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For smart geeks: How to explain difficult concepts to lesser beings

Posted in all posts, education, learning, presentation, usability by coleman yee on November 21, 2009

I did a talk at Barcamp this morning entitled “For smart geeks: How to explain difficult concepts to lesser beings”.

It was quite well-received, and here are the promised slides.

As with my usual presentations, my slides don’t say very much, but if I get the time, I’ll add in more details to this post.

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Accessibility on Singapore Government websites

Posted in accessibility, all posts, education, internet, policy, Singapore, web by coleman yee on June 30, 2009

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) has a reply on today’s Straits Times forum (“More accessibility soon for e-govt sites“) recognizing the need for more accessibility on government websites.

This is a small but positive development for me, as I’ve been advocating website accessibility for years, particularly for government websites.

What is website accessibility

For those who are not familiar with web accessibility, it’s simply about making a website accessible or usable or “viewable” by different web browsers and devices, and thus accessible by the widest possible audience, including those with disabilities.

For instance, an accessible website would be usable by a screen reader, a special software that reads aloud what’s on the screen and browser, thus enabling a blind person to access that website.

Website accessibility is thus often associated with making a website accessible to users with disabilities, particularly the blind.

Conversely, if a blind user cannot access certain information on a website using a screen reader, that website is considered not accessible.

Web accessibility is also about access by devices like mobile phone browsers, or even browsers other than Internet Explorer like Firefox, Safari, or Opera.

The accessibility of Singapore Government websites

When you surf around Singapore Government websites on a non-Internet Explorer browser, you sometimes encounter a message telling you that you can’t continue unless you’re using Internet Explorer.

That’s not an accessible website.

Whole populations of Singaporeans are being excluded from such online government services simply because they use a Mac instead of a PC, or because they don’t wish to use (the technically inferior) Internet Explorer.

And we’re not even talking about access by small screen devices like mobile phones, or access by disabled users. The situation is far worse for them.

There are a number of causes for the general lack of accessibility of Singapore Government websites, which I shall explore in the following sections.

People don’t know about web accessibility

The basic problem is that there’s simply a general lack of awareness of website accessibility, not just in the general population of web users, but among people who should know better. More on this below.

Singapore’s horrific web education

My use of “horrific” is not hyperbole. Almost all the web design courses I’ve encountered on web design has little or no coverage on web accessibility, even though it is one of the core issues in web development. It’s like studying to be a doctor without learning about the skeletal system, or learning to drive without learning the road signs.

Put simply, you’re not a competent web person if you don’t know web accessibility.

This situation began because we hired teachers who were not web competent in the first place. Guess what? Their students turn out incompetent too.

We now have a whole ecosystem of incompetent web people. But we don’t know it because nobody dies from an incompetent web developer, unlike doctors or drivers.

It’s not a Singapore Government-wide requirement

As mentioned in the forum reply, IDA introduced the Web interface standards (WIS) in 2004 for government wide implementation.

In the WIS (I’m quite familiar with it), IDA does recommend that government websites be accessible, but does not require it. In reality, these recommendations are usually ignored. Including those on web accessibility.

Government agencies don’t demand it

Almost all Singapore Government websites are built by external web vendors, not in-house by the government agency themselves. When a government agency wants a new website, they would lay down the specifications for the vendor to follow.

One of the usual specs would be to follow the WIS. But since accessibility isn’t a requirement in the WIS, the vendors generally don’t pay attention to it.

Of course, the agency can always make accessibility a requirement for their website. But that rarely happens. Largely due to the lack of awareness and poor web education.

Web vendors and developers don’t do it (well)

Even if a government agency does ask for their website to be accessible, many web vendors don’t do it properly.

Quite simply, many web developers in Singapore are simply not competent. While the horrific web education is to blame, the ultimate responsibility lies with the web developers themselves.

As web professionals, web developers should know that the field has moved on since they’ve finished school, so they need to keep themselves abreast of developments.

But most have not done so, resulting in incompetent web developers and vendors.

I’ve even seen vendors that claim to be able to make a website accessible, or even claim to specialize in it. Most of them don’t live up to their claims.

