Retrospective

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s been quite the semester. (Quite the year, really, but that’s something else entirely.)

Barring student loans (yeesh), it’s a great time to be a student or an educator. We have the internet, a universe of information teeming with free educational resources and countless platforms for communication and collaboration. This course has shown me just how many tools we can use while we teach — however, I suspect that the majority of tools are still unknown to me. The internet is, after all, in constant flux. New Web 2.0 technologies will emerge. What I’ve learned in this course, in the former half of 2014, may or may not be relevant when I begin teaching several years from now.

But that’s to be expected. And that’s the most valuable thing I’ve learned from this course: technologies change, and educators’ practices need to change with them.

 

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Too much testing?

April 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Let me begin with a brief discussion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Common Core has a lot of problems. My issues have less to do with the actual content but with implementation and an over-reliance on standardized testing.

1. Implementation is a nightmare because resources vary among states, districts, and schools. How are teachers going to present more challenging concepts to students when schools don’t even have the funding to enact compensatory programs (i.e., programs that make learning more accessible to students who need extra help)? The economic inequality that existed in the NCLB era still exists today… and it’s perhaps worsened. How are students going to commit themselves to education if they struggle with poverty?

2. Too much standardized testing. Alfie Kohn observes that when you rely on standardized tests, you’ll always have a group of students who fail. The validity of standardized testing is actually predicated on student failure: if everybody passed, then curriculum is too easy and teachers aren’t doing their jobs! Student failure is counterproductive to education, which ought to be an empowering and, in the words of bell hooks, liberatory process.

The English language arts standards aren’t bad. I can’t vouch for the mathematics standards because my areas of expertise are American literature and composition (and kvetching, but that’s a post for another day). Nor can I say anything concrete about the development of science and social studies standards, other than the development of the latter will be a political nightmare. I digress.

I like the ELA standards because they are intentionally vague. They show conceptual goals, but they don’t prescribe methods of instruction. Therefore, teachers have a lot of freedom to differentiate, implement scaffolding, and choose culturally-relevant texts — in other words, to connect with their students and make the learning process more accessible and engaging.

But the standardized tests. Oh, the standardized tests.

And this brings me to the actual purpose of my writing this entry. Are there other ways of measuring student progress and evaluating teacher performance than mass testing? Surely there exist fairer, more engaging, more equitable assessments that measure mastery of CCSS-mandated concepts. This article by Katrina Schwartz describes a proposed waiver system in which schools that regularly perform well on tests can opt out of standardized testing and self-report progress. According to Syna Morgan, chief system performance officer for Douglas County Schools, “If you have a set of criteria and you have a clear delineation of what the learning outcomes need to be, then you could measure them in very different ways.” Standardized testing need not be the only way to assess knowledge and performance.

We return to problems of economic inequality. What about less-affluent schools and districts? Would they be able to effectively implement alternative assessments? Perhaps, given the necessary resources (which have proved elusive), but not so under the proposed waiver system:

One big push against the waiver bill Douglas County is proposing is that it excludes lower-performing schools. It’s inequitable to allow high performing schools to opt out of state testing and yet require the schools that might benefit the most from alternative teaching practices to remain beholden to a test that doesn’t provide teachers any information about how to improve or where students lack knowledge.

Alternative assessments are only as effective as they are equitable. Systems such as this proposed waiver program, though ostensibly progressive, could only widen knowledge and performance gaps between affluent and less-affluent schools and districts.

So what other options do we have? Project-based learning? Portfolios? Formative assessments? How would this data be reported to the state? How could all schools have access to effective alternative assessments?

Any ideas?

 

 

 

 

On Web 2.0 Presentation Technologies [Module 9]

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

This post will discuss three Web 2.0 presentation technologies, as well as their pros, cons, and possible uses in the classroom.

Slideshare

Slideshare is a platform for publishing Powerpoint presentations. Users can browse through topics, upload their own presentations, and create mash-ups of existing works (with proper citation). Users can also communicate and collaborate on shared projects.

Pros:

  • If you are looking for inspiration, you’ll probably find it on Slideshare. You can access hundreds of topics via the “search” bar at the top of the page. More suggestions are available to the right-hand side of the presentation you’re engaged with.

Cons:

  • Monotony. There’s a reason (actually, many) why the Anti-Powerpoint Party exists, and you’ll catch on to most of them when you browse Slideshare. Many of the Powerpoint presentations I came across were dull. Informative, but dull. They relied too heavily on text. Remember, Powerpoint is a visual medium!(!!) If you feel the need to give your students text, opt for books or hand outs. (Granted, some text-heavy presentations, such as this one on contemporary poetry, tinkered around with space, word size, and tone, which made for a more entertaining experience.)

That said, I did encounter quite a few interactive presentations. I particularly liked this Powerpoint, a good ol’ Jeopardy review game about The Canterbury Tales. Why I liked it goes without saying. Make learning competitive and interactive, and you’ll have a classroom of reasonably engaged students. (Not that you really really need a game to make The Canterbury Tales exciting. Get past the weird middle English, and you’ll find that Chaucer was way ahead of his time — and waaay bawdy. But I digress.) Chaucer is also studied widely by high school students, so a Jeopardy game over this topic would be pertinent to some of the high school English language arts classes I will teach.

