Category Archives: Technology & Culture

Volunteering: YouTube comments as community service

Volunteering: YouTube comments as community service
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2017-07-14
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by Richard White
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My school has a “Community Service” component to the graduation requirement for students. They must volunteer for a given number of hours in service to the community, and there are a variety of ways they can do this. Some opportunities are described by the school, but it’s certainly possible to develop your own community service opportunity and have that count towards your requirements.

Is it possible that commenting on YouTube might count towards Community Service?

I think of this possibility as I consider my own activity on my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/rwhite5279), where I post videos occasionally, most of them related to computer science and computational thinking. I’ve built up a small following since I began posting 9 years ago: nearly 750,000 total views, and nearly 3000 subscribers as I write this. Increasingly, viewers of some of the computer science tutorials have begun leaving questions in the comments section.

This one, for example, on a tutorial on how to use object-oriented programming in Python to simulate a Magic-8 Ball toy that predicts the future (at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6drqLGdXHQA ) :

You can see the question there, followed by a response from me. Here’s another example, a question and response for the same Magic-8 Ball tutorial:

I have a number of friends, teachers or no, who volunteer time in their local community: serving food at the local soup kitchen, visiting people in nursing homes, tutoring students after school. I occasionally get the question “What are you doing on the computer there?” and sometimes find myself answering “I’m responding to a question someone left for me on YouTube.”

Isn’t this a form of Community Service? Isn’t this a form of Volunteering?

Another introduction to object-oriented programming (at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYYzteRKU7U ) prompted this selection of comments (and accompanying responses):

I’m well aware of the fact that online comments—”where nobody knows you’re a dog”—can be challenging: to respond to, to clean up (in cases of misuse or spam), to moderate. Some “discussions” become downright toxic, to the extent that some communities with a broad appeal have had to shut down the comments sections on their sites: if the conversation can’t be civil, there’ll be no conversation at all. In those cases, that strategy is probably the only one that makes sense.

In my little corner of the Internet, however, things are just fine, for the moment anyway. There’s not much fun to be had trolling computer science tutorials, and maybe that has helped to keep things a little more in-focus and on-topic.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to answering more questions. There is volunteering to be done, and I’m just the guy to do it. :)

Battle for the Net

Battle for the Net
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by Richard White
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2017-07-12
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This is the second time in the last few years that I’ve devoted some time and some of my website resources in the interest of maintaining internet neutrality.

If you already know what net neutrality is, you should go to battleforthenet.com and do something about it. Write a letter using their form, donate some money, and call your congressional representatives. These are all things that cost little in the way of time and/or money, and are vitally important to maintaining the way the Internet—and therefore your world—works.

If you’re not sure on the details, or maybe have only heard the term but nothing more, here it is, in a nutshell.

Access to the Internet isn’t (usually) free: most people I know pay an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Charter, Spectrum, Comcast, etc. for home access to the Internet. You probably have a service plan that vaguely promises deliver your internet content and some minimum speed. But once you’re “on the Internet,” anything and everything goes. There are no restrictions on how you can travel the World Wide Web: you can go to Facebook, you can surf websites, you can buy plane tickets, you can watch Netflix, you can register for college classes, you can watch YouTube, you can (if you’re so inclined) visit porn sites.

The fact that your ability to navigate the Internet unencumbered and unregulated, regardless of what you use it for, is called “net neutrality.”

Wikipedia, quoting the New York Times, describes it this way:

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.

This view of the Internet is one that considers it as a utility, and therefore subject to some degree of regulation as such. The convention of net neutrality was affirmed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during Obama’s administration.

Here’s a non-Internet example where regulation helps us. You telephone service (landline or cellular) delivers phone calls to your phone, regardless of who they come from. Nobody can pay for “better access” to your phone number. A business can’t pay for increased access to your phone number so that unsolicited phone calls are favored over personal calls. We have “phone neutrality.” There have been cases where phone companies have blocked access to certain types of phone calls, prompting FCC intervention.

The Internet-as-utility means that telecommunications companies delivering that service must obey anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules. In the first months of his administration, however, President Trump appointed former Verizon attorney Ajit Pai as chairman of the FCC, with a vow to “reverse this overreach” of regulating net neutrality.

What happens if your Internet provider doesn’t have to follow net-neutrality rules? Selected businesses benefit (or suffer) as the provider decides how to charge for access, or how much to favor certain businesses over others.

