Page Builder

I work on two major writing projects. The first is our hybrid textbook combining a Kindle Primer with online resources. The second project is also a textbook of sorts, but has always been online and has always been available to anyone at no cost.

I first wrote Meaningful Learning and the Participatory Web as a wiki. I then converted this resource to individual web pages so I could offer better multimedia. Now, I am converting the Participatory Web site from individual web pages to pages delivered by the WordPress “blogging” engine. The conversions each have taken a considerable amount of time, but the work provides enough experience I feel I can  speak with some insight about each form of authoring.

The multiple web page version of the Participatory Web content was created with Dreamweaver. Working with CSS, templates, and a high end development environment is certainly the way to create sophisticated and attractive sites. I moved on because the sophistication of the tools was no longer necessary to generate the content I wanted to offer and because I prefer not to “lease” software (which is the present Adobe model).

WordPress is probably more known as a blogging platform, but it also allows the creation of “pages“. With the addition of specialized plugins (I am using Page Builder from SiteOrigin), it is possible to create a wide variety of page formats. The combination of the blogging platform with the page plugin has more than provided the flexibility I need to offer my “book”.

There are some interesting differences between building a site with a traditional web authoring tool and with a “blogging” tool. The traditional way to create a complex web site involves creating multiple pages stored as individual files. The page files may load a common CSS format file. In contrast, a blogging platform uses a database with content stored as “records” rather than multiple, independent files. With the traditional approach, the web authoring tool creates pages locally and then uploads the content to a server. With the blogging tool, the content is created within the online environment provided by a server using a conventional web browser. Working online requires different backup strategies. The traditional web page approach already leaves you with a copy on your personal development machine. The use of an online development platform does not and it is important to find a way to backup the database and media files you have uploaded. Of course, an advantage of the online approach is that your work does not require that you work from the same machine or purchase software for the multiple machines you might use/

If you are interested in this project, I encourage you to take a look. The WordPress version of our Meaningful Learning and the Participatory Web book is partly finished and available for viewing. I would wait until the entire project has been completed, but I estimate that the conversion project will take another 20-30 hours because of the amount of content involved. I want to offer instructors and K-12 staff support personnel an opportunity to view what is done as soon as possible.

Meaningful Learning and the Participatory Web

STEMers – shortsighted and misguided

This post began as an effort to recommend some summer reading and as my posts often do, ended taking a slightly different focus.

First the books – these are links to informative sources for those interested in the “short version”, but I encourage reading the books by these authors:

Friedman, T. Hot, Flat and Crowded

Ford, M. Rise of the robots

My argument here concerns education and the focus of so-called educational reforms. I believe that education must lead citizens to new thinking but the reforms being advocated fall prey to old values.

Allow a couple of arguments by analogy.

1) Educators perplexed with the preoccupation of poor, inner-city kids with sports and sports stars try to warn these kids and their parents that Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry are extremely rare and kids would have a higher probability of life success working at McDonalds and investing their wages in lottery tickets (guess that did a little snarky).

By analogy, the odds of making a fortune coding al la Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg face similar odds. Even given similar skills, success depends on many other factors (see Outliers).

2) There is an expression used by economists to describe the foolishness of investing in stocks that were recently on the upswing – “chasing the market”. The notion is that the “easy money” has already been made and purchasing at the new higher price is unlikely to result in the same success.

Flooding an area in which great success requires great talent reduces rather than increases the average benefit to those adopting a given focus.

The books I recommend present some serious challenges:

  • globalization
  • increasing income inequality
  • climate change
  • reduced need for employees in many professions including what used to be regarded as professions

Technology and scientific knowledge may help address some of these skills, but it must also be recognized that technology contributes to these challenges. We need skills in sociology, psychology, economics, political science, ethics, recreation, etc. to address the human contributions to the problems and realities we are creating. It is very possible that in the future a more socialistic ways of functioning will be necessary to achieve an equitable society. It is very possible that too many people are competing for a diminishing number of job opportunities and shorter work careers will be necessary. It is very possible that immediate productivity will have to be curtailed unless costs to society in general are considered and addressed (e.g., greenhouse gas generation).

Narrowing the focus of education will not be a solution on my list.

