Monthly Archives: February 2009

Siftables: Perfect for the Sandbox

A colleague of mine, Kathy, and I have been discussing ways to create a language sandbox game.  This idea would be to create blocks with words on them that somehow interact in a way that demonstrates grammaticality.

Siftables work like colored blocks, but they can interact.

Siftables work like colored blocks, but they can interact.

Kathy’s oldschool.  She’s been experimenting with blocks of wood painted different colors which students can manipulate.  Great for kinesthetic learners!  We discussed cutting them into puzzlepiece shapes so that each block only “fits” other words according to grammatical rules.  At first, it seems like it would be possible to make nouns with square tabs that fit into square slots on verbs, and so on.  However, as complexity increases, this becomes exponentially more difficult.  Structures as complex as nouns modified by multiple adjectives would be prohibitively difficult.

What if a computer application could be developed that would replace the wood blocks with word tiles that could be manipulated with a mouse (or an interactive whiteboard!)?  Could the tiles snap together and repel each other like magnets according to grammar rules?  Could words be tagged for part-of-speech automatically within the application?  Could different categories of words (verbs, adjectives, adverbs, specifiers, etc.) be added and deleted with the check of a box?  Could students add their own tiles seemlessly into the pile?  Clearly, some intelligence would be required of the application to implement all of these features.

Siftables might just be perfect for an language sandbox.

Siftables react to each other. Imagine a word on each one.

As I was kicking all of this around, my friend Mike at Ohio University pointed me to siftables, which seem to be the synthesis of both ideas.  Rather than try to describe these brilliant little devices, watch the TED Talks video.

Not only could these little devices fit the bill perfectly, the way they interact could inform interactions in the language sandbox I’ve been envisioning.  Until we’ve all got pockets full of siftables to pass out in class, my $50 wiimote-based interactive whiteboard will have to do.  In the meantime, I’m hoping that having students drag word tiles across the screen will work almost as well for kinesthetic learners.

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The Smartest Pen Ever

I painted my living room and dining room over the winter break.  Both rooms required two coats.  Typically, I listen to audiobooks or This American Life podcasts while I do this kind of work.  I noticed that as I applied the second coat, I could remember vividly what I had been listening to the last time I had painted each part of the wall.  The Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe creates a similar effect for much better results — and no fumes!

The Pulse Smartpen from livescribe is amazing.

The Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe is amazing.

When using the Smartpen, you can record audio and / or the movements of the pen.  The audio can be played back with the pen or uploaded to your computer (where you’ll also find .pdf versions of the notes you wrote!)  When you use the Smartpen on Livescribe’s special dot paper, it indexes the audio you record to what you were writing when you recorded it.

This is a boon when you go to review your notes.  The same way I recalled each of the 20 acts in 60 minutes while rolling on the paint around each faceplate, a student can hear what her professor was saying while she was taking each line of notes.  She can literally click on a line of notes and the pen will play back that part of the audio.  When demonstrated, it almost seems like magic.

Some of the practical uses of this technology are obvious.  John, the undergraduate student who demostrated his Smartpen to me in the Digital Union, said he found it most helpful for taking notes in chemistry, where he was often too busy drawing chemical structures to also note everything the professor said.  (Incidentally, John bought his $200 Smartpen the day after he had to return his demo model.)  Would it work for ESL students?  Perhaps.  Obviously, the combination of input types can really help different learning styles, and being able to review notes in more than one media would be an advantage.

I’ve also been thinking about how this technology relates to my earlier post on captioning digital audio.  With both technologies, they key is indexing the graphic with the auditory because the former is easily searchable.  Once Livescribe adds some kind of optical character recognition, which would make the notes more easily editable, and once searchable captions become a standard component of digital video, we will have finally integrated all of this information in a truly useful way.  Can the Singularity be far behind?

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Captioning Digital Video

A screenshot from MP4Box.  This is going to take some figuring out.

A screenshot from MP4Box. This is going to take some figuring out.

Got the lowdown on how the Web Accessibility Center at OSU captions digital video at the Digital Media in a Social World conference, which I have been attending today.  MP4Box, which is freely availalble, can be used to import a variety of video and caption formats, which results in a compliant stream.

As I’ve blogged before, this is exciting from an accessibilty perspective, a language learning perspective, and because digital video can become searchable using these transcripts.

From what I’ve heard, this process is a bit geeky.  I’m planning to roll up my sleeves and give it a shot.  I will, of course, report my results here.  If you have experience with this, or similar software, leave a comment.

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MERLOT: Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching

Search MERLOT for online resources.

Search MERLOT for online resources.

I came across MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) in a TELR workshop recently.  I’ve been thinking about how ESL classes could be moved online and MERLOT was suggested as a place I might find some learning objects (reusable components of an online course).

While it wasn’t quite as simple as that, I did find a number of good resources.  One qualification: like many online resources, MERLOT does have some dead links and out-of-date activities, but at least there were plenty to choose from.  Try a search for “English grammar” and you’ll find lots of materials and promising leads.  The bad news is that it all feels a little like Yahoo circa 1996.  Although there are options for users to rate items, this system is not widely used and, in some cases, possibly outdated.  Many of the materials appear the be the work of single teachers doing yeoman’s work to create textbooks from scratch (Net Grammar), clearinghouses for their online materials (Edict Virtual Language Center), and drill-and-kill exerices and quizzes (English Works!, Interactive Quizzes at Capital Community College’s Guide to Grammar and Writing).

Although MERLOT makes an attempt to organize these resources, one still has to do some pretty deep wading to find useful resources.  A search returns a list, like Yahoo once did.  What is needed is something more Google-like: an algorithm-based system for sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Even better would be a proliferation of intelligent CALL (ICALL) materials (like WERTi) that would include tools to create exercises from existing content.  This is more a criticism of ESL CALL materials in general, than it is of MERLOT.  Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

Find something you like on MERLOT?  Leave a comment and share it.

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How Simple Is Really Simple Syndication?

Really simple syndication is simple.  Really!

Really Simple Syndication is simple. Really!

In a word, really.  Really Simple Syndication (or RSS) is a way of publishing online information that is frequently updated.  Think Podcasts and BBC News.  Or, more recently, Twitter and Facebook.

I’ve been experimenting with RSS on my blog recently, as you can see in the sidebar at right.  (Though if you’re reading this post in archived form far in the future, I may have moved, deleted, or in some other way changed them.)

Currently, I have my Twitter feed, my Facebook status, and my Del.icio.us links.  In addition to my tweets, my Twitter feed is updated every time I add a blog post.  So, in some ways, my blog feeds Twitter, which feeds my blog.

This process has me thinking a lot about my personal and professional presence online.  How much is too much?  How much do my students expect?  How narcissistic is it to post your Facebook status to your blog?  In general, I only use technologies like Facebook for professional purposes, but it can be hard to draw the line.

Perhaps the biggest question is, how can we, and why should we, use these technologies for language teaching?  In the business world, I think it is easy to see applications.  I read about a Silicon Valley tech firm that has a flatscreen next to the elevator door that lists employees’ Twitter feeds.  Seeing who’s doing what, can promote interaction in new ways.

Within the context of education, using these technologies is a way of meeting students in the digital world that they already inhabit.  I interact with more students via Facebook than email.  Being able to tie all of these resources together via RSS feeds can give students one place to look for everything (listening homework .mp3s, links to supplemental reading articles, information about extracurricular activities, etc.), which eliminates the excuse of having looked for an assignment in email, when it was posted to the Moodle, or vice versa.

Will these technologies change the way we teach our students?  Not all at once, but the process has already begun.

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