A Natural Progression


I found this article so intriguing.  “A picture is worth a thousand (coherent) words: building a natural description of images". 

At the same time, it shouldn’t come as totally unexpected.

After all, Google has been doing amazing things with images for a long time.  Google Goggles is just an indispensible tool.  Take a picture and let Googles help you decipher what it is.  It’s a great replacement for a specific QR Code reader application but can be so useful in answering the questions “What is that?” or “Tell me more about that?”  It’s a great tool for inquiry.  In addition, Google’s Search by Image lets you get alternative views to a picture that you’ve taken or found online.

 

Humanity has been feeding the web images forever, tagging and describing them, and search engines are there to index them.  An algorithm to describe the images just seems to me to be a natural in the progression of things.

Just the possibilities of this are kind of mind boggling.  Google has a picture of my house online.  I wasn’t there when they drove by but they did.  Can you see comments generated like “Looks like Doug needs to cut his grass”.  Or, in the next stage of commerce, identifying all the dandelions on my front lawn and sending an email to the local landscaping companies who have subscribed to a service with the message “We’ve got a live one…”

Technology serves us best when it makes out lives better.

  • Immediate results from an x-ray or MRI with a detailed description not subject to human error;
  • A description of a robbery suspect moments after a holdup at the local variety store;
  • A description of a hit and run vehicle caught on camera, again moments after it happened.

Sometimes, we’re slow at adopting new technologies.  While the process seems at its infancy now, it’s bound to mature.  What will our lives be like when it does?  What does this do to our privacy?

This article makes for a great classroom discussion.  Can students extend the list of uses for an application like this? 

Classic Games


Over the weekend, I had a discussion about computer gaming.  I was in the neighbourhood of id Software and Gearbox Software.  In my discussion with Henry, we were talking about student fascination with gaming and all the latest things that engage them.  Showing my age, I was more focussed on the classics from id like Doom.  Good times were had with that software and running it over a LAN was so cutting edge at the time.

In fact, computer gaming has always seemed to be ahead of the curve with respect to software development as programmers try their best to push and get the most performance from the box on which it played.  In my way of thinking, virtual reality has always been very nicely represented in the gaming of the time.

It is sad, at times, that the old games eventually go away and are replaced with newer ones.

But, if you yearn for the oldie goldies, you can have at them at the Internet Archive.

Check out the categories.  Check out the huge collection of what’s available.

If you want to get back to the life of wearing out the arrow keys on your computer keyboard, this is the place to be!

 

Should Have Done This Years Ago


Years ago, maybe five?, I had a Lenovo laptop with a whopping 2 MB of memory.  At the time, I wanted to try out Ubuntu in a dual boot situation.  I already had purchased the Dell Netbook that came with Ubuntu and I really liked it.  So, off I went to the Ubuntu website and downloaded Ubuntu and made the machine dual boot.  One side was Windows XP and the other side was Ubuntu.

Of course, I had to download the 32 bit version of Ubuntu with the limited memory that I had in place.  The computer was OK on the Windows side but just screamed on the Ubuntu side.  It was just so fast; it was hard to believe that it was the same computer.

When that laptop died, I indulged myself with this computer.  It has an i7 processor and 4GB of RAM.  Windows 7 was OK but like most Windows installations slowed over time no matter how many times I tweaked it.  I’m sure that it’s self-inflicted.  So, I decided to make the computer dual boot to Ubuntu.  Now, when you have the slow internet that I do, you really have to pick and choose your downloads wisely.  I could go somewhere and download on their high speed – but I still had the Ubuntu DVD from my previous installation.  I was just going to test for proof of concept anyway – so I installed it and started to use it.  Darned if it didn’t make this computer fly.

I kept using it, and when updates came along, I would just apply the updates.  I was totally happy.  The last update was 14.04LTS and I was very, very happy with it.

Until I tried to install the Opera Browser.

Oh yeah.  That other decision has come back to byte me.

Opera only comes in a 64 bit version so I couldn’t install it.  I went online seeking advice and there was no natural path from the 32 bit version to the 64 bit version.  It calls for brute force installation from scratch.  Just backup your Home Directory after revealing hidden files so that you can resume Ubuntu life.

I looked at my face mirrored in the monitor.  You dummy.

Right out of the box, Windows 7 was running 64 bit.  That was only half a hard disk away.

The timing was right.  Ubuntu, which updates itself every six months, has just released version 14.10.  Why not?

