Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Google Docs and Composition Instruction

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

My handwriting is poor. For years I have joked that I can get away with this because I’m a doctor.  And I have absolutely no trouble reading my own brand of shorthand. What’s the problem? As a writing teacher, I am always commenting on my students’ texts, mostly in marginal notes on papers and in an end comment letter. I work very hard to write legibly on my students’ texts. But the fact remains that my poor handwriting always makes its way into those comments. I offer a translation “service” to my students when I hand back papers and dedicate class time to a reading of my comments before we work to put common writing challenges on the board. And over the term my students do become better interpreters of my shorthand.

Commenting on student texts has always seemed more personalized when I’m hunched over a desk with a pencil in hand, making decisions about where and when to mark the text. And space limitations of the margins help reduce the likelihood that I’ll overwhelm the student with feedback, though that’s always a real possibility.

Back around 2001, when I taught freshman writing as an asynchronous online course, I experimented with digital markup using Acrobat. I found it time consuming and clunky, and while I could write more text quite quickly – and legibly – I disliked the distance the process put between the printed page and myself.

MS Word’s comment tools and track changes have always bugged me for some reason. Perhaps it’s the ease with which one can simply “accept all changes,” effectively allowing a student to let me revise the paper. (I feel this way even though I almost never actually rephrase or rewrite a student’s sentence.) This is already a challenge in teaching revision: students often revise only those moments we mark in a text, thinking that will “fix” the paper.

Strange. For all I’ve done to embrace emergent digital writing technologies over the last dozen years, I have resisted what is perhaps the most basic tool the writing teacher might adopt in working with student texts. Until now.

Enter Google Docs

I feel like a luddite for not getting serious with Google Docs. My institution uses Google Apps for Education, effectively putting all of my students on the Google network. This is quite exciting for a number of reasons that go way beyond Docs. But that’s another story.

Students write their papers directly into a Doc they create on their account, copy-paste a text document from their computer into a Doc, or upload a text doc to Docs. Once they have the paper appropriately formatted (double-spaced, block quotes, page numbers, etc.), they “share” the document with me. I comment on the document and they get immediate feedback.

It’s a bit like MS Office, making it less than beautiful, only I don’t need to have the files on my machine or worry about file compatibility. (Until this term, I regularly received attachments in .pages, .doc, .docx, .txt, .odt, and even – yes – .wpd formats.) I have four different word processing programs on my computer so that I can handle this variety!

I do have an issue with “shared” documents and marking texts. The real-time nature of Docs means that my comments show up immediately. I prefer to distribute final, marked papers at the same time, particularly since it can take several days to work through a (virtual) stack of papers. The workaround I’m using involves copying the shared document, pasting it into a new document I own, and making my comments. I can then share the comments to each student at roughly the same time.

Peer Review

More important than the way this tool enables me to comment on texts is its potential in the peer review process.  My approach to peer review has always involved in-class reading and discussion of student texts. Everyone brings multiple copies, small groups do read-arounds and discuss each text in the group, and I sit in on groups to offer guidance and encouragement.

New this term, I’m putting the reading of drafts onto homework, with the class period reserved for discussion of the ideas and suggestions for revision. Students share their draft Doc with designated peers; commenting happens on the Doc.

I can quickly and easily see the character of the students’ comments, flag and echo some of the best comments by peers, and add my own to the mix. Gone are the days when I would have to collect 3 copies of a draft to see the “layers” of peer feedback on a student’s text, or rely on some other elaborate, paper-heavy mechanism to evaluate the peer review in my classes.

I do worry that the marked document may overwhelm novice writers who can easily become overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback on a single document. (It would be very, very cool if the author could choose to view one set of comments or another.)

Problem – MS Office is Inescapable

In terms of workflow, I have found that the current version of Docs is very limiting when one wants to print comments. Print your Doc and the comments get stripped out before printing. Docs has a full portfolio of export/download options (.doc, .pdf, .html, and more). But only .doc preserves the comments though the export. Frankly, this stinks to high heaven!

