Tag Archives: smart

Google Labs

beaker

If you haven’t visited Google Labs, you should check it out.  This is the experimental, work-in-progress part of Google where users can see what’s next, or at least what the engineers at Google are tinkering with

Some projects that started in Google Labs have graduated to become fully-fledged parts of the Google experience.  These include Google Scholar, Google Docs, Google Maps, and many others.

Other projects have stayed in the Lab, sometimes continuing to develop, other times seeming to arrive at a conclusion that may or may not be further integrated Google-wide.  Some of these are may be interesting for language learners and teachers, though how to use them is not always immediately obvious.  A few of my favorites are below.

set of fruit imagesGoogle Sets

This was the first experiment I ever encountered in Google Labs and I always come back to it.  Enter a list of items in a set, and Google with guess other items in the set.

It’s easy to imagine how this was envisioned as a way to improve the search experience — sometimes searching for synonyms can be more productive than the original search terms — but it almost has the feel of a Scattergories-like party game.  (Can you find a set that Google can’t guess?)

In a way, Google Sets is kind of like thesaurus, but its kind of not.  At the same time, if students can get hooked by it’s game-like nature, it could be a good way to discover new vocabulary.

books arranged by color on shelvesGoogle Ngrams

In its endless pursuit to make it possible to search everything, everywhere, across all time, Google has scanned millions of books and made them searchable.  This is not without some controversy as authors and publishers are concerned that their books are being given away for free online.  Currently, Google only makes passages of copyrighted books available in its search, as opposed to the entire work.

In the meantime, Google has made the entire corpus available and easy to search.  Though not as robust as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Google’s simpler interface may be easier for non-linguists to use and understand.

Students of English can not only compare the frequency of several words and / or phrases, but can also see how the relationships between the search terms have changed over time.  For example, see how ain’t has precipitously fallen out of favor since peaking in the 1940s.  Or, see the how the use of subject pronouns has changed, in part as a result of he no longer being considered the generic.

motorcycle gogglesGoogle Goggles

This one isn’t as language-oriented as the previous two examples, but it is a remarkable glimpse into the future.  Google Goggles are a way of performing a Google search, but instead of typing in search terms, upload a picture from your smartphone.  This can include anything from a book cover to a landmark.

Given the rise in popularity of smartphones, just think of how much language is available to ESL students through these devices.  Walking down the street, a student can snap a picture of something unfamiliar and find links to all kinds of related information.

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Kinect Development

microsoft kinect hardware

Microsoft recently announced plans to release a software development kit (SDK) for the Kinect.  This should allow academics and enthusiasts to find new ways to connect the motion-sensing Xbox hardware to other platforms, such as desktop and laptop computers, much more easily.  In short, there should be many more Kinect hacks to come.

I’m still not sure how this would directly apply to classroom teaching, although it stands to reason that these applications could someday replace physical interactive whiteboards in the same way that Kinect was originally designed to replace physical videogame controllers for the Xbox.

For more, see my previous post on Kinect Hacks and below for some new examples of how Kinect is being used in new and exciting ways.

Control Windows 7

The touchless multitouch is really nice.  Mice are so 2008.

3D Tetris with Face Tracking

As the user moves his head, the perspective on the screen changes to match so that the 3D perspective is constantly updated.

Kinect Lightsaber

A wooden stick becomes a lightsaber in real time.  This would save hours of  frame-by-frame editing.

Balloon Body

After Kinect scans your body, use your scroll wheel to expand or contract the surface.

Christmas Lights

Use Kinect attached to a bunch of dimmers to control Christmas lights for a very nice effect.

Flying Robot

The 3D capability of connect makes it perfect for a robot that navigates three-dimensional space.

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Hacking Kinect

I never really thought much about Microsoft’s Kinect until I saw what hackers were doing with it.  A story in the New York Times outlines how a designer and senior editor at Make magazine posted a $3000 bounty for the first person to post an open-source hack of the Kinect interface.  Huzzah!  In fact, I’m still not that impressed with it — 3D drawings are cool, but will they help me teach English? — but I’m thrilled that hackers big and small are poking around under the hood.

