OK Google

You probably realise that when you search for something on your computer that your browser keeps a history of those searches (and page visits).  You can of course clear that browser history at any time.  (For those of you with paranoid tendencies, perhaps you should be using Incognito Mode?)

You might also realise that a full history of your search and web browsing activity is kept by your search provider. In my case, that’s Google. This search history is not kept on your own computer, but rather on the search engine’s servers. You can also visit your web history page online to review (and delete if you wish) your search history or the pages you’ve visited.

But what I think is not very well known is that you can also see the full history of all the voice searches you’ve ever made using your phone.  Yes, every time you pick up your phone and say “Ok Google”, then ask a question, that search is recorded.  And by recorded, I mean the actual recording of your voice asking the question. Naturally you can have full access to these recordings and listen to, or delete them if you wish.  Personally, I find them fascinating to go back and listen to.

I recently visited my voice search history and then used Audio Hijack to record them to a file, and Audacity to tidy them up a bit.  I removed the gaps, tightened them up and placed them all back to back. I was struck by not only the number of searches but the variety of what I was asking for.  I remember asking most of them, and funnily enough I remember getting reasonably useful answers to most of them too. I often get told I’m a fairly curious person, and when these voice searches are all compiled in one stream like this, it becomes fairly obvious.

If it’s possible to ask – and I mean literally ask – your “curiosity questions” about basic facts and get quick answers, then we really do have to rethink the nature of what we ask our students to do in schools. When “fact recall” is simply the low hanging fruit of knowledge, we can (and must) change the way we think about information and knowledge building. I’m not saying that “knowing stuff” doesn’t matter. Of course it does. And a well rounded, knowledgable person should “know stuff”. But when our ability to find a basic fact quickly becomes so simple, surely we need to think about asking better, more interesting questions.

And it makes you wonder, to whom did we direct our many daily “curiosity questions” before Google came along?

Header image: Curiosity by Mohammad Abdullah  CC BY-NC

The Power Of Spreadsheets

I had a knock on our front door a few weeks ago. It was a young English guy going door to door for an electricity retailer, trying to get me to switch my power company.  As it turns out, it was his first day so he didn’t really know a lot about what he was selling and couldn’t answer many of my questions in detail. To be fair, I can be a bit analytical about these things and I don’t think he was prepared for so many questions. His spiel was basically “You should switch to us because we are better”, but when I asked about the rates they charge, all he could respond with was “We have really good rates”.

If you ever come knocking on my door, whether you’re trying to get me to switch energy companies, or convince me that Jesus loves me, you better be prepared to engage. I ask lots of questions. You better have answers.

So I grabbed my most recent power bill, and asked him exactly what their rates were per KWh. He had never heard of a Time Of Use meter (TOU), which our house uses, so I had to explain the concepts of Peak, Shoulder and Off Peak rates to him. As we compared the rates, we both learned that his company’s “really good rates” were not quite as good as he had been led to believe.  Compared to what we were currently paying, they were slightly cheaper for Peak and Shoulder, and quite a bit more for Off Peak.  It was an interesting discussion and I told him I would take the data he provided and think about it.

When I think about data, I do it with a spreadsheet. I often amazes me how few people really understand the power of a spreadsheet to analyse numbers. Even with just a few simple formulas, it’s possible to dig into numbers and see what they really represent.  Especially with consumer level data – like knowing how much things really cost – it astounds me that more people don’t know how to make sense of the numbers for their basic expenses.

So I knocked up a spreadsheet in Google Sheets. I transferred the KWh usage from my last power bill onto the sheet (which was a little tricky as there was a rate change part way through the quarter, so I had to calculate the different rate amounts and add them together for the total) but in the end was able to correctly derive the exact same $429 figure as I actually paid. Just that part of the exercise was useful as it helped me understand exactly how my power bill was calculated. (Do you understand how yours is calculated?) I then projected the amount of my next quarterly power bill – $529 – assuming the usage was the same, but with the latest rates.