Confusing ads with privacy

The latest talking point in the Microsoft, Apple and Google competition seems to be focused on the issue of privacy. As a simplified version of what is happening. Microsoft and Apple make their money on hardware and software. Google makes its money on ads. One way to attack the popularity of Google is to complain that Google violates personal privacy in the way ads are selected for presentation. This position confuses issues related to ads and privacy.

If you use Google services and are concerned about privacy, the Google position on what information it gathers and why it gathers this information is easy to find.

If you still believe Google is invading your privacy, Google provides a pretty easy fix. Using the link I provide above, look for the link “Go to ad settings”. Near the bottom of the ad settings page, you will see these options:

Ads_SettingsIf you do not agree with Google’s use of information about you, it is easy to opt out of targeted ads (called interest-based ads here). To be clear, this does not mean you will see no ads. This would seem unfair since you are using Google services at no expense to you. Showing ads rather than selling software/services is Google’s primary business model. Opting out of targeted ads means you will see ads that are not based on your data.

So, understand that you have options if you object to the use of your data being used to send you what Google hopes are relevant ads. Google does not make money unless you click on ads so Google has an interest in showing ads you will find useful.

Arguing against big data a convenient way to argue for an increased bottom line?

It seems to be Apple and Microsoft against Google. The “concern” expressed by the unlikely pairing of Apple and Microsoft is that Google collects, and as I understand all of the concerns, shares personal data for pay. Google, in response, argues they use the information collected as a way to improve the search experience.

While this sounds like an disagreement over a principle, the positions taken align with business interests. Google makes money from advertising. Apple makes money from hardware. Microsoft makes money from software. The income foci of these companies has evolved and this may have something to do with the positions now taken on privacy. Google offers software and services for free partly to increase use of the web and as a way to offer more ads and collect more data. Google also offers services that decrease the importance of hardware. Chrome hurts the hardware sales of Apple.

What I think is important under these circumstances is clear public understanding of what data are being collected, how it is being used, and what are the motives of the players involved. It turns out we all are also players because blocking ads while still accepting services (the consequences of modifications of browsers) involves personal decisions for what constitutes ethical behavior.

Into this business struggle and how it has been spun appears a recent “study”  from Tim Wu and colleagues. Evaluation of the study is complicated by the funding source – Yelp. Yelp has long argued their results should appear higher in Google searches and suggests Google elevates the results of Google services instead. Clearly, you or I could go directly to Yelp when searching for local information completely ignoring Google (this is what I do when searching for restaurants), but Yelp wants more.

I have a very small stake in Google ads (making probably $3-4 a year), but I am more interested in the research methodology employed in this case. My own background as an educational researcher involved the reading and evaluation of many research studies. Experience as an educational researcher is relevant here because many educational studies are conducted in the field rather than the laboratory and this work does not allow the tight controls required for simple interpretation. We are used to evaluating “methods” and the capacity of methods to rule out alternative explanations. Sometimes, multiple interpretations are possible and it is important to recognize these cases.

Take a look at the “methods” section from the study linked above. It is a little difficult to follow, but it seems the study contrasts two sets of search results.

The Method and the data:
The method involved a comparison of “search results” consisting of a) Google organic search results or b) Google organiic search results and Google local “OneBox” links (7 links for local services with additional information provided by Google). The “concern” here is that condition “b” contains results that benefit Google.

The results found that condition B generate fewer clicks.

Here is a local search showing both the OneBox results (red box) and organic results from a Minneapolis search I conducted for pizza. What you see is what I could see on my Air. Additional content could be scrolled up.

gsearch

The conclusion:

The results demonstrate that consumers vastly prefer the second version of universal search. Stated differently, consumers prefer, in effective, competitive results, as scored by Google’s own search engine, than results chosen by Google. This leads to the conclusion that Google is degrading its own search results by excluding its competitors at the expense of its users. The fact that Google’s own algorithm would provide better results suggests that Google is making a strategic choice to display their own content, rather than choosing results that consumers would prefer.

Issues I see:

The limited range of searches in the study. While relevant to the Yelp question which has a business model focused on local services, do the findings generalize to other types of search?

What does the difference in click frequency mean? Does the difference indicate as the conclusion claims that the search results provide an inferior experience for the user? Are there other interpretations. For example, the Google “get lucky” and the general logic of Google search is that many clicks indicate an inferior algorithm. Is it possible the position of the OneBox rather than the information returned that is the issue? This might be a bias, but the quality of the organic search would not be the issue.

How would this method feed into resolution of the larger question (is the collection of personal information to be avoided)? This connection to me is unclear. Google could base search on data points that are not personal (page rank). A comparison of search results based on page rank vs. page rank and personal search history would be more useful, but that is not what we have here.

How would you conduct a study to evaluate the “quality” concern?

Wired

Search Engine Land

Fortune

Time

Maker Options

Reviewing content posted from ISTE 2015 got me thinking about maker options (again). So much of the focus seems to be on robots, 3-D printers, coding, and DIY computers. Are these the opportunities I would promote?

Without disputing the opportunities associated with the maker categories I have mentioned, I think there are a couple of areas that are typically overlooked by those associated with the maker movement. I think these opportunities are similar or better as authentic opportunities and fit very well with multiple aspects of the curriculum. While I coded as part of my own career, I think a broader perspective is needed.

My two recommended project areas would be a) gardening and b) solar energy. I would argue each tie in with priority, real world needs (energy, global warming, nutrition, health) and both offer diverse opportunities for curriculum integration (measurement, data collection and analysis, writing, online research, advocacy, science, politics, economics, social issues).

I try to explore personally in areas I recommend for educational application and I have tried to focus on new personal experiences that would be novel for many learners. Brief descriptions of my present projects follow.

Straw Bale Gardening

This is something we encountered a year or so ago and now I am giving it a try myself (with mixed results ). Straw bale gardening seems suited to small spaces (some place the bales on a deck or patio) and it would seem feasible to find space within a school yard. Smaller size can also be a way to keep the commitment to the project from getting out of hand. Straw bale gardening involves elements of hydroponics and composting which add unique elements even those students with home gardens probably have not experienced.

garden1

Solar Energy

I used to think all colleges and universities should have their own wind turbines both as a learning lab and a sign of commitment to energy issues. My more recent solar energy interest is much more practical. I realize there are small kits allowing experimentation with solar energy – light a light bulb with a small energy cell. I would propose something on a little larger scale. For $200-300 you can get everything you need to power devices you actually use. I operate the lights in my office (at the lake). I could easily charge my mobile devices (note it seems you want to do this through a battery rather than directly). I think teachers could identify classroom energy needs a solar panel could satisfy. I think global warming, the reliance on fossil fuels, growing energy needs are such important issues to address.

solar1

solar2

 

Write About

I am a fan of the general educational benefits of writing with a personal interest in writing or authoring to learn. I see authoring as a “go to” technique that can be helpful to learners with any content area and at any age. In addition, authoring offers the opportunity to write for others increasing the authentic feel of the experience and often incorporating the cognitive benefits involved in “teaching to learn”.

These interests result in a constant search for tools and environments that facilitate authentic authoring. I end up writing about my finds (writing and writing must be some kind of meta thing).

Write About is an online service implementing many of the ideas I value. Their mission statement (what I would call it) goes like this – “A community where students engage in high-interest writing for an authentic audience and teachers help students grow through the entire writing process”.

Write About offers a flexible environment offering support and guidance or the opportunity to be entirely self-directed. Among the features are the following:

  • Proposed topics within genres to serve as prompts
  • Commenting and feedback tools. For students, these include suggestions for what to avoid to comment or offer feedback effectively and comment and feedback stems.
  • Multiple methods for sharing products
  • Recognition of security and privacy concerns with control over multiple levels of sharing. Teacher and author sign off is required for truly public sharing. Participation of learners under the age of 13 is assumed to involve parental permission.

How would a service like this be different than say Google Docs within the Google Apps for Education environment? I would suggest that you could likely accomplish most of the same things, but the Write About environment is designed to be a teaching/learning environment (with prompts, feedback stems, built-in sharing opportunities). Google docs would have superior multimedia capabilities.

What about cost? Writing About offers multiple plans with features and the amount of use varying by plan. I would suggest that the free plan is mostly useful for experimentation and it is probably more practical to purchase by the month or year for serious application.

writeabout