battis.net and I'm all out of bubble gum…

I actually really, really want to document some of our projects that we’re working on this year in a great deal more detail. But, for now, I am simply publishing my notes from a conversation that I just had with Apple Education about the legalities of having high school students develop for the app store.

So… I just got off the phone with Apple Education (they were following up on an iOS in Education event a few months ago that I had actually missed). But: I did get the straight dope on Apple Developer accounts and high schools:
  • University accounts are just that: for higher education. Non-negotiable.
  • There are really three levels of developer that are pertinent to high school:
    • Free — they can download Xcode and use the iPhone simulator.
    • Individual ($99) — Same as free, plus they can use their iPhones/iPads to debug the software live (with the right certificates — I’ve found that the easiest way to set up the certificates is directly through the Xcode Organizer). My recollection is that they can have up to something like 100 devices for “debugging.” At this level, they can post apps to the App Store.
    • Enterprise ($299, IIRC) — Individual, plus the ability to manage a fleet of iOS devices (remote install and remote wipe), as well as distributing their software internally with no restrictions. I actually pressed him pretty hard on this, and he wasn’t 100% (“read the language in the agreement first”), but he thinks that it would be viable for the school to buy an Enterprise license and then say “Come by the computer lab and we’ll install our cool in-house app on your iPhone for free.” (Or for money — I don’t think they care.)
  • Apple strongly discourages the school (which would, in reality, be a single individual) signing up for an Individual developer account as the primary distribution channel to the App store for student apps. The rationale being that if a particular app makes it big, the individual who has control of that account well, has control of that account. Apple deals with account holders, not the model that the school constructed. They suggested that if a group of students wanted to band together on an app, that they should sign up as a group for an Individual account through which to distribute that app — and that they should draw up their own contract on their end for how to manage that account.
  • Students under 18 need to be signed up for the account by their parents. (Contract law — the kids are underage.)
At the end of the day, it sounded like my approach this year is basically right on the nose: I have an Individual account in my name that I use to install apps on test iPhones (and I have registered all the student iPhones as debugging devices). The students signed up for free accounts at the beginning of the year. I think what we’ll do when we release this app is sign up for a new Individual account that the students will jointly share to post the app to the App Store (something like “[Jewish Day School] App Design ’10’-’11”).

February 15th, 2011

Posted In: Computer Science, Uncategorized

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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

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , ,

This write-up is an articulation of an idea that I first stumbled across last spring, in conversation with my colleagues around technology and academic integrity. I am enormously grateful to Lynette Sumpter and Ned Sherrill for pushing me and supporting me and challenging me and engaging me in the discussion that led me to this idea.

Let me preface this by noting that I am not a history teacher. Or a writing instructor. Or a teacher of social studies or literature.

But, I have played one on TV. And I have spent the last few years faking it in various settings (for example, teaching Third Form Seminar at St. Grottlesex, a studies skills class thinly disguised as a history class — or my current role teaching Media Studies, which is on the cusp of becoming Mark Taylor and teaching “liberal arts” as a discipline unto itself).

Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

I have been struck by how we teach our students to take part in academic discourse. I fear that we are teaching them to be fearful, rather than confident, outspoken and — above all — well-spoken. When I work with ninth graders writing their “big research paper”, it is clear that they are already viewing the process with trepidation. Not because they are not looking forward to the work (in fact, they often become absorbed in their research and legitimately excited about their chosen topic). They are terrified that they will do something that causes me to nail them to the wall for plagiarism. They are absolutely terrified that they will screw up their citations, botch their bibliography, accidentally confuse a quotation with a paraphrase, or in some other way incur the wrath of the gods of academic integrity.

This is ridiculous. And they come to me this way, already scared.

Why Cite Sources At All?

Let’s take a step back from the panicking ninth graders.

Let’s consider how we live our lives, as adults, day to day. Consider, if you will, a conversation with your friends. Better still, a conversation with my friends (they’re loads of fun): we’re talking about something that we have to do that feels ironically poorly suited to our temperment and someone around the table mutters “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Yes, we’re pathetic tools of popular culture. But we’re also making a reference to a known source. A reference that everyone around the table recognizes and appreciates.

