Sunday, November 25, 2007

Good Grief, Study Shows Youngsters Are Interested in Formats Other Than Hard Copy Books!!!

An open blog entry to fellow members of the New York City chapter of the National Council of Teachers of English:

Boo Hoo! It’s just not fair! (sniff, sniff). We literacy educators stake so much of our claim to the cultural high ground and so many of our aspirations to more-intellectual-than-thou status on our rock solid belief in the holy sanctity of a communications format know popularly as The Book, and those darn kids just want to play video games, read one another’s FaceBook pages, and listen to Hip Hop… (sniff).

Exaggeration? Consider the NY Time article of 11/19/07 “Study Links Drop in Test Scores to a Decline in Time Spent Reading” which agrees that is “…the message of a new report released by the National Endowment of the Arts, based on an analysis of data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor Department and the Census Bureau as well as other academic foundation and business surveys.”

I am no researcher or statistician, merely a professional educator of 35 years experience, a published author, and clear thinker - and without taking on the formal dimensions of these studies (which really just restate and rehash a series of concerns and attitudes that have been heavy on our collective mind for a long time) I’d like to offer some opinion, perspective, and optimism.

First, we need to acknowledge that the vast majority of written (and one would assume read) text published these days is on the web, the VAST majority. Our population is obviously reading, although it is not reading books (those generous collections of hard copy pages sandwiched between other hard things called covers).

Second, direct experience in writing, editing, and publishing web sites informs me that the same skills used in writing books are employed in this activity as well: pre writing organization/outlining, first draft and repeated revision, it’s all there – as well as publishing and feedback from readers –experiences that unpublished hard copy writers don’t often have access to. I wonder how many of my NCTE chapter mates are aware of the above, I mean to the extent that they’ve actually authored sites and uploaded them, activities that I assert are needed to put all of this dreaded ‘loss of The Book’ philosophizing into useful perspective.

Third (and here’s where I really hope to generate some enemies) we have to understand the history of this format called The Book. Think back to those Phoenicians inventing writing through the development of cuneiform. Do you think they would have opted for scribing in wet clay had Microsoft Word (in their language of course) been able to boot up out there in the hot Mesopotamian sun? And those Egyptians with their papyrus scrolls. Wouldn’t they have opted for a high resolution digital display if Dell or Lenovo or Hitachi had outlets in a mall by the Nile? And Guttenberg. Wouldn’t he have opted for an easy to use HTML authoring program like DreamWeaver if it had been available, and then uploaded his pages to a stable server running Apache? After all, he was interested in getting his bible in front of as many eyes as possible, wasn’t he? And of course with language translation software like Babelfish, they all could have spoken their own language and not slowed him down much.

And finally, what about those authors like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain? Would they have chosen long hand with quill and ink, hand pulled hard copy editions in small numbers, and a readership limited to that small minority that could read? Or would they have used an iMAC to produce a digital video carrying their thoughts and voice and uploaded it to YouTube? We’ll never know for sure, but these guys were creative souls with restless intellects and NOT interested in conforming to or maintaining the status quo. They WERE interested in communicating directly to an audience motivated to hear them and I think they would have been interested in reaching people where the people were at, and as many of them as they could.

Finally, I need to say that I love books and fervently want to share my love of books with young people who I sincerely believe will be better off by adopting this love. Of course I understand that they love video games (which any observer of communications with his eyes open will understand is in reality a new publishing format) and hopefully want to share this love me and members of my generation and are absolutely certain that our lives will be enriched by adopting their love for it, too.

Where does this leave us? In a very good place, I think. If we are to promote The Book we can no longer assert that books are all kissing cousins to Moses’ tablets, handed down from the almighty himself, and therefore not to be questioned as the supreme format. No, we’ll have to do a little reconceiving of the true value and place for The Book in our world, an exercise that can only help. Finally, as we ponder what is special about books we will have to promote, write, and publish books that make this special nature clear and take advantage of it and through it produce works and programs to present them of high value for 21st Century readers and the ages. That’s the way to pay homage to this format and preserve it.

As an old Chinese proverb states “It is far easier to ride the horse in the direction it is going!” Good advice for all those riding the Book Horse. No doubt this was first published in hard copy (after a long life in purely oral format) and now, in a seamless transition to a contemporary medium, is uploaded to this blog. Hey, good words and ideas transcend format.
Mark Gura

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Now THAT'S a 21st Century Learning Project!!!

