Jacob J. Walker's Blog

Scholarly Thoughts, Research, and Journalism for Informal Peer Review

Archive for March, 2012

4 Simple but Critical Strategies to Improve the Effectiveness of Technolgy in Education

without comments

Gary Page, who is the Information Technology Consultant for the U.S. Department of Education, and someone who I highly respect for the work he is doing to improve education in general, sent the following email last week:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced the creation of a 48-member Education Technology Task Force this week, with the charge to help bring 21st century tools into California’s classrooms to improve teaching and learning.

While the state’s budget crisis is causing many California schools to postpone the use of better technology, a plan developed by the Task Force will be made to wisely use technology when more resources become available.

Members are assigned to focus groups that will examine the state’s current education technology infrastructure and assess future needs, as well as recommend how to improve teaching, learning, and equal access to technology for all students.

You are invited to participate in the planning process by providing your perspectives, information and resources to the Task Force members through the Brokers of Expertise Web site: http://commentedtech.myboe.org/

As an adult education technology instructor, technician, programmer, amateur mathematician*, and one of the primary authors of the upcoming revised standards for Information and Communications Technologies for California, I think it is important to share my thoughts.  Here are the strategies that I think are imperative for California to follow to remain a leader in technology.

  1. California should join with the U.S. Department of Education is supporting Open Content, including Free/Open Source Software, and Free/Open Textbooks & Learning Materials.   Teachers should be encouraged to release their works under an open license, and I believe that work that is directly funded by the California Department of Education should be mandated to be released under one of these licenses.  If we want equitable access to resources, we need to build a public system that automatically shares what it has with all its citizens, and that is what open licensing does. Further, open source software can often run on older computer hardware, thus optimizing resources and reducing what is thrown away.
  2. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing should either make a new credential for computer science, as the California Computing Education Advocacy Network has proposed. Or simply allow computer science credits and degrees to count towards a math credential, since the current regulations already suggest that math and computer science have a basic equivalency.  Currently we are lacking computer scientists in the ranks of teachers, and this leads to a culture that is less computer savvy and more disconnected from technology than we could or should have.
  3. Real-world project-based assessment needs to become the norm, as The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has advocated.  Schools should utilize their students to make flyers, documents, forms, spreadsheets, software applications, and do technical support under the guidance of certificated and classified staff.  This accelerates learning, improves the relevancy of education, and optimizes resources by having additional manpower to accomplish the basic tasks that then free up office staff and IT departments to focus on the higher level tasks that can improve education.
  4. We need to have the right technology educational content standards.  I am very glad that the task force has the first step of reviewing “relevant research and literature on education technology” but my concern is that most current research looks at how to implement, and how to teach with technology, but there is very little research about what knowledge and skills related to technology is most relevant to the potential future of our children and our State. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that while all students are supposed to know scientific notation as part of our current math standards, none are required to know the metric/SI prefix “tera” (as in terabyte) nor actually know that tera means a trillion, and further, there is no standard that says that students even need to know what a trillion means.   I also do not believe Boolean logic appears anywhere in our math standards (although we now have it in the proposed ICT standards), which is one of the most important parts of understanding technology at any deeper level than just being a user.  We need to keep Drucker’s maxim in mind: Efficiency is doing things right, but true Effectiveness is doing the right thing.

I do not know how much I can get involved in this process.  I dived in deep, but only briefly, into revising the ICT standards, but I am also balancing my family and work, which is still taking way more time than I wish.  But, this is a critical issue for our state and our world, and the proposed strategies above are simple in many ways, and would make a tremendous difference in California’s future.

* In many ways I’m actually a  professional mathematician, because while I do not have a math degree, I apply math very regularly as part of my career, as my previous post shows.

Written by Jacob Walker

March 29th, 2012 at 6:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Mapping/Encoding 0-999 into 2 characters (digits & capitals) – Mad Math Skills worth $30,000

without comments

Recently I posted how a lot of math that is critical to solving technology problems have nothing to do with Calculus, and that other math needs to be taught.

I ran into this situation today.  We administer Pell Grants with Twin Rivers Adult School,  and we have been trying to decide what database system to use.  The free one, EDExpress, from the U.S. Dept. of Education has limitations, but the cheapest commercial one is over $30,000.   Thus by doing this crazy math, I am possibly saving our school over $30,000.

One of the limitations of EDExpress is that their identifiers are often limited.  In fact, there is one thing called an Academic Year Profile, and it can only be up to 4 characters, and only capital or digits.   The problem is that I need to leave the last character empty to place a 1 or 2 in it (which seems a waste of space but is necessary to keep it working for other things.  So that leaves me with 3 characters, and the first character is a letter that represents the program.   So I’m left with 2 characters, but I had 3 digits from our Student Information System (SIS) that are all critical to map into these 2 characters.  Thankfully, math comes to the rescue, because 3 digits have 1,000 possibilities, while 2 characters that can be digits or upper case letters have 36*36 possibilities which is 1,296.   Thus, the one to one mapping can work.