Then I copied the usage data and plugged in the KWh rates being quoted to me by my door knocking friend. His company was offering a 15% pay-on-time discount on the bill (but only on the actual power usage, not the supply charge, as I found out later by reading the fine print). As it turns out, his company – Simply Energy – was indeed cheaper than my current provider, coming in at $439 for the same usage and a saving of $89.88. Not bad.

But wait, it got me thinking. Could I do even better? A quick internet search turned up a power provider called Red Energy. Red Energy was highly recommended by Canstar, so I found their rates and plugged them into my spreadsheet. Their KWh rates were cheaper, however they only offered a 10% pay-on-time discount, but it was on the whole bill not just the consumption component.  Can you see why you really need a spreadsheet to analyse this data if you want to make any informed decisions? I’m sure that companies deliberately calculate their charges using different formulas to their competition, just to make it harder for consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Thank goodness for spreadsheets and knowing how to use them.

Red Energy was not actually the cheapest option, but they were close enough and the one I felt best about as they are a 100% Australian owned company. So I called them, and made the switch.

And then the fun started. Yesterday I got a call from Energy Australia, my current power provider, telling me what a valued customer I am and how much they wanted to keep my business. So much so that they offered an ongoing 26% (!) pay-on-time discount on my power bill. While that certainly sounded like an attractive deal, their actual rates were still higher, so how can you tell?  Yes, with a spreadsheet.

As the Energy Australia rep was wooing me with enticing offers I was able to say “Hang on, I have a spreadsheet!”  I quickly entered their data into the sheet and was now discussing the options knowing exactly what I was talking about. Having data is powerful.  Turns out it was a good deal, so I decided to remain with my original provider (although I was a little bit annoyed that you need to threaten to leave them before they suddenly discovered they can offer me a discount!)

Now I had to call Red Energy and tell them I was cancelling the switch. But, surprise surprise, Red has a customer retention department as well and they didn’t want to lose me as a potential new customer either. So they upped the ante to a 12% pay-on-time discount AND a $100 rebate on my next bill. Into the spreadsheet that new data went. And it turns out that when you take all of that into account, Red wins – by $6.34 annually.  So I decided to stick with my decision to switch after all.

You can check out the spreadsheet I made here if you are interested.

I think there are a couple of lessons here…

  1. If you want to be a canny consumer, you need to have the facts. Many companies give you information that is confusing, incomplete or just misleading. Take the time to analyse the data for yourself so you know the reality of their claims.
  2. If you want to save money on basic bills, then leave your current provider (or at least threaten to). Switching your power, phone, gas, or other service to a competitor is likely to get their customer retention department calling with a much sweeter deal than you currently get.
  3. Learn to use a spreadsheet! They are a simple tool, but oh so powerful. I can tell you, at least anecdotally, that most people I meet have absolutely no idea how to use one. Don’t be one of those people.
  4. If buying locally matters to you at all, do some research. Turns out that Energy Australia, despite the name, is a wholly owned Hong Kong company. Red is 100% Australian owned by the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Foreign ownership of Australian companies is an interesting can of worms.

Here the educational part of this blog post…

As a teacher, I see this kind of thing as a brilliant activity for students. What if you gave your learners the basic skills of calculating numbers with a spreadsheet, and then a bunch of different rates from different competing companies and simply asked “Who is offering the best deal?”  This process usually raises lots and lots of questions, and will certainly make them better consumers, better at understanding data, and better users of spreadsheets.

For an example of the kinds of ways you can take this convoluted consumer experience and turn it into a reasonably useful learning task for students, the links below are from a task I have used with my Year 11 students looking into how to figure out the best mobile phone plan. As you will see from looking at the task, it tried to take account of the complexities of the word “best” by introducing a user-centric approach (best for who?) and encouraging them to really dig into the information being provided to make sense of it. I’ve also included a grading rubric to give you an idea of how I graded this task.

Beyond the School Bus

Imagine you could visit any place in the world. Where would you go? What would you like to see? What would you hope to experience?

Imagine you are learning about India. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to visit the Taj Mahal and explore its wonders? What if your geography class is learning about coral reefs and could go diving in the Maldives or Hanauma Bay or the Great Barrier Reef to see what it’s like there. What would it be like to visit the South Pole, or Niagara Falls or the Palace of Versailles? There are so many amazing things to see and learn about in our world.

