Friday, November 19, 2010

Education: Just A Click Away

Wouldn't you think that a university classroom would be the last place that kids would be allowed to push buttons on electronic devices that they hold in their hands for the entire length of the class? Think again. Many colleges now give clickers to students to use in class. Unlike the smart phones that professors probably don't like their students to hold in their hands during a lecture, these little remotes are often required.

Each student in the class has a remote with its own frequency. That way, the teacher can take attendance quickly. It has buttons to push so multiple-choice tests can be given easily. It's also used so shy students who don't want to raise their hands and say what's on their minds can just push a button to let their teacher know that they have a concern about a discussion or lesson.

I guess it's just part of the proliferation of remotes. In my house, there are anywhere three to five remotes in front of the television (but I can never find the one I want). The kind of remote I'm sure scientists will develop is the Life-TiVo. With it, you'd be able to go back in time, stop time, and just as you can speed through commercials with a regular TiVo, you could speed through the parts of your life that you'd rather not see.

However, I never thought I'd see a classroom clicker. Many educators decry the fact that young people spend so much time talking, tweeting, and texting on their phones. Yet here are some educators who are putting yet another electronic device in kids' hands. Since they're so good at multi-tasking, are students going to be answering a teacher's question with one hand while using the other hand to watch last night's "Dancing With The Stars?"

Don't you think the college years would be a good time to introduce things like open discussions? With these clickers, the Socratic Method is being replaced by a flash drive. Does that sound like progress to you? That shy kid who doesn't want to raise her hand is never going to get more confident if all she has to do is secretly push a button.

I just don't understand how a clicker is an improvement over heated debates, provocative dialogue and passionate arguments. What does the professor say at the end of the class: "That was a very stimulating exchange of ideas demonstrated by the popularity of button number three?" Does that sound like something that's going to mold minds and create intellectual memories that will last a lifetime?

I'm enough of a realist to know that if these clickers are in hundreds or even thousands of schools right now, they will soon be just as accepted as the notebook and pen that they replace. Many people were shocked when kids were first allowed to use calculators in class and while doing their homework. Now they're completely acceptable. I guess the theory is that when the kid grows up, he or she will have a calculator at work, so what's the harm? The harm, of course, is that many students never learn things like multiplication tables. So, on that day at work when the big report is due and their calculator's battery runs out, they'll panic when faced with a scary question like, "What's three times nine?"

Maybe I should give the classroom clickers a chance. After all, people learn in different ways,there are all kinds of knowledge, and one kind of knowledge isn't necessarily better than another. It's true that if you ask a third-grader to tell you the tables of eight, she might not be able to. But she can fix your computer.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's A Phone, Too

There is a new word that has entered our vocabulary in the past couple of years. It's "apps." (This should not be confused with the word, "naps," which I find much more useful). In case you've been doing things other than playing with your smart phone – like working or enjoying your family – an app is an application that you can add to your fancy phone. It might be a game or it could be something that's useful like telling you what the traffic is like on the highway that you're already driving on. I guess the creation of these apps has come about because, let's face it, people don't spend enough time on their cell phones.

Some of the apps mentioned in a "New York Times" article include: "Google" which allows you to use your phone to, well, Google. "Angry Birds" is a game that involves birds, a catapult, and green pigs, obviously something that Alexander Graham Bell had in mind. Several of the apps are used to synchronize your home computer with your iPhone in case you can't wait to get home to open that file you created three years ago that you never open. I'm not sure why anyone would want "Glympse," which is an app that allows your friends to track your location -- perfect for stalkers.

Those apps are just the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There are something like 200,000 apps for the latest iPhone, and new ones are being developed almost every minute. Make that 200,001. Those who use apps have a huge appetite for them. In an earlier time, people bragged about their children, their new car, or maybe an expensive vacation they just took. Now people brag about their phones. Young men often have a phone-app measuring contest.

So I thought of some more apps that people might enjoy while they're wasting time. With "High School Revenge," the phone automatically calls all the people who were mean to you in high school. Then your recorded voice says, "I turned out richer and happier than you did."

With "Dangerous Food?" you point your phone at an item on the menu, it scans it, and then answers the question, "Will this give me gas?"

"Who Are You Kidding?" uses the phone as a lie detector. It picks up the pulse and the sweat rate of the person you suspect might not be telling you the truth. This one works especially well with teenagers and spouses.

"Handshake" is for germophobes. It determines if the person you're meeting has washed his or her hands in the past five minutes so you'll know if it's okay to shake hands.

With "The Shakes," a person in a restaurant can point his or her phone at the coffee pot the waiter's holding and it will do a quick chemical analysis. Then the phone might angrily declare, "This isn't decaf!"

"Hard To Tell" uses the latest 3-D technology to answer the question about the woman you're looking at, "Are those real?"

"Hotel Room" is one that will save you a trip to a room that you might not end up taking. When you're at the front desk checking in, all you do is point your very smart phone at the room number that they're trying to give you. The phone will scan it, and then tell you if the room is okay or if it's too close to the elevator, has that disinfectant smell, or is next door to people who like to sing their college songs all night.

"Too Young?" is an app that is perfect for a recently divorced man. He points the phone at his date and snaps a photo. Then the phone will tell him if he's making a fool of himself with a woman who's far too young for him.

I don't begrudge people having fun with their phones. They spent their hard-earned money on them, so why shouldn't they enjoy them? I might be an apps lover if I weren't too dumb to work a smart phone. I just wish the app users wouldn't talk so much about how great their apps are, especially when you're in an elevator, or at a restaurant, or in bed. Maybe that's the app which is really needed: An app that tells you when you're talking about your apps too much.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is Shorter Better?

The "New York Times" broke the huge news story recently that deluxe hotels are now offering half hour massages and other spa services that are traditionally an hour or an hour and a half. The significance of this is that the new "quick spa" might appeal to people who just don't have as much extra money lying around as they used to, and at the same time the hotels will get some money instead of just having those spas being expensive, empty rooms that smell like Ben Gay.

So, for the hotels, some money is better than no money at all, and for the customers, a little bit of luxury is better than no luxury at all. I'm not exactly sure how they do the half massage. Perhaps all they do is massage your left side, and the next time you come to the hotel, you can get your right side massaged.

I won't be surprised if other services in fancy hotels follow suit. If golf has become too expensive for some guests, for half the usual fee they'll be able play 4½ holes. You know that room with two queen beds that you get sometimes when you're traveling alone? Now that extra bed could have another guest in it who's also traveling alone. You'd better grab the TV remote right when you walk into the room. If you're staying on the 20th floor of a hotel, for half the usual tip, the bellman will bring your bags up to the 10th floor. If you want to stay in a bed and breakfast, you get a choice: bed or breakfast.

Hotels aren't the only service industry. The airlines have cut back on all kinds of services, but they've never been too proud to make further cuts. I'm a little bit worried that in the spirit of "half-off," if a flight is going from Los Angeles to New York, they might make you parachute out of the plane when you're over Depew, Oklahoma.

Personal grooming is a service that many of us use. I don't think that half of a manicure or pedicure would be that terrible, but I'm not looking forward to seeing people with half of a haircut. And how weird will it be when some women apply the one-half approach to breast implants?

The prime motive behind this "shorter is better" philosophy might have to do with money, but New York's Four Seasons Spa Director, Natalie Matesic pointed to another reason for this development. She feels in this era of limited attention span, of fast forwarding through movies, of speed dating, it's "only natural" that people would want shorter spa sessions. She said, "You don't have to look any further than electronic media to understand that people spend less time on basic activities like communicating and getting the news. The spa industry is no exception."

It's disturbing that this phenomenon of today's culture in which people can't stay still to do things thoroughly has spilled over to the world of relaxation. They want to have shorter massages, because they're afraid of missing out on something. Their attitude is, "I have to hurry up and relax."

Perhaps they would be able to relax more during the massage if they multitasked while someone works on those knots in their necks. It wouldn't surprise me at all if people were texting at the same time that they're supposed to be having a relaxing massage. Of course, I can't be sure that this kind of multitasking goes on. I only read half the article.

New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by