So how to do it?  Digits can be converted to characters by using the CHAR function in T-SQL (and many other programming languages.)   But sometimes I would need to not convert it so I ended up with a number still.   This requires some “IF” type logic,  but T-SQL does not have an if statement.  Thankfully it has a CASE statement that is similar to what an IF can do in most programming languages.

I also needed to pull out the 2 potential groups of 36.   Since this is only 2 characters, I could use some modulus math on one of them, and just divide the other, getting rid of fractions.   For those not familiar with modulus math, it is basically is a mathematical operation that would tell you the remainder of the problem if you were doing long division.

So while I am not going to post my exact SQL statement due to security concerns, I will say that I had to create a long statement that took the 3 digits, and then cut them up into 2 characters using CHAR, CASE, and modulus math!

For those interested in understanding this, I made a proof of concept spreadsheet that I’m attaching to this posting: 3_Digits_Mapping_to_2_Characters

Written by Jacob Walker

March 28th, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

Systemic Change at Twin Rivers

without comments

Two of the challenges with the world and trying to change it for the better are:

  1. Most long term change comes from changing systems, not from changing people working within the same rules.
  2. Changes to systems rarely have only positive results, but instead for any action there are a million reactions, and unintended consequences are nearly inevitable.

With that being said, there is the electoral question of whether it is better to have representatives voted in for a specific geographic area, such as how it is common to do in the United States, or to have them in theory being for an area, but elected in by a big group, or to elect them in by party affiliation as most parliamentary systems do.

Twin Rivers is currently debating between the first 2, as can be read about in the Sac Observer.  I am not really sure what the unintended consequences might be of having direct area representation, but currently I’m leaning towards this, because I think it does have a good chance of improving voter participation, and it also would limit the problem of one geographic area having more say than another in an election.   What I mean by this, is that right now Rio Linda voters, tend to vote more than Del Paso heights voters, and so the public control over the board is generally uneven.

Will election reform be part of the Twin Rivers Spring?  The voters need to get involved to make this very important choice.  And I’m very interested in hearing comments about the unintended consequences that could happen from changing the election system in the district.

On a similar note, this year also has had calls for change about the redistricting of areas that trustees represent for Twin Rivers.

Written by Jacob Walker

March 28th, 2012 at 6:31 am

Myths that Many Mathematicians Must Still Believe because they Still Spread Them

without comments

I was listening to the radio program The Best Of Our Knowledge this morning, and I heard Professor Colin C. Adams interviewed about the state of mathematical education in the United States.  And while I have a deep respect for the work that Dr. Adams is doing in improving the general reputation of mathematics, I also believe that several of the answers that he gave on the radio show were myths or at least partial truths that are still promulgated as being gospel.

First, there is the assumption that is made that mathematics is a serial progression.  While it is true that much of mathematics is cumulative, in both the sense that most topics require understanding of earlier topics, and that proof is always built upon more basic logical statements.  But, it is easy to confuse this meaning of cumulative with assuming that math is linear.  And math is anything but linear in how math has developed.

For instance, while Williams College seems to still follow the idea that Calculus is the entrance of advanced math, in reality understanding calculus is not necessary to understand many of the contemporary areas of mathematics that are critical for higher paid jobs.   This is because discrete mathematics, including understanding number theory, such as base systems to understand binary, and prime numbers to understand contemporary encryption, is the basis of most technology that has fueled our economy over the past 20+ years.  And while a deeper understanding of statistics does require calculus, a basic understanding of statistics and probabilities do not.

There is also the continuing ambiguity of what “advanced” means when it comes to mathematics.   There are actually 2 ways of seeing math going from basic to advanced.  There is the progression of how we cognitively understand mathematics, from basic to advanced, where we understand counting first, addition next, and so on.  And there is also the logical progression of mathematics, where addition is not the basis of math, but instead set theory is the basis of mathematics.  This distinction became very clear when the New Math was taught in the 1960’s.   Schools attempted to teach what was mathematically basic but discovered it was a failure because this was not at all cognitively basic.    To add to this, we again need to remember that both forms of progressions, the cognitive and proof progressions both can go different directions, as was discussed about how discreet math and calculus are fairly distinct areas where math branches.

Dr. Adams also talked about how math has “1 right answer”.  This again is a half-truth.  It is completely true that for a given set of postulates and definitions, given a mathematical problem, there is only one answer.  But, in the real world there are often more than one mathematical model that can describe something, so often there are slightly different answers that approximate what reality is.  Also, in pure mathematics, different postulates and different definitions produce radically different results.  The parallel postulate is a clear example of this, which by following a different postulate, Einstein came up with many of his theories and mathematical models.  Or in a more contemporary context, in Boolean algebra that is used in computer science, 1+1=1 is a true statement.

