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Posted by Patrick on January 19, 2012

To oppose SOPA and PIPA, today’s xkcd cartoon is very serious.  It can be found at   http://xkcd.com/1005   but for some reason, https://xkcd.com/1005   (the encrypted version) doesn’t work for this cartoon only.  Part of the message?  Also, using the instructions found on  http://explainxkcd.com  , I opened the picture in GIMP, and increased the intensity and the contrast of the picture to their maximum values to find this:

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CO2 Levels (a depressing story)

Posted by Patrick on November 27, 2011

A few days ago, I listened to an ABC radio podcast on All in the Mind entitled “The case for moral enhancement”. [1] I was expecting the ethical minefield of eugenics to be discussed (which it was), but I was surprised by the turn of the conversation towards the end: 0ne of the reasons why we’d want to enhance our moral compass is because we didn’t evolve to deal with problems that affect the entire population of the planet.  In particular, one of the professors grimly said that “it’s wishful thinking to think that people are going to voluntarily deal with climate change”.  Heavy stuff!

Today it was CBC radio’s Quirks and Quarks turn to tackle the issue of climate change. [2] Again, it was nothing short of depressing.  Very…  Depressing…  One of the guests said that our inability to deal with the problem not only means that we’ll face catastrophic repercussions, but it also says something pretty grim about ourselves: “Can we not deal with an ethical issue about the lives of billions of people around this planet?”

Because I like to understand the information contained in graphs, I clicked on the one posted on the Quirks page [2], which led me to its source on wikipedia [3], which lead me to the source of the raw data [4].  I decided to import that data into a spreadsheet to see what information I could extract from it.

Using two simple functions, and a method called “least squares” [5] to scale them properly, I managed to find the proper parameters that model the CO2 concentration as a function of time.  Visually, the orange graph (the model) follows the blue graph (the data) pretty well, so the model I found is pretty good (within that range of time anyways).

I found the equation of the model (the orange graph) to be:

It looks complicated, but there’s basically three pieces to this function, each with their own particular meaning.

The first part is just the number 270.  What it means is that if we go back in time by more than a few hundred years, the average CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would have been around 270 ppmv (compare that to today’s 390 ppmv !)

The second part is responsible for the oscillation of the concentration due to seasons.  The number 2.7 in front of the sine function means that the concentration increases from its average value by 2.7 ppmv in the winter and decreases by 2.7 ppmv in the summer.  So the total variation (of about 5.4 ppmv) is pretty small (compared to the average increase).

The third part is what we’re responsible for.  It says that the difference in CO2 from the ancient average of 270 ppmv will double every 37 years.  This is a bit tricky so here it is again: if you look at the concentration of CO2 today and subtract that from what it was hundreds of years ago, that difference will double in 37 years time.  For example:

  • The concentration was around 315 ppmv in 1958, which is a difference of 45 ppmv from 270 ppmv.
  • 37 years later (in 1995), the concentration was 360 ppmv, which is a difference of 90 ppmv from 270 ppmv (double the previous difference of 45 ppmv)
  • Another 37 years later (in 2032), the concentration should be (if the trend continues) 450 ppmv, because there should be a difference of 180 ppmv from 270 ppmv ( double the previous difference of 90 ppmv)
  • And in 2069? 720 ppmv, because it’ll be 360 ppmv more than 270 ppmv…

So according to this model, if the trend continues (ie, we keep doing what we’re doing now), the atmosphere will reach levels of CO2 comparable to that of the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event 34 million years ago (which were around 760 ppmv) [3] in a time scale of a few 37-year periods!  And I thought the podcasts were depressing…  The next graph shows this extrapolation in both direction.  The model (in orange) is graphed (without the seasonal variations) between 1750 and 2100 with the actual data (in blue).  The future looks completely crazy, but other data suggest that the past is actually pretty spot on. [3]

Now, to be fair, the assumption that “we keep doing what we’re doing now” implies at least two things that are very unlikely:

  1. Our population will continue to grow exponentially.
  2. Our resources of fossil fuels will continue to match our growing demands.

In reality, we’ll either find ways to turn this around, or we’ll suffer from other problems that will curb our population explosion and our ability to consume so much fossil full.  One thing is certain: we can’t let that orange curve go that high.

