computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Should risk-takers receive help?

When I started this blog, it was going to be about belay stations. The internet (oddly enough) has changed the way I think about them, and my teaching hasn't caught up to my thinking yet. Since then, the topic that has taken the most space is the use of computers in the classroom. I'm not finished with that and will return very shortly, but first a quick swing by the topic of extreme sports.

Climber Jarle Traa summitted Chomolongma (Everest) two Fridays ago but seems to have gotten lost on the way down. Assumed dead, he was found by pure chance at 8300 m 3 days later by two Sherpas. He is now in hospital in Kathmandu. Sergei Samiolov in the meantime is presumed dead.

No long post here about the meaninglessness of Everest climbing, the bizarre Himalayan expedition industry and so on. There is a lot written about this stuff and I just don't care. Himalayan climbing has never really interested me. What has caught my attention is the outpouring of angry voices insisting that climbers and other extreme sports enthusiasts should not be rescued or at least have to pay for their rescue.

Nepal has no rescue service, so climbers on Chomolongma rescue each other. Western countries tend to have organised rescue services staffed by climbers, so again climbers rescue each other. Why is this system offensive? I listened to lots of angry callers to a radio talk show last week and many of them mentioned the risks rescuers take and the expense to society.

I’ve had some involvement in mountain Search and Rescue and there is such a strong culture of risk management in rescue services that I have trouble relating such opinions to reality. There is of course the use of public money for rescue in many places, but again I have trouble relating these angry opinions to the facts as I see them. In Norway, where I live, there are few rescues of climbers. Hikers are far more often choppered out than climbers. The real expense, in lives, risk-taking and money, is in connection with small boat accidents. Yet no-one clamours against geezers out in small boats. It seems natural that people go out in small boats and a matter of course that massive resources are mobilised to save them when things go wrong.

The boater may be taking a risk, but what they do is so ‘normal’ that this is not seen as risk-taking activity. The climber may be taking less of a risk, but what they do is seen as strange and dangerous. It’s alien and incomprehensible and therefore easy to complain about. If we started to look at the numbers, we’d have to start looking at boaters and accept that everyday activities involve risk that may endanger others. We might have to start to look at driving, heaven forbid.

Photo credits: féileacán, Åmot C. Nilssen (practice, me in white)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tablet PCs - What can you do with this?

I occaisonally get asked about these videos that I made about evaluation using the tablet PC, so here they are, rough and amateurish:

Oral Evaluation

Managing students' written submissions

More detail on correcting students' work with the tablet pen

Student blogs

Fun to see two former students have won mentions in the Edublogger's Student challenge. I especially liked GAH's post. Just like him: stunning English skills and wry humour. Interestingly enough, he questions the whole idea, finding the exercise (obligatory student blogging) rather artificial and feeling foolish communicating to a world that is not listening.

Rather ironic to note all the enthusiastic comments from around the world on his little post.

(I also note that he hasn't added his winner's badge to his blog. And since I didn't have to read his blog....does that make me a ninja?)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I've been pondering VoiceThread for some time. What on earth can you use this for?

Bill Ferriter at the Tempered Radical has set up a demo VoiceThread on overcoming cultural divisions in schools. I've been checking it out and, well, things may be worse than I thought.

Some points:

1. The beauty of online text conversations is largely lost. Speech is far more difficult to search through and has no title, so instead of being able to quickly hone in on what you are interested in, you have to listen through whole texts.

2. The speed of reading is lost. One is quickly reminded of how fast the average netizen can read, compared to speaking speed. It just takes so long to listen to all this stuff. Combined with point 1, this quickly makes VoiceThreads unbearable.

3. The quality of writing is lost. Most of us write far more sloppily online, but still, there is a moment of editing, at least. Modern tools make it quick for us to rearrange, edit, root out that sentence that on second thought made no sense, etc. Modern recording techniques (even just Audacity) can do the same for the spoken word, but VoiceThread seems to encourage spontaneous speech: poorly structured, wandering, low information density. The quality of the contributions on the Transforming School Culture thread, for example, is far below what one would expect on an equivalent forum or blog comment roll.

4. The power of the spoken word is lost. If speech is so slow compared to reading, why do we so often get information through speech? Well, speech is easier because it requires no medium. Formal settings like lectures can compete with reading because we like the connection to a living person. The speaker's body language, movement, presence and so on can underline the message and help impress it on us. All this is lost in VoiceThread, so we have the disadvantages of speech without the advantages.

5. VoiceThread has some real multimedia potential.

  • One clue seems to be to avoid recording your voice unless there is some special reason for it, but simply writing comments. Faster for the viewer, and easier to judge relevance. The combination makes for a richer feel, also.

  • Slides with writing can be fine, but don't add voice explaining it, as this feels both insulting and bores the viewer before we get started.

  • Pictures and videos make excellent centrepieces and starting points for conversations.

In this particular example, Bill Ferriter has included a recording interpreting each video or quote. It's quite the turn-off as it is unnecessary (everyone could just read the quote or watch the video) and takes up space. These are always first, as well. No insult if you're reading this, Bill, it's just this sort of public trail-and-error that we need to learn from each other. Thanks.

The good thing about VoiceThread of course, is that once you have got the picture, you can simply skip Mr. Ferriter's comments and dig deeper into the conversation.

So, next year, I'm going to take three similar topics and set up one as a text-only conversation, one as text with links and pictures and one as a VoiceThread. Afterwards, I'll get the students to compare. How do content and format interact?

Tips on conversations from Bill Ferriter.


...and, well, you can google the rest...

Friday, May 8, 2009

"I'm not cheating, I'm on FaceBook!"

Class. Friday afternoon. We're in the midst of a game, competing to see who can conjugate the most French verbs. One pupil complains that one of his classmates has her laptop open and is cheating. Scandalized, she says:

"I'm not cheating, I'm on FaceBook!"

I'm not making this up.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Classroom leadership

Classroom leadership - another buzzword these days.
When I took my degree in education, they told us that the days of teaching as private practice were over. No longer did you close the door to the classroom and do your own thing.

Turned out not to be true. The teacher as private practitioner is alive and well. Some teachers do report that at their schools there is a certain pressure to not be like that and that those teachers who cling to their 'private practice' attract negative comments and even sanctions.
A letter to the editor of the Norwegian teachers' union magazine caught my eye the other day. The writer found it ironic that in this climate of poo-pooing those teachers who act like private practitioners, classroom leadership has become such a buzzword. Isn't "classroom leadership" back to putting responsibility back on the individual teacher, standing alone in front of her class? I'm not sure we can have it both ways. If we are serious about opening up our classrooms and our teaching, then responsibility for managing the classroom also ends up shared. The challenges of leading young people in their learning end up shared by teams and institutions.
I'm not sure, but I think this is where we should be going. However, if your school cannot take the responsibility for classroom leadership as a whole institution or has no teams that can take that responsibility as a team, well, then it's time to admit that your school is made up of lots of teachers who are essentially free-lancers. The role of the school is then to support them in that role. That's maybe OK, too, at least for a time, while we think about how to open up the classroom.
Photo credit: T. Favre-Bull