Tag Archives: hack

DIY Virtual Language Lab?

ipad typewriter

I heard a story on NPR the other morning that got me thinking about hackers.  Not the type that break into computer systems to steal credit card numbers, but the kind that like to take existing technologies and repurpose them.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be surprised to learn I consider myself to be a bit of a hacker by this latter definition.

Hackerspaces have opened up in cities across the U.S. and around the world.  Think of these as clubs where like-minded people can share tools and expertise in order to collaborate as well as further their own projects.  Here in Columbus, Ohio, we have the Idea Foundry.  I haven’t been there yet, but the range of projects and classes on the website are intriguing.

So, what is the ESL equivalent?  And, a related question is, could Language Labs serve the same purpose?  I’ve taught in programs that do and don’t have language labs.  And the current trend I’m seeing in our program is that almost every student brings a laptop from home or buys one when she gets here.  Although I know this is a reflection of the demographics of our specific population and is certainly not the case for all ESL students, technology is becoming more and more prevalent.  Could a distributed model of a language lab (i.e. each student has one computer, so the lab is wherever the students are) be a good model?

I’ve always been a big proponent of exploiting Course Management Systems (CMSs) that make it easy for teachers to post supplemental materials online for students to access.  Taken a step further, materials could be made available in a way that students could access them and use them individually in a language-lab-like way.  The difference would be that instead of a whole class marching to a lab to sit together for an hour, students could access “the lab” from the library, a coffee shop, or their own home.  And the motivated ones could do so for more than the prescribed time.

Would this be better for students?  I think it depends on what resources are made available to students and how they are instructed to use them.  Finding some level-appropriate reading would be helpful.  Working through an online workbook might also be useful.  But do those options really allow a student to explore, be creative and become hackers with the language?  Perhaps a bigger question is, have ESL resources really moved forward along with other advances in technology (internet compatibility, web 2.0, connecting users to other users)?  Some of the resources I’ve posted on this blog have potential, but overall, I’m not sure that educational technologies have taken full advantage of these advances.

How would you design your own virtual language lab if each of your students had a computer?  How would you create an environment in which students learn by exploring the language?  Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Kinect-Based IWB

infrared points of light projected from a Kinect

Ever since a $3000 bounty was placed on cracking open Microsoft’s fab new gaming hardware, the motion-sensing Kinect for Xbox, hackers and tinkerers have been putting the open-source drivers to lots of interesting uses on platforms that Microsoft never envisioned.  I’ve written about interesting Kinect hacks before (and before that,) and I’ve written about my experience with the Wii-based $50 Interactive Whiteboard (IWB,) but I haven’t seen a fully-developed Kinect-based Interactive Whiteboard.

Perhaps an Interactive Whiteboard is too narrow a description.  Many of the pieces are in place (see below) to interface with a computer using Kinect.  So, as with the Wii-based IWB, any application you can use on your computer can be controlled by this hardware.  If you connect your computer to a projector, you essentially have an Interactive Whiteboard.

Is the Kinect-based experience different from a Wii-based IWB or a Smartboard?  Almost certainly.  There would be no need to touch the screen at all, but rather to gesture in front of the Kinect to interact with the projection on the screen.  Would this be an improvement?  I’m not sure.  A touch-based IWB is more analogous to traditional whiteboard that uses markers and an eraser.  So, the touchless experience would be quite different.  I need to try it myself to really wrap my head around the opportunities that this motion-sensing interface offers.

I’m not sure if anyone here at Ohio State is working with Kinect as an interface for non-Xbox applications.  But I do know that the Digital Union has a Kinect which could probably be used to see if and how things work.  If anyone else is interested in trying to pull this together, drop me a line or leave a comment.

Multitouch with Kinect

Kinect on a Mac

Multitouch Kinect

Kinect Fingertip Detection

Kinect + PC + Mario = Fun

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Kinect Development

microsoft kinect hardware

Microsoft recently announced plans to release a software development kit (SDK) for the Kinect.  This should allow academics and enthusiasts to find new ways to connect the motion-sensing Xbox hardware to other platforms, such as desktop and laptop computers, much more easily.  In short, there should be many more Kinect hacks to come.

I’m still not sure how this would directly apply to classroom teaching, although it stands to reason that these applications could someday replace physical interactive whiteboards in the same way that Kinect was originally designed to replace physical videogame controllers for the Xbox.

For more, see my previous post on Kinect Hacks and below for some new examples of how Kinect is being used in new and exciting ways.

