What Does Connection Look Like?

October was Connected Educator’s Month. (Soapbox moment: I can’t wait until we can get rid of these silly “awareness months.” Okay, I’m done). I’ve been on Twitter for almost three years and I was curious about what engagement actually looked like for a given period of time. So, I decided to do a little experiment.

Gathering Data

On October 1, I turned on all of the notifications for Twitter except for DM’s and Replies. Those are easy enough to count with a tool given to me by LivingTree called Twitonomy. I was more interested in two things:

  • How many RT’s and Favorited tweets would I get
  • What kind of tweets were favorited and retweeted.

Unless you have email notifications (which I hate) turned on, you don’t get to see your RT’s and favorited tweets in the 3rd party Twitter clients. (Sidebar number two: you should use a management app. Twitter on the web is horrible.)

The Process

Like a good scientist, I had a couple of controls. First, I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this. I didn’t want to sway the normal activity of my normal interactions. So, for those of you who unwillingly contributed, thank you. Second, I didn’t change my habits of tweeting. I tweeted jokes, nonsense, commentary, snark, resources, articles, pictures…pretty much business as usual. Again, I didn’t want to saturate my stream with some kind of bias for results.

I broke my tweeting habits up into four groups:

  1. Commentary
  2. Resources
  3. Blog Posts
  4. Other

Commentary – This was off the cuff comments, statements, snark, or other general statements about what I was thinking at the time.

Resources – This is anything like how-to’s or other informational pieces (not written by me) that might help others.

Blog Posts – These are tweets for any post that I have direct control over.

Other – Goofy articles, mostly. Things not pertaining to anything other than for entertainment value.

The Data

I went through all of the interactions and put them into a Google spreadsheet to visualize the data a little bit.

For the mentions, I decided to subtract my reported (via email) RT’s from my mentions count in order to get a more accurate number. I used two different means to get these numbers, so they’re probably double counted.

I went into this expecting that articles and blog posts would draw the highest level of engagement on Twitter. I was really surprised to see that my offhand comments were the most interacted-with.

And I think part of my surprise in the results is because I didn’t set up an easy way (at the beginning) to track the interactions (specifically, Mentions) for each individual tweet. All I measured was the number of times a particular tweet was RT’d or favorited, which isn’t really interacting at all…at least not in the traditional sense.

The Deep Stuff

Twitter is a funny machine…it allows people from across the world to interact with one another, but not under the obligation of actually interacting with them. I had no idea how many times particular tweets were retweeted by followers. So, while they were resonating with something I had said or shared, I wasn’t aware of that interaction. So, the question going through my mind right now is:

“Is it my fault for not interacting and engaging a follower, or their fault for not reaching out and engaging with me?”

I decided to create a really official sounding, yet totally made up, metric for my engagement in October. I’m calling it the Engagement Quotient. (Sounds good, right?) I got this by dividing the number of Mentions by my total Tweets for the time period.

To get this, I wanted to know what percentage of my Tweets encouraged some kind of direct response from someone as a Mention.

Out of 689 tweets in October, I received 542 mentions, giving me an EQ score of 79%.

In reality, this means absolutely nothing. But, to me, it means that something I’m doing is engaging my PLN. And that means I’m contributing to the discussion in some way, which makes me feel good about being a connected person/educator/male/whatever.

In the future, I want to have some better goals set up from day one. A lot of this came toward the end of the month as I thought about what it means to be engaged. So, while it is mildly scientific in nature (I had tables and charts), it could have been more so. Maybe I’ll do it again in a few months and see if it changes based on season. I’m not sure.

If you want to see my data, you can check out the spreadsheet here.

A “Radical New Teaching Model” That is Missing the Point

Wired business had an article come out earlier this month about a small school in Mexico that saw huge gains in learning because of some computers put in the classroom. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.

