Voices in the Cloud

Recently, I’ve been utilizing a web 2.0 tool for education called Voice thread (www.voicethread.com). This site allows you to have text, audio and video conversations around a central point of focus. For example, you can post a famous piece of artwork into a thread and then people (public or private) can share their thoughts and opinions about the piece. They can respond to everyone’s comments as well. The thread also affords users tools to make marks and highlight things directly on the central focus point while they talk, helping to illustrate their points or draw attention to something specific.

In my experience, I have been using voice thread to learn about coding. It’s such a great supplement to an online class because you can have conversations around lecture slides, and it provides another fun forum to explore thoughts and ideas.

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Another cool feature is the ability to zoom into the central focus point so that you can see the material more clearly if fonts or details are otherwise obscured. A feature that I wish it had was the ability for commenter to switch out the central focus point if needed in order to show the group something a little different, almost like an interjection in the discussion. This would allow users to stay on topic while temporarily changing the display of the central focus point.

Bottom line is that I found it to be a very useful tool for online courses, by giving subject matter the collaborative feel of classroom environment.

Photo Sharing for Education

I must confess that it has been awhile since I have used a photo sharing site. With iPhones making it easier to share a photo album with groups of friends in your contact list, I had strayed from sharing photos from an external site. Recently I navigated to flickr, to research photos on poverty in America.

https://www.flickr.com/groups/984052@N25/pool

This web address had some very interesting photos. Here is one I found particularly poignant

https://flic.kr/p/6kSdaQ

The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words rings true here. While you’re browsing through the various photos, you get a sense of poverty in America that you just can get from a research paper or data sheet.

One thing that is a little frustrating with such sites, is that the photos can be quite difficult to share. Many of them have restricted sharing features which seems counter-intuitive to a site designed to share photos with the public. I wanted to embed a few photos into this blog, and though the feature was available, it was not allowed on the photos I looked at.

I think that flickr could be a great way for students to organize a visual exploration of a topic. By sharing photos of, for example, photosynthesis, students might gain a deeper understanding of the process, since they will have an array of images associated with other learning material.

Google Spreadsheets

Recently I’ve been using Google drive spreadsheets to collect data on poverty in America. The ease of collaboration cannot be denied. Having the ability to collect data with a group of other people and make sense of it is a very powerful tool.

However, I found the UI a bit clunky and it was difficult to create customized charts to interpret the data. Especially when compared to more popular spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel. I was able to quickly display a chart from gathered data in Excel showing the percent of poverty rates from specific data.

Poverty

Whereas, applying the same data and format in the Google spreadsheet produced nonsensical results.

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Web 2.0 Tools: Bubbl

Recently, I’ve been using a mindtool called bubbl. Located at http://www.bubbl.us this tool allows you to create a concept map using bubbles. You can create child bubbles, link them and add text and pictures. It’s a terrific way to graphically represent a concept. One of the more notable features is that you can share your created concept map with your contacts and designate varying levels for their involvement. If you share the document and make others editors, you can all collaborate on the concept map together.

Anyone one who has ever put a concept map to pen and paper will immediately recognize the usefulness of this digital tool. Bubbles are easily created, deleted and linked, so organization becomes very simple and manageable. I started an elementary concept map about surfing, and found that it helped connect the concepts involved in a readable and visually pleasing way. Having such a tool in the classroom would be a great way for students to collaborate on a topic, brainstorm a project and enhance their content knowledge about a subject.

This tool does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and I haven’t found very many flaws. To access some of the premium features (attaching pictures, exporting/importing) you have to pay for a subscription but the fee is nominal and the website does offer a substantial student discount. Image

Yes We Khan!

When considering the integration of technology into our public school classrooms,  there’s   reluctance on the part of educators and administration, not the least of which are budgetary concerns–especially for schools with predominantly underserved populations. In these instances, digital enhancements, new media and educational technology is deemed a superfluous luxury instead of what it should be–a fundamental part of every classroom.

So how do we clear this hurdle? Funding our nations schools has always been a struggle, and new technologies are expensive. How can we possibly bridge the gap, and give schools a much-needed digital makeover?

A study from the Nielsen Company found that 82% of US households have computers, and of those, 92% have internet access — and this was back in 2008. With more and more households connected, the technology used at home is screaming to be let into public schools.

Maybe we can deliver a benevolent Trojan Horse, a gift fostered and created at home that school’s find so irresistible, they throw open their doors and let the technology inside. In my opinion this Trojan Horse has a name — the Khan Academy.

Right next door to me, in Los Altos, school districts are using the Khan Academy to supplement their classrooms. For those readers not familiar with the Khan Academy, I suggest you take a look. Started by Salman Khan, it is a website with a wealth of engaging educational videos on everything from math to science and social studies.

The videos are so well made, that fifth graders in Los Altos are solving inverse trigonometric functions. The homework/instruction relationship of the school is reversed, with children watching the instructional videos at home and then doing the problem sets at school, where the presence of a teacher to help students that are stuck on problems can be most beneficial. Teachers can also monitor their students’ performance on problem sets in real time, providing additional instruction and aid to those who are struggling.

Best of all — Khan Academy is free! So much for budgetary concerns.

So maybe when public schools start to realize that the integration of technology is not only helpful but affordable, we can witness a sea change in the way our students are educated.  Sometimes, revolutions are started in the places we least expect them–right in front of us.

 

 

Storytelling on a Global Scale

One Thousand and One Nights is a narrative framework that comes to us from the Middle East. It tells of a woman named Shahrazad who was to be put to death by a ruthless and tyrannical Persian king. But the wise woman used her powerful gift of storytelling to save her life. Every night she would tell the king a story, but before retiring for the evening she would start a new one. The king, anxious to hear the rest of the story, would stay her execution. For 1001 consecutive nights she recited her stories to the king. By the last night, when she had no more stories to tell, the king had fallen in love with her, and spared her life. She had literally saved her life through storytelling. Seeds of Empowerment hopes to capture this same spirit by giving impoverished children throughout the world the ability to tell their stories, make money, and in so doing bring a better life to them and their families.

The project is called 1001 Stories and the concept is fairly simple—children from all around the world will tell a story. The story is recorded and the best story is chosen to be illustrated, narrated and turned into a digital book that can be downloaded and shared. Money donated toward the purchase of the story will then be given to the child. The goal is to have 1001 stories from all different parts of the world—stories that not only tell a global tale but empower children to be entrepreneurs. This process has already resulted in some very powerful and beautiful stories that you can download to your mobile device.

But the process for bringing these stories to life is not without its problems. One of the most difficult things is procuring quality stories. Children in these impoverished areas do not have a firm grasp of story mechanics, and many are shy and have trouble thinking of a story to tell. The process is also very time consuming—compiling a team that records stories, another team to read and select the best ones, and an artist to draw each story page is a lengthy process. Considering that the vision is to compile 1001 stories, you can see how this becomes a lofty goal indeed.

There are, I think, some ways to streamline the process, get quality stories, and increase the financial boon of the storytellers. One way to do this is to solicit a child’s imagination by having them add to an existing story. Drawing from local folklore and traditions, the volunteers can ask the children what the characters from well-known stories are doing now. Where are they and who are their friends? Are they happy or sad and what new adventures have they been on? Children will add their own vivid details and descriptions to these stories when there is already a base established in their minds. Using traditional folktales to engage their imagination and help them continue the story aligns with the spirit of One Thousand and One Nights, where the narrative text was layered and always continuous.

I also feel that improvements can be made with the recording medium. I think that taking video of the children telling their stories would help in several ways. First, if the stories are grounded in traditional tales, they are rooted in an oral experience. Stories are told after all, and capturing them on video would be a natural means of conveyance. Second, these videos can be uploaded to a YouTube channel where the vetting process becomes crowd sourced. Users can watch the videos, complete with captions if need be, and vote on their favorite stories. The videos with the top views can then be selected to participate in a competition for a grand prize.

Illustrating the stories can also become part of the contest. The videos with the most views can solicit a response from artists (ideally children with artistic promise) who can submit their own drawings for consideration. The grand prize storyteller for that region would then receive a substantial monetary reward that they could share with their family and perhaps their school.

I see the future of this project as being adopted by the elementary school curriculum in the United States as a way to connect students to their global peers. To learn about different cultures, traditions and stories is part of a holistic education. Children will download these stories to their mobile phones, share them, discuss them, and maybe even tell a few of their own. And for the storytellers, much like Shahrazad, they will find life-saving gifts in the stories they tell.

To Be or Not to Be…

And the “be” does not refer to existence but rather to “for-profit”.

I have been taking Dr. Paul Kim’s graduate course in education at Stanford University, and the invaluable class discussions have really made me think about mobile technologies in education, business, and how exciting it is to navigate the ever-changing waters of the digital seascape.

In the last class we saw a presentation from Namita Dalmia, an MBA student, and a presentation from Leo Shmuylovich of Virtual Nerd. The presentations and discussions had me thinking about motivation. When we set our minds to come up with solutions to problems, improve the state of education, start a business, or pursue a new endeavor, where do our motivations lie?

When I am designing a new game or educational product, I have in my mind’s eye the children that will be engaged with it. In my mind these children are curious about the world, hungry to learn, love to play and want to be an active participant in their exploration rather than a passive listener. I am motivated by these children to create the best educational tools that I can, while striving hard to take the creator out of the end product.

But like any other field, in educational technology, there are many players with varying motivations. For some, making money—and lots of it—is the motivating factor. This came up in class when we were discussing whether a not a viable business should be for-profit or non-profit. In a for-profit model, money is the motivating factor, especially when presenting the business proposal to investors. Investors want to see and hear how your business will make money, with the educational value of the product being secondary. Even if the educational value is substantial, and the need even greater, if it is not a viable money-making business model, then you may find yourself lacking in investment capital. In a non-profit model, while funding is a concern, it seems to me that the focus is on affecting positive changes without worrying about being profitable. This mission-focused model, as opposed to a money-making model, is at the forefront of my current perspective.

In an educational ecosystem where the technology is rapidly evolving, the need to stay focused on your mission is paramount. If your mission is to provide quality educational tools, you can focus on the best way to do that, and not be sidetracked by the most profitable way. Traditional, for-profit textbook companies start to seem obsolete when you can access a wealth of free information from the Khan Academy. The delivery systems are changing, and so too are the users. I feel that the best way to be adaptable to these changes is to be structured in such a way that you and your business can easily change direction to stay ahead of the curve. In my experience this is difficult to do when you are entrenched in a specific business model where the primary concern is being profitable. You are less likely to adapt and restructure if your current product is making money and keeping the investors happy.

Of course I understand the desire to make money, and large amounts of it, but this is far from my mind when I am engaged in my work. So I will end this post in the same way I began it, with questions:

Should making money be the motivating factor? Will changing the focus of my motivations help inform my product? Does it make it better or worse? When you examine two diametrically opposed motivations with different methodologies, how is your product or business model affected? Are you still able to focus on your mission if you are constantly concerned with ROI, especially when the return may not be measured monetarily? Is there a hybrid model that has experienced tremendous success in both worlds?

Should I suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Or take arms against a sea of troubles?

How many questions was that?

What motivates you?