March 2009 Archives

Batch Tag All Past Entries "psuets"

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If you are like me and have a blog whose sole purpose is to deliver information to the ETS community, then you may want to tag everything "psuets".

There are some tools in the Blogs at Penn State which can help manage this. First, to batch tag all past entries as "psuets", you can do this as follows:

  1. Log in and open blog.
  2. Go to the Manage » Entries Preferences. You will see a list of your previous entries.
  3. Check the box on top to indicate you want to tag all past entries (or select the ones you want to add the tag too).
  4. In the More Actions drop down, select Add Tags. Click the Go button.
  5. In the pop-up window, enter the tag "psuets". Click OK to close window.

  6. Click the Publish link or the recycle icon to post updated entries.

This is a good way to back tag entries if you begin using new tags.

The next step...create a way to include "psuets" as a default tag. I was able to create a "Default Tag" field following Chris Millet's custom field instructions. When you create a custom field, there's a Default field for default values in a field. Now new entries have a default tag field with "psuests".

I admit I'm stuck on figuring out how to have the Tag cloud widget recognize the new field, but at least I can cut and paste this into the real tag field. This is an improvement since my typing & memory skills are not as good as they could be.

Symposium Quest - Part 3

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In reference to the 2009 Symposium Quest (part 3)

This game has two options - one of which is a radical educational idea. Last week, I wrote about giving out mathematical formulas as rewards for completing a task (homework), and I don't think I can top that immediately.

But since I don't want to "self-plagiarize", I better give out the four Web site links indicating my personality. So...

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (
  3. AMS Mathematical Imagery
  4. I can't get the snack! おやつ取れないよー、コーギー - Did I mention I have a Welsh corgi?

Note that the instructions do not specify that I had to explain all my choices ;).

The truth is that it would too long to explain all of them (it's a right brained thing), but I hope you find some of them enjoyable.

Formulas as "Rewards" in Thermodynamics

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The ESL game I encountered two weeks ago at a conference has got me thinking. Can we use the simple "beat the system" technique for something besides homework? The engineering course I'm developing includes (not surprisingly) a lot of formulas. Pages and pages of them in fact.

As an instructional designer attempting to think like a student, I kept wondering - what are they all for? It wasn't until I started working through some sample problems in the course that I began to understand their function (and began to realize which ones were actually time saving tricks).

If you're given a list of formulas, it's really very overwhelming. They are essentially pieces of random text you have to memorize, with weird symbols at that. Even though this class is designed for engineers, it has to still be a little confusing to wonder which formulas are the most important and when to use them.

But what if the formulas were presented sequentially as "rewards" for successful problem solving at the early level? First you're asked to solve problems (review perhaps) based on math you already know, but as you are required to solve more different or more complex problems, you might be given new formulas to unlock.

An Arithmetic Scenario

I thought I would write an arithmetic scenario to capture what I mean. Suppose you have learned to add and you solve a few addition problems like "What is the cost of one apple plus one orange plus two grapes." At some point a student might encounter a problem like "What is the cost of 6 apples" which is actually more quickly solved by multiplication.

Maybe at this point, the game could whisper "Hey kid, want a secret tool called multiplication?" This would open a mini lesson on multiplication with a secret reference source called a...multiplication table. Would this turn a multiplication table from a torture device to a secret weapon? Maybe, if the right real-world scenario were given.

Moving On

Math in particular seems like a field in which "gaming levels" really apply. For instance, you need addition to do multiplication which leads to exponentiation then logarithms (not to mention basic algebra). Math is taught in a sequence because skills often build on each other (although it can be hard to see the payoff in high school).

I think there are K-12 math activities like this, but can we extend this to high school and college? I've seen "capstone" activities (e.g. design a survey in statistics) where you put what you learn into practice, but it still seems like we present math as an abstract tool you will use at some later date.