Because Wired is wildly popular and because education is kind of a hot topic right now, this article has been making some waves. Even in the office, it made its rounds as a fantastic idea that schools are behind on. The teacher in me welled up and wrote a preachy soapboxy email to the group passing it, and I figured I would post it here as well.

I’d read this article earlier this week. It’s a fantastic, heartwarming story, but I do want to make one comment (this is the teacher in me talking now)…

Gupta downplays the role of the teacher. While on the surface, this looks appealing for a lot of reasons. Students can explore on their own without the dictator at the front of the room. They can work collaboratively, problem solving and self-democratizing. This is all great, but having a teacher is still important (and that’s not because I’m a teacher at heart). All of this can be done, but the role of the teacher is to provide context for the content. Anyone can get online and look up facts about the moon, DNA, or the French Revolution. What is missing is a facilitator providing context to the flow of information we get from the Internet. There have been plenty of times students are learning the content, but then fall flat on their face when they try to explain it because there is no good way to put information into a box, nice and neat.

I saw my job in the classroom as being a content resource, yes. More importantly, I could ask the probing questions and listen critically to what students were saying back to me. I’m sure Correa was doing that in his classroom, but not brought out in the article. Consider the number of times you get up and talk to someone here who knows more than you do about a task you’re trying to accomplish. You can read StackOverflow and forums all day and still not be able to accomplish the task. It’s the same thing internships are set up to do. We don’t call each other teachers, but we all teach a little bit each day.

I’m not trying to rant against the article…it’s a fantastic story of success against really stacked odds. I’m glad to see stories like this getting press and some time in front of people who might never hear them, but I’m worried that the trend of downplaying the role of educators is going to continue.

Ok, I’m done soapboxing. Thanks for indulging me.

Yes, computers are great at finding information. But, it still takes the wisdom and experience of teachers to put that content into context, and that’s the valuable lesson here.

Bring on the MOOC

The eight weeks of remixing have kicked off for CEP811 at MSU. Right off the bat, our first task was to pick an edtech buzzword and use Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker (I think they should have called it “remixerator,” but that’s just me) to make a one-minute video explaining our buzzword.

How could I resist the opportunity to describe a MOOC? (I really just like saying the word “MOOC.” Admit it. You do too.)

Here’s my final remix:

I’d never used Popcorn before and it actually took me a good while to get used to it. I’ve done a lot of video editing, so it was hard for me to not treat it like a full-blown video editor. I actually started this on Tuesday and then had to walk away for a little while to try and clear my head before I finished.

I think what I like the most is being able to search for content as well as link to content right in the media bin. It’s helpful to be able to paste a link and have the photo or GIF pop right in. I also like that links are included in the live project for attribution. It makes the whole curation process much simpler because I don’t have to try and keep track of every source in a separate space. I really tried to come up with metaphors for some of these ideas, but being limited to Creative Commons materials (and I’m not complaining) makes it hard to do sometimes.

I couldn’t help but editorialize a little bit at the end. MOOCs aren’t that hard to understand: they’re super-massive classes taught by a professor (usually using traditional means) to students in an LMS. There is little creativity and little freedom to really use the web. Essentially, they’re not doing a whole lot of innovative work, and now, some are making a ton of money off of their platforms.

Of course, the big conflict is that universities also want to make money off of these online courses. So, already, we have a conflict of interests that doesn’t really do anything to help students have a better online learning experience.

It may be summed up best by Larry Cuban in a recent Washington Post article:

Given the history of universities and colleges in the United States, chances are that many higher education institutions (non-elite and community colleges) will continue to retrofit and transform MOOCs into credit-bearing courses that will yield revenue. MOOCs will not revolutionize higher education.

Are MOOCs here to stay? I’m not putting my money on it.


