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Category — Open Source Software

Free Software for Writing Mathematical Equations in a Word Document

I am not sure what the going price per share is for Google stock but their Google Docs tool features so many neat little tricks for teachers and bloggers that it is easy to see why many people have moved to Gmail for their email service. One aspect of Google Docs I have used a lot is their equation inserting tool to create sophisticated equations like the famous quadratic formula.

If you have not created a Gmail account but are interested in expanding your word processing or HTML creating powers, you need to set one up. The ability to share editable documents with others also offers a nice little feature for math and science teachers who want to produce more professional looking slides or class handouts featuring complex formulas for their own use. While you can share these with others as well, you can also obviously share them by emailing them back to your own account to then use for your own purposes.

However, as often seems to be the case with software these days, the latest version of Google Docs did take a step backward when it comes to formula insertion. I am sure that has led many to purchase MathType which is available at a very reasonable cost if you do a lot of this kind of work. But with very modest effort you can make great use of the equation insert tool with Google Docs without expending any funds.

If you already have an existing Gmail account and some Google Docs created, you are very fortunate. You will still have access to the old editor and some great features. If you do not, there are still some things you can do (see below).

Existing Gmail and Google Docs Users

If you have an existing Gmail account, sign in and then go to Google Docs where you will be taken to a screen listing prior documents that have been created or shared. If this window is blank, then you would need to create a new document that will contain the formula or formulas you want to use. We will discuss two options to consider if you do not have an existing Google Doc in our next subsection but if you do have existing documents you can get started right away.

Those account holders wanting to implement the equation insert tool can head over to Prof Hacker at The Chronicle where Heather M. Whitney, an assistant professor of Physics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, walks readers through the process using the older version of Google Docs. Her slides are great and she takes the process step-by-step so we will not waste time by repeating her instructions here.

However, the method she provides will not work with the new editor. You can easily tell if you have a Google Doc document that was constructed with their prior editor. If you begin to work on the document you have called up, when you click on the insert tab followed by the equation option, you will get a double window screen that features the two boxes depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. If you only get a single text box for writing your formula, you are using the latest editor and will not be able to use all of the wonderful features Professor Whitney notes.

Below is a screen shot of someone who had an Gmail account but thought they had never used Google Docs. Note the one option sent to her that was a recipe. Because that recipe was created with the older version of Google Docs, this user can edit that existing document utilizing the formula features as described by Professor Whitney. Again, to tell, simply open the document, try the insert equation option and see if you get the two boxes, one to insert an equation and the second that provides the preview. If you get a single box you are working with the new editor.

Unfortunately, the new editor does not allow direct pasting of LaTeX into the box as the older version did (more on LaTeX follows below). For example, Professor Whitney uses this coded format rather than the pop up menu to create the formula for the quadratic equation but trying the copy and paste function in the new editor yields an error statement.

In addition to not being able to paste this code in the latest editor, the new version requires some playing with the tool to get an order of entry of symbols and variables that produces the desired result. Therefore if you know someone with some older versions of a Google Doc, have them forward a copy of a document for the easier process. To do so, they simply need to call up their document and click the share tab in the upper right. The document can then be shared with the new recipient by installing their email address (again, to use Google Docs be sure to forward to the newly created or existing Gmail account). The default sharing tab allows the recipient to be able to edit the document when they receive it – be sure to leave that setting so the person can use the equation editor.

We can’t say enough about this option – if you can get an old edited Google Doc you will be in much better shape.

Creating a New Google Doc

If you are creating a brand new document, you will get a different window than is depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. Instead of two boxes, one where you type the formula and a second which previews what you have entered, you will get a single box similar to a text box. In addition, as you insert symbols or LaTeX code, the formula will morph before your eyes. Initially, it is difficult to get a handle on this as it is not a “what you see is what get look” when entering.

When clicked, the equation editor will pop up and five smaller rectangles will appear with a few basic symbols displayed. You can use these symbols by clicking on the appropriate rectangle then scrolling to the appropriate term you want.

A left click of the mouse on the first rectangle will yield a pop up menu featuring all Greek letters. To grab the square root symbol, slide over to the fourth rectangle, click once to reveal all possible items you could select, then scroll and click on the square root symbol to start building your formula. You can continue selecting symbols and insert appropriate letter variables from the keyboard to build your formula.

A second option is to use the code associated with LaTeX notation. The code for this format may not be something you are familiar with but thanks to the web and L. Kocbach, you can find a thorough list of them to directly type them in. In addition, the Google Docs help site reveals how each of their available symbols can be written using the LaTeX code.

To give readers a sense of some of the steps, we will create one of the basic equations from physics relating an object’s distance to its initial velocity if the object undergoes uniform acceleration. To create the formula we begin by inserting the basic variables and symbols without any subscripts, i.e. we type in d=vt+at (see below).

To insert our subscripts and add the exponents we work backwards to add them in (unfortunately, we could not consistently insert them as we worked our way through the formula). The basic step is use the underscore (_) to insert subscripts and the Caret or up-arrow symbol (^) to insert exponents. But to ensure the formula holds format I found the need to insert those elements last.

Once we have entered the basic equation we space back to the point directly following the letter v and hit shift underscore. This command creates a space and allows us to insert the variable i as a subscript to represent the initial velocity. To get the factor of one-half inserted we type \frac before the variables at. We then hit the space bar and the \frac disappears (that morphing we talked about) and the fraction bar is created. We type 1 for the numerator, hit the enter key to get to the denominator and then type 2. Our fraction complete, we move to squaring the variable t. We space with the right arrow key to the end of the formula, hit shift ^ and we see the cursor rise to the superscript position where we can insert the 2.

