Friday, October 29, 2010

CEDO550 - Week One - Teachers without Borders vs. Edu-dystopia

Greetings goblins and ghouls!  Welcome to the Halloween edition of Brian's weekly blog.  This week kicks-off the beginning of CEDO550 which is also known as Online Facilitation: Taming the World of Online Learning.  The new course is where we start pulling it all together from previous work in the program.  This week we've examined online learning not only from a teaching perspective but also through the eyes of students and parents.  Many people see online learning as the panacea for all that ails current educational systems.  There are benefits and disadvantages to online learning and the course is helping us identify where those may lie.

Since this is the Halloween edition, I feel the need to be scary.  Have you ever seen Fahrenheit 451 or read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World?  Both portray dystopian worlds where benevolent technologies lead to oppression of human free will.  But what does that have to do with online learning?  Well, online learning can do many wonderful things by making courses available at flexible times across geographic boundaries.  Learning Management Systems can reduce administrative overhead by automatically grading student performance and soon these systems will be able to parse student essays.  Teachers will have more time to focus on their students and learning will become exciting and invigorating for all involved.  So where's the monster?

Economics and recent history tells us that increasing capital can reduce the quantity of labor.   Instead of having a 100,000 teachers we could save costs by recording all instructor-led classes and reducing the variety and quantity of educational modules.  Industrialization brought us investment in heavy machinery and processes ensuring products were to specifications.  What if we were to unite the mindset of  No Child Left Behind with automated education of all students in the United States?  Wouldn't society benefit from all students working on the same online studies and taking the same tests?  Everything would be so uniform and neat.  Employers would always know what they were getting. Are you scared, yet?

Actually, I think online learning is a huge positive and can lead to equitable education within the United States and abroad.  The knowledge that is being circulated around The Internet is amazing and grows every single hour.  What a wonderful and incredible world it will be as we conquer the digital divide and education flows freely.  Think 'Teachers without Borders'.  And no, I am not referring to a book store chain.

And since I want to end on a more upbeat note, let us look at the good works of George Lucas and Edutopia.  Although Lucas' first film, THX 1138 was about a dystopian future in which all aspects of society are controlled, the Edutopia site is filled with positive examples of collaborative learning which emphasizes  critical thinking skills for students.  Perhaps George Lucas' THX 1138 provided him with an insight into a possible future and he felt the need to counteract it with Edutopia.   I hope I didn't scare you too much.  Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 22, 2010

CEDO 540 - Week Six Statistics and Beyond

Our final week of CEDO 540 draws to a close.  When we started the autumn leaves were beginning to turn and now just a few cling to the trees.  I have been investigating Web-sites that provide statistical information - some supplied by our instructor  - and a few we had to find on our own.  Have any of you explored the National Archives site? It's really quite fascinating how much information is on this site.  Links to genealogy, military records and even archival photographs.   The site is hierarchically organized so one needs to reflect on each search before hopping down the rabbit trail.

The National Health Safety Network (NHSN) is a site I worked with in the past. NHSN collates data from participating hospitals and agencies but the data is kept with 'the family' of participants.  I used this site before when I worked with Infection Preventionists on Healthcare Acquired Infections (HAIs) and the H1N1 pandemic.  I did a little light research on MRSA but most of the data is in summary format.  If I were still doing work in epidemiological surveillance I would use this site every day to report local information and learn about what was happening in my region.

One of the more interesting and highly interactive sites I examined is the Wisconsin Information Network for Successful Schools. The Site contains a rich amount of performance data across Wisconsin school districts.  The site is very easy to use and almost immediately I found myself running performance reports on the Madison-Metropolitan school districts.  I could examine student performance by area of study, ACT, attendance, etc.  The ensuing reports allowed me to change parameters without having to initiate a brand new search.  I was able to change one radio button to apply Madison’s performance against the Top Ten Enrollment districts in the state.   The ability to print the report and graphics separately was a nice touch.  Although I could not find an option to download the data to Excel or CSV formats, one can readily copy and paste the array of data for further analysis.   If any parent has questions about school district performance I will direct them to WINNS.

Friday, October 15, 2010

CEDO 540 - Week Five - Search Strings and the Cyber Superorganism

 As you may recall from last week, we took a look at Bill Tancer and his high level predictions when he analyzed aggregated search string data.  In the fifth week of CEDO 540 it is now our turn to mine Internet data and makes heads or tails of it.  Specifically, we are using Google Trends for our database and it is up to us to determine an approach to a topic or problem, gather the data and analyze it.  Sounds pretty easy, ay?  Well, let's just say I have a new found appreciation for Bill Tancer's line of work.

