Category Archives: Reflections


One night, when I was 15 or 16, my father called me to his bedside to pronounce. “Your mother tells me,” said he, “that you don’t feel you can talk to me.” Truth. “I wan’t you to know you can talk to me about anything. It’s just that I’m never going to say another word to you.” He was true to his word; one of the very few times that I’m aware of. He died 10 years later with us having never exchanged another word.

Continue reading Self-portraits

My Personal History of Computing

The first computing device I remember using was The Little Professor (1976). Designed like a calculator, the Little professor worked backward: it presented unsolved equations the user then needed to solve. Many years later, future-me would see a Little Professor in a computing exhibit at London’s Science Museum and wish that past-me could have known.

Little Professor.JPG
By Loop202 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

My first programmable computer was the Timex-Sinclair 1000 (1982) with 2K of RAM. I don’t remember what—other than the low price of $99—spurred my mother to buy this for me. It was connected to a Radio Shack audio cassette recorder for data storage and the family’s TV in the living room via an RF converter switch for video output.

Continue reading My Personal History of Computing

Yes, and…? Inviting People to Take the Next Step

As an educator who advises students working on theses and dissertations, there’s a standard question I ask—I refer to it as “the PhD question”: So what? It’s a shorthand to challenge students to consider the question: If everything you’ve just said is shown to be true, what will that mean for changes in our understanding of the world or how we engage with it?

I found myself using So what? again recently at ICER 2019, a community of education researchers that values openness and community building. I heard myself saying it, and I realized I didn’t like the tone of it at all. So what? is confrontational. It’s a conversation stopper, not a starter. It’s a blockade, not an invitation. Yes, I learned it from my graduate advisors way back when, and I think it’s time to put it to bed.

Continue reading Yes, and…? Inviting People to Take the Next Step

Dear Apple: beauty lies in parity

I love Apple’s design aesthetic. I see it in the simplicity of their physical and software UIs, although usually not in the baroque nature of their business processes. What frustrates me is the lack of parity among the Apple-born technologies. I don’t just want a good experience on one device, I want it on, between, and among all my Apple devices!

Case in point, a few years ago I submitted a note to Apple suggesting that they had missed the boat by not having the iPhone earphone controller/mic work on their notebook line, too. That is, I wanted to be able to iChat using the iPhone earbuds as my earphones and microphone. Sure enough, the latest MacBook Pro models have that feature. I’m not saying it was me! I’m sure many people had a similar idea, and told Apple about it, and I’m thankful for it. What I am asking is, why didn’t Apple notice it? Are their development efforts so siloed or their release cycles so offset from one another that it’s not possible?

Another, current, case in point: the push for ebooks. I have my iPad (thank you, Steve!) and I loaded iBooks on it. I like it. I like the upgrade even more. And there are more features I expect will come soon. However, it’s frustrating to not have iBooks parity between the iPad (/iPhone/iPod touch) and iTunes on my MacBook.

  • on the iPad, I can’t easily manage my collection (gather new books, other than from the iBookstore, (and that’s yet another frustration!), although it’s slowly getting better with the “open in…” capability.
  • on my MacBook, in iTunes, I can’t read the ebooks I’ve collected.

Or the jumble that passes for document management in iWorks for the iPad, or for the Notes app on the original iPhone, or… or…

If Apple truly wants devices like the iPad to be devices for everyone, then the user experience on different Apple devices really needs to be in parity from day-zero.

Don’t make me think twice.

My Classroom Rules

Recently, several students commented that I seemed to have a lot of classroom rules. This is an old refrain in my life, and, in a sense, it’s true. However, the rules I have are all just special cases of my basic three rules, which I share on my About Me page.

  1. If you are going to break the rules, don’t be obnoxious about it.
    • If you can’t be engaged, don’t distract others. It’s unfair to both you and them.
  2. Don’t disappoint me.
    • Don’t promise to focus, but fail to do so. Instead, acknowledge whatever is distracting you and address it.
  3. Be aware.
    • Know what questions your classmates are asking.
    • Recognize which questions are related to tweaking the solution and which are related to a different problem context.

