Tag Archives: Ed Tech

Sticky Notes and Small Groups: Digital Work in the Classroom

Via ProfHackerProfHacker – Blogs – The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://ift.tt/2gdcvqe


I’m one of those humanities professors who is increasingly introducing technology-intensive assignments and activities into what would otherwise be more conventional, analog courses on writing and literature. And if you teach a large or largish class that involves in-class, hands-on work with digital tools, you would do well to come up with teaching strategies appropriate for that particular situation.

I recently stumbled across a very useful post from Miriam Posner about this very topic: “A better way to teach technical skills to a group.” Posner describes an all-too-common scenario for workshops that involve introducing participants to new and unfamiliar technologies:

The instructor issues directions while students try to keep up at each step. Some students accomplish each step quickly, but some students take a little longer to find the right menu item or remember where they’ve saved a file. No matter how often you tell students to please interrupt or raise a hand if they need help, most students won’t do this. They don’t want to slow everyone else down with what they’re sure is a stupid question. Eventually, these students stop trying to follow along, and the workshop becomes, in their minds, further evidence that they’re not cut out for this.

Posner writes that after trying a variety of possible solutions to this problem, she finally decided to take advantage of the “detailed, illustrated tutorials” she was already creating anyway and have her students go through the tutorials together in small groups. In this way, she writes, students can pace themselves without worrying about how far along the rest of the class is, and they can quietly ask questions of the others in their small group instead of raising their hands in front of the entire class.

But wait! There’s more!

The final missing piece was Post-It notes, a strategy I borrowed from Deb Verhoeven. (Thanks, Deb!) Every student starts with a green Post-It note on her laptop. That means everything’s OK. Run into a problem that they need me for? Swap it out for red. Finished? Swap it out for white.

I haven’t had a chance yet to give this technique a try, but I plan to experiment with it in future courses.

What are your favorite in-cass teaching strategies for introducing students to unfamiliar digital activities? Please share in the comments.

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by Karen Chappell]

Schooling the Platform Society – DML Central

Ideas about platform society and platform capitalism raise significant issues for education, and for schools specifically. As platform companies are increasingly penetrating into the education system, they are seeking to fundamentally reorganize education institutions and practices of teaching and learning according to the in-built mechanisms and architectures of the platforms themselves. We are used to thinking of schools as built architectures. In a platform society, schooling looks set to take place within technical architectures too, but the consequences of this reconfiguration of schools have yet to be studied or understood.

Source: Schooling the Platform Society – DML Central

Rethinking the Discourses of Higher Education Innovation

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Blog: 

Anyone who reads the vast, rapidly expanding literature on innovation in higher education will be struck by the pervasiveness of certain discourses and tropes.  Three stand out.

The Discourse of Crisis
This gloom and doom viewpoint regards the current system of higher education as broken and warns that many existing institutions are at risk due to escalating costs that have resulted from administrative bloat, country club amenities, easy access to government-funded financial aid, and a single-minded focus on institutional prestige, as well as declining per student funding by state legislatures and stagnating federal research expenditures.

The Discourse of Disruption
This is the Clayton Christiansen-inspired perspective that higher education is ripe for radical transformation, as traditional colleges and universities, for the first time, face serious competition not just from for-profits, which are under siege, but from rapidly expanding dual degree programs, low-cost online programs (like Arizona State’s Global Freshman Academy), and Alt-Ed providers like General Assembly that are gradually displacing existing Master’s programs. In Christiansen’s view, acceptable but lower-cost models – even those that offer inferior quality – gradually acquire a growing market share, undermining incumbent institutions.

The Discourse of Techno-Transformation
This is the techo booster claim that a revolution in technology – especially the rise of personalized, adaptive courseware — will radically transform education, offering better ways to deliver learning at lower cost with no diminution in quality.

The proponents of innovation are certainly right on one point:  Higher education faces challenges that are real and inescapable.  These include:

  • A cost challenge – that middle-income families, in particular, are finding it more difficult to pay for college;
  • A completion challenge – that too many students fail to graduate and many of those who do take too long;
  • A student engagement challenge – that too much time dedicated to work or extracurricular activities has reduced time devoted to study;
  • An equity challenge – that funding for broad-access institutions, which serve the country’s most needy students, is substantially lower than at more selective institutions.
  • A business model challenge – as a result of declining per student public support, rising costs, and the erosion of the cross-subsidies that helped fund smaller upper division courses.   