So, I started the download and went to take the dog for a long walk.  There’s no sense in sitting at the keyboard watching the download process inch along.

Sure enough, when we returned, there was a disk image sitting on my desktop.  I just need to burn it to DVD, reboot from the DVD and then install.  Wait!  Do I have any DVDs?  It’s been so long since I’d burned one.  Fortunately, having a son in the television editing business means that there’s never a shortage of video stuff.  I walked down the hall and got a blank.  Of course, I needed to dig into the ol’ brain cells to remember how to burn a DVD…done!

I rebooted and was so impressed with the installation screen.

I could:

  • Run Ubuntu from the DVD (nah, I’m here for the duration);
  • Erase the entire hard drive and install Ubuntu 14.10 (goodbye Windows);
  • Erase the petition and install Ubuntu 14.10 (yes, but that would remove everything and I’m not that radical);
  • Do something else; (I was totally intrigued by this but passed…)
  • or, the preferred solution – you have Windows 7 and Ubuntu 14.04LTS installed – upgrade Ubuntu to 14.10.  Yes!

Half an hour later, I’m done.  During the process, I noticed that Ubuntu had archived certain things and then restored them.  On first boot, I hit Firefox to see that my theme (Puny Weakling) and all of my extensions save.  It was just a matter of copying my Home Directory and I was back, good to go.

I had bookmarked a couple of upgrade advice resources:

Some I had planned on doing anyway, some were new and some were ignored.  After all, Ubuntu is all about open ideas and concepts – even in its installation.

I installed Ubuntu Tweak and messed about.  I think we all have an idea of what our computer should look and act like.

And, I’m back in business.  No stopping me from trying out Opera on Ubuntu now!

If this works out well, maybe I’ll buy more RAM.

I’m never completely computer happy.

This Has Potential


My wife and I were talking mathematics the other day.  She wanted to know why teachers were getting beat up over the teaching of mathematics.  In Ontario, it boils down to one thing – EQAO scores.  This is big media news as schools are compared to other schools; school districts compared to each other.  And, teachers take the brunt of the scrutiny.  Despite trite phrases like “Not the same way, not the same day”, students are expected to reach a certain level in grades 3, 6, 9 across the province on the same week, on the same test.

I reflected back to my own journey with mathematics.  I have a degree (BMath) focussing on Combinatorics and Optimization and Computer Science.  I love mathematics; I love problem solving; I love visualizing things.  I’m the guy that goes to a restaurant and mentally determines the best value on the menu.  I convert Celsius to Fahrenheit and kilometres to miles just for the heck of it.

But it wasn’t always that way.  I distinctly remember in elementary school breaking down in tears over some of the mind numbing things that we had to do.  One specific thing that sticks out was a multiplication table.  In class, we worked the grid to go as far as 10×10.  For homework, we had to extend it to 12×12.  I spent a great deal of frustrating pain doing it and never got it.  When we got to school the next day, we were expected to lay open our notebooks and we were checked to see how many got it right.  Those of us who didn’t got additional pain by having to go to the blackboard and have our stupidity explained to us.  For years, it seems, I just couldn’t do anything right when it came to mathematics.  True story.

Then, it changed.  My ship had come in, it seems.  I think it was grade 6 or grade 7, I had a complete turnaround.  I don’t recall whether it was explicit in the teaching or just an insight on my part.  I became a mathematics genius.  (Or, at least not the dummy that I was…)  Calculations became just patterns; Geometry became puzzles; somehow I finally got mathematics.  From that point on, every mathematics question became just another puzzle to be solved.  I remember in Grade 10 how calculations became just measurements.  We all had to learn how to use a slide rule for calculations.  I remember one of the kids in the class had a $500 calculator (which today would be powerfully contained on a keychain).  Our teacher impressed upon us the value of our tool and we were able to do calculations quicker than this calculator.  Of course, this technology has been solidly dated but it was cool at the time.

I remember at university a professor talking about how important it was to appreciate those who loved mathematics.  He used this example…

What do you do if you’re good at football?  Practice, Practice, Practice

What do you do if you’re good at a musical instrument?  Practice, Practice, Practice

What do you do if you’re good at baseball?  Practice, Practice, Practice

What do you do if you’re good at mathematics?  Do the odd numbered questions on page 37 and then go outside and practice baseball

Think about it for a bit.

It’s how so many people think and feel about mathematics.  It’s solely about getting the right answer.  It’s all or nothing.

