Contrived Complexity of Technologies


Some tasks are made needlessly difficult. Often in the name of asthetics others an overemphasis on control. Though I could use several examples of software, website design applications and hardware technologies to make my argument about the power trips of digital “experts”, instead I want to discuss my bathroom technologies. Actually only one, the toilet paper holder. This device has led to much frustration in my family.

I redesigned our bathroom about a year ago and I installed this wall mounted holder that had the same polished chrome finish as the rest of the bathroom fixtures. But this aesthetically appealing dispenser that I picked has one major flaw, our children cannot change the roll when it runs out! It holds paper nicely and everyone in the house has no trouble pulling paper off the roll, however it has a redicululously complicated bracket that encloses both ends of the paper. It is as though the designer was afraid that the roll of paper was going to get away, so they trapped it between two pieces of metal. The bracket is detachable with a magnetic system that requires a lot of force to seperate. The magnets are like hard drive grade! Apparently a year of frustration with the contrived complexity of this task was enough to prompt my wife to go out an buy a much simpler holder.

The shape of the new dispenser is a simple hook that allows you to pull the empty roll off the end and put a new one on. No “removable” parts secured by rare-earth magnets. This design allows anyone with the dexterity of a toddler to be able to use. We actually had a bit of a ceremony where my 5 year old put a roll of paper on the new dispenser and discussed the liberation of ease of use!

I’ve written in the past about the simplicity of creating and editing with google docs and have done numberous trainings on wiki design where I emphasize the simplicity of the controls as the advantage. It isn’t about a complicated, some call aesthetically pleasing, design. It’s about getting your point across… creating, efficiently. There is a lot of technology that we interact with that has evolved over the years based on some premises that were defined over a decade or more ago when connectivity, storage, and copyright philosophy was different. Any time we experience technology that require experts to manage, we need to question why we need the experts. Is it because the technology is that complicated for it to function the way we want it to, or is the technology that complicated to ensure the “expert” has contrived their legitimacy. My wife and I do not want to be the resedent toilet paper experts and there is no need for our toilet paper to be contained. So we changed the technology and allowed everyone access and control. Now if only I can find some contrived complexity to the pluming and I won’t have to be the expert in that area either.


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‪RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us‬‏

This is a great presentation about the what actually motivates someone to perform better and have personal satisfaction. I really like how the use studies to prove that the traditional incentives of monetary rewards in the work place don’t work when truly creative and innovative work is expected. The acknowledgment of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are not applied to the common workplace.

Not lets apply this to the classroom. What do we motive student with? GRADES. The school is a culture of grade incentives. The currency of grades are what we use to motivate students to be creative and innovative students. We also have the 21st century learning mandates coming from learning authorities and social media alike that we need to be more creative and innovative. How will we address this? There are not many multiple choice activities on the internet today. That standardized test better start have some open-ended questions.

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21st century skills: Teaching or Learning

In Trent Baston’s June 2011 article for Campus Technology, “The Problem of “Pedagogy” in a Web2.0 Era”, he describes the difference between Pedagogy, or thinking about teaching, and learning.  He emphasizes the importance of learning in this time of constant production of new content and ideas, and minimizes the need to focus on teaching.  This has me thinking about how we all plan our lessons and curriculum and determine what will make students good learners of 21st century skills.  


Shifting the focus from teaching learners to the actual learning is an exercise in semantics, however I believe it has a crucial role in the understanding how to approach the 21st century skills that all learners require to be successful in both their professional and personal lives.  I believe there is a lot of struggle right now for teachers and administrators to determine how to approach 21st century skills because of their focus on teaching.  The emphasis in 21st century skills is not on how the teacher presents the content (it’s everywhere!), but on evaluating what the students does with the content, ie. learning.   


Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that best practices are still best practices in education, but we need to emphasize the student focused best practices.  21st century skills are not as concerned with you, the teacher, providing content for the student as they are in the student critically evaluating content and determining the quality or authority of the content.  21st century skills are not as concerned with you showing the steps to solving a complex problem as they are with the students collaborating in the classroom, online, and globally to determine a reasonable solution.  21st century skills are not about the teacher, but about the student’s involvement with the content.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is still applied to evaluate effective teaching, because it describes what students are doing with content.


