The Weekly Blab

Volume 5, Issue 16—December 13, 2010


Merry Christmas to All

This is the last issue of the Blab for 2010 (unless I decide at the last minute to do a big Las Vegas special).  I hope everyone has a great Christmas and New Year, and I’ll catch you all on the flip side, for the first issue of 2011.


Why I Love/Hate Technology

I got a great toy the other day—an internet radio/media player, which connects to my receiver, hooks to my Wi-Fi network, and allows me to play internet radio, anything on iTunes on my computer, and any online music service through my stereo.  I took it out of the box, plugged it in, connected it with RCA cables to the stereo, and it immediately found my Wi-Fi network.  Bingo—instant internet radio.  It turned out that the software for the computer (called Twonky software, and it was a bit twonky!) was out of date, but I quickly found the current software online and after downloading it and starting it up, it worked instantly to allow me to stream my iTunes.  So, the gizmo works exactly as stated.  I’ve been listening to some Israeli radio stations, some jazz stations, and an old-time radio station from where I grew up.  It’s a funny thing—we used to have trouble picking up that station over the air when I was a kid (the station was in Oswego, and we lived in Syracuse), but I can now easily pick it up in Atlanta via the internet.  OK, that’s all great, but of course I’ve been trying for three days to register the product online, and the website is constantly down. 


Furthermore, I had a problem with my cell phone.  Somehow, both Jill and I had “approved” some texting thing that was adding $10 per month each to our account.  I went to Verizon, got them to take it off and block it from coming back.  I looked at my subsequent bill, and it was actually $1 higher!  So, I called Verizon to see what was up, and they told me I hadn’t updated my phone (or Jill’s), and the bill wouldn’t drop until I did.  It might have been nice if they had mentioned that.  Anyway, I updated, and within 60 seconds my bill was adjusted downward, with a credit applied for the previous month.  I also found out there’s an app for getting internet radio on my cell phone, but since I have a Blackberry Storm (and not a Storm II), it seems that only half the stations work.  Still, that’s a lot of radio.  So—new toys, new fun, and new problems.


Happy Holidays—SPSU Style

The holiday season is well underway, and there are parties everywhere!  The week began with the Door Judging Contest.  It was a bit cold going around from building to building, but seeing all the attractive doors was fun as always, and selecting the best one was quite challenging.  It was a near tie, but congratulations to Procurement, which won the big basket of goodies. 


Tuesday brought the President’s party, which was excellent as always.  I also got to have lunch with the two ELI scholars (Richard Franza from Kennesaw and Pat Donat from North Georgia College and State University) who are shadowing Lisa this year—nice folks both, so say “Hi” if you see them on campus.  Wednesday, of course, was the big SPSU Holiday Luncheon.  As always, the Social and Community Building Committee did a fine job hosting it, with lots of top-flight food.  I even won a first-aid kit in the raffle!  Among the highlights were Koger in a partial tux, the children’s choir, and the fine rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas (“two turtle doves” being the highlight of the highlight, natch). 


Thursday had a party honoring Fred Hartfield (CSE) on his retirement, immediately followed by the Honors Graduation Party, both of which were great.  Fred is an excellent faculty member and a stand-up guy, and he will be missed at SPSU.  The Honors Graduation Party is always fun, and to see the students all dressed up with their families and with the faculty who worked with them is always a treat.  Nancy Reichert, Alda Wood, and Ann Parker do a great job with Honors, which has grown by leaps and bounds.


Finally, Sunday brought the SPSU Foundation party, which was held for the first time in the ETC’s gallery.  This turns out to be an excellent place to have a party—lots of space, and the long gallery allows things to be spread out.  The colored lights on the building’s light-pole and interior added just the right festive touch.   The food was good too!  To top it all off, despite eating all this food this past week, several people have told me that I look like I lost weight (which is ridiculous, but I appreciate the sentiment!). 


Asking Students is Good.  No, Bad!

Everybody knows that different media have their own take on things.  You wouldn’t expect to see the same interpretation of an event on MSNBC, for example, as you would on Fox. 


In that light, there was an interesting article in the New York Times called “What Works in the Classroom?  Ask the Students”, where a study costing $45 Million (funded by Bill Gates, of course) was just released, indicating that of the 3000 public school teachers participating in the study, those who were evaluated most highly by their students were also delivering the best classroom instruction.  Teachers in Charlotte NC, Denver CO, Tampa FL, New York City, and Pittsburg PA were investigated using a method called value-added modeling, which tells how much “value” the teacher added to the student based on changes in test scores from one year to another.  Early results showed:

            Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement,          “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” tended to be led by teachers with           high value-added scores, the report said. The same was true for teachers whose           students agreed with the statements, “In this class, we learn to correct our   mistakes,” and, “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we         cover in this class.”

The article states that few of the nation’s school public districts actually ask students about their experiences in the classroom (in contrast to what is commonly done in college), but that this is changing, with 20 states overhauling their evaluations systems. 


