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Teaching/Learning Weather and Climate via Pencasting

I first heard about it a few years ago, and thought it sounded interesting … and then, this past Summer, I did a little more research and decided to purchase a Livescribe 8 GB Echo(TM) Pro Pack. Over the Summer, I took notes with the pen from time-to-time and found it to be somewhat useful/interesting.

Just this week, however, I decided it was time to use the pen for the originally intended purpose: Making pencasts for the course I’m currently teaching in weather and climate at Toronto’s York University. Before I share some sample pencasts, please allow me to share my findings based on less than a week’s worth of `experience’:

  • Decent-quality pencasts can be produced with minimal effort – I figured out the basics (e.g., how to record my voice) in a few minutes, and started on my first pencast. Transferring the pencast from the pen to the desktop software to the Web (where it can be shared with my students) also requires minimal effort. “Decent quality” here refers to both the visual and audio elements. The fact that this is both a very natural (writing with a pen while speaking!) and speedy (efficient/effective) undertaking means that I am predisposed towards actually using the technology whenever it makes sense – more on that below. Net-net: This solution is teacher-friendly.
  • Pencasts compliment other instructional media – This is my current perspective … Pencasts compliment the textbook readings I assign, the lecture slides plus video/audio captures I provide, the Web sites we all share, the Moodle discussion forums we engage in, the Tweets I issue, etc. In the spirit of blended learning it is my hope that pencasts, in concert with these other instructional media, will allow my TAs and I to `reach’ most of the students in the course.
  • Pencasts allow the teacher to address both content and skills-oriented objectives – Up to this point, my pencasts have started from a blank page. This forces me to be focused, and systematically develop towards some desired content (e.g., conceptually introducing the phase diagram for H2O) and/or skills (e.g., how to calculate the slope of a line on a graph) oriented outcome. Because students can follow along, they have the opportunity to be fully engaged as the pencast progresses. Of course, what this also means is that this technology can be as effective in the first-year university level course I’m currently teaching, but also at the academic levels that precede (e.g., grade school, high school, etc.) and follow (senior undergraduate and graduate) this level.
  • Pencasts are learner-centric – In addition to be teacher-friendly, pencasts are learner-centric. Although a student could passively watch and listen to a pencast as it plays out in a linear, sequential fashion, the technology almost begs you to interact with it. As noted previously, this means a student can easily replay some aspect of the pencast that they missed. Even more interestingly, however, students can interact with pencasts in a random-access mode – a mode that would almost certainly be useful when they are attempting to apply the content/skills conveyed through the pencast to a tutorial or assignment they are working on, or a quiz or exam they are actively studying for. It is important to note that both the visual and audio elements of the pencast can be manipulated with impressive responsiveness to random-access input from the student.
  • I’m striving for authentic, not perfect pencasts – With a little more practice and some planning/scripting, I’d be willing to bet that I could produce an extremely polished pencast. Based on past experience teaching today’s first-year university students, I’m fairly convinced that this is something they couldn’t care less about. Let’s face it, my in-person lectures aren’t perfectly polished, and neither are my pencasts. Because I can easily go back to existing pencasts and add to them, I don’t need to fret too much about being perfect the first time. Too much time spent fussing here would diminish the natural and speedy aspects of the technology.

Findings aside, on to samples:

  • Calculating the lapse rate for Earth’s troposphere – This is a largely a skills-oriented example. It was my first pencast. I returned twice to the original pencast to make changes – once to correct a spelling mistake, and the second time to add in a bracket (“Run”) that I forgot. I communicated these changes to the students in the course via an updated link shared through a Moodle forum dedicated to pencasts. If you were to experience the updates, you’d almost be unaware of the lapse of time between the original pencast and the updates, as all of this is presented seamlessly as a single pencast to the students.
  • Introducing the pressure-temperature phase diagram for H2O – This is largely a content-oriented example. I got a little carried away in this one, and ended up packing in a little too much – the pencast is fairly long, and by the time I’m finished, the visual element is … a tad on the busy side. Experience gained.

Anecdotally, initial reaction from the students has been positive. Time will tell.