Links:

  1. All in the Mind, The case for moral enhancement,
    <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2011/3360688.htm>
  2. Quirks and Quarks, The Rocky Road to Durban,
    <http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/episode/2011/11/26/-the-rocky-road-to-durban-for-dolphins-pregnancy-is-a-drag-jawbones-and-diet-the-amazing-spider-mite/>
  3. Wikipedia, Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide-en.svg
    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mauna_Loa_Carbon_Dioxide-en.svg>
  4. NOAA ESRL DATA,
    <ftp://ftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/ccg/co2/trends/co2_mm_mlo.txt>
  5. Wikipedia, Least Squares,
    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_squares>

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Going one-to-one

Posted by Patrick on September 10, 2011

At the beginning of my second year of teaching in Taiwan, we started implementing a one-to-one Apple laptop program.  In hindsight, I’m realizing now that we moved incredibly fast–maybe too fast–but we were a small school (a dozen teachers with about 70 students in the secondary department), so we tried to adapt quickly.  Since I moved back to Canada more than a year ago, I’ve been meaning to reflect on what we did well and what we could have done differently with this program. This summer, I learned that my new school is thinking of rolling out a similar program next year.  I think it’s time to crystallize all those thoughts together and share them.

I’ll start with by describing the issues that arose with the hardware we chose, and follow with a brief explanation of the philosophy that guided our selection of software.  These are just the nuts and bolts but getting them assembled well is very important.  Finally, I’ll address the (open ended) question of how to foster appropriate use of this technology by the students (and teachers).

Acknowledgement

Right out front, I’d like to thank three former colleagues of mine with whom I had the great pleasure to work with in Taiwan. Their helping me on an early draft of this post via Google Doc felt just like old times!  Thank you so much for all your insightful comments.

Hardware:

The year we made the switch, a little more than four years ago, all classrooms were equipped with an iMac, a projector, and speakers.  At the same time, every student had to buy their own Apple laptop.  Right there, I think it would have been better to wait a year before introducing the laptops to students.  This would have given the teachers time to familiarize themselves with the Mac operating system, and it would have given the IT team a chance to deal with technical issues better.  As David put it, it would also have given us a chance to deal with the “human” factor better, bringing in the parents as partners, for example.

The students had a choice to buy either a Macbook, Macbook Pro, or Macbook Air (when that came out).   We found that all three served our purposes just as well, except that for the money, a simple Macbook with a RAM upgrade was actually better than a stock Macbook Pro.  Today, the white Macbook isn’t sold to the general public anymore, but David tells me that it can still be purchased through the “education” channel for about $1000.

Students who bought a protective hard shell for their computer were less likely to break their computer than students who used a computer case.  One particular model of laptop case had the zipper at the opposite end from the handle.  A few times, some students forgot to zip their case, grabbed the handle, and sent their laptop flying across the table.  Simple things like that can cause a lot of problem if multiplied by 70 students.

Each classroom also had a few power bars scattered around on the floor.  Power bars with the outlets oriented sideways were best since they could accommodate more chargers than those with the outlets pointing parallel to the bar.  Each classroom had a VGA adapter for the iMac (which also worked with the earlier models of Macbooks).  Over the years, we realized that we needed different adapters for the new generations of laptops so that all students could quickly connect their computer to the projector to show their work.  Now, Kristen tells me that students no longer use the VGA adapter.  Instead, they put the presentation on the server, and project it from the teachers’ computers.

For my classroom, I also bought a few cheap USB microphones for them to podcast or screencast.  I found that even a cheap USB mic gave much better results than the internal microphone since it cut off the noise from the fan.  This is something each student might have wanted to buy with their computer.

Every year, a few unlucky students lost all their work due to hard drive failure.  Our IT department kept a few spare hard drives to quickly fix laptops on the spot and give time to students to buy a new hard drive, but we never managed to implement a successful, campus-wide backup and recovery system for all students.  This was a big miss.

Software

During the first year of implementation, we used the software that came “free” with the Apple computers.  We soon realized that files created with programs from the iWork and iLife suites could not be opened directly on other operating systems.  Some teachers began asking their students to export their files into formats that they could open on their home computers (like pdf).

During the second year of implementation, we began the switch to FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) such as NeoOffice instead of Microsoft Office or iWork.  It was very important for us that files created with one system could be shared and opened with any other system so as to ease collaboration and not bind students into a Vendor Lock-in situation.  It quickly became easier for students (who were used to the Apple software) to use the FOSS instead of always having to convert their work to open formats after.

Kristen tells me that students now use OpenOffice for Mac instead of NeoOffice because it “is apparently much better”.  Whether this is true or not, the beauty of this situation is that documents created with either NeoOffice, OpenOffice, or LibreOffice use the exact same file format and can be opened by all three programs on any kind of computers (Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux).  This is a very valuable kind of freedom we want our students to have.

