Tag Archives: Inspiration

Google Yourself

haystack

Can you find the needle? Google can.

This is going to sound a bit like one of those motivational books targeted at business managers, but I was struck by a couple of points in a recent article in Wired magazine on Google’s search algorithm (“How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web“).  It’s got me wondering how I can Google myself: not in the sense of searching for my phone number and website, but in the sense of approaching my work in the way that people at Google have approached theirs.

Many people know the story of Google’s original innovation in web search, namely ranking pages by the number of links to them.  But this article details many tweaks that have been made since the original 1997 version.  These tweaks include weighting links from experts, personalizing results, and universalizing the search across many media including blog and Twitter posts.

In addition to some of interesting linguistic challenges Google is presented with in its search queries (note the differences in meaning in each word in New York, New York Times, and New York Times Square, for example), Google is using the data it gathers in searches to tweak its algorithm and constantly make improvements.  If someone searches for dogs and then searches for puppies, the algorithm learns that these words have a similar meaning.  If these words are found along with leash, fetch, and train on enough pages, the algorithm learns from that association as well.  Even more impressive is that Google is working on making many of these improvements all at the same time without shutting down.  One of Google’s coders likens this to changing “the engines on a plane that is flying at 1,000 kilometers an hour, 30,000 feet above Earth.”

Granted, few of us have the technical expertise or vast resources of a corporation like Google.  But, and this is the business-book-like part I promised, what are we doing in our personal spheres of influence to assess and improve what we are doing?  Is there data we can gather about our students’ experience?  How can we manipulate that data and what might it reveal to us?  How are we acting on the information we find?

I was recently talking to a student about the perception that students’ time is better spent on preparing for standardized tests than classwork.  My explanation that the best way to improve test scores is to do the classwork often falls on deaf ears.  But the good news is, we have the data to determine if that’s true.   If I can pull those numbers together and present them to these students, will I change their minds?  Maybe not, but it’s worth a shot.

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Summer Inspiration: Connectivism

I came across this video a couple of months ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it or recommending it to people.  It makes a very compelling case for using Web 2.0 technologies to allow students to construct their own knowledge.  This would change the role of the teacher from keeper of knowledge to facillitator of learning.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about how these ideas could apply to my grammar classes.  I often teach advanced grammar to ESL students with a wide range of abilities (our students are placed into levels based on aggregate scores, not into each class).  In general, I present new material and then vary their homework activities based on their ability.  But what if there were a better way?

The materials I typically present in class could be put online (with my voiceover explanations, animations to illustrate key points, etc.) and students could watch the presentations at home.  The could then come to class prepared, ask whatever questions they had, and then we could do the “howework activities” in class.  Wouldn’t I, as a teacher, be more helpful to them while they were trying to use what they had learned?

My presentation could become a part of what they used to study a particular grammatical structure.  They could supplement this with other online resources they find (and are probably already using) and share them with the class via online courseware.  So, some students could learn from  stories that include highly contextualized examples of the structure while others could examine charts and tables if that was their preference.  It’s easy to see how this process would enable students to learn in ways that matched their learning styles.

Will it work?  I’ve tried elements of this approach and one of the biggest hurdles seems to be the reaction from students that the teacher isn’t “teaching.”  If we can get past this issue, we might really be able to run with it.

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Interface with the Future

I’ve been thinking about interfaces for a while. Interactive whiteboards (IWBs) probably got be thinking in this direction, and the recent announcement of the motion sensing Project Natal for the Xbox has finally pushed me to write about them.

Note the fine print: actual features and function may vary.

As computers have evolved, so have the interfaces we use to interact with them.  To give you an idea of my own personal timeline, I have no experience programming on punchcards, but I do remember the pre-GUI days.  The mouse has become ubiquitous, but what comes next?  Here are some possible answers:

Interactive Whiteboards: These are pretty heavily documented on this blog and elsewhere.  Here, the user can interact with the display, making the mouse and, to an extent, the keyboard unnecessary.

Slap widgets: Physical tools to be used with IWBs and the like, further blurring the line between the physical and the virtual.  (Watch the video!)

Siftables: An interesting miniaturization of an IWB-type interface with the added bonus that each mini screen can interact with the others.  If each Siftable had a letter or a word, how could they be used to teach English?

MIT’s Sixth Sense: This video went viral a few months ago, but keeps popping up.  Why can’t your computer interface with the physical world?  It soon may.

Wii & Natal: Nintendo has enjoyed blockbuster sales of it’s Wii gaming system which features motion-sensitive controllers.  Now, Microsoft has unveiled the same thing with Natal, but no controllers are needed.

