Learning technologies

Blinkie and the Valley of Confusion

One of my projects these days is MOOCery. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses- courses offered for free online, and open to everyone. The formats these courses take will vary, but they often include lectures on video, discussion forums, and assignments. I’m working on two courses right now, and it was very tempting to sign up for more.

One of the courses is Design and Development of Educational Technology, offered by the MIT. I’ve been curious about Ed Tech since taking Introduction to Learning Technologies at the University of Saskatchewan, and the course seemed a good opportunity for further exploration. Part of the course involves reflecting on both old and new educational technologies, and I have a bit of homework in that regard: comparing and contrasting a new and an old technology.

The New: Demystifying the Valley of Confusion

A simplified geological map

Geological map of the Valley of Confusion

First-year geology students are asked to do a very complex task: view a two-dimensional representation of the intersection of a complex geometric surface with three-dimensional subsurface structures (also called a geological map), and understand what the heck they are looking at.

Here’s an example of a simplified geological map. In this image, the coloured patches represent different rock layers that you would see if you could strip away all of the soil and expose the rocks beneath. If I were to ask you how those rock layers were arranged within the Earth, you might say that they were folded. It certainly looks that way. In fact, they are not folded at all. They are in flat layers, all tilting to the east at an angle of 30 degrees. Students are expected to arrive at that interpretation by looking at maps like this one.

The map in the image above is actually a birds-eye view of this:

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 11.57.55 PM

Valley of Confusion in three dimensions: not as confusing

Here you can see on the side of the block that the rocks are arranged in flat, tilted layers, not curved and folded ones. The reason they look folded on the map is that the surface is actually a valley. The numbered black and grey lines in the first image represent the elevations at different points in the valley.

This is why Visible Geology is so useful. It is an online tool that allows users to construct and view three-dimensional models of geological structures. Users start with a blank cube, then add layers to represent different rocks. They can manipulate the layers by tilting them, folding them, or faulting them. The cubes can be rotated to allow a view of all of the sides. Users can also print their models, cut them out, and fold them up into cubes. Visible Geology is also a good example of what Seymour Papert referred to as a low floor: it is very easy to get started with, and users get results immediately. I created both of the images above in under 5 minutes using Visible Geology.

Visible Geology is particularly interesting because it began as a project by a student who was learning about geological maps and geological structures. He happened to have programming skills in MATLAB which allowed him to build visualizations to help himself and his peers. From there, he developed Visible Geology into an online tool.

The goal of Visible Geology is to make it easy to visualize the three-dimensional structures formed by rocks. The lament I hear most often from my first-years is, “I just can’t see it!” Visible Geology solves that problem by allowing students to explore different configurations and scenarios. It is engaging because it has an interface that is user-friendly: it is colourful, it’s functions are intuitive, and it is not at all intimidating (unless you find large buttons with pastel-coloured illustrations intimidating). Students can learn from Visible Geology by experimenting, but would also benefit by attempting to reproduce the geological maps and structures in their assignments.

The Old: Blinkie Computes

owl calculator

Blinkie (The National Semiconductor Quiz Kid)

At some point in the early 1980’s, I received a National Semiconductor Quiz Kid as a gift. This toy (henceforth referred to as Blinkie) was a calculator that looked like an owl. Blinkie didn’t work like a regular calculator, though. When you entered a mathematical operation (“4 + 3 =”) he calculated the answer, but he wouldn’t tell you what it was. You would have to supply the answer. If your answer were correct, he would blink a green LED eye at you. If it were wrong, he winked a red LED eye. Blinkie came with a book of math questions, and was intended as a drill tool for children learning their pluses, take-aways, timeses and divide-bys.

I’m sure Blinkie was effective as a math teaching tool (I can add, after all), but that isn’t my main recollection of Blinkie. I liked Blinkie because the keys made a satisfying click when you pressed them. I liked Blinkie because if you turned out the lights and hid under the covers, then covered his eyes with your thumbs, the red eye would glow through your thumb, but the green one wouldn’t. Most of all, I liked Blinkie because I could use him to check my math homework, and not feel that I was cheating. So, although Blinkie was intended to teach me math (and perhaps save my mom some time making flash cards), his most substantial benefit was to reduce my anxiety. Once you do that, the math comes a lot easier anyway.