Here’s the workflow:

  1. Open Doc with comments that you want to print to bring to class, perhaps to reduce laptop multi-tasking during peer review.
  2. Download .doc file to computer. Open in Word, Pages, Open Office, or another editor. Print.
  3. Bring to class.

This approach isn’t too cumbersome if you’re only printing one Doc. Now multiply the process by 20, 40, 60 to hand back papers with comments.

The writing teacher has already spent 15-30 minutes marking each text. Putting two steps between “desire to print” and “actual print” seems ridiculous. And I’m not sure what technical hurdle would prevent comments from printing. I’m sure Google will address this in some upcoming update.

In an online or hybrid/blended writing course, I can see Docs as a wonderful tool. Printed text becomes irrelevant in an online environment.

 

Upgrading WordPress to 3.3.1

Monday, January 9th, 2012

It’s taken a little while for me to take it up, but I finally broke down and upgraded my WordPress install to the latest version. I’m only just starting to get to know this version. Still, it’s pretty clear that the WP team has made some good additions.

Drag and Drop Media Upload

Right away, I noticed a simplified media upload mechanism. WP is getting smarter. It can now detect the media type you want to upload and sort it appropriately. Even more interesting is the drag-and-drop functionality for media uploads. I gave the tool a quick test drive by uploading a header image, a shot of my backyard pond, below.

Header for Spring 2012 English Composition Course

Backyard Pond.

Flyout Menus

Anyone who spends time with WP knows that the dashboard sidebar menu structure is a bit long.  On a laptop, it’s not uncommon to see the menu run below the fold, forcing a scroll just to locate the settings options.

Flyout menus changes all that.  It’s easy to see your menu options on hover, saving the extra click and streamlining the look of the text in the dashboard sidebar.

Why Update?

Good question. When is something good enough?  I can’t really answer that question.  There are security issues to consider, of course, and the newest version closes some vulnerabilities. In all honesty, the security concerns weren’t enough to move me to the upgrade.

I needed a little down time on my running sites to feel comfortable with an update.  The semester break created that down time for me.  (I didn’t want to break course websites midstream.) But that wasn’t even enough, really.

In the end, my desire to create an option for users to subscribe to Page updates through RSS led me down a path that required the update. RSS Pages for WordPress 3+ required an update to my WP 3.  That update went well, although the plugin page indicates that it had not yet been tested with 3.3.1.  Consider this a leapfrog moment.  I installed the plugin and it seems to be working just fine.

Xtranormal in Composition

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

It’s official. Xtranormal is a great little online tool for composition courses, particularly if your course emphasizes the conversational nature of academic writing.

After contemplating the use of Xtranormal in my composition course for about a year, I offered students the option of creating an Xtranormal script and video in lieu of two low stakes assignments. Working in groups, students who opted for the video project produced two-minute videos that put Malcolm Gladwell, Sherry Turkle, and Nathan Rott into conversation on the issue of social media and social action.

Writing effective source-based papers with a strong dose of argument is a tough task for college freshmen. Producing animated videos that put texts into conversation can actually reduce the level of complexity involved in getting the argument rolling. On top of figuring out the texts, locating moments of connection, and putting the texts together in the service of a position or view, students need to wrestle with effective integration of texts, a balance of quotation, paraphrase, and summary, documentation style, organization, and sentence construction. It takes a full term (or two) for students to become even somewhat proficient at juggling all these elements, and it can be frustrating for them. Their ideas and readings can quickly outpace their ability to represent their views in the structure of the academic paper. Here’s where Xtranormal is a great tool.

Xtranormal uses Flash and text-to-speech technology to enable novice movie makers to produce animated videos online.

Students prepare a script that puts a couple characters in a scene and sets them in a conversation. When students have to use some of the language of the texts they’re reading as they develop the script, they really begin to do some of the hard work of academic thinking. Xtranormal is fun because the author chooses characters, a voice, a background, camera angles, sound effects, and more.

