Archives for November 2005
LIFE offers Graduate Fellowships
The LIFE Science of Learning Center has launched a new graduate fellowship program. It looks like an interesting opportunity for grad students at other institutions to spend a few months in Seattle or Palo Alto working with LIFE researchers.
The LIFE Center has launched a new Graduate Fellowship Program. The program offers a unique opportunity for United States graduate students to spend a period of 3-5 months at a LIFE Center location and participate in LIFE research projects to broaden their understanding of the learning sciences. (Please note that a parallel undergraduate program will also be announced in the near future.)
This is a promising time for those interested in the learning sciences field. New graduate programs are appearing at universities across the globe. New research efforts are leveraging advances in education, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, sociology, anthropology, and other allied fields. Future leaders in the learning sciences need deep expertise in a core area of the learning sciences and a general understanding of the many other active areas of research and application. A central goal of the LIFE Center is to provide the necessary breadth of experience for the next generation of researchers in the learning sciences.
To this end we will support up to four graduate students to spend several months between either September through December or January through June at the LIFE Center. There is some flexibility in starting and ending dates, but participants are expected to stay for the entire period for which they have been accepted. Stays of a full year may also be considered.
Ed Blog Treasure Trove
Kevin Drum asked for educational blog recommendations, and got a ton of suggestions. I’ve pulled most of the suggestions out into a list for easy browsing.
- Shut Up and Teach
- Chris Correa’s Notebook
- Schools Matter
- Dr. Cookie
- An Old Soul
- Tomorrow’s Professor (actually a mailing list)
- Kim Swygert
- This Week in Education
- San Francisco Schools
- teacherken’s posts at Daily Kos
- Teaching in the 408
- Back To School
- Ms. Frizzle
- Educational Justice
- Susan Ohanian
- Educational Equity, Politics, and Policy in Texas
Don’t forget that many of these sites have their own lists of links, so there’s plenty of additional content to keep you busy.
There’s also a reference to a Frappr map of educational blogs.
The response to Kevin’s post demonstrates my weblog tipping point theory: once your blog is read by enough people, it gets easier to maintain frequent, interesting posts because your readers are contributing new ideas and pointing to interesting sites. For example, Kevin draws on his readership fairly regularly, asking them for input on a range of topics (movies, books, computers) that extend well beyond the political focus on his blog. Other high-traffic sites like Boing Boing even have submission forms to make it easier to convert reader suggestions into new posts.
Basecamp free for teachers!
Classroom-centered Design: Minimizing the "Newness"
Using new technologies in the classroom requires at least three different kinds of newness: There’s the newness of the technology itself— how do you use the software? There may be newness in the classroom dynamics— perhaps students are working a computer lab, or in small groups. And there will likely be newness of ideas and concepts, because the technology is helping you pursue new aspects of learning. Helping teachers experiment with new technologies requires limiting the newness, so that there are fewer uncertain variables.
For example, consider the use of structured student worksheets. While they may not be ideal tools in terms of promoting student-guided inquiry, they are nonetheless useful stepping stones for teachers and students. They can provide students with step-by-step guidance with the software, and they can free teachers to focus on helping students with new concepts or instructional dynamics. Similarly, introducing a new technology alongside a familar concept can reduce the burden on students and allow them to focus on the novel technical aspects of the activity. I’ve discussed these and other examples at greater length, in my interview with Intel Education.
As with any other form of scaffolding, the structure is temporary. With time, as students and teachers grow accustomed to the new skills, concepts, and/or dynamics, the supports are no longer necessary.
Classroom-centered design asks us to consider the complete setting in which educational tools exist. Designers of classroom technologies need to consider the range of factors that impact the use of classroom technologies, the challenges they pose, and strategies for supporting these challenges in ways that allow practitioners to focus their attention on one or two “new” things at a time. Doing so makes classroom experimentation a more tentable option for teachers.
Students as mechanical turks
Amazon is releasing a new service called Mechanical Turk, dubbed "Artificial Artificial Intelligence." The gist is that there are some things that people do far better than computers, such as identifying objects in pictures. So rather than using a network of computers do these kinds of tasks, Amazon's new service will use a network of people to do the processing. You can sign up and earn a whopping $0.03 per click to identify pictures.
All this talk about mechanical turks reminded me of one of our core design principles: let kids do the hard stuff.
