Conference Calls

Our learning design regularly incorporates breakouts into synchronous sessions and this week we got a reminder that if the technology isn't transparent then it's like having a wall in the middle of your classroom.
For the past two years we've been using Premiere Conferenceing to handle the conference calls and provide the synchronous platform (VisionCast, their branded version of PlaceWare now LiveMeeting) for one of our programs. Their execution after a little roughness in the first session or two has been virtually flawless to the point of anticipating what the presenter and participants are going to do next. Moreover, their customer relations have been fantastic. Our conference manager, Matthew Fleming, couldn't be better.
Well, this year our client asked if we could use MCI instead because they had an enterprise-wide contract. What a disaster. It took them five minutes to get the 27 participants into 9 breakout groups. Premiere takes about 30 seconds. The MCI operator never let us know when we were in a private call or when the participants could hear us. On at least one occasion the particpants were brought back from their breakout session and were joined to the presenters private call without any warning. The operators couldn't get participant lines open in a reasonable amount of time which dramatically slowed the interaction.
Needless to say, Premiere is back on board to do the rest of the sessions.

Threaded Discussion versus Weblog

In the course I'm managing currently for MIT and Merrill Lynch I'm starting to run up against the difficulties of using a weblog to handle class discussion. We had to choose what should be more prominent – comments from the participants or the posts from the Learning Director and Teaching Assistant. We're using a 3-column layout – static documents like participant biographies and syllabus and schedules on the left, dynamic lists of recent posts and comments on the right. In the middle we started with the five most recent posts with the plan of excerpting and linking to the comments when we wantto be sure they get read. We're also emailing out the posts by cutting and pasting into a nicely designed Outlook template instead of the bare bones MT notification.
Now that the discussion has gotten rolling, we want to give more prominence to the comments themselves. So how do we do that without pushing the most recent post too low on the page? I just start excerpting the most recent comment and putting at the top of the center column. I have to do this manually becuase MT has no CommentExcerpt tag that works and the comments themselves are too long to include in their entirety. This has cuased problems also in the dynamic lists of comments. On the main page I can list the most recent comments on the whole weblog. But on an individual archive page and I can only list the most recent comments for that post.
So my as yet unempirical observations show there seems to be a core group who have caught on to the weblog and are checking it frequently. Then there's a large group who rely on the emails.
The dilemma comes in how the thread of the discussion gets divided across multiple posts. We could do subsequent posts in a particular thread as comments but it would then seem redundant to quote myself in the digest post that gets emailed to everyone.


Just got my new green iPod mini. First loads: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue; Art Tatum Group Masterpieces vol. 3 with Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich; Steely Dan, Gold; Fugazi, 13 Songs; Prince, The Hits 2; JS Bach, Mass in B Minor. Something for every mood. Shuffling not recommended.

Request for a Residential Snow Shoveling Ordinance

January 14, 2003
Watertown Town Manager and Town Council
149 Main Street
Watertown, MA 02472
To the Town Manager and Town Council:
Watertown has an ordinance requiring snow and ice removal from sidewalks in front of businesses in business districts but the ordinance does not extend to residential districts. It's just considered a neighborly thing for residents to do and it's assumed they will do it.
My wife and I have lived in our home in Watertown for four years now and have reached the limit of our tolerance for our neighbors who refuse to clear their sidewalks of snow and ice. We chose to live here because we could walk to stores, restaurants, the bus, and other services. But in winter, particularly this year, those walks become treacherous, especially for my wife who is pregnant and for our two-year-old, whether walking or in the stroller. I have tried contacting certain neighbors personally (including the Oakley Country Club). At best I have been able to get them to clear their walks after a couple of calls but the next time it snows they do not clear again. Each time I want to take my daughter to the library, I should not have to plan ahead by calling a dozen residents of School Street. Each time I need to take the bus I should not have to call the Country Club or three homeowners on Belmont Street.
It is time for the town to extend the ordinance to residences. The City of Cambridge ordinance could serve as a model. Cambridge provides an exemption for disabled and elderly residents. I have attached the summary of the Cambridge ordinance taken from their web site.
I look forward to your action on this issue.
Cambridge Sidewalk Snow & Ice Removal Ordinance
The City's Sidewalk Snow & Ice Removal Ordinance requires Cambridge property owners to remove snow from all sidewalks next to their property or business within 12 hours after snow stops falling in the daytime, and before 1 p.m. when the snow has fallen during the night. Property owners must also clear ice off sidewalks or treat them with an ice-melting substance within 6 hours of the time the ice forms. Please make sure catch basins are clear of snow and debris so they can work properly and control flooding.
If your home or business is on a corner, please shovel an opening from the sidewalk to the street. If your business is next to a crosswalk, please shovel an opening wide enough to enable persons with strollers or in a wheelchair to get onto the sidewalks safely! Also, don’t forget to shovel the side-street sidewalk as well as the sidewalk in front of your business.
Make openings in snow banks between the streets and sidewalks at crosswalks, street corners and bus stops.
Sidewalk Hotline: 617-349-4903, TTY 617-349-4805
Help keep the City's 225 miles of sidewalk safe by reporting unshovelled or icy sidewalks to the Snow Hotline. Please leave an accurate address.
Snow Exemption Program: 617-349-6220 or TTY 617-349-6050.
Homeowners with a low income who are disabled or elderly may qualify for the City's Snow Exemption Program. For more information, call the Council on Aging (COA) at above number.

