What’s the Standard for Technical Literacy?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article yesterday and shared it to my Diigo account because I just know that I’ll have use for it in the future.

Kids can’t use computers… and this is why it should worry you

Now that technology is so ever present, it should make us all stop to think for just a bit. 

I’m the first to admit that there are more things going on inside this box than I could ever begin to comprehend.  One of my favourite confessions is that “the last time I understood how a computer worked was when it was running MS-DOS”.  I remember working my way through the manuals that came with my computer and trying out all of the commands to see if I could make the computer do what I wanted.  I was pleasantly surprised when I mostly could.  If I needed a piece of software to do something, I would actually write it for myself.  For academic reasons, I would write it in a couple of languages and often the program would appear in one of my computer science classes as a way to show students real-world problem solving.

I also remember when a friend of mine bought his first Macintosh.  In the arrogant DOS manner, I noted that “Macs were computers with training wheels that won’t come off”.  The Apple II computer was enjoyable enough to work with especially with CP/M but this thing?

But, enough of remembrances of the good old days.  It snowed more back then too.

Fast forward to today.

Like most people and, certainly the visitor in the story, I just expect things to work.  I do feel good that I do know how to attach to a network when needed (and know enough to look for or ask for the SSID and password).  Computers and portable devices are much better as well.  Even dog walking, it’s with a feeling of mastery that I’ll pass a restaurant where I’ve eaten or my daughter’s apartment and the phone picks up the signal like I never left.

I do now own a MacBook Pro and enjoy the training wheels.  My PC dual boots Windows 7 and Ubuntu 15.04.  Most of the time, I work in Ubuntu although the past couple of days I’ve done some Windows work to see if my Windows 10 upgrade request has been honoured.  I even tried the command to force the computer to upgrade although it did fail with one of those cryptic Microsoft codes that I’ve roughly translated to “your internet connection sucks”.  Could your standard kid do that?  Probably not – they’d search YouTube for a visual solution.

How do you make that work?  Simple – you just drop to the terminal and run a command as an administrator to force it to happen.  As I did it, and as I just typed that sentence, I wonder how many kids today could do that?  Now, I don’t compile my own kernel in Linux or anything that technical but I can most certainly open a terminal to get things done when Unity doesn’t provide an immediate apparent solution.  Or, on the Mac when running a virus scan and Sophos reports that there were issues, I can look at the logs to see what’s up.

Back to the article.  I love the quote attributed to Cory Doctorow.  It’s particularly relevant given the hackable Jeep that hit the news this week and the recall to update the software. 

Today’s computers are so complex – is it rational to expect that any single person could know any inside and out?  I know for a fact that I sure couldn’t.

Does today’s student sit down and code a solution to meet an immediate need?  Hardly.  With fast internet and easily accessible software stores, they just go looking for a appropriate “app for that”.  I do think that, if that’s the extent of their computer literacy, that they’ll be handcuffed at times like the examples in the article.

The solution, it seems to me, is to continue along the vein of so many discussions. 

Kids need to learn how to code.  And you know what?  Along the way, they’ll become better computer users.

They’re not going to write the next version of OpenOffice.  Actually, will any one person? 

Instead the takeaways about teamwork, collaboration, brainstorming, debugging, and much more make the effort worthwhile and most certainly increases their savvy around a keyboard or touch screen.  Coding develops the mindset that this inanimate object can be mastered, and mastered by ME.  There will always be the need to call the Help Desk or Support Shop.  Even in the article, the need to use the district’s proxy is an indication that many problems are manufactured beyond your control.  But shouldn’t you know where the problem lies so that you can efficiently describe it to that someone who can help?

Like the author, I’m fearful that we graduate students whose literacy skills are limited by the ability to tap here or there, watch a YouTube video, make a bird fly across the screen, create a Facebook update, or to get misinformation from an online discussion area. 

Shouldn’t they expect from the school system an education that includes a level of technical literacy that puts them in control of their devices?

It’s a Good Idea in Theory…

Well, it worked to bring attention to an airline….

Now, another initiative to make everything right in this world.

First, you have to have eaten in Toronto.  Then, you diagnose yourself with food poisoning from that meal.  Finally, you go online here to rat on the restaurant.

What could go wrong?

I know that, around here, restaurants are regularly inspected and signage posted to let you know the results of the inspections.  If you’re so inclined, you can check them out online before heading out for a meal.  Quite frankly, I don’t do that.  It’s just confirming to walk up to a restaurant and see a satisfactory rating posted in the window.  

I think that we’ve all gone out for a meal and had the feeling “I’m never eating there again.”  But now I can stick a fork in them online as well?  Or maybe I’m a competitor looking for a way to fry their butts?  Isn’t that what Yelp or Facebook are for?

