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Back to Basics

I just had one of those transcendent teaching experiences when the walk out of the classroom fired up and ready to slay the dragon of ignorance.

Invited to sit in on a US History class’s debate on the effectiveness of Brown v. Board, I listened to a student read off statistics from a crumpled piece of notebook paper. His monotone went from number to number, from percentage to totals, graduation rates to dropout rates. After about three minutes of this, the teacher stepped in and asked him to summarize his argument. It took continued questioning and cajoling, but he was finally maneuvered into saying that he was supporting his team’s argument that Brown v. Board was a failure because the dropout rate of African-Americans was greater than whites. Before letting the other team respond, the teacher asked the source of these statistics and when they were gathered. Another student pumped his fist in the air declaring “US Census” as if the unimpeachability of their evidence sealed the entire debate. The fact that the statistics came from 2000 was barely noticed by students on either side.

The debate reeled around for the next ten minutes and covered every possible permutation of causes for this disparity that could possibly be imagined. Both sides argued about child care, teen pregnancy, the different regard in which different communities held education. They argued over the legal requirements for high school and how long a student was required by law to go to school. It bounced around at least a dozen different topics by the time the teacher stepped in and brought an end to the madness. The last student allowed to speak was arguing that in some communities you don’t have to become a businessman, while in others, you do. I swear, I’m not making this up.

Apparently a student had simply offered some statistics, and his opponents and then his team took a field trip through a teeming mass of other arguments, none of which was directly related to the question at hand.

To bring them back on the reservation, the teacher asked the student to summarize his argument in one sentence. With some fumbling, he said that his statistics showed that African-Americans are dropping out of school and therefore Brown isn’t working. Once again, the teacher asked, “in what year?” The answer, 2000, meant nothing.

At that very moment an angel of thought came down from heaven and gave me this analogy. I asked the class to consider this statement, “I weigh 200 pounds, my diet doesn’t work.” Immediately they did the same thing to my statement. “Maybe you can’t lose weight.” “Maybe you are cheating on the diet”. “Maybe you are genetically predetermined to be obese.” “My uncle had tried every diet there is and he still hasn’t lost weight.”

We had to stop them again.

Realizing this needed spoon feeding, I asked them to reconsider my conclusion. “I’ve just said that my diet doesn’t work because I weigh 200 pounds, but how do you really know if my diet is working?”. I was tempted to put my head through the window when one student said, “Because we don’t know what diet it is you’re talking about.”

Through the grace of a kind Providence, another student finally noted that they needed to know how much I weighed before the diet.

Bingo!

A moment of silence hung in the air as the gears turned in their heads. Finally, they got it. They could not conclude about the effectiveness of the Brown decision if they only considered what happened after the decision. They had to compare the statistics of before and after.

Yes there are still many problems with this. What counts as “dropping out”? How can you compare statistics from different states? How reliable is the evidence gathered from the south before Brown?

The point is this: instead of having a lesson on the Trail of Tears, why don’t we have a lesson that illustrates this feature of the use of statistics in argument? Ok, I know, sacrilege. How about this…Why don’t we teach this rather than have the student separate FDR’s New Deal agencies into a Relief, Recovery and Reform chart? Yes, blasphemy.

But if you were hiring someone, would you rather they have that skill or that content? If you were concerned about a literate democratic public, would you rather have a voter who knows that statistics have to be viewed this way or someone who forgot that New Deal worksheet they did in high school?

faster than a list serveNo one likes the condescending sneer of an officious computer nerd, impatient with anyone who lacks the god-given graces of their endless technical knowledge and intemperate enough to dare ask them a simple question. You know folks don’t you? It is their lack of people skills which drives everyone else to your door to ask you technology questions rather than submit themselves to ridicule and scorn.

On the other hand….it’s 2011. At what point is it fair to cross the field and join the other side? I’m not saying we have to get macs and lose our common sense of decency and politeness, but there are some tech questions that beg disdain. What the best approach here?

Academic Crack

I’ve discovered the hydroponics of continuous learning; audible.com.  Whether trudging my way through the traffic of a daily two-hour round trip commute, or cutting the grass of my significant other’s half-acre backyard of Pennsylvania farmland, I’m learning.  Good readers and good books combine to infect the otherwise barren moments of my life with information. Though I know all about “quiet time” and the regenerative benefits of meditative contemplation, I’m hooked on this lifeline of constant education.  Audio books are academic crack for nerds. 