Blinkie Versus the Internet (or, Bringing An Owl To A Gunfight)

Comparing Blinkie to Visible Geology is not like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing apples to oranges is much easier than finding characteristics that Blinkie and Visible Geology share. They are very different tools.

For one thing, their approaches are very different. Blinkie was a tool for practicing math skills. He told you whether you got the answer right, or whether you got it wrong. Visible Geology is about exploring. It allows the user to be creative, and to experiment risk-free. It is about “what if?”

The motivation for creating these tools was also very different. I suspect that at least some of the motivation for building Blinkie was that new microprocessors had been developed, and that development had to be funded commercially. National Semiconductor had a hammer, and was looking for a nail. In contrast, Visible Geology was created by someone who experienced a need for a visualization tool, and built what he needed.

The most obvious contrast is the difference in technology, but it is also the least relevant. Blinkie is old technology, but back in the early 1980’s, he was pretty cool… heck, anything with lights and buttons was cool back then. The point is, he did his job, and I didn’t feel that I was missing out on anything. Today, as amazing as Visual Geology might be to a Blinkie-era person, it is nothing special technologically to the eighteen- to twenty-year-olds that I usually deal with. It does its job.

I was excited to discover both of these technologies, but for different reasons. Those reasons are related to context. I faced Blinkie as a learner. Blinkie was novel, and so was math. He and math were intertwined in a new tactile and visual experience. As far as I was concerned, Blinkie wasn’t for teaching me math, he was entertainment, and I just happened to be learning math at the same time. My perspective on Visible Geology is as a teacher. It is a tool that I’m excited about because it fills a definite need that my students have to see the three-dimensional structures they are working with. When I play with it, the purpose is to create a teachable object. There isn’t the same element of novelty and discovery as there was with Blinkie, back when math was something new.

I think that for my students, Visible Geology will be a Blinkie experience. They are discovering geology, and Visible Geology will be entertainment inseparable from learning. They can use it as a way to “check their homework” by comparing their expectations with the results of combining geological structures with different surfaces. It may even lessen the anxiety they feel when geological maps just aren’t making sense. Nevertheless, there is one thing they will be missing: Visible Geology will never make their thumbs glow.

 

 

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Is plagiarism funny?

Generally I would say no, but I’ve tried to make an exception with a new video project.

A recent onslaught of assignments highlighted the futility (yet again) of what amounts to grading the textbook. My brain started churning out cartoons about the ridiculous ways students attempt to skirt the requirement of having to answer in their own words. Jeff Foxworthy’sYou might be a redneck if…” came to mind, and my productivity screeched to a halt: “It might not be in your own words if…” (Does that make Jeff Foxworthy my muse?)

The point was to get students thinking about plagiarism without taking a “thou shalt not” approach. I plan to build additional resources, including a video and/or handout with tips on how to answer in one’s own words. I like to point out that the textbook is one way to say something, but not the only way, and not necessarily the best way. And it isn’t about some pedantic exercise in avoiding a specific set of words- it’s about turning words on a page into knowledge… and that doesn’t happen unless you think about what those words mean.

This project is shorter than my last project, which could make the difference between students watching it and not. Another difference is that it consists of text, music, and my own drawings… so no fifteen takes required to get a voice-over without stumbling or stuttering. The drawings were the fun part. While I have at some pont generated drawings and paintings that look like actual objects and people in the real world, doing so quickly and consistently is another matter. I came up with scribble people after searching for examples of line figures that others have drawn, and then doing my best to create something else. At one time I would have opted for stick figures, but after discovering Randall Munroe’s brilliant webcomic, xkcd… well, you wouldn’t try to out-drip Jackson Pollock, now would you?

In the process of making this video, I learned some things that might come in handy for anyone trying a similar project.

Timing

If you’ve made the slides, then you know way more about them than a first-time viewer will, so you’re probably not the best judge of how fast the slides should move along. What worked great was having someone else advance through the slides using the “Rehearse” mode under the “Slideshow” tab in PowerPoint. This records the duration over which each slide is viewed. Not only did I get an idea of how much time viewers might need, it became very clear which slides would benefit from a redesign. Set the intervals for transitions between slides, and run it with “Use Timings” selected. Then it is a simple matter of starting and ending a screen recording.

