and I'm all out of bubble gum…

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Even as the end-of-year to-do lists are approaching critical overload, I find that one of the joys of the spring is the contemplation of what I will be working on next year. Not so much in a “next year I’ll do this all differently” kind of snit, but with more of a “year in review” focus: spring and graduation makes me sentimental and reminiscent.

With that in mind, in the past week I have come across two interesting resources both for teaching in general and for thinking about our work as “knowledge workers” in the 21st century (to infinity and beyond!). First, Merlin Mann discusses how we do (or do not) allocate our time and attention to getting our projects done. Thoughtful, provocative and entertaining stuff. Second, Williams College’s Project for Effective Teaching has gone online with a truly exciting, provocative array of professorial reflections and questions around specific aspects of classrooms and teaching and learning. Enjoy!

How, you might ask, do videos like these fall into my hands? I follow-up on the sources of interesting articles that I see. And then on the sources of those sources: I like to find where the ideas are swimming around raw and unfettered. I do this by following a boat-load of interesting “edu-bloggers”, by following (and engaging with) other teachers on Twitter, and by doing a lot of skimming.

May 13th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As we head down the homestretch of May and June, more and more students (and teachers) are experiencing siyyum for their coursework, either as final papers or presentations or projects. Projects and papers are delightfully straight-forward and easy to facilitate and grade… at least, when compared to presentations, which have the added benefit of being a potential exercise in goodwill and patience to sit through.

The first hurdle our students have to get over is the technology itself — bringing together all the disparate elements of their presentation into one place and time. A few years ago, I wrote up a cheat sheet of tips that help to avoid the most common student pitfalls. I have not run into technical problems with student PowerPoints since I started giving them this handout (I kid you not).

In general, a good presentation has to nail not just the content and technology, but also visuals and public speaking. And this is the hardest thing to do right. For adults, even. Experts have started to decry PowerPoint as not just problematic, but actively destructive when it comes to communicating information and especially nuance clearly.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

New York Times, April 26, 2010

Shifting the focus from a PowerPoint document to the holistic presentation will further the student’s ability to communicate complex ideas — a key skill in today’s (or any day’s) world. Some further reading that is both informative and motivational on that front:

May 6th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Making Things Run Smoothly

  • Make sure that you always insert pictures into your presentation using the Insert Picture command from the Insert menu. Do not copy and paste pictures into your presentation. For arcane reasons, copy and pasting pictures can make your PowerPoint fail to display your pictures on other computers.
  • Keep a folder of all of the pictures and video that you add to your PowerPoint. Just in case you need to re-insert it (for example, if you messed up on following the tip above).
  • Video is not embedded in PowerPoint, pictures are – share Zip files. That is, you can insert pictures into a PowerPoint presentation and send the presentation to someone else and they can see the pictures but you cannot insert video, send the presentation to someone else, and expect them to see the video. PowerPoint creates a link to the video instead. To get around this, if you are going to use video, put your presentation and your video files in a folder together, then insert the video. When you are ready to share your presentation, right-click on the folder and Send To > Compress or Zip Archive and send out the Zip file instead. Your recipient can unzip the archive and will have the presentation and the video.

Making Things Look Pretty

  • Black text on a white background is not traditional by accident. It’s easy to read. Think carefully before trying a novel color combination.
  • One picture per slide lets you show the picture big, in all its glory. Multiple pictures per slide lets you compare pictures. Think about which it is you want to be doing (and remember that postage stamps are hard to see!).
  • Don’t stretch your pictures. You can scale your pictures proportionately by holding down the Shift key when you drag the grab boxes on the corners of the picture. This will make sure that the picture doesn’t get distorted.
  • Use text judiciously. This one is complicated: you don’t want to have too much text on a slide because it will get small and hard to read. You don’t want to put your script on the slide, because then you’ll be reading from the slide, which is deathly dull (unless, maybe, you’re Morgan Freeman). But you do want to present text that will support your arguments and highlight important ideas. And you do want to present quotations that are illuminating. One rule of thumb is the “six by six” rule: no more than six words per bullet point, no more than six bullet points per slide. This is totally artificial and you should violate it as needed… but remember it and what it is really urging: don’t overwhelm your audience with text!
  • Less is more. This is true of almost everything involved in PowerPoint, but particularly when it comes to animation and sound effects. They have a campy appeal, and can sometimes underscore a point you’re trying to make. But you ain’t Spielberg and PowerPoint ain’t ILM, so don’t go trying to put in gratuitous special effects just to make your PowerPoint more appealing. Your research and ideas should be the focus, not your ability to make car crash sound effects.

