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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Sexual harrassment

The Boston Globe has suddenly discovered that teenagers use sexual slang and epithets to torment one another. Is this a surprise to anyone? Did they repress their own memories of being a teenager? The environment described in the article is the consistent with what I lived through 30 years ago.

Particularly striking to me is a statement by Fatima Goss Graves, a vice president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington (which may have been taken out of context, but probably not):

"Schools get too caught up in the label," she said. "If it's the sort of conduct that's interfering with a student's performance, it ought to be stopped."

Oh, right. It's not about doing what's right or ensuring that the people in our care aren't mistreated: it's all about their performance! God forbid those test scores would drop! Then we'd all be in trouble. Sheesh...

Drupal Camp NH, Blizzard, and Aftermath

Tom and I left early on Saturday and drove to Manchester for Drupal Camp NH. Tom and I met around the turn of the century when he worked for me in the BCRC supported by our Pew course redesign grant. Since then, he's gone onto graduate school, fatherhood, and other harrowing adventures. He does freelance web design work in the area, but is super busy with babies and work and life, so I don't get to see him very often. We were both looking forward to the drive to actually have some time to talk and reconnect, let alone to share the experience of Drupal Camp.

We arrived right on time and in good order. Check-in went smoothly. They provided a little card you could slip into your badgeholder with the morning schedule on one side and the afternoon schedule on the other -- that was a useful innovation, to not have to refer to some separate piece of paper.

Tom and I intentionally selected different talks to attend in order to get maximum coverage. The first I attended was about Drupal security Hack-proof your Drupal App by ebeyerent. It was fantastic. I'm reasonably familiar with security and Drupal security, but I still learned a lot. The biggest insight I got was to understand that Drupal doesn't vet user input. Although you have "input filters", Drupal generally saves user input directly into the database (with the exception of escaping meta-characters that might allow SQL injection) and then its the responsibility of the themer/programmer to ensure that they check user input on output before displaying it (and there are eight different functions for doing this in particular contexts: check_plain(), t(), l(), etc). Getting this insight alone was worth the trip.

Another great insight I had actually learned from Tom on the way down. We had begun talking about developing for the mobile platform (something I've been meaning to learn more about for a couple of years) and he mentioned that the keyword was "responsive design" and that the modern approach was to design first for mobile, which is generally the most limited platform. This helps focus on the key functionality that the website needs to provide and make sure that its accessible. Later, you can easily add-on a pretty, fancy skin for giant monitors. But getting people to focus on what's important is harder when the primary concern most people have in that context is aesthetics. With this preparation, I went to Jake Strawn's presentation on "Responsive Drupal Today" where he said all this again with many excellent examples drawn from his work on Omega.

In the third session, nothing grabbed me, so I went to the code-sprint room and spent some time trying to hack on the Nodewords module. With the guest wireless, I couldn't use ssh to get to a server so, instead, I spent most of my time installing apache, mysql, php, drupal, and nodewords and, at the end of the hour, had only gotten to the point of configuring the module and looking through the issue queue. I tried applying a user-submitted patch for one issue to hack on it a bit, but it didn't apply cleanly and I didn't have time to sort out what was wrong. It was unfortunate to not get any actual coding done, but still good use of my time.

Lunch was great: pizza, salad, etc. There was plenty of food and lots of snacks later. There wasn't any Coke Zero, which I would have preferred, but lots of bottles of water.

I went to Christina Inge's presentation on Analytics and Usability. The presentation was a little basic for me: too much time on why you should care about analytics, installing the google analytics module, and signing up for an account. I could have used more in-depth tricks on actually using the data. But I don't know how representative I was for the audience: the audience might have needed the more basic info.

The last presentation I attended was Why Drupal Projects Fail. This didn't really hold any surprises, but was a good reminder that the key issue is one of expectations. No matter if you think the project is a "success", if you violate the stakeholders expectations, the project will be perceived as a failure. Managing expectations requires good communication, transparency, and honesty. Good reminders.

Tom and I skipped the last presentation and tried to head home. We had been watching the forecast, but the storm was ahead of us. After a few miles, it became clear that the intelligent thing to do was to go back and find a hotel for the night. We got back to the conference in time for the closing plenary. We each won a prize in the raffle: I selected a copy of the Drupal 7 book and got the available authors to sign it.

