documentaries of late - my daughter's becoming quite hooked on DA's stuff.) The thing is, once you've heard Attenborough talk about the warthog and why it appears as it does, you get a new appreciation for its appearance - 'ugly' is no longer the right word.

And of course, to the female warthog, there was never any doubt about the male's attractiveness, but then, she was able to appreciate the merits of his appearance from the start.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Unguided Missile of Good Intentions

Browsing through my ever-growing selection of edu-blogs, I found an interesting item in Tom Hoffman's blog, aptly titled "Perhaps Someone Else Could Respond to This…", linking to a blog item at the MacArthur Foundation.

The blurb on the Foundation's homepage:
The MacArthur Foundation launched its five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative in 2006 to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. Answers are critical to developing educational and other social institutions that can meet the needs of this and future generations. The initiative is both marshaling what is already known about the field and seeding innovation for continued growth.
The website links to a blog ("Spotlight") "where visitors can engage with initiative grantees about their work."

The blog entry in question is by one Sandra Weber, a Professor of Education at Concordia University in Montreal. In it she writes:
Young people trust adults to to be smart enough to realize that it is plain rude to go snooping on children’s websites without their permission. As public as their postings may be, it is ‘bad form’ and an invasion of privacy to visit a personal site that you know was not intended for your eyes.
The title of Tom's entry on his own blog makes it clear that he sees a problem with what Weber has written. Those who commented on his blog, as well as on the Spotlight blog, also see the problem. So why can't Weber see it?

She goes on to say:
Just as adults should not read a diary left lying around unlocked or open some one else’s mail or eavsedrop on telephone conversations, they should not snoop uninvited on cyberpostings of children they know.

How will young people learn to be trustworthy if no one will trust them?
As a parent, one thing I will be impressing on my daughters as they do things online is that anything they put online is available to anyone and everyone to see, even me, and they cannot afford to think or act otherwise. And I will be looking at what they put online, so I can be sure that they are not compromising their own safety. What I won't do is be sneaky about it. I'll tell them up front that I will be looking, and I'll tell them why. If they want to keep something private, they'll do that in a way that is private - posting stuff on the web is not and never will be.

When I look back over the MacArthur Foundation's homepage blurb (mission statement?), it's obvious that the intention is good. I'm also fairly confident that Sandra Weber's statements are well intended. But entries like Weber's may lead young people (and perhaps some educators) to wrongly assume that they can publish online materials and expect a certain level of privacy. Such a view is hopelessly naive. More to the point, it's potentially dangerous. Weber would do well to contact organisations like NetAlert (I'm sure Canada would have an equivalent agency) and talk to the experts about what can happen when young people put things online that they shouldn't.

'Public' is not the new 'private', regardless of anyone's intentions.