By RR | September 30, 2012
While most schools still ban smartphones from classrooms, creative sites such as Poll Everywhere are providing smart, effective ways to use texting in class. Poll Everywhere, a free service, lets you design an open-ended or a multiple choice quiz and publish it to the web. That’s no big deal–survey sites have been around forever. What’s cool about Poll Everywhere, though, is that it lets students text their responses and displays them, anonymously, in real time. You can get a ton of feedback in a second, while using technology that students like. Poll Everywhere also lets you download the results as a Prezi or Powerpoint slide and do some rudimentary analysis of data. Of course, you can share the poll in a variety of ways, including on your blog. So here’s one that I’m going to use this upcoming week in class:
By RR | August 29, 2012
Last year, I saw e2020 in action for the first time. If you don’t know what e2020 is, you probably should: it is currently serving about 4 million students nationwide, and it got its start in Michigan in 1998. E2020 is an e-learning platform that offers content courses for secondary education, including the English language arts. Schools can buy licenses for individual students, or, as most schools do, buy licenses for a set number of computers. Then, the software can be used in place of actual teachers, alongside them, or in a hybrid called blended instruction, which combines online learning with some face-to-face teaching.
But back to the story. I saw the program being used in an alternative high school in West Michigan, where 9-12 grade students were using its credit recovery modules to accumulate enough credits to graduate. Like most alternative schools kids, these students had not fared well in traditional school settings: one thing or another had led them there, and this was their last chance. Most had multiple issues–troubling records, substance abuse issues, and dysfunctional homes.
Enter e2020. The platform basically asks students to click through particular modules, answering questions as they go along. It is a very pretty program, and the modules I saw were flashy: three-dimensional animations, audio files, and instructional videos. The interface was clean and readable.
What the students in this particular school were doing, however, was sitting and clicking. A room full of students on their last leg, and there they were, plugged into the program. Answering multiple choice questions. Occasionally waving down a teacher for some assistance. My T.A. could barely squeeze any instructional time out of the program. He had to create a special elective class just to get some lead teaching time in.
When it comes to e2020 and other similar elearning platforms in alternative settings, there are a few very important things to consider, especially when it comes to teaching English:
- Credit recovery courses–the kind that lets students gain back credit hours they have forfeited–make up about 50 percent of sales in elearning companies such as E2020, according to a recent Washington Post editorial.
- Most alternative schools today use online credit recovery courses as part of their programs. It is very difficult to know what percentage of alternative schools (or even define alternative schools) subscribe to such programs, but I would venture the number is also around 50 percent.
- It follows that alternative schools, already home to a disproportionate number of poor and minority students (see this report by the Urban Institute), will increasingly rely on credit recovery software for their curriculum. Impoverished districts are also more likely to use online content courses because they can save money doing so.
- E2020 and like credit recovery programs have little interest in developing democratic citizens or encouraging critical thinking. Profit, not personal growth, is the motive. That E2020 is owned, at least partially, by the private equity firm and infamous leverage buyout corporation KKR makes this clear.
- Online courses, no matter how well crafted, cannot teaching empathy, tragedy, compassion, tolerance, awe, or other human qualities that are the subject matter of literature and language courses–and of the humanities curriculum writ large.
And once again, those who need the most guidance, the most instruction, and the most human care are those who receive the least. Ironically enough, much of the rhetoric surrounding elearning systems has to do with equality. Sari Factor, the CEO of E2020, made this point in a recent interview: “Technology is game-changing because it levels the playing field and has the potential to break down barriers of inequity, providing access to the best teachers and the best learning experiences.” The day I walk into an East Grand Rapids or Forest Hills school using elearning software exclusively is the day I believe this claim.
By RR | August 22, 2012
The cloud–or the portion of the web devoted to online storage and computing–is supposed to make things simple. And by and large, it does. I love Dropbox, as many of my posts here will attest. As far as music goes, however, there is not a single solution with the elegance of Dropbox. Ideally, I would be able to store all of my music, find any given song, even if I don’t own it, and listen to new artists I don’t know yet. And I should be able to all of this wherever I have web or mobile access. And it should be free. All of this should occur with a single service, but alas, nothing like that exists, at least not to my knowledge. So I’ve cobbled together a system that is working for me. Here’s how it works:
When I purchase any new music on CD (not often), I rip it into iTunes, being careful to change the import setting from the irritating, proprietary iTunes M4a to the general MP3 format. Otherwise, I download from iTunes.
