Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Digital Content and Flexible Learning Pathways

I've written before about using blogs for class content, and one of my main reasons for using the blog platform for content is the ease of development AND the ease of revision. I spent most of yesterday revising the blog post pages that make up a crucial assignment in my Indian Epics class: the project topics pages that help students as they begin defining their projects already in second week of the semester.
In this class (unlike in my Mythology class), students are often starting from square one, not having any prior knowledge at all of the subject matter of the course and, in some cases, no real interest in the subject matter either. It's a Gen. Ed. class that can be used for a graduation requirement and, being online, it fits anyone's schedule, so students end up in the class for reasons of convenience, very different from a class students are taking in their major, where you can assume some connection with the class content.

As a result, this assignment is really important for all kinds of reasons - the students will be working on the project all semester, so they need to choose something that will sustain and reward their interest. That means they need to do some independent research to make sure the topics they are considering really are of interest, but they may have no assumptions or expectations about the subject area to start off with. In turn, that means I really need to support them in doing that research, making it fun and productive to explore the possible topics. I had not tinkered with these pages for a couple of years, but now having access to the Diigo links for the past student projects, I was able to do some serious revision of these pages, giving students more and better access to past projects, in addition to links to Wikipedia and other online resources (I'm very lucky that Wikipedia is consistently an excellent resource for this class).

So, thanks to the ease of publishing content on these blog pages, I was able to work through all the material yesterday, making revisions to every page. It was fun, and I think it is going to prove to have been a good investment of my time. I cannot imagine teaching a class like this without the flexibility of digital content! This allows me to prepare an abundance, even a superabundance, of content, knowing that students will choose their own paths as they explore. I can see how different those paths are when they turn in their brainstorming assignment - everyone goes in different directions. As a result, responding to their proposals is one of my favorite tasks all semester long because I get to see what their interests are and provide more research recommendations based on what they are already thinking about.

Call it what you want - personalized pathways, student-center learning, differentiated instruction... whatever! I just love the way that by preparing digital content I can keep on improving what I offer to the students and letting them choose their own paths through that content. I had a lot of fun revising those topic pages yesterday, and I really hope that the students will have a better experience as they begin planning their projects when the new semester starts up in January.

One of the things I did different this time was to put "random images" in as a prompt for topics (I built this image widget last semester); for some students, I think the images can do more than my words ever can to excite their curiosity. The widget displays an image at random when the page reloads; all of the images have a link to the image source at Wikipedia, and the Ramayana-related images also have a link to an actual Wikipedia article. I'm really excited to see if students mention that their interest in a topic was prompted by an image! Here is the widget in action:

Monday, December 16, 2013

Google Sites, Diigo, and the Storybook Archive

I just finished one of my very favorite tasks that happens at the end of each semester: I added the links of the Storybooks from this semester to the LONG lists of links for my Myth-Folklore Storybook archive and my Indian Epics archive. Then, I also updated the randomizing widget which shows some great Storybooks at random for each class separately (you see that widget at the top of each list) and which can also show Storybooks at random which you can see from both classes, as on the homepage of my wiki. All told, the process takes several hours, but it is a pure pleasure from start to finish.

This screenshot below shows a Storybook newly added from the Fall semester of Myth-Folklore:

And this screenshot happens to show a Storybook from Indian Epics year before last:

Given that I have now made Diigo a regular part of my content management process, I have also bookmarked all the Storybooks in Diigo and plan to start using tags there to sort and label them by both content and style. That is my next big project in fact! Diigo does handily let me know that I have over 500 Storybooks bookmarked there. That's a really good feeling; almost all the students do leave their projects online for future students to consult, and I am so grateful to them for sharing their work after the class is over.

It's an especially good feeling having all these Storybooks in the archive since it was about three years ago that my school's IT department deleted, without warning, almost all the Storybook websites that my students had built at (the IT-provided web hosting I relied on, woe is me). At that time, I had over 1000 Storybooks in the archive, seven years' worth of student work - all thrown into the digital trash can by my school just a few days before the start of the school year. That was the worst day ever in my career as an online instructor!

Slowly but surely, though, the archive has recovered, and I have more confidence in Google Sites than I ever will in a service provided by my school, based on that terrible experience of losing my archive without warning. I know that Google Sites is not forever, but when the time comes to migrate and/or rebuild my archive, I am ready to do that again, hopeful that Google will give me more warning than my school did. More importantly, I am confident that there is ALWAYS wonderful work that my students are creating, if I can just find a way to capture and preserve that somehow. It's the single best thing I know of for inspiring future students to aim just as high, or higher! Unlike Rebecca Schuman (see her delightfully provocative article in Slate: The End of the College Essay), I love reading my students' writing, and the Storybook archive is a source of nothing but pride and joy for me, year after year after year.

Postscriptum: I just sat here for a few minutes, banging away on the widget and watching the brand-new Storybooks from this semester pop up at random together with Storybooks from last year and the year before (it's a javascript widget built with Time moves on - and yes, this Fall semester is now really over and receding into the past . . . but with a wonderful new semester to come, and I'm already excited about what new Storybooks will take shape then!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Grading in a Digital World

This post is not about a specific tool, but instead a more general post about grading in an online class and what a big difference it makes. Elsewhere I've written up a statement about my grading philosophy which I share with my students (indeed, I consider it vital to share that with my students), and in this post I want to reflect on how the grading system I use is really possible only in a digital environment.

When I started teaching at OU in 1999, I was stuck with a very limited range of options. We didn't even have an LMS back then, so it was really all about what happened in the classroom: either quizzes and tests administered in the classroom, or papers that students handed to me in the classroom. As my professors had done, so did I: I graded based on some combination of quizzes, tests, and papers. I wasn't very happy with it, and the students weren't very happy with it either. Not that they complained; it was that way in all their classes. But still, I felt stuck - not just because of the limited assessment options in a classroom, but because of all the classroom's limitations. Not enough time, not enough "stuff," not enough of anything. I wanted more and better for my students and also for myself as a teacher.

So, when my school first decided to start offering fully online classes, I leapt at the chance. In fact, I resigned my job as a tenure-track professor and became an online instructor instead; my interest was always in teaching rather than research, and I realized that as a professor I could never give my teaching the time it deserved. The job my school had created was ideal: my only responsibility was teaching online, and I had three sections of 25-30 students each to teach. Perfect: 40 hours per week, and around 80 students to work with. The job of my dreams!

I realized immediately that the model of quiz-test-paper was meaningless in this new world of teaching abundance - an abundance of time, and an abundance of resources, too. So, I began the process of inventing classes that would take advantage of that abundance. Luckily, I made some very good choices right from the start; my classes have grown and evolved over time, but at the core is the same basic model I created when I first got started over ten years ago.

