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Category — Technology

Internet Safety – When Adults Let Kids Down

Children Largely Surf the Web Unsupervised.

Ofcom recently published an interim report on media use by UK children. The details include some very interesting results that we would suspect mirror that of American children.

The report takes an in-depth look at the various media used by children ages 5-15 (computers, game consoles, cell phones, etc.), where and how frequently they use the media, and the e-safety measures imposed by parents. The results are then broken out in various tables according to age, sex and household income.

New Picture (13)The first critical general trend to note is that access to media, be it via television, the internet or other sources, continues to increase. While actual use varies, the two other most noteworthy trends include children using the internet at ever-younger ages but that their preference for television drops off with age.

The first somewhat troubling result is that more than a third of 12-15 year-olds now have internet access in their bedrooms. Yet, just under half of the parents have implemented internet filtering or parental controls, leaving nearly 60% of youngsters in the 12-15 age group to use the internet unsupervised.

A second troubling trend is that one in six users aged 5-7 are also mostly left to use the internet unsupervised as well. According to the survey results, most parents “say that they trust [their] child to use the internet safely.”

iStock_000009669392XSmallAs for utilizing parental filters for cable television or the internet, a significant number of parents (one in eight) did not know how to set such controls or were unaware that such controls existed.

While there continues to be strong advice for a different set of expectations, one that features televisions, computers and game consoles located in the family room, it would seem parents are giving in and allowing these media to migrate to their child’s bedroom.

Such results likely reinforce the notion that schools must do more in the way of educating children and their parents regarding media literacy, especially basic internet safety measures. In fact, the report may well indicate that parental education may well be the greater priority.

The full report can be found online (PDF) along with an annex (PDF) of the top fifty sites visited by UK children.

October 19, 2009   1 Comment

Digital Natives – Are They Really Skilled at Multitasking?

We have all heard the stories of the teenager in her home, her laptop open as she works on a school assignment, connected at the same time to the internet, conversing via an open chat window even as she has a cellphone pushed against her ear.

The story has it that the parents are more than a tad furious the first time they see this behavior. But after addressing their daughter on the issue they are gently reminded, well maybe not gently, that she has everything covered. The parent, still somewhat incredulous, has to acknowledge they have not heard of any issues at school and well, the last report card was quite good.

iStock_000008709931XSmallThough unable to match the feat themselves, they begin to believe that maybe there is something to this idea of multitasking, that today’s digital generation is hard-wired to handle this seemingly amazing task. Upon hearing the stories it is easy to begin to think along the same lines.

There is just one problem with such thinking – there is no data to show that those who multitask are actually any good at it.

Recent Study

Such were the findings of a recent study discussed by the BBC. In simplest terms, the findings indicated that “the people who engage in media ‘multitasking’ are those least able” to handle this task well.

In the study researchers divided folks into two test groups based on their current propensity to multitask. Those who acknowledged routinely consuming multiple media such as internet, television and mobile phones simultaneously formed one study group while those who did not engage in the behavior were assigned to a second group.

Researchers determined that the low multitaskers‘ group consistently outdid their highly multitasking counterparts on a series of classic psychology tests designed to assess attention and memory skills.

Specific Items Tested

The three classic assessments used were selected based upon the premise that multitaskers were able to multitask because of specific inherent or developed skills.

Computer testing formats were utilized so as to take advantage of the digital multitaskers favorite tools. The tests involved the participant’s ability to ignore irrelevant information or distracters, the degree to which participants were able to organize their working memory and the skills at which they could switch tasks.

In all cases, low multitaskers were better at the task.

Increasing the distracters dramatically affected the high multitaskers but even with few distracters, the low multitasking group outperformed their counterparts. On the tests of working memory, not only did the high multitaskers do poorer from the outset, their performance deteriorated as time went on. And on the issue of switching tasks, the low multitaskers significantly outperformed their counterparts every step of the way.

Sum Total

iStock_000003094045XSmallAccording to Cliff Nass, one of the researchers, the sum total reveals a rather shocking discovery: “high multitaskers are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.”

Still the researchers acknowledge that one pressing question remains: are the results of the experiment one of simple cause and effect?

Are those people with a dearth of multitasking skills somehow drawn to multitasking lifestyles? Or does a multitasking lifestyle dull the skills necessary to multitask?

Actually, it is likely that the issue is far more complicated. One would have to assume that studies mapping the brain activity of those who multitask (against those who do not generally do so) may well be necessary to gain any real understanding of what is taking place.

