Hacking Youtube

Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers provides a very useful resource — alternatives to Youtube:

Some excellent educational content can be found on YouTube. However, many teachers cannot access YouTube in their classrooms. Therefore, I compiled a list of 48 places to find educational videos that don’t rely on YouTube.

Alternative video sites are one possible solution to the problem, but I was impressed by the hacker-like approach taken by a  number of teachers in this discussion on how to get around having Youtube blocked. I can’t speak to the legality of all of the suggestions made here (much less can I provide any counsel as to whether a particular idea would be okay within a particular school district’s rules and regs. But I will say that capturing Youtube videos and then re-posting them behind the firewall sounds a little suspect (to me, anyway.)

Of course, when you consider that Youtube made their fortune in the first place using other people’s video that they didn’t have the right to use…there might at least be a little poetic justice there.

Other ideas involve the use of login filters (apparently Youtube is board with creating a less objectionable version of their site for classroom use) and teachers embedding videos in their own pages, or otherwise streaming the videos without giving students access that they aren’t, under the rules, supposed to have.

Read the whole discussion. It’s a great lesson on the many ways obstacles can be overcome.

A Bit of a Paradox

Drawing on the Pew survey of teachers we cited recently in our piece about the possible need for a new kind of literacy, Educational Technology and Mobile Learning presents the Eight Digital Skills Students Need for the Future .


While it would be hard to argue with any of the eight skills listed, the relative weighting of the items as provided by the teachers is pretty interesting. So 91% of those surveyed think that judging the quality of information is essential, only 23% believe that working with audio, video, or graphic content is essential.

Here’s the problem. Whether we want to believe that these forms are essential or not, students are going to be getting more and more of their information from audio, video, and graphic content (as well as text) and often from sources that combine all of these elements. If we downplay the importance of these different sources of information, how likely is it that students will ever be able to judge the quality of that information. Being an excellent judge of written communication is only so helpful when you get half (or more) of your information from other sources.

If item 1 on this list is important, item 8 must be, too.

Great News for Apple

…but how good is the news for students? So here’s the deal. The city of Los Angeles is planning to put an iPad into the hands of every student in the district by the end of 2014:

After signing a $30 million iPad deal with Apple in June, the Los Angeles School Board of Education has revealed the full extent of the program that will provide tablets to all students in the district. CiteWorld reports that the first phase of the program will see pupils receive 31,000 iPads this school year, rising to 640,000 Apple tablets by the end of 2014. Apple previously announced that the initiative would include 47 campuses and commence in the fall.

There are promising and worrying aspects to this announcement. On the promising side:

As part of the deal, Apple will preload iPads with educational resources. Those apps will include the Pearson Common Core System of Courses and Apple’s own iWork (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers) and iLife (iMovie, iPhoto, and Garageband) software suites.

Pre-loading the devices with the Pearson course system will help ensure (although there are no guarantees) that the devices are used towards educational ends rather than just serving as novelty items. And tools like iMovie and Garageband will provide some students the opportunity to do some truly amazing things.

Of course, there is some question as to whether the iPad really is a one-size-fits-all solution for kids across the board. And there are even those who question whether it’s the best possible platform for this sort of thing. And there are unanswered security questions. Will kids be allowed to take their iPads home? (It kind of defeats the purpose of a mobile device if they can’t.) What happens if they are broken? Or stolen?

And then there’s this:

The board will use the $30 million in tax money to fund the first 31,000 devices but will look for additional funding in order to secure the remaining tablets.

So the promise is for 640,000 kids to get iPads, but so far there is only funding for 30,000. That is some significant disappointment potential.


Let Your Freak Flag Fly

Shelley Carson, in a piece written a while back at Scientific American, explores the link between eccentricity and creativity:

Albert Einstein picked up cigarette butts off the street to get tobacco for his pipe; Howard Hughes spent entire days on a chair in the middle of the supposedly germ-free zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; the composer Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs; and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London. More recently, we have seen Michael Jackson’s preoccupation with rhinoplasty, Salvador Dalí’s affection for dangerous pets and the Icelandic singer Björk dressed for the Oscars as a swan.