Interestingly, Johnny Chung Lee, who became famous for his TED talk where he described hacking a Wiimote to act like an interactive whiteboard, is involved in the development of Kinect.  Microsoft were so impressed with his skills on the Wii-based IWB and other projects they hired him.  He is reportedly very happy to see hackers taking on Kinect in the way he took on Wii a couple of years ago.  If a hacker can squeeze an interactive whiteboard out of a $40 Wiimote, what will come out of the $150 Kinect system?

Will this technology help us teach ESL and EFL?  It’s not easy to see how, at least not immediately.  But prepare for a giant step forward in how we interface with computers in the next few years.  Interactive whiteboards are just the beginning.  You can always show your students this video and ask them to predict the future (in English).

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Plagiarism To Go

blackberry

We had an interesting case of plagiarism come up recently.  A teacher gave students a writing assignment based on what they had learned from a movie they had watched in class.  After collecting the papers, the teacher noticed that one of them had some interesting phrases that did not sound like they would naturally come from the student who turned in the paper.  So, like many of us do, the teacher typed a couple of sentences into Google and found the web page that contained much of the writing assignment that the student had turned in.  She then followed up with the usual information about “you need to cite sources” and “this is plagiarism”.

What’s so strange about this particular case?  All of this occurred in the classroom during the twenty minutes that the students were given to write.  Clearly, the student must have accessed the internet via a cell phone, searched for some keywords, and written down parts of a passage from a website.

cellphone cheating

Cheating via text is so 2008.

I was a bit stunned that this could happen, but in retrospect I shouldn’t be.  Smart phones are literally putting the Internet into our pockets, so why should students’ habits online be any different whether they are at home or on the go?

All of this technology can obviously be a very good thing when used appropriately.  For example, many students have dictionary apps on their phones which makes a useful resource very accessible.  But occasionally “checking the dictionary” is not just checking the dictionary and it is becoming easier and easier to confuse the two.  This experience served as a good reality check for us.  We are now more keenly aware of how easily students can access these resources and how important it is to teach them how to use them appropriately.

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OutSMARTed

computer with a dunce cap

I just got a letter (dated June 14) from the folks at SMART, makers of SMARTboards, etc.  I’ve included the full text of the letter below, in case the link doesn’t work.  It wasn’t sent to me personally, but rather sent out to licensed users of their products.

As I have mentioned before, I really like SMART hardware, but SMARTboards are expensive and not very portable.  I’ve also documented a $50 DIY alternative, based on the Nintendo Wii controller, which has fewer features but can fit in a large pocket.  The SMART software is also very good, but there are several alternatives and workarounds that can accomplish many of the same things.

This puts SMART in a difficult position.  They have been selling their hardware and giving away their software for “free”.  (It’s free the way a drink is free at Taco Bell if you buy a taco.)  Unfortunately for SMART, edupunks who have access to an LCD projector can build the equivalent hardware for $50.  I’ve been told from other people who have built their own interactive whiteboards that the best possible combination is the “free” SMART software on the more portable DIY hardware, which works with any LCD projector.  So, now SMART is trying to clarify that their software is only “free” if you buy or use their hardware.

This seems like a losing battle for SMART.  The RIAA’s approach to penalize consumers who copied music did not make sense but offering reasonably priced songs on sites like iTunes did.  Hollywood was heading the same direction by threatening uploaders of copyrighted material until a compromise was reached that gives the copyright holder a share of revenue generated by ads next to their videos.  Now that is smart.

What is the solution for SMART?  Well, they could start by being clearer about the price of software — it isn’t free.  They could also be clearer about how to purchase SMART software to use on other hardware (so called “Restricted Products,” below).  They seem to be doing this in this letter, but is that it?  I understand SMART’s desire to protect the products they have developed, but treating customers and users of SMART products as scofflaws does not engender much good will.