This is currently the situation with your cable/satellite TV provider which sells you a subscription to their services. Access to their cable or signal is just the start, however. Access to ESPN costs more. Access to HBO costs more. Access to premium services costs… a premium. (This never-ending “up-sell” is in part responsible for the rise in “cable-cutters.”

Along those lines, then, here’s one likely scenario in the Brave New World of a non-neutral Internet, as imagined by an unknown author (image is making the rounds on Twitter):

If we get rid of net neutrality, will your Internet provider really interfere with your service? This isn’t a hypothetical question. In one case, Comcast was slowing access to certain types of content. In another, AT&T blocked users access to Apple’s FaceTime service so that only users with a certain type of plan could access the application. It is because of the protections currently afforded by net neutrality that these corporations have been prosecuted for these actions.

Clearly, the Internet needs the regulatory protection of the FCC.

The wonderful innovations that have been born and flourished on the neutral Internet have been able to do so, in large part, because of lack of restrictions on the Internet. It’s telling that Trump claims to be in favor of “American innovation, job creation and economic growth,” but only insofar as the large media corporations are concerned. Twitter, the president’s primary means of communication, was spawned on a neutral net, the very net he is bent on corrupting.

The battle for net neutrality is “huge.” Please join the fight.

Differentiated Instruction, Part 2

DIFFERENTIATION, part 2

2017-03-11

by Richard White

I was recently asked by our IT director John Yen how I handle differentiated instruction in the classroom: what strategies do I employ to try to ensure that students of widely varying abilities and skill levels are all appropriately challenged in my courses?

It’s a question that public school teachers face all the time, and independent school teachers arguably somewhat less. Technology teachers at both types of institutions have the biggest challenge here, because:

  1. there isn’t (yet?) a standardized curriculum path that has been developed and accepted around computational thinking and computer science, and
  2. there is a large, and perhaps growing, “digital divide” between those students who have nearly unlimited access to technology and training (even informal training via YouTube videos and the internet) and those who don’t.

My reply to John’s question took a little while to narrow down to a response to his questions, but here are my remarks, lightly edited for clarity.

=====Beginning of Email=====

  • That’s one of the million-dollar questions right now: How do I bring students with widely-varying experience into the curriculum?
  • The 2-million dollar question is: What CS curriculum do we want to offer/require? This varies depending on the school population, the goal of the curriculum (CS for managers? Coding for vocation?), the instructors available, the budgeting, salaries…
  • The 3-million dollar question is: Who is going to teach this curriculum? At this point, that is going to have an overwhelming influence on the other questions. CS people don’t do much with game design, and Game Designers don’t know a lot about Linux, and software engineers may or may not know about networking or control systems…

In Computer Science courses, I’ve found that I often have to provide up to five different kinds of differentiation, given at different times according to the idealized schedule given here.

Steps in Assigning/Conducting a Computer Science activity or project

  1. I prepare the assignment, preferably on paper or online so I can check that the idea and the process are fully articulated. NOTE: When looking through some online references a few years ago I stumbled upon an assignment format used by professors at Michigan State University, and I’ve adopted it for many of my CS courses. An example is attached here.
  2. During the preparation of the assignment, I try to prepare 1-3 Extension activities that are more complex or require application of the project to a new context. This is the first differentiation that I’ll use with some of my more advanced students who would otherwise complete the assignment too quickly. On the assignment I also often include a section called “Questions for you to consider (not hand in)” which ask the students to think about other aspects of the subject that may not be directly related to the assignment. These can be a nice jumping-off point for a conversation with more advanced students.
  3. Also for the assignment, I prepare a few “Notes on Getting Started” that are included with the instructions. These notes include suggested work strategies and/or questions that might help clarify the direction their problem-solving process should take. This is the second differentiation.
  4. Deliver the assignment (paper or online) in class, with whatever introductory remarks are appropriate. Students begin working.
  5. After students have been working on the assignment for some length of time, I’ll usually check in with them to see how things are proceeding so far. If there’s a stumbling block in the assignment that I’m aware of, I may bring it up at that time, and ask them what they think about it. I’ll usually write some amount of code on the board here, developing ideas with those students who have become stuck. This is the third differentiation strategy. ( Example: This video (narrated) of me working with students in class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJ3z51n1Ndo )

    If I notice that a number of students are having difficulties with a concept or problem, I may prepare a small video for them going over the issue in more detail. I’ll post the video and send the link to them so they can take another crack at it. This is the fourth differentiation strategy. ( Example: This video, covering the topic of website permissions for some students’ websites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEES_N3ZQHk )

  6. Ultimately some students will need more individualized attention, sometimes down to the point of sitting down with them individually and picking through their code line by line. This is the most challenging and time-intensive differentiation strategy, and not something that I’m able to do with every student every time. Fortunately, if I’m doing my job well, I don’t need to do it very often.