All of our staff was already using Gmail and we had all students who didn’t have their own account get one so that we could use Google Apps with them for collaborative work.  We found it worked really well.  Google Doc was an excellent way for students to work together, or to share work in progress with their teachers.  Some teachers also set up Google Calendars for their classes, etc.  Two details are important to note here however.  First, the students’ Gmail account was their own and was in no way managed by the school.  This was so that students could easily bring their “cloud” work with them after they leave our school.  Second, it was tempting to go all out, embrace the cloud completely, and use Google Apps for everything  (instead of locally running software for non-collaborative work), but this increased dependence on the network and would have created more problems when the network was slow or not functioning properly.  More importantly, we needed to be critical of how much we should trust third party companies such as Google with our information.  Here’s an excellent interview about this that I found later from CBC Spark. [2]

Over the course of the next few years, I created this wiki page [1] to list programs that should be used.  (The list is a little outdated at the moment, but I’ll try to update it again this year.)  The underlying idea here is that, as an educational institution, it’s more important to be grounded in sound philosophical principles that promote freedom of learning, than to use whatever is the most convenient tool at the time regardless of future consequences. [3]

Appropriate Use

As instances of computer misuse (off-task IMing, torrenting, gaming, etc) started to emerge among the student population (and some of the teachers!), we started debating whether we should add layers of filters to the network and restrictions to the students’ computers to deal with the problem.  For example,  I am told that recently a parent called the school twice to complain that their child’s Facebook page was being updated during class time.

One proposed solution was to block social networking sites (and a list of other popular “non-educational” sites) and turn on some of the parental control settings on the student computer accounts.  Philosophically, we recognized that it was more important to teach students how to use technology appropriately than to turn all Big-Brother on them and enter an endless game of Cat and Mouse with them.

The decision was made not to block websites and restrict computer accounts.  Instead, we started working on ways to scaffold this new type of learning for different age groups and individuals.  Andrea, for example, had a “laptop parking” shelf in her classroom, where all younger students had to leave their laptops as soon as they entered the class (whether the bell had rung or not).  Classrooms became “Academic Use Only” zones even during breaks and lunch to encourage students to be outside instead of playing on their computer.  Parental control restrictions were added to a few specific students’ laptops who were struggling more than others.

It would have been much more effective to role out these policies from the get-go, and they would have been even more powerful if students had had a voice in the decision making process.  Unfortunately, we reacted to problems as we saw them arise, and students saw the changes we made as added restrictions instead of as age-appropriate measures to help them become better 21st century learners.

During my last year there, there was a change in the administration and the one-to-one program was informally put on hold.  There were some discussions as to whether younger students (grade 7 and 8’s) could ever handle such distracting devices in a school setting.  A computer, after all, is both a tool and a toy!  Personally, I don’t believe age is the critical factor (although it is a big one that must be considered carefully).  When I do work, I too get distracted by all the other things my computer has to offer.  The same goes for students, except it’s our job to help them learn how to deal with it.

Since then, the school decided to phase out the program for all new students so as to “lighten the financial burden on families”.  Students can bring their own laptops if they have them, however.  I am not sure what the school’s position is with respect to the larger issue of appropriate use, however.

Conclusion

Although my experience in Taiwan was extremely enriching, I am very curious to see what a fully developed one-to-one program could look like.  I hope my experience can help my new school navigate the new challenges that lie ahead, and I’m excited to see just how far it will take us.

Bringing technology into a school to such a high degree must not distract from the primary centre: student learning.  New tools with old ways of doing things don’t work.  As David and Andrea put it, there has to be systems in place to help teachers not use the technology for its own sake, but to help transform their teaching into project and inquiry based learning.

Links

  1. Patrick Truchon, Wiki Notes: Software,
    <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/wiki/doku.php?id=software>
  2. CBC Spark, Full Interview: Siva Vaidhyanathan on the Googlization of Everything,
    <http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2011/05/full-interview-siva-vaidhyanathan-on-the-googlization-of-everything>
  3. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 1: The Philosophy),
    <https://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2008/05/18/free-software-part-1-the-philosophy>

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Conceptualizing Physics

Posted by Patrick on June 27, 2011

The following two videos address one of the questions that I ponder the most: what are the best ways to help students understand concepts in mathematics and physics?  Although both speakers reach similar conclusions, they each reveal many other insights that are also very important.  Here are a few lessons that I take from each.

Derek Muller (@veritasium) shows that:

  • Students new to physics come with misconceptions they think are true (about the world of physics).
  • Because of this, they don’t pay their utmost attention to the videos (which might as well be traditional lectures).
  • Which causes them to think that what is being presented is the same as what they think.
  • So they don’t learn anything.
  • While getting more confident in their misconception.

But his interviews with the students also showed something else:

  • Students are bad at judging how much a video (or lecture) is helping them learn.

