Friday, February 13, 2009

Can’t… Stop… Learning…

This is a brief list of the sites that I like to visit. I attempt to avoid always wasting my time and instead of watching TV I will watch presentations or classes. Most of the time they are just, if not more, entertaining. This way I am entertained and educated. I particularly like TED, MIT OCW, and PBS. The Periodic Table Videos are fun too.

Presentations/Talks/TV programs/Podcast


Fluid Mechanics Films


PBS Science NOW

PBS Frontline



Institute for Advanced Study

Expert Village

Open Courseware


UTAH ocw

Yale OCW


bad astronomy

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Digital Teaching - Setup Details

This post is meant to give details about the possible digital teaching setups. Specific hardware and software will be listed. Cost will be considered as well.

In the previous post a digital teaching nationwide system was discussed. This system uses simple modern technology to transform any classroom to a digital one. There is no need for fancy interactive classrooms. They are expensive. These suggestions use between $300 and $3000 dollars (depending on how fancy you get and what you already have available) to create a digital learning environment.

The Tech:

Tablet PC's
such a the HP Pavilion tx2110us (which I use) are cheap (~$1100) and provide nearly everything you need for digital teaching. The laptop can be connected to a projector and written on. Notes can be saved and distributed electronically.

Bluetooth Microphones allow for voice recording. On board and stand up microphones work as well, but they don't give as much freedom for mobility. ($30-$70)

Projectors will be used to project the tablet PC interface onto a screen for the class to see. This isn't always necessary since you could just prepare the lectures on your Tablet PC and have the students watch the lectures on their own time. ($600-$1000+)

Recording Software can be used to save lectures which can be store online for student use. Camtasia is a great program which will record your screen activity and voice. It also has the ability to feed in webcams. Videos are easily edited and posted online in a multitude of formats. There are many programs available for simple voice recording.

Wacom Tablets are available if you already have a PC or laptop and want to add the ability to write on the screen. There are many cheap tablets which are perfect for writing quality. Many of the expensive tablets are made for artistic purposes. There are even wireless bluetooth tablets available. This would instantly give you the capability to transform a cheap PC to a remote in class writing platform. The disadvantage to these tablets is that you can't see what you are writig on them, but with practice that is not an issue. It may in fact be better that you need to look at the board like the students instead of always looking down. ($60-$250)

Cameras can be used to record a lecture. However, they do not work well to record the actual note taking process. High quality cameras are needed (which are expensive) so that you can read what is being written in the final video. Also, a camera may need to be operated (pan and zoom) by a person which is either inconvenient or expensive. Cameras do allow you to record live demonstrations which do not need as high of a resolution. For this a cheap digital camera could be used. ($100-$500+)

All of this equipment can be used in a variety of ways to make digital classrooms. A few options are given here.
This first setup uses most everything we talked about. A laptop feeds in the signal from the wireless Wacom tablet and Microphone. This Data is sent to the projector. All of this can be recorded on the PC as well as an additional digital camera. (1100+700+250+50+300=$2400)

This setup can be modified. The camera is an extra. A cheap stationary PC could be used instead of the Laptop as shown below. (700+250+50+500=$1500)

A bare bones system could consist of just a tablet PC and a projector. (1100+700=$1800)

If you want to get really cheap you could use a cheap PC and a wacom tablet hooked to a projector. $500 (PC estimate) + 100 (Wacom) + 700 (Projector) = $1300.

And if you want to get really cheap don't use a projector. Just prerecord lectures and have students watch them online later. (500+100 = $600)

Considering that most schools already have computers and projectors in classrooms many of these costs may be redundant. It may be as simple as buying a Wacom tablet and a microphone to get started. This would only cost $150 to $300.

And there you have it. Cheap simple ways to drastically change the way we educate.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Digital Teaching

[I wrote this up a while ago, since then I have made additional observations which I've added in brackets.]

I've been pondering the pros and cons of teaching with a tablet PC. The basic idea is to prepare some kind of material ahead of class (probably slides) and then, using the tablet PC, you can project the image and write on the slides as you give the lecture.

Pro: You no longer waste as much time in class writing out equations and notes.
Con: This may cause a lecture to go too quickly through material, since the time spent writing allowed a student to think.

Con: It is difficult to pace yourself correctly with pre-made notes. The process of writing down notes on a board slows you down to an appropriate pace for comprehension. Josh postulated that it takes twice as long to comprehend as it takes you to write, including the fact that the student is writing down what you are doing and trying to understand.
Pro: Digital media removes the need for the student to write down complete notes, thus permitting them to focus on comprehension.