Next steps:

  • Monday (October 1, 2012), I intend to use a pencast during my lecture – to introduce aspects of the stability of Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll try to share here how it went. For this intended use of the pencast, I will use a landscape mode for presentation – as I expect that’ll work well in the large lecture hall I teach in. I am, however, a little concerned that the lines I’ll be drawing will be a little too thin/faint for the students at the back of the lecture theatre to see …
  • I have two sections of the NATS 1780 Weather and Climate course to teach this year. One section is taught the traditional way – almost 350 students in a large lecture theatre, 25-student tutorial groups, supported by Moodle, etc. In striking contrast to the approach taken in the meatspace section, is the second section where almost everything takes place online via Moodle. Although I have yet to support this hypothesis with any data, it is my belief that these pencasts are an excellent way to reach out to the students in the Internet-only section of the course. More on this over the fullness of time (i.e., the current academic session.)

Feel free to comment on this post or share your own experiences with pencasts.

Remembering Steve Jobs

I was doing some errands earlier this evening (Toronto time) … While I was in the car, the all-news station (680news) I had on played some of Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to Stanford grads. As I listened, and later re-read my own blog post on discovering the same address, I’m struck on the event of his passing by the importance of valuing every experience in life. In Jobs’ case, he eventually leveraged his experience with calligraphy to design the typography for the Apple Mac – after a ten-year incubation period!

I think it’s time to read that Stanford commencement address again …

RIP Steve – and thanks much.

Targeting Public Speaking Skills via Virtual Environments

Recently I shared an a-ha! moment on the use of virtual environments for confronting the fear of public speaking.

The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to claim that the real value of such technology is in targeted skills development.

Once again, I’ll use myself as an example here to make my point.

If I think back to my earliest attempts at public speaking as a graduate student, I’d claim that I did a reasonable job of delivering my presentation. And given that the content of my presentation was likely vetted with my research peers (fellow graduate students) and supervisor ahead of time, this left me with a targeted opportunity for improvement: The Q&A session.

Countless times I can recall having a brilliant answer to a question long after my presentation was finished – e.g., on my way home from the event. Not very useful … and exceedingly frustrating.

I would also assert that this lag, between question and appropriate answer, had a whole lot less to do with my expertise in a particular discipline, and a whole lot more to do with my degree nervousness – how else can I explain the ability to fashion perfect answers on the way home!

image006Over time, I like to think that I’ve approved my ability to deliver better-quality answers in real time. How have I improved? Experience. I would credit my experience teaching science to non-scientists at York, as well as my public-sector experience as a vendor representative at industry events, as particularly edifying in this regard.

Rather than submit to such baptisms of fire, and because hindsight is 20/20, I would’ve definitely appreciated the opportunity to develop my Q&A skills in virtual environments such as Nortel web.alive. Why? Such environments can easily facilitate the focused effort I required to target the development of my Q&A skills. And, of course, as my skills improve, so can the challenges brought to bear via the virtual environment.

All speculation at this point … Reasonable speculation that needs to be validated …

If you were to embrace such a virtual environment for the development of your public-speaking skills, which skills would you target? And how might you make use of the virtual environment to do so?

On Knowledge-Based Representations for Actionable Data …

I bumped into a professional acquaintance last week. After describing briefly a presentation I was about to give, he offered to broker introductions to others who might have an interest in the work I’ve been doing. To initiate the introductions, I crafted a brief description of what I’ve been up to for the past 5 years in this area. I’ve also decided to share it here as follows: 

As always, [name deleted], I enjoyed our conversation at the recent AGU meeting in Toronto. Below, I’ve tried to provide some context for the work I’ve been doing in the area of knowledge representations over the past few years. I’m deeply interested in any introductions you might be able to broker with others at York who might have an interest in applications of the same.

Since 2004, I’ve been interested in expressive representations of data. My investigations started with a representation of geophysical data in the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Although this was successful, use of the approach underlined the importance of metadata (data about data) as an oversight. To address this oversight, a subsequent effort introduced a relationship-centric representation via the Resource Description Format (RDF). RDF, by the way, forms the underpinnings of the next-generation Web – variously known as the Semantic Web, Web 3.0, etc. In addition to taking care of issues around metadata, use of RDF paved the way for increasingly expressive representations of the same geophysical data. For example, to represent features in and of the geophysical data, an RDF-based scheme for annotation was introduced using XML Pointer Language (XPointer). Somewhere around this point in my research, I placed all of this into a framework.

A data-centric framework for knowledge representation.

A data-centric framework for knowledge representation.

