Sunday, July 27, 2008

Doing it Right by Doing it All Wrong

In the past couple of posts regarding use of presentation software (PowerPoint, Impress, and so on) in the classroom, I've talked about the proper way to do presentations so that audiences aren't bored, and that the value of the presentation lies in the speaker, rather than the slide-show.

Today, I'll talk about breaking all those conventions to create presentations which can be used differently in the classroom.

In a conventional presentation, a speaker who knows what they're doing puts little depth of information into their slides, keeping himself as the font of knowledge on the topic. In this way, questions are directed to them, rather than by referencing the slides, and the speaker establishes himself as the expert who can be called back for more speaking engagements. If you put too much information on the slides, you essentially give away the goose with the golden eggs.

However, another approach is to create presentations formatted as tutorials. In the tutorial scheme, the author doesn't expect to be "presenting" the slide-show in front of an audience. Rather, the tutorial will be made available online for students to go through individually. This turns the design objectives upside down, because in the tutorial one wants to convey lots of information in lieu of a live speaker.

Teachers may choose to create tutorials rather than presentations as an alternative means of interacting with students. Since live speaking engagements outside one's own classroom aren't typical, for a teacher who wants to share their knowledge with a wide base of other teachers and students, the tutorial offers a means of sharing a more comprehensive set of knowledge.

Other teachers will benefit greatly from this, because a tutorial style presentation offers a turn-key solution to knowledge transmission, which doesn't require the other teachers to be able to speak confidently on a topic they might not know much about. For students, a tutorial can offer a multimedia learning experience which they can go through at their own pace. With students working independently, the teacher can focus on helping students who are having trouble understanding the material. The tutorial is student-paced and student-focused learning, whereas the presentation is teacher-paced and teacher-focused.

Teachers, of course, benefit from sharing their work even when they give it away for free (such as when using a Creative Commons license). To begin with, other teachers share their work in return. Further, if one's work is of exceptional quality, one can begin to build a positive reputation which can translate into different career growth opportunities presenting themselves, whether it be speaking engagements, being used as a consultant, being paid to have some work published, or even getting more work as an occasional teacher because you're respected within your profession.

Presentations created in a tutorial style allow presentations to be used in a different fashion in the classroom than presentations where it's expected that there will be a speaker presenting. To make a good tutorial, though, you'll have to break all the rules and make something that would be just terrible if it was intended to be presented by a live person lecturing a group.

Using Presentation Software to Pace Lessons in the Classroom

This post will focus not on the how-to of creating presentations, but the how-to of using presentations in the classroom.

Thinking about this a bit, what jumps into my mind is that by combining sound, video, and text into one document, we can control the pace of presenting it all, and eliminate time-consuming transitions between media which cause students to stop paying attention.

Of course, achieving this smoothness of presentation requires a lot of preparation of the presentation ahead of time (which can be very time consuming). The silver lining to that is that because we're using a digital medium, we can easily save our presentations to be reused with other classes of students.

Similarly, teachers can share their lesson presentations with each other and fine tune them, working collaboratively to dramatically reduce preparation time. This kind of peer-review process could lead to an overall increase in teaching professionalism.

Particularly for complex projects requiring a lot of materials, having a step by step presentation, perhaps with embedded video, would be a great way for students to be able to review instructions, and for the teacher to save time, use fewer materials, and make less of a mess.

The benefits when the teacher is using presentation software are pretty clear. But the benefits also extend to the students. As previously mentioned, students can review instructions by looking at the presentation again. They also benefit from a more professional presentation; a fine-tuned presentation which has been peer-reviewed is going to result in a better learning experience than if the teacher is essentially winging it, presenting a lesson plan for the first time.

Students benefit from learning how to use the software (the particular package doesn't really matter, they're learning how to conceptually use presentation software, knowledge which should be transferable to any package) and building transferable computer skills.

Transferable computer skills and comfort with computers are of course far more valuable than learning any particular piece of software in depth. By the time our students are our ages, they'll be talking about the old computers they had in school, that had piddly quad-core processors, a measly 4 GB of RAM, and actually used monitors and keyboards instead of neural interfaces...

Since they're working with presentation software, a presentation is potentially something that can be done as a group, which teaches all the various skills involved in cooperation. When the student(s) present their presentation, they also can practice the various components of public speaking, which can range from simply becoming comfortable speaking in front of a group, to developing their own signature style of engaging an audience.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sometimes the Medium itself conveys a Message

When choosing the software we use in schools, we need to be aware of the message that we're sending students. For instance, when we use Microsoft PowerPoint and refer to presentations as "Powerpoints" we're essentially endorsing and promoting a corporate brand. It's really no different than if our students only saw us drinking Coca-Cola, and we referred to all beverages as "Coke".

So, our choice of software says something in and of itself. That being said, do we want to be promoting software which is produced with improving a corporate bottom line as its main purpose? Which many of our students' families won't be able to afford to install on their home computers?

Luckily, we have many alternatives when it comes to software. Since 1984, something called the Free Software movement has existed. Introduced by Richard Stallman, free software provides users with four key freedoms:

* The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
* The freedom to redistribute copies of the software.
* The freedom to study the source code of the program to understand how it works.
* The freedom to adapt or change the program, and to release those improvements to the public so that others may benefit from them.

What do these freedoms mean for schools? The most practical benefit is that schools can save a lot of money by using free software.

Pedagogically, teachers and students benefit because the same software used at school can be freely used at home. Access to the source code means that older students have endless reference material to learn from when they begin programming.

Best of all, free software stands as a shining example of the power of sharing. The community-based values promoted by free software are much more in line with what we teach students in school than the corporate values which are represented by proprietary software.

Click on the banner above to learn more about the philosophy of the free software movement, or go straight to Richard Stallman's essay on why schools should use free software.

Legal Rights of Bloggers

Bloggers' Rights at EFF

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of my favourite organizations (along with the Free Software Foundation and Creative Commons), is dedicated to protecting our freedoms on the Internet. Since blogging is something we all do these days, you'll probably be interested in their page of information (just click on one of the banners in this post) specifically addressing the legal rights of bloggers.

It's a good companion piece to the Reporters Without Borders' blogging guide I posted about earlier. The EFF also sponsors development of Tor, which is the best option you've got for protecting your anonymity on the net.  More recently, they've also put together the Surveillance Self-Defense project.

Bloggers' Rights at EFF

Best Practices for Creating Presentations

In my experience sitting through presentations, the ones which have me bored in no time at all are the ones where the slide comes up, I read it, and then have to sit and wait for the presenter to read the slide out loud, without adding anything of value.

The opposite end of the spectrum is presenters who have complex slides densely filled with good information, and who talk knowledgeably about their subject while barely touching on the slide content. In other words, they overload their audience with information... if you read the slides, you miss the speaking; if you pay attention to the speaking, you miss the slides. Having a printout of the slides doesn't really help either, because who has time to go over all the reams of paper we acquire each school year? Printouts just get thrown in a pile of papers for "future reference".

So, in terms of best practices in developing a presentation, slides should be simple, and the presenter must know their material well enough to talk extemporaneously on the topic. This way, the slides essentially serve as a table of contents for the points the speaker will be touching on, and the focus will be on the speaker (I suppose speaking style is another topic entirely... but since teachers practice public speaking every day, we tend to be pretty good at it. Anyone with serious stage fright should consider joining Toastmasters).

Depending on the purpose and audience of the presentation, making the presentation rely on the speaker for the bulk of the information is also a good practice shouldst one hope to build a reputation as a speaker and earn part of one's living (or simply build one's professional reputation) by public speaking. Presentation printouts should not include detailed information, but rather contact information so that the presenter's expertise can be further tapped (another presentation, consulting work, and so on).

In terms of the technical aspects of the presentation, I personally would tend to stay away from too much multimedia. A presentation should be pretty, but in a dignified way. Instead, the presenter needs to develop a presenting style which is engaging and keeps the audience enthralled. Anecdotes relating to the subject are always more engrossing and memorable than facts and figures. If you can deliver a real-life example of how or why something works, it will always resonate with an audience more than a dry recounting of the theory behind something.

Remember, when a workshop/lecture/speech is over, the audience never remembers the slide show. They walk away with an impression of the speaker.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Media literacy, audio, video... what about low-tech learning?

In this post I'm going to take a devil's advocate stance, and suggest that while new media literacy and using multimedia as a teaching tool are valuable, that we shouldn't forget the value of low-tech learning. Simple writing utensils and imagination have gotten the human race through thousands of years so far.

What prompted me to think along these lines was the fact that despite being a smart computer geek, a lot of the multimedia creation tools available don't do me a whole lot of good, simply because I lack artistic ability. I can learn how to do very basic things with the various software packages, but without any underlying artistic ability I won't be able to produce anything I'd ever feel was worthy of presenting to an audience.

Yet, if I were a student today, I'd be expected to create multimedia presentations, modify video and photos, and so forth, just to convey basic information. To go back to when I actually was a student, it would be somewhat akin to asking me to illustrate my essays with oil paints. I could do it, but it wouldn't be pretty.

So, that raises a couple of questions. Should being an artist be a prerequisite for being considered capable of communicating effectively? Should some of what we're trying to push on all students be acknowledged as art and taught in appropriate classes? Does the art component of new media put undue expectations on students who are still beginners in the realm of written language in the first place?

Really, at what point did we forget that the richest tapestry is in the mind's eye?

