Tag Archives: technology

Showcase: Collaborative Timelines

In Niall Ferguson’s latest work, he gives an unequivocal description of contemporary education’s deficiencies (emphasis mine):

“For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a ‘trilemma’: should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just ‘one f***king thing after another’?”

ᔥ Rebecca Brown
To teach the historical skills of chronology and causality – “why and how their predicaments arose” – I have students make annotated timelines. But I’ve abandoned the paper-and-pencil approach in favor of collaborative online work using the tools Prezi and Dipity.

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Showcase: Prezi (and Google Docs) for Simultaneous, Collaborative Work

Prezi: You should use it.
In the past, I always loathed giving group projects. Invariably one or two students would end up doing much of the work, whether it was writing the content or assembling individually completed pieces in the final product. And this dynamic wasn’t the fault of the student – it was the simple consequence of computer programs such as Microsoft Powerpoint being designed for use by a single user at a time. You could just not have more than one person typing at a computer.

Enter Prezi. This tool, like other cloud-based applications, forces dead-weight group members to contribute and removes the previously-immutable physical limitations of document creation.

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Showcase: Google Docs for Group Project Coordination

ᔥ Kinologik

I always loathed giving group projects. There were just too many moving parts too keep track of: how to assess individual performance, ensure everyone was on task, assign group vs. individual grades, keep track of checkpoints to scaffold projects, motivate everyone in the group. Enrolling in the COETAIL program gave me an idea of how to do this, though – and in doing so, I implemented Google Docs in my classes for the first time.

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Showcase: iClickers

Clickers for engagementWhen planes crash, investigators sift through the wreckage to find the “black box” flight recorder. It tells them what went wrong – was there an equipment malfunction? Pilot error? Bird strikes? They use that data to try and prevent future problems.

Summative assessment, in education parlance, is like an airplane’s black box. It comes at the end of a unit, and it might be a test, essay, presentation, or something else. A teacher grading it can tell what “went wrong” with a student’s learning from the type of mistakes he makes. And he can use that information to inform future teaching. But it would be much preferable if we could prevent students from crashing and burning during tests in the first place.

That’s where formative assessment comes into play – those checks for understanding that take place throughout a unit and help a teacher correct misunderstandings and clarify important concepts before big events. iClickers are a new-ish way of generating hard data, interactively, on student understanding.
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Showcase: Famous Figures Facebook

Image courtesy Tina Sieber

History isn’t the most dynamic of fields. Compared to, say, an English or Science class, the content we teach rarely evolves. To make the class engaging, then, I search for new ways to make students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate what we learn. In the “famous figures Facebook” assignment, students create a social networking profile for a historical figure.

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Toys for (Travelling) Teachers

Kuwait is expensive, so I use my summers to stock up on all the gear that I can’t get cheaply and/or easily abroad. Also, buying from Amazon and Newegg is cheaper and easier than brick ‘n’ mortar retailers. This summer I’ve made two purchases that I’d say are staple technology upgrades:

1. In-ear monitors (IEMs) – noise-isolating earphones Shure SE215

I travel frequently – 3-4 times per semester for conferences, long weekends, breaks, and swim meets. The drone of airplane engines makes it tough to listen to movies and music, though. Many travellers swear by noise-cancelling headphones: older audiences like Bose Quietcomforts, while Beats by Dr. Dre are the unchallenged favorites among my students. I was seriously considering getting a pair of JVCs or Panasonics, which both are in the $100 range, but after reading the comments on David Pogue’s piece, I decided that a pair of IEMs – which sit inside your ear canal and effectively act like earplugs – had the triple advantages of not requiring batteries, isolating a wider frequency of noises, and being significantly smaller than headphones. Also, I can use them outside on a summer day without my ears getting terribly sweaty.