Simple as that we have the formula complete and can then use it for insertion in a word or Google Document.

Unfortunately, we have found that not all of the LaTeX code works with the new editor. Instead of the \subscript or \superscript code commands for example, you must use the underscore (_) and the Caret (^) to create these formats. In addition, it can be a bit cumbersome to get the feel at first for how to insert the finishing touches.

But with a little experimentation, you can quickly determine which aspects do work and those for which you must rely on the Google pop up menus.

February 1, 2011   11 Comments

Five Free Open Source KeyBoarding Modules

Are you interested in giving your children practice time on some of those all important keyboarding skills? At the same time, have you made the move to support the open source movement and left those from expensive proprietary operating systems behind?

iStock_000006348525XSmallToday you can easily accomplish both as open source modules continue to explode. If you are operating in a Linux based environment you can offer your kids any one of these five free keyboarding/typing modules to help him or her develop those 21st century skills.

GNU Typist

GNU Typist or gtypist offers a number of typing exercises that will help your youngster learn to type correctly. It has typing tutorials in Czech, English for both the Qwerty and Dvorak keyboard, Russian, Spanish, German, French and Norwegian.

The software allows for the modification of existing tutorials and the ability to create new ones according to your child’s needs and your skills.


Designed with elementary students in mind, TuxType is great for helping inexperienced youngsters navigate their way around the keyboard. Offering basic typing lessons as well as a couple of typing games, TuxTyping actually will work with both Windows and the Mac OS X software in addition to Linux.


Klavaro is another free touch typing tutorial that is both keyboard and language independent. The site notes that such a step saves computer memory in addition to time and money.

The latest release offers incredible internationalization: English, Bangla/Bengali, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, French, Galician, German, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Urdu and Vietnamese. It also offers the following keyboard layouts: Qwerty, Dvorak, qwertz, azerty, jtsuken and AlphaGrip5.

A basic type of course is available for memorizing proper finger positioning on the keyboard in addition to other exercises that focus on adaptability, velocity and fluidness. To be sure to appeal to the competitive nature of children, progress charts and scoring schemes are available.

Though the software works with both Windows and Linux operating systems, it does not feature game formats, something we think appeals more to youngsters.


This free typing tutorial comes in three separate versions: Standard, Accessible and Spanish. The site notes that the program focuses on teaching students how to touch-type.

Once again, this free open source option supports multiple keyboard layouts including Danish, Finnish, French, French-Belgian, German, Hebrew (no lesson files), Italian, Norwegian and Portuguese, along with UK-English, US-Dvorak and US-English.

Also featuring a 3D typing game, TypeFaster can score progress and features an option that allows for the practice of the least accurate or slowest key uses. If you want to get the whole family involved, check out the multi-user option that allows each family member their own login which then stores the progress of each user.

TypeFaster also operates on both Windows and Linux operating systems.


KTouch is yet another option that focuses on touch-type. Claiming to offer an easy way to learn to type quickly and correctly, the software begins by honing in on a few keys at a time.

KTouch features the keys to press as well as the appropriate fingers to use to hit a specific key. KTouch is part of the KDE-EDU package and is included in most linux distributions that include KDE.

August 3, 2010   No Comments

Beyond Textbooks – Andy Chlup Discusses Digital Learning Models

There was a large touch of irony in an August NY Times post discussing the demise of a fixture in the world of education, the school textbook. The article, In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History, predicts the death of an industry that is becoming “antiquated” with each passing tech innovation.

Though always considered exceedingly expensive, textbooks were once deemed as fundamental to the classroom learning experience as the teacher. These tombs were the source of knowledge, the drivers of curriculum, and the teacher’s most important resource.

But all that has changed in the digital world. According to experts, there are two critical factors.

First, there is the assessment of the value (learning produced per dollar) of these texts:

Dollars in the books, isolated on white background, business tra“They are expensive,” writes Seth Godin. “$50 is the low end, $200 is more typical.”


“Textbooks have very little narrative,” writes Godin. “They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best … textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.”

And of course, in today’s lightening-fast world, they are out of date before the ink is even dry.

Second, while the books are essentially considered less than ideal, we are seeing an enormous change in students based on the fact they have grown up with technology. From the NY Times:

“Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.

“They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote,” Dr. Abshire continued. “Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”

Beyond Textbooks

Today we offer a Q & A with Andy Chlup of the Vail School District. With experience as a classroom teacher and technology coordinator, Andy is a perfect choice to head up one of the digital learning movements cited in the aforementioned NY Times article, Beyond Textbooks.

Andy notes he has been passionate about utilizing technology in the classroom from the first day he walked into a classroom. His interest in digital learning was spurred on by the wide-spread availability of open-source web-based tools such as WordPressMU, Moodle, DekiWiki, and many more.

Below, Andy discusses the move to a digital learning model, one that actually transcends any discussion of textbooks.

What would you categorize as the three biggest advantages to moving away from textbooks and replacing that tradition with a digital learning model?

* Instant updates. Our superintendent, Calvin Baker, proudly sent out an email message to the school board when Pluto was demoted. In the message he said, we are one of the only districts in the country who’s textbooks are not obsolete.

* Collaboration. At this phase the primary collaboration is happening between teachers but as the tools become more familiar students will be working with each other, their teachers, and the community more and more.

* Costs. While the technology that enables digital learning still costs slightly more than a set of textbooks, it can do so much more. A digital device provides access to content and gives students a platform to create, share, and work.

