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Hack for Western Mass

Hack for Western Mass

For the second year in a row, I helped organize Hack for Western Mass, our local National Day of Civic Hacking event.

The Internet is full of people extolling the virtues of civic hacking and people criticizing civic hackers for building new things instead of connecting people to existing resources.

That’s all true, but there’s something more to hackathons—something beyond the actual projects.

It’s easy to take technology for granted and forget its purpose when you’re steeped in it every day. But technology isn’t about algorithms, frameworks, or finding the perfect text editor. It’s about meeting people where they are—wherever that is—and helping them do their best work, be their most creative, or maybe just get their stuff done faster and get on with life.

When a group of people comes together in a shared time and space to solve problems, an employee of a three-person non-profit learns about Google forms and saves hours of data entry. A community organizer changes the copy on her website for the first time. A group of kids learns that they have the power to make movies.

Say what you want about hackathons, but they’re both a catalyst of technology and a reminder of its true value.

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Kindle: a fling, or a long-term relationship?

Amazon's Kindle 3

Amazon's Kindle 3

For the last four months, I’ve been having a love affair with the Kindle 3.  It’s a sleek, sexy companion, and with the push of a button it can deliver a whole universe of books and magazines.

And it’s easy.  Easy to carry, easy on the eyes, and easy to use.

But the Kindle ecosystem reminds me of another product that makes it easy to access digital content—iTunes.  When iTunes came along those many years ago, it was so fun to download one-hit wonders from the 80s and to grab albums that the much-cooler-than-me girl across the hall listened to in college.

The geeks complaining about DRM were just chatter in the background of my new-found music.

But now I regret spending money on content that’s locked to a single family of devices and can’t be shared with the rest of the household.  I’ve long since migrated to Amazon and eMusic, but I still own a large set of captive songs from the iTunes days.

Which raises the question:  a few years from now, will I have the same regrets about Kindle purchases?

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Testing the PowerShot S90 in South Philly

My latest mantra for all things tech is easy. Which is why, although I covet the beautiful photos taken by friends with DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex), I refuse to use a complex, heavy camera.

It’s not that I’m too dumb to learn a DSLR (in fact, most have an auto mode for people like me). Rather, the disinterest is because a DSLR is not compatible with my lifestyle and goals, namely to take decent vacation pictures while not carrying something around my neck.

So I’m strictly point and shoot. The main limitation of that has always been low light. Luckily, my friend Scott owns many cameras and loaned me his Canon PowerShot S90, which he claims is the best option out there.

These are the results of my very unscientific “use the camera to shoot South Philly Christmas lights” test. The results are inconclusive.

Basically, this whole entry is just an excuse to post pictures of South Philly Christmas lights. Should you ever have a chance to visit Smedley Street during the holidays, don’t miss it!

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How eMusic changed my music shopping

music is in the air

Music is in the air by *MarS

Earlier this year I signed up for eMusic, a long-running service that operates on a “download to own” model; you pay a monthly subscription fee and redeem that money for DRM-free MP3s.

I joined eMusic only because I saw an offer for a bunch of bonus credits and also needed to get a copy of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS immediately (long story). I had every intention of joining, using the free credits, and quitting. Who needs another monthly bill?

But I forgot to quit, and now I look forward to the monthly charge. The subscription model has changed my music shopping process–it’s like giving yourself a monthly music allowance. Psychologically, it’s easier to allocate pre-paid money for something unknown than it is to buy it outright. So I finally have those songs I bookmarked on Pandora back in 2008 and the album that’s spent years on my Amazon wishlist.

And the subscription model leads to more music discovery. If you know you have money to spend on the site, you’re more likely to browse around and see what your neighbors are into, what’s newly-released, and what’s recommended for you.

So welcome, The Young Knives and Starlight Mints and Hellogoodbye. Serge Gainsbourg, you’re only here because I was on a lot of cold medicine that day, but welcome to you too. Viva la subscription.

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Higher Ed Web Symposium: Don Norman and Cory Ondrejka

Cory Ondrejka's outstanding Angry Dinosaurs keynote

Last week, the third annual Higher Ed Web Symposium was held at Wharton.  Despite being a speaker at the inaugural symposium in 2008, this was the first year I’ve been able to enjoy the event as an attendee.

The keynote sessions were especially outstanding.

Don Norman, a user interface legend and personal hero of mine, spoke about Living With Complexity, also the title of his upcoming book.  Basically,  he argues that complexity is good for us as long as it’s accompanied by good design.  Mr. Norman is a personal hero because so many principles from1988’s The Design of Everyday Things still hold true.  Also, because his work is a comfort whenever I’m confused by an elevator or walk into a glass door.

Watch Don Norman’s talk here.

