Category Archives: Learning

On the new microsoft teams “enhancements”

I was forwarded an email yesterday from our VP of IT once again extolling the greatness of Microsoft Teams. Among some new “enhancements:”

  1. End meeting for all participants – Rolled out
  2. Custom video background – Rolling out
  3. Attendance reports for meetings – coming in April
  4. Raise hand – coming in late April
  5. 3×3 video support – rollout begins in late April
  6. Only Educators can start the meeting. Students can’t join meeting before the educator – coming in April

These enhancements may be all well and good. However the problem with Microsoft goes much deeper than just features, and even training. The main problem with Microsoft products is that they are always changing, they are connected in mysterious ways, they sprawl forth and reach into unknown territory, sometimes integrating for a few months with some cool other app until… they don’t, they branch off in myriad directions, and features drop off and morph, all of this without notice, without instructions — without support, basically — and for no apparent rhyme or reason. Come to think of it, that’s not one problem, it’s a LOT of problems.

If Microsoft would package one Learning Management System, if they would sell schools an LMS like Canvas or Blackboard that was one system, with documentation, research, planning, end-user-testing, and end-user-consulting, that would be great. Schools can work with Microsoft Word, or Excel, or PowerPoint, because those are individual, integrated products that have limited scope and purpose. Even the 365 product line (Word 365, Excel 365, PPT 365), with its lack of planning and documentation, is marginally manageable, simply because Microsoft has been able to constrain the scope of those products to their core purpose, instead of letting them sprawl like Sharepoint.

SharePoint is a huge sprawling mess. Office 365 is a huge sprawling mess. Teams is a huge sprawling mess. Stream is *becoming* a huge sprawling mess. Are they supposed to be connected or not? Because in some ways they are, but in other ways they’re not. Does anybody at Microsoft even know? Even their own trainers don’t know! How are WE supposed to know?

Remember Lync? Remember Skype? Remember Skype for Business? Oh wait, weren’t those all the same thing at one time? Or, weren’t they at least sold to us that way? They never really worked all that well. Especially “together.”

Bellevue College has been using Canvas since 2012. Will Teams be around in eight years? Shoot, five years? Shoot, THREE years? I’d be surprised if it is. As a teacher, I want nothing to do with more chaotic things in my already-chaotic classroom.

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

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.”

Excel and BTS 165 Ruminations

Shiny Excel buttonI love Excel. I’ve been teaching Excel now for about five years, I guess (since the 2007 version, and we’re well into the 2013 version now), and have seen some cool new features.

Excel itself has been around for a long time. It’s older than about half my students, probably. The first version of Excel came out in September 1985 (Wikipedia), and was Mac-only (as was the first version of Word)– which I love to point out because I’m a Mac dude. So Excel is a very mature program. Microsoft has had a lot of time to add new functionality and power.

And I love teaching. So, put Excel and teaching together, and I love to teach Excel. Here in the BTS department here at BC (our BTS 165 class), we’ve used three different textbooks/curriculum systems– a different one for 2007, 2010, and 2013. For Excel 2007, we used Pearson’s Go! series; for 2010, we used Cengage’s New Perspective series; and for 2013, we’re using Pearson’s Go! series again, but this time, it’s coupled with MyITLab.

Now, every textbook has its strengths and weaknesses. At the time we used 2007, I considered the Go! series too simplistic. I appreciated the New Perspectives way more– it seemed to be more comprehensive and challenging to the students. But it was also well-paced– it seemed to “scaffold” learning well– that is, it did a better job of preparing students for more challenging work. For instance, it had Capstone Projects every three chapters or so, which did a good job of wrapping up a good deal of functionality into a coherent project that was at the same time not out of reach for students. I used one of those capstone projects as a final project for many years in my Excel classes, with good results.

And I still use that same project, even though we use Go! again. Well, not in the summer– seven weeks, I have decided, is too short a time to smash in such a major project. But the next time I teach BTS 165, and in all the longer, 11-week quarters, I will use that final project.

But here is one thing that I really want to mention in this post: Chapter 2 of Excel in the Go! series of textbooks. Simply put, there is TOO MUCH STUFF in this chapter! It should be divided up into at least two chapters, and maybe three. Here’s a list of all the stuff covered:

  1. Flash Fill
  2. SUM
  5. MIN
  6. MAX
  7. Moving data
  8. Resolving error messages
  9. Rotating text
  11. IF
  12. Conditional Formatting
  13. Date functions
  14. Time functions
  15. Freezing panes
  16. Tables
  17. Sorting
  18. Filtering
  19. Viewing, formatting, and printing large worksheets
  20. Renaming worksheets
  21. Entering dates
  22. Clearing contents
  23. Clearing formats
  24. Copying and pasting with Paste Options Gallery
  25. Editing and formatting multiple sheets at a time
  26. Creating a summary sheet
  27. Column Sparklines
  28. Formatting and printing multiple worksheets at a time

And that’s it. That’s all. Only 28 features of Excel.

In class today, I went over these chapter objectives. It took an hour. (Thank goodness it’s a three-hour class!) The students were wiped out! Shoot, *I* was wiped out!

