Most recent love

My most recent love is another simple, elegant, and easy-to-use piece of coding: the WordPress plugin WTI Like Post.

It is easy to add to any WordPress site through the Plugins page. (You can see it in use on a personal blog I am currently keeping of my sabbatical year in Spain.) Just click “Add New” from the Plugins page and type “WTI Like Post” in the search function. Then install.  So easy even I can do it.

It installs thumbs up/thumbs down Like buttons on blog posts and keeps track of the number of Likes and Dislikes on each post. There is also a widget that can be added to the blog to track the most liked posts.

There are similar plugins that use the official FaceBook Like functionality to connect your blog to FB, but I prefer this one because it is NOT connected to FB.

The only part that I found a little odd with the default settings is that messages meant for one person who has clicked to like a post, such as “You have already voted” or “Thanks for your vote,” showed up for other readers who had not yet liked the same post. The easy fix is just to turn off these default responses (at least until I figure out what setting I need to change).

What is it good for? Like any Like function, it lets people respond without having to write a basically useless response such as “I liked it.”  If users have to login before clicking “Like/Dislike” (which is one of the possible settings), then it could be used to keep track easily of which students have read a particular blog posting.

I like it.

Author Gill Creel

AutoHotkey Happiness

AutoHotkey logo by philou

AutoHotkey logo by philou

A while back, I briefly mentioned one of my favorite tools for keeping the smiley teacher face: AutoHotkey.

AHK is another powerful open-source software, like Audacity, that I use in the most simplistic and superficial way– and you can too!

In layperson’s terms, AutoHotkey allows you to connect an action to a key or series of key strokes on your keyboard.  It does this by making what is called a macro. It’s like ctrl+alt+delete, but you get to choose the keys and the actions to make your life easier. For instance, you hit ctrl+D+delete and your least favorite dean vanishes.  Okay, it won’t do that, but it will do other cool stuff.

I use AutoHotKey to respond to student digital work by inserting comments I find myself making often without having to type the whole comment. For example, I often encourage students to give example to help explain an idea. Rather than typing “Give an example” each time, I type “bge,” and the following appears:

Give examples from the text to support this idea– Gill

I assigned the series “bge” to the action as a mnemonic device to help me remember; “bge” means “bold, give example” in my  brain. Any series of characters could have been attached to the action; this one just makes sense to me. I scripted the text to appear in bold to draw attention to it within a digital document or webpage.  It could say anything, and it could be in any color, size, or font. The only real limit is your comfort and ability with its scripting language.

Yes, I did just write “scripting language,” but if you, like me, have little comfort or ability with scripting language, fear not — copy/paste is your friend (ctrl+V/ctrl+C).

After you download and install AutoHotkey, right-click anywhere on your desktop and choose “New” then “AutoHotkey Script.” Assuming you are working in some Microsoft environment (if you are hip enough to be running something in Linux, why are you reading this? If you have a Mac, like I do at home, you are out of luck),  Notepad will open with all this gobblety-guk in it:

; AutoHotkey Version: 1.x
; Language:       English
; Platform:       Win9x/NT
; Author:         A.N.Other <>
; Script Function:
;    Template script (you can customize this template by editing “ShellNew\Template.ahk” in your Windows folder)

#NoEnv  ; Recommended for performance and compatibility with future AutoHotkey releases.
SendMode Input  ; Recommended for new scripts due to its superior speed and reliability.
SetWorkingDir %A_ScriptDir%  ; Ensures a consistent starting directory.

Leave it there and add this to the bottom of it:

::bge:: ^b Give examples from the text to support this idea– Gill ^b

If you look closely, you can probably figure out what’s going on here. The keys inside the :: are the keystrokes that prompt the feedback message. The ^b makes the message bold, and the text is what appears.  Using this sample, you can just change the keys and the text to make any feedback or message you need. Voila! Now you can write a script!

Save the notepad file somewhere, and when you want to use it, doubleclick the file to start it. Then all you need to do is type your chosen keystrokes to make the messages appear. I keep a file of scripts on my desktop and turn them on when I know I am going to be giving feedback. They can be made to start automatically when your computer boots as well.