Classrooms with out walls! International cultural exchange! World language awareness!.. all wrapped up in a FUN, stimulating body of authentic activities. The Project: "Voices of the World" is all that and more! ('s+Task )

The project makes use of Voki, a free online resource that gives users animated avatars that are enabled with text to speech technology (or you can phone in or upload a pre-recorded digital audio for your avatar). The finished Voki presentation can be emailed (kind of like an eCard) or embedded in a blog, etc. VERY COOL! Best of all this resource is easy to use!!!!! ( )

The plot thickens when you realize that voki will translate from many languages to many languages - and the head begins to spin when you think of the possibilities of authoring a message in one language, translating it to another, using a resource like Alta Vista's Babel Fish, and pasting the translated text into Voki's text to speech function!

One final thought, and this one will be explored in much greater detail in the future. Now that the media has been democratized, and that any and all world citizens can publish their own content, we will soon need to concentrate more on the quality of that content as the novelty of being (Web 2.0) published wears thin. More than just good content (accurate, well expressed, relevant, and valid) it will have to be audience worthy as it vies (sp?) for attention among the dizzyingly countless self-published content items floating around out there attempting to seduce an audience. And of course, what a great problem that is to have!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

New Educational Paradigm Is Hard to Understand When Seen Through Lens of the Old

From: eSchool News
"T+L's message to educators: Aim High
Acrobats, astronauts inspire attendees of NSBA's annual technology conference to innovate and take risks "
"... educators attending the National School Boards Association's 2007 T+L conference were urged to inspire and be inspired. The annual ed-tech conference took place Oct. 17-19 in Nashville, Tenn... In total, there were some 200 exhibitor booths, 1,800 participants, and two unusual choices for keynote speakers at an ed-tech event: the creative mastermind behind Cirque du Soleil and the founder of commercial space travel...that was exactly the point conference organizers were making--to think outside the box and use new ways to encourage the kind of innovation that is needed for 21st-century success...

The opening speaker was Lyn Heward, Cirque's former president of creative content, who stood in front of a giant screen that featured whirling acrobats. Day two's speaker, Peter Diamandis, the brains behind the X Prize Foundation, later stood in front of the same giant screen--only instead of professional acrobats, teachers and students tumbled and cavorted in zero gravity.

"This isn't just about managing people, it's about knowing how to inspire, how to stimulate, and how to achieve results," explained Heward. Though she was referring to her own responsibilities as a circus director, she also was describing many key traits that educators, too, need to reach their goals.

To be a good leader (and educator), Heward said, one must apply creativity to everyday tasks... Cirque not only inspires its members but builds a team around multiple, well-rounded skills. Diamandis and his foundation have managed, after eleven and a half years of work, to convince the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow specially engineered planes, called Zero Gs, to carry commercial passengers--and this year, 400 were teachers.

Teachers say they come back from Zero G and their students view them as heroes," "It builds interest in science. Those teachers who have gone have managed to raise science assessment scores in their classes by as much as 20 percent...."
Read the full article at:

Can educators be inspired to aim high and think out of the box, and still reflexively evaluate the quality and impact of that new thinking in terms of assessment scores??? Surely Zero Gs and the application of creativity to the entire enterprise of Education must yield something loftier than that!

If one understands the institution of schooling as a socio-intellectual eco system, one comes to see that generation after generation of compulsory eductation students haved "survived" in the envrionment of school based on innate attitudes and abilities that have permitted them to thrive there. More than a hundred years down the road of mass public schooling now, this environment has weeded out (as future shapers of that environment) those who aren't compliant, passive, and endowed with a predeliction for text and ordered talk. Those who know how to spit back the expected answers, behave in a manner that supports the perceived efficacy of those in charge, and who do NOT challenge the intellectual status quo too profoundly work their way toward the top of this food chain. In a Darwinian sense, those who thrive in school, go on to run school, and downstream the result is a cohort of ex-alpha students running them that is at this point virtually incapable of conceiving even the need to change the environment that produced it, let alone actually engaging in thinking that would alter it fundamentally.

We are in DEEP SHIFT as The Lines Between Speaking and Publishing, Between Close-Up Interpersonal and Global Communication Continue to Blurrrrrrrrrr

The lines between speaking and publishing/close-up interpersonal and global communication are getting SO blurred, and the evolution and ascendence of PowerPoint is one good example.