Do you share the view that the digital world will be the real driver of educational innovations moving forward (as opposed to the concept of vouchers and charter schools)? Why or why not?

iStock_000007128193XSmallI’m sure that I see technology as an alternative to these on-going debates. What I’ve learned is that technology is an accelerant. If you use it on a system that isn’t very good it just allows you to do a bad job faster and more efficiently. I believe that technology should be used to accelerate things that are already working well. For example portfolio assessment is great, unless you’re the teacher trying to keep it all organized. Take that content and put it on a blog server and you’ve not only got an organized structure built into the system but a way to add pictures, videos, and audio to the portfolio.

The same can be said of digital instruction. If the instruction/pedagogy is poor then you are just being better at teaching badly. However, if the instruction is about understanding and connecting then technology can enable and accelerate that process by orders of magnitude.

While everyone has some sense of what is meant by a digital textbook, can you explain to readers the fundamental differences between a traditional book format and a digital text? And can you explain what is meant by a flexbook?

I’m not familiar with flex books. Alternatively, we aren’t even using a true digital text. Our teachers are connecting and/or creating their own content to meet the learning needs of their students. In my opinion, the major differences between a traditional text and digital text are:

* It is easier to copy/distribute digital texts. There are virtually no transactional costs beyond appropriate copyright compensation.

* Digital texts can be living documents with video and sounds plus hyperlinks to outside supporting materials.

* Digital texts can be more easily appended and modified either by students taking notes or teachers choosing exactly the right resource for a given lesson.

It seems that folks today have begun truly questioning the concept of a textbook, that such a resource is finite and linear yet real learning is infinite and multi-pronged. Are today’s tech-savvy kids the driving force behind the digital move or are educators finally seeing the light?

For me it is about economics. The simple fact is that it will soon be cheaper to buy a device that can be used to access digital content freely available on the web than it will be to purchase a set of textbooks. This fact has driven our Beyond Textbooks program. We want to be ready to fully embrace this dream.

Beyond TextbooksWe are going about it in two ways. The first is identifying subscription resources that meet our instructional needs and begin categorizing them so that they are more accessible to teachers and students. The second is to begin creating the instructional resources that will be needed to teach with these devices. That means Moodle courses, portfolio blogs, wiki projects, etc…

As schools head into the digital age, what will this new digital format do to the fundamental structures of school: grade levels, subjects, and the units of time (class periods)?

I think that as long as there is standardized testing and traditional schools it will be hard to escape these boundaries. Unless we get to a point that students no longer attend their school, I just don’t see there being much change. The systemic changes necessary to bring down these boundaries is well beyond the power of one public school district.

That being said, there is a glimmer of hope. As the instructional tools continue to develop and students become more adept at academic learning with technology tools, I think the relatively arbitrary distinctions we currently use in education will fade away.

The key is finding transformative technologies and pedagogies. At this point, it seems that teachers and students are still utilizing many web 2.0 tools in superficial ways. It is like the PowerPoint phase all over again. What I mean is teachers are impressed by the technologies that students demonstrate, not what students actually do with the technology. We’ve got to make sure that the technologies adopted positively affect student learning outcomes.

I know a lot is made of teachers making the adjustment to the digital age but how are you finding parents adapting? The idea of a course without a textbook must be troubling to parents who attended schools where the text formed the framework of every course?

It can be very difficult because parents may not be particularly computer savvy. A teacher can post their entire day as a podcast, but if a parent doesn’t understand how to access the content then they are frustrated. For the most part, parents just want to be able to help their child with school work so you have to be sure that those resources are still available.

The teachers that teach without textbooks all have course blogs that contain the content they use to teach during the day. These are run on WordPressMU and have a wide variety of access controls depending on the grade level and teacher preferences. Parents have access viewer access to these blogs, so they can see the materials their children are using.

One major concern for many is the number of students who may not have access to computers at home. Do you share the concern that the digital model could further widen the gap between the children of affluent families and those who are not able to afford such technology?

I do. The bright side is that personal computing devices are quickly dropping below the $300 mark.

iStock_000003852273XSmallWhat we see is a future where every student has a minimum spec device that is provided by the district. As one of my co-workers said, “It is like the bus….if you don’t have a car or your parents won’t let you drive you ride the bus.” We’d like to get to the point where all students have the option to either use the district minimum spec machine or bring their own. We feel this gives the best opportunity to both underprivileged students and those who have the means to have more.

The content and applications that we are developing as our standard are all wrapped around the web, so it doesn’t really matter if you access those application via a netbook running linux or a hot-rod Macbook pro. Obviously, those that bring their own computers still have an advantage, but to realize the potential benefits of a digital curriculum you don’t need a super fast machine.

The move towards Opensource materials has folks insisting that educational costs should drop considerably – is that so? Will there not be significant technology costs as schools attempt to stay up-to-date on the tech side?

While I’m a huge fan and proponent of open-source, it isn’t necessarily cheaper to run. For example, while Linux if free, finding somebody that understands how to set it up and keep it running is not. I think regardless of the approach you take, be it Windows, OS X, or Linux an organization needs to determine the TOC before making any big decisions.

If you have the talent to tap into open-source projects then I say go for it. Just realize there are research and development costs that cannot be ignored.

As for refresh, I have two thoughts.

First, this is where having a technology team that doesn’t understand education can be detrimental. The Tech industry is on a 12-24 month cycle and education is on a 36-60 month cycle – this causes more problems than any other tech issue I can think of. Just when a teacher is finally comfortable with a program something new comes down the pipeline.