Time for reading and writing. There would be no more wasted time with students passively sitting and listening to me talk too much in the classroom (and I always talked too much, as you can imagine from the length of this blog post, ha ha). Online, the students could now spend their time - all their time - doing something really useful: reading and writing. I knew that I could reasonably ask about 6-8 hours per week of my students' time, and I knew that my main goal was to have them create things - to tell stories and share them online. I decided to divide the class into two roughly equal areas of activity which together would take appx. 6-8 hours of their time every week: reading stories (myths and epics) so that they could write new stories based on the old ones, along with a semester-long project where they would choose their own topic and do something similar but on a bigger scale, retelling traditional in creative new ways. They would do the weekly reading/writing assignments in a blog, and the semester-long writing project would be a website.

Then, after I had decided on the class activities, I needed to find the best ways to do the assessments, both for feedback and for grading. I was really not at all interested in assessment-as-grading, but I was very interested in assessment-as-feedback, and going online gave me so many great new opportunities for more and better feedback.

Feedback: Reading. For the reading, students could take quizzes that were graded automatically. I could build big question pools with questions coming up at random, allowing them to re-read and take the the quiz again if they did poorly. The reading quizzes were now a self-diagnostic tool to help the students make sure they had not accidentally slept through the readings or skimmed so quickly that they really got nothing out of it. Since students are not used to the idea of quiz-as-diagnostic, I make sure to explain to them how that works: Reading Tips. Right now I use Desire2Learn for this, but the way it manages question pools is incredibly poor, giving me no useful statistics from semester to semester; indeed, it does not even track questions re-used from quiz to quiz. I need a better quizzing tool (, for example, is far superior).

Feedback: Writing. By having all the writing in blogs (Ning) and websites (Google Sites), it was now easy for students to give each other feedback, in addition to getting feedback from me. So, each week, the students comment on the stories in their blogs and websites, and they also get detailed feedback from me. I'll explain in a separate post exactly how all that works, but you can get a sense of the importance of feedback and revision from what I've written here: Web-Based Projects and Pacing the Semester.

Grading. In terms of my own teaching philosophy, I'd be happy to stop there, with assessment-as-feedback. My school, however, demands that I give grades, and my students (college seniors) have also become deeply dependent on grades - you might even call it an addiction - after 16 years of full-time schooling dominated by grades, grades, and more grades. So, as I explain in my grading statement, my goal is to find a way to take a feedback-focused system and have it result in letter grades at the end of the semester. To do that, I use a points-based system. The quizzes are worth 10%, the blog posts are worth 25%, the website project is worth 35%, and commenting on blogs and websites is worth 30%. Note that these are all points that accumulate week by week. There is not a final grade even for the semester-long project. No grades, just points. When they get the points they need for the grade they want, they are done. (Some students who are really busy with work in other classes opt just to get a B or a C in the class, and that's fine with me.)

Results: Fabulous. The end result of this system is that the students work hard, and they often comment in the evaluations that this class is more work than any of their other classes. I'm not sure whether that is true or not, but I am pretty confident that they are doing more writing in this class than in any other class - and getting far more feedback about their writing, too. As a result, they learn a lot, and they produce some amazing projects. You can see the projects for this semester in Myth-Folklore and in Indian Epics. Even students who openly declare that they hate to write end up with really good projects. Why? Because instead of putting everything off until the last minute (you know that is what happens in most classes, right?), they work on their project every week all semester long, with abundant, supportive feedback from me and from the other students.

Work: It Works! Although some people think of online classes as being less work than a classroom-based class, that is not the case in my classes. Just the opposite: the students work really hard. That's an inevitable consequence of how the class is set up; there is no other option. For almost all of them, it is the first time they ever created a website. Even more importantly, it is often the first time they ever made a commitment to their own writing and to sharing their writing in public. If you are a student who struggles with writing, you are used to giving the teacher something you scribbled off in haste, knowing you will get a bad grade - and you just say to yourself, "Whatever." This class is different: doing poor quality work is just not an option. Students revise (and revise and revise) their writing so that it improves, and they also share their writing with other students - it's not just for the teacher. For a lot of students, that experience is downright scary at first... but by the end of the semester, they see their own success and are justifiably proud. As for me: I am proud of what they do too!

Grade Inflation. And that is why I get angry - really angry - when I read articles like this one about grade inflation: Can Harvard stop awarding so many As?  by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. It's fine with me if Dr. Trachtenberg has a different approach to grading than I do; everybody should do what they think is best - best for their students, best for their school, best for their subject matter. The problem, however, is that Dr. Trachtenberg seems to think that there is one way, and only one way, to grade. He apparently supposes that every teacher must be a "judge" whose success is measured not by the number of good grades earned by their students but instead by the number of bad grades. That may sound good to him; to me, it sounds like a recipe for failure. I could never teach that way, and I am very disappointed that Dr. Trachtenberg seems not to have even considered the possibility that there are alternatives to the grading model that he takes for granted. He may contend that I have "abandoned my responsibilities" by the way I grade, but I see myself instead as finally living up to my responsibilities as a teacher, making sure that each one of my students has a great learning opportunity, a chance to work hard and achieve more than they even thought possible at the outset. Does Dr. Trachtenberg think my class is easy because I give mostly As? Well, he is wrong. And since my students put their projects online, he has a chance - if he wants - to see just how wrong he is. I would say the single best thing we could do for our students, in fact, is to stop putting so much faith in the sacred formula of the GPA and instead have our students show what they can do online.

For me as a teacher, that online option has made all the difference.

Teachers open the door; you enter by yourself. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pinterest and Repurposing Blog Content

I'm really enjoying Pinterest, using it in two ways for two of my blogs!

Gaudium Mundo. This is a blog of Latin holiday songs that springs to life every December. It's an old blog, with old content - but still useful! I don't really want to add new blog posts there (although every once in a while I do). Instead, I need to refresh, update, and improve the posts that are already there. Pinterest is giving me a great way to do that. Each day, I have picked a post and added something to it - a new image, a new video, maybe both - and then I pin it to the Gaudium Mundo Board. Some of the blog posts are thus pinned more than once (I did a first run where I pinned every post), but I think that's fine. This is a great way to prod me to refresh and update the content during the month of December. If Pinterest is still around in December 2014, as I expect it will be, then I will do the same again! Today, for example, I worked on my Puer Nobis Nascitur post, adding both a new YouTube video and this lovely image from Hildesheim Cathedral that I found at Flickr:

Latin LOLCats. My Latin LOLCats are one of my most popular creations. They used to live at a Latin Via Proverbs blog, but I switched over to an all-purpose Proverb Laboratory blog last year. I've got about 400 of them now, and I also continue to produce new ones, although not necessarily every day. What I am doing right now is adding my existing LOLCats to a Latin LOLCat Board ten at a time (that's easy to do with labels in my Blogger blog; I labeled all of them as "notpinned," and as I pin them, I switch the label to "pinned"). As a result of that process, the board will be more or less done sometime in January, and then I will continue to pin new LOLCats there as I create them. Since the LOLCats are highly visual, it makes perfect sense to have them there at Pinterest, although people need to click through to the blog post if they want/need an English translation.

