Category Archives: technology

What is Innovation?

When I posted last month about Innovation in Education, I was starting to work on my application for the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle this summer. Well, now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share my application video with the few of you that read this blog. Before sharing, here is what GTA says they are looking for in application videos:

Create an original one minute video on ONE of the following topics: “Motivation and Learning” OR “Classroom Innovation.” This video is a very important part of your application. We’re specifically looking for educators who creatively address one of the specific topics listed above. You do not need to be in the video, but, the task is designed to demonstrate your technical ability, your resourcefulness, your commitment, and your unique personality and interests. Please do not submit videos produced for another project or videos created by others. We realize that you may have never produced a video before and that you may not own video equipment, but through perseverance we are confident you can find a way to meet this requirement.

With that in mind, here is the video I created. I’d love to hear what you think.


Wikipedia and the Wisdom of the Masses

WikipediaNot too long ago, I wrote about Jake Locker and the Wisdom of the Masses, which discussed the way in which public perception or “common sense” is based primarily on what so-called “experts” and media say on a particular subject. This particular post will look at what may be the antithesis of that piece – Wikipedia.

I have used Wikipedia for a long time now, primarily when I want to get a quick overview about a topic or find an answer to a random trivia question (like “How many home runs did Sadaharu Oh hit during his career?”). Occasionally (as I did recently), I’ll consult the References and “Further Reading” sections of an article to look for books to read on a topic.

But as a teacher, I often hear from students that they have been told to never use Wikipedia because it is unreliable. Other teachers they have had have told them that, because anyone can edit Wikipedia, it is completely unreliable. Essentially, these teachers have told students to only listen to people that are vetted “experts” on a subject.

Of course, in the Jake Locker article, I argued that the so-called “experts” were just as ignorant as many fans. In addition, their “expert” opinions influenced the masses to believe something that may or may not be true, all without using complete, factual information to support their positions. Interestingly, Wikipedia seems to be the opposite of this phenomenon, as the “wisdom of the masses” turns out to be roughly on par with the wisdom of the experts.

Take this oft-cited report by Nature magazine, which found that Wikipedia is nearly as reliable as the Encyclopedia Brittanica – with approximately 1 more error per article than the published encyclopedia (The main article is behind a pay wall (here’s a summary from CNet News), but their responses to Encyclopedia Brittanica’s objections are worth looking at). Even when there are errors in a Wikipedia entry, they are (more often than not) fixed within a matter of hours.

Another study, published by online journal First Monday, revealed that experts who read Wikipedia articles in their areas of expertise found those articles to be more credible than non-experts. In layman’s terms, if you or I read an article on nuclear fission on Wikipedia, we might treat it with a bit of skepticism (“take it with a grain of salt”). An expert in the field of nuclear physics, however, found that to be a fairly reliable and accurate article.

Of course, Wikipedia is not, nor ever will be, perfect. One of the drawbacks of having an encyclopedia that anyone can edit is that some will add misinformation (whether intentional or not). PBS’ “Learning.Now” blog posted a clear, concise summary of both sides of the Wikipedia debate. It illustrates the potential problems with Wikipedia using the story of John Seigenthaler Sr., whose erroneous Wikipedia article tied him to the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy. But it also highlights the story of some high school journalists who used Wikipedia (and its editing history) to out a convicted sex offender posing as British royalty.

So what should educators do about Wikipedia? Based on what my students have shared with me, many teachers are simply telling students not to use Wikipedia. I will never say this. There is far more quality information on Wikipedia than there is bad information. While Britannica is updated annually, Wikipedia is being edited every second of every day, thus has information on events like the death of Osama bin Laden, which won’t appear in Britannica for several months. Furthermore, students can access Wikipedia for free from anywhere with an internet connection, while it is much more difficult to access an encyclopedia. Then there are additional tools like Simple English Wikipedia, which contains similar content shared in simple language (rather than intellectual vocabulary). This kind of tool is invaluable for students, particularly those just beginning to learn how to do research. With all of these facts (plus the demonstrable accuracy of their articles), I will never tell students not to use the site.

However, I will also never tell them that it they should cite Wikipedia as a source in scholarly writing. Yes, the site is usually accurate. Yes, it has good information more often than not. However, it is not perfect, and it is still a secondary source. And I try to get my students to avoid citing secondary sources, instead helping them search for the primary source of the information. To me, this is one of the great advantages to using Wikipedia – their bountiful citations and connected links. If the information is good, I can typically consult the original source and use that, thus maintaining accuracy and academic integrity.

So here’s what I tell my students – Wikipedia is a great starting point. If you just want quick access to basic information, use Wikipedia. This is why I cite Wikipedia articles in my blog – the articles provide good introductions for people who don’t know about a particular subject. If you are doing research, it is a great way to get a mostly accurate overview of a topic, and an even better tool for finding other sources to aid in research (using the References). But Wikipedia should not be the core of their research, just as the Encyclopedia Brittanica should not comprise all of their research – they should seek out primary sources of information to cite in their work. This is what I try to teach my students.