But many of the points that the critics make are certainly overblown.  As Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman have persuasively shown, higher education’s financial challenges are rooted not in wasteful spending on prestige competition, luxury amenities, or bloated staffing, but in factors not susceptible to easy fixes, such as the costs of expert faculty, advanced technology, financial aid, and expanded student support services.

Even as institutions have sought to trim administrative expenses, improve financial management, and make procurement more efficient, costs inexorably rise.  This is due, largely to the increasing costs of plant maintenance and operations, health and retirement benefits, technology, and especially the non-faculty professionals who provide student services (including disabilities services, psychological services, career services, and advising) and who monitor compliance with various governmental mandates.

In addition, there is a sharp increase in spending on the research, grants, and contracting infrastructure, as institutions seek new sources of revenue from contract research, patents, grants, philanthropy, investment income, and auxiliary services.

In fact, many of the steps that hold out the greatest promise for improving graduation rates and time-to-degree will further increase costs, at least in the short run.  These include instituting:

  • Exploratory majors or meta majors to allow students to test their aptitude in certain broad fields of study without wasting credit hours.
  • e-Advising systems to help students select courses and majors, plan their schedule, and monitor their progress.
  • An enhanced data infrastructure to allow administrators to check, in near real time, on course availability and scheduling, curricular bottlenecks, courses with high failure rates, instructor variance in grading, and student profiles at risk of failure.
  • Expanding course availability through accelerated vacation courses, increased online options, and alternate approaches to course delivery, such as emporium models.
  • Financial incentives for timely graduation.
  • Block scheduling options for first year or working students.
  • Coaching models that provide students with a single points of contact for academic and non-academic support.
  • Care coordinators to help students navigate difficult transitions, such as transferring credits from other institutions or shifting majors.

What, then, can be done to address the innovation challenges and cost pressures that institutions face?

One proposed solution is a differentiated system of higher education, with distinct student profiles receiving an education better tailored to their needs, life circumstances, and aspirations.  In many respects, this trend is already taking place.  Better funded, more selective institutions are devoting more resources to experiential-, project-, and challenge-based learning, while less well-funded, broader access institutions, in particular, expend funds on remediation, competency-based models, and online instruction. The danger, of course, is a higher educational system that is even more stratified than it is today.

Another proposed solution: Increased funding for institutions that serve larger number of low-income students.  Government might provide financial incentives for those institutions that enroll and graduate large numbers of Pell Grant recipients, much as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary School Act provides funding to local school districts to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students.

A third approach, which might be particularly well-suited for broad-access institutions, is to devise more optimized, coherent curricula, with a greater emphasis on skills development (including a greater emphasis on writing skills and numeracy) and better alignment with workforce needs.  Such a learning model might also incorporate a more modular curriculum, making it easier for students to receive credit for prior learning, accelerating time to degree.

A fourth option focuses on better serving untapped markets.  In recent years, many institutions, in a bid to increase revenue, have aggressively pursued out-of-state and international students and have rapidly expanded master’s degree offerings.  But other potential markets remain largely underserved: These include adults with some college but no degree, working professionals who need want to enhance their skills or retool, and those who seek professional certifications but not a degree.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Free Technology for Teachers: 5 Common Classroom Blog Mistakes

 

http://www.freetech4teachers.com/2016/09/5-common-classroom-blog-mistakes.html#.V974-jtmn_Q

5 Common Classroom Blog Mistakes


A classroom blog can be a powerful tool for improving communication with parents, for building a sense of community amongst your students, and for creating a record of what you and your students have learned throughout a school year. But you can only reap these benefits of classroom blogs if you maintain the blog and avoid some of the most common mistakes made in classroom blogging.

1. Making it optional:
If you make it optional for students and parents to visit the classroom blog, they’ll generally opt not to view it.

2. Inconsistency:
It is better to post once a week on the same day than it is to post three posts in one week and two the next and four the following week.

3. Lack of purpose:
I often hear people say, “I don’t know what we should blog about.” Without a defined purpose for a blog it is hard to come with ideas for individual blog posts. If you identify a purpose, “weekly reflections on learning” is a good purpose, you will find it easier to come up with topics for individual blog posts.

4. Not publicizing your blog:
You might be thinking, “but my blog is public, isn’t that enough?” In the old days of blogging, it probably was enough to just make your blog public. People weren’t distracted by social media networks on their phones and in their web browsers. Today, you need to remind people that your blog exists. Schedule your blog posts to be automatically Tweeted, shared on Facebook, and sent in email.
5. Leaving out the visuals:
Apply the old adage of, “a picture tells a thousand words” to your blog posts. Putting an image or two into every blog post helps to draw readers into your posts. If you don’t have a picture that exactly matches your blog post’s topic, create one in service like Canva.

