Archive for November, 2011

Hipstoopmatic: The greatest photo app in America

November 29, 2011


If Baltimore had its own photo filter app.

(As inspired by city folk artists, builders and pleese.)


Fast Times at Digital Harbor High: Catching the spirit of Education Hack Day

November 22, 2011


What sounded like a rad concert, the weekend and the majority of the “best time of your life” ahead of them, two college girls at the back of the downtown shuttle were wrapped up in that morning’s psychology test.

“The first part was so hard!” the duo’s navigator said, ticking off the cross streets as the bus lumbered south.

Her companion concurred.

“That’s why I did the first part last,” she said.

It turns out she completed the exam all out of order, jumping among and within sections, pouncing on questions she knew she knew and “half-answering” — tracing the answer bubble but not shading it yet — ones she was less confident about.

Non-linear learning

We all don’t take tests that way. Maybe we should. If question order can affect the outcome of a survey, certainly it can change the result of a test. But we all learn that way. In our minds, the shortest distance between information and knowledge is rarely a straight line, especially one someone else drew.

Unfortunately, our education system, developed for the industrial age, from grouping students by age to all-or-nothing accountability systems, still favors linear, assembly-line-like approaches.

In our minds, the shortest distance between information and knowledge is rarely a straight line, especially one someone else drew. 

Over a whirlwind weekend of brainstorming, researching, coding and building at Baltimore’s first Education Hack Day, 70 developers, designers and teachers demonstrated the non-linear path of discovery and, it’s hoped, through the 10 products they built, helped enable it for some of the city’s 83,800 students.

No matter what becomes of the products created at the Nov. 12-13 event — detailed in the sidebar below — schools, or any institution for that matter, can benefit by channeling its spirit.

Who’s got spirit?

Hack day organizers — hundreds of similar events have been held across the county, including a government data hack day in Baltimore last February — are taking quite a gamble, if you think about it. They spend no small amount of their and others’ time, money and resources rounding up space, equipment, participants, sponsors and online and IRL audiences without much assurance of the result.

They trust that folks they’ve never necessarily met and who’ve never necessarily met each other will have useful products to show the final night. Almost always, they do. They certainly did two weekends ago (see sidebar video). And along the way they learn not only about technology but also about problem-solving, about each other and about themselves.

It’s so backward it seems surprising that it works. But that’s precisely why it does. Baltimore developer Mike Subelsky, in announcing his own radical project, summed it up well: “You can only get good ideas by working on real problems.”

A to B learning:
Efficient, but limited

We’re used to, and, let’s face it, bored by, the A to B approach. Someone who’s been to B directs you how to get there from A. It’s efficient, but limited. Because you don’t have agency in where you’re going or in how you get there, you put less into it.

Before we “know enough to be dangerous,” this is generally how we learn the fundamentals of a trade, process or craft. If you’re training to drive the downtown shuttle, one of your first steps will be to ride along with an experienced driver. Even if you’re bored, you, the girls dissecting their psych test in the back and their fellow downtown commuters are safer for it.

B from A learning:
Inefficient, but limitless

We’re not used to, and energized by the B from A approach. Someone places you at A and says, “Here is everything you need to get to B. I can’t wait to see what B is!” It’s inefficient, but limitless. Because you have agency in where you’re going and in how you get there, you put your all into it.

Once we’ve mastered the fundamentals, or, yes, “know enough to be dangerous,” this is how we grow, often through failure. If you’re asked to improve buses’ gas mileage, the new stop locations or times, maintenance procedures or bike rack design you come up with might teach you something unexpected or generate other benefits.

Hack the classroom

There’s a reason they have hack days, and not hack weeks, of course. (Do they have hack weeks?) Ask a grad student: Going full bore for days on end is not sustainable. (There is no coffee strong enough, not even from New Orleans or Panama.) That there is light at the end of the tunnel is part of the draw. “Suck it up. One way or another, we’re all presenting this time tomorrow. It’ll all be over soon!”

My grading’s unfair? Design your own system. My reviews are boring? Help each other prepare for the test (and share a grade).

All the more reason for educators of all disciplines to hold their own “hack days” from time to time. My grading’s unfair? Design your own system. My reviews are boring? Help each other prepare for the test (and share a grade). We just got new iPads for the class. Give me five ways we could use them.

If students, or parents or colleagues or the principal don’t like the break the from the book, they’ll be back to regular programming soon enough. I think before they are, though, they’ll catch the spirit, too. They’ll be itching for the next hack.

Original Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Parker Michael Knight

ALSO SEE: Hack Day wish list a window into educators’ world — and our shared future

Baltimore Blogger’s Challenge: Mr. Boh and Salie Utz are in a relationship

November 14, 2011

This somewhat out-of-character post is my entry for the City That Breeds blog’s Baltimore Blogger’s Challenge, which asked participants to complete Charm City’s most famous love story.

As the contest prompt stated, despite advertising icons Mr. Boh and Salie Utz’s very public engagement and wedding, other than this 30-second TV spot, little is known about what led up to them.

Fortunately, Facebook’s new Timeline feature fills in some of the blanks. Below are some highlights from the newlyweds’ feeds.

Disclaimer 1: This is a parody for entertainment purposes only and is not affiliated with or endorsed by Utz, Natty Boh, MGH, Facebook or any other brand or personality.

Disclaimer 2: If you’re not from Baltimore, none of this will make any sense. Sorry, hon.


Hack Day wish list a window into educators’ world ??? and our shared future

November 9, 2011


Whatever happens this weekend at Education Hack Day at Digital Harbor High School, the inaugural event has already succeeded by surfacing such thoughtful proposals from educators on how technology might make learning more efficient, responsive and rewarding for students in Baltimore and beyond.

Asked what problems they would like developers to address, teachers and school officials went straight to offering solutions. Demonstrating a nuanced understanding of technology’s abilities and limitations while revealing institutional and cultural symptoms technology alone cannot treat, their creative but pragmatic responses should be required reading for anyone who tries to control or critique the difficult work they do.


See for yourself on the hack-a-thon’s website and distribute up to 10 votes among the ideas you like. I’m supporting the eight listed below. My favorites grow the audience and generativity of students’ work through sharing and turn potentially distracting mobile devices into instruments of learning. Oh, the classroom noise meter is also one I’m loud on. And foreign language chat roulette is too cool for words, in any tongue.

‘Share work and projects with parents/family and other teachers’

Suggested by Billy Michels

So many projects are completed and sent home and nobody gets to see them but me. I want to connect the families with the classroom more. Show work of all students, share ideas, etc.


‘Hey Teacher’

Suggested by Andrew Coy 

I wish there was a way for a student to “raise” their hand with a web tool or iOS app that would send a push notification over wifi to the teacher. The teacher then could have a que of students instead of having students call out or raise hands.

‘Bring native foreign language speakers into my classroom via Skype’

Suggested by Henry van Wagenberg

What if there was a fun “language learning” video chat roulette where my students could pick the language they want to learn, and a foreign student from that country popped up to chat live in that language?

‘Science animations in HTML5’

Suggested by Mark Davis

Almost every animation online (from mitosis, meiosis, seasons, moon phases, states of matter – you name it!) are all flash. Many teachers have classroom sets of iPads but still need to walk down to the clunky computer lab to learn from animations.

‘A volume meter for the classroom like yak tracker but for iPod’

Suggested by Justin

A leveled meter to remind students of the noise level in the room. Green good, yellow a bit noisey and red too lound. Once they get to that level an alarm will sound.



‘I wish there was an app that could work with a positive behavior system’

Suggested by Charlie Gerancher

The application would work in conjunction with a positive behavior system. It would allow teachers and administrators to award different types of digital badges that would be compiled within the system. The system would also have a mobile interface to provide a way for schools to integrate the use of handheld devices by students in a positive manner.

‘Create a database of good story problems’

Suggested by Scott Messinger

It’s hard to think of good, rigorous story problems for students. It would be nice to have a database curriculum writers could use to enter and organize the story problems. Teachers in the district could log on and print off relevant problems for use in the classroom.

‘Get permission slips filled out and signed by parents’

Suggested by Paul Genge

Right now our parents have to fill out the same information ten or more times per year. If there were a way to get their information and a “fresh” signature somehow then that would save an enormous amount of time and energy for parents and teachers.

Learn more about Education Hack Day in this Bmore Media article or on the event’s website. Demos of the resulting apps, scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday, are free and open to the public, but organizers ask that guests register.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user opensourceway

ALSO SEE: Fast Times at Digital Harbor High: Catching the spirit of Education Hack Day

Charm lessons: A case study in social media customer service

November 6, 2011

Unless you’re throwing napkins at diners at Dick’s Last Resort or pouring drafts for molten lava men at Peter Griffin’s baseball umpire bar, there are certain phrases best avoided when addressing paying, law-abiding customers, especially when doing so over the air on social media.

Somewhere near the top of that list are “don’t come back” and “your standards are too high,” both of which the account for South Florida burger chain Charm City Burger Company, in so many words, tweeted in response to what appeared to be reasonable consumer complaints.

View the story “Case study: How not to handle customer complaints in the social space” on Storify

The above Twitter conversation didn’t quite go viral, but, for a local business in an industry as competitive as restaurants selling something as ubiquitous as hamburgers, it made more of a splash than it had to and than managers probably would have liked.

Heck, it landed on my radar, 1,000 miles away in Baltimore, although in part because Charm City is one of Baltimore’s nicknames.

What makes the back-and-forth particularly confounding is that the restaurant account’s first response was spot-on and that, according to the author of the Storify above, the chain had been widely praised for its social media savvy. To the account administrator’s credit, the answers to the customer, as of this writing, had not been deleted.

Based on the timing of the restaurant account’s tweets – the morning after the initial complaint – and the platform from which they were published – an iPhone – one can envision what might have happened.

The urgency of being hours behind negative feedback mixed with the false intimacy of a mobile device can be a dangerous cocktail. Whether or not this is what occurred here, it’s a good reminder for anyone who communicates on social media on behalf of a brand, be it an organization’s brand or your own. Before you post, detach yourself from the emotion of the situation and play the tape forward while you can still rewind it.

John Robinson, an editor for all platforms

November 2, 2011

Contrary to published reports, Steve Jobs was not the last American who knew what the f he was doing. One of the last, for sure. But there are still a few others out there. One of them is John Robinson, an editor whose intuition


for audience serves his many audiences – readers and insiders, print and digital, blogosphere and Twitterverse, mass media and interpersonal – so well. 

Which is why I trust John knows what he’s doing by stepping down after 13 years as editor of the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record

While I worked (well) under John as a life desk intern, like so many, I got to know him working together online as we all scramble to figure out what’s next for this great profession of ours.

With a 24-hour news publication to edit, he took time to edit my website, and direct message me about a spelling error on its homepage. Embarrassingly, the mistake had been up for weeks. I’m sure others saw it. But John was the only one who said anything.

Despite my sloppiness, John publicly supported my application for my current job. Just as I was added to The Sun’s phone directory, John laughed with me over Twitter on how, coincidentally, I had just been removed from the News & Record’s – some seven years after my summer internship expired.

Another journalist who has a clue what he’s doing, Steve Buttry, as he tends to do, summed it up well.

This is an editor who had an impact in his community, his newsroom and the profession. I know him best from social media and his blog (we just met that one time last year), but I feel that I know him well. And I don’t know of an editor who better mixes strong values, good humor and curiosity.

On what’s next, in his resignation, John only shares what, really, should be next for anyone in the biz nowadays: “It’s time for me to contribute to this community in new ways.”

Google’s inside Baltimore businesses, takin’ 360-degree pics

November 1, 2011

City among 11 U.S. test sites

Google’s Street View – and all the utility, hilarity and controversy that follows it – has come off the streets and into local businesses.

Going live this week, Google Business Photos, attached to Google Places pages, lets users virtually pan, pace and zoom around the interiors of participating establishments. Baltimore is one of 11 U.S. cities where merchants can now request a 360-degree photoshoot by a “Google trusted photographer.” According to the service’s FAQ, sessions should take about an hour.

To start off, small businesses (no chains) like restaurants, hotels, shops, gyms and repair shops are most likely to be selected, according to a Huffington Post article. Private residences, hospitals and law offices cannot participate. Like with Street View, faces are algorithmically blurred.

(What about newspapers? Hey, millions of HBO viewers have already seen the inside of my workplace.)

I was able to find Business Photos views for three Baltimore area clients of another new Google product, Google Offers. (Thanks to @wheelsee for the Twitter tip.)