Saturday, May 21, 2005

Important Tangents - II

Last time, I wrote about several important skills that need to be taught to our Tablet users, both students and faculty. Those skills mainly dealt with safety, either personal or of the system. All computer users need these skills, of course, but it becomes even more critical when the computer is ultra-portable and always connected as the Tablets are on our campus, and especially so in that they can connect freely off-site and away from any kind of protection.

This time I want to talk about a second set of skills that are important in a different way. These skills get short shrift in most cases in my experience. By giving students Tablets, we are giving them tools to help with their education. We also need to help them to learn the skills to make good use of those tools.

One skill that I don't see taught anywhere, except perhaps in a journalism class and our learning skills group, is how to take good notes. I once asked a returning alumnus (who was class valeditorian) what he wished we had taught him that he hadn't learned here. The thing at the top of his list was good note-taking techniques. He said he struggled in college lectures to get the right information down quickly, concisely, and completely.

Since note-taking is such a natural use of the Tablet, this ties in very nicely with training on Tablet use. My leaning at the moment, in fact, is to focus on this and subsume the Tablet usage specifics under this training at least as far as basic pen use goes. More on this in another post.

There are many techniques for note-taking and many resources on the Internet. Here are a few for starters:

Recovering the Lost Art of Note-Taking.

CalPoly article on notetaking systems.

Notetaking and summarizing skills grid from the University of Leeds.

Information from Dyslexia College-useful for everyone.

Notetaking page from York University.

Allen and Unwin eStudy Centre on notetaking-with some other good information, too.

Another useful skill, that the Tablet can support well with software like GoBinder or PlanPlus, is time and assignment management. Again, outside of learning skills, I don't think high schools do much to focus on this necessary skill. (This is another one I've heard from alums that they wished they had learned here.) Like note-taking, it can be a focus of training that incorporates the Tablet specifically in the skills being taught.

One skill that I think is very important, but might be non-intuitive, is good typing skills. I see so many students pecking out papers with two fingers. Writing papers is a critical component of high school and even more so of college. Even thought Tablets shine with the pen, they also are tools for typing and I think we do our students a disservice by not requiring them to develop this skill to at least a moderate level. I would like to advocate a minimum typing speed, say 30 wpm, as a prerequisite for graduation, or even better as a prerequisite for advancement beyond the freshman year.

Many students these days don't want to crack a book when doing research. While I think this is a sad trend, I do think it is a trend we will have to prepare students for. When all the books you use for a paper are recommended by a teacher or librarian, there is a certain amount of inherent vetting of the material that occurs. When your "librarian" is Google, there is none. We need to teach the skills of analyzing the likely validity of web sites that students consider for sources. A good starting point for thinking about this issue and developing a curriculum is this article by Technology & Learning.

Lastly, given the ease with which a "paper" can be created by cutting and pasting content from the Internet, we need to teach very carefully the skill and habit of proper source citation. Legitimate plagiarism is a big enough problem. We certainly don't want students to become accidental plagiarists.

Where this training happens is a good question. Some of it should be occuring in existing classes. Some of it should be specific to Tablet PC training and might, in fact, be the apparent focus of the training with the Tablet skills being learned as just part of the whole skill set. This is a question that deserves further discussion and thinking. I hope to address it soon for our own purposes and would be interested in hearing what others have to say.

Friday, May 6, 2005

Important Tangents - I

Along the lines of the topic of a previous post, Are We Empowering or Just Enabling?, there are a number of issues that will affect the success of a Tablet PC program that are not technical in nature and require education of our students and faculty to properly address. That article addressed the need for students to learn to deal with the ready distraction the Tablet provides them. Learning how, and at least as important, when to tune out or turn off the distractions is a key skill that all members of an always on, always connected society will need. But there are many other skills, several of which seem to me to get short shrift (if they are addressed at all) these days. I believe that these skills, properly addressed, will do much to support a successful program. Left unaddressed, they might well serve to undermine it.

First, I'd like to address some issues that do get discussed, but that become even more important in an environment of always (or usually) available networked computing where much of what happens does so away from any watchful eyes. In the same way that we don't let our children drive alone until they at least seem to have mastered the requisite skills, we ought to ground them in these skills for their own safety before we send them out to solo with the computer.

One of the most important of these is personal safety. We all know that the Internet is a dangerous place and one never really knows who is out there, just as the famous old cartoon says. It's not humorous, though, when the person on the other end of a connection is a pedophile or other person with criminal intent. We can have all the technical safeguards in the world in place--web filters, internet access logging, forced logoff times, whatever--but every single one of these measures is flawed and easy to circumvent. We need to consider that no matter how good a job we do with the technology, sooner or later our students will end up somewhere where they are likely to put themselves at risk. We need to prepare our students to face these risks wisely and to learn ways to minimize them. This kind of instruction, repeated often and in a variety of ways, needs to be an integral part of the Tablet PC curriculum. By the way, given the creativity of some of the phishers and other con artists out there, faculty need this training, too.

An issue that we techies are likely to have given more thought to is the safety of the computer itself--anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-hacker measures. Even so, we need to think this through very clearly and look at all the variables. I thought we had a good handle on at least one aspect of this, applying security updates automatically, until I was working with a faculty member's Tablet last week. It was five months out of date with patches. All unapplied patches are supposed to be applied every week without fail so this machine had had over twenty chances to get some of these updates, but none of them had been installed. Since this faculty member lives off campus and he is always gone at the scheduled update time, his machine never got the message. Our model for this process was based on hardwired systems and failed when wireless, ultra-portable systems joined the mix. It was a mistake to assume that what worked in the past would continue to work with this new paradigm.

In the same way, we (okay, I) need to get over the rather smug feeling of security we have owing to our history of success in preventing and fighting viruses. We more or less have been able to quarantine our computers in the past. They were only on our network, we controlled the anti-virus software and what got installed. We supplied and controlled the Internet connection. These days, we refer to the Tablets as promiscuous computers because we never know where they've been connected. Once the students have full admin privileges, assuming they do, it will be even worse as we won't know what has been installed with high-level security privileges. I shudder to think how many students will take to doing everything as the administrator because certain games work only under that account. (Microsoft still has a lot of work to do getting vendors to ensure that their applications don't require administrator privileges.) Again, I expect that regular, consistent education will be the best thing we can do and it needs to be part of the Tablet program. In addition, we'll need to look much more seriously at various network monitoring systems, intrusion detection systems, etc.

Of course we will continue to work with centrally managed anti-virus, anti-spam, and machine firewall software, though we are still waiting for usable enterprise class systems to be ready--and economical. Currently, we use an antivirus system whose central management system we don't like, so each machine is manually configured. We don't really have a way of knowing when one is misconfigured or when the AV stops working. I know of only one enterprise class AS solution, and we will be evaluating it in a few weeks when a new beta version is ready. Windows firewall isn't a complete solution but the price is right and we can manage it from our Active Directory.

Another area we still need to address is general computer care. We have some students who have had their Tablets since the start of school and have never had a single problem. We have had others who have constant battles with scratched screens, breaking keyboard clips, and other minor annoyances that generally are caused by carelessness. Tablets are designed to be carried around and, of course, that is what the students do--often without any kind of protection at all. We can do some things, such as sourcing and offering more protective cases for the systems, but short of issuing ruggedized systems, we can only do so much. Ultimately, the care and feeding of the computer is up to the owner. Again, education will be key. That and the accidental damage policy we encourage everyone to buy.

All of these issues need to be addressed as part of our program. Failure to do so probably wouldn't doom the program, but in each case the nature of the program exacerbates an existing problem, so it is expedient to make the solution a part of the program, too. I'll continue this theme next time by looking at similar topics which are of a more academic orientation. I hope that, as we discover good ways of handling these issues, to share our experiences and solutions, too.