November 2008 Archives

Diagrams in an Online Course

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One of the courses I've been working on for a while is an upper-level engineering course. One of the "hidden" requirements is that students be able to provide sketches of problem scenarios. The idea is that a sketch can help students visualize an approach to a solution.

In a traditional course, the sketches are done in pen and pencil and handed in to the instructor. For an online course, it's different, because you have to digitize the images. So what to do?

Example Sketch

An example sketch might be something like the one below. If a pipe is .75 m, has an opening of 50 mm on one end and 85 mm on the other end, and the incoming water velocity is 3 m/sec, then what's the outgoing velocity? Here's the sketch:

ControlV.png Cylinder with arrow going in narrow end and another arrow coming out. Given measurements are labeled.

I should say that I was able to do this sketch reasonably quickly in a number of packages, but each of them required some learning especially for drawing lines and figuring out how to place the arrows. Also, to master these tools, you have to learn to navigate multiple pop-up windows. In other words, you have to be a little graphics saavy.

Vector Software

Engineering sketches lend themselves best to vector diagramming packages. My favorites so far have been:

Dia (Freeware/Windows)

If you're on the Windows platform, then the freeware Dia program may be a good answer for you. It does the basics (and that's all that's needed here), plus it has symbols of palettes just for technical types. What's also important is that it can export to other formats such as .png.

One quirk I found was that it tricky draw lines. As soon as you select the line tool, it starts a line (instead of you selecting a starting point). Fortunately, you can easily move the line. The other was that you had to right-click the line to find the arrows feature.

The following is a sketch produced by Dia.

Sketch in Dia

DrawBerry (Freeware/Windows)

A Mac version freeware sketcher is DrawBerry. It appears to be inspired by Dia, but it is not identical to it. It is also a 0.6 program and is subject to alpha behavior (including one crash) from time to time.

Other Freeware Packages

Listed on the Wikipedia List of Vector Graphics Editors Page

Gliffy (Web 2.0)

I've experimented with Gliffy.com, and it works well, but it appears that unless you get a "Pro" account, all images are open to the public. The base level is $5/month. Dia is cheaper and you can keep images or post them on the Web.

FYI - Photoshop.com looked interesting, but is not a vector drawing tool, so I wouldn't recommend it.

OmniGraffle (Mac Only)

If you want to pay some money, I do recommend OmniGraffle (and an early version may be installed on your machine). It's similar to Dia in that it's seemingly designed for technical types who just want to spit out a quick and dirty diagram.

Again, you can download specialized templates for free, and it has other features such as tool lines which quickly indicate how and objects are aligned. It is even better concept maps!

I would say that there is a little bit more of a learning curve because there are more features, but I don't think I could live without it. I wish I could say Microsoft Visio was the Windows equivalent, but it isn't.

Adobe Illustrator

The advantage of this is that it a professional level tool even though it is awfully quirky. For many simple diagrams though, this works just fine though (once you figure out how to "stylize" arrows). Another advantage is that there are plenty of online tutorials, and if you get a student discount, it could actually have a reasonable price tag.

I have to say that I feel like a user who needs more of a feature hit. If you have to have gradients, then you will be hooked on Illustrator. For the record, the diagram posted in this entry was done in Illustrator - it was the easiest to get "pretty".

Scan or Fax

Another answer is to either fax or scan a sketch...and I suspect some students will take us up on that option. The advantage is that you don't have to learn a software package, but you still have to upload the image. If you own a scanner, this will be fairly cheap. If you're a Penn State student, you may also be able to take advantage of lab scanners.

Faxing is easier, but probably more expensive. You either have to use phone minutes on your own fax or go to a copy store and fax (they charge per page).

A third option has been the Leapfrog Fly Fusion Pen which is a pen in which you write on special graph paper on a digital pen. The pen can store each page which you can upload to FlyWorld (yep a Web 2.0 service). It does work, but since I upgraded to Vista, FlyWorld keeps asking me to upgrade, but the upload became buggy.

A final scenario could be to use your camera to take pictures of an image, but can you deliver them to an instructor who may not want to incur the cell phone charges? You would have to extract them into some format.

Before I forget, there's also the Tablet PC option and the Wacom tablet option...which are great if you happen to own one of these.

Ultimately, we'll probably leave it to the student to decide how they want to deliver their digital sketches. I think they will be surprisingly resourceful.

Learning to Count...Again

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The Math Forum sent on a nice site - www.talkaboutmath.org about parents helping children learn math, starting with the basics...counting. There are also some great videos of how and when kids go astray in the beginning.

There are lots of sites for parents on learning math, but I like this one because it breaks down a skill we all take for granted - counting - and breaks it down into it's constituent steps of learning number names, their order, not counting the same thing twice and knowing when to stop. It's actually a cool cognitive trick kids learn when you think about it.

I also liked her suggestions for facilitating counting...with games of course.

I was also amused when she said counting has a magical power for kids. I definitely remember going through a counting phase myself. It WAS the coolest thing I knew about at the time.

My Once-A-Week Blog Challenge

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When Cole issued his once-a-day blog challenge in August, I did not participate, and unfortunately, I may not participate in the new once-a-day challenge issued by Allan for February. However, I am glad the challenge was issued anyway.

I was inspired by the August challenge to increase my output - to once a week for two blogs. Since September, I've been able to post once a week to this blog and the Got Unicode blog (even if I did a few "Scheduled" tricks). That's a pretty good record if I may say so.

