Tuesday, March 30, 2010

BlackBoard CMS Goes to the Small Screen

From the NPR All Tech Considered Blog
Hey Teacher, Leave My Cell Alone!

"Could there come a day when teachers actually ask students to turn on their smart phones for class?

Blackboard, which is best known for creating course management systems, recently announced plans to further expand into the mobile universe. The company is launching a mobile application called Blackboard Mobile Learn that will be available for smart phones and Wi-Fi-enabled devices in June.

Blackboard says the app will bring "two-way teaching and learning" to mobile devices so students will have the ability to look up assignments, check grades and access all of the same course materials they can presently do from a computer."

What do you think? Are cell phones the bane of your teaching existence? Or just another tool that creative teachers could use to their advantage? Will the small screen open up Internet access - and online learning? - to adults who have limited access to computers?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Defining "Instructive"

If you teach in an ABE program in Minnesota, you're probably aware that there has recently been an upsurge of interest in expanding Distance Learning (DL) opportunities for adult learners in our fair state. While certainly not all distance education is computer-based, a good portion of it is, and that portion is likely to increase in the coming years. In my technology training role, I get to have a seat at many of the tables where the discussions about DL policies are happening. It was at once such table, many months ago, where I got a particular bee in my bonnet. And it's been there ever since, and I've been trying to ignore it, but it hasn't gone away or died off, so I'm finally giving up and saying something about it. Hence, this post: What does "instructive" mean when it comes to DL content?

First, some background. The discussion was about the creation of DL content which would be approved for proxy hours. In order for a DL program to be approved to earn proxy hours (seat-time equivalent) the content it provides must be instructive. It can't simply be practice or homework. It must teach new concepts or skills. Which is a fair standard, I think. If the DL program is going to be considered as equivalent to a classroom experience, it should definitely teach you something. No argument there.

My problem is with the assumptions that surround the word instructive. After listening to and engaging in numerous conversations on this topic, it has become clear to me that many people only understand instructive in one way:

I, the knowledgeable teacher, tell (possibly show) you, the less knowledgeable learner, some information. Then I quiz you on it later.

Of course, that is one way to instruct. In edu-speak, I'd call that the deductive approach. But it's not the only way. There is also the inductive approach, in which the learner is guided by the instructor to discover new knowledge for him/herself. And as an instructional designer, curriculum writer, and teacher, I happen to believe that inductive teaching is actually much more powerful than deductive! Especially in an online format.

Take a look at this piece of instructional content from Minnesota Public Radio, for example: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/projects/2010/03/obesity/quiz/index.shtml.

(Take the quiz. Really! You'll probably learn something.)

That quiz is an example of an inductive approach to learning. There was no "instructive text" before the quiz. There was just the quiz. I took it and I learned something. What's more, I am more likely to remember what I learned than if they had built a web page with text and then a quiz at the bottom. Why am I more likely to remember? Because when I got a question wrong (and I got 4 wrong - ouch!) my brain perked up and said, "Hey, wait a minute! You don't know as much as you think you do! You had better pay attention to this." And when I got a question right, I thought, "Cool! Let me see if I got that right for the right reasons." And I read the instructive text (which pops up after answering a question) with much more interest and engagement than I would have if the information had been front-loaded.

Sadly, I have been told (by very well meaning individuals) that when we create DL content for our adult learners, we can't do this. Not if we want it to count for proxy hours. We are not supposed to start with the quiz. We must "instruct" first. But, I want to cry out, the instruction is embedded in the quiz! The quiz is, in and of itself, instructive! It just instructs in a different - and frankly more powerful - way.

Now it is possible that my fears are entirely misplaced, that I misunderstood the conversations over these past months, and that in fact a inductive approach to instruction would be acceptable. And some of the things I have seen happening since then assure me that that is the case.

Still, I must ask, am I alone in worrying about the definition of instruction? If you design online learning content for adults, what approach do you use? Which way do you prefer to learn? Which way do you think your learners acquire knowledge best?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Defining "Computer Literate"

Check out this blog post from chron.com called "Computer Literacy: See if you know the basics." I read this list and thought it was an excellent summary, and a great place to begin building a computer literacy curriculum.