Since August, I’ve “read” the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Narrative of the Civil War, Andrew Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life and all 57 hours of WIlliam Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  There is no way the to carve out that sort of time in a 21st century lifestyle without audio books.  But as a result of this immersion in history and nonfiction, my views on education haven’t been changed, but rather reinforced in ways I never expected.

For example, William Shirer’s description of the Anchluss and the Sudenten Crisis of 1938 takes about four hours to read even though those events may amount to nothing more than two slides in a teacher’s PowerPoint and a five minute synopsis in an average social studies class. Perhaps there may be homework assignment, an essay on appeasement or even a more elaborate two day role-play project and debate.  Yet how can we claim that we’ve even scratched the surface of this era in history?

Those who defend the primacy of content in history education are shielding an hypocrisy.  The average survey course may be nothing more than a drive-by snapshot of history.  Sort of like a music lesson that teaches students to play the flute by telling them to blow in it on one end and move their fingers along the top. 

Isn’t it amazing that the more we immerse ourselves in history, the less certain we become of any one explanation of it?  The more we learn, the more suspicious we get of simple declarative statements that distill the vast expanse of the human experience into a blue vocabulary word surrounded by a simple sentence.

One way to prove the above is to spell out the way in which William Shirer takes a tire iron to Nevlille Chamberlain in Rise and Fall by describing the way in which a nascent mutiny against Hitler led by General Beck and Franz Halder needed only the slightest gesture of resistance on the part of Britain and France with regard to Czechoslovakia in 1938.  Add to that an analysis of the build-up of the British military between Anchluss and the invasion of Poland to defend Chamberlain’s appeasement.  Or one of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” podcast episodes from the BBC in which one of his guests describes the first public opinion surveys that showed Chamberlain couldn’t possibly have led the recalcitrant British into another world war in 1938.  Better yet, listen to Margaret Anderson’s spring semester 2007 installment of Berkeley’s History 5 class in which she categorically organizes the many factors at work in Sudeten crisis.

History teachers who are themselves students of history know the foundational belief of their discipline is that there is never one answer to any history question.  Yet they are trapped in state-mandated curricula, enforced by standardized testing based in perfect opposition to this belief.  “Appeasement before World War II was caused by ….”

If you’re the type of person that believes that significant events and eras in history can be crushed into a multiple choice answer shorter than the average 140 character Tweet, you might want to stay away from the academic crack of continuous learning, it will change your mind forever.

Dear Blackboard,

One of the most basic technology tools of all time is “select all”.   Email clients, database programs and every program or select allweb site with which users manipulate data in lists gives a user the opportunity to select every item on the list at once.  I know many of the people reading this public letter (even if I can count their total on one hand) are used to seeing a tall tree of checkboxes with a helpful little “select all” button at the bottom.  “Select All” has been around as long as I can remember.

“Select all” saves time by obviating the need to click fifty or sixty times down the list.  Even if a user does not ultimately want to have all of the boxes checked, the user could “select all” and then uncheck the few boxes that shouldn’t be checked.

Although I try to teach with your product, I spend most of my time struggling around it; twisting and clicking through menus, roadblocks and unconscionable inefficiencies just to do my job. One of these unconscionable inefficiencies is the lack of the “select all” option.   Of course it would be unconscionable to the developers of any other product, but not to Blackboard.

Could you explain why Blackboard does not have “select all”?

While you are it, can you tell me why I can remove posts from discussion boards with IE, but not Firefox?  Just as you buck the trend of every other program on the market by omitting the simple “select all”  button, you prove your independence from the crowd by ignoring cross-platform functionality.

I’m just a user just trying to do his job,  nothing special, just teach and manage grades.

What’s that you say?  Users?

Oh, those are the people who use your product.   Just like the Easter Bunny in Santa Claus, you have to believe that we exist.

Riding the Rant Train

Looks like I found a rant train to ride for a couple of weeks.

Now we have to call the criminals from Blackboard to the table.  Don’t think the sobriquet is unearned, the developers and designers of this torture device would make Torquemada proud.

As much as principals and school administrators lose their patience with teachers trying to incorporate educational technology into their teaching, the process is made all the more difficult by corporate behemoths who don’t care a tinker’s cuss for the struggling user.

Case in point, look at this page from a Blackboard page that allows the teacher (in theory) to upload a voice announcement:

“If you wish to edit this Voice Announcement, do not use the MODIFY button.”