I have also installed the relatively new app Google Play (quick installation) on both my computer and my phone. Google Play automatically surveys your MP3 collection (you may have to use iTunes to convert everything to MP3) and uploads everything to the cloud. So, if I rip a new CD using iTunes, Google Play grabs it and uploads it to my music, storing it online for whenever I want to access it.
That makes all of my music collection available on the cloud. It might take Google Play a day or two to upload all of your songs, depending on how much you have. It works in the background and seems unobtrusive. It also syncs your music from all of your computers.
But what about music I don’t own? I like Grooveshark for streaming any artist/song/album I don’t currently have in my collection. Grooveshark charges for use of their mobile app, meaning you can still listen online for free, but if you wanted to stream music to your mobile device, it would cost you.
Enter TinyShark, the mobile app for Android phones. Tinyshark lets you access your Grooveshark playlists nd search engine. Set up your playlists on the web, and then listen to them on your smart phone.
As a backup for Grooveshark, you might consider Spotify, which has a deeper and more organized archive of music than Grooveshark. Spotify Premium gives you access to the database via your mobile device, but it too,, is not free.
My last recommendation is Pandora, for those times when you want to be introduced to new music. Pandora is ad-supported, so you’ll have to deal with interruptions, but you can install the app for free on your phone.
So that’s it for now. I suppose I neglected iCloud, but my suspicions are that Apple makes you pay dearly for it.
By RR | August 9, 2012
Just over five years ago, I set up a wiki at Wikispaces. The idea was to create a place where my students, future English teachers, could write collaboratively about young adult literature. Since that day, many Grand Valley students have contributed to the Young Adult Literature wiki, reviewing over 100 young adult works and graphic novels. That is pretty cool.
The site, though, was getting a little stale, so I spent some time reworking it today. If you know CSS, you can actually dress up a Wikispace pretty nicely–provided you edit your theme and not the wiki style sheet. Visually, the site looks much better now: I used Firebug Lite to track down a couple of elusive CSS tags. This is an easy-to-use tool that lets you click on an element on a page and see the CSS code that creates it. I cleaned up the logo, gave the whole site larger margins and more white space. I spruced up the logo and slid the page title far to the right.
I also divided the reviews into categories, got rid of most of the broken links. I’m going to add some additional resources to make the whole site a little more informative.
The best part of all is that while I used to pay for Wikispaces, the site is now free. Yep–Wikispaces has been giving away ad-free accounts to K-16 educators. So, if you want to estasblish a web presence for you and your students, Wikispaces remains a very good option.
By RR | July 17, 2012
I am finally reading Sherry Turkle’s latest work–Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle’s Life on the Screen was an important reference work in my dissertation, so I have been eager to sit down with her new treatise on technology and the human condition. So far, it is an engaging, provocative text that is very different than her earlier, more optimistic writing on the social power of computers.
Turkle’s main argument is that we are desiring more human encounters with our robots and our social networks, but paradoxically, as we make room for emotional relationships with artificial intelligence and superficial network friends, we are actually increasing our own isolation. This is similar to the main thrust of a recent Atlantic article by Stephen Marche. Marche’s piece is more speculative than Turkle’s book: as usual, Turkle is thorough in her research (ethnography and clinical experiments.
Turkle focuses on robotic toys–remember the Furbie?–to which we, increasingly, give human identities to. Turkle believes that children are particularly ready to develop social bonds with all kinds of robot companions. Her work examines kids and their ABIOS (robot dog), furbies, and a few others. At the same time, she suggests something similar is occurring with our ever-connectedness. Being plugged all the time means that we are losing time to real, face-to-face relationships. We are kidding ourselves, claims Turkle, if we think our 283 Facebook friends are really our friends at all: do they come to the funerals of our family members? Do they mourn with us?
I like that Turkle has changed her stance a little since the heady days of the early Web. And beyond the crustiness of some of the research (is Second Life even around anymore?), she makes a convincing argument. I do think we are losing meaningful relationships in the real world. I think we sacrifice true intimacy for faux-friendships online. And we can no longer help ourselves: if there is a chance to connect, we take it.