Unfortunately because of the widespread incompetence, most agencies aren’t able to properly evaluate the work of the vendors, so they don’t know how (in)accessible the sites really are.

The exceptions – competent web vendors and developers

There are exceptions, thankfully.

I’ve met many web developers who love their craft, keep themselves updated, and of course are completely competent. A good place to find them is through the Web Standards Group Singapore.

I’ve also encountered web vendors that are competent and believe in web accessibility. These are vendors that will make a website accessible for their client whether the client asks for it or not.

It’s just the right thing to do.

Moving forward

Unfortunately, exceptions are still exceptions. The average web vendor will not care about web accessibility unless they have to, since it’s a lot more effort for them given their incompetence. (However it’s not much more effort for the competent web professional.)

Government-wide web accessibility can only be achieved if it’s mandatory. Thus I hope that the next review of the WIS will make accessibility a requirement, not just a toothless recommendation.

From the non-committal tone of IDA’s forum reply, I’m pessimistic that this would happen, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Accessible government websites are already a legal requirement in most developed countries for years. Singapore is way, way behind in this.

It’s time to boldly step forward.

* * *

Here’s a copy of IDA’s reply on the Straits Times forum, published June 30, 2009 Tuesday:

More accessibility soon for e-govt sites

I REFER to Ms Chia Woon Yee’s letter last Wednesday, ‘Ensure e-govt websites are disabled-friendly’.

Since 2004, the Government has introduced a set of Web interface standards (WIS) to make government websites easier to use and provide a more consistent experience of navigating across different government websites. Under the WIS, government agencies are required to adopt a set of mandatory standards and recommended guidelines for designing their websites and online services.

The guidelines include catering to the needs of the disabled by adopting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0). We recognise the importance of ensuring universal access and will review our WIS against the recently released WCAG 2.0.

We also note Ms Chia’s feedback on the e-government services website. We are in the midst of updating both the http://www.gov.sg and eCitizen portals. As part of the update, we will look into incorporating more Web accessibility features in these portals.

We thank Ms Chia for her feedback.

Ng Sook Fun (Ms)
Director, Corporate and Marketing Communication
Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore

Instructional dialogues

Posted in all posts, education, stories by coleman yee on September 26, 2007

Professor Zo: I’d like to talk about this interesting way of teaching. The best thing about it is that it can work in a lecture or classroom setting, and it can work online as well. You don’t even need to be a computer nerd to do it online…

Alice: Use a story?

Prof Zo: Hmm you’re right actually. But I was thinking of something else, which is somewhat related to stories. In fact, you might say it’s a type of story. Anyone?

Bob: You’re gonna have to give us a hint – we still haven’t mastered the art of mindreading.

Prof: Okay here’s a huge hint. Plato used this technique frequently. While I’m not sure if he was the first, he’s probably the most well-known…

Cindy: Dialogues. He’s known for his Socratic dialogues.

Prof: Do tell us more…

Cindy: Well, Plato wrote a great number of works in the form of dialogues – usually two or three people discussing about a matter. They’re called “Socratic” because the main character of the dialogues is usually Socrates.

Alice: So by “listening in” to their dialogue or conversation, we actually learn something?

Prof: You got it. If you’re interested, you can check out Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a very well-known dialogue between Socrates and someone else. It’s one of his easier ones too.

Bob: Prof, any modern examples to show us?

Prof: Certainly. How many of you have read or heard of Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach?

Prof: Nobody? What a shame. Anyway, it covers philosophy, mathematics, music, art.

Bob: Philosophy again!

Prof: It’s fascinating! Anyway, every chapter of the book starts off with an entertaining dialogue, usually between Achilles and Tortoise.

Achilles: What is that strange flag down at the other end of the track? It reminds me somehow of a print by my favorite artist, M.C. Escher.

Tortoise: That is Zeno’s flag.

Achilles: Could it be that the hole in it resembles the holes in a Möbius strip Escher once drew? Something is wrong about that flag, I can tell.

Tortoise: The ring which has been cut from it has the shape of the numeral for zero, which is Zeno’s favorite number.

