Thursday, December 31, 2009

Y2K + 10

How's this for an amusing trip down memory lane? Ten years ago, on the eve of the millennium, the big "Y2K," I was reporting for work in the basement of Gilchrist Hall at the University of Northern Iowa. I was to staff the university's "Y2K Command Center," the strategic hub of UNI's efforts to thwart any disasters due to Y2K.

As we now know, very little happened due to Y2K. The fear was that any digital device that recorded dates with only two digits wouldn't know how to properly handle a year "00" and would behave unpredictably. This was a valid concern, but not a surprise so almost all such problems were fixed months ahead of time.

Midnight came and went, and things were pretty quiet around UNI. One of our maintenance staff discovered a ventilation fan not working properly (for non-Y2K reasons) and that was it. All the professional staff went home a couple hours after midnight, but Robert Shontz (great student, individual, and co-worker) and I stayed on until morning. Even though it was pretty evident that nothing bad was going to happen, we and some other ITS associates worked in shifts to keep the command center open for a couple days. All we did was watch TV, surf the net, play video games, and eat on the university's dime, but it was nice that the university stuck to their schedule and gave us the hours we had been promised.

It would have been a more exciting story if we had somehow actively warded off a disaster, but I'm still glad I was there. What's your story? Out partying? How dull. You'll get another chance to be the hero for Y10K. Five digit years are going to require software updates. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

I should have asked for ski karma for Christmas

Talk about your epic fail today. I decided several days ago that I wanted to ski Christmas day. I got close, but never made a single turn. Let's look at what turned out to be a waste of a day:

I was up before 7, checking the weather and road reports, and it's not exactly great. Chain restrictions at the tunnel and Vail Pass make me think twice about going. All I have is my car, as I don't trust my truck with its bad clutch and oil leak. At about 8:45 I get a positive road report from Lubin, who is headed to Vail from the west. I check some more reports and leave about 9:15. Way too late, but I've left late before and had great afternoons.

The roads are certainly passable, but I take it slow and arrive at Vail just after noon. I've heard from some that free parking is hard to find in Vail, but others have assured me that it exists and a bus will take you to the lifts. I explored all of Vail's three exits, and none have signs that clearly point to free parking. My GPS is no help. I check out a few of the pay areas, and each would cost me $25 just for the afternoon.

I stop in a 15-minute parking area and try to search for parking information on my phone. Vail's website clearly has parking information, but they've formatted their site in a way where it's not readable on my mobile browser. Phone crashes and reboots. I go to another site and it says parking is free at the golf course, if spots are available.

I get to the golf course lot about 1:00 and put on my boots, grab my skis, and walk to the bus stop. Ugh. The bus schedule is posted at the stop, and during midday the buses only run once an hour. The last one was leaving as I arrived. I seriously don't want to wait another hour for the next bus, the bus ride, the walk to the lifts, and the ride on the chair before I can actually ski. It would probably be 2:30 by then. There's gotta be something else.

I explore other parking lots along the bus route and all are either pass-only or pay-to-park. With snow (and travel back to Boulder) getting worse, I decided that it's not worth using one of my 10 precious Vail/Beaver Creek days to ski less than two hours. Upset at myself that I didn't do proper parking research beforehand and left so late, I turn the car east and go home.

In hindsight, pancakes at my sister's house probably would have been a better plan. I'll just have to make up for today with some really good days at Vail later in the season, assuming I get parking figured out by then.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Iowa-to-Colorado Translation Guide

It's not difficult to find Iowans in Colorado. We're everywhere. Even more, I'm sure more Iowans are getting ready to move to Colorado right now. As an Iowan-turned-Coloradoan myself, I thought I should provide this translation guide.
Coloradoan says...
Iowan hears...
Des Moines
Boulder/University of Colorado
Iowa City/University of Iowa
Ames/Iowa State University
Fort Collins/Colorado State University
Olathe Sweet Corn
Any sweet corn you can buy at a street corner from a couple of kids in the back of a pickup
The Post
The Register
The Gazette
The Courier
"I spent a winter as a ski bum in Leadville."
"I spent a summer as a detasseler in Osage."
Denver Broncos Football
Aplington-Parkersburg Football (based on fan loyalty and news coverage)
Pueblo Chile Frijoles Fest
Ackley Sauerkraut Days
Mt. Elbert
Hawkeye Hill
Castle Rock
Story City
Park Meadows
Jordan Creek
Royal Gorge Bridge
Kate Shelley Bridge
John Elway
Dan Gable
Fort Dodge
Alfred Packer
Cardiff Giant
Colorado Springs
Cedar Rapids
Red Coats
Ski Patrol (not the British army)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Cherry Creek High School
Valley High School
mine tailings
confinement lagoons
The Dells
Blackhawk/Central City
Canon City
I'm certainly open to comments, additions, and revisions!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why Teachers Should Require Students to Use Wikipedia