Proof: I’m writing this while on vacation with my in-laws. We are sitting in the living room of a rented beach condominium. There are six adults; three are currently connected to the web, working, gaming, or, well, blogging.
By RR | July 11, 2012
Sometimes, a little capitalism is not such a bad thing. All of the new entries into the cloud storage market have forced Dropbox to offer a little more–actually, a lot more–to keep its customers happy. Dropbox just doubled its storage for the Pro plan. For only $99 per year, I now get 100 GB of storage. I was pushing the 50 GB limit, so this is welcome news.
This development also signifies the end of my experiment with Google Drive. It worked flawlessly, but I’d rather have everything in one place.
By RR | June 5, 2012
Teaching a course on graphic novels has allowed me to spend these opening weeks of summer immersed in comics. I’ve visited quite a few comics stores in Grand Rapids. By far the best bang for the buck is the Grand Rapids Public Library, which has a huge selection of graphic novels by classic and contemporary writers alike. And every few days, a nice hefty package arrives from Amazon. Altogether, I’ve read or re-read about 25 or 30 comics in the last six weeks, including Watchmen, Sandmen (a few volumes), Maus, Metamaus, Barefoot Gen, American Born Chinese, Y: the Last Man, Habibi, Blankets, Persepolis, and manga too numerous to mention. Reading all of these comics is a rough job, but someone has to do it.
One quick observation: even in the inevitable digitization of all texts, graphic novels make a pretty compelling case for non-electronic, old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. Sure, most manga is available at sites such as mangareader.net, and there are all kinds of web comics out there (see WebComics Nation), but I have found relatively few graphic novels available for mainstream consumption on Kindle or iTunes. There are a few comics applications for the iPad, but the majority of comics still exist first and foremost as print texts. Buying them means going to brick-and-mortar stores, where the context is important. And then there is the whole matter of collecting comics, which is a big part of comics stores’ merchandise.
For me, though, the most bookish thing about graphic novels is the digitally inimitable artwork: comics are printed on special paper (that’s the extent of my knowledge here) that varies from publisher to publisher, and the colors cannot be reproduced consistently in digital formats. Perhaps most importantly, the spatialization of time that is so central to comics just isn’t the same when you are reading on a digital reader: you can’t see as much space/time simultaneously.
Strangely enough–I am a technology advocate, in general–I am comforted by the inherent value of ink-and-paper comics. You youngsters, with your new-fangled computers!
By RR | May 9, 2012
Occasionally, I’ll repost articles in their entirety on this blog. I do this when I find (or am forwarded) an article I judge to be of critical importance to the field of English education. The article below, from the May 6, 2012 New York Times, details how many states are signing up for a national teacher certification process that was put together by Pearson and is being piloted across the country. As the article details, this new process would make participating colleges of education require their students to submit ten-minute teaching videos, which would account for significant portion of their certification. The University of Massachusetts is resisting (props), citing a range of reasons detailed below.
If you are a GVSU reader and pre-service teacher, the implications are chilling: sometime in the near future, a giant publishing corporation could determine whether you are certified or not. Read on.
May 6, 2012
Move to Outsource Teacher Licensing Process Draws Protest
By MICHAEL WINERIP
The idea that a handful of college instructors and student teachers in the school of education at the University of Massachusetts could slow the corporatization of public education in America is both quaint and ridiculous.
Sixty-seven of the 68 students studying to be teachers at the middle and high school levels at the Amherst campus are protesting a new national licensure procedure being developed by Stanford University with the education company Pearson.
The UMass students say that their professors and the classroom teachers who observe them for six months in real school settings can do a better job judging their skills than a corporation that has never seen them.
They have refused to send Pearson two 10-minute videos of themselves teaching, as well as a 40-page take-home test, requirements of an assessment that will soon be necessary for licensure in several states.
“This is something complex and we don’t like seeing it taken out of human hands,” said Barbara Madeloni, who runs the university’s high school teacher training program. “We are putting a stick in the gears.”