Designing Visual Earth

HANDS ON! Fall 1998 Volume 21, No.2
Copyright © 1998 TERC. All rights reserved. For reprint permission or a print copy of Hands On! contact PeggyKapisovsky,

for the CLASSROOMBy Harold McWilliams

map centered on the Atlantic Ocean appears on the computer screen. Data
about sea currents and surface temperature are geographically
displayed. With a click the screen maps the path of hurricane Bonnie.
One might imagine that the computer is in the hands of a meteorologist,
but these visual displays are appearing at the request of a student.

1994, TERC has been exploring the potential of using Geographic
Information Systems (GIS) and visualization technologies in pre-college
classrooms. As a result of what we have learned about the educational
power of these technologies, TERC is developing Visual Earth, a series
of integrated classroom solutions for a variety of science topics. The
first two titles in the series, “Exploring the Ocean” and “Exploring
Marine Life,” will be published in late 1998. In a multimedia
environment, each title integrates a common set of visualization tools,
a rich set of data related to the topic, and learning activities tied
to curriculum.

The creation of Visual Earth springs from
our research and vision of how technology can be used to extend and
amplify student learning. We are convinced that educational technology
developers should provide students with the same kinds of rich data and
powerful analytical tools available to professional scientists. This
does not mean, however, that we should dump complex data sets and
complicated tools in a teacher’s lap and say, “Here you are, figure it

Design Drivers

The design of Visual Earth is driven by our vision of technology in inquiry-based science education and what we know about student learning.

our research we have identified obstacles to the effective use of
visualization technologies in the classroom. The product design seeks
to overcome these obstacles and address certain “schoolhouse realities.”

A vision for science education

our vision of science education, students work with real data gathered
by themselves and professional scientists. Using computers and
scientific visualizations, they manipulate the data to search for
patterns and relationships. The data and tools inspire students to ask
questions and conduct investigations. They alternate between following
a planned sequence of discoveries and carrying out original
investigations. Technology allows the students to access multimedia
resources that increase their understanding of the topic. By using
images, maps, and graphs, they learn to organize and communicate their
ideas effectively.

How students learn

We know that
learning is an active process and that students learn best when
learning activities engage their emotions as well as their minds. We
also know that students bring to the learning situation different
mental models of the world and that understanding increases when
classroom experiences help students construct their own knowledge.
Students learn through exploring and from “messing around” as well as
from structured instruction. Thoughtfully designed software should
provide ways for students with different modes of learning to construct
their own knowledge.

Obstacles and schoolhouse realities

TERC’s early classroom work with GIS software revealed three major obstacles to its effective use.

  • Existing
    GIS software was difficult for teachers and students to use. The most
    popular and easily available GIS packages had a steep learning curve
    and were not sufficiently intuitive. Teachers and students found that
    after an absence from the software they had to relearn much of the
    software’s functionality.
  • There were few GIS data sets
    available for science classrooms. The data often required considerable
    modification by a GIS specialist before it could be incorporated into
    the available software.
  • Even when data, software, and
    training were available, there was little or no curriculum for middle
    or high school classrooms. Nor were there materials for science
    teachers that helped them use GIS technologies for student learning of
    the content and skills mandated by curricular standards and science

In addition to these obstacles there are also schoolhouse realities that software designers need to acknowledge.

