Abandon the Red Pen!

I have a new Teaching with Tech column published in MAA FOCUS about digital grading. In particular…

  • Why would you want to grade papers digitally?
  • What kind of hardware/software would you need?
  • How do you manage the files and workflow?
  • How to use custom stamps to give more detailed feedback (more details on that one on an older blog post)

Abandon the Red Pen, MAA FOCUS, October/November 2011

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What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Some time last year I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what skills we could be focusing on in higher education to “future-proof” a degree.  What skills will stay relevant no matter what future careers look like?  There are two frameworks used and endorsed in K-12 education: Partnership for 21st Century Skills and Equipped for the Future.

I felt that the lists not quite right for adults that are returning or seeking an education.  Here is the list that I developed, and a link to the Prezi that includes many video resources that correspond with the skills.


  • Manage your information stream
  • Pay attention to details
  • Remember (when you need to)
  • Observe critically
  • Read with understanding
  • Set and meet goals


  • Media literacy (determine and create the right media for the job)
  • Present ideas digitally
  • Design for the audience
  • Depict data visually
  • Convey ideas in text
  • Speak so that others understand


  • Advocate and influence
  • Resolve conflict and negotiate
  • Collaborate (F2F or virtually)
  • Guide others
  • Lead


  • Interpret data
  • Make decisions
  • Think critically
  • Solve problems
  • Forecast
  • Filter information


  • Think across disciplines
  • Think across cultures
  • Innovate
  • Adapt to new situations
  • See others’ perspectives
  • Be creative


  • Formulate a learning plan
  • Synthesize the Details
  • Information Literacy
  • Formulate good questions
  • Reflect and evaluate
  • Know what you know


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TEDxMuskegon: A Recipe for Free Range Learning

Here’s my recent TEDxMuskegon talk called A Recipe for Free Range Learning.

In my opinion, there is the basic recipe for learning. Any type of learning, be it free range or structured, should mind the recipe to be effective.

A Recipe for Learning
Ingredients: High-quality Information
Directions: Re-engage often and reflect
Spice: Social Interaction
Final Preparation: A Final Learning Challenge

While it is possible to be a “free-range learner” I would argue that it’s not likely that the average person can successfully learn on their own, and I outline why in this talk.  The industrial education system, much maligned of late, may be a necessary evil as long as we want the majority of people to have a broad liberal arts education.

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Teaching Math Without Words

I’ve been following this MIND Research Institute math platform for a while now … looks like it has really come into its own in the last year or two.  So your students have poor reading skills?  Maybe this is what we should use.

Teaching Math Without Words, A Visual Approach to Learning Math from the MIND Research Institute from TEDxOrangeCoast

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A reason to calculate the vertex

If you ever needed a REASON to calculate the highest point of a parabola that opens downward, here’s one.

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Battling Bad Science (and Statistics)

Battling Bad Science is a great new TED Talk about experimental design, data, statistics, and medicine.

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On July 5, 2011, I walked in to a Sprint store to make absolutely sure I was locked in to an ironclad contract for unlimited data service off my mobile hotspot.  The service representative (henceforth known as just another idiot sales person) swore that I could continue to receive the exact same level of service as long as I continued to make timely payments on my monthly contract.  I asked for double clarification.  I stated that I was willing to lock myself into a 5-year contract if necessary, just to keep my data plan.  ”Oh no,” said the idiot sales person, “there’s no need to do that. Sprint will take care of you.”  Based on this information, I cancelled my satellite Internet service (the backup plan for Internet at my house).

Yesterday, I learned that Sprint will be placing a cap on mobile hotspot data – how I get broadband Internet at my house.  When questioned, the customer service rep told me that Sprint can change their contract at any time.  Nice.  Exactly the opposite of what the other rep told me.

Our home Internet usage will be cut back to 5GB of data per month, but we get to pay exactly the same as what I’ve been paying per month for the last two years.   Try to imagine (though this will be difficult for most of you) that you have to carefully think about whether to click on each link.  Is the data it takes to watch that TED Talk worth it?  Is that journal article really all that important to read?  Should you Skype from home or drive back to work so that you don’t have heavy data usage?