Wil's Classroom Rules
A full sized version of my rules diagram

I think my biggest failing in the classroom is that I’m uneven in the application of the rules, which is perceived as me being arbitrary. Inconsistency and randomness seem very similar to the outside observer.

I sometimes let feature creep take over the problem statement, which can lead to unintentional complexity or student confusion as the problem changes. I need to spend more time up front specifying the problem completely with students so that it’s clear to them and me what the invariants are.

I also find it difficult to ask a student actually to leave the classroom. I’m forever optimistic that the unfocused student will find moments of clarity and engage with the course material. Often, they do, but unfortunately, while I’m waiting for that to happen, the class as a whole is affected and, generally, material isn’t covered as concisely, clearly, or completely as might have been the case otherwise, thereby disadvantaging the other students who could have gone further, faster. Such is the nature of a set of random people with diverse metacognitive skills and needs. Still, I’m certain that I could serve better both ends of the spectrum.

Co-work and Coffee Shops

It strikes me that co-work spaces and coffee shops are similar, but… not. Your typical coffee shop grudgingly offers moderately useful WiFi (can we get rid of the 20 minute timeouts and required “accept terms” pages, please!) and a few power outlets and has yet to figure out what to do with all these individual patrons taking up so much table space for so long. In short: lots of coffee, little access to power or high speed WiFi.

Co-work spaces have more than enough power outlets and Wifi, usually high speed and reliable (if not, find another co-work space!), but very little coffee. People are expected to come in, spend time without buying anything, and slurp all the Internet they can.

Could we have a coffee shop-style chain of co-work shops with space, meeting rooms, power, and WiFi and sell day passes/memberships? What’s the critical population/entrepreneurial density to sustain it?

Collapse of Complex Educational Funding Models

Clay Shirky posted yesterday about the Collapse of Complex Business Models. In short, businesses add one complexity after another with each new complexity adding value to the system… to a point. Initially, each addition brings with it significant marginal value. But eventually, the value added of a new complexity diminishes to zero or, worse, goes negative. Businesses, the argument goes, can’t adjust to the new reality and resort to the most radical simplification possible: collapse.

I realized almost immediately that I’ve been having a version of this conversation related to educational funding for weeks… Continue reading Collapse of Complex Educational Funding Models

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.

Continue reading Thoughts on Being Contingent Map of My Bookmarks

This image represents the frequency of tags I’ve used to bookmark resources using, a social bookmarking service that allows you (and others) to access your bookmarks from any web-connected computer. It was created using, an interesting visualization tool that will let you feed it a word list, a URL, or a delicious username in order to generate a tag cloud like this. Larger words represent tags used with greater frequency. Since I started using to share links with my students, the map is weighted in favor of course- and programming-related terms.
Continue reading Map of My Bookmarks

On Assuming I Know What I Mean When First I Speak

I often begin reasoning from first principles of which I may not initially be aware; they unfold to me as I explain my thinking over minutes, days, and weeks. I don’t see this as a matter for concern. I follow in the step of many writers who have expressed the idea that they learn what they think as they write and re-write it.

However, this can lead to the impression that I’m not trying to be precise or decisive. Quite the opposite is true. My willingness to continue refining my thoughts, often times in private and slowly, is just that: my attempt to be both precise and decisive, albeit in the face of imperfect information.

How can any of us claim to be honestly engaged in conversation if we’re unwilling or unable to refine our thoughts?

Six Words Challenge

I’ve been inspired by a recent reminder of the old story about Hemingway and how he was asked to write a complete novel in only six words. I immediately began thinking about how I could distill advice to educators down to just six words. What can you say about assessment (as opposed to grading), instructional design, program evaluation, classroom management, and so on in just six words?

My first shot: Don’t solve problems students don’t have.

What six-word guidance do you have for educational best practices?