I am glad I took up this challenge because it has pushed me to produce something (especially in Unicode terms). I also found that this frequency works for me, since it gives me time to edit and think of new ideas (my profoundness quotient last week was kind of low). In short, it's an rate I can sustain, and that's what important to me in the long run.

If you do go for the full-blown once-a-day challenge, I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you'll find the blogging pattern that suits you best. I know I will be looking forward to reading a few more entries. As for me, I may add a third blog to my once-a-week list.

A Random Complicated Week

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It's Friday afternoon, so it must be time for a blog entry. But what to write? It looks like it will be a general observation that life is complex.

This week was busy and "diverse". I attended two accessibility committee meetings, a BLI review meeting, three meetings with faculty, a videot recording of Ray Kurzweil, and a session with Graham Spanier. A lot to think about...

I think Ray Kurzweil was supposed to speak about accessibility tools, but really spoke about using logarithmic curves to predict future trends. This sounds really boring, but I like numbers so much, that I was actually quite impressed. I do worry about his notion of humans speeding towards "singularity" - it makes having another "Dark Age" sound much more appealing.

The presentation from Graham Spanier was also interesting, but what struck me most was that he said end users (i.e. students/faculty/non-tech staff) are mystified by edicts which have no explanation. In truth, I think most of ITS does try to explain why they do what they do, but often the explanation is very technical.

For instance, would you predict that a programmer would be handle French ç, but have problems with œ (did you ever care before)? Or that you're better off using a point scale in an Excel gradebook rather than percentages? How about that PNG images from Powerpoint are large and "bad", but those from Illustrator are small and "OK"? I can see your eyes glazing over already.

Part of accessibility and Unicode education is explaining why you have to insert what appear to be random snippets of code in certain places (then cursing that the WYSIWYG tool doesn't do it for you already). As you can imagine it's a challenge, because most users want to push a magic "Accessify" button (we haven't built that yet). As President Spanier said, it is a challenge to communicate to users that really their life would be simpler if they took a few minutes to click a few obscure settings and lock down some items for security purposes.

And speaking of accessibility, I noticed that even accessibility experts forget about accommodations for new technologies. When figuring out how to get information to faculty, a suggestion was to videotape a series of modules. I think this is a good idea, but we will be obligated to make sure all the videos are captioned! Maybe we could supplement with alternate presentations which are much easier to accessify?

On the other hand, I heard that the next version of Dragon Speak speech recognition will be 99% accurate even with minimal training. Will this be the tool that processes a complex acoustic signal into something humans recognize. That would be so awesome!

So this week I was reminded that life was complex. This is something we all complain about, but sometimes I wonder if we make it worse by trying to "simplify" things too much. I'm not saying I'm going to ditch concepts like usability, but I wonder if we give ourselves enough time to absorb or even appreciate what complexity we do have.

When I began here, a common complaint was that Penn State was operating on three platforms instead of selecting just one. But the fact that Penn State is open to Mac/Windows/Unix is something I loved. It shows that Penn State was willing to explore the best tool for the job be that accounting, digital art or high-end scientific computing.

Although building software adapted for multiple platforms is definitely a pain, I do think the overall quality is improved in the long run. Similarly I believe that building in accessibility makes the tool better for everyone and building in Unicode awareness makes your software portable to a global audience.

But it all takes time. Not that much time, but definitely an extra five minutes. I just wonder how willing we are to find those five minutes?

Import/Export Literacy?

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I know we probably don't need a new literacy, but today I've been contemplating the task of possibly transferring large repository of links into del.icio.us. I could hand-enter the links, but the repository does number in the thousands (in other words, I don't think so).

The better choice is to batch import them - this will be faster and more accurate, and will save me from potential Carpal tunnel issues. Alas though any import/export will require me to delve into the mechanics of file format and tags more than is normally necessary.

According to the del.icio.us blog, there is an import tool, but it only works with the Netscape bookmark file format. This would be fine, but not all lists of bookmarks are stored in your browser. If you're like me, you may lists of links in all sorts of places like a list in a Word file, a spreadsheet, your blogroll or perhaps in a database backend

That doesn't phase me, because once I get a hold of the Netscape book format, I know I will be able to massage my list and get it to work, sooner or later.

It's this magical massage process that I would include in Import/Export literacy. Throughout my career, I've been presented with some large block of data that I've had to import into a database, reformat for Quark, extract for further calculation or reformat into a human-readable report. At this point I have to pull out a set of magic wands called:

  • Export or to comma/tab delimited file
  • Concatenate (add canned text)
  • Use text functions to extract portions of the data
  • Insert special characters such as ^p for hard return

Sound complicated? I admit it's not intuitive, but it's not rocket science either. I've met plenty of literature majors who have taught me the ropes in their careers as copy writers. If you're willing to take charge and not let that software app beat you, you can learn this....just like I've been able to learn how to switch from DVD view to Cable view.

There's been a laudable trend to simplify what everyday users have to know ("plug and play"), but I sometimes wonder if we are hiding so much that we are hobbling users. Hiding extensions, folders and XML files from users doesn't always help them understand what's going on.

Even a simple process like converting a Photoshop file to a GIF file is confusing if you don't realize there is such a thing as a file type (much less a file extension). It's true that you can accomplish quite a bit without ever seeing the backend of a file, but what you can achieve WITH knowing this is so much more.