Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Cloudy Applications Review

Google Drive : Sheets

Sheets is a web-based spreadsheet application that is part of Google Drive’s suite of products. It competes most directly with Microsoft Excel, and by extension, other spreadsheet applications like Apple’s Numbers.

I chose to dig in to Google Sheets because it’s the one I would most often share with other users. In my use so far, I think this spreadsheet application merits examination.

Sheets' main competition is Microsoft Excel. Excel’s mature user interface has a finer looking presentation and the established look of a standalone app. It’s fast, powerful, and bloated. Excel is more responsive overall because it’s housed on a local drive.

Some surprising strengths can be found in Sheets, though. Conditional formatting here is much more intuitive, and immediately useful (e.g. if text contains “http” then color text red)
A complicated task like splitting names
with multiple parts is made easy in Sheets.

Google continues pushing this theme of ‘frequent=easy’ in that the most commonly used items are found in easy to reach places. For example, in the Function pulldown (Sigma symbol) SUM, AVERAGE< COUNT MAX MIN are immediately displayed, with ‘more functions’ left to the users extra click. It simplifies the interface and focuses attention.

Sheets is likely much easier for a user new to spreadsheets to understand. For example, in the menu for  ‘EDIT’, ‘Delete row 5’ or ‘Delete column D’ is expressly stated in context in the dynamic pulldown menu when you have highlighted cell D5. In excel, only ‘delete row’ or delete column’ is an option every time and not contextual. Even an experienced user does a double take before deleting, and then checks again after an action has occurred.

There is one chief feature that might tip the balance to Sheets: All previous revisions are saved in drive. Click ‘Saved in drive’ to see the dated versions available. And by saved, they are saved automatically. No manual saving needed!  

(When writing this review in MS Word, I failed to save when I logged out and did not transfer edits to the dropbox version. Not saved. If I had been working in Google Drive, I would not have lost the edits.)

On a down side, Google’s Material design effort to give their apps a consistent clean new look has flattened everything out to such a degree that it can be difficult to find the low-contrast scrollbar you need to move your view around.

Skeumorphic design is terrible, yes, but flatter isn’t a better answer.

Drive spreadsheets would likely be just fine for P-12 users, and most higher education users except for mathematics, business or scientific uses. I’m guessing it would take a very robust user to reach the limits of Sheets versatility in those fields.

Collaboration is easy with Sheets as well. Multiple users, logged in anywhere with a connection and login privileges can edit at the same time. Users can be given selected permission in parts of the document as well.

Overall, I’m a convert!

More discussion about Excel vs. Drive here.

Sumoware Sumo Paint

I have to admit my expectations were low for this or any other image editing software program. Photoshop is such a massive overperformer, a comparison to it isn’t really fair. So I stepped back and thought about what a non-photoshop user would need. 

In the end, I looked at Sumo Paint with new eyes and came away rather impressed.  

It was responsive when creating new items. It is slow when interacting with an existing image requiring more processing power (such as a rubber stamp cloning tool).
But most users wouldn’t be expecting quick and complicated results, and they would be using simple or ‘goofy’ tools.

Another downside to Sumo, the toolbars are just as complex as Photoshop, but not as powerful or customizable. 


Yes, this can be done, but why?
Newbies to image editing could find some danger herein. Goofy tools abound. Lots of ways to go off the rails. Star shapes predefined are fun to play with, and the spirograph like traces of ‘draw tracks’ might be an amusement with wacky pattern fills, but could you create anything useful? Maybe you would just get stuck keep trying to draw the right spirograph?

A big downside for literal, pre-millenials like me: Help topics are youtube videos. No written documentation to be found. I had to watch a video to understand the ink pen tool. I still don’t really get it.

And then a final reminder that we’re in a web-based app: a message from the system:

‘A plugin isn’t responding. (Shockwave flash)’ 

Crash, restart.

While Sumo Paint greatly exceeded the expectation, they were set very low to begin with. I would not count it out, and I could recommend it, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it day after day.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

E-learning gets fuzzy around the edges

My experience as an online learner in a previous class consisted of watching a powerpoint go by with instructor narration, reading the screen word for word. It was excruciating. In the end, I realized the teacher interacting with us was not the narrator. No wonder it all felt disconnected.

Add a misused lecture tool (powerpoint) to dry subject matter (statistics) and watch all motivation leave the experience. It demonstrated the negative power of technology to destroy the life spirit of a learner. 

Presenters: A cardinal sin is to read a slide word for word. It insults your audience. Need more tips? Read Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte– it’s a start, and a controversial one.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel and it’s not the bulb burning out in an overhead projector.

In Chapter 26 of Reiser and Dempsey’s Instructional Technology and Design, 3rd edition, Dempsey and Van Eck comment on the expanding range of platforms, tools, gadgets and technologies used to deliver and facilitate coursework:


I did this illustration in 2001 when online learning
was just getting going with large players like MIT. 
“Where, once upon a time, we might have had instruction that combined two or three of these features/aspects, e-learning today may combine any or all of them, do so at a moment’s notice, and add or drop them as needed at a moment’s notice.”  (p. 282) 

and later: 

There is a tendency to “stake out the territory our learners cover by defining the platform, time, place, and tools our learners will use. This makes our learning environments more artificial, less flexible, less relevant and less long lived.” (p. 285)

I appreciate the author’s willingness to endorse an instructional style that reduces mandates and encourages improvisation.

This is a positive development that returns the focus to the learning objective, not the “truck” delivering it. I understand and see the value in prescribing particular tools—it takes learners out of a comfort zone they may have slipped into. But a dynamic project may take turns and grow into areas not seen at the outset. For example, a student may start a project thinking that still photos are adequate, but later find that movies are the most appropriate vehicle for explanation or expression. If the objective of learning is still met, why not switch from one delivery method to another?

This flexibility may be more appropriate with an adult learner audience who has developed skill sets that they bring to the coursework. For those that don’t have these skills, a list of options to explore would be adequate, as we have experienced in this class.

A way to make the most of this flexibility in a teaching environment is to allow time at the end of a project to debrief and look at how the project was completed. 
Review the tools chosen
Review why they were chosen
How did they accomplished the goal?
Assess the overall performance.

So many shiny things to look at

In another section, the authors address the issue of a learner getting side-tracked, positively: “What we learn parenthetically is often the spark that fires a burning interest in more sustained learning activities” (p. 283)

Yes indeed, this is the fruit of a curious and inquiring mind. Allowing for, or encouraging a wide ranging view and exploration isn’t easy. In the end, a teacher assessing performance among classmates might have apples and oranges and fire engines to compare.

I’m a believer in setting clear boundaries while allowing ample room to explore within those boundaries. With a creative group, the boundaries become a limiting factor that allows a vertical leap in imagination to better see over the wall. Having some outlines may also make it easier to assess in the end, I think.

I would embrace this broad style of instruction and allow it to amplify learning by setting clear deadlines and deliverables.

Once the objective or goal is clear, the instructor could spell out delivery date, number of pages, minutes of film, outline of the deliverable: summary, details, supporting materials, core findings, further research opportunities, etc. And then allow changes along the way. 

Within that scope, I would ask students to draw in a wide-ranging set of influences and product. If a side-interest appears, document it and save it for another project if it can’t fit into the current one.

Overall, I was glad to see the authors acknowledge the complicated nature of learning as it meets the avalanche of tools and techniques instructors can choose among.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tracking coursework in Ed Tech

I set up a site to collect information in Google sites related to my interest in instructional design and technology and serve as a repository for coursework in Educational Technology. 

Organizing coursework forces me to consider the use of what I've learned and evaluate or prioritize the information I gain along the way. 

How it's organized

On the main page I posted an overview of intent. I added a calendar, and am still looking for a way to connect with an existing google calendar. It will take more digging as I decide how much of my calendar to publish.

Subpages include:
  • Activities: An RSS feed of my blog, for easy reference to activities documented so far. Best feature: it updates itself.
  • Associates:  A classlist with blog links incorporating an embedded google spreadsheet. Still working on making the links active.
  • Reflections: for an easy to reference list of the essays written this term.

Further pages include:
  • Professional Resources: For links to professional organization sites. Anyone have suggestions for more?
  • Tools: Using the page template for lists, with links to some of the tools we've discovered.
I adapted an existing site template and struggled with the page naming conventions, and structure. For further customization, if you are interested, look into wordpress.org or .com.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hunting Lessons

In chapter 26 of "Introduction to Instructional Design and Technology" (Reiser and Dempsey, 3rd edition) Robert Reiser gives an entertaining review of his career path and analyzes lessons he learned along the way. I can relate to several of these whether learned in my recent experience or yet to be acquired.  


© Joe VanDerBos

Lesson 8: Develop a strong set of communication skills.

This one is a given, but requires vigilance. Everyone has communication skills to some degree, but some are better than others at deploying their skill strategically. With this lesson, Reiser put the emphasis on being a good listener. 

He says “you need to be able to clearly understand what … team members are saying”.  After my last set of interviews (there’s never just one unless you get passed over), I realized the interviewers appreciated attention to detail. I made a personalized thank you that would be recognized as both a true thank you and a demonstration of skills and commitment to the position. It made an impression: an unusual handmade card was more than expected but still appropriate.

I maintain awareness of current rules of engagement by reading and websurfing. Even if I’m not looking for something new, sifting through Linkedin can reveal new tools. The traditional rules are in flux with new communication methods. In some arenas, a tweet might be the right way to connect or respond to someone. For others, definitely not.  

Here’s a link to stimulate self-examination: 
20 Tips for Enhancing Workplace Communication by Stephanie Reyes 


Lesson 14: Develop an area of expertise.

This is my challenge in life–should I choose to accept it. I have many interests

  • I want to build a farmhouse table (right now!)
  • I’d really like to paint more
  • Why not finish that typeface?
  • Or propagate some seeds for the garden?
  • Or…. You get the idea. 
I see connections to other subjects and want to cross-pollinate. I’m an omnivore when it comes to skill-gathering. At one time I thought it would all magically gel into a coherent whole. It hasn’t. 

I understand that going deep into a subject area has value. Finding a way to become identified with a specialty is a key marketing principle. If you succeed at one kind of task for a client, they are likely to ask if you can do others because they like working with you. If you become expert at one thing in particular people assume you can do many things well.

How do I wrap a tidy bow on a life of multiplicity? Get certified as a Project Management Professional? A certified do-it-all. 

For a further examination of this topic:
Specialization vs. Generalization in Education, Daniel Gordon in the Valley Advocate (Northampton, MA)


Lesson 15: When preparing for a job interview, find out as much as you can about your potential employers.

This serves two purposes. According to Reiser you will “not only increase your chance of getting the job, but will also increase your knowledge of the organization” so that you’ll know whether you want to work there. 

You can take this to an extreme, and I have. It was my job to prep sales teams for presentations, so I would drill deep to find out as much as possible about  selection committee members in order to find common ground or underlying issues.  

The best way to accomplish this is with personal connections and a phone call.  Skip email– An email with “What can you tell me about Mr. X?” will not yield information about the really personal qualities that Mr. X displays and that you can learn to align with. To get that, you need to hear someone talk about Mr. X. And then ask lots of questions. The way to make the most of this lesson is to connect in real life with real people. The more people you know, the more easily you will find someone in common with your ‘prey’.

Barring that, you can learn a lot about people with a thorough scrape of the internet. 

Pro tip: Do an image search. You find out more than you want to know. 

Lesson to take away: Keep being social, however challenging it can be for a natural introvert.

Another take on research:
Land Your Next Job: Know Your Interviewer, Julie Ann Sims, HOW Magazine

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An example exercise using concept mapping

In this exercise, students will visualize data in 3 ways.

Using a concept-mapping tool, choose some situation in your life in which material is organized. It could be a part of your house, your school notebook or locker (if it’s organized!). Analyze how things are organized. Is there a hierarchy?

Start by organizing the parts into a system. This could be largest to smallest, visible to unseen, etc. Using the concept mapping tool bubbl.us, indicate a way in which material is organized hierarchically.

It might look like this:

Take a snapshot of the arrangement, then rearrange your system in another direction. Look at the hierarchy in a new way. If you made it top down before, try a horizontal or circular system.


Does the new arrangement make you see the material in a new light? Is one system better than another for the kind of material you are organizing?


Explain how visualizing the system helped you understand it better, or explain barriers you overcame in organizing the data.