When you type the keys to trigger a message, the message will open in the top active window.  Thus you can have multiple windows open, but the message will default to the one that is active. I’ve used AutoHotKey in blogs, wikis, word-processing documents, and learning management systems.  I suspect it will work in any software that accepts text.

The program is far more powerful than this little trick I’ve shown, but I am just a dabbler. Check the website for good help and all the whizbang possibilities. Enjoy.

Author Gill Creel

Are Your Students AOK? Gamification and Student Retention in the Online Classroom

photo:&nbsp;  cdsessums

photo: cdsessums

We’re near the beginning of the semester and I’m thinking about retention—how many students I start and end with each semester. If you teach online, you know that retention is an issue. There’s plenty of data indicating, as Michael Kuhne writes, that students are less likely to pass an online course (versus a traditional course) let alone complete it. And so, we’re on a collision course each semester with these two realities: 1) online education is here to stay. It is the present and future of education…It ain’t going nowhere. And 2). neither are many of our students.

Ideas abound about reasons for poor retention. Off the top of my head:

  • Limited engagement with one’s peers.
  • Technological barriers (i.e. students without regular access to computers attempting online courses)
  • Insufficient digital literacy (students who cannot navigate the web attempting online courses )
  • Poor time management (without the daily reminder from professors, Charlie forgets to do his homework)
  • Poor time management (without the daily reminders from Charlie  :-) Prof. Smith takes two weeks or more to provide feedback)
  • The list goes on and on…

Right now it’s the first bullet point above that I want to do something about–and Jane McGonigal and games may have some help for me. 

In chapter five of “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change the World,” McGonigal discusses two concepts that seem relevant to retention in the asynchronous online classroom: “Prosocial emotions” and “ambient sociability”.

She writes:

Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks. The more time we spend interacting within our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as “prosocial emotions”.

She goes on to write,

Sometimes we want company, but we don’t want to actively interact with anybody. That’s where the idea of playing alone together comes in. [...] Ambient sociability is a very casual form of social interaction; it may not create direct bonds, but it does satisfy our craving to feel connected to others. It creates a kind of social expansiveness in our lives–a feeling of inclusion in a social scene, and access to other people if we want it .

It seems to me that online students need a bit of both of the above. They need to feel connected with their classmates, to create a strong-ish bond with at least a small group of other students. And, in the larger context, they need that ambient sociability so that when they are working at 2 am (!) on their homework, they retain a feeling of connectedness to the class on the whole (the social scene).

But how to create this? How to achieve this through a game, a game which can be layered over my current curriculum? I don’t want to redesign my entire class just this moment and, frankly, I don’t know a thing about building games or coding.

The answer? Perhap’s it’s the online game AOK.  Am I sure? No..I dunno… but I am going to give it a try 

What’s AOK? Take a peak. Yeah. I could describe it to you, but why not watch the video!

Okay. Got that?  In it’s simplest form it’s a game where people do or observe nice things and then document those acts/observations online. By documenting their AOk’s, participants receive points on their personal leader board as well as the opportunity to “level up”. While the AOK designers envision a place where players document things in the wider world, I wonder if my students couldn’t narrow their focus just a smidge to the happenings of our class. At this moment, I’m thinking about all the helpful things that happen every semester right beneath my nose– the aid that goes without comment: a student answers another student’s question on a discussion board before I can get to it, a student explains a thorny concept, a student helps another student edit a third draft of an essay. I’m also thinking about all of the Machiavellian and frankly lame ways I’ve written guidelines for participation into my syllabus: You must do this, you must do that, insert yawn here.

What if we just turn it into an AOK game?

Say each player plays 1) individually and 2) as a class.

Each player tries to gain a certain number of points which correspond to a final participation grade. As a class, we might challenge another class, likely one of my other sections of freshmen English, to a competition. Each class might choose a cause, create a hash-tag, and see if they can’t raise money for that cause.