Anders, George. “Coursera hits 4 million students — and triples its funding Forbes.” Forbes. 10 July 2013. Web 23 Oct. 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2013/07/10/coursera-hits-4-million-students-and-triples-its-funding/.
Cuban, Larry. “Why MOOCs won’t revolutionize higher ed. The Answer Sheet.” The Washington Post. 8 July 2013. Web 23 Oct. 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/07/08/why-moocs-wont-revolutionize-higher-ed/.
Parr, Chris. “New study of low MOOC completion rates Inside Higher Ed.” Inside Higher Ed. 10 May 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/05/10/new-study-low-mooc-completion-rates.

I Learned a Lesson from my iPod

I drive a really long way to work twice week.

I love what I do every day, which is why I choose to drive. To entertain myself I listen to a lot of podcasts. Radiolab, WireTap, and This American Life are favorites on the drive.

When I plugged the iPod into the stereo yesterday morning, it jumped to my entire song list at “A,” and just started playing songs in order. Rather than stopping and going right to a podcast, I decided to let it play for a while. I listened to songs Friday morning that I didn’t even realize were in my library (digital music overload, anyone?). It was pretty enjoyable and I heard some great music that I hadn’t listened to since at least high school.

That being said, I switched away after a while because of how disjoined everything felt. Have you ever listened to an album from start to finish without interruption? If you haven’t you really should. If a band is really thinking about their music, an album has a flow and a continuity that adds to the overall experience of their music. I found myself anticipating the next song on the album only to be disappointed (and sometimes even surprised) by the change of track.

It got me thinking about learning. Your class has a flow…a continuity that helps students travel through the content. Far too often as a teacher I heard, “Why is this important?” or, “When will this even matter?” In other words, I wasn’t doing a great job at helping to mold the entire experience of science around the individual parts. I didn’t have good segues or transitions at times. Other times, I jumped from one topic to another without any prelude, much like playing through your library alphabetically.

Think about how you’re interacting with your students. How do you transition? How are you painting the story of your content? Why should they anticipate the next step or reflect on where they just came from? Think about teaching as a story.

If you’re looking for a fantastic album to listen to start to finish, consider Bon Iver as a place to start.

Astronomy Project – Day 10

I made some quick additions this afternoon to my GitHub repo for this project, which I’ve renamed to PySky. I had to do some research on the Pyephem license before I packaged it with my code. It turns out it’s available to distribute freely with other software as long as I provide my source, so now, it’s packaged with my simple python script.

Update 9:08 PM 10/16/13

Looks like I wrote the post too soon. I was able to spend some time tonight working on the script after my wife went to bed and I was able to get both of my original problems solved. The updated script is posted on GitHub.

I was able to find a nifty little piece of code to help me manage responses to prompts so my code is a little cleaner. I don’t have to have as many conditionals (if, elif, else) in my functions anymore, which makes everything look a little bit nicer.

As far as my coding, I’m working on a couple things:

  1. Users will be able to set their location, rather than having it hardcoded to South Bend (which isn’t useful at all).
  2. The program needs to be able to save the location data for all lookups. I think a global variable is a good way to do this, but I need to learn more.

Things have been crazy lately, so I haven’t touched this in a while. I’m still also working on getting the hardware I need to get my Raspberry Pi up and running. The only video-out it has is an HDMI port. I don’t have a monitor that can take HDMI, and I’m having a hard time tracking an HDMI-to-VGA adapter down. I might need to turn to Amazon for this one.

BUT, I did get another crucial piece of hardware for this little jaunt that I’m very excited about.

Of course, it happened to come on the cloudiest day of the month so far. I’ll post more pictures of the scope in a later post.

Astronomy Project – Day 5

I worked a little bit tonight on my code while Lindsey got to bed early while the baby napped. I added a menu at the beginning of the program which prompts the user to select either Stars or Planets. Then, they can put their choice in.

This is a short-term implementation for a few of reasons:

  1. For users without the PyEphem library, I need to see if I can push a download or package the data somehow.
  2. I don’t want to have a ton of menus to go through
  3. The star library is pretty small. It’s good enough now, but I need to find another one to tap into.
  4. The code is “chunky.” I want to go through and streamline when I’m more awake.