It isn’t just average Joes who perceive highly creative individuals as eccentric. These individuals often see themselves as different and unable to fit in. The latest findings in brain imaging, creativity research and molecular biology suggest that these perceptions are not just based on a few anecdotal accounts of “weird” scientists and artists. In fact, creativity and eccentricity often go hand in hand, and researchers now believe that both traits may be a result of how the brain filters incoming information. Even in the business world, there is a growing appreciation of the link between creative thinking and unconventional behavior, with increased acceptance of the latter.

If eccentricity is so vitally linked with creativity, then it’s likely that efforts to rein in the one will have a dampening effect on the other. Traditionally, schools have not been noted as particularly welcoming environments for eccentrics. Part of the blame there can be assigned to teachers and administrators, who need to create some kind of orderly environment and who end up enforcing a good many social norms without ever giving the matter much thought. But a large share of the blame must also be apportioned to the students themselves, who are tireless enforcers of social norms and who can be tremendously intolerant of departures therefrom.

Obviously there has been a good deal of progress in these areas over the past few years, and there is no question that schools today are more tolerant of differences, even some very odd differences,  than they were a decade or three ago. And partly through efforts such as the various anti-bullying campaigns, but also due in part, I think, to a generational tendency towards a more live-and-let-live approach to to the world, students are a significantly less hostile to the Weird Kid than they were in the past.

This is all to the good if we want our schools to provide an environment where creativity can flourish. And as Carson sees it, that is probably something we should want very much:

The good news is that the plight of square pegs may be improving. The ascendancy of innovative technology as a key factor in economic growth has elevated creativity from merely a positive trait to a highly sought-after commodity in the global market. Many leading corporations—such as Coca Cola, DuPont, Citigroup and Humana—now have chief innovation officers on their leadership teams. Prestigious business schools—such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale—have added courses on creativity to their curricula. And Fortune 500 companies, including PepsiCo, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Aetna and Marriott, now routinely put employees through creativity training programs. Trainers in these classes use a variety of tools and techniques to help noneccentrics open their minds to “out of the box” thoughts and stimuli that might otherwise be ignored or suppressed.

It makes sense that the economic value of creativity would drive us towards greater tolerance of eccentricity. But technology may have a greater role to play than just that of an economic driver. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at the role that technology can play in enhancing student creativity. A whole new literacy is evolving, powered by computer technology, which enables students to combine verbal expression with more visual forms in ways that were never before possible; shared social spaces are providing  motivation for students to improve the quality of their work (even the choice of computer hardware is being evaluated from the standpoint of how it will contribute to such spaces). Meanwhile, a focus on learning outcomes rather than adherence to traditional classrooms on the one hand, or the gee-whiz aspects of technology on the other, is allowing for some truly innovative educational options, particularly where creativity is involved.

It has been established that one of the key benefits of effective educational technology is its ability to individualize the learning experience, to make it specific to a particular student’s learning style. These shared social spaces will have to do that one better. Accommodating individual learning needs and preferences is a great start, but what we ultimately need are social spaces that accommodate individuals, period. The social learning space must be one where eccentricity can flourish as it never has before, a place that says, “Come on in. And let your freak flag fly.”

Not Your Parents’ Summer Camp

Time was that “summer camp” meant packing kids off to a remote location for a few days (or weeks) of fresh air, exercise, making new friends, and (usually) arts & crafts. Of course that model still exists — and still has a lot to offer — but a new kind of summer camp experience has emerged recently, one that occurs online and that gives kids the chance to explore interesting new possibilities without ever leaving home.

