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),

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),

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),

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),

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),

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),

A Participant Reflects (The Pitfalls of Online Professional Development)

FOMO vs Fatigue

I recently took part in a three-hour professional development session in Zoom (groan, if you need to). I want to be upfront and say: I liked the presenter well enough, as they demonstrated strong knowledge and understanding of their topic, and this video session replaced an in-face session that wrapped up an interesting hybrid course on the teaching of reading that unfolded over a few months time (when we were all still in school).

It’s not the instructor’s fault they had to do this final session via Zoom. It’s the Pandemic and social distancing. They did the best they could to cover the material they needed for the job they were hired to do. I get it. It’s also possible that I went in a little weary of video conferencing, as so much time is spent doing so with students and administrators and others. That’s on me.

But … I thought afterwards of some lessons I learned by being a participant in the Zoom session as I think about being in the role of presenter in online gathering (as I am leading some work next week for colleagues.)

These are my observation notes to myself:

  • Avoid sharing three-hour online PD agenda, with only one scheduled 10 minute break. I was sighing at that before the session started. I’d say, in a three hour session, there should have been at least three or for breaks, chances to get away from the screen. And make those breaks visible in the agenda.
  • Maybe re-think three-hour virtual PD sessions altogether.
  • Avoid talking for 60+ minutes straight. There’s something about the sound of a single voice, with the eyes on the screen, that starts the mind (or my mind, at least) to drift. Find ways to break things up.
  • Regularly stop, and encourage engagement. Offer writing moments. Share polls for questions (and add an off-subject zinger in there now and then). Collaborate. Come at the audience from left field. Startle them back to the task at hand.
  • Don’t cover material that was already covered through reading or other course/PD work elsewhere. Engage the brains with something new, not reviewing what is already known (some refresher tips is fine, of course, as long as it sets the stage for something to come).
  • End with some sort of collaboration, to allow participants to reflect and think on next steps. Gather ideas together and share back out. Open the teaching to everyone (particularly in a room full of other educators).
  • Use an exit ticket to learn what worked and what didn’t work in this new world of online professional development delivery. (Write your own reflection on what you think went well and what didn’t, and what you might change).

I’m no fan of this new push into video PD format but I understand it is our world for the foreseeable future, and so, we need to find strategies that make it work for everyone. Listening to a voice talk for long stretches never worked before and it works even less now on screens. We need to think about engagement, more than ever.

Peace (thinking on it),

NYT: Rabbit Hole Podcast (What Is the Internet Doing To Us?)

One of the benefits of being at home is that I am diving into more podcasts as I do my multiple daily walks with dogs or just to get away from the screen. An intriguing series that I have been following regularly is called Rabbit Hole, produced by the New York Times, and it explores the impact of YouTube and its recommendation algorithms in its early episodes, and then begins to open wider.

It’s central inquiry question: What is the Internet doing to us?

These audio inquiries are at first, fascinating. and then frightening, as I could only think about all the young people home now, spending hours and hours — more hours than ever — watching YouTube and following who knows what algorithmic paths into who knows what strange corners of YouTube. The podcast reporters follow one person’s YouTube history (they downloaded the entire thing, with his permission, and then traced how he spent hours every day over a few years, watching YouTube) as the young man became increasingly radicalized by YouTube – first to the fringe right, and then to the fringe left.

The last few episodes have pivoted a bit, and focused on the impact of PewDiePie as a cultural force — the podcast calls him The Accidental Emperor. He started with quirky videos about video games on a whim, grew to millions of viewers, and then became a lightning rod for his political humor (including more than a few bits that uses Nazi symbolism for jokes). Learning more about him and what he has been doing with his millions and millions of viewers at YouTube is worth your time, as the cultural undercurrents of his sophomoric humor and focus by progressives often happens outside of the mainstream, but have resonance in the entire digital world.

And if you don’t know who PewDiePie is, your surely kids do. Trust me.

Listen to the Rabbit Hole podcast series.


Grappling with Algorithms and Justice (Oh, the Humanity)

Last night was the second online session of an inquiry group project called The Grapple Series – hosted by the National Writing Project, Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and the CMU CREATE Lab — that is looking at the impact of AI and technology on our lives. The theme last night was algorithms and justice, a pairing that made for interesting conversations about how blind trust in both often lead to disastrous consequences.

We explored some interesting reading and video pieces before gathering in our online session. The articles explored the issue from multiple angles, but the overall connecting concepts are clear: algorithms are created people, and people have bias, and so algorithms have bias, too, and when algorithms are embedded with bias, it impacts our notions of justice in the world.

Sometimes, this is literal — as in the case of computer software being used to designate length of parole. Sometimes, it is more nuanced — the way search engines bring racial stereotypes to the surface. Sometimes it is not yet known — the way facial recognition is changing our sense of privacy in the public sphere.

The Grapple gathering began with a large discussion and writing about justice and algorithms, and then broke into smaller groups, where we engaged in deeper debate about the role of algorithms on society.

We also teamed up to create our own paper “algorithm” for fighting off the common cold, and while our group went a sort of silly route (Should a teacher call in sick or not?), the short flowchart activity reminded us how often we can fall into Yes/No binary decisions that can leave the humanity aspect out. Another small group did integrate ideas of humanity into their algorithm, and I found that quite interesting.

I appreciate being able to work through and “grapple” with these complex questions rippling through society. There is no real solution — the algorithmic genie is long gone from its bottle. But we can be aware, and make some decisions about how what information we share and how we are being manipulated by technology.

Here are resources shared before our session, if you are interested:

Peace (ain’t no code for that),