I keep thinking about how much more I’m learning working on this project as opposed to when I tried to learn Python using arbitrary lessons. It’s really driving home the idea of interest-based learning and it’s not something I’m going to forget any time soon.

If you want to see and try the new code, you can fork it on GitHub.

Astronomy Project – Day 4

I’ve been dabbling a little bit every day with this project and I’ve made some big changes since day 1.

First, with some help from Brandon Rhodes on StackOverflow, I got the function to print the altitude/azmiuth data for a planet when you run the script. This is still hardcoded for South Bend, but that’s where I live, so it makes sense. Down the line, I’ll make this a variable a user can use to set their locality.

Next, I found a python module to pull the current date and time when requesting the planet’s location. Since the Earth moved, it didn’t make sense to display the position based on date alone. Now, it will read that information from the computer and give more accurate results. Because I did this during the day, I used the sun as my object so I could check it’s position in my program vs other databases and calculators online. And this is where my brain started to hurt.

If you’re not familiar with astronomy (and I’m still learning) you can display position in a few different ways. The easiest (most popular?) way to describe position is using altitude and azimuth coordinates. The altitude is the angle of the object above the horizon and the azimuth is it’s angular distance around the horizon. So, if it’s position is 30o, 270o, it would be 30 degrees above the horizon looking due west.

You can also use celestial coordinates, right ascension and declination. RA is the angular distance from the celestial equator. In other words, if you stand on the equator and look up, you’re looking at RA = 0. The declination, on the other hand, is the direction north or south of the celestial plane. To me, this is much harder to conceptualize in my brain, which is why I prefer alt/az descriptors.

So, back to the code. I got it to print alt/az data, which was awesome. So, to make sure it was working correctly, I checked it against some other tools, and that’s when I ran into problems.

So, I went back to the code and changed it to print out the RA/Dec instead of alt/az to see what would happen.

Which was better.

I need to find some way to improve my alt/az calculations. I don’t know if it’s my location data or if there need to be adjustments to conversions, but I’m getting funny answers. For now, I’ll keep it in RA/Dec because the entire point of this program down the line is to pass this data to a telescope, so it doesn’t matter which one is easier for the user to look at. We’ll see.

If you want to see the current code, here’s the current dev code base. If you’re a python coder, feel free to fork and contribute.

Astronomy Project – Day 1

This is kind of a long story, but stick with me, because I’m excited about it.


Earlier this year, I set a goal for myself to learn Python. I started on learning, but I didn’t really have any practical application for what I was doing.

Rising Action

I’ve always enjoyed astronomy, looking at the stars and planets, and more recently, trying to take pictures of them in my back yard.

I’m planning on buying a telescope in the near future, and part of that is going to include a simple motor to make sure I can aim it accurately and efficiently.

I’m also starting a master’s class in a couple weeks at MSU which is focusing on the maker culture idea and its implications in the classroom. Rather than purchasing a textbook for the course, we’ve been asked to buy a Raspberry Pi, Makey Makey, Squishy Circuits Kit, or a LittleBits kit.

And that’s when I had my stroke of insight. (I won’t be presumptuous and say genius. Yet.)

My project this fall is going to be going back and actually learning Python to create a program on the Raspberry Pi which can be used to control my telescope.

After doing some searching, I even found a Python library, PyEphem, which is a database of astronomical data put together (in part) by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Those are the guys that landed Curiosity on Mars. They know what they’re doing.

I know this is going to be a crazy six weeks of learning, working, and applying that to the classroom. While working full time. And raising my daughter.

Bring it on.

The Conflict

I’ve already started by looking back at the Python I’d already learned to see if I could begin to tap into what I’ve already found. I’ve got a public Github repository to hold all of the code as I write. Right now, it’s five lines of code that allow you to pick a planet and a date (even a future date…awesome) and it will tell you which constellation the planet appears in.

