Experiment with Open Learning – Update #1

by mrplatts on June 25, 2013

Life’s hectic . . .

But I still found a little spare time to tool around with Carnegie Mellon’s Open learning Initiative on and off over the last few weeks.  In an earlier post I promised to report back with my experience in the course Principles of Computing. I’ve completed the first module of the course, which uses a linear, step-by-step approach to it’s lessons to teach the user about how computers do algorithmic calculations.  This first module required you to do a manual calculation of computer loops, with some short videos giving instruction on how to complete the procedures.  Some of the practice problems give instant feedback as you enter the steps that the loop goes through, and others make you enter a final answer that you have penned out on scratch paper (or TextWrangler in my case.)

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The questions do get a little more involved with this select sort function . . .

Now, consider the following algorithm that processes a list L of integers. Recall that a list is indexed starting with 0 (i.e. L[0] is the first element, L[1] is the second element, etc.).

  1. Set n equal to the length of list L.

  2. Set i equal to 0.

  3. While i < n-1 do the following:Display list L.

    1. Set min equal to L[i].
    2. Set j equal to i+1.
    3. While j < n do the following:
      1. If L[j] < L[min] then set j equal to min.
      2. Add 1 to j.
    4. Swap L[i] and L[min].
    5. Add 1 to i.
  4. Display list L


Completely Asynchronous

This isn’t a MOOC, a Massively Open Online Course, it is a totally asynchronous open course with no instructor.  This is great because it lets me pace through the course at my own rate.  Though this could be seen as a downside, as there is nobody except me keeping me honest about my progress through the course.

Completely Self-Assessed

At the end of the module, I expected at least a summary assessment, but was a bit disappointed to find that it was just a checklist of how I felt about each of the topics covered in the module.

Where’s the value?

I’m enjoying the content, but at this point my evaluation of this Open Learning Initiative is that, other than a couple of videos and real-time checking of a a few practice problems, there is little difference between completing this course, and teaching myself to program out of a PHP by example book.  I’ll remain open minded, and chug through the remaining modules.


Looking forward to “Jobs”?

by mrplatts on June 24, 2013

I was super skeptical of the unifficial Steve Jobs biopic when I first heard that Ashton Kutcher was playing the role of Jobs. I was pleasantly surpired that the trailer looks pretty good, even if the LA Times critiques the movie’s liberal use of the public mythology surrounding Jobs in lieu of actual factual occurances.  Still, there’s a reason nobody is making a movie about the mundane occurances of our lives, it’s called storytelling.

The movie got pushed back to release this August.  Will you be in theaters to watch?


More Girls in S.T.E.M. Fields Needed!

by mrplatts on June 23, 2013

Near and dear

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 12.19.13 PMThe fact that we are underserving young women, and in turn underserving our country’s future demand for S.T.E.M. qualified fields is a a pet interest of mine, as the dad of two girls, one who is getting ready to start Kindergarten.  I want to be fully supportive of my daughters following their passions, whatever they are, but I fear that heading to school may begin head off some of the options that my kids see as available for them.

Closing the gap

An article in on the Middleweb blog addresses the problem of having so few women in the highest demand career areas.  They make six recommendations about how to fix the problem.  I liked two of these suggestions in particular, as they aren’t just about creating demand among girls in STEM by making STEM more feminine, but these approaches are about expanding the desirability of STEM careers in general.

Create a classroom that sparks curiosity

Start early and make it authentic.  STEM doesn’t always mean robotics and grinding gears, but attacking real-life problems through an inquiry approach makes science, environmental challenges, forensic science, technological and engineering issues.  Keep kids asking questions that they want to discover the answer to from an early age.  Kids who are continually chasing to find the next question will succeed in the STEM fields.

Encourage informal learning

Create a space where kids can explore STEM fields outside of the highly-structured (and rigorously assessed) environment of the classroom. I am a fan of Carl Jung’s quote:

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.” – Carl Jung

All kids (and adults!) need to play, it is a part of what keeps our minds alive and working.  The best jobs feel more like play than work, and generate the best results.  I am really interested to see further research about the concept of Connected Learning which encourages students to pursue their interests in a peer supported environment, while connecting these interests to an academic, curricular area.

Unfortunately, often these types of learning experiences are available only to a “gifted” group of students.  I believe that every student deserves a chance to discover their own area of passion through informal learning.



Zombie-based learning????

by mrplatts on June 22, 2013

Exercising students’ BRAAIIINNNNNSSSSS!!!

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 3.36.17 PMISTE & Edutopia recently highlighted innovative teacher David Hunter’s project called Zombie-Based Learning.  At his site there are nearly 450 pages of Zombie-based geography curriculum complete with role-playing, art and materials to engage kids in the most recent fad, Zombies.  David raised nearly $12,000 on Kickstarter to get the project off the ground, and now is looking to raise a second round of funding to start a graphic-novel based learning series.  Check out the newest project here.

This century’s Oregon Trail?

imagesI remember doing the Oregon Trail game in fifth grade.  No, not the computer-based version that some of you played, but a whole-class simulation over a series of weeks.  I agonized for many nights over what to bring and what to leave behind.  It turns out I should have brought heirlooms!  The in-class (paper and pencil) simulation suck with me in a way that the computer game couldn’t, because when you died, or broke an axle forging the river, you couldn’t just hit start again . . . you sat on the sidelines and sulked.

One thing is certainly true

Hunter is right when he states that “The textbooks available today are not made with the teacher or student in mind. I believe that students can learn important educational concepts through the lens of their interests.”

Personally, I feel like this might be a tad bit too much on the faddish side.  I’m not really certain that every single 10-12 year old is that into zombies that an entire curriculum.  I am a fan of AMC’s (supremely violent) The Walking Dead and have read the comic series, but I am pretty certain that my kids would have to be a bit older than sixth grade before I sat them down to watch it with me, doubly so for the comic books.