May 6th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

One of the oft-touted features of social media, blogs, and news sites is RSS feeds. The phrase “subscribe to my feed for updates” probably connotes some twenty-something layabout in a coffee shop, but, in fact, RSS feeds are enormously useful to grown-ups (like thee and me) for managing large (vast, huge) amounts of information.

First, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. In this case, we’re using syndication in the same sense as a newspaper syndicate (not a crime syndicate — there’s different software for that): suppose Dave Barry writes for the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle carries the Bizarro cartoon. How is it that we open the LA Times and see both of these in our paper? The newspaper syndicates distribute all of the updates to Dave Barry’s column and Bizarro just prior to the newspaper going to press each night.

RSS, really simple syndication, is a newspaper syndicate for the rest of us: we can subscribe to the RSS feeds on web sites for updates from that web site, and use a feed reader (Google Reader, Newsgator, Bloglines, iGoogle, etc.) to present all of these updated feeds to us in one place. Common Craft has a short (brisk, even) video explaining this:

All of the blogs on our school blog server have RSS feeds. In fact, you can subscribe to updates from a particular category on a blog, or to updated comments on a particular post on a blog, if you want. Major newspapers provide lists of RSS feeds for their articles.

As a voracious newshound myself (I used to read two, three and sometimes four newspapers in a morning), I’m finding that — with RSS feeds — I no longer even open a physical paper. Instead, all of my information comes through Google Reader subscriptions to blog and newspaper feeds. About 5,000 updates a week.

For more plain English explanations of web technology, check out Common Craft’s YouTube channel.

April 22nd, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

When I was a summer camp assistant director, back in the day, my least favorite task was to field “dead or alive” phone calls — those phone calls where parents were inquiring whether Junior, who had not written home in the past month, was still alive or not… with, perhaps, some suggestion that “not” would be more acceptable than “not writing home.”

Knowing that we’re all headed off campus for Pesach, now is a good time to set up a vacation auto-response on our email, hopefully staving off any potential “alive or dead” inquiries about us.

Also, I want to share the coolest trick that I’ve learned in FirstClass in the last week: Calendar Punch-Through — layering multiple calendars on top of each other, so that you can see all the events at the same time. Watch the video to see what I mean. It’s rad. Or, at least, gnarly.

The bonus: I maintain a feed of recent internet posts on teaching and technology. This is the filtered version of what I read: I slave so that you can benefit. These are articles that I think are in some way interesting or informative about teaching, or teaching with technology, or generally existing as a teacher in the early 21st century. It’s a fascinating mish-mash.

And thank you all for your feedback on last week’s blog “explanation” — a more polished, finished version will be ready after Tiyulim Week!

March 25th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As teachers, we instinctually know how to use a lot of the tools that come our way: pen, paper, whiteboard, textbook. These all have self-evident uses. Not only do we understand how to use these tools, but we can think creatively about their purpose, and how they might be used to teach, challenge and push our students.

Where this gets a bit sticky is when we’re presented with a tool that we aren’t quite sure how to use, or what it’s purpose might be. To this end, I’ve been thinking about ways to explaining some of the technology that we’ve been talking about this year at its conceptual level: not what it’s for, but simply how does it work? (Perhaps this is residue of reading too much David Macaulay in my mispent youth.) Once we grok the working of a tool, then we can start to think about the purpose to which we might put it.

This week, what I share with you is not a finished thought, but a rough cut of the first half of a video explaining how blogs work. This is the work of an afternoon — not a polished product in any way shape or form. And I would be delighted (nay, indebted) to you for feedback on this proto-explanation. Does it makes sense? Does it help you to think about a blog as a device? What would make it better?

March 18th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip (and it is, again, a bit FirstClass-centric, focused on some of our internal systems — we’re running a WPMU blog server and a MindTouch DekiWiki).

