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Online Instructions March 18, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Writing.
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furnace   This morning, the pilot light in the furnace went out and my wife asked me to restart it. Last year I had to do that over the telephone and my description of the process was so difficult and frustrating that we had to ask a neighbor to come and ignite the pilot light. As I was starting to light it, I recalled that I had a digital camera. I took three or four photographs of the process, wrote up some instructions, printed them to a PDF document, and e-mailed them to my wife. I know in the future she will have to do this, so I’m sure these instructions will save us some aggravation.

One of the comments to a previous blog entry reminded me of an activity I used to help a colleague out last year. It seems many of her students were having difficulty using a piece of software called SPSS, Statistical Package for Social Sciences. We used a new piece of software called Captivate. This software enabled her to record every keystroke she made in SPSS while setting up a new database.

After recording all of the keystrokes, the instructor then walked through a detailed narration of the steps required to create the database. Knowing she was about to go off to a new institution, she saved the software then installed it on a server for her students to access it.

In her comments in my blog, she noted that   her students were exceedingly happy that she had created this program for demonstration purposes. It reminded me of the time I listened to the 60-minute cassette tape repeatedly until I understood the concepts. In the same way that I created a set of instructions for my wife to read light the pilot light on the furnace, a Professor created a set of instructions her students would use for years to come as a review or as an introduction to using SPSS.

This technology has rendered almost obsolete the process of repeating instructions every time a student encounters difficulty with a particular concept. Of course, there is still a lot to be said for instructing students face to face or over the shoulder to determine if they truly understand the concept. This process of formative assessment is integral to good instruction and will never disappear.

I am currently in the process of making similar demonstration tutorials for faculty to access online anytime and anyplace. I am hoping that these practical examples will assist teachers in expanding their repertoire of pedagogical tools in the higher education classroom.


Voice to Text March 14, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Writing.
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Voice to text   Yesterday I finally purchased a decent voice to text software program in the hopes that it might assist me in dictating a short novel. I will not mention the name of the software until I am satisfied it is up to the task. Several years ago, I was using a free version of the software that came bundled with my new Toshiba laptop. It had a lot of potential but I am afraid that I was not an adequate spokesperson for the software. 

After training the software to recognize my voice, I thought it was time to perform a demonstration for my students. When the day of the presentation came, I was suffering from a terrible head cold and at the time, I had no idea of the damage that would cause to the voice recognition patterns that I had built up over the last few weeks.

I began my demonstration explaining to students how wonderful the software was and how it was able to capture my words exactly and turn them into text. Most of my students at that time had never seen anything quite like it back in 1999. As you can imagine, with a head full of mucus my ability to speak clearly was severely compromised. As a result, what appeared on the screen in the way of text was almost gobbledygook. It bore no similarity to what I had spoken into the computer and as a result, my students were severely disappointed in this new software. So was I. Now, six years later, I believe the software might be up to the task and I am willing to try it.

The first thing I noticed was that it took significantly less time for me to teach the software to recognize my voice and I appreciate that. This difficulty in training the software to recognize the voice of the speaker or the user is what caused a number of teachers to become frustrated with the research project using voice to text software I was helping to conduct among a population of severely dysgraphic adolescent in a high school.

The software requires the user to read a complicated passage into the microphone while it correlates speech patterns with the words of the text. This activity posed a great deal of difficulty for my high schoolers who could not read very well. One solution we came up with was to have teachers’ assistants read short sections of the text to the students who would then speak the sections into the microphone.

Another solution was to see if it was possible to have the students memorize one sentence at a time then speak that sentence into the microphone. Both of these attempts were abandoned because of the time required of the teachers’ aides and the students, which, in hindsight, was quite shortsighted. The goal of the research was to determine whether or not students with access to this voice to text software could not only find the means with which to fairly assess what they are learning, but also to strengthen their literacy skills by providing immediate feedback on the computer screen.

The amount of time required to ensure the voice recognition software was accurately recording what it was hearing proved too much for the research study and we abandoned it. It is my hope that the newer versions of the software will provide faster and better recognition of the spoken word of the severely disk graphic students. Now it is my job to convince the professor who originally wanted to do the study that she should attempted again. I am very optimistic about my chances.

The fun thing about this software is that it is allowing me to perform my usual household tasks while composing at the same time. In fact, I dictated this entire piece while ironing clothing, albeit it was a small pile of laundry. This software has added an entire new dimension to my household cleaning routine. 

Blogs and the Bard March 3, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Students, Writing.

shakespeare   David Warlick wrote in a recent blog of his disappointment that so few teachers were using the technological affordances despite having early successes at incorporating the Internet into their teaching just a few years before. He is speaking generally about the use of blogs and their disappearance from the teaching scene. They simply have not caught on yet as a teaching tool. 

I wonder if there is some student resistance to being asked to write that makes it a little harder to implement blogs widely. I also wonder if it is the case that so few teachers have the writing habit that they are not able to convince their students that daily writing can benefit them. For me, the benefits show up every day. In addition to writing more clearly, I am able to gather my thoughts together more quickly and construct my arguments better. Writing on a daily basis can also produce some surprises in the product. 