The statistics / romance manga is moving in the right direction in terms of adding a plot line, but I'm wondering if a game element can add more of a reward system to with the real world context. I suspect the original mathematicians thought the current formulas were a gift in comparison to the "old way." Can we share that same "gift" with our students?

Post Script - Mar 26, 2009

I just read post on the Kapp Notes blog about using a "survival" game to explore engineering formulas. It'll be interesting to see how it works out.

Zotero, RefWorks or End Note? All of the Above

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Someone asked me which bibliographic tool I would recommend and I commented that each had different features, so as long as you could port data, you could use whatever combination you wanted.

Then I wondered what our Penn State Zotero whiz Ellysa Cahoy would think, and it turned out I was on the right track. Zotero has the ease of use and the ability to grab metadata off the Web, Ref Works some collaboration features and EndNote every citation style you could ever need. Glad to see that I was on the right track.

Update - Ellysa's post was for the 2008 Symposium. Zotero has just realeased a beta for a Web version.

What Ellysa's post reminded me was how much data porting is involved in our professional lives. Researchers port citations, graphic artists use multiple programs ranging from Photoshop to Flash, and writers need to know both Word and CMS Management sytems (at Penn State, 3-4 at least).

I think this situation is a good example of why porting data is a good strategy - it's really hard to imagine on piece of software with the capability of all 3 that would still be usable.

Which Portfolio Tech to Use? (With a Philosophical Side Trip)

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A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a sample teaching portfolio created in Movable Type. My colleague Brett though asked that annoying instructional design question - What are the advantages and disadvantages of Movable Type? (i.e. Why is this the right tool?)

And I have to give the classic instructional design response - it depends on the audience.

Movable Type Audience & Advantages

I would recommend something like Movable Type for most people in the Teaching with Technology program who are instructors who want to show a basic competence with Web technologies, enough to post a professional looking Web site.

One reason our director Cole Camplese advocated Movable Type was because you can post content without knowing HTML tags. The inclusion of a portfolio template makes it easy to include the pages you need for a portfolio such as teaching philosophy, C.V., example pages and a page of links. The work did with portfolio expert Carla Zembal-Saul provided further insight.

Even better, students can port the content once they leave Penn State by copying HTML files onto a CD (now that I think about it, I'm not sure there's a quick way to export pages like there is for blog entries). This may be the time when users have to begin to understand the PASS directory system so they can copy the correct files.

The More Advanced Audience

Which does lead me to a limitation, which is that there is a limit in what you can customize in Movable Type without knowing HTML, CSS (and Javascript). If you really want your own template design in Movable Type, you need to input some CSS. The same is true for custom widgets or custom entry forms with Geo Tagging fields.

Actually this is true in almost all Web technologies including ANGEL, Drupal and Twitter. A little bit of HTML and scripting can unlock even more possibilities in ANGEL ranging from color coding to quizzes which unlock items after you obtain the minimal passing score.

So... If you are an instructor looking to branch into paid work as a Web professional, then I really believe that you need some understanding of HTML, CSS and how they tie together on a Web page. And so I would recommend hand-building a site with something like (ahem) Dreamweaver or even BBEdit/Notepad if you're a mega coder.

Who's Our Audience?

So this portfolio question is actually getting to the root of a common dilemma in instructional design. Instructional technology actually has the capability of designing sophisticated learning environments taking advantage of multiple learning theories...if you know enough Java.

The problem has been how to build tools so that an instructor who doesn't have the time learn code can still implement something worthwhile in the classroom, even with limited support. With better custom tools, we're finding that we can. The rapid rise in the use of Blogs (and ANGEL before) show that instructors will use tech if it's simple and effective.

But always, there's that limit of what can be done without knowing your tech well. More than a few instructors will cross the training boundary it if they can, but do they have enough support? We can provide Just-in-Time nuggets for some cases.

On the other hand, nothing can replace that first hands-on, in-depth HTML how-to. This is when I recommend ITS Training or something like (great 24-7 access). It's hard to hand-train every instructor, but I'm amazed at how many are actually willing to struggle alone with HTML and Flash Actionscript when they have to.

