Navel gazing. Compliments of Google

Gulliver's Travels was one of the finest pieces of literary work. Not only was it  fantastically creative, it told us profound things about the world. Many parts of that book still apply to situations we have today, although perhaps in surprising ways. Take the Laputians for example. These were brilliant people that were so wrapped up in their own thoughts that they required servants to remind them to speak or to listen.  I find this fascinating since this means that the servant now decides what his master will be exposed to. The servant choses when something is "interesting" or "worth while".

Our online lives resemble those of the Laputians. We too have servants who decide when information is important or relavent to us. They come in the vise of personal ads and personalized search. Don't get me wrong- personalization can be great. After all, if you type in "china" wouldn't it be great if the search engine knew whether you were talking about dishes or a country? Consider the all the advertisement we see as well. I'd rather see ads for stuff I like rather than junk I really don't care about. The problem comes when we are filtered from seeing discenting ideas. Our minds become small and we learn less.

The internet is a sea of information. Much of it agrees with our preconceived notions but just as much is challenging and therefor illuminating. Confirmation bias (our knack for cherry picking facts to fit our beliefs) is hard enough to deal with as it is. If these digital servants are filtering out uncomfortable bits of information, my bias grows worse.

To get around the filters and broaden your search results, you may want to try one or more of the following suggestions.

1) Delete your account.

You could go ahead and start a fresh digital life. Get rid of Facebook, Google and Pinterest. Start brand new accounts or go without those services all together. Extreme, but it’ll work. Mostly. Google still may be filtering based on the machine you use.
2) Use the library.
a) Get onto the public machines. Like I said, Google may filter results based on the particular computer you use. Since so many more people use these machines, chances are higher your results will be far more “natural”.
b) Don’t sign in to Google. They know it’s you and what you look at. They even read your emails. Well... not exactly. The algorithm looks for common phrases and keywords. Still, Google will use what it knows about you to serve up "relevant" content.
3) Toss your cookies.
Make sure you regularly go in and delete cookies. Keep in mind that you’ll have to sign back in to your websites if the cookies are gone. So be careful.
4) Use a different browser
Most computers have at least two browsers on them. Find the one you normally don’t use and wipe it clean. Delete the history and the cookies, clear the cache, remove all the Autofill information, and remove all the website data. Go whole hog. Then use that browser to do your searching.
5) Go incognito
Most browsers allow you to open an “incognito window”. This means that the browser won’t remember anything about the website you just visited. No history is stored, no cookies remain. The websites may remember you, but as far as your computer is concerned, it never happened.  Google also (supposedly) ignores these windows.
6) Set your location to “United States”
Unfortunately, Google is always going to give you local results. To get around this (kind of), you can set your location to a country. I use “United States” to get the broadest results possible.

So, remember the Laputians? They were all caught up in their own thoughts; seeing and hearing the pieces of the world their servants found relevant. Jonathan Swift makes them out to be fools in the end. Lets do what we can to make sure that Google doesn’t make fools of us.


Space for learning

One of the great things about word processors is the ability to manipulate documents in any way you see fit. Whichever program you use, you should be aware of the importance of blank space. Emptiness is not the same thing as "nothing". If you're purposeful about the way you use emptiness, it will work to promote learning in your students. Here are several ways blank space can help your students in the learning process.

1) Chunking information-
Emptiness takes up real estate which means less information can fit on a single page. You’ll be forced to put only the most important items there.  A handout ought to contain all the relevant material for a lesson and leave out all the fluff. This way, students can focus more easily on what matters.

2) Focus-
Blank space will guide students’ eyes to the right spot. Too many items on a sheet of paper confuses the reader. Grouping pictures and text boxes to one side not only makes your handout visually appealing, but also provides space for students to write in.

3) Note space-
As I just mentioned, kids need a place to write down important information. As you know, actively engaging with a handout is going to lead to greater understanding and retention than passively reading it. Emptiness also provides the space to jot down clarifications and questions they may have.

4) Interest-
Beauty isn’t your first aim. However, if something is more appealing, it becomes more interesting which in turn makes material more memorable. That in turn improves learning. Consider using white space to add asymmetry, depth and perspective to your materials.

The old adage that “less is more” still holds true. Try to include a bit more white space in your handouts and see what the results are. Please let me know if you see any improvements!


Take note...

Tablets are taking the academic world by storm. They're light, compact and extremely multifunctional. They also do things differently than a laptop. One of the really interesting areas tablets are being used is as a notebook.

There are dozens of note-taking apps out there, each with it's particular pluses and minuses. I'm just going to touch on a few that I find particularly interesting.

