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Online Collaboration December 31, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Students, Writing.
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writely  Last year I had the honor of working on an education sub-committee of the Governor’s Committee on Innovation and Technology. At one point between meetings I had to get four participants together who were spread throughout the state. We used a conference call, speaker phones, and I acted as secretary noting every change in the text onto a web page then hit the “update” button frequently. 

Now along comes Writely from writely.com that would have made the task vastly simpler. The service basically allows you to create a document that other may edit online simultaneously. I was itching to try out the online tool with students, perhaps by giving them the task of taking collaborative notes, or with grad students or professors who were working on a document. 

The opportunity came sooner than expected and from students in a grade five class. My daughter’s friends called to invite her to begin planning for the Science Fair. They were going to all meet in an MSN Instant Messenger conversation to start their planning. 

Their plan, of course kept under tight wraps at this time, needed to be written out in some detail but the girls would not all be together in the same place until school started up again. I offered the Writely tool to the girls and they jumped at it. 

After a few minutes of false starts where I had to figure out that I should turn off the pop-up blocker, we had a document stored on the Writely site and all the girls we logged in. My suggestion was that they each write their name to show they were logged in and the tool was working. They had their own ideas and began writing nonsense words which they then bolded and colorized. It was their way of figuring out the limitations of the system. 

I will have to write a paper on how students approach new online word processing tools. For myself, I look at available fonts and the ability of the tool to hyperlink to other documents. The girls wanted to see it they could brand their texts with colors of choice. There may be other features they wanted to use but I was not able to witness them as they tested it out. 

I should note that Writely has the following warning: 

To comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, at this time Writely is only available to users who are at least 13 years old. If you are under 13, please do not use the Writely service. 

However, each girl had a Dad over her shoulder as we were experimenting with the tool and each Dad’s e-mail address was added to the list of e-Collaborators. 

There are other tools for such online editing that I have just discovered and I’m keen to try them, including one called Synchroedit.

Camera Phones December 30, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware.
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phonecam   Last summer, my wife and daughter were at a ball game in Denver while I toiled back home in Tucson. My wife snapped a photo on her camera phone and e-mailed it to me. A minute later, I had used Hello to post the photo to our family blog. A few minutes after that I received a phone call from my father in Canada to say he had seen the photo. To my mind, that’s quite an accomplishment for a little camera attachment on a cell phone.

But to really take it up a notch, you might pay a visit to 43folders.com where they have a list of helpful and creative uses for camera phones. What is even more fascinating is how many creative uses for cameras people tout. Read through the comments section.

http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/21/how-do-you-get-creative-with-your-phonecam/

Here are some of my favorites submitted by readers:

  • Took a picture of a take-out menu and sent it to my sister so we could decide together what to get for dinner without having to read off 100 options.
  • I try to take a photo a day to have some sort of diary.
  • The other night at a train station in Tokyo I couldn’t find a paper copy of the train schedule so I snapped a shot of the timetable.
  • I used my phonecam to take a pic of 3 different light fixtures I liked for the dining room. When I got home, I stood back, held up the camera with the photos and closed one eye. It showed me exactly what each fixture would like like over the dining table. Worked like a charm!

The one that got the most reaction from readers who left comments was:

  • If you’re out and about and happen to see a CD, book, or other consumable you might want to pick up later on, snap a photo of the item’s barcode. When you get home you can look the item up on Amazon or Froogle.com and find the best price, or just add it to your canonical online wishlist.

Of course, it isn’t so much that people aren’t writing things down anymore, it is that they have a new and versatile option for storing the stuff they were just going to cram into their wallet or purse.

TXT MSG December 29, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Students, Writing.
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txtmsg  Every few weeks an article is published examining a new wrinkle in the way we use technology to communicate with each other. The Washington Post’s piece on the brevity of text messaging provides an overview of some of the issues for those of us interested in computer-mediated communication (CMC) and the development of adolescent social networks. 

What I found interesting was the view from the adolescent perspective as seen from interviews by a researcher with the Pew Internet & American Life Project. She wrote, “You don’t see the person’s upper lip tremble. You don’t hear their voice quiver. You don’t get those external, non-textual cues.” 

This suggests that text messaging, if it is to ever become a mainstream means of communicating is at a fork in the road of its development. Although the brevity required of the text can easily remove traces of nervousness and hints of uncertainty, what do we do with brief text when we want to infuse a message with emotion? Either we must rely on gimmicky emoticons, with us since the earliest days of e-mail, or we will develop the language of texting to a new literary art form. 

It would have to be considerably more insightful than the limerick and less impenetrable than the haiku. I can see the first collection available in bookstores soon (would former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky be available to edit, I wonder). Even better, I can envision a briefly popular series of translated classics, a txt to text translation book for parents, a txt grammar, txt classes being offered at the local community center, and txt being prominently placed in major motion pictures. 

Alas, I also see counseling for couples who argue over correct spacing and spelling, accidental deletions of sentimental messages, and failure to respond adequately to texting spouses. Before that happens, I will have to check in on the Oxford English Dictionary to see if “texting? is the proper form of the newest verb “to text.? 