As a student teacher, I remember my first mathematics placement.  It was important to give a lot of homework every night and the logic was that if you did enough of the same problem, you’ll commit it to memory.  I supposed it did commit an algorithm to memory.

On my second placement, I had a little more experience under my belt and I remember the first day going around the class asking if the students enjoyed Mathematics.  The answer was surprisingly “yes”.  When I asked why, the answer was “Because Mr. C. doesn’t give homework”.  Interesting, I thought.  I’ve got to see the end of this class.  Well, it turned out that homework was assigned.  But, it wasn’t doing the odd numbered questions…  The instructions were simple – take one of the problems that we did in class today and redo it differently.  The next day was interesting.  Taking up homework was more of a discussion rather than doing more problems.  These kids were actually talking mathematics.  I had to learn more.

During our preparation period, I asked Mr. C. about it.  He had an interesting philosophy.  His logic was that kids hated mathematics because they were assigned to do problems that they were having challenges with in class.  What do they do when they get home?  They didn’t have him to ask for help.  By reassigning a problem that they knew the answer to, the goal wasn’t to just solve another problem.  It was to think deeply about something that they already knew.

That moment made me completely think about what I thought I knew about homework and it stuck with me forever. 

Obviously, that particular technique doesn’t fit every day but it does make one reflect on the value of homework.  Do you want to amplify a problem?  Is the goal of mathematics just to get the right answer?

So, on to the scene recently we have this new application “PhotoMath“.  Essentially, the app lets the camera take a picture of a problem and it solves it for you, including “showing your work”.  How many times have you heard that in your mathematics life?!

Brian Aspinall and his students kicked the tires on the application and this generated a post from him here.

There have been various reports of people having success with the application and others delighting in finding a problem with its operation.  I would suggest to anyone that it’s new.  It can only get better.

Fast forward and imagine a mathematics classroom with this application in place.  In the beginning, there will always be the question “Is this program doing it right?”  What does it mean when it does?  There are those already touting doom and gloom for teachers and the teaching of mathematics.  Take a look at some of the CNN quotes that Brian pulled for his blog post.

There was a time when we forbid calculators in the classroom because it stole from the learning of mathematics.  Then, we accepted them but banned graphing calculators because it was stealing the need to learn to graph.  Now, they’re accepted and the discussion becomes not one of the value of them, but which of the ones on the market is best! 

In the process, we haven’t killed the process of doing calculations; we’ve made it better.  We haven’t killed graphing; we’ve made it better.  I would suggest that PhotoMath or any of the applications bound to follow, understood and used properly, could make the problem solving process better. 

Who wouldn’t want their own personal tutor at home?  Who wouldn’t like relief from the dull activity of applying the same algorithm over and over until you get it?  What teacher wouldn’t want students who think deeply and talk the story of mathematics instead of just doing the same problem over and over again.

This has real potential.

Another Interview with Brian Aspinall


A little over a year ago, I conducted an online interview with Brian Aspinall.  We’ve stayed in contact and certainly I follow the stories and articles that he shares every morning.  Recently, he indicated that we should do another interview.  That sounded like a good idea so here goes.

Doug:  Thanks for agreeing to do another interview, Brian.  It will be interesting to catch up with what’s happening with you.

 

Brian: Thank you again for this opportunity. I cannot believe it has been over a year since our last Q & A!

 

Doug:  So, where are you teaching this year?  What grades?

 

Brian: I have (finally) secured some seniority and am here to stay at Indian Creek Road PS in Chatham. My current assignment is a grade 8 homeroom with some grades 7 & 8 rotary Science and Phys Ed.

 

Doug:  I’ve read that you’ve been out of class on special projects.  Can you elaborate on that?

 

Brian: This year I am active on two Board committees. This first of which is a Creating Pathways to Success committee. We are revamping our program to coincide with the new ministry document. More about inquiry and student choice. Our K-6 students are now required to have a portfolio of “all About Me” that will follow them to grades 7 & 8. We are working on what that will look like for our students.

 

The second project is a TLLP grant we received from OTF. We have been granted some release time to teach other intermediate staff about some of the news, technologies and pedagogies of today’s classrooms in order to level the playing field – so to speak – across the feeders schools in our area. This is a cross panel group and we have members from the local high school involved as well. This gives us an opportunity to share and highlight the great things happening in each of our schools and provides us with an opportunity to actually tour each building.

 

Doug:  During our last interview, we talked about Sketchlot and Clipkwik.  Where do these projects stand?