On the way to the afterparty, we reserved a room at the Radisson and then spent a pleasant couple of hours at Milly's Tavern -- a great microbrew in Manchester. I tried the IPA and the Hopzilla: excellent bitter beer.

By the time we headed to the hotel, the snow was already several inches deep. As we approached the hotel, we found the roads barricaded by the police due to an event at the Arena that was across the street from the hotel. We drove all around the block looking for a way to get up to the hotel -- nearly getting stuck once or twice. Eventually get got in and spent a reasonably pleasant night in the hotel. I tried to check email and found that the servers were down. I was able to reach my home server, which helped me sleep a bit better.

The next morning, I foolishly decided not to breakfast before we left the hotel. I was eager to get going and didn't want a giant buffet breakfast, thinking that we could pick something up along the way. But it was clear once we got going that no place along the highway had power. Trees were smashed down everywhere. Tom thought we were driving through giant stands of birch trees, until we saw it was just wet snow coating the north-east sides of the tree trunks. Power was out along the Masspike too. At the second rest area, we found a McDonalds that had generator power -- they were only serving coffee and a few food items, but we got a bit to sustain us.

In Holyoke, we stopped at Tom's house. The snow looked to be around 1.5 feet deep, where it was in the shade. Many streets had downed branches and wires, but Tom's street was not too bad. We had to park on a side street, but we were able to get up to the house and touch base with Kirsten and the kids. They hadn't lost power. In a bit, we got back in the car and headed for Amherst.

There were no working traffic lights. Crazy people were driving right through them, rather than treating them as a 4-way stop. Insane. The power was off everywhere. A few business had generators, but whole the valley looked to be shut down.

At home, everyone was OK. The power had gone off around midnight, but there was no damage to the house or even to most of the trees. The cherry tree looked undamaged. Our azaleas were a bit smashed, but looked like they might recover. There was some water in the basement, but it hadn't yet gotten to the hot water heater (the first serious concern). Since then, we're just waiting for power.

After a long cold, night, we went for breakfast at Kelly's in shifts. Lucy and went first and confirmed that they were open and serving food. Alisa got the rest up and brought them a bit later. Afterwards, we headed for the BCRC to charge up our devices and get some connectivity. It's still going to be days before power is fully restored in Amherst, but we're not in some isolated cul-de-sac and we hope to get power back sooner rather than later. It's been quite an adventure.

So-called Class Capture is Stupid

I got an email from one of technical staff in another department wanting to consult with me about setting up a streaming server. When we met, he explained that the faculty in his department were doing "class capture" and wanted to set up a server to provide access to the video files. We mostly talked about the technical issues involved, although I couldn't resist at least mentioning the pedagogical underpinnings.

So-called "Class Capture" is stupid. If you're teaching in such a way that a video recording of the screen is useful, then you're doing it wrong. The time the students and faculty are together is incredibly special and can be used much more effectively than as a memory dump by one person. In particular, you can have students discuss problems in small groups and report out to the larger group: class capture doesn't work for that. You can have students work on group projects. You can have students actually do things and not just sit there. If you do anything interesting with the class time, class capture doesn't work: it would be pointless. To do class capture in an environment like that, you'd need a team of camera-persons and sound persons. And an editor to provide a comprehensible stream of footage. Class capture only makes "sense" if you have someone lecturing. Sigh...

I pointed out that I understood that the poor tech couldn't make faculty choose different pedagogy and that he needed to just make something that would work for them. I showed him an approach that I thought would work. I pointed out that you really only need a "streaming server" if you want to provide live feeds and that for posting files, you could probably get away with just posting video files (probably .flv, transcoded using ffmpeg) and a player like flowplayer. I pointed out that you could put a pretty front-end on it with Drupal, but he said that people just needed to embed their videos in their course websites, so that probably wouldn't be necessary.

We also talked a bit about hardware and OS: he suggested getting a tiny Dell computer and using Windows. I pointed out that you probably wanted more reliable hardware than that, but he said that his department was notoriously cheap. It turned out the only reason he was talking to me was that they'd looked at purchasing some kind of video streaming solution that cost $5000. If money hadn't been an issue, they'd have just bought it, I guess. Sigh...

ContactCon and conversations worth continuing

When I heard about ContactCon, I signed up almost immediately. The issues being raised have been of interest to me since I started using the Internet: how to make sure the net can be used for empowerment rather than oppression. The net is clearly useful for both, but the trend has been shifting in the wrong direction for years.

