Archive for the ‘Educational Tech Tools’ Category

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.

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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.

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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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I’ve been buried under wave of teacher observations, annual summative evaluations, writing an online AP Euro course and the annual Spring race through cub scouts, boy scouts and baseball.  But I was shocked out of my grindstone lethargy by a message send to the College Board’s AP European History teacher list serve:

I’ve never heard of CORNPEG either, but based on the fact that it is associated with AP Euro it’s probably something like SOAPS (Subject Occasion Audience Purpose Subject).  Just another acronym tool we use with students to help sharpen their essay writing skills.  Then again it could have been an obscure agricultural tool.

I was just as ignorant and just as curious as the teacher who posted this message.  The difference between us is that I knew that I could find the answer in less than a minute, she thought her only option was posting to the listserve.  I threw “CORNPEG History” into Google and found a syllabus from a teacher in Oklahoma that gave me the answer.  Thanks to Earl Dalke at Mustang High School, I now know what CORNPEG is.


What’s the moral of the story?  Thousands of dollars of professional development and drive-by “look what I can do!” presentations don’t have half the effect of a simple habit of mind. Giving a teacher a SMART Board and a Skype Account doesn’t necessarily change anything.  You can have all the Twitters, Twibes, and Twines you want, but if you don’t have the simple understanding that time between asking any basic question and finding the answer is virtually zero, you missed the boat.

Funny thing is, we now know what CORNPEG is but the teacher who sent that message is still waiting for someone to answer it and then will have to wait for that answer to make it to the listserve and for the listrserve to send it back to her.

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An online class calendar is the best way for high school teachers to take advantage of their web presence and achieve transparency between the classroom and their students’ learning outside of the classroom. Students who can check homework assignments, project requirements and test due dates at home will learn more than those who cannot. Teachers writing assignments on the board, forcing students to use their paper planners are preparing their students for a world that no longer exists. If there are any work environments that still require that skill they will be out of business before these kids graduate. These students, especially hyper-scheduled millennials, need the ability to manage their schedule electronically.

On the teacher side, the maintenance of a calendar is yet another chrono-vampire, ready to suck time out of an already overtaxed schedule. Or is it?

Teachers use a variety of methods to keep track of what they are doing. Some plan their class schedules on napkins, some use desk calendars, and others use picture perfect, graduate school template lesson plans. To eliminate the time drain of an online class calendar, teachers need a tool to direct this planning to a calendar that be used for both planning and announcing. There are many calendars available to teachers, but only Google calendar presents the perfect solution to online class calendars.

Most of the companies that design calendars as part of teacher and school websites seem clueless to the basic workflow of a teacher. Teachers with five sections of two preps often have to duplicate events across five calendars. They don’t have the time to click between five different monthly calendars; they need to see all five class events in one month, toggling on and off each class. They need to copy events from one section to others with less than three clicks. They need to make the class calendar open to both students and parents. It would also help if the calendar could send e-mail reminders that take less than two clicks to activate.

Would it be too much to ask if the calendar generated a feed that could appear in the teacher’s reader, or better yet, their internet home page? It’s probably too much to ask that the calendar allow students to incorporate one teacher’s class schedule with another teacher’s schedule and their athletic team schedule. For every education calendar system available, the answers to these questions is “No”. For Google Calendar, the answer to all is “YES!”

Using a Google account, teachers can create a separate calendar for each of their class sections. They can post and copy events or change dates with ease. There is no other calendar that better fits the workflow of a high school teacher.

Google eclipses all other calendar systems with its ability to be embeded in any other web site. Google earns billions because it is simple to use. With just a click, copy and paste, teachers can throw some gobbly-gook code into their website and voila, their class calendar appears on their teacher page in the school’s website. They can even put it on other learning environments like Moodle. Once the calendar is embedded, the teacher never has to worry about it, all of the work they put on their own calendar, with automatically appear wherever it is embedded, they never have to see the code again.

Students, creating their own Google account, can “add” a teacher’s class calendar to their own. By putting the calendar on their customized iGoogle page, their class assignments are always right in from of them. Students athletes who know what they are doing can grab their team’s schedule from one of those high school sports scheduling sites and put their games and practices right alongside their assignments.

Experienced teachers can grab a csv file from the company that makes the student planner or the school’s web site and throw that into a Google calendar as well. Teachers and students can also add this calendar to their own, schoolwide events can appear alongside their classes and athletic teams.

On the skill side, the sweet spot it students gaining experience navigating different scheduling systems and applications. Of course the ones available to them as adults will be radically different that the ones they use now. But the more they learn, the easier it will be to learn more later.

The Sweet Spot for Class Calendars

The Sweet Spot for Class Calendars

On the pedagogy side, the sweet spot is detailed descriptions for every class period. Why should class objectives and goals be hidden in the teacher’s lesson plan binder when they should be read by the students?

