Wednesday, December 14, 2011

iPads for Literacy Education

Recently I was contacted by an adult literacy educator who got the exciting news that her classroom will be provided with a set of iPads for learners to use. That's exciting news, but immediately questions arise, like "OK, what can I do with these things to enhance literacy instruction?  What apps are helpful in adult and family literacy classes?" What you see below is my response to this question. Read on!
I only recently got an iPad at work also, and have been experimenting with it in a classroom with adult English learners and also with my son, who just turned 4. I certainly don’t have an exhaustive list of “great apps” but I do have a few ideas to get you started.
First off, what I have found is that there are hundreds of apps that claim to be “educational” and many of them are dubiously so. Most of the free apps and far too many of the paid apps are repetitive “drill and skill” at best, and bore even my 4 year old after about 3 minutes. It’s similar to what you might remember seeing in the first explosion of educational software for computers – a lot of people with software development skills are making and selling apps, but they have had minimal or no guidance from instructional designers and teachers, so they don’t incorporate good learning principles. But I expect that as the medium matures, the quality of the average app is going to go up, so don’t despair.
In the meantime, I have found that the best bets tend to be delivered by companies with experience in instructional design or with publishing learning materials in a different environment (print, video, computer software or educational websites). For example, my adult English learners have really enjoyed working with the “Clear Speech from the Start” app – an app that draws from the popular and successful line of pronunciation textbooks of the same name. (It’s published by Cambridge University Press.) I have also gotten quite a lot of mileage out of the Oxford Advanced American English Dictionary and my students have enjoyed the VOA News Special English iReader.
Another idea is to look for apps that are functional rather than educational per se. I have a colleague who uses an iPod touch in her adult ESL classroom, and she uses it for shooting and editing video. The app she uses is called “VidEditor.” I have not tried this myself, but she showed me what her students did with it and I was very impressed. (The students record and edit videos of each other to practice English.) You can also get things like calculators, weather apps, recipe apps, etc. and build learning activities around these.

Of course, the iPad is also just a great device for consuming media, including video (from YouTube, etc.), e-books, music, and podcasts and also for browsing websites. I find that adults who are reluctant computer users are less reluctant to pick up and try the iPad, even to perform a comparable task such as completing an online grammar exercise. Its controls and interface are more intuitive and less obtrusive, and as a device it exudes a kind of “friendliness” that invites you to touch it and play with it – and this is by design. Steve Jobs intended his devices to have precisely this effect on people, and it shows.

For kids there are many more options for learning apps than there are for adults. I have probably only scratched the surface of what is possible, but here are a few leads:

• Apps that let you make your own books. I have one called “Picturebook” which is OK though not superb, but there are many others on the market, and you should explore your options.
• Puzzle game apps. I have several including one that is a puzzle of U.S. states and another aimed at preschoolers called “ABC Puzzle” that my son enjoys.
• Apps from PBS Kids are very popular with my son, especially the “Super Why!” app and e-books like "The Monster at the End of this Book."
• The “Read Me Stories” app (for which you can buy stories for 99 cents each) is a hit with my son as well.
• Apps that aim to teach handwriting – there are dozens of these – but I particularly like “Learn to Write” for kids and “Letter Forms” for non-literate adults. (For a more realistic exercise on these, you can give learners a stylus instead of having them trace the letter forms with their finger.)
• I have an app called “Missing Letter” which aims to teach alphabetics. I have not tried this with my son – he’s not quite ready for this yet – or with my adult students, but I liked what I saw when I tried it out.
• There is also an app called “SeeTouchLearn” which allows you to create your own mini lessons using images, text, voice recordings, etc. It gets a little pricey to buy all the picture sets and the add-ons that allow you to enter your own images and audio, but a creative teacher could get really into it and make highly tailored and interesting learning content.

I hope this is helpful! I’d be interested to hear how your program ultimately integrates the iPads into the classroom. I think there are lots of possibilities, but not many programs have taken the leap yet so I don’t have many real-world classrooms to look to for examples.
This Friday, MLC Technology Administrator Jason Brazier will be leading the in-service workshop iPads in the Classroom at our main office in St. Paul.  Check out the MLC Training page on our website (we're under the Educational Technology Training heading) for more information or to register:  (And yes, you're welcome to attend even if you're thinking, "What is an "app" anyway?")