 In addition to applying my Semantic Framework to use cases in Internet Protocol (IP) networking, I’ve continued to tease out increasingly expressive representations of data. Most recently, these representations have been articulated in RDFS – i.e., RDF Schema. And although I have not reached the final objective of an ontological representation in the Web Ontology Language (OWL), I am indeed progressing in this direction. (Whereas schemas capture the vocabulary of an application domain in geophysics or IT, for example, ontologies allow for knowledge-centric conceptualizations of the same.)  

From niche areas of geophysics to IP networking, the Semantic Framework is broadly applicable. As a workflow for systematically enhancing the expressivity of data, the Framework is based on open standards emerging largely from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Because there is significant interest in this next-generation Web from numerous parties and angles, implementation platforms allow for increasingly expressive representations of data today. In making data actionable, the ultimate value of the Semantic Framework is in providing a means for integrating data from seemingly incongruous disciplines. For example, such representations are actually responsible for providing new results – derived by querying the representation through a ‘semantified’ version of the Structured Query Language (SQL) known as SPARQL. 

I’ve spoken formally and informally about this research to audiences in the sciences, IT, and elsewhere. With York co-authors spanning academic and non-academic staff, I’ve also published four refereed journal papers on aspects of the Framework, and have an invited book chapter currently under review – interestingly, this chapter has been contributed to a book focusing on data management in the Semantic Web. Of course, I’d be pleased to share any of my publications and discuss aspects of this work with those finding it of interest.

With thanks in advance for any connections you’re able to facilitate, Ian. 

If anything comes of this, I’m sure I’ll write about it here – eventually!

In the meantime, feedback is welcome.

Survey on How Scientists Use Their Computers

How do scientists actually use computers in their day-to-day work?

A Canadian team is conducting a survey to find out:

Computers are as important to modern scientists as test tubes, but we know surprisingly little about how scientists develop and use software in their research. To find out, the University of Toronto, Simula Research Laboratory, and the National Research Council of Canada have launched an online survey in conjunction with “American Scientist” magazine. If you have 20 minutes to take part, please go to:

Thanks in advance for your help!

Jo Hannay (Simula Research Laboratory)
Hans Petter Langtangen (Simula Research Laboratory)
Dietmar Pfahl (Simula Research Laboratory)
Janice Singer (National Research Council of Canada)
Greg Wilson (University of Toronto)

The results of the survey will be shared via American Scientist.

Introducing Jott for BlackBerry

I just learned about Jott for BlackBerry:

We have a lot of happy Blackberry customers at Jott, and Jott for BlackBerry is the ultimate BlackBerry download. It is a simple, but very powerful tool that will let you reply to emails on your BlackBerry just using your voice – either speaking directly into your BlackBerry, or while wearing a Bluetooth headset. It is seamlessly integrated into the email application you already use, and is a huge leap forward for BlackBerry lovers in three ways: first, it is 3-5 times faster than ‘thumbing’ text; two, you won’t be known for sending just terse replies because you don’t want to thumb type out a normal email message; and three, you will be safer because you won’t have to take your eyes off the road.*
(*Jott does NOT encourage messaging while driving).

Jott for Blackberry makes an already awesome device even better.

The following is the body of a reply I just created:

Thanks for sharing this interesting service with me. It's definitely something that I'm interested in investigating and it's my intention to follow up very very soon. Thanks very much. Bye for now.

Sent with my voice via Jott for Blackberry ~

To listen:

In this example, the transcription quality was excellent. Note that the recipient is advised that the response was Jott’ed, and has the option of listening to the original audio recording. Nice!

Although I’m only at the testing stage, I expect to make extensive use of Jott for BlackBerry!

Note to Jott and Google: Please enable Jott for BlackBerry in the GMail for BlackBerry application.

The MFA is the New MBA: Illustrations by Steve Jobs and Apple

In March 2005, Dan Pink asserted “… the MFA is the new MBA”.

… businesses are realizing that the only way to differentiate their goods and services in today’s overstocked marketplace is to make their offerings physically beautiful and emotionally compelling. Thus the high-concept abilities of an artist are often more valuable than the easily replicated L-Directed skills of an entry-level business graduate.

I can’t think of a better illustration than Steve Jobs’ story of how the Mac became the first computer with beautiful typography.
And of course, true to form, Jobs illustrated Pink’s assertion more than two decades ago.
And since 1984, Jobs and Apple have made the illustration even more compelling with the current generation of Macs, the iPod, and most recently the iPhone.
Note-to-self: Look into MFA programs!

Aside: I’ve blogged previously about Pink’s book and its implications for displacing knowledge workers.