On the education side, every dollar spent by school districts on sterile, inflexible and difficult to manage calendar systems peddled by edtech industry thieves could be donated to rebuilding inner-city schools.

Google calendar wins.


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With two maternity leaves, a military leave and a retirement, our Social Studies department faced a human resources Armageddon this September. We’re two weeks into the school year and the four brandy-new replacement teachers are feverishly burrowing into their new careers (and doing quite well, thank you very much). Five years ago, five teachers in the department brought a collective 95 years teaching experience to their classrooms. Today, the total aggregate classroom experience of five teachers is not more than a year and a half. Of all of the implications brought by such a dramatic demographic shift, there is one thing that stands out. These new teachers will grow much faster than the predecessors.

Of all of the challenges facing new teachers, one of the most dreaded is figuring out what to do tomorrow, something one of my mentors called “lonely, lesson-plan-less nights. I distinctly remember hopeless efforts in dark hours, trying to breathe some creativity into an Erie Canal lesson for a Geography class in my first year of teaching. I envied the veterans, who had built a such an extensive inventory of lessons that they did not have to plan much anymore, they only had to schedule. One teacher even had a collection of “observation” lessons, available at an unannounced moment’s notice and categorized to match the reform du jour, guaranteed to impress the administration with a show class. In those days of the early Internet and Windows95, it took from three to five years for a teacher to feel comfortable enough to relax a couple nights a week. Assuming of course, that they taught the same prep, course changes reset the clock to zero.

Today’s teachers collect more course material and lesson plans faster than their predecessors because they work exclusively in a digital environment. They have access to an exponentially larger library of materials. Not just books, but every painting, picture, movie, music and recording ever made. And they can save the material faster; a point and clicker on the Internet will build an inventory faster than a scissor cut and copier with newspapers and magazines. New teachers store their lesson plans, assignment sheets, notes, articles, images, audio and video clips on their own machines, school’s drives and in “the cloud”.

Not only that, new teachers have their materials tagged, organized and cataloged, and therefore more easily accessible than anything their ancestor teachers ever had. Our retiree left six packed file cabinets in his wake, overflowing with materials for a half dozen courses. Although the folders were labeled and organized, only he knew what he had and where he had it. It is non-transferable until we review it folder by folder, scanning and storing the good stuff, organizing it by course and storing it on our shared drive.

Technology has cut the “material-experience” curve of new teachers from five years to perhaps two.

Why isn’t this enough to convince the ten year teachers to abandon their manilla and paper for flash and silicon?

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My interaction with teachers and administrators over the past couple weeks has reinforced a belief I’ve had for some time, the language associated with educational technology is one of the chief impediments to its application in schools.  We’re suffering because the host of Web 2.0 sites are trying to out-weird each other for attention.  What else explains “Diigo”, “Spurl” and “Moodle”?  No one appreciates these services more than me, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to talk about them with a straight face.  How can you convince someone that these tools are worthwhile when they have such ridiculous names?  Such drastic deviation from common language automatically sparks suspicion, it should be no wonder that teachers and education leaders are not incorporating them into the schools faster.  I’m as much a educational technology advocate as the professional presenters and consultants, but I have a great deal of sympathy for teachers who intrinsically know that technology must be able to help them somehow, but have a tough time accepting that it has the same value as things like the “Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature”, “Chicago Manual of Style” or Library of Congress.

Beyond the goofy names of the Web 2.0 sites and services, even the basic structure wordsplashof the tools have weird names.  What exactly is a podcast?  (and how did Apple find a way to manage marketing by pulling another “Xerox”?) Is there a word more ugly than “blog”?  How does a “wiki” work?  Names like that make one yearn for the old days when the name of a tool explained exactly what it does.  You don’t need Julia Child to tell you what a cheese grater is used for. 

“Horseless carriages” and “cars” had some connection with the technology they replaced, in today’s world only an “online forum” has that quality.  Blog, wiki and podcast come out of nowhere, manly because they did.  The incremental changes in transportation were not as revolutionary as changes in information and communication. There are no antecedents to connect with, despite Wikipedia’s effort to take a chunk of an old word to make one.

We are left with the task of explaining the difference between a website, blog and wiki to people who don’t know the difference between Google and Firefox.   Although I look at this as a type of illiteracy, I’m not at all comfortable with the condescending chuckling of the edublogger-types, twittering about the converging worldwide singularity of their ustream conferences while at the same time, content to cash in on this ignorance by making a living with flash and dazzle presentations.   Educational technology will not find any traction in schools without an effort to explain these communication and information tools in simple terms (like CommonCraft’s “In Plain English” videos).  Combining this with a sustained professional development program and simple teacher-by-teacher, day-after-day grunt work is the only hope for true progress.

To figure out where we should start, I’m tempted to ask you readers a question, all four of you. What is the most misused word in educational technology today?

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