I've always been a fan of Wikipedia, and often I'm happy to see a Wikipedia entry as my top search result. As a math teacher, I never had many opportunities to direct students in the ways of research, including how to choose appropriate sources. Several of my colleagues who do teach research, however, not only discouraged Wikipedia use, but banned it outright. Why? The most common answer: "Because anybody can edit Wikipedia, students won't know if the information is true." It wasn't until tonight that I saw how shortsighted this reasoning really is, and how it gives students wrong ideas about research.

Let's assume we not only encourage, but require students to use Wikipedia. If a student only finds factual information, then we've preserved the status quo, and nothing really changes. But what if the student finds a mistake? (Or, more likely, you find it for them.) This isn't a crisis, this is an opportunity! First, students see this as a powerful example of why we cite our sources, an idea with which many students struggle. Without the citation the student looks like they're wrong; with the citation to Wikipedia, we can see the student is not really at fault. Second, if a student finds an error in Wikipedia, don't ignore it, FIX IT! The same reason you cite as Wikipedia's weakness is also its greatest strength. Everyone can be an editor. Even if you just find a Wikipedia claim to be in question, and aren't sure if it's false, teach your students how to use the discussion page so they can truly take part in the Wikipedia experience.

If having your students participate as Wikipedia contributors sounds too scary, too involved, or not worth your time and effort, think of this absurdity you have created for yourself - You are a teacher, someone who dedicates themselves to helping students learn and share information, but you don't want your students to use your instruction in a way that contributes to the world's body of knowledge in one of the internet's biggest projects.

Like it or not, this is the world we live in, so put down your guard and teach your students (and yourself, if necessary) what digital citizenry can and should be about. In fact, you should hope all your students find mistakes in Wikipedia. Teach them how to fix those mistakes, and you can be sure "research" will mean more to them than churning out double-spaced papers.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Web of Social Bookmarking

At its very core, linking websites together is what makes the web the web. I've had my own website since 1996, and like many people, we all had a page dedicated to our favorite links. In 2001, my friend Brian Gongol (and he certainly wasn't alone) went a step further and provided not just a list of links, but rather a stream of updates, whether they be sites of interest or news of the day, each complete with Gongol's thoughtful commentary.

I liked the idea, and with my adoption of Delicious in 2002, I had an easy way to tag, catalog, and comment on links. Almost 900 links later, I'm still using Delicious, but I'm not sure if anybody has noticed. My RSS feed is picked up by FriendFeed, but not many more people pay attention to it. So what are people paying attention to? Twitter and Facebook, that's what. They each provide audiences I'd like to share with, but neither are good enough to make me leave Delicious behind.

Throw Google Reader (my favorite RSS reader) and its sharing capabilities into the mix, and we can start to see the mess I'm getting myself into. Here's a list of each product's strengths and weaknesses:

Delicious: I've been using Delicious since 2002, but it doesn't quite do everything as well as I've hoped.
Pros: Excellent tagging, cataloging, and search capability; good browser integration
Cons: Has networking capabilities, but unfortunately I've never made much use of them; not currently an effective way to reach an audience

Google Reader: I've used Google Reader as my RSS feed reader almost since its inception.
Pros: It's the way I collect most of my "share-worthy" pages; I'm a heavy user of many Google services, and like the integration possibilities
Cons: Inferior tagging and cataloging capability

Twitter: I really like Twitter for sharing my 140-character-or-fewer thoughts, but I'm torn about using it to share links.
Pros: I have an audience on Twitter and have built that audience by sharing links
Cons: Link-shorteners are subject to link-rot; no tagging or cataloging capability; limited room for comments

