Apple’s M1 chip: Making desktop computing cool again

Apple M1 chip: Image courtesy of Apple

My intention was not for this website to become the Apple blog, but the famous fruit company seems to be dominating much of the news cycle this year.

This past summer, at the World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple announced that it would be transitioning from Intel to its in-house Apple Silicon over the next two years. Apple said the first Macs with in-house silicon would arrive by the end of 2020. Well, here we are, and we have a new MacBook Air, 13 inch MacBook Pro, and a Mac mini.

The form factors of these devices are identical, but the real magic is the new M1 chip inside. Is it as fast as Apple claims? Will it run our apps properly? What does the M1 chip mean for desktop computing generally? In this article, I will try and answer these questions.

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Nvidia buying ARM opens a huge can of worms

Image credit: Fr3d.org/Flickr

The stunning news that Nvidia was moving to acquire ARM Holdings for $40 billion has led many in the tech industry to consider the possible implications of this merger.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the relationship between ARM and the many licensees that use technologies developed by ARM. Currently, Nvidia is the leader in graphics cards (GPUs). Nvidia also has a somewhat poor relationship with Apple, is that a potential conflict of interest? Does Nvidia have the power to sever all the licensing relationships with ARM’s various partners? ARM chips are used everywhere, so any company that relies on ARM licenses would have justification to be concerned.

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Maximum fun: Do graphics matter as much in the next console generation?

Image from Pixabay

The launch of a new console generation is so very exciting. It’s one of the few things that genuinely makes me feel like I’m a kid again. Even if you’re not a gamer, new console generations are important milestones in the computer industry because they often bring cutting-edge and innovative technology to a larger number of people. This upcoming generation is no different from all the amazing new CPUs and GPUs provided by AMD, solid-state storage (SSD), faster memory, and (hopefully) faster load times. Graphics certainly get better with each generation, but does the increased graphical fidelity and realism matter as much in this generation? I hypothesize that it doesn’t. I believe we’re reaching a plateau of “maximum fun” (or fun saturation). What I mean is that more detailed graphics and higher resolution textures won’t necessarily lead to better gameplay at least for the time being. Rather, game fluidity as a result of higher frames-per-second (FPS) and good game mechanics are better indicators of a game’s replay-ability over time.

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RISCy business: The future of x86

CC image courtesy of Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Following the expected reveal that Apple was going to transition the Mac from Intel to Apple Silicon, I started thinking about what this would mean for the x86 architecture more broadly. This architecture has been at the heart of desktop computing for forty years, and I think it’s unlikely that Apple’s implementation of its own chips won’t have wider implications on the computer industry. Based on my understanding of ARM – the architecture that Apple Silicon is loosely based on – I think it’s likely that x86′, and particularly and Intel’s, days as the dominant desktop chip standard are numbered.

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OS cross-pollination and what it means for the Mac and iPad

macOS Big Sur and iPadOS 14 side-by-side

If you’ve been a Mac user for a long time, you know that the community can be fickle. On one hand, there’s a consistent complaint that the Mac platform doesn’t get nearly enough attention from Apple compared to iOS/iPadOS. On the other hand, you know that this community is resistant to change. Every time there any significant changes to macOS’ look and feel, no matter how small, there’s seems to be immediate skepticism. The design changes coming to the Mac signify something bigger. It’s being introduced as part of a broader vision that will be brought forth when all Macs transition to Apple Silicon.

But change can be good. The changes coming to macOS Big Sur are divisive because the OS is clearly adopting a more iPad-like look and feel. It’s going to be different, and I would argue it’s a much more drastic design overhaul than the introduction of Yosemite in 2014. Many folks have focused on the iPad influences on the Mac, but I’d argue there’s more of a cross-pollination between these platforms. It’s clear to me that the platforms aren’t merging (at least not yet). But both are borrowing features from each other. This is an ecosystem play. These design changes will make it considerably easier to switch between the Mac and iPad, making owners of both happy campers. I’m not brave enough to install beta software on my primary machines, but from what I can tell macOS Big Sur and iPadOS 14 tells us a lot about the future of these platforms.

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Apple Silicon: What it means for the Mac and the computer industry

Apple Silicon graphic WWDC 2020
Apple announced that it was transitioning the Mac from Intel to Apple Silicon

It’s no longer a rumour. Last week, Apple announced it was transitioning its entire line of Mac computers from Intel chips to its custom “Apple Silicon” over the next two years. Why is this transition so important? And, what will this mean for the Mac and the computer industry moving forward?