Music

I am not musically astute. If you ask me about Country and Western music released between 1950 and 1969, or Tom Waits, or Leonard Cohen, I might be able to help you. Lyrics to “The Battle of New Orleans?” Got you covered. Otherwise, you’d best ask my husband, who has a much larger musical vocabulary, and likes to ask me “Who sings this?” when he knows full well I can’t answer. But I needed music, so what to do?

Where to get it

I learned that there is a lot of royalty-free music online, and a subset of that is free royalty-free music. There is the Free Music Archive, which, amongst other things, has recordings from Edison cylinders! How cool is that?! I also found Kevin MacLeod’s website, where he offers his music under a Creative Commons license. His music is searchable by genre as well as by “feel” (bright, bouncy, driving, mysterious, etc.). Each song comes with an excellent description, suitable for the musically challenged, which makes it clear what an appropriate context would be for that song.

How to use it

Odds are, your song and your video won’t be the same length. If the song is longer than your video, it is easy enough to fade out the volume at a convenient spot. If the song is shorter, it’s more difficult to maintain continuity. Some songs come with versions that are suitable for looping, or in versions of different lengths. You can buy a little extra time by delaying the start of the song slightly, and fading in the volume, and then fading out the volume at the end. You could perform audio surgery and create a Frankensong… but if amputating musical body parts and stitching them back together again isn’t for you, then throwing continuity out the window might be the better choice. I didn’t know any of these things when I started, and it took a lot of experimenting to get something I could live with. Hopefully villagers with pitchforks and torches won’t be a problem.

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The Poll Everywhere experiment: After day 15 of 15

The marathon geology class is over now, and I have a few observations about the Poll Everywhere experience. These things would have helped me had I known them in advance, so here they are in case someone else might benefit.  Some of the points below are also applicable to classroom response systems in general.

Getting started

Signing up the students

As I mentioned in a previous post, this went fairly smoothly.  One reason is that the process is an easy one, but another reason is that there were enough devices for students to share in order to access the website for creating an account and registering. While students can use an “old-fashioned” cell phone without a browser to text their answers, they can’t use that device to get set up in the first place. I used my iPad to get two of the students started, and students shared their laptop computers with each other. My class was small (33 students), so it was relatively easy to get everyone sorted.  If the class is a large one this could be a challenge. I would probably have the students sign up in advance of class, and then be willing to write off the first class for purposes of troubleshooting with those who couldn’t get the process to work for themselves.

Voter registration

One thing I would do differently is to have students register as a voter regardless of whether they plan to use their browser to respond to questions or not. I told the students who would be texting that all they needed to do was have their phone numbers certified. This is true, and they appeared on my list of participants. The problem has to do with the students who are responding using a web browser. If they forgot to sign in then they showed up on my list anonymously as an unregistered participant. More than one student did this, so it wasn’t possible to know which student entered which answers.

If everyone were registered as a voter, then I could have selected the option to allow only registered participants to answer the questions. Those not signed in would not be able to answer using their browsers, and they would be reminded that signing in was necessary. The reason I didn’t use this option is that students texting their answers are prevented from responding unless they have also registered as voters. I could have had them go back and change their settings, but I opted instead to put a message on the first question slide of each class in large, brightly coloured letters reminding students to sign in. I also reminded them verbally at the start of class.

Grading responses

With the Presenter plan students’ responses were automatically marked as correct or incorrect (assuming I remembered to indicate the correct answer). Under “Reports” I was able to select questions and have students’ responses to those questions listed, and a “yes” or “no” to whether they got the right answer. The reports can be downloaded as a spreadsheet, and they include columns showing how many questions were asked, how many the student answered, and how many the student got correct. There is a lot of information in the spreadsheet, so it isn’t as easy as I would have liked to get a quick sense of who was having difficulty with what kind of question. Deleting some columns helped to clarify things.

In the end I didn’t use the statistics that Poll Everywhere provided. I was having difficulty sorting out the questions that were for testing purposes from the ones that were for discussion purposes. Maybe a “D” or “T” at the beginning of each question would have made it easier to keep track of which was which when selecting questions for generating the report. I could have used the statistics if I had generated separate reports for the discussion questions and the testing questions. Instead I made myself a worksheet and did the calculations manually. This approach would not scale up well, but it did make it a lot easier for me to see how individual students were doing.