This doesn’t really differentiate very well for a student who is completely turned off by the idea of zombies, and may have a detrimental effect for those kids.  I’m not sure if zombies are the answer, but I applaud Mr. Hunter for pushing the envelope of what is possible in an otherwise dull landscape of available curriculum offerings.


The Technology Behind NSA’s Prism

by mrplatts on June 21, 2013

Politics Aside

images Whether you agree that Edward Snowdon is a hero or a traitor, I believe that it is important to understand a few important things about how the Internet works and how that infrastructure can be taken advantage of by what we can hardly deny is a growing surveillance state.  The government insists that they need to gather big data to protect us from terrorism, but it seems that many believe that the collection of this data is an overreach and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Many other countries are certain that this program is a violation of their laws.

I think that it is important for people to understand the way that the technology works, and what the vulnerabilities are in today’s internet.

How the NSA gathers data

Steve Gibson, a security researcher, inventer of SPINRITE software, and host of the SecurityNow podcast on the Twit Network, has posed a hypothesis of how the NSA is able to gather this massive quantity of data, correlate metadata AND the contents of much of the traffic flowing to big companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and others.

Tapping the fiber

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Since 2002 there have been a number of whistleblowers who have come forward and given testimony to congress about a massive NSA dragnet that has been collecting data since before the 9/11 attacks.  These whistleblowers cite a number of secure facilities within Tier 1 internet backbone providers that split the light signal (hence PRISM) flowing through the fiber in those server rooms off into a government controlled network that nobody has much detail on.

klein-decl-18The big companies like Google and Apple have denied claims that there are special backdoors in their facilities letting the NSA look in on traffic, but they have received many FISA letters (those letters they are not supposed to talk about) asking for very specific details on traffic that does take place on their networks.  The answer here is that the NSA does not need to be inside Google’s network, because of the way internet traffic is routed toward its destination, they only have to be on the Router that is just prior to the targeted network, say in San Francisco.  From there they can determine enough from the metadata and cleartext content that is being sent to issue a FISA letter to the companies in question.

It is estimated that there are several more of these secure facilities in tier 1 providers all around the country.  Although the government claims that it is not spying on Americans, for this type of system to work, they MUST collect and analyze everything that passes through.

As secure as a postcard

What many fail to realize is, that despite a secure connection to Gmail, or Yahoo Mail, or Outlook.com, email is inherently insecure.  Once your email leaves your inbox it flows across the internet completely unencrypted, on a series of interconnected networks (inter-net) until it arrives at its destination.  Even if you are not a criminal, every email you send is essentially little more than a postcard in terms of the privacy you can expect.

Save it for later

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Much of the traffic that gets picked up by PRISM is likely encrypted using 128-bit SSL cryptography.  So what’s the NSA to do?  We know that they employ hundreds of “security researchers” who are looking to exploit errors in SSL, and are developing more and more advanced methods of decryption.  So, why not just save that data for later?

Construction is underway for a data facility in Utah that is expected to hold as much as five zettabytes of data.  To put things in perspective, a zettabyte is about 1 billion terrabytes.  

1 ZB = 1000000000000000000000 bytes = 1000bytes = 1021bytes = 1000 exabytes = 1 billion terabytes.

Imagine a terrabyte of data per person on the planet.  It begins to put the East German Stasi’s files into perspective.

Relevant Links


On Thursday, June 14th I was approved for and accepted a new position as the Director of Technology at the South Park School District.   I will begin the new position in July, and I am very excited about entering this new phase of my career.

A bittersweet farewell

I have spent my teaching years based out of Fort Couch Middle School, where over the past nine years my role has shifted, from a 100% classroom teaching role, to a split responsibility with my time in the classroom, working on a range of levels across the district on technology, coaching, collaboration with other teachers, and numerous professional committees along the way.

My home base, Fort Couch, is a tough place to leave.  Over the course of the past five years, through a massive renovation and a huge investment in new technology, the building is full of teachers eager to experiment, to learn and to work together for the sake of the 650 kids we are responsible for.  Our building principals and our staff have created an environment where teachers are given room to grow, a chance to take risks, and supported in their endeavors.  I am much richer for the lessons that I have learned from my colleagues, students and friends, and I hope to take at least a little bit of the Fort Couch culture anywhere that I can spread it.

Thank you to all of you for making this possible for me.



HDMI killed the vga port . . . “wait, wait, I’m not dead, yet!”

June 19, 2013

Oh he will be soon . . . These days I am pretty much 100% digital in my media consumption, but with air travel in my plans this week I picked up a print edition of PC World from the rather limited selection at the airport.  One article caught my attention, 12 PC Technologies That Must […]

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Loon-y ideas sometimes work!

June 15, 2013

An idea so crazy, it just might work I admit to being a bit of a Google fanboy.  I love the technology, the suite of apps, Google’s growing commitment to the education market.  but that isn’t my favorite part about Google.  I have the utmost respect for their approach to innovation, the dedication to the […]

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Patent Troll Threatens Podcasting

June 3, 2013

Save Podcasting! Podcasting, or the subscribed delivery of audio content to your portable electronic device, is under threat by a patent troll.  This weekend’s This American Life focused on Patent Trolls in general, and in particular the claim of a failed 1990’s company Personal Audio LLC that they own the rights to the entire concept of […]

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Eye to Eye: Bringing International Cultural Experiences to Fort Couch (Haiti Speaker)

May 29, 2013

Eye to Eye One of the most amazing parts about working in my middle school is the way that teachers, administration, parents, and students work together to extend our classrooms into our local community and beyond to inspire students to make a real tangible impact in their world.  It is more than making Fort Couch […]

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