I’ll be covering these topics and many more in my upcoming webinar series Blogs & Social Media for Teachers and School Leaders.

The technology of higher education

For nearly 30 years, pundits have predicted that education technology would disrupt higher education. Online courses will reduce costs and create unprecedented access to higher education, so the argument goes. Likewise, adaptive learning will improve — or replace — the art of teaching as the right digital content is delivered at the right time to each individual learner.

It’s looking increasingly like none of these are the game-changers we expected. While online learning is commonplace, higher education remains firmly in the crosshairs of critics targeting high tuition, student debt, poor completion rates and unemployed and underemployed graduates — demonstrating a growing skills gap.

But all is not lost. It may be that technology’s transformation of higher education lies not in the transformation of teaching and learning, but the advent of a new digital language that connects higher education and the labor market and, in so doing, exerts profound changes on both.

The historic disconnect between higher education and the needs of the labor market is a data problem. In the past, data translating the discrete skills or competencies that employers need was not easily available or meaningful to faculty who create courses, or the students who take them.

Meanwhile, hiring managers have consistently relied on signals supported by anecdotal evidence, at best — for example, assuming that philosophy majors from Brown made terrific analysts, or that teachers with master’s degrees performed better in the classroom.

Today, technology is changing the relationship between education and the workforce in four distinct ways.

First, competency data is becoming increasingly available. Online psychometric assessments, e-portfolios and micro-credentials are surfacing student competencies beneath the level of the terminal credential (i.e. degree). In addition, many colleges and universities are in the process of migrating to competency-based models, which will allow for the output of transcripts that better describe the competencies of graduates.

No longer will students fork over $200,000 in tuition for a standard four-year bundle.

Second, there is a clear path for employers to interact with this new data. Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are incorporating analytics and will soon begin gathering new competency data as inputs for assembling candidate pools for human hiring managers to evaluate. As such, ATS is transitioning from a backwater of HR technology to Application Information Systems that will radically reduce the preponderance of false positives and false negatives in candidate pools, thereby significantly reducing bad hires that cost employers about $15,000 each, on average.

Third, this data is being extracted and parsed into competency statements by algorithms originally developed for purposes other than human capital development (i.e. search, e-commerce). On the other side, the same algorithms are extracting and parsing competency statements from job descriptions, then matching the two.

Of course, regardless of the caliber of student competency data, matching students with jobs only works if employers’ job descriptions accurately capture and describe key competencies. So the fourth major development is the advent of “People Analytics” technologies, allowing employers to track employee performance with a feedback loop to job descriptions. The result is that job descriptions continuously improve, moving from vague and data-poor to precise, data-rich renderings of the profiles of top performers.

Together, these four technological developments will close the gap between higher education and the labor market and usher in a new era in human capital.  The resulting “competency marketplaces” will help students understand the jobs and careers that they’re most likely to match and help employers identify students who are on track, or on a trajectory to match in the future.

Competency marketplaces will inform students’ direction through postsecondary education by providing a human capital GPS to help them select which credentials, courses, assessments, projects or virtual internships move them most efficiently and effectively toward target professions or employers.

The core of the competency marketplace is the candidate or student profile. Your profile will include your resume and transcript, along with badges, projects, the results of standardized tests taken over the course of your life (SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT) or new industry- or employer-specific micro-assessments. Students with more comprehensive profiles (i.e. more competency data) will be given preference by employers via the ATS. Colleges and universities that fail to recognize this may find that their students are at a relative disadvantage in the labor market and, over time, may face enrollment pressure.

The market for competencies will ultimately put unprecedented pressure on colleges and universities to unbundle the degree. As employers move to competency-based hiring, many will determine that degrees are not a priority — or even required for certain jobs. Over the next few years, degrees will become MIA in many job descriptions.

Unbundling doesn’t mean liberal arts will disappear. It may be that liberal arts courses provide high-value competencies that predict career success across many professions. But it does mean that revenue per student will decline, and that colleges and universities will need to work a lot harder and be a lot more creative to capture the lifetime value of student-consumers. No longer will students fork over $200,000 in tuition for a standard four-year bundle. Postsecondary education will become increasingly affordable. Completion rates will rise. Placement will improve.  This is how technology will ultimately disrupt higher education.

While this seems like the stuff of science fiction, it is not far off. Millions of new job descriptions are posted online every month. Colleges and universities are issuing millions of micro-credentials, millions of students are posting work in e-portfolios. Thousands of employers use Applicant Tracking Systems that are transitioning to Applicant Information Systems.