Control Windows 7

The touchless multitouch is really nice.  Mice are so 2008.

3D Tetris with Face Tracking

As the user moves his head, the perspective on the screen changes to match so that the 3D perspective is constantly updated.

Kinect Lightsaber

A wooden stick becomes a lightsaber in real time.  This would save hours of  frame-by-frame editing.

Balloon Body

After Kinect scans your body, use your scroll wheel to expand or contract the surface.

Christmas Lights

Use Kinect attached to a bunch of dimmers to control Christmas lights for a very nice effect.

Flying Robot

The 3D capability of connect makes it perfect for a robot that navigates three-dimensional space.

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Game-Based Mashups

love spelled in playing cards

I love a good boardgame and I love a good mashup.  So, when I read about the Boardgame Remix Kit on GeekDad, I had to write about it.  I don’t own the kit (which comes in ebook, book, card, and app form) yet, but I did take a check out the free Valentine’s Edition download, which looks like a lot of fun.

The first game, WLTM Humpty Dumpty is a kind of madlibs game in which players create personal adds based on Trivial Pursuit cards (WLTM = Would Like To Meet).  The second turns Monopoly into a game of Divorce! in which players use their money to pay lawyers to fight over property.  (I have to admit, my first reaction to this game was that it might be about as much fun as going through a real divorce, but after reading the rules, there is some strategy involved that could be fun to play.)  The other two games are based on Scrabble and Clue.

How can these games be used in a classroom?  Like other forms of media (books, movies, music, etc.), there are several ways in which these games can be used.  Students can play them and report back on their experience.  This could be as simple as Was it fun? and How do you play? to evaluating whether the game accurately simulated real life.  For example, was Divorce! similar to a real divorce?  Why or why not?  Students could also compare the original version of the game to the mashup version.  Finally, students could use these mashups as inspiration to seek out other versions of existing board games or even to create their own.  All of these could be fun ways to practice English on Valentine’s Day.

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Open and Kinect

open kinect

A few days ago, I wrote about how the new Microsoft Kinect has been hacked so that you don’t need an Xbox to use it.  There are now lots of tinkerers and hackers working with this hardware to see what else might be possible.  Although it’s not as easy to see the immediate applications for Kinect in the language classroom as it was for the Wii-based interactive whiteboard, there are obvious parallels.  And this new gaming hardware is more advanced than the Wiimote, which may offer more possibilities.  I’ve posted some examples of some interesting Kinect-based projects below.

How does it work?

Infrared beams, and lots of them.  Here’s how it looks with an infrared / nightvision camera.

Multitouch IWB

Because Kinect can “see” surfaces in 3D, it can be used to create a multitouch interactive whiteboard on multiple surfaces.

Control your browser

Forget your mouse.  Kinect can see the gestures you make in three-dimensional space.  Use gestures to control your browser and more.

Teach it

Teach it to recognize objects.  Obviously, there is a lot more software in use here, but Kinect provides the interface.

Digital puppets

Who wouldn’t want one of these?

Visual camouflage

In 1987, the movie Predator cost $18M.  A significant portion of what was left over after paying Arnold Schwarzenegger was likely spent on the cool alien light-bending camouflage effects.  Just over 20 years later, you can make the same effects on your computer using the $250 Kinect hardware.

3D video

At first glance, this looks like really poor quality video, but stick with it.  Notice the Kinect camera does not move, but with the flick of a mouse, the point of view can be changed as Kinect extrapolates where everything is in the space based on what it can see from where it is.  The black shadows are where Kinect can’t see.

Using 2 Kinects, most of the shadows are filled in.  The effect is like a translation of the real world into a low resolution Second Life-like environment.

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Hacking Kinect

I never really thought much about Microsoft’s Kinect until I saw what hackers were doing with it.  A story in the New York Times outlines how a designer and senior editor at Make magazine posted a $3000 bounty for the first person to post an open-source hack of the Kinect interface.  Huzzah!  In fact, I’m still not that impressed with it — 3D drawings are cool, but will they help me teach English? — but I’m thrilled that hackers big and small are poking around under the hood.

Interestingly, Johnny Chung Lee, who became famous for his TED talk where he described hacking a Wiimote to act like an interactive whiteboard, is involved in the development of Kinect.  Microsoft were so impressed with his skills on the Wii-based IWB and other projects they hired him.  He is reportedly very happy to see hackers taking on Kinect in the way he took on Wii a couple of years ago.  If a hacker can squeeze an interactive whiteboard out of a $40 Wiimote, what will come out of the $150 Kinect system?

