Friday, December 19, 2008

Education in the Land of the Blind

Thanks to KRudd and Co., education here in Oz is very much in the public eye at the moment. Online news sites have embraced the blogging meme and provide their readers with the opportunity to comment on stories in a way that was never possible with newspaper columns. While in principle I think this a good thing, far too much of commentary on education stories is, sadly, drivel.

This appeared among the comments to a journo-blog entry on the Daily Telegraph website:
In many public HS, we have teachers who don’t know much more than their top students. These students actually learn from books and self research (and some do it with help from private tutors). Those who are not top students move on and cramp [sic] for the HSC. And again, some of these average kids are the most likely to follow education training to become new teachers. By the time they get to University 2nd year, they forgot most of the stuff they bolted down in a short period without true understanding. So we have a vicious circle that need to be broken by offering high pay to teachers to attract top candidates. I could see that Universities are doing the right thing at this moment to offer combined educational degrees to make sure that new teachers will have at least one solid specialisation. But we need the government to get serious and offer high pay for good teachers and encourage the rest to go back to University to learn specialisation to lift their performance and consequently, better pay.
There are a number of fallacies implied in this comment:
  • that teachers don't really understand what they are teaching;
  • that those who go into teaching are not the 'top candidates' but only average students;
  • there is a vicious cycle (!) of poor teachers leading to more poor teachers;
  • a 'solid specialisation' (whatever 'solid' is supposed to mean) should be part of teacher training (hmm, now what 'solid' specialisation should a K-2 teacher have?);
  • that 'specialisation' would lift 'performance' (naturally without any explanation of how 'performance is to be measured or how a 'specialisation' would change it).
I keep seeing this dreck again and again in comments on websites to educational stories. The Federal Government has added fuel to the fire by teasing the media with hints about performance pay (though they've carefully dodged using that exact expression) and teacher accreditation and accountability.

Like our politicians, it seems there are many members of the public who believe they are knowledgeable about education, apparently on the basis that they had one.

And it appears to have become fashionable to rubbish our education systems in this country. It's no surprise that the KRudd government is gung-ho about changing education in Oz - fiddling around with education and then claiming to have achieved something is de rigueur for Labor governments (and almost as much so for Coalition ones). But we are now seeing the likes of Rupert Murdoch dumping on Australian education (though why anyone would think that Murdoch would know anything about it eludes me) and no one standing up and saying "hang on a minute, is any of that criticism actually valid? Is it based on anything substantial, or is it just hot air?" The same goes for the media - witness the negative spin put on the TIMSS results reported by ACER a couple of weeks ago. Anyone would think that our Year 8 students couldn't add up, the way it was reported in the media. In reality, the gap between Australia's results, and those of the USA or Britain was very small, and only Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan can claim to be clearly ahead of everyone else.

Is there room for improvement in our education systems? Of course there is. Are we failing our students and delivering them a substandard education? Of course not.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Geek vs. Tool

I've started playing with GeekTool. I'd seen it some time back, but hadn't bothered with it until I stumbled one of those "Top 10 thingies" lists and saw some nice screenshots of GeekTool in action.

Getting my CPU usage stats up on my desktop was straight-forward enough, so I thought about what else I'd like displayed. Then I saw a forum post where someone was using curl and sed to pull out a list of items from SlashDot.

The script was this:
curl | grep <title | sed -e ’s/<title>Slashdot</title>//g’ | sed -e ’s/<title>Search Slashdot</title>//g’ | sed -e ’s/<title>//g’ | sed -e ’s/</title>//g’
Now, I wasn't interested in SlashDot, but getting the headlines from the ABC news website appealed, so I started playing with the above script, using the same idea to strip out the parts of the xml feed I didn't want.

At which point I learned something important about sed on Mac OS X - it won't wipe out blank lines. This instruction - sed -e '/^*/d' - should delete all blank lines; at least, that's what every sed tutorial tells me. But it just doesn't work on OS X. I even made sure that I had the GNU version installed rather than the POSIX one, but to no avail. So my output contained multiple blank lines between titles. Blech!

After scouring the web for hours trying to find an answer to this problem, it seemed that GeekTool had left me feeling rather un-geek-like, but certainly a bit of a tool.