This seems pretty straightforward, right?  Public schools should just do what we do in college to evaluate their teachers.  Not so fast!  On the very same day, a brief article appeared in the Chronicle entitled “Students Lie on Course Evaluations, Study Finds”.  In this study, students at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and at the University of Northern Iowa were surveyed as to whether they told the truth on course evaluations.   The following responses were obtained to the question “Have you written something untrue on the written comments because:

            You wanted to protect a teacher?”     Yes: 3.9 percent

            You liked a teacher?”                        Yes: 11.2 percent

            You wanted to hurt a teacher?”          Yes: 2.6 percent

            You disliked a teacher?”                     Yes: 12.9 percent

While the article characterizes these results as tending more to skew the results in a negative way, it seems pretty evenly split to me.  In any event, the numbers are small and IMHO, unlikely to cause any significant difference.


Most of the blogged responses were shocked, shocked! to see that this skewing occurred.   The best response came from “Tappat”, obviously no fan of student evaluations, who wrote (yes—tongue in cheek!):


What are reasons people have for disliking people? Don’t you hate it when someone keeps trying to get you to think something stupid, you know, stuff you’ve never heard of, stuff that sounds crazy, stuff that you will never use in any of your amorphously conceptualized but high-paying jobs you tend to in between your life of hanging out with friends and hunting or shopping and. . . .


Or, don’t you hate it when you’re given indications that you’re no good at something stupid, like calculating, or rational thought, or, worst of worse, creativity and humanity!!! and that you need to get better at it, to get through the hoops that will keep you from the great life that is just beyond the series of hoops? Jeeezzzz. And then, when the person doing any of these things to you all semester long isn’t even pretty or cute!!


OMG! I hate all of that, and I’m glad when I can slam someone like that! It isn’t a lie, when you’re trying to hurt someone! Now don’t tell me how I’m wrong in my thinking here — I’ll slam you, if I get the chance!!!


Accessibility for the blind

A really interesting article appeared in the Chronicle entitled “Colleges Lock Out Blind Students Online”.  Some blind students are protesting that universities, when they design their online courses or websites, don’t take blind students into consideration.  The most well-known example of this was a lawsuit against Arizona State about its use of the Kindle e-reader in some of its classes, because while the device has text-to-speech features that could be helpful to the blind, it lacks the audible menus that are necessary for them to take advantage of that feature.  A public letter from the federal Department of Justice and the Department of Education stated: “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students”.  The agencies were promptly attacked by some as being too PC, and there were lots of comments and editorials about how ridiculous the public letter was.


What’s sad is that the devices, courses, and websites can be made far more accessible with just a few simple changes (that often cost next to nothing).  For example, it turns out that most blind people control their computers from a keyboard instead of with a mouse.  If there is a clickable button as part of the program, they can’t access it (and can’t see it to find it if they have a mouse) unless the button is keyboard enabled.  Often, they’re not.   Another common problem is that many images aren’t labeled, thereby not allowing the blind to benefit from their (often critical) content.


The article went on to say that most open source software is not fully accessible. Public institutions “will not use these materials,” Mr. Plotkin says, “because the lawsuits that would follow would be inevitable, and very costly.” [Hal Plotkin is a senior policy advisor and former community college trustee in California]


Alex J. Hurder, a clinical professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, says the potential changes are “a big deal,” because anyone in the business of preparing content for the Internet “would be warned in advance that you need to take these factors into consideration when you're preparing your programs. Otherwise the market will dry up for you, and nobody will be allowed to buy them.”


While most respondents were sympathetic, at least one went the other way:

Another case of a miniscule minority disrupting and generating high cost to colleges, etc. The rights crowd demands that everything be changed in an instant to cater to a statistical insignificant cause, while ignoring the rights of the majority. That is not to say that an effort should be made to insure access, physical and virtual, should not be made, but not to the extremes and high cost their advocates want. Sort of like the disruptive use of a signer at every event, regardless of who is attending.


While there have been, no doubt, some extreme cases of very costly accommodations being demanded, most of the necessary changes only require companies and universities to keep accessibility in mind as the product is designed.  Why we can’t all agree to that escapes me entirely.


Last Week’s Trivia Challenge

Last week’s topic was flags.  Lance Crimm (ECET), a flag lover from way back, got all five right!


1.  What is the greatest number of stripes that the US flag has had? 15

2.  Which state flag looks almost the same upside down, leading to it often being hung incorrectly? Several acceptable answers.  The best are Tennessee (whose flag was upside down on a US postage stamp), and Maryland.

3.  What national flag is solid green in color? Libya

4.  Which state flag contains the British Union Jack? Hawaii

5.  What is the only national flag that is square in shape? Switzerland (and, Lance informs, Vatican City).


This Week’s Trivia Contest

There isn’t one.  The contest will return in the New Year.  Happy Holidays to all!