If you’ve got experience with Python, I’d really love to have your input as I go through the process.

I’m not expecting to have this totally done by the end of the semester, but I know I’m going to be learning a ton that I’ll be able to take back to the classroom someday.

In ds106, Shark Jumps YOU

It was one of those days, and I couldn’t pass this one up.

The Headless ds106 is in full swing, and this week is Design Week. I love design work because it makes me think hard about how to communicate ideas both subtly and artfully. You can see some of my design work from the Twilight Zone theme this past summer.

Earlier today, Rochelle Lockridge posted an article in which someone (a colleague?) created an animated GIF for a presentation they were doing for work. This animation is great (and probably beyond my own GIMP chops) and it was a cool story to see them work through the struggle to learn GIMP to produce the image.

Later, Alan posted this tweet:

And BOOM. Sharks? Complicated animated GIFs of technical thingywhosits? I got to work.

I give you: “Make the shark jump you.”

In ds106, we don’t jump the shark. That bad boy jumps us.

Go make art.

Is Khan Academy the Next Generation LMS?

Since 2011, the online resource of thousands of educational videos has been heralded as the “savior of education” and a model for flipped classrooms (I’m going to bite my tongue on this one), and now, the go-to place for “personalized learning.” There’s a whole lot of bad in here for a lot of different reasons. But, the newest piece, the idea of personalized learning delivered by Khan Academy, is dangerous.

How do you recognize an LMS? This is what I came up with:

  • An LMS reports data, people reflect.
  • An LMS flags poor performance, people grow through engaging members of the community
  • An LMS hosts and organizes learning content, people build their content as they learn
  • An LMS keeps track of grades, people couldn’t care less about grades when they’re engaged.

Remember, an LMS is a machine, nothing more, nothing less. It will only give what you put into it.

Now, back to my question. Khan Academy.

“Personalized learning” has popped up in KA promotional materials lately. (It is the phrase you use in a conference proposal to make sure it’s picked up.) The problem is that the personalized learning offered by most third party groups isn’t personalized at all. It’s actually randomized degree of difficulty. In other words, it’s a giant, adaptive test bank that feigns its way into schools under the guise of personalization. Students are still stuck in the system. They are still forced through the steps and procedures. They have no choice in how to demonstrate their learning other than the built in, old fashioned assessments. Personalization is being eroded because either companies are really good at sales and marketing, or we’re all looking for the wrong things.

And this is why Khan Academy is nothing more than a big, fancy LMS. While powerful and extremely helpful, every LMS out there locks you into their system. If you have students, assignments, announcements, documents, and assessments poured into one place, it becomes very difficult to see any reason to step away from that construct. Sure, they make the teachers life easier, but once you’re in, it’s hard to get out (mostly because of time constraints, not necessarily procedures to switch platforms).

The big difference between “traditional” systems is that the teacher was in control of the content. Not so with Khan Academy, and this is why it’s more dangerous than the others. Teachers and schools are diving into the system because of the helpful data and videos, but at the same time, they’re unwittingly sacrificing any option for a student to choose to do something different.

We’re asking the wrong questions when it comes to evaluating learning tools for our students.

While enticing, we should not be jumping toward anything that has content baked into the system. It becomes too easy to begin relying on that content as the backbone of your course, whether you “mean” to or not. Good intentions don’t count when students’ interests are sacrificed for the sake of simplicity.

What are you really using the LMS for? Too often, a LMS is a one-way communication tool with students simply uploading materials to turn in for grades. What limitations are place on them when it comes to choosing their learning opportunities? What options do students have to ask insightful questions and then find resources to report those out? What kind of content can be brought into the system to be used as a resource by anyone else in that system?

Ask yourself when you plan on allowing students to truly direct their own learning. If you can’t come up with a reasonable answer, ask yourself “why not?”