January 2012 Archives

January 31, 2012

Blue Stilton Cheese Shortbread Recipe

Prior to Christmas, I heard an episode of Kitchen Cafe from a BBC Scotland podcast where a chef was featured making a cheddar and parmesan cheese cookie.  The idea of a savory, cheesy cookie sounded so good to me, I immediately downloaded the recipe with the intent to make some as soon as I could.  As the days and months passed, I never could seem to find the time.  Then, just recently, I finally tried to make it.  But, instead of making it with the recipe as written, I made some changes.  You see, I had some extra sharp white Irish cheddar and some Blue Stilton left over from a New Year's party, and I wanted to use it up, so I ended up making Blue Stilton cookies instead.Here is the recipe: 

  • 100g of butter, cut into cubes
  • 150g all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp celery salt
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 60g crumbled Blue Stilton cheese
  • 60g grated white cheddar
  1. I pulled out the old Food Processor and threw the ingredients in together, and gave it a good pulse until it could be pressed together by itself.  It was a little drier than pie dough, if you are going by texture.  It took about 3 minutes of pulsing to get it where I wanted it.  
  2. Next, I put the dough into a ziplock bag and chilled it into the refrigerator for a good 30 minutes.
  3. I then preheated the oven to 350 degrees, and pulled out the now chilled dough.
  4. I rolled it out into a snake shape (like with Play-Doh), and cut off about 1/4 inch rounds.
  5. I pressed the rounds onto the cookie sheet, and baked for about 5 to 10 minutes, or until they were just starting to get golden brown.

I call them shortbread beacuse the texture once done was very much like shortbread.  It crumbles easily, and melts in your mouth.  The flavor of the cheese was muted when they were warm, but as they cooled the flavor got stronger.  To date I have very little left. They go very well with soups.If you do try to make some, let me know how it went!  

January 27, 2012

Parental Training for Autism

Article first published as Parental Training for Autism on Technorati.Child with Autism and his teaching support group.The state of Autism support is daunting. More children are being diagnosed with Autism then ever before, schools are running low on funds and are unable to provide necessary services. Parents are running low on funds to provide services for their children personally. Insurance companies are reluctant to pay for services at the risk of raising premiums for their customers. The government is already running in the red in most States and at the Federal level. The financial situation is daunting when it comes to paying for specialists and therapists to work with children on the Spectrum.But there is one group of people who are wiling to do the job for free, if they could only find out how: parents and caregivers. They consult with websites, books, and their children's therapists and teachers. They do their research in trying to understand what they need to do. But we as parents are, quite frankly, not prepared. It's not because we don't care, it's because we just don't know. We need training, we need consultation, and we need help.Luckily, at least in the Granite School District, the school system has had the insight to set up a parental training class on how to help their children with Autism. They have specialists come and talk to each parent about each part of Autism. Last night was the first night my wife and I attended, and we loved it. From what we learned, we are better able to understand the behaviors of both our children, and therefore better understand what they are trying to communicate.It was also a good opportunity to get to know other parents who have children on the Spectrum. We can talk about shared experiences, goals, and get ideas from each other. It's a social relationship that we can't get any other way, as few others seem to understand our experiences. They don't understand that when your child is yelling "No!" at you and trying to get you to say what they want, even if they are wrong, it's progress.This type of program is definitely something we need to continue for our schools. In the end, with the help of a few specialists, they are training a legion of special needs aides that will all work for free. That, in my mind, makes for a sustainable way forward in teaching children with Autism.