Facebook: I'm a relatively recent Facebook adopter, and rarely post anything original to Facebook directly. It serves to collect my tweets, pictures from Flickr, YouTube activity, etc.
Pros: Links look great, including pictures, snippet of article, and my comments; reaches an audience of family and friends who wouldn't otherwise follow my links
Cons: No tagging or cataloging; limited audience

I want the continuity and cataloging capability of Delicious, the integration of Google, the potential audience to be gained through Twitter, and the quality bookmarks offered to friends and family offered by Facebook. And I want it without having to save each bookmark four separate times. Both Delicious and Google Reader have implemented integration features in the past month, but we're still far from perfection, as illustrated by this chart:

You can see that no arrow is bi-directional, and Google Reader's integration with the other services is superficial, at best. Maybe there's a tool, setting, or add-on out there that will make this work for me, but so far I haven't had any luck finding it. Oh, all these tools are so great, but all have progress to make before integration really happens.

What I would like is a browser button that does pretty much what the new Delicious feature does: allows me to write a 1000-character note, add tags, and send to Twitter, Google Reader, and Facebook. Choosing a picture like the Facebook links would be nice, and it needs to work every time, unlike the 50-50 odds of working it seems to have now. (I'm sure the Delicious team is working on that, and will be reliable soon.) Then I'll feel like the web of social bookmarking is truly integrated.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On to the University of Colorado at Boulder!

It's back to school time again, and this year I'll be returning as a student instead of a teacher. While the decision seemed sudden, this has been in the works ever since I left UNI. I was so influenced there by Dr. Bonnie Litwiller, my academic advisor, and Dr. Ed Rathmell, my thesis advisor, that I knew someday I'd want to go to graduate school and pursue higher degrees in math education. But first, for reasons of experience and credibility, I went to Colorado to teach, learn, and explore.

Six years later, the time has come to pursue that earlier goal. After evaluating some of the best math education programs in the country, last week I visited CU-Boulder and met with Dr. David Webb. He was extremely generous with his time, working with me for over two hours, and by the time I left we had a plan and any doubts about my decision were gone. Not only is CU-Boulder a great school, it makes sense for me academically, socially, and geographically.

So I'm a student again and I couldn't be happier about my decision. My years at UNI were the best, and I feel my time at CU will be equally great. I've unashamedly talked to my past students how great college can be, and I've been jealous of every one as they made their college choices and went on to school. Now I get to join them. Go Buffs!

Friday, July 10, 2009

School Compensation Systems: Salaries vs. Grades

Schools reward their inhabitants in two amazingly different ways: teachers get salaries, and students get grades. Not only are these systems vastly different, but I'm not sure teachers would accept a pay scale that's built like a grading scale, nor would students accept a grading scale that's built like a teacher's pay scale.

The vast majority of schools pay teachers according to a "salary schedule," a rigid, two-dimensional matrix of dollar amounts with credits across the top and experience down the left side. The more credit hours you've earned, and the more years you've taught, then the more you'll make. I don't feel it's a fair system, but it's a system that most teachers will agree to use, putting it ahead of most any other pay system available. It's a simple system, perhaps too simple. Its simplicity allows us to easily print and read the salaries on a sheet of paper, and I think that's one reason we continue to rely on it. Now, forget merit pay for a moment. Suppose we simply wanted to add a third variable to the schedule, such as student count. The number of students you have definitely has a measurable impact in the effort it takes to be an effective teacher. (Certainly an impact comparable to credit hours, for example.) Addition of a third variable would turn the salary schedule into a three-dimensional model, not easily displayed on a piece of paper, and probably requiring the use of an algebraic formula to calculate every teacher's salary. So however incomplete and unfair, teachers opt for the simple and straightforward.

If you put ten teachers in a room and asked each to describe their grading system and practices, I guarantee you'll get ten different descriptions. My goal is to have a grading system that accurately reflects each student's ability and achievement, and I fail at that every single grading period. I always seem to find at least one student for which the numbers just don't reflect my personal feeling of what he/she has learned. As a math teacher, I think I'm especially critical of my grading methods, and thus I've never graded exactly the same two semesters in a row. Teachers are allowed so many choices: grade weighting, extra credit, curving scores (using normal curve or other methods), dropping lowest scores, partial credit, use of "pluses" and "minuses"...the list is considerable. These variables are in addition to the simple idea of being a "tough grader" vs. an "easy grader." Is a "C" average? Should every class have "A" students? How many failing students is too many? Teachers are generally allowed to include any combination of variables, and we expect our students to adapt to each of their teacher's grading systems.

