Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 16th Aug, 2014

video player buttons disappearing in wordpress in all browsers

This one falls into the “reminding myself how to do the workaround” category, but maybe it will be helpful to someone else, too.

The WordPress media player has some nice buttons for play, volume, full-screen, and so on. But no matter what I did, I could not see those buttons in any browser. They were there, and could be clicked, but were completely invisible.

The problem is that those buttons are produced as .svg files (scalable vector graphics) and some servers have trouble associating mime-types with those. So the server won’t serve them up (or it serves them as plain text, or something, which they’re not, so they’re not visible), no matter what browser you use.

There are various htaccess tricks to register the mime-type, but I couldn’t get them to work.

However, those same buttons also exist right in the same directory as .png files, which the server is fine with, so I just went to /wp-includes/js/mediaelementplayer.min.css and replaced every reference to “svg” with “png.” That did it (had to clear my cache in safari to see them there).

It’s ugly to edit core css like this, and will break every time I upgrade, most likely, so I’ll have to do it again, so that’s why I’m noting it here!

Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 16th May, 2014

A long and balanced MOOC report

I was interviewed for this report, although my role was small, and now it’s out, and I think worth a read. It’s long, but that means it’s comprehensive. I was impressed by the real openness and curiosity of the researchers and the way they didn’t start with preconceived notions.

So give it a read: MOOCs: Expectations and Reality

Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 3rd Feb, 2014

Why videos?

In the Cathy Davidson “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC, I’m really intrigued by her decision (or maybe Coursera’s decision?) to have so much of the content delivered by means of video. Particularly I’m intrigued (or even concerned) by the use of video that takes so little advantage of the affordances of the video medium.

In every one of the videos (all of which are much longer than I would recommend for any online video) I’ve found myself wondering “why does this need to be a video? Why not just text?”

There are so many great examples of educational video which uses what video can do. From the RSA Animate work, to the California Academy of Sciences series on biodiversity (for example). Or of course Khan Academy in general and Smarthistory in particular.

We know so many great ways to make educational video, and we already have text (even with illustrations). Why make videos that just translate text (or even lectures) into video?

I’ve written about this before. And I’m far from the only one. So I’m wondering what was the thinking behind doing things in the Coursera course the way that (at least so far) they’re being done.

In my own course (see particularly the mini-lectures)–not a MOOC, since it was far from massive, but generally open and certainly online, that I taught twice, 3 and 4 years ago, I thought about this a lot and chose to have text with hyperlinks and illustration (and broken down into much smaller pieces, and more readable), rather than me talking to the camera. And we (as a class) discussed that choice and discussed what video can and can’t do (as well as voicethread, discussion forums, audiobooks, traditional textbooks, etc). (And of course, the class used plenty of video, when that was appropriate. Just not video of me talking to the camera).

I really wonder what are the advantages (or at least differences) in having mini-lectures that are like mine (in the “Introductions and Foundations” section or “What is Learning and What is Literature” or any of the others), vs. having me say that same information (maybe with pictures on the side or subtitles) to the camera from a couch with a cup of coffee in my hand.

Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 3rd Feb, 2014

Creativity vs. Organization

I’m enrolled in Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC.

I’ve got some comments about the course in general in another post, but I thought that I might as well share, here, my first assignment for the course. No guarantees that I will keep up with these assignments, but at least I did complete the first one!

The Assignment:
What is one thing–a pattern, habit, behavior–you have had to “unlearn” in your life in order to be able to learn something new? Please write a 500-word essay about what it was you had to unlearn, any challenges you encountered, and any successes you experienced.

My effort:
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As a teacher, I started as a camp counselor and tutor, beginning in 6th grade (my own 6th grade, when I was 12). I did lots of one-on-one work, lots of work about supporting and coaching students, lots of “guide on the side” and almost no “sage on the stage.” I made close connections with students and helped them to come to active learning on their own. I valued creativity (mine and theirs) and flexiblity–meeting students where they were, letting them guide the learning, enjoying a process with them without much emphasis or concern for product.

When I was first hired (almost 30 years ago) as a high school teacher, one of the first major adjustments or “unlearnings” I had to face was the insistence (by the NYC Board of Education) on organization, structure and rigid format. Every lesson, every class, every day needed a lesson plan that had to fit a very clearly-defined template. There was a “Do Now” and an “Aim” (both of which had to be on the board, visible to anyone who came in the room, in every class. When I started as a student teacher, I was told that the principal or a supervising teacher could come into the room at any time and ask to see my lesson plan. If I didn’t have it on paper, in the proper format, or if anything was going on in the class that was not explicitly mentioned in the lesson plan, I could be immediately dismissed…or at least “written up” with a poor evaluation.