Although the whole post is worth reading, I'll summarize the topics the author (Dwight Silverman) included as necessary for "computer literacy":
  • files and navigation
  • what things are called
  • mouse and keyboard
  • basic hardware
  • how to get online
  • how to search
  • security
  • program basics
In reviewing his list, I was pleased to see that the computer literacy curriculum I am currently working on includes activities that address all of these topics (and more!). One thing I think is missing from his list goes with "what things are called." I would include "names for actions." His list includes the nouns, but ignores the verbs. And as an ESL teacher, I have to say, the verbs (like click, scroll, minimize, etc.) are just as important!

Any ABE teacher could be working a few of these topics into their regular classroom instruction, even if it's just a simple introduction to "how to search." You might be surprised how useful it is to teach the concept of "key words" and "phrases" and how to use them to get better search results from Google or Bing. And of course, "key words" and "phrases" are useful literacy concepts in themselves - helpful in all sorts of tasks, like outlining, taking notes, highlighting a text, and so on - which is where computer literacy and just plain old literacy become very hard to distinguish from one another.

Here's the complete link for the original blog post: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/silverman/6746496.html.

For my readers: what else is missing from this list?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Discover Your Digital Audio Prowess

Another FAQ from the tech trainer file: "How can I record audio projects for my students to listen to?"

Some teachers want to make CD projects to pass out to their classes, like the pronunciation CDs Heather Turngren of Minneapolis ABE produced with an MLC technology mini-grant last year. Others want to put audio into online courses or on websites, wikis, or blogs. Other teachers want their students to record themselves for fluency or pronunciation practice. Across these varied uses, ABE practitioners work under similar constraints: little to no budget for new hardware and software, and little to no time to learn how to use new hardware and software.

So what's needed?
  • Free, easy-to-learn software
  • Low-cost hardware
  • A little help learning how to use it
Of course, this topic could easily make up an entire technology training workshop (and it did, back in December). While I can't realistically reconstruct all 2 hours' of the Speak Up! Audio and Podcasting workshop here on this blog, I can share a few things that might set you on the path to discovering your own digital audio prowess.

First up: free software. Yes, there is some! I use Audacity, which is free, open-source software available for both Windows and Mac computers. Audacity is pretty simple to use, and the community that creates it also supports a vibrant Forum and Wiki site for help and questions. If you have a Mac computer, it's likely you already have Garage Band software, which will perform admirably as well.

Next, Recording Equipment. Basically, you need a microphone. If you have a laptop, it probably already has a mic built in. This may be perfectly adequate if you have a nice, quiet space in which to record. Otherwise, a headset with a mic is a good option. A quick search at any major electronics retailer like Best Buy or Amazon.com will provide oodles of options. I've used Plantronics and Logitech hardware, and have been reasonably impressed by both. However, you might want to check into Califone headsets if you need to buy a whole set for a computer lab.

Alternatively, you could pick up a stand-alone mic like the $100 Blue Snowball or the $60 Blue Snowflake. For that kind of investment, you'll get significantly better sound quality, and you won't have to worry about constantly re-recording files because all the plosive sounds (like the 'p' in plosive) in your words sound like mini explosions - which can easily happen when a headset mic is too close to your mouth.

Alright, so let's assume you've recorded some audio tracks in Audacity and exported them to MP3 files using the LAME MP3 encoder plugin (which is not required for basic recording in Audacity, but is required to make MP3 files). Now what?

If you have a website or wiki site, you can upload your MP3 files to your site for your learners to download and listen to. Better yet, after uploading the files, stick them into a sleek little flash-based audio player like this one so your learners can listen online without needing to download anything. You could even publish a podcast! Watch this video on YouTube for a quick how-to featuring, naturally, Audacity. If you just want to create CDs, use whatever CD burning software is installed on your computer to create an audio CD project, add your MP3 files to it, and burn the CDs.

And there you have it: a cookie crumb trail to follow if you're interested in discovering your personal digital audio prowess. Good luck and let me know how it goes!