Achilles: But zero hasn’t been invented yet! It will only be invented by a Hindu mathematician some millennia hence. And thus, Mr. T, my argument proves that such a flag is impossible.

Cindy: I’m not sure if I get it…

Prof: That’s only an excerpt – too short to be very comprehensible, but long enough to give you an idea of what a dialogue could be like.

Alice: Okaaay… but can we have one more example, please? And something that I can understand?

Bob: And not on philosophy?

Prof: Hah! I was expecting this. You’re in luck – just the other day, I was surfing around and found this blog on typography. It’s called “I love typography“.

Bob: Typography? You mean about fonts and all that? Maybe we shoulda stuck with philosophy…

Prof: Believe me, typography is not just about fonts. It’s a fascinating subject. In fact, I know of this book on typography and some philosophy as well…

Bob: It’s okay Prof!

Prof: But do let me know if you’re interested in the book. Anyway, I read this post in I love typography where the author used a dialogue in the form of an interview to teach about serifs.

Cindy: Serifs are just little hooks at the ends of some letters. You don’t need a dialogue to learn about serifs!

Prof: Perhaps not. But it certainly helps if you want to learn about adnate or abrupt serifs. Or the difference between Egyptian and Humanist serifs. Or…

Cindy: Okay I get the point. Show us that post already!

Prof: The post is The Return of the Serif. Type Terminology. That blog is worth reading – the blogger John D Boardley uses many interesting techniques to teach the reader about typography.

Alice: Prof, could we have just one last example of an instructional dialogue?

Prof: Alice, we’ve just been participating in one.

Russ Weakley’s CSS Workshop

Posted in all posts, design, education, web by coleman yee on February 8, 2007

PebbleRoad (the company I work for) brought in the highly-acclaimed Russ Weakley to do a workshop on CSS today.

Russ is a great guy to work with – extremely easygoing, and no hint of ego at all, even though he’s one of the best CSS gurus alive (or dead) today. And a humorous guy as well, with his self-deprecating style of humor (he claims it’s normal Australian humor).

He carries the same style of humor into the workshop, telling us countless stories of his “idiotic” mistakes he made with CSS, which certainly makes the participants feel a lot better at themselves.

He’s also great at making humorous analogies to explain concepts (“inheriting big noses from your parents”), which helps make concepts a lot easier to understand (analogies) and memorable (humor).

All in all, I thought this was a wonderful workshop, and all the attendees I spoke to left the place very happy. I’ve a feeling that a lot of people who decided not to attend will regret that decision.

Let me geek out now:

Below is a list (mostly for my own reference) of the most interesting things I learnt-

  1. left and right padding/margin have no effect on inline elements
  2. inline elements can be made to appear like block level elements (and vice versa) using display:block (or display:inline)
  3. pseudo classes, especially tr:hover for to highlight a row in a table when the mouse is over it. (How I want to go back to the last website I coded to add this in.)
  4. calculating the weight/importance of selectors
  5. better understanding of shorthand rules (I need more practise on this)
  6. much clearer understanding of positioning – especially floats
  7. specify a width after you float a box
  8. margin collapse with normal flow boxes
  9. IE’s subtractive interpretation of the box model
  10. linking all CSS files within 1 CSS file
  11. elegantly using different CSS files for different browsers, including problematic ones (NN4, IE5, IE6, etc.)
  12. better understanding of forms, with fieldsets and labels, including the styling
  13. different styles for different pages
  14. resolution dependant layouts. Real cool.

μεταcole Milestone

Posted in all posts, blogging, design, education by coleman yee on February 5, 2007

Last friday was the last day of work for me as an Educational Technologist at the Teaching & Learning Centre of Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and today marks my first day at PebbleRoad as a Design Consultant.
As such, I’ll also be shifting the focus of my blog.

To reflect that, I’ve changed the tagline from “education and everything else” to “design thinking, education, and everything else”.

I’ll still be blogging about education, even though my new role doesn’t deal with it as much, since education is still an area I’m deeply interested in.

As for what “design thinking” is exactly, we’ll just have to wait and see how this blog develops.

Sit tight…

P.S. the About page has been updated a little. Just a little.