Our college just got a SMARTboard and two other interactive whiteboards made by SMART’s competitors and put them in the same room so that they can be evaluated head-to-head-to-head.  I’ve suggested setting up a $50 Wii-based version as well.  May the best interactive whiteboard win.

June 14, 2010

To all SMART customers:

SMART Technologies has been investing in SMART Notebook™ collaborative learning software for 15 years. We update and improve our software regularly based on feedback from our users, and we are currently developing version 11. Soon we will release a service pack for version 10 that will be accompanied by a revised licensing agreement, which addresses in more detail the permitted use of SMART Notebook software.

It has come to our attention that misleading or incorrect information about the use of SMART Notebook software is being provided. In advance of the software update, we are writing to confirm the permitted use of SMART Notebook software to help you make informed choices.

When you purchase any of the following eligible “Licensed Product,”
· SMART Board™ interactive whiteboard
· SMART Board interactive display
· SMART Response™ interactive response system
· SMART Podium™ interactive pen display
· SMART Document Camera

a SMART Notebook license is included with the product and you are permitted to use the software on any computer connected to these Licensed Products. SMART Notebook software may also be used on a reasonable number of computers associated with your district or school that are not connected to a pen or touch-enabled devices. This permits teachers to use the software at home to create lessons for use on their Licensed Products in the classroom.

The license agreement does not, however, normally permit the use of SMART Notebook software when a computer is connected to a restricted pen- or touch-enabled device (“Restricted Product”). Restricted Products include, but are not limited to, any touch-enabled or pen-enabled devices that are not on the Licensed Products list above, including the following:
· Interactive whiteboards
· Interactive projector systems
· Display screens
· Screen digitizing devices or slates

To provide options for our customers and enable access to .notebook files by anyone, anywhere, on any device, including Restricted Products, we offer the SMART Notebook Express™ web application, found at express.smarttech.com.

If you have any questions regarding or wish to inquire about use of SMART Notebook software with Restricted Products, please contact SMART at 1.866.518.6791 and follow the voice prompt to press 7 for SMART Notebook license. You can also send us an e-mail at info@smarttech.com with “SMART Notebook license” in the subject line.

Yours truly,
Patric Nagel
Vice President, Sales – Americas

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Augmented Reality Games

augmented reality on iphone

Virtually like the real world.

I’ve been thinking about digital games for language learning quite a bit lately and a number of questions have come up, the biggest of which is:  Why are so many educational games so lame?  I love the idea of learning through play, but many educational games fail to move past drill-and-kill exercises.  When you compare this to commercially available immersive games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto, there is a remarkable gap.

For a while, I thought Second Life held some potential because that virtual environment could be designed and built specifically for a given topic.  But building in Second Life (at least to me) proved to be extremely time-intensive and I didn’t feel like the results were worth the energy I had to invest.

The notion of augmented reality has also been floating around in my subconscious for a while, but it never really stuck; it’s really cool, but how could I work with it?  All of these things coalesced for me today after sitting through a couple of presentations at CALICO.

Julie Sykes, who developed an immersive gaming environment focused on Spanish pragmatics called Croquelandia, has been working on a mobile place-based murder / mystery game for learning Spanish in an historic  neighborhood near the University of New Mexico campus.  The iPod / iPhone-based game, called Mentira, is built on the ARIS platform, which makes it very easy to cut and paste text and other media files into a branching story line to create the game.  To progress through the story, students have to input clues from the real environment (the street address of the old church, for example) to unlock parts of the story.  (An alternative would be to use GPS to unlock the story when students actually visited the location, but this would require iPhones and exclude iPod Touches.)

I was most amazed by the forehead-slappingly simple concept that we don’t need to create a virtual world for students to interact with because there is a pretty robust world right outside the classroom for them to interact with.  And finding a target language-rich environment is even easier if the target language is English (at least for me).

It’s soon to be a cliche (if it isn’t already) but being able to take a computer into the real world so easily is going to be a game changer.  Think of botany students looking up plants on their smartphones.  It’s been said that there are no more arguments about baseball statistics in sportsbars because it’s too easy to get the answers to that information.  Information is literally at our finger tips.  But I digress.