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iPadOS 13.4 impressions: Growing up means more to learn

Now that I’ve had a week or more to play around with the cursor support in iPadOS 13.4, I’m ready to share some brief thoughts and impressions. There’s lots of coverage of this on all the tech websites, so I won’t retread old ground. What’s most interesting to me is what’s to come. The last two years of iPad software updates have been productivity-focused, and it’s likely there’s more to come for iPadOS 14 and beyond.

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Alternate delivery series: What I did to put my library session online (quickly)

The term ‘alternate delivery’ has become common among Canadian (and American) universities that are shifting to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators in colleges and K-12 are scrambling and I feel for them. Online teaching isn’t an easy thing to do, and my colleagues out there are doing their best to learn the technology.

As a librarian, my world is a little bit different. Since I’m trying out new things myself, I decided to create a series on this website about what I’ve done to teach online (including creation of resources for asynchronous delivery), technology and edtech tools I use for instruction generally, my productivity strategy for working at home, etc. I don’t have his series all planned out, but I’ll post things as they come to me. And, what better way to start than with an example of how I spent a weekend transitioning a face-to-face library session to an online module.

For this example, I’m using a General Education session I teach every semester with a colleague. This is an English course, and students have to write a persuasive essay on how an aspect of society is changing or has changed the English language. Students are given a list of possible research questions to answer, but they do have the opportunity to develop their own as well. For my face-to-face session, the objectives would be to have students 1) create a mind mind for their research question and brainstorm search terms 2) find a handful of preliminary (or background) sources and 3) get started finding academic research. I give students a template for how to document their search, the goal being to develop good research organization skills early in their program.

Library Guide

Link to guide

I kept my library guide simple.I focused on designing content as if the course was asynchronous. Why not just do the whole session live over video conference? The advantage of online is the opportunity to re-watch content, and I wanted a guide students could return to. Students have enough on their plate right now.

The guide is divided into the following steps

  1. Developing your search strategy
  2. Finding sources
  3. Evaluating sources
  4. Citing sources

For steps one through three, I developed some screencasts illustrated what I wanted them to do. I’ve put links to the videos below.

These videos were done quickly, which is what instructors scrambling to switch to online delivery will be doing. I worked in education technology and instructional design prior to being a librarian, so I can tell you that the quality could be better. I remember spending many hours with instructors to develop slick PowerPoint, scripts, and animations for recorded lectures. We used to use green screens and special cameras. Not this time around…

That being said screen casting short videos is easy to do and can be effective. For most of these screencasts I used my Mac with Quicktime to record the audio and video. Quicktime is built into your Mac, and it records at high quality. There’s also a Windows alternative – the Xbox Game Bar app. There’s lots of way to do audio over PowerPoint, though in my experience the audio quality can be poor so I’d recommend against it.

For the second video, I wanted to recreate what I would have shown using a whiteboard. There are many digital whiteboard apps that allow you to draw out concepts easily. These apps work best with a device that has stylus support – such as the iPad, Samsung tablets, Microsoft’s Surface devices, etc. For this video I used an app called Explain Everything which has a huge toolset for teachers. You can record whatever you do on the screen. This allowed me to take a sample research question and create a mind map. Again, the goal is to get students brainstorming what they know about the topic. This app is pretty specialized. Microsoft Office (PowerPoint, Word, and OneNote) has really good pen support as well and it’s cross platform.

The search strategy videos covered how to find background resources using CREDO Reference, our library’s discovery system and Google Scholar. It’s pretty basic, but unlike an in-person session students can watch these again to reinforce the skills. I think the time spent by the instructor recording important skills or concepts is valuable, even for face-to-face courses. Videos should be five minutes or less ideally. I broke that rule here, but the goal was to get this done quickly.

Virtual library session

I held live library classes over video conference, but I didn’t use it to recreate the classroom experience exactly. With the help of my faculty colleague, we gave students pre-library session homework. Students were instructed to read the assignment, read through the library guide and watch the videos. The virtual library session provided an overview of how to use the guide and tackle the assignment, but the majority was allocated to discussion and answering questions.

Just like a guided reading, students were given direction on what to do before the virtual class. This is key. Both sections were excellent – with students using either their device microphones or chat to ask questions. My faculty colleague was also on the session, so it was very much a team effort. We all met over Google Meet (our campus solution) and it worked well with little lag.

What I learned

Though I have some experience with instructional design and developing online content for other instructors, it’s not what I do on a daily basis (apart from my library guides). Creating good multimedia content is an art. This experience was a good refresher and I (re)learned a few things.