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Flipping the Classroom: A Guest Blog Post

Thanks to my colleague Burgen Young for this guest post!

Flipping the Classroom
Do you wish for more class time for practice but need to use that time to explain content instead? Then flipping the classroom may for you. In a traditional class the teacher lectures during class and students do application exercises for homework. In a flipped class, the content is delivered by assigning students to use resources such as video lectures, podcasts, or screencasts at home, freeing up class time for application.

Why flip? What are the benefits?
The main benefit is that more class time can be devoted to practice. Students come to class with questions and the class can go deeper with the material.
Advantages also include that students can work at their own pace through the resources, absent students don’t miss out on the introduction of new material, and students can review content whenever they want. Students can hit the pause or rewind buttons as many times as necessary without feeling like they are burdening their teacher. Plus, it is sometimes possible for students to watch lectures by experts in the field.

What if students don’t have computers at home?
It is still possible to share resources with students by copying the resources onto DVDs that students can play in a DVD player. If purchased in bulk, DVDs are inexpensive.
If students don’t have Internet access, but do have computers, the resources can be copied onto a flash drive.

Where can I find resources?
There are free lectures available on iTunes, YouTube, TeacherTube, SchoolTube, and other specialized sites. Be sure to check out the great math and science resources available at Kahn Academy.
You can also create your own customized resources. All you need is a recording devise of your choice. Use a video camera, or create a podcast using Audacity and a reasonable microphone on your computer. Create a screen cast using Jing and record your voice while you show PowerPoint slides or other software.

Can language teachers flip?
Flipping works best for classes that are taught lecture style. Flipping can work for some language lessons, such as grammar, vocabulary, or life skills lessons. Check out this example of a vocabulary lesson for a Spanish class.

Where can I learn more?
Check out this article at EmergingEdTech to learn from others who have flipped their classrooms. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Can't get enough of Tech Training blogs?  When things are slow around here, there's plenty to be found elsewhere.

My friend and MLC colleague Jason Brazier (who occasionally guest posts here) is blogging too.  You can find him at:  He's got some nice posts up about managing email and dealing with recalcitrant printers, among other things.

You can also find good language teaching tech ideas over at Nik Peachy's ESL Tech Blog:



Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How do you spot a Phish?

Phishing scams worry me.  Not because I'm afraid I'll fall for them and give up my private bank data to some jerk in Russia who works for the mob - or in Texas or China or wherever these guys are these days - but because these scams are becoming ever more common, more sophisticated, and harder to spot.  And as I work in a field that's striving to get more adult English language learners and lower-literate adults online, I worry about how well we are preparing our clients to be safe.  Do you know how to spot a phishing scam?  Do you know how to teach someone else to spot a phishing scam?  Not sure?  Here's a few tips using a phishing email that arrived in my inbox today (after getting past my pretty rigorous spam filter!).

Here's the original message.  Take a look and see if you can spot the red flags.  Then read on to see how many you saw.

Red Flag #1.  I don't know who the sender is.  I've never heard of Fulton Bank before.  Why would they be contacting me?  OK, you don't have access to my brain, so you probably didn't spot this one.  But did you look at the name and think "Who's Fulton Bank?"  Then you're on the right track.
What to teach?  Your students - even those with limited reading skills - need to learn to recognize the names of the legitimate businesses they do business with, and to be suspicious of emails that don't come from trusted businesses.
Red Flag #2:  They don't know me, either.  The message is addressed to "Dear Fulton Bank member" not "Dear Ms. Wetenkamp-Brandt."  Also, the "to" line in the message is blank - a red flag for Spam. 
What to teach?  Your students should be suspicious of email messages that address them as "customer" or "member" rather than using their proper name.
Red Flag #3:  They ask me to "confirm my profile," name, address, etc.  YIKES!  Of all the red flags in a phishing scam, this one is the most brilliant shade of crimson.
What to teach?  Your students need to know that no legitimate business will EVER send an email asking them to provide this kind of information.  EVER.  Under no circumstances should they ever respond to such an email, call a number provided in it, or click any link in the message.  If they do accidentally click the link, they should immediately close the browser.  The most important message is that they should never provide their personal information in response to an email request.
Red Flag #4:  The writing/language is less than professional.   Many phishing messages include spelling and grammar mistakes.  This one is pretty good (see what I mean about the scams becoming harder to spot?) but there are run-on sentences and generally it just doesn't have a professional tone.
What to teach?  Well, literacy.  Have your GED students ever asked you to provide a real-life use for all that practice with "authorial tone?"  Here's one!  This message lacks a professional tone - and it's a red flag that, yep, the message is a fake.