The major drawback, really, is Xtranormal’s revenue model. Rather than offer a free, ad-supported version for those unwilling to purchase the characters and sets, Xtranormal teases creators by providing seed money to make the first video. There is an education discount that puts the tool within some teachers’ budgets, but it’s likely that most students would have to work with a limited set and character selection to work in the budget of the teaser film. (Home economics for digital production?)

Xtranormal was optional this term. I think I’ll require a project of this sort next term.

Print CSS to ATD

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I finally sat down and started some serious work on a print stylesheet for Across the Disciplines. While there are some kinks in the general printout, and I’m certain that tables, figures, and some other visual elements aren’t going to print so cleanly in the current version, The print version of the journal’s articles are far more attractive than they were just a few days ago.

We’re hiding header graphics and nav, and are actually restyling headings for a black-and-white document. Hanging indents in the References are now carried over into the print articles. And more.

I had planned to write a print CSS for Across the Disciplines soon after I recoded the journal for XHTML 1.0 Transitional back around 2007 or 2008. It had been on the agenda for quite some time. It seemed that every time I thought I’d turn some attention to what is really a fairly straightforward project I found myself working on some other part of the site.

Most recently, I thought I’d finally write the stylesheet in December 2010. But then I spent a good bit of late December and January ensuring that the articles in the journal complied with HTML5 standards following a major site-wide overhaul of The WAC Clearinghouse.  The result is a site that will certainly remain compliant for some time since HTML5 is still just a draft specification. But that work really left little energy for CSS coding.

Lesson: Write a damn print CSS at the same time you write the screen CSS. It’s easy enough to do and it’s possible that readers will thank you for saving color ink, whitespace, and paper.

Mountain Biking on Mt. A

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011
YouTube Preview Image

This is my second attempt at a POV video of a Mount Agamenticus ride. The first attempt involved a great 25-degree cold weather ride, but the cam was pointed at the ground and one could get no perspective.  On this second attempt, I tried to get the cam mounted in a better position.  Things start out ok, but the duct tape/bubble gum rig I have set up just seems unable to hold the cam in the right position. All the bouncing over rocks doesn’t help.

The audio for this video is courtesy of Youtube’s Audio Swap feature. Apparently, I wasn’t careful enough with fair use in dropping in my own music; Youtube graciously deleted the audio associated with my original before publishing the project. (Thanks, I think.)

The Rig

HTC Evo mounted to a plastic lightswitch cover using zip ties and o-rings. That apparatus is then mounted to the decent quality helmet mount for my night light rig. But the weight of the phone seems to be too much for the little adjustment hinge on the night light rig.

The Ride

I like this challenging little ride. The first part involves a decent climb up the west side of Mt. A, and around to the north. It’s mostly a wide double-track, but there are plenty of decent boulders, slippery wet washouts, and some serious roots to ride. On a dry day it’s 100% doable, provided you’ve got the legs and lungs to take it. In the video, it’s pretty clear that things are very wet and loose. The decaying leaves complicate matters by hiding the treacherous stuff that’ll cause the rear wheel to give way, the front end to stall on a big root, or worse.

The video doesn’t capture the ride to the summit because I skipped that part of the ride that day. It does capture the easterly descent from Mt. A and over to Second Hill. That’s a hairy downhill section with some sizable 2′ drops off boulders that head right into a tangled nest of roots and loose rocks, followed by some nice technical switchbacks that head to Porcupine and Second Hill.

The ascent of Second Hill is another good little workout that’s about 95% doable, at least when it’s mostly dry. I’ve done this hill about 15 times and I have yet to pull up the last little piece of rock to get clear to the summit.  Mostly, it’s because it’s a near vertical face, but there’s also the thigh burn to contend with by that point. Descending Second Hill on the north side is a fun section because it isn’t quite as rocky and root-infested as so much of the other hills, at least until you get near the bottom. At the bottom, there’s a pretty serious washout and root-laden section that’ll draw some blood if a tire slips out at the wrong time. In the video, there’s a nice foot-deep puddle marking the end of the descent. I’m sure some folks have wiped out there and gotten wet. Thankfully, I’ve avoided that problem.