While we would love to take our students on excursions to learn about the things they can’t experience at school, there are obviously many places that are simply too far away, too expensive, too dangerous or too impractical to visit.

Meet Expeditions. Expeditions is a new tool in development from Google that uses the StreetView technology found in Google Maps to take students on virtual field trips to all sorts of exotic and interesting places, all without leaving the classroom. Using a simple and inexpensive viewer made of cardboard, paired with a smartphone and the free Expeditions app, teachers are able to share immersive 3-dimensional, 360-degree panoramic imagery with their students to let them experience some of the incredible places that a school bus simply cannot take them.

Although Expeditions is still in the beta testing stage, students from PLC Sydney were recently invited to take part in a special sneak preview of the technology. Two members of Google’s Australian Expeditions team visited us this week and spent a day sharing some of these amazing virtual field trips with our girls. Guided by the teachers, students in Years 3, 4, 6 and 11 were taken to the top of Mount Fuji in Japan, to Amundsen’s Hut in Antarctica, climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and feeding sharks off the coast of Miami, to name just a few. The excitement, engagement and enthusiasm of the girls was very obvious. Their reaction as they first looked through the cardboard viewer was one of utter amazement. As they excitedly looked around – up, down, behind them – taking in the full panoramic experience of the location they were virtually visiting, it quickly became apparent just how much impact this technology could have in education. As one of our teachers observed, the girls got to visit and learn about places that they would not have been able to actually go to in person. And as one of our students noted, it makes you realise just how many places there are in the world to learn about.

Google Expeditions 08

Looking at the world through a virtual viewer is obviously no replacement for the real thing, but it’s certainly a great option for immersively taking students to places that they may not otherwise get to experience for real, all without leaving the classroom. As a tool for learning, as a starting point for discussion, as a means of provoking conversation and questions, Expeditions is astonishing in its simplicity.

The intent of the Expeditions team is to develop a tool that not only offers an incredibly immersive educational experience, but can be used in schools at minimal cost. Many students already own a smartphone, so by adding a free app and a viewer costing just a few dollars the potential for exploring the world virtually becomes a very real option for schools everywhere.

PLC Sydney was very pleased to have been able to be part of the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program and to be able to offer feedback on its future direction. For more information about Expeditions you can visit https://www.google.com/edu/expeditions/

Update your Search Methods

In 2013 Google released Hummingbird, perhaps the most significant update to their search algorithm since the search engine launched.

From the Search Engine Land blog, here’s how they describe it…

“On September 26, Google announced a new algorithm impacting more than 90 percent of searches worldwide. They called it Hummingbird. Google’s Amit Singhal later said it was perhaps the largest change to the algorithm since he joined the company back in 2001.

Hummingbird allows the Google search engine to better do its job through an improvement in semantic search. As conversational search becomes the norm, Hummingbird lends understanding to the intent and contextual meaning of terms used in a query.”

http://searchengineland.com/google-hummingbird-the-keyword-what-you-need-to-know-to-stay-ahead-175531

 In plain English, this means that the conventional wisdom of the way we teach search – identifying important keywords, eliminating unnecessary terms, removing the conversational parts of a question, etc, is no longer quite as critical as it once was.

I’ve heard many teachers tell students “never just type in a question to Google in plain English” but that’s exactly what Hummingbird is designed for. With so many searches now being done via mobile devices using voice, the evolution to plain language questions and semantic queries is the next evolution in Google search.

As a demonstration, here are 50 questions, all done using voice search, to show you just how powerful this new algorithm really is.

Of course, these are mostly simple fact recall style questions, and more sophisticated queries will still benefit from a more sophisticated approach to writing search queries – using good search terms, excluding words or phrases, using search operators like site:, filetype:, etc, as well as making the most of extras like colour filters, date ranges, and so on.

But if you’re still telling students not to write plain language queries because that the advice you’ve you’ve always given them, maybe it’s time to update your advice?

And of course, it highlights why the things we ask students to do these days need to be based on far more than simple fact recall. With most students now carrying around Google in their pockets, the value of “facts” has been completely commoditised. We need to focus on helping them develop knowledge and wisdom, not just facts. Facts are cheap.