As an English teacher, working with students on literature (from SE Hinton to William Shakespeare), on poetry and expression and creative writing, I felt stifled. I felt that I was being asked to kill language, murder learning, torture free thinking, in the ways that I had hated as a student and that I had seen as being useless to my own students. But I needed the job, needed the credential, so I continued. I learned to write plans and state clear objectives and to work backwards from the freedom that I really wanted for students and find ways to create that freedom within the required framework. I even found, eventually, that there were times and there were students for whom that structure was comfortable and encouraging. It turned out that a clear organization and structure could actually be a place where exploration could begin (and through some tricky writing, the written lesson plan could even contain openings, loopholes, where the exploration could be seen to fit).

I didn’t last too long as a high school teacher (seeing copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, brand-new and untouched, in the bookroom and being told that they were off-limits because they “stirred students up” was the final straw). And when I went from there to teaching college, I went much more back to my freedom-loving, digression-valuing style (some would say “chaotic”). But when I started teaching online, I found again that organization could be the ally of creativity, and that an online class particularly required a clear organization and a carefully-designed structure…or else there couldn’t be as many of the productive advantages of digression and serendipity.

These days I balance (or struggle to balance) creativity vs. organization, trying to make sure that we have, in every class, the right ratio of both. I like to think that I didn’t “unlearn” creativity, or “learn” organization, either. I unlearned the dichotomy and learned the balance.
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Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 30th Oct, 2013

Reverse Midterm

This exercise is one that I invented (pretty much on the spur of the moment) last year, when students asked me if we were having a midterm and I hadn’t planned on it.  I told them no, then thought it over a bit.  The next class I came in and put on a grave and serious face.  I started the class by telling them that I realized that we did not have a midterm scheduled, but we still had to have one, so today was the midterm.  After letting the moment of panic sink in I told them we would do a different kind of midterm.  We talked about the purpose of midterms generally, about questions being more important than answers in a class like this (this is a first-year honors seminar “The Arts in New York City,” but of course I believe the same holds true in all classes).  We discussed how a midterm was (could be) a chance to check in and see where the learning was happening and how it was going, but it was also a chance to reinforce and tie together the themes of the course.  It seemed that in most cases, they hadn’t really thought of a midterm as something that had a purpose–something connected to learning. It was just something you had to do to get your grades.  (in fact, this seems to be true for tests in general.  Students–and probably many teachers–don’t use or understand tests as learning tools, only as assessment tools…if that.  It’s fun and illuminating to hand students the power to step outside their educational process and and critique the tools and activities to which they’re being subjected.  Ultimately, ideally, that leads them to stop being subjected).

So I told them we were going to have a midterm, but it would be my midterm.  They write the questions, I have to answer.  I told them they could grade me, too.  (this led to some moments of real joy).

I started with a brief presentation (about 20 minutes), telling them this was part of my midterm assignment.  Sort of an essay question (last year I actually made a Keynote slideshow with pictures of the class activities and screenshots of their own work on the class site.  This year I didn’t have time for that, but it didn’t seem like a major loss).  I summarized what we had done up to that point in the semester, and gave a little preview of what was coming.  This let me sneak in an opportunity to be sure that the students could see and know the through-line of the semester, at least understand that I’m trying to build one and see it develop.  Using the presentation for looking back and looking forward let me highlight  some of the themes and questions that had been developing (and refer to specific students and specific assignments/discussions “remember when P- was so upset about that photograph?” “Remember when M- showed us the snowy scene outside her house?” “This was when we saw the jazz performance that surprised you all so much.”).

Then I asked them to each write five questions for me.  Last year I had each and every student write five questions and it was too many…I couldn’t possibly answer them all.  This year I put them in groups and had each group write five questions.  I told them they should be questions about the class, either what we had done or would be doing, what they wanted to know or themes they were curious about, and that it was really up to them–it was my midterm exam so I had to answer. I gave them about 7 minutes to write questions.  Most groups easily came up with five, although one group only got three, and another wrote ten but told me that they really were most interested in the second five.

After they finished with the questions I asked them to think for a minute about what it would be like if every midterm was like this? They liked the idea…and we talked about how writing a good question means you really have to know and think about the subject (they had just done it in their groups so they knew exactly what I meant).  They said “if we could give all our professors midterms like this, we would really know if they know their stuff and we could ask them why we were doing things the way we were.  Why we spent so much time on some things and so little on others.”