Anyway, using Pinterest this way is definitely a lot of fun! The blogs are still where the content starts and where the content really stays, but if this is a way both to reach new people AND to keep track of my own content, revising and expanding it, that adds value to the whole process!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Step by Step: Creating a Twitter List

I'm thinking about doing some Twitter tips for my students next semester, so I'm going to put possible tips here for now, writing out the instructions before I decide which ones to actually use at my class website. So, here are my preliminary notes for a Tech Tip on creating a Twitter list!

To create a Twitter list, go to your Twitter account, then click on Lists. You will then see a button to "Create List." When you create a list, you will be prompted to give the list a name, along with an optional description. You can make the list public so that other people can see and subscribe to the list, or you can decide to keep it private.

You can use the Search feature to find people to add, or you can just click on people as you find them but, instead of following them, you can add them to a list. Instead of clicking on the Follow button (blue bird), just click on the button next to it, which will give you a dropdown menu allowing you to add to (or remove from) a list.

The great advantage of lists is that it is a way to keep track of someone's tweets without following them so that their tweets show up in your stream. So, for example, I keep a Doctor Who list. I love Doctor Who, and just for fun I like to follow the Doctor Who Twitterverse... but it's not something I have time for every day, and I cannot resist the temptation of seeing all those tweets in my main stream! (For people who use Google+ as I do, lists are a lot like circles, at least in terms of how you can use them to manage your incoming tweets.)

When you create a list, it has an address, so here is the list for Doctor Who that I created:

Because it is a URL, you can bookmark it, which gives you instant and easy access to the list, and you can favorite and retweet posts from a list stream, just as you can from a regular stream.

You can also make a widget based on a list. Just go to Settings, choose Widgets, Create New Widget, choose the List tab, select the list, choose your other options, and then create the widget! Twitter will then give you the HTML you need to embed the widget as you can see below.

Monday, December 2, 2013

My First PInterest Board

I made my first Pinterest Board this weekend! I've been wanting to give Pinterest a try, and my Latin holiday songs blog - Gaudium Mundo - seemed like a good set of raw material to work with. I was right, and it was a lot of fun! Here is the result: Gaudium Mundo at Pinterest.

I'm still not quite sure if/how I will make use of Pinterest for other purposes, but it was nice to see how easy it is, and I am especially fond of the widget maker; I used this Pinterest widget builder to create the widget you see below:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Active versus Interactive

I hope everybody had a great holiday break. I'm getting back into the swing of things: the last week of school is next week, and then I have a few weeks to re-tool my classes for Spring semester, which is something I always enjoy. I hope that having this blog in place will be a good addition to my blogging routine for Spring, too! For today's post, I wanted to pick up on an item from Google+ today which I have embedded below. As you can see there, I was reacting to the use of the word "interactive" to describe students taking online quizzes. I use Desire2Learn for online quizzes and all the learning management systems include some kind of quizzing software; machine-graded quizzes are probably one of the most ubiquitous feature of online courses, and they serve a purpose sure, but to my way of thinking, there is nothing interactive about taking a machine-graded quiz. This reaction on my part led to a good discussion at G+ (click the voice bubble icon in the embedded post below to see the comments), and I thought I would spell out here more specifically my concern about this use of the word "interactive" as a kind of all-purpose synonym for active.

So, to reiterate, I'm all for active learning as opposed to passive learning... but I do not consider taking a machine-graded quiz to count as interaction. When a student takes a quiz, that is indeed something active on the part of the student: they read each question, decide on the answer, enter the answer, and then they get feedback (usually a simple right or wrong) from the computer. In a more sophisticated computer program, there might be more extensive feedback, including additional learning activities and/or follow-up questions as a result of the student's quiz performance. So, yes, that's very active. More active than just reading.

That is not to say that reading is entirely passive, but reading with some kind of machine-graded quiz is more active than just reading alone. Likewise, if a student takes notes or highlights while reading, that is more active than just reading. If students write up responses to what they read, or if they share the reading with others, that something active. If the student annotates the reading or modifies it, then the student's learning is more active than just reading. Hence the term "learning activities."

But what does it mean for learning to be interactive? The way I see it, the "inter" prefix there requires that there be two or more people interacting with one another (the Latin word inter means "between, among" as you can see in this Latin-English dictionary). So, taking a quiz which is graded by the computer is not interactive; I am not prepared to accept the surrogate human intelligence of a computer program as a sufficient substitute for a real human presence in order to call that "interactive." Active, yes, but not interactive. If the student takes notes, that is active; if they share their notes with others, that is interactive. If the student bookmarks the reading, that is active; if they share the link with others, that is interactive. If the student annotates the reading, that is active; if they read annotations made by others and share their own annotations with others, that is interactive.

I value active learning highly, and I value interactive learning even more highly. When I look at tools for learning, I value tools that promote active learning, but I value tools that promote interactive learning even more highly. It was refreshing for me today to have to think this through and spell out my assumptions more clearly, and I hope I can make use of this distinction as I discuss different learning tools in future posts at this blog.

Meanwhile, I should also note that one of the things I value most highly about Google+ is the high degree of interactivity there. I have decided it is important for me to keep this blog as a kind of public record of the tools I use in my teaching and the teaching goals that prompt me to choose these particular tools... but I've never experienced interactivity in a blog space that is anything like what I enjoy every day at Google+! There don't have to be lots of people... but it does take two to tango - and likewise it takes two to interact. :-)

Nos duo turba sumus. We two are a crowd. (Latin saying: details here)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Web-Based Projects and Pacing the Semester

This week is a holiday week for me, although I'm doing some schoolwork here and there (just the fun stuff!). So, I thought I would post a note here about something I've naturally been thinking about today: pacing the semester.

Right now, my classes are more or less done... but that is because we have been working hard and steady already beginning in the first week of the semester! In my Myth-Folklore class, 28 of 56 students are completely done, and the rest are very close to being done, and the same in Indian Epics, where 14 of 29 students are done. I am always glad when people can finish up early because I know they are often doing most of the work in their other classes in a big push at the end of the semester - staying up all night to write those final papers, cramming for that final exam, etc.

Well, that "last minute rush" is not how my classes work at all. Just the opposite! Instead, the projects students do in these classes are spread out over time, starting with several weeks of brainstorming, followed by alternating weeks of writing and revision, and then the three final two or three weeks consist of nothing but revision. That's a natural choice when students are publishing a web project (Google Sites is the web publishing tool I now use) instead of printing out a final paper! With a web-based project, of course it makes sense to revise (and revise and revise), to tinker, to evolve, working steadily all semester long. The Internet is a beautifully accommodating space for that!