Yesterday, a graduate student sat down with me to outline his ideas for a dissertation. As part of his qualifying examination, he wrote a very good paper about getting his AP students in English to write blog entries about Shakespeare, specifically comparisons between King Lear and Hamlet. The blogs were very well contained on a site operated by nicenet.com. The teacher encouraged his students to write freely without thought of having points deducted for poor grammar or strange sentence constructions. As a result, I read several of the blog entries that read like lunch hour conversations: 

Man, Cordleia must have freaked when she found out what Goneril did. 

This sort of writing, breathing like into Shakespeare with an honest to gosh high school senior’s reaction is wonderful. Of course, the teacher did have to ensure that the students knew what a substantial post was. What it was not was a series of “I agree with Jayne,” or “You dummy, that is so stupid.” Once he sorted that out, he did get some rather decent responses to his writing prompts. 

In my own class, the blog writing is coming in fits and start. I believe I am going to have to ratchet up the pressure a little to get regular writing out of them. Some, however, have been simply marvelous. 


Browser Proofing February 9, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Writing.
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mouse   This morning, just as I was about to sit down to start the day, a graduate student intercepted me to tell me her advisor was looking at the web site for the Graduate Colloquy and it was not working.

This is the eighteenth year in a row the department of Language, Reading, and Culture has run this Colloquy. Recently they have included a great web site and posted all sorts of information about the proceedings. The Colloquy even produces a book of all the presentations. It is quite an event.

I opened the site in Internet Explorer and, sure enough, the boxes were a mess, the links were not working on all the pages, and some of the links were simply not visible. I opened the same site on Firefox and then on Netscape and the trouble with the graphic elements went away but some of the links were still not quite visible.

After seeing that something was actually coming up on the page, the student suggested, “My advisor says she cannot see it on her Windows 98 machine. Perhaps that is the problem.?

Windows 98 is old as operating systems go, but we still have them here and there around the building. It is a stable platform, as the network people like to say. In the corner of the lab, we still had one active. It was hooked up to a scanner and JAWS, a program that speaks aloud every icon you can click and every command you might make. I will have to sample some of the sounds for the blog some day.

After a few long minutes, we saw that the page was presenting itself fairly well, overall for an old machine. I considered aloud that perhaps the web site might work better on a Mac. The grad student snapped up, “Of course, our web designer used a Mac.? When we looked at the site on Safari, the Mac browser, it was perfectly aligned, perfectly set up, the links were working perfectly, and I could see how it was all meant to appear.

After making web sites for so long, I get a little cranky about people not checking to see if the page works outside its native environment. Perhaps that should be a major rule for all web designers, proof your work by looking at it on other browsers. Doing that proofing from the beginning would have made my life easier this morning.

Writing Prompts January 18, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Online Tools, Writing.
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grade two   Years ago I taught at a wonderful and progressive Secondary School in York Region in Ontario. Most students in most schools had one choice of English course they could take unless they wanted to shift from Advanced level to General. Students at Thornlea, on the other hand, could choose from a wide range of courses from ones with a strong focus on literary analysis to courses that stressed writing. They could choose from courses with strong thematic elements such as Heroes and Villains or take courses with a drama component. As a new teacher to that school, I inherited courses that it seemed nobody wanted to teach.

One of these courses was called Journal Writing, which even at the time the course was given to me I thought a bit on the light side. The course used as a guide a workbook by Mark Hansen called Sources. The thinking behind it was that students can produce brilliant journal entries if they are given guidance on the topics that peel deeper into our psyche from simple observation of the world to observations of what is happening each of us. It worked very well and the students I had labored hard at their writing. I was inspired by that experience. Rather than just give my students the blank slate of a blog and ask them to write about their educational technology experiences, I provided a few questions to guide them. They are writing prompts only in the broadest sense: 

  1. My First Computer 
  2. Computers in My School Experience 
  3. Instant Message Messes 
  4. Viruses and Spyware 
  5. Fun and Games 
  6. The Dark Side of Computers 
  7. Creativity 
  8. When Projects Go Right 
  9. When Projects Go Wrong 
  10. The Future 

Some of the blog entries are proving to be quite illuminating. One young lady in my class suggested that content or subject matter are not as important to learning to use computers as the sense of empowerment they provide and promote. She wrote: 

When I was growing up “Kid Pix” taught me how to maneuver the mouse and how to be more creative. While I didn’t understand much about what I was actually accomplishing by working on the computer, looking back I can see that by working on [it] at a young age, it helped me not to be intimidated by other computers I would be working on in the future.

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.

TXT MSG December 29, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Students, Writing.

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.


Astro Rejection December 9, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Writing.
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Night Saguaro   It took a while for the editors of Sky & Telescope to get back to me, but they ended up rejecting my “Night Saguaro with Cepheus.” No problem though as the process of preparing the photo was a learning experience. After reviewing some of the other photos published, there was not one taken with an off-the-shelf Canon PowerShot. Since taking this shot (shown above), both arms have fallen off the cactus.