As a teacher, I find it ironic that we resist making our compensation system more complex, yet we subject our students to some of the most esoteric grading rules imaginable. Maybe I'm comparing apples to oranges, but maybe not. If my ideas are valid and the writing of sufficient quality, feel free to compensate me for my efforts. Hmm...should I be simply paid by the word? Or should we develop a multi-variate rubric to assess the quality and effectiveness of the piece across a variety of audiences depending on my grammar, word choice, sentence structure, paragraph organization, and tone?

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Look Into the Future (From 1998)

While digging through some old papers, I came across a copy of PC World magazine from January 1998. The headline on the cover reads, "YOUR NEXT PC: What's New for 1998 -and Beyond." Predictions are fun to make, and more fun to make fun of looking back. Let's see where PC World hit, and where they missed.

In one section called "The Desktop Computer in Ten Years," PC World asked Mark Weiser, chief technologist at Xerox PARC what to expect by 2008. Here's his list:
  1. The PC will move into a closet, and we can expect gigabytes of RAM and terabytes of storage.
  2. Displays will be flexible and you can fold them up in your pocket.
  3. Voice recognition will not replace the keyboard and mouse for privacy reasons.
  4. Wires will become built into walls and the furniture and we will have wireless mice, keyboards, and phones.
  5. E-paper will be standard for everything from books to business cards.
  6. We will have "pocket net computers" that allow us to log on to the internet from anywhere at any time.
As predictions go, I'd say Mark Weiser did okay. Not great, but 10 years in the tech business is forever. PCs have gotten powerful, but they're still on the desk. The flexible, portable display is still vaporware, as is his vision of e-paper. Voice recognition has come a long way, but I think he's right about the impractability of talking to your computer in an office setting. Wireless phones, mice, and keyboards are easy to find, but I bet he would have been surprised to still find PS/2 ports standard on most motherboards. Lastly, most of us do have "pocket net computers" - our cell phones. Most people I know never browse the web on their phone, but the capability is there.

Weiser's predictions are at least better than Bill Gates's contribution:
"In ten years there will be better input systems - handwriting, speech, visual recognition...As much as 90 percent of the operating system code will go to these new capabilties. When we look back at today's personal computers, we'll say, "Hey, these were the machines that couldn't listen, couldn't talk, couldn't see."
I look back at my computer from 1998 and say, "I can still run linux just fine on that thing." In fact, it has Crunchbang installed on it right now. The smartest comment might have been from Stephen Manes in his back-page article, who claimed, "Hardware will continue to get faster, more powerful, cheaper. Software will continue to be a pain. And that's as far as I'm willing to go."

As much as the articles, the advertisements are worth a chuckle. Zip drives. CRT monitors. (There are a couple LCD ads, but you can't even find a price for them in the back page mail-order ads.) 166 MHz Pentium notebooks for $3599. A revolution for the mouse: the scroll wheel. A Eudora Pro CommCenter ad, offering a $20 rebate on the $59 street price. (What would we have paid for Gmail?) US Robotics 56K modems. Mindspring ISP featuring IE 4.0. And my favorite: Creative's PC-DVD kit, complete with decoder card, for an "incredible value" of $379.99.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Switching Back to Kubuntu 8.04 "Hardy Heron"

About a week ago I replaced my well-worn installation of Kubntu 8.04 "Hardy Heron" with the sleeker, newer, Kubuntu 9.04 "Jaunty Jackalope." I hadn't made the jump to Kubuntu 8.10, the first to include KDE 4, because there were plenty of reports about bugs and incomplete features. After waiting through another release cycle, I figured it was time to stop falling behind the tech curve and upgrade. Surely I had been missing something.

Instead of finding a bunch of new indispensable features and conveniences, I'm afraid KDE 4.2 is still not ready for my desktop. My biggest gripe? File management. It's not so much a debate between Konqueror and Dolphin, but frankly neither are doing what I want them to do. In KDE 3, I could hover over the icon of a picture, and a pop-up would give me all sorts of good information: date, owner, filesize, image dimensions, and a little bit of EXIF data. Neither Konqueror or Dolphin do that now, although I've read that Dolphin's information panel should include that in KDE 4.3. I don't want to wait that long.