But in the meantime, it would seem that a parent’s gut reaction to witnessing the efforts of that multitasking teenager is basically dead on. That teenager might be ‘managing their situation’ at that moment, but the idea that she could possibly be handling all those tasks simultaneously with as high a level of competency as she would if she were to focus on one alone seems to be up for debate.

September 23, 2009   7 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

Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts – I Know What I Think

Too many times I have now witnessed my students writing in modern day hieroglyphics. Most times, I must admit that I am not even sure what they are saying to one another.

How about you? Do you know what they are talking about?

ZUP – MUSM – ?4U




ianturtonWhile I tend to worry about all this texting and shorthand, wondering what it must be doing to kids ability to write, it seems I may be way off base. That is if you read the very surprising assessment of students and their writing skills by Clive Thompson at Wired Magazine.

First and foremost, Thompson takes exception to the conventional wisdom that student writing skills are diminishing and that the reason for the deterioration is technology. Instead, he dares to suggest that the digital age is helping students become better writers than their predecessors.

According to Thompson, our youngsters are not only actually writing more now than they ever did before, they are becoming experts in writing for specific audiences.

Common View Today

Thompson summarizes the current technology critics thus:

“Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into ‘bleak, bald, sad shorthand’ (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned).”

To which he asks, not so rhetorically:

“An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?”

Thompson goes on to answer his question by expounding on the work of Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University. Seeking to get a grasp of how student writing is evolving, Lunsford collected nearly 15,000 writing samples over the better part of five years to analyze.

Those specimens included the traditional student work, in-class assignments, formal essays and journal entries. It also included a look at student emails, blog posts and chat sessions.

According to Lunsford, the gloom and doom is overstated. In fact, she would contend that “…technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.”

This new direction is one Lunsford calls life writing – it seems that “young people today write far more than any generation before them ….. so much socializing takes place online …. and it almost always involves text.”

Lunsford refers to it as life writing since 38 percent of it occurs outside of the classroom. Thompson notes:

“Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.”

And as for all that texting and the world of abbreviations, we simply must assess this development carefully. It seems that the most positive aspect of Lunsford’s research involved the concept rhetoricians call kairos.

The term is used to describe the technique of assessing the audience for whom one is writing. The basic premise focuses on the writer’s ability to adapt “their tone and technique to best get their point across.”

In other words, while texting and socializing online with friends, students might use multiple abbreviations and include smiley faces. But when it comes to writing a real academic paper, students never mistakenly insert such informality.

Perhaps most importantly, the texting and socializing appear to be incredibly meaningful in a student’s development as a writer. Lunsford found that “Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.”

Authentic Learning

Teachers today are encouraged to make learning authentic, to teach real world applications that allow students to effectively comprehend the rational for studying a concept. Clearly, the online world is a location for students where authentic writing can be found.

We may raise an eyebrow or two over what some of that writing looks like. But the idea of writing is to find the right words to clearly communicate with others.

In fact, most writers would insist that the ability to get an idea across with the fewest words possible defines the best communicators. Under such a premise, it would seem our kids actually are making the fewest possible words concept into an artform.

And as noted earlier, the right words vary for the audience at hand. The texting may not set well with us, but we teachers must realize it is not intended for us in the first place.

Flickr photo courtesy of ianturton.

September 3, 2009   1 Comment

Dean Encourages Professors to Teach Naked?

While many see technology as potentially unlocking an entirely new learning environment, almost as many see it as a bane to education. In fact, it now seems that at least one college dean, regretfully, believes that technology is the root cause of a boring lecture hall.

Jeffrey Young, reporting for The Chronicle of Higher Education, notes Southern Methodist University Dean José A. Bowen has gone so far as to challenge professors to teach without any machinery. Young notes that Bowen uses a more provocative phrase to describe teaching without technology.

He wants his staff to “teach naked.”

Teaching Naked

Actually, while insisting he wants to pull the plug on all technology, it seems that Bowen is primarily trying to discourage professors from using PowerPoint. Apparently, far too many instructors are using the tool as nothing more than a slide display.

These professors appear to be using the “program as a crutch rather than using it as a creative tool” according to Young. More importantly, they are apparently boring their students to death.

Still, reading a little deeper, it does seem that Dean Bowen is requesting a tad more. He appears to be advocating for the removal of most technology from the classroom.

“Class time should be reserved for discussion,” the dean contends, “especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they’re going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors.”

Is Technology the Issue?