=====End of Email=====

What strategies do you have for providing differentiated instruction for your students? What evidence do you have that those strategies are successful (or not?)

Is the Digital Divide something that needs to be addressed by CS teachers? If so, what steps do you take towards ameliorating that problem?

Keep it civil

Keep It Civil
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2016-11-22

by Richard White

Anyone who uses any kind of modern, social-media-related technology is aware of the kind of derision and scorn that can occur on the Internet. The awful GamerGate debacle is perhaps one of the worst and most serious examples, although trolling and flamewars can easily erupt from the most innocuous of situations.

As a professional, a teacher, and someone who likes to think of the Internet as being used mostly for good, and less for evil, I try to behave well, and part of that includes having a thick skin and/or erring on the side of forgiveness when it comes to things like comments on my YouTube channel.

Case in point: I recorded a brief video introduction to Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) that I put up on YouTube a few months ago. In that video I discuss the FOSS operating system Linux, and mentioned in particular one particular distribution of Linux called “Ubuntu.”

Amidst the other nice comments people made on the video, there was this one:

Actually Ubuntu is not entirely a “free software”

“Is this guy kidding?” was my immediate response. “I spent a lot of time putting this video together, and he’s got the nerve to nit-pick about this? Ubuntu does bundle some proprietary software together with their distribution, so technically, he’s right. But, geez! That’s the thanks I get for all my work? Snarky comments picking it apart for minor points that practically nobody cares about anyway? Why, I ought to…”

I admit, that thought passed through my mind for a moment. But when I had the chance to think about it for two seconds, I realized that it might be me that was over-reacting. Certainly a more level-headed response was called for, and this is what I ended up replying to him in a follow-up:

That’s true! Although it’s a bit beyond the scope of this introductory video, none of the common Linux distributions comply with the Free Software Foundation’s strict interpretation of FOSS. (If you’re interested in those details, you can read about them at https://www.gnu.org/distros/common-distros.html). For the majority of Linux users, however, we’re happy to support and use those GNU/Linux distributions anyway. :)

I wasn’t expecting a reply back. If this poster’s comments had been intended as trolling, I hadn’t taken the bait, and for a troll, where’s the fun in that? So imagine my surprise when a reply did come back:

Yep. Thanks for making this video :)

An acknowledgment of my point, a “thank you,” and a smiley face? That’s quite a turnaround from the original comment, consisting solely of a criticism.

I’ll never know what the original intention of the commenter was when he left that note for me. I do know that a non-reactionary reply from me—fair, factual, and cordial—evoked a response in kind.

And that’s the Internet world that I like to live in!

keep_it_civil

Getting SaaSy: Software as a Service

Getting SaaSy: Software as a Service
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2016-10-28

by Richard White

Ah, remember the glory years of installing software on a computer? Buying cardboard packages with floppy disks or CD-ROMs inside them, and spending an afternoon installing a new game or Microsoft Office on your desktop machine.

If you’re a bit younger, installing software got more convenient: later, you might gone to the Mac App Store, or iTunes, and downloaded software directly off the Internet.

Even those halcyon days of software installation are on their way to becoming a memory, though, at least for some of us. That software you previously installed and ran on your computer is increasingly being replaced by “Software as a Service“, and if you aren’t familiar with “SaaS,” you almost certainly use it. SaaS provides you with the cloud-based equivalent of an installed program, often via an interface running in a web browser.

Google’s Docs, for example, provide you with the ability to create and edit word-processing or spreadsheet documents. When you use Google Docs, you’re not running the equivalent of Microsoft Word on your computer. Your browser is interacting with documents that have been made available to you over a network. Google is providing you with “Software as a Service.”

Google’s Docs are an example of a “free” service (in quotes because you do pay a price in terms of your privacy), but it’s more likely that a company will charge you for their SaaS. Spotify, for example, provides you with the ability to stream music onto your computer or mobile phone. There is a small app that you download to use their service, and it is this app that allows you to interact with their music delivery service in either free or paid form. The music doesn’t reside on your computer; the music is streamed to your computer as a service.

