Two Perspectives on Teaching the Web

I’m teaching two Web Technologies classes this quarter. They have slightly different focuses, and I love each of them. Part of the reason I love these classes (especially as compared to teaching Excel or Word or even Intro to IT) is that the web is so dynamic. It is always changing because it is so easy for creators and publishers of web tools, web apps, and web content to update their creations. The platform (the web) is the tool.

One of these classes, which I’m teaching here at Bellevue College, is called “Web Essentials,” and we start with the most essential software tool of the web, web browsers. It’s so interesting to me that probably the single most common misconception about web browsers is that they are synonymous with search engines. I have to be sure to clarify their differences: that a web browser is the software application that is installed on your local device that enables that “window to the web,” which allows you to actually browse the web… And in contrast, a search engine is what Google does — Google-the-company has jillions of “bots” that “crawl” the web, reading every web page they come across, indexing them, then following links from those pages to others, ad infinitum. Then, they allow us regular web users to type (and now speak) our incredibly inane, unclear, and amorphously hazy search terms into their search fields, whereupon their “algorhythms” parse our meaning in anticipation of what we really want to know, then spit out exactly what we didn’t even know we were looking for. Incredible technology. But totally different than a simple web browser.

After web browsers, we move into email and other ways of communicating on the web, such as chat, messaging, social media, SMS, videoconferencing, etc. We talk about etiquette, which is proper behavior. The way we communicate — the words we use, the level of formality — are different mainly dependent on who our audience is, but also depending on the method of communication.

Then we move into how to find the information that we’re looking for (which, as noted above, Google is able to anticipate to an amazing degree) and how to judge the validity of information that we find on the web. This is such an important skill for any digitally-literate person these days, what with the prevalence of “fake news,” “parody sites,” and plain old propaganda.

Then we touch on networking, collaboration, and cloud computing. We get the students into groups and have them do some web research and then write up their findings in a Word Online document. I love this assignment because it introduces many students to the main strength of Word Online, which is the ability of multiple authors to compose a single document simultaneously. I was introduced to this cool process back in 2012, when I helped edit a book that was being co-authored by a person in Los Angeles and another in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. We’d start a three-way conference call going on our mobile phones, and then we’d sit down for an hour a week and make large-scale edits to paragraphs and chapters. In between those weekly meetings, we’d independently log into Google Docs and do our own work — the authors composing and me editing on a smaller, more detailed scale. Unfortunately, the book remains unfinished, but the process itself was such a great learning experience for each of us in our own way. We all learned some cool new technology tools, but we also learned a lot about the subject matter that the book was about (women taking their power), and how to communicate deep thoughts about the state of humanity. There is no other way that the three of us could have made such deep connections while living thousands of miles apart.

Then this past week, we moved into internet safety, which is always a shocking experience. So many people don’t understand the myriad kinds and levels of risk that come with using the web the way most of us do — from email to social media (the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica breach was big this quarter), to complex passwords-nee-passphrases, malware, physical security, etc., etc., etc.

Next week, we start the unit on “contributing to the web,” in which we start with blogging, then get into constructing web pages and web sites using HTML and CSS. It is a very basic intro, but so much fun. Students really seem to blossom when they see how changing some CSS code changes the appearance of their otherwise-blase web pages.

So really, I love the Web Essentials class.

But I’m also teaching another class at Lake Washington Institute of Technology called “Web Technologies.” That class is even more fun, because it’s a bit more advanced. We concentrate on studying web-based tools that people are using right now out there in the real world, and new, cutting-edge tools that are becoming more widely adopted or are showing promise of becoming relatively mainstream. For instance, one of our main communication channels is Slack. Now, I’ve been hearing about Slack for a few years as “the email killer,” but, up until this quarter I’ve not had the opportunity to use it. So I took this opportunity to create a Slack “workspace” for our class and create some assignments in it. So I’ve become considerably more familiar with it. And while promises of “the email killer” are predictably overblown, it does provide some cool functionality that is more a combination of email and instant messaging and voice telephony. Students seem to appreciate the chance to work with it, if at least for the legitimate reason of putting it on their resume.

I introduce Slack as a powerful communication tool for workgroups during the same time that we get into social media. We mainly use LinkedIn, since it’s the social network for professionals. But no unit on social media would be complete without addressing Facebook and Twitter. So I allow students to choose between them. And since effective social media is about maintaining a presence so that your audience has a reason to keep up with you, students are required to participate in LinkedIn weekly, and also blog weekly in Slack (which may more accurately be called “slogging” than “blogging”).

Then we move into collaboration in this class, which, since it is a totally-online class, is both more challenging and more interesting. Student seemed to really enjoy the two-week project in which they worked with a partner to choose a topic and then to use Word Online to compose a research paper. I feel that, compared to the one-week online collaboration project in the Web Essentials class, this two-week project in the Web Technologies class was more real-world. In fact, it really reminded me more of my Google Docs collaboration with my partners in LA and Guatemala. It took more time and took more of a commitment to the remote-collaboration process, while the one-week project seems like more of a short introduction to online collaboration. And I think that’s ok — the Web Essentials class is more of an introduction or survey of what’s possible on the web, whereas the Web Technologies class goes a bit deeper into actually using the web to get real work done.

This week in Web Technologies, we started a two-week unit on Presentation tools. I’m pretty excited about this chapter, really, because, in general, students seem to enjoy PowerPoint a little more than, say, Word or Excel. I think it’s because presentation tools allow for a bit of visual creativity. This week, students are using PowerPoint Online. It seems like a logical next step from Word Online. Then next week in the second week of the unit, I will show them a few other online presentation tools — Adobe Spark, Prezi, and Microsoft Sway — and they will use one to create a presentation.

Then for the last three weeks of the quarter, we cover video and webinars. I think I’ll show them Screencast-O-Matic and then Zoom. Most of the students are at least familiar with Zoom from a participant’s perspective, as I’ve been using it to hold online office hours. This will be their chance to run a webinar. They’ll have to schedule a meeting with me (and any other classmates they wish to invite), then run the webinar in which they go through a prepared presentation, and record it.

It has been a lot of work to create this Web Technologies class. Luckily, I didn’t have to start from scratch. I had a pretty strong base to work from, thanks to Barb Anderson, who had run this class about six years ago. But again, the web is always changing, and six years in web time is the equivalent to at least a generation or two in human terms. For example in 2012, “Web 2.0” was still a thing. “Web 3.0” never even happened because the “interactivity” that was such a hallmark of Web 2.0 has become such an ingrained, inherent part of how we use the web now, mainly with the advent of ubiquitous smartphones, which ubiquity is now expanding even more into our everyday lives via the Internet of Things (IoT) and digital assistants, which are themselves built on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Maybe the next time I teach this class, we will look at some smartphone and/or IoT apps. According to my week 1 interest survey, this class was interested in them. And, as long as they’re web-powered or even just web-connected, they should be fair game.  To me, this is endlessly exciting stuff!

Killer Business Hacks @ BC

A Fulbright scholar from the National Defense University‘s presentations at the BC campus tomorrow:

  • Market and Competitive Intelligence: How to Analyze the Market to Outsmart the Competitors
  • Ellicitation (sic) Techniques: How to Talk to People to Obtain Valuable Information?

In other words, “how to screw people over and manipulate them.” I guess if you’re going to do capitalism, then you might as well go all out!

flyer for Dr. Kowilak's presentations
Flyer for Dr. Adam Kowalik’s presentations

Excel Final Project: the Only True “Student Data File”

Always seem to be working on the BTS 165 final project. Tweaking it to make it better…

One realization I had in Monday night class last night is this: this project is, essentially, like creating your own “Student Data File.” That is, for every assignment in this Go! textbook, the authors provide the data for you. Most of the time, that is in the form of a starting file, which the publishers always seem to call “student data files.” (Why they don’t call them “starting data files,” i don’t know.) Sometimes, they’ll have you start with a blank Excel file, then tell you what to type where. But either way, you do not create your own data.

The final project is the only assignment in this class in which the student creates their own starting data file. THAT really is a “Student Data File!” (ha!)

Text of My Commencement Speech

Photo of me on stage at Key Arena, gesticulating with both arms out towards the far balconies.
photo by Ann Minks

Here is the text of the speech I delivered at Bellevue College’s 2015 commencement. I’m posting it after one of my high school English teachers asked if she could read it. So, Ms. Apple, please remember that it was written to be a speech– to be listened to– rather than to be read…


Good evening! I am so honored to have this opportunity to say a few words to you tonight.

But, my gosh, preparing these words has not been easy… I have been over this and over this… Read and listened to scores of commencement speeches. Written half a dozen drafts of this speech. Gotten feedback from dozens of people. I’ve wanted my words to be perfect… But I’m settling for honest.

I’ve considered telling you my own story, of my personal philosophy of teaching, and how my main goal as a computer teacher is to empower people to use the computer as a tool to help communicate and connect with each other.

I’ve considered talking about my students, who teach me something new every single day. Who inspire me to continue to come to work every day, in the hopes of seeing the world thru their eyes, and thus expanding my own world.

I’ve considered talking about my love of Bellevue College; how it’s given me a place to feel at home, a safe place to reach out from, a place that surrounds me with brilliant, funny, and appreciative peers. I’ve considered telling you about how much respect I have for the role that Bellevue College plays in the larger community—how I’ve seen dozens of times how it helps people elevate themselves in new knowledge and skills, but most importantly in self-confidence.

I’ve considered voicing my concerns about a couple of the directions that the college is heading (specifically, the push towards university status and the push to move more and more classes online)—because, while these may be exciting directions to grow, we should not forget who we really are— the value of our buildings, which provide safe haven for people meet, face to face, a safe place to try new things and a safe place to make mistakes; we should not forget the value of our teachers who challenge students to explore themselves and the world around them more deeply; we should not forget the value of all our support staff, who help students meet basic needs so they have a solid foundation from which to reach for more.

I’ve considered emphasizing how, over the 50 years that BC has been around, it has learned the value of good teaching, the value of authentic connections between living, breathing human beings, and the value of community. I support progress and growth, but not at the expense of those who need us the most.

I wish I had something deep and profound to say. But I really don’t.
Because, I think that life is pretty simple, really: be kind to yourself and others. Do your best. Listen to your heart. Pursue things you’re interested in. Touch the ones you love. Be grateful to those who have helped you get to where you are right now. And pay it forward.

Because there is no such thing as “too much love.”

Thank you.

Bellevue College Grads Earn More Than UW Grads!

Chart showing that Bellevue College graduates' median income is highest of all baccalaureate graduates in the state.

Spotted in the Seattle Times on June 8, 2015:

According to the Washington State Education Research & Data Center’s Earnings Dashboard, Bellevue College grads have higher median wages than University of Washington grads. Quite an amazing statistic.

I am so proud to work at an institution that values student success over all else!

Finally! News on the New Version of Microsoft Office for Mac

Mac Office 2016 IconsI just heard the first official word about Microsoft Office 2016 for Mac:

http://www.zdnet.com/article/microsoft-delivers-first-public-preview-of-office-2016-for-mac/

Also interesting to note is that, while Mac Office 2016 is due in the summer, Windows Office 2016 is due later this year. So, essentially, Mac users got screwed again– two versions of Office for Windows in the timespan of only ONE version of Office for Mac.

While I love Microsoft software, and Office for Windows, particularly, I hate the way they continue to diss Mac users. I know it’s part of their business plan — “don’t make our Mac software very good: we want people to buy Windows computers so that we can make money on Windows, too” — but I don’t care about their business plan. I’m just a software junkie who loves Macs and wishes I could use the best hardware in the world (Macs) with the best software in the world (Microsoft Office).

Embedding Office 365 Documents into Web Pages… or Not. And, Ben Franklin.

I’m having some kind of fun playing with the various features of Bellevue College’s new Microsoft Office 365. One of the coolest, most promising features is embedding Office documents into web pages. Over the Christmas break, Bruce Wolcott showed this to me– he had embedded a Word document in Canvas. It was super-cool!

So now I want to try it here in our Commons blogs. The Commons blogs are WordPress-powered, which is a different set of technologies than either Office 365 or Canvas, so it may not work right just yet. Nevertheless, here goes.

Here, I just paste the URL of a document in my OneDrive, and convert it to a hyperlink:

https://bellevuec-my.sharepoint.com/personal/krowley_bellevuecollege_edu/_layouts/15/guestaccess.aspx?guestaccesstoken=L9j3jlafHhbaIRWMIKTJFIjN2nFmEpLl9Ato4R5KTGI%3d&docid=0699e67f0e7764b1eb81e0880cbc76915

Well, that works as expected: that is, it opens a new tab in my browser, and inside that tab, opens Word Online, with the document (“Book Love”) open. However, I am currently logged into my OneDrive/Office 365 site. If I am NOT logged in, what happens?

Ah, very cool! It opens the document in Word Online, but with view only permissions. Perfect.Linked Office 365 document, with View permissions

 

Now, that’s pretty cool. But, what if I want to do what Bruce does in his Canvas Pages– embed? Let’s snag this file’s embed code from OneDrive, and paste that iframe code here:

This is an embedded Microsoft Office document, powered by Office Online.

What?? Nooo! How lame! WordPress totally ditched the iframe code, and replaced it with this:

HTML code of lame replacement message

Yep, after a cursory search of the WordPress.org support and forums, it appears that WordPress strips out iframe code for “security” reasons. Bummer. I want this all to come together. I want to be able to put my Office documents anywhere. I want to be able to collaborate with others on any site. I know computer security people hate users like me.

Which reminds me of an issue that the college is encountering on other levels right now, and a relevant quote from Ben Franklin:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Blessings,

K

Excel, Used

When I teach Excel, I always highlight what I consider the two most important features that make Excel useful: formulas and charts. Formulas are important because they allow us to analyze, manipulate, twist and turn numbers so that we can learn new things about them. And charts allow us to visualize numbers so that we can understand them in an instant. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a chart is worth a thousand numbers.)

But, when we start creating our own charts, and formatting them, I always point out how charts can be used to manipulate the data. The easiest way to point this out is to change the vertical axis so that it doesn’t start at zero. This amplifies any changes in the vertical axis, making the chart more dramatic. Here is an excellent article by Eric Portelance that further discusses this manipulation, as well as several other manipulations — either on purpose in order to mislead an audience, or by mistake by someone who doesn’t know how to present data accurately. First Chart: inaccurate

The chart Portelance discusses is from a (late 2013) article by Mark Gimein, “Companies and Markets editor at Bloomberg.com, and lead writer for the Market Now blog and newsletter.” Bloomberg is, of course, the huge financial services conglomerate. These guys DO data. They should know better. In fact, I find it extremely hard to believe that they would create a chart that mistakenly mis-represented the data. The only other conclusion, then? That Bloomberg purposefully mis-represented the data.

The question then becomes, why? What do they hope to gain by publishing an article with the title, “For U.S. Men, 40 Years of Falling Income,” and then backing it up with purposefully mis-represented data?

Gimein’s concluding paragraph states, “To TMN it seems that the focus of the economic debate belongs less on rising incomes at the top than on falling incomes in the middle. The concern of Americans on the middle of the economic ladder is not really that their neighbors behind some high hedge are doing too well. It’s that they themselves are not earning anything like the incomes they expected. Judging by the data, that concern is well-founded.”

“Well-founded?” Look at the data in Portelance’s corrected chart:Second chart: corrected

The real question with this chart is, “what happened in 1972 that caused the steady progression of income growth to immediately level off?” Portelance, admitting he is not an economist, takes a shot in the dark anyway: “Bretton Woods and the end of the Gold Standard?” Maybe so. I’m not an economist either, and a cursory glance at Wikipedia’s “Nixon Shock” article only provided me more anxiety.

However, I do have my own guesses as to Bloomberg’s motives for publishing this purposefully-inaccurate article: Is Bloomberg trying to deflect attention away from income inequality (aka “Class Warfare”)? Are the richest 1% trying to “divide and conquer” the 99%?

Let’s look at a chart that looks at income by class: Third chart: income by class

The income of the bottom four-fifths — the middle  and lower classes — has remained steady since the mid 1960s. However, the top 20% and especially the top 5% have grown steadily since the mid 60s. This means that all the growth in income is going to the people who are already rich.

Is Bloomberg afraid that the proletariat will realized the rich have rigged the system? That the rich run things? That the rich make the rules, which of course favor the rich?

Assessing Computer Users: “Easy” May Not Always Equal “Best”

5-year-old kid sitting at his computer desk.
Ayan Qureshi: the 5-year-old kid who passed the Microsoft Certified Professional exam.

This 5-year-old passed the Microsoft Certified Professional exam. Granted that the kid may be special, but, seriously, what does that say about the Microsoft Certified Professional exam?

I’ve taken the Microsoft Office Specialist exams for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and they were pretty dang easy. I wonder how much of a true measure of a computer user’s ability these tests are. I mean, the instructions are all there. The test instructions say stuff like, “insert a photo,” “make the text bold and red,” “move slide 1 to become slide 5,” and so on. So, the tests may accurately asses IF a user can do a specific given task using the software, but my main concern is that, in a real world situation, there is nobody around to tell a user WHAT to do, or WHICH tool to use WHEN. In the real world, a computer worker is told to “create a flyer.” Maybe the boss will bring in a flyer that they saw in the mall and say, “make it look like this.” But the boss is not sitting there next to you saying, “merge and center cells A1:D1, and format using the Title style.”

Such assessment — of a user’s ability of HOW to use a software tool — may be easy to implement, but I am skeptical of its ability to  accurately assess a different and more important dimension of computer users’ abilities: WHEN to use WHICH tool to solve various real-world problems.

In my BTS 165 Excel classes, the final project assignment is to use Excel to solve a real-world problem. Students must find a problem  to solve, then use Excel to solve it. It doesn’t have to be a huge problem, but the application of the tool to the problem must be theirs. While assessing the student’s success is a considerable challenge — especially in the amount of time it takes to work with students to understand their decisions and reasoning at several key points in the weeks-long process — and even then, perhaps open to some amount of subjective interpretation on the teacher’s part, I feel that this project is a much more accurate assessment of a student’s understanding not only of how to use Excel’s various tools and features, but WHICH tools and features to use WHEN.

Sometimes “easy” does not equal “best.”

Canvas’s Roll Call Attendance Tool

I spent some time the other day playing with Canvas’s newish “Roll Call” Attendance tool. It has some good stuff and some bad stuff…

Good Stuff

I like that I can enter attendance data one time– in Canvas– and the data goes straight into the gradebook. This saves me a bunch of time over my current method of attendance, which consists of:

  1. In class, students pass around a “sign-in” sheet. Sometimes, students who are actually in attendance forget to sign the sign-in sheet, and once per quarter or so, I actually lose the sheet before it safely gets to my office.
  2. I manually transfer these sign-ins to an Excel spreadsheet that I’ve spent countless hours on refining to compile requisite points, and to give me all sorts of information about class attendance. I occasionally make mistakes in this transfer.
  3. I manually transfer attendance points from my spreadsheet into Canvas’s gradebook. Again, I occasionally make mistakes in this transfer, too.

Each of these three steps provides opportunities for problems, errors, mistakes. This is why I wanted to try out the Roll Call Attendance tool.

Bad Stuff

Screenshot of Roll Call Attendance tool
(click image for full-size version)

Two problems: one relatively minor, one relatively major.
The minor problem: most of my classes consist of two separate sections/class codes, and the students do not all appear one list; instead, I have to switch between the two sections via a tabbed interface. That is, half of my students are listed in one tab while the other half are listed in another tab. And, when I switch between tabs, the date always returns back to today, even though I’m entering attendance data for a different day.

But, as I say, that is just a minor inconvenience. The main problem, however
— the killer, as far as I’m concerned– is that the Roll Call Attendance assignment counts 100 points. Period. There is no way to change how many points it counts. No matter how many times the class meets, the attendance column in the gradebook is worth exactly 100 points.

The idea, I think, is that it’s a percentage. So, you must weight your assignment groups. I don’t. Weighting confuses the heck out of me. My gradebook philosophy is “a point is a point. If I want an assignment to count more than another assignment, then I make it worth more points.”

So, no matter how much “good stuff” the Roll Call Attendance tool offers, it simply will not work for me. I’m bummed.

However, if you weight your assignment groups, you really should consider trying it out. If you’re interested, let me know, and I’ll pass along the information you need to enable it in your Canvas class.

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