Interactive Learning Startup Top Hat Monocle Wants To Turn Your Homework Into A Tournament

This article about a company that produces classroom engagement technologies such as in-class polls, discussion forums, and homework tournaments is making my head spin. I can get behind the value of in-class polls or quizzes, where students get immediate feedback, and professors get an immediate sense of what they sank in or not. But this:

Top Hat offers an SMS-based response system, while all others access its platform through the web. Students can ask questions during lectures without interrupting teachers and get instant feedback from other students.

Why would we even bother all getting together in the same room, if the discussion is just going to be taken on-line, and away from the professor? And, given my experiences with students having side-conversations to clarify issues in class, at least half the time it seems that these discussions lead students to miss my giving exactly the explanation that they are looking for. This sounds like it turns class into a backdrop that students may tune in and out of, like a television program, while they do other things in parallel.

And then there is this feature of the system:

Professors set up a question bank and a tournament question bank, and leading up the tournament (let’s say at the end of the week), students practice questions from the first set and receive practice scores. On the day of the tournament, students log in and are automatically paired with other students at their level of ability, proceeding through rounds of problem solving, until there’s a winner. The top five are publicly displayed. While this may irk some, the idea is that knowing that they will be publicly competing with winners to be displayed on a class scoreboard incentivizes students to actually practice problem sets and learn the material.

Indeed, I believe this would “irk some”. I am sure that it motivates some students – but I’m concerned about who it would demotivate. Particularly in a course where students enter with a diversity of prior knowledge and skills, a student who has improved more than anybody else in the course could still be faced with a constant reminder that they just don’t measure up, in a very public manner. But beyond that, how much time is being spent coming up with two complete question sets to enable this process? And how interesting can these questions be, if they are automatically scored by a system (I can’t imagine how this would be tractable if there are actual professors or TAs doing this grading behind the scenes)? I cannot think of a single assignment I give that could be translated into this setting without losing depth.

In the end, I come back to what I usually come back to when I read these articles and my mind starts to boggle – these systems aren’t meant for a classroom with twenty students and where the amount of “lecture” taking place is minimal, as compared to group discussion and problem solving. These are attempts to use technology to recreate the level of engagement of a small class where everybody knows each other, in a room of potentially a hundred students or more. So I’ll feel free to continue preferring that my students direct their questions about course content to the entire class, rather than texting the friend sitting next to them.

Conversation on Non-Coding Contributions to Open Source

An interesting but common discussion over on Slashdot of how to get started working on open source projects, particularly if you’re fairly novice, evolved into some even more interesting discussion of the merits of getting started by helping with documentation, what that even means, and some firsthand accounts of people’s problems with trying to get a foot in by volunteering to do documentation. Some chat about the same issue but with UI design as well. A pretty good read for students who want to build up more of a portfolio than just their coursework but want some practical advice on whether to go the open source route.

Tablets for all

I’ve been thinking a lot about tablet computing in educational settings, partially because of some research I’m doing, and partially because of the splash of Apple’s announcement of iTunes U back in January which doesn’t seem to have been followed up by much. My gut reaction is that tablet computers are awesome, but for certain purposes. I absolutely love mine when I’m not working – vacations, weekends, messing around online in the evening. But when it comes to my teaching, I’ve yet to find ways that it really supports or helps me, and it makes me suspect that it isn’t the be-all-end-all learning tool either.

Thinking about eBooks in particular, I have never been able to bring myself to read one. I’ve started them, but there’s too much else going on on my tablet, and I have to make an effort to focus just on the text. For me, even having the clock at the bottom of the screen makes it hard for me to focus – I find myself checking the time as I “turn pages” and aware of how much time I am spending reading as much as what I am reading. It is not as emersive for me, a point this recent NYTimes article makes as well. Perhaps a Kindle would solve that problem, except the Kindle seems to be trending towards an integrated browser and such as well.