In fact, by making that reference, we’re using a short hand phrase to conjure up a whole idea. At the most crass level. We’re probably not going to swing into the pharaohs’ catacombs on our bullwhip, blazing torch in hand, Nazis on our tails. But we’ve connected our plight to Indy’s, in our friends’ minds. Usually, among my friends, this then generates snickers. I am not someone who would plausibly swing on the end of a bullwhip.

This, at its core, is the purpose of citing another author: to make use of that author’s ideas in support of your own. To reference a whole, complex argument, made elsewhere, by selecting a short, notable phrase that stands in for the more complex idea. When we refer to “trickle-down economics”, we’re using an opaque term to describe a whole theory of how the world works — whether or not we agree with it, this provides a shared reference point between us and our interlocutors. By providing this shared reference point, we are providing an anchor on which to build our own arguments, share our own ideas, develop our our creations — in a way that will be more easily understood. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.

When we cite other sources and authors, we select sources that lend credibility to our own point of view, by dint of the the sources’ own credibility. Our arguments are stronger when we cite well-known and well-respected sources. Our arguments are stronger when we can clearly connect them to sources that are clearly well-founded, or are clearly connected to well-founded sources.

Thus, if we want our argument to have credibility, we want to connect our argument to other well-respected sources. We want to make those connections explicit, rather than making that argument in a vacuum. We want to accessorize our argument with the respect and credibility already carried by our sources.

So, What’s the Big Deal?

The big deal is that this isn’t how or why I was taught to cite my sources in academic papers. And it isn’t how I’ve seen students being taught to cite their sources. I have seen only fear and intimidation: “if you do not cite your sources, you will be penalized for plagiarism. If you are penalized for plagiarism, you won’t get into the college of your choice or you’ll be expelled from the college of your choice or you might become Vice-President of the United States.” <shiver> I don’t see anyone making positive arguments for academic citation when we are introducing it to our students. We only threaten the students with punishment.

I don’t know about you, but I tend not to really enjoy doing things that I’m doing out of fear. I often dig in my heels (I’m an ornery S.O.B.). I certainly don’t try and do what I’m doing better because I’ve been intimidated into doing it (in fact, I’ll probably passive aggressively do it worse). And it takes me a long time (20+ years) to find any real purpose or excitement in something that I have been bullied into doing. I understand the obligation to do it. I do it. But I cuss about it. And drag my feet.

Technology has Changed Citation

At the start of every school year, one or the other of my colleagues will forward around the ever-growing list of things that our new students won’t be familiar with (the original Star Wars, Indiana Jones movies that aren’t execrable, tape cassettes, a time before white earbuds, etc.). What bears more than a little examination are the things that our students are familiar with.

I have a whole digression about the issue of digital natives, and whether or not it’s even a defensible opinion, let alone a fact of life. Let us at least stipulate that our students have a different relationship with technology and media than we did growing up, and that that relationship is increasingly facilitated by technology.

How about a bizarre mash-up video that combines clips from television shows that are, at best, unfamiliar to us with music we think is terrible? How about a collage of corporate slogans standing in for a personal statement? What are these moron kids up to now? Isn’t this entirely beneath our dignity and station to even pay lip service to the activity that’s going on here? Well, this is the students having a conversation. Their conversations are moving out of “meat space” and online (note the rise of concern about cyberbullying and sexting — these aren’t new phenomena, they’re just moving from behind the gym to the digital realm).

In fact, on the creative front (moving away from a digression on online agression), these collages and mash-ups and massively uncited multimedia conglomerations are the same kinds of conversations that my friends and I have. Only we have them in person. Where I grew up with VHS and quoting movies endlessly, today’s students are able to literally quote movies. And music videos. And magazines. And web cites. And anything else that has floated across their consciousness in the form of bits. Even their teachers (and the first time I was an unwitting component of a student video mash-up was over a decade ago).

These videos, which are clearly violations of copyright law, intellectual property treaties and, often, good taste are just our students engaged in conversation. Online and digitally.

