We did a lab yesterday that asked students to measure the speed of a ball leaving a spring-loaded launcher in a few different ways. this is a great way to talk about the difference between systematic and random errors and how those are dealt with. As a way of starting that discussion, I asked the students to calculate the speeds last night, and then enter their values in an Excel sheet when they came to class this morning. Since generating a sensible plot in Excel 2007 is such a gigantic pain in the ass, I used an older data set to set up a template, and made a graph of the quantities we were going to discuss, with error bars and all that, then I deleted the old data, so they were typing into a form that should automatically generate the graph, which I pushed off to the side of the screen so it wasn’t immediately visible.
This is, in principle, the right way to deal with Excel and its horrid default settings– I get occasional comments on past posts where I’ve complained about this calling me an idiot for not setting up this sort of template. So, this ought to work.
While the data was plotted in approximately the right way, the error bars were completely bizarre– only a fraction of the data had error bars at all, those points that did have error bars had both the vertical ones they were supposed to have and horizontal error bars that weren’t supposed to be there. I have no idea where any of the error bars were coming from, either– they certainly weren’t taken from the data columns that were supposed to be the source. And just to round things out, the scroll bars that should’ve been there, weren’t. I managed to get the graph on screen by dragging it to the middle of the window from the edge, but once I pushed the godawful mangled thing back off screen, I had no way to get back to the numbers.
My reaction to this, as you might expect, included some intemperate language. Which brings us to today’s poll:
While technology offers a number of interesting ways to enhance the educational experience, it also offers a bunch of spectacular new failure modes. Sadly, as much as I aim for the enhancements, I always seem to end up in one of the spectacular failures. Particularly when Microsoft Office is involved. But honestly, I hesitate to attempt this sort of thing with Google Docs, for fear that it’s just my karma, and it’ll just end up lowering my generally good opinion of Google products…