Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Apologia Pro iPad Sua

After all is said and done, what was actually accomplished? Students worked with a new and engaging tool. Some worked well and some struggled. Some embraced the technology and some were stand-offish and some were open minded though a bit skeptical. Did it improve test scores? To truly know the answer to that you would need know how well these students would have done in a traditional classroom setting, but anecdotally students "looked" more engaged, pursued some things in ways they might not have otherwise and perhaps a bit more deeply. The tests results when they come will provide some evidence, but cannot really tell how the same students would have done had the iPads not been a part of the equation. Is the goal of education after all to improve performance on standardized tests or is it to produce a more thoughtful, more aware, more engaged human being who enjoys a richer, deeper, more rewarding life, or at least has the tools to live such life. I think one real value of the experiment was the opportunity it gave students to be explorers, to go to places, academically, few of their classmates in other classrooms had the opportunity to go. They got to travel the land before the roads and the street maps have been put in place, it was a kind of Lewis and Clark experience. I think this terrain was worth exploring but others will make the final determination on that score.

The most important question to ask is what is the purpose of this experiment; what is it we wish to accomplish? There are those that think anything new and different is worth trying simply because it is new and different because change is always a good thing. I think change is a constant and it will happen whether we like it or not, but I think we have choices, we can engage change thoughtfully and pursue those changes that look promising and reject others that appear to be a bit dubious ( though it is important to remember appearances can be deceiving). I think the most important thing we do is reinvent the wheel, because when the simplest most commonplace things change the tools used to accomplish the simplest most commonplace things must change as well. This year we learned that assignments did not have to be completed and submitted in the usual way. We learned that images, audio clips, film clips, and other media can be used to construct and support an arguement. We learned that we can respond to some questions posed in the classroom in our own personal voice, that not everything has to be in a third person, formal voice (we didn't need iPads to do this last but they helped by making blogging platforms and such more accessible in the classroom). We learned that we did not need to use so much paper, that classroom handouts could be handed out digitally and that the completed assignments could be turned in digitally as well. We learned we did not have to depend on the availability of the computer lab to complete traditionally computer lab type assignments and that assignments that were not done traditionally in the computer lab could be completed more effectively using computer lab type technology in the classroom. The world of the classroom was made a little larger and the boundaries of what could be accomplished in the classroom were expanded.

The video asks an important question. What are out intentions? Everything we do in the classroom has a design component, when we set up and run a classroom we are designing a learning environment for our students. What do we intend to do with this environment? What we make the focus of education says a lot about what we believe to be the purpose of education, it says everything really. Yet how deeply do we consider the shape and content we give to that environment; how deeply do we think about the consequences of what we do? How do we intend to shape the students that come through our classroom doors and what will they look like when they leave? I read an article recently, "Solitude and Leadership" about the nature of leadership. I do not really believe in leadership as it seems to be practiced today, it seems to be more about being the first follower, the person who can get to the head of the line to leads others some place that others still have decided we all should go. But leadership as discussed in this article is important and whether we like it or not we are leaders in our students' lives. They may not know it, but they depend on us to protect them from the nonsense, from the fads, the programs, "the next big thing" whose promises are larger, often much larger, than their results. How does one become this kind of leader in a bureaucracy that punishes harshly those that do not conform to its dictates? Too often decisions about school policy are made with how a policy will improve the image of those setting the policy which is fine when making the leader look good is also in the best interest of our students. But what happens when these policy do not serve the best interests of our students, or actually does harm to their academic futures? Who speaks for the student?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What Is Scholarship?

What is scholarship? Technology has changed the way in which at least some scholarship is done, but the basics of scholarship have not changed much. The rabbi in the photograph is engaged in a very familiar kind of scholarship, perhaps his, or one like his, is the image that comes first to our minds when we hear the word "scholarship," a picture of someone, usually wearing glasses, poring over an old, thick book. And though the technology can bring things to everyone that were not readily available to everyone there are things the technology, at present, cannot easily bring us. Where source documents may be made available to people in ways they never were before, contemporary scholarship is not readily available online. In part this is because it is by selling books that scholars and publishers earn a living and this means, for the foreseeable future some things will not be at our fingertips and will not be free. Much of the online research materials resemble encyclopedias, they give useful information but they do not usually pursue their subjects in very great depth.

This is a problem that needs to be considered when using computers and iPads and the like as research tools. It is important that students do not develop the habit of settling for less because "less" is what most easily comes to hand. While acclimating students to the technology and teaching them how to use the technology effectively, it must also be stressed that when information on the topic under investigation cannot be found in sufficient depths online, then more traditional sources need to be considered. Traditional research methods and sources should not be seen as antithetical to the "new" tools of study, but as complementary to these new tools. It is important for students to learn that just because information can be found more quickly online does not mean the best, the most thorough sources of that information can be found online. Students need to learn to use the new tools but they need also to be encouraged to develop a "scholarly" attitude towards the material they are using for their research and a key component of the scholarly attitude is skepticism. Does this source tell me enough? Does this source get it right? Are there other points of view? Often the Internet gives us "face value" a good look at the surface, but if you want to get "under the skin" of things you have to look around. Just as it is probably true that the traditional library is not necessarily better than the Internet, it is also probably true that the Internet is not necessarily better than the conventional library.

To make online research a little easier for students I added the "Dunno" app to their iPads. This app searches the Internet for articles on areas of interest identified by the student. It does a Google type search, but it seems to be a bit more focused than Google. It also saves the articles it finds under the name of the search, so that students can, if they need to, revisit the sources of the information they have found. The app integrates, sort of, features of Google with features of Diigo. I also placed a link on my web page to instagrok. Instagrok is another web resource that aids in searching the web. It provides a mind map of sorts on a topic so that students can explore more easily sources of information related to the subject of their original search. So, for example, if you enter Geoffrey Chaucer you get a big Chaucer bubble in the middle with little bubbles surrounding the "big bubble" that link to such topics as Petrarch, England, and Middle English, among others. Many of the links will have many of the shortcomings of many web research sites, but the resource offers what can be an effective way to begin doing research on a topic.