 

Brian: Clipkwik is still alive and well. I’m not sure what I am going to do with it now that youtube etc. is pretty well wide open in our classrooms. As you remember, Clipkwik was a solution to a problem – a way to find videos fast from sources other than youtube as it was blocked at the time. I haven’t used clipkwik much lately but still own the domain name.

 

Sketchlot hasn’t been on my radar since Scrawlar was developed about a year ago.

 

Doug:  Most recently, your biggest project is Scrawlar.  Can you give the readers a short description of it if they haven’t tried it already?

 

Brian: Scrawlar is a web whiteboard and word processor for schools. Essentially it is a place to collaborate on writing or math for younger students who do not have an email and want a simple tool. Students can create documents and sketches and then share them with anyone in the class. With tools like Scrawlar, our school alone saved close to $7500 last year just on printing costs! Students do not need to sign up for Scrawlar as the teacher adds them to the class network.

 

Doug:  Was there a little something extra in your pay cheque?  <grin>  Now, you’re entering a space where there are existing online products.  Why would someone consider Scrawlar when they could use Microsoft Office 365 or Google Documents?

Brian: Privacy! Scrawlar is just me. No data mining. No ads. No bots. Just me and a few lines of php code. Secondly, I have had many conversations with teachers trying out Google Classroom with young grades and they find it difficult. Many are making the switch back to Scrawlar. Lastly, Scrawlar is web based so it is always up to date. Teachers won’t have to bug site admins for app updates. It is HTML5 and works on all tablets, phones and PCs – for those BYOD classrooms.

 

Doug:  Is there room for a classroom to use both?

 

Brian: App smash away! You can now upload pics from the camera roll to sketch on in the whiteboard section.

 

Doug:  How many classrooms are currently using your online projects?  

 

Brian: As of this writing there are about 5500 users.

 

Doug:  In your mind, you must have a target figure that you’d like to reach.  Could you share that?  

 

Brian: I’d love to see it reach the numbers twiducate hit a few years ago. Last time I checked twiducate was about 160,000 users.

 

 

Doug:  Who pays for the bandwidth and storage space for these projects?

 

Brian: My wife! Ha, jk. I do. As it grows so do my bandwidth fees. I believe I currently have four godaddy accounts. Maybe I should re-think this now that you brought it to my attention!

 

Doug:  I had asked earlier if you would open source your projects and you indicated that you didn’t think you would.  One of the things that I think would be useful would be for a classroom teacher to customize their students instances of the projects.  Would you consider adding room for a school or classroom logo so that the teacher could really make it their own?

 

Brian: I’ve never considered this but I LOVE the idea. Like a Google Site or D2L teachers could make their network a little more custom with school logos and colours. Something to consider, thanks for the idea.

 

Doug:  I’m guessing that you’ve got a few projects on the go.  Can you share with us some of what you’re working on?

 

Brian: Nkwiry is my #1 focus right now. Again built as a solution to a problem. Over the last six months I have heard teachers saying “I want to flip my classroom but videos get buried in timelines on websites or social media we use”. Class websites are great but it seems there is difficulty in sharing many videos, filtered by subject area, on these sites.

 

Nkwiry is a place to share videos with and alongside students, based on subject area. teachers and students alike can post math videos under a math tile, science videos under a science tile, etc. I see nkwiry as the perfect flipped / blended learning tool for teachers who want to stop using textbooks and have their students research authentic class concepts. The videos shared under each tile and be posted back to a class website using a public link. www.nkwiry.com

 

Outside of the technology front I am an active planner on the EdCampSWO team. This year we are piggy-backing #BIT14 by offering George Couros as a keynote to those local here in south western Ontario who cannot make it to Niagara. EdCampSwo is November 8, 2014 at Tecumseh Vista school in Windsor. People may register at www.edcampswo.com. Based on numbers so far, I think we may hit 400 participants this year!

 

Doug:  Over the past year, I’ve noticed that you’ve become more vocal online about getting students to code.  If a person was a fly on Mr. Aspinall’s classroom wall, what would they see on a typical day with respect to programming?

 

Brian: Noise. Bean bag chairs. An Arcade machine. I have students coding choose your own adventure graphic novels. I have students coding math applications to make rote tasks more engaging. I have students coding games in Unity to be played on the arcade. I also have students teaching themselves javascript from code academy.

 

Doug:  We’ll undoubtedly get a chance to catch up at the Bring IT, Together Conference in Niagara Falls in a couple of weeks.  Can you share with us a bit about your presentation?

