Book Review: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You (How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place)

It’s not easy to wrap the head around the role of algorithms in our social networks and our other online spaces but there they are — always on and always working and maybe causing trouble with unanticipated consequences. Just look at how algorithms push bias and racism, and lead us towards uncharted waters.

Janelle Shane, in her book You Look Like A Thing And I Love You does a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of algorithm design and workings, while keeping the mood light and entertaining with humorous stories and simple doodles — but never pure fluff. You’ll learn about mathematical modeling and algorithm coding and be reminded, again and again, how dumb algorithms really are.

It’s the human programmers that are the problem. That, and the ways that algorithms obscure what they are doing deep inside code, so that even as they are learning from past experiences and making adaptations to become more efficient in their job, it is not always clear how they are doing the work they are doing, once launched into their tasks. Shane dispels notions of algorithms taking over the world at any time in the near future, but she does warn that we need to have more openness and clarity about how algorithms work, so we can fix them when they go wrong.

Shane knows her topic well, and knows how to explain it to a non-programming audience. I found her book both entertaining and informative.

Peace (coded for now),
Kevin

At NWP Write Now: It’s Not the Tech; It’s the Teaching

Not the ToolsI was asked to write a piece over at NWP Write Now about the sudden rush to technology that has engulfed us all in the Pandemic, with a reminder that it is the teaching and teacher and pedagogy that is always more important than the app, site or platform. I found it helpful in the writing of the piece to remember my own advice.

Read Never The Tech; Always The Teaching at NWP Write Now.

Peace (on/off),
Kevin

Book Review: The Hyperdoc Handbook

This teaching book is now a few years old (2016) but The Hyperdoc Handbook (Digital Lesson Design Using Google Apps) by Lisa Highfill, Kelly Hilton and Sarah Landis was helpful for me in thinking further on how to integrate the concept of HyperDocs (a way to design a lesson or unit for independent inquiry and reflection for students with links and resources and places for sharing) into my remote and hybrid learning approach. I wrote about my initial foray into Hyperdocs the other week.

And plenty of National Writing Project colleagues and I have been engaged in Twitter discussions about the viability of HyperDocs, as well as the limitations. It is important to note, as the authors do repeatedly, that HyperDocs are not just some amped up worksheet to be given remotely to students. (See Deanna Mascale’s latest post on Hyperdocs for her university instruction) I also know there are criticism of this kind of approach, as being too prescriptive or narrowing in scope for learners.

The three authors of The Hyperdoc Handbook are experienced teachers and instructional coaches and technology advocates, and I appreciated the approach of screenshots and examples and the way they talk through the pedagogical rationale for Hyperdocs as a way to engage all learners in a guided yet independent inquiry process. They explore pedagogy and tap into the ways that well-designed Hyperdocs can extend the idea of Zones of Proximal Development, through layered choices and skills and expectations.

You don’t need buy this book to learn about Hyperdocs (I am one of those own-a-book people and I like to support teachers) and their website has plenty of examples and templates and more that you can examine and borrow, and hack, as the authors tell you in the book.  A blog post at the site even provides some useful thinking on remote teaching with Hyperdocs.

This week, in fact, I am going to use a HyperDoc with teachers as part of a professional development session on Project-Based Learning, in which teachers explore a theme for a short/tiny public service announcement (an idea borrowed from AJ Jacobs).

I’m deep into the design stage of curriculum for the start of our school year (which begins remote and then becomes hybrid, with independent learning days for students in the weekly schedule). I see some possibilities here for my students, although it is important to acknowledge that Hyperdocs as nothing new, really, but more of a way to organize resources for student inquiry and exploration. Webquests, websites, blog posts, etc, all are in the same family. The book is helpful in its range of examples, visuals and testimonials from other educators.

As mentioned, a Hyperdoc (which does NOT have to be a Google Doc or product) is definitely more than a glorified worksheet. It’s more like an anchor or docking point, leading students to other activities and resources. That’s important to remember.