UPDATE: According to the OED, “texting” has been noted in vernacular communications since 1998 and a citation about it will be included in an update to the print version.

 

Technology’s Effects December 28, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Funding.
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assessment   Recently, another study was released suggesting no significant difference on test scores from the influence of the technology. The study looked at the impact of the E-Rate federal program, which has spent almost two billion a year since 1998 to bridge the “digital divide” between schools in rich and poor districts.

While the research confirmed that the number of poor schools going online increased dramatically, the fact that more students had access to the Internet had zero impact on each school’s performance on the Stanford Achievement Test, which has been administered in California since 1997.

“We didn’t find any evidence that increased access to the Internet led to improved test scores,” Jonathan Guryan, associate professor of economics at the university’s Graduate School of Business, said.

As to why Internet access didn’t boost student learning, Guryan said it was possible the schools did not know how to make effective use of the Web, or it’s just not an effective way to boost test scores.

Actually, it is somewhat reassuring to me that scores on these tests have not plummeted with students spending so much time on the Internet. Perhaps the real issue is that we are making a smooth transition to a completely different way of intereacting with information in the world.

This all begs the question about the efficacy of the Stanford Acheivement Test and what it was designed to test and how it is designed to test it. Again, if scores have not dropped over the years despite increased access to the Internet it may be an indicator that the tests have not kept pace with new assessment techniques.

So it should come as no surprise that one state is considering legislating computerized examinations for elementary and middle schools. The biggest drawback with standardized tests, aside from their extremely limited scope, is that it took too long for results to get back into the hands of teachers so they could effect change in the classroom. Advocated of standardized tests have often cited the feedback the tests provide as a rationalization for their existence but in reality this is far from the truth.

Interestingly, some states have decided that technology in the classroom is worth spending money on. Soon all seventh grade students in Illinois will receive laptop computers. Results of studies conducted in Henrico County in Virginia were encouraging enough to warrant such an expense. In Henrico County, students recorded the highest ever scores on the SAT, both verbal and math, in four years on the program.

Worries over Literacy December 27, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Information.
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assessment   In a Washington Post article on the declining reading scores of college students came the following excellent line:

“What’s disturbing is that the assessment is not designed to test your understanding of Proust, but to test your ability to read labels,” . . . added Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of education statistics. 

So why are scores of graduates declining? After years of testing in elementary, middle, and high school with an eye toward someday having scores good enough to get into university, the participants may have simply grown jaundiced and disinterested in participated in reading tests. Furthermore, why are we even bothering to test the ability of graduate students to read labels?  

It is interesting that Schneider mentions label-reading. To my recollection, this was the major rationalization for the creation of reading tests in the first place. Newspapers were awash with horror stories of people not able to read simple labels in supermarkets and high school graduates who could not fill out application forms. 

Scheider also mentions the impact of the computer. He said, “It may be that institutions have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV.” 

I am still scratching my head over that one. He suspects that it might be a different kind of literacy involved. I suspect that we are in for a new set of tests that will challenge students to use embedded hyperlinks to find and use information among a collection of different types of texts. 

Finding information by using hyperlinks and having an understanding of what links to click is a deep part of computer literacy. One click will order a column of information, another click will send mail, another will engage an engine in a search you must define, and yet another will open a review of a product. That set of skills is encountered by even very young children reading and researching online. Within minutes a child might have to interact with the material on the screen several times. This set of skills conflicts with the inherent bias of tests to finding out what you cannot do properly. 

During interactions with the computer, if a student does not get the expected results by clicking a symbol or word, it is a simple matter of checking the instructions and clicking somewhere else again until you figure out what is needed to progress. Static paper and pencil tests are left far behind by this new skill set. Fill in a bubble incorrectly and you might find out it is incorrect months later.

Interactivity foils the goals of test writers.

Internet Astronomy December 26, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Online Tools.
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Comet   On July 4, 2005, for a brief moment, scientists were transfixed on a single point in the sky as an 820 pound (370 kg) mass was hurled at Comet Tempel 1. Scientists used sensitive instruments and cameras to record the impact and analyze the debris from the comet.

The whole incident was over in moments, but what might have been a passing moment has been frozen for analysis by students. Scientists are still publishing data about the impact and the average non-astronomer can still marvel over the results through regular newsletters from the Deep Impact team.

Just prior to the impact I had a discussion about the possible results of the impact with an electrical engineer from Kitt Peak. He didn’t think there would be much of a splash when the comet was hit. A photo from the resulting explosion on the surface of the comet has been entered as one of the News Photos of the Year for 2005 in an MSNBC contest.

For teachers, the story of the comet and the Deep Impact project is recorded from inception to launch to impact to analysis. They can pull out all manner of class science projects to perform with their students from making and eating a comet to analyzing craters.

I recall having to search long and hard for great new materials to bring to my own astronomy class and the textbook I ordered was of no help. The text, an astronomy reference book, was so out-of-date that on the last page was an “artist’s rendition” of what a space-based telescope might look like. The Hubble Space Telescope had already been in orbit for five years.