So, if your tech department is pushing out updates every 24 months, teachers haven’t had time to fully integrate the technology into their teaching. This can eventually lead to teachers being frustrated with technology.

Basically, I encourage other ed tech professionals to start thinking about the educational cycle and not get wrapped in the technology cycle. Sometimes, it pays off. Just compare Vista to Windows 7.

Next, districts have to accept that tech costs money. I do believe that these costs will be offset when you stop buying textbooks.

While much is being made of the move away from traditional textbooks, the program you are involved with, Beyond Textbooks, seems to be far more sophisticated than simply removing a text from the equation. Can you briefly discuss the initiative?

To start with it is about moving away from the textbook as a metaphor or schema, whether paper or digital.

Beyond Textbooks is really about looking at learning objectives independent of a text. The whole approach involves using the learning objective as your starting point, then choosing the most effective resource to teach that objective to your current class.

Teachers are able to focus on what is the best way to creatively teach the learning objectives. So, often teachers are limited to teaching with the resources they have. We aim to leverage the nearly unlimited potential of the Internet to give teachers access to virtually any resource they can dream up. This includes materials created by other teachers, subscription services, and many incredible free resources out on the web.

The key is organizing these resources in a way that allows teachers to connect them to their learning objectives.

Is there anything I did not touch on that you think is a key element to the digital learning or Beyond Textbooks movement?

I think the most important thing is that BT is a grassroots, “For Teachers, By Teachers,” approach to school reform. Each of the steps involved have required input and guidance by teachers. One of the biggest problems with many educational resources is that they are written by academics or professional writers instead of professional educators.

September 17, 2009   5 Comments

How Were Apollo Astronauts Able to Walk on the Moon? Why Heavy Boots of Course

In the ongoing mold of “you can’t possibly make this stuff up,” we turn to a recent physics excerpt migrating through cyberspace. It appears to be traceable to Steve Detweiler at the University of Florida and Accelerated Physics 2060, though it is not clear who was the actual observer.

Fundamental of Physical Science

According to the one site that students are not supposed to turn to for research, Wikipedia offers that gravitation is the “natural phenomenon by which objects with mass attract one another.” Without taking that sentence too much further, it is quite evident that if an object has mass (we will skip the debate that an object by definition must have mass) then it will attract other objects.

WikipediaIn physical science, students learn that in order for this attraction to be noticeable, we need a substantially massive object, like the earth or the sun (or, yes, like the moon). In physics, we might take this a bit further to note that the so-called force of gravity exerted on an object by the earth just so happens to be equal and opposite to the attractive force that the object exerts on the earth.

We further reveal that smaller objects fall to the earth because that force of attraction is able to move the very wimpy smaller object easily but is not large enough to reveal any perceptive movement by the more massive earth.

With that in mind, we turn to Detweiler’s post, where it seems that a teaching assistant in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison was explaining Descartes. According to the tale, the TA was trying to create an example that would back the notion that things don’t always happen the way we think they will.

For his concrete example, the TA chose this beauty:

“…..while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.”

The storyteller goes on to note his incredulity at the TA’s false assertion, but that his disbelief was not shared by the majority of the other students in the room.

The storyteller goes on to protest.

“But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly.”

To which the TA responds.

luvi“No it wouldn’t, because you’re too far away from the Earth’s gravity,” says the TA who then asks, “You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn’t you?”

To which the storyteller responds, “why didn’t they float away?”

“Because they were wearing heavy boots,” asserted the TA.

Is This for Real?

My first thought when I heard the story was, no sir, no way. This guy had to be making this up.

But then he insists that he went back to his dorm room and began randomly selecting names from the campus phone book, calling 30 people and asking a two part question, if they could not in fact answer the first one.

He began:

If you’re standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it
a) float away,
b) float where it is,
c) fall to the ground?

According to the storyteller, just 47 percent got the question correct. Of the other 53%, he asked this second follow up:

You’ve seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn’t they fall off?

According to the storyteller, about 20 percent of the people decided at that point that they would change their answer. But according to the legendary story, about half of those getting wrong explained:

“Because they were wearing heavy boots.”


Story Continues

If you’re like me, you like this clever little piece that demonstrates just how scientifically illiterate our people are but are still wondering, could this be for real?

It is certainly not likely that he could have randomly called eight of the students who had happened to be in the TA’s classroom that day. And it would seem unlikely that Wisconsin had had done that bad of a job teaching science to its citizens.

dotpolkaYet, later, one begins to think there just might be some merit here as the story continues to the physics classroom one day where two multiple choice questions were placed on a Physics test right after the class had finished the study of elementary mechanics and gravity.

Question one:

If you are standing on the Moon, and holding a rock, and you let it go, it will:
(a) float away
(b) float where it is
(c) move sideways
(d) fall to the ground
(e) none of the above

Question 2:

When the Apollo astronauts were on the Moon, they did not fall off because:
(a) the Earth’s gravity extends to the Moon
(b) the Moon has gravity
(c) they wore heavy boots
(d) they had safety ropes
(e) they had spiked shoes

While the first question was generally considered by the tester as being of average difficulty (especially with the more robust questions that had to have been posed), just 57% of the students got it right. The second proved much easier as 73% went on to get it right.

But guess what? When it comes to the notion of heavy boots, well it still seems to be a tough one for even physics students, at least the weaker ones. Those who scored in the lowest quartile on the entire test actually selected heavy boots as their answer most often.

Then there comes the ultimate sign, the one certifying piece that ensures that the story must be on the up and up.

It seems that after the exam, two students reportedly asked if the professor was going to continue asking “questions about things they had never studied in the class.”