As the new language of competencies disrupts higher education, we will need to be vigilant to protect the central role that our colleges and universities play in civil society and economic development. At the same time, colleges and universities must take no comfort in the fact that prior predictions of technological disruption have proven false. This time really is different.

Featured Image: Andrea Danti/Shutterstock

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3D Printing in the Classroom: Outcomes and Reflections on a Slavic Course Experiment (1/2) | Scholars’ Lab

Cross-posted on my personal blog. In a previous post, UVA’s Slavic Librarian, Kathleen Thompson, and Slavic Lecturer, Jill Martiniuk, outlined the early

Source: 3D Printing in the Classroom: Outcomes and Reflections on a Slavic Course Experiment (1/2) | Scholars’ Lab

Let’s Ban The Classroom Technology Ban.

THIS JUST IN: Distracted students are distracted! Also: sometimes there are things that distract students! And we all know what to do with things that might potentially distract students: BAN THEM! At least that’s what we’re told by the avatars of pedagogical wisdom populating the comment threads below any article talking about students’ use of technology in the classroom.

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The most recent example of this silliness came a few days ago, when Inside Higher Ed published a study on students and tablets in the classroom, with a headline that was remarkable in the scope of its overstatement: “Allowing devices in the classroom hurts academic performance, study finds.” And that was all the ban-’em-and-show-’em-how-rigorous-we-are crowd needed. The comments below the article were immediately flooded with smug, self-righteous stories of how a faculty member imposed a unilateral ban on technology and all of his or her students immediately did SO MUCH BETTER. But the sheer amount of raw, uncut, anecdotal and cherry-picked data in the “discussion” was apropos for an article that exhibited the same traits. If you read the details of the study, however, the grandiose claims of the neo-luddites collapse under the weight of its shortcomings. The study was conducted with only three course sections (less than 800 students) at West Point, notable for its atypical (to say the least) student population. The study only pertained to tablets (which the USMA provides to each of its students), and did not look at cell phone use. The claim that the students who didn’t use tablets performed better academically is based upon exam scores, which were only one-third of a standard deviation higher for the non-tablet crowd than the others. Some might see this as a large difference; I do not, and I doubt a majority of statisticians would either. But hey–why let the fact that this was a superficial study conducted with a small sample size of atypical students examining only one type of technology deter you from claiming that all technology in the classroom is bad? This is what people in the psych business call “confirmation bias,” I believe.

More seriously, though, two fatal flaws undermine the study, and the legions like it that purport to show that students plus technology equals inferior academic performance. First, There’s no mention of pedagogy at all. We learn that there were three sections of an economics course, consisting of nearly 800 students. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they were taught in the large-lecture format. We know that lecture is one of the most ineffective ways to teach, and that student learning increases significantly when it is eschewed in favor of a pedagogy that embraces active learning (see the classic meta-study here). Yet we’re being asked to believe that hundreds of students packed into a lecture hall and subjected to demonstrably ineffective teaching methods aren’t learning because of their device use. That’s a design flaw characteristic of the entire genre of classroom-tech studies. They don’t even acknowledge, much less control for, pedagogy. It’s like seeing a story about someone hit by a car on the way to the farmers’ market and concluding that fresh produce will kill you.

The second flaw is a conflation of learning with quantitative measures of performance. Maybe higher scores on an economics exam signal a deeper learning of course content, but it’s more likely they reflect students’ temporary retention of specific content. We don’t know if actual learning-the ability to retain material over the long term, to apply it to new situations, to make connections with other fields-has taken place. And the superficial assessments-TEST SCORES! GRADE POINT AVERAGES!-we encounter in these types of studies can only hint at whether or not learning is taking place. And that’s not good enough to support the larger implications we’re being told emerge from them.

The problem with both the West Point study and the sweeping bans on technology use it either inspired or affirmed is a refusal to acknowledge that there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to student learning. In fact, I’m skeptical that there are any independent variables in the process at all. If students in a large lecture course with no laptop or device policies are doing poorly, is it because they’re on Facebook or because they’re in a cavernous auditorium with several hundred other captives, being talked at by someone who’s likely had no formal pedagogical training whatsoever? More than one thing can be true, certainly, but I’m more interested in the factors that would lead to a student checking their fantasy team’s lineup rather than listening to the instructor. Addressing those factors, I suspect, would be more effective than yelling at someone for having their laptop open.