Lily Waites, 25, who is getting a master’s degree to teach biology, found that the process of reducing 270 minutes of recorded classroom teaching to 20 minutes of video was demeaning and frustrating, made worse because she had never edited video before. “I don’t think it showed in any way who I am as a teacher,” she said. “It felt so stilted.”
Pearson advertises that it is paying scorers $75 per assessment, with work “available seven days a week” for current or retired licensed teachers or administrators. This makes Amy Lanham wonder how thorough the grading will be. “I don’t think you can have a genuine reflective process from a calibrated scorer,” said Ms. Lanham, 28, who plans to teach English.
At this point the Teacher Performance Assessment that Pearson and Stanford are developing is still in the pilot stage, being tested by 200 universities in more than two dozen states. While it is meant to supplement traditional assessment methods like classroom observation, in reality it would be the final word for states that adopt it. Student teachers who do not pass would not be licensed.
Stanford officials say that, to the best of their knowledge, the UMass program is the only case of resistance.
The student teachers at UMass complain that they were being told to take part in the pilot program by university officials without their consent and that there were inadequate confidentiality protections for the schoolchildren appearing in the videos being sent to Pearson.
“As a parent, I wouldn’t give my permission to videotape my child and send it off into the twilight,” said Kristin Sanzone, 33, who is getting a master’s degree.
In previous years, parents had given permission to have their children videotaped for use by UMass instructors. But Ms. Madeloni said student teachers and principals had told her that they felt differently about sending videos off to a big company.
“If there are concerns about UMass, there’s someone nearby they can go to,” she said. “How do you complain to a corporation?”
Four local school districts that train student teachers declined to participate when they learned how the video would be used.
This year, when Ms. Madeloni questioned UMass administrators, they played down the need for consent from the student teachers and school districts. One dean wrote in February that Pearson was doing a “field test,” and “not a field research study,” and so no special consent was required.
In March, university officials reversed themselves, acknowledging that special consent forms were needed.
An associate dean offered books of Post-its as prizes for the first six student teachers who turned in consent forms.
The Post-its did not turn the tide.
Jerri Willett, the chairwoman of the department of teacher education and curriculum studies, said because it was a pilot program, it had taken time to develop procedures. She said officials were meeting to develop a statewide policy for confidentiality and consent.
Asked why so many students had refused to take part, Ms. Willett said they may have felt “forced” by faculty members. (None of those who posed for a photograph or were interviewed by this reporter said they had felt pressured.)
While Massachusetts has not made a decision about whether to require the Teacher Performance Assessment, six states — New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington — have committed to adopting it in the next few years.
Ms. Willett said the education reform movement had been highly critical of teacher education programs, complaining that not enough weak candidates were being eliminated. An independent measure should reassure the public, she said.
She is one of hundreds of educators who have been consulted by Stanford to develop the new assessment. The 40-page test requires student teachers to submit several lesson plans and explain how they measure learning and adapt lessons to their special-needs students. “Until now we’ve assessed what students know about teaching,” she said. “This assesses teaching.”
Raymond Pecheone, a Stanford professor, said he had worked closely with Pearson to ensure extensive confidentiality protections. He said the student videos can’t be downloaded or duplicated by scorers, nor used for marketing and promotion or training teachers.
Pearson plans to hold onto the videos for up to two years in case there are legal challenges, he said.
Mr. Pecheone said Pearson, which describes itself as the biggest education company in North America, was one of six to bid to work with Stanford. Pearson was chosen in part because it was the only company willing to provide enough seed money for a nationwide pilot program. “We needed an operating partner,” he said.
In states that choose Pearson-Stanford to manage the licensing, student teachers are expected to pay the company up to $300 apiece.
Washington State will require teaching candidates to pass the assessment next year. Wayne Au, a University of Washington professor, said based on the pilot, this approach was a considerably more sophisticated measure than traditional standardized tests. But because it is a mass-produced assessment, he said, students have already learned to manipulate it. “Their answers are shaped by what the test requires,” he said. “They’re not expressing who they are as teachers. It will do bad things.”
In New York, Pearson will be able to test a teacher’s worth from start to finish. The company currently administers the test students must pass to be admitted to a teaching program and is developing the testing system that will be used to calculate each teacher’s annual performance score.