There’s some nice, somewhat challenging up and down riding on the way back over to Mt. A, and I actually wish there were more of that sort of terrain on my ride. And then it’s a good backtrack up the mountain and down the northwest side to the parking lot.

The Domino Effect

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

My friend Daniel and some of his colleagues have been hard at work on a really important documentary about development in New York. Having done a lot of the hard work behind the documentary, they’re now at a financial impasse.  They need additional money to be able to purchase rights to some of the archival footage they want for their documentary.

To help generate funds for this important next stage of their project they’ve turned to Kickstarter, a really interesting crowdsource-based fund-raising tool. And they’ve created a trailer to both set up the context for their project and to solicit donations.

The clock is ticking. Consider a pledge.

WordPress 3 (Thelonious), Windows Server, & NEWACC

Friday, September 24th, 2010
WP, Win, MySQL, PHP

Last April, at the Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium (NEWACC) Steering Committee meeting at Boston University, I agreed to work with Mike Palmquist at the WAC Clearinghouse to get a NEWACC site up and running by the upcoming NEWACC meeting at Quinnipiac University. NEWACC was imagining a website within the Clearinghouse, as well as a blog. Ideally, this would run in a single tool, a CMS with a blog built into it. I started thinking WordPress because of its strong blog platform and its functionality as a CMS. (Obviously, that’s not the only option.)

Unfortunately, the Clearinghouse didn’t have the back end apparatus to host any of the popular blog platforms. And there were concerns about security in a PHP/MySQL setup. At first it looked like a unified solution would not be possible. But Mike is a great guy who is willing to push the boundaries a bit.  He told me they were experimenting with virtual servers for local projects at Colorado State. After a few months of testing, in mid-September Mike got a virtual Windows Server up and running, with IIS on it.

WordPress on Windows?  Hmm. Generally, Windows and PHP with MySQL don’t even belong in the same sentence. My first response was, “This won’t work.” Then I thought, “This won’t work without major hacks, patches, and a major months-long headache.” Surprise!

6 Hours Later…

WordPress is notable for its famous “5-minute installation” instructions. Right in the instructions are guidelines for installing WP on Win. Microsoft has a FREE (yes, free) product called MS Web Platform Installer that makes relatively quick work of all this headache. Get it installed on your server and you can manage all the app downloads and installations through checkboxes and a GUI.  Sweet!

It wasn’t quite that simple, though I have to take some of the blame because of my lack of knowledge.  I didn’t know there was something called IIS until I started trying to run a tool built to run on Apache on a Windows Server.  It took a couple meetings with some web folks at UNE (Al and Neal, thanks!) before I started to get a handle on the Windows Server/IIS thing. My internet access in Maine is pretty spotty, and this really limits file transfer speeds. The first installation of WP went into a subdirectory, and so it was in the wrong place.  And the FTP access wasn’t activated on the server until after I poked around.What is amazing to me is that it’s running at all. And it is!

WP 3 as a Network

The new power of WordPress 3 is that it can run multiple blogs in a single installation. It’s important to activate this feature within 30 days of an installation. I don’t know if NEWACC will have a use for this feature, but if we don’t do it now we’ll find it harder to handle down the road.  So I took on this piece as well.  I found instructions for Network activation on a Windows installation of WordPress at Laura Gentry’s site. Smooth as silk.

Next Steps

4.5 months into the project we’re set up with server space at Colorado State. We have a virtual server running WordPress 3, a platform that will integrate the NEWACC website with the NEWACC blog, and a tool that can actually scale up to host multiple blog or sites over time. I can now turn my attention to the thing I agreed to do in April.  I can start to build the website for NEWACC!

Kathy Yancey @ Georgia Conference on Information Literacy

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Kathleen Blake Yancey delivered the keynote at the 2009 Georgia Conference on Information Literacy, a talk entitled “Creating and Exploring New Worlds: Web 2.0, Information Literacy, and the Uses of Knowledge.”