May 7, 2009   6 Comments

Intelligence and IQ – It Is More than Just the Genes

When it comes to intelligence, there has always been one fundamental question:

Is it a function of nature? Is it simply encoded in a child’s genes?

Or is it a function of nurture? Is it more about the environment that a child grows up in?

NisbettRichard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, addresses the topic in fundamental detail in his new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It.” And thank goodness for teachers, Nisbett insists that nurture is in fact paramount to intellectual development.

In fact, his message matches almost verbatim what we have discussed previously on our site:

  • Praise the effort, not the achievement
  • Teach the concept of delayed gratification
  • Limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity.

The Nature versus Nurture Question

Nisbett takes exception to the notion that IQ is 75 to 85 percent inherited. Instead, he sees the gene implications at something less than 50 percent.

Nicholas D. Kristoff recently took a look at the nature versus nurture question and came away with enormous support of Nisbett’s book. The NY Times columnist notes the work of Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia who has conducted research that indicates IQ is minimally the result of genetics.

Kristof further cites studies that indicate that “when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their IQ’s rise by 12 points to 18 points.”

As for the importance of school, Kristof also notes that “children’s IQ’s drop or stagnate over the summer months when they are on vacation (particularly for kids whose parents don’t inflict books or summer programs on them).”

Professor NisbettIn Nisbett’s book, there is a strong push for early childhood education. Here again, Kristof offers support of Professor Nisbett by taking a look at the “Milwaukee Project.”

Assigning African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation randomly to two groups, the project offers enormous support for early childhood education. The mothers of the infants selected all had IQ’s below 80 and in many cases the fathers were absent.

The children were assigned either to a control group that received no additional support or to a group that enjoyed day care and educational programming from 6 months of age until the children were to enter first grade.

By the age of six the children experimental group had an IQ average of 120.7 as compared to the control group’s 87.2

Quality Pre-School for All

We previously noted the enormous educational success of Finland. Kati Tuurala, Microsoft’s education manager in Finland, indicates that the majority of Finland’s educational success can be traced to major reforms implemented in the 1970s.

One of those reforms centered upon an emphasis on primary education for every single child in the country. In Finland, students do not begin formal schooling until at age seven, two years after most American children begin school.

However, prior to entering school, all children have participated in a high-quality government funded preschool program. Interestingly, instead of focusing on getting a jump academically, Finland’s early-childhood program focuses on self-reflection and social behavior.

The early focus on self-reflection is seen as a key component for developing a level of personal responsibility towards learning. It is a focus more in line with the original theory of kindergarten set forth in 1837 by German Educator Friedrich Froebel. His kindergarten, literally meaning a “children’s garden,” was envisioned as a place and time where children could learn through play opportunities.

Ultimately, Finland appears to focus on the nurturing process during the preschool years and that appears to be the first step to eliminating socioeconomic differences within the school setting within the country.

Presidential Support

When it comes to the question of nature versus nurture, the data clearly indicates that the latter is indeed more than 50% of the equation. That is good news for educators, but even better news for society as a whole.

Fortunately, President Obama has come out in strong support of early childhood education, particularly for those children most at risk of school failure. Investing in quality pre-school opportunities clearly helps give children from poverty-stricken areas the chance at a stronger start in school and in life.

If we are serious about helping our children succeed in school, if we are truly interested in “Leaving No Child Behind,” we will take a hard look at this compelling data and begin investing greater sums at the early childhood level.

April 23, 2009   2 Comments

Creating Classroom Visuals – Four Great Sites for Teachers

Without a doubt, visuals are critical for kids when it comes to the learning process.

Thanks to some great “Techy Tips for not so Techy Teachers” we were recently reminded of four tech tools (web sites) that can help teachers create some very interesting visuals for their classroom, with the key being that one need not be a techy to put these sites into action.

Subject Specific Word Clouds

The use of tags and word clouds is becoming a web staple and a great way to introduce the concept to students is a web site that will generate “word clouds” from any text supplied by a teacher. With Wordle, teachers have access to a free web site to generate relevant word clouds for any learning task they are about to undertake.

Because word clouds give greater prominence to the words that appear most often in the supplied text, these clouds create a great learning visual for students by prominently displaying the most used terms. These clouds can be made into posters at the younger levels or used as a cover sheet to a course syllabus for older students.

With Wordle, the user can also modify aspects of the cloud through the use of different fonts, layouts, and color schemes for the letters and the background. Because the site is web-based, a user can save their creation to the Wordle gallery and access it from another internet connection.

And of course, with a little pre-teaching, students can have at it, creating their own word clouds for assignments and projects.

Turning Your Creation into a Poster

Once you have created a document or photo for classroom display, you may want to blow it up so as to make a large size poster for the room. Such a task is extremely easy as there are a couple of different web sites where you can easily rasterbate any creation to make a powerful, large image.

Rasterbating is the phrase used to describe the computer program printing feature called tiled printing. It is a process that enables the user to print extremely large images, those larger than a standard size sheet of paper. The computer program creates tiles, each equal to a standard size sheet of paper, and prints a section of the image on each sheet according to predetermined specifications. The individual pages can then be taped together or stapled to a bulletin board to create a large and powerful image.

BlockPosters.comAt either BlockPosters or Rasterbators, teachers can create such tiled wall posters of any size. Totally free, each site allows you to upload an image where the user can then crop the image and choose how many sheets of traditional-size paper to use in creating the poster.

While the word cloud would make a great option, an even better one, especially at the elementary level, would be the periodic action classroom shot of the students involved in a learning activity. The sheer joy students experience upon seeing themselves in photos could only be enhanced by a large classroom poster of them in action within the classroom.