While the idea of teaching naked initially appears focused on eliminating technology from the classroom, it is clear that the issue is not one related to machines. Instead, it is the lack of skill employed by the professor and the inability to use technology wisely.

Yet, according to Young, the “biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.” Unfortunately, while the standard lecture model is generally less than riveting as an educational format, it is a model that “is pretty comfortable for both students and professors.”

In other words, a bored student is also not having any demands placed on him. That suits more than a few college attendees extremely well.

Poor Message

Ironically, while presenting his ideas at a conference that was attended by Young, Bowen offered “a philosophical argument about the best way to engage students.” In it he talked of “using podcasts and video games.”

And it also seems that when Bowen first began removing some technology from classrooms, that technology was quite old and in need of an upgrade to match today’s sophistication. Apparently, there was no funds to upgrade.

That leaves one troubled.

Dave Parry at Academhack tackles the silly assertion head on.

“…..any teaching practice requires technology. Are we to imagine that these luddite professors disallow paper and pen from class? ‘Students should not take notes in class, the technology gets in the way of discussion.’

“Are we to imagine that they do not allow books in class? ‘No books, they get in the way of discussion.’

“Books, paper, pen, desks, chalkboards, whiteboards, all of these are technologies.”

Parry goes on, leveling the fallacious notion presented by Bowen:

“Teaching without digital technology is an irresponsible pedagogy. Why? The future is digital, love it or hate it. We can argue later about whether or not this is a good or a bad thing.

“But to educate students, or to attempt to educate students without developing their digital literacy is to leave them ill prepared for their futures. You wouldn’t think of educating a student and not teaching them how to read, digital literacy is this crucial. In the future if you don’t know how to use this technology you will be ‘illiterate’.”


“We can’t go back to ‘teaching the way it was,’ because this will produce a generation of students who don’t know how to critically engage with, leverage, use, resist, these very technologies. Eliminating technology produces not the affect of a more engaged literate student populous, rather it produces the reverse, an ill informed, uncritical, unengaged student populous who will become at the very best passive consumers of the technology being resisted, and at the worst its willing victims.”

We could not agree more. The idea of ‘Teaching Naked,’ either figuratively or literally, simply makes no sense.

July 31, 2009   2 Comments

Smart Cars and Smart Cities – The Engineers Who Build Them

According to Wikipedia, engineering is the discipline and profession of applying technical, scientific and mathematical knowledge in order to use natural laws and physical resources to help design and implement materials, structures, machines, devices, systems, and processes that safely realize a desired objective.

Because of their sheer intellect and innate ability to tie theory with practice, students entering the engineering field are generally considered a special breed of people.

Within this group of students is another subset of individuals, those who show such incredible promise at a very young age that they are able to gain admittance to a even more select group, the subset selected to study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For those who yearn to learn a bit more about the young men and women who are selected to study engineering at MIT, our sister site GoCollege recently featured the amazing work of one such student, Charles Guan. The young man who is part of the groundbreaking smart cities research at the school has been seen zipping around the streets of Cambridge in his own, high powered, motorized shopping cart.

The in-depth, revealing look at the work of Guan reinforces the notion that engineers, especially MIT student engineers, are a different breed of cat.

July 9, 2009   No Comments

The Future of Books (and Authors) in the Digital Age

The release of the latest version of the Kindle has many waxing poetic on the future of books in the digital age.

While books seem to gather the most interest, perhaps a more important and certainly more sophisticated notion is to examine what it will mean to be called a writer/author in the age of new media.

Current Status

Tim O’Reilly of describes the idea of putting a book on an electronic device as analogous to “pointing a camera at a stage play, and calling it a movie.”

While that might have been the initial thrust of Hollywood, O’Reilly points out that the “tools of production and consumption actually changed the format of what was produced and consumed. Camera angles, pacing, editing techniques, lighting, location shooting, special effects: all these innovations make the movies (and television) of today very different from the earliest movies.”

Amazon.comLikewise, we are in the early stages of a new world, one that is shifting to an online medium featuring greater and greater portability. The question thus arises, how will books change in the digital age?

To get a sense of the basics, we turn back to the latest version of the Kindle. The device features the ability to display a wealth of different document styles and formats. As one would expect, the Kindle 2 provides access to and readily displays books, newspapers, and magazines. However, the latest version also displays a vast array of other document formats: Microsoft Word, PDF, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC and MOBI files. Therefore the Kindle now has the potential to be a document repository and full-fledged library.