For some teachers, 21st century skills are obvious and have been addressed in their best practices for a long time.  In fact you can argue that most of the key elements of 21st century skills have been addressed in education standards decades prior to the 21st century.  The fundamental difference between then and now is the ubiquity of content and tools that allow students to manipulate content in ways that were just impossible before.  With exponential growth of content, teachers need to be model 21st century learners, not content providers.     

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Taking Risks

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.  ~Pablo Picasso

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of interviews lately from innovators and “geniuses” of our time. I’ve also been listening to a lot of people discussing the failings of our education system in the US. What I find coming up again and again is the lack of opportunity for students to take risks. We encourage students to be creative early on, in kindergarten, but some time between then and high school, student are mostly expected to learn facts and apply those facts to problems on standardized tests.

Now I don’t want to debate the importance of standardized tests today, so lets assume they are important. Students do need to have some important facts and procedural knowledge in their heads in order to function in society. But the truly fulfilling and life changing experiences require risk taking. How can we encourage students to take risks when we are focused on getting them all to bubble in the same answer on a multiple choice test? There is a distinct message that is being communicated when the only value we give in student assessment is the standardized test. Even the AP college prep track expects this sort of mentality. Every AP student in the country, takes one day to answer questions that will determine IF they get college credit for a class they took in high school. That test, though not all multiple choice, doesn’t allow for much originality, it only looks for the pattern that the student learned. If the pattern is missing, they “failed”.

This is necessary when dealing with the kinds of skills/questions being asked of our secondary students today. But are these the only skills that we need to be assessing? What do truly successful people have in common? Risk taking, and some other undervalued skills such as social, physical, or artistic. The skills that make for true innovation and for people to have the opportunity to set their own course are not communicated in the curriculum or assessment methods implemented today. Students need to be encouraged to explore their creative side. To imagine “what if” now so they have experience doing that in a safe environment. Once they are adults, the “what if” kinds of questions are far more important than “chose your answer from the list below”.

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What does your Twitter presence say about you?

Today I’m working on cleaning my Twitter presence.  I’ve been meaning to get who I’m following more in alignment with my Professional Learning needs and try to find people that can give me a unique perspective on technologies used in education.  No easy task if you consider I’m trying to find people who think about educational technologies that don’t follow the same resources that I do… Basically I’m looking for pople that use technologies to accomplish goals and share on Twitter so that I can then apply their experience to the educational sector.   

In this exercise I’ve been reminded of the importance of creating the right digital presence and looking at my own with a more critical eye.  Let me start by saying that we all have a right to be critical of who we follow on any social media.  When it comes to deciding who will be in your Personal Learning Network, you do not have to worry about any kind of etiquette.  This is YOUR resource, YOUR time, and what I want to talk about today, YOUR Professional Digital Presence.

  As I’m looking for people to follow, I find myself looking at people’s recent tweets at least as critically as I do their profile.  Yes their profile is considered, but so to is what they are saying!  If someone hasn’t tweeted in weeks, or worse yet, they talk about personal things or “non-content”, I am finding myself moving on and looking for someone else to follow.  The point being, I don’t have time to weed through their 10 tweets to find the 1 nuget of related content.  If I’m subscribing to Scientific American I don’t want MAD magazine thrown in between some of the pages.  I’ll use my personal twitter feed for that content.  

A friend and colleague of mine @Technology_Tim has been discussing with me his observation of a division of PLN “Givers” and “Takers”.  We’ve all seen the extreme cases of this.  There’s the person that is the first to Tweet the headline story/new technology/new web service.  They constantly give content and rarely mention anyone, have few followers, etc.  Then there is the extreme “Taker”.  They can create a great network of people to provide content to them, but they never, if rarely provide content themselves.  Being one who has gone as long as a week without Tweeting, I sometimes feel that I belong in the “Taker” category myself.  At least if I only consider the Social Media component of my PLN.  I am giving to other’s in the classrooms I visit, the peers I talk to individually and in the classroom as I model what I’ve learned.  Now what if I look only at the Social Media component of my PLN?