Hmmm let’s think here.  If we want to edit something we should not use a button with a word that mean edit, like the word “modify”, we should use the button with a word that means delete, like the  “remove” button.   Do you think you would ever find such junk on YouTube?

Case #2 – The Simple Page

This is a page from the AP European History course I’m teaching this year with Virtual High School.  Teachers use pages like this to provide content and explain assignments to students.  These pages are the lowest common denominator of the course, it’s where all the action is.  Everything I give to students is contained in some part by these pages.

Take a look at the toolbar.  Can you see any button that will allow you to enlarge this edit box?  I’ve been looking at it for more than ten months and I haven’t found it.  Allow me to recycle a joke I’ve been using just as long as I’ve been dealing with this – trying to design a decent web page in Blackboard is like trying to hold marching band practice in a closet.

We know we can’t compete with the design of professional web pages and we don’t expect Dreamweaver, but online teachers have to crafts pages that are at least engaging.  In leaving the classroom, online teachers lose their voice, personality and body language.  Images, colors, font and flair are all we have.  Yet Blackboard gives us this microscopic petri dish to work in. I can’t believe that any of their employees have ever actually used their product to teach.

Case #3 – The Second Click

Here’s another gem.  If you want to pull of a list of students, wait, I’m sorry users (more developeresque flotsam that has yet to be corrected), then you get a neat little window:

My guess is that almost every teacher will choose “list all” because most classes have less than thirty students and it doesn’t make sense to take time to type in a search.  However, Blackboard wants to make sure you really want to “list all” so this is what it gives you after the click:

I just clicked “list all” and Blackboard really wants to know for sure whether I want to “list all”.  If I’m teaching a freshman section of history to 250 students at a big university, what makes you think I don’t know that listing all might take a couple seconds more?  Why would Blackboard force us to ask twice for something every single time we look for it?  This isn’t a verification of the deletion of a file, this is just a roadblock.

After finding these roadbocks every day, I’d rather ride the rant train.

Digital Appendixes

Dear Developers:

Thank you for catapulting us into the new age of communication and information.  Your efforts have brought more changes to the industry of education than was brought to the industry of transportation by the inventors of the wheel.  We are eternally in your debt.  Really, thanks.

Yet I think you have forgotten something important and I feel the need to lean in and tell you a little secret.  Ready?  Listening?  OK, here it is…..

People have to use your products.

Yes, real people, us.  We click through all the products and services you design.  This means that every decision you make, even the ones you made at the beginning of the product design, have profound effects on our user experience.

So could you do us a favor?  Please?

Go back every once in a while and use the products you create.  Really.

You’ll discover dozens of quirks, twists, turns and traps that keep is clicking and ctrl-tabbing forward and back through dozens of screens just to do the basics.  Many of these clicks and cut ‘n’ pastes are obsolete but remain stuck in the program like an obsolete appendix, left over from the Jurassic Era of Windows 95.  No one else in consumer product design could get away with this idiocy.  Do Model T crank starters still hang down in front of cars?  Does the ice-man still stuff blocks in your freezer?  Does Blockbuster still carry VHS tapes?

Schoolwires – you folks who sell school systems web site packages, please step up front to get started on this right away.  Perhaps you can convince administrators that your product is designed to make it easy for teachers to create web pages, but not us who actually use it.  Are you aware that it takes no less than ten clicks in insert a link in a web page?  Then to add insult to injury, you won’t let the teacher just past the url from the other tab on their browser.

Anachronism Most of us open the page we want to link to in another tab, grab the url from the address bar and get ready to click and paste it and move on to our next activity.  But no, you make use a drop down menu to put what is already in our pasted url, then go back to the url and delete what you just forced us to select from a drop down.

Hello?  Have you ever used your product?  This like coming home from the grocery store with everything you need, then getting back into the car, throwing out the milk and driving to the local convience store to buy another gallon.Anachronism 2

And what about the “Apply” and “OK” buttons?  Sure, I know your going to tell us that there are people who will make changes and then update the page with the “Apply” in order to see the change, then make more changes before using the “OK” to leave the page once and for all.  I have news for you though, only one teacher out of a thousand is going to do that.  We are making the same sort of basic changes we always do.

Cursing you every step of the way.

Thanks for not going into the automotive industry.  If you had chosen a different path in life, we could be trying to drive our cars with the steering wheel on the left side of the car, and the gas pedal on the right.

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