Simply stated, school astronomy courses have been turned inside out by the amazing work of some excellent public outreach teams.

A Christmas Story December 25, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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santa   This great story came from Mary B. on my listserv:

My second graders surprised me by greeting customers with Christmas Carols at Border’s Books last week.

Last Thursday the kids and I went to Border’s to buy books for an inner-city second grade classroom’s library. The kids raised $1,100.00 by having a Read-A-Thon, doing chores at home, donating their allowances, and asking parents and relatives for donations. They were so excited after they finished counting the money, and so was I. That was the most money earned in the 12 years that I have been doing this literacy project.

We all went to Border’s and picked out hundreds of paperback books for the second grade classroom in Chicago where the books will be sent so that those kids can have lots of books to read in their classroom. After the kids selected the books, we proceeded up to the check-out and Border’s gave us our personal check-out person.

John, the man behind the register, let the kids come up one at a time to help scan the books and place them in the box. The rest of the kids had to sit on the floor right at the entrance to the store. I was a little worried that the waiting kids would get restless, but one of the kids got all the others singing Christmas carols and greeting and saying good-bye to the shoppers. 

My second graders were so cute, and the shoppers and sales people at Border’s loved it. After we got back to school, I laminated the three long cash register receipts and hung them from our classroom door. Each receipt is long as the door, and they will be kept there all year to remind the kids that they can indeed make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Have a Happy Christmas!

A Lifelong Influence December 24, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning.
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Mclaren   My earliest formal training in educational technology was a hands-on session on how to thread a 16 millimeter film projector. That was it. The session was a requirement of all graduates from the College of Education I attended.

But you know, even if that was all we had today in the classroom, I believe I would still be trying to push the limits. I was honored to have several excellent English teachers at Markham District High School who tried very hard to bring literature to life. These teachers encouraged us to examine things we might have taken for granted and use them in new ways.

At one Open House, we took 16mm movie file that was simply clear acetate for the most part. We then took markers and dabbed dots of color in the blank frames between the film’s sprockets. After some minutes of filling the frames with dots and lines, the teacher ran the film through a projector and played as accompaniment to the riot of colors an Invention by J. S. Bach played on the Moog synthesizer.

It was wonderful and it was eye opening. It was also, I learned later, homage to Canada’s own Norman MacLaren, a superb experimental filmmaker who took film and manually added colors and scratches to great effect.

So what did I learn from that one brief experience at an Open House in 1973? On that evening the seed was planted for a lifelong interest in exploring the limits of technology in the classroom. I learned about experimental films and music. I started on a path of learning about the physics of animation and color. I had never really appreciated the music of J. S. Bach before that evening and my love and appreciation for his music has evolved over the years. 

More importantly, I learned that curriculum was a starting point to an adventure.

Coal from Congress December 23, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Funding.
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congress Last night the federal budget passed out of the Senate and earlier in the week the defense budget was passed. The National School Boards Association President, Joan Schmidt, wrote:

The nation’s defense bill, which includes funding for our troops during a time of war, should never have been used as a cover to enact bad legislation for our public schools. But that is precisely what Congress has done. The House voted this week in the middle of the night to cut education funding and simultaneously enact a private school voucher program under the guise of hurricane relief. And now the Senate has followed suit and prepared to head home for the year, leaving behind broken promises to America’s schoolchildren.

I am all for an open and robust debate about the merits of one funding system over another, but to feel that the only way to get the legislation on charter schools through was by embedding it in other funding bills then I am appalled. It gets worse though when you read the analysis of the federal budget that was just passed:

The massive, $602 billion spending package . . . slashes funding for several ed-tech related programs, including $221 million less for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for educational technology . . .a sobering reality for proponents of educational technology nationwide, many of whom had hoped to persuade Congress to restore funds to EETT and other technology-related initiatives after House lawmakers rejected an earlier version of the bill in November.

You can read the article from eSchool News for more details. One point the article makes is that many school districts had relied on that money to support the demands of No Child Left Behind. In Arizona the threat of lost funding money has broken up many technology training programs.

Server Games December 23, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware.
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Online Tools   Just as we were about to button down the lab for the Winter Break, odd things started happening. All week we were cleaning old web pages off the server just to make it run a little smoother and to reduce the total file size to speed up our backup. This was basic stuff. Our excellent Network Administrator had moved files to a second server so he could install updated drives onto the web server.

Everything was going well, so it came as a surprise to everyone when I announced that the server was down. I had first noticed the problem the night before and again in the morning. We immediately ran analysis programs and checked out the system. The culprit appeared to be an Internet Protocol number that was off by one digit. It was either a typo or something did not save properly.

During the regular year we would have been deluged with phone calls within minutes of the server crashing, but as this is the quietest working day of the entire academic year so far there have been no calls.

Side note: Happy birthday Sister Louise from Brother Michael. :-)

Update: After five hours and a personal call from three crack server gurus on campus, we were able to determine the cause of the problem and resolve it in short order.