  I’ve been struggling with this observation about givers and takers.  I know there can be a good balance and I’ve seen many good examples.   My struggle is in determining if it even matters.  Does it matter if I don’t contribute often, if I contribute well?  I am very careful to make a contribution that l have thought through and hopefully, is relevant to people that follow me.  I know I could make an effort to do that more often and this exercise has helped me see that.  Knowing what I said earlier about the right to be critical, anyone looking to follow an ed tech specialist will give one look at my profile and what I’ve said recently and make a decision… What will they decide?

  I think this is a question that we should be asking ourselves at least once a month.  Immagine other people signing into their professional Twitter feed and reading what you, a member of their professional learning network have contributed.  What are they learning from you?  What do they know about you as a professional?  We need to understand why we have professional accounts and use them to contribute to Twitter and communicate our professional mission in everything we say.  For me, it’s not to make sure I get followers.  It’s to make sure those that do follow me, will find value in what I say most of the time.     

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Google @ EDU Seminar Reflections

Today I was at a google for education seminar to hear from Google’s education division and the stories of how UNCGreensboro and Chapel Hill-Carboro City Schools have transitioned. The punchline… it really is as easy and users are as satisfied with the transition as I have immagined doing my own research. I know I’m probably concidered biased based on my affinity for Google apps, but I find affininty for anything that just wroks well and is intuitive.

The best line form the seminar was when Jamie Carbaro from Google says: “We teach kids how to cross the street, we don’t ban cars.” The statement was in regards to internet access and CIPA, COPA, ect. compliance. And he’s right! There is no excuse to hide students from the internet applicaitons because there are inappropriate things that they could do or could access. They need to be taought the good reasons and methods to access web apps like Facebook like creating a digital presence that their future colleges and employers will be looking for.

I think the funniest thing about this seminar is how easy all the aspects of going Google have been made. They really want this to work without complicating or requiring a lot of complicated coding. When asked if there were any questions… there were rarely any. Which leads the Google presenters to say, “you should just try it … it’s easy.” I find this to be the statement I hear when someone is confident in their product and know it is durable. Just try it, you can’t break it, you can fix it if you mess up.

I also had a chance to see the Chrome Book in action. I also heard what I’ve suspected, Chrome OS is the same as the Chrome browser. At least they have the same interface. The potential for a Chrome Book to be affordable and functional make it an exciting new option for a 1:1 initiative. As long as you have a consistent wifi solution. They do come with 3G capabilities, but you have to pay for that service on top of the $20/month lease for the device (quoted for both the Samsung and the Acer products).

At some point, I may consider a Chrome book for myself, but when I consider the kind of computing most my friends and family do… I would recomend it without hesitation. The device can boot up and get you checking email, writing a google doc, and using any social networking site in seconds. All applications are handled through the Chrome App Store, a model we are quite familiar thanks to Apple. I think Chrome will have a better success in educaiton than Android is right now for the reason that there is one Chrome app store, making finding applications simple and croudsourced.

Though I don’t know the future of Google in my district, I appreciate the efforts that Google has put forth to make it possible for education institutions to even entertain the notion that there are options outside of Microsoft. As a side note, I mentioned the lack of pivot tables in Google Spreadsheets in a post several months ago. I learned today that Google has since made them a part of a recent update. They are always innovating and updating their services! Though Google Docs may lack some of the more obscure aspects of MS Office, there is a good chance they will have an update… soon!

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Creativity: How Do We Begin?

I’ve been focusing on the concept of content creation lately. It seems that the future of educaiton is dependent on a much healthier dose of creativity. Both student and teacher will need to be creating more content. Studies prove that the best way to learn is to create content. Think about the addage, “the best way to learn something is to teach it”. What do you need to do to teach something, create content. Even if you are just verbally explaining a concept, you have to put it in your own words.

Creativity… the most inhibited action on the earth. Perhaps only shadowed by exercise. How to do get around to creating? For most it is about pressure. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” “Procrastination is the best motivator.” But what can we do to inspire creatvitiy immediately? What inspired me to begin writing this morning? To go to the gym afterwards, or any day for that matter?

I don’t think about the activity. I just get started. I’m not reading these words as I write, I know I’ll edit a couple of times before I post this. I won’t think about the exercise, I’ll put on my music and ignore the fatigue in my body. The initial result isn’t pretty. My words are clunky, my steps are lethargic, but once I see I have some words down, or I have a mile behind me, I realize that I AM doing this and I CAN finish it!

I’ve been thinking about another word that starts with a “C”, conviction. As in the state of being convinced. Once you are convinced of something, you don’t put energy into trying to disprove it. If you can put your mind in the frame of conviction about DOING something, you stop getting in your head and psyching yourself out and inhibiting. Nike’s “Just Do It!” is really the philosophy of tricking your mind into conviction before you make the argument for or against doing something, just decide you will do it! That’s conviction. Just decide you will get those paper’s graded. Just decide you will research a new learning strategy. Just decide you will exercise. Just get started… the result will be better than having done nothing.

So this is what goes through my mind, or doesn’t, when I manage to get past inhibition and DO. Creativity is not a result of a moment of inspiration… it is a result of deliberate execution without any thought toward the amount of effort or time it will take. Creativity is not a talent people are born with. It requires the practice, which you can’t obsess about, you just have to do and, before you know it, you will find that you have something you are proud of!

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The Content Explosion: What does it mean for quality?

“More content will be created today than existed in entirety before 2003.”  –Steve Rubel, EVP/Global Strategy and Insights for Edelman – the world’s largest independent public relations firm


This quote has been showing up all over the internet lately.  I’ve been thinking about what this means and how “experts” will spin this to their advantage.  

Now that anyone can publish from anywhere, it should be no surprise that this is going to be the case.  The pessimist may say “sure, we have more content, but it isn’t any better, in fact it’s worse!”  I argue that the world is learning how to create.  Everyone can create now, we all have a lot to learn. There is going to be a lot of growing pains as we create to gain experience; to know how to engage the world.  In the end, this will result in a much more informed, immaginiative, and creative world.   


Before cable and satellite, the TV networks could get away with Gilligan’s Island and Dragnet.  Then cable and satellite gave us an exponential growth of programming, more networks available, more bad TV, but also more good TV.  The complexity of the story in many TV series’ are now far more complex than they were in the early years of TV.  (Everything Bad Is Good For You -Stephen Johnson)


So now we have the internet.  Access to ANY content is measured in seconds and require key strokes rather than a physical trip to a record store, library, school, university, movie theater, ect. Content is published in new ways.  Books are interactive and are packaged as “apps” and will never be bound or require you to travel somewhere to buy it!  Anyone can gain access to resources easier now than ever before. Content that used to only exist in one’s imagination and never had a chance to reach a “published” or “produced” stage due to lack of resources (time and money), can now be achieved with a minimal investment in time and the monetary expense of a digital device and an internet connection.  


Just as with Television, we are now entering a content explosion on the internet that will transform the overall quality of what we have access to.  Yes, some will create the internet equivalent of Soap Operas, but interest in poor quality content will wane.  All of us will get better at creating content that is of value.  We just have to start creating!


It’s simple to run and it’s simple to fall

It’s simple to do nothing at all

It’s simple to hide and it’s simple to feel

It’s simple to spin round like a wheel

But it’s hard to do something that’s yours 

-Dan Burn, Simple  


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Creative Commons News: Ghanian University adopts OER policy as default license for university material

Kwame Nkrumah University adopts CC Attribution for OER policy

Jane Park, May 11th, 2011

KNUST OER production workshop team<br />

KNUST OER production workshop team by bagaball / CC BY

The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) has adopted a university-wide open educational resources (OER) policy with CC Attribution as the default license for university material. KNUST’s “Policy for Development and Use of Open Educational Resources (OER)” (pdf) outlines the purpose, role, and process of OER production at the university, and specifically states that,

“Materials produced which do not indicate any specific conditions for sharing will automatically be considered to have been shared under a Creative Commons Attribution license.”

The policy is available at the KNUST website and, in line with their policy, is available for use under CC BY.

KNUST is a partner institution in the African Health OER Network and works closely with the University of Michigan Medical School and Dental School to develop and distribute health OER. KNUST OER is hosted at but is also duplicated for use at the Open.Michigan and OER Africa sites.

You can help us improve the case study on KNUST here.

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This is a great move on the part of one of the premiere West African universities. In taking this stance KNUST lives up to the “Ghanaian spirit and values of oneness, communal living and sharing, their guiding principle.” – J. A. Kufuor (President of Ghana 2001-2009) This holds great potential for creating a collaborative atmosphere with other health organizations and universities.

I also like the example this sets for all educational institutions. There is more to gain from collaboration than from holding the creative inspiration to the individual or institution. We all want credit for coming up with an idea, but we also need to allow that idea to grow, adapt, and evolve and that works best when you allow more people to be involved.

KNUST realizes the importance of their research and to allow it to be more accessible through the African Health OER Network can only help expedite the growth of knowledge and solutions to problems.

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Going Google: Price VS Portability

Having spent the last twenty years using computers in classrooms, I think I have some knowledge about what the average student, teacher, and administrator need from their computers.  These years of experience as both student and educator have all been utilizing primarily Microsoft options.  I’ve been a MS user and for the most part liked it all those year.  I dabbled with Linux.  Could see the potential but wasn’t convinced it was the alternative to get out from under Micro Squash.   

Having grown up with the barely evolving user interface of windows products, I’m a big fan of Shortcut keys.  I’ve prided myself in learning the most efficient way to manage all the open windows, text editing, file manipulation, and browser navigation.  We even had an informal learning network at my school, The Control+D Club.  It consisted of a few nerdy teachers who had a similar interest in discovering and sharing the more nuanced shortcut keys found in programs.  We’d have impromptu meetings in the hallways between bells whenever someone learned something new.  

Now I’m at a crossroad.  As I explore the internet’s constantly growing app websites and my newly purchased iMac… do I drop the Microsoft productivity programs for google docs, prezi, penzu, etherpad and thousands other cloud-based computing options?  This is what I’ve learned from the experience so far. 

Price and Portability: This is really what is comes down to.  Office has a price, Google docs is portable.  $150 for MS Office for Mac.  I could purchase the Mac alternative programs, Pages, Keynote, and Numbers for $60 from the Mac App Store but I may not do that either.  The reason? I can do all the things I want to do using Google Docs for free and it is completely portable, as in truly cloud based.  As an avid spreadsheet programmer and word processor, I’m reluctant to say it, but I’m convinced that the portability of google docs outweighs the additional functionality of Office.  There really isn’t a lot of loss in functions anyway.  The hardest thing for me to accept is that google docs has a very limited number of shortcut keys.  That’s it!  Thinking about the people and students that I’ve worked with over the years, the shortcuts that are missing, won’t be missed by any of them outside of my circle of “Control+D” members.  

Now I’m sure someone could get into an argument with me about pivot tables and mail merges and expect me to flinch or even run back to a corner and accept defeat from the great and mighty Microsoft.  They would of corse be correct in their argument about features.  But they, like myself and the Control+D club, are not the majority of users.  And even the productivity nerds themselves don’t need these uber-advanced features daily.  The truth is google created productivity apps that meet the needs of users.  If there is a need that isn’t met with google docs, you will likely find another app that can.  If you can’t then you’ve found the idea for a profitable app program.  

This is the future of software.  A-la-carte style.  You may use google docs for years and then discover that you need some advanced feature that just isn’t present.  You will search and be led to an app that will do what you need, and you will either decide to pay a few dollars for that app, or find another way to do what you wanted to do, or give up on the idea.  The user is going to be more savvy about their needs and only pay for what they will actually use or at least think they will use.   

When I honestly asses all the computing that I’ve done as a Biochemistry student at Michigan State University, Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa (yes there were computers… somehow), Museum Educator in Metro Detroit, and Chemistry Teacher in Charlotte, I see a lot of productivity needs.  I also see that I could have done all of it with Google docs (apart from some crazy spreadsheet programming that I did to track attendance at the museum that was really a bloated waste of time I’m embarrassed to admit I worked as long as I did on it.)  The reality is that, had it been available, the cloud computing alternatives to Office would have suited all of my needs, been portable, and costed me nothing to use and would have saved a lot of time.

Up next… the collaboration of google vs. MSOffice’s track changes.  “Hey, did anyone know you could track changes in Office?  We’ll you just click on tools, track changes, and now when you type it will highlight what you…  Ok, just save it as ‘draft2’ and I’ll compare the two documents when you finish.”  You’ve been a part of this conversation at some point.    

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