The Positive Impact of Coding

We’ve become a learning-phobic society. No, that’s not true. We’ve become a very literal society. School teaches us to find a missing number in a proportion; we fail to see how that transfers to our scaling anything. School teaches us how economic depressions begin; we slept through that class and as a result get to try that little experiment all over again.

Yes, that’s unfair. On both counts. But it points out one of the biggest problems with our current education system – We generally struggle to extrapolate, to recognize patterns, and then to recognize that we have a whole collection of internalized skills that would help us if we’d just stop and let them. (That’s kind of the point of school…strangely enough.) We just never learn how to transfer those transferable skills.

One area where this is abundantly clear is in what are now called the STEM classes – science, technology, engineering, and math. A whole set of disciplines dedicated to modeling, to observing, to playing with and experimenting with, to solving problems in fun and creative ways…and we so often shun their benefits. I’ve gone on ad nauseum about math’s role in enabling us with modeling and analysis skills. This time, I thought I’d tackle coding, which overlaps with math in many respects when certain math skills are taught as algorithms.

There has been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years over whether or not coding should be included in a standard school curriculum. On the one hand, not everyone will go into a profession that requires coding skills. On the other, you don’t want to encourage hackers. (Actually, you do. It’s the Black Hats you don’t want to encourage.) On the third, learning to code helps to build and reinforce algorithmic skills and the development of systems thinking. It can even open entertaining doors for an ambitious English class.

As technology integrates into more areas of our lives, it helps for us to gain as thorough an understanding as we can of what we’re dealing with. Understanding code as a pattern or recipe that software must follow can help us better interact with technology in our lives. It can also helps us better understand, create, and execute patterns and recipes in our own lives. Coding is about prototyping and iterating, teaching practitioners to draft, test, and edit in a more interactive manner than learning to edit any other type of writing does. This ability to interpret and act on patterns or recipes follows into a wide variety of real world activities. Plus, it’s really fun to tell a computer what to do with itself.

If you’re interested in learning to code, but are beyond your school years and uncomfortable with returning to a classroom setting, why not check out this coffee shop coding program? Then, see how many ways you can use those skills in their intended context and beyond.


Respect, Bullying, and School Shootings

Last week, the weather finally provided an opportunity for my parents and me to visit the Lego exhibition at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. We had lunch at the bistro, taking advantage of the delightful crisp air by eating outside with families with young children and preschool groups. These kids were well-behaved dining companions, running in the grass off to the side when they needed to just be preschoolers.

Then, we went into the Gardens, where some elementary schools were enjoying a field trip. Maybe a little too much. His chaperone not in sight (she had walked out of the walled area her student group was in), a boy decided to spit into a koi pond right in front of me. My inner museum educator came leaping out. I sat him down, and the others got the chaperone, who then offered in his defense, “They’re just being children.” And I explained rather tersely to her that was the wrong response. Had the kids not been standing right there, I would have explained to her the consequences we’re now seeing from not holding children responsible for their choices or allowing them to experience consequences.

We got home, and I pulled up the school’s page to get the principal’s email when I noticed a huge anti-bullying banner, and I realized this school has a long road ahead of them. You see, bullying is caused by a number of deficiencies, one of which is a lack of respect. If you have no respect for yourself, for other people, or for things, you’re more likely to bully them. Respect is an empathetic practice; bullying is not. And case studies have shown it’s the schools that have taken steps toward incorporating character education into their school community that have experienced reduced bullying.

That’s one of the reason social-emotional curricula are slowly crawling into schools, fighting for time against the less-useful-in-the-long-run bubble-filling skill development. Respect, etiquette, coping with setbacks…these are all skills we don’t promote as much as we used to. And the way it’s manifested in our society is rather disturbing. The one key element that has been in common to many of the school shootings (and even some of the mass shootings outside of schools) has been the perpetrator’s lack of empathetic skills. They couldn’t cope with being rejected, so they dealt decisively with the problem. They weren’t getting the respect they thought they deserved, so they dealt decisively with the problem. They were suddenly held accountable for their poor behavior after years of getting away with “just being a kid”, so they dealt decisively with it.