Social media can certainly be a vehicle for expressing and collecting public opinion.  If thoughts are about education, we’ve certainly proved that we can’t agree and be on the same page about many things.  This potentially takes things to the next step and allows anyone with a keyboard to become a physician, pinpointing time and place for food poisoning.

As I mentioned in the title, it probably makes a great deal of sense in theory to help identify problem locations.  I’m guessing that the locations may well already be on the radar anyway. 

Apparently, the program is in pilot mode and will be reviewed in six months.  That’s a good plan.  It will be interesting to follow and see if social media can be helpful and make a positive change.

Playing for Speed

Do you ever wonder if, somehow, you could make your computer work faster?  I wonder about that constantly.

Since I seem to do so much on the web, it’s a natural that I start there.  I recognize the limitation of my Internet Service Provider and I’ll gladly sign any petition to allow for cable or fibre optics to be pulled down our road.  In the meantime, I tweak and wonder and head into town to mooch fast internet from my daughter when a major update is needed.

In the meantime, I dance with what I’ve brought to the dance.  That largely means using the Firefox or Opera web browsers.  Every now and again, I’ll go under the hood and see if I’m not shooting myself in the foot.  I do have an addon fetish …

and that’s just what’s available for viewing.  There’s more hanging around that don’t place a one-click icon in the browser.

I read about a new (to me anyway) browser called Citrio.  I did a quick download (and it really was quick) and I was up and running in seconds.  Citrio is based on the Chromium browser so there was just about no learning at all to get started and it wanted access to the Chrome content already on my computer.  Users of Chromium, Chrome, and Opera would have no problem making the move.  I gave myself license to play around with it after reading Alfie Kohn’s post “Five Not-So-Obvious Propositions About Play” which every educator should read and ponder.  I’m basing my freedom to do this under his point #3.

I’m also mindful of a gentleman that I worked with for a summer job on a farm and his advice “Curiosity killed the cattlebeast”.  Everyone should work on a diary farm at least once.

Citro lived up to its billing as really fast to download and start.  There’s nothing as empty looking, however, than a newly installed browser.

Well, OK, I had to install Scribefire in order to write the post!

There was no doubt that Citrio had the clean look of a new browser but I’d have to put it on a testing suite in order to compare actual speeds.  Rendering of pages did feel nicely but the pages were still slow to complete.  You know why?  Advertising.

It’s noticeable because I’ve learned to read content faster than being distracted by flashing graphics that so often accompany advertising.

Thanks to the OLDaily read yesterday, I learned of this student from Simon Fraser University “Adblock Plus Study“.  It’s a good reminder that there are potentially more things alive on the internet than what you’re looking for.  (They also pay the bills for some companies)  It’s a good read.

It’s also a confirmation that a different browser may not make a huge difference in the speed with which a page appears in front of you.  It’s also a function of everything else that comes along with the desired content.  For those who pay dearly in dollars and time for bandwidth, the lesson is data savings from SFU is really worth noting.

So, the bottom line here is that I haven’t found a magic speedup bullet in a new browser but have confirmation that blocking advertising is one of the best things that I’ve done for myself.  There still is a place for a browser without addons installed though.  There are times when a page appears broken and it turns out that what’s being blocked is crucial for success.  For those events, it’s nice to have a Plan B!

A Cheap Decision Pays Off

(Or, why all airports should have free WIFI)

Just as you hit the top of the Ambassador Bridge joining Windsor to Detroit, you get this welcome message.

The first time I received the message, I thought it was from the US Border service until I read it in the entirety.  So, Mr. Canadian, you’re not at home any more and it’s going to cost you to get connected.

Ever the cheapo, I elect not to buy the bundle and I figure that the hotel and conference centre will have free WIFI anyway, so I just make a mental note of it and decide that I’ll pay as I go anyway.

One of the things that I did a long time ago in the category of “just because I could” was to route my text messages to Google Hangouts.  It made sense at the time since I was forever getting messages from here and there so having them all appear in one spot made sense.

For my return trip from Grapevine, I left the hotel and arrived really early at the airport.  It’s not that I didn’t want to miss the flight, I enjoy strolling through airports.  I figure that I’d grab breakfast and then wander around the stores looking for some sort of a deal for takehome presents for the family.  DFW is a big airport but it differs from DTW in that Delta is in this one little offshoot of the airport unlike the miles and miles of walking that Detroit offers.  I never pay much attention to these things on arrival.  Perhaps I should.

I had a wonderful breakfast at TGI Friday’s and then do a little stroll and check things out.  I buy a couple of things (Rattlesnake eggs and Armadillo eggs that in another life would be jujubes.)  In my stroll, I noticed that there was another plane at the gate headed for Detroit but it looked packed.  Plus, I’d already checked my luggage.  It’s not a problem; they have free WIFI at DFW so I’ll just do some reading and maybe start a few blog posts based upon my learning from the conference.