A corporation would have never made something like the Internet in the first place. When I was a kid, we still had The old AT&T and Bell Telephone network. You weren't allowed to own a telephone: you were required to rent one from the phone company. And everything was monetized. Now, I suspect that the most expensive thing about current cell-phone operations is the overhead necessary for administration, metering, and billing. And that's the direction we've been going: give users a dumbed-down box that only enables what the monetizers want you to be able to do.

There were a lot of interesting people at ContactCon most of whom I'd never met before. The demographic was mostly white, largely male, and somewhat younger than me. There were some folks my age or older, but we were the exception. Many were young entrepreneurs and freelancers looking to network to support their project. It reminded me of the luxury of my current circumstances: I have a steady job and don't need to spend half my time trying to market myself or bill people. I don't have to work on spec or limit what I do to what people are willing to pay for. I get to spend most of my time actually just working and being creative. I lament for this generation that is so circumscribed and limited in their choices -- and will probably end up permanently stunted by the economic conditions that have been imposed on us by the 1%. Or, if you prefer, that through my generation's lack of engagement, we have allowed ourselves to be disempowered.

I wore my "Official Red Hat" red hat and took my ubuntu netbook to demonstrate my free software street cred. I actually met the guy who'd ordered the stock of red hats when he worked at Red Hat in that time period. I had completely borked my install of Ubuntu a few days ago (or maybe the update from Easy Peasy never really worked right). In the event, I completely wiped the netbook the night before and re-installed everything. I've started using Dropbox to maintain the rough drafts of my writing, so it was easy to get my data back. I could have just taken my macbook, but it wouldn't have been as fun. In point of fact, I hardly used it, but it was nice to know it was there.

I met dozens of people, learned about many new projects, and also touched base with projects I've known about but haven't had time to explore. I've been interested in the Freedom Box since I first heard about it: it's consistent with my vision for people having their own server. And it's also the only way to have any assurance of privacy: you can't trust third parties not to reveal all of your private information to the government or corporations.

I organized a discussion about education and unschooling. It was a very receptive audience to the ideas and there were a number of people working on interesting things. The most interesting was probably Be You, but there were many, many others. ContactCon reminded me of what John Jungck used to say about the goals of BioQUEST: to begin conversations worth continuing. I suspect I will continue to interact with some of these people going forward.

Badges to Empower Students, Subversively Encourage Faculty, and Align Learning with Department Goals

A system for badges for life-long learning, based on previously-established Department Learning Goals, driven by student applications, and implemented in Drupal, could encourage students to align their own learning with the Goals. In addition, it could provide a much-needed impetus for building improved assessment of learning.

The Biology Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has fostered revolutionary pedagogy and pioneered team-based learning approaches in lab and in lecture. With funding from Howard Hughes, we built innovative introductory and upper-level biology laboratory courses. With support from the Pew-funded Program in Course Redesign, we developed on-line resources to support in-class small-group problem solving. With funding from NSF, we've developed cutting-edge model-based problem solving activities for use with clickers.

About ten years ago, the Biology Department adopted a forward-looking set of Learning Goals that has been influential in the redesign of existing classes and the design of new ones. Acknowledging that, while the curriculum defines the depth and breadth of disciplinary knowledge, the Learning Goals can establish a vision for the skills and perspectives that every Biology course should foster and develop in students. The Learning Goals in many ways encapsulate scientific literacy and an appreciation for life-long learning from a biological perspective.

While the Learning Goals have been influential, both in terms of curriculum and course design, the Department has not established assessments to monitor and evaluate student progress toward the goals in any centrally-reportable way. That's not to say that the assessments don't happen at all: they're simply embedded in courses with no mechanism for sharing them or their results. Finding ways to share the outcomes of assessments would help the department substantially, both by providing information about the Department's mission to help guide further efforts, but also to enable the department to communicate our mission to outside constituencies. It has been difficult, however, to build the necessary consensus among the faculty to accomplish the work. I believe a system based on badges could solve this dilemma.

I propose a slightly subversive mechanism to turn the problem on its head by enabling students to request badges through submission of an artifact from a course or experience (a project, paper, photograph, video, examination, etc) and writing a brief statement that explains why it merits receipt of the badge. By creating a student-driven system, the incentives for faculty could be inverted: the student requests will drive the system and provide the information about where the learning goals are already being assessed.