How much impact any of this will have on teacher quality is debatable. California has had a performance assessment program in place for 10 years. According to Mr. Pecheone, 10 to 15 percent fail to get their license on the first try. When students retake the test, he said, only 1 to 2 percent fail to get a license.
At UMass, 1 to 2 percent of student teachers are weeded out of the program each year, according to Ms. Willett.
As for the idea that having an independent licensing test like California’s will improve the public’s opinion of teachers — no way. Politicians and businesspeople bash teachers in sunny California as much as they do in cloudy states. There is a whole education industry that is flourishing because it is built on the denigration of public schoolteachers.
By RR | April 28, 2012
For the past couple of years, I have been using Dropbox for data syncing and file sharing. It is an elegant, easy-to-use service that has saved me on more than one occasion. Dropbox is particularly good at saving earlier versions of a file, which is great if you tend to overwrite files like I do. For all of this and 50 GB of storage, I pay about $99 per year.
Now Google is, finally, getting into the cloud drive business, following Apple iCloud (which I have but never use) and other services such as Sugar Sync. I just downloaded the software and started using it. So far, Google Drive works much like Dropbox, though the interface is not as pretty. I’m not sure Google ever does anything beautifully, with the possible exception of their sleek browser, Chrome.
The cool part about Google Drive is the amount of free space it offers: a whopping 5 GB. That is a whole lot of text files. Or about 1500 music files. Or about 5 full length movies. And getting more space is cheaper than with Dropbox, almost by half, as this comparison chart from Digital Inspiration shows (hat tip: Kevin). I don’t think I’ll switch. I might just use Google Drive to store some biggish files that are currently hogging space in my Dropbox account. I guess if I were a little more savvy, I would have multiple accounts from different services, backing up everything piece by piece. That would be complicated, though, and that kind of defeats the purpose of behind-the-scenes file syncing.
Here is the moral of the story: students should never lose data again. Tell your students to set up Google Drive accounts at home. Make it a part of your course requirements. They’ll never blame flash drives again.
By RR | April 22, 2012
This past week, I’ve been playing one of the most critically acclaimed game of all time–Jonathan Blow’s Braid, an indie game with gorgeous aesthetics and a compellingly unconventional plot. I will confess my ignorance of this game until now: it was only the recent Atlantic Monthly article on Blow’s newest project, the forthcoming Witness, that introduced me to Braid. My reading of this article coincided with an interesting conversation with a colleague about hypertext fiction: he maintained that works such as Victory Garden (Stuart Mouthrop) and Patchwork Girl (Shelly Jackson) had staying power; I claimed that they were overly-theorized intellectual parlor tricks that few people still read outside of the academy. Hypertext fiction, as I argued in my dissertation, is finally a frustrating experience for the reader and decidedly not the best narrative use of the new digital media.
Braid, on the other hand, is close. It includes traditional narrative devices: linear textual pieces that reveal a broken relationship between Tim, the protagonist of the story, and the Princess, whom he must rescue. As fiction, these bits and pieces are a little overwritten, but they are much, much better than the typically unbearable “plot” sequences interjected between levels on most video games. You know–the parts you skip. At the same time, Braid offers some really cool puzzles that Tim must figure out if he is to get his girl back. Each world presents Tim with a series of puzzles–he solves them by reclaiming puzzle pieces from diabolic traps, and then reassembling the puzzle pieces into a larger image. The interesting part is that Tim can reverse time to help him solve the puzzles. The game flows backwards; Tim gets another chance at the puzzle. Blow is clearly playing around with the idea of narrative linearity, but doing so in a way that makes more sense than hypertext. After all, what do we do when a relationship ends? Relive it again and again, stuck in perpetual rewind.
The artistry is amazing–the backdrops have the feel of breathing paintings. Created by David Hellman, these tapestry of light and color explode the medium. Game developers usually give us grey dungeons, but not here. The explicit goal of most new video games is realism: the more realistic, the better. Hellman and Blow challenge this idea that the entire gaming industry seems to have bought into. There is also a classical score accompanying the gameplay–no more mind-numbing, repetitive soundtrack. It makes me excited to think what Witness might be like. For now, the good news is that Braid is only $3.99 at the Apple store.
Braid is a really cool combination of story telling and game playing–well worth your time. It might also be worth talking about in a literature class.