There are so many distractions for students these days that I wonder if a lot of the song and dance we do for our students doesn't just serve as further distraction and limit the students' learning. We seem to seldom get past scratching the surface of what we're teaching. Are we simply enabling and supporting the society-wide attention deficit that's been caused by telephones, televisions, radio, Internet, and so forth?

Perhaps we simply need to try to ensure that the technology we're using doesn't become the focus of a lesson, but is merely a means to learning about the subject at hand. Too many lessons end up with students enamoured by the technology, but learning nothing about the subject matter. I seldom see this happen when working with pencils and paper.

Not to be a Luddite, but I think there's a case to be made for good old-fashioned pencils, paper, and imagination.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Podcast Directories, Aggregators, and iTunes alternatives

In exploring the whole iTunes and podcast topic this week in more detail than I've ever bothered to do before (just about every waking moment the past few days!), I'm amazed at how much material is out there. I imagine that podcasts will become another source of information overload for me...

Regarding the information overload, I've been looking at various ways to manage podcasts. iTunes is great with it's iTunes Store podcast directory, but it doesn't sync with my Creative Labs Zen Touch MP3 player (or any non-Apple player as far as I know). I can subscribe to podcasts using Google Reader, which gives me the convenience of listening to them easily from any computer connected to the net, but it doesn't sync with MP3 players.

The solution I've found which I think is going to work best is by using, which is an online podcast aggregator. PodNova offers the best of both worlds. I can subscribe to podcasts, which I can find by searching their podcast directory. I can listen to podcasts online from any computer connected to the net. Best of all, I can also download their desktop client software which will automatically download the latest episodes of podcasts and sync with my MP3 player.

For finding podcasts, I've discovered a number of podcast directories online:

I've also been playing around with a variety of media players, since iTunes doesn't play well with non-iPods. Windows Media Player isn't bad just as a music player, but it lacks most of the bells and whistles other players offer. I of course have Creative MediaSource installed, as it offers the best sync options for my MP3 player, but for a desktop music player, the one I like best is called Songbird.

Songbird uses the Firefox web browser's underlying architecture as a programming platform, and is thus very web integrated, with a variety of add-ons available. It's easily configurable to access my music library (all my songs are stored in c:\mp3, podcasts go to c:\mp3\podcasts), and has all the features I can hope for. Of course, for watching movies, I use VLC Media Player.

Here's a few media players I was playing with:


Friday, July 4, 2008

Internet Safety for Teachers

When considering the topic of Internet safety, as teachers we generally think of our students and protecting them from things like online bullying and online predators (who, in a non-hysterical risk assessment, are pretty much equivalent to the bogeyman).

What teachers seldom consider are the risks the online world pose to themselves. These risks are quite real, and it's frightening just how quickly a career can end based on a flimsy, dubious, or outright fraudulent allegation. Do you really want to be listed in the blue pages of Professionally Speaking?

When you communicate with parents and students online, you open yourself to a whole new medium for bullying, harassment, and allegations of misconduct. Something as simple as giving a child your e-mail or website address can be interpreted as "grooming" the child for exploitation, and can directly lead to a variety of serious ramifications.

Be aware that even the most innocuous things can form the basis for misconduct allegations, and that a member of the public can go to the Ontario College of Teachers website and easily find instructions on how to file a complaint against a teacher.

Such complaints, regardless of their validity, set in motion a series of events which will make your life very unpleasant and possibly end your career. This will involve a College of Teachers investigation, possibly Children's Aid and/or the Police, and likely an investigation by your school board. Do not assume these investigations will be fair, rational, and unbiased. In many cases you are considered guilty until proven innocent (and often treated as guilty even if proven innocent), and in most cases there are no consequences for the complainant if their allegations are proven false.

In absolutely no circumstances should you make any statements or comments without first contacting ETFO Protective Services at 1-888-838-3836.

So, what is a teacher to do? In the modern world we can't avoid being on the net. But we do need to take appropriate precautions. Enable all privacy controls available for any online presence you may have on the net (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), use strong passwords, and always strive to keep unprofessional images and postings off the net. Despite privacy precautions, assume everything is public to some degree.

Never engage in personal conversations with students or their parents online. Keep everything on a professional level. Always keep your administrator and students' parents informed and involved in any online activities you're conducting with your students.

We serve in a very public role in our profession, and we interact with a fairly random sample of the members of the public. We are under constant scrutiny, and since our charges are children, we can expect that any kind of question that might arise regarding our professional conduct probably won't be evaluated in the most rational manner. In these circumstances, a little bit of paranoia is actually warranted, as people really are out to get us... but always being cognizant of taking appropriate precautions should avoid any potential problems.

ETFO has released PRS Matters bulletins relating to these issues, which are valuable reading:

Electronic Communications

Understanding Professional Boundaries

Allegations of Sexual Misconduct