Sources=Materials

Yancey worked to open our conception of sources a bit, to broaden it from alphabetic or written to include multiple media, and consider that one’s sources both come from others and are created by us. Is this new?  The multiple media component is certainly a relatively new phenomenon, at least the ubiquity of it is.  And most students in colleges generally experience research or engagement with source materials as the manipulation of other people’s material. But much of the material we think of as “source” material has been created by someone.

Information Ecology

Yancey argues that, as teachers, we should push students into the “stew” of information, scholarly material found in libraries and academic subscription databases, material in blogs, in more popular press publications, and more.  We should then encourage students to evaluate the information found in these sources as a way for them to take charge of the information they encounter.

Content

Information literacy practices must have content in them if students are to make meaningful use of them.  Yancey claims that one key to the transference of skills from one context to another is content.  In the absence of content, skills become something we may practice without really understanding the why, the reasons the skills are valuable.

Sam Wineberg and Information Ecology

Yancey notes that, for Wineberg, we establish credibility through corroboration (or fidelity), sourcing, and contextualization.  When students don’t engage in these practices in writing about history, they run into trouble.  When confronted with a variety of texts that describe/explain a historical event, students struggle to determine which source(s) are most authoritative.

Assignments

Note the role of “content” in each of the following assignments

  • Analyze an entry in an encyclopedia and one in wikipedia. How do the entries compare? How are the pieces written? How does one evaluate the entries?  Shifting the order of filtering and publishing.  Encyclopedias begin with filtering, then publish.  Wikipedia publishes first, then filters.
  • Build a blogging map on a topic. Find blog-based material on a specific topic.  What do we learn about evaluating sources by engaging with these blogs.  Are .coms better than .edus? Yancey argues that when we dig into a source we can’t simply “source” by looking at the URL.
  • Sourcing backwards.  Start with an editorial in the NY Times.  Then work backwards and locate the kinds of sources the editors draw from in moving to the editorial.

What is the Role of Content?

Logic of Research Practices – transform our thinking from filling in slots to citation, to thinking about the logic in citation or documentation

  • access
  • intellectual property
  • economy
  • standardization
  • transparency

Identify key terms that together are Information Literacy.

  • Circulation – Who cites whom in an article. We can see that scholars are in conversation with each other. In the new circulation, on the web and in television news, we can see propaganda served up as information.  Yancey claims that this development is possible because of changes in the position of filtering in the new information ecology.
  • Credibility -
  • Corroboration -
  • Plausibility -

Yancey argues that we should also use “critical incident theory” practices in the classroom.  Build assignments that put students in positions to take a critical incidents approach in locating and working with sources.

I very much like the suggestion that we have students confront specific critical incidents by juxtaposing information sources as part of evaluation. What I’m not so sure about is Yancey’s conception of “content” in this framework.  Obviously, content matters, and I’m supportive of her point.  (Absent content, information retrieval or research is merely an empty exercise with little relevance to us, or to our students.)

At the same time, I suspect that this kind of work will have the greatest impact in the context of actual courses, places were it may be least likely to find an audience.  Students in a history, biology, or literature class, when asked to conduct research as part of the course, would likely be most receptive to this kind of approach.  But faculty teaching these courses are more likely to be focused on the content knowledge itself.  Embedding the kinds of information literacy assignments into the curriculum will be a challenge that may even be more daunting than the efforts to infuse process writing pedagogies into such courses.

Teaching Millennial Learners (Gen Ed at Lehman College/CUNY)

Friday, May 8th, 2009
Lehman College/CUNY and the 2009 General Education Conference "Flourishes"

Lehman College/CUNY - May 8, 2009

Marc Prensky of Games2Train, keynote speaker for the 2009 CUNY General Education Conference held at Lehman College/CUNY, had the audacity to declare that we should rename general education, from General Education to Future Education. (Oh, Boy!)

Prensky didn’t explore the implications of this notion for an important component of the historical mission of higher education. Is history no longer important in Future Education? What of the arts? His comment was a throwaway of sorts.

The surprising thing about Prensky’s comment is that people didn’t gasp, particularly since most in the audience reported that they had never seen the video, “A Vision of Student’s Today,” by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch.