Red Flag #5:  When I point my mouse at the link in the message (note just point! not click!) the URL does not match the linked text, and it looks phishy!  OK, you get a pass if you didn't spot this one, because you don't have the original message and can't do it.  But, give yourself extra credit if you thought about doing it!  (And take a look at the image below to see what I saw.)
What to teach?  How to point a cursor at a hyperlink without clicking it, to see where the link leads.  How to read a URL and differentiate a legitimate business website address from a phishy one.  Yes, this is the hard part.  But it's a very important step in making our students safety-savvy.

Need resources to help you teach these concepts?  Here are two good videos that drive home the point:

Happy Browsing!  And don't get caught by anything phishy!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Create interactive online charts with iCharts

This free online tool allows you to upload your data and create charts and graphs with a few easy clicks - no programming required.

Next time you and your students are focused on chart reading for CASAS or TABE, think about making some of your own charts online. Your students will get to practice both their computer literacy skills and their chart-reading skills.

Monday, July 25, 2011

New Website for Minneapolis Public Schools Adult Education

Thanks to Nathan Syverson at Minneapolis ABE for sharing the following information:

Minneapolis Public Schools Adult Education has made a major update to its website and went live as of Thursday, July 14 2011. You can view the updated website at This is a complete overhaul, featuring a new layout, a design refresh,  new content, and a reorganization of popular web resources.

Many readers of this blog use the following resources:
  • The Online Activity List
  • Bethany Gustafson's English for Work video series 
  • MPS Adult Education's Touch Typing Curriculum.  
These can be found under the Students Section of the website.  There you can also find our Online Bookstore with a selection of books that we recommend to our ELL and GED students.

Also of note is our ABE Professionals section.  This is where we will post all of the materials we create that we wish to share with ABE and adult literacy professionals everywhere.  Do take a look from time to time, as it will be updated periodically.

Happy browsing!

Nathan Syverson
Minneapolis Public Schools Adult Education

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pic-Lits: picture-prompted writing

I found this little gem of a website this morning and am thoroughly enjoying it! creates a mechanism for generating writing through providing striking images and drag-and-drop words to layer on them (you can also go freestyle and type in your own text if you prefer).

Here's the PicLit I made:

One small annoyance: their "blog this" feature isn't working so I had to make a screenshot of the image in order to share it here.  But tech glitches aside, this could be a really engaging activity for ESL and ABE students.  How many of us have heard our students say that they don't know what to write about or have no ideas?  A powerful picture speaks volumes.  Using PicLits, those stalled writers may find some inspiration!

This activity could also be done as a whole class on a SmartBoard if you are lucky enough to have one in your classroom.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Botnets, or What you don't know CAN hurt you

If you're online regularly enough to be reading this blog, you probably already know that there's some nasty stuff lurking on the Internet: viruses, worms, Trojans, and other malware.  Even if you don't know precisely what all these things are and how they work, you probably figure that you've got your bases covered with a good anti-virus program.  You know not to open unusual email attachments or get caught by too good to be true advertising (Click here to win a FREE iPAD!!!!).  But there's one security threat that you may not know about... and what you don't know can hurt you.  It's one of the hardest to prevent, hardest to detect, most widespread, and downright nasty pieces of work out there: a botnet.

Never heard of it?  A lot of people haven't.  And sadly, a lot of those people are probably infected.  So what is a botnet?