Color Blindness Filter in Photoshop CS4

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An accessibility tip I learned from the Photo Walk Pro blog is a new proofing tool in Photoshop CS4 which simulates two types of color blindness (or color deficient view).

How To

The simple how to is that you:

1. Open an image in Photoshop CS4.

2. Go to the View menu then Proof Setup then select one of the two Color Blindness options at the bottom of the menu. See Photo Walk Pro entry for screencaps.

3. To return to full color, go to View then Proof Colors.

If successful, the colors of your image will be reduced to just those seen by certain types of color deficient viewers - essentially shades or royal blue and yellow/brown. The two spectra images below are a simple demo.

Normal Vision Color Deficient
Spectrum from red to violet (and magenta) Spectrum altered to shades of yellow and blue

Besides showing you what a color blind user may see, this proofing tool is a chance to see if your informational graphics are coherent to a color deficient user. For example when the color coded labels of the fake K-12 site are proofed in a color deficient proof, almost all the changes in hue are lost and replaced with varying shades of olive brown.

Fortunately, the value contrast is sufficient that the labels can be read...even if the student might be confused with the instructions "Click the red one."

Full Color K-12 Labels

Fake Child Education site with Math Problems in red, Science labs in green, Word Games in orange, History in purple

Color Deficient Version

Same image as above but purple, red, orange changed to yellow or olive brown


I should point out that there are lots of variations among color deficient viewers, especially in terms of how red is perceived - I've seen reports that red = black or that red = brown. It is a clear demonstration of why many color deficient users fail to understand the excitement of autumn leaf colors or can't tell blue and purple apart.

CALICO 2009 Conference Report

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Last week, I attended the CALICO conference on technology use for foreign language teaching. Since foreign languages involve communication skills, it's always a good conference to see communication tools in action as well as other developments such as gaming.

ESL Homework "Game"

There was only one game element in this English as a Foreign Language class (taught in Thailand), but it really changed the dynamics of doing homework. The students were assigned the usual reading & grammar exercises, but with the following conditions.

* Students earned "money" for completing exercises.
* The money could be used to open up more exercises and gain more money
* Students start at $0, but can continue to earn higher amounts of money to open more advanced exercises. The most "expensive" was $1400.

This simple device turned homework into a "beat the system" competition in which students were asking instructors to grade assignments more quickly so they could earn more money (reminds me of Mafia Wars). Students could see each other scores, but only the top 1/2 liked that feature. The presenter said he might disable scores, but I wonder if it should be a top 5 or top 10 list (like the old arcade games).

Very interesting psychology, and it might be easy to program.

Other CMC

As always, CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) was a major topic with presentations on Twitter, Second Life, blogs, RSS and wikis. Presentations were mixed, but one blog presentation was able to document that using blogs with a second language pen-pal was as effective as e-mail (if not more so) in positively changing student attitudes towards a foreign culture.

Neverwinter Nights

The best demo was probably Neverwinter Nights, a system where you can create custom "quest" modules. The instructor made a Neverwinter Nights module with a mystery. The wizard has to go through a village (where everyone speaks in a different language) and determine if a witch has cursed the town. The answer was that it was her chickens who caught the bird flu (and later stolen) that was the problem (interesting plot twist). It also showed the use of both dialogues and "realia" (maps and signs in the target language). The speaker also noted that you can set traps to destroy wizards who refuse to help the town.

Then of course we saw her insert an attack grizzly bear into the module and eat a character. Totally realistic.

Tech Room Design

We got to see some of the computer lab & tech classroom layouts at ASU. First there were lots of electrical outlets for our laptops, many built right into the desk. Clearly the school had a lot of money available in the recent past, and it seems to have been well spent.

But it seems like the designers are thinking about facilitating collaboration. Many labs grouped computers in groups of 3-4 at a round table. It would be pretty easy to swing around to one screen or compare screens. The newer flatscreens also make it much easier to move monitors around, and some were set on special arms (so you could lower the monitors for a compelling lecture).

Another room that was interesting was my seminar room in the Cronkite School of Journalism (yes that would be Walter Cronkite). It had the Macs all along the wall, but a central table in the middle. I think the idea was to do a mini-lecture than have people work on their own machine (maybe research a story). Interesting idea, but awkward for a hands on training session because the students in the back would be have to face me or their monitor. Fortunately, the class was small enough that everyone was on the side and could face both me and the monitor.

Hidden Impact of Unicode

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Sometime last week I half joked that I would only start a Unicode group only if "I wanted to eat lunch alone." Brett asked if I was selling Unicode short, and the as with many things, the answer is both yes and no.

Actually, a lot of people at Penn State ARE interested in Unicode, but in what I would call a "just in time fashion" when they need to troubleshoot something so that they can type out what needs to be typed. This happens surprisingly frequently (see list below).

The Unicode site also receives a large number of hits with over 100,000 users hitting the Windows Alt Code (and the Mac Extended Keyboard Codes Pagee is popular as well).

The site also receives relatively heavy Penn State usage from students looking for "Spanish accent codes" (and also French). Clearly there are lots of desperate people who needs a reference to accent codes, and I am proud that Penn State provides one.

But as a topic people want to discuss in depth...not so much. I know because I've seen the low attendance of my local seminars just on "Accent codes" or "Unicode." So low that when ITS Training ran a list of popular seminars they wanted to see continued...mine was not included (sniff).

All theatrics aside, I am actually OK with that scenario. Unicode should be such a low level tool that you should be taking the ability to type a ŵ granted (like picking up the phone or turning on the TV, pre-remote). We're just not there yet, so we need troubleshooting resources.

I believe that it takes a slightly different set of cognitive wiring to love the tangled web of hex to decimal conversion, spelling rules, and dialect tagging. I just happen to be one of these people (and there are others like me here at Penn State).

And believe it or not, I think that my expertise in Unicode has afforded me some opportunities that I might not have gotten yet such as a reception in Adobe headquarters and a trip to an NSF workshop. Plus I get to consult (and ocassionally argue with) people from all over the world - something any Unicode junkie lives for.

But is Penn State being neglected? Obviously I do try to track other important technologies like blogs, RSS, Web 2.0 and pedagogical development like gaming and authentic learning. Again though, Unicode has cropped an amazing number of times in the darndest ways. Here's that list I mentioned

Penn State Projects Involving Unicode Issues

  • Spanish Course Accent Codes (obviously)
  • Statistics course - why we COULDN'T use Unicode in 2000
  • Symbolic Logic Course, Symbol Codes
  • Presenting Chinese symbols in course lecture over Adobe Connect
  • Thermodynamics Course, More Symbol Codes
  • Etymologique French Etymology Quiz in PHP (that œ is a tricky devil)
  • ANGEL - broken accent codes
  • ANGEL - garbled display after visiting site in Korea
  • Why the Unicode page stopped working after a server upgrade (Apache issue)
  • Consult with University Libraries when they switched to a Unicode Catalog database
  • Set up of international utilities in CLC labs including QWERTY Russian keyboards

And every tool should be tested for Unicode (it's amazing how much better Unicode implementation is these days).

So Unicode has been an a real opportunity for me to learn more about Penn State and multiple technology issues. It's been fun really. Maybe I should find a way to spread the joy more (or not).

Sample Teaching with Technology Portfolio Created

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As a way of promoting the use of Movable Type as a portfolio tool for the Teaching with Technology Certificate program, I decided to create a Sample Teaching with Technology Portfolio.

You can also see the "Classic Blog version" of the portfolio and the Plain 1.0 version. I think you'll agree that the new Professional template is a vast improvement!

List of CSS Tutorial Links Posted

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Just posted a list of my "Go to" tutorials on CSS as a Page (listed under the "links" section). Or...just go to