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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.

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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.

Authentic Directions

For over a year, social studies teachers at my school have been struggling with a new US History curriculum.  Having wrestling the Content/Skills octopod of unsolvable  arguments to the ground, we cobbled together an authentic assessment that would drive the main focus of the course, “doing history” rather than “learning history”.  We defined the skills of an historian, wrote rubrics for each and built into the curriculum a portfolio in which students would reflect upon their performance throughout the year.  It’s hoped that course work will assume a different character when students have to reflect on their own performance, identify what needs improvement and establish a process through which they can improve.

The problem (isn’t there always at least one?), was how to explain this task to them.  Asking them to reflect on their work after it’s graded rather than stuffing it into a backback or saving it for June’s ritual burning is hard enough. How are they going to understand what is expected of them if it involves several waves of reflections, rubrics and evidence?

The attempted solution is this video.  All it takes is PowerPoint, Snagit, Audacity, Camstasia and a script that you write.  Will it work?  We’ll see….

CORNPEG Illiteracy

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.

blogpost-3-42409

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.

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.

wwiii

Napoleon thought that the port at Antwerp was “a pistol aimed at the head” of England.  Likewise, the information revolution is also a pistol, aimed at the core content of the high school survey course in US History.

While waiting for the start of a NJ DOE presentation on the High School redesign project, I’ve been enjoying the early morning silence of Kean University’s student center.  Having learned to steer clear of the Route 78 beast by commuting early, I’m using the extra time to wrestle with my school’s US History I content survey results.  Social Studies teachers poured over lists of names, dates, events, people and laws, and ranked them on a 1 to 5 scale, weighing their importance to the curriculum.  Ultimately, we’re going to have a “must understand ” content list for students and a “may include” content list for teachers.  So I’m averaging the top two categories, organizing the items in categories and themes and compiling lists for every unit in the course.  And, not expectedly, realizing how much I’ve forgotten in the process.

Perhaps is the deterioration of a middle-aged mind, but right there in the middle of the lists, I came to a horrible realization.  I can’t remember a name!

I taught AP US History for years, and remember fondly the lesson that traced the first steps of the independence movement in the colonies because it started with a story.  Lifting A.J. Langguth’s first chapter from his book, “Patriots”, I described the Superior Court of Massachusetts in Boston and the first test of a British law allowing customs officials to search and seize colonial property without a warrant.  Langguth framed his explanation of the Writs of Assistance with the perspective of a young lawyer, John Adams, a spectator at the trial.  Do the “Writs of Assistance” belong in the US History curriculum?    How about the lawyer, who argued the case for the colonists?  He made a passionate defense of liberty and said that a man should be safe in the “castle” of his home.  Without a warrant and a reasonable suspicion of a crime, royal soldiers could not search homes and warehouses of law-abiding colonists.  It’s a great way to start a discussion of the foundation of the independence movement.  But wait…I can’t remember the name of the lawyer!

What the heck?  What was his name?

I know he was overweight, but the only obese colonist I can remember at the moment is Henry Knox, who  was busy selling books at the time of the trial, yet to rise to fame dragging captured British cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to the continental army at Boston.

But there’s hope. I’m in a university student center, the ghost-like “wireless network found” floated on the screen when I logged in.  My ignorance should only last a second.  Opening FireFox, throwing “Writ of Assistance wiki” in to the search box and clicking twice should only take about five seconds.

Curses!  Kean only allows people with accounts to use their wireless.

My ignorance will last as long as my beleaguered brain decays and as long as I am “disconnected”.

Here the point.  Once we get beyond the 1840 railroad internet infrastructure to get to “all access, everywhere, all the time” remembering such facts won’t be important.  Most of the people who are fine democratic citizens and contribute much to our society are ignorant of the facts we insist students remember in high school.  The information revolution proves that process obsolete.

Note to former students reading thus stuff – go ahead and laugh at me.  Live it up.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait for that delicious “ah-ha” moment, when I get reconnected to the cloud and reacquainted with a name.