Integrity of testing

Timed responses

At the outset I decided that it would be extremely inconvenient to have students put their notes away every time they had to respond to a testing question. My solution was to limit the time they had to respond to testing questions. I figured that if they didn’t know the answer, that would at least restrict how much they flipped through their notes.  It also helps to ask questions where the answer isn’t something they can look up.   It turned out that 25 seconds was a good time limit, although they got longer than that because I took time to explain the question and the possible responses. (I wanted to make sure that if they got the answer wrong it reflected a gap in their knowledge rather than a misunderstanding of what the question was asking or what the responses meant.)

There is a timer that can be set.  One way to set it is when using the Poll Everywhere Presenter App… if you can manage to click on the timer before the toolbar pops up and gets in your way. (I never could.) It can also be set when viewing the question on the Poll Everywhere website. The timer starts when the question starts, which means you have to initiate the question at the right time, and can’t have it turned on in advance. With the work-around I was using, there were too many potential complications, so I avoided the timer and either used the stopwatch on my phone or counted hippopotamuses.

Setting the correct answer to display

If you set a question to be graded, students can see whether or not they got the correct answer, but you have options as to when they see it. I noticed that by default there is a one-day delay between when the question is asked and when the answer is shown (under “Settings” and “Response History”). I wanted the students to be able to review their answers on the same day if they were so inclined, so I set an option to allow the correct answer to be shown immediately. The problem, I later discovered, is that if one student responds and then checks his or her answer, he or she can pass on the correct answer to other students.

Ask a friend

Another issue with the integrity of testing done using Poll Everywhere (or any classroom response system) is the extent to which students consult with each other prior to responding. I could have been particular on this point, and forbidden conversation, but the task of policing the students wasn’t something I was keen on doing. Judging by the responses, conversing with one’s neighbour didn’t exclude the possibility of both students getting the answer wrong. In a large class it would be impossible to control communications between students, which is one of the reasons why any testing done using this method should probably represent only a small part of the total grade.

Who sees what when

There are two ways to turn a poll on, and they each do different things. To receive responses, the poll has to be started. To allow students to respond using their browsers, the poll has to be “pushed” to the dedicated website. It is possible to do one of these things without doing the other, and both have to be done for things to work properly. The tricky part is keeping track of what is being shown and what is not. If a question is for testing purposes then you probably don’t want it to be displayed before you ask it in class.

When you create a poll, it is automatically started (i.e., responses will be accepted), but not pushed. Somewhere in the flurry of setting switches I think I must have pushed some polls I didn’t intend to. I also noticed one morning as I was setting up polls that someone (listed as unregistered) had responded to a question I had created shortly before.   As far as I knew I hadn’t pushed the poll, so…?  The only explanation I can think of is that someone was responding to a different poll and texted the wrong number.  Anyway, as an extra precaution and also to catch any problems at the outset, I made the first question of the day a discussion question. Only one question shows at a time, so as long as the discussion question was up, none of the testing questions would be displayed.

Oops

One other thing to keep in mind is to check before asking a question that one hasn’t written the answer on the board. If the class suddenly goes very quiet and the responses come in as a flood, that’s probably what has happened.

Accommodating technology and life

Stuff happens. If a student misses class, he or she will also miss the questions and the points that could have been scored for answering them. If the absence is for an excusable reason (or even if it isn’t) a student might ask to make up the missed questions. As this would take the form of a one-on-one polling session, and the construction of a whole suite of new questions, I knew it was something I didn’t want to deal with.

One could simply not count the missed questions against the student’s grade, but that wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set either. Instead I stated in the syllabus that there would not be a make-up option, but that each student would have a 10-point “head start” for the Poll Everywhere questions. Whatever the student’s score at the end of the course, I added 10 points, up to a maximum of a 100% score. I had no idea how many questions I would be asking, so 10 points was just a guess, but it ended up covering the questions for one day’s absence, which is not unreasonable.

Another thing the 10 points was intended to do was offset any technological problems, like a student’s smart phone battery dying at an inopportune moment, or someone texting the wrong number by accident, or accidentally clicking the wrong box on the browser. The 10 points also covered miscalculations on my part, such as making a testing question too difficult.

I still ended up forgiving missed questions in two cases: one because of a scheduling conflict with another class, and the other on compassionate grounds.