As defined by Google dictionary, a botnet is "a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners' knowledge."  (The term botnet itself is shorthand for "robot network.")  If your computer is infected with botnet software, part of its memory and processing power are taken over (enslaved!) by a "bot master" who controls thousands or even millions of slave computers, known collectively as a botnet or zombie armyThe botnet is used to carry out cyber crime like sending vast amounts of spam email, attacking and bringing down legitimate websites, and capturing bank and credit card details.

Here's the worst of it: because the bot master has an interest in keeping your machine running and keeping its enslavement a secret, there is often little outward sign to you when your computer becomes infected.  The signals are there, but they aren't the major crashes and data losses that signal a virus infection.  You'll see your computer running slowly, you may be warned about suspicious activity, or occasionally your browser will lock up when you're online.  But generally you'll keep on working, oblivious, while the botnet does its dirty work in the background.

And the worst news of all?  Anti-virus software alone usually can't protect you from botnet infection.  So how can you protect yourself?

1)  Your computer needs a comprehensive security solution that includes anti-virus and anti-malware programs, and most importantly, a personal firewall.  (Not sure if you have a firewall?  Need to get one?  CNET's has several good options.)

2)  Make sure Windows is up-to-date.

3)  Make sure your browser is up-to-date.

4)  Many botnets (including the largest ever detected, spanning millions of computers across 172 countries) are spread via portable devices like USB flash drives, so be careful where you put that thing!  Plugging your flash drive (or digital camera, smart phone, etc.) into a computer whose defenses you are unsure of is the cyber equivalent of unprotected sex or sharing dirty needles.  Sure, that computer might be clean, but there's no way to tell by just looking.  If you must use your flash drive on public computers or the computers of less-than-savvy web users, set your security software to scan your flash drive whenever you insert it in your home machine.

For another, somewhat humorous but enlightening take on botnets, watch this video from Symantec.  (Yes, they are selling you their product, but, hey, it's a good product and their videos are top-notch.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Digital Photo Project: A Tech Mentoring Story

Posted by Picasa

In my Technology Mentoring work, I have the great pleasure to work with ABE/ESL teachers around the state who are committed to making technology a part of their classrooms.  One of my current projects is working with Jan Olsen Stone's beginning ESL class at the MORE school in St. Paul.  Her class has been working on basic computer literacy (learning how to turn on the laptop computers, learning basic vocabulary like "double click" and "press Ctrl-Alt-Del," and using Google to search for websites and photos).  This week I worked with Jan to plan the next big step for the students - taking their own photos using digital cameras.

The first 90 minutes of the class was spent on learning vocabulary for the camera (lens, shutter button, focus, etc.) and how to use the cameras.  Students learned to make simple sentences like "The camera has a lens," and "Press the button to take a picture."  (A lesson which was periodically interrupted by tornado sirens.  Yikes!  Luckily, no tornadoes.  Whew!)  The second hour was spent on a field trip to the local Sears department store.  Each of the four small groups of students had one camera (all provided by teachers & class volunteers).  The students' task: take pictures of each other with items in the store they would like to know the names of.  You can see some of the results above and the full sets can be seen on the Jan's Class1 Flickr page.

After class, the teacher, class volunteer, and I downloaded all the pictures the students had taken and uploaded them to the Flickr site.  Now that the pictures are accessible, Jan has a wealth of content to mine for language lessons.  Here are some ideas we have for what she and the students will do with the photos:
  • write a Language Experience Story about the field trip and illustrate it with a selection of photos
  • use the photos to teach new vocabulary (the original purpose!) and grammar such as prepositions
  • categorize items in the photos (clothing department - women's - shirts)
  • students can copy and paste photos from the Flickr site into Word documents and write sentences to describe them.
Jan plans to continue to use digital photo projects throughout her summer school session.  Other photography assignment ideas for her students include:
  • taking pictures of things that are a certain color
  • taking pictures of things that surprised them or were new to them when they came to the U.S.
  • taking pictures of places in the community (walking around the neighborhood)
  • taking pictures of signs in the community (also a walking project)
Working with this class really reminded me that cameras provide a unique and powerful tool for prompting engagement with one's surroundings.  In our students' hands, they can give us such rich content for language learning.  I hope you'll think about trying something like this with your students too!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