That’s mostly for fiction – when I think about course texts, I have different concerns beyond the lack of emmersion. I have a much stronger physical memory of content in textbooks than in narrative works, and I worry I would lose that with a digital text. I use a number of texts with full-page diagrams, or worse two full-page figures/tables/psuedocode, and I don’t see how that translates to a smaller screen. And, I am suspicious that learning really does happen better when it involves a moderate amount of mental struggle, because it requires mental engagement, and that eBook texts will further encourage skimming and searching for key terms over prolonged engagement. Will the increased engagement reported continue when the tablet stop being novel? And what will the long-term learning and retention look like?

Finally, I give all of my exams open book, but that doesn’t mean I want to give them open-internet, particularly when that means the door is open for communication between students in the course and in fact individuals worldwide. Unless I’m willing to give up the idea of exams, or assessing students based on entirely independent work, I’m concerned with how to accomodate eBooks in my courses, and I’m not the only faculty member I’ve talked to with these concerns. I’ve seen a lot of links to this article about how one person sets up iPads for secure testing, but it assumes you have the MAC addresses of the relevant devices and that those devices don’t have cellular connections, or the ability to connect to alternate wireless networks. Also, that you have the staffing to block and unblock individual devices on wireless networks for each test that might take place throughout the semester. The article is an interesting discussion of what can be done, but it seems very time intensive to scale up to an entire school. This slashdot discussion of how to allow testing that uses the internet but minimizes cheating touches on similar issues but also gets caught up in questions of what a test should be, whether testing without collaboration makes sense given that the real world involves collaboration, etc.

Overall, I don’t have good answers to these questions yet, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

A lot of people linked to Franzen’s concerns about eBooks eroding our relationship with literature. I’m not sure I go so far as that, but with the real world examples of eBooks being revoked on people’s devices, his sentiment that “the fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring” resonates with me. This article considering how iPads would work in high schools versus colleges further riffs on the permanence issue, raising a good question of, if schools buy the iPads and the texts in order to make them available to all students, how will students maintain a complete set of notes – throughout school and into the years after (yes, I actually did pull out my high school calculus and physics notes when I was in college). Even if most students don’t, by making it impossible aren’t we communicating that notes are just for studying for tests or writing one paper, and not a long-term resource?

For schools going all-tablet, I wonder if this will limit options for available texts, and what they will find their incidence of breakage or loss will be? I’m also curious if they will be having young children signing up for the necessary internet accounts to make these devices work effectively, or if they will be wrangling the devices through administratively controlled accounts. How are the frequent updates that these devices seem to require going to be handled without disrupting the classroom? Not that these are insolveable problems, but there’s definitely more planning to be done than (1) buy devices, (2) hand them to students. The test cases are reported to be working well, but they’re also on small groups and often small groups of high-achieving students.

This has truly hacked my life.

It seems like 90% of the time, I skim through my Lifehacker feed without clicking a single link and question why I stay subscribed. And then I come across a post like this one that instructs you to Sift Out the Crumbs in a Cereal Bag with a Kitchen Strainer for a Better Last Bowl and they have me sucked back in for another month. The best thing is, you don’t actually have to follow the link since the whole “hack” is pretty much there in the title – if you have ever eaten cereal you get how it works.

Personal Thermostats

My first reaction is that I need one of these wristbands that lets me control the temperature as I walk around a building. Oh yeah, and you can do other gesture controls with it too, but mostly it lets you not be freezing cold all the time.

Except, it requires working in a smart building, not to mention a building with a more functional HVAC than I currently have.

I am then struck by the fact that this sounds great until hit with the reality that different people have radically different temperature comfort zones. As the only person in the building who wasn’t complaining when the heat “broke” and it was in the 80s in my office, I suspect department meetings with these devices would devolve into temperature battles. Forget the mess of figuring out what temperature to make a classroom when everybody walks in with their personalized wristbands.

I think that the real reason everybody in the sci fi future wears jumpsuits is that they are smart jumpsuits with integrated heating and cooling. I would get on the jumpsuit bandwagon if we figured that one out.