The verdict

I will be teaching in September, and I plan to use Poll Everywhere again. Even if it happens that my classroom is outfitted with a receiver for clickers, I’ll still stay with Poll Everywhere.  For one, my questions are already set up, ready and waiting online. Another reason is the flexibility of being able to show a question without actually showing the poll (i.e., the window with questions and responses that the Poll Everywhere software creates). This started out as a “duct tape” fix for a technical problem, but in the end I think I prefer it because I have more control over what can fit on the slide. As far as I know, Turning Point questions (the usual clicker system) can’t be started unless the slide that will show the results is the current slide.

One more reason is that the system will be free for students to use, outside of whatever data charges they might incur. I will either cover the cost myself, or, if there is no Turning Point option, attempt to convince the school to do it. A plan exists where the students can pay to use the system, but I’d like to avoid that if possible. On the off chance that something goes horribly wrong and I can’t get it working again, I’d prefer to not have students wondering why they had to pay for a service that they can’t use.

Over all, I really like the idea of having a diagnostic tool for probing brains (also referred to as formative assessment, I think). I suppose my teaching process is similar to the one I use for debugging computer code: I perturb the system, observe the output, and use that to diagnose what the underlying problem might be. Poll Everywhere is not the only tool that can do this, but it is probably the one I will stick with.

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The Poll Everywhere experiment: After day 3 of 15

Tech godsThis month I am teaching an introductory physical geology course that could be called “All you ever wanted to know about geology in 15 days.” It is condensed into the first quarter of the Spring term, and so compressed into 15 classes in May.

I decided to use an classroom response system this time. I like the idea of being able to peer into the black box that is my students’ learning process, and fix problems as they arise. I also like that I can challenge them with complex questions. Students get points for answering the really hard ones regardless of whether they get the right answer or not (and sometimes there is more than one reasonable answer).

Classroom response systems often involve the use of clickers, but my classroom doesn’t have a receiver, and I didn’t want to spend $250 to buy a portable one. Instead I decided to try Poll Everywhere. It is an online polling tool that can be used to present questions to students, collect their responses, display the frequency of each response, and, for a fee, tell me who answered what correctly.  An advantage of Poll Everywhere is that students can use the devices they already have to answer questions, either from a web browser or by sending text messages.

The obvious snag, that someone didn’t have the requisite technology, didn’t occur, and setting up the students was far easier than I thought it would be.  I’ve noticed that many are now texting their answers rather than using their browsers, even though most planned to use their browsers initially. None have asked for my help with getting set up for text messaging, and that would be an endorsement for any classroom technology in my books.

My experience with the service has not been as smooth. It is easy to create poll questions, but the window that pops up to show the poll isn’t as easy to read as I would like it to be. The main problem, however, is that I can’t actually show students the polls. Aside from one instance involving random button pushing that I haven’t been able to reproduce, the polls show up on my computer, but are simply not projected onto the screen at the front of the classroom. I’ve looked around online for a solution, but the only problem that is addressed is polls not showing up on PowerPoint slides at all, which is not my issue.  On the advice of Poll Everywhere I have updated a requisite app, but to no avail.

The work-around I’ve come up with is to make my own slides with poll questions and the possible responses. Normally, advancing to the slide on which the poll appears would trigger the poll. Instead I trigger and close the poll from my Poll Everywhere account using an iPad.  I haven’t yet tried exiting PowerPoint and showing the poll using the app, then going back to PowerPoint, because after I connect to the projector, I can’t seem to control the display other than to advance slides.

As a classroom tool, I have found the poll results to be useful already, and I was able to make some clarifications that I wouldn’t otherwise have known were necessary. I would like to look at the results in more detail to check on how each student is doing, but with all the time I’ve been spending on troubleshooting and building additional slides, I haven’t got to it yet.

It is possible that my technical problems are not caused by Poll Everywhere. All aspects of the polling system that are directly under their control have worked great. I’m curious whether I can get the polls to show up if I use a different projector, or whether other objects like videos would show on the projector I’m using now, but I have limited time to invest in experiments. This is where I’m supposed to say that I’ve learned my lesson and will henceforth test-drive new technology from every conceivable angle before actually attempting to use it in a way that matters. Only, I thought I had tested it: I ran polls in PowerPoint multiple times on my own computer, doing my best to find out what would make them not work and how to fix it. I also answered poll questions from a separate account using my computer, an iPad, and by texting to find out what the students’ experience would be and what challenges it might involve… but I never thought to check whether the projector would selectively omit the poll from the slide.  Who would have thought?