  • Time
    for classroom instruction. Most students have only about three hours
    per week of science education. This makes it very difficult for busy
    teachers to allocate time for students to learn complicated software
    packages and search the Web and other sources for data. If scientific
    data and tools are to be used by the majority of teachers, they must be
    available on a “plug and play” basis.
  • Time for teacher
    learning. Most of today’s classroom teachers were trained before
    computer technology was widely available so the demand for
    technology-related professional development is great. Resources,
    including time, are limited. Our review of the available GIS and
    visualization software convinced us that these technologies require
    more time to learn than the typical classroom teacher is willing to
    invest. Visual Earth has been designed with a clear interface that simplifies access, analysis, and management of scientific data.
  • Time
    for curriculum development. As much as teachers might like to develop
    their own curriculum, most do not have the time or experience to do so.
    Visual Earth includes focused learning activities that teachers
    can easily integrate with standard topics in the most popular earth
    science, biology, and geography textbooks.

1. Students choose overlays of data. The upper image displays sea
surface remperature and currents. The lower image overlays the track of
hurricane Bonnie.

Visual Earth in the ClassroomAt the heart of Visual Earth is a GIS built with Map Objects LT, a library of GIS functionality from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). The Visual Earth
GIS displays an electronic map composed of overlays of data. Students
can choose the particular information overlays they wish to display
from a large library included on the CD-ROM. A sample of the overlays
is shown in Figure 1. By selecting different combinations of overlays,
students can begin to understand the connections between the
distribution of one variable and another. For example, students can see
how ocean currents and surface temperatures relate to the movement of

Images and Movies

An old saying proclaims that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Visual Earth takes advantage of that adage and uses images and movies in several ways.

provide context for a topic of study, the software can simply present a
visual image of a place or location. We use images of marine animals
and plants in their natural settings. Images of coral reefs and
close-ups of reef fish and anemones reveal more than words alone.

Visual Earth
also uses images and movies to present scientific data. The striking
image in Figure 2, based on satellite measurements of sea surface
temperature, shows the contours of the Gulf Stream better than any
textual description. It also invites the viewer to speculate about why
the water changes temperature as it does and what causes the Gulf
Stream to flow.

Figure 2. The display of sea surface temperatures shows the contours of the Gulf Stream.

3-D visualizations

aspects of the world’s surface, such as the ocean floor, are more
readily understood with a three-dimensional visualization than a
two-dimensional image. Where appropriate, Visual Earth uses
three-dimensional “fly-through” animation to help students
conceptualize and understand complex topographies. This technique makes
it easier to visualize data in three-dimensions as well as stimulate
interest in the subject. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3. A 3-D “fly-through” over the ocean floor.

Visualizing change over time

Some important phenomena change not only over the three dimensions of space, but also over the fourth dimension of time. Visual Earth
employs animations to facilitate the study of time-based change.
Students are able to view earth processes as a movie or as still images
that can be compared. This helps students understand how phenomena such
as the movement of tectonic plates occur over time (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4. Frames from a movie showing the movement of tectonic plates.

Guided discoveries and open-ended investigation

Visual Earth
titles are linked to curriculum. Each title in the series focuses on a
few key topics that are introduced to students by means of a “guided
discovery.” Like a nature trail laid out through a rich and diverse
natural area, a guided discovery provides a carefully planned
introduction to the major features of a domain. Students move through a
guided discovery by clicking on “frame buttons” arranged in a “gallery
bar” near the top of the screen. Each “stop” along the trail is
represented by a frame in the gallery. Clicking on each frame in turn
makes available a new set of multimedia resources‹an image, map
overlays, a movie, or an animation. Accompanying each frame is
instructional text. (See Figure 5.)

The Visual Earth
CD-ROM includes a wealth of data, images, overlays, and other resources
to investigate and lots of ideas for using the resources. The product
combines a reasonable amount of structure with opportunities for
open-ended projects.

Access to a library of multimedia data

Unlike some software that forces you to navigate complex directory structures to access data, Visual Earth
employs a custom-designed method to streamline access to all the
resources on the CD-ROM. Not only can students browse through the data
provided, they can also use a powerful database search to locate
resources by keyword.

Figure 5. Students follow a guided discovery by clicking on “fram buttons” arranged in a “gallery bar.”


scientists study the earth by analyzing data gathered from satellites.
In order to visualize and comprehend the overwhelming volume of data,
they use powerful software that processes the data and represents it as
colored images. The public sometimes sees these images on TV, but
students rarely see them in their science classrooms. When they do, the
images are static pictures in a book. Visual Earth provides
dynamic analysis tools, accessible data, and curriculum-linked learning
activities all in one package. Students can manipulate these images and
interact with them to take full advantage of the learning opportunities
they present.

Harold McWilliams directs the Visual Earth project.

further readings on visualization technologies in education see Hands
On! Spring 1997, Volume 20, Number 1. This 24-page publication examines
the curriculum, cognitive, and technology issues related to applying
these technologies to the science classroom.

Visual Earth is being developed with technical assistance from the Intel Corporation.