What do students get out of this, you ask?  How do they experience those prosocial emotions and ambient sociability? One of the problems with online learning is that there isn’t consistent and sufficient community across a learning platform. If we use the AOK platform in tandem with my current platform (I can do this because my  platform is open) students have a immediate access to a community via the leader board and player profiles–they can see who is who and who is up to what. The “comment” and “wave” function mean that they can engage with each other when they like to the degree that they like. For example, perhaps Classmate A has a question. Classmate B sends him a link to the section in the syllabus where that question is answered. Classmate B then posts her action on AOK, thus earning AOK points as well as contributing to her class cause. Classmate A later goes back on to AOK and comments on B’s profiles page–a quick thanks for the help, or a shorter “wave”.  Maybe just a thumbs up (also a function) on B’s profile page.  This seems like a plausible scenario.  . Equally important, other students witness this AOK moment. They can’t miss it as it’s documented on the group leader board.

Finally, as another colleague reminded me, quoting Mary Kay Ashe, “There are two things people want more than sex and money… recognition and praise”. I’d add to that that no one wants to wait around for that recognition! Through AOK student/players can self-promote a bit and watch their good acts or observations reflected in their rising scores. And praise is easy enough to give via all the additional social media functions noted above.

So, who’s with me? Or at least, who’s watching?  We’re gonna give this a go and see what happens. Stay tuned.

Author Dominic Saucedo

Where Did They Go? Online Courses and Completion Rates

Men running in a chariot race at the Piha Surf Club carnival (ca 1938). Unidentified photographer. New Zealand Free Lance Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Men running in a chariot race at the Piha Surf Club carnival (ca 1938). Unidentified photographer. New Zealand Free Lance Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.

I just finished a quick eight-week summer session teaching an online section of College English II, the second course in a two-course first-year college English experience.  This particular course is devoted to research writing.  Along with colleagues Gill Creel, Dominic Saucedo, and Shannon Gibney, we have taught the online version of this course with a focus on Wikipedia.  I’ll write more about that – and you can read about it in great detail when an article we wrote appears in the December 2012 issue of Teaching English in Two-Year Colleges- in future blogs, but that is not where my head is today.  I am wondering where did my students go.  In particular, what happened to C and R?

C and R were both doing well in the course: C was a borderline A/B student, and R was a borderline B/C student.  With two weeks remaining in the session, they both just . . . disappeared.  I sent multiple emails to both of them, but despite my plaintive pleas, they left with nary a trace.

I’ll put this is perspective: by the end of the first week, enrollment in the course stabilized at 16 students.  After the first week, one student withdrew; nine students completed the course (and that includes three earned F grades, students who completed all of the course work, but earned an F); one student took an incomplete; two students (C and R) have Fs on their transcripts, but not because of the quality of their work – they simply stopped doing the work.

If I count the three earned F grades and discount the other two Fs, the W, and the I, then nine of sixteen completed the course: 56%.  Even with the other two Fs, which would be eleven of sixteen, the completion rate is still a pretty tepid 69%.

Tepid, but closer to the national average online completion rate. Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars published a working paper for the Community College Research Center titled “Online and Hybrid Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State Community and Technical Colleges.”  Their findings show me under-performing in terms of creating online environments wherein my students can complete the course.  The Xu and Smith Jaggars study found that 79% of students completed fully online or hybrid courses compared to a 91% completion rate in face-to-face classrooms.  The dropout rates are perhaps even more disheartening; Xu and Smith Jaggars found that 30% of students dropout in the first-term after they have taken an online course, and another 19% dropout within a year of taking an online course.  Yikes!!!

The numbers vary little from study to study.  In a presentation Smith Jaggars draws some general conclusions regarding student success:

  • Online course completion rates lower
  • Among completers, online grades lower
  • Students taking remedial courses online less likely to move on & succeed in next course
  • Students taking online courses first or second semester less likely to return next semester
  • Students taking more online courses less likely to eventually transfer/graduate

Double yikes!!!