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New digs for Petragogy

Ruby digs another holeThis is my first post at Petragogy’s new home.  In its first incarnation, my blog was hosted by the University of Saskatchewan. It is a free service offered to University of Saskatchewan faculty, staff, and students, and that’s the problem. As a sessional lecturer, I don’t know from one term to the next whether I’ll have a job with the U of S, which means I could lose access to my blog at any time. Because I have plans for Petragogy, it doesn’t make sense for me to have the U of S continue to host it.

Moving a blog is remarkably like moving to a new apartment, although the packing up and unpacking are much easier.   (If only one could “export” and “import” boxes of belongings so effortlessly.) One closes the door on the old apartment for the last time with the faintest sense of loss for the comfort and familiarity of the old place, while at the same time feeling relieved to be out from under the landlord’s control.

As with moving to a new apartment, the new space needs decorating before it looks like home. I’ve negotiated a little more flexibility with the new landlord, so I splashed some paint around and put up new wallpaper. I also expect to add a few new appliances.

Once I get settled in, my plan is to add some pages. The course management systems I use have limitations, and I plan to use my pages to work around those limitations. At the U of S, I am able to post resources on course websites on Blackboard, but a new course website must be set up each time a course is offered. At Athabasca University, the course website remains the same, but the only way I can add to the website is by posting announcements. That format makes it very difficult for students to see at a glance what resources are available. Also, announcements have dates attached to them, so I have to tell each new student that the old announcements are still relevant.

With Petragogy at its new home, I have the stability, autonomy, and tools that I lack elsewhere.

I will be returning the keys to the old landlord in the upcoming week.

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The open textbook arrives

Textbook coverDownload the pdf         Download the epub         Download for Kindle

The title for this post might be a little premature, but the fact is that I am now viewing a proof-of-concept version of my open textbook on my Kindle.

There were two main questions that I considered as I worked through this experiment.  One question was technology related: what is the best way to build and distribute the textbook?  The other question was design related: what content should go into the book, and how should it be presented?

The technological question was the easier of the two to answer.  I decided to take Booktype for a test drive.  This tool is free to download and use… if you have a server.  Otherwise it is $16 a month.  Booktype has a nice interface, and I think its two main strengths are the ease with which it can convert a document to different electronic formats (especially those for e-readers), and the tools for collaboration.  I published my book to the following formats: pdf, mobi (for Kindle), and epub (good for just about any reading device other than a Kindle).

The best results came from the epub format when viewed from Mac’s iBook reader.  The pdf didn’t work as well due to technical difficulties, but the problems weren’t anything I couldn’t fix if I generated my own pdf files directly out of Word.  Those files could then be distributed via Google Drive.  I’d need to do some “market research” to determine whether it would make sense to stay with pdfs (good for Mac devices, PCs, and Kindles), or whether there would be a lot of demand for the epub format.

The design question was more difficult to answer.  I experimented with the idea of using course design principles.  I came to the conclusion that this is probably the angle the publishers are using—for example, every introductory geology textbook on my shelf starts each chapter with a list of learning objectives, and ends each chapter with discussion questions.  I can do that too, but I can’t compete with the publishers’ ability to design and incorporate multimedia learning tools, or online self-assessment tools.  Here’s the thing, though—if the course is merely a textbook wrapper, then these things matter.  On the other hand, if the course is well designed then maybe it is ok for the textbook to be just a textbook.  Whether my course is well designed or not is another matter, but given that I will have to teach it, I think my time is better spent working on course design than on writing algorithms for dynamic assessment tools.

I will keep working on my textbook.  I’m going to focus on what I need it to be, and fill the gaps left by the other textbooks available to me.  Despite all of the bells and whistles that come with textbooks these days, there are indeed gaps.  It may be a while before I can rely entirely on my own book, but each bit of progress will improve what I can offer to my students.

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Open textbooks and cognitive load

While sketching out a plan for my open textbook, I’ve hit upon a design question:  how “printable” should it be?  A “printable” open textbook would contrast with one that is more akin to a series of webpages; if it were heavy on hyperlinks and multimedia then it would lose functionality when printed, because extra steps would be required for the user to access the online resources.

On one hand, being printable might seem to be about accommodating preferences—those arising from a learning history with print materials—but what if there is a more basic reason for these preferences?  What if the act of learning is fundamentally different with electronic course materials?  Could that difference make it inherently more difficult to learn from electronic materials?