I’m a bit old school when it comes to these things, so I’m not that big a fan of SaaS. Sure, I’ve got a Netflix subscription, and I watch Game of Thrones via HBONow. But I don’t have 24×7 access to the Internet, and I don’t like the idea of my hardware having to lie dormant when I’m not connected.

This is a little more than just a philosophical debate. I’m a teacher, and as part of my job, I record and calculate students’ grades on assignments. I used to do this in a paper gradebook, and then quickly graduated to a spreadsheet system. Spreadsheets were practically made for teachers to record and calculate grades with. Some of my colleagues who weren’t so good with managing a spreadsheet bought specialized grade tracking software and installed it on their home computers. That works too.

In the interest of providing students with ongoing access to their grades, I switched a few years ago to using a free service called Engrade, formerly at https://www.engrade.com. And with that move I entered the SaaS realm, using someone else’s software running in my browser, with access to my students’ grades via the Internet… assuming I have a connection. Which I usually do.

One of the downsides to SaaS is that you no longer have a copy of the software that is yours to use. When McGraw Hill purchased Engrade for $50 million, there was a new sheriff in town… and the service was no longer free.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe McGraw Hill deserves to see some return on their investment in this company. Enough of my colleagues at my school site used Engrade that our school decided to pony up for a site license, so I’m still using Engrade. And that’s mostly good news…

…until their site goes down.

engradepro-outage

So, yeah. Software as a Service. Advantages and disadvantages. Pick your poison. Just be aware of the benefits and pitfalls of your options.

Next weekend I’ll be on a cross-country flight, writing up grades and comments for my students to be turned in the following week. I won’t have Internet. I won’t have Engrade. I won’t have Microsoft 360. I won’t have Spotify.

I’ll just have my laptop, with iTunes playing my old CDs that I ripped, and I’ll be writing comments in a text editor while consulting student grades in a spreadsheet, the way you do.

Like a Boss.

My Vision

MY VISION

by Richard White

2016-03-24

You almost certainly heard that a couple of months ago, President Obama called for “Computer Science for All” in a program of the same name. From the Fact Sheet for that initiative:

Providing access to CS is a critical step for ensuring that our nation remains competitive in the global economy and strengthens its cybersecurity.

We’ll set aside (for the moment) Obama’s more recent call to weaken that cybersecurity that he’s such a fan of. In the larger perspective, Obama is correct: we need to provide more opportunities for students to learn Computer Science.

I think he gets this just right. This statement doesn’t say students must take CS classes. This is not necessarily a requirement. But the vast majority of students probably should take one or two CS classes, and certainly everybody should have the opportunity to take CS classes.

When people ask me about it now—the Vision question—this is part of my thinking:

I don’t think every student should be required to take Computer Science. But every student should take Computer Science.

They should recognize that computers, technology, the internet, social networks, online advertising, and cybersecurity have an enormous influence on how they live their daily lives.

It’s certainly possible for a student to educate themselves, but we shouldn’t expect them to take that on alone any more than we expect students to teach themselves calculus or how to write a research paper. Schools offer instruction in these areas because well-educated citizens need to know about these things, or at least need to have been exposed to them in a structured setting.

What do you think? Should schools require students to take a CS course, or should they just offer the curriculum and see who shows up?

Privacy, Security, and Encryption

Privacy, Security, and Encryption

by Richard White

2016-03-12

There are a number of conversations going on right now related to the ideas of privacy, security, and encryption. Three contexts:

  • Do government representatives (NSA, FBI, local police, etc.) have the right to access your personal information–metadata, phone calls, emails, etc.–without a warrant?
  • Does the FBI have the right to compel Apple to create software that will provide government agencies with access to information stored on Apple-manufactured hardware?
  • Was Edward Snowden wrong to make copies of secret documents and share them with journalists, with the intent of exposing what he viewed as government corruption?

All of these conversations are fundamentally concerned with the question of whether or not people have a right to privacy, and how hard the government has to work to “invade” that privacy.

