Caveat: Venter

Think about all of the things that make your brain itch. These are mine.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bridge Widget!

I finally have a complete, if not beautiful, version of BridgeKeeper. I released the 1.0 (final) version at at just after 10 p.m. Pacific on Friday night (replacing the 0.9b version that lacked certain required interface tweaks). Apple's widget doanload site now has a copy, and it should be up there too, provided it passes muster, within a couple days.

I cleaned up the code between 0.9b and 1.0, made the Done button on the back a proper "glass" button (though Apple's code seems to be leaving the left side in "clicked" mode after the first use), and included a lot of comments in the .js file, both for curious coders and for bridge players wanting to decipher the underlying game principles.

What is BridgeKeeper, you ask? Well, it is a little Dashboard widget (you Mac users running Tiger or 10.3.9 with the Amnesty browser will know what that is, though Konfabulator users will also be familiar with the concept) that calculates duplicate bridge scores. While I realize my readers, few as they are, probably count amongst them few, if any, bridge players I do not personally know, there you have it.

This brings up another issue, though. I was considering, before realizing I lacked the proper technical expertise to pull it off, submitting a presentation proposal to next year's Tech Ed conference. I am interested in how Konfabulator widgets, Dashboard widgets, and the upcoming Sidebar gadgets (to be part of Windows Vista when the product ships a few years late in the second half of 2006) can be used as pedagogical aids and student reference tools. Already there are widgets for certain student populations, and some developers have proposed more (for instance, a case law widget). Since the underlying technologies for all three tools are similar, any widget developed by someone willing to grant the rights can be ported pretty quickly to all three forms (Konfabulator runs on Mac and Windows, though not all widgets made for it are cross-platform).

What I need now is suggestions. What kinds of widgets (follow the above links to learn more about these technologies) could we develop for students? What could I be working on for English students? Can we find people to code these little buggers up for Astronomy and philosophy students? How useful, actually, can these things be?

I am no believer in the idea that technology is always good for education, nor am I anything resembling a Luddite stranded in a world that forces technology down his throat. There are proper uses for this technology, but I have yet to settle quite what those uses are. Any suggestions are most welcome.

Monday, October 17, 2005

On Student Evaluations

Every semester, it seems, my students greet evaluation day with as much glee as I. In three and a half years, my students have never failed to give me the two things I most appreciate in evaluations: generally strong marks and one or two areas that could use some (relative) improvement.

I do my best to indicate to my students my interest in honest, even harsh, evaluations so that I might improve in subsequent semesters, though I sometimes wonder if that does not, by itself, increase their respect for me and thus increase the scores they give. There is no way for me to test that accurately.

Scrivener and his commenters have noted that students are not, perhaps, the most qualified evaluators of educators, and I have to agree. Still, they know whether or not they are improving, and that is what seems to guide my students when they compose their comments at the end. There is, however, one major problem with the evaluation process, and I would love to see them fixed (note that some schools already employ what I am about to suggest, but I do not work for those schools).

The aggregate scores from student evaluations should be made available for student review. While such sites as exist for students to plug in for public consumption their opinions of faculty, not all students know or care about the site. Worse, the bulk of reviews seem to be, as noted in this piece from Wired News, either rants or raves, entirely missing the middle.

If schools made aggregate information available from mandatory on-campus reviews, everyone, including hiring and tenure review committees, could see what past students have said about instructors and professors. We educators should welcome the exposure, understanding that students may sometimes harbor negative sentiments for, at time, unfair reasons. When we look, however, at those educators who win awards for excellence in the classroom (as determined, ultimately, by faculty and administration), we often find that they are the same ones whose students give high marks. I have no fear of openness, and I should hope none of my colleagues fear it either.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Power Outage

Our power went out a couple times this morning. I had just reset some clock from the first one when the second outage hit. At first, I thought that the problem was localized in our building, but as I was driving out later, I saw that some street lights we also out. NPR reported that the power was out for a few blocks, causing, yep, traffic snarls (in Los Angeles? Shocking!).

This is not, on its surface, a really big deal. Power outages hit major cities all of the time, but what makes this so horribly serious is that it affected about a two-block radius from the Department of Water and Power. God, I love irony!