Then I sat down and read the questions aloud and answered them.  I tried to be really honest and think about them as if I was really taking a test (it felt like a job interview, which I guess is the closest I come to taking a midterm these days).  I tried to give my best answers, relating to what we had done in class, making connections and modeling how to use a test as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. Part of what I was doing was the “think-aloud” method (widely used and described, but introduced to me by Sam Wineburg) of showing how to approach a question or unfamiliar material. Of course some questions were a little silly, some were impossible to answer, some had premises that I had to question first, so I did all that with real seriousness.  I told them how hard it was for me to reverse my usual teacher impulse…which is to throw a question right back at them.  I told them (of course they had noticed) that I would usually work hard not to push my own response but to make room for their response.  But in this case, since it was a midterm, I wasn’t allowed to do that (several times I caught myself and chided myself and asked them not to “take off points.”)

What happens from this activity right in the middle of the semester is that it ties the class together and engages all of us in the enterprise of the class.  We already have a pretty good team vibe by this point, an understanding that the class is something we’re doing together, and this makes it even stronger.  (Of course I’m leading the team, I don’t pretend otherwise.  But it’s active and inquiry based all the time.  The class is not something that’s happening to them or being done to them…it’s not even something they’re “taking.” It’s something we’re making).  When students get to think explicitly and critique carefully what’s going on this class, it creates exactly the dynamic I’m looking for in any class. So that’s the purpose of this reverse midterm.

Here (lightly edited) are most of the questions they asked this year.  Some were repeated so I won’t type them twice. (you can see that they have definitely absorbed “exam language!” and we talked about that, too).

  • How do we find out what are the things we can’t not make (this is a reference to the Adam Savage video we watched which has become a long-standing theme in the class http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/ugoretz13/steam/ also related to the Sol Lewitt “Learn to say Fuck You to the World” video)?
  • Why can’t everything be considered art? Why do we have to divide things between art and not art?
  •  Is there a difference in aesthetic quality between art that is confined to an “art place” and art that is all around us in the world? Elaborate
  • What is the best form of art?
  • In what ways is oral performance considered art and in what ways not art?
  • What’s your favorite poem? Why?
  • How do you distinguish what makes good photography?
  • Which art form do you think is the most honest? Least honest? Elaborate.
  • Extra credit: what is your shoe size?
  • How can you find art in your everyday encounters?
  • Every photograph manipulates/exploits its subjects.  True or False? Explain.
  • What form of art is the most expressive (Don’t worry, you will get all 20 points for this).
  • Is art inspiration or perspiration?
  • If you had the power to choose one of your senses to give up, which would it be?
  • Draw parallels between a museum, a space for religious prayer, and a playground.
  • Is nature independent from art? Why might someone consider nature to be art?
  • Is there any art form that you would like to entirely wipe out? Remove from existence?
  • Would passionately reading a love letter be a form of oral performance art?
  • Why or why not is music the most primitive art form?
  • Do you feel that arguing over artistic merit has a constructive purpose? Is arguing about art something that moves art forward or holds it back?
  • What is your perception of video games? Are they a form of art?
  • Do you believe art and love are related? How so?
  • Is grafitti art or vandalism? Defend your position.

I think this “reverse midterm” could work in all kinds of different ways–they could make the questions for other students to answer, instead of me (this year’s students did want me to use these same questions for next year’s class), or we could revisit some or all of the questions as a final which they answer.  There are all kinds of tweaks and modifications I want to experiment with.  I freely “release” :-) the exercise to any and all who want to use or modify or transform.

If all tests were given to teachers, by students…what would that mean for schools? I think often of how we could more closely approach Harmonica High.

Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 24th Oct, 2013

Classroom Manifesto

In no particular order, I propose these two dozen….

Questions are more important than answers.

Cooperating is more important than competing.

Thinking is more important than knowing.

Searching is more important than finding.

Making is more important than having.

Opportunities are more important than rules.

Understanding is more important than achieving.

Learning is more important than teaching.

Conversation is more important than studying.

Reactions are more important than rubrics.

Student-student interaction is more important than student-teacher interaction.

Active not passive.

Never ask a question if you already know the answer.

Silence is powerful. Let it go on.

Watch faces.

Don’t repeat what was just said.

Learn ALL the names of EVERY student on the FIRST day.

STEM without Arts is useless and dangerous.  STEAM not STEM.