1) PDF editors- iAnnotate PDF, PDF Notes, PDFpen, PDF Expert

These are apps which allow you to take notes on what you read. My professors would always tell me that in order to learn from a textbook, you really have to interact with it by underlining and writing in the margins. That's exactly what these apps allow you to do. By providing digital highlighters, pens and sticky notes, textbooks can be marked up in endless ways. Latter, the annotations can just as easily be erased.

2) Typing, sharing notes- Google docs, Microsoft Office Live, Evernote, Notability
These are all great options for typing and saving notes in class. The first three are actually just designed to save and share text. Notability really stands out though. At ten bucks, it gives you a lot more functionality like syncing your notes to audio recordings. This can be a lifesaver if you’re are in a fast-paced lecture. It also lets you draw in your notes- another great feature.

3) Document scanners- Camscanner, Photo to PDF, DocScanner
Having the ability to turn a picture into a PDF can come in quite handy. On the fly, you can turn any document into a PDF which you can then mark up or email to someone. Keep in mind that these would be best used in a pinch. Scanners and copy machines like Riso do a much better job of scanning your important papers.  

Like so much of what we've seen so far, tablets are providing students with options they've never had before. These are just a few of the ways tablets can (but just as often do not) outshine laptops. Please let me know if I've missed something important here. I'd love to get your feedback.


Digital disease

People get sick by doing one of the following things:
1) A lot of interaction with the public.
2) Poor hygiene.
3) Taking in (eating or drinking) something that's infected.
4) Doing things they frankly shouldn't be doing in the first place.

Computers get viruses, worms and trojans for the same reasons.  
1) A lot of interaction with the public.
Social networking is great. And a lot of people friend, follow or add people to their circles that they don’t know in real life. That can be just fine. You should be aware of the risks, though. The more strangers you network with, the more likely it is (intentional or not) that they could send something harmful your way.

2) Poor hygiene.
No need to wash your laptop. Instead, clean it out with a good piece of antivirus software. Norton is popular but there are many others including Sophos and Vipre. If you don’t have these installed and running, you’re just asking for trouble.

3) Taking in something that's infected.
Computers take in programs when you click on something. Whether you’re installing a program that you’ve purchased yourself or you’ve opened an infected email, clicking is the way to get things into your computer. Here’s the thing.; if something looks “wrong” don’t click it. Here are a few examples of things that look “wrong”:
1) Personal emails from strangers.
2) Emails from people you know, but who never send you those kinds of things.
3) Hyperlinks with misspelled werds.
4) Emails from your bank that don’t contain your name.

4) Doing things they frankly shouldn't be doing in the first place.
Elicit or adult websites are poplar. Some accounts say that 25% of all traffic online is for inappropriate material. There are a lot of things wrong with these sites, but one that may surprise people is the amount of malware that comes with the package. Nothing is for free. Either you’ll be exposed to ads or the site will charge you money. In the case of improper webpages, the cost is often an infection by a worm or virus.

So stay safe out there. Keep yourselves and your computers healthy!


Teachers, stay safe.

There has been an awful lot posted online about how to keep students safe on the Internet. However, I haven't run into very much focusing on teacher safety. Perhaps we tend to think that, as adults we're savvy enough to avoid online blunders. I thought that about myself until I started doing some research. The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it's a pretty good starting point. Please keep these tips in mind whenever getting on the Internet.

1) People lie.

Ya, I know this one is pretty obvious. Be honest, though. Have you ever forgotten a key piece of information for your class and needed to look it up really quickly? The shape of a molecule? An important date? The difference between affect and effect? Be especially careful when you’re in a rush!

2) Plagiarism sets a bad example.*

Forget about the legal ramifications of plagiarism. OK … just for a second forget about it. Have you ever gone online looking for a picture to use for your PowerPoint? Ever cite your sources? Have you ever copy and pasted quiz questions you’ve found online without telling your students where you got them? Your students will find out. (Mine did.)

3) If you don’t want it on the Internet, don’t put it on the Internet.
I have no idea who first said this, but it’s brilliant. Here’s the big point: Everything you put online for someone else to see can stay there forever. In spite of “privacy settings” there are hundreds of ways to transfer what you have online to some other computer. Even if you delete it, there’s no way of getting rid of it. Think twice before mentioning your school or colleagues.

4) Set your filter to “safe”.
Its true that you’ll be missing out on some good things if you do this. However, you’ll be saving yourself from all of the problems that surround pulling up an inappropriate website. If a student is exposed to a single inappropriate image, you are setting yourself up for uncomfortable discussions.

5) Students don’t have privacy on school computers.
This is a bit of a strange issue. Many students get offended by a teacher looking over their shoulder to see what they’re up to. Many educators seem to buy into this attitude thinking that students should allowed to work largely unsupervised. When students know they’ll be monitored, they tend to stay on task.

So what do you think? Did I miss anything? Do you disagree with anything I’ve written here?

*Thanks to Deb Ng inspiring much of this blog post.