We took our break, then came back and started tackling the chapter. It went well. They’re good students, committed to doing the work, to understanding the material, to understanding not just “how” to do something in Excel, but also “why.” I love that. I love that, because, when they get out of this class (NEXT WEEK!), they’re not going to remember HOW to do most of this stuff… I therefore hope to instill a sense of familiarity with Excel’s interface, a sense that, even if they don’t know how to do any particular thing in Excel, they at least have a method of figuring it out.

And not just Excel, but the computer in general. I mean, a computer can be used for almost anything. That’s one of the main reasons that computers are so powerful– through programming, they can become a jillion different tools. No one person knows all of that stuff. It’s just too much! I mean, today in class, we looked at Excel’s Functions. There are 458 of them in the version of Excel 2013 that I have on this computer in my office.

“Nobody knows them all,” I told my students. “Not even Mike Girvin, the Excel Guru! So don’t feel bad if you don’t.”

And this brings me to another issue that I’m having lately… skills versus understanding. So, I was talking about my Final Project assignment, which, I think, is a pretty good measure of a student’s “real” understanding of Excel. I guess one of the main things this project does that is especially challenging to BTS 165 students is that they must create this workbook from scratch. This is new to them. In every single assignment, in both the Go! and New Perspectives series of textbooks, the data is provided for them. So, the fact that this one Capstone Project in New Perspectives on Excel 2010 challenges students to solve a “real world” problem means that they have to figure out a way to get that problem into an “Excellable” format! This reminds me of Alan Turing’s notion of “computability,” which is the notion that some problems are “computable,”– that is, solvable by a computer– while others are not. In this same way, Excel students are, for the first time, presented with this notion of “Excelability,”– that is, the question of whether a given problem is solvable by Excel. Up to this point, they’ve been fed problems that ARE “Excelable,” and then they’re just shown how to use Excel’s tools and functions to solve them.

What a great challenge! I mean, Excel can’t help me tie my shoes, can it? On the other hand, it can help me immensely with analyzing and understanding my inventory of products on hand.

… So, not just how to use Excel, but why. And when.

But, as I’ve said, this is not addressed in the Go! series nor the New Perspectives series (other than this one particular Capstone Project).

And, now, we’re using MyITLab. Now, MyITLab has some great tools for learning how to use Excel: the electronic version of the textbook includes hyperlinked glossary terms. Each chapter Objective is preceded by an accompanying video by one of the authors that shows how to do the stuff in that Objective. There are “Skill-Based Trainings” and “Skill-Based Exams” that train and test students on their ability to use specific features and commands. There are “Grader Projects,” which give students step-by-step instructions on how to complete a real project in Excel, which students upload for immediate grading and feedback. MyITLab is pretty cool.

These textbooks are all dedicated to teaching the technical skills, the how-to, of Excel. They’re useful references.  But how effective are they in preparing students for real life? How effective are the in preparing students for a job? I’m not sure.

Maybe it’s different for each student. Some students take BTS 165 because 1.) it’s a requirement for some certificate or degree program. Some take it because 2.) they need a job, and they’ve noticed that Excel knowledge is a common requirement for jobs these days. Some take it because 3.) they’re using it in their current life/job, and want to know more. Some take it because 4.) their parents told them to. Out of these four kinds of Excel students, BTS 165 is best for the third one: for a student who is already USING Excel, and who just need to know more about it, to learn some new tricks, to learn “the Microsoft way” (which is what I call the perspective a computer user must come from in order to best understand how to use Microsoft programs). Such students can continue to actively practice the new stuff they’re learning, to incorporate it regularly into their current lives.

But the other three kinds of students– the ones who won’t be using it every day– they’re going to have a harder time with BTS 165. I mean, they’ll be fine during the course of the quarter itself. But, when the class is over, their knowledge will immediately begin to evaporate because of non-use– the old saying, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

It is these kinds of students that our textbooks, and the MOS certification exams, do NOT help. Our textbooks and materials, prepare students for the MOS exams, which test whether a student can find the right tool/command/method for completing a specific little task in Excel. But how deep does an Excel user’s understanding need to be in order to pass such a test? Not very deep, indeed.

Now, I’m not dissing the MOS certifications. They serve a purpose. They look good on a resume. But, do they measure how well a user can use Excel to solve a real-world problem? In my opinion, not very well.

But there is a real challenge here, which may give some insight as to why there is such a dichotomy between the way our teaching/learning materials are structured and the way that I think they SHOULD be structured: assessment. I recall when my program chair presented our new course and program outcomes about a year ago. Essentially, our new outcomes are: “the student should be able to pass the MOS certification exam.” And the way she presented it, it made total sense: it is measureable! And, when it comes to the college “certification” process, one of the main things that certification board is looking for are measureable course outcomes.

It is much easier to measure whether a student passed the MOS test than it is to determine whether they understand how to use Excel to solve a real-world problem.

So, there it is. In one blog post, some of the major issues with Excel and BTS 165 that I have been thinking about for the better part of a full year.

Comments welcome.