Where there are pros, there are cons. Visually, this presentation hasn’t aged well. If I were to use it in a classroom, I would most likely make a new, cleaner presentation in Powerpoint ’07 or ’10 and cite the Chaucer game at the end. I’ve noticed this tendency toward Jeopardy overkill, too. Unless the students really enjoy Jeopardy, I wouldn’t conclude every unit or lesson with it. (I tried to search for “interactive Powerpoint games” in Slideshare, but I didn’t get any results that weren’t Jeopardy or Jeopardy knock-offs. Hmm. Perhaps there are more options on the website. It’s entirely possible that my search terms weren’t precise enough.)

VoiceThread

VoiceThread provides a platform that encourages discussion and collaboration through the simulation of live presence. Users upload their files (pictures, films, documents, etc.) and create audio, video, or textual commentary, to which other users can respond in the same ways. The result is an asynchronous but lively discussion forum: users experience voices, expressions, and the nuances of actual speech.

Pros:

  • Engagement. Yes, speech is indeed more nuanced than text. Simultaneously watching a face, analyzing expressions, and recognizing tones of speech is a much more involved process than simply reading text. In-class discussions extend beyond the period. Students are given the chance to experiment with ideas in an informal (but still monitored) environment.
  • Personalization. Students can personalize their documents by video doodling, as well as by adding commentary. They take charge of the learning process by explaining things in their own words, with their own expressions. Students can also choose how they want to participate in forums. More reserved students may choose text — or, because they are not forced to speak in front of twenty people at once, they may choose to upload an audio or video response.
  • User-friendly. Tutorials are available, which is quite handy if you’re a technological n00b like me.

Cons:

  • Some may take issue with younger students disclosing their identities or posting their pictures online. Thankfully, user avatars need not be the users’ actual faces.

I admit, I admire VoiceThread more than SlideShare because it offers a truly multimedia, interactive experience. Teachers can create portfolios of classroom work for parent-teacher conferences or for reward or motivation. (The cat poetry example is a bit juvenile for high school, but (a) it’s darn cute, and (b) it’s a clever way of getting internet-savvy students to write. Social media can provide great inspiration for creative writing in all grades, so long as teachers show students how to surf and cite responsibly. Online portfolios are also a splendid means of showcasing student work and setting up a supportive classroom environment.)

VoiceThread offers a dynamic platform for peer revision, as exemplified here. Again: darn cute. And the concept would likely work in high school classes. As students complete formative writing assessments, they can post their drafts online (perhaps as a PDF file) and receive feedback from peers. The peer revision process does not stop when class ends. Students are free to communicate with their partners whenever they have time.

Prezi

Imagine Powerpoint. (I know you don’t want to, but do it.) Now imagine Powerpoint’s cooler, hipper, beard-and-beanie-wearing half-sibling twice-removed, and you have Prezi.

Prezi is a platform that allows users to create attractive, nonlinear presentations. Users can choose from various templates, then populate them with items of their choosing — pictures, text, hyperlinks, videos, audio, and so on. Items can then be connected via a path drawn by the user.

Pros:

  • User friendly. Prezi offers some practical tutorials for teachers and older students.
  • Engaging. The nonlinear paths between items make for a dynamic presentation. (For a cool example that’s also slightly disorienting, please refer to this ELA Prezi.) Users can also tinker around with more objects and special effects than in Powerpoint.
  • Visually appealing. The templates are clean and attractively colored. Users can follow principles of visual design as they freely add, rotate, and connect objects.
  • Shareable. Many Prezis are “public and reusable,” which permits open use.

Cons:

  • Younger students may have more difficulty creating presentations on this interface. I say this tentatively, however, because even elementary school students are now digital natives.

I particularly liked this Prezi, a timeline that features famous African-American authors and their works. Students travel along with the timeline — a much more involving experience than observing the linear path of a similar Powerpoint presentation. Timelines make fantastic accompaniments for literature, as so many creative works, although seen primarily as individual artistic expression, are also products of historical, social, and economic contexts. I would certainly use a similar presentation in my future English classes.

That said, however, I would also be sure to compliment a timeline with a more multimedia Prezi. Audio and video would do much to further enhance students’ understanding of art, literature, and society.

In anticipation of Digital Learning Day…

February 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

What better way to start a blog for my Educational Technology course than by introducing Digital Learning Day?

This exercise in integrating Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom takes place every February 5th. Browse through the website to explore subject-specific lesson plans. I particularly like this lesson plan, which encourages students to maintain a blog and write about “big ideas” both ethically and responsibly. Students are also required to provide feedback on their classmates’ blogs. The process allows students to hone their analytical writing skills while acquiring proper web etiquette and learning how to cultivate a mature web presence.