I’ve written on this before, but it I find myself repeating it often: unilateral bans on technology in the classroom accomplish nothing but demonstrating an off-putting rigidity and an adversarial view of students. They are far from guaranteed to improve learning. Moreover, they ignore the needs of disabled students and faculty for whom devices are the sine qua non of their academic routines.  If you’re the grumpy faculty member who kvetches about students not being taught penmanship in primary school, and who makes their classes take notes by hand to build character or whatever, take a step back and think about what you’re actually saying to your students: that some are inherently deficient, that they will fall short, and that your way is the only possible way to learn. It may make you feel better-Old school! Rigor! You need me on that wall!-but it’s shitty teaching.

I suspect that reason so many are quick to embrace the sweeping conclusions of the technology-as-distraction arguments is that they speak to negative personal experience. It’s hard to be delivering a lecture or conducting an activity that you put a lot of effort into creating, only to see a student checking their phone. It feels personal. It’s frustrating when students aren’t retaining content, no matter how many times you’ve circled back to it in class. It sucks when discussions go nowhere. But there is probably more than one reason for these things happening. But if two-thirds of the class is doing non-class related stuff on a laptop or cell phone, why is that happening? Are they incorrigible internet addicts, or is it a pedagogical issue? If they’re not getting to where you want them to be, is it Twitter’s fault? Or is it the side effect of a lecture-based, passive pedagogy that doesn’t engage anyone?

I would submit that the answer to the distracted student question is never a unilateral ban on technology in the classroom. Let’s be real: it’s not as if students paid rapt attention to everything faculty said until the smart phone was invented. I was an undergrad in the dark times before the internet, and my class notes have a staggeringly-high ratio of doodles to course content. No technology was there to help lead me astray, but I did a good job of it nonetheless.  Of course, there are situations where you’ll want your students to not use devices. But there will also be occasions where you’ll want to encourage their use (quick polling, checking something online). That’s the whole point–there are no hard and fast rules, nor should there be. Good pedagogy is, above all, flexible. And, rather than an end unto itself, technology is a tool that can support good pedagogy if it’s used appropriately.

The way in which so many have taken advantage of any suggestion-no matter how dubious-that technology should be banned from the classroom underscores the glaring lack of nuance that’s accompanied the conversation. We should be wary of universal diktats and blanket prescriptions when it comes to pedagogy. Student learning is both promoted and hindered by a number of factors-some embedded and structural, some fleetingly temporary. If I was building a house, and hit my thumb with a hammer, banning hammers from the job site would not be a useful response. The same holds true for the web-surfing student in our classroom. Rather than banning the tool because of an instance where someone used it improperly, we should work to prevent the processes which led to that instance. Our students need to be our allies, not our adversaries, if genuine learning is to occur. Students cannot experience the transformative effects that higher education can and should inculcate if we refuse to treat them as responsible agents who are the co-architects of their learning. We cannot fall into the traps of conflating correlation and causation, or assuming students will behave poorly unless explicitly forced to do otherwise. If we approach teaching as an assertion of power, an imposition of our will, then we fail our students. Only if we invite our students to actively participate in the collective scholarly enterprise that is their collegiate education will we succeed.

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EDIT: I’ve been made aware that the West Point study involves sections that actually have small class sizes, usually around 18, with the course assessment is standardized across sections. But there wasn’t a discussion of the pedagogy employed by instructors, so I remain committed to my concerns regarding the number of variables potentially involved in the results. (Thanks to Michael Anes for the clarifications.)

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Teaching While Learning: What I Learned When I Asked My Students to Make Video Essays

[This is a guest post by Janine Utell, who is a Professor of English at Widener University in Pennsylvania. She teaches composition and 19th and 20th century British literature; she has also facilitated a number of on- and off-campus workshops on writing, critical thinking, and general education. Previously at ProfHacker, she’s written on "Practical Wisdom and Professional Life", "How to Study Your Own Teaching (And Why You Might Want To)," "Visualizing Your Promotion Portfolio with Cmap," and "Slowing Down: 6 Strategies for Deep Listening." You can follow Janine on Twitter: @janineutell.]

This is not exactly a post about how to teach the video essay (or the audiovisual essay, or the essay video, or the scholarly video).  At the end I share some resources for those interested in teaching the form: the different ways we might define the form, some of the theoretical/conceptual ideas undergirding the form, how it allows us to make different kinds of arguments, and some elements of design, assignment and otherwise.

What I’m interested in here is reflecting on what this particular teaching moment has taught me.  It’s a moment still in progress/process.  These reflections might pertain to any teaching moment where you’re trying something new, where you’re learning as the students are learning, where everyone in the room is slightly uncomfortable (in a good, stretching kind of way), where failure is possible but totally okay, and where you’re able to bring in a new interest of your own and share it with the students.