This part I found very interesting.  Indeed, the “clear” videos didn’t help them learn as much as the “confusing” ones.  Although Derek doesn’t make that leap, I think this applies equally well to traditional classroom lectures.  Further more, it also suggests that students’ evaluations of teachers are (at best) an incomplete metric of teachers effectiveness, if not a completely bad one.  Of course, it doesn’t mean that the way to help students is to be as confusing as possible, but now I’m wondering if the good feedback I tended to get about my teaching was such a good thing…

In essence, Derek says that for students to really learn physics, they have to engage and struggle with the concepts on their own terms.  Delivering information is not sufficient for learning.  Dr. Eric Mazur (@eric_mazur) also comes to the same conclusion but in the context of the lecture hall:

This time, Dr. Mazur breaks down learning into two parts [3]:

  1. Delivery of information
  2. Synthesis of information

Traditionally, classroom lectures have focused on the first part, but it is the second part that constitute true learning.  Thus, he assigns readings ahead of time (or finds other ways for students to get the information before they enter the classroom) so that students can spend more time in class synthesizing information instead of being passive recipients.

Dr. Mazur also reaches a second conclusion: Conceptual understanding leads to good problem solving abilities, but good problem solving abilities doesn’t necessarily implies conceptual understanding.  This strikes at the heart of traditional assessment methods.  Simply giving problems to solve doesn’t discriminate between those who understand what’s going on, and those who have memorized an algorithm they don’t really understand.

In my practice, I always try to emphasize the “why” of things over the “how” (mainly because I have a bad memory myself).  It’s encouraging to see research that validates that philosophy, and enlightening to see the various methods used by these inspiring educators.

  • Update: I added a reference relating to Howard Gardner that is very relevant to this post. [4]
  • Update 2: I added a reference to an article describing the results of team of researchers at UBC that supports what Dr. Mazur is doing. [5]

Links

  1. Veritasium, Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos ,
    <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVtCO84MDj8&>
  2. Eric Mazur, Memorization or understanding: are we teaching the right thing?
    <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tn1DLFnbGOo&>
  3. Mazur Group Publication, Peer Instruction: Making Science Engaging,
    <http://mazur.harvard.edu/publications.php?function=display&rowid=538>
  4. The Daily Riff, Misconceptions About Learning & Teaching
    <http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/howard-gardner-shares-his-just-released-97.php>
  5. ScienceNOW, A Better Way to Teach?
    <http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/05/a-better-way-to-teach.html>

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A 30-day trial of identi.ca

Posted by Patrick on March 14, 2011

Here’s a chain of event that recently got me thinking (and worrying) about Twitter:

Last month, Twitter suspended some mobile apps for policy violation. [1] Ok, so it was annoying.  I had to go and download the official Twitter app for my phone, and move on…

Last week, Twitter told developers to stop building clients. The rational, apparently, is that “consumers continue to be confused by the different ways that a fractured landscape of third-party Twitter clients display tweets and let users interact with core Twitter functions” [2] Ok, now I’m getting a bit more annoyed.  First of all, I’m not a “consumer”, I’m a contributor to a community of like-minded (and not so like-minded) people.  Second of all, as a teacher, I really hate the one-size-fit-all philosophy.

A few days ago, Twitter took away @girlgeeks (Moran Simpson’s a two-year-old twitter name with thousands of followers) to give it to “an organization called @GIRLGEEKS [who] had registered trademark for the name and wanted the @girlgeeks account for themselves.” [3] Although the matter has apparently been resolved, here are screenshots of the cached and live google search results for “girlgeeks”:

The current page:

Here, I’m just speechless.

I understand that Twitter is a business and it’s not breaking any law by doing all of this.  Like most businesses, it’s in it for the money.  I get that.  For society, however, social networks are increasingly being used as instruments of social change and mobilization.  At the very least, they are spaces where complete strangers can learn from one another.  Case in point, here’s a tweet that just came up from an educator I’ve never met but have been following for over a year [4]:


The essence here is that social networking tools are too important to be controlled by profit-driven entities and should be viewed as public goods.  The good news is that there are alternatives.

Both of these were designed to us in power of our social spaces.  Sure, they feel a bit different, but they’re as functional as the closed systems they try to replace.  Only one essential part is missing: YOU!

To help others make the transition from Twitter to identi.ca, here’s what you can do:  Sign up to identi.ca and only post there.  At the moment, identi.ca can’t import tweets from those you follow on Twitter into identi.ca so you’ll have to continue reading your Twitter feed in addition to your identi.ca feed.  However, you can set up identi.ca so that all tweets written from identi.ca are also sent your Twitter feed.  By only posting to identi.ca, you will slowly make it easier for your communities to migrate to this freer space.

