Friday, November 15, 2013

Compatible computing

I personally do computing across several platforms and software packages. At home I have been using OSX 10.7.5 Lion, though I recently upgraded to OSX 10.9 Mavericks. Before resigning my position to return to the U.S., I was using Windows 7 on my office computer, on which I had previously installed and used Ubuntu (Linux). Some of the computers in the school were running Windows XP, as does my wife's netbook. Then there's my cellphone running Android (Jellybean) and the Debian (Linux) I run on a virtual computer. Those are the systems I use most often. Others might add one of various tablets, such as my father's Kindle Fire or my wife's soon-to-be-purchased iPad Mini or Surface tablet. (Any suggestions which we should go with?)

This is the reality of computing in 2013: cross-platform. It is next to impossible to find anyone who can completely subsist in just one ecosystem. Not only are people using different types of devices, each having different operating systems, but people are using different versions of those operating systems: for example, Windows XP (archaic), Windows 7 and Windows 8. Within each of these, people are using different software packages: iWork, Office, LibreOffice, etc. This can cause headaches when people running different softwares (e.g. Pages and Word) or different versions of the same software (e.g. Word 2007 and Word 2010) try to share documents. And then what if people have different font packages? The opportunities for less-than-ideal compatibility go on and on.

Given the reality of computing today, I am often dismayed by the relative lack of technological consideration often demonstrated when people share documents. Is it really a good idea to assume that all the other users will be using the same software you are when they open that doc, docx, odt or pages file? Are you sure the formatting will stay the same in each of the software versions other users will be using? Below are some strategies I use to try to navigate these waters of incompatibility.

The Cloud

This is by far the easiest and safest (from a compatibility perspective) way to collaborate and share documents. Whether it be Google Docs, Microsoft Skydrive or another similar web-based office suite, the cloud will always provide maximum compatibility. A presentation run through Google Drive will look the same on any computer. A document written and formatted using Skydrive will look the same to any user who logs into the online document.

There are, however, a few weaknesses to the cloud. This approach assumes the web browsers being used are able to handle the web apps, but this should not be a problem for most. (I personally prefer Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.) Also, the formatting capabilities of these web-based office suites are generally neither as powerful nor as comprehensive as those found in desktop publishing software packages. The biggest turn-off for many may be that it simply takes time to become familiar with using the cloud well, which in today’s go-go, time-is-money society is a completely understandable reason. Nevertheless, from a max compatibility standpoint, the cloud is really the way to go.

Desktop Publishing

First, let’s be clear: Word, Pages, Writer, etc. are publishing softwares. They should be used to format documents and prepare them for distribution. Finished documents, however, should never be sent as software-specific documents (e.g. doc, docx, odt, pages, etc.)

After spending your valuable time to make sure your content (e.g. text, diagrams, photos) fits perfectly on each page of a document using Word 2010, for example, it should never be assumed that the pages will look the same when your colleague down the hall (or across the ocean) opens the dock in Word 2007 using Windows XP. This is an even bigger headache when Mac users receive the same doc or docx and try opening it in Pages. Yes, Mac users can and do also buy and use Microsoft Word, but why run redundant apps? Rather than lamenting that the other people get with it and use whatever suite you happen to use, it would be much more productive use cross-platform documents.

Read-only docs: pdf

If your document is already a finished product, not something you want others to edit or proofread, try this: save or export the document as a pdf. It doesn't matter what publishing software you use; these days they can all create pdf files. Some softwares make it possible by selecting “save as”, whereas others may use “export”. You may have to dig around, but believe me: it’s there. And what’s the benefit? One, you save the beauty of your work from the incompatibility gremlins. Two, none of your recipients will swear under their breath about incompatibility issues.

Info collection: txt

Sometimes it may be unavoidable; you may have to send specific formats such as docx, pages and the like. But, when collaboration and text is the primary focus and formatting can be left to a later date, save (or export) your work as txt. Better yet: use simple text editors like TextEdit (Mac) or Notepad (Windows), or even TextWrangler or Vim. I happen to be using TextEdit to compose this post, and I'll format it once I get into Blogger. The text isn’t attractive, but unfinished products don’t need to be. If compatibility is the goal and text is the content, go with txt.


Prezi is wonderful. Unless done very well, I quickly become bored with traditional slideshows, whether they be done on Powerpoint, Keynote or others. A presentation is still a presentation, but if you want to spice things up a bit, go with the Prezi web app. Plus, teachers get extra storage space!

