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Transparency in School District Finances

On March 27, 2013, I’ll be presenting to the Delaware League of Women Voters on the topic of “transparency.”   Because my talk is only slated for 20 minutes, this is a rather abbreviated presentation.   I’ve attempted to set out a path for people who want to locate and use data about local district finances.   The presentation outlines how to find that data and then how to compare a single district to the state and national financial information.

Additional links and resources can be found on my Google site on this topic.

MOOC Review: Networks: Friends, Money, Bytes

Course: Networks: Friends, Money, Bytes

This was organized around 20 questions and subtitled 20 questions about Networks. Mung Chiang, the author of the book and instructor for the class, is a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Princeton University and the Director of Princeton EDGE Lab. The 20 questions included how eBay, Wikipedia, Netflix, Amazon and others worked, so it was very timely.

To fully understand the materials, it was necessary to have a strong math background. The intro provided this guidance: “While linear algebra and multivariable calculus are prerequisites if you want to understand 100% of the course material, you will see that in all lectures anyone can appreciate the first modules of each lecture video, and perhaps 80% of the last couple of modules too.”
As the course wore on, the reliance on math got stronger…as one would expect. However, the lectures were extremely interesting with lots of examples so despite missing the math, the concepts were accessible. In addition, guest lectures on many of the topics added more detail about real world situations.

The complete course included homework and exams, plus several “Grand Challenges.” About 40% of the questions could be answered without using the full range of math skills, but the Grand Challenges needed the strong math background.

The lectures started out with some obvious discomfort on the part of the lecturer and some technical glitches. The lectures included some art, photos and maps but most of the content was straight lecturing from Adelman. As the semester moved on, everything ran more smoothly. More important, the lectures drew together many themes that were developed across the whole semester. The last few lectures did a great job of drawing all of the ideas together.

This was my favorite of the courses for this semester. The material was engaging throughout. I didn’t buy the book but the instructor made a shortened version, all but the math, available for free on the site.

In the closing lecture, Mung outlines how all of the segments relate both in terms of the networking and the math used. He also advertised that a simpler, no-math version would be made for the summer of 2013.

Summary: Great course that touches on many of the networking questions of today. The math is hard but the lectures do a great job of explaining the intricacies.

Recommendation: Be brave and listen through the math! It’s worth it.

MOOC Review: A History of the World Since 1300

Course: A History of the World Since 1300

This course was offered by Princeton University with Dr. Jeremy Adelman as the instructor and hosted by Coursera. The course ran from September through December, as an adjunct of the regular Princeton semester.

The lectures started out with some obvious discomfort on the part of the lecturer and some technical glitches.   The lectures included some art, photos and maps but most of the content was straight lecturing from Adelman.  As the semester moved on, everything ran more smoothly.   More important, the lectures drew together many themes that were developed across the whole semester.  The last few lectures did a great job of drawing all of the ideas together.

Besides the straightforward lectures, Adelman hosted a series of “Global Dialogues” featuring scholars in each of the geographic areas and historic eras.  These conversations were built around questions from Adelman, the Princeton students and submissions from the Coursera students.  These too progressed from rather structured at the beginning of the course to a more comfortable, easy give and take in the final sessions.   The last two dialogues included undergraduate and grad students from Princeton and Coursera.

The work for the course consisted of a series of essays that were peer-reviewed.  I did not participate in any of these.  In addition, the forums were very active.  The views from participants from all over the world and of all different ages really enriches the discussion and the topics such as World War II, the Middle East, and Viet Nam drew some heated discussion.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable course!

Summary: Very interesting material. The lectures were engaging;  the forums and assignments provided a lot of opportunity to really try out ideas about the scope of history.

Recommendation: Very worthwhile for a survey of world history with a world view.

Privacy, FourSquare, and Teens

Some days two things come up that give you pause. Today was one of those.

Masters of Deception book coverYesterday I finished reading “Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace, the story of the teenaged hacker ‘gangs’ of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. There are the usual questions of whether these kids were just curious, smart kids who were under-served by the schools or there really was criminal behavior. The book gives enough of glimpse into each of the actors to see the various blends in each one, as well as how the intent changes as the boys grow up.

Today, the twitter-sphere is bubbling over with news of changes in FourSquare’s privacy policy. Apparently, FourSquare will now be sharing full names and giving venue owners more up-to-the-minute data on check-ins starting January 28, 2013. This comes only a few weeks after Instagram was forced to back down on some of its new privacy policies.

My interest is generally around the work I’ve done with schools and teen-agers so these stories intersect. The story of teen-agers is really about how their judgement grows over time. This collision of massive amounts of data with limited judgement provides for some interesting times!

Will our new definition of privacy be more like a small-town where everyone knows what you had for dinner but social mores dictate the way that information is used or more like the anonymity of a big city where so much is visible that no one really sees it.

At any rate, seeing our teenage selves in public will surely shape society for decades to come. This was recently discussed in the NY Times blog “Motherlode” in the article “Thanks, Mom, for Not Telling the World I Pulled a Knife on You.”

Makes you think!

MOOC Review: Internet History, Technology, and Security

Course: Internet History, Technology, and Security

This course was from the University of Michigan with Dr. Chuck Severance as the instructor and hosted by Coursera. It ran from July 23, 2012 to September 25, 2012. I didn’t join until early September so was ineligible for the points on most of the quizzes.

This course was really interesting but more like a PBS show. It consisted mainly of a series of interviews that Chuck Severance had done over the years, which he then strung together to make it into a history. While that is all true, it doesn’t convey Dr. Severance’ contribution to the whole. Clearly, his perspective was essential and his being present at the conversation at the actual points in history made his current insights more valuable.

The work consisted of multiple choice quizzes and 1 short essays which was peer-evaluated. Successful completion would earn you a certificate from the instructor. If you wanted one, you could also send the certificate in with return postage and Dr. Severance would sign it.

Summary: Very interesting material. Well-presented. Little rigor that might be expected of a college course.

Recommendation: Take it instead of watching TV for awhile.