The video focuses on the lengths to which some will go to recover an important piece of knowledge. It also talks about the importance of making manuscripts and texts, classical and othwise, available to those that need or desire to study them. It may be that at some point in the future the profit motive and the needs of good scholarship will reconcile themselves. We all need to make a living and that is often done by one person selling something to another person. But the interests of education and learning are often frustrated by the price tag that accompanies the enterprise. I think the nation and the world benefit by making knowledge and learning as available as possible, making it possible for those with the ability, interest, and motivation to learn to learn in an affordable way. Still, it is difficult to not be amazed by the work done by those working with the Archimedes Palimpsest. Perhaps the view of the curator of the the Walters Art Museum will prevail and other museums and libraries will make their manuscripts more available to the general public. But even if they do not, I think there is value in considering the zeal, the curiosity, the love of ancient things, and the love of sharing knowledge that motivated these scholars and scientists and their work.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Making Fun

There seems to be a belief in contemporary culture that work and play, that labor and fun are mutually exclusive concepts; that work can never be play and that our labor can never be fun and if they are like play or like fun there is something suspect. Our work and our labor are things we do to subsidize our play and our fun. This need not be true, in fact it ought not be true if we work and plan wisely for our futures (unfortunately there is also probably a degree of luck involved as well). Of course the play and the fun must be extensions of the work itself and not activities that are unrelated to the work done mainly to avoid the work itself. I must like baseball and play by the rules of baseball; I cannot change the rules to make baseball resemble football or basketball because I prefer those games to the one we are playing. In the classroom there is nothing wrong with enjoying the study of math or science, or literature, so long as the study done in those classes are actually of math, science, and literature. There is nothing wrong with activities that make these disciplines more accessible to students, more fun, so long as those activities involve students in the mastery of the skills, knowledge, and practices of those disciplines. In fact this is the goal of most teachers, to impart to their students their passion for the discipline and the joys of the challenges these disciplines provide. For, generally speaking, most things that are easy become boring after a pretty short space of time.

The goal of education is not just to impart some bits of culture, a few rudimentary skills that will prove useful later in life, or to make students useful employees when they enter the world of work. Of course all these ought to be by products of education, but they are not the soul of learning and study. Students that go on to be able to teach themselves are usually students who have in addition to mastering skills and learning facts cultivated a love of learning, a healthy curiosity, and a passion for the workings of the mind and the putting of their own minds to work. For me as a teacher the aspects of the iPads in the classroom program that are the most exciting are those aspects that help the students discover the pleasures that can accompany the acquiring of knowledge and the exercise of the mind. To the extent the iPad has helped students to enjoy and take pleasure in what are legitimate learning experiences directly related to the study of literature and composition (the study of the English Language Arts) the program has been immensely successful. To the extent it has helped them learn things they needed to know for a test or to complete a unit, it has been useful, but I do not have the same confidence in students remembering what they have been compelled to learn as I am in there remembering what they have desired to learn.

It has always been said that empathy comes from understanding what it is to walk in another's shoes. Those of us who have completed our formal education (the informal variety ought never to be completed) have walked to an extent in our students' shoes; there is value in our trying to remember that experience. And even though I enjoyed school for the most part, there were things about it I did not enjoy and those things provide me some sense of what it must feel like for a student to feel "trapped" in a classroom. To be forced to get an education the importance of which is not clear to them. There are educational values to being bored, to being confused, these things can be channelled to positive ends, but it is difficult to get anyone to take seriously anything that does not seem to be important, whose value is elusive or unclear. As a teacher I know I cannot reach everyone; there are mysterious elements of personality that cause some students to be unresponsive to what I teach or to my manner of teaching it. But any tool that helps me to reach the students I can reach is a valuable tool.

The video is about building confidence. I do not know how many of us have the talent or the latent ability to become great artists. My guess is that not many of us do. But all of us have wells of creativity that enable us to bring insights to problems others do not have and bring a depth of imagination to what we do. Most I have talked to who teach the arts, theater, music, painting, etc. say that it is often not their most talented students that go on to achieve success at that art but the most driven. Many of the most talented have more than one interest or do not have confidence in their ability to succeed. For those with multiple interests it is probable that the interest they pursued gave them as much or more satisfaction as pursuing the arts would have given. But those that do not pursue a thing because they lack confidence are the ones I think it is most important to reach, because their futures can be changed for the better. A goal of life is to find that job, that vocation that in the doing of it we find pleasure, joy, and satisfaction; a career that involves more than killing time while waiting for time to kill us.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lines of Vision

In the etching above there are many different sight lines. There is light coming through skylights in the ceiling and many different doorways and hallways, each with its own unique sight line. Each sight line creates a somewhat different picture with a different focal point and a different emphasis. Set design in the Renaissance theater of Continental Europe (The English theater evolved differently) were very elaborate and made great use of perspective to create the illusion of city streets with shops trailing off in the distance. The sets played with angles and sent streets and alleyways off in different directions. There was, however, only one seat in the theater where the perspective worked perfectly and every sight line created its illusory magic. This seat was called "the eye of the duke" because it was to the town's leading aristocrat that the seat belonged. Only the duke saw everything as it was intended to be seen, for everyone else some things worked and others didn't work quite so well, though the sets were still impressive. The way things look often depends on the way and the angle from which we look at them. The same is true with the technology we use in the classroom. The technology will not teach the lesson, it will not select the content of the course, and will not direct students through that content, though with proper guidance from an instructor the technology can serve those ends.

This is a photograph of one of the more famous French medieval towns, Mont Saint-Michel. The architecture of the town is very beautiful and the way it straddles the ocean is, to many, awe inspiring. It is an architectural and an engineering wonder in many ways. The location and architecture also served a military purpose in that it was unassailable. The design and "technology" served the needs of the day. As a teacher of English I find the technologies available to me can be used to effectively communicate the content of my discipline to students. It can help students learn about the context in which a story we are reading is set, the history and the culture that informs the literature. Plato said the mind will not retain what it has been forced to learn. Anyone who has ever taken or given a vocabulary test can attest to the truth of this. I think reading solely for information is reading for the wrong reason and whatever facts are gleaned from the hunt through the text are not likely to be remembered, they are facts that were sought for no real reason other than someone told the students to find some facts. But when those things are learned in a context they serve to improve students' understanding and appreciation of a story and the facts are more likely to remain with the students because the students had a purpose in seeking them.