I considered IEMs from Etymotics, Ultimate Ears, Klipsch, and Shure. Customer reviews on Amazon revealed the following:

  • Etymotics have amazing noise isolation, but they don’t have much bass (or, to audiophiles, they have “natural” bass).
  • Ultimate Ears sound great, especially their top-of-the-line monitor that has three drivers, but they are fragile enough that they must be treated like porcelain dolls.
  • Klipsch S4s have great bass and noise isolation, and are often found for $70-80.
  • Shure SE215s have great bass and noise isolation, are around $100, and come with both rubber and foam earbuds

So on my trip to NYC last weekend, I picked up a pair of Shure SE215s from B&H Photo (which I consider to be a tourist attraction in and of itself, on top of their oustanding selection and prices competitive with Amazon). I’m not sure why I chose them over the Klipsch S4s – they’re $30 more expensive – but I’m really happy with them so far. They have a novel approach in which the wires go up, over, and behind your ear rather than falling straight down like the Klipsches. The foam earbuds really block out noise, much to my girlfriend’s annoyance when she’s trying to get my attention. And the sound is clear, crisp, and has ample bass. The cable is also really sturdy, and is actually user-replaceable so you don’t need to buy a whole new set of phones if the wire goes bad. My only complaint: unlike my previous pair of Sony IEMs, the cable goes in front of your neck, not behind it. I always liked Sony’s behind-the-neck design, because you could hang your earphones around your neck when they weren’t in your ear.

2. SSDCrucial SSD

My Macbook is nearing three years old, and it’s getting poky for current software, even after an emergency reformat last month. I didn’t want to shell out $1000 for a new Air, but I did want to bump the performance. My biggest issue was that application lauching took a long time, even with my 7200rpm 500GB internal drive. Running Win 7 in VMWare Fusion was especially slow. I’d read the buzz about how  buying an SSD is the single best upgrade you can make, but to purchase a 500GB SSD would cost upwards of $500 – half the cost of a new machine. Luckily, my Macbook has a little-used DVD drive that you can (with elbow grease and no fear of voiding the warranty) replace with a second hard drive. So I purchased a 128GB Crucial M4 SSD – more than enough to hold my OS and Applications – and OWC’s Data Doubler bracket to fit it into my Macbook’s DVD slot. Now my OS, Apps, and virtual machines sit on the SSD (about 80GB total), and my 250GB of movies, music, pictures, and documents sit on my 500GB drive.

How fast is it? You can look up benchmarks on the web, but I’ll admit that I have spent time opening different applications just to see them open in one bounce of the dock icon.

Very nice.

Summer Projects

Abandoned Old Rusty Car
Alex Proimos via Compfight

I accepted that something wasn’t right with me when I realized that what I was looking forward to this summer was… doing work. Specifically, getting my digital footprint up to snuff and taking care of work-related planning and organization. Here’s an excerpt from my lengthy to-do list (kept, of course, in Evernote):

  1. Update my personal website at www.mrkelsey.com
  2. Transition to a new cloud service
  3. Finish annual teaching reflection
  4. Complete planning maps for my world history courses

My work thus far has been steady but plodding. First off, I wanted to select a cloud service that I would use next year to keep my work and home computers in sync (Win7 and Mac-Lion, respectively) – not only with work files, but also my 50GB music collection. Furthermore, I needed a service that would allow me to easily share files and folders with my two co-planning teachers. After a feature and cost comparison between cloud services Spideroak, Skydrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox, I settled on Skydrive. It’s among the cheapast of the options, and it offers 7GB to free users – a better deal for my co-planning teachers who probably won’t shell out $50/year for extra storage. I quickly find this to be the wrong choice, though. Skydrive suffers from strict file name limitations (no symbols like ; ” , / etc), so I had to use a mass filename replacer to fix the hundreds of errors that Skydrive had. Then I had to trash the app’s preferences to get it to sync properly. I still haven’t completed a full sync since I’m on a limited data plan here in rural Canada. If I could do it over again, I’d choose Google Drive. It’s comparable in cost, offers similar sharing features, and I doubt it faces the same filename restrictions (or if it does, it deals with them more gracefully).

My personal website has also been a time sink. I signed up for 1and1’s unlimited web hosting package on the recommendation of a friend – it’s $3 or 4 a month for all-you-can-eat bandwidth and web storage. They also claimed to offer 1-click WordPress installs. But my 1-click install didn’t work, so I ended up having to install WordPress and set up the domain manually. Admittedly, it wasn’t complicated – the WordPress install takes five minutes. But still – more complicated than it should have been.

Then it was on to customizing my WordPress install. I chose a theme, imported content from my Coetail blog, and tinkered for hours. The results are alright for a first attempt – www.mrkelsey.com. But I let the tail wag the dog, choosing a theme and tweaking the CSS styles before deciding what pages and content I wanted to have, instead of vice versa. I anticipated regular changes to what’s posted there now.

The past week has been all about the tools. Next step: using these tools to actually accomplish something.