Creating Great Schools

Posted in all posts, books, education, innovation, management, policy by coleman yee on January 24, 2007

Educators know that there is something deeply wrong with the school and educational systems, and that there’s definitely a need for change. And yes, changes have been made, but real, positive results, if any at all, are barely visible. In fact, resistance is rife, or if not resistance, neglect or grudging compliance, perhaps until management gives up.

Creating Great Schools: Six Critical Systems at the Heart of Educational Innovation by Phillip C. Schlechty is a book that addresses the issue.

Creating Great Schools
But what is wrong? What, exactly, is the problem?

I often hear educators complain about “students nowadays”, who, unlike in the good ol’ days, have less respect for teachers and have little self-discipline. The implication would often be that the fault lies with the students (and their parents and the society), and there’s little the teacher can do.

What educators often miss is that there’s a need for a paradigm shift – a shift from compliance and attendance to engagement. According to Schlechty,

the present system is designed to produce compliance and attendance. What we need are schools that ensure that most students learn at high levels […]. To achieve this, schools must be redesigned to nurture commitment and attention.

Because schools are really complex social organizations, when implementing systemic changes (“educational innovations”), social systems within the organization need to be managed and changed as well, without which the effort in systemic change is almost sure to fail. Schlechty identifies 6 critical social systems:

  • Recruitment and induction systems
  • Knowledge transmission systems
  • Power and authority systems
  • Evaluation systems
  • Directional systems
  • Boundary systems

Schlechty explains in detail how each of the 6 critical systems affect the dynamics of the school system, and some key questions to be addressed by the management.

While this book deals only with the American school system, the same problems often exist in other educational systems elsewhere. And Schlechty certainly seems to have a clear grasp of the problems in educational systems.

An important book for those interested in educational and change management.

“The Future of Learning” Manifesto

Posted in all posts, education, future, learning, stories, teaching by coleman yee on January 6, 2007

think:lab has a thought-provoking manifesto on “The Future of Learning”.

Since I’m an Educational Technologist, I’ll just quote his point on the use of technology:

9.  It Ain’t About the Technology.  It’s About the Story.

Laptops?  (Yawn)
Blogging? (Yawn)
PowerPoint? (Snore)
Multi-Media Center with a Starbucks ‘coffee house’ espresso shot in the backside? (Daring?  21st century school?  Yawn.)

How about we stop talking all giddy-like about the technology.  For us, it’s not about the box.  Not even about the iPod in pink or black.   And it’s definitely not about the email (psst:  we don’t email ‘cept when old people need help).

It’s about the conversation.   The ricochet of words.  The energy.  The fact that its happening right here right now and it ain’t coming back.

Definitely worth reading and pondering over if you’re an educator.

Top-Down Support for Ground-Up Initiative?

Posted in all posts, education, literature, policy, teaching by coleman yee on October 25, 2006

Just a few weeks ago, I was speaking to someone who used to teach Literature in a secondary school. She was relating about how she engaged her students using drama techniques in her Literature lessons.

Then one day her principal, who was observing her lesson, told her not to waste time doing all that drama stuff, right in front of her students.

That school lost a great Literature teacher soon after.

Then last week, I was chatting with a primary school teacher. As typical of many teachers I’ve talked to, he was griping about the amount of work, the administrative work he had to do, the politics he had to contend with in the school, the difficult people he had to work under – people who were more concerned with everything else other than students’ learning.

One of the classes he had to take was PE (Physical Education). And for his primary 2 class, he had to teach them how to dribble a basketball.

He described to me with much excitement and detail the intricacies of teaching 8-year-old kids how to dribble a ball – the preliminary steps he took to first help them overcome their fear of the ball, then how he helped them understand the mechanics of a bouncing ball, before slowly letting them walk then run while dribbling the ball.

To be honest, his experience of teaching kids how to bounce the ball wasn’t too fascinating to me, but what impressed me was how passionate he was about the whole thing – teaching 8-year-olds how to dribble a ball – which made me a little ashamed of my own lack of interest.

Then he related to me how his PE HOD (Head of Department) threatened to rate him poorly for his class, only because he didn’t adhere to the prescribed methodology for teaching kids how to dribble balls. Prescribed by the PE HOD himself of course.

Our friend was naturally quite incensed, and made it clear to the HOD that he would still stick to his own method of teaching. It certainly helped that his students were dribbling balls better than the HOD’s own students, so he got by, but not without becoming a little less popular with a superior.

Now what really bothers me about these two stories is that they aren’t isolated incidents. I hear such stories from passionate teachers all the time. Primary school teachers, secondary school teachers, Junior College teachers, even polytechnic lecturers. I hear this all the time.

The only consolation, perhaps, is that there have been policy changes within the Ministry of Education to address this.

In a speech on 28 September this year, Education Minister Mr Tharman said,

The quality improvements are not coming in top-down, but from initiatives taken by teachers on the ground – whether it’s a change in the school curriculum, or a new way of teaching the existing curriculum, or a new way of organising students for learning.

He then went on to cite some examples of this “top-down support for ground-up initiative” already taking place in schools.

I mentioned this to the primary school teacher, but he roundly dismissed it. He obviously wasn’t seeing any top-down support for any ground-up initiatives in his school. He was getting jaded, fast.

I have no doubt myself that this “top-down support for ground-up initiative” is the way to go – the best teachers are the ones who need the most space and flexibility to do their thing.

I only hope that these teachers on the ground will get to see this in their own situations soon, before we lose more great teachers.

Too Much Homework

Posted in all posts, education by coleman yee on August 29, 2006

I was reading a blog post by Trisha (a teacher in Singapore) entitled “Why I Hate Teaching“.

She doesn’t really hate teaching – her post is a rant against the system under which she teaches, where she has to do everything else in addition to her teaching.

Like photocopying handouts and worksheets, collecting school fees from students – totally absurd!

Anyway, one of her complaints was that teachers have a perpetual backlog of student work to grade:

8) I hate having to keep a red pen in every one of my handbags, because I am constantly having to mark something. I hate bringing scripts with me everywhere I go. I hate it that my marking is never finished, even on the last day of the school year, because there just isn’t enough time for teachers to mark their students’ work, and because we have to do so many other non-teaching-related work.

A bulk of this grading work is a result of giving students (too much) homework.

I was never a fan of homework when I was in school. Well, most normal and mentally-sound students probably feel the same. But unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t do most of my homework. In fact, I used to get into a lot of trouble with my teachers because of that. (But that’s another story.)

But I did alright for my examinations, at least most of the time.
Not because I’m some kind of genius (I’m not), but perhaps the recent TIME article “The Myth About Homework” can shed some light:

[H]omework does not measurably improve academic achievement for kids in grade school. […]

Too much homework brings diminishing returns.

I wish I knew all this when I was a student, so I could have a more sophisticated reason (excuse?) rather than “I forgot” or “I didn’t have time” or more recently “the computer virus ate my homework”.

And perhaps if more teachers know this, they would have better reasons to give less homework and thus lighten their already-hefty loads.

No Handouts

Posted in all posts, education, software, teaching by coleman yee on June 19, 2006

I was teaching some adult learners to use a certain software this morning, and not surprisingly, one of them asked if I had handouts.

"You won't need any handouts for my lesson," I told them half-jokingly, but actually meaning it.When I teach, I strive to make my lesson so brain-friendly that students remember what I teach without even realizing it, because it's been made so obvious and natural, like when you first learnt the name of the Pitcher plant.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I never give handouts. I give handouts when there is information that is difficult to simplify given the constraints, or when some information may be quite intuitive, but may be forgotten because it won't be used often or anytime soon, or there's simply some difficult-to-remember information. And also, it gives students a sense of security – the I-can-rest-easy-if-anything-goes-wrong-cos-I-have-the-handouts feeling.

Back to this morning's lesson.

After I announced that handouts were unnecessary, some of the students took out their own notepads, ready to preserve my pearls of wisdom (as if). And every now and then throughout the lesson, I would quip "hey there's really no need to take this down – this is easy stuff!"

At the end of the lesson, I walked around the class, trying to take a peek at what they had written.

I was glad that they didn't write much, and that they were comfortably using the software without referring to their notes.