Friday, September 5, 2014

I've been TPed -- Bad web design at

I would like to share my recent experience ordering cards from your website. I spent a lot of time choosing and designing two invitations and my wife didn't like either, so we started over and did them together. Once we had the cards that we wanted, I began the process of ordering.

The problems began when I tried to upload an address list in csv format, which I made based on the template that I downloaded from the tinyprints website and got the following message:

No problem I thought. I'm a technical guy. I owned a software and web development firm. I'll use Tiny Prints help to figure out what the problem is. Unfortunately, every time I clicked on any of the links that might have gotten me information I needed (and I tried a number) I received the following error message:

Well, I'd invested a lot of time formatting the cards and getting addresses into Tiny Prints csv format, I decided to try live chat. That got me the following message:
Although the message you see above says that phone support is available at 5am if you call the number listed the recorded message tells you that they don't open until 6am. So, I posted my problem (never got a response) to Tiny Prints Facebook page. At 6AM I called back. Due to exceptionally high call volume nobody could get to me for forty minutes until 9:40. I then spent over an hour on the phone with support. I emailed the files, which the support person (who was very polite) imported for me. The first time it imported with every record duplicated. The support person did not know why it wouldn't import for me or why it imported twice for her. Eventually she said that she would call me back.

When technical support finally called me back, she mentioned that I had some blank addresses in my list. I thought that was odd, because I had spent a lot of time going over the addresses. So, I took a look while she was on the phone. Turns out that all of the foreign addresses just didn't import. No problem, she'd put them in and call me back.

Eventually she called back and I verified that the foreign addresses were there. After she hung up I tried to add the addresses to the envelopes by selecting all the addresses in the group, using the convenient checkbox at the top of the list.
Click to view full screen

You'll notice that on the upper right it tells me that there are 0 cards with recipients and 3 without.  That caused me to worry, so I looked at the list in more detail. Despite checking the box that selects all addresses not all of the addresses were selected and when it failed to select all the addresses THE SYSTEM DID NOT GIVE AN ERROR MESSAGE. Well, luckily I caught it even though the addresses that were not selected were off the bottom of my screen. I feel badly for people who missed getting an invite because the person using Tiny Prints selected all, didn't get an error message, and assumed everyone was getting an invitation. After going through the process several times I see that under the import recipients button it says "82 selected of 89 available."

So, I started investigating and found that none of the foreign addresses were selected. They all had the country typed into the address line and on the country drop down had United States selected. 

I tried to correct one and got the following error:
Click to view full screenshot

Well, I wasn't asking Tinyprints to mail them, just to print the address. So, I decided to change the address back and then got the following message:

So, I couldn't make them foreign addresses, using the country field provided. Foreign addresses are just not supported in any real way and they leave you to figure that out.

I gave up and just ordered extra blank envelopes. If I knew in advance that you did not support international addresses I would never have paid to address the cards, since I'll need to set up a mail merge anyway.  Oh well, on to the checkout. I get the following informative error message because I pick the wrong state.
Click to view full screenshot

I fix that and it blanks out my phone number and loses my Costco discount. (unfortunately I didn't screen shot it with and without the discount). So, I back up, put in the Costco member number again, and get the order done, carefully checking that the discount is there before I hit the final submit. I hit the button to place the order and it produces a receipt with no discount. The confirm e-mail also shows no Costco discount.

I emailed and snail mailed a few general suggestions:

1.     Fix the csv upload. I Googled it and I'm not the only one to have that issue. A csv file format is not esoteric or hard to deal with.
2.     Fix the infinite redirect issue. I will help your programming staff find it FOR FREE (though I'm sure they will hate me for seeming to be a know it all) if they need me to. That type of error can be tricky to find and fix.
3.     Correct the phone hours on your pop-up when live chat is closed.
4.     Display a warning message if some addresses in a list don't import (foreign addresses).
5.     Display a warning message if somebody clicks the select all checkbox if not everything is selected when addressing envelopes.
6.     Add support for printing (and I would argue for mailing to) foreign addresses. I can't be the only one to invite relatives from abroad to an event.
7.     On checkout, if a field is wrong, tell the user which field(s). Make sure that ALL data that the user input is echoed back to them.
8.     On checkout make sure that the process does not lose discounts.

 I got no response. 

Then the order arrived. One of the two sets of envelopes had no addresses printed. Oh well, I had to mail merge the foreign addresses anyway. 