Peace, (linked),
Kevin

Evaluating Technology Tools (But, It’s Not About The Tech)

Dr. Torrey Trust, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been a pretty active and reliable voice in teaching circles since the Pandemic hit, as her academic focus is on teaching with technology. She also writes regularly about privacy issues in relation to students and families and more, and I appreciate her advice and suggestions, and insights into difficult topics related to technology.

I came across her Online Tools for Teaching and Learning site the other day, and while it is focused on the surface on tools, it’s really about the viability of how to use technology to engage students in learning.

Each platform reviewed (which are curated by use and also by year reviewed, with a bunch of recent ones added to the mix) is looked at by her team of academics (I think, or least, that was how the earlier ones were done as part of a graduate class) with analysis on qualities, privacy, accessibility and use by educators. Most come with helpful “how to” advice, as well.

Check out Online Tools for Teaching and Learning

Peace (exploring it),
Kevin

Thinking on HyperDocs for Flexible Teaching and Learning

I’ve been meaning to spend some time looking into the use of HyperDocs — sort of an updated version of Webquests in which a single document with hyperlinks provides students with multiple entries of engagement and exploration. It’s a concept that I have seen from time to time, and thought, yeah, someday, I’ll take a look.

But it was a post at Middleweb by a National Writing Project friend, Jeremy Hyler, another middle grade teacher, and then an interview on NWP Radio with Jeremy on the topic that provided me with a reason to sit down with HyperDocs with intention and ponder how it might be a good fit for a school year of remote and hybrid learning.

I quickly discovered that I appreciate HyperDocs as an approach of using a single document with multiple strands of activities for students, although it obviously requires, as Jeremy notes, work at the start by the teacher to think through sequences of learning activities and also choice opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding, with room for extension for those students who need a bit more.

While I come to the concept via NWP and Jeremy, I want to note that Laura Highfill, Kelly Hilton and Sarah Landis are prominent voices in the mix. The three educators facilitate and oversee the HyperDoc website, along with assorted course offerings, and they say they coined the term and concept in 2013.

At their website, the HyperDoc founders note:

A true HyperDoc is much more than some links on a document.

  • Creators deliberately choose web tools to give students opportunities to Engage • Explore • Explain • Apply • Share • Reflect • Extend the learning.
  • Digital collaboration is choreographed to give every student a voice and a chance to be heard by their classmates.
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills can be developed through linked tasks.
  • Students have an opportunity to create authentic digital artifacts to show what they know and connect with a wider audience.

In some ways, HyperDocs consolidates much of what teachers were already doing with research and online media exploration, but maybe doing even more so during forced closures due to the Pandemic. It leverages the resources of the Web, but also integrates well with any online platform, such as Google Classroom. Where I used to have multiple posts with different steps, spread out over a week, let’s say, a HyperDoc contains the entire sequence of activities, with media and text set explorations, in one document, allowing a student to move through the expectations at their own pace. The term “flexibility” comes up a lot with HyperDocs.

While there is no set structure of a HyperDoc, most seem to start with some essential questions and inquiry, leading to application of understanding, and then extension opportunities, with lots of places for reflections on process. Take a look at some samples to get a better sense of the HyperDoc concept. It’s important to note, I think, that you could easily design a HyperDoc as a simple website/blog post, in any text format that has links to the Internet, in Google Slides or presentation software, etc. It does not require a Google Doc, since the most important parts are links to follow, opportunities for reflection and sequencing of information.

The HyperDoc site has samples and lots of information, and I even ordered The HyperDoc Handbook from the HyperDoc folks just to have another resource handy. But there are plenty of other places on the Internet where teachers are sharing templates and ideas. I’ve “borrowed” a few (including the one that Jeremy talks about in the NWP podcast) and have been busy adapting for my own needs.

At this point, I have four different HyperDocs under construction for the start of the year: an icebreaker Back to School Hyperdoc, a literature-themed Hyperdoc focused on a short story and exploration of literary concepts, and a civic action HyperDoc that explores student agency.

HyperDoc Sample

Here is a link to a fourth HyperDoc I am creating as part of a Professional Development I am co-facilitating at the start of the year with colleagues on Project-Based Learning. This HyperDoc that I created utilizes the idea of the tiny Public Service Announcement (inspired by AJ Juliani) to show teachers a way to simulate PBL, and it can be adapted for the classroom, too. It has been built off a design that Jeremy had shared (thank you).

What’s great is that with some initial instruction and guidance for students (I even found a HyperDoc that explains HyperDocs to students), I can use HyperDocs for independent learning in both a Hybrid model (when I will see only half my students at a time but they are expected to be doing things the other half of the time) and for a Remote model (where none of us are going to want to be on the video screen for long stretches of time).

The flexibility and leveraging of online resources, plus the integration of other technological platforms like Padlet, Flipgrid, VoiceThread and others for reflection and sharing points, seems like it could be a winning way to use technology effectively for teaching and learning.

Peace (linked),
Kevin

Book Review: Eyes & Spies (How You’re Tracked and Why You Should Know)

Where’s the line between sparking fear and providing necessary information when it comes to talking to young people about their digital lives? I struggle with this shifting and slippery line every single year I work with my sixth graders on our Digital Life Unit (wetalk about the topics of privacy throughout the year). The line itself keep shifting on us.

Eyes & Spies: How You’re Tracked and Why You Should Know takes the approach of being pretty blunt in its delivery of eye-opening ways that governments, companies and others are exploiting our online and digital lives for surveillance and for profit, and for nefarious activities. Whereas I try to keep more positive in my discussions, this book for middle and high school students does not hold back the punches, not at all, and I suppose that is as it should be, for older users of technology.

This visual book covers a lot of ground, too, but in language and format that is accessible — there are lots of short bursts of information within the larger chapters, and lots of illustrations and color. Charts also offer suggestions for privacy for different topics.

I particularly enjoyed the running pieces that coupled the pros with the cons of topics in the form of short, reasoned arguments — such as why GPS tracking of kids might be used for protection and why it might be an invasion of privacy.

Another feature I appreciated were small stories under the banner of the Creepy Lines of technology, with ethical and moral dilemmas with no clear-cut answer to the issues facing society, such as police using fake identities on social media to find a criminal. Each of these also ends with a question for the reader to ponder.

Overall, I found the book useful for my own talking points but I feel that the text is best for high school students, and maybe in different sections, too. I would also argue that it is useful for parents of teenagers, like myself, to remind us to have these conversations with kids about how they are using technology, how much privacy they are giving up, how to protect themselves, and how to step back to see the larger picture of how our devices and the growing field of technology are invading our lives, for both good and for bad.

Peace (post it),
Kevin

TikTok, Trump, and Our Kids’ Attention

It’s hard not to think that Trump’s announcement last night that he will ban TikTok in the United States is either another attention diversion from the terrible economic news and his handling of the virus OR if it’s the result of a personal grievance after TikTok users claimed responsibility for the Tulsa Trump Campaign ticket disaster that led to nearly nobody showing up.

He cites the company’s ties to China and privacy and data issues, which is something to be legitimately concerned about and something I have tried to follow over the past year. Unfortunately, you can’t trust a Liar In Chief like our president on anything. His motives are almost always personal and fueled by grievance.

It’s also true that Trump rarely follows through on anything he says (Where’s that health care replacement he keeps saying is coming, three years later?) He doesn’t have the stomach for any real governance, just for headline grabbing. (which, to give him credit, he is a genius at).

Maybe he’s trolling us on TikTok, too.

I’ve written about TikTok before because it was the start of school last year (so long ago now in memory, in a pre-Covid time) that so many of sixth graders were not only talking about TikTok as the app of the moment, but throughout the year, they would break into popular dance movements whenever we were lined up to go anywhere. The viral nature was another level of attention. (See this blog post and this one and this one)

I also shared how we had discussions in class about the possibilities of China having an influence on TikTok and whether the gathering of information from the app on users was being shared with the Chinese government (that part is not clear but there were enough signs about its data collection to be worried, and enough worries to talk about it with my students during our lessons about digital platforms and privacy).

And I also know, with the Pandemic closing of school in the Spring, TikTok became a refuge of connection and entertainment for so many of my students, who were making videos as much as watching videos on the TikTok feed. TikTok and YouTube were the most used platforms by young people, I would venture a guess.

So I wonder what young people will think now that the president has decided TikTok should be banned outright, and may use his presidential emergency powers to do so (I don’t quite understand how, and I suspect legal challenges will tie it up for a long time, and that this still accomplishes Trump’s goals of diversion in the news and minds of the country as people are dying on a daily basis from government incompetence). He claims a ban could happen as early as today.

I also think that so much of what the president and Congress does seems intangible and removed from the world of young people, but not something like this. If the president bans their favorite app, and shuts down their main connector to friends and entertainment just as the anxiety of school re-opening is taking hold, young people may be most affected, and perhaps, may become political as a result.

Or they might just shrug shoulders and move to the next ‘big thing’ app, whose name we (or at least, I) don’t yet know but probably is already gathering steam just beyond our adult sight-lines.

I’ll ask them when I meet them in a few weeks.

Peace (plug it in),
Kevin

Interactive Fiction with Young Writers (a resource site)

Interactive Fiction Resource SiteLast week, I was immersed in an online summer youth writing program for middle school writers through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My topic: Interactive Fiction (with a focus on ‘choose your own ending’ formats). I had 12 young writers with me on a daily journey via Zoom of writing, exploring, creating and sharing.

I created this online resource site with tutorials on the three main platforms that we used: Inklewriter, Twine and Google Slides.  There are also some student examples at the top. Feel free to use and share anything that might be helpful. I’ll share out some reflections of running an online summer writing program in a few days.

Go to Interactive Fiction resource site

I’d also like to give a huge shout-out to my thinking partner on designing this online program (an offshoot of a project I do in the classroom with my own students ) to Bryan Coyle, a teacher-consultant with the Minnesota Writing Project.

I had learned through the National Writing Project network (via Twitter) that Bryan was also doing an Interactive Fiction summer program, in the weeks before me, and so he and I chatted via email about program design. Bryan was so generous in sharing his resources, and I was able to adapt some of his work for my own program. He also wrote me a lengthy email after his program ended, reflecting on what worked for him and what didn’t, offering advice on how to proceed in an online environment with young writers one has never met. I am most grateful for the connection.

Peace (make a choice),
Kevin

Words as Music: JazzKey and Poetry

A poem, A song

Two CLMOOC friends, Wendy and Terry, were playing around with a site called JazzKeys and I was curious. It’s a site that turns the typing of words into music, and it’s a small bit of loveliness, really. I tried it out and dug it, the way a poem has a soundtrack built on the physical typing of the letters themselves.

What I found was that I was tried to write in a certain rhythm, as I was listening to the jazz piano play with every keystroke. Although I wrote the poem on the spot, I redid the poem at the site a few times because I am apt to make spelling errors with my quick finger typing method, and I decided not to keep them. I wanted a clean copy (although one could argue that a poem written, rife with errors and music, might be more authentic and interesting)

Here’s how you can listen to my poem: https://jazzkeys.plan8.co/?msg=-MA0enUc_DVFV8VwKfUP (or if you prefer, the other color-schemed version https://jazzkeys.plan8.co/?msg=-MA0bvPmpbJBlXhv7mIz)

Try it out yourself: https://jazzkeys.plan8.co/

Peace (playing it),
Kevin