This is another architectural wonder built on a body of water, the Frank Gehry designed museum at Bilboa, Spain. As a building it serves some of the same needs as the buildings on the island of Mont Saint-Michel, it provides shelter, and protects the buildings' contents. The materials, the technology, and the tools available to Gehry were very different from those available to the 13th century builders of the island monestary/town/fortress. The purposes are also a bit different because though Mont Saint-Michel has become something of a "museum piece" it was not built as one and though Bilboa has had a troubled history as a target of Basque Sepratists the museum was not built with a military purpose. But as buildings built by water both structures had to address many of the same architectural issues. A Math teacher has different goals and objectives than an English teacher. But both teachers are looking for effective ways of delivering the content. And just as the fortified town of Mont Saint-Michel was built to serve different goals than the museum in Bilbao, there are ends and purposes that both share. There are ends and purposes that a Math and an English teacher share as well.

As an English teacher I want students to read at different levels of understanding. I will be more successful with some students than with others, but the goal is to get all students as deeply into the texts we study as I can and to encourage them to write as cogently, analytically, and imaginatively as I can. The first goal is to get students to read for the literal meanings of the words. As a stand alone text what do the words communicate. The next step is to encourage students to explore the historical and cultural factors that influenced the texts. Next I would like students to consider the larger ramifications of characters and themes; that is to what extent are these characters and themes archtypal. The last level I would like students to consider is the ends of things. What are the ends that these characters are making for themselves, and what are the implications of the themes of the story to the future of that story, and to the future of those reading the story.

To put this into a context, and to use an example where each of these levels are somewhat easy to spot, consider the play The Crucible. The play is about a man standing up to a tyranial, though, at least initially, a well intentioned court. John Proctor takes a stand for truth and justice. He is a flawed man, but a proud man and a man of integrity. There is to this story the history of the Salem Witch Trials that provide the historical and cultural setting of the story, but there are also the McCarthy Hearings of the time the play was written that provide the historical and cultural context of the story. It is not necessary to understand these historical or cultural forces to appreciate the story, but it gives the story an added dimension and deeper sense of the real consequences of the issues the play confronts. In the play John Proctor is a tragic hero. He is an archtypal figure in the sense that, like Sampson from the Bible, or Oedipus from Oedipus the King, he is a character whose pursuit of truth and justice is put ahead of everything else. But Proctor, like Samson and Oedipus, is also a tragically flawed human being.

There are real and fatal consequences for the stands these characters take. But these characters none-the-less behave in ways that are not only courageous, but also exemplary, they represent the way people of integrity ought to act in such situations. Finally we see the end to which Proctor's choices are leading him and how these ends are inevitable. We also see the consequences of the court's behavior for the community at large. One of the roles of tragedy is to restore order to a troubled community. The behavior and death of Proctor ultimately result in a restoration of order to the community.

The technology used properly can guide students trough these layers and help them discover them and their significance on their own. Of course the students must still bring something to the table, they have to make an honest attempt to engage the material, because as already stated, the mind will not retain what it is coerced to learn. And if the material is only pursued because an instructor has forced them to make the pursuit, it is not likely to have much staying power, it is not likely to escape the bonds of short term memory.

Students can, though, be guided through a search of the history and culture of Puritan New England and 1950's America. Students can be pointed towards characters from mythology, folklore, and literature that share many of Proctor's character traits and then reflect on the significance of these similarities across the literature. Students can blog on and discuss the consequences of the play for the characters in the play and the implications of these consequences in their, the students' own lives. But at the end of the day we need to consider our "line of vision." Where are we trying to go, what are we trying to accomplish, how do we best serve the ends we trying to achieve? How do I, as an English teacher, entice students to take the academic journey and reap the rewards the journey can bring.

The video clip is a lighthearted look at one of the more frequent frustrations of working with the technology. It is important to remember the technology is not foolproof nor without its annoyances and aggravations. It helps to bring a sense of humor to the enterprise and to not take things too seriously when they do not go as expected. Putting an iPad or a computer into the hands of every student will not accomplish much if those who teach them have not been effectively trained in how to use the technology. They need to be versed enough and experienced enough with the technology's shortcomings and frustrations that they can make light of them and encourage students to persevere when things do not go as expected. Any tool is only as good as those using the tool and those that teach others how to use a tool need to be well versed in the many uses of the tool but, more importantly, well versed in the tools many shortcomings. Failure is an important adjunct to success and we all need to learn to shape what does not work into something productive and useful. Some ask, "why reinvent the wheel?" But society does not really move forward until all the wheels, all those things we say "if it ain't broken don't fix it" about, are reinvented. Progress begins with looking differently at everything we have taken for granted.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Trying to make things work can be puzzling. I think we solved one of the two problems from last week. Instead of putting everyone into one big Edmodo group for the "Ask an Historian" exercise, I created four groups and entered all the students into two groups, one group for asking a question and one group for answering a question. It seemed to work today, we'll watch it, though. The other problem with the QuickTime podcast videos looked like it was figured out but, as it happens, it wasn't solved. But this is all about learning stuff, both for the teacher and the student. As in the picture, things are not always as they appear. Is this a table or a bustling village. Much of life is making something out of the unexpected. But this is also often where the interest and the excitement lives. Students working with the Edmodo site last week were confused about some things. What kind of questions to ask, what constitutes a thorough examination of the reading. When students are used to doing quizzes where the issue they were asked to explore we're spelled out fr them, not much thought had to be given to what to write about, you wrote about what the teacher asks you to write about. But open ended questions where the "scene selections" are left to the students along with the analysis of what the scenes might suggest produces some struggles in some and makes others uncomfortableu. Perhaps this suggests that along the way I have been doing too much and asking them to do too little. For even the best students too often the quest is not to learn and discover, but to get someone, usually the teacher, to tell them the answer.