I tweeted the CEO. I posted on FaceBook. I got a call back and they gave me a 25% discount, not minimum wage for the time I'd spent. I followed up about a week later saying that I'd noticed the address problem was not fixed and asking when it might be resolved. They answered that management was aware of the issue but they had no idea when it would be fixed.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Website to Learn Japanese

I have created a website to help English speakers learn Japanese. It is interactive and employs proven techniques to speed learning and aid in retention. Check it out and help me beta test it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Inner City Immersion Language Education vs. an Affluent School Without Language

My dilemma

Although I live in an affluent school district and have two kids who attend local schools I have a child who attends Post Oak Elementary in Lansing, MI. It is an inner city Title I school, with inadequate funding and a disadvantaged student population. I've been very happy with my choice to send him there because they offer an immersion Chinese program, allowing him to spend half of the day learning in Mandarin and half of the day learning in English. However, I definitely give up a lot by sending him there and now I am struggling with whether I should send him to fourth grade in Lansing or move him back to Okemos. I will outline the pros and cons of leaving him in the immersion program, in part because putting it on screen will help me think the issues through and in part because I hope others will give me insights into what I should do.

A bit of history

My wife and I both learned languages as children and have become increasingly convinced that having children learn a foreign language when they are young is the most opportune time. All three of my children are learning a foreign language. My fifteen year old is reasonably fluent in Japanese. My twelve year old takes Greek lessons twice a week. Often I get asked why I bother doing something as difficult as teaching them languages. While I don't expect that they will necessarily use the language they learn as adults, they learn many skills that I don't expect them to use in their professional lives, from playing sports to learning to read music and play an instrument. Like these other activities, learning a language helps them develop into smarter, more well-rounded individuals. There is research showing that serious language study helps children improve their ability to discriminate between sounds,
increase their vocabulary and do better in math, and even enhances cognitive flexibility.

Zachary started learning Chinese in an immersion preschool and moved to Post Oak in kindergarten. He can read and write hundreds of Chinese characters. While it is difficult for me to independently assess his ability to speak and understand Mandarin, the Chinese people he speaks to while he is with me almost always compliment his pronunciation. He seems to understand a lot of Chinese and on a few topics can speak so that he is clearly understood. When we recently went to a Chinese New Year's celebration that consisted of skits by MSU Chinese students he loved it, laughing in all the right places and clearly understanding (at least at some level) the dialogue.

The Quality of the Teaching

 In the four years he's been at Post Oak he's had six 3 English and 3 Chinese teachers (the kindergarten teachers moved up to first grade with him. Since I have volunteered extensively over the last decade in both Okemos and Lansing Schools I have had a great opportunity to observe many teachers at work and think I can evaluate how they teach reasonably well. My assessment is that Zachary has had 3 excellent teachers, two that are average, and one below average (a similar distribution to what I've seen in the wealthy district with my other children though neither dataset is statistically significant).

The Results (Other than Chinese)

Zachary, though certainly not a prodigy, has consistently been ahead of where his brothers were at the same point in their education in math, though he is not as far ahead of grade level as he once was. Though he was not ahead of his oldest brother in reading that is only because my oldest was linguistically precocious (beginning to read at 18 months and correctly spelling puerile in a first grade assignment).  He seems basically happy and well adjusted, though at times has minor social issues.

The Problems

I began rethinking leaving him in Lansing Schools last summer when the district fired all of its elementary school art, music, and physical education teachers due to lack of funds. In theory the regular teachers picked up teaching those subjects, but from what we see coming home, hanging on the school walls, and hear from our child, there has been a real drop in how much they are getting. However, we supplement with Tae Kwon Do and twice weekly piano lessons. After school resumed last fall I learned that they also gutted the gifted and talented program, cutting the number of students drastically and changing it from a year round program to one that is three months long.

In contrast, this year the Okemos School district has an award winning music program and great art at all grade levels. My middle son has been learning viola in school for two years. My oldest son is taking photography in high school, using a nice dSLR and high-end computers with Photoshop. Next year he'll take AP art. This year Okemos passed a bond proposal that will fund a personal learning device (iPad) for every student.

I'm not a big believer in standardized test scores as a good measure of school performance. Often, they only reflect the socioeconomic status of the test takers. However, at my local elementary school, Bennett Woods, scores are at the 93rd percentile and at Post Oak they are at the 14th.