With older students, the visuals they can create could also greatly enhance an individual project or presentation. Blockposters offers some excellent samples of prior work including student project creations.

If you decide to turn some of this over to students, you may want to use another term other than rasterbate. We are not sure how either age group would do with such a risky-sounding term.

Glogging in the Classroom

Instead of just using the written word to create a blog, teachers can have students create some pretty amazing visual mash ups at (be sure with the younger kids you hit the edu site!).

Glogster again allows for the creation of posters, but in this case, creativity remains supreme. With Glogster you can mix all forms of expression: graphics, photos, videos, music and traditional text.

Not only a fun way to enhance learning and foster creativity, glogging is a perfect tool for visual learners who may struggle with traditional text-oriented classroom setting. Glogging also gets students using the power of technology and collaborating with one another on potential creations.

You will need a few more in the way of tech skills for Glogster than for our other suggestions (especially, if you want to download movies and images) manageable with even a modest effort. But as with our sites featured, Glogster is also a free resource, so you can familiarize yourself with the concept on your own terms.

Photos taken from, and

March 25, 2009   No Comments

Online Education – Introducing the Microlecture Format

Most college students would likely concur – fifty minute lectures can be a bit much. With current research indicating that attention spans (measured in minutes) roughly mirror a students age (measured in years), it begs the question as to the rationale behind lectures of such length.

teddY-riseDGiven that it is tough to justify the traditional lecture timeframes, it is no surprise to see online educational programs seeking to offer presentations that feature shorter podcasts. But in an astonishing switch, David Shieh of the Chronicle of Higher Education recently took a look at a community college program that features a microlecture format, presentations varying from one to three minutes in length.

The Micro-Lecture
While one minute lectures may be beyond the scope of imagination for any veteran teacher, Shieh reports on the piloting of the concept at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M. The concept was introduced as part of a new online degree program in occupational safety last fall. According to Shieh, school administrators were so pleased with the results that they are expanding the micro-lecture concept to courses in reading and veterinary studies.

The designer of the format, David Penrose, insists that in online education “tiny bursts can teach just as well as traditional lectures when paired with assignments and discussions.” The microlecture format begins with a podcast that introduces a few key terms or a critical concept, then immediately turns the learning environment over to the students.

Penrose, a course designer for SunGard Higher Education, offers the following explanation of the process:

Stephanie Booth“It’s a framework for knowledge excavation,” Penrose tells Shieh. “We’re going to show you where to dig, we’re going to tell you what you need to be looking for, and we’re going to oversee that process.”

More in Line with Current Theory

With educators seeking more active learning environments, the microlecture format seemingly offers great potential. Not only will the process allow students greater ownership of their learning, the more open-ended nature of the follow-up materials should provide greater time variation opportunities for students who may need such time.

But as with all educational developments, the process clearly is not one that can be used for all classes. It clearly will not work for a course that is designed to feature sustained classroom discussions. And while the concept will work well when an instructor wants to introduce smaller chunks of information, it will likely not work very well when the information is more complex.

But just as most writers are taught to say what they need to say but do it in as few words as is necessary to accomplish their goal, the microlecture format similarly requires teachers to get the key elements across in a very short amount of time. Most importantly, it forces educators to think in a new way.

catspyjamasnzInstead of the framework being defined by seat time, the microlecture format ditches the traditional notion that all students must spend the same amount of time in class to receive credit. The concept focuses on what is to be learned and it allows, in the online environment, students of various skills and abilities as much time as they need to digest the learning objectives related to the microlecture.

Given such positives, one would think the format would soon become a critical component of every online course.

For those interested, here are Penrose’s steps to creating a one minute lecture:

1. List the key concepts you are trying to convey in the 60-minute lecture. That series of phrases will form the core of your microlecture.

2. Write a 15 to 30-second introduction and conclusion. They will provide context for your key concepts.

3. Record these three elements using a microphone and Web camera. (The college information-technology department can provide advice and facilities.) If you want to produce an audio-only lecture, no Webcam is necessary. The finished product should be 60 seconds to three minutes long.

4. Design an assignment to follow the lecture that will direct students to readings or activities that allow them to explore the key concepts. Combined with a written assignment, that should allow students to learn the material.

5. Upload the video and assignment to your course-management software.

Flickr photos courtesy of teddY-riseD, Stephanie Booth, and catspyjamasnz.

March 8, 2009   Comments Off on Online Education – Introducing the Microlecture Format

Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy, Ineptness, Ignorance, and More

It has been a while since we did a simple web walk and pointed readers to some interesting material and helpful resources. Today we offer readers four interesting link options, everything from Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy to a look at why ignorance does appear, in fact, to be bliss.

Digital Bloom’s Taxonomy

Almost a year ago we featured some of the work of Andrew Churches. The teacher and self-professed ICT enthusiast has taken the time to do a modern day mash up of one of education’s long-standing models for analyzing learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, developed in the 1950’s, clearly holds a place of reverence within the educational community. Using a hierarchical framework to express thinking and learning, Bloom’s offers a set of concepts that begins with what we call lower order thinking skills (LOTS) and then progressively builds to higher order thinking skills (HOTS).

edorigamiIn education, the best teachers have made it a point to bring their students to the HOTS level of the taxonomy whenever possible. The belief has always been that acquiring knowledge and comprehending information (LOTS) pales in comparison to being able to analyze, evaluate, and apply that knowledge.