Here is an overview of the Storybook project process in my class:
  • In Week 1, students browse through past projects to get a sense of the kinds of topics students have worked on in the past, along with the various web design options people have chosen.
  • Then, in Week 2 the students start brainstorming their projects while also learning the basics of how to create a website.
  • Next, in Week 3, they continue brainstorming, and they also experiment with some more website design skills.
  • In Week 4, a plan for the project now in place, they write up an Introduction to their project, while also creating a homepage for their actual project website.
  • In Week 5, they revise their Introduction and add that as a new page at their website. Plus, they now start looking at each other's websites, offering suggestions and feedback.
  • In Week 6, they are adding their first story to the site, and Weeks 6-13 consist of alternating writing and revision as they keep adding new stories. As they write and revise, they are also reading and commenting on each other's stories every week too.
  • Then, at the end, in Week 14 they go back and revise the Introduction one last time, making sure it matches up with the final product. 
  • Week 15 then consists of final revisions: checking on links, images, bibliography, etc., as well as one last good read-through of all the pages.
You can see details of all the assignments at my Storybook project page.

There are three key points I would like to emphasize about this process:

1. No trees were harmed in the making of these Storybooks. Seriously, the kind of revision-intensive process here would be depressing if it involved printing out reams of paper, but with the students creating and updating websites, the revision process is entirely natural.

2. Planning and revision take more time than writing. Notice that in the 15 weeks of this process, there are only 5 weeks which are "original" writing (Week 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12). All the remaining weeks are devoted to planning and revision. This is not the case in most college writing scenarios, sad to say. In most classes, students do no revising of their writing at all, and often the planning process is highly abbreviated or even missing entirely. That is a very unrealistic way to look at what is required for writing to be successful. The actual writing itself is easy! You just... write. What's hard is all the planning and the revision that is required to see a project through to completion.

3. Digital projects lead naturally to the creation of an archive of past student work. I consider the Storybook archives for my classes to be the single most important key to success. There is nothing more inspiring than to see great work by other students! Yet in most courses, what happens? Everything - EVERYTHING - just goes into the trash can at the end of the semester. Think for a while about what kind of message that sends to the students in a class. It is not good. Instead of throwing everything out, we need to send the message that what students are learning is of value, something worth keeping. If it is not worth keeping, then what was the point of doing it in the first place?

O this learning, what a thing it is!
(Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew)

Friday, November 22, 2013

GoogleDocs Spreadsheet for Student Data (and Desire2Learn #fail)

Yesterday, I wrote about spreadsheets as a tool I use for developing content. Today, I want to write about using spreadsheets for student data. I was prompted to do this because I received an email from Coursera that made me laugh: although that company claims to be gathering all kinds of "big data" about their students, I don't see them making very good use of it (see G+ post below with discussion comments).

Meanwhile, the course management system we use at my school, Desire2Learn, does not really give me a way to manage student data either. The Gradebook is sort of like a spreadsheet, yes, but it has none of the functionality of a real spreadsheet. I cannot perform any truly complex/useful filters and searches. Worst of all: I cannot add my own columns to keep track of student data that really is important and useful to me.

So, I create a GoogleDocs spreadsheet every semester where on one page I keep track of my enrolled students and the data I need to be able to access and use. On another page, I keep the waiting list of students seeking to get into the class. What kind of data do I need to keep track of for my students? Here are just what a few of the columns contain:

Real Name. A surprising number of students go by a nickname or use their middle name. There is NO WAY in Desire2Learn to keep track of the name that a student uses; instead, we can only see the "official" name on file. Until I started keeping track of this systematically, I had not realized what a large number of students use a nickname or do not even use that first name at all, choosing to use their middle name instead. I think it's dreadful that D2L does not let them choose a screen name that matches their real name. I cannot even keep track of their real name anywhere in D2L.

Email Address. I keep an email address list here so that I can easily send emails related to data I keep track of in the spreadsheet.

Blog URL. Each student has a blog address. I use and re-use this address for creating a variety of assignments (putting students in blog groups, randomly viewing student blogs, etc.)

Introduction Post URL. It's important for me and for other students to be able to access the introduction posts students include in their blog at the beginning of the semester. I use this for my own quick reference and also to create assignments where students are looking at each other's introductions and commenting on them.

Comment Wall URL. The Comment Wall is one of the most important features of the Ning that I use as my virtual classroom (there is nothing comparable in Desire2Learn, sadly - the profile pages are completely static, with no possibilities for interaction). I use the Comment Wall address for the different assignments where students are interacting with each other via the Comment Wall.

Writing Assessment. In the first week of the semester, students complete a writing assessment. It is very helpful for me to view the results of that writing assessment as I give feedback to students about their writing throughout the semester, especially at the beginning of the semester when I am just getting to know the students individually.

There are lots of other columns also, but they are kind of hard to explain outside of the context of my class and the specific information I do keep track of. And that, I think, is the single biggest problem with all the discussions I hear about "big data," including the self-congratulatory claims that Desire2Learn also makes about offering data-driven teaching tools. As a teacher, I really do rely on data that I collect about my students, but that data is closely tied to my teaching practices. It's not something someone can impose on me from the outside.

In terms of a data tool inside Desire2Learn, I would need something a lot more like the customizable spreadsheet that I currently create manually using GoogleDocs. It's not a huge amount of trouble to create it manually, of course - but some of the data I am manually entering into the spreadsheet is indeed available in Desire2Learn, and there is much more data in Desire2Learn that I would love to use if it were easy to extract... but it's not.

So, as often, I have to say THANK YOU to Google for making my job as an online teacher so much easier to manage. And nope, no thanks to Desire2Learn when it comes to student data. Maybe... maybe... they will someday figure out just how powerful a spreadsheet can be and will let us use the Gradebook like a real spreadsheet. Someday. Maybe.

Post about Coursera and student data below:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Spreadsheets for Daily Content Development

I was struck by an item in Inside Higher Ed today about the value of daily quizzes (see below). I'm not a big fan of quizzes, and certainly not of daily quizzes (ugh, the thought makes my head hurt...) - but I am a big fan of DAILY in general. I think that's why I like blogging so much; it is a form of writing that thrives on a little bit of daily discipline. I don't have a lot of discipline as a writer, but I can muster a bit of daily discipline.

So, in terms of a digital tool, what I wanted to write about here today is how I use spreadsheets (Google Docs spreadsheets, to be specific) to support my various content development projects, most of which are daily content strategies, such as building content to use in my Class Announcements blog, my Bestiaria Latina blog, and my just-now-taking shape #foreignwordsinenglish project.

Spreadsheets are a great way to keep track of stuff because they are, in effect, a kind of mini-database. Not a relational database, admittedly - but they are a database which you can sort and filter in all kinds of ways.

So, for example, to support my class announcements blog, I have a spreadsheet with separate pages for each of the content items that I included each day in the blog: featured resource, featured Storybook, free Kindle book of the day, proverb of the day, Mahabharata image, and the calendar event of the day (details about the content here). For each category I need 105 items in order to be ready for the semester. First and foremost, spreadsheets are great for counting things!

So, here is a screenshot of the "proverbs" page of that spreadsheet which gives me what I need to include the proverb in the announcements: the date, the proverb, and the link to the blog post with all the other details. I color-code the rows as I move through the semester (yellow is past), and I also have color-coded the proverbs from India so that I can make sure to have at least one proverb from India every week.