Transitioning from Conversation to Academic Discourse

Understanding that what we see as recreational plagiarism and piracy is, in fact, informal discourse is the first step towards connecting the dots with our students. What we need to help our students do — what our role as teachers is — is to engage in code-switching: when is it appropriate to have an informal conversation? When do you start to cite your sources? What are you doing — for yourself and your sources — by citing them? What standards can we use to cite sources? When do those standards apply?

Overall: what’s the point of this exercise? Are we doing it because we’re afraid that somebody will use Google to find out that a dozen other people have had this same idea, and we want to get there first? Or are we doing it because we’ve read something powerful, insightful, revelatory… and we want to share the impact of that source with our own audience? Are we sharing our sources because if we don’t someone will accuse us of falsifying our research, or because we have come across a marvelous, well-researched data set that, with our analysis, screams in support of our conclusions? Are we citing the work of others out of a grudging sense of obligation to them for work already done, or because making reference to other works makes our own easier: we are bringing worlds of ideas into our effort through the careful selection of a word or phrase?

In the past two years, this is what I have started to try to do with my students: rather than threatening them, engage them in that part of the world of research and ideas that I find so invigorating and exciting. Rather than whaling on them for botching a quotation, explain to them why getting their quotations and citations right (for their context) is meaningful.

For the first time, last week, when I was grinding away on my students to include links in their blog entries, and I asked why, one of my students said:

“Because you might want to read them too?”

December 24th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I have an inherent prejudice against teaching students (and faculty) to use user computers as tools by providing step-by-step directions for a specific progress. I believe that, while totally helpful in the individual instance of that specific process, the step-by-step instructions are, in the end, handicapping: they do not introduce the learner to the underlying concepts that might guide their further, more extensive use of the same tool independently.

That said, periodically I need students or colleagues to do exactly one specific sequence of steps. This year I have been experimenting with presenting these sequences of steps as “screencasts” — videos of me doing the process while I narrate what I’m doing. This has a number of advantages, not least being that it is far, far faster to create a screencast than to write a set of instructions. Additionally, the screencast presents as a manageable video, rather than as an overwhelming 17-step sequence of directions. Additonally, rather than describing the process, learners are able to see the process as it plays out.

In Practice

I have created perhaps a dozen or so screencasts so far this fall, and I have settled into using Screencast-O-Matic, which I like because it does not require installing additonal software (as Jing does) and it is free (as Jing is) and it makes it easy for me to post my screencasts either to the Screencast-O-Matic site (for free), to YouTube (for free) or to save a high quality video file to my computer, that I can edit in iMovie or Sony Vegas Movie Studio. With the video hosted on either Screencast-O-Matic or YouTube, I’m then able to embed the video in a blog post or wiki page for the learners to view.

One technical issue that I ran into is that the Screencast-O-Matic streaming video requires Java to be installed and allowed to run (which is generally true on all computers), and that the series of dialogs to permit this are disconcerting and derailing for some learners. In general, where I can (for videos under ten minutes), I have also posted the videos to YouTube, which requires less from the user to view it. The YouTube videos, viewed in HD are still somewhat lower quality than the Screencast-O-Matic-hosted videos, but they’re generally fine.

I have also been experimenting with OmniDazzle as a way of highlighting parts of the screen as I talk and work in screencasts, making it easier for learners to follow my mouse motions and directions.

A learning issue that I have run into is that some folks (more faculty than students) have been unwilling to click play to watch the video. The process of learning new technology without an actual person standing at their elbow is too overwhelming to contemplate (this is not inference, this is what I was told by those faculty).

Reflection

I’m not entirely gung ho about screencasts, for the reasons listed above in The Model — that I want learners to understand concepts, rather than steps. I fear that presenting a shamanistic approach to learning technology — “do this sequence of arcane steps and the magic happens” — undermines long term learning. That said, I feel that I am able to better present concepts without intimidating learners in a screencast when I am just talking, rather than presenting a paragraph-sized annotation to each step of a set of directions.