This is all to say that I have to do a better job of helping students finish online courses successfully with a grade of C or better.  There’s some great literature out there about online completion “best practices,” driven by the Obama’s commitment to raise higher education completion rates.  We’ll be writing more about this issue in the year to come, but we’d love to hear from others pondering the same question: where did they go?

Author Michael Kuhne

Wikipedia in the Writing Classroom

“Wikipedia: T-Shirt” by Quartermane, Flickr Creative Commons

“Wikipedia: T-Shirt” by Quartermane, Flickr Creative Commons

Along with my colleagues Gill Creel and Dominic Saucedo, I teach an online research writing course that focuses on Wikipedia. The previous link takes you to the course’s blog, which is where we have established the week-to-week activity for the course, and from there, one could also follow links to the course wiki, where students post their writings and collaborate with others. As I write this, the students are close to ending the summer session, and they are immersed in writing a Reflective Analytical Essay, in which they reflect on their experience as novice Wikipedians.  Two earlier assignments, the Wikipedia Feature Article Analysis and the collaborativeWikipedia Article, ask them to work on Wikipedia articles to improve them.

When Gill suggested three years ago that we use Wikipedia as a site for our research writing course, I hesitantly agreed to collaborate. When we first taught the course, we each taught a face-to-face section that was a bit rough around the edges. While I was on sabbatical (2009-2010), Dominic and Gill moved the course online (which was the plan from the beginning) and made great improvements.

Students write three essays. The first one is a response to approximately a dozen short articles that explain, critique, enthuse, and analyze Wikipedia. The second writing assignment has students using Wikipedia: Feature Article Criteria to analyze the shortcomings of a non-Feature article of their choosing. The students then form small groups of 2-3 people and work for three weeks to improve a Wikipedia article. The final essay asks students to reflect upon and analyze their efforts.

There are many reasons why we think that this course works well. One reason I think it works is because the third assignment – improving a Wikipedia article – draws on a series of civic engagement impulses. Teams of students work to improve an item that belongs to the commonwealth. In the process, they often encounter other Wikipedians working to improve the same articles that they are addressing. When this happens, it adds a public dimension to the students’ thinking and writing. It is not always a pleasant exchange, since these encounters often result in student edits being reverted, but if students are patient and persistent, they learn valuable lessons about how to work with others in online environments where their writing is they only way that they can represent themselves.

Author Michael Kuhne

Audacity, Brevity, Fairly Tiny (part 2)

As promised in Audacity, Humanity, Efficiency, Mobility (part 1), here are some brief suggestions about making small mp3 files for student feedback using Audacity.

And to reiterate, these files will not share you at your aurally most pleasing.  You’ll have more the hollow, digital rasp of Darth Vader than the Auto-Tuned perfect pitch of a prepubescent, Disney-built pop star.  But seriously, who has more gravitas? Yes, I thought so.

Minimize Audacity file size from SiliconClassroom on Vimeo.

The video itself probably gives a clear sense of my lack of concern with production quality. One take, but it gets the job done.  Perhaps that’s my two-year college ethos showing.

Author Gill Creel

Love for the conjunctive adverb

"Semicolon" by ilovememphis CC License: Attribution No Derivative Works

"Semicolon" by ilovememphis CC License: Attribution No Derivative Works

As if contributing to a blog about classroom technology weren’t enough to prove I am a complete geek, lately I have found myself thinking about the semicolon in stray moments.

I try to teach students how to use semicolons or, alternately, how to avoid them if they aren’t sure how to use them, so it isn’t that strange that I should think of them. I see them placed and misplaced in student and professional writing often enough, and the evil done to the semicolon on the Internet is too heinous to mention.

Recently a colleague pointed me to a very entertaining poster about semicolons at The Oatmeal. I’m a big fan of the references to plague rats and party gorillas, but I have to draw the line at the discussion of pauses. The semicolon colon is not a half note between the whole note of the period and the quarter note of the comma.  I hear this pause theory expounded by teachers and non-teachers alike, but it just ain’t so.  In the history of English orthography there may well be a connection, but in current usage, the pause method is going to be about as helpful as a grizzly with a sriracha flamethrower.