Roughly 30% of the U.S. population does not have access to high-speed Internet and my household is one of those.  While most of you have a variety of inexpensive choices for broadband Internet, we have very few.  We have no cable service.  We have no DSL service. And our phone service?  It’s got so much static on the line that it’s not even good enough to use for dial-up Internet.

Now I live in the woods, but not out of town.   I have neighbors within a square mile of my house that DO have cable Internet service and DSL.

Option 1: Keep mobile Internet and pay for the extra data usage.  5 GB per month of data usage a month costs $40 per month.  Between my husband and I, we use about 40GB per month.  I can keep my existing service if I just pay for the extra data usage. For every extra GB, the cost is $50.  At our current usage level, this will cost us $40 + $40 + 30*50 = $1680/month.  Um… not a good option.  Thanks Sprint.

Option 2: Keep mobile Internet and don’t use more than 5 GB per month on each account.  This will keep our costs exactly the same, but severely limit our ability to use the Internet.  There appears to be no way to track how much mobile hotspot data is actually being used (the data tracking includes both mobile web and mobile hotspot data), so the only really safe option financially is to turn the mobile hotspots off altogether.

Option 3: Go back to Satellite Internet.  For $79.99 per month plus the cost of a new satellite dish (my fourth), shipping, account startup, and installation, you can have 17 GB download and 5 GB upload per month.  If you go over this FAP, your account speeds will be severely restricted.  Experience has taught me that your Internet will basically be unusable if you go over (sometimes for weeks).  There is no ability to pay for extra data when it is needed.  This is the best satellite Internet plan I have been able to find.  The real problem?  Your upload speed will only be 256 Kbps.  That’s right, as fast as a dial-up modem (if you’re lucky).

Option 4: Use an “air card” of some kind.  Most of these plans run $40-$80 per month, with a data plan that is “unlimited up to 5GB” … leaving me to question whether marketers ever look at a dictionary.  Apparently the “new” definition of “unlimited” is up to a specified limit.

Option 5: Stop using the Internet at home.  Honestly. I thought seriously about this option last night and this morning.  We live without TV, and we’re probably better off because of it.

I’m tired of being screwed around by various mobile and satellite Internet companies.  Every time we find a solution and invest in the infrastructure to support it, the market shifts and we have to find a new solution.  The companies we “contract” with for Internet and cell service are held to no minimum standards of service.  They are allowed to change their end of the contract at a moment’s notice (and in this case, I have yet to be notified about the change that will take place on October 2).  But if I break the contract, I’ll pay penalties galore.

Powerless – this is the only word I can think of to describe how I feel today. Powerless.  Nobody is looking for real solutions to the lack of Internet for 30% of Americans and we are getting left behind, even more so as everything moves to the cloud.

Tablets, eBook readers, game consoles, and interactive TVs are all expected to run primarily off the wireless Internet in your home (too bad for you if you don’t have it).

This afternoon I resigned myself to my former life of satellite Internet (and a 2-year commitment to pay a little over $2,000 for the privilege of this somewhat questionable service with no minimum standard of quality. Speeds are only guaranteed “up to” a specified limit (oh wait, does that mean the speeds are technically unlimited?)  There is no recourse for a minimum speed, and if I cancel my end of the contract, I have to pay $15 for every month of unused service.  If my Internet speed turns out to be 1 Kbps, that’s allowed under the contract.  I’m paying for a complete and total gamble.

What you might not get yet is that we are all powerless in this new age of cell service and cloud-based computing.  They’re just coming for me and those like me first.  Anyone who has been relying on mobile Internet has now been cut off (Sprint was the last holdout for unlimited mobile hotspot data).  We got capped first, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be next.

These networks can’t sustain 70% of Americans streaming all their TV and games off them, and realistically, there is a potential gold mine in charging customers for data overages.  You might just think this is my problem and I could solve it by moving, but one day, this will be your problem too.  One day, they’ll come to cut off your unlimited Internet.  Can you live without it?