The screencasting approach does, of course, not address all learning styles. It works for more than the directions, I believe, capturing both visual and auditory learners, but it is still not the same as working with the learner to help them accomplish the process in person, themselves. To this end, I have tried to hold screencasts in reserve as a reenforcement for in-class learning, rather than as a sole source of learning about a particular process.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Social Media, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I wanted to structure the feedback that my students presented to each other during our video critique. We often brainstorm the criteria that we will be using to review work as it is presented, and I post our criteria on the board or on the wiki as a reminder throughout the process. This time, I created a new Form in Google Docs and entered our criteria as questions. I then embedded the form in our class notes for the day, and each student filled out the form as we viewed video. I embedded the responses as a spreadsheet on a linked page, so that the the students could review the feedback they had received and post their responses to our class blog.

In Practice

Creating the form live went relatively smoothly — the only hang-up was my inability to type in public. Fortunately, the students were proofreading on the screen and caught me when I made errors. They were also able to help guide me when I got distracted and forgot what I was doing (“Mr. Battis, we’ve already got that question at the bottom of the screen…”).

It took very little instruction for the students to figure out how to use the form. The most complicated thing they had to do was refresh the page after they had submitted their feedback so that they could get a fresh, blank form for the next video.

We settled into a routine where I played each video through twice, once for them to watch, and once to remind them of details as they entered their feedback.

Reflection

After we finished reviewing videos and posting feedback, I put the question to the students: was this better, worse or the same as having a verbal critique of the same material (which we had done in the earlier digital photography unit). The response, by and large, appeared to be that this was actually really helpful: there were enough things to pay attention to while watching the video that being able to take notes into the form let them not forget things that were important.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

For the last few years, I have found that, when appropriate, I get far more use out of my notes if I take them on a computer. Using the computer allows me to keep my notes organized, to instantly create links to related information (either within my notes or on the web), to flag my own questions as they arise (and unflag them as they are answered), to find ideas in my notes later (search is way faster than flipping through my notebooks and legal pads), to share my notes with colleagues and students, and to link to as references and resources in later iterations of documents.

In Practice

It’s not always kosher to have your laptop open in a conversation. If I take notes in a one-on-one meeting in my laptop, there is a real danger that I will be talking to my computer rather than the person I am meeting with. (Simultaneously, if I take the notes on my laptop, I am able to refer back to them more easily than in handwriting.) Personally, I have found that if I feel compelled to take notes by hand, that those notes are not going to make it into my computer except in extraordinary circumstances, and that the only service that paper notes have for me is as a memory aid (“the information has passed from at least one neuron to at least one other neuron, crossing at least one synapse in the process, giving you a faint hope of remembering the information.” — Duane Bailey).

If there are network connectivity problems (or battery power level issues), my notes may either not be available or may disappear entirely (as happened at one point this fall, taking notes on [a major collaborative project] presentation). This doesn’t happen with notebooks. However, referring back to the last paragraph… those notes would have gone into the ether anyway (for me at least) if I had taken them on paper.

I find that I am much more willing to share my digital notes than I would hand-written notes — not just because of legibility issues, although those are real, but also because when I share my notes, I share it with an expectation that the recipient will be adding some input to those notes, adding value for me as well.

I have also found that using the tagging feature of the wiki gives me a tool for taking attendance at a meeting — who was there, so that I can find notes based not just on content, but on the makeup of the meeting: “I know we discussed this in EdTech, I think Scott said something about it…”

Reflection

As someone who spent years not taking notes on anything, simply remembering what was said to the best of my ability, I find that taking notes on my computer is a massive advantage: it allows me to empty my brain and forget things with confidence. And taking my notes in a wiki makes them instantly shareable and referable from any computer, anywhere. I love it.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

This is actually a classic use of wikis — the one for which they were developed, in fact — and one that I have found very useful in the past. By documenting my work on a project in a public, shared space, I am both sharing information that needs to be known and inviting other participants to contribute their knowledge as well. I use wikis both for shared projects with my colleagues (as a way to guarantee that only the most current documentation is available, rather than distributing instantly out-dated paper handouts) and as a way of pushing my students to document their own work so that I can grade them on process. Additionally, wikis are a way for me to document my own thought process for both professional development and future planning purposes.