There was an interesting little blog posting I found recently about the best way to learn things. It's called "The Feynman Technique to Learn Things Faster. I have always believed, as have most teachers I have known, the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. The Feynman technique provides a very simple formula for learning by teaching. There are four simple steps: write down the topic, pretend you are teaching it to someone else by writing down the steps, go back to the book when you get stuck, and simplify the language by putting it into your own words. If you can actually find someone to teach the topic to, you will probably achieve mastery fairly quickly (depending a bit on how patient the "students" are and how willing they are to let you return to the book when they ask you a question that leaves you perplexed. But in the process of teachg you find out where the holes in your knowledge are and learn what needs to be done to fill those holes. It is important to remember that eveyone's knowledge has holes, and it is especially important that students see where the holes in our knowledge are because the best teaching technique is to show others what we do when we encounter a question we cannot answer, when we are confronted with something we should know but do not know. Much of effective teaching is transparency, letting students see how we learn and wrestle with difficult problems. The most important thing to learn is never the answer, but the practices to employ when an answer needs to be found and how those practices are put to work and how effectively they produce results. This is what students need to discover if they are to ever learn how to teach themselves.

I have enjoyed Rube Goldberg machines from the moment I was first introduced to them. As a child I loved the game Mouse Trap. I do not remember how it was played, what the rules were, or even the point of the mouse trap to the game, but I loved watching the trap being sprung. I think fully understanding a Rube Goldberg machine requires an appreciation of the laws of physics, the relationships of the parts to one another, and the absurdity of the job it does. Behind every machine is a kind of satiric commentary on the "age of machines" and satire is a literary concern. There is a manipulation the laws of physics and objects in motion, which is a scientific concern. The history of the Rube Goldberg machine follows the history of industrialization and pokes fun at a human fascination with machines, which is a cultural, historical, and sociological concern, all branches of social studies. Sometimes a bit of comic fun can provide an opening to some serious study.

Friday, April 27, 2012

True North, Academically Speaking

This week I tried to get students using the Edmodo site to complete their reading quizzes for The Grapes of Wrath. I set up a second web page that I linked to my main web page that could be used as an alternate for Edmodo if for any reason there were problems with the site. I have never used Edmodo in the classroom, so I did not know what to expect or what problems might arise once students actually tried to post to the site. The new web page is called "BookStuff." I created discussion threads on the site just like those in Edmodo with the exception that I cannot limit access to the threads to only the group members working on each thread. I also linked to the site all the "BookTalk" podcasts that I have for some of the books that we do. This puts all the resource materials for each of the books we do in one place. I felt that even if we did not have any problems with Edmodo the new site would still be a very valuable resource. As it turned out we did have problems with Edmodo in that not all students were successful posting to the site; they got the "spinning wheel" indicating the iPad Edmodo app was trying to send the post to the site, but that for one reason or another the post was not accepted to the site. I do not know if this is because there are so many trying to use the wi-fi connection at the same time that nothing moves quickly or if there is some other problem. There did not appear to be any problems posting to the new web site, however. I have only heard good things about Edmodo, so I am assuming there is something I need to do with the settings for the site, or perhaps it is wi-fi overload. In any case, the first week of the new "quizzes" seems to have gone well. We are, after a fashion, finding our academic "true north."

In many ways it feels like we are still surveying the wilderness. I have, for example, put all my book talks onto the web page, but some will open on the iPad and some will not (though they all open on a conventional laptop or desktop computer). The podcasts all use the QuickTime plug-in, not flash video, so the plug-in should work on the iPad. Size does not seem to be the issue as some of the podcasts that run on the iPad are larger files than some of those that do not run. We have also had trouble with the wiki sites behaving erratically, which has caused some students to lose their work. If nothing else we have learned to be cautions, to do our work on a notepad like Evernote or Paperplane Notes and then copy and paste the work into the wiki, Edmodo, or whatever other platform we are working on. We do not have a word processing app on the iPad, like Office or Pages, so we have to make do with notebooks that allow us to do some writing without some of the more sophisticated features found on a formal word processor (though it should be added that the notebooks let us do quite a lot). CloudOn gives us access to the full Office suite of apps, but that does not always work as it should, at least not for me. But it is free, so the price is good.

The video is of Billy Collins performing some of his poems as animated cartoons. This is another way that literature can be made available to students in a way that makes it a bit more accessible and, perhaps, entertaining. Collins' poems are themselves rich in humor and wit and are more accessible than some poetry to students, but the animations add another diminsion to the poems. There is more to literature than just its entertainment value, but the literature that survives the centuries usually survives because it continues to speak to us and to our humanity as it continues to entertain us. Like any acquired taste, classical music, the opera, French cooking, some guided exposure to the work is often necessary before the work begins to speak to us, to touch and to move us. It is more often than not worth the investment of time and adds richness and depth to our lives.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Finding Our Way Home, Academically Speaking

Trying to add an additional layer to the course by using Edmodo. In the online courses I teach I assess reading through essays, discussions, blogs, and other exercises that ask students to engage the material. I do not use tests or quizzes, I gather the information I need for assessment through other venues. I think this puts a greater focus on the books we are reading and gives the students more freedom to demonstrate their understanding through those aspects of the story that most moved and impressed them. We are currently reading The Grapes of Wrath. We will use Edmodo discussions to talk about the novel. I put the Edmodo app on all of the iPads and added a link to the Edmodo site to my web page so that my students can access the site more easily from their computers at home. There are two parts to the assignments completed through Edmodo. The first is the "Ask a Historian" thread. Each group asks one of the other groups a question each week related to some aspect of the historical and cultural setting of the story. The group that is asked the question act as the "historians" and research the question and report back with an answer. Each group is matched to another group so that every group asks a question and every group answers a question.