I finally found part of the solution, in another forum - use perl instead of sed:
perl -pe 's/\r\n/ /'
This did the job of removing the newlines, but left me with a long chain of sed and perl calls piped together, at which point I began thinking again and asked the obvious question: can I do this more simply with a single call to perl? A little more searching, and...
curl | perl -nle 'print for m:<title>(.*)</title>:'

I'm now thinking that it would be nice to be able to put somewhere on my desktop a list showing the subjects and senders of my most recent unread emails. If I can work out where and how Thunderbird keeps this info, it should be easy (note the unwarranted optimism), but it could also mean that I need to learn perl (properly). Now if only some kind person would comment on this post and provide me with a solution. (There's that unwarranted optimism again.1)

1. With apologies to Dilbert

Monday, October 06, 2008

Drongo #3

Playing with StumbleUpon, I came upon a list of websites that work only with IE. I still occasionally come across websites that only look good in IE, but I was surprised that there are still websites out there that use javascript to check the user agent and spit back unhelpful messages if you are not using IE.

When I noticed an Australian site, I decided to have a look. Sure enough, this site for an electronics firm in northern Queensland checks your browser and unless you are using IE on a Windows machine, you get "Your are not currently supported" (whatever that's supposed to mean), and the (poorly designed) drop-down menu doesn't appear.

When I looked further at this site (after changing my browser to bypass the javascript), it became apparent that there is absolutely nothing in the site that requires IE as the browser or Windows as the platform. The javascript to block non-Windows non-IE browsers appears to have no rationale except to ensure that people who use other platforms or other browsers cannot navigate through this website, i.e. to turn away potential customers.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Purpose of Education?

I've been catching up on reading the edublogs in my newsreader, which has led to an interesting juxtaposition of articles for me.

The first is Wolin, Democracy and The Math Wars by Michael Paul Goldenberg. I found the following quote Michael gives from Wolin's book resonates very strongly with me:
"The new education is severely functional, proto-professional, and priority-conscious in an economic sense. It is also notable for the conspicuous place given to achieving social discipline through education.
It is as though social planners, both public and private, had suddenly realized that education forms a system in which persons of an impressionable age are “stuff” that can be molded to the desired social form..."

While Wolin is talking about the US in particular, this is consistent with what is also an emerging trend here in Australia, where governments readily tout education as an economic mechanism, but discussion of education as a means for personal discovery and development is thin on the ground.

Craig Emerson, the Federal Minister for Small Business , has made his view very clear:
"Market democrats harness the power of the market for the public good," he said. "They dedicate themselves to remedying social disadvantage out of prosperity by giving every child the opportunity of a quality education through excellence in teaching and high-quality school facilities." [as quoted by Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald]

I agree with Gittins' response: "the primary cause of inequality of opportunity isn't education, it's inheritance - of brains, social status, social skills and money." [link]

Hard on the heels of reading Goldenberg's article, I came upon this offering from Tom Hoffman.

After reading through William Deresiewicz's article and then visiting the Teach For America website, I found myself wondering if I was missing something, if perhaps I had failed to fully appreciate the full extent of the socio-economic impact of education.

But after re-reading all of the articles again, and taking some time to reflect on them, my response to all of it is as follows:
  • My own view of education, while it allows for the idea that improved levels of education may lead to opportunities for students to improve their socio-economic status, is grounded in the idea that the student be given the opportunity for self-actualisation. Consequently, I object to views of education that seek to reduce education to little more than a social or economic mechanism. This sort of utilitarianism devalues education as a whole - it dismisses as unimportant subjects like Visual Arts and Music in the first instance, but ultimately devalues all subjects by narrowing the curriculum to fit the desires of business and industry.
  • William Deresiewicz's "holes" are not in his education - or more specifically, not in his schooling. His attitudes, his self-professed inability to talk to people not like him and false self-worth are the products of the social environment he grew up in, not his education. (What does the fact that he now wants to point the blame at his schooling rather than his social upbringing say?)
  • Programs like TFA are actually doing good things, but there is a real risk that governments, bent on driving their particular socio-economic (read myopic) views of education, may hijack their agendas.
But that's only my view things, which no doubt someone will regard as the by-product of my 1970s/80s education and Gen-X mindset. Or possibly my working-class upbringing or maybe the fact that I now teach in a non-denominational non-government school.

Whatever. I just wish there was a way to keep politicians at arm's length from education.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Plausibility Trap

Words intrigue me. I love learning about language, and it seems I'm not alone - websites and mailing list about words abound.

Unfortunately, so does a lot of rubbish about the origins of certain words and phrases.

An enquiry to the World Wide Words website asked about the word denigrate:
“A recent film, The Great Debaters, suggests that denigrate is an offensive term for African-Americans because it means “to make black”. The Denzel Washington character says that the word has racist undertones because of this. What do you think?”
Thankfully, World Wide Word's Michael Quinion pours cold water on the notion, but the plausibility of the idea worries me. It appears in a highly acclaimed movie - how long before someone claims to be offended by someone else using the term 'denigrate', simply because they've seen the movie and picked up on this faulty idea?

It's not quite up to the level of the feminist who objected to the term "mandate", but it's not that far from it.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Stumbling into Nausea

One of my favourite things is StumbleUpon. Today it led to me to this site. It'll make you think again about your next visit to a so-called "family restaurant". (At least, it ought to make you rethink what you order.)

And the #1 worst food bothered me for a whole different reason - as an Aussie, I cringe at the thought that Americans might think that here in Oz we would actually eat "cheese fries". We don't even use the word "fries" here. And we certainly don't have "ranch sauce" (or 'ranch' anything else). I don't know where the Outback Steakhouse is, and I don't really care to find out.

Excuse me now, it's almost dinner time and I have to throw a couple of roo steaks on the barbie.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Web + Mathematics -- Take 2

At the end of 2006, I posted a rant about the sorry state of working with Mathematics in the browser. That post elicited some good feedback, but I was still dissatisfied with the overall situation. I still am, to some extent. Microsoft still couldn't bring themselves to add support for MathML in IE7 (along with a host of other things) - at least MathPlayer is still there to paper over the gaping hole. Apple's Safari browser is into version 3 and still struggling with MathML. It's not encouraging.

But there are good things happening. Peter Jipsen of Chapman University has developed a javascript approach to entering equations in a simple syntax (well, simpler than LaTeX, at least, and nowhere near as verbose as MathML itself) and rendering it on-screen with Presentation MathML. It's called AsciiMath. And it works! Not only that, adding it to Moodle proved to be simplicity itself.

There are a few caveats. (Isn't there always?) Because you are using Presentation MathML, you need the MathML fonts installed on your computer. And if you use IE, you need MathPlayer (or a real browser, but let's not go there.) If you use Safari... sorry, try Camino or Flock.

But it's a big step in the right direction. Especially if you are using a VLE like Moodle, since it means that students can enter their own mathematical equations and expressions without needing to resort to other software for its creation and/or editing.

Being able to type in `x^2 +(3x)/5 =0` and getting a good-looking equation on-screen is exactly the level at which students (and teachers) need this to work - a simple, effective way of entering their equations resulting in immediate and effective presentation.

Peter Jipsen - you're a legend.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Big Brother Down Under?

A couple of edubloggers in my aggregator have commented on the recent announcement by the new Rudd government about its intentions to require all ISPs in Oz to filter the Internet for homes and schools, blocking pornography and "inappropriate" material. The announcement clearly states that the scheme is "opt-out" rather than "opt-in", as it was promoted in the recent election campaign. The reaction in various quarters has predictably been "censorship". I think censorship is a secondary issue here.

The Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy says he makes no apology for making the scheme mandatory. (Having heard Conroy speak on previous occasions, this is hardly surprising - I wonder if he actually knows how to apologise.)

My feelings about this announcement have shifted as I've thought through the likely scenarios. My initial reaction was that it's a positive move that will protect young children - as a father, things that will help to protect my kids tend to get a thumbs up.

As an educator, my initial thoughts were much the same. Then I started thinking about the implementation and implications.

What sort of filtering will be used? As a teacher at a school with filtering systems in place, I know full well that even the most recent versions of filtering are far from perfect. Word filters catch words, but not pictures on webpages that don't have those words. Black-lists will always be playing catch-up to the websites that you want blocked. White-lists? They also are always in catch-up mode, and in the meanwhile stifle legitimate exploration of the web. It seems a reasonable assumption that while the ISPs may do their best to conform with the government's policy, they won't catch everything.

So what happens when something gets through all this filtering, and little Johnny goes home and says, "Guess what Billy saw on the computer today at school?"

Right now, if that happened, the parents would take it up with the school; the school would check that its filtering was working, and point to the line in their policy that says that they make every effort to block inappropriate material but due to the nature of the Internet cannot guarantee..., etc., and that's probably where it would end in most cases.

But once the new policy starts being enforced, schools have a new defence: the ISP should have blocked it before it got to us; if it got past their filters... .

When the ISP takes the line "we make every effort to block inappropriate material but due to the nature of the Internet cannot guarantee..., etc.", will that be accepted? Will the ISP be fined under the new legislation? Will the parents and/or the school be able to seek damages in court?

If ISPs will be required only to do "their best" to provide clean feed (i.e. demonstrate that they have filters in place which are regularly updated), the end result is no different from what schools and parents are getting from their own filtering software now - except for one important detail - the consumers (schools and parents) will be paying for this filtering on an ongoing basis.

On the other hand, if ISPs must provide clean feed, they will be vulnerable to prosecution, which will leave the smaller ISPs more exposed than the industry big guns, in the long run resulting in the smaller ISPs bowing out or being subsumed by their larger competition. And consumers will still end up paying for filtering.

The other thing that concerns me is that some parents who have been uncertain or lax about buying filtering software will now think "okay, it's taken care of for me, so I don't need to worry about what my kid is doing on the Internet." No filtering is perfect, and there is no substitute for parental supervision. But this policy may delude some parents into thinking that the Internet just got safer.

Australians already pay too much for mediocre web access - now they will pay even more, and for filtering that in all likelihood will be no improvement over what they can buy (for less). This policy stinks of one-upmanship on the Coalition's offer of giving family free Internet filters for their home computers.

Big Brother? More like Fagin, if you ask me.

Monday, January 07, 2008


It seems that the New Year had beguiled a few blogger of renown to make some predictions for 2008.
Tim Bray, in his ongoing blog, actually has 4 predictions for 2008. The one that caught my eye (mainly because of the comments) was 2008 Prediction 2: Windows Looks Bad. Tim provides his own summary:
The strain due to the fact that most business desktops are locked into the Microsoft platform, at a time when both the Apple and GNU/Linux alternatives are qualitatively safer, better, and cheaper to operate, will start to become impossible to ignore.
The comments that followed were quite revealing. While many agreed with Tim's sentiments about how Windows compares to Mac OS X or Linux, a couple of comments stood out:

"wrong, wrong, wrong. Why is it that so many IT guys act as if migrating to Linux is such a simple experience that every novice user should/could do it? The average non-IT Windows user runs it because (a) it comes pre-installed (b) their favorite (pronounced "the one their friends or the sales guy recommended") app "x" was readily available, and (c) it closely matches that computer at work so that the daily mind shift is minimal.

Until inroads are made in all 3 of these areas, the market penetration for home users will continue to be minimal." [link]


"... the people I meet in my part of the world are in quite different position. Architects, designers, photographers, sound engineers, movie makers, ... (Btw., what is the term which describes all the above professions? Are those "content creators"?) simply don't have the tools to run under any free OS. There is no Autocad, nor AllPlan. No Rhinoceros, no AliasStudio. No Indesign, Photoshop (no, GIMP, doesn't count), Freehand (no, Inkscape doesn't count), Quark, Flash, Acrobat (not Reader). FontLab. Avid. Combustion. ProTools. Vegas. Capture One. And Lightroom... To sum it up, Windows may look bad but its applications look superb." [link]
though that last comment contrasts interestingly with an earlier one:
"...everything else you mentioned had to do with brain-dead applications from some of the worst companies: Adobe, Sun, and Symantec.

And I guarantee you that if we all start moving to Linux or OSX, these companies will start souring those OS's with their shoddy, annoying, anti-user software just as bad and people will keep buying it.

I'll give you that the OSX user experience, over all, is much better than XP, but without all the extraneous apps from Adobe, et al, XP isn't quite so bad. The real problem is app and driver vendors." [link]
Personally, I doubt that there will be much of a shift in 2008, but I don't think that's exactly what Tim was getting at. The point is that business, becoming dissatisfied with Windows (epecially Vista), will be looking even more closely at the viability of alternatives. The issue of lock-in is very real, especially as one commentator noted,
"...doesn't Office 2007 on Mac not support VBA? ... That is an instant dealbreaker for editors who use Word and heavy Excel users. AFAIK, investment/finance people live by their macros." [link]
Following some of the links from the comments led to interesting reading. Mark Pilgrim, in an entry titled 2008 is the year of Linux on the desktop, had this to say:
"So yeah, my parents switched to Linux because — among other reasons — it was easier to use with their iPod. That’s how badly Apple has lost the plot."
Far be it from me that I should criticise someone of Mark Pilgrim's stature, but I'm not sure who's really lost the plot here.

Stephen Downes took an entirely different tack, looking back at the predictions made a year ago for 2007. [link] It's a timely reminder of the perils of playing Nostradamus. Those who did best, for the most part, made broad predictions rather than specifics (though there was one notable exception).

My prediction for 2009 - we will look back at the prediction made for 2008 and wonder what we were thinking.