This weekend, I committed myself to trying this for at least a month and I’d really like you join me.  In fact, I’ll send a diaspora invite to the first 8 people who want to give identi.ca and diaspora a try.  Just send me your email address on identi.ca at @ptruchon

Links:

  1. Twitter Suspends UberTwitter and twidroyd for Policy Violations, Now What?
    <http://topicfire.com/share/Twitter-Suspends-UberTwitter-and-twidroyd-for-Policy-Violations-Now-What-16885378.html>
  2. Twitter Tells Developers to Stop Building Twitter Clients,
    <http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/twitter_tells_developers_to_stop_building_twitter.php>
  3. So you think you own your twitter name ?
    <http://ac31004.blogspot.com/2011/03/so-you-think-you-own-your-twitter-name.html>
  4. @brasst Tweet <http://twitter.com/#!/brasst/status/47070057217523712>

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The Best OS for my Parents?

Posted by Patrick on February 12, 2011

source [1]

Five or six years ago, I gave my parents one of my old iBook G4 laptop (running OS 10.3) to replace the (very) old desktop computer (running Windows 95) I had given them years before that.  Despite Apple bragging about their OS being the most user-friendly, the switch wasn’t all that easy because change is just… well… uncomfortable.  With OS X having a new version out about every two years, my parents successfully went through two major upgrades without too much trouble (10.5 being the last to support the PPC architecture).  Granted, I was the one doing the actual upgrading, and making sure that everything worked “like before”, but they were the ones having to get used to things not being quite the way they used to be.

I believe the tension between keeping up with change and having things the way one is used to having them is a key issue for many people who are not comfortable with computers.  How would the ideal OS solve that problem?  And which is closest to solving it so far?

People like my parents want computers to just work, of course, but more specifically what they need is:

  1. A computer already set up and customized to their specific needs and tastes.
  2. A computer that takes care of updating everything continuously in one coherent way.
  3. An easy way to share new programs with others without breaking the law.

Realistically, I think the only way to satisfy the first point is for kids like me to help out their parents from time to time, which is fine.  I don’t mind going through an extra upgrade every two years and cleaning things up a bit on my folks’ computer.  But every time I did, I also had to provide a bit of tech (and moral) support to help them deal with the new features.  Again, I don’t personally mind, but I know they do, which brings me to the second point.

The ideal computer should always be updating (and upgrading) its programs so that all the changes are spread out over time and divided into smaller chunks.  With a two-year release period, different versions of OS X definitely feel different from one another.  Ubuntu splits this difference into four with its six-month release periods, but upgrading twice a year is four times more annoying for me than once every two years.  Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) [2] tackles that problem excellently with its continuous updates/upgrades.  The OS automatically and uniformly updates itself and every single program I’ve got installed on it, at the exception of a few java programs and custom scripts I’ve got running.  Knowing that my OS and all my programs will always be up-to-date without my having to do anything–ever again–is extremely satisfying.   And from a usability perspective, the small, incremental changes that LMDE goes through are almost unnoticeable.  I think this is the type of OS my parents would really like in a long run.

Windows and OS X users have a habit of swapping files and sharing cool new programs with each other (often with their crackware).  Sharing is natural, we all get that.  With its simply Software manager, GNU/Linux systems like LMDE allow this sharing to be freely, easily (and legally) done.   The Software Manager lists, categorizes and indexes thousands of programs, packages, and drivers and makes them available for installation with a few simple clicks (and an internet connection).  Sharing a program with someone else, then, is as easy as simply telling them what to try.  And of course, all of these are automatically and constantly being updated by the system.  Why would anyone want to do it any other way?!

I’ve been toying with various distributions of GNU/Linux for quite a few years now.  When Ubuntu 10.04 came out almost a year ago, I felt that it was finally as user-friendly as OS X.  Now, on top of that usability (which only got better), LMDE also solves the problem of introducing too much change all at once after upgrades.  It is by far the best OS I’ve used so far.

It used to be that GNU/Linux could only be used by geeks, while non-techies were left with the default options: Windows or OS X.  Since LMDE, I really believe the table has turned.  There is still room for improvement, of course.  For example, the installation process is not as smooth as the main Linux Mint distribution (which is based on Ubuntu), and restricted drivers are not as easy to install either.  However, once properly installed and configured, it is extremely user-friendly and completely carefree.

I guess when I buy my next computer, my parents will inherit my GNU/Linux laptop and go through their last major OS upgrade.

Update (July 5, 2011): Looks like they’re fine tuning this balance by introducing the option to have monthly updates that have been tested by the community instead of just the continuous, untested updates, which may break things. [3]  This still retains the biggest advantage of never having to upgrade the entire OS all at once.

Links

  1. MS-DOS 5 Upgrade, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 29158681@N00’s photostream
  2. LinuxMint Debian, <http://www.linuxmint.com/download_lmde.php>
  3. Introducing Update Packs in Linux Mint Debian,
    <http://blog.linuxmint.com/?p=1781>

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Math Wiki

Posted by Patrick on January 22, 2011

During my four years teaching math in Taiwan I’ve been spoiled in many ways.  Our school was a small 1:1, with every student having their own Macbook.  I spent countless hours developing activities using spreadsheets for things like statistics, and GSP [1] for everything from geometry and algebra, to calculus.  Because our school was committed to giving students as much freedom as possible, we decided to use free software whenever possible.  Although LibreOffice [2] / NeoOffice [3] have a great word processor and spreadsheet program, I hadn’t found a GSP alternative yet.  We also wanted students to share their work online so we had setup blogs for them.

