• Importance of Information Published 2006-10-26

    I had a wonderful evening a couple of days ago attending a dinner/speaker event at Caltech. The presenter was Richard Murray, director of IST (Information Science and Technology) at Caltech. He described the Institute's work in developing a interdisciplinary research and teaching initiative based on information.

    Information science and technology has evolved over the last fifty years from an activity that focused on enabling more efficient calculations to a major intellectual theme that spans numerous disciplines in engineering and the sciences. To go further, however, we need new, unified ways of looking at, approaching, and exploiting information in and across the physical and biological realms, as well as the social sciences and engineering. from IST website

    Information Science is a favorite of mine so I was excited to be attending and I was not disappointed. Besides an excellent dinner and wonderful dinning companions, Dr. Murray's presentation was fascinating, two highlights of which I would like to share.

    First, Information Science is one of the core sciences that all Caltech undergraduates must study (the others being Biology, Chemistry, and Physics). Wow! That really makes a statement of the importance that Institute is placing on information and its interconnection with all that is done there. Many (e.g. Warlick, and November) write about a new literacy. This is exactly what is being done at Caltech. Information permeates our existence more today than any time in history. It is important that we study these information flows and consider novel ways of acquiring, filtering, and processing information. How many of you are reading this post by directly browsing to http://digiwalks.blogspot.com? Or are you using an RSS aggregator? Or are viewing this through a portal channel? Through some social networking site?

    The other fascinating topic on which Dr. Murray spoke was Team Caltech and the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Like in past challenges, students will design and build an unmanned, autonomous vehicle that will have to negotiate a track all on its own. What is different this time is that the track will be in an urban setting where the vehicle will have to travel down streets obeying traffic rules including stop signs. Dr. Murray showed us a video taken as Team Caltech travel through the streets of Pasadena. The two video feeds (one from the front and one from the side) show what the vehicle will "see" and process. What really excited me was something that Dr. Murray said: "Before the students can start solving problems, they must first figure out what problems need being solved." YES! As teachers we are always telling students what to do. Isn't it more realistic (authentic) to have them determine what need being done. Not only could they be assessed on how well they solve a problem, but also on how well they define the problems to be solved.

    Congratulations to Caltech and Dr. Murray for recognizing and institutionalizing the importance of information and interdisciplinary projects. I can hardly wait for this movement to spread to all Universities and into High Schools. It is not a matter of if but when.

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  • I Must Have Hated Math Class... Published 2006-10-19

    In school, I did well in my math classes to the extent that I began my college career majoring in the subject. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, I must have really hated math in school. The study found that students in the U.S. generally enjoy math class more than their counter-parts in other countries but faired worse on achievement tests.

    The argument here is not that student happiness causes low achievement. Correlations do not prove causality. But school reformers should take note. When thinking about how schools can be improved, the intuitive attractiveness of the idea that making students happier results in better education should be held in abeyance. Happiness is not everything ... [ref pg. 14]

    Their point is well taken especially the idea that we should not assume that making school more relevant and enjoyable will increase student performance. Don't get me wrong! I am a strong believer in relevance, project-based authentic learning. But as evangelists, we cannot afford make such assumptions. We need to backup our ideas with facts and result.

    I remember hearing about this math teacher who confronted by a parent who was a traditionalist when it came to the teaching of mathematics. This parent was concerned with a group project that the teacher assigned designing a rollercoaster. The teacher listened to the parent's concerns and then related conversations she had overheard during lunch earlier that week. Students were discussing their projects, defending the mathematics and challenging their classmates to do likewise. They were passionate about their projects, about math! She then sealed her argument by noting that all of her students passed the AP exam the previous year with all earning 4's or 5's.