But that’s just what I do. How do you handle the Wikipedia dilemma?


The Dangers of a Personalized Internet

This TED talk is brilliant and thought-provoking, though haunting at the same time.

I’m really not sure what else I can say in response to Mr. Pariser. I’ve shared similar thoughts for a few years now, not just about the internet, but about the books we read and the people we associate with. Variety is the spice of life, and those that live in a filter bubble like the one Mr. Pariser describes tend to lose perspective on the world around them.

To expand on his metaphor, when we indulge in that filtered “junk food” that isn’t building us and edifying us and challenging us to think outside of our own sheltered existence, our minds end up like Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me – out of shape and on the verge of death.


On E-Books, Reading, and the Course of Human Events

Nook

A Little Background

A couple of months ago, my amazing wife got me a great birthday present – a Barnes & Noble Nook. I had been conflicted about getting an e-book reader, but was ready to give digital books a shot. Since I’m both technophile and bibliophile, the gift made perfect sense. And given the amount of time I spend in front of LCD screens (laptop, iPhone, TV, etc.), I was grateful not to receive a Nook Color or an iPad, which would just add to the eye strain that I already experience. And the E-Ink screen has lived up to expectations – it really does mimic the experience of reading on a page quite well.

Of course, being something of a classicist, it’s a weird mental adjustment to read digital books. I’d always been the type that loves to smell the pages of old books and I really appreciate a nice leather-bound edition of Poe’s Complete Works. That’s obviously not an option any more, so I went with the next best thing – a beautiful handmade leather cover from Oberon, which at least gives it that nice leather smell, so I can feel a little more like I’m reading a real book (side note: I’m not affiliated with Oberon in any way, but I’m really happy with my cover). Even so, there are still books that I will insist on keeping in hard copy – classics, favorites, and so on.

There are a number of features with the e-reader I really enjoy that I know I would never get with a book. One of these is obviously having one device that I am comfortable with, rather than learning the feel of a new book every few weeks. Oddly enough, another feature I love is the ability to quickly go from one book to the next, even download a book on the spot and start reading. Even if I’m thinking about buying a book, I can preview it on the Nook first and decide whether to purchase it. In the same vein, the Nook allows me to go to any Barnes & Noble and read a book for free while I’m connected to their wi-fi. All are very nice features.

The feature I most appreciate, though, is the Nook’s ability to lend and borrow books, particularly borrowing from a library. This is the sole reason I preferred the Nook over the Kindle. I think the ability to borrow books at will is an incredible feature. I can honestly say that I’ve checked out more books so far this year than I checked out in the last 4 years combined, all because they were quickly sideloaded onto my Nook. Thankfully, our public library (King County Library System) has a great selection of e-books available for checkout, so it’s been a pleasant experience. I simply download the book, load it onto the Nook, and then “return” it when I’m finished. I can keep the book for up to 21 days or return it early, just like a traditional book.

Certainly there are issues that bug me – highlighting is a nuisance and I wish I could view only highlighted passages (would be great for note-taking). The touchscreen often experiences a good deal of lag or is unresponsive. And E-Ink technology still has plenty of room for improvement. However reading books on the Nook has been a mostly positive experience.

Reflections

As I mentioned, it was the last feature – lending and borrowing – that really sold me on the Nook. As I see it, that Kindle did not (until recently) allow lending or borrowing was a shame. It seems like a good piece of hardware, but we need the ability to share. Whether it’s status updates on Facebook, links through Delicious, or books, sharing things we enjoy connects us to others. Even if it’s just the library, there is now a connection between borrower and lender. Consequently, when the lender (in this case, the library) needs something, I am indebted and likely to oblige (by voting in favor of the library system, in this case). Similarly, when a friend comments on something I share on Facebook, I am much more likely to return that comment. In doing so, the relationship is strengthened by a common bond or interest.

Thus, my preference of the Nook over the Kindle was not so much about the best device, but about which one will provide me with the better opportunities. And isn’t this what reading is really all about – opportunities? Opportunities to experience something you normally wouldn’t be able to, opportunities to learn from the wisest mentors in history, and opportunities to think about one’s own existence from a different perspective. As literary critic Harold Bloom shares,

“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.”

This is why we read – we read to better ourselves, to expand our minds, to understand the world around us, and to find a challenging joy – a difficult pleasure. Thankfully, my Nook has allowed me this difficult pleasure. While I know a Kindle would have met that need just as well, I guess in the end, I just couldn’t imagine choosing a device that limits opportunities for reading.