For math, that last point has always been more technically challenging.  I needed something that would allow me (and students) to:

  • Write mathematics online in a convenient way.
  • Embed interactive (GSP-like) graphics and animations.

Finally, after four years of searching, I believe I found something that pretty darn near does the trick.  It started with discovering Geogebra [4], a free and open source geometry software very similar to GSP.  A big advantage that Geogebra has over GSP is that it is completely cross platform and can even be installed on a USB key.  At the school I’m at now, it’s nearly impossible to get anything new installed on my own office computer (let alone on all the lab computers) so Geogebra’s installation flexibility is a big bonus for me.   The feature that scores the most points, though, is its ability to export its files as html code.  I think GSP has this feature too, but in the four years I’ve worked with it, I never managed to get it to work.

So here’s the basic setup I have currently running:

  • I keep my old iBook G4 permanently connected to a wired internet connection at home and I run pageKite [5] on it, which allows me to use it as  a web server with a fixed web address even though the IP is dynamic.
  • I installed LaTeX [6] on the iBook to typeset mathematics.
  • I installed Dokuwiki [7], which is a WYSIWYM [8] wiki platform.
  • I installed the Dokuwiki LaTeX Plugin [9] to allow Dokuwiki to use the LaTeX engine and typeset math equations.
  • I installed Geogebra on my USB key to create the demos, which I can then export as html code and embed in the wiki pages.

This semester, I’m testing this platform in my classes with wiki’s [10] I’ve created to host Geogebra demos [11] and math derivations we might not see in class.  I also invited my students to collaborate to the construction of our class wikis by adding their own explanations and creating their own Geogebra demos.

Now that I can write math online and embed interactive demos conveniently, I would like my students to also be able to do the same.  For that, I would need:

  • Support from the school to install the necessary software on their server.
  • Support from the computer science department to offer teach wiki syntax, LaTeX syntax, and basic Geogebra skills.

To be continued…

Links

  1. GSP, <http://www.dynamicgeometry.com>
  2. LibreOffice, <http://www.libreoffice.org>
  3. NeoOffice, <http://www.neooffice.org>
  4. Geogebra, <http://www.geogebra.org/cms/>
  5. pageKite, <http://pagekite.net>
  6. MacTeX, <http://www.tug.org/mactex>
  7. Dokuwiki, <http://www.dokuwiki.org/dokuwiki>
  8. Wikipedia: WYSIWYM, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WYSIWYM>
  9. Dokuwiki LaTeX plugin, <http://www.dokuwiki.org/plugin:latex>
  10. Patrick Truchon’s Cegep Wiki, <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/cegep/>
  11. Patrick Truchon’s Geogebra Demos, <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/webfolder/Geogbra>

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Pondering the Next Semester

Posted by Patrick on December 4, 2010

[1]

I can’t believe there’s only two weeks left to this semester.  Time flew by so fast.  It seems like yesterday that I was hired to teach three different courses with less than a week to go before classes were set to start.  Overall, I’m happy with how things went considering I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants the whole semester.  I’ve had to keep lessons pretty “traditional”, but I know it’s a survival mode that I’m not planing on adopting permanently, and well… I survived.

A few challenges I’m now aware of and finding solutions to are that:

  • Most classrooms only have blackboards and old-school projectors (for transparencies).
  • I must book computer labs a few days a head of time if I want a spot.
  • The computers are old and slow, but the IT department insists on using Microsoft Office 2010
  • Other than Maple, there’s no math software installed on the computers.
  • Even on my office computer, I don’t have administrative privileges to install software on it.

Next semester should be better though.  For starters, I know what I’m teaching 6 weeks a head of time instead of 6 days.  I’ve also applied for a classroom with a computer and projector (but I might not be getting it), and I’m thinking of a few workaround to the challenges mentioned above.

Because I can’t install anything on school computers, I’ve been using PortableApps [2] to install free/libre software on a USB key (that’s what the IT department suggested I do when I asked them to install OpenOffice on my computer).  It made a tremendous difference to my planing since I only use free/libre software with GNU/Linux at home.  For next semester, I’m thinking of buying a bunch of cheap 1Gb USB keys from walmart, installing PortableApps on them, and loaning them to my students (with a deposit of course) for them to use so that they can save their work using open formats.  No more problems reading xlsx files!