We won’t rehearse all of the problems with email attachments here (Can I open that file? What happened to my disk quota!? Which version was it?) Instead, let us focus on things that improve the experience. In fact, here’s a short video Top Ten list:

Links from the video

March 11th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As teachers, we are perennially swapping the hat that we wear: lecturer, confidante, counselor, coach, security officer, parent. With the ability publish work instantaneously to the entire globe with a single click comes a fresh and daunting hat: copyright lawyer. The Gordian Knot of copyright law raises its Medusa-like head at several times during the year: preparing readings, vetting student research and writing, and presenting student accomplishments. At this time of the year, it seems most appropriate to focus on the last of these…

What copyright concerns come along with exhibiting and presenting student work? What follows are some questions to ask yourself (and your students) to clarify this situation. (Remember: IANAL, so this is not technically legal advice, this is friendly, collegial advice!)

In general, if you can’t answer yes to at least one of these questions, your best bet is to not publish: you’re taking a risk not just for yourself, but for your student and the school. Treat work that doesn’t meet these criteria as a draft, available only within the school walls. Push your students to revise their work to meet these criteria in exactly the same manner that the editor at your publishing house would push you.

March 4th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip. This one is, perhaps, particularly our-setup-specific (My Classes, Handins, Returns, etc.), but I think that the core ideas are worth sharing to the world.

One of the real challenges that we confront when teaching in a digital classroom is that there are a tremendous number of documents, spread across a tremendous number of computers, often in tremendously varying states of completion. A team of faculty is coalescing around digital portfolios this spring, and file management is the single greatest challenge that we’re looking at initially.

With that in mind, it seems timely to suggest some best practices for working with files in the My Classes folder on FirstClass:

  • Email attachments hurt. If students are turning in their work an email attachments, it counts against their disk quota (which is pretty slim by this point in the year). And you have to open each and every single message to download the attachment so that you can read it. That’s a recipe for frustration. Instead, have your students upload their files directly to the Handins folder — they can just drag them from their computer desktop into the FirstClass folder (or choose Upload… from the File menu in FirstClass). Files in the My Classes folder do not count against anyone’s disk quota. The best part: you can now select a group of files in your Handins folder and drag them to your computer desktop to download all of them all at once (no more opening every individual email).
  • File names matter. Ask your students to include both the name of the assignment and their name in the name of the file that they’re uploading. If the students don’t put their name on their files, it’s a hassle to figure out who turned in what. And likewise, if they don’t put the assignment on the file, you’ve got to open the file to find out. The file names don’t need to be Homeric epics: “Feb. 18 Essay – Seth B.doc” works great as a file name.
  • Students can’t cheat from the Handins folder. They aren’t able to open other people’s work (or even their own), nor can they remove their work once it’s turned in (so no coming back with an “improved” version after the fact). In fact, the only person who can open the files in the Handins folder is… the teacher.
  • Students need to be told about the Returns folder. Every class has a Returns folder that has an individual folder for each student in the class. You can drag files you are returning to those students directly into those folders (from, say, your computer desktop). Only the student whose folder it is can open the folder and read the files (and they can’t change them). Plus, now you don’t have student files cluttering up your inbox and counting against your disk quota as email attachments!
  • Be clear, but firm. You’re teaching technical skills, and your students won’t get it right at first. Help them to turn in their files correctly (i.e. in a way that is easy for you to work with), rather than fixing their mistakes. Every mistake you fix will end up being a mistake you have to fix every time.

Obviously, the list goes on, but these five best practices should help cut through some of the chaos and confusion accompanied by the proliferation of documents produced by a digital classroom!

February 18th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

One major challenge that students (of any age) face when learning how to use a new tool is that, when demonstrated, the application seems simple and easy. But now, on one’s own, finding that button or toggle that made everything easy in class is deucedly difficult. There are a number of ways to combat this, ranging from having the teacher physically present every moment that students are completing their first (and maybe second and third) projects to shrugging our collective shoulders and averring that, in fact, the puzzling-it-all-out process builds character and reenforces learning. Pain doesn’t reenforce learning; pain reenforces aversion to learning. Instead, how about providing instructions? Perhaps even instructions in the manner in which they were presented in the classroom, creating a familiar context and voice? A number of teachers have been exploring the possibilities of screencasting — recording what’s happening on your computer — in teaching with technology this year. It’s easy: it only takes a few minutes to record a screencast and post it to the internet, where you have a link to share with students at the end of a lesson.

An example of a quick use of screencasts to reenforce in-class teaching: A quick introduction to iMovie ’09

All these tools have links to screencasts explaining how to use them on their front pages! (How meta is that?)

Further resources: [A colleague] and Seth Battis talk about their experiences screencasting this year on the Laptop Leader pages.

February 12th, 2010

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