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Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

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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Is it a copyright violation to copy your own work?

I’m currently slogging through an online course that prepares me to teach online. Although I’ve done this stuff before, it is fascinating how many issues and considerations cross between the face-to-face and online classroom. Below is a response I posted to one of our class discussions about online group work.

Is online group work worth it?

That’s a loaded question because it goes beyond online teaching, and F2F for that matter as well.

Half of the Social Studies teachers at my school are in their first two years of teaching. Each has told me the biggest surprise they’ve experienced at the start of their career in education is the workload. They say this despite having been specifically training for teaching. This either speaks to the tremendous incompetence of schools like Boston College, Eastern University, Rutgers and Gettysburg College, or it demonstrates the extensiveness of a teacher’s responsibilities. What they all must learn is what we all know, experienced teachers constantly engage in a work triage, regulating how much time they devote to planning, grading, teaching and reflecting. We all know our students would be better writers if we doubled the amount of time we spent grading their essays, but there is no way we could manage that. We all know that if we planned unit fully implementing Grant Wiggins’s UbD, our curriculum would be improved, but we couldn’t grade anything if we did that. So we borrow time from Peter to pay off Paul’s obligations, and in the end hope the sum totals up to be worthwhile for our students.

We’re so good at triage, we even use it to manage the amount of emotional investment will make in any one student. How many of us have gauged the possibility of success before really going after those disaffected students that blow off any attempt to connect with them?

So on one level the question is right up our alley, we always measure this stuff. On the other hand, we have no way to measure an accurate response because we have a failed metric. How can we measure the amount of work we have to invest in online group work? We are just learning technical details of choosing and creating the environments for that work and we have to write out the step by step directions used by the students to navigate what we have created. Our work load, which includes learning about the various options open to us to make the best choice as well as actually using it, will be necessarily extensive. But I’m inclined to think that work is front-loaded. I can’t see how a teacher in their third year of a course they have written would say that the work they put into creating collaborative assignments was not worth it.

In a much more vital sense, the work has to be worth it because the students’ need for this experience is so great. How often have you heard your F2F colleagues express their fears that online teaching will sap students’ ability to work with others? After all, they admonish us, these kids spend too much time online anyway, they’ll never learn how to deal with others face to face. Do these teachers realize that these kids will work in this environment as adults? Yes they spend a lot of time online, but no one is teaching them how to successfully collaborate in that environment. My guess is that none of these nay-sayers would feel comfortable locking these kids in a room by themselves and then letting them out into the world confident that they can work together because they have been locked in a room together. Students coming out of that room would have been without adult supervision or guidance and my guess is their behavior would reflect it. That is exactly what is happening online today. Unless some adults get the kids into a nurturing online environment that guides them through the habits of practice and basics of polite, interpersonal communication and cooperation, we’re doomed.

If we don’t do this, no one will. If we let the kids teach themselves how to interact online, we’ll spend our retirement more angry and bitter that our current critics, complaining about the degradation of civil behavior in our society.

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You would be hard-pressed to find a more concept more unpopular than lecture in education today. It is the single, most universally despised form of instruction in the industry. It’s probably safer to wear a Red Sox hat to Yankee Stadium than go to a graduate class and suggest that lecture offers even the slightest hint of value. Graduate students should know they are better off talking about multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction and backward design. Keeping their references to lecture hidden behind innocuous labels like “direct instruction” may not even be enough to insure their safety.

Movers and shakers in this business must always pedal something new and different to sell their books, grab their grants and distinguish themselves from others. So it is not surprising they would criticize such a traditional form of teaching. But let’s be honest, lecture’s bad reputation comes from the fact that there are so many poor examples of it infecting our schools. History teachers are the worst offenders.

Yesterday I sat and suffered with 45 colleagues through the best and worst examples of instruction. The first half of the afternoon was a dialogue with an undisputed expert in antebellum history, followed by a lecture from that same expert. Knowing more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin than should be permitted by law, the professor first engaged the class by asking questions about the book. Citing a series of passages, he led us through a discussion about the characters, images and meanings of the book. You could sense the interest among the participants, and recognize it clearly when their questions to him took his original provocative thoughts in several directions.

After a short break however, we returned to the room for the “lecture” half of the presentation. This lecture consisted of the professor reading one of his articles to the group. There’s simply not enough amphetamine in the world to keep that class conscious. Every interesting and engaging thought from the first half of the afternoon crashed in the train wreck of the second half. Watching the closing eyes and bobbing heads, I was embarrassed, uncomfortable and convinced that there is nothing quite as bad a speaker can do to an audience than to read a scholarly article to them.

Yet, I am convinced that students in history classes benefit from lecture. Tucked in the niche of perhaps 25% to 30% of classtime, well-crafted and well-delivered lectures compliment content delivery with passion, reality and common-sense understanding that text and video alone cannot provide. It is much more a difficult and complex art form than a formulaic lesson plan that can be followed step by step. Lectures fail so often because every element has to be developed, written and performed well in order for it to work. It requires the ability of Ken Burns to find the poignant images and stories to infect it with emotion, the quirky observations and timing of George Carlin, the stage presence of Robin Williams and the organization of a Supreme Court opinion to come even close to success. To push it over the line it has to be rehearsed a couple dozen times as well.

If lecture works, it inspires, informs and leaves the audience on fire. If not, lecture is a crime.

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