Cory Ondrejka, a Second Life co-founder, blew away the audience with his Angry Dinosaurs talk on Day Two.  In 75 minutes and 300+ slides, Cory talked about institutional incompetence and hacks for accelerating change by citing examples from the music industry, the newspaper business, and the 19th century US Navy.  A fast-paced, fascinating talk.  I’ve already watched it twice.

Watch Cory Ondrejka’s talk here.  It has implications for everyone in an organization, not just designers and technologists.

To all of my colleagues who organized the Higher Ed Web symposium and its virtual counterpart, congratulations and thank you!

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Van Pelt’s mobile landing page

I’m currently working on a project to upgrade the mobile version of Wharton Computing’s student portal. As we searched for ideas, my colleague Erin stumbled across the Van Pelt Library’s new mobile site.

Like us, the library hasn’t yet gone native (though we are planning a app store adventure in the near future). Instead, they stuck with the web but incorporated iPhone-like icons.

Take a close look at the Video Search icon. Although the cat is meant to represent VCat (Penn Library Video Catalog),  it doubles as a brilliant acknowledgment that online videos are synonymous with cute kitties.

I love it, and I love the underlying sense of fun.  Stay crazy, you library icon designers!

icons on Van Pelt Library's mobile website

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Daniel Pink and the Evolution of Learning

link to Daniel Pink's keynote

Daniel Pink's keynote

On May 13th, 2009, Wharton Computing sponsored the inaugural Evolution of Learning Symposium.  I’m proud to have served on the planning committee for this successful event that featured a keynote by Daniel Pink and a panel discussion by some great educators:

  • Chris Lehmann, founding principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy
  • Doug Lynch, Vice Dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Education
  • Karl T. Ulrich, professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce at the Wharton School

It was pretty amazing to sit in a room and listen to these brains hash out some of the issues facing higher ed (and by extension, K-12) right now.  A complete recap, including speaker videos, photos, and a copy of the obligatory live Tweets* are available here.

*For the record, still not a fan of the live Tweeting.

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The Schools We Need: Chris Lehman @ Ignite Philly

About a year ago, my husband came home from work, started gushing about a school he had visited that day, and continued to talk for hours about how inspired he was by its students and faculty.  That was my introduction to Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, a Philadelphia public high school that opened in 2006.

Here are high school students inventing an efficient flow process for creating biodiesel fuel–how cool is that?  And it’s happening in a Philadelphia public school!

Fast forward to the second Ignite Philly, when Chris Lehmann, principal of SLA, gave his  presentation on the schools we need.   Take five minutes to see a compelling speaker and learn about something wonderful in our city.

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Presentation: How to Engage Today’s Students

Over the summer, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to present at the 2008 Higher Education Web Symposium, held at the University of Pennsylvania. Our topic was How to Engage Today’s Students: Portals, Instructional Technology & Learning Simulations.

My portion of the presentation was an overview of what we called the New Learner (not the best term, but we liked it better than Digital Native, Millennial, and especially Learner 2.0). Lou Metzger, Jason Lehman, and Erin Wyher followed up with specific examples of how we’re trying to engage this demographic throughout their activities at the school.

Overall, the presentation went well, though we ran long and didn’t have a lot of time to hear ideas from other schools. We also got some feedback that the examples were too Wharton-centric. It’s true that much of the content was Wharton and/or Penn-related, but I hope that didn’t obscure our underlying points:

  • Making small changes or adding modules can promote engagement—you don’t have to AJAX-ify or re-write your existing web applications.
  • Integrate existing information and present it in the context of a task at hand.
  • Animations, avatars, bells, and whistles don’t always translate into a better student experience.
  • Buzzwords can distract from what’s important.
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Stories in Learning: The Firm

Last week, Erin Murphy and I attended Brandon Hall’s Innovations in Learning conference, which also included the Excellence in Learning Awards. One of the award winners, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, had a great spin on corporate training.

PWC created a video series called “The Firm,” which follows several characters—the Sr. Associate who parties too much, the New Hire, the Partner, the Baby Boomer executive assistant, the Generation Y fashionista Associate—through their everyday lives as PWC employees and illustrates the finer points of employee coaching.

They released a new episode of The Firm every two weeks, got thousands of internal views, and made the episodes available on YouTube and pwc.tv to as part of their recruiting strategy.

I love this approach because it’s a story. The people are real employees with real quirks—they shave in the bathroom after partying all night and complain about the way their co-workers dress. The second season of the show was even accompanied by a fictitious blog*.

The cases used in business education already incorporate the element of story, so why not take those stories to the next level (someone out there already is, no doubt)? For starters, what about the Learning Lab’s Raise game, in which students allocate salary increases by reading employee profiles? It be so fun to give those characters a voice.

*Writing a fake blog as part of your job? Sign me up!

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