Do it yourself interfaces: In addition to making your own IWB using a Wiimote, other examples include the Beatbearing, in which ball-bearings are used to sequence electronic drum beats, a modified Nintendo Powerglove, which upgrades late 1980s virtual reality technology, and a giant Katamari ball controller, which is a controller designed and built specifically for the game Katamari, in which players roll a ball through an environment which attracts more stuff (litter, park benches, people, their pets, etc.).  The makers of each of these interfaces have posted detailed plans and instructions online so that you can build and modify your own.

Move over visual learners, kinesthetic learners are about to have their day.  And why not?  Why should  simply watch something when we can interact with it in more natural ways?  The next generation of computer interfaces promises to expand our idea of how we relate to computers.

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Spring Inspiration

With the Spring Quarter right around the corner (i.e. tomorrow), I’m thinking about the courses I’ll be teaching in really big picture ways.  I’m reflecting on two videos I’ve seen recently, which I’ve embedded below.

The first is a nicely edited visual summary of how the web, and Web 2.0 applications, are changing how we use language.

The second is similar, but has a much more Edupunk aesthetic and “call to action” vibe.

[blip.tv ?posts_id=965966&dest=-1]

As I plan my courses for the spring (a high-elementary listening / speaking class and a high-intermediate grammar class) I’m asking myself how I can effectively use technology to enhance my students’ learning.

In the L/S class, my list includes a podcast to help students correct errors and a Moodle course to organize links, resources, and discussions.  I’m not sure if they will be ready for much more than that.  I’ll also need to work out a way to administer two simultaneous audio quizzes in a lab because this class is really an elementary / high-elementary split, but that shouldn’t be a major technological hurdle.  I’ve also got a Smartboard this quarter, so I need to think of how to tie that in.

In grammar, I’ll again have a Moodle course which I’ll use for discussion and posting lecture notes on the grammar points we cover.  I’ve been kicking around the idea of inverting what is done in class versus for homework.  Can’t students watch a Slideshare presentation on the grammatical structure at home, then come in and do activities and ask questions in class?  Would they actually watch?  Would this be an improvement over studying out of a book?  How can we make this process less unidirectional?  Makes me wish I had captured my lectures last quarter.

I’m looking forward to teaching something new and taking on some interesting challenges.  Stay tuned.

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Top 5 Subscriptions for Edupunks

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while.  Here are the top 5 magazine subscriptions I recommend for other edupunks:

I've pulled the engine out.  Now what?

I've pulled the engine out. Now what?

  1. Make – Lots of challenging how-tos on a wide variety of topis (optics, music, etc.)
  2. Wired – A comprehensive view of the tech landscape
  3. Car Craft – DIY hot rodding
  4. Family Handyman – Great illustrations of useful home projects
  5. Brew Your Own – Tips for making great brew

So, why did I post this list now?  Probably because I spent the last 2 days in my garage pulling the 320 cubic inch V8 engine out of my 1955 Packard Clipper Deluxe.  I bought the car on eBay a couple of years ago and finally tore into it.  I’ve always considered myself a car guy, but never had a car to wrench on.  To be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing.  But, I believe that one of the best ways to learn is to do.  So, I am.

I enjoy DIY projects in and out of the classroom (interactive whiteboards, clickers, etc.).  And what better way to spend Spring Break than by getting out of my comfort zone and learning something new.  I often ask my students to do this with when they are learning English, and putting myself in their shoes gives me some good insight.  There have been moments over the last couple of days when I held an unidentifiable part in my greasy hands and, despite my ignorance and fear of not being able to put it back, I had to keep pushing ahead on my project.  Can I motivate my students to do the same?

Maybe your list of magazines is different.  But I hope you find what you need to inspire and challenge yourself and your students.

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Edupunks alive and well

An edupunk.

An edupunk.

Came across this image recently on Open Thinking, a blog on my blogroll.  It’s good to see the philosophy of edupunk has continued to grow and prosper since my first blog post on it.

Give me my Macbook and I can teach English to anyone, anywhere and anytime.  Need an interactive whiteboard?  I’ll build one with a Wiimote.  Can’t come to Ohio State?  Maybe we can develop online courses using Web 2.0 technologies that allow us to interact across vast distances.  Need something else in the classroom?  Find it.  Build it.  Do it.

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Graph Jam: PowerPoint gone awry

This website makes me laugh out loud. It’s a collection of user-generated, MS Office-style graphs on completely trivial topics. It’s a little like a site devoted entirely to info graphics from the Onion with shades of The Daily Show and Office Space thrown in. How can you go wrong with that winning combination?

An example graph from GraphJam.

An example graph from GraphJam.

So, how can this be used in an ESL classroom? Well, we’ve all sat through laborious PowerPoint presentations (made by students, administrators, etc.). I think this site can help us to look at the charts and presentations in a new light. I’m curious to know what my ESL students would submit to this site. That might make for a more interesting presentation than, “My countries chief exports are…”.

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