battis.net and I'm all out of bubble gum…

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As we head down the homestretch of May and June, more and more students (and teachers) are experiencing siyyum for their coursework, either as final papers or presentations or projects. Projects and papers are delightfully straight-forward and easy to facilitate and grade… at least, when compared to presentations, which have the added benefit of being a potential exercise in goodwill and patience to sit through.

The first hurdle our students have to get over is the technology itself — bringing together all the disparate elements of their presentation into one place and time. A few years ago, I wrote up a cheat sheet of tips that help to avoid the most common student pitfalls. I have not run into technical problems with student PowerPoints since I started giving them this handout (I kid you not).

In general, a good presentation has to nail not just the content and technology, but also visuals and public speaking. And this is the hardest thing to do right. For adults, even. Experts have started to decry PowerPoint as not just problematic, but actively destructive when it comes to communicating information and especially nuance clearly.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

New York Times, April 26, 2010

Shifting the focus from a PowerPoint document to the holistic presentation will further the student’s ability to communicate complex ideas — a key skill in today’s (or any day’s) world. Some further reading that is both informative and motivational on that front:

May 6th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Making Things Run Smoothly

  • Make sure that you always insert pictures into your presentation using the Insert Picture command from the Insert menu. Do not copy and paste pictures into your presentation. For arcane reasons, copy and pasting pictures can make your PowerPoint fail to display your pictures on other computers.
  • Keep a folder of all of the pictures and video that you add to your PowerPoint. Just in case you need to re-insert it (for example, if you messed up on following the tip above).
  • Video is not embedded in PowerPoint, pictures are – share Zip files. That is, you can insert pictures into a PowerPoint presentation and send the presentation to someone else and they can see the pictures but you cannot insert video, send the presentation to someone else, and expect them to see the video. PowerPoint creates a link to the video instead. To get around this, if you are going to use video, put your presentation and your video files in a folder together, then insert the video. When you are ready to share your presentation, right-click on the folder and Send To > Compress or Zip Archive and send out the Zip file instead. Your recipient can unzip the archive and will have the presentation and the video.

Making Things Look Pretty

  • Black text on a white background is not traditional by accident. It’s easy to read. Think carefully before trying a novel color combination.
  • One picture per slide lets you show the picture big, in all its glory. Multiple pictures per slide lets you compare pictures. Think about which it is you want to be doing (and remember that postage stamps are hard to see!).
  • Don’t stretch your pictures. You can scale your pictures proportionately by holding down the Shift key when you drag the grab boxes on the corners of the picture. This will make sure that the picture doesn’t get distorted.
  • Use text judiciously. This one is complicated: you don’t want to have too much text on a slide because it will get small and hard to read. You don’t want to put your script on the slide, because then you’ll be reading from the slide, which is deathly dull (unless, maybe, you’re Morgan Freeman). But you do want to present text that will support your arguments and highlight important ideas. And you do want to present quotations that are illuminating. One rule of thumb is the “six by six” rule: no more than six words per bullet point, no more than six bullet points per slide. This is totally artificial and you should violate it as needed… but remember it and what it is really urging: don’t overwhelm your audience with text!
  • Less is more. This is true of almost everything involved in PowerPoint, but particularly when it comes to animation and sound effects. They have a campy appeal, and can sometimes underscore a point you’re trying to make. But you ain’t Spielberg and PowerPoint ain’t ILM, so don’t go trying to put in gratuitous special effects just to make your PowerPoint more appealing. Your research and ideas should be the focus, not your ability to make car crash sound effects.

May 6th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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Original #lazyweb tweet

So, I’ve spent far more of this fall mucking about in the Stygian stables of PowerPoint than I would really prefer. I don’t use it regularly myself, but have been working on converting a bunch of lesson units that were sent to my team as PowerPoints into an actual, y’know, shareable format. I’ve detailed at length my battles with converting PowerPoints into web pages (short version: don’t — I already knew this, of course, but had PowerPoints and needed web pages…).