Perhaps an even more exciting option, albeit still in its infancy as a polished product, is that the Kindle 2 can turn a traditional book into an audiobook. There is still much work to be done before the device can be considered a perfect swap for the audio created by a soothing and polished human voice, but the device offers an amazing step forward in the overall reading process.

As proponents tout, one can use the Kindle as an ebook reader on a train or airplane just as you could pull out a book to read. But then later, the earbuds can be connected and you can continue to read (as in listen to the audio production) as you walk through the station or airport.

Amazon.comOf course, the new ereader means that no book has to be printed and therefore there is no such thing as a truly finished product. The ereader concept certainly makes nonfiction works more practical as updates can be easily uploaded to ensure that the book available for purchase always represents the latest edition.

Mixing Platforms

Of course, one of the beauties of the internet and thus the Kindle is the ability to provide documents that then hyperlink immediately to provide a relevant citation or reference. Perhaps even more importantly, nonfiction works can consist of fewer collected chapters as some of the text that would normally be incorporated to build upon or explain certain concepts can instead be simply linked to.

Readers without expertise can peruse the linked material at their leisure while those who have a grasp may forgo those links and delve directly into the new material.

According to O’Reilly, such a concept likely means we will need to develop useful modular formats. In such cases, many books could become more of a collection of loosely-related pages allowing for greater depth and breadth of issue exploration.

Therein comes the real challenge: how does one actually write material for the potential to cross platforms? How can the author ensure her book translates well to an ereader or iPhone application?

As but one example, what happens if a writer uses hyperlinks instead of footnotes but the reader doesn’t have internet access? And even when the reader does have such access, how can writers ensure such cross-referencing links are still active and reliable at the the time the reader examines the link?

Scott Meyers, an independent author and consultant, examines the notion of cross-platforming in “Authoring Challenges in a Multiplatform World.” To the right we present a visual of one of his slides that depicts some of the existing challenges (click to enlarge).

Currently, the conventional manuscript from an author is often designed for the traditional book format. Later, that document is translated where it is viewed on a computer or laptop, an ereader, or PDA or listened to on one of those same devices.

While most everything that works in printed form will work on these devices, simply translating existing documents fails to take advantage of the new technology available. As Meyer notes, text, diagrams, tables, photographs, etc. all work with new media, they just might not work as well.

At the same time, new media offers so much more: color, video/animations and audio are what make the newer platforms so enticing. It is truly as O’Reilly notes, the stage when movies were simply still films of stage plays.

Author Issues

Meyer notes that effective multi-platform publication will require greater author cooperation. It will also mean that writers may well need to develop additional skills if they are to ensure the portability of their work to different platforms.

As it is currently constructed, the idea of designing and writing for traditional print formats then attempting to translate or port that work to other new media platforms makes little sense. Instead, according to Meyer, we will soon see the adoption of new expository and software tools that allow for the construction of documents that are easily ported among devices.

It will also demand new writing skills and that authors understand two relatively new concepts: how to properly express capability-dependent content (eg., displaying a table on devices that have limited viewing screen sizes) and how to apply capability-dependent formatting (eg. including colors when such an option is available, falling back to black and white when color is not present). And as we noted, there will need to be careful consideration for how cross-references and links are utilized, especially given that documents and web sites will not remain static over time.

Teachers are fond of saying that we are educating students for jobs that do not even exist today. Thanks to ereaders and other portable electronic devices, one of the world’s greatest inventions, the book, is undergoing a major review.

At the same time, the notion of what it means to be a writer or author is also undergoing a thorough look. Perhaps it will give rise to a new descriptor or title.

And to a wealth of new career options, much as we saw with the development of the movie industry.

May 29, 2009   No 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

In the Midst of the Information Age, Why Are We So Uninformed?

One has to go back to Sir Francis Bacon in 1597 for the origins of the quote, “Knowledge is power.”

Because of its capacity to control and influence, knowledge was once hoarded by those in position of authority. Today, however, knowledge is readily available to anyone who wants it.

According to the folks at the Davinci Institute, there are:

  • More than 3.5 million songs available on iTunes.
  • More than 4 million books available on Amazon alone.
  • More than 60 million blogs available online.
  • More than 4 million entries on Wikipedia.
  • More than 6 million videos on YouTube.

World Economic ForumYet, in a Pew research poll from last August, while 58 percent of Americans claimed they followed “international affairs,” only 28% could name the British prime minister. And while two out of every three respondents said they followed “political figures and events in Washington,” only 43 percent could name the American Secretary of State at that time.

Given that we are in the midst of an information age, the fact that so many of us are uninformed has experts scratching their heads. Is the failure one of effort or a result of the pace of our society? Is it a lack of intellectual prowess that prevents the assimilation of all the available information or an overall malaise that overcomes even the most well-intentioned of efforts?

Information Overload

While access is now less limited, the sheer volume of material available has many contending that the issue is simply one of information overload. A Washington Post editorial by Dusty Horwitt, “If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?” recently made such a claim.

Horwitt asserted that TMI (too much information) was the root cause of many societal issues today. Readers will find that he even went so far as to assert that the volume of information available had the potential to undermine our democracy.

MichaelMarlattWhile it is a frequent assertion, it is interesting to note that Tim Stahmer at Assorted Stuff isn’t buying the notion of Horwitt’s suggestions as to how to better handle information moving forward. Stahmer is suspect of such a message, one that contends the volume of information available “is burying us in extraneous data” and preventing “important facts and knowledge from reaching a broad audience,” especially since it is coming from someone who works in the now-failing, traditional media market.

Writes Stahmer:

“Maybe his concern is that fewer people are reading big media publications like the Post.”

Stahmer then adds the words of Ben Stein to the mix, yet another of those who has at times insisted society would be far better off with a more limited flow of information. As one might expect, the blogger has a different take.

He does not favor a return to “a few traditional filters of …. information (like the Post, the Times, and Ben Stein)” being “the ones telling us what’s important.” Instead, Stahmer insists, “I’d rather learn to sift through the flow of data myself.”

It is a strong message, one that insinuates that big media simply wants to return itself to its former position of power, i.e., the aforementioned situation where once upon a time knowledge was held by a select few.

Columbia Journalism Review

Bree Nordenson offers some additional insight into the matter in “Overload! Journalism’s Battle for Relevance in an Age of Too Much Information.” Given that the piece is on the Columbia Journalism Review site and the recent revelations that the school is in fact rethinking its journalism program, we probably should attach the same healthy skepticism to Nordenson’s piece as Stahmer attaches to the Post writer.

But still, buried within the article, is some very helpful information. First, there is a great synopsis of the change in available information.

“The information age is defined by output: we produce far more information than we can possibly manage, let alone absorb. Before the digital era, information was limited by our means to contain it.

Will Lion
“Publishing was restricted by paper and delivery costs; broadcasting was circumscribed by available frequencies and airtime. The Internet, on the other hand, has unlimited capacity at near-zero cost.”

While Clay Shirky would take exception to the notion that the new information is defined by output only (we tend to agree that the new age is more defined by interaction), there is truly more information available today than any of us can completely manage. And the increase in production is obtained without the prior costs associated with distributing and storing information online.

As to why more people are not better informed about world affairs, despite the increased output, Nordenson notes that there can be a “tendency to become passive in the face of too much information.”

While that is definitely true, it is likely far more attributable to the vast array of choices now available to internet users, choices that also offer greater control and personalization. She quotes Delli Carpini and Markus Prior who offer simple explanations as to why more people are not up on key public-affairs issues.

“As choice goes up, people who are motivated to be politically informed take advantage of these choices, but people who are not move away from politics,” states Carpini. Prior adds, “Political information in the current media environment comes mostly to those who want it.”

Unlike Horwitt, Nordenson sees the new trends as having potential benefit for our democracy. She writes, “Our access to digital information, as well as our ability to instantly publish, share, and improve upon it at negligible cost, hold extraordinary promise for realizing the democratic ideals of journalism.”

But she does note, “As information proliferates, … people inevitably become more specialized both in their careers and their interests. Personalized home pages, newsfeeds, and e-mail alerts, as well as special-interest publications lead us to create what sociologist Todd Gitlin disparagingly referred to as ‘my news, my world.’ ”

Explanatory Journalism

To produce more savvy readers, there is a move away from the traditional news format to one Nordenson calls explanatory journalism. Such journalism goes beyond reporting a specific news event and the facts related to it.

Will LionExplanatory journalism attempts to supply depth and context to what is being reported and even adds a touch of information filter. While many news outlets are struggling to retain readers, she notes that the publication “The Week,” has actually seen a circulation growth.

The magazine seeks to determine the top news stories and then synthesize them for readers. The editor of “The Week” notes the fundamental purpose of the magazine is “not to tell people the news but to make sense of the news for people.” Therefore, almost like the teachers of yesteryear, “The Week” seeks to be the sage on the stage, a news outlet that does the sifting and the filtering that busy Americans do not have time for.