 

Brian: Based on my summary for #BIT14 I need about 6 hours to cover everything! I want to discuss Google Classroom, augmented reality and coding but 50 mins will be a challenge. I am toying with the idea of taking a vote as I love choose your own PD. I think I will cover the big ideas from two of the topics and go into greater deal on the third topic the group has voted on.

Doug:  Thanks so much for being available to be interviewed again, Brian.  All the best to you.  I’ll look forward to catching up again.

Brian: Thanks Doug, see you in a few weeks!

You can follow Brian on Twitter at @mraspinall

You can also follow his apps!  @scrawlar, @nkwiry, @clipkwik, @sketchlot

His home on the web is here:  http://brianaspinall.com/

Cats, Eyesight, and Photo Editing


Right up front, I’ll admit it.  

I’m a dog person.  I have no use for cats or cat videos.  

Now, you can’t beat a good dog video…

I once worked with a gentleman in the Program Department who was quite fond of saying “There’s got to be a workshop in there somewhere.”  We’d drive to places together and between the two of us would see the darnedest things and somehow work them into a workshop, not necessarily in the traditional means.

I had that moment last night when I read this report on a research study – “Cat Watch 2014: What’s it like being a cat?“.

Photo Credit: ucumari photography via Compfight cc

This report is one of three and its purpose is to show how cats experience the world around them.  In the article, they explore sight, movement, hearing, and smelling.  

Much as I’m not a cat person, I did find the article extremely interesting and the videos very engaging.  

In a traditional class dealing with animals, certainly there’s a great deal of immediate use.

But, could you use it more?

I’m thinking Gimp or Photoshop or any of the photo editing software that you might have at your disposal, as applied to cat sight.  In the article, they talked about “muted colours”.

A common classroom learning activity is to adjust the colour and the multitude of options.  I remember using these words myself – “make it an old time picture”.  The context makes sense if you’re old enough to remember “old time pictures”.  To today’s digital youth, that might mean an old digital camera versus their latest and greatest smartphone camera. 

What if the context was to edit an image so that this is what a cat sees?  In fact, the sight video asks and demonstrates the answer with its split screen.

Using your editing tools, can you turn “Human vision” into “Cat vision”?  

As I write this post on a cool Saturday morning, I’ll confess to having Gimp open as another application, playing around with it.  It’s not as easy as it might appear.

Yep, there’s at least part of a workshop in there.

Open Source Whiteboard Software


Recently, I downloaded the Open-Sankore software.  I needed a piece of software to do some drawing and got way, way more than I expected. 

I think that I went well over the top when I read that the software was the same and worked the same on Macintosh, Windows, and Linux.  You don’t see that range of support often.

Upon installation on Linux, I immediately was curious as to support for my Wacom Bamboo tablet.  I wasn’t disappointed. Everything worked as you would expect.  No configuration or extra drivers to install.  It just worked. I wish that I had other equipment to try it on and test their claims of compatibility.

The software is so intuitive.  If you’ve ever used any other type of whiteboard software, you’ll pick this up immediately.

I was impressed trying the application on different computers.  It goes full screen and you wouldn’t know what computer platform you’re working on.  To me, that’s the sort of transparency that we can appreciate.

The tools and tool sets are really obvious.  Pick a tool, pick a colour, and go to it.  Speaking of tools, the toolbar can be moved to the top or bottom of the screen.  They recommend the bottom for whiteboards.

Projects can have multiple pages.  Add a place and title it in the left panel. 

The installation comes with a big collection of resources for creating your multi-media document.

Nothing is proprietary to the software.  If your computer can play it, Open-Sankore can play it.  So, include audio, movies, or graphic images with easy.  Can’t find it in their collection – facility is there to search for it on the internet.

Objects are dragged onto the workspace where resizing, rotating, etc. are all well defined in the frame around the object.

Selection of language was a bit inconsistent. 

The software has its roots based in the French language.  Even though I was able to change the language and restart in English, there were still a few elements that remained in French.  But, I’ll be honest.  The iconage and the display was so graphically intuitive, I didn’t really notice until I started to write this post and give it a thorough test.

I’ve worked with a number of whiteboard software in the past and so there was really no big learning curve digging into this one.  In any classroom, this will be a welcome addition.  It will be really welcomed to a classroom where students bring their own laptops and you’re looking for software like this for presentation, displays, and just plain creativity fun.