What Students Say

A note to myself

I believe that I can be a better educator through reflection and active engagement. I believe that I can better serve my students and colleagues by being honest with them. I believe that reflection, engagement, and honesty can help other educators improve their praxis, should they feel so inclined.

It has always been about the students

A note to students

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Pandora Makes Me Sad

The Problem

Listening to Pandora tests me. Their algorithm seems to be that whenever they detect that I’m listening to a song I like, they should visually or aurally interfere, thus creating the most agitating experience possible.

This evening, before I logged in, they began playing a song I like, but a version I hadn’t heard before so, to fully appreciate the music, I paused it to grab my headphones. Of course Pandora made it impossible for me to listen to the song by modally forcing me to login (#fail). Unfortunately, their login routine isn’t sensitive to what you were listening to immediately prior to login, so they just start playing something new and different (#fail).

Pandora Makes Me Sad


  • Don’t get in the way of the user enjoying the experience.
  • Suggest logging in non-modally.
  • If the user is already listening to a song on Pandora, but not logged in, then immediately after login begin playing the same song.

Designing Computing Spaces for Collaboration

Classrooms are, at their best, learning communities. Unfortunately, with the rise of the PERSONAL computer (PC), computing classrooms have evolved to meet the needs of the computer, rather than the learner. In so doing, often both the needs of the computer and the learner go unmet. Consider the all too typical situation of a room that has been retrofitted to provide dozens of electrical outlets and network connections, but with no improvements in the air conditioning. It seems to have escaped the attention of the room’s designers that computers, even at idle, generate many BTUs of heat… as do students! The body heat from 15-20 students in a room is considerable.

I stress the personal aspect of personal computer here not because I think you don’t know what I mean by a PC. Rather, it’s because that individual context, the idea that the computer is meant for individual, personal use is important in a learning environment. PCs are designed with the individual in mind. Even when the idea of having multiple users was adopted in consumer PC operating systems, the idea was still that one user would be logged in at a time, working alone. In the more advanced operating systems, you can switch between the individual user contexts.

What you can’t do easily with a personal computer is collaborate, and that’s a problem for educational uses of computers both in terms of the operating system design and the design of computing classrooms.

Ideally, computing classrooms would include

  • room configurations that support collaboration
    • movable tables to support small groups, seminars, and lectures
    • ready access to power outlets, both on the walls and in the floor
    • wired network access for a portion of the users, since not all devices support wireless
    • sufficient wifi coverage to support a full class, all downloading needed software at the same time, since not all devices support wired connections (e.g., iPhones, iPads, Macbook Air, other ultrabook format computers)
    • a high-resolution projector, so that applications that use significant screen real estate can be projected: Photoshop, Blender, Xcode, other programming integrated development environments.
  • network storage that supports collaboration (where will students and ad-hoc groups share files?)
  • a storage strategy that supports collaboration (how to handle collisions among students saving?)
  • Power outlets that are not sunk into tables, allow transformer bricks (e.g., the Apple iPad or MacBook’s power supply without the extension cable) to be plugged in, and are spaced far enough apart that multiple bricks can be plugged in.
  • Additional power support for direct USB charging of devices.
  • software that supports collaboration
    • MoonEdit,
    • SubEthaEdit,
    • Google Docs,
    • Wikis,
    • GIT,
    • etc.

Reason I wish Apple wasn’t so secretive #43

When a new product comes out, it takes 6-12 months for production of accessories to ramp up, by which time you already have something that works (rather than something you’d love to have) and you’re approaching a new product release (which will change the device’s form factor). For example, iPhone 4 cases… MacBook cases… iPad cases, etc…

I love my MacAlly faux-suede Bookstand iPad case… I worried about ordering them sight unseen, but I couldn’t have been happier with mine — it has provided great protection and no fuss. It gives me access to all the ports and gives me comfort when I put the iPad into a bag.

Yet, if these two things had been out at the time, I might have gone with the combination of them, instead:

I don’t whether I would have liked them better or worse than the Bookstand, but I like the idea of them.

Note to “Content Providers”: Don’t Harsh my Mellow

So-called “content providers” who provide little to no content in their RSS feeds break my flow. They’re an annoyance to read. Their one-line teasers drive me away from their content, not toward it. I tend to unsubscribe from those feeds, rather than visit their websites.

