Monthly Archives: September 2006 - Page 2

On Education and School Reform

There’s been some news recently in school reform circles centered around the opening of the Microsoft “School of the Future” in Philadelphia this fall. One such story is this one at the excellent blog and discussion site of John C. Dvorak. There, in the comments, you can already see the debate among the public-at-large about the effectiveness of school reform measures. This is a common and distrubing trend in talks about school reform. The uneducated public has little knowledge about what makes schools work and what doesn’t. What they have is “feelings” and articles from newspapers and magazines that are often incorrect and unreliable. Anyway, I wrote the following response in an attempt to encourage people to research and understand the problem before complaining and making foolish statements. If you’re interested in this sort of thing a must-read is “The Academic Achievement Challenge” by renowned educator Jeanne S. Chall. I don’t agree with a lot of her conclusions in the book, but it’s a great place to start the discussion.

As someone in the middle of an Education PhD program I have a few things to say. I don’t want to get into a long debate about this because I simply don’t have the time. First, I have read some about these Microsoft schools but I’m no expert. That said, the general public (and the politicians that cater to their wants) knows very little about education. There is a lot (and I mean a lot) of research about how students learn best and the best methods for teaching. The problem with implementation is at least twofold.

First, things like interdisciplinary learning work well, very well in fact. Here the implementation problem is generally cost. To do interdisciplinary learning well teachers of different subjects need to meet on a daily basis for a considerable amount of time and have additional planning time to boot. In effect you reduce the amount teachers can actually spend in front of a class by a quarter, meaning you have to hire more teachers and thus spend more. This is not something that makes the public or politicians happy. If you stary cutting corners to try and do it anyway you end up with less than satisfactory results and no one is happy. I always say that education would be the most expensive thing for the government to provide if it was done right. If people knew how much it really cost to educate someone there would probably be calls for the end of public education and a serious debate about whether education is worth it, it costs that much.

Secondly, public perceptions of education are a barrier to improving it. There is not general public (or political) support to take research into the classroom and apply novel teaching methods. In addition to costing more things like interdisciplinary learning, more teamwork and not having to memorize useless facts and instead learning how to research and solve problems are not what the majority of people want taught in schools. Parents generally are unhappy to learn their child no longer needs to memorize massive amounts of information such as dates and names which can be easily looked up. Even in the comments here you’ll find that people will debate what students should memorize vs. not. The effect is that novel teaching methods are usually undermined and not put fully into place making them less effective. The mentality is often that “I learned all this stuff in school, why aren’t my children” without the realization that there has been a paradigm shift in the world and what was appropriate in the past may no longer be appropriate.

My personal opinion is that people are far too open about criticizing education when they have little knowledge about how the education works. If you’re serious about wanting to make a change in education (or anything else for that matter) and want to criticize it you should spend a copious amount of time studying the research and not the junk you see in the newspapers and magazines, I mean real research studies published in refereed journals. If you start wanting to make changes before you understand why things are the way they are you end up wasting a lot of energy and can potentially cause a lot of students to be ill-prepared for their futures.

Recycling Paper

If you’re like me you generate a lot of paper that is printed on one side. Of course, you could put the paper in the recycling when you’re finished with it but assuming it doesn’t have any confidential information you could give it a new life as a scratch pad first.

My personal preference is to cut 8.5×11 sheets into quarters, but some may prefer halfs. The real trick is knowing what you need to glue the sheets together into notepads. While some people use multiple coats of rubber cement my preference is to do it the real way and use what the priniting/binding industry calls “padding adhesive” or padding glue. The trick is to get the edge you’re going to glue lined up straight and either weight down the edge or put it in a clamp such as this which are easily built or bought. You’ll need to apply several coats of padding adhesive with a brush, letting things dry between coats. Once the final coat is dry you can slice apart the large pad into several smaller ones using a common table knife or a “pad knife”. If you want a more professional stiff backed pad be sure to insert thick cardstock in the stack before gluing where you’ll split the pads. You could even go a step futher and use something like cut up macaroni and cheese boxes for the cardstock backing.

You can usually find padding adhesive where printing supplies are sold. Online it is available from a number of vendors for around $10 a quart.

The Facebook Privacy Problem

Regular readers may remember the this short article I wrote on how the information on the internet is going to be a problem for people in the future. Recently the online social networking site made some changes and people could easily see just how easily this information can be disseminated on the Internet. The change was followed by shock and revolt by Facebook users but the changes remain in place as of today. I wrote the following opinion for an online discussion list and thought blog readers may enjoy it as well.

As a Facebook user as well as a graduate student and computer professional the current controversy over the changes made by Facebook are of particular interest to me. My own experience and discussions with other members of the Internet generation leads me to believe that these users still do not see the “privacy light at the end of the tunnel“. Most users remain unaware of the risks associated with putting any kind of personal information on the internet and grossly misunderstand the ability of individuals and organizations to aggregate such data into profiles of users for anything from relatively benign marketing purposes to something more sinister such as identity theft.

The thing that’s really important to remember here is that the changes made to Facebook did not and have not made any information that was previously private available to the public. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the Facebook team as can be read on their blog. In other words the only difference is that you are now presented with a list of all the recent changes your “friends” have made. Of course this information was available to you before, but you had to seek it out on each users’ page. Personally I find the feature to be quite a useful one and think it has been a long time in coming. In my opinion the usefulness of social networks such as this is to allow you to stay current with the lives and events of a great number of acquaintances quickly.

Where the problem comes in is that people have been hiding behind “security through obscurity” for some time. Most users don’t think twice about what information is available (to their friends) on their user page. Suddenly the information in thrust into the light and they are alarmed. Of course their have been newspaper stories around the country warning students that employers can and do look up prospective employees on the internee before hiring to see what kinds of people they are, but in my experience most students feel so removed from the employment process they aren’t concerned about this. Secondly, their is an incorrect perception that Facebook is a closed network. Because of this students feel free to post things they normally wouldn’t want “public”. Still others feel that they will be able to change or “clean” their pages before looking for a job. The problem with this is that I have no doubt this information is being crawled and archived by many people and could still be used against you in the future. Obviously alumni now employed in various field still have Facebook accounts and are typically quite accommodating when employers ask them to look up a prospective hire on Facebook. Still other users may be running bots through the network and collecting as much information as possible about as many people as possible for any number of reasons.

As mentioned by Alessandro in a recent message to the list there do exist a number of granular privacy controls which can be exercised within the Facebook environment. Few students take advantage of these tools as they fail to see the ramifications of having so much information public. My real concern is that this will soon blow over and people will go back to ignoring the implications of sharing so much data with the public. Even after several years of incidents being reported in the media there remains a problem with individuals and businesses understanding that once something is out on the Internet the cat is out of the bag. There’s no going back. By its very nature the Internet is a public place and is going to be crawled, indexed, cached and stored. It amazes me that people (especially those who have grown up with computers and the Internet) still fail to grasp this concept.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the implications of people sharing data on the Internet and certainly not the last. For more thoughts on how this might effect the ability of people to hold various jobs in the future or perhaps change our notions of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior I encourage you to read this short article I wrote on the topic back in March.

Obviously I don’t expect that people will remove all personal data from the Internet, nor do I think they should. Much of the usefulness of computers and the Internet springs from the ability to search vast databases of information. As a Facebook user and someone who has had a personal website for much longer than that I provide a lot of personal information about myself. The key here is for people to understand the ramifications of doing so and, most importantly, to think about what they say and do in public before they do it.

Goodbye freedb, long live freedb

If you’ve been following the freedb controversy you know that the two major freedb developers quit on July 1st of this year. Concerns exist that the freedb project may not be stable or reliable into the future. Obviously many freedb aware applications could be affected by a disruption in service. Thankfully a few alternatives are now available which can keep you running until applications make a switch to a new service.

Perhaps the simplest solution is simply to switch to freedb2. This project is designed to be entirely freedb compatible and is based off of the July 1st freedb data combined with new submissions. New data is released to the public domain and the server side software (forthcoming) under the BSD license. freedb2 will let you query in the standard way using as your freedb URL. Submissions are accepted in the freedb way to either (preferred) or

If you’re looking for a more robust next generation solution I would suggest taking a look at what the people at MusicBrainz are doing. With core data in the public domain and additional data licensed under the Creative COmmons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license MusicBrainz is becoming a much better database. One of the biggest problems with getting people to adopt MusicBraniz is the lack of compatibility with CDDB/freedb applications which have not been updated by their developers to the MusicBrainz protocol. Thanks to the recent events at freedb devlopers have answered this call and a freedb interface to basic MusicBrainz information now exists. Simply by pointing your CDDB/freedb application to you can access MusicBrainz data. Note that this translator uses a cached copy of the MusicBraniz database so there is some lag between database updates and the data becoming available. Additional information on the limitations of this translator can be found here and a copy of the source code (license unknown) is available from this svn server. Because of additional and different fields than those supported by CDDB/freedb data must be submitted using a MusicBrainz aware application. It should be noted that the translator is not an optimal solution and is subject to a href=””>some limitations. It would be best for for application developers to switch to native support of MusicBrainz.

One of my favorite applications that uses freedb data is the excellent (and free) CD ripper Exact Audio Copy (EAC) which has excellent error correction. I have been unable to find any other application (which is unfortunate as I would prefer a Linux application for ripping) that does as good a job. Hopefully the author, Andre Wiethoff, will update his application to support MusicBrainz in the future. Even better would be if he would release the application under the GPL or BSD license so it could be ported to alternative operating systems.