The Context

I first tried asking students to make video essays with the purpose of film analysis.  This was an introductory narrative film course, and I designed an assignment inspired by the work on cinematic form, technique, and vocabulary done by Tony Zhou in his series Every Frame a Painting.  (By “designed an assignment” what I mean is:  showing them “What is Bayhem?” after a screening of Armageddon and saying, “Go do that.”)  I wanted the students to practice that kind of close analysis of form and technique, and video seemed the best medium for that.  My instructions were the equivalent of leaving them out in the wilderness to fend for themselves:  part of their job was to figure out how to problem-solve the technical aspects as well as the claim-making and analysis.  Meanwhile, I was drawing on my incredibly limited knowledge of video production and learning alongside them.

What I Learned

The students in this intro course embraced the challenge of the video essay.  We studied the text of film reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis to figure out the rhetorical strategies at work, and how these might differ from the moves made in a video essay.  They got that there is a certain power in being able to make choices related to medium and argument: that they do in fact have the power to make choices, period, when it comes to what they want to say and how they want to say it.  They shared troubleshooting and tips in class, and taught themselves how to use iMovie.

One of the things I was very transparent about at the start was that this was an experiment:  I’d never done it before, I didn’t really know what I was doing, we would be learning together, and I desperately needed their feedback so I could try again.  In this way, we shared the teaching and learning, and I took on the role of project manager as we problem-solved together.  At the end, they had a number of useful suggestions that I implemented the next time around.  These included providing clear and detailed technical guidelines; requiring more detailed proposals, including storyboards and outlines; and more time to do the work.

Teaching Ourselves

Take two:  I tried this again in an upper-level narrative film course, and the suggestions made by students in the previous semester paid off.  With the additional guidance, students felt comfortable enough being challenged with the task of making the video; a number of them shared that they liked having the opportunity to learn a new skill, and that it was stimulating to have to think about new ways of making choices around what they wanted to say.  Every step of realizing their storyboard and outline required some problem-solving, and they were able to articulate the work of critical thinking in surprising ways (I think they themselves were a little surprised, too).

In the meantime, I was thinking more about the form, and thinking more about the role of the visual in making arguments and performing analysis.  The work of Nick Sousanis has been instrumental in facilitating some of my mind-changing on how we can use visualization to further claims and analysis; a short talk he gave at MLA 2015 as part of a roundtable on comics pedagogy, in which he suggested that the visual is a habit of mind and a way of thinking, encouraged me to expand my understanding of what the video essay can do.  Deeper investigations of the form, such as the scholarship published in the Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, a MediaCommons project, is teaching me the potential of the scholarly video not only for my students but for my own work.

Next Steps

So I’m trying the video essay—the scholarly video—for a third time:  in my 100-level survey of British literature.  This time, I’m thinking less about teaching ourselves the skills needed to produce a video, or grappling with and guiding students through the multiple possible activations of rhetorical agency and how these might differ from a written artifact.  I’m back to thinking about form, and the form of the video essay as a means of scholarly communication.  I’d like for this version of the assignment to prompt students towards critical and creative thinking about William Wordsworth and W. H. Auden, Katherine Mansfield and Zadie Smith.  I’d like them to use the visual to see the texts in new ways, and be challenged in how to make new kinds of arguments.

In a recent edition of the newsletter Faculty Focus, Linda Shadiow and Maryellen Weimer talk about crafting a “teaching persona” that makes visible one’s enthusiasm for continued learning in the discipline, one’s persistence in trying new things, and one’s willingness to not know.  This means embarking on a journey from not knowing to knowledge and application with students, making our not-knowing the center of a course, rather than training all energy and attention on our knowing.  It means not displaying our learning—our learnedness—but our learning—our process towards new thinking, new content, new skills.

The experience of working with my students on these video assignments helped me put this persona-making into practice, and make that version of myself more visible, more available.  It helped me think about teaching skills and content, theory and application, in some new ways.  And it opened me up to learning about developments in a field which is not really my home but which I find exciting and which is giving me new tools as a critic, teacher, and scholar.

Some resources on the video essay/scholarly video:

What kinds of teaching experiences have you had that have prompted similar reflections on your own learning and who you’d like to be as a teacher?

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by Jakob Montrasio]

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A Better Way to Read

It’s rare to think about it, but moving your eyes back and forth over lines of text is one of the most commonly performed bodily motions.

When reading, your eyes go from word to word, left to right, one after another. When you hit the end of the line, your eyes make what’s called a return sweep. They go back to the left, to the beginning of the next line. During that sweep, we get a little time to process information. (Are you thinking about it now?)