If your one-paragraph introduction is compelling, I’ll visit your site to read the rest. However, your one-line teasers are rarely compelling and often annoyingly vacuous.

Please, provide the content and let me decide how to consume it.

I Don’t *WANT* an App for That

With the explosion of applications for the iPhone and iPad, I wanted to point out that, for many things, I don’t want an app for that! Consider the works of Shakespeare; I really don’t want a separate app for each of his plays and sonnets. Some books and magazines are being published as separate apps, to take advantage of the graphics in OpenGL ES, to control content distribution, etc; I understand their reasoning. But I don’t want one-app-per-book; it’s too messy and disjoint. Similarly, I don’t want one-app-per-magazine or one-app-per-newspaper; I read too many sources each day for that model to work.

What I want is to be able to retrieve, review, annotate, and share content I view with the tools I find most natural and that enable my workflow. I do wish “content providers” could grasp that and start providing some content, instead of trying to lock it away.

Thoughts on Course Grades

Like many educators, I worry about the level of effort that my students commit to their studies (the process) and the quality of their work (the product). We call the process many things: engagement, time on task, passion… But we mean to describe that self-driven, motivated commitment to learning for the sake of learning that we value.

Unfortunately, in many educational environments, the standard proxy for effort is the course grade. Grades are a poor proxy, but are so ingrained in educational practice (in some of the institutions where I teach) and in students’ minds that it may be useful to consider a way to structure grade rewards to encourage the genuine engagement from students that we desire.

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Exploit Parallelism

I was reading the old VerizonMath meme recently and began thinking about it in terms of a teaching moment. George Vaccaro was clearly trying very hard to teach the Verizon employees a little something about math, and they just weren’t getting it. Part of the problem is surely, as everyone points out, the lack of math common sense of the Verizon employees involved; a trait all too common in American today.

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Thoughts on Being Contingent

According to a recent AAUP report, 68% of all faculty appointments in American colleges and universities are non-tenure track; over 50% are part-time, so-called contingent faculty. I am one of them and, while I love teaching and, by many accounts, am pretty darned good at it, I’m still a part-time employee, subject to chance, and that causes problems both for me and my students.

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Can Apple’s Gadgets Converge with Apple’s Other Gadgets?

I’m a fan of Apple products. I like the design and I like the overall user experience. That’s not to say that Apple products (both hardware and software) or Apple itself is without flaw; they certainly fall down in some spots. But I’m reassured that they at least try, unlike so many other companies out there.

One of the areas I wish Apple would get its act together on is convergence with its own product lines! Different docks for each iPod/iPhone model has always bothered me, although the dock connector has been going strong for some time now. Similarly, the initial software disparity between the iPod Touch and the iPhone — shameless and unnecessary! The marginal cost of including the full suite of Safari, Mail, and so on for iPod Touch users from the start would have been so much less than the public relations fiasco of having to charge for the software upgrade, once Apple finally realized the error of their ways.

I’d like to pick on one particular technology where Apple missed the opportunity boat, however: The earphones that come with the iPhone; they’re not the highest audiophile quality around, but they suffice. The inclusion of the mic and push to answer/hangup/play/pause button on the right-hand earbud is wonderful. Apple has managed to train me to use it and I love them for it. I love it when the music pods down when there’s an incoming call, and I love the ability to just click-to-answer.

I love the features so much so that I’m shocked when I’m using those very same earphones plugged into my MacBook and they don’t work as my Apple training has led me to expect.

  • I should be able to listen to my music (no problem)
  • I should be able to click to play/pause music (can’t)
  • I should be able to use them as a headset/mic for audio/video iChats (can’t)
  • When an audio/video iChat invite comes in, my music should pod down and I should be able to click-to-answer (can’t)

In short, I want the same features on my notebook that I have on my iPhone with those cute earbuds! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sitting in the library or cafe and had an iChat invite come in and you know, my first instinct was to click the button on the earphones. Invariably, I then have a moment of confusion, followed by disappointment as I context-switch and figure out how to answer the invite.

Apple can do better at very little cost, it would downgrade gracefully for users of standard earphones just like it does on the iPhone, and the overall Apple user experience would be smoother and black-turtle-neck-style cooler.