There’s much to be explored here, more certainly than can be covered in a brief blog post. My talking points regarding the subject–my “elevator talk” when the occasion arises–include these:

Just about everyone agrees that people need privacy, and have a right to privacy. This is a documented psychological need–people need time alone, and act differently when they are alone. The United States of America, in its Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, includes federal prohibitions against “unreasonable search,” which has been interpreted to include a wide variety of forms of surveillance.

This need for privacy is not just psychological. Most people feel that financial transactions, including the ones that we all conduct with our own banks, should be protected. Indeed, financial transactions on the Internet *must* be private; if not, the communication structure of the Internet allows for those transactions to be viewed by others, “good guys” and “bad guys” alike.

Our world is digital now, and the means of ensuring digital privacy is encryption. Encryption is simply “math applied to information,” in a way that ensures the information can be accessed only by the intended recipient. Encryption is a means of making sure that things–my bank information, my personal information, my business transactions, my diary–can be private.

Some government representatives, including the FBI and most recently President Obama, are calling for mandated “backdoors” in certain systems that will allow the “smallest number of people possible” access to anyone’s private information.

This point of view is flawed, for two simple reasons:

  1. Exchanging private information is possible, and has been done for years, without computers and/or phones. Requiring a company to place a backdoor in an operating system doesn’t change the fact that any of us can freely exchange messages via that phone that have been encrypted by another means. Encryption is math, and you can’t outlaw math. Ultimately, backdooring doesn’t “protect us from terrorists.” It just violates our rights to unreasonable surveillance.
  2. Providing backdoors in technology fundamentally means that one is building in a means by which normal security mechanisms can be avoided. This system, by its design, also allows untrusted agents to avoid the normal security mechanisms once they’ve obtained the means to do so. There is no way to allow only good guys to bypass security. Bad guys get to use the same bypass.

    (One easy example: The federal government Transportation Security Administration suggests locking your luggage with TSA-approved locks: Your luggage remains secure, but allows them to access your luggage for inspection without having to destroy the lock. Only the TSA has the keys that will open these locks… until they don’t. Now your baggage lock has a backdoor that the bad buys know how to defeat.)

If you’re concerned about the consequences of giving child pornographers, Chinese dissidents, and the Russian mafia access to this same encryption, there’s no way around that. (Or maybe you DO want to protect the Chinese dissidents? You’re going to have to make up your mind.) Those people will need to be dealt with the same way they always have been: legal warrants for wiretaps, legal warrants for reasonable search and seizure. At the end of the day, weakening encryption doesn’t stop the bad guys–it only makes it easier for them to victimize good guys like you and me.

Decipher this secret message and I’ll give you $100.

U2FsdGVkX1+Z8Wx61sOSQghi2ANM0QfXVXJzM7tP5eo=

Other interesting articles on this topic:

Looking Back

Looking Back

by Richard White

2016-03-05

Those of us who use technology, who teach with technology, and who think about technology and its influence on society, enjoy thinking about what’s coming, what might happen in the future.

It’s interesting to take a look back every once in a while to see where we’ve come from. I’ve got a Motorola RAZR sitting in the bottom of a drawer in my utility closet. I’ve got a 1990 Macintosh Classic sitting in the attic, a 2001 Titanium PowerBook G4 in my utility closet, and a 2004 PowerMac G5 Dual Processor sitting underneath my desk at school, all currently unused. (I’ve had many other machines over the years, but these were iconic, and I keep them around for sentimental reasons.)

powermacg5_2cpus_open-100043320-orig

I’ve got a box of floppies with files of mine that I can’t use anymore, EXCEPT on that Classic, because the software companies that created those files, market leaders at the time, went out of business a long, long time ago.

designing_web_usability

I also recently stumbled upon a book of mine from 1999, Jakob Nielsen’s seminal Designing Web Usability. As a fledgling designer at the time—some might consider me still a fledgling designer—I devoured that book as gospel.

designing_web_usability_notes

I found some marginalia for that book that I’d jotted down on a Post-it. At the time, a 17-inch monitor was considered an outrageous extravagance, but Nielsen considered it an investment in one’s productivity, and I made a note to myself to get one. Cascading Style Sheets were new to me, and I jotted down a reminder to create a .css file for the websites I was developing.

It’s almost cute!

Things have changed since then, of course, to the extent that I sometimes question whether or not something as quaint as a printed book can usefully advise on something as dynamic as the World Wide Web. Since Designing Web Usability came out, the number of people using the web has (obviously) exploded: approximately 41% of Americans used the Internet in 1999, compared with 87% in 2014 (Pew Research Center). In 1999, the primary means of accessing the Internet now (smartphones), didn’t even exist. Since the book was published, advertising has changed the way we surf twice, with the appearance of Google’s “AdSense” in 2000, and with the increasing popularity of adblockers in 2015.