I then gave each group their own group thread where they write about an aspect of the story and follow that aspect through the novel. One group follows the plot, one group follows the conflicts, one group follows the themes, and one group follows the characters. I also gave students a handout that identifies five layers of meaning that run through the novel: economic, social, material, individual, and spiritual. As each group completes their assigned topic they weave the five layers into their discussions. Students are not entirely free to pursue what they choose though the novel, but they have more freedom than a conventional quiz would give them. As a final project each group will complete a multimedia project that will let them play with some of the iPad tools, like the cameras, to film, record, doodle, and draw, or whatever else they choose to throw into the mix, to capture creatively their over all impressions of the novel. It is my hope that by letting students demonstrate their understanding of the book in ways that let them focus on what is meaningful tho them they will get more out of the book. I am also hoping the "Historian" component will pique their interest in the historical and cultural moment that permeates the narrative.

There is often much going on beneath the surface of things that escapes our notice. A common criticism of iPads in the classroom, especially against giving all students an iPad, is that it is not a laptop or desktop computer and cannot do what a full-fledged computer can do. This is true, it is much easier to work with large files, to multi-task, to work with video, audio, and other large, data intensive content on a desk or laptop computer than on an iPad (though much of this is becoming easier to manage, every aspect of this blog, for example, from start to finish, was completed on an iPad using the Blogsy iPad app). But in many ways the desktop computer is a 20th century technology that is being replaced by the laptop and the laptop, or it's traditional role, if a device as new as the laptop computer can be said to have a traditional role, is on its way to be replaced by Notebooks like The iPad. But the benefits of the iPad are the things it does that the traditional computer cannot. For me, reading on an iPad, whether in Kindle, iBooks, or one of the reader apps that formats web pages and news articles, is much easier on an iPad than on a computer. This makes it a real alternative to the traditional textbook (of course many publishers have yet to realize this) and it also opens the door to textbooks that are not just textbooks but digital laboratories that not only instruct students in how to conduct certain experiments but also provides the platform for conducting, digitally, the experiments themselves. The iPad can carry just about every tool students need for just about every academic discipline they will encounter throughout their academic career. Also the nature of the tools themselves are changing and more and more tools are going to become necessary that can only be carried to class on some sort of digital device.

The iPad is a mobile device that gives students access to web sites and various technology away from their digital "home," wherever that might be. Most of what is on an iPad is stored online and is accessible from any computer, and, conversely, much of what is done on a computer can be made wirelessly available to the iPad either through online storage or wireless connections to students' computer networks. The iPad has significant limitations, but most of these limitations are only limitations for those that do not have access to a laptop or desktop computer and where many students do not have computers at home, and will have to live with these limitations, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Some of the disadvantages can be offset by the availability of computers through schools' computer labs and public access to computers through libraries and the like. Students can use services like Dropbox to give a home to the data they create that can be accessed from any computer anywhere. And it should probably not be forgotten that an iPad is a small fraction of the weight of the traditional backpack and it's contents. The iPad is a 21st century device that will prepare most students for the 21st century world and it appears to be at the center of the 21st century path we are all traveling.

The video addresses some of the dangers of the digital world we inhabit and some of the dangers our students need to be on their guard against (and which their teachers might offer guidance on how to avoid). The digital spaces that many of us inhabit enable us to live more scripted lives, to control more effectively the public persona we present to the world. But much of life is serendipitous and it is not possible to live both a full and happy life and a scripted life. Marriage and meaningful friendships, for example, require us to inhabit ourselves in "real time" and as a result we need to learn to live in real time and interact with others in real time. Real life is improvisational theater and we all need to learn to perform on that stage, though as with most things, some will be better at it than other. But that does not mean all cannot learn to perform adequately on that stage.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Delivering the Goods

Though we are still exploring other means of delivery, we have decided on using the following tools for delivering the different kinds of writing we do in class:

Quotes - Posterous

Poems - Paperplane Notes

"How" - Web Page Blog

Passages - Web Page Class Discussions

All but the Paperplane Notes is a public space, so assessment has to be done by communicating directly to the student. On the positive side, though, these being public spaces many students have felt freer to develop a personal voice that should serve them well on the A. P. test in May. HWHotline is another space I have looked at that provides another public space for discussions. I have been thinking this might prove useful for talking about characters and themes in the books we are reading. Edmodo could also be useful in this regard as well. But what I would like to find is a space where work can be delivered privately. This can be done through Dropbox, but this requires students to use passwords and such and I would like a space more like FileStork where students can "drop" work off to me without a password but privately so that I can see it, assess it, and return it. Paperplane Notes works well this way, but is limited as to what students can submit, it is a fairly rudimentary "notes" application, but perhaps as we continue to play with it we will discover other things that it can do.

The picture is titled "The Spirit of Education." Teaching and learning can be complex. As an English teacher I am trying to get students to read deeply in difficult texts, in texts that have literary merit and a bit more to recommend them than their informational qualities. The goal of an English Language Arts class is to help students become effective communicators. Part of being an effective communicator is being able to read a text whose meanings are subtle and nuanced. Sometimes important decisions can only be made well if this kind of language can be understood well, advertising and elections come to mind. My eleventh grade classes reviewed the results of the PSAT tests that were recently taken. The purpose of the review was to help prepare them for the SAT test they took (or may have taken) in March. To do well on the language part of that test students must be able to make sense of fairly difficult passages that must be understood in the context of a larger piece of writing.

There are two things this test often does, often at the same time to confuse students. One, they will ask simple questions using difficult language. Two, they will refer students to passages that are difficult to follow either because they use unfamiliar language or use a complicated syntax. For example, this passage from "Wuthering Heights" is not unlike passages that are found on the SAT test: "Leaving aside the degradation of an alliance with a nameless man, and the possible fact that his property, in default of heirs male, might pass into such a one’s power, he had sense to comprehend Heathcliff’s disposition–to know that, though his exterior was altered, his mind was unchangeable, and unchanged." For most students words like "degradation" and "disposition" are problematic (whether they should be is another issue). The string of simple and complex clauses make it a difficult passage for some students to follow. A student trained only to read for information is going to struggle with a passage like this when encountered on a test like the SAT, or in othEr situations they encounter in life where an understanding of sophisticated language and sophisticated syntax are necessary.