Feelings are always relevant.

Learning is joyous.

Be a person first.

Laugh at yourself.

Care.

The universe is the classroom, the classroom is not the universe.

Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 11th Aug, 2013

Protecting Uploaded Files in WordPress

IMG_0641After a long day of struggling with various .htaccess solutions (none of which I could get to work at all in WordPress multisite), I had the wonderful idea to ask for help from the wp-edu listserv and within minutes, Daniel Bachhuber responded with a perfect solution.

But maybe I should have started with the problem.  (Let’s do it as a theoretical).  A professor has a class site in a WordPress install.  That professor has permission from the copyright holder (or has the right under fair use) to share a journal article with her class as a PDF.  She does NOT have the right to share that journal article with the entire internet.  So she scans the article to a PDF, uploads it to her WordPress install, and links to it on a page that is password-protected, giving the password only to the students (and changing it at the end of the semester) so nobody else can access that page.

The problem is that while the page where the link sits is password-protected, the file itself is not.  So anyone with the direct URL to the file can download it instantly, without knowing the password at all.  What makes matters worse, google (and others) indexes the content of PDFs quite commonly, so even an attempt at security by obscurity of the filename is bound to fail.  Anyone googling for the author’s name, or any of the terms in the journal article, would find a quick and easy link directly to the file, which the professor is now, in violation of copyright, giving away free to one and all (I’m not going to get into a discussion at this point of the overall ethics of copyright and whether or not that journal article “wants” to be free).

Extensive searching, extensive trial and error, over an extensive time had left me unable to solve this problem.  But Daniel Bachhuber’s suggestion is a simple and beautiful plugin, Ben Balter’s WP Document Revisions. I admit I had come across this suggestion in my googling, but I rejected it without really thinking it through, on the grounds that I didn’t need “document revisions.”  Silly me.

The plugin (which works fine and dandy in multisite, although I do recommend the network-admin add-on from the Code Cookbook) with a very simple interface, lets you set the upload directory outside the document root of your site, not accessible to any outsiders, and then it totally respects your password and beautiful permalinks.

It does much more, as a document workflow solution (sort of an open-source alternative to –ugh– sharepoint, in fact). But just for this little purpose, it’s quite nice.  Highly recommended!

Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 21st May, 2013

A Hackable Hole in BuddyPress

Mainly documenting this just so I will have it somewhere I can find it easily, but maybe it will help others, too.

On the Macaulay Eportfolio system we do not restrict account creation by email domain (since we want our students to use whatever email address they want).  Instead we use a shared codeword which only our students have.  Without that codeword, you can’t create a new account.

This completely shuts down spam blog or account creation (comment spam is a separate issue), but still makes the process easy and open enough for large numbers of students to create (legitimate) accounts whenever they want to from a wide variety of different email addresses and campuses.

But I noticed that every time I upgraded BuddyPress, within 10 or 12 minutes, spam accounts would start flooding in.

The reason is that BuddyPress contains a lurking little file which does NOT respect the codeword restriction.  And spambots seem to be scanning for and targeting that file ALL the time.

In the BuddyPress directory, in bp-templates/bp-legacy/buddypress/members there’s a file register.php .  And that file is a wide-open invitation to splogs and splusers.  Spammers. Bots.  They flock to it.

So every time I update BuddyPress, step number one right after the update is to delete that file.  I write this to myself…to remind myself to do that, and to remind myself where it is.

Thanks, self.

Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 10th Feb, 2013

The Emerging Doitocracy

A meritocracy is not enough, when it requires someone, somewhere, to recognize that merit as an abstract concept.  We live in a world where, increasingly, the reliability of credentialing is suspect.  Where the proof of merit is not a degree or a position or a title.  In that situation, when it’s tough to trust a credential as being proof of anything other than the fact of the credential, then it makes sense that recognition, authority, prestige, rewards…all come to the people who are actually creating, not waiting.

This is what I think of as the doitocracy (do-it-ocracy).  It’s not a phrase I coined originally (although I don’t remember where I heard it), but it’s a concept I’ve been thinking and writing about in various ways for some time.  I think the doitocracy probably starts in the Open Source Software movement, where if you want something new, you go right ahead and fork, and we can trace it through wikipedia, where if something is wrong, you go ahead and edit, or if there’s no entry, you go ahead and write one.  And of course it’s a concept that has to have much older roots, too.

VOC Duit from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VOC_duit.jpg

In a doitocracy, whoever does the most, gets the most credit, and the doing comes before the credit.  In teaching and learning I see this everywhere these days.  I see the most effective teaching and learning of physics and engineering (optics, electronics, electromagnetic theory) going on in places like CandlePowerForums.  Biology, chemistry and genetics

are being studied at length, in international communities, at Cichlid-forum.  For philosophy, literary criticism and performance studies one could begin at TV Club.  And I haven’t even begun to touch political science, history, gender studies, and on and on.  People want to learn, they want to think, they want to critique, and the best instances of where that is happening is where people (enabled by digital tools) are just coming together to do it.  They’re not enrolling in classes or programs of study (or even MOOCs).  The best learning examples are these self-built learning spaces (my colleague Patrick Masson said this beautifully early on in the current MOOC-mania: “I’ve been in this really good MOOC for the past 20 years.  It’s called ‘The Internet’”).

And it’s more than ideas.  People are making things, creating practical, beautiful, complicated and enriching…and new things.  And they’re explaining how they did it and letting others improve on their designs, and yes, selling their things, too. At instructables and at Maker Faires and for sale on etsy.  Of course some of the things are virtual, digital things–video and reporting and photography and animated gifs and stories and guidebooks and more.

And then there are places where both of these moves are happening together–where people want to teach something, so they make a virtual digital thing that teaches it.  The example of this most famililar to me, of course, is smarthistory.org, where a couple of teachers wanted to do a better job of teaching their own students.  So they sat down with $5/month shared hosting, $200 or so worth of hardware and software, and they built a learning space which today reaches three quarters of a million learners every semester, rather than a hundred or so.  (And is now part of the Khan Academy, which of course is also an exemplary participant in the doitocracy.  Sal Khan didn’t wait for a credential or permission–he just started making videos, posting and sharing them).  Or there’s our own CUNY Academic Commons, right here where Prestidigitation lives.  Instead of asking for CUNY community, or waiting for someone to package it for us or build it for us (or sell it to us!) we just built it. (“If you build it, they will fund,” my colleague George Otte has often said of this).

VOC Duit from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VOC_duit.jpgWhere this becomes a doitocracy, rather than just doing it, where the -ocracy comes in, is in that “they will fund” part of the equation. Like Corey Doctorow’s concept of “whuffie,” the currency of prestige in the doitocracy, the recipe for recognition, is from the quality of the work itself.  The doitocracy is more than a meritocracy, but it’s a meritocracy, too, because when you do it, and do it well, that’s when people recognize you as the expert, that’s when they give you attention and links and retweets and yes, real currency, funding, too.  Sometimes this reputation is actually codified in thumbs-ups or likes or karma points, other times it’s just having your name ring out (or your username and avatar. Real names not required).  When Fogelhund talks about spawning Tanganyikan cichlids, I listen, because from the posts he’s shared I know what he’s tried, when he’s succeeded and why he’s failed.  When Jamie describes a new technique for anodizing titanium, I know from the quality of what he makes and sells that it’s a technique worth trying (assuming I ever want to anodize my own titanium!)

It would be a mistake not to mention that there is plenty of hard work involved in getting ahead in the doitocracy.  It’s not just by magic or wishing that something great gets built (remember what makes a wizard!).  Lots of people, lots of time, lots of energy, and heart and soul and spirit are behind that attitude of just doing it or just making it or just learning it.  But it’s that old “where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes” idea.  It’s the kind of work that is real work, and the fact that it is hard is just part of what makes it real.

It’s the new tools for communicating, creating, connecting that make the doitocracy work.  And I think the challenge, especially in a school system that has relied too long on the “because I said so” model of motivation, is to give students the access to those tools in ways that will push them to the pleasure and the dedication, the engagement and the effort, that the doitocracy rewards and requires.  We need students who will and can learn independently, finding and doing and making and sharing.  Because those are the leaders in the doitocracy.

(one last note of thanks–my early thinking on this subject was confirmed and influenced by Alan Levine’s post “Your Work Speaks for Itself.” In the doitocracy, your work is your badge.)
Posted by: Joseph Ugoretz | 9th Feb, 2013

STEAM

Thanks to Michael Branson Smith for the great tip to listen to Adam Savage’s talk “Why We Make” at the 2012 San Francisco Maker Fair.

Savage explains with some brilliance how art is always part of STEM (art is where it all begins), and how learning works best when it comes through “making what you can’t not make.”

This is just an excerpt from the end of the talk, the part most relevant to teaching and learning. The entire talk is well worth a listen, but for those with limited time, this clip is the heart of it.

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