United Nations: Disconnecting People From the Internet Is a Violation of Human Rights

United Nations: Disconnecting People From the Internet Is a Violation of Human Rights

Well, there you have it: Internet access is officially a human right. It's an interesting position for the U.N. to take. In our cushy American setting, that might seem a little silly. Internet access is a human right? Really? When most people just use it for entertainment? But there has been quite a lot of controversy at the international level over whether individuals can claim that their rights have been violated when their governments cut off their Internet access in order to, for example, prevent them from organizing protests against said government. Seen in that context, this decision makes a lot more sense. It also makes me wonder if there have ever been similar discussions about other technologies. If Internet access is a right (based on the idea that people have a right to freedom of expression and opinion) is access to other information/communication technology, like cell phones, also a right? Would forcing cell phone providers to take their carrier signals down (like Egypt did during their recent revolution) also qualify as a violation of the populace's human rights? Very interesting stuff.

The world is changing, and fast! It's difficult for governments and educational institutions to keep pace.  Policies that govern technology use that were developed even 5 years ago often seem anachronistic.  In many ABE programs, we struggle just to get access to basic online resources like Gmail and streaming video.  5 or 10 years ago, these things may have been seen as an "extra" or something that schools shouldn't be providing because they were too entertainment-focused.  Now they are basic necessities for online learning and for full participation in adult life.  We need more flexible policies that allow instructors and learners to access the full range of opportunities provided by the Internet.  It's a human right.  Just ask the U.N.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Browsers - Basics and Beyond

What is a web browser?  A web browser is a computer program (or smartphone application) that connects to the Internet and displays websites and related web content like videos.  There are five prominent web browsers you should consider (listed here alphabetically by manufacturer):  Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera (by the company of the same name).

How do I know which browser (and version of it) I’m using?  First, look for the icon in the upper left corner.  The icons for the various browsers are:

For details about your version, go to the browser’s Help menu and choose the About option.  Or, check one of these websites: or

Why does it matter if my browser is kept up-to-date with the newest version?  In a word: security.  Most updates that software developers release for browsers fix a known security risk.  To help prevent vicious malware and viruses from infecting your computer, you should keep your browser up-to-date.  (When a major new version is released, you will also see improvements in speed and features, of course.)  What to do?  On the browser’s Help menu, look for an option to check for updates.

Which browser is right for me?
Google Chrome:  Chrome claims to be the fastest-loading web browser available.  It has integrated Adobe Flash player and innovative programming that predicts which links you will click on a site and pre-loads the content for those links before you click, which results in reduced wait times when you actually click the link.  Chrome has a simple interface and is great for general web browsing, especially sites that are media-heavy.  It may have some compatibility problems with older-generation websites, especially the back end of web-based tools.  However, it's the most compatible with other Google products like Google Docs.  Get it:  free download from

Apple Safari:  disputes the claim that Chrome is the fastest browser available.  Regardless of who’s right, it’s a strong competitor in the same market.  Like most Apple products, it has a clean, intuitive interface and is noted for its stability and for being less vulnerable to Internet security threats.  As the built-in browser on Mac computers, it’s obviously a Mac-user favorite, but is also available for Windows PCs.  Get it:  free download from

Mozilla Firefox:  the only completely open-source and non-profit browser available, Firefox is a strong, steady workhorse.  It’s not as fast as some of its competitors (although the newest version improved speed significantly), but for people who need to do a lot of online heavy lifting (teaching online courses and managing websites in content management systems, for example), Firefox is a friend you want to get to know.  It’s also a solid all-around browser – which is why it has overtaken Internet Explorer as the most commonly used browser in the world.  You should definitely consider it if you like the idea of breaking away from the products of the “Big Three” software corporations.  Get it: free download from

Microsoft Internet Explorer:  this is the standard Windows browser, an old familiar program for PC-users.  Most PC-users will find its controls easy to use (even if they aren’t objectively the most intuitive) by virtue of having used its predecessors for years.  Explorer has lots of useful features and available add-ons, and the newest versions (IE8 & IE9) have improved on safety concerns.  However, Explorer also has some compatibility issues with older-generation websites, especially the “back-end” where Firefox and Opera are more reliable.  Get it:  You probably already have Internet Explorer 8.  If your computer runs Windows 7, and you want to upgrade to IE9, go to and look for the IE9 promotional button.

Opera:  the browser you’ve probably never heard of (but should have).  From Norway!  Also disputes the claim that Chrome is the fastest browser, and according to some, actually has the proof to back it up.  Because it has a smaller presence on the web, it’s less vulnerable to Internet security risks.  It has a sleek, intuitive interface and, like Chrome, seamlessly installs updates to Adobe Flash Player.  Opera also claims to have more built-in features than any other browser available.  So don’t be scared off by the unfamiliar – Opera might just be the perfect browser for you.  Get it:  free download from

Want to read more about the browser wars?
Check out these stories from LifeHacker and NPR News. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Amazon To Bring Ebook Lending to Local Libraries

Is it:
a) an exciting development for libraries and Kindle users alike or
b) about time Amazon got with the program - the Nook and all other e-book readers have been doing this for years?

That seems to be the debate on Mashable and elsewhere.

Personally, I think it's both. The only people I know who have e-book readers all have Kindles. For them, it will be a great opportunity to access more free reading material - especially my mother, who lives in a rural area with very limited (physical) library access. On the other hand, this is something the competition (most notably, Barnes & Noble with the Nook) have been doing well for quite some time. Amazon is pretty much the last one to the party when it comes to e-book library lending, yet they get headlines? (And isn't it ironic that they announce this big story shortly before having the planet's biggest cloud server failure, sending websites around the world -including the MLC website - plunging into darkness for 2 days?)

Ah, technology. It's a love-hate relationship.

Mostly love, though.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Visuwords Revisted: A Guest Post

Visuwords Re-Visited
Each year I get dozens of referals to educational websites from co-workers, colleagues, magazines and newsletters. Time constraints and site usefulness often result in a visit or two, and then the site is forgotten. However, one site that I seem to return to time and time again is

I often use the site as both dictionary and thesuarus and believe it would a great site to use with a SMARTBoard. Visuwords is also very easy to use:
  • Enter words into the search box to look them up or double-click a node to expand the tree.
  • Click and drag the background to pan around and use the mouse wheel to zoom.
  • Hover over nodes to see the definition and click and drag individual nodes to move them around to help clarify connections.
Developed by university students, Visuwords uses Princeton’s WordNet open source database and is free for everyone.

--Jason Brazier, MLC Technology Administrator
For a demonstration of Visuwords, check out this screen-cast video!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guest Post: Khan Academy Online Math & Science Resource

Hello!  This week I've got a guest post from a friend and colleague at Minneapolis Public Schools ABE, Gina Jarvi.  She writes:

Darlene Hays sent me an email this morning about a math and science website that I tried to access for our lab last year, but couldn’t because the videos were YouTube. I wrote to professor Khan and asked him if he would consider creating a mirror site that districts could allow. He never replied, but his site is now accessible! And it is extensive!
What I especially love about this site is that Professor Khan breaks concepts down into very simple forms. Students then have access to another teacher to learn from, as well as, offering teachers a way to brush up on a particular concept or area of math/science to help you teach it. 
The videos are clean, no buffering issues that I’ve detected so far. In one year he has managed to really expand and develop the site. You will be amazed! :)
I have 3 students using the site in the lab right now and they are fully engaged.
Thanks, Gina and Darlene, for the resource recommendation!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

20 Things I Learned About Browsers and the Web

Have you ever wondered "What exactly is a 'URL' anyway?  Or an IP address?  Are they the same thing?"

Or maybe you recently found out your computer has been compromised by Malware (malicious software) and you want to know more about how to protect yourself.

Or your anti-virus software keeps warning you about "tracking cookies / low threat" and you're wondering what that means, exactly.

Or you're just curious about technology and the web and would like to understand how it works.

If this sounds like you, then you should read this e-book from Google!

If you read it, feel free to leave a comment here with a "Thing you learned" and if you found it helpful.