Will this technology help us teach ESL and EFL?  It’s not easy to see how, at least not immediately.  But prepare for a giant step forward in how we interface with computers in the next few years.  Interactive whiteboards are just the beginning.  You can always show your students this video and ask them to predict the future (in English).

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How Safe Are You?

dog

My dog, whose name is "12345."

The photo above is from a poster I see around Ohio State once in a while.  The caption reads, “Someone stole my password… now I have to rename my dog.”  I think it is an elegant way to state what is a very important message: choose a strong password.

What is a strong password?  One that cannot easily be guessed.  It’s easy to find lists of the most common passwords used online and, invariably, password and 123456 (or similar) is at the top of every list.  When I see this, I’m reminded of the movie Spaceballs, which was released in 1987.  In one scene from this Star Wars parody, Dark Helmet learns that the combination to the air shield around planet Druidia is 12345, which Dark Helmet observes is the kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage.  The punchline, below, occurs when the air shield’s combination is revealed to President Skroob (Mel Brooks).

Besides being a chance to insert a gratuitous Spaceballs clip, what is the point?  Well, even before we’d ever heard of email, 12345 was a bad password.  Adding a 6 didn’t make it much better.

But even the brightest among us — celebrities — haven’t learned this lesson.  It seems like every couple of weeks, there is a story about how Paris Hilton’s phone, Sarah Palin’s email, or Lindsay Lohan’s MySpace, Blackberry, and Gmail accounts have been hacked.  All of these attacks were due to weak passwords, or easy-to-guess password reset questions (according to Wired, Tinkerbell – password reset answer, Wasilla High – password reset answer, and 1234 – password, respectively.)  Startlingly, trying the top 10 or 20 passwords (and their variants such as 123, 1234, 12345, etc.) could unlock as many as 20% of online accounts, according to John P. on One Man’s Blog.

So, maybe you’re not Lindsay Lohan, but you probably still have information you want to protect.  And gaining access to one account can probably lead to access to all of them.  So even if your Facebook isn’t important enough to warrant a strong password, what information in that account could be used to access your email and then your online bank account?

What makes a strong password?  When students set up their OSU email accounts, I direct them to OSU’s password policy, which requires passwords to be at least 8 characters and some combination of alphabetic, numeric, and punctuation characters.  Also, an OSU password cannot contain the same character three times or more in a row, fewer than four different characters, or easily guessed phrases and words.  You can even rate your new password at the top of the page to see if your password is acceptable.  1234 returns the message “Unacceptable – Your new password is too short.”  (Sorry, Lindsay Lohan.)

Still having trouble?  John P. has some good tips in his article.  One approach is to substitute numbers and punctuation in place of some letters in a word.  This can make your password exponentially tougher to crack.  For example, gobuckeyes could become g08uck3y3$.  But even a n00b knows we could do better.  Instead of starting with a word, consider taking the first letter of each word in a phrase or song to create an easy to remember, but seemingly random string.  For example, the first letter from each word in the first two lines of Carmen, Ohio would give us oclsopastamr.  Now substitute  numbers and symbols for a few of these letters and you have a pretty robust password: 0c1$0p4$t4mR.

(Incidentally, I wouldn’t recommend using that or any of the passwords you read here because any one of the tens of people who read this could then guess your password, but you can see how a strong password could be generated.)

Not feeling creative enough to make your own password?  Another approach is to use one of several password generators available online.  For example, grc.com has a page that generates strings of random characters each time the page is loaded.  Take as many as you need to create a strong password.  Another resource is onlinepasswordgenerator.com which generates 10 passwords at a time and can be configured to include numbers, punctuation, and capital letters, depending on your needs.

One final concern is having to remember passwords for so many different accounts.  Consider creating a simple algorithm that will alter the password slightly for each account.  For example, once you’ve committed 0c1$0p4$t4mR to memory, you could use 0c1$0p4$t4mRe for your email account, 0c1$0p4$t4mRb for your bank, and 0c1$0p4$t4mRfb for your Facebook account.  By adding the letters to the middle of the word and including the number of letters in the name of the account, each individual password would seem even more random, but all of them would be easy for you to remember.

I hope this post helps to make the internet a safer place for you.  If you recognized any of the passwords I’ve included here (especially the ones near the top), go update your accounts.  Or, change your dog’s name.

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