The other thought that runs through my mind (especially when I read articles like this one from CNN, reporting that Amazon now sells more digital than physical books) is what future generations will think of us as a result of this technology. I just recently started reading 1776, and as I read about the history of the American Revolution, I am struck by how most of the information in McCullough’s book is gleaned from letters and other hand-written documents. Because historical figures such as George Washington and William Emerson, Sr. engaged in such hand-written correspondence, we have a record of not only the events that occurred, but also the thoughts and emotions of the people involved. Will future generations be able to look back on us and say the same? Will emails, chats, phone calls, and digital books stand the test of time in the same way that ancient manuscripts have? Or will they disappear from the human consciousness, much like the original internet websites have slipped from our minds? I don’t have an answer for any of these questions, but I can’t help but wonder what the consequences will be of this rapid advance in technology. As Isaac Asimov pointed out,

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Are we thinking forward about the consequences of this sort of change? Have we considered what the ramifications are – how the world will be? I just don’t have an answer.


Formspring.me: Part II

After my initial post about Formspring.me, I was pleased to read through comments and see that many people were discovering the same issues with the website that I had noticed – young people asking (what I consider) obscene questions and leaving hateful comments. I was particularly pleased to notice that a couple of young people commented on this, as well, providing some insight into why they used and continue to use Formspring.me.

As comments piled up, however, I noticed that I had several pending comments, most from the same individual: “13yoformsprinmyspacefacebookuser:)”. And after reading several of the comments, I found myself debating whether to approve them or not, as several comments were both hyper-critical and inappropriate. After some debate, I thought I’d share parts of this person’s comments, along with a couple of others I am not willing to approve in full. Assuming that this individual is, in fact, 13, it may provide some insight into the mindset. These are in chronological order (earliest to most recent) and only inappropriate language has been removed:

hey, i’m a worried mother and i feel formspring is a dangerouse thing. what are u ******* talking about formspring is the best website and i highly recomend it, and cyberbullying this can only be a law in America. such stupid people.” (commenter: A worried mother)

why would you parents look at your children’s formspring pages? do you know how much trust will be gone when your kids find out? im 13 years old and i found out about my dad and step mom looking at my myspace and i was really mad and annoyed at them and it made me trust them even less. so you should respect your kid’s privacy you dont know how many kids younger than that are “cussing” or using “profanity”…we’re in the NEW GENERATION people! and you cant stop them from doing that so dont try! its just not possible and of course they know about that stuff because of people around them.”

i agree with you..parents just dont get that TEENS WILL BE TEENS and were used to this stuff and we dont really care.”

i just asked u a question. SPAMMER

ask me anything: http://www.formspring.me/******** :D” (address removed by author)

and to us teens its actually funny getting mean comments! gives you a chance to be mean back >:)”

“can i ask why you people are going through your childrens computer history… hmmmm” (commenter: Bailey)

There are many things I could say about these comments, but two things stood out to me (apart from the horrendous spelling, grammar, and punctuation that still haunts me in my dreams). The first was the mindset of these commenters: that anyone who disagreed with them is, as one comment put it, “stupid.” Whether on the concept of cyberbullying, profanity, internet privacy, or simply just the ethics of treating people with respect, these comments seem to dismiss anyone who might have other opinions, regardless of how logical or sensible the arguments are. This is pretty evident in the “teens will be teens, so don’t bother trying to change us” argument. Apparently good parenting means letting children do anything they want.

Perhaps what has lingered with me the most, however, is the second-to-last comment: that this site “gives you a chance to be mean back.” Perhaps I’m just naive, but I cannot help but look at the great innovators and leaders in world history, and I can’t think of any who followed this kind of philosophy. I can however, hearken back to Mahatma Gandhi’s famous observation (later borrowed by the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.): “An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye … ends in making everybody blind.”

In any case, I am pleased to see that Formspring.me has finally started to reach mainstream media. Webware, the CNET technology blog, did a good piece on Formspring, centered around the suicide of a 17-year old girl in New York. Of note is that Webware actually posted interview questions on people’s Formspring pages and quoted their answers in the article. I also appreciated their closing point: “What these teens and many other don’t know is that all questions and answers are indexed. A job candidate that uses Formspring has made his or her reputation, opinions, background, and other information available publicly to employers willing Google them.”


Twitter…in the classroom?

You read that correctly. I’m using Twitter in my classroom. A service that I frequently condemned as banal and self-serving is suddenly something I use on a daily basis. Before you judge me, though, please finish reading.

In case you live under a rock and don’t know what Twitter is, check out CommonCraft’s “Twitter in Plain English.” As always, CommonCraft gives the best quick introduction to a tech tool. Those that are well-informed are likely familiar with Twitter thanks to the likes of Ashton Kutcher, who won a “Race to a Million” contest with CNN. 

Aside from the inherently self-serving belief that someone actually cares what I’m doing, there was always one problem I had with Twitter – how am I supposed to use this in my classroom? I couldn’t see past the inane updates people put on there (you know the ones: “had cheerios for breakfast. off to school.”).