This type of language may not be encountered in an entry level job, but it will be encountered in college and in the higher level jobs many of our students aspire towards. We read literary texts in English class for a number of reasons, to expose students to something beautiful to help them grow in their appreciation of beauty, we read them to help students see issues from a number of points of view and to experience the world (in their imaginations) from perspectives different from their own, and we read them to help student develop their imaginations and to develop areas of the brain that are only stimulated and developed by rich literary texts. But we also study these texts to help students learn to wrestle effectively with difficult texts and to distill meanings from them. To paraphrase a rule from carpentry, to teach students when reading a passage to read twice and explicate once. But also to read short passages in their larger contexts.

So, what does this have to do with the iPad. For the student with ready access to this machine most of the world's classical literature is at their finger tips. Often these texts come with tools that enable students to search for recurring words and phrases and recurring ideas and concepts. It also gives them the ability to juxtapose texts from different works of literature to explore how they both grapple with similar concepts. Of course students will need guidance and help learning how to conduct these searches. And, of course, ultimately it is the student's curiosity and motivation that will determine how successful the student will be.

The video is of a young man who was driven by his curiosity to do some remarkable things. His passion for what he has learned and his passion for learning more are clear in his presentation. It is this enthusiasm that is, or ought to be, behind what we do in the classroom. Enthusiasm is contagious. Others will often get excited about what excites us, or at least be motivated to give what excites us a try based on the excitement we bring to what we do. Not all are likely to share our excitement, but at least they gave it a fair hearing. In a sense we are embassadors for what we teach. Many of the videos I find on TED Talks are of enthusiastic spokespeople for an idea or concept and might be employed in our presentations of what we teach. Of course these talks are probably more suited to the teacher than the student, but there are some that might appeal to students, especially serious students. There is a talk by the man who pioneered fractals, Benoit Mandelbrot. I think there could be real value to learning about a concept from those who first thought seriously about that concept.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Maybe a Toolbox

Last week I suggested it might be more useful to think of an iPad as a backpack rather than a computer. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as a toolbox. After all what is a backpack other than a student's toolbox; it is where students carry the tools of their trade. In the picture to the left, on the floor somewhere outside the frame of the image is the box the workman used to bring their tools into the room so that they could complete their repairs and renovations. The toolbox is associated wih work, hopefully meaningful work. We can often tell a person's profession from the "toolbox" that person carries. It may be a briefcase, a paintbox, a carpenter's belt. But whatever it is it provides an efficient means for workmen to carry the tools of their trade to that space where they perform the work of their trade. Students are in a sense "apprentice" scholars, they are learning to think, to research, to develop the skills of the academic trade. The iPad is in many ways an academic toolbox. It enables young scholars to carry everywhere not just pencils, pens, and paper, along with a few books, perhaps all the books they may need, a small library of books, but also tools for making notes, writing papers, researching papers, organizing their materials and arranging and keeping their schedules. It is also a very professional device, both in its appearance and in what it does and it may help students (but honestly, it may not) see themselves as the professionals they are becoming.

Most of us want to shoot for the moon when it comes to those things we care about and aspire towards. When we care about something we want to do our best. Shooting for the moon requires us to see ourselves in a certain light (hopefully not just in moonlight) and to develop the confidence necessary to see ourselves succeeding at what we attempt. The more difficult the task the harder it is to develop the necessary confidence. I remember when I started graduate school and began working towards my Masters Degree in English Literature, I did not believe I could complete the program and ended up leaving the program after a year. But a few years later I got the desire to try again and finish it. This time I had the confidence and could see myself completing the work and I did complete the work and got my degree. I always had he ability, I did not always have the confidence and without the confidence it is difficult to push ourselves when things become truly difficult, the temptation then becomes very great to give up. Giving students an iPad is not going to generate confidence necessarily but it does tell them that there are adults in their lives that see them as successful and hopefully it will give students a set of tools that will help them achieve some of that success we all need to build confidence. Of course a tool is just a tool and is only as effective as the person wielding it and the people teaching that person how to wield it. That means the students need teachers that can teach them to use the tool effectively, which also means the teachers must be taught to use the tool effectively.

The video is of an unfortunate gentleman trying to cope with things going wrong. I suspect the presentation was designed to go wrong in the way it does, but it plays with an experience everyone who has worked with technology has had, the computer freezes, goes of on a frolic of its own leaving us to figure out what we can do next to redeem the time. When Bill Gates was introducing one of the early incarnations of Windows he was demonstrating how it works and he got what most people who have ever worked with computers have gotten at one time or another, the frozen screen. He got himself out of the situation, but this is the lot of all pioneers, innovators, and discoverers. When we chart new territory we are making up the maps as we go along. And part of map making is trial and error.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Does It Look Like