Header Photo: J Brew on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7NxJZy
CC BY-SA

Research Strategies for Senior Students

research

Our school has a subscription to a  website called the Study Skills Handbook which offers study tips to senior students. I’m sure it’s a valuable resource; so valuable in fact that it’s behind a $1200/year paywall that requires a login password in order to access it. What a bargain. I’m sure those tips wouldn’t be found anywhere else on  the Internet for free at all.

Anyway, I got an email from someone at school today promoting this resource, and amongst the several study tips it suggested, it listed this one…

3. DISCOVER OTHER RESOURCES:
You could also ask your local librarian for any additional direction on where to look for resource material for your assignment. Librarians are often your best source of information. They know how to help people access relevant and appropriate information, in books, the Internet or computer based references. One of the challenging aspects of Internet based searches for school students is the complexity, language and purpose of websites, not to mention bias and reliability.

It’s true that the Internet can be a wild and woolly place to find information, with the potential for complexity, bias and reliability concerns. However, it is also the environment that most resembles real life, where complexity, bias and reliability concerns are just part of the way the world actually works. While it would be nice to think that the real world could be packaged up into nice neat little packages, decoding the messiness of real life and sorting through all that stuff is one of the real skills our students need.

That said, here are a few suggestions that students can do when they are given a research task on any topic . Of course, the suitability of each of these suggestions will depend on the topic being researched.

1. Start with the Wikipedia article. For whatever potential concerns that people might have about the public edit-ability of Wikipedia, the fact is that for the VAST majority of topics it will be the most current, most accurate and most well researched summary of the topic. Start there.

2. Having read the Wikipedia article on the topic, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and look at the citations list. One of the requirements of Wikipedia articles is that they include a citation for every statement made, and any uncited statements are challenged and eventually removed. So for many topics, looking at the citation list (and links) will provide a treasure trove of further research ideas.

3. Go to Google Scholar at scholar.google.com and search for your topic there. These articles are all reviewed academic papers and usually provide excellent reading on most topics. Not only that, but each article in Scholar shows a link to the downstream papers that cited them, which again provides further reading. If an article has dozens, or hundreds of papers citing it as a source, then you can assume that other researchers have found them valuable. Your students probably will too.

4. Set up a bookmarking system that allows you to keep a collection of relevant links in one place. I HIGHLY recommend Diigo, not just because it is by far the best online bookmarking service around, but it also allows group collaboration on shared bookmarks and online markup of webpages. Using Diigo, a student can make comments and leave sticky notes directly ON a webpage, share those annotations with their partners, keep an organised list of relevant research articles and much more. Diigo is probably the number one tool that students should be using with web research, yet I wonder how many of them actually even know about it?

5: While in Diigo, do a search for the obvious tags related to your topic that are being used by others. This will reveal another rich resource of ideas on a topic by connecting with links and sources that other people have already found useful. It’s often a much better way to narrow in on relevant study resources than a regular Internet search because it has already been through a kind of social approval process. As more people tag a resource it gains social credibility and value, making it more likely to be the kind of resource that others will find valuable.

6. Set up some kind of tool that allows them to curate content. I recommend Flipboard, but there are many others like Zite, ScoopIt or even Pinterest. By curating relevant content into one place it builds a go-to resource for more reading on a topic. Curation like this should be a key digital information strategy.

7. Then there is the use of Internet search in general, such as Google or Bing. But too often students take a very limited approach to search because they simply don’t know any better. As well as using a rich array of search strategies and search operators (there is way more to it than just typing a couple of words into Google!) there is also Book SearchMap searchImage search, etc, each with their own nuances and advantages. While these various search tools and techniques won’t be applicable to every topic and subject, many will. Our students need to be taught about them so they know when is appropriate to use them.

8. Finally, particularly if you;re researching something that is fairly current or topical, go to Google Alerts and set up an alert for anytime that topic is mentioned online. You can be as specific or general as you like in your search terms, but whenever a new result matches that query it can send you an email to let you know about it.