Further, even when there is only “1 right answer”, there are many ways of getting to this right answer.  This is something that many math teachers still don’t seem to understand, and consequently many students who do math in a different way, but still get to the right answer, are often put down, or made to believe that they are wrong.

So in summary, while I am glad that more people are talking about math and the importance of math, we must stop spreading myths, even if they are being spread tacitly.

Written by Jacob Walker

March 18th, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Once I Make Up My Mind to Do Something…. I do something else instead.

with 2 comments

At the beginning of this year, I sent a letter to many friends, family, and supporters of my work that I planned to get my doctoral degree with Stanford and that I was going to start a computer science charter school.

Well, I am changing paths, but staying on the same journey.  After much contemplation, while I fully believe I am capable of being accepted at Stanford and succeeding there, I have decided instead to get my doctorate online from the University of South Africa.

This has been a decision that has been uncomfortable to make, because I know that we tend to value consistency, and some might think I’m wishy washy for my change. I also have the slight fear that people may think I may not be fulfilling my highest, or look down upon the University of South Africa and degrees conferred by it.

But, to address the first concern of being “wishy washy”, I believe firmly that changing beliefs based upon improved knowledge is the scientific process. And should be done, despite our psychological aversion to acknowledging that things are probabilistic and not certain.  Or as John Maynard Keynes told someone when he was accused of waffling, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?”

To address the second concern of choosing an online university from a developing nation over going to what is rightfully considered one of absolute top universities in the world, the question of trade-offs must be answered, and the truth of what education is really about must be explored.

While it is undeniable that by attending Stanford, I would be immersed in an environment of great intellectualism, and have as my peers and professors some of the most amazing people in the field of education today, it would also take me away, to a degree, from the reality that we must educate for.  Further, it would either take me away more from my family, or I would need to take my family away from where they love.  It also will take more time, and as Peter Drucker said and many other wise people know, time is the most scarce resource, and we only have about 100 years of it, in our lives, if we are fortunate. I do not want to wait longer than needed to start those things that I believe will help our humanity continue the process of surviving and thriving.

But what of the University of South Africa (UNISA)?  The average citizen of the U.S. has not heard of it, and it is not U.S. accredited.  But, it is one of the top 50 largest universities in the world; it is ranked in the top 10 of African Universities, and in the top 1,000 of all universities, by the Webometric Ranking Web of World Universities.  (By contrast, the University of Phoenix is currently ranked 2,705)  Further, the University of South Africa is fully accredited by the South African system, and was once accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), but the accreditation lapsed in March, 2007, and UNISA did not pursue renewal (thus they did not lose accreditation, but simply didn’t see its value at the time.)

But above the issues of prestige and quality of an institution, is the higher issue of the quality of learning.  I have been hesitant to go with any university for my doctorate, because I know that while I have much to learn, and that I will gain some knowledge from my mentoring professors, I also know that I know how to learn those things that I put my mind to, and that I know much about doing research, and that I know what resources to go to to learn the methods that I may not know yet.  Yet, most doctoral programs cost over $30,000.

The University of South Africa follows the principle of earning a doctorate by published work.  This practice is well accepted as what the goal of a dissertation should be, which is to produce work that could be published in a peer-reviewed journal.  But, UNISA takes this a step further, and requires proof of quality of research by the best standard we currently have, which is general peer-review.  I will have a qualified mentoring professor to help me with this process, and because I am now choosing to have my research Comparing the Potential for Virtual Onshoring of Distance Learning Institutions in Developing Nations to Compete in the U.S. Market.  This is basically what UNISA is doing, and I think other universities in developing nations could do so as well, which has the potential to both lower the cost of higher education in the United States and further can help raise education and the value of education in the developing world.

Further, it is critical to me, that I do not fall into the trap of getting people to listen to my ideas because of an appeal to authority.  Ideas should stand on their own, and because of a continual general nationalistic prejudice of the U.S. citizenry, having a degree from a foreign university will offer me the continual opportunity to be required to defend my ideas by their own value. Yet, by having a doctorate, I will have enough societal recognition that I can do the things I wish to do, including starting a university.  Which I will be posting more about soon…

So, in summary: At the dawn of this millennium, I put my mind to becoming an educator.  This objective has grown and expanded, and I am consistent is this expansion.  It is but my immediate turn of the moment, that has changed slightly to better reach my goal.

Written by Jacob Walker

March 11th, 2012 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

This Week is Open Education Week

without comments

I just found out today when I visited Creative Commons to get a tag for a license for a PowerPoint I was creating, that this week is Open Education Week.  Open Education is absolutely amazing.  Not only has there been community driven content being released for free to the world, such as Wikipedia, but major universities such as U.C. Berkely, U.C. Irvine, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford are releasing full audio and/or video of many of their courses online for free.

If you are interested in finding out more information about how to become part of this amazing movement, I recommend visiting the website for Open Education Week and checking out their webinars.

Written by Jacob Walker

March 4th, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with