Applying Social Network Analysis

There’s a lot to love about this account of how social network analysis was used to illustrate a slumlord conspiracy – it isn’t just a nice example of a real world use of the tools, but the step by step construction of the network is a lovely example of data presentation. A quick and easy read that may become my go-to link to send students when they want to understand what this stuff is our networking course covers if it isn’t about hubs and routers and tcp/ip. [via BoingBoing]

Also, the lack of symmetry has always bugged me…

It is nice to see studies confirming that we’re not all as taken up with shiny new technologies and clever marketing strategies as it sometimes seems – here, a “youth marketing company” finds that, out of a sample 500 college students, 79% could not successfully scan a QR code. Only 19% did not have smart phones, and only 20% weren’t familiar with QR codes, so that leaves a large portion of students with the awareness and ability but lack of inclination to have ever figured them out. I suspect the comment about not wanting to download an app to handle QR codes is a big part of it.

I ran into the study at an interesting time, because I had actually be thinking about whether QR codes might be a useful way to get information out to students. I had been talking to a colleague about the inconsistently updated physical signage about the locations of offices and departments inside the entrances to buildings on our campus, and if there was a technological solution. While tablets or touchscreens would produce electronically updateable content, it occurred to me that people may prefer to have the information on a small screen in their hands that they can browse more privately and carry with them as they try to find their destination. QR codes would be a quick way to direct people to the precise information for their current location.

And hey – maybe it would work. When you look at the details of the study, they asked very generic questions, like “How likely are you to engage with [QR codes] in the future?” Without a reason to engage with a QR code, my answer would be not likely, the same as most of the respondents. And so far, the uses I have seen for QR codes have not been compelling – mostly to direct me to websites trying to sell me things, and I suspect most students have had the same experiences with these codes.

Google Reader design frustration

There’s been discussion about the changes to Google Reader (some of which was – wow, people are still using Google Reader…) and how it was going to have its social sharing features moved to Google+. I honestly didn’t have a strong opinion, because I have never used the social features of Google Reader and so long as I would still be able to keep my RSS feeds organized. In fact, I was fairly puzzled that Google+ and Google Reader played so poorly with each other so figured the move would be positive.

However, now I am seeing comments about how nice and sleek the new design is and I have to say, I hate it. It has rendered Google Reader almost unusable under my usual practice of having it up in a browser window sized to let me easily tab between it and a few other windows on my laptop. I used to be able to easily hide and expand the navigation structure on the left hand side, allowing me to have maximum reading space within my window. But with this new, sleeker, less crowded looking design, I essentially have to maximize my browser to use Google Reader on my laptop. And I loathe maximized windows – my applications shouldn’t get to dictate by design that I must give them my undivided attention.

There you go Google Reader – it’s a sign of how much I have liked you that I’m more upset about this than any of the Facebook interface changes over the years. So do me a favor and stop assuming everybody sits around doing their computing in front of massive displays all the time.

Smartphones, Statistics and Spying

I absolutely love these hacking tricks where you snoop passwords from information leakage – this one from Georgia Tech using a smartphone’s accelerometer is an awesome addition. Short version: if your smartphone has malicious software on it, and you put it on the same desk as your keyboard, the phone can deduce what you’re typing from the vibrations. Yes, even if you don’t type as vigorously as I do (though only at close range – no need to panic).

The press release notes that using the accelerometer is an improvement over using the microphone because, even though it is less sensitive, the user is generally not asked whether to allow access to the accelerometer the same way they are the microphone when installing apps. But, I also think that even security minded users who might hesitate at allowing access to the microphone out of concern for being recorded would be less likely to see the risk of information leakage through accelerometer data.

I see you

I have forwarded the link to this article that I got via Slashdot about how social media could render covert policing impossible to a number of people and somehow didn’t think to post it here (I must have pre-semester brain…). The idea is simple once you see it – with good quality facial recognition software, we know anonymity becomes challenging, and that is particularly true for careers, like undercover police work, that require strong anonymity and yet for which there is strong incentive to discover true identities, and high risk if they are found out. Though I do think the article title gets it a bit backwards – it is the facial recognition that are the tool of the problem, with photos that are searchable on the internet supporting the effective use of that tool. Social media sites are, of course, one major source of photos of individuals, but a group photo of your college’s sports team on the college website, an engagement photo in the local newspaper that also has an internet edition, or any number of other sources will also contribute. Perhaps we will see the rise of plastic surgery designed not to make you look more attractive, but to make facial recognition fail with the minimal necessary physical changes.