The fact that this book is no longer useful is in no way a criticism of its content. At the time it was perfectly relevant, and the web was evolving at a relatively slow rate.

And now? Now, our browser software is updated more frequently than most websites, and books about the current state of the our technological culture, for good or for bad, are in danger of becoming outdated between the time they’re written and the time they’re published. Books produced in smaller batches by smaller, digital-based publishers (see TakeControlBooks.com, for instance) have stepped in to fill some people’s need for printed matter.

But the logical conclusion to all of this seems to be consuming content on the machine or in the browser itself, no? From man pages in the Terminal to FAQ pages on websites, increasingly we learn about how to do thing from the very device that we’re working on. That seems reasonably clear at this point.

Just as with my old computers, I feel affection for my old books. There’s a texture to the pages, and a smell, and an experience, that a monitor, touchscreen or smartphone will never replace. (I gave a candle with the scent of “old books” to a friend for Christmas this year.)

And yet, the vast majority of those old books now occupy the same space in my life as the old technology: I think of them fondly, and take them out to look at once in awhile, but mostly I store them tucked away in a space in my life where they sit, remembered but unused.

140 Characters Is Not Enough

140 Characters Is Not Enough

2016-02-28

by Richard White

I’ll confess right here, I’ve only really ever been a lurker on Twitter. I’ve got a couple of accounts there, and I follow a few people, and appreciate the spontaneous ebb-and-flow of some conversations, memes, tropes, movements, and revolutions.

I’ve also watched in horror as a hashtag “blows up” while the Internet—bored, and starving for something, anything to frenzy-feed on—zeroes in on a statement taken out of context, an offhand comment that unknowingly became co-opted as a sound-bite for someone else’s rant or cause célèbre.

I love the Internet and its nearly perfect ability to act as a vehicle for a truly democratic and representative communication tool… and Twitter has come to embody the very best and worst of that communication.

At least part of the problem has to do with the simple fact that 140 characters, the limit on the length of a Tweet, is just enough to present a statement, and not nearly enough to provide context, support, or any significant development of that idea.

Taking things out of context isn’t a problem unique to Twitter, of course, but the 140-character limit of the medium practically demands it.

A quick, easy example: It’s not uncommon to hear a teacher at my school say of their students, “I love my students.” I have said, in chiding my students for a momentary lack of attention, said something along the lines of, “I love you guys, and I want good things for you. Let’s get back to work, shall we?” Is it a surprise to hear that teachers love their students? Of course not. Is that something that could be taken out of context on Twitter?

Ummmmm, yeah. Of course it can.

Another example of risk, as quoted by Audrey Watters in her op-ed piece Is Twitter the Best Online Source of Professional Development?:

Steven Salaita, for example, had his tenure-track position at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign rescinded after the university disproved of his tweets in support of Palestinians.

As Bonnie Stewart argues, “The threat of being summarily acted upon by the academy as a consequence of tweets – always present, frankly, particularly for untenured and more vulnerable members of the academic community – now hangs visibly over all heads…even while the medium is still scorned as scholarship by many.” While there are efforts to encourage educators and students to participate in the public sphere, via tools like Twitter, it’s clear that there are also risks in doing so, particularly if what’s being said fails to conform to certain “community standards” or certain notions of “civility.”

I have actually used Twitter on occasion, including several sessions acting as a “Twitter correspondent,” and have had a couple of my tweets removed by the person who was responsible for making sure those messages were in keeping with the guidelines of the organization. It was an interesting experience, to see my work edited in such a fashion, and it was a great reminder (if one was needed) that others read tweets and interpret them as they will. (For the record, I didn’t find anything offensive in those tweets, but it wasn’t my account I was tweeting under, so I accept the edits.)

But my takeaway from that experience and the experiences of others (see How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life, and Too Many People Have Peed in the Pool for two examples), is simply to not use Twitter. I have a number of other communications tools that I am free to use with friends, family, and co-workers, and I have no need to recruit followers, nor to deliver pithy, entertaining, or even useful comments to the universe.

