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A change in my ‘reading for pleasure’ habits

Like so many other people, I enjoy reading for pleasure.  My favourite topic is science fiction.  I also ‘listen’ for pleasure, borrowing books on CD’s from the library and listening to them while I do my morning exercises.  I rarely buy books, I borrow them from my local public library.

Earlier this school year, I had an interesting experience in my classroom that changed how I borrow and read material from my library.  In my grade 12 chemistry class, we were going through the introduction to quantum mechanics section of the atomic structure unit.  I like to add information from one of my favourite science authors, Brian Greene.  He is a theoretical physicist who has a knack of explaining some of the more esoteric topics of quantum mechanics and string theory in a way that makes it accessible to us non theoretical physicists.  He has also helped create NOVA science episodes based on his first two books, ‘Elegant Universe‘ and ‘Fabric of the Cosmos‘. I enjoyed his first two books so much that I bought them (a rare occurence for me).

While scanning his website, I noticed that he recently published a new book, ‘Hidden Reality’.  I couldn’t wait to get a hold of that book.  As my students were working hard on problem questions at the time, I took out my trusty iPod touch and searched my local public library’s mobile website for the book.  I didn’t know that, by default, this site returned results for only their ‘digital’ library.  My library had an e-book version of Brian’s new book.  In about 4 clicks and less than 30 seconds, I had an electronic copy of the book on my iPod ready to read (I had it fully read in a week!).

Since then, I do almost all of my reading for pleasure digitally through my iPod touch (it also helps me get my money’s worth out of my new bifocals!!).

Why I like Google Docs so much!

Google recently made the news by announcing that it would be discontinuing some of its services, google notebook among some of them.  It’s clear that a big company like Google is not immune to the current economic times.  Predictably, many other on-line services are proposing to pick up some of the slack.

This fact, along with some comments I have made in previous posts to this blog, made me think about how much I like one of Google’s online services: Google Docs.  The part of Google Docs that I use most often is its online spreadsheet application (you can also find word processing and presentation applications too).

My first use of this service was of a personal nature.  Several years ago, one of my friends experienced a robbery where most of her family’s personal belongings were stolen from her home.  Suffice it to say that it was a difficult experience, especially in coordinating the purchase of replacement items from her insurance company.  The biggest problem was that she didn’t have a record of her major items in the home (which made it hard for her to prove to her insurance company that she had these items in the first place).  This prompted me to make a list of these items, along with their model and serial numbers.  Both the police and my insurance company told me that having this information is very helpful in processing any claim.  I made this list on my computer using a local copy of a popular spreadsheet application.  This would be helpful, as long as my computer was not stolen (yes, I make backups of my important data, you should too!).

About a year ago, it dawned on me.  I should create a copy of this list in a spreadsheet in Google Docs.  That way, my list is accessible and easily updated from any internet-capable computer.  This alone sold me on the use of this online service.

Then, a short time after this, Google added a new feature to Google Docs: the capability of making data entry forms (you know, a list of questions you can type answers to, or click on check-mark boxes, or choose radio buttons, followed by a submit button).  With Google Docs, the form will ‘dump’ the answers to these questions into a spreadsheet for you.  Once that data is in a spreadsheet, you can do just about anything with it!  My eyes opened wide, a big grin spread over my face, and I thought of a bunch of ways of incorporating this into my teaching.

Currently, I use Google Forms and Spreadsheets in three ways (I’m sure this list will expand as time goes by):

1) I have students complete simple multiple choice tests.  Their answers get dumped in the spreadsheet, and I program the spreadsheet to check their answers and calculate a score.

2) I often have students create group lab reports.  To add some accountability, I have the students fill out a peer and self evaluation form rating their contribution, and the contribution of their group members, to the creation of the group lab report.  I used to do this on paper, now I do it through a Google Form that dumps the data into a spreadsheet.  I can then easily search the spreadsheet to find all the ratings of a particular student.

3) I run two big events at my school: the Blood Donor clinics (if you are not currently a blood donor, consider becoming one!) and our school’s Canadian Cancer Society Relay for Life (supporting the fight against cancer is one of my passions).  For both of these, I need student volunteers and participants.  Rather than have them sign a sheet that I tape on the outside of my door, I have them sign up electronically through a Google Form.  Once the data is in the spreadsheet, and I can sort by student name and quickly generate an alphabetical list of participants and volunteers!  It’s great for generating attendance and checklist forms, among other things!

I’ve made a really short demo form that took me no more than three (count ’em, three!) minutes to complete.  Check it out.  Then, check out the spreadsheet that holds the data dumped by this form.

Now go play with Google Docs.  You won’t regret spending that time!

If you already use Google Docs, or find an interesting use for Google Docs, I’d love to hear about it.  Simply comment to this post so that all can learn from your example!

A most amazing live video streaming experience

I had a most amazing live video streaming experience today.  I’m still in awe at what I was able to witness.

One of my hobbies is following news stories about astronomy.  I like to monitor what is happening with many of the current space missions that NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) administer.  Two of my favourites are the two Martian rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.  The two rovers were launched in 2003 and were designed to operate for about 90 days on the Martian surface.  As of today, this is Opportunity’s 1770th day, and Spirits 1791th day!  I find this incredibly fascinating!

But that’s not the amazing experience I had today, although it was related to these missions.

Let me digress for just a moment…..

I remember a night when I was in high school.  A classmate and good friend convinced me to attend a public lecture at my local university in Windsor ON on astronomy, given by one of the physics professors (unfortunately, I can’t remember his name).  I was absolutely spell bound by the lecture.  I thought it was absolutely amazing that a university professor would take the time to hold a talk like this for the general public on a topic that I found (and still find) absolutely fascinating.

I have heard of many more such talks that have been given by well known professors at Universities all over the world, but that I have been unable to attend.

Now for my experience…

Today, on a live streaming website called Ustream, I was able to watch, LIVE,  a one hour lecture given by the principle investigator of the Mars rover missions, Dr. Steve Squyres at Cal Tech in California. It was on the rover missions in honour of the fifth anniversary of their landing on Mars.  His presentation had me completely riveted.  By back is still sore from being hunched over my laptop screen and not moving for the entire hour!

It’s not only the content of the presentation that had such an effect on me (and it was a great lecture, I’m glad I made the time to see it).  The fact that I was able to see it LIVE on my laptop just blows me away.    It brought me right back to that first lecture I attended so many years ago (sorry, won’t say how many!  🙂   ) it makes me sit right now in wonder at what I have available at my fingertips today on my humble little laptop and my internet connection.  What I wouldn’t have given to be able to do this so many years ago!

I know that streaming video is not a new concept on the net, it’s been around for quite a few years now.  This is my first real experience with it.  I’m surprised at the effect this experience has had on me. I’m going to make a point to look for more opportunities like this in the future.

Oh yeah, by the way, in case I haven’t made it clear how much I like using Twitter: I found out about this broadcast just a few minutes before it began
through one of my Twitter contacts. Signing up for, and using Twitter,
has been one of the best technological decisions I have ever made!

How open are you willing to be, considering the risks?

I do my best to keep my private family life out of this blog.  But I’m going to break this rule for something very important I read today.

I manage a web page in a private domain where I can share pictures of my family with my family and friends.  It is not publicly available.  I don’t want just anybody having access to pictures I consider to be private.  Sometimes I think I’m too restrictive and should make them more publicly available, other times I feel I should take the website down.

One of my professional contacts, Alec Couros (see my blogroll) posted this blog entry talking about what happened with images he posted on the web.  It speaks for itself, as do the comments that follow it.  Please read it, you won’t regret the time it took.

Hello world!

Well, I finally did it!  And it’s no mistake I did it on January 1, 2009, probably like hundreds of other people today.

I have finally started my own blog!

I still have no idea of what I plan on writing here.  I’m sure that educational topics will appear prominently.  I’ll probably post some really bad ‘groaner’ jokes from time to time too.  Ask my friends, I’m famous (or infamous) for them.

There are a few things that influenced my decision to start this blog.

1) Interactions with a colleague of mine, Doug Peterson (find him here and here too!) have very effectively introduced me to some of the Web 2.0 technology that I am using almost on a daily basis.

2) Some really interesting people I found on twitter have got me thinking along lines I haven’t thought before.  View my account here.  If you don’t have a twitter account yet, I suggest you check it out and start one of your own.

3) This gives me an on-line place to write down and store my thoughts that I can retrieve from just about anywhere, anytime.

Well, there it is.  My first blog post.  More to come later.  If you have any suggestions as to what to write about in the future, please leave a comment.