January 26, 2012

Badges: Motivating Education

For many years Education has had a big problem:  It's been seen as being boring, tiring, and a chore.  Since the days of "No more Teachers, no more books" to the "Hey Teacher, Leave them Kids Alone", people have been complaining about education.  Everyone from parents to teachers have been looking for some way to make education fun again.  And it seems something has grown from the video game world that can help: badges. Badges are, essentially, minor accomplishment trophies, showing a mastery of a skill.  Unlike the old "Gold Star on Forehead" methods used by teachers to reward correct answers, badges can be linked directly to a single skill (or series of skills). Video games use them as a way to modivate the player to continue to play the game by giving them something to work toward that takes perhaps less than 15 to 30 minutes.  Before long, you have a player that has spent hours playing a game just to get a virtual award and feel accomplished.  While many parents have seen these accomplishments as hollow, educators have seen them as a way to keep students interested in learning. I have to admit, I was skeptical at first when I saw a number of institutions that apply them.  How can you be sure they show a level of accomplishment?  What is the standard of measurement?  How is the badge a sign of a quality of education, and show a quantative, measured result?  Well, the only way to know for sure would be to test it out.  I found a website, TeamTreeHouse.com, that provided training videos that built the student up with a number of badges.  The rates were reasonable for registration, so I signed up to see what it was like.  They (currently) have three main badges:  Web Design, Web Development, and iOS 4 Programming.  Looking at the number of videos, the length of each video, I figured if I booked through them I might be able to finish the whole training regime within a month, so I selected every badge path they had.  Then I started on the first badge, which was an Introduction to HTML.  As a learner, you watch a series of short videos (the longest was almost 20 minutes, the shortest was less then 2), and then at the end take a quiz to see how much you learned.  After answering five consecutive questions correctly, you are awarded the "minor" badge, and move on to the next.  After accomplishing all the minor badges in the HTML badge set, you are awarded the HTML badge, and so move on to the next set.  After completing all the Web Design badges, you are awarded the Web Design "super" badge.  Once I saw how it worked, I was impressed.  Evaluation of student knowledge is critical to learning, both before they start to learn, and after.  By using this method of taking a quiz at any time during the badge sessions, the student can evaluate how much they already know about a given topic, and how much more they need to know.  For online learning, this is great, because students have a way to self-evaluate when they need more instruction, how much instruction, and get instruction on targeted skills they seek. Also, as an added bonus, badges show everyone involved in the person's education from the teacher, to the parent, to the student, and even to a potential employer, what skills they truly have beyond having "taken a class".  They may be minor accomplishments, but they represent real skills that have been acquired. There is a caveat to this though:  with the automated testing on TeamTreeHouse.com it is possible to continue to try answering questions until you get them right, as the questions repeat from a relatively small subset of questions.  Of course that can be easily remedied by having either a larger question set, a limited amount of time to take the quiz, or both.  Personally I don't think it's too terrible, as even by answering a question wrong it forces you to rethink the answer, and that in and of itself is learning.  So what about our guilded halls of learning in education, both K-12 and Higher Ed?  How can this be implemented?  Well, it would be both very easy (at least in concept), and extremely complex (in execution).  Most educators have already built a well-ordered lesson plan that breaks down into topics, skills, knowledge, etc. that would directly relate to badges, both minor and regular badges.  Continue to collect them, and you get a certificate with all your accomplishment badges, detailing the skills you have learned while studying.  The real problem would be keeping track of these badges.  An easy way would be to offer quizzes and assign them as each quiz is passed.  But someone would need to manage the badge accomplishments, and provide a way to make them "puiblic", either by having physical badges or digital badges.  The logistics of the badge question can be worked out, but it will take time to apply it to traditional education.  In the mean time, to illustrate just how addicting learning by badges can be, I started the task of completing all 66 available badges on the site (as of this writing) on Monday and I have just 10 more to go.  It is definitely taking less than the month I thought it would take, and that for me is reason enough to take education with badges seriously.  If you would like to see what these badges look like, you can view my profile.  This is just one very exciting thing I can see coming up for educating a connected generation.  What do you think?

