battis.net 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.

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

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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In preparation for a class that I’ll be visiting on Monday morning, and because I have found myself explaining these things a bunch of times this year, I have put together a quick series of screencasts that give an introduction to basic video editing in iMovie. I do this not because I think that my students can learn to work in iMovie by following me stuttering and mumbling through a screencast, but because having a visual guide to refer back to after class is helpful.

A quick link to this (and anything else I may have to say about iMovie ’09) is: http://battis.net/link/imovie09

You may also be interested in more specific tutorials, and Apple has a bunch posted online. (And you can search for more on YouTube).

The basic sequence of these videos is (and here I’ll link directly to the original Screencast-O-Matic videos, which are slightly higher quality than the YouTube playlist above):

  1. 5 Minute Introduction to iMovie ’09 – This is a lightning fast orientation to very basic video editing in iMovie ’09.
  2. Using Still Images in iMovie ’09 – Importing and editing still images instead of video clips in iMovie ’09.
  3. Adding a Video Transition in iMovie ’09 – How to add transitions between video clips to make our project look more professional.
  4. Adding Titles to a Video in iMovie ’09 – How to add explanatory text (a.k.a. titles) to a video in iMovie ’09.
  5. Adding Audio Track(s) to a Video in iMovie ’09 – How to add music, effect and voiceover soundtracks to a video in iMovie ’09.
  6. Sharing Your iMovie ’09 Masterpiece with Other People – A brief rant about how to export your iMovie ’09 project as a video file that other people can watch.

February 6th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

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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

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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

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

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