Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Microsoft Far From Board

On of the strings to my varied career bow is as a technical trainer, a skill honed in the white hot furnace of the Royal Air Force's technical training schools at RAF Halton and RAF Cosford.  In my early instructional career I was mentored by a number of more experienced instructors who, in their turn, had benefited from other mentors.  Such is the manner in which fine traditions and expertise are passed on.

One of my mentors, previously a military instructor but a civilian by the time I met him, had some neat tricks. One was using the chalk board - yes, we're going that far back - and preparing it for a hydraulics session by drawing the circuit he was going to teach very carefully and almost invisibly in faint chalk lines that the students in the front row couldn't see. As he built his circuit up, using Deductive Reasoning, which was the airforce's preferred method of teaching, he would draw a perfect circuit with seemingly sweeping but accurate waves of his arm.  He also used a sneaky technique of gripping two sticks of chalk together in such a way that when he did his sweep for hydraulic lines he drew two parallel chalk lines to represent pipes.  Two red lines for pressure lines, two green for return.

He explained to me that he'd learned these techniques and many other fine tricks of the trade from one of his mentors, also a civilian who I unfortunately never got to meet as he'd been long retired by the time I entered that world.

My mentor described fondly the first lesson he'd sat in, as a corporal waiting to go on his instructional techniques course, when his mentor shuffled in, a balding, aged man in a dusty tweed jacket.  The lesson was the first hydraulics session for a bunch of testosterone laden seventeen year old apprentices, who in the way of that age group ignored the shuffling old man who bumbled down the room to the front.  They totally ignored the new Corporal as well, correctly identifying that he was outside of his comfort zone and continued to make a cacophony as the old civilian approached the chalkboard.

A few of the apprentices stopped making a row and started to watch as the old man picked up a stick of chalk and calmly drew a hook on one side of the chalkboard.  More started to watch, if only out of curiosity, as he put the chalk down and took his jacket off.  When he hung his jacket on the hook the room fell to silence and from that point on the kids ate out of his hands.

I never pulled that trick, partly because chalkboards were on the way out when I started teaching and it isn't as easy to do on a whiteboard, mainly due to the metal or plastic frame.  (If you haven't guessed, the instructor had knocked a nail into the edge of the chalkboard's wooden frame before the lesson started).  But I did learn that preparation is everything and the way to get people to learn is to make the lesson enjoyable, make it a show they remember.

That's why, when PowerPoint became the presentation method of choice, I decided to go for less is more.  I shunned the approach we have all experienced, with slide after slide filled with text, being read to a bored audience who in the main have read ahead, spotted the typos and guessed the one-line gags.  My preference is to go for a few images - photos, bar charts and perhaps a single word, then I talk around what is on the screen.  I still prefer drawing images on a whiteboard after dragging ideas out of students rather than force feeding them ideas on a screen, even when I'm teaching software systems.  When teaching hydraulics I did, out of necessity, have to utilise a larger number of slides as I built up undercarriage circuits, but I always got the students to work out what was coming next, using the good old Deductive Reasoning Method.

But white boards and PowerPoint have their individual limitations that have only been addressed partially over the years.  However, since 2006 Microsoft have been pumping serious money into presentational equipment that they are just starting to reveal.  They are aiming to show off a self sketching interactive whiteboard, codenamed Sketchinsight, at Techfest, an annual demonstration by Microsoft of R&D projects.  Annually Microsoft are investing just shy of $10 billion a year on R&D and  this is one project that is still some years away from becoming reality.

From early reports the Sketchinsight will allow really innovative presentational and instructional methods to be employed.  Pop the monthly production and sales figures on the board and bar charts will draw themselves; pull a series of numbers from a class of students, scribble them down on one side and a routine will graph them and  arrange them into mean, modal and median averages on screen.  Draw a crude hydraulic pump symbol and it will be replaced by a professional ISO symbol, a few deft lines will rearrange into a full hydraulic circuit.

I expect that if a carefully drawn symbol is sketched on the screen then it could be easily replaced by a clip art image of a hook, which in turn could be pushed to any place on the screen.

But you still can't hang your jacket off it.  Even Microsoft haven't worked that one out.


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