It's always tempting to build a software system that will evaluate student work, point out errors or mistakes in thinking, etc. But almost always, that task is better left to students. Want to weigh the suitability of multiple multi-factor solution against each other? Make students do it! Want to evaluate a student-written paragraph? Make another student do it!
Sure, we should use the system to help students along: remind students what to look for, make problems stand out, provide a template for articulating issues so that they can be compared to each other, etc. But in the end, the students should do the work.
Who knows, the students might even learn something as they do it...
Who are those mysterious 'subtitlers'?
To get out the word about InqScribe, we've been using Google Adwords and Yahoo Search Marketing (aka Overture). Both provide a way for us to show our ads in response to specific search terms. But who would've thought that they could point the way to a potential new market? The cool thing about these services is that you can get some idea of what folks out there are searching for via reports on the number of impressions for a given keyword. For example, we show ads for the keyword search "transcription software", which gets on average about 30 impressions a day. This means that 30 people typed in the word "transcription software" in a keyword search on Google or Yahoo.
It just sits there...
For those of us who design software to support open-ended classroom inquiry, the big challenge is bootstrapping novice users. In other words, when they launch this type software, it just sits there. No dancing animals to drag them down a garden path, or whiz-bang animations akin to watching T.V. Inquiry tools require the user to initiate action, and for novices, this can be a challenge.
There’s educational software that leads learners through a learning activity and there’s educational software that requires learners to initiate the activity. The first type includes page turners (“do ‘x’, then click next…”), scenarios (“you have been asked to help Joe solve his problem”), or games (“help the bunny find his way home by solving the following problems”). This type of software requires learners to react to on-screen stimuli that guide or motivate them through the steps of a learning activity, or that offer “hints” intended to direct their actions.
The second type— what I’ll call educational tools— just sit there. They require the learner to engage the tool in some meaningful way. This type of software is a tool in the same way that a hammer is a tool— in the hands of a skilled practitioner, it can be used to build a magnificent house. In the hands of a novice, it makes a good doorstop. Traditional classroom examples of such tools are microscopes and calculators, both of which can be used for a host of exciting learning activities, but neither of which reveal to novices an obvious way to get started.
Those of us who design educational software “tools”— for instance, tools for visualizing data or for supporting open-ended inquiry— face a continual challenge in finding ways to bootstrap novice users as they learn to use the tool (check out some examples of Inquirium’s inquiry tools. As learners begin to use these tools, they quickly get their gist and are soon able to initiate their own increasingly sophisticated uses and activities. The challenge is supporting users along this trajectory. Here are a some approaches for supporting new users as they engage with open-ended tools for educational inquiry. Each has its uses, and none along does the trick.
- Video tours: Whether it’s flashy Flash animations, or methodical “video professor” segments, video tours represent a simple, passive, and easy-to-access way for fist-timers to get a clue. But it’s uncertain how much people actually learn from them.
- Instruction manuals: Useful info, but who reads them!?
- Skill tutorials: These can offer useful, targeted “how to” guidance, but they tend not to be tied to meaningful tasks. Bo-rrring.
- Demo activities: Slightly more engaging, these short (ideally interesting) activities can be tailored to special interests and allow new users to learn by doing. Disadvantage: most instructional guidance occurs through text, which turns off many.
- Authentic activities: Consider your curricular objectives, determine the range and scope of targeted concepts and skills, and create a sequence of activities that use the tool to achieve these objectives. The goal is content and concept learning in a given subject area. But in the process, designers can embed opportunities for learners to interact with the tool in ways that are appropriate to their skill level. Start with structured, step-by-step instructions that walk learners through the required steps and gradually remove this support during later activities. Progress from basic functionality to more advanced skills. Most importantly, let the skill development serve the larger goals of the activity, so that they have meaning and purpose— creating a “need to know”.
One of my favorite refrains is that open-ended inquiry tools are about as educationally useful as the activities with which they’re packaged. In this sense, curriculum provides a vehicle for scaffolding learners as they become aquainted with the features and processes involved in open-ended inquiry tools. And it’s much easier to customize curriculum activities to different domains and age levels— convenient when you have a tool that can be used in a host of different settings.
This is not to say we should abandon good interface design, intuitive functionality, etc. and instead just focus on curriculum development. But it does point to the value of good activities in supporting the use of otherwise inert tools that support classroom inquiry. In other words, when considering the critical issues in the successful classroom implementation of inquiry-oriented technology tools, don’t forget that ultimately… it’s the curriculum, stupid!
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