That sweep is also where many of us mess up. We lose time. Most people don’t go all the way back to the first word, for example. We tend to land on the second or third word in a line, and then make another backwards movement to get to that first word. That’s inefficient.

Like any physical movement, they’re a matter of practice and coordination. The mechanics of getting text into one’s brain require skill apart from that involved in processing the meaning in that text. As with something like swimming or skateboarding, it’s a skill where most people can become proficient, but everyone’s capacity for speed and precision is not equal.

But there are ways to enhance our abilities.

To illustrate this, try reading this passage (from Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers):

Then try reading it like this:

The colors in this text are rendered in a precise and strategic way, designed to help people read quickly and accurately.

The most important feature is that each line begins with a different color than the line above or below. As Matthew Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explained it to me, the color gradients also pull our eyes long from one character to the next—and then from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, minimizing any chance of skipping lines or making anything less than an optimally efficient word-to-word or line-to-line transition.

Improving the ease and accuracy of the return sweep is a promising idea for readers of all skill levels. And yet it’s one that’s gone largely ignored in the milieu of media technologies. Today many of us read primarily on screens–and we have for years–yet most platforms have focused on using technology to attempt to recreate text as it appears in books (or in newspapers or magazines), instead of trying to create an optimal reading experience.

The format—black text on white lines of 12 to 15 words of equal size—is a relic of the way that books were most easily printed on early printing presses. It persists today out of tradition, not because of some innate tendency of the human brain to process information in this way.

Meanwhile, people who aren’t especially skilled at intake of text in the traditional format are systematically penalized. People who don’t read well in this one particular way tend to fall behind scholastically early in life. They might be told they’re not as bright as other people, or at least come to assume it. They might even be diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, or a learning disability, or overlooked as academically mediocre.

“The book format was effective, but not for everyone,” said Schneps. “This is not just technology that could help people who are struggling with reading; this is technology that could help a lot of people.”

* * *

Our minds are not as uniform as our text. We all take in information in different ways. Some people read more quickly and retain more information when lines are shorter, or when fonts are bolder, or in different colors. The color-gradient pattern above is rendered by a product called BeeLine, developed by armchair linguist Nick Lum. He got the idea after learning about the Stroop Effect, the famous phenomenon where it becomes difficult to read words like “yellow” and “red” when they are written in different colors. Lum thought, “What if instead of screwing people up, we tried to use color in a way that helps people?”

After he won the Stanford Social Entrepreneurship and Dell Education startup competitions with the idea in 2014, Lum took to developing the technology full time. So far, the response from people tends to be binary: for some it’s a shrug, but for others, particularly people with dyslexias, it’s like turning on a light bulb. As Lum describes it, people tell him “Holy cow, this is how everybody else reads.”

The idea has been well received by reading experts, too.

“Most of the academic research is figuring out entirely what your eyes are going to do on one line,” said psychologist and Microsoft researcher Kevin Larson. “That has been such a challenge that it’s rare for anyone to pay much attention to what happens during that line return movement.”

At the University of Texas at Austin, Randolph Bias has studied the optimal length of lines of text for reading comprehension and speed. The two are generally at odds: Short lines make for a quick and accurate return (the movement is easier because it allows our eyes to take a greater downward angle than if the line were longer.) The downside is that because our brains process information during return sweeps, shorter lines don’t afford us that time. We also don’t get to take full advantage of peripheral vision – which is key. (He cites this as the problem with Spritz, the reading technology where single words rapidly flash before a reader.)

“Human beings have evolved to be able to take in 12 to 16 letters—at least—at a fixation,” Bias explained to me. This is known as our span of perception. “Just as some people are taller, some people can take in more at a time.”

So, long lines of text are better if you can minimize line-transition problems. And using color gradients seems to be one way to do that. Last year, optometrist Carole Hong did an initial, small study (not peer-reviewed, for the company) where she watched the eye movements of people as they read with BeeLine, and most of them skipped fewer lines–and experienced fewer backward saccades–than when reading in black text.

“BeeLine gives the reader a cue as to where that next line is – an excellent, unavoidable cue,” explained Bias. “I think that’s brilliant. It might be the first in a series of creative ways we break out of traditional formats of text – where we take full advantage of online capabilities instead of just plopping a book into a doc file.”

Beeline launched softly, accidentally, on the site Hacker News in 2013. At that point it was just a bookmarklet (the lamest version of a browser plugin), and the first version of the chrome extension. Even still, the concept captured enormous attention in the ADHD community on Tumblr.