Fortunately, I took another chance and listened to a colleague teach at our district’s winter tech mini-conference. He shared something really great that he was doing – using Twitter to update parents on what was happening in class. I was impressed with the simplicity of the idea, and also a little disappointed I hadn’t thought of it myself. In any case, I decided to take his idea and add some of my own ideas. What follows are the many ways I have found Twitter to be useful in communicating with students and parents.

  • Class Updates. I update parents and students on what we’re doing in class. I’ll post periodic updates both during class and after school telling parents and students “here’s what we’re doing today.” This is a great way to provide people with a little window into our classroom.
  • iPhone Apps. I’ve been using the Echofon app for normal Twitter updates, but I also have been using the Twitpic app to take photos of students working in class, which I then upload to the class Twitter. In addition to that, I found the Vidly app, which lets me upload videos and share them on Twitter. So far, I’ve shared pictures of students working, photos of their work, and videos of skits they did in class. This has been a great way to let parents see what we do in class, and makes that little window into our classroom much wider.
  • Class Website Widget. Our class website has an “Announcements” page that I had to update at least once a week. After signing up for Twitter, I created a widget that now fills that same Announcements page and displays our “tweets” (that word still makes me cringe). This has been a nice time-saver for me. I just add a quick update during down time during class and don’t have to spend 15 minutes updating it during the week.
  • Reminders (by SMS!). I’ve been using Twitter to send reminders about due dates and upcoming events, and there is a really nice bonus to this. Since I teach 8th and 9th, most students have cell phones. Those that have unlimited texting are able to follow our Twitter page and, more importantly, have updates send to their phones via text message. The small handful of students using this feature have found it really helpful to get reminders texted to them about the assignment that is due this week.

That’s where I’m at right now with Twitter. I’d love to hear what people think.


Do your kids use Formspring.me?

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, largely because I’m trying to keep up with more responsibilities than I can count at school and home. Nevertheless, I feel a compelling urge to post on a fairly new tool I came across called Formspring.me, which has the potential to be more dangerous to students than most other websites I’ve heard of. Just to give you an idea of it’s prevalence, I took a quick poll of my 8th graders. About 1/3 have a Formspring page. About 3/4 know about Formspring.me.

Usually I like to post tools that could be useful for teachers to use – either to make the administrative side of our jobs easier or to help students learn something better. In this case, however, I want to make those few readers of this blog aware of this site, which is quickly replacing MySpace and facebook as the site du jour for the teenagers I work with.

Formspring.me is a very simple site. Users like my 8th and 9th graders create accounts, which give them a formspring page. If you or I go visit that user’s page, we see a box to type in with a title that reads “Ask me anything.” You fill out this box and it anonymously asks the user any question you can come up with. The user will then post his/her answer, along with the question, for all to see. Simple concept, right?

Here’s the dilemma: anyone who works with young people can quickly point out that anonymity nearly always breeds irresponsibility. This case is no different. While doing a little research, I was (un)fortunate enough to come across a couple of former students’ pages on Formspring.me and can honestly say that I will never look at those students the same way again. After only a couple of minutes browsing around, here are a couple of things I saw that set of alarm bells in my “teacher brain”:

  • Conversations on each page quickly degenerated into some general types of questions/comments:
    • “I hate you” comments were remarkably prevalent. I saw people calling each other names that I wouldn’t use around my closest friends. Moreover, the frequency of these comments was staggering. In a lot of ways, this site more or less encourages cyber-bullying, and does it in a public space.
    • “You’re awesome” comments are much less disturbing, but encourage a pretty self-centered view on life. For example, I saw a few comments such as, “Why are people judging you? You’re so nice!” Not surprisingly, the students in question respond with statements about how they are good people that don’t judge other people but that other people actually judge them.
    • Questions/comments about sex. Every question that can be asked about a person’s sexual history, preference, etc. is being discussed in public for the world to see. Like I said – I’ll never look at some kids the same way again.
  • This site allows a space for kids to do discuss these things in an uncontrolled environment without talking about issues with parents or teachers or people who may have a little more experience and wisdom.
  • Think MySpace encouraged risky behavior? Looking at two pages on Formspring, I saw full names, cities, and cell phone numbers posted for all the world to see. At our school, we try to teach kids what information to put out there and to be responsible citizens of the internet. Apparently our lessons aren’t sticking.

Now, I’m not saying we should sue the website and get it shut down or anything like that. I’m not even necessarily saying the site should be blocked by school web filters. What I am saying, though, is that this is just another site that parents and teachers need to be aware of and, hopefully, talk to their students about using responsibly. I know I will.

Have some experience using Formspring.me? Do your children or students use it? I’d really appreciate hearing your thoughts, comments, and questions on this one.