A few weeks ago, I also made a wonderful discovery that I’m extremely exited about: Geogebra [3].  The school I worked at the past four years required all our students to buy a copy of Geometer’s Sketchpad (GSP).  It was my first time using this type of software; I quickly grew fond of it and used it extensively in my classes.  Sometimes, I used it to create live demos of mathematical concepts, but very often, I made my students create the demos to explore the concepts.  In a one-to-one laptop school, this kind of stuff was much easier to do.  Since the beginning of the fall, I’ve been missing GSP a lot and tried to hack Excel demos together that just weren’t the same.  Until I found Geogebra.  So far, Geogebra does pretty much everything I would have wanted to do with GSP, and as an added bonus, it’s written in Java so it can load on any platform without the need to be installed.  Geogebra files can even be converted to html and inserted in webpages as interactive demos.  Which leads me to meat of my pondering.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about creating some sort of online class notes.  With a platform like Dokuwiki [4], I can easily edit the pages from any browser, typeset math equations with the PHPMathPublisher plugin, and add Geogebra applets.  I started writing some notes for one of my courses already, and so far so good.  What I’m wondering is how I should use these notes, and to what degree I should make the students participate in the process.  Here are a few options from the “safest” to the “riskiest”:

  1. I write the wiki, use it in class to drive the presentation/discussion, and give the link to the students as an added resource.
  2. I write the wiki, the students make the Geogebra applets to illustrate the concepts, and I include the best ones in the wiki after.
  3. I prepare the structure of the wiki and the students do the rest.

I’d love to go with the third option.  I think it could potentially be much more interesting and meaningful to the students, but this year I’ve had the strange experience of having two very different groups: one is very engaged with a very positive dynamic; the other is the complete opposite.  When I picture these two groups, I see such different outcomes.  Should I start with option 1 and push towards option 3, or should I start straight with option 3 and reverse toward option 1 if they don’t buy in?  And what if they really don’t buy in?  Is it worth doing at all?

A challenge I’m still struggling with is how to deal with the vast difference in student engagement at the school.  That underlies so many other issues.

Links:

  1. Photo under CC-By license by Flickr user irishwildcat, <http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishwildcat/3020466221>
  2. PortableApps, <http://portableapps.com>
  3. Geogebra, <http://www.geogebra.org>
  4. Dokuwiki, <http://www.dokuwiki.org>

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A Bad Day at School

Posted by Patrick on November 24, 2010

Music and Life [1]

I remember reading an article a few years ago that started with something like this: “There can be learning without teaching but there can also be teaching without learning”.  The author (I forgot who) was trying to illustrate the complexity of the relationships between teaching and learning, which is too often oversimplified by the general public as: better teaching is THE solution to better learning.

The two videos that follow are some of my favourites because they inspire me to be a better teacher.  What they have in common is that they both stress the importance of good teaching for learning.  Sometimes it’s using the right tool, or asking the right questions, or even being less helpful and letting the students figure things out for themselves. I agree with most (if not all) of the arguments: teaching should be engaging, relevant, meaningful, … but … (if you haven’t seen these videos before, take a few minutes to watch them now, you won’t regret it!)

Again, I agree with most (if not all) of the arguments, but I can’t help but feel that what we’re really doing is making education more “entertaining”, not meaningful.  I’m sure the presenters in the videos would disagree, or at least insist that we should be careful not to conflate entertainment with meaningful teaching practices.  But in practice, it seems that’s what happens.

Like most educators, I have good days and not so good days.  On the darker days, I sometime start to wonder if the root cause is not that more and more students are forced into areas of study they simply have no interests in.  It’s a recurring theme in Sir Ken Robinson’s presentations that as a society we give more importance to the subjects that are the most practical, and less importance to subjects like the arts.  I can’t believe that someone could live a fulfilling life without being passionate about at least one thing.  Unfortunately, I think the uniform (and narrow) “education” we are forcing kids through is creating the false notion that if something is not entertaining, it’s boring.

I happen to like pondering abstract math and physics puzzles (most of which I never solve) and I love my job as an educator.  I don’t expect everyone to like that sort of stuff as much as I do, but I would hope that everyone who studies something would be passionate about the hard work they do.  Whatever it is people love to do, it’s usually meaningful and rewarding because it is difficult.  Entertainment isn’t that, and it saddens me when I meet students who have never felt the rewards of mastering something difficult (other than beating a video game maybe).

On my darker days, I feel there’s little I can really do in my classroom other than say: “Dude, you’re in the wrong place, go do something you feel passionate about.” and even that I don’t do.  But I know there are also good days when I do what I can.