That is just one example of how I use the different features of a spreadsheet to help me develop, use, and re-use my content. And in the spirit of growing things a little bit at a time, here's one of my proverb posters: Big oaks from little acorns grow.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Google Books: My Favorite Library

Prompted by a comment I left at Joshua Kim's blog at Inside Higher Ed (he often writes about audiobooks and ebook-related topics), I thought I would say something here about Google Books. The Google Books project was recently in the news, due to a welcome victory for Google in the legal war against book digitization being waged by the Authors Guild. That lawsuit has involved Google's use of digitized books still under copyright for search purposes. What I want to write about here, though, is the treasure-trove of public domain books that are freely available at Google Books, literally millions of books available for readers to use.

I've used Google Books as the main content source for the last two books that I wrote (both of which are freely available for download in PDF): Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop's Fables in Latin and Brevissima: 1001 Tiny Latin Poems. To write those books, I relied on literally hundreds of 16th-, 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Latin books that I found at Google Books. I downloaded copies of the books in PDF and used the Good Reader app on my iPad (a tool I also need to write about someday) to take notes and harvest the content I wanted to use.

Google Books is admittedly a mess, especially for people used to working in academic libraries. The curation of the books is slapdash, with many books completely mislabeled, which makes the search for books something of an adventure - but the thrill of finding just the right book is even more exciting as a result! Working on both of those books, I had more and better access to the books I needed thanks to Google Books than I did when I was a grad student at UC Berkeley which has one of the premiere research libraries in the whole world.

Just as one example, here is a delightful anthology of distich poetry by Barthold Nihus, published in 1642, which was incredibly useful to me. The book is not 12 pages long as the entry seems to indicate; instead, it contains approximately 200 pages of Latin poetry, which means several thousand distich poems. And this was just one of many treasures that I found diligently searching through Google Books, using every trick I could think of to find every volume of distich poetry, no matter how obscure - and neo-Latin poetry is pretty obscure stuff! In fact, writing about this makes me remember how much fun I had writing that book... and it makes me want to write another one just thinking about it. I could easily spend the rest of my life writing books based on the cornucopia of Google Books!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why I Love Embedded Video... and Why I Do NOT Love D2L

I wanted to say something today about the power of embedded video since that is one of my favorite things about video: embedding it exactly where it needs to be! Inside a webpage, a blog post, a course management system - wherever! I really like video services that allow embedding (YouTube), and I am not at all impressed by video services that do not make it possible to embed videos.

I am also very unhappy about something that seems to be happening at the new "secure" version of the Desire2Learn website. Here's the sage of what happened to the video I embedded in my class announcements yesterday. I had embedded two videos, in fact - a short video about the history of the English language from Open University at YouTube, along with a film clip from a Canadian documentary showing on our campus. Here are the two videos:

Yet when I included both those clips in the class announcements, it caused the display of the announcements to break inside Desire2Learn. I use the announcements blog as my landing page in the lower frame of my Desire2Learn course page (and yes, D2L is written in frames... believe it or not). It wasn't just that the offending video clip was not being displayed; the entire frame was completely blank and none of the announcements could be read. This was because, presumably, that Canadian Film Board video clip, embedded with iframe, came from an http source (not https)... so Desire2Learn, in its desire to protect my students from such dangerous stuff, decided to suppress the entire frame. I wouldn't have minded if it suppressed the video... but to remove all the announcements completely was a disaster!

So, I had to remove that embedded video from the announcements, simply in order to appease the D2L security algorithm. As a teacher, that really frustrates me - another example of a machine algorithm trying to rule my life in a completely inappropriate way. I already keep my use of Desire2Learn to an absolute bare minimum... and this is exactly the kind of reason why. Luckily, the class announcements look great at Blogger, and it was very frustrating for me to have to remove the video from the announcements blog in order to appease Desire2Learn.

Details about my D2L woes in the embedded Google+ posts below:

Monday, November 18, 2013

RSS Reader: Feedly (R.I.P. Google Reader)

I realized that I've written here about Google+ and Twitter, but have not said anything yet about Feedly. That's something I need to rectify. Feedly is, in fact, far more important to my news-gathering activities every day than Twitter is. Every morning, I check my email, Google+ and Feedly: they are as important as coffee!

I've been using Feedly since July, that sad moment when Google pulled the plug on Google Reader. I had been a loyal user of Google Reader for many years (and before that, I had been a loyal user of Bloglines). In terms of keeping up with blogs, Feedly has been great; I don't have any complaints. I have hundreds of feeds organized into Feedly folders, just as I did with Google Reader, and the compressed view in Feedly (apparently built to accommodate the many Google Reader refugees like myself) works just fine for me.

The one thing I do miss, however, is all the great syndication possibilities that Google Reader offered. I was a big fan of the "bundles" you could create in Google Reader so that you could then use a javascript to display a blog roll along with news clippings in the sidebar of a blog or any webpage where javascript was allowed. There's nothing like that in Feedly, alas, but it's not a big deal for me. I'm just happy to be able to keep up with reading blogs and education-related news delivered via RSS feeds; it's an essential part of my daily routine!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Class Content Development: From Diigo to Blog

I thought I would say something today about a specific way I use Diigo in developing and managing class resources. Until I started using Diigo, I had a terrible time keeping track of things like that, but here is the process that works for me:

Diigo: I created a Diigo account a couple years ago, and I've got a nice Diigo extension installed in Chrome which makes it really easy to bookmark things quickly and easily on the fly. The place I most often find content I want to share with my students is Google+, so I make sure to bookmark with Diigo anything I want to find again later. Google+ is great, but its search features are really (REALLY) bad. If I don't bookmark stuff I want to use later, the odds of ever finding it there again are low. When I want to share something with my students, I bookmark it with the Diigo tag "announcements."

Class Content Blog: As I've explained before, I have a big class content blog where I keep things I want to share with my students; I use a blog for that because it is fast and easy to manage. So, periodically I write up the content that I have bookmarked in Diigo, backdating the posts so that they are available for me to link to at any time. To make that easier, I use various blog labels to keep track of these posts. So, for example, I have a series of posts labeled "writing tips," etc. I use a blog like this in order to provide some commentary to help the students see just why I am sharing these items with them, how they connect up with the work they are doing in class, etc.

From Diigo to Blog: So here's the trick I use to make this process work. I tag things in Diigo as "announcements" that need to go into the class announcements blog, and when I have written up the blog post, I add the tag "blogged." To find out what I have not blogged yet, all I have to do is search my Diigo bookmarks for "announcements NOT blogged" and I can see right away what's I might want to write up that I have not written up yet. I always have more resources available than I can keep up with, and Diigo patiently keeps track of all of that for me.

I use the same process for the "Tech Tips" that I create for the students; these are actual extra credit assignments so they are part of my class wiki rather than the class announcements blog. So, as I learn about free browser-based tools that I might want to recommend to my students, I bookmark them in Diigo with the tag "techtip" and then I review them in detail later, deciding which ones to recommend to my students. That is a more time-consuming process, and I usually only have time to create new tech tips over winter break or summer break. Diigo is very patient, though - those items tagged "techtip" can sit and wait until I am able to get to them.