    I was talking with an educator the other day about this report and he noted a similar study that suggested that our science students are more confident than their counter-parts in other countries but performed worse on standardized tests. Installing a false sense of confidence in our students is not productive, but neither is the opposite - giving our students a falsely low regard for their abilities. [Only 6% of 8th grade students in Korea (one of the highest performing countries in math) report that the "usually do well in mathematics" ]

    By the way, the truth is that I really liked math class. I enjoyed the challenge of solving problems and learning new cleaver ways of working on even more complicated problems. I dropped my math major in my Junior year precisely because it was not relevant. I could solve the problems (I was doing well in my classes) but I had no idea what all of this stuff was about. Speaking personally, I attribute my success in math directly to my teachers' ability to make the subject challenging and engaging.

    Reference: "How Well are American Students Learning"


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  • More on APIs - (WARNING: Geeky content within) Published 2006-10-12 under

    Last month I posted on the importance of APIs.  Today I stumbled on a good source for finding web APIs: ProgrammableWeb.  The site lists almost 300 APIs - everything from the familiar (Google and Amazon) to the obscure (Food Candy - yes it is close to lunch time!). 

    For the geeks out there, this service provides some pages with information on the type of service(s) provided by each site with links to documentation.  It also includes sites that are using these APIs to add value - "mashups".  For example, My California Traffic uses the GoogleMaps API to show "the current traffic conditions for all major freeways in California".  There are tons of sites to explore.  Be careful, time can pass you by.

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  • Agendas in New Media and Implications for Education Published 2006-10-10

    Journalists Mark Halperin and John Harris in an interview the other day on NPR's Fresh Air spoke of the  important (and even critical) role new media played in President Bush's campaigns.  This discussion highlighted an important distinction - that between having a bias and having an agenda.  Halperin (political editor from ABC news) and Harris (national political editor at the Washington Post) represent "old" media and admit that despite efforts to the contrary, political bias can creep into reporting.  Their contention is that traditional journalism includes checks to aid in assuring that facts are correct and stories are balanced.  This does not mean that certain publications don't lean in a particular political direction nor does it mean that there are the Stephen Glasses of the world.  But it does mean that for the most part, journalist try to present their stories free of bias.

    New media as defined by websites, blogs, podcasts, and even virtual reality / games [wikipedia] is not as structured as traditional media and as many suggest produces a biased product.  In fact, new media is not so much characterized by bias as by having an agenda.  I choose this word to connote a clear motive behind the content produced.  The content authors choose their subjects to promote their ideals or interests. As a point of fact, this blog represent my agenda and you will rarely read about "back to fundamentals" in a positive light.  This is not to imply that new media is a work in fiction.  The content produced by new media may be factually accurate, but may not represent the whole story.

    The transparency of some new media "publications" to promote their agenda offers we educators the opportunity to teach our students how to digest information critically.  Dave Warlick has been discussing this for some time as new literacy and Alan November's presentation "Teaching Zach to Think" provides some extreme examples of why we need to teach our students to question the bias, the agenda, the context of the content that they read, see, hear.

    Many point to the proliferation of agenda promoting content on the Web as a reason why we must either prohibit our students from using the Internet for research or should at least restrict them to a pre-selected set of resources.  I argue the contrary - the Web offers us a great opportunity to develop independent thinkers, students who can review information and comment on its worth in a critical manner.

    In no subject should students be exempt from being required to question - question the bias of the authors of their textbook, question the agenda behind the websites from which they get information, and question the topics discussed in class.  I am not promoting a culture of anarchists, believers in nothing.  Instead I am advocating a classroom where teachers celebrate bias as a tool for understanding motives and discussing truth.

    Take the example Alan November uses in his presentations, that of martinglutherking.org. This site - in case you have not heard - appears to be devoted to Martin Luther King and would appear to be a good source for anyone wanting to learn about the civil rights activist.  Instead, it is sponsored by a white surpremisist group.  The site offers the educator a great resource for students.  Imagine the assignment: Review the site, martinlutherking.org, discussing historical accuracy and pointing out examples of bias and agenda promotion and support your assertions with authorative sources.

    The Web has given us effortless access to a wide range of information, much of which contains bias and written to promote an agenda.  Instead of sheltering our students from this content, we need to embrace it as a tool for developing independent, critical thinkers.

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