This isn’t to say a kid who spits into a koi pond today and isn’t help accountable by the adult responsible for him is going to take a gun to his classmates tomorrow. That kid may look back on what happened, think about the way I did choose to come down on his chaperone, decide he doesn’t ever want to be seen the way I viewed her,  and take steps to become a great person. (You’d be amazed how many kids do just that – decide to not be like the adults in their life because they don’t like what they’re seeing.) The chaperone probably will never change and will continue to be a poor role model for kids desperate for good examples of how to survive in the scary world they’re eventually going to be part of because she probably had someone in her life making excuses for her rather than helping her take ownership for her choices.

“Just being children” doesn’t mean acting however you want, even when you know you’re misbehaving, and having no consequences. It means making choices about how to behave, learning the consequences of those actions, and then learning how to best handle those consequences. It’s part of the learning process best started when minds are pliable enough to be able to explore and figure out cause, effect, and making amends…or celebrations. Not all choice/consequence pairs are bad. But learning to surf those waves is much easier as a kid, and kids are perfectly capable of navigating if we give them a space to do it.

Teaching Consequence Through Social Media

Ever since smart phones and social media have become more predominant, teachers and schools have wrestled with how to handle them in the school and in the classroom. Some just lay down a blanket zero tolerance policy…that virtually none of them could successfully enforce for any length of time. Others try a policy of allowing them during non-class times, but that has mixed results. Some accept the transition, incorporating the new technology and the reality that their students are going to be communicating through social media into their lessons.

That third group has it right. Social media is here, and it’s one of the main ways we now communicate. So it makes sense to teach kids how to accept and use that responsibility. But in teaching that, we also have to teach them that being able to publish their thoughts online, regardless of whether it’s just out to a general public or to a specific audience. comes with consequences. If we publish something positive, we can cause good things to happen. If we post negative things, then we can get into trouble. A number of middle and high schools have experienced this already in the form of having to deal with cyberbullying, some schools even having to deal with the consequences of a parent engaging in cyberbullying a student.

And there’s the problem. When the adults role model that negative behavior, the children around them who may not yet have the ability to decide what’s acceptable or not are influenced by seeing that behavior. And they’re influenced by how other adults handle the adult who has engaged in the misbehavior. If we lightly fine them, that tells the children who see it that adults condone the behavior. If the adult gets jail time, that suggests to the children that maybe using social media to negatively impact another person isn’t the smartest idea.

We’ve recently had a situation, a series of situations, really, where an online blogger decided the appropriate response to a break-up was to use his blog to attempt to ruin his ex-girlfriend’s career and reputation. Even though the record was quickly set straight, the damage was done because the internet is a permanent public forum. And the blogger was asked to resign from his job, but not for what he’d done. Lesson learned here: It’s okay to use the internet to “punish” someone for no longer wanting to date you.

But the situation evolved…or devolved, as the case turned out to be. And now there are a number of people who’ve made death threats toward other people. Confirmed cases. FBI involvement. And these people still have the social media accounts they used to issue the threats. And those who were employed when this began appear to still be employed. What message are we sending to kids with this? If you behaved that way offline, you’d be in jail no questions asked. Why is the internet different?

I think this is an important question, and I think it’s an important one to explore with students. How is the internet different from the world offline? Should you be held accountable for something you say to someone else through social media? It starts with the conversation teens are becoming too familiar with – cyberbullying – but it offers a launchpad to discussing the seams between social media and the offline world.

Maybe if we can start this conversation with kids, we’ll find a way to stitch together those seams a bit more tightly. And then maybe we’ll have less of this to deal with. But it all starts with that teachable moment.

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and…Drawing?

Once upon a time, drawing and sketching used to be part of the curriculum. Students were expected to be able to model through drawings for art’s sake and for subjects that benefited from sketching skills. As being able to draw or sketch recognizable images and models is a skill useful to so many fields, it made sense that it was a required subject.