The "announcements" items, on the other hand, are quick to write up as blog posts, so that are something I work on periodically during the semester - in fact, I will probably do some today because it is a fun and easy task.

I used to be a very dedicated Delicious user and it was really hard for me to get used to using another service. Even though Diigo is a lot like Delicious, it took me several tries to really get into the habit of using it, but now I use it for lots of different purposes and projects; I'll try to write up some blog posts later about other ways I am using Diigo.

Meanwhile, I cannot imagine trying to manage useful class resources without a tool like this, and one of my resolutions for next year is to find even more/better ways to take advantage of what Diigo has to offer!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

GoogleDocs for Collaborative Writing

One of the tools I use most often in my work is GoogleDocs. My main reason for using GoogleDocs is that it gives me access to all my documents on each of my computers (desktop, laptop, Chromebook), but today I wanted to write about a different use of GoogleDocs: collaborative writing! This weekend, I have been participating in a "flash mob" novel-writing experiment where people are collaborating on a novel together using a GoogleDoc. You can see the evolving GoogleDoc at, and you can follow the discussion at Twitter with the hashtag #readmake.

Here is a screenshot of the top of the document; as you can see there are all kinds of anonymous users working on the document right now, along with people logged in with their Google accounts. If you are reading this on November 16 or November 17, jump right in and join the fun!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Google Gadget: Countdown Clock

As we get near the end of the semester, I know the students pay more and more attention to the "Countdown Clock" in the sidebar of the Class Announcements blog (screenshot below). Especially since many of my students are graduating seniors (including some who are graduating this Fall semester), the countdown takes on a special significance for them.

The script for the widget comes from the handy script library that is "Google Gadgets." I expect that those gadgets will disappear sooner or later, and I know I could use my own (limited) javascript skills to write a similar sort of gadget of my own... but I've been using this particular gadget for my classes for at least four or five years now, so I will be sorry to see it go. I have to admit that I also like seeing the clock tick down to the end of the semester!

Here is the script; you can see the variables that are easy to adjust - month, day, year, and so on:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

GrammarCatz Javascript: Show/Hide Images

I got such a nice comment from a real programmer at Google+ yesterday: he liked the little javascript I am using to do the show-hide images at my GrammarCatz blog posts. So, I thought I would share that here, in the spirit of "a little javascript goes a long way" - I know very little javascript, but I sure have been able to make good use of what I know. This is a little more complicated than my "Let the Fates decide" javascript, but not by much.

So, I've pasted in the HTML code for the GrammarCatz javascript here in a separate document, and I've reproduced yesterday's GrammarCat below so you can see how it works. For the actual commentary on the cat and an explanation of the English grammar, see the blog post: Grammar Cat #99: Monty Python Cat.

I'm sure there are much more elegant ways to do this, of course, but one of the great things about a teeny-tiny javascript like this that runs inside a blog post is that I just need for it to work. So, it shows the corrected cat and hides the corrected cat as the user requires, and that's all I need it to do! :-)

(Note that below I had to display the images at half the usual size so they would fit in the width of the post here; I have the post width set much wider at the GrammarCatz blog.)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Joys of Google+

Since I wrote something yesterday about my tentative new use of Twitter, it made sense to write something today about my very dedicated use of Google+, which is my main hangout online, and so it has been since the very beginning of Google+ back in the summer of 2011. Google+ is an unusual platform, not easy to describe. To get a sense of how I use it, check out my stream here: Laura Gibbs. I post everything publicly, so what you see there is what there is. You don't have to be logged in or anything to see everything I have posted, along with the discussions that have ensued at the livelier posts.

Google+ is very much like a giant group blogging platform... but it is not really like having a blog. It is also a lot like Twitter... but fundamentally not like Twitter. It really is just its own thing - and if you enjoy sharing with and learning from others online, I cannot imagine a better platform. Sure, there are features and improvements I would like to see (and there have been some great improvements added since they got started), but I enjoy Google+ so much as it is that I really cannot imagine a day going by without spending at least an hour there. I consider it my "daily hour of professional development," and every day I learn so much I never would have learned otherwise.

There are all kinds of tips and such I will share here at this blog about how I find myself benefiting the most from Google+ as a learning network, but here is a quick overview of some of my own personal strategies:
  • Build a core Circle of people whom you really want to be connected with every day. I keep that Circle pretty small, and I use it to filter my incoming stream. On busy days (which is most days), the content from that Circle might be the only thing I read. 
  • From your own world, bring new things to share every day. That might be things you yourself are creating, or it might be experiences and ideas from your work, or it might be things that you are reading and discovering online. Everybody has something to offer, and Google+ benefits from everyone sharing what they find useful, thought-provoking, amusing, etc.
  • Plus, comment, and reshare. I plus a lot of what I read, I comment often, and most of the time when I comment, I also reshare, usually pasting in my comment at the top of my share. If something is interesting enough for me to comment on, that means it is probably of interest to people who are following me, which means it is worth sharing. That is where the real power of Google+ happens, through the person-to-person networking and the human intelligence that filters the content being shared.
  • Post publicly. Some people feel differently about this, but I post everything publicly, treating the Google+ space as I treat my own blogs. If there is something I don't want to share publicly, I don't post it. The advantage of this is that even people who are not using Google+ and don't want to actually join the network can still get the information value of the content that I post and share there, just like at a blog.
  • Seek out new people. I find it really hard to get to know people at Twitter (140 characters! argh!), but at Google+, people's post pages are really like a personal blog, often with long posts. To meet people outside my own circle, I often explore the pages of people who have left comments at the posts of people I do follow. This has been a great way to meet people whom I never would have met otherwise. I don't have time to keep up with all the interesting people I meet... in fact, there are way more people there than I could ever hope to follow, and I keep running into interesting new people there all the time.
There is lots more I could say - and will say - about the specific strategies I use to get the most out of Google+ for my own learning, but that's a good list to start with I suppose. Meanwhile, someone happened to share a useful post at Google+ just yesterday about the many different strategies people use for creating posts, so I'm embedding that below here (this business of embedding posts is a newish feature at Google+ from just a couple of months ago; I really like it). As you can see, this is not a post I wrote, but one that was shared by someone I follow, and I then shared it again, which is why it shows up in my stream. I didn't write the post, and I don't even know the person who did - but my friend Mathieu provided the natural networking link that put me in touch with the post. The power of networking: I love it!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Twitter: Getting to Know a New Space