Explosion of YouTube

“You can learn anything you need to learn about software on YouTube.” (Marc Prensky, May 8, 2009)

“Video is the new text.” (Mark Anderson. Qtd. by Prensky May 8, 2009)

I found Prensky’s claim that you can learn anything you need to learn about software on Youtube particularly intriguing.  My own exploration of interface literacy development through screencasting software tutorials is an effort to tap into and to build on this trend.  There are, of course, many challenges to this viral aspect of learning.  As Prensky put it, “Education is not something you can do to students; we need to do it with them.”

Here’s a hitch: There’s an aspect of boundary crossing here when educators attempt to use twitter, or post “classwork” on YouTube.  What space is left for students if we’re going out and reaching them where they are?  One thinks of Spicoli the surfer/stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Mr. Hand’s decision to show up at his house at the end of the term to teach him history so he can graduate. OUCH!

Prensky’s Binarisms?

I was struck by the series of binarisms in Prensky’s presentation.  I found them quite productive for explorations of his idea that we need to “balance” or to meet in the middle of these divides. Of course, they have all the problems one often finds in binaries. They invite misunderstanding, and cultivate a “divide” that doesn’t really exist.

  • Digital Natives/Digital Immigrants
  • Verbs/Nouns
  • After School is Pulled by Kids/School is Pushed on Kids

We can see this binary approach in his early work on Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants (http://www.marcprensky.com/). Intriguingly, Prensky was critical of this binary because it has been taken wrong. I don’t find this surprising; binaries often set up misunderstandings.

Today Prensky offered up a couple additional binaries: Verbs vs. Nouns and Pull vs. Push Learning.

When it comes to technology we seem to quickly focus on the nouns, the actual software.  Prensky suggested that we shift to a focus on verbs. The nouns will change (MS Word to Open Office, from email to texting), but the core verbs remain. No matter the noun, we’re really after presenting (Powerpoint? Youtube?), communicating (Outlook? MySpace?), and learning (Blackboard? Mediawiki? Drupal?) As Prensky put it, “We want students using the best, most up to date nouns (tools) for each verb (skill).”

As Prensky put it, his notion of Future Learning (the new General Education?), is built on another binary. School learning is being “pushed on kids,” while after school learning is being “pulled by kids.” Prensky wants us to reach out and learn how students are engaging in this after school learning. Peer-to-peer, self-directed, even just-in-time learning are all elements of this “pull” learning Prensky advocates.  The counterweight to this approach is the top down approach, the sage on the stage, and the lecture format.  One of Prensky’s slides reported that a high school junior told him, “My teacher thinks she’s awesome because she made a Powerpoint.”

Audience Commentary

Unfortunately, Prensky did not leave time for a structured Q&A following his presentation.  Only audience members who interjected during the talk were able to ask questions.

  • These are not really “our” students at CUNY. We have older students, students who want a more traditional education, and students who want the class as a space away from this tech stuff.
  • Keyboarding is a skill that is needed for all of these technologies.

Single-Source Writing and 20th Century Thinking

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

It fascinates me that we have the technological capability to make documentation and reporting easier through single-source production, and yet our 20th (19th?) century thinking prevents us from taking advantage of the potential.

Example

Faculty at CUNY are now required to enter their scholarly/creative activity into a CUNY web-based reporting system. As almost anyone can quickly recognize, this is yet another report piled on top of existing reporting.

As far as I can tell, there was no consultation with individual colleges on the design of this system and the potential integration of the system with local college online reporting systems. The result is an expectation that we’ll take the time to “repeat” our reporting in multiple systems.

Why would anyone embrace technology if it means writing, re-writing, and re-writing the same text in multiple systems? The embrace of technology just seems idiotic in that kind of context. Copy-Paste works, but it really doesn’t take advantage of the wonders of the database.

Fortunately, we have a responsive web team on campus. When I brought this new “report” to their attention, we were able to begin work on a mechanism to push the data entered in our local systems to the CUNY system.

The setup is not nearly as seamless as it might be. But it’s a whole lot better than what would otherwise be the case.