So there are a few ideas for helping your students deal with those “Other Resources” that might be out there on the big scary Internet. There’s a LOT more that could be included in there, but this is a start. Maybe some of these ideas and tools are new to you, so you might like to take a look at them yourself in order to be best able to assist your students navigate this information rich, and often overwhelming, world of information they live in.

And none of that information I just shared was behind a paywall. You’re welcome.

Creative Commons Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nomadic_lass/6820209341/

Done is better than Perfect

95% doneI’ve never really been what you might call a perfectionist. Nor do I believe that it’s ok to do a half-assed job of things. It’s good to do things right and to the best of your ability, and if I had a choice between doing something badly or doing it well, I’d always rather do it well.

But it’s also easy to become paralysed with inaction when you feel that something needs to be done perfectly.

I saw two examples of this recently…

Our school has a very dedicated team of foreign language teachers, and we take our language education very seriously. Many of our students graduate with great proficiency in multiple languages, which I think is pretty amazing. Our languages staff are all deeply passionate about their language teaching and insist that any language should be taught using only the “proper” version of that language… so, for example we teach our French students how to speak Parisian French, and would never encourage them hear “improper” versions of the language like, say the French spoken in Québec.  We take a similar outlook on the other languages we teach… Italian, Latin, Japanese, Chinese.

Our school website used to have translated pages in Chinese and Vietnamese, since we tend to get quite a few students from those countries. The translations were laboured over, initially by paying considerable sums of money to translation agencies, and then having those translations fine tuned by our language staff members. The process was expensive, extremely time consuming, and worst of all, the translated pages easily went out of date whenever we updated the English version of the text. In the pursuit of having perfectly translated pages, we ended up with translation options that were limited and often out of date. Not exactly the level of perfection we were after.

I was a little surprised recently when I looked at our school website and discovered that the expensively translated pages had been removed and replaced with a single dropdown menu of language choices that would convert the page using Google’s free Translate service. By making a choice from the menu, the page was instantly converted to not just Chinese of Vietnamese, but into any of  17 different languages!

Naturally, when I pointed this out to the language staff they were horrified! They felt that the Google Translate service was completely inadequate for the task and that the translations would be utterly unusable by anyone who wanted a “proper” translation. Some of them immediately opened the site and translated a page or two into “their” language to see just how poorly it was being done. Surprisingly, the general consensus was that, yes, it wasn’t perfect and there were a couple of instances of poorly constructed sentences, but on the whole it was much better than they expected.

The benefit of the trade off was clear to me. While the machine translated pages were not perfect, they were at least up to date (since they were always being translated on-the-fly based on the most current English versions) and we could offer many more languages than just the two we had previously offered. Oh, and of course it was all being done at no cost and with no effort from our staff.

I’m not a language purist (I don’t even speak a second language), but to me it seemed that as long as the translations were “good enough”, then the benefits outweighed the imperfections. In this case, it seemed obvious that “Done is better than Perfect”.

The second example is in our school’s shift away from Microsoft Office towards Google Drive. I’ll occasionally get some of our teachers expressing their concern that Google Docs doesn’t have some feature that Word had. It’s usually  some missing feature that hardly anyone else even realised Word had, but occasionally their gripe is about legitimate concerns like Docs’ inability to manage simple tasks like merging table cells. (By the way Google, can you get onto this? We really do need it!)

But seriously, when you compare the extra stuff that you can do in Google Drive – the easy sharing options, the realtime collaboration, the ability to access your files from anywhere on any computer with nothing more than a web browser, the auto saving, the overall simplicity of use, and the fact that it’s completely free – then the trade-off with whatever you might lose from MS Office becomes much easier to deal with. Sure, it would be nice to not lose any features at all, but if I have to choose (and I do) then Drive/Docs wins hands down for me. What I gain far outweighs what I lose. Having a tool that meets my actual daily needs and matches the way I work is a far better option than a “full featured” tool that gets in my way and is missing the real features I need, like realtime collaboration.

Again, “Done” (or in this case, the tool that misses some features but does the things I need and value most) is better than “Perfect” (the tool that supposedly has it all and is the “industry standard’).

When you work on a project, it’s pretty easy to get it 95% perfect. And sometimes, yes, you do need to go the extra mile to get it 100% perfect. But the older I get, the more I come to realise the truth of “Done is better than Perfect”, and that the exponential amount of effort required to take a project from 95% perfect to 100% perfect often really doesn’t matter. Closing that 5% gap usually requires far more than 5% more effort. I’ve spent an hour editing a short video, but then wasted three more hours adjusting the timing of the opening titles or tweaking exactly how the credits dissolve to black and where the music should fade… and really, it was probably just fine the way it was. It makes me wonder what else I could have gotten done with that three hours if I just accepted that Done really is better than Perfect.

Image by KevBurnsJr –  http://blog.kevburnsjr.com/95-done

PS: I was so impressed by the Google Translate service that I added it to this blog. If you scroll right to the bottom of this page you can translate this blog into any language you like. Just don’t expect it to be perfect.

Why I don’t want to lose Google Reader

Reader logo

I just left a comment on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog Websites of the Day, in response to a post called The Best Alternatives To Google Reader Now That It’s Being Shut Down. As the title suggests, after Google dropped the bombshell today about closing down Google Reader, Larry was very helpfully suggesting some alternatives. And they are good suggestions of course, but I think this decision to shut down Reader is more far-reaching than just finding an alternative tool.

Anyway, I left quite a long comment on the post with a few ideas that were on my mind, so I thought I’d crosspost it here as well, just in case it helps stimulate further discussion.  But please do go visit Larry’s original post…

Larry,

I agree with you… I’m deeply disappointed that Google is shutting down Reader. And as good as these suggestions for alternatives are, I suspect most of them will be fairly poor replacements for Reader…

a) Reader is a part of the Google suite of tools. When I’m logged into Gmail all day, have my Calendar and Drive open, regularly connecting to YouTube or Maps or Blogger, then the convenience of having Reader as part of that suite is huge. In a school situation, running Google Apps for Education, the fact that it’s just a built-in part of the environment you work in is hugely powerful. Single sign on. One click, boom, you’re there. Alternatives will break that convenience.

b) Reader is not just a website, it’s a whole RSS management engine. Most of the ways I consume the RSS feeds in Reader don’t actually involve me going to reader.google.com. Instead, they are picked up by Flipboard, River of News, or some other service. I have feeds that act as triggers for cron jobs. I have feeds that do all sorts of things and end up on all sorts of other services and devices, and the reason I can do this is because the Reader API is so open and ubiquitous. When I open FlipBoard I see an option to automatically grab the feeds from Reader… I don’t see any other options there for Bloglines or Feedly or Newsblur. I may be able to set that up manually, I don’t know I haven’t looked, but these other tools don’t have anywhere near the ubiquity of the Reader API.

c) I think your fears about losing Feedburner are well founded. I’m concerned about that too.

d) Like many bloggers, I’ve gradually built up a readership through people subscribing to my blog. While I don’t suppose that all of them subscribe using Reader, I’m sure many do. I’ll be expecting to see my blog readership numbers fall through the floor when Reader gets turned off. I think the same will happen to many others.

e)Ooverall, I’m just disappointed that Google would even consider doing this. As an enthusiastic Google user, Google Certified Teacher, and Google Apps Certified Trainer, it makes me annoyed and embarrassed that Google would kill off a product that so many people clearly care deeply about. Reader may not be sexy and shiny like Google+ but it’s hugely powerful and has an huge following. To see the #Reader hashtag push the #pope hashtag from the top spot today certainly makes me wonder how they can claim that “hardly anyone uses Reader”. I’m hoping they will listen to the people and reverse this decision, much like they did recently with Calendar Appointment Slots. Google CAN show they listen to what people want. I just hope they do it this time as well.

d) I get that Reader is a free service. I get that Google has the right to do whatever the hell it wants with it. But to give it to us and then suddenly take it away feels like bait and switch to me. It makes me question what else might get taken away some day. And it makes me feel much less like I can rely on, or trust, Google.

e) I’d even offer to pay an annual fee for Reader, but that hasn’t even been offered as an option. Not now, not in the past.

It’s all just very disappointing.