Badges will be aligned with the major learning goals and perspectives with four levels that students could potentially achieve for each badge (one for each year of study). Ideally, the instructor of the course and another faculty member would be required to certify that the work submitted represented progress above and beyond the level the student had previously achieved. In very large courses (some Department courses have more than a thousand students), this could be unrealistic, however, and course TAs might be needed to manage the requests.

By encouraging students to achieve the Leaning Goals directly, they will develop increased familiarity with the Goals and begin looking at their assignments and activities with an eye for how they could potentially meet Goal and earn badges. This will undoubtedly give students greater appreciation for how the Learning Goals articulate with class goals and with the Goals the faculty have for students in the major.

There are several places where the student badges could be used to confer privileges and opportunities to students. The website itself will offer a feed where new student badges are posted (at the discretion of the student). Another place where the badges could be leveraged is the Biology Undergraduate Research Apprenticeships application program where students already apply online and their badges could appear when their application is viewed. Changes to the Honors College will also necessitate the Department managing an admissions process for Honors students and the badges could appear when this determination is made.

Minimally, this system would provide a wealth of information to the Department regarding where the Learning Goals are being practiced and implemented effectively. One potential outcome of this system would be that faculty might begin redesigning their courses and assessments to facilitate student badge applications: faculty might feel some pressure to redesign their assessments if their classes yield few or no applications for badges.

I believe this can all be built with tools already available and in use in the Biology Department: We have extensive experience using Drupal and we've already started using the user_badges Drupal module (for Science Scouts badges). This module does not currently support the Mozilla Open Badges initiative, but I have already begun trying to organize a group to put in a subsequent proposal to extend the user_badges module to support it and it seems like a good platform to start with. Students would submit the material on-line and, via the workflow module, the faculty members would be notified to evaluate the submission, and assign the badge.

If other departments or entities on campus were interested in pursuing similar badges, it would be easy to replicate or centralize the infrastructure for the badge system. The General Education group and the new Integrative Experience program have similar kinds of learning goals that badges could be developed for.

For nearly ten years, I've been trying to convince the Biology Department to embark on a process to assess the Learning Goals we developed and adopted without success. If a system of badges could get students to start identifying where we're already doing these assessments and provide the mechanism for sharing the information centrally, it would be a transformative step in moving the department forward. But the biggest winners would be students taking greater control of aligning their education with the Department Goals.

Submitted as a proposal to the Digital Media Learning Badges for Life-long Learning Competition with Tom Hoogendyk & Coherent Bytes listed as a collaborator.

Why Twitter is Different

I started using Twitter and Facebook at almost the same time. When Google Plus became available, I signed up for that too, to give it a try. Twitter is different from the other two and it's been interesting to me to reflect on why.

Both Facebook and Google Plus encourage laziness and sloppiness. They encourage all kinds of mindless/thoughtless posts in your stream, like "Bob done Killed A Varmint!" Or a link stuck in to some other article, with an automatically generated thumbnail and teaser. Or just rambling posts carelessly written. It turns out that I really like the results of the tiny bit of additional structure that twitter enforces: when you make people actually craft a short message and hone it down to 140 characters, it's better.

I don't follow the many of the same people in Facebook and Twitter. I mostly only follow people in Twitter who take the time to craft short, interesting messages. People who post things that get truncated with a link get unfollowed pretty fast. The same with people who just post links without some informative comment. Or who only re-tweet other people's posts. Or who post too often. There's a sweet-spot there somewhere that results in a highly informative feed where I actually want to look at each one of the posts -- even if just for a moment. And the fact that they're short and complete is a critical part of that.

In Facebook, there's too much content: it's clear that I don't see a lot of what's there. And many of the posts are too long or too pointless to read carefully. And having a robot make decisions for me about what I want and don't want to see is not the solution.

I also enjoy the discipline myself to make me craft my message carefully: the 140 character limit makes a huge difference in the kinds of things I write for twitter. The necessity of choosing each word carefully helps me focus on what's important -- what I'm really trying to say.

That's not so say that everything about Facebook is bad or inferior. I enjoy the more extended side discussions you can have there. But having a feed of short and complete posts makes my experience with twitter uniquely satisfactory.