I think learning is different with electronic materials, and I think it is harder.  To explain why, I have to make a big leap from my comfy geology headspace into the alien terrain of cognitive psychology.  Please do excuse me if I land awkwardly…

The difference between Y, P, G, I, A, G, N, K, B, and PIGGY BANK

The concept of cognitive load describes a sort of mental balance sheet in which learning is associated with a cost, and the learner has only so much to spend in their mental piggy bank.  The learner will spend some of their mental budget on the learning task itself.  Some of the budget will be spent on organizing the knowledge into a meaningful whole.  Both of these expenditures are good investments for the learner.

But there is also a kind of learning “overhead,” the extraneous cognitive load.  It is the cost of setting up the operation in the first place, and the more the learner spends on overhead, the less they can spend on accumulating and organizing knowledge.

When comparing electronic and print materials, the expenditure on learning tasks and organizing can be identical, but the overhead is different.  There is more overhead associated with electronic materials, and that leaves less of the budget for learning and organizing.  Some of the overhead associated with electronic materials will diminish over time.  For example, if the learner must first figure out how to use a computer, that would count as overhead.  Over time, however, using a computer might become second nature, and the related overhead would decrease.

What won’t change is the way learners interact with electronic media.  For example, consider how a learner constructs a mental picture of where the information is that they are after.  In a book, this location is a physical thing within a linear arrangement—you flip ahead, or flip backward.  If your thumb is already in the right spot, then you just go there without even thinking about it.  In electronic learning materials, you might scroll down a page, but there might also be links, videos to watch, recordings to hear, and other pages to cross-reference… the structure is branching, and there is no convenient place to stick your thumb.

An open textbook must be available electronically if it is to solve the problems of cost, updating, and distribution inherent in the textbooks offered by publishers.  The challenge is finding a learning-friendly balance between what can be included and what should be.

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Radiometric dating with cookies

Detail of the face of the astronomical clock in PragueThe media project for ILT was due yesterday, so naturally I’m posting it today instead.  I blame the delay on ambient noise makers of the four-legged variety.  (If I ever had a production company I would call it “Can we play now?” and the logo would be a tennis ball.)  My media project is a screencast about radiometric dating.  I used an analogy that has worked well for me in the past—eating cookies.  The cookie-eating analogy lets me explain the main idea behind radiometric dating in an intuitive way, and it also allows me to address a common misconception about the meaning of the term “half-life.”

This process is new to me, and I found it to be relatively painless, other than having to listen to my own voice over and over again.  I was happy to have iMovie to splice and dice QuickTime recordings to remove misspeaking, and to take out some of the more obvious pops, breaths, and thumps.  The biggest problem I experienced was underestimating the extent of image degradation upon sharing the video to YouTube.  Even with the highest quality setting, the text of my image credits is difficult to see.  Some of the images that I didn’t create myself are historical and have been in the public domain for a very long time.  However, three of the images aren’t historical, and they are important to credit.  To avoid re-recording the screencast in its entirety, I added image credits to the end.

The philosophy behind the design of my screencast is based on the idea that learning is a cumulative process.  If you don’t have a good foundation, you don’t really have anything.  My video is quite basic.  I avoided the radiometric decay equation, and the definition of the term “isotope.”  In an example, I used the elements uranium and lead because they are elements most people have heard of before (unlike samarium, neodymium, rubidium, or strontium).  Carbon-14 would otherwise be a natural choice because people tend to be familiar with carbon-14 dating, but it doesn’t work for the example, or for rocks in general.

There are many resources online to handle the more complex details of radiometric dating.  My goal was to establish the essential underlying ideas, and to convince students that radiometric dating is something they can understand.  If that is accomplished, the fear factor is reduced, and it is much easier to stuff information into brains.

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Open textbooks

The Sun: hotter than the bottom of the ocean (Credit: NASA/ European Space Agency)

The Sun: hotter than the bottom of the ocean (Credit: NASA/ European Space Agency)

A few weeks have gone by and I’m still thinking about textbooks. I’ve wondered before about the feasibility of creating an open textbook for introductory physical geology.  I got as far as sketching out some of the ideas and stopped when it became clear that a lot of work would be involved.