When considering compatibility, Prezi is also ideal. If you happen to be presenting in a context with internet access, the presentation can be delivered straight from the web browser, just like Google Drive or Skydrive presentations. As an added bonus, however, should you have limited or no internet access in your presentation venue, Prezi presentations are downloadable. If you download a Prezi presentation, you’ll get a zip file with both .exe and .app files, both of which are self-contained applications that run only that individual presentation. This means the presentation will run exactly as designed whether using Windows or OSX. Thus far I’ve run these using Windows XP, Windows 7 and OSX Lion with nary a glitch.


Above are just a few suggestions for better compatibility. Yes, it takes an extra step or two, and you may have to spend a little time getting used to new ways of doing things, but unless all your colleagues, students and friends are using the same ecosystems you use, these extra steps make a world of difference for everyone.

Friday, November 08, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 3

This is the last in a series of three reflections. In this post I’ll continue to reflect on some of the major things I’ve learned over the past 12 years of teaching. There are obviously more than three lessons I’ve learned during this time, but have been three that strike me as I am leaving China.

This particular reflection is of more practical nature that the previous two, but I hope it will still be thought-provoking. I will also point out that I am writing this at 3:00 a.m. in a jet-lag induced state of alertness.

Reflection 3: Memorization is overly maligned

Memorization has gotten a bad rap. Memorization (a.k.a. rote memorization) was the whipping post of my academic generation. It most likely still is. I'm not sure I ever heard a single professor speak well of rote memorization, let alone advocate its use. What was stressed was rather communication, critical thinking, creativity, self-expression and the like, all of which are good, essential, and perhaps even the goal of all instruction. I likewise attempt to foster these skills in my students. Nevertheless, after years of teaching English to English learners (as opposed to already literate high school students or university literature majors), I have concluded that to completely exclude memorization is neither desirable nor educationally sound.

Part of me wants to focus on mathematics and discuss multiplication tables because they are often cited when memorization is mentioned. However, in this entry I will try to stick to language, Chinese specifically.

Have you ever tried to write Chinese? Though it is a popular language choice at present and is gaining in popularity by the day, most of you have not. Here is one thing to know about writing Chinese: It cannot be studied without memorization, generally active memorization. To write Chinese (to “spell”), one must memorize. A learner can't simply “sound it out” like learners can somewhat do with English and more easily do with languages that have more standardized spelling systems (e.g. Spanish or German). Over time one simply may be able to acquire the skill relatively passively or subconsciously (Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis), but it is highly improbable, and not even native speakers wait for such acquisition, as young Chinese boys and girls labor to write characters over and over in their practice books. If Chinese children have to do so, would such memorization be a lesser need for second language learners of Chinese?

Of course a Chinese learner may be able to predict a possible meaning radical when writing a character (assuming those radicals been memorized), and yes, a Chinese learner can guess a possible sound radical (assuming those have been memorized as well), but when push comes to shove, a Chinese learner either knows how to write a character or doesn't. Yes, computer technology now makes is possible to “read” one’s way to writing ability. The pinyin system used to enter Chinese characters into a computer allows the composer to select the proper character from a list of many characters having the same sound, essentially letting someone read rather than write their way to a composition. Though this technology is incredibly helpful, this phenomena demonstrates a fundamental deficiency of language ability. Even well-educated Chinese forget how to write characters. I don't mean that they forget whether it's “relevant” or “relavant”. (It's the first, by the way). I mean that they sometimes cannot even begin writing the character. It's simply lost in the fog, as if they'd never learned it at all. This is a much discussed topic in China, one that has even led to the creation of a spelling bee type game show that foreign media have also picked up. (See articles in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.)

Creativity, critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills are wonderful and are essential to academic success, but there really are some things that people must memorize: laboriously, monotonously, rigorously memorize. I am well aware of the pitfalls of overemphasizing memorization. Having worked almost exclusively with Chinese students for the past decade, I have known far too many students whose curiosity in all things not entertainment has been stamped out by the high pressure, high stakes, memorization-focused Chinese education system. I am all too familiar with the cognitive and creative underdevelopment that occurs when memorization becomes the goal rather than a component of the learning process. But therein lies the real point of contention: Is memorization the ends or the means?

There is nothing inherently wrong with memorization. Memorization itself is useful and valuable. Used well, with all strategies and mnemonic devices that have been employed over the past several millennia, it is still one of the important means to academic and professional success. Educators should not fear memorization, nor should they deride educators who ask or expect students to memorize this content or that content. However, memorization should never be a goal but should always be a means to fostering those higher order skills of thought and expression that we hold so dear.