A more useful site for gleaning Web data is Google's beta version of  Insights for Search.   Insights for Search which can be broken-out by country, states/provinces and metropolitan areas.  Bill Tancer has been able to predict the winners of Dancing with the Stars by examining how often a contestant's name has been searched for on The Internet.  In Wisconsin we have a heated Senate race between incumbent Russ Feingold and newcomer Ron Johnson.  I did a search within Wisconsin on both candidates and Johnson is definitely on the rise.  Wait, that didn't sound right.  Just so there are no misunderstandings about that statement let me rephrase by saying  'Ron Johnson has had more searches in the past few weeks than Russ Feingold.'  

But does the greater number of Ron Johnson searches over Russ Feingold mean that he will triumph in November?  I looked at the numbers this past Tuesday and now on Friday it appears that Russ Feingold is trending downward on the number of searches.  Below is the data showing Johnson in red and Feingold in blue. I was able to generate this graph and copy the embed code into my blog. Feel free to hover over each of the data points and see the changes.

So, does the sheer volume of searches for a candidate predict the ultimate victor? Bill Tancer believed this to be true until the Stacy Keibler scenario (see post from last week) took hold. Are some of these searches unrelated to the campaign?  Am I analyzing the right search strings and discounting the ones that don't matter?  Perhaps people doing their own research on the candidates and what does this tell us about their feelings towards either one?  The Internet is a cyber superorganism that is evolving every second - changing from moment to moment - and this alters the language people use for interaction.  In this case, search strings are the interactive language and, like Early Modern English, they will continue to morph into new forms - only much faster.

Scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Friday, October 8, 2010

CEDO 540 - Week Four -

This past week our class delved into the world of market research and Internet data.  Particular emphasis has been on Bill Tancer who is the GM with HitWise.  It is one thing to know what sites people currently visit but Tancer takes it to the next level by gleaning data on what people are seeking on The Internet.  Bill's company pays ISPs to aggregate data on what sites Internet users visit and, of greater interest, what search strings they are using.

Hitwise's bread and butter is providing data on Internet traffic combined with reporting.  Customers can purchase any number of reports showing upstream/downstream traffic from their Web-sites compared to those of their competitors.  Hitwise helps subscribers better understand the demographics and lifestyles of Internet users.

Bill Tancer is now investigating ways to relate Internet users' search strings as a predictor of their future behavior.  One of Bill's celebrated examples is when he attempted to predict the winner for a Dancing with the Stars competition based upon the raw number of searches for each contestant.  It almost worked the first time, but what he had not factored was that one of the contestants was 'searched' for in a context unrelated to the competition.  The contestant, Stacy Keibler, was a  wrestler and men were searching for her pictures so they could admire her beauty - or something like that. 

The Stacy Keibler scenario reminds us that the science or methodology for mining the intent of search strings is in its infancy.  It still comes down to humans analyzing the data and questioning metrics used to reach conclusions.  Being human, we have a natural bias.  In his article, 'Lipstick and the Narrative Fallacy', Bill Tancer refers to the inclination to only see the data that supports a hypothesis and ignore the data that might disprove it.

Tancer cites the widely held view that purchases of cosmetics increase during tough economic times.  In 2008 he analyzed the number of searches for 'lipstick' and found that they indeed had jumped during the corresponding economic downturn.  But, upon further review, it was the complete search term 'Lipstick on a Pit Bull' that drove the number up for 'lipstick'. The data could have supported the cosmetic/economy theory, but by looking at the complete picture it was just Sarah Palin with a great quote!

Friday, October 1, 2010

CEDO 540 - Week Three (Meaningful surveys)

The 3rd week of CEDO 540 has us in working in teams creating a survey.  My study group met this week and we put together a survey to assess teachers attitudes towards technology in the classroom.  Once we determined that we would use SurveyGizmo we set about formulating the types of questions to ask that will yield relevant data for our analysis.  The group decided it needs to know if the respondents had any experience with the types of learning technology.

Our list included individual and collaborative software/hardware used in our MEIT program and asked teachers to share their experience and attitudes towards each of the technologies.  Our group made sure to list specific examples of technologies that encompassed spreadsheet, slideware, videoconferencing, virtual classroom, concept mapping software and others.

A big pitfall to avoid is survey response bias.  It is only natural that a survey author possesses an innate bias or attitude about the subject matter.  One needs to keep that in mind and strive for simple language that does not lead the respondents.  A great example of survey response bias could be found in years' past on Comedy Central's 'The Colbert Report'.  Stephen Colbert would ask guests, especially if they were liberal democrats,"Is George Bush a great president or the greatest president ever?"  It was funny how guests would fumble and sometimes plead for a third or not applicable option.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Great President...or Greatest President?
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

On Stephen Colbert's show the bias was obvious, overt and overwhelmingly funny.  It is hard to miss.  Still, one needs to avoid having a subtle bias that even the author(s) of a survey may not be aware that they are exhibiting.  It might even be worth having 2 authors with opposing views craft the wording of a survey together.  Once the data has been collected comes the time for the data analysis and interpretation.  Stay tuned for my Week 4 post when my study group reveals our findings from the survey.   Below is a teaser from our survey using Likert 5-level item questions.

Sample Questions from our Study Group Survey