January 19, 2012

iBooks 2 and iBooks Author: A Quick Review

Apple announced today at their by invitation only event in New York a new initiative for the iPad: iBooks 2. It’s to allow interactive textbooks to be sold through the iBooks store to create a more effective way to carry your textbooks with you to school. In addition to this method, they also created an ebook authoring tool: iBooks Author.iBooks 2 is essentially the same as iBooks 1, but allows for interactive elements like video media, testing, etc. that have not been available in previous ebook readers. Prior to iBooks 2, these types of interactive books had to be separate apps, though the Yellow Submarine book released by the Beatles and Subfilms, Limited offered a glimpse at what could happen. But other than a significant backend update, the interface and general feel of iBooks 2 is pretty much the same.The real news, at least in my mind, is iBooks Author. Prior to this app, creating any kind of ebook could be a tedious process. It required a lot of skills that many authors would not have, such as HTML or XML experience, layout skills, etc. And while those skills are still very important for most publishing works, iBooks Author takes a lot of that guesswork out.The Mac App, free from the Mac App Store, looks a lot like any of the iWork apps. As mentioned in Gadgetbox’s review, it’s like a hybrid between Keynote and Pages, though I would probably take it a step further and say that it looks a lot like Apple’s now retired iWeb app, both in organization and interface.You are presented with several pre-made templates from which you can select, and add your elements as drag and drop tools. You can add new pages, chapters, prefaces, etc. from the Add Pages tool (top left-hand corner). You can change the view and orientation of the book to see what it would look like in portrait or landscape mode on the iPad, and even preview the book on your iPad when you are done (either with the book or the section.Once done, you will then be able to publish your book. To publish to the iBookstore, you need to first create an iBookstore seller account. Once you have your account created, you can then download iTunes Producer to submit your packaged book as provided by the Publish tool in iBooks Author.The really cool thing is that this doesn’t have to be limited to just textbook publishers, or even instructors who create their own textbooks. Anyone can use these same tools to create and distribute their own works for self-publication. That means professional-looking ebooks are now easier to create for the iBookstore at least, and all with free tools. This will have a huge impact on the self-publication industry that is starting to grow.As an educator, I think this is a great tool. I look forward to creating some sample textbooks to see how the process works, and whether or not it will be something I will be using in the future for my training courses. As a potential author, even of fiction, I think it’s brilliant! The idea that I can take my current work and publish it without the stress of trying to get it noticed by the right agent and going through the publisher’s timeline. Of course there is an argument of quality that would come into play as has been with the self publication market as a whole, but the ease of the process as introduced by iBooks Author takes a lot of the fear out of it.What do you think of Apple’s announcement?

January 13, 2012

Having A Good School System: Funding for Autism

Previously posted on Technorati as Having A Good School System: Funding for Autism.Child with Autism on the pier at San Francisco.I'm very lucky. I live in the boundaries of one of the largest school districts (if not the largest) in the State of Utah. That means this school district is well funded as it covers the more affluent East side of the valley, as well as the less affluent West side. And because it is well funded, the school district has been able to build a special school for special needs students, like my son. He has an occupational therapist that works with him and his sensory needs, a speech therapist that is assisting him in learning to talk, a fabulous teacher that coordinates the effort, and a supportive environment that helps all the students that are in need.And there are quite a few. As Autism becomes more recognized, more children are entering our public school system with needs that many schools across the country are finding difficult to meet due to funding issues. Many districts do not offer special programs for Autism, because they just can't offer any special programs. Having spoken with many other parents in Utah, I've found that our school district tends to be an exception, rather than the rule. This is a problem, as in the State of Utah, Autism is not recognized as a diagnosis by insurance companies, and therefore they do not cover the cost of doctors visits, therapies, etc. But my school district has psychologists on staff that are trained to identify Autism, and cover it as part of the school experience. Once your child is signed up for pre-school, if you or the teacher has a concern about Autism, they are tested for free.There has been a lot of talk about who should bear the brunt of the costs of Autism therapy. Currently, it is generally the parents of the children, registering their children for expensive therapy sessions that tend to cost between $30,000 to $50,000 a year. But for many less wealthy families, that can be more than they bring in for a year, so their children go untreated or are left to an ill-equipped public school system to try an manage. Insurance companies are concerned, because ABA therapy is a long-term committment, meaning regular pay-outs and a lot less money to build up their companies and pay their investors. If they are stuck with the bill, they say they will have to raise insurance rates for everyone, and as only 1% of the child population is diagnosed with Autism, the families of the other 99% feel like they are having to pay money for someone else. Another call is for the government to step up and increase their spending for Autism support services, as is done in the United Kingdom, among other countries. But with the current global economic state, many countries are calling on more austerity measures that tend to cut benefits like Autism therapy. And with many States seriously in the red on their budgets, spending for Autism services isn't very appealing.The bottom line is if no solution is found, then ultimately we all will pay country-wide, as these children with Autism start to move into the Welfare State because they were not given the proper intervention needed to help them contribute to society. And that can be a very long period of public funds paying for someone who would otherwise have been successful. It's a problem that has no easy answer, to tell you the truth.Personally, I'm grateful for the benefits I get through my school district. The Granite School District is one that I well respect, having been part of it my whole life (or at least K-12). The fact that they have services for my son, and soon my other son, is a comfort. But even as well funded as they are, they can't be expected to keep up the pace they have for long without another answer. Classrooms are filling in quickly, and even my son was moved at last minute to a new class with a new teacher that was hired a week before school started. That tells you at which pace that the school district has had to move to keep up with all the new students on the Spectrum. If I had my way, I would like to see a conglomeration of funding come in to our public school systems, with proper and rigorous oversight, and build up programs for Autism across the State (or nation), and as part of that program, have lessons for parents with children on the Spectrum, so they know what they can and need to do to help their children. Because we as parents represent the largest unpaid teaching force in America.. I think it's about time we were taught how to do it.Perhaps that's the answer, and perhaps not. I don't claim to be an expert, but I do know what has worked for my child. What solution would you propose?