But somewhere along the way, long before I was in school, drawing and sketching were reduced to units in a prescribed general arts course, and then that general arts course became an option. Today’s children are lucky if they even get that option because the arts are being squeezed out by the testing culture.

I don’t know about you, but I use my artistic skills far more often than I use my ability to fill in tiny bubbles with a number 2 pencil. And I’m not even good at drawing. Just ask my former math students. 😉

Maybe it’s because it’s not as easily quantifiable as reading, math, science, and social studies that any art is so easily shoved out of the curriculum, but it really shouldn’t be. Anyone who has ever had to grade writing will tell you that it is based in part on demonstrated technique, and in part on the subjective taste and opinion of the grader. Art is the same way. We can score it on the demonstrated technique; we can score it on some subjective measure like we do writing.

But I’m really focusing on one art in particular here: drawing. Drawing at basic levels can really be boiled down to two roles: expressing and illustrating. That’s not entirely different from boiling writing down at the schooling level to creative and business or technical writing. We teach writing to give students a tool to communicate their knowledge, ideas and opinions. We should also be teaching drawing for the same reason: to give students another tool to communicate their knowledge, ideas, and opinions.

That’s what drawing really is. It’s not strictly the purview of artists. It’s a means of communicating and modeling ideas that are better expressed visually rather than textually. And as such, it needs to be a skill we teach to all children.


Some great additional reading on making drawing part of the curriculum:

Hashtag #MovingOn

Now that you’ve spent a month thinking about and hopefully planning your information and digital asset management strategies, it’s time to implement them (if you haven’t already). Think about what kind of storage structure will best suit your content: hierarchical, serial, or set. Think about how the use of tags will facilitate the use of your material. Be deliberate and consistent as you design your asset management system.

Remember, the whole point for putting yourself through this is to create a storage system that supports your work by making information and content easy to find and work with. It then strengthens your work by creating opportunities to make connections between the pieces of content and between yourself and others interested in the same topics or crafts you’re working with. It’s worth sitting down and taking the time to sort out a system that works best for your projects.

Next month, we will look at the last phase of the personal learning environment. And then after that, we may go back to a random blogging schedule.

This year, I was experimenting with having themes each month, but it hasn’t necessarily impacted my blogging or my social media the way I wanted it to and you guys have proven that this hasn’t been your cup of tea, either. There are some other changes that need to happen around here, and they may very well start happening in October. But I thank you for indulging me these last several months. As always, if there’s something you’d like me to blog about, something you’d like to hear more about, just drop me a line in the comments or use any of the tools in the social media box in the sidebar to let me know.

Set Management

Continuing our discussion from the other day, let’s look at another specialized, specific organization method: set management. Set management, for our purposes, refers to metadata designed to keep related nonlinear material related and findable.  Set management is a bit more difficult to nail down because it can be a bit nebulous.

Set management can be a hybrid of organization structures. For example,  hierarchical structure could dictate the shape of the broadest organization levels, but within each level the components could take on a sequential order (Dead Bunny’s playlists). Or they could be sequential at the broadest level, with a hierarchical organization within each step in the sequence. (Some curriculum is designed this way so deeper exploration of topics are possible where time and resources permit.)

I personally use set management to keep my research and writing materials organized. I use broad topical structures, and then organize material by type, or by sequence as the material calls for it. Character and setting sheets are organized by type and proximity to other characters and settings. Stories are organized by where and when they take place in the story world’s history. If I tried to implement a single organization type, I’d go insane. (I also implement this organization pattern across all the components of my digital workspace, so keeping the same tags and patterns all the way across makes my work run more smoothly.)

So, when is set management useful? If the material doesn’t fit easily into a hierarchical system because the components are at about the same organizational level, you should consider a set management pattern. If the material can be accessed in any order (making it unsuitable for a serial pattern), then you’re probably better off using a set management pattern. If the material is spread out across different platforms and storage solutions, a consistently implemented set management pattern can go a long way toward making that work.

The most important thing I want you to take away, not only from this post, but from this month, is that you need to choose an information management pattern that best serves the content being stored and that allows you to work with minimal disruption.