Without a word of a lie, I had just connected to the WIFI with my phone and put it back in my pocket, opened my iPad, when I heard the Google Hangout message from my phone.  What does Cyndie want now?  Oh, oh yeah.  I check it and there’s a message from Delta.

That’s kind of cryptic but the word cancelled does make the heart beat just a bit stronger.  The message came from a numbered account, not a name so I decided to go to the Departure Board to fact check.  Yes, it was cancelled.  So, I went back to the message and it’s still cryptic.  It appears that I have a choice of flights.  How do I choose which if I’m “rebooked”.

I happened to be sitting in front of the departure gate for Cincinnati so I went to the gate attendant for some clarification.  No, I don’t have a choice; I’m booked onto two flights.  The one at 1:25 takes me to Atlanta and then I wait a while and the 7:05 flight takes me to Detroit.  This isn’t exactly the way I wanted to see America.  Then, he looked up and saw the Detroit gate at the end of the terminal.  Now, I’m glad we’re in a small terminal.  He said “Are you ready to go now?”  Absolutely.

A few taps later and I had a boarding pass for Detroit.  Then, the million dollar question “Will my luggage arrive with me?”  “No, it will go to Cleveland…”


You could see the look on his face when he realized that he shouldn’t toy with the feeble minded.  “Yes, it will.”

With a hearty thanks, I’m off on a trot to the other end of the terminal.  A two minute walk?

I’m checked in and ask again about my luggage.  I don’t know why I’m worried; it’s not like I’m a fashion plate with fancy clothes to lose but I did have a new can of shaving cream.  “Yes, it will be there”. 

So, I board and have a nice flight home.  Despite the last minute booking, I end up on an exit row with the great leg room.

Upon landing in Detroit, comes the real test.  Did my luggage arrive?  Not only had it arrived but it was the third bag on the machine.  It also had a RUSH tag on it!  How impressed am I that it all fell into place.  I’ll be certain to give Delta all the kudos when I get the request to evaluate my experience.  It couldn’t have been better.

I think back and I’m just so grateful that the airport offered the WIFI.  Without it, all of this wonderful experience wouldn’t have happened.

Could They Answer This?

It’s funny how one thing can stick in your mind. 

Today at lunch, there was an industry panel discussing a number of questions about student-industry transition.  Many of the topics could have been student-work anywhere.  It was going along well until the topic turned to the job interview.

On the panel was Larry Israelite and instead of immediately answering the question, he posed questions of his own to the audience.

How many of you teach students to collaborate with others?

Hands went up everywhere.

How many of you teach students to work in groups?

Hands went up everywhere.

It could also have included – How many of you teach pair programming?

I figured this was just going to be a big softball and lobbed up to the group.

Then, the moment…

When I’m interviewing students, I’m not interviewing the group.  I’m interviewing the student.

How would your student answer the question when I ask “What can YOU do?”

Now, in fairness to educators, we know how to assess student participating, involvement, and contributions when they’re working in groups.

But, does the individual student know?  Could they answer the question and clearly explain what it is that THEY can do?

My immediate thought was that I would certainly hope so.  But, it got me thinking…  Could they actually answer the question?

Learning, Interrupted

One of my goals for this summer was to learn to become more proficient with the Python Programming Language.  It’s going along; lots of interruptions to stop the continuous flow of learning but I get back on track and continue the learning periodically.

This morning, after a walk through the Exhibit Hall at the Computer Science Teachers Association conference, I may have found a new interruption.  Or, at the least, a diversion.  At the most, a new way to do things.

I was wandering around, greeting the exhibitors, and stopped at the Codesters Booth.  My trip around the hall got halted.  First, we got buzzed by some big flying insect but then got down to the Codester application itself.  So many people are familiar with the drag and drop interface of a Scratch, Hopscotch, or TouchDevelop programming language.

This time, it’s for Python.  But with a twist.


On the right side of the screen, you’ll see the familiar Python interface.  The code, the syntax, the punctuation …

But look closely at the top left of the screen.  You’ll see blocks of programming activities. 

To create your own Python program, it’s just a matter of dragging the blogs to the program window area and Codesters takes over.

Part of the frustration of a traditional text programming language is getting the syntax right.

Part of the frustration of a traditional block programming language is that you’re limited to being able to do what the block comes pre-defined to do.

Here, you have the best of both worlds.  You could sit down and start typing/coding or you can drag and drop a block into place.  If you don’t like what it does immediately, just go to the Python editor and make your own customization.

It’s a very interesting approach.

You register as either a student or teacher and you’re working within their own LMS.  The LMS comes with some modules already created for the intermediate mathematics classroom.  In the best sense of social sharing, there is a projects area where completed projects are shared by others.

If you’re interested in learning about Python or working with students, this is worth a look.