My most recent thinking about open textbooks was motivated by learning some startling facts from my students:  (1) At sea level, water boils at 1007°C.  (2) In areas on the ocean floor where new ocean crust is produced, water can be heated up to 10,007°C.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that that my students didn’t see anything wrong with water boiling at 1007°C, or with water on the ocean floor being a little shy of twice the sun’s surface temperature, what bothered me is that they encountered this information in their textbook.  I get that typos happen.  I’ve made some in my own course materials. The issue is that they are very hard to fix.  Ideally, I should be able to go into a document, change 1007°C to 100°C, and hit “update.”  Voila.  Problem solved.  Instead, I emailed the publisher’s salesperson for my region and told him about the error.  If he passes my email on to the right person, then in two years when the new edition comes out, water might once again boil at 100°C.

This is why writing my own textbook has a certain appeal.  Because no one is going to pay me to do it, I might as well make it freely available online.  It is free and relatively easy to make the textbook look pretty and to put it in places and formats that allow convenient student access.  The main difficulties are twofold:  First, I have to write it and find appropriate images that I am legally entitled to use.  Second, if done properly, I will have made use of online open education resources, and that means continually monitoring those resources to make sure they haven’t changed in unacceptable ways, or disappeared altogether.

When looking at a task requiring this much work, it is wise to see if someone else has already done the work for you, or is in the process of doing so.  Sadly, it appears no one has seen fit to build what I need.  It is also wise to see if others are interested in accomplishing the same task. Ideally, a project like this would involve a number of contributors with a wide range of expertise.  Perhaps a book sprint could be organized.  These are remarkable events during which a group of cloistered writers spends three to five days working on the book, facilitated by a company which organizes and feeds them.  At the end of five days a finished product is ready to upload… and apparently it is a good one.

Who knows—after years of writing fixes for course materials, I might have enough for a textbook anyway.

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A little birdie told me, part 2

Archeopteryx fossil

Two posts ago I discussed the use of Twitter as a way to get students to apply what they learn in the classroom to geology-related news and science stories.  There is another educational angle to Twitter exemplified by @RealTimeWWII.  This feed maps events of the Second World War onto the present day.  @RealTimeWWII is currently tweeting about 1942.  This means that on 22 March 2014 the tweets will be about events that occurred on 22 March 1942.  @RealTimeWWII is a very effective way to bring the human experience of the past into the present.  Could this approach help to bring geological events to life?

The best events to tweet about would provide ample geological details in addition to historical ones.  For example, tweeting about a volcanic eruption would be better than tweeting about an earthquake: much of the geological action of an earthquake happens where no-one can observe it, and the activity that leads to the earthquake takes place over very long timescales and with few discrete events.  There is no human experience associated with stress building up in tectonic plates over timescales much greater than a human lifetime.  We can feel vibrations, but rarely can we watch tectonic plates slipping past each other.  In contrast, volcanic eruptions are heralded by readily observable geological events, eruptions evolve as they proceed, and terrain is modified on timescales humans can comprehend.

I think the perspective of an observer is key to making the tweets more than simply a timeline.  Consider the 1883 eruption of Krakatau—it would be possible to tweet an impersonal account of what the volcano was doing.  However, there are a surprising number of first-person narratives from Javanese and Dutch islanders who encountered tsunamis and pyroclastic flows first-hand, and from passengers on ships in the Sunda Strait who saw and felt the final earth-shattering (literally) explosion.  The Royal Society’s 1888 report, The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena contains pages of tables devoted to reports of what different witnesses heard when the final explosion happened.  Thanks to brand-new transoceanic telegraph cables, the events were also reported in newspapers around the world.

The human experience represents but a tiny sliver of geological time, and detailed accessible records of human experience cover only a sliver of that sliver.  This means having an observer could present some interesting creative and scientific challenges.  The task of reconstructing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE from the letters of Pliny the Younger to Tacitus and the scientific literature would be more difficult that recreating the events of Krakatau, but not nearly as difficult as constructing a narrative for the mind-bending extremes of supervolcano Toba…which happened 74,000 years ago at a time when we shared the planet with Neanderthals and Homo floresiensis (the “Hobbit” people).  Now that would be an interesting enterprise.

The ultimate project would be to condense all 4.5 billion years of earth history into a single year of tweets…but who would be the observer for the first billion years before a sentient cyanobacterium could be recruited?

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