Have you recently pondered the history of PowerPoint? True, most users tend to take it for granted, producing (at best) poor to mediocre slide shows and all too often treating their captive audience to one of our era's most disheartening fates: death by PowerPoint. Still, is this not a remarkable medium/shift in the nature, quality, and technology of communications? Isn't Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, a story about a man and his PowerPoint, changing the course of human consciousness, the fate of industry, the politics of our globe (as well as being the subject of a 'best seller' movie and winning him a Nobel prize?)... all stemming from creating and sharing a slide deck? < >

For a somewhat comprehensive history of PowerPoint go to the Wikipedia entry on this amazing application . In essence, PowerPoint was released in 1987 (Yes, it's been around over 20 years!). But here's the point about the SHIFT it's undergone and brought about; PowerPoint was originally conceived purely as a support for speakers, people who would make face-to-face presentations to groups large and small, but in all likelihood, mostly to class and conference rooms filled with fewer than 50 souls. It became part of the ultra-ubiquitous Microsoft Office Suite because the developers were looking for 'killer ap' software tools that would help average workers in the global 'every office' get their work done better. Before PowerPoint the prospect of preparing for and getting up and making a presentation to one's fellow humans was something that Joe Blow absolutely dreaded, and that was very frequently done so poorly that the typical audience dreaded being on the receiving end, too. PowerPoint changed all that. In the Old West the saying went that "God made man and Colt made men equal", in the corporate age PowerPoint made men and women equal... anyone could be an effective speaker, no talent needed just the intelligent use of a common technology item.

And then a shift in thinking happened. People who put the time and effort in to producing PowerPoint presentations that were effective began to receive requests from audience members of "hey, can I have your PowerPoint?" Consequently, after a while PowerPoint presentations were sent out via email attachments and then uploaded to the web. PowerPoint had become a publishing medium! Yes, what started out as a graphic organizer/presentation support had become a publishing format and medium, the upshot of which we are just now really beginning to see and understand.

Another GREAT EXAMPLE of this is the piece "shifthappens", originally a simple PowerPoint presentation. A basic Google search of shifthappens (at the moment ) turns up 3,750,000 hits. Imagine that, almost 4 million references easily found on the web for a single PowerPoint presentation! You can view, download, copy a link and the blog embedding code for shifthappens at digital media sharing sites like , which lists it as one of the most downloaded presentations there with more than 300,000 views and 7,500 "embeds" (bloggers who've embedded it in their blogs)!!! But this is just one of many media share sites that offer this piece. In fact shifthappens is available at YouTube (no big leap to go from a slideshow to a video!)... in a variety of versions. The downloads for these total roughly 4 million (at this moment). And those are just 2 of the almost 4 million links relating to this piece to be found through Google. It is probably impossible at this point to know accurately how many people have viewed shifthappens. Guttenberg's head would spin and spin.

The history of this piece is well worth a read of the Wiki Spaces entry on it which reveals the story in pieces... One is sent first out on a link to the blog The FischBowl ( ) which explains that this piece began as a motivational/informational presentation at a faculty conference at a typical American high school!!!

Below you'll find embedded one of the many versions now available. It is a remarkable piece, but its greatest significance (in this observer's opinion) is as an example of the very things it talks about - how technology has irrevocably changed the way people think and communicate and how unless this understanding is fully embraced by educators we are in serious paradigm trouble! Here's the 2.0 version>>>

Friday, November 2, 2007

Making Student Reports REAL!

From: Yahoo News!
"Wikipedia becomes a class assignment"
" Some academics cringe when students turn to Wikipedia as a reference for term papers.
University of Washington-Bothell professor Martha Groom has more of an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" response to the online encyclopedia that anyone can write or edit.
Instead of asking students in her environmental history course to turn in one big paper at the end of the semester, she requires them either to write an original Wikipedia article or to do a major edit on an existing one.
The inspiration came to her as she prepared teaching materials for her class.
"I would find these things on Wikipedia," she said, and would think, "Gosh, this is awfully thin here. I wonder if my students could fill this in?"
Wikipedia has been vilified as a petri dish for misinformation, and the variable accuracy of its articles is a point Groom readily concedes. Since the advent of the Web, she said, the quality of sources students cite has deteriorated.
For her students, the Wikipedia experiment was "transformative," and students' writing online proved better than the average undergrad research paper.
Knowing their work was headed for the Web, not just one harried professor's eyes, helped students reach higher
— as did the standards set by the volunteer "Wikipedians" who police entries for accuracy and neutral tone, Groom said.
The exercise also gave students a taste of working in the real world of peer-reviewed research.
Most of the articles were well received, but Groom said some students caught heat from Wikipedia editors for doing exactly what college students are trained to do: write an argumentative, critical essay.
"Some people were a little rude," she said of the anonymous Wikipedia editors. Ultimately, she had to teach the students the difference between good secondary research and the average college paper.
"You don't get to say that last little bit on, 'This is why this is the truth and the way,'" she said."

Our traditonal paradigm has the student preparing, practicing, getting ready to participate in the real world after learning has been achieved. Why? Why shouldn't students we participating, contributing, shaping the world that they will inherit? Educating the intellect need not be comprised of study divorced from the real world, it can be active, participatory apprenticeship, the student directly involved, making a contribