October 2008 Archives

World of Toothcraft

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Way back at NMC 2006, I attended a gaming workshop and we were asked to design a game which would teach and motivate children to brush their teeth.

To me, the interesting part of the game was writing a scenario which would help children visualize the benefits of brushing their teeth while still focusing on "entertainment". One of our group members suggested "War of Toothcraft" which would chronicle the never-ending fight between the evil foces of plaque and gingivitis versus the valiant fluoride, floss and mouth wash army.

So for your Halloween pleasure, I present World of Toothcraft. Pretend the text is scrolling towards infinity.

World of Toothcraft

It is after dinner and nightfall has descended. But there are creatures stirring in the night and a great battle will be fought in Enamel City of Dentitia, a constant war that has been going on throughout the ages.

The warriors - the Thirty-Two (Teeth) including the noble Tommy and Tina Tooth (remembering to provide role models of both genders here).

The enemy - the relentless hordes who use their deadly acids to attack and destroy Enamel City. The worst are the Plaque Monster (aka Paul) and the Bacteria Beast (aka Barry). Gorging on sugars and carbs, they generate noxious acids which threaten Enamel City with the pain of eternal root canals.

The weapons - the laser tooth brush, the liquid sapphire mouth wash and the ultimate super weapon, the stealth flosser.

Are you ready to join the fight to save Dentitia? Begin shooting!!!

Plagiarism as documented by Tom Lehrer

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If I sound skeptical that college has changed so much, it's probably because I was exposed to Tom Lehrer at too early an age. For instance his alma mater song Bright College Days from the late 1950s fondly recalls

To excuses we fibbed,
To the papers we cribbed
From the genius who lived down the hall.


We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we'll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.

I gather they also drank a lot of booze back then too.

P.S. I'll be curious if active learning finally turns the tide.

Introducing Embroiderers to their Inner Math Wizards

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Anyone familiar with embroidery, quilting, or knitting knows that some heavy duty math can come into the craft, depending on the pattern. Last night I was teaching a project called Optical Color Blending which is a showcase of mixing colors of embroidery threads.

Embroidery floss is actually made up of six smaller threads. Normally, you use strands of the same color, but can actually stitch with floss made of different colored threads (this is called blending). The Color Blending design is a triangle with each corner a different soliid color. In between are blends of two or three colors arranged in a mathematical pattern (almost like wave ripples). From a statistical point of view, the squares in the triangle represent all possible combinations of three colors in a piece of six-stranded floss.

The challenge was if I could explain this pattern to my fellow stitchers. I suggested they find their inner mathmetacians, but that just induced panic.

Instead, at the last moment, I decided to try an "active cognitive" exercise. I gave users a blank chart with only a few specifications filled in. I said that the edges were stepping from color 1 to color 2 in one thread increments, then I gave an example and asked them to project the rest (which they did quickly).

The tricky part, of course is figuring out what happens on the inner part of the triangle where three colors were involved. Interestingly though, just before I was about to give an answer for one triangle, someone guessed it correctly. The rest of the time was spent quickly filling in the chart, with some students helping others a little behind (embroidery would die without peer-to-peer learning).

Even though everyone swore they had no "inner mathematician", they all figured the pattern very quickly and seemed to enjoy the chance to outsmart the chart. It was an interesting case how people can be very mathematical outside a formal math class.

In any case, I found it a very enlightening "teachable moment" - in this case letting people deduce the pattern on their own was much more effective than my trying to explain it (partly because I think math sometimes defies traditional verbalization). In fact, one of the group noticed a pattern I had missed before (cool).

I've had mixed success in having people "figure things" out independently, but I'm hoping this will encourage me in the future. It was certainly a lot more fun than me lecturing while pointing at a tiny diagram for 20 minutes.

Is Wordle Too Holistic for Accessibility?

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An interesting debate in the accessibility community was whether it made sense to accessify the artistic tag cloud service Wordle.net. This is a service which converts text from either a Web page or a pasted text into an artistically rendered tag cloud like the one below based on the Penn State Education Technology Services Homepage

ETSWordle.png. Important keywords = digital (6), students (5), understanding, Internet

As you can see the output is an abstract art piece composed of all the keywords from the text laid out in a jigsaw pattern. Some are horizontal, some vertical and all are different sizes. You can choose fonts, color schemes, and layout segments. Is this worth accessifying? Note that gallery images don't even include a basic ALT tag.

When asked about making an accessible version of Wordle, the developer Jonathan Feinberg and others stated that since the output was abstract art, creating a non-visual representation was irrelevant. This is an interesting counter argument because even accessibility experts recommend blank descriptions for decorative images on a Web page.

But is Wordle output completly visual? Not really because the output is extracting the list of words from the Web page, and further makes the more frequently words larger. If you click on the Edit, you will find an option to open a list of words found, copy the list and paste into another file. This is fairly close to being accessible...assuming the screen reader can process the Java menus.

Still when these facts were pointed out to Feinberg, his argument was that the visual aesthetic impact was most important, and thus makes accessibility irrelevant (at least for screen readers). More importantly, it would require him to recode the entire site to make the lists for older items available (now I think we discover the truth).

But are beauty and accessibility incompatible? First, the accessibility community isn't seeking an equivalent aesthetic experience, but an equivalent informational experience. For instance, a text list would tell all users that the second most important word on an educational technology site is "students".

Second - if you were interested in aesthetics, why not match the colors and fonts with tones and voice styles? What would be the abstract tonal possibilities? I remember a seismic monitor of Mount Vesuvius which mapped a tone to seismic vibrations. Normal vibrations made soothing background music, but the stronger the vibrations, the louder the music. It was a perfect match of beauty and information.

What's the upshot? It should be noted that Feinberg developed this as a side project and it's not for profit (right now). He is not really obligated to add any enhancement unless he feels the desire to.

On the other hand...I think Feinberg's comments really show a lack of understanding about accessibility. The accessibility community suggested some alternative representations (the list of words and word counts), but Feinberg commented that either users know about better text analyzers or that a third party take "30 minutes" to implement the code.

Ironically though, Feinberg is willing to make changes to accommodate the quirks of Devanagari and Arabic scripts (not easy). It's a shame that he can't accomodate a simple ALT tag or link to a text file