The man is carrying his worldly goods on his back, he has an early version of the backpack. Though our students are not walking the train tracks they do walk between classes with their educational goods on their backs. I bring this up because I am wondering what we are trying to accomplish by using iPads in the classroom. It seems that many are looking to use the iPad as a way to put a computer in the hands of every student. At present I wonder if this is really the proper use of the iPad. Instead of using the iPad to replace the computer and the computer lab I think we should think about using the iPad to replace the backpack. This may at first glance seem silly, a good backpack can be gotten for under a hundred dollars, while an iPad cost four hundred dollars for the baseline model. But of course it is not the backpack alone that is being replaced, it is the back pack and all it contains. The books, the notebooks and pads of paper, the pens and pencils (I think if one considers all the books a student will be issued in the course of high school along with other supplies the iPad does not seem so costly). When we think of the iPad as a computer the next question becomes how do we exchange stuff, print it up, "hand in" class and home work from an iPad, which does not really do these things well (though it is probably only a matter of time until they do). But with a Dropbox account students can move documents easily from their iPads and their computers at home or computers at school and turn what they need to turn in when the need arises. But they can also read their texts books on a Kindle or iBooks app, they can take notes on a notepad app, record class discussions if they need to, they can go the whole day without returning to their lockers, they can use calendar apps and organizers of one kind or another to keep track of and schedule assignments so that everything gets turned in on time. Of course students will also be able to do many of the things they do on a computer, online research, word processing, portfolio development to name a few. When we think of the iPad as a computer we are almost immediately confronted with its limitations. But if we think of it as a backpack with some attractive extras many of the limitations disappear. As things are going it may be only a matter of time before it becomes a computer as well as a backpack, but that is kind of like gravy or icing on the cake.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, it is more than a backpack, it has to be to justify the cost, but it is primarily a tool to organize students and help them keep up with and complete their work. I am not sure if this is how people want to think about the iPad but I think this can make the iPad a much more effective tool. Many of the reasons that iPads disappoints as a computer are reasons that computers disappoint in the classroom. We want them to do more than word processing, but that is what most students use computers for most of the time when they are using them for school. There will come a day when books can be looked up on computers as they can in a conventional library, but that day is not today. And much of the research material students cull from the Internet is superficial and woefully inadequate. Don't misunderstand, the Internet is great for fact checking, I would be lost without it, but not for real research where a topic needs to be studied in greater depth. There are times we need to know who discovered penicillin. But there are other times we need to know more about this discovery, it's background, it's ramifications, about the research that was done that made the discovery possible. This is much more difficult to find online and when it is found it is difficult to know if what we are looking at is written objectively or if it was written by someone with a particular ax to grind or point of view to promote. I think the iPad can help the student soar above the clouds, work in ways they could not before. The iPad also enables students to approach their work more creatively while they are mastering the traditional skills and concepts that have been the backbone of education since Socrates. There are things that need to be rethought, assessments, what constitutes submitting an assignment and the form those submissions take, but a few centuries past it was necessary to rethink the book and how it could be most effectively employed with Gutenberg's new technology. But it has great possiblities. It is not a panacea, it is a tool. It is not the backpack but what you carry around in it and how you use what you carry around that is important.

One thing the iPad can help students to do is find their place in a more global classroom. As the video suggests we have much to learn from other cultures and other cultures have much to learn from us. It is increasingly more difficult for nations and communities to live in isolation from one another. It is important to understand those we do not agree with and find ways to resolve our difference. As has been said many times before, peace is not the absence of conflict, but having the strategies and institutions in place that will enables us to confront and peacefully resolve conflicts when they arise.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors

The painting is by Monet and it is of a train station. It captures what many think of when they think of technology and change, smoke and confusion. It is difficult to see what is going on around you, there is a lot of noise and movement but it is difficult to tell what, if anything, is going on. My students are struggling a bit getting their Posterous blogs working on Blogsy and effectively using its features and linking to their YouTube and Flikr accounts. But they are making progress. They are trying to get their synthesis questions with their six sources loaded into the blog. This exercise is not really the kind of thing that works well on a blog, in fact in many ways it runs counter to what is the real purpose of a blog. I asked them to do this because it requires them to add at least one image, at least one video clip, and at least four links to online articles to their post. So what the assignment does is teach them how to make use of many of Blogsy's features. And for those that have completed the assignment they have linked the Blogsy app to their Flikr and YouTube accounts and have uploaded images and video clips, and created links to their online articles. In other words, they have learned how to use Blogsy so that when they start doing "real" blogs they will be able to make good use its features. I have asked them to do essentially what I did on my first Posterous blog, post something whose main purpose was to use it to figure out how things work.

This picture captures what many of us think is the purpose of technology, to give us peace and quiet and the time we need to relax and enjoy a cup of tea. It is supposed to make things easier and more efficient while, it is hoped, Improving the quality of what we do. Often we get the noise and confusion because we create expectations for what the technology will do and how it will help us that are not consistent with the strengths and purposes of the technology. My students, for example, can only use the technology in the classroom, they cannot take it home. There was an article on the edtechteacher blog on using iPads in the classroom. The article makes suggestions and recommends apps to enable teachers and students to make the most effective use of this tool in the classroom. Most of these uses require the user of the device (the student) to have round the clock access to the device. It excels as a tool for organizing, for studying, for creating stuff and moving that stuff between platforms, and sharing with others what she or he has accomplished. To read and annotate reading assignments, for example, students need the iPad with them when they are reading and studying. The problem often is that work cannot be submitted in the manner in which we are accustomed to recieve work, but there are ways to submit work and their are accommodations that can be made that will make submitting and assessing work a more expeditious process.

When students went home for the February break they might have used some of that time to set up their Blogsy apps and play with making it work when they had some leisure time to do that. We set up the accounts in class, but class time is limited and as a result time was lost that might have been used in more productive ways, ways that are more focused on the goals of the class. I personally think we all learn best by doing. Of course, we all need to be given some instruction on how to do what needs to be done but the goal is always to keep that to a minimum. The thing that the iPad can enable students to do very well is to learn by doing, by creating and interacting with the kinds of things they are learning about. The iPad rewards curiosity and the first goal of most teachers is to create curiosity about the materials they teach. But to only use the iPads for forty-five minutes to an hour two to three times a week does not seem to take full advantage of this potential.