[Additional thoughts: after doing some lectures like this it seems as if it is not a good idea to have all the lectures premade. There is something natural about writing the equations by hand. The speed at which you write seems to be close to the speed at which people can read and comprehend. The manual writing gives you the appropriate speed naturally. Some equations could be prewritten. General equations, equations that have already been derived, etc, so there are opportunities for premade material.]

Pro: Because the material is presented digitally the lecture itself can be saved and distributed to the class. Notes can be given before a lecture and screen capturing can easily create a video of the lecture. This alleviates the student from having to take so many notes in class.
Con: The note taking process may be beneficial since it acts as a memorization device.

Con: Having all prepared notes conveys to the student that you are unable to lecture about the material without prepared slides. Possibly undermining your respect.

[Applying a mix of premade and handwritten notes should take care of this.]

Pro: Prepared notes will reduce errors, possibly allow for a more dense class, allow student to pay attention to the ideas instead of their notes and allow for easy recording of lectures.
[Just be careful so that it is not too dense.]

Con: Everyone falls asleep during power point slides.
[More reason to continue with hand written notes (remember that they can still be digital via a tablet. Also, some though can be put into the color scheme. Using a projector that does not require the class room lights to be off may help as well. ]

Pro: The class can clearly see what you are writing on the board. i.e. you are never standing in the way.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Modern Digital Education - Changing the Way We Educate

In a paragraph this is the idea. Lectures are recorded in a digital manner (more on these details later and how it is really cheap and easy.) Students can view these lectures via an online medium. As time progresses the lectures are improved. Questions can be added, mistakes fixed, material added. Student could be asked to add material as well. Explain problems, solution manuals, etc. Essentially the system would iterate towards a 'perfect lecture.' This system has numerous benefits (such as flexibility, resources, mobility) which we will explore. Further infrastructure can be added to make this into a national system, thus making the information available for everyone.

As I see it, if a system like this was setup, you can eliminate the need for traditional lectures. Every few years the lectures could be updated, via redoing the entire series, or adding notes and re-editing. This does not remove the role of the professor (or teacher) it instead shifts it to a more of a tutor type of position. Professors could hold question answering sessions where students could ask questions (which would be added to the digital media) This both enhances the education and reduces workloads allowing teachers and professors to focus on the students.

Once a system like this is put in place we can continue to make even greater changes. I will use high school as an example. It is clear that in many schools there is a large variance in the levels of the students. Some students progress significantly faster than others, some need more help. This creates a big problem when many students are placed together. The fast ones get bored and are held back and the slow ones don’t get the attention they need. By implementing the previous digital system students essentially become their own entities within an education system. Essentially there would still be ‘math’ teachers and such, but no classes. Students would simply have a set of requirements, they would follow the thorough media sets, and possibly on a weekly basis would have a question session for that course with the professor (again all questions are added to the media set. Eventually one would assume that most questions could be addressed via the digital data.)

Additionally, digital lectures do not need to be only of your teacher, they could be a collection of lectures from across the country, collected into a database. Then students would be able to use the lectures they found most informative and also be able to rank and criticize the videos. This fixes a few things – first, the good teachers are clearly recognized and they are recognized for their teaching skills, because, with a flexible learning system the teacher who teaches best helps the student accomplish his requirements sooner. Secondly, it significantly levels the playing field. Schools with less funding or poorer teachers now immediately have access to the best in the country.

One may say that this places too much responsibility into the hand of the student. In my opinion systems which clearly state the requirements and clearly give you a way to challenge yourself and succeed, or fail miserably, will, in the end, work better. No longer will students be able to be content scraping by. Similarly it gives the really talented students as much room to grow as possible. This will give a clear message to the slackers that they need to work harder. We want to prepare students for life, life is tough and you need to know how to work and push yourself. This system of education gives you that skill. Also, by reducing the load of the teachers and allowing the faster students to work on their own it gives the teachers the opportunity to focus on the trouble students. The individual attention may in many cases change their status. Thus, this system helps both the fast and slow students.

Details of the System
A view of the system fully implemented after starting with our current system.

We start things off with teachers recording their lectures. This can be done in several ways. The use of a camera can work, but it has significant downfalls. Without a very high resolution camera the video cannot adequately capture the notes being written. This in turn requires either someone manning the camera zooming in to the text or the high resolution cameras. Both of which are very expensive. An alternative method is to use a tablet PC. The lecturer writes on the PC and the text is displayed to the class (if there is a class) via a projector. The video is captured from the screen and the audio is recorded alongside the video. All this can be done easily and cheaply (~$1000 for tablet PC, $300 for software for a single purchase in a onetime purchase) and it allows the video to have high quality recording of the text being written. The lecturer would not be seen, which in the end is typically unnecessary.For lectures which require visuals (maybe a chemistry course) a lower quality camera could be used alongside the PC recording.

The tablet PC has other advantages. Equations and notes can be premade, allowing the speaker to spend more time explaining and less time writing. Additionally, other digital media can be used easily within the lecture.For schools who may already have computers and projectors the simple addition of a Wacom tablet ($100-$300 for simple versions, even wireless bluetooth versions) and a bluetooth mic ($50) can change a traditional setup to a wireless digital recording system.

This is the first iteration. As a class progresses additional material can be generated. Questions are bound to be asked. These questions can be cataloged and added to the lectures. All of this data would be added to a searchable online database. It could be organized as the users see fit. Preferably, the system should be capable of feedback. Additional data can be added to the system as time progresses. Students can add solution to problems. Practice tests and quizzes can be included as well. Lectures could be updated with additional material and taking into account the questions and comments previously noted.

Initially each school would have its own database. Having such a database gives flexibility to teachers. Now, with lecturers prerecorded, students can watch them individually, at their own pace. Smarter students will have the opportunity to progress faster. This system has immediate realizable benefits even before things get more complicated.

As the catalog of courses matures schools would become interconnected (maybe just all the public schools.) Now students are able to receive lectures from any number of teachers. Lectures could be rated, either based on student reviews, other teachers’ reviews, or ideally by correlating lectures with the students test scores. This could be done by keeping track of which students are watching which lectures. If tests were given in a standardized way the test scores could then be related to the lectures being watched. This allows the best lectures to come forth. Finally a way to quantify teacher performance. All students will then have access to the best lectures and the best teachers will be recognized for it. Most importantly small or poor schools will have access to the best teachers.

Testing would need to be done in a standardized way. This is the only pitfall, but I think it can be overcome. A few things make this different. Because the system is challenging students, harder tests can be written. Also, because everyone can see all the lectures and rate them it would be more difficult to 'teach to the test' since everyone would see it. Additionally those lectures are likely boring and students are going to be interested in interactive entertaining learning. Teaching to the test generally doesn't fall into the exciting category of classes.

Alongside the lectures, open source books could be developed for the public school system. There is no need for them to pay for books. Open source books like Motion Mountain (a physics book) are high quality. Besides the initial investment in technology (which many schools already have,) a digital system reduces schools costs.

Something can be said about giving the students too much responsibility, but in my mind that is the power of this method. Reduced teacher load permits them to focus on trouble students. Many students, given the chance to learn and challenge themselves will. Also, the brightest students will be able to shine at their full potential. There is no longer any mechanism which will hinder them. Students may also be able to finish their class work faster moving them on to college or the work place quicker. This will reduce the number of students in a given high school further reducing teacher load and other costs.

This kind of system does not replace in class or hands on work. Laboratories would still be needed. Gym class, shop class, art class, etc would all still exist as they are (although additional instructional material may still be available.)

Private schools and universities are probably less likely to implement a nationwide system since they compete with each other. State schools could have inter-state systems. Individual universities could at a minimum have their own systems. Many large schools still have multiple teachers teaching the same class so a rating system may still work.

A lot of these ideas may not work for younger students. Personal instruction is still important. As time goes on this could be experimented with.

I have additional material on digital teaching systems and problems. I will add these posts soon

In conclusion. A system like the one presented uses cheap digital systems to alter the current education model. It allows for an iterative method for creating education resources. It allows for student input and rating. Teachers can also then be rewarded for true quality teaching. Poor schools easily (with only an internet connection and computers) have access to the best teachers and materials the nation can offer.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Santa and Religion

Why do Christian parents encourage their children to believe in Santa? They let them think that there is someone special who watches your behavior and gives you gifts, then when they get old enough we tell them that Santa is not real. Yet, the Christians still expect their children to believe in God.

It reminds me of a story Richard Feynman tells in ‘What do you care what other people think?” When he was a boy during a sermon his rabbi tells him a long story about another boy. Afterwards Feynman asks him a question about the story, then the rabbi tells him that the boy wasn’t real and that the story was just made up to illustrate a point. After that Feynman was upset at his rabbi and asked him how he can expect him to believe any of the stories that his religion teaches. After that he stopped going to church.

Additionally, by telling the children that their gifts came from a magical man the entire lesson of Christmas and gift giving is lost. Christmas isn’t just about being a good person; it’s about showing your love and giving of yourself. The kids don’t realize that you are giving them the gifts because you love them. It creates a sense of false entitlement, in that they deserve things just because they are good.

Maybe there is some way to alter the depiction of Santa to rectify some of these problems while maintaining the legend.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tools and Education

I wonder what the net effect of having a spell checker will be on the quality of education, particularly with younger generations. I personally have found that I often do not even find the mistakes, I just click through them and make the corrections. I will spell the same word wrong over and over. Spell checker could seriously set back someone who does not know how to spell well or is learning to spell by making it too easy to avoid learning. I wonder what high school and middle school teachers think about this? Are their students typed assignments without error, but their written notes atrocious. I wouldn't be surprised if it is degrading their education.

Once I noticed that I was avoiding spelling and becoming complacent I started to make a strong effort to avoid using spell checker in the traditional fashion. I think if used properly it can be a learning tool. Typically now I use it to check the words and then if I really can't spell it I see what the computer thinks. Then if I am not feeling too lazy I manual type out the correct word. This helps to cement the correct spelling into my memory, reducing the chance that I will make the same error again. At a minimum I try to look at the correct spelling and notice where I was making the mistake. I think since I started doing this my spelling ability has increased. (grammar is an entirely separate issue.)

Like most technologies, they can either make you lazy, or if used properly, they can aid your learning. It is up to the user to decide.

I had a professor in my undergrad who would curse calculators up and down. Preferring to instead do manual calculations. He thought that calculators were degrading the younger generations minds. They can, but only if you let it happen. Again, you can treat it as a positive tool and let it help you, or you can depend on it and have it weaken you.

I had thought of this topic along time ago, but it was reawakened by a question during my PhD proposal presentation. My math professor, Dr. Kupershmidt, asked me if I had done all the algebra by hand or with computer software. I told him I had done it by hand, expecting a positive response, instead he asked, "Why?" I suppose the true skill is in knowing when to use the tools and when to avoid them. In my case I think I did the right thing because it would have been cumbersome to make the computer go in the right direction with the math. However, we should not be afraid to use our tools out of self righteousness or any other reason as well. It is a careful balance.

In the end, we are humans, the reason we are here is because we make tools. We just need to make sure they do not become our demise as well.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Life and Intelligence

I enjoy thinking about life and whether we have companions in the universe. The fascinating question - Are we alone? And beyond that, the implications, religious and otherwise. The fundamental equation for estimating the existence of other intelligent civilizations is the Drake Equation.

Essentially we start with the rate of production of stars in our galaxy, then add factors such as the likelyhood of a star having planets, then having ones which can support life, then which of those will develop life, and then those which will develop intelligent life, then those which will create technology which will make themselves visible to us, and finally then length of time which these civilizations last.

Naturally, there are a lot of factors in there which we have no idea about, but you can put in intelligent guesses and see what kind of numbers we are working with. In 1961 Drake Estimated N = 10 × 0.5 × 2 × 1 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10,000 = 10. More current analysis gives an estimate of 2.31. Meaning that at our best guess, on average there will be around 2 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. Interesting.

Now, where am I getting with this. Nowhere really. It is just a neat idea. I always like to think of all the crazy things which could have influenced our development of intelligence and technology. For instance, what if the Earth rotated faster? This would have made throwing objects very difficult and that may have severely restricted the development and use of tools. Motions on the earth would be very non-linear, so dynamics and mathematics may have evolved along a different route. Simple linearization in physics and engineering would not have been valid, making the math much more difficult. Or this could have all gone the opposite way. Maybe the challenge of throwing objects in a rotating reference frame would have amplified our intelligence and given us a more non-linear way of thinking. Our math could be entirely different and maybe non-linear equations would be no big deal.

Another thought. What if there was no Moon. Avoiding the geographical and climate changes, the moon was our clear evidence of time. The phases of the moon gave way to calendars, the passing of time evolves to counting and then math. The moon inspires us to look in the night sky. Everything else is a point of light. The moon is dynamic. Eclipses, harvest moons, the phases give clear signs to the orientation of the solar system. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference, maybe it would have just slowed our progress. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about.

I am sure you could think of a millions variables like this. All these would need to be accounted for in Drakes Equation to get a really accurate estimate. In the end, it seems like there is a decent chance that we are alone, or only one of a few civilizations in this galaxy. That kind of makes me feel lonely.