This blog actually got started as a result of a defunct Twitter project at my school. Even though the project is defunct (in fact, I guess you could say it backfired), I've carried on using Twitter and have made it a part of my daily routine for a few weeks now. So, it looks like it is going to stick! I still find Twitter kind of strange and frustrating compared to the other social spaces I use and have used (e.g., Google+, Chatter, Yammer, and Ning), but it is turning out to be useful, especially for finding news and announcements about events happening at my school. Here are some things I have done that seem to have made this particular use of Twitter successful for me.
  • Lists. The most important part of my Twitter routine is checking the two extensive lists I made related to my school: University of Oklahoma Programs and University of Oklahoma Faculty and Staff. My main Twitter routine consists of checking those lists periodically during the day. I follow some of these Twitter accounts, but primarily I check them via the list. Why aren't such lists compiled and maintained by the WebComm group at my school? Hmmmm... Anyway, I compiled them myself and they have proven to be very useful, although the large majority of accounts seem to be dormant.
  • Integration with Blog Posting. Right now, I have several blogs that I update regularly, so I made a schedule for sharing a link at Twitter for new posts at these blogs (Bestiaria Latina blog, Latin LOLCats, GrammarCatz, Foreign Words, and also this Digital Tools blog). I also share from my class announcements blog when appropriate. I don't do this automatically; instead, I just tweet about the posts manually, and that also gives me an excuse to check in at Twitter periodically during the day.
  • Following People I Know. It's been fun to follow people at Twitter whom I know either from Google+ and/or from their blogs. Some people really are good at creating a presence on Twitter, using the format very creatively. I enjoy reading their tweets and maybe I will even learn from them how to make good use of this insanely tiny space for expression.
  • Don't Worry; Be Happy. Although I'm not really following very many people at Twitter, I don't even try to keep up with the stream. At Google+, I really do keep up with a core group of people, while also keeping an eye on the stream at large. At Twitter, though, I just kind of kick back and let it happen, without expecting to be able to keep up. That means Twitter feels less real to me, less about real relationships - kind of like eavesdropping and chatting with random people on public transportation as opposed to having conversations around the water cooler at work. Different, but still useful/entertaining in its own way!
I am really inspired to use Twitter when I see how it is being used by the folks at my school who run the World Literature Today and Neustadt accounts (both out of the World Literature Today office). They post such great stuff, and I really like the way they share information about WLT events, but also all kinds of other literary news and information. The other OU accounts are focused on promoting campus events, really of interest only to OU folks, but the World Literature Today people are writing for a wider audience, and they are doing a fabulous job of it, too. 

I was expecting to see much more Twitter usage by the "WebComm" group at my school and other programs on campus that have made it a goal to make use of social media for institutional purposes. I'm glad to find what I have found, of course, but it is much less than I would have expected, given how quick and easy Twitter is to use. Maybe they devote their real attention to Facebook... and that's one tool I am not going to use. Twitter is fine by me; Facebook is not.

Meanwhile, I'll update this post in a month or so when we see whether I am really sticking with Twitter as a part of my daily routine. For now, I have included below an infographic which might be useful for people who are thinking about getting started with Twitter. Twitter is certainly a space that is used by many educators, and this infographic has some good tips for educators who want to give Twitter a try.


An Infographic That Summarizes Twitter For Teachers.

Here's the full-sized image.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Google Sites Tips and Tricks

In a previous post - Google Sites for Student Web Publishing - I explained how my students use Google Sites as a tool to publish their class projects online. I'm very happy with Google Sites as an extremely easy tool to use, while it is also one that allows for a lot of creative design and self-expression for students who want to explore those options.

To get started, students build a sample Google Site in Week 2 of class. Here are the instructions I provide for building that sample site: Building a Website.

For most students, this is the first time they have ever built a website, and they are really excited (and relieved) to find out how easy it is. Every semester, some students write me back about how they are going to use Google Sites to build a website for some other reason (another class, a student group, a family project, etc.). That makes me very happy!

Then, over the course of the semester, I have some tips and tricks that I share with students. The list reflects the kinds of questions that students ask and the problems they typically run into. You can see my list here: Google Sites Tips and Tricks.

Do you have some help pages for Google Sites tips and tricks? If you do, leave a comment here! I don't actively use Google Sites for my own web publishing (I prefer blogging software, as I've explained in other posts), so I'm not the world's greatest expert on Google Sites, which means I am always looking to learn new things.

One of the things that I like about Google Sites is that students can manage pretty much everything on their own using the basic instructions I've provided. I do very little technical support for their use of Google Sites, and of course they learn a lot by looking at sites created by previous students.

The biggest problem students run into has to be the Google Sites navigation options. Google Sites has some great navigation options, but it defaults to listing the pages alphabetically, so students have to go in and turn off the automatic navigation in order to sort the pages in the other they want. Once they figure out how to do that, it's not hard to get the navigation working the way they want - but this is the one topic on which I get some desperate emails since Google Sites does not make it obvious just how to reach this magical navigation options screen:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Speak LOLCat: The LOLCat Translator

I've mentioned in an earlier post two hashtags -  #LatinLOLCat and #GrammarCatz - which I use for two different projects. The LatinLOLCat project has been running for a couple of years now, and I started the GrammarCatz project last summer (it was my grandson's idea). I use the site to create the graphics for both projects (and I guess I should write up a post about that sometime also!), but for today I thought I would write up a site that is probably not so well known: Speak LOLCat: The LOLCat Translator.

This is a simple little site that allows you to type in some English text which is then turned into all-caps LOLCat language. Now, I've gotten pretty good at doing my own LOLCat language over the past few months, but when I was getting started, this little tool was very helpful. I still use it as a way to remind myself to always spell "the" as TEH and so on, ha ha. Very handy.

If you are curious about LOLCat language, it's an intriguing topic. There is even a LOLCat translation of the Bible! That project has a helpful webpage: How to speak lolcat. And be sure to take a look at this delightful video: I can has language play: Construction of Language and Identity in LOLspeak.

Saturday, November 9, 2013 Alphabetizer (and Randomizer)

One of my rules for this blog is "no tool too small" - in fact, sometimes it is the tiny tools that can be most useful. That is the case with the web-based tool I want to write about today:'s Alphabetizer:

Don't let the name fool you: it is an alphabetizer OR a randomizer and, as you can tell from past posts, I love random. Plus, it will also remove duplicates (very handy!), and it's very agnostic when it comes to how terms are separated in the list. I use this little tool several times every single day. It's just so much quicker and easier than messing with a spreadsheet to provide the same functions!

So, for example, I keep online something I call "The Stack" which is a list of the student Storybook assignments I have in my to-respond pile. I need that to be a comma-separated list in alphabetical order, making it easy for students to quickly check and see if their name is on the list. So, I use the Alphabetizer to keep that list up-to-date, reconciling it to the pile of assignments I am working on at any given moment. That's a way I use the Alphabetizer every single day.

I also use the Alphabetizer to randomize chunks of HTML such as rows in a table. So, for example, I keep a list of all the Storybooks in a class at my class wiki: Myth-Folklore Storybooks and Indian Epics Storybooks. Sometimes, though, I need to randomize that table listing for student commenting assignments. You can see the results here: Week 10 Internet assignment. It's the same table as in the wiki, but randomized with this tool. I just strip the HTML of the table down to its rows, with each row on a separate line, and then I use the randomizer to randomize those lines. After that, I add back in the table tags. Five minutes: all done!

Another time when I use the Alphabetizer is to randomize AND alphabetize the blog responding groups. You can see what I mean here: Myth-Folklore Blog Responding. Every few weeks, I randomize the blog groups (and I randomize the chunks of HTML to do that, since I need to randomize not just the names in the groups, but also the links that go with them). Then, so that students can find which group they are in, I alphabetize the names as you can see there at the top of the list. Randomize AND alphabetize: I use the tool for both. :-)

I know there are lots of other alphabetizer and randomizer tools online, along with other kinds of text transformation tools. I just happen to have found the tool years ago and I keep on using it. Count me a fan!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Javascript Randomizer: Let the Fates Decide!

Yesterday, I wrote about a randomizer I use for blog commenting assignments in my class; today, I want to write about a different randomizer that I use: The Fates. The very first year I taught my Myth-Folklore class (over ten years ago!), I created a little javascript randomizer for students who were not sure what topic to choose each week, and I called it "The Fates." As I've written before, I believe choice is an incredibly important part of any class, so in the Myth-Folklore class, students choose one of two reading topics each week... or they can let the Fates decide. This week, for example, the topic was English Fairy Tales or Child's Ballads. I have a presentation page which provides some helpful information about the topics, and on each page there is also a little javascript that is labeled "Let the Fates decide!" You can see it in action here: English Fairy Tales or Child's Ballads.

I really wasn't sure what the students would make of that, but over the years I have seen students invoke this every week in their starting blog post for the week. "This week," someone might write, "I did not know what to choose, so I let the Fates decide." Or, "The Fates told me four times in a row to read the fairy tales!" It is both fun and funny I think, something both light-hearted and useful. Some students never consult the Fates, of course, but plenty of students do, even if just for amusement.

I hasten to add that I was scrupulously honest in writing the script. Even in weeks where I know one of the topics is an underdog (as ballads are the underdog this week), I wrote the script so that neither option is favored one over the other; it really is a 50-50 chance, like flipping a coin. Here is the script:

By labeling this the "fates," of course, I am trying to make a point relative to the class. Chance was an incredibly important part of divination practices in the ancient world. We believe in the statistical power of random, but in the ancient world, many people considered coincidences of any kind to be the work of the gods. Ancient divination is a topic that I am very interested in myself, so one of these days (argh... when?) I should write up a resource to share with my students, since I imagine they would find it intriguing too. In the meantime, though, they can let the Fates keep on deciding for them!

The painting below shows Tobias and the Parcae (i.e., the Fates). The artist is one of my favorites, Jacek Malczewski.

Thursday, November 7, 2013 for Randomizing Class Assignments

I mentioned in a previous post how I use to create randomized and date-based content to distribute in widgets that I use in my blogs and other webpages. I thought I would write up a note today about how I use as a randomizer for class assignments, too.

It seems to me that having a randomizer is an incredibly important tool for assigning student activities online, especially when you are not just sure which students will be participating. That is a very common situation in my classes because I try to give the students a lot of choice about just which assignments they do. So, because I don't know how many students will be doing an assignment, I can use a randomizer to spread that effort most effectively.

That all sounds a little weird in the abstract, so let me give a concrete example of how I used the randomizer today when setting up assignment instructions today. Every week, students have an option of writing a "famous last words" blog post as an extra credit assignment. Then, every three weeks or so, I have an extra credit blog responding assignment where, in addition to their usual blog responding quota, students can read and comment on some of those "famous last words" post by their fellow classmates.

Not all of the students write "famous last words" post, and it varies from week to week. Plus, not all of the students do the extra credit blog responding when it's available, and there's no predicting how many of them will opt to do it. Yet my goal is for all the students who do the "famous last words" posts to get as many comments as possible, distributed equally.

It sounds hard... but it's easy, thanks to the power of random.
I just quickly create a randomized widget using which will display a blog that has a recent "famous last words" post in it at random. Each student who wants to do the extra credit responding uses the randomizer four times to get their blog post assignments. No matter how many students do the extra credit, I can have faith that the statistical power of random will spread out that effort as best as I can reasonably hope for. You can see it in action here: Extra Credit: Blog Responding - Famous Last Words. (Note: You can see the randomizer in action, but you can't get inside our actual Ning group blogging space; I keep that private just to the class members.)

It takes me a grand total of 10 minutes to make the randomizer; in a separate blog post here, I'll explain just what kind of class roster I maintain in a GoogleDoc Spreadsheet and how I am able to use that spreadsheet to create an HTML table super-quickly that then converts easily to the javascript, thanks to

And here's the thing: in addition to this being efficient for me, it's fun for the students too. After all, "random" has a kind of mystery to it, a kind of power... who is deciding exactly which blogs they should read...? Not me! I just built the randomizer; I didn't assign anything to anybody. It is the mysterious power of randomization that does the actual assignment. And who knows what hidden messages it may contain...

Happy randomizing!

(Cartoon by Sumanta Baruah)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Google Sites for Student Web Publishing

I got some great news today (see embedded G+ post below for details) which was very affirming for me as a writing teacher. In both of my classes - Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics - the centerpiece of the class is a writing project that the students work on all semester: the Storybook. Each student chooses a topic of interest to them and then invents a way to collect and retell some traditional stories related to that topic (three or four stories, depending on the student's own preferences). Instead of me trying to explain the projects, just take a look and you can see for yourself what they are like: Myth-Folklore Storybooks and Indian Epics Storybooks.

With just a few exceptions, the students use the free Google Sites website tool to publish their Storybooks. When I first started teaching these classes over 10 years ago, the students published these websites in their university-provided webspace, using Mozilla's Seamonkey Composer to create the pages. Sadly, my university turned out to be an unreliable host for such projects, and on a terrible day in August of 2010, just a few days before the start of school, campus IT deleted without warning hundreds and hundreds of past student projects, and when they were done, my archive of over one thousand projects was almost completely gone. I cried for hours; it was the single worst setback I have ever experienced as a teacher.

Luckily, I had already started experimenting with Google Sites at that time because it had proved to be a convenient solution for students who did not have access to a laptop computer of their own and who were relying instead on computer lab access instead. So, starting in that Fall 2010 semester, Google Sites has been the tool of choice for almost all my students. The sites belong to the students, published with their own Google accounts (we do not have Google Apps at my school). Fortunately for me, the students are proud of their projects and almost all of them leave their work online. As a result, I once again have an archive with several hundred wonderful projects for the new students each semester to explore! This archive of student work is the single most important body of content for my classes, and I am very grateful to Google Sites for making it possible for my students to share their work this way.

Of course, as I learned in 2010, nothing lasts forever, and if I am lucky enough to keep my job for yet more years in the future (as I certainly hope to do), I know that, sooner or later, Google Sites will either disappear or morph into something else... and that's fine! And maybe it will turn into something even better! Meanwhile, I just hope I will get more warning when that happens - and any warning at all would be better than no warning, of course. But somehow or other the students and I managed to survive that awful business back in 2010... and the one good thing about such a bad experience is that I feel confident that I can really overcome any obstacle in my digital path in the future. :-)