The video clip is about mystery and the importance of mystery in our lives. Mystery and intrigue are not just features of successful films, but of most aspects of life that stay with us and tantalize us; that inspire us to explore the unknown and discover new things about us and our world. Part of the intrigue about the iPad revolves around our uncertainty as to how to best employ it, we can see great potential and possibilities but sometimes feel frustrated as how to realize this potential and tap these possibilities. This is not about haphazardly throwing something into the educational arena and waiting to see what happens (though there may be a small bit of this), it requires that time be set aside to speculate and plan and discover those things that can be done and how they might done most expeditiously. It requires time for training and preparation. There is much about the iPad and other new technologies that is very intuitive and these tools can sometimes be put to good use just by setting people free to explore. But it is also important to help people to discover how to explore effectively. It is important to familiarize people with the strengths and limitations of the tool (though at times we discover ways to do the impossible because we were never told that it was impossible) so the time can be put to its best use. Sometimes the smoke and mirrors blind us as to true potential of the tools we have. There needs to be time for tea and reflection.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Steps in the Right Direction (Or at Least a Direction)

Last week I installed, Dropbox, and CloudOn onto each of the iPads. Students were asked to open up the essay for the week, a review from the 1850's of a book on slavery in America. They were to look it over and then explain a rhetorical strategy employed by the author. To open the document they had to go to my public folder and open the document. The document opened in Safari and was sent from Safari to CloudOn. Students could read the essay in a Word document. They could copy the passage they wanted to write about, and then open a word document from the CloudOn site and paste the passage they copied into a new Word document. From there they could write their analyses. I then asked the students to go home, open up their Dropbox accounts, print the document from their desktop computer at home, and bring the printed document to the next class, which was today. Over half the students submitted their printed copy of the work they did last week in class. I could have had them write their responses in the discussion area of my web site or turn them in through Paperplane Notes, but I wanted them to see how they could get documents from the iPad to their home computers. I wanted them to see how work done on an iPad could be printed up at some point and how they could get their work onto their computer desktop (or other platforms) because I thought these would be useful things to know how to do.
Today I again did not pass out the handouts until the end of class and asked students to access them from their iPads by going to my public folder. Many students would rather work with paper and pencil and do not enjoy the technology as much as others. They do not like having to get the documents onto the iPad and would rather have the papers handed out. But I am hoping over time as they become more comfortable with the technology some of this resistance will start to dissipate. I know from people I have worked with in the past that the resistance was often replaced by advocacy as they became comfortable with the technology and they saw what the technology could do for them and even save them time and make a task easier. Hopefully there will be a similar outcome to this. We continue to sail our little boat through these uncharted waters. The maps say "There be dragons" but so far they have all been friendly.

The students are learning not just how to get work done on th iPad platform, but to work across platforms. They are finding ways to work across the apps on their iPads and to use their Dropbox accounts to work and collaborate on projects on their computers at home, on the computers in the computer labs, as well as their iPads, iPhones, and iPods. As the man on the video says, "There are no mistakes on the bandstand."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Looking to the Future

I have been trying to find ways to illiminate paper. I tried an experiment today where instead of passing out the weekly agendas and other handouts I made these documents available through I like that Dropbox offers a local copy of all my folders kept on my desktop that syncs with online folders, so it is much easier to update the folders, but Dropbox does not, or at least I have not been able to figure out how it is done if it does, create a URL that connects to the public folder. With I make the folder public and I am then provided with link I can put on my web page to take students immediately to the public folder. There is no sign in, no need for an email address or a password. Students are taken to the folders and they can open the files on their iPads. The documents open in Safari, but they have the option of opening them in one of a number of word processors or notebooks. As yet we do not have a word processor on the iPads so students are looking at the documents in Safari. However this only enables students to read the documents they cannot write on them or annotate them or in any way interact with the documents. Still, it is a positive step.

Of course there is still the problem of staying in "touch" with the documents. As long as the iPads stay at school, the weekly agendas and such would as well and students would not be able to access the documents at home, unless they redownload them on their computers at home. They could also "wire" them home using email. But these options, though workable seem inefficient; they seem an unecessary duplication of labor. On the other hand, keeping the iPads charged up and in sync with one another demands they spend some time in their cart at school. All this said, it felt good that all the handouts were handed out "paperless" today and all the work was submitted either through the blog on my web page or Paperplane Notes, also without a single sheet of paper changing hands. Though there are still some problems with the efficient use of time, the iPads are making materials more readily accessible. Also, we are working with rhetorical analysis. With the iPads when students analyze a speech like Kennedy's inaugural or King's "I Have a Dream" speech they can watch the speeches being given and consider such things as vocal inflections and gestures in their analysis of the speech.

For me the technology is about learning and how the technology can help us learn more effectively and more deeply and more broadly. I think the video present an exciting case for a kind of learning. A new look at how one person with an iPad might change the world while finding enrichment and enlightenment at the same time.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Running to Catch Up

We have been working on a project for a few weeks now. As often happens the students have fallen behind. As the project is one that is normally completed in the computer lab, it can be difficult to catch because the computer lab is not always avaliable. Because the assignment is one students complete on WikiSpaces it cannot, usually, be done anywhere but in the lab. With iPads, however, students can work on the wiki using their iPads in the classroom. The plan for today had not originally been to get the wiki caught up, so we could not use the lab, but we were able to use the iPads, and the time was used quite productively. This also meant that groups that were caught up could pursue other things without being limited to only those things that could be completed in either the classroom or the lab; they could pursue classroom type stuff or computer lab type stuff or both whatever worked best for them. In other words, students had more options. The only thing we could not do is print documents that needed to be printed, but this sort of thing could always be done later without great inconvenience to anyone. There might be a bit of an irony here in that Mark Twain, the author we are studying, exhausted his fortune on a printing press that never worked. Printing has always been a problem.

Much of life revolves around travel of one kind or another, of either a literal or metaphorical nature. When we fall behind in our work we feel a bit like the Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn running to catch the raft or, like Bilbo in The Hobbit we feel like we are trying to make due with inadequate materials, relying on barrels when we would prefer a boat. One reason some teachers resist moving away from the traditional paper and pencil world of the traditional classroom is because the materials necessary for making the technological leap seem inadequate. This is not just because servers go down from time to time making travel impossible, though that is a concern for some. The school is large and the computer lab is small and getting access to the technology can be problematic. The more ubiquitous the technology becomes the more some of these concerns begin to fade into the background and the more eager we become to make these journeys of the mind; to slip the constraints of our little rooms and venture into the broader and deeper rooms of the imagination and explore a new and different geography on the one hand, while exploring the stories and puzzles that have beguiled the human race for millennia on the other. There is a timelessness to the wisdom, values, and disciplines that guide our study. But the technology can give us a new and effective tool for pursuing these enduring concerns.

And for another way to learn and preserve using the new to explore the old: