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All PostsStephen Pratt's posts

The next Vialogues release will see some huge boosts to performance. These are on top of Jing's optimizations from a few months ago. The basis of the application-oriented improvements are twofold. First, we're reducing the amount of data being accessed and moved around on a regular basis, making an effort to only use what the site's functionality demands. Second, and perhaps a little less intuitively, we're being smarter about the way in which we access data. Django is designed to make efficient database operations quick and easy...

Check out the tool here. My handwriting is pretty bad, especially when electronics are involved, so I'm not generally impressed by this sort of thing, but this application floored me. It's seriously smart. Outputs your choice of LaTeX or MathML.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a Google Tech Talk on Rich Media Strategies for the modern web. Advertising, being Google's favorite cash cow, enjoyed the spotlight for much of the presentation. The engineer/intern pair that were presenting described some of the criteria that determine an online media viewers' ad experience:
Podding: a term used to describe when and how ads should be grouped. You know when you're browsing YouTube and all of the sudden both the bottom portion of the video and the right side of the screen want you to buy delicious Chicken McNuggets? That's podding...

As I sat down to watch President Obama deliver the State of the Union Address last night, my all-too-cynical mind predicted that this election-year speech would focus more on political showmanship and less on policy initiatives. To the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised by a speech that's being received as something between an aggressive call to action and a vague laundry list of idealistic initiatives. But even as I saw my future as a political pundit vanish like the American middle class, I saw some opportunities for the lab. The following is a list of some of the missions outlined by President Obama for the coming year, followed by the ways I believe these initiatives can inform our work at the lab.
“Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job… Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers — places that teach people skills … from data management to high-tech manufacturing.“
Opportunities are arising in education from outside the traditional model of schooling. It's become increasingly apparent that in the modern world, learning is a lifelong commitment. The Lab is no stranger to nontraditional learning models, but we must also recognize that our initiatives to create new learning opportunities should be at least partly to create new advancement opportunities as well. If the mSchool is to be a crowd-sourced solution in online learning, then it should encourage the sort of learning that successfully develops relevant and demonstrable skills. Our tools should be as goal-oriented as the people who use them. If we're in the business of communicating skills, so too must we be in the business of communicating ways to develop, demonstrate, and leverage those skills.

For one day a week, AJ Juliani's 11th Grade English class gets to do whatever it wants. That's "whatever" as in anything - anything at all. Juliani means business too. The project his students will be spending 20% of their time on in the coming semester is not 'read and report on any work by an early transcendentalist', nor is it 'choose any of the following four essay prompts to use as the basis for your term paper'. Their task is quite literally to work on any project of their choosing. As Juliani put it on his assignment sheet:

In their campaign to become the dominant force in online math learning environments, Khan Academy has recently announced some sweeping changes to the way they evaluate student mastery. Fundamental as it may seem, the simple act of identifying when a student has gained a complete understanding of a given concept has proven to be something of a subtle art. I would personally go so far as to argue that no learning app that I've used (in my admittedly meager experience) has ever really exhibited any real capacity to judge student mastery. However, the ability to make a binary decision regarding wh...

Today I'll be attending a seminar by Akhtar Badshah, the senior director of Global Community Affairs at Microsoft. I'll be composing a review post for the blog later on, but I wanted to give the EdLab a chance to propose any questions for Mr. Badshah that might be relevant to our work. I imagine I'll probably ask about Microsoft's priorities for Tech-centered training and education in developing countries, but if anyone has any burning questions of their own, go ahead and leave them in the comments.
Read on for the official event description.

Just something I thought you guys might appreciate. Capturing guitar string oscillations with an iPhone 4:
Those interested can read on for an explanation.

The MIT Tech Review recently published a piece on Memrise, a new personal language study solution that uses mnemonic brain hacks to accelerate the learning process. Memrise makes heavy use of cognitive science, game dynamics, and social networking with the hopes of making users' study time more efficient. The software's primary calling card is a cognitive technique called vivid encoding, which demands that each new piece of information presented to a user be associated with some re...

As some of you may know. Skanda and I have been doing a bit of research on possibilities for mathematics education reform. Today, I came across a particularly interesting paper by Dr. Constance Kamii entitled "The Harmful Effects of Algorithms in Grades 1-4". Kamii is a Professor in the Early Childhood Education Program Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The paper, published in 1998 proposes that our current incarnation of elementary-level math education may be errant in its emphasis on teaching algorithms over proper mathematics. Of course, no elementary school student would ever use the word "algorithm" to describe what they learn in math class, but the fact is that most of what American students are taught in early stages of their math education is little more than arbitrary sets of rules that help to compute the results of basic mathematical operations. It looks like math, and they learn it as math, but really, it's just a bunch of isolated computations. As Kamii puts it:
"an adult can explain an algorithm for summing two digit numbers to a child. However, listening to a teacher explain this does not ensure that the child realizes or establishes a mathematical understanding of how to combine two quantities."
But why is a mathematicical understanding of the concept of summation so important? If we've taught our kids enough to tackle any addition problem that comes their way, isn't that enough? Kamii argues that it's not, pointing out that algorithms are completely arbitrary, while the laws of mathematics are universal. She says that teaching math by way of arithmetic algorithms is based on the false premise that mathematics is something of a cultural inheritance that needs to be communicated to each new generation. It's possible that this very standard puts certain students at odds before math class even begins. When students are taught procedures like two digit addition or long division, they are taught as if the algorithm and the concept are one in the same. If that student then seeks help from a parent who was never introduced to that specific algorithm, the student will almost certainly end up even more bewildered than when they began. In the space of a single day, they will have been told that one mathematical concept is two different things. This may seem like an overly-specific scenario, but the problem is magnified when you consider the fact that it applies to all students whose parents did not recieve a traditional education, therefore marginalizing a group that is likely in greater need of support.
Kamii's suggestion for reform is as follows: drop the algorithms entirely and let children develop their own brand of mathematical thinking. It may sound radical, but her studies have shown that it is actually a more effective method of teaching. Students that learned simple mathematics without algorithms performed better on exams, and made far more reasonable errors. Attempting to compute 6 + 52 + 185, many students who learned through algorithms came up with answers in the 700s. This is part of what leads Kamii to believe that traditional pedagogical methods in mathematics actually cause students to unlearn concepts like place value.
Earlier this year, Skanda blogged about a TED talk given by Conrad Wolfram which followed the same basic concept in its suggestion for mathematics education reform: drop computation from the curriculum in favor of a "purer" math. Wolfram, however, recommends that we place a greater emphasis on the use of computers in math education, which are of course algorithmically driven. Though this may seem to pit Wolfram's advice against Kamii's, the proposals are actually strikingly similar. Both emphasize the need for a sharper line distinguishing the procedural science of computation from mathematics itself, and both would have students develop their own train of algorithmic thought. The challenge, of course, lies in developing the new pedagogical techniques that would be necessary to make such a shift.