Some quick history: these PowerPoints are created in Israel in Windows, I believe as PPTX files (i.e. Office 2007 documents). They’re saved as PPT files on those Israeli Windows systems. Which means that, in fact, my Mac PowerPoint 2008 converts the PPT files as they’re opened (into what, no one knows — they get “converted” again every time I save them, so I’m guessing it “converts” the PPTs into PPTXs).

Right now, I’m at a point where I need to pore over several hundred PowerPoint slides one-by-one and double-check hyperlinks, rebuilding pages that contain structures that PowerPoint is (mysteriously) incapable of exporting to the web correctly. And I see this bizarre view:

Too Wide Slide PreviewNo, your eyes do not deceive you: the slide preview on the left is roughly double the size of the actual, editable, slide on the right. That left column is my list of slide thumbnails. I kid you not. And, it turns, out, that I can’t drag the divider very far to shrink it, maybe only 30 pixels:

Still Too Wide Slide PreviewThis isn’t much of an improvement. (And, lest you think I haven’t clicked around enough, it turns out that if I try to close the left-hand slide thumbnail column by clicking the close box next to the divider… all that happens is that the column contracts to this slightly narrower width.) And I still have this miserable, unworkable right-hand pane in which to edit the actual slide. To add insult to injury, it turns out that I can control-click in the slide preview column and choose a zoom level for the previews:

Previews Zoomed to 100%So, this is the slide previews zoomed to 100% (which implies that they were previously displayed at something like 200% or 300% of their actual size). But I still can’t move the dang divider and create enough space to edit the actual goldang slide. As Obelix would say: “rhubarbrhubarbrhubarbrhubarb…”

Moreover, it turns out that when I switch from slide preview view to outline view, I can slide the divider around as much as I want. But the outline view doesn’t work for me, since these slides are made almost entirely of images and text boxes (and therefore the outline shows nothing). And, when I switch back from outline to slide preview mode… the flippin’ divider pops back to take up two thirds of my window.

I did some futzing around. It turns out that if I open the presentation in OpenOffice and save it as a PPT again, the slide previews go back to normal, reasonable, adjustable sizes…. but all of the links to supporting documents are destroyed because OpenOffice doesn’t support hyperlinks in presentations yet. Apparently. Ditto Keynote (it borks the layout, hyperlinks get munged, etc.).

And now, here’s the cherry on top: when I open the file in PowerPoint 2003 on Windows, it opens with the slide preview on the right. As though I were using an Israeli system. Same proportions — wide left column for editing, narrow preview column on the right. But I can’t move the preview column over to the left. I can only hide or show it. It seems that PowerPoint is saving column widths, but not remembering which column goes in which width: it opens it in Windows “Israeli-style” and knows the narrow right column is for previews, but on the Mac, it only sees the narrow right column — not that it’s a preview, and assumes — because I’m in the US, that the actual slide editor is the right column. But doesn’t let me adjust the width.

And, since I’m trying to get these PowerPoints working for Mac users… it’s not really a solution to edit them in Windows. Or to travel to Israel.

Argh. And the Microsoft “support” forums are populated by ignoramuses and arrogrant dimwits. And pptfaq.com is aimed at Windows users.

Rhubarbrhubarbrhubarbrhubarbrhubarb.

December 10th, 2009

Posted In: Ouroboros

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So, I’ve spent the last few days wrestling with a curriculum unit that an outside consultant built. In PowerPoint. On Windows. And which we have been trying to set up in such a way that we can share the interactive document with students. Who are using Macs. And, perhaps, without asking each student to download a ~200MB file to use it.

I have learned and grown much in the process. And have discovered that Microsoft PowerPoint 2008 does an execrable job of exporting PowerPoints as web pages (it does an execrable job of doing a lot of other things too, but we can talk about that at another time). Here are the key fixes that I made to the exported web page and supporting files so that the presentation would fundamentally work (all of this was done using regular expressions in TextMate):

  1. I stripped out all of the fancy Javascript calls that PowerPoint inserted as links to navigate from one slide to another. It turns out that a simple HREF to the actual page’s HTML file works (and the JavaScript Does Not.)
    Find:

    (href=")[^"]*(slide\d{4,4}.htm)[^"]*(")

    Replace with:

    $1$2$3
  2. The export to web page takes all of the already URL-encoded links in the PowerPoint and reencodes them, rendering them useless. I stripped off the second encoding.
    Find:

    (%)25([a-fA-F0-9]{2,2})

    Replace with:

    $1$2
  3. Finally, because the links were built in Windows and then URL-encoded, all of the Windows-style paths needed to be turned into POSIX paths for use on the web.
    Find:

    %5[cC]

    Replace with:

    /

At this point, in an average PowerPoint, most of the damage has been fixed and things more or less work. However, the curriculum unit that we were working with also linked to external Word documents (hence some of the Windows-style path issues above). This meant I had a few more fixes along the way that are worthy of note:

  1. I replaced the links to Word documents with links to the corresponding PDF files (and script I used generated PDF files with .doc.pdf extensions and I didn’t bother to fix that).
    Find:

    (href="[^"]*docx?)(")

    Replace with:

    $1.pdf$2
  2. These links to external documents open in the same frame as the slideshow. Which defeats the purpose of the slideshow being a navigational tool. So I redirected all of the new PDF links to a new window in the browser. As the hyperlinks are broken across two lines in the HTML source code, this took two steps.
    1. Find (changing {{name of Links & Sources folder}} to the, well, actual name of the Links & Sources folder):
      (href="((http://)|({{name of Links & Sources folder}}))[^"]*")\n

      Replace with:

      $1
    2. Find (modifying as noted above):
      (href="((http://)|({{name of Links & Sources folder}}))[^"]*"\starget=")_top(")

      Replace with:

      $1_blank$5

September 24th, 2009

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Having just driven my sister to the Philadelphia airport, I am reminded of the value of education founded in general principles, rather than a rote memorization of steps to accomplish specific goals.

I grew up in Philadephia and I have no idea where I am or how to get there on most of my trips. This is doubly true when driving to the airport. I simply know a route (in the case of the airport, for many years all I knew was that if I got in a particular lane on the expressway, I would eventually end up at the airport). I don’t know the geography. If I had to leave my route for a detour (as I did a year or two ago), I would have no idea how to recover.

Compare this to my knowledge of Somerville, where I lived for nine months and drove far less than when I was in Philadelphia (and yes, the walking knowledge is part of my point). Somerville was the the third city in four years that I had lived in, and I had developed a different approach to learning the lay of the land than my approach to Philadelphia. I got lost. I got lost a lot. I printed out directions to every place I wanted to go, but when I thought I saw a shortcut or knew my way, I took it. Sometimes this went badly. But I rapidly developed a much better sense not just for routes, but for the entire geography of the city (I can’t speak to Boston, but this worked in Cambridge as well). I had taken enough wrong turns that I had a sense of how the streets were connected (even if I didn’t always know the names).

I started working in IT when I was in high school, supporting my school’s AppleTalk network and doing odd consulting gigs along the way. In the consulting, I had several regular clients who hired me to help them learn how to use their computers. These regular clients took copious notes as I explained to them how to perform various tasks on their computers (use a word processor, print, save a file). Those folks who noted down that the menubar was where actions (or, in one English teacher’s case, verbs) were stored, that each window represented a file on the hard drive, and so forth, were rarely heard from again: they had grasped the general principles of the situation. The ones who titled their notes “How to Save a MacWrite File” and then took step-by-step notes… those were job security. Not only did they tend to lose their notes (notes more akin to a treasure map than to knowledge), but they were unable to generalize from those notes to other related concepts like “How to Save a MacPaint File” or “How to Save an AppleWorks Spreadsheet” (and they weren’t entirely certain that a file and a spreadsheet were the same thing).

Why do I mention this? The takers of step-by-step notes, maps to the hidden treasure of the Save command were learning how to use their computers by rote memorization, with no real understanding of what they were doing or how discrete parts of the process they had learned could be applied to other, similar situations. They were driving to the Philadelphia airport.

When confronted with an alien technology (or landscape or process or culture), our natural inclination is to find out how to do the few specific things that we need to do (order food, print a paper, hail a taxi, etc.). If we learn those tasks in isolation, without learning the underlying and fundamental principles that define how that technology or landscape work, we continue to operate in alien terrain. It’s quicker and easier, initially, to have our cheat sheet than to probe the situation and figure out how the dang thing works.