If there was one thing I could fix about twitter it would be to require real hyperlinks: let people link to stuff, but encourage people use links to the actual thing (not a URL shortening service) and to have hypertext, instead of clickable URLS. If people don't know how to write a hyperlink, have the system help them. And don't count the links toward the 140 character limit. It would have two positive effects: first, it would make the messages more concise, compelling and readable, but it would also reduce the ability of the system to be misused with links to spam sites. Being able to actually see the real URL has a lot of value, but having to stick it into the text is just stupid: solving that problem was one one of the key insights that made the World Wide Web so great.

Techie stuff

With the semester launched, I've had some time to work on technical things. I've set up one computer to try to start building a template for supporting Lion in the computer labs. I'm not sure when we'll switch, though: there are several pieces of software we use that won't run under Lion and, so far, I've not seen any compelling reasons to switch. And several reasons not to.

One thing that's a PITA is Apple's strategy for distributing Lion: through their obnoxious "App Store". At the University, they provided media that you can use to update Slow Neopard to Lion. Infuriatingly, however, there's no way to just install Lion and start clean with that. I googled around and found a guide that suggested you could wipe the partition with lion and then use the recovery partition to install clean from that. I tried it, but then it wanted me to log into the App Store with my AppleID (which hadn't purchased the license for Lion) and so it wouldn't let me install. So I ended up re-installing Slow Neopard and then updating to Lion.

It took me a while to remember how to set up LDAP authentication: I forgot you have to configure OpenLDAP manually before you use it in the Directory Assistant. Once I copied the key into place and referenced it in ldap.conf, everything worked just fine, although I still haven't figured out how to customize the directory template. This semester, I found where to set RealName = uid (instead of cn) so that when people want to print or mount a server share, it fills in their "username" field with their uid and not their Real Freakin' Name. Two steps forward, one step back.

In related news, I was hugely disappointed to see that Growl is only going to distribute via the App Store. I don't use the "official twitter client" because its only distributed via the App Store. Letting Apple become the sole channel for distributing software is a HUGE mistake. Yes, it's convenient and, yes, it makes it easy to monetize everything -- so easy, in fact, that people that wouldn't otherwise monetize stuff don't see the point in not monetizing it. But the App store does two really unfortunate things: First, it lets Apple choose which applications to let people run and, from there, it's just a small step to letting Apple be in control of what you can do with your computer. They already do that with the iPhone: why can't I write a tethering app so that I can share my Internet Connection with computer? Oh, that's right: an Apple Partner has that capability as part of their business plan. Even more simply, though, letting Apple gain a chokehold over the software ecosystem is as dangerous as it was for the music industry letting Apple control the supply of music. We'll all be better off if there's more competition.

So this morning, I updated my netbook with Ubuntu 11.04. All of the stuff that was problematic before just seems to work now: the ethernet card just works, the wireless just works, the camera just works. Oh, I had to twiddle some things to get the microphone to work in Skype. But it just works. It's not a bad little computer. I'll show it to the North Star kids when I see them next time: most of them have never seen a linux computer before. Maybe I should set up my macbook to dual boot. It may be time...

Science Scouts using user_badges in Drupal

I first saw Science Scouts a couple of years ago. At first, I thought the badges were just silly, but after I'd thought about it a little, I realized they had real potential to help students see faculty from a different perspective. I think students often have a hard time understanding what faculty do and that the badges could humanize faculty -- and help students appreciate their accomplishments. Especially the badges about publication, funding, etc. And they could show that faculty can have a sense of humor too -- something students are all too frequently in doubt about.

There is a module in Drupal called user_badges that allows people to associate badges with their user account. Today, I installed it at the Biology development website, configured it to use the Science Scouts badges, and modified the template for the Faculty page so faculty who want to show Science Scout badges could easily do so. I've set up my page on the Biology development site to show my badges. It's just on the development site, but I could easily migrate it to the production site.

The badges are at the bottom of the page -- mouse over them to see the titles. If you click on a badge, it will take you to the appropriate Science Scouts page.

It was easy to do. I had to make a handful of changes to the user_badges module to make it work: I had to increase the size of the name field in the database, because some of the badges have absurdly long names. I also decided to double the width of the field where you select user badges -- it seemed too small before. I also resized the graphics so that a bunch more badges can fit on a single row (although it looks fine to have them wrap.) If anyone wants my modified user_badges code and the file to import all the badges, I'm happy to provide it.

I've sent a note to the chair. I'm not sure if faculty will be willing to have this available on the actual Biology Department website. I think it's cool and it would be great to have it available for those who are willing. Not everyone will want to do it, but it would be neat to have it there.

We could also make them available to grad students too.

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