Where Churches comes in is that he began examining the traditional theory against a backdrop of the new digital age and the use of technology in the classroom. From his efforts, educators began being able to associate specific digital techniques with the traditional categories set forth in the taxonomy.

While there is clearly still much to be done to clarify these associations and properly place digital technology tasks in each category, teachers at least now have a framework from which to start and dialogue from. In keeping with the open source movement that is defining the future of education, Churches has now published his work in e-book format over at Scribd.

Those wanting to see both the rationale and the depth of assessment Churches has employed will find a free resource, Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy (v212), at the site. The 44-page document is filled with information and is available for download, free, in multiple formats.

We highly recommend all teachers take the time to read this important document.

Among the Inept – Ignorance Is Bliss

An article that is now more than nine years old recently started getting tagged on As one great example of the challenge of filtering the wealth of material on the Internet, we missed the original article that takes a look at the behaviors demonstrated by people we might call incompetent.

In her article, Among the Inept, Researchers Discover, Ignorance Is Bliss, Erica Goode cites the research of Dr. David A. Dunning. In true tongue-in-cheek mode, Goode sets the tone for the article with the following intro:

debaird“There are many incompetent people in the world. Dr. David A. Dunning is haunted by the fear he might be one of them. Dr. Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, worries about this because, according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

“On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dr. Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.”

It seems “that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured” because ultimately “the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.”

Given that education is a people-profession, the article is a must read for everyone working in the field, especially those working in administration. With a strong push to ensure that every classroom is staffed with a competent teacher, the research of Dunning offers great insight.

Especially in the case where feedback is absent or ambiguous – in such instances incompetents generally do not realize their level of ineptness.

Open Courseware Toolset

A summary resource that offers a list of links to open courseware materials is available at the web site Best College Rankings. The Ultimate Open Courseware Toolset: 60+ Directories, Search Engines, and Web Tools offers readers an extensive set of links to a wealth of materials now available on the web.

What makes the list so worthy is that it contains some individual tools but many of the links offered are actually to other sites or web pages that then feature more links to more resources. The site lists links in alphabetical order (not weighing in on good, better or best) and breaks the material into three distinct categories.

They begin with a list of directories of various open courseware projects. The list features 22 links (some offering lists of 100s of sites) to “books, video lectures, teaching tools and more, all labeled with the open courseware tag.”

The second category features 16 links to a number of search engines and archives while the third and final category focuses on 23 web tools “that can help teachers, parents and students.”

The sheer volume of material, however, reminds us of how important our own ability to filter Internet materials has become.

A Parental ADD Resource

Finally, in recent days we stumbled across the web site of Brenda Nicholson, ADD Student. The mother of 3 children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Nicholson is a trained ADD Coach who began learning about the disorder over 20 years ago.

Booksamillion.comSurprised that many educational professionals knew little about ADD, Nicholson found she needed to educate herself. Because of her experiences, she has set up the ADD student resource portal for parents and professionals alike.

One simple aspect that spoke volumes to us was her advice regarding students on medication. Instead of pluses and minuses regarding meds, she notes that the taking of medications at school has become a major issue for everyone involved: students, parents, and educators.

Another is her focus on diet as a method for minimizing issues with ADD children and managing their symptoms. While some of the information is on a cost basis (a 12 week email coaching program for parents), there is also a wealth of general info free for site visitors including subcategory links to specific areas such as ADD and Life Skills, Organization, School and Time Management.

Flickr photo courtesy of debaird.

February 26, 2009   1 Comment

Dave Eggers – Creatively Engaging with Public Schools

First during his campaign, then later with his push to make this year’s Martin Luther King holiday a national day of service, President Barack Obama has sought to rekindle one of our fundamental American values, helping thy neighbor. That highly-publicized call for service led to a record number of Americans to honor Dr. King by volunteering for more than 13,000 service projects across the country (more than double the number from the year before).

Significant Action, Less Fanfare

Dave Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, established his desire to make a difference in the lives of others when in 2002 he launched 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based writing and tutoring lab for young people. Under his direction, the nonprofit has branched out with other centers now located in Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Ann Arbor.

In 2008, he received the TED Prize, given yearly to someone with the desire to change the world. He was awarded a $100,000 donation and a pledge of support from the TED Community. Upon receipt of his prize, he made the following wish:

While accepting his prize, Dave Eggers asked the TED community to personally, creatively engage with local public schools.

“I wish that you – you personally
and every creative individual
and organization you know –
will find a way to directly engage with a public school
in your area and that you’ll then tell the story of how
you got involved, so that within a year
we have 1,000 examples of transformative partnerships.”

To gather those stories in one location, he has created the web site, Once Upon a School. From a family of educators, Eggers understands the current demands facing teachers in inner city schools. And with his site he offers a hope that we might:

“Usher in a new era
of participation in our public schools
. ”

A Hope to Inspire Others

Amazon.comWatching the nervous presentation of Eggers leaves a viewer with a strong sense of the man’s sincerity. He, like Obama, is calling on us all for service, but with a direct call to helping our public schools.

Indeed, his site was not created for chest thumping – instead, in documenting the many stories of common folks volunteering, he hopes that the sharing of those stories will inspire others to serve in similar capacities.

While receiving less fanfare, his extraordinary commitment to helping kids and public schools has not gone unnoticed. His work led Time Magazine to state:

“Many writers, having written a first best-seller, might see it as a nice way to start a career. He started a movement instead.”

February 3, 2009   No Comments

John Robb on “The Education Bubble” and the Opportunities Provided

John Robb, the author of Brave New War, recently speculated on the future of American education at Global Guerillas.