The temptation when teaching students (or faculty) how to use technology is to provide the step-by-step directions, neatly illustrated with screenshots, describing how to perform X, Y or Z task that needs to be done for the assignment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself, even as recently as this fall (I tried to have the best of both worlds, describing the steps, but also what the steps were doing… but I have little confidence that anyone read those longer explanations under the time pressure of September and the start of classes). These cheat sheets prevent us and our students from learning how to use the system.

Earlier this fall, a fellow teacher described his approach to teaching his students how to use different web sites. He doesn’t. He gives them the URL of the main site, tells them what to look for, and gives them an evening to poke at it to figure out how to get the information they need out of it. They might collaborate and share their learning. They might intuit how the system works. They might not get it that first night and have to seek help from their peers. But they don’t have trouble with the second assignment: they have learned how the site works on that first evening.

This seems like an argument for teaching by not teaching. Rather, it is an argument for teaching by coaching, by presenting challenges to our students for which we have adequately prepared them and allowing our students to strive and succeed. The role of the teacher is not to be the master of all knowledge, but the sage adviser capable of guiding students to the knowledge. In practice, this is not easier but rather much harder than traditional teaching: it’s easy to tell someone else how to do something, to explain what you know so that they might understand it. It is much harder to create a situation in which genuine learning can take place, to not interfere while that learning is going on, and to help facilitate and process that learning during and afterwards.

This is the challenge for teachers of technology.

Rather than teaching our students how to use a specific technology to perform a specific task, we need to present our students with appropriate tools and background to learn to use those tools. Academic computing is often relegated to computer applications classes, where students learn skills devoid of context, or to specific projects where a student “learns PowerPoint.” Instead, we need to think more broadly: what are the academic computing skills that we wish for our students to have? How can we challenge our students to develop those skills? How will we know when they have attained this knowledge?

Do we want our students to learn to use Word and PowerPoint? Well, not really: I don’t care what programs they learn to use. Let’s rephrase the question: Do we want our students to learn how to develop and write about their ideas and present those ideas in a clear and compelling manner? Hell yes. We have several tools available to facilitate this, including Word and PowerPoint. But these are just tools. Offering a class in computer applications is like offering a class on pencils: everyone involved will want to gouge out their eyeballs by the second hour. These tools have to be learned as just that: tools, part of a process larger than themselves.

The great fear of teachers who are asked to use fancy pants technological tools in their classes is that they will need to know more about these tools than their students. I ask instead that teachers know more about the skills that they wish their students to acquire, and be willing to coach students towards honing those skills while using technology, rather than teach students to use specific tools.

Certainly a teacher can’t ask a student to use a tool with which they themselves have no familiarity. But if this is a tool that is supposed to help a student achieve and exhibit the desired skills, and the teacher is him or herself a master of those skills… shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the teacher to either a) be familiar with the tool or b) reevaluate whether or not the tool is itself useful to the skill? (I’m eating my own dog food on this one: I’m writing this blog!)

This fall I have worked with a number of teachers who want to learn specific tools to enhance their own teaching. This is how these tools will end up being taught, not because we have a mandate that all of our graduates should master the Microsoft Office suite. In much the same way that a history teacher who doesn’t use outlines for his or her own analyses is going to be less well-equiped to teach his or her students to use outlines, a teacher who doesn’t use technology is going to be ill-equiped to teach their students. (And, by corollary, leaders in schools should also be using technology to support their work with faculty — same reasoning: if it’s really a useful tool, we should be using it!)

All of this brings us back to the key point however: we don’t really learn until we have had to get ourselves unlost. And, as teachers, we need to be willing to let our students get lost. Not terribly, Robinson Crusoe, Moses-in-the-desert, talking-to-our-volleyball lost, but lost on the way from Someville to Cambridge. Define a bite-sized goal for our students and ask them to chew it on their own: ask them to learn to use a technology on their own. Give them a introduction, point them to the areas they will need to explore, and let them explore!

December 28th, 2007

Posted In: Educational Technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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