One such camp of particular interest to us here is Make: magazine’s Maker Camp, described as a “free virtual summer camp for teens.” While short on canoeing and campfire songs, this program has a lot to offer for kids who want to explore the maker movement from the inside by learning how to build their own toys, games, and gadgets. Video tutorials accompany a series of Google+ Hangouts to bring the camping experience to life.

Another good example is BoomWriter’s Storytellers Camp,  wherein campers get to collaborate on a creative writing project with Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney.

Both of these summer programs make use of social technology to enable a creative shared space for learning. As we have noted recently, while social technology can provide a tremendous boost to learning in general, it seems to be especially effective when it comes to providing an environment where students can improve their creative skills. These summer “camps” provide a glimpse of the future of the classroom. This is not to suggest that in the future all (or a majority of) classwork will be done remotely — although that is a possibility — but rather to observe that an environment that both invites the students in and provides fresh challenges to them in an engaging way is too good a model not to be adopted.

Who knows? Before long, it might be summer all year long.

What’s Missing?

Here is a good infographic found on The Principal of the Thing:


Yes, the wrong answers are all wrong, but maybe there are more right answers than what we see here.

For example:

  • Solve problems
  • Make something new
  • Develop Skills
  • Share materials
  • Work collaboratively
  • Interact creatively

Technology helps  students to engage with course materials, make choices, and develop skills in ways that the traditional classroom can’t. Students can define goals, make decisions, and evaluate their own progress — plus connect with others doing the same.

It’s NOT the 1000-Monkey Scenario

At Transparency Revolution, I just published a piece responding to an observation by Charlie Stross on the ubiquity of photography:

Right now we’re living through the Photography Singularity; 10% of all photos ever taken were taken in the past 12 months, and the exponential up-slope is continuing.

The “photography singularity”* is an instance of an overall information explosion which is occurring here in the age of the the Internet and the Smartphone. It is not alone. A similar explosion is taking place in the realm of book publishing, where the growing popularity of self-published eBooks is producing some truly startling results. A while back, blogger Pat Bertram explained it in these terms:

300,000 books were published in the U.S. 2003.

411,422 books were published in the U.S. in 2007.

1,052,803 books were published in the U.S. 2009.

Approximately 3,000,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2011.

And . . . drum roll, please . . . in an online interview, Seth Godin suggests that 15,000, 000 books will be published in 2012.

15,000,000. Yikes.

Bertram is quoting Bowkers, the company that issues ISBN numbers, before he gets to Seth Godin’s prediction. I haven’t seen any official numbers for 2012 yet, but if the total was even half of what Godin predicted, that’s an astounding number.

But how significant is it, really? At Forbes, Nick Morgan offers the following analysis of the situation (relying on very different numbers from Bertram’s:

Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.

Morgan’s assertion that any given reader’s book won’t stand out is refuted by a few exceptional cases — call them the Justin Biebers of the book publishing world — whose numbers appear to be growing.

In any case, not everyone is looking for Hilary-level success. Like the smartphones that are turning us all into photographers, digital publishing enables many more individual writers to be published authors than ever would have before. Just being a published author is a big deal for many; selling 250 copies would be icing on the cake. The traditional publishing industry is driven by harsh economics;  there is a set threshold of sales that must be reached in order to declare a book a success. But with the digital option you can publish a book that has a potential audience of only 10 readers and achieve something that the traditional book publishers have never come close to: 100% market saturation.

I mentioned recently how one of our recommended solutions, Boomwriter, provides a shared space for collaboration. Students write alternative versions of chapters of a book and then vote to decide which becomes the next official chapter. The finished product is published as an actual book, which usually has a fairly small readership — members of the class, their friends, their families. But the number of copies distributed doesn’t diminish the sense of accomplishment experienced by each of the authors.