There is clearly a real difference in how much a typical student has learned by the third grade. The children in Post Oak are not less smart. Part of the difference in achievement is because the children in the school don't have the same enrichment opportunities that my children (and other economically privileged children) have over the summer, so they experience a bigger summer slide. As the children that he goes to school with fall behind, it affects their attitudes toward academics and their interests. The influence of a child's peer group may be as important as the influence of parents and teachers and I fear that the effects of poverty on my son's peer group will lead to a less enriching set of peers. My older sons often play with friends who share their interests in foreign languages, chess, computer programming, and rocks and minerals, incorporating those interests into their social lives. I don't see that type of interaction with Zachary and his schoolmates. Furthermore, falling behind because of the summer slide and less stable home lives forces teachers to focus attention on remediation.

Other Issues

It is not just the academics that I worry about, I also worry about my son's social development. It is much harder to get him together with friends since we are about half an hour away by car. As he ages, the peer group becomes less diverse economically and geographically as parents like us who send our kids through the school of choice programs drop out to send our kids to more economically privileged districts. They are not replaced by new school of choice parents since few students begin an immersion language program in later grades.

The School District

While the school has an amazing and highly dedicated principal, the district itself is dysfunctional and underfunded. The immersion language is supported by FLAP grants from the department of education with assistance from MSU's Confucius Institute and the Chinese government. The school district is less than committed to the program and as the grants expire, may reduce or eliminate Chinese instruction.

Extracurricular Activities

Because of the lack of funds, the range of extracurriculars available is smaller than in Okemos. For years, Zachary was jealous of his brothers' after school chess club. Okemos parents who want their children to participate pay a couple hundred dollars each to hire two of the top chess players in Michigan. They go to tournaments, for which the parents gladly pay USCF and MCA membership fees, the registration, and a markup that pays for the coaches' time and a room rental.

Being a Good Citizen

Trying to be a good parent, I give to the PTA, donate school supplies, donate money to the Okemos Education Foundation and the Lansing Education Advancement Foundation, and I have volunteered to help in the schools every year since my oldest son (who is now in tenth grade) was a first grader. This year, in addition to doing math pullouts for the gifted kids I decided to start a chess club for Zachary. I'm a mediocre chess player at best and I'm not really qualified to perform classroom management on lots of kids at one time. Nevertheless, I enrolled 26 kids in an after school chess club. Unlike in Okemos, where there is a mandatory fee for the club and another for each tournament I emphasize on every flier that no child will be turned away for lack of resources. I've tried applying for grants, holding fundraisers, and have asked for donations. I won't break even.  There is no way, even doing much of the work myself that I can give Zachary and his peers the same caliber of after school opportunities that Okemos students have.

Differences in Curriculum

In an attempt to decide whether to move Zachary to Bennett Woods next year, I visited Bennett Woods where the principal showed me anonymized schoolwork of typical third and fourth graders. While there were differences from what Zachary is bringing home, they were subtle. In math there was a little less rote problem solving and a bit more synthesis and application (in story problems, for example). In English, there was more emphasis on proofreading, revision, correction, and polishing. Nonetheless, I am concerned that the gap will widen and that eeven if I move him to a better district later those small differences will become larger as those with a slight edge are encouraged and given more opportunities (I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell).

Change to Pattengill

If I move Zachary into our home district I may want to do so next fall. In a move designed to save money Lansing changed from k-5 schools to k-3 and consolidated grades 4-6 at Pattengill Academy. The immersion program is supposed to be a school within a school, but I have questions about how separate the school within a school is. I hear complaints from Post Oak kids who share busses with Pattengill students about the behavior of the students on the bus. I have had parents tell me that their kids learn things (and language) from those students that they would rather not have their kids exposed to.

Does it Apply to my Kid?

I am trying to balance the ability to learn a language well, at an early age against the things that we'd give up in a poor school district. I know that to some extent the enriching environment I can give my kids ameliorates some of the problems with an inner city school, so perhaps those drawbacks are less important. On the other hand, I have been able to successfully provide language education to my other children through in-home tutors, online courses, college courses, immersion language camps, computer software and trips to Japan and Greece, so I should be able to do so with Zachary. Moreover, my attempts to go above and beyond the Post Oak curriculum at home in math and English have been extremely difficult and largely ineffective.

What would you consider? What questions would you ask?