While it would be nice if we only needed to know how to breathe to use semicolons, the unfortunate truth is that one has to be able to recognize complete clauses and extended items in a series to use a semicolon comfortably.

Which brings us to the largely ignored conjunctive adverb, the sun in the semicolon’s solar system.  Even writer Ben Dolnick failed to give love to the conjunctive adverb in his otherwise lovingly constructed “Semicolons: A Love Story.” Conjunctive adverbs are those great words like howeveralthoughnonetheless, and indeed that can be used to clarify the connection between two related complete ideas and that currently require the use of a semicolon. For example,

I am a huge fan of sriracha hot sauce; however, I would not want to meet a grizzly with a sriracha flamethrower in a dark alley.

This is where I think the semicolon shines, but again, me=geek.

What the conjunctive adverb (and by extension, the semicolon) really needs is a song like the one given to the conjunction so many years ago. Clearly, “Andbut, and or, they’ll get you pretty far,” but we can express more specific connections between clauses with our friends the conjunctive adverbs, so sing it with me now:

“Conjunctive adverb, what’s your function? Connecting complete clauses with specific relationships.”

I’m sure the Schoolhouse Rock folks will get right on that.

Author Gill Creel

Audacity, Humanity, Efficiency, Mobility (part 1)

The single piece of open source software that I use more than any other isAudacity.  Created for recording and editing sound, Audacity has many features, and I’ve used almost none of them.

I use Audacity to do one thing: record audio feedback for students.  I export the files as MP3s and email them or post them in an LMS.

As a Composition instructor, I spend most of my time doing formative assessment of students’ written work.  Doing this assessment verbally is much faster than writing or typing (even when I use cheats likeAutohotkey).  It also pushes carpal tunnel that much farther down the line.

I encourage students to follow along in their drafts as they listen.  I try to be specific and keep the comments to five minutes or less.  If the comments get too long, the usefulness will disappear in proportion to their length (longer=less useful).  In other words, instead of being guilty of creating a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), I’ll create TL;DL (too long; didn’t listen).  Read More→

photo by: kev_hickey_uk

Better Class Discussions with Highlighter

One of the beauties of asynchronous, online education is the discussion forum. Teachers know the pitfalls of the, say, fifty-five minute synchronous/traditional classroom discussion. In the attempt to both pose a question and collectively find an answer, we swim purposefully towards the answer, rather that splash around in the messy pools of possible answers. We reach conclusions too quickly. And, while asynchronous discussions allow this “splashy” discourse, the challenge for the teacher is to direct and redirect a discussion which can become long, fragmented, unfocused.  Part of this problem is structural. Discussion forums are usually located at the bottom of the article/web page. Comments are stacked, and, unless every respondent has done a good job of quoting and paraphrasing, comments are without context. Take a look at any thread spread out over the course of three pages on the NY Times website and you quickly see what I mean. Yeah, I’m talking to youSupreme Court Lets Health Law Largely Stand

Highlighter, a new-ish highlighter/annotater for content, works to solve this problem. And while I haven’t given up on using the regular comments section on my course wiki, I’ve taken to using the highlighter plug-in on assignments where I want a close reading of a text/where I want students to comment on specific parts of a longer text.

A  few things that I like/my students liked about this tool.  Read More→

photos by: The U.S. National Archives & The U.S. National Archives

Author Dominic Saucedo

If the F Pattern is true

If the “F pattern for reading web content” is true, then where would a crafty teacher post comments or ideas in response to student work?

Top left baby!

That’s my epiphany, my sad, sad little epiphany. One of those moments when one realizes the importance of putting two and two together and getting four . . . and when one realizes just how far behind the curve one is (what curve? where? that one disappearing over the horizon?).

This blog is clearly not for those on the cutting edge.

For years I’ve put my summative comments (when typed rather than verbal) at the bottom of student documents and pages.  Well . . . that appears to be dumb for so many reasons, not the least of which is how people read webpages.

Now, I just have to break the habit. Note to self: “comments at top; comments at top; comments at . . . .”

photo by: milesopie

Author Gill Creel