Plus, with thousands of kids in hundreds of classrooms churning out book after book, there’s a very real real possibility that some of the finished works will have much broader appeal. This isn’t about having  1000 monkeys pounding on typewriters until they produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. As noted in my piece last week, having an audience seems to be a real factor in helping writers improve the quality of their work. And self-publishing helps works that otherwise would not have had the chance to find an audience. How long before a bestseller emerges from some 4th grade classroom in Iowa? How long before Hollywood is negotiating a three-picture deal with some middle-schoolers from Baltimore?

* The word “singularity” in Stross’s quote and as used by me here is a reference to the technological singularity, the hypothesis that we will soon see the emergence of a greater than human intelligence, changing the world in ways that are unpredictable and unimaginable. In common usage (disapproved of by some singularity purists) there are any number of smaller singularities occurring as we approach this big one — radical changes to society brought about by the sudden adoption of new technology. The “book singularity” is one such.

How’s That Online Education Working Out

Related to my piece from last week on online teachers, this site introduces five students and shares their perspectives on online education — secondary, in this case. Some of the students are traditional and some are online full-time so it’s a good mix of perspectives.

One of the students, Jennifer, makes this observation:

I think future college students who are considering pursuing a degree online should know that it might be a more difficult endeavor than attending a traditional school. It can be really easy to fall behind if you aren’t used to structuring your own schedule and making sure you study.

That sounds like it should be obvious, but maybe it’s not as obvious as it should be. When San Jose State University partnered with Udacity earlier this year the hype was that it was the beginning of a whole new era in higher education. Now, a little over six months into the program, it is being suspended because about half of the online students failed their final exams.

Because online courses offer much greater freedom and flexibility, there may be a tendency to think of them as “easier.” More likely, the opposite is true. As Jennifer points out, above, the structure the school provides for traditional courses has to come from somewhere else when the class is presented online — namely, the student. Effective time management, and maybe more importantly effective self-management, are not skills that a lot of students (or post-students) have exactly mastered. But for something like online education to work, they’re going to have to find a way to do so.

Automating Teachers

Hey, speaking of English teachers, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun has some interesting things to say about how grading is done for online coursework:

A grader for a computer program is called a compiler. It’s either right or wrong and there are computer programs that can help you. And even there it’s not completely trivial. If you want to prove a theorem, it’s not entirely obvious how to assess a theorem, but by and large it’s easy. Compare this to critical dialogue in philosophy, discourse in philosophy. There, it’s really the subtlety of their language that makes all the difference and more—it’s not just about assessment, it’s not about grading, it’s also about feedback. When someone writes an essay, you want to give meaningful feedback so they can improve. I’ve seen good progress on the assessment of essays; I’ve seen almost no progress on qualified feedback. And that’s where you have a very simple opinion—you just have people do it. Our classes right now require essay writing, and those essays are being graded by people and it’s just fine, in my opinion. Why not? There are a lot of unemployed people in this country. I don’t think it has to be all computerized.

So while the MOOC environment replaces the teacher and classroom environment, sometimes you still need a flesh-and-blood teacher to do the grading.  A compiler can “grade” the composition of computer code, but you wouldn’t want something like Microsoft’s grammar checker to grade English compositions.

It’s interesting that the more highly valued STEM courses are easier to fully automate than liberal arts courses. So English teachers will be among the last to be automated out of a job. Of course, the requirement for a human in the loop will only make liberals arts courseware relatively more difficult and expensive to provide, meaning that there will be fewer such offerings, and that they will be more expensive.

Advantage: STEM courses

[Photo by Jiuguang Wang.]

A New Literacy

English teachers don’t get much positive press these days. That’s partly because teachers in general don’t get much positive press, and also because there is widespread agreement that reading and writing skills have slipped considerably over the past few decades — which is largely a matter of scapegoating teachers for a set of social trends that would be hard for anyone to try to slow — but also because everybody knows that these days STEM is where it’s at.

So it’s interesting to note that the new Pew Survey on student writing shows that English in particular teachers are leading the way in adoption of digital technologies, social media in particular, in support of developing writing skills. As I noted earlier this week, teachers are learning that writing performance improves significantly when students have an audience, which social technologies inherently provide.

But apparently it isn’t all good news. With the greater enthusiasm for writing that an audience creates, teachers are also observing a drop-off in some of the fundamentals. Or rather, they are seeing the introduction of some new standards and conventions that evolved in the social space but that don’t seem a good fit for the classroom, or for formal writing generally:

Teachers also expressed concerns that lax grammar and abbreviations like ‘BTW’ (by the way), commonly used on social networking sites, were appearing in school work.

While this seems like a big deal to English teachers (and having a BA in English myself and having worked as an editor for many years, I understand their perspective) I think there’s a real baby / bathwater dichotomy that we want to be aware of here. If kids are producing writing that otherwise reflects both genuine interest and enthusiasm for their subject and the kind of effort behind constructing a clear argument that such factors encourage, maybe we son’t want to totally lose it over the fact that they are writing “BTW” and “IDK” and even (shudder) “ur.”

Yes, we should correct those things, and insist that they not be part of formal writing. Just to support my own personal favorite lost cause for a moment, we should also insist that an objective pronoun be used when the meaning of the sentence calls for it, even if that pronoun comes at the end of a sentence or after the word “and.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then between you and me, you’re part of the problem. And if you think there was something grammatically wrong with the previous sentence, you are simply proving my point. (Read this if you are interested in starting down the road to redemption.)

Unfortunately, “between you and I” probably is a lost cause because the basic rules of grammar and the logic that make right-thinking people (like me) cringe when they hear those words, rules that I was taught in the fifth grade and that have stuck with me ever since, are simply no longer taught. You can get a degree in English without ever having learned that writing “between you and I” is an abomination. Many of the teachers upset by kids using “BTW” and “ur” probably use this construction, and all its related abominations, all the time.

In a few years, the kids who are developing their composition skills via social media will be the English teachers, the editors, and even the authors of style guides. They will probably be a lot more lax about Web-speak than some of us would like for them to be. I can dare to hope that at least the authors of the style guides will still be on my side about pronouns, but by then most of us civilians will have given up.

Yes, this is the old “Language evolves over time — get used to it” argument, but I want to add a twist that we tend not to think about, and that I don’t see covered in the Pew results or any of the articles about them. In the same way that they are more comfortable with smartphones and social apps than their elders, these kids are developing modes of communication that are native to the digital world and that will serve that world better. Here I don’t mean things like “WTF” and “LMAO” — those were old news when these kids were born, anyway — but rather methods of approaching subjects and structuring arguments that are well-suited to these new environments.

A decade ago, when I started blogging, I noticed that some of my fellow bloggers would occasionally send me a draft of a blog post for comments. These people were good writers and I understood why they did it — it’s part of the composition process. Or at least, it used to be. I learned early on that very few blog posts go through the rough draft / review /cleaned up draft / more review /final copy process that was always part of publishing anything.

A blog post is both a draft and a finished work. That was a new kind of critter, requiring its own conventions, and these have developed over time. Likewise, conventions have emerged around what constitutes an effective Tweet or Facebook status update. And it goes further than that. There are effective and less-effective approaches to sending out messages on Tumblr and Pinterest and Youtube, things that “writers” didn’t have to worry about back in the day, back when multimedia was for specialists.

In the past, when we said that language is changing we meant that annoying new words were being introduced and that rules we thought were important were being ignored. And that’s still happening. (see above.) But now something else is going on. Language is really changing. It is being chopped and processed and extruded in ways never imagined even a few years ago. It is no longer just living alongside visual information; it is embedded within it; it has become hybridized with it.

And, no, it will never be the same. These kids using social media in their English classes are on the cutting edge of developing a whole new literacy, different in kind from what has come before. Somehow, we’ll have to get used to it.

[Photo: Deutsche Fotothek]

Cross-posted from Transparency Revolution.