In Practice

Shared Projects with Colleagues

I have found that many of my colleagues (both at [my current school] and [at previous schools]) are hesitant to edit existing documents. The most reliable contribution that I have found my colleagues make is on meeting minutes, when I invite those who did not attend a meeting to insert their contributions to the meeting as comments on the page.

When working on a project with a similarly technically-inclined colleague (say, in the Education Technology department), the process is more likely to be more collaborative, as we edit each other’s work more liberally (although even this is not a guarantee).

Student Documentation of Process

Students don’t document their working voluntarily. I have only had success in asking students to document their work when I have both assigned the documentation for a grade (usually a grade separate from the end product of their work, so that I can distinguish between process and outcome not just in narratives but also in my gradebook).

The closest that I have come to developing a true classroom culture of collaborative documentation was last spring at [my previous school] in my Application Design classroom. In this case, I worked with the students to help them select and design an open-ended project for which they had to do immense amounts of research (they were creating a computer-controlled CNC lathe). I found that there was an inverse relationship between the amount of expertise that I demonstrated and the amount of work and thought that my students contributed: when they could rely on me for answers, they were lazy about documenting their work and finding their own solutions. When I professed no knowledge (often truthfully), students were far more likely to both do much more exhaustive research and to present their findings more clearly.

Professional Development

One challenge of creating a truly collaborative wiki environment (whether with colleagues or with students) is to get all of the participants to read, respond, revise and/or react to each other’s contributions. For example, I am doing a miserable job, on this page, of linking to the work of others in the Laptop Leaders program. I suspect that a major part of this is simply the “drinking from the fire hose” feeling incurred by the stream of data as everyone contributes simultaneously. In a classroom, I have had some success dividing students into groups around a shared research interest. To that end, I need to sift through the other Laptop Leader documentation that refers to, say wikis.

Reflection

At the basic level, my sense is that wikis represent such a shocking change in paradigm for how the web is used that the average user is either befuddled or intimidated by them. I found that I was explaining how wikis work to my classes and the students were fascinated and mildly horrified at both the ease with which they could make changes and the ease with which I could track their use of the wiki. I don’t know for certain, but I wonder if my colleague’s reluctance to update wikis is a combination of fear of the unfamiliar (editing the wiki) and fear of speaking out (publishing their words/ideas to a broader arena in a way that feels more permanent than, say, an email — more on par with a faculty meeting).

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I started off using this model in both my [high school] classes. I post an outline of the class to the wiki before class. At the start of class, as I discuss the agenda for the day with the students, I project the outline on the board. After discussing the agenda (my plan, their questions, etc.), I ask for three volunteers: one to take notes into the outline during class, one to review those notes for content before the next class, and one to review those notes for clarity before the next class. The content reviewer is responsible for correcting any mistakes (or omissions) that the original notetaker made. The clarity reviewer is responsible for proofreading and correcting the notes into a readable, standard English format.

In Practice

I found, almost immediately, that while the [media design] class was (grudgingly) willing to do the notetaking, the [computer animation] class revolted against it. The revolt in computer animation had a lot to do with the difficulty of simultaneously following along with the processes that we were learning in a computer modeling application and also keeping a browser window open and taking notes into the wiki. Theoretically, a dual display setup might have ameliorated some of those concerns (screen real estate was demonstrably at a premium as they were trying to use both applications, the browser and the 3D modeling tool). However, the real issue lay in the division of attention.

I have stopped asking the computer animation class to take notes into the wiki, but continue to encourage them to take their own notes (a practice that none of them engages in voluntarily — and their difficulty grasping new concepts reflects real difficulty storing the concepts for reflection, whether in their heads, their notebooks or their computers).

I have substituted somewhat more detailed notes of my own in the outlines for computer animation, or links to more detailed tutorials online covering the same concepts that we are learning in class, or links to screencasts demonstrating the concepts and processes we are learning in class. (One challenge that I have run into is that, using Blender, many of the tutorials and screencasts assume a great deal of prior familiarity with the materials, if not the tool, so I have been working on recording more basic level screencasts for that class).

On the flip side, we have settled into a routine in [media design] in which I ask for a notetaking team only on days when I know that we will be having a concept-based discussion/critique/lecture (as opposed to process or application-based lessons). A core of students have stepped up as fairly reliable notetakers, although I am working to spread the responsibility out across all students in the class — although I have set up no formal system of rotation (this lack of a formal system is actually based on previous experience with rigid rotations on what is, essentially, a creative task: it’s lousy. It works far better to set up an expectation that everyone will do it, and then ask for volunteers in the moment, while creating a (public) tracking system to ensure that no one is left out.

One issue that I have run into, particularly over a span of project-based lessons which are not discrete lessons but actually the continuation of a single idea (editing a video, for example), is that I lose track of time and forget to keep the wiki up-to-date. I focus my attention on the process occurring in class, rather than in documenting the process. Since my rationale for documenting the process is provide a resource for the students, this is deeply problematic and something that I need to address.

Reflections

Early on, I realized that I should have made more of an effort to distinguish between concept-based and practice-based classes, and to create different models for collaborative notetaking in each of those environments. My computer animation class did well in articulating their frustration (mostly) respectfully, and speaking up for their own needs and learning styles.

I have not incorporated the notetaking into the students’ grades (which was, really, something that slipped my mind), framing the notetaking not as an assignment, but as a collaborative study tool. I’m not sure that this is a winning motivator for students. I think it works in my [media design] class because they are a) intrinsically interested in the material at a more conceptual level and b) generally a year or two older on average than my computer animation class. That maturity is reflected across the board — preparation, classroom demeanor, participation, actual product. It would, of course, be easy to connect a grade to participation in the notetaking (do some math, figure out how many times everyone needs to do it to cover the semester or quarter and assign it that many times).

The other missing component, and this has much to do with my teaching style, is adequate review of the student notes, to provide feedback on quality (and quantity). Early(er) in the year, I should have dedicated much more of a class period to going over the previous period’s notes and pushing each of the members of the notetaking team to be more accountable. To be honest, the switch from meeting my classes 4-5 times a week to 2-3 meetings (yay for changing schools!) left me running ragged trying to keep up with material, and process fell by the wayside.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

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This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

This started out as simply a way of addressing my own personal predilections: I’m tired of trying to build a syllabus on a calendar (the calendar doesn’t present the syllabus in a useful view), or in a spreadsheet (changing dates becomes a chore), so I decided to separate the various issues out and automate as much as I could. The result is a Google Docs spreadsheet that I embed on my course web site, which allows me to think in terms of units and lessons, and which automatically sequences lessons on to class meetings and updates me with notes about those specific days (Moadim L’Simcha, vacation days, etc.).

This is an example of one of my syllabi as the students see it:

In Practice

This turned out to be some pro-level spreadsheet work. I like working in spreadsheets. Not everyone likes working in spreadsheets. This link takes you to a “scratch” version of one of my syllabi (you’re welcome to edit it to see changes — this isn’t live. The organization is thus:

  • There is a worksheet for each unit of the syllabus, named sequentially Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, etc. (The best way to create a new unit is to duplicate an old one and replace the information).
  • On a unit worksheet, a few of the columns are automatically filled in. You just have to worry about editing the title of the lesson, the lesson description, and the assignment summary. Everything else is filled in automatically.
  • The integrated view of all the units, sequenced together and lined up to days with notes is the Syllabus worksheet.
  • The Meetings worksheet is just a list of days when the class meets (which I entered manually) and any notes about that day specifically that might be helpful for lesson planning.
  • There are a bunch of “working” sheets that you can look at, but don’t edit — they’re collating and organizing all of the units automatically.

Reflection

This was way more work than it was worth for a single syllabus. But as a tool that I intend to reuse again and again, I’m pretty happy with it and feel good about the investment. It is mildly idiosyncratic, in the sense that it meets my specific needs. But it could be used as a model for other people’s style of syllabus design, separating the schedule from the concepts in a way that makes visualizing the lesson flow much, much easier.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, How To, Teaching, Useful Tools

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