His first noteworthy point centers upon his assessment of the current educational process. Referring to our current form as an admixture of industrial and artisan processes, Robb correctly notes that “the quantities of product (graduates) produced and the facilities resemble industrial processes” even as the “actual production is most closely akin to artisanship (with guilds, no less!).”

Amazon.comSuch a reference mirrors one of the age-old questions for educators. Is teaching a science or an art? It also raises one of the ongoing and legitimate criticisms of the current educational structure, one that actually follows the factory assembly line model.

Higher Education

Robb spends little time on that notion, instead shifting immediately to the costs of education and the failure of schools, at all levels, to significantly increase student performances despite enormous funding increases. Here again, Robb is dead on, and his description of the process as “an albatross of cost and stagnating quality” is certainly consistent with those who are concerned with the failure of public schools to significantly improve student performance.  

But Robb saves his strongest criticisms for higher education. Beginning with the costs for collegiate education, expenses that have increased 4.39 times faster than inflation over the last three decades, Robb indicates that higher education is no longer affordable for most households, especially as median family incomes stagnate.

Robb offers the following interesting assertion:

“Worse, there is reason to believe that costs of higher education (direct costs and lost income) are now nearly equal (in net present value) to the additional lifetime income derived from having a degree.  Since nearly all of the value of an education has been extracted by the producer, to the detriment of the customer, this situation has all the earmarks of a bubble.”

Unlike the Housing Bubble
While the current situation involving higher education has all the makings of matching the recent housing bubble, instead of the downturn facing the housing sector Robb sees the higher education bubble as offering immense opportunity to introduce educational improvements.  

At the heart of those improvements is the greater use of technology and the “ability of collaborative online education to replace much, if not most of in person teaching.” As many others have noted, there are some specific improvements afforded by greater use of technology in education:

  • Lectures – Robb notes that video lecture series, along with associated learning materials, for many courses at some of the best universities in the world are now available online. He rightly notes that such an option allows students to get the very best lecture available (“There is no need to recreate the lecture with tens of thousands of less qualified/exceptional teachers”). mrploughWhy attend another university when the very best lectures are available free.
  • Application – Robb adds the push towards just-in-time information processes. Operating online with a JIT focus, we “can train kids to adults in complicated and complex tasks in a fraction of the time other methods require.” Such an approach is the complete antithesis of our current approach, one that features a broad array of subjects and concepts with the idea that students learn certain materials just-in-case there may be a need to know sometime in the future.  
  • Collaboration – Robb notes the shifting of the business world from in-person work to a greater emphasis in online collaboration. Instead, at the university level, we continue the age old push to have face-to-face contact, with all students and the professor being present at the same time and in the same place. The idea of moving aspects online still is not “central to the educational world.”

We have discussed many of these notions in our prior work, including a lecture repository, just-in-time learning, and the need for education to begin to embrace the concept of social networking. We have also shared with readers David Wiley’s assessment that higher education as it currently is structured is “Dangerously Close to Becoming Irrelevant.”

Education’s Shift to a Fully Online Environment
While some may see his suggestions as radical, Robb is unequivocal as to the future of education.

“The shift towards online education as the norm and in-person as the exception will arrive,” he writes, “however, the path is unclear.  It is currently blocked by guilds/unions, inertia, credentialism, and romantic notions.” 

As noted, if we are indeed in a higher education bubble, the current economic downturn could well become one of the key catalysts for a radical shift in educational delivery. Robb suggests that the need for local governments to balance their budgets in the face of dwindling revenues will demand extensive cost-cutting measures. Those cost-cutting steps will have to include reduced monies for education, often the single biggest local expense, forcing higher education to pursue more cost-effective delivery methods (online courses).

If we are in the midst of a real higher education bubble, schools will likely see a dwindling student population. Here, Robb speculates on a amazing option. What if MIT or Harvard decided to “offer full credentials to online students at a tiny fraction of the cost of being in attendance.”  He postulates that the result just might be “ten million students enroll in the first year to attend Harvard’s virtual world.”

metaweb20Of course, yet another option involves an entirely different take, one that features the opensource movement. If in-person education continues to be too expensive but no institution is able to step forward to create a major online brand, the entire world of education shifts. “A massive open source effort develops,” writes Robb, leading to the creation of “virtual worlds and other online courseware that rivals the best universities.”

In the third scenario there would be a need for a new credentialing agency. Of course one quick answer could be a continued move towards standardized testing and students demonstrating, by their performance on such tests, that their education in fact does match what one might have received in the more traditional college setting.  

The Future of Education
At the heart of Robb’s notions is the need for a “productive educational system that produces high quality graduates” but does so “at a small fraction (an order of magnitude less) of the current costs.” In addition, moving to online, just-in-time formats, would perhaps offer the kind of flexibility that is needed if workers, and our educational systems, are “to meet the challenges of a rapidly mutating global economy.”  

Robb even goes so far as to toss around a potential cost of $20.00 a month. While that seems a bit beyond the realm of possibility, the rest offers strong food for thought.

In fact, he might have hit one more proverbial nail on the head. While his ideas as to where education could head have been speculated by others before, his idea that the current higher ed financial crisis could be a catalyst for major change seems dead on.

In fact, in our history, once it has become clear that we can do something as well if not better at far less cost, the entrepreneurial spirit has taken off. Tougher financial times always place a demand on innovation, making us wonder:

Will education continue to be immune?

Or will technology finally intercede and lead one of the last bastions of our society to finally consider new, more cost-effective models?

Flickr photos courtesy of mrplough and metaweb.

January 29, 2009   1 Comment