Monday, June 28, 2010

Super Example of E-Learning Content... that ins't "E-Learning Content"

If you read this blog or know me in person, you can probably guess that I think e-learning is (or at least, can be) really cool, really inspiring, and really, really powerful when done well.  Of course, the flip of that is that e-learning can also be really dull, mind-numbing, and next to useless when done badly.  Pretty much like most forms that teaching and learning take!

Last week I was disheartened to see a classic example of bad e-learning content (from a source I will not disclose).  It was the dreaded PowerPoint slides full of lines of bulleted text, with a voice-over narration.  No animation/movement, no images or rich media, just a voice talking at you over a text which didn't always match the audio (which is the worst, because of course you can't attend to two different messages simultaneously, we know this from brain research!).  Granted, even those of us who really worry about instructional design sometimes use the "narrated slides" format.  But, there are degrees of quality even among narrated slides.  If you're going to do it, you can at least use animations to bring things into view as you talk about them, and include imagery that matches your text/audio.  And above all make sure that the text and audio "fit!"

Then this morning, as if to brighten my Monday, I came across a super example of exactly the opposite of the dull narrated slides - a truly rich, interactive, and engaging piece of e-learning content... the only thing is, it's not "e-learning content" per se.  It's an online multimedia feature from Scientific American magazine, called "12 Events that will Change Everything, Made Interactive."  Granted, ABE programs don't have anywhere near the resources (in terms of money, time, technology, or expertise) that Scientific American has.  But there are principles at work here that anyone involved in creating instructional content for adult learners can and should learn from.

 For one, it's beautiful to look at and draws the reader/learner in.  As teachers we tend to think that content trumps presentation, but increasingly, I'm not so sure.  Aesthetics do matter quite a lot.  In many ways, the presentation IS the content.  These two aspects of design can become so intertwined as to be inseparable.  Are the images there to instruct or there to make it look nice?  Well, both!  Is the interface functional or beautiful?  Well, ugly interfaces tend to be hard to navigate, which means they don't function well.  Yes, I've also seen beautiful but completely dysfunctional interfaces.  But when design is simple and clean, it tends to be both easy on the eyes and easy on the brain.

But perhaps most importantly, as a reader/learner looking at this piece of content, you have choice.  You can decide for yourself which of the 12 events you want to explore.  You can read the text, or not.  You can choose which multimedia objects to view.  You can jump around whenever and where-ever you like.  There is also a mechanism for including reader/learner voice: you can vote on how likely you think each event is to happen by the year 2050, then see how your answer compares to other readers'.  You can also listen to the author's opinion if you wish.

As a result of applying these principles (attractiveness, integrated multimedia, choice, and learner voice), this is a piece that begs for deeper engagement.  I know I had a hard time pulling myself away to write this blog post!  And that kind of engagement is what we want for our learners.  When learning is self-motivating because the content draws you in and makes you want to stay engaged, then learning is deep and powerful.  Much, much more so than listening to someone talk at you while reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.

PS:  Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for finding and sharing this resource with me and countless others on his ESL Websites of the Day blog.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Free Geek

Free Geek Twin Cities is a program that rebuilds/refurbishes old computers (and other geek hardware) and gives them to low-income individuals who can use them.  "Helping the Needy get Nerdy," is a tag line in the promotional video on their site.  Gotta love that.

Any components that are too old or damaged to be useful are instead recycled in the most environmentally sound way possible.  The program also encourages learning about computers through volunteering at the center (for example, one way to earn a free computer is to build computers as a volunteer).

The program is moving into a new location and isn't open to the public during its move, but is looking for donations.  So, if you have an old PC (or cell phone, or printer, or camera) laying around the house/office, and think to yourself, "It's old, but it's still useable.  It seems a shame just to throw it away," don't!  Donate it to Free Geek instead.

Once the program is in full swing in its new location, I'd encourage you to share the program with learners who might benefit from Free Geek services.

Free Geek is online at:

Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user deanj: 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tornado Safety - Teachable Moment

If you live in MN, you probably heard the news that a record 36 tornadoes were spotted across the state yesterday.  Several people were killed; homes, businesses, and farms were damaged.  It's a lot to take in... especially if you don't speak English well and come from a part of the world where tornadoes are unheard of.

When I was teaching ESL full time, in our weather unit we ALWAYS talked about tornadoes and tornado safety: what to do if you heard a siren, staying away from windows, going to the basement, etc.  But I frequently sensed that my students "just didn't get it."  They told me flat out that they didn't believe that tornadoes could happen in the city, that they were safe where they lived.  Then just last summer, there was a tornado right in the heart of Minneapolis.

This morning's news makes for a powerful "teachable moment" regarding tornado safety.  While none of us want to terrify our students or make them feel unsafe, it's vitally important that they know what safety precautions to take when a tornado warning is issued.

Here are some online resources with photos, news stories, and safety information you can use: story: photo slide show:
Minnesota Public Radio story and photo slide show:
Tornado FAQ from the Storm Prediction Center:
Tornado Safety Info from the Red Cross
Test your knowledge with the Severe Weather Quiz:

Image source: University of Minnesota Climatology Workgroup.

Friday, June 11, 2010

"Your Disease Risk" Website

This is an interesting, free (and largely ad-free) interactive online tool that's accessible to adult learners with high intermediate reading skills.  It allows users to self-assess their risk for 5 major diseases (cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and stroke) that can be affected by prevention measures like a healthy diet and exercise.  To use the tool, you enter information about your height, weight, waist size (you might need a measuring tape for this one!), diet, exercise habits, smoking habits, etc.  When you're finished, you see results that give a rough risk-level assessment along with recommendations for ways you could reduce your risk.

You can find it here:

It would make a nice extension activity for learners who are working on a health unit, or as a resource for a health literacy curriculum.

If you try it, let me know what you think!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Geometry Matters

Check out the first item in the NewsCut blog for today:

Then follow the link to find out what's wrong with the info-graphic (it leads here:

Here's the graphic in question.

What's wrong with this thing?

 Hint: it's a math problem. Geometry, specifically. Apparently, the people who made this graphic forgot a basic rule of geometry. Or, maybe they got it wrong on purpose, thinking that most of the rest of us don't understand math concepts, either.

If you're teaching Geometry, try bringing this info-graphic to class. See if your students can spot the mistake! It's a great teach-able moment where Geometry intersects with current events in the news.