Series Management

As part of this discussion on information management, I thought it might be interesting to look at a couple of special, specific types of organization. And we’re going to start with a scheme that will be fairly familiar: series management.

Series management is a method for keeping linear, serialized content related and in order while allowing each component of the series to remain individually findable. We accomplish this by linking the content clearly to the piece that comes immediately before it as well as the piece that comes immediately after it.

When I was first writing online, we accomplished this by handcoding links to the previous and next pieces of content in the series. Those who had the time would also handcode a link to a self-created table of contents. It was something akin to a one-track branched story. These days, it’s much simpler. Most blogging and content management platforms offer some way of linking serial pieces either natively or through plugins. The notable exception is YouTube, where you still have to handcode connections between videos (through the annotation tool) in many cases.

Some systems also allow for the easy construction of a table of contents so visitors can see how many pieces are involved in the series and what topics the series will cover, making it easy for visitors to find the exact part of the series they’re really looking for. This is the exception where YouTube gets serialization right. Add the videos in the series to a playlist, order them, and your series becomes easy for viewers to handle.

When should you be using the series management method? Any time you have content you expect the visitor to experience in a specific order. This might be blog posts on a given topic broken up across multiple posts (like my initial series on the personal learning environment, accomplished with a plugin), scaffolded material (like Dead Bunny’s topical playlists, accomplished through YouTube’s native playlist management tools), or maybe you have a timeline presenting your material and each piece needs to be experienced in order to put everything in context.

It’s something to play around with as you’re deciding how to best fit your content together.

Tagging as Hyperlink

Earlier this week, we focused on using tags to classify and organize material. At the end of the post, I suggested tagging can also support discovery and pattern recognition activities. So, I thought we’d take a look at that today.

Continuing our metaphors from the other post, let’s start with using tags to promote cross-reference. Depending on your age, you may or may not remember doing this with a card catalog in school. You’d go to look up something, and one of the cards you found would say: See also [list of related keywords]. Desperately hoping you’d find more information on whatever obscure topic you were supposed to be researching, you’d make a note of those keywords and look them up, too…only to realize hours later that you had in fact found several interesting things, none of which related to your research. If you were lucky, though, chasing those other keywords could open doors for you. You might have found an interesting direction to take your research paper, because one of those keywords was something you never would have thought of. That’s the beauty of cross-referencing. It might verify what you’re looking up. It might disprove what you’re looking up. It might send you down a different vein of thought, as you get a better look at how other topics relate to your current research. Bookmarking and notetaking apps utilize this type of tagging because they’re kind of designed for it.

For bloggers, bookmarkers, and notetakers, tags can also help identify related material, enabling visitors and users to delve more deeply into a topic. What makes it interesting on blogs and social bookmarking sites is that we choose to show the tagging structure we’ve implemented to keep our content connected. Why is this interesting? Because seeing how someone else has grouped together content tells us a lot about the person and how they perceive the content, and can in turn jog how we think about the topic. It’s a way to be inspired by and learn from each other.

The last type of tagging we’re going to cover here is familiar to most social media users – the hashtag. Hashtags have been in use informally for over a decade, but have only been a formal part of the social media scene for about five years or so. Where other types of tagging are used to organize, identify, and connect content, the hashtag is really more of a communication and networking tool. When used correctly, a hashtag can help social media users discussing the same topic or event find each other, thereby facilitating the conversation. It can help users interested in the same topics and events find each other in realspace. It’s a great way to provide a centralized hub on a global platform. When used incorrectly…well…I know I’m not the only one to use them to make sarcastic or self-deprecating comments on an earlier part of a post. 😉

Regardless of why you’re tagging, remember that your tags must be useful to your intended audience. Consistency and diligence are keys to a successful tagging system.

Tagging as Metadata

I’ve blogged about this in the past, but it took me a long time to come to terms with tagging. Longer than it really should have, given my time maintaining card catalogs, archiving collections of various types, and blogging. But I did finally catch on and realized that tagging, especially when used uniformly across my personal learning environment, is a useful tool because tags can serve as a type of metadata.

Metadata, which can be thought of as “data about data”, is all through our digital life. If you have ever built a website, you know metadata as that information about the site that gets hidden in the site’s code. It’s not meant for human eyes; they’ll get their information about the site from just looking at the site. It’s there to tell robots and search engines information about the site to help determine if a site matches what they’re looking for. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall off the top of my head what’s in this site’s metadata. Oops.) In a way, it’s kind of like what you would find in an old library card catalog. It’s a series of key words and identifiers intended to help someone quickly find what they’re looking for.

When you’re using tags to identify aspects of information, you can then use those tags to better organize your information. This isn’t dissimilar from how museums use metadata tagging as they digitize collections. They use the tags to identify the key aspects of the artifact, and then artifacts with the same key identifier are easily identifiable when the collection is searched digitally. Blogs also rely on this style of tagging, allowing posts to be tagged by key aspects so related posts can be found quickly. Broader tags are often represented by a special set of tags called “categories”. (Bet you never thought of categories that way before!) When we talk about Three Click Design and Information Scent in web design, what we’re really talking about is the simplicity and clarity of a site’s organization as indicated by their use of tags and navigational mechanics.

As I said earlier, I didn’t take to tagging quickly. I fought it for a long time. What finally won me over was losing bits and pieces of projects and research across my digital workspace. I started tagging content important to a research project, and found that I spent less time looking for things I knew I had but couldn’t find. Now, I have a set of tags (in a hierarchical structure more often than not because that’s the kind of nerd I am) that I’ve applied across all aspects of my digital workspace. When I want to work on something, I just open that tab in all of the apps I need, and there is my information and my work.

So, there you go. Tagging is a great way to classify and organize your content so you (or your target audience) can find what they need when they need it. When a tagging system is designed well, it can not only increase productivity, but also enable discovery and pattern recognition, allowing future projects to come together.

Structural Hierarchy

One of the things you’re going to hear me say with some regularity as we move through the month is hierarchy, so I thought we’d start by talking about what that means and why we use it (and why we don’t use it).

A hierarchical structure is a classification system that basically starts with a broad set of terms that becomes more focused with each new layer. We’ve all used it in those outlines we created to write papers for school. But they’re also useful for grouping items. For example, if you wanted to classify the Dresden Files series, you might start with the broad classification “books” (it would be filed with all books), and then drill down to the classification “fiction” (it would be filed with the fiction books, but out of place with nonfiction). From there, you might classify it as “fantasy” (it would be filed with other fantasy novels, but would be a sore thumb in a pile of westerns), and then “urban fantasy” (it would be filed with other urban fantasy novels, but probably not with epic fantasy novels).

If you’re familiar with branched storytelling or interactive fiction, the organization structure is similar. Once you choose a path, you are locked in to only the options available to that path for the duration of this search. (You can always back up the chain if you need to search a different path.) We see that in the Dresden Files example, as we can see what paths are closed off to us because we sorted the series in a specific direction. It limits our focus.

We use a hierarchical structure when we organize information by some trait, including sequential order, where drill downs are the best way to find information within the data or content. We’re actually quite used to this structure, because we use it regularly. Blogs employ this structure through the use of categories and tags to organize content, some blogs going so far as to incorporate subcategories. It works for blogs because the blogger can have a few broad topics (categories) that are then supported by more specific smaller topics readers might want to investigate (tags). Shopping websites also implement this structure to help shoppers narrow in on what they are looking for to better facilitate the shopping process.

While hierarchical structures are fairly forgiving and flexible in their design and implementation, they aren’t suited to every situation. Some data and content just isn’t suited to a drill-down format. For those situations, you’re almost always better off creating broad categories that share a more fluid tag structure. Library card catalog systems used to be a great example of this. A writing project management system for stories told in the same world can also benefit from this. The stories become the broad categories, and then characters, settings, and major events become the tags that can be shared between stories as needed. (Not that this is how I’ve set up New Glory’s story bible or anything. *wink*)

If you’re faced with organizing a collection that can be sorted into groupings that don’t need to be shared between larger groupings, a hierarchical structure might be a good starting point.