Links to the last two videos from TED with subtitles in different languages:

  1. Screenshot of animation of Alan Watts’s talk: Music and Life <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERbvKrH-GC4>
  2. Dan Meyer: Math class needs a makeover <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html>
  3. Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on The Learning Revolution <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html>

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What Makes Rock Climbing (or Math) Fun

Posted by Patrick on November 19, 2010

Four years ago, when I worked in Taiwan, a colleague of mine brought me to iClimb [1], the local rock climbing gym in Hsinchu. I had been to climbing gyms a few times before when I lived in Vancouver, but this time was the beginning of a passion. Over the next four years, the friends I made there taught me a lot about climbing and helped me improve my skills tremendously. I learned to lead climb [2], started climbing outdoors in LongDong [3], and even tried trad climbing [4] a couple of times. I am by no means a pro, but I love the sport.

Since I’ve been back in Quebec, it’s been harder to go climbing. There are a few outdoors spots, but no gym, and I haven’t met people who do it regularly yet. A few weeks ago, my dad let me build a rudimentary climbing roof [5] in his unfinished basements. For the first week, it was awesome! It took me a day or two to go completely across, and a few more days to make a complete round trip. The (good?) thing about climbing is that you can always push yourself; I could probably make two round trips across the roof if I worked at it for a few weeks. But to my surprise, I was getting… well… bored?! Why? I had been climbing at iClimb for four years (sometimes more than 5 days a week!) without ever loosing interest and here I was getting bored after only a week…

I continued climbing a little bit everyday hoping the interest would come back, while in the mean time focusing on some of the benefits. Climbing is a good workout, which means two things: the exercise helps me be a healthier person and it empowers me in other activities. These two reasons may seem the same but they are quite different. Being healthy feels good no matter what I do, but being fit feels good when I’m able to do unrelated physical tasks more easily (like chopping wood with dad, who is, incidentally, a very fit guy!). These are two instrumental reasons for climbing: personal health, and greater ability to complete other types of demanding, physical tasks.

These reasons, however, are not why I loved climbing for four years. I like that I get those benefits, but I’ve never had the discipline to workout because it’s good for me. There had to be more.

A few days ago, I thought of something. In climbing gyms, you usually don’t use just any holds on the wall, that’s too easy (and boring). Instead, pieces of coloured tape mark different routes of varying difficulty levels. So I made myself a route. The pleasure instantaneously came back, but why? Yes the route was more difficult than being allowed to use every hold, but using every hold can be hard too by adding distance. So that’s not it (or just it). The missing piece came right after my first (failed) attempt at completing my route.

The first time I tried the route, I made it to the third hold before falling. Then, the crucial moment arrived: I unclipped, lied on the floor, looked at the ceiling, and thought. The part I liked the most about climbing was the puzzle-solving part. Climbing is not just about fitness or technique, but also about problem solving. It took me two days to figure it out. Every time, the process was the same: try something, get stuck somewhere, unclip, lie on the floor, look at the ceiling, visualize a move that might work, try it, get further, fall, …

The third reason I like rock climbing is not instrumental; it’s intrinsic: I like puzzles.

Immediately after I finishing the route, I made a video of it [6], sent it to my friends in Taiwan, and asked them to make me a route to try and solve. Back at the iClimb days, we’d spend hours working on routes together. Bouncing ideas off each other, considering moves that might work better for a person or another, helping and challenging each other.

The fourth reason I like climbing is that it’s social and collaborative.

These four reasons are the same reasons why I like math and physics. In order of relevance (to me at least), these subjects are fun because:

  1. They are filled with interesting puzzles.

  2. They generate interesting conversations with other people also playing with these puzzles.

  3. They sharpen my mind and clarify my thoughts in specific ways that I value.

  4. They allow me to perform useful tasks (like calculating the length of wire needed to fix a rooftop antenna).

Sadly, most of my students only care about the fourth reason, and when I can’t find an utilitarian answer to the eternal question of “what is this for?”, they tune out. A few times, I’ve been dead honest with them and answered that I had no idea what it was for, but that it was fun and beautiful! Most of them looked at me like I was from another planet, but a few had twinkles in their eyes because I had just confirmed something they already knew. This also means that, if by chance, some students have already discovered the fun of math puzzles (and are probably pretty good at it), the best way for me to kill their interest is to give them more boring problems instead of more interesting ones.

As a teacher, I don’t know how to help students see that math is not just useful (sometimes) but fun. That, to me, is one of the greatest puzzles to solve.

 

Links:

  1. iClimb <http://www.iclimb.com.tw>
  2. Wikipedia: Lead climbing <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_climbing&gt;
  3. ClimbStone, <http://climbstone.com>
  4. Wikipedia: Traditional climbing <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_climbing>
  5. Patrick Truchon, Climbing Roof Pictures, <http://picasaweb.google.com/ptruchon/ClimbingRoof>
  6. Patrick Truchon, Roof Route 1 Video, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__2T_5Sjzgo>

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