Another big disappointment has been Amarok 2. Podcast handling is very stripped down compared to 1.4 - no pane to view information about a podcast and no way to create folders to organize podcasts. I also don't like how loading a song into the playlist plays it automatically, and today I ran into significant problems with reading ID3 tags. That might have been the ultimate deal breaker, when Amarok insisted Laura Branigan's 80's classic "Self Control" was by Moby, and then listed an album for Moby with no songs in it. I can't trust an application that mismanages ID3 tags.

But at least Amarok has a KDE 4 version for me to complain about. Kaffeine, my favorite video player, has not yet found its way into KDE 4. I didn't like its replacement, Dragon Player, and while I always have VLC installed because it's just so useful, I don't like it as much as Kaffeine.

I know KDE 4 will eventually work out the bugs and be ready for prime time (by my standards), but right now I can't name enough functional advantages it's giving me over 8.04, the long-term support (LTS) release. It's supported until April of 2011, so I'll have plenty of time to evaluate other new releases in the meantime. I used to love running Debian experimental and installing the latest packages, bugs or no bugs, but those days are over. Give me stable features; give me KDE 3 (for now).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Myth of the Slipping Math Student?

I've been teaching in Colorado for six years, and there's always been a troubling pattern in our state standardized math scores. As students progress from 3rd to 10th grade, the percentage that score proficient and advanced declines dramatically. Here are the percentages of students scoring proficient and advanced by grade level, averaged over all the years the test has been given (typically 2002-2008):

GradeAvg. % P+A

The easiest explanation (and the one I've tended to believe) is that students' abilities are, in fact, slipping as they got older. That would be a good assumption if the test at each grade level was equally difficult. But what if the test questions were, on average (and adjusted for grade level), more difficult as students got older? Is it fair to assume a test with increasingly difficult questions would result in lower scores, even with sophisticated score scaling systems that take question difficulty into account?

Fortunately, the state releases "item maps" that describe the difficulty of each item on every test. Using 4 points for an advanced item, 3 points for a proficient item, 2 points for a partially proficient item, and 1 point for an unsatisfactory item, we can come up with an average difficulty for the CSAP at each grade level. Let's add that column to our table:

GradeAvg. DifficultyAvg. % P+A

This begs for regression analysis. How strong is the correlation between the difficulty of the questions and the scores?

The correlation is surprisingly strong, and the coefficient of determination (R squared) is 0.88, meaning that the average item difficulty is statistically responsible for 88% of the variance in the test scores. 88%? That's big. Statistics rarely tell the whole story, but 88% raises serious doubts that it's just a matter of slipping math students. Why wouldn't the state want to maintain a steady average difficulty year-to-year? Wouldn't that make year-to-year performance comparisons more reliable?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Spring Break 2009

Today is my last day of a much-appreciated spring break, one that I spent working on some school work and hanging out with my nephew. I picked Huston up Wednesday night and we went skiing on Thursday at Breckenridge. Huston had never skied before, but, being a hockey player and ice skater, he picked it up quickly, making is 3rd and 4th runs without falling. (We were on Peak 7, easy intermediate terrain.) We skied a ton - everything on Peak 7, including Pioneer twice and Lincoln Meadows four times, Northstar (the toughest for Huston), Springmeier and 4 O'Clock on Peak 8, and Briar Rose on Peak 9. I think that might have been a total of 14 runs.

We've spent most of the rest of our time relaxing and watching movies. The list of movies watched in total has grown almost as fast as the list of ski runs on Thursday. We started with "Anchorman" (Dorothy Mantooth is a saint!), "Warren Miller's Fifty" (in preparation for skiing), then moved on to all four Rambo movies, "Be Kind, Rewind," "Steep," "Baby Mama," "Down Periscope," "The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," "RoboCop," "Schindler's List," and "Kingpin." Fifteen movies, along with Friday's Cubs-Yankees game, the Kerry Wood 20 strikeout game, and the Ryne Sandberg game from 1984. We would have watched yesterday's Cubs-Yankees game if we could have gotten to work.