The model has also taken shape at the BBC News web site. A major news story on the BBC page has several links prominently displayed in a sidebar that offer numerous additional articles that explain and add context to the feature story.

Ironically, the concept that appears to work best is one that does move from the gatekeeper mentality, the knowledge is power model, to one that guides readers towards additional information that then allows them to gain the necessary insight to wrap their arms completely around an issue.

At the same time, what is most telling is that explanatory journalism does not necessarily involve reducing the amount of information available to readers.

Technology Is the Issue

Ironically, nearly 20 years ago, Neil Postman delivered a rather extraordinary and prophetic speech at a meeting of the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) in Stuttgart. “Informing Ourselves To Death” offered many pearls including the notion that school teachers as we know them will disappear in the technological age.

“School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television,” offered Postman, “as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press.”

In regards to the information issue, Postman insisted that the public was not so uninformed as it was unable to place ideas in context. He spoke of a little research he had done, albeit not so rigorous or traditional in its ability to control variables, but extremely telling nonetheless.

Postman would select an unsuspecting victim, a colleague who appeared not to be in possession of the morning newspaper. He would begin

just.Luc“Did you read The Times this morning?”

If the colleague were to answer yes, he would end his experiment for that person that day. But if the person said no, he would begin to make up some far-fetched story.

“You ought to look at Page 23,” he would state. “There’s a fascinating article about a study done at _______ University.” When an inviting reply came, one that matched the traditional response of a colleague, something like “Really? What’s it about?” Postman would let loose with something outlandish.

An example he used in his speech was one he often tried on peers he knew to be health-conscious:

“I think you’ll want to know about this,” he would go on. “The neuro-physiologists at the University of Stuttgart have uncovered a connection between jogging and reduced intelligence. They tested more than 1200 people over a period of five years, and found that as the number of hours people jogged increased, there was a corresponding decrease in their intelligence. They don’t know exactly why but there it is.”

Postman summarized the results of his informal study thus: “Unless this is the second or third time I’ve tried this on the same person, most people will believe or at least not disbelieve what I have told them. Sometimes they say: ‘Really? Is that possible?’ Sometimes they do a double-take, and reply, ‘Where’d you say that study was done?’ And sometimes they say, ‘You know, I’ve heard something like that.'”

Still, Postman railed of too much information before others began to make the assertion. In fact, twenty years ago, Postman noted that information came “indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness.”

He went on to add, “we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

But for Postman, the fact that we do not know what to do with or how to handle this information came from a whole different perspective. He adds a touch of the spiritual in his first reason:

“First, we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don’t know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.”

He then headed off to construct the place where others believe we are today:

“Second, we have directed all of our energies and intelligence to inventing machinery that does nothing but increase the supply of information. As a consequence, our defenses against information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable. We don’t know how to filter it out; we don’t know how to reduce it; we don’t know to use it.”

Postman also managed to express one of the possible reasons as to why in the face of a great deal of information so many people feel overwhelmed. The simple fact of the matter is that the information “cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane.”

Will LionOur technology cannot “provide an organizing moral framework” and “it cannot tell us what questions are worth asking” offered Postman. Instead, “The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront — spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future.”

And so, in simplest terms, for Postman, it was the unmet promises of technology that formed the ultimate issue.

“Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better,” stated Postman, “religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense.”

A Golden Age

If knowledge is truly power, then we should be entering a golden age, one where everyone has unlimited access to the authority once held only by the elite in society.

The fact that we seem to be far from such a place does beg several questions.

And the biggest one befalls education – many have written that the next phase of schooling must move towards a focus that places the information age at its core for the next generation of learners. In fact, it would seem that the words of Postman are most prescient – twenty years ago he noted the volume of information that was being produced and the issues that it would present.

But education changed little over those 20 years. So we now have a large group of citizens unable to emotionally and intellectually handle the breadth of information available to them.

The answer is certainly not to limit information. The answer is in creating an educational system that helps individuals understand how to best make use of the knowledge.

The power that today’s information-rich society has available is truly unprecedented. As always, education is the great equalizer, but now we must turn our attention towards helping our young people learn how to filter, reduce and use the knowledge that is accessible to them.

Flickr photos courtesy of World Economic Forum, Michael Marlatt, Will Lion, Will Lion, just.Luc and Will Lion.

March 15, 2009   3 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