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Failure is a NORMAL part of Learning

“Dr. Tae is a skateboarder, videographer, scientist, and teacher. Contrasting his observations of his own learning while skateboarding with the reality that is the current education system, Dr. Tae provides some insight as to how we might better educate in the future.” (from the YouTube description of this great TEDxEastsidePrep video called “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?“)

Some observations.  As Dr. Tae says, “Failure is Normal.” Period. You might try to solve a proof or a mathematics problems many times before you succeed at doing it correctly.  You will only learn the correct process by making mistakes.  I’d venture that more is learned from making the mistakes than by doing the problem correctly.  Every mistake branch tells you valuable information – this is something that didn’t work.  Huh.

This week I told my Calculus students that “division by zero” no longer means the problem can’t be done.  It just means “try another way.”  This is an incredibly hard lesson to learn.  Many learners are too quick to just give up when they encounter something that doesn’t work.

“Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.” – Dr. Tae

I agree. And yet, here we have the so-called modern education system, where 1 credit hour equals 15 weeks of one hour in class time and 2 hours of out-of-class time.  We predict, several times a year, that it will take 3 credits or 4 credits for every student to learn the topics that are covered in a course.  On top of that, we are starting to be held accountable if students aren’t successful enough.  If we don’t know ahead of time how long it takes any student to learn a body of knowledge, then why do we keep pretending we do?

Some time last year, I wrote down this quote in my Moleskein notebook, and I’ve been running back across it ever since:

“Grades are simply a measure of the speed at which a student learns.”  - Unknown source

If a learner manages to become competent at an average level during the period of learning (semester or quarter), they get a C.  If they manage to become expert, then they get an A.   I think there’s an argument to be made that learning math should be more about mastery, like skateboarding.  Either you “land the trick” (problem, concept, proof) or you don’t.  Any assigned grade in between just leads to problems down the road.  For example, “average” understanding of algebra and trigonometry leads to a pretty poor understanding of Calculus.

Another point from the video, “Learning is not fun.”  I would revise that slightly. The process of learning is not fun.  The process of learning is work.  The moment when you finally master a technique or synthesize an idea is fun, and it continues to be fun up until the point where it just becomes boring.

[Thanks to David Wiggins for pointing me to this great video.]

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Hard-learned Tips on Screencasting

My latest column for MAA Focus, Becoming a Screencasting Star, is now available online.  In this post, I include a collection of “Hard-Learned Tips” on screencasting – these are things I wish someone had told me before I recorded my first set of videos.  For example …

Mind Your References. Don’t mention specific texts, sections, or page numbers in your screencasts. If you do, then switching to a different text or a new edition will suddenly make all your videos out of date. If you must reference a section or page number, do it in the text that accompanies the link to the video. It’s easy to change text, but very time-consuming to reproduce all the videos. I learned this one the hard way!

There is also advice for choosing the right type of software and dealing with storage of screencasts.  If you’ve got additional tips you’d like to share, please do so in the comments. :)

You can view all my past Teaching with Tech columns here.

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Future of Education Interview in Unlimited

About a month ago I had an interview with Lewis Kelley at Unlimited Magazine.  A portion of the interview, called The Future of Education, was published yesterday, along with interviews with two other “leading education thinkers.”

Here’s a short excerpt from the interview …

“I’m not optimistic that real change is going to happen from within education. I think education is kind of a behemoth. It’s an interconnected system, and any kind of interconnected system is really hard to shift. You can push on parts of the system, but they still have to align with the rest of the system. You can’t push too far.

We can’t radically change our curriculum because that would affect the students coming in and the students going out. K-12 can’t radically change their curriculum without affecting their students’ ability to do well in college, and college can’t radically change its curriculum because students would be coming in out of K-12 and not prepared.

We can’t move unless everybody moves together, and that’s the thing that I think is particularly rough. But …”


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