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.

A Better Bookmarkshelf

2008-04-24_05-30-07-828About three years ago I discovered Spurl and was quickly enamored with the idea of saving bookmarks online. Because the great sites I discovered at school and the great sites I discovered at home could be saved to the same list, my bookmark collection grew to more than 3,000 sites. Spurl uses a hierarchical folder structure and every good site could be added to a particular folder by clicking a button embedded on the Firefox toolbar. Completing the usability circuit, Spurl provides javascript and rss feeds for individual folders so I could share the subfolders for each of the unit folders for AP European History and AP US History. I threw the Spurl rss feeds into Pageflakes and the presentation wasn’t bad at all. But with an hour or so of cut and paste, each unit could have a page in the course website that includes categorized bookmarks of resources related to that unit. Every time I add a Spurl bookmark to a particular folder the web page is updated. This became a crucial element in building a course in which all of the class material, calendars, unit plans, etc. are available online.


The presentation of the links is important, a quick summary follows each one and there is not a lot space used for tags, buttons and options. This works and it works well, so why fool around with it?

Diigo is why I have to fool around with it. It also offers a account of bookmarks online, complete with an embedded tool in Firefox, it’s just as easy to use as Spurl. But it also provides tools to highlight pages and even leave sticky notes on sites. I discovered Diigo a little more than a year ago and used it mostly to forward sites to other people, which can be done with just a click and an address. Diigo is mostly tag based, and when I imported the Spurl bookmarks into Diigo, it assigned tags based on the folder names. When I come across a good site now, I have to decide whether to add it to Spurl or Diigo. Although there is a Diigo option that will automatically throw a Diigo bookmark into Spurl, it will not land in the correct folder.

Several months back, Diigo added a “list” feature which could be used to create the same sort of unit page of bookmarks provided by Spurl. But the presentation is not the same.


All that space and you can only see one bookmark, there is no way to quickly scan and review fifty sites. There are no sharing option that provides just the name of the site and a short description. So as much as Diigo excels with some features, it fails in others. Not only that, those tags assigned during the import from Spurl are going to take some time to clean up. Is it worth the time? Should I use Diigo or Spurl?

Taking Notes at the Speed of Sound

Even though I’ve got nine years of AP Euro teaching under my belt, I still feel that my content knowledge needs support. Effective history teaching requires a stone-cold grip on the facts, complimented with a deep reserve of human interest and “rest of the story” anecdotes. Even teachers who have been at the game for more than twenty years have to prepare for classes by reviewing content.

I spent a large part of the summer of 1997 typing a 167-page magnum opus 2008-01-03_04-45-13-546summary of Palmer’s History of the Modern World. Even a conservative estimate would put that project at over 250 hours of work. That’s quite an investment. But not too great for a second year teacher who embarking on the AP Euro course without ever haven taken the course himself. The problem is that fruit of that labor is practically useless to me now. In my current work environment, I don’t have the time to use this notebook.

But I spend more than two hours in my car every day. And that is where I found the solution to this problem.

In the comfort of my own couch, I re-read section’s of Palmer’s book, rediscovering its superb writing and cogent, organized format. But this time I read it wearing a headset, plugged into a digital voice recorder. 2008-01-03_04-46-18-578Speaking notes instead of writing them takes less than a third the time. It allows you to copy parts of it by simply reading passages outloud. If your learning style is more auditory and verbal than text-based, recorded notes are going to be much more effective.

This is a great tool for students. With a $10 microphone, a free copy of Audacity and their PC at home, they can “take notes” that can be loaded directly onto their mp3 players. Yes, it will seem strange to them at first. Yes, their peers may make fun of them. But there are many stressed-out AP students who need a better way to learn the material. And they can do it at the speed of sound.

BTSN Show Stopper

“Are you the only teacher using this”?

Six minutes into my ten minute roller-coaster presentation of the AP European curriculum, class expectations, Moodle, forums, wiki-glossaries, flickr lessons and blogs a parent blind-sides me with this short question.

I could not immediately answer, did he mean

“This is great, why aren’t all the teachers doing it?”

or rather

“Why the heck are you wasting your time with this stuff?”

Continue reading

From Facebook to instant lesson plan for AP Euro

Do you have a Facebook

With 17 million accounts, and 30 billion page views a month, Facebook is quickly surpassing MySpace as the social network of choice among college and high school students.

This four minute presentation exposes the details of the privacy (and lack thereof) policies of Facebook. It also traces the corporate structure of the company, suggesting a conspiracy designed to collect personal information for the government in a slightly paranoid, “illuminatiphobic” video.

We can share this with our students to begin a discussion about internet safety, or better yet, take this as inspiration for the type of current event projects that have relevance and impact. Are the links suggested in this video necessarily mean that the information is shifted by the government – who knows? Continue reading