Some educators may find that tweeting is a rewarding experience, and I absolutely do enjoy reading the tweets of some of my colleagues. For myself, however, I find the personal / professional risk of tweeting to be unacceptably high.

One last warning, courtesy of Catherine Garcia, published on August 25, 2015 at TheWeek.com:

Former MLB pitcher and current ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling was reprimanded by the network after posting a questionable meme on Twitter.

On Tuesday morning, he tweeted a meme featuring an image of Adolf Hitler with the words: “It’s said only 5-10% of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7% of Germans were Nazis. How’d that go?” Schilling added his own commentary, the Los Angeles Times reports, writing, “The math is staggering when you get to the true #s.” He deleted the tweet 10 minutes later.

Not long after, ESPN announced he would no longer be covering the Little League World Series. “Curt’s tweet was completely unacceptable, and in no way represents our company’s perspective,” the network said. “We made that point very strongly to Curt and have removed him from his current Little League assignment pending further consideration.” Schilling returned to Twitter to take responsibility, writing, “I understand and accept my suspension. 100% my fault. Bad choices have bad consequences and this was a bad decision in every way on my part.” The lesson here is simple: Don’t use Twitter.

Do you use Twitter? Do you use it in your capacity as an educator? In which direction does the Risk/Reward balance tip for you?

Communication Breakdown

Communication Breakdown

by Richard White

2016–02–21

It’s not just an awesome song by Led Zeppelin—it’s a topic that has become of some concern in my teaching, particularly as more channels of communication have opened up.

A quick inventory of communication devices that I access during the course of a school day includes my mobile phone, my Apple watch, and my work phone (which doesn’t ring very often, thankfully), and most heavily, my computer, which is the focal point for most of my chatter.

But the channels that have access to those devices are truly astounding, and literally impossible for me to reasonably monitor. My “communication feeds” include:

  • mobile phone calls
  • texts (monitored with mobile phone and computer)
  • emails (6+ accounts continuously monitored with mobile phone and computer)
  • personal calendar (continuously monitored with mobile phone, computer, and watch)
  • websites (3) I maintain for students in my own classes
  • other websites related to my profession, including the one you’re reading right now
  • the school’s internal website
  • the school’s attendance interface
  • work calendars (4 separate ones): daily, junior and senior test calendars, homework calendar
  • work calendars (2 separate ones, for students, posted on course websites)
  • SFTP software (Panic’s Coda, for updating websites)
  • RSS feeds
  • Facebook (monitored rarely, almost never used for outgoing communication)
  • Twitter (monitored occasionally, almost never used for outgoing communication)
  • Skype / Google Hangouts / GoToMeeting (used on an occasional basis)
  • GitHub for storing repositories
  • Presentations (LibreOffice’s Impress, Microsoft’s PowerPoint) for delivering content to students and peers
  • Terminal windows open on the computer (multiple), which require a whole sub-section themselves:
    • to-do list
    • ssh sessions to the server maintained for computer science classes
    • text editors, for grabbing notes in an “Evernote” fashion
    • git version control for software projects

You are probably in a similar situation. If you don’t have as many websites or Terminal windows as I do, I’ll bet you more than make up for it with the time on Facebook (you can admit it—I won’t judge you) or the time you spend enjoying your family. Let’s face it: we’re all busy.

One of my challenges as a hybrid teacher is developing in my students the ability to manage some of these channels. My students keep up with the most important elements of class via the website or the school’s course calendar, but even then, I email them on a semi-regular basis to remind them of especially important items. And students in my computer science courses submit assignments to a server, a new channel for them that some of them occasionally struggle to manage.

Our students are young and adaptable, but also easily distracted. As we ask them to incorporate new channels into their lives—subscribe to my Twitter feed! Watch this YouTube video for my flipped class!—are we helping train them for other classes, for university, for work? Or are we tempting them with more distractions?

I pose this question as I consider whether or not to introduce them to Slack, a team-based online communications tool that has taken the tech industry by storm. (I’m not just trying to be cool: Slack has the potential to give my students access to their instructor and each other, so questions can be answered sooner rather than later.)

I ask these questions as I develop curriculum for an Advanced Topics in Computer Science course that will leverage GitHub for distribution of class materials and for submission of coursework.

I consider these questions as I write this blog post at the computer while a large pile of important work—grading my students’ most recent test—sits over on the coffee table, waiting for my attention.

Where do you lie on the communications spectrum? I’d be interested to hear…