  • Videos don’t have to be perfect. As you get better with the production value things will improve. Structuring the content clearly and keeping the videos relatively brief is key.
  • Don’t try and recreate the classroom. Online is different so I’d recommend leaning into this. The advantage is that students can rewatch, so use ‘class time’ for discussion.
  • Before a virtual library session, give some homework. Even if the task is ‘watch the videos’ that’s enough to get people’s minds working. The process is similar to giving students guiding questions for readings.

I hope this is somewhat useful for folks. If anyone wants more details on how I used apps the aforementioned apps, or if you want recommendations for other tools, give me a shout.

Experimenting with class objectives

Creating class objectives is arguably the most important part of my teaching process. If done correctly, I don’t really need to develop long, in-depth lesson plans (though I often do that anyways). Concrete class objectives allow for structure while also allowing for flexibility and the ability to respond to students on the fly. It really informs everything. I’ve typically stuck to a few ‘rules’ when creating class objectives. These include, having one action per objective, writing measurable (or observable) objectives, not having a laundry list of objectives (5 max), and using jargon-free language.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a new approach. Instead of the typical bulleted list, I’ve given students one overarching objective for my class and underneath I have broken down that objective into potential tasks students can undertake to achieve the overarching objective. Why make a big deal about such a subtle difference? Because a regular piece of feedback I’ve received from students is their lack of understanding of how my list of ‘measurable’ objectives fit together. How do they related to each other? And, it’s hard to argue with them.

Traditionally I’d have broken out class objectives into smaller, more manageable, bullet points. Let’s take the following as a hypothetical example.

“By the end of this class you will have

  • Located the class research guide
  • Searched two of the recommended databases
  • Found one peer-reviewed academic source
  • Cited one academic source using APA 7th edition”

Well, I can see how these objectives all lend themselves to conducting academic research and being successful in a research paper, but students might not. If I were to take my new approach, I might right something like the following

“By the end of this class, you will have made meaningful progress on your literature review assignment. This includes

  • Locating the class research guide
  • Searching two of the recommended academic databases
  • Finding at least one peer-reviewed academic article
  • Citing an academic article using APA 7th edition”

This isn’t a perfect example, since this is hypothetical. That being said, you can see the the bulleted list of objectives hasn’t changed much – except for the tense. The bullets are still measurable/observable from my perspective, but now they’re put in context by being placed under a larger goal or ‘theme.’ At this point you might be thinking “how much of a different could this possibly make in the classroom.” Well, originally I had a similar question for myself. Surprisingly, the difference in classroom engagement is quiet significant. Below I’ve provided a real world example from a recent class.

(Taken from one of my library sessions)

In this class, students did something different. I didn’t get one question like “what is the assignment again?” or “how do these help me with the assignment?” It was clear why they were in the library session, to get a start on their original research project. Framing the objectives this way also takes some of the pressure off students. Not everyone is at the same experience level, which is why checklist type class objectives are somewhat flawed in my opinion. The goal is to get a start on your research, and that ‘start’ may depend on how much experience one has with an academic database. One could do everything in the bulleted list, but not doing so doesn’t mean the overarching objective wasn’t achieved.

I’m certain others instructors have experimented with objectives or framed them in a similar fashion. There are several good texts on promoting class discussion and aligning what’s done in class with clear objectives. However, this approach to objectives is one piece of a larger teaching strategy. Ultimately, I want to be more explicit in my teaching and be more clear about why I’m asking students to do the tasks I’ve assignment to them. If teaching them strategies for completing an annotated bibliography is my task, then I will preface the lesson with a discussion about how annotated bibliographies are useful tools and how they can serve as a stepping stone to conducting literature reviews. If I can place the assignment in the context of a marketable skill (this is great for students going on practicum) then all the better.

I remember not ‘getting it’ as a student. I remember not understanding the value of some of my assignments. So, from now on I’m going to tell them the value and the application. So far, I see better engagement, more time spent on task, and good questions.

Some useful resources

Barkley, E., & Major, C. (2016). Learning assessment techniques : a handbook for college faculty . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Howard, J. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom : getting your students engaged and participating in person and online . San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Roberts, K. (2002). Ironies of effective teaching: Deep structure learning and lonstructions of the classroom. Teaching Sociology, 30(1), 1-25. Retrieved January 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3211517

Zhou, H. (2017). Why does writing good learning objectives matter? Duke. https://learninginnovation.duke.edu/blog/2017/03/learning-objectives/