The user experience within a place-based game like Mentira, if well designed, can compete with big commercial games because it can be specifically tailored right down to the details of a given neighborhood.  Instead of taking time to create dazzling multi-media experiences, educators can really focus on the content.  And, being text-based, lowers the barrier even further.  Julie reported that her students were eager to contribute to the story and some had plans to use ARIS to create their own games.  Enabling students to become game-producers, not just players — in their target language — is astounding to me.

I’m not sure that a game that sends students into the real world will be able to lower their affective filters or allow them to have multiple repeat experiences if they want to practice in the same way as a relatively low-risk virtual environment might.  But a game could be designed to be played several times with different outcomes.  There is also a potential risk in sending students out into the world, depending on where they are sent (clearly this is not the time to recreate Grand Theft Auto) but the risk could certainly be minimized.  It’s also important to respect the real residents of the real world into which students are sent.  Having them congregate on someone’s front lawn to solve a mystery likely would not be appreciated.  Julie reported that some residents were eager to talk about their neighborhood with her students and even seemed flattered that their neighborhood was chosen.  This is the ideal to strive for.

Unfortunately, ARIS just updated it’s app and as of today there are only four ARIS games available.  Several others, including Mentira were built on a previous version which means it will take some work to get the game moved onto the new platform.  I will update this post if / when it becomes available.  In the meantime, we have to make due with this trailer which can be downloaded from the ARIS Games website.  The trailer serves as the introduction to the game and does a nice job setting the tone for the game.  Unfortunately, it just makes me want to play the game even more.

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Projects: Update

A quick update on projects I have been and am working on:

Not actually my desk, but you get the idea.  Lots to do!

Not actually my desk, but you get the idea. Lots to do!

1. ESL Sandbox – coming up – I had been kicking around this idea (basically, word blocks that can be dragged around the screen to form a variety of sentences), but I have decided to try to pull it together.  After talking with some of the ICALLers at CALICO, I think I can come up with a flash-based version that would perform some basic, binary analysis of word blocks as they are dragged together.  If the words can be paired in that order, they will “stick.”  If not, they won’t.  Sentence level analysis might be too much to ask, but will word pairs be enough to analyze?  Once it’s built, we’ll try it and see.

2. Twitter and Personal Learning Environments – coming up – I was recently introduced to Twitter but really became a fan during CALICO.  It was used as another layer of discussion (a backchannel) that really added to the conference experience for me.  I also learned a lot about Personal Learning Environments and other ways to apply Web 2.0 technologies in educationally useful ways.  I intend to explore these further, particularly in the context of exploring offering online classes.

3. Interactive Whiteboards – ongoing – Since building my first $50 Wiimote-based interactive whiteboard, this project has been very well received.  I’m still hoping to get another grant to put more of them in more teachers’ hands.  (If you’re in Ohio, and interested, make sure you contact me.)  In the meantime, I received a Smartboard to use Spring Quarter.  It will be interesting to see how they compare.  I talked to some people at CALICO who had used both and preferred combining the Wiimote hardware and Smart software.  The Wiimote hardware is much more portable and is easier to use with permanently mounted projectors, which are in most of the classrooms I use.  Look for more updates on how this shakes out in the spring.

4. Second Life – done – I taught an elective class in Second Life last fall.  There were about six students who stayed with the course for its four-week duration.  Overall, they enjoyed the experience but it was more of a novelty than something that could really be used regularly in the classroom.  The student in my class were obviously technophiles who took to the movements (walking, flying, etc.) very naturally.  Building was a frustrating experience because of both the precision required and difficulty with collaborating (if two people accidentally take ownership of something by editing it, neither can move it again.)  We also had trouble finding reliably friendly places to meet new people to talk with.  Second Life search feels a little like pre-Google Yahoo searching — finding something you know is easy, but finding something new is difficult.  Until these issues are resolved, I probably won’t take students there again.

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