January 11, 2012

SEO's next move: Badges?

Today I read an article about the potential next step in education:  badges.  It seems that education is slowly moving away from the traditional degree, and adding badges of accomplishment when you learn something.  In an educational setting, this is essentially recognizing every task or sub-task level skill that is learned on the way to the degree.  And for those who are anxious to see progress in their studies, it gives them incremental feelings of accomplishment that can continue to motivate them to complete their degree.  It also shows potential employers the level of understanding and skills accomplished both during and when the degree has been received.  A granular view of skills is great for employers, as well as all other students.  But how does that work into Search engine optimization?  It seems that Mozilla is working on a way to provide any website with the ability to display badges earned for resume pages.  But taking it a bit further, suppose badges are awarded experts and content for their helpfulness?  Enter the Google +1 and Facebook Like buttons, but that is not very telling beyond it being liked.  Why was the content of the page liked?  That is where badges come in.  If a badge system were developed for websites, it would allow visitors (i.e., consumers) to communicate what about the page that they liked.  Was it informative, funny, designed well, or helpful?  Do they like the services, the company, or just the picture?  This information can then translate back to the company's design team to find out what works on their site, and therefore they can increase their focus on better badges.  So is this system likely?  I think so.  Google already provides badges for articles read in the Google News site based on content.  It would just be another logical step to provide badges for sites based on what the user likes about the article/web page/site.  Perhaps it would be too much work for the user to add a reason, though by clicking on a +1 they would just need to tick a prefilled reason why.  Or, should eye tracking software mature enough to see what someone is reading, perhaps it could be automatically assigned.  The concept is there, the proof has been established.  It just comes down to the wide-spread implementation.  Though if Academia is moving in that direction, I don't imagine Google will be far behind.  After all, the whole Page Rank system was based on academic reviews of papers.

January 10, 2012

Life Milestones and Autism: Testing Abstract Concepts

Previously posted on Technorati as Life Milestones and Autism: Testing Abstract Concepts.Child with autism sitting on his great-uncle's lapAutism has an impact in many different parts of a family's life. Families will battle with the condition in order to teach basic self-care skills such as hygiene, dressing one's self, cooking (or at least getting cereal), and so on to be sure their children will have those skills that are necessary to take care of themselves. During these long sessions, other children are reaching milestones such as riding a bike, walking to school with friends, participating in important religious and social events, etc.Of course parents are concerned that their children are missing out on these important childhood milestones, and look for ways to have their children enjoy as much as their peers. But some milestones require a level of understanding that is demonstrable that may not be possible for a child on the Spectrum. This becomes a problem.Testing understanding has been pretty basic for most children throughout the years. You ask them questions, and see if they respond properly. Whether testing a belief or knowledge, it all comes down to how and what they respond. With children with Autism that may not be an effective method of testing their knowledge. Creative methods of examination need to be developed in order to understand what they know.The basic question one needs to ask is, how can my child with Autism show his knowledge? Some can respond using a tablet and software, others using picture exchange. This works great for basic nouns and active verbs, but how does a child demonstrate an abstract thought with pictures and symbols in a way that makes sense?I'm reminded of an episode of Seaquest DSV, where the dolphin, Darwin, was trying to convey his need to join his pod for a cure to his illness. The crew didn't understand what he was saying, because the concept was so abstract that it didn't translate well. Similar to children who are non-verbal, they may not be able to make sense of an abstract thought based on what they hear, or even if they do understand that thought, they may not be able to translate it with their given tools.So what is a parent to do? It's a judgement call that parents need to make for themselves, with the help of organizational support. If it is a religious belief that is being tested, then they need to decide whether or not that belief can be properly expressed given the tools they have. If it is a relationship between safety and hunting, judgement calls, etc. from other organizational training that is required to reach a certain level of understanding, then the organization should be able to judge based on what is required to know.Luckily for parents, this road is being blazed before them by countless Special Education teachers and administrators that need to create quality, quantifiable testing methods for children on the spectrum. It all comes down to finding a way for the child to successfully demonstrate their knowledge. It's a challenge that can be exciting, as long as you have a way forward.

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