“It wasn’t envisioned as an assistive technology,” said Lum, “but after the launch on Hacker News, we got all kinds of emails from people with ADHD. The folks on Tumblr are heavily in the ADHD and dyslexia camps.”

The color gradients might be helpful not just with return sweeps, but simply in keeping people’s attention – so they’re less likely to dart from tab to tab. Bias sees an important role for this technology in the era of waning attention spans. He’s 64 years old and describes himself as a “slow but good reader” who “can sometimes stay with something for a long time.” But in recent years, he’s sensed a decline in his attention, and has a feeling that this is a growing problem. “Can we multitask?” he asks, rhetorically. “The research, more and more, shows that we all suck at it.”

And as the definitions of paying attention and reading shift, narrowing the focus of technology like BeeLine to people with ADHD and dyslexia is missing the point. If changes in format like adding color gradients can help prevent loss of attention, then it necessarily helps with reading (retention and speed). Schneps says that what’s needed is a complete shift in thinking about normalcy—and why there is one default state for almost all text.

At Microsoft in Seattle, for example, Larson has been working for 19 years studying word recognition and reading acquisition. When he started, he recalls, very few people would read any long document on screen. If they got a long email, they would print it out. “But now,” he notes, “that would be an outrageous thing to do.”

The task now is to make digital reading better than reading in print. One of Larson’s passions has been working to prove that we take in words not as entities unto themselves (as some typographers have argued), but always by recognizing a word’s component letters, and then assembling them into words in our heads. His team also recently launched a new font that was designed for the best possible readability. Called Sitka, it went through a multistep, iterative design-test process. Each letter was changed and adjusted to maximize ease of reading – as opposed to most other fonts, which are made to mimic typefaces that existed in print media. “Times New Roman was designed to work very well with the technology of the era,” Laston explained. (I asked him if he has, then, created the most legible font in history. He said he “wouldn’t go that far.”)

It’s not the color itself that’s useful in Beeline, Larson believes, but the connection of the end of one line to the beginning of another. He suggests that for people who are colorblind or simply averse to the colored text, the same thing could be accomplished using bolder text or different fonts to draw people’s eyes along. “A feature like Beeline can encourage people to move from print to digital,” he said.

Indeed, many print media publications have struggled in recent years, but many persist—largely on the justification that people still like to sit back and hold a book or magazine in their hands. But if the digital reading experience continues to improve—adding value beyond mere portability—that could make analog reading ever more niche.

The magazine CNET recently partnered with BeeLine to published two fiction pieces online, where readers had the option to turn the colors on or off. Jeremy Toeman, vice president of products at CNET, was instantly attracted to the technology. “We’re all spending more and more time on screens, and getting tired of seeing black words on white backgrounds for hours and hours on end,” he said, “so anything that helps with that seems good.”

And the analytic data from the BeeLine trial at CNET suggests people like it. Readers who used the color gradients were more likely to read further down the page than people who didn’t—and more likely to read to the end. Depth that they read down on the page was almost half-again as much as other readers.’ In the world of digital media, this is not just a valuable metric, but possibly the most valuable. This is the type of authentic audience engagement that’s monetizable. Anyone can generate clicks; not many can compel people to read an entire article, when it is essentially competing for a person’s attention against every other thing that’s happening on the entire, enormous Internet.

As most of the world’s readers move toward reading primarily on mobile devices, smaller screens mean not just smaller text, but larger variations in ambience. The mobile reading environment is rarely as friendly as the desktop environment. You’re not parked in a quiet office, but commuting on a subway that’s accelerating and decelerating, and your very small text is moving in three dimensions, and your eyes need to track across and between lines. That’s much harder to do when you and the device are moving semi-independently.

“If we can get people to read more, in this era where everyone is swiping through everything in a millisecond,” Toeman said, “then I think that’s great technology.”

The other big opportunity for the technology is in educational settings. Later this year, BeeLine will be rolling out in libraries across California, as part of a licensing partnership. This is how Lum sees the company growing. The basic Google Chrome extension and iPhone app are free. But large-scale licensing deals with platforms and institutions like school systems could be more lucrative—and make the option accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise think to try reading in color.

In early experiments, some students do seem to benefit from the color gradients. Last year, first-grade students in two general-education classrooms in San Bernardino, California, tried out Beeline, and many did better with comprehension tests afterword. “Because of my background in visual processing, I immediately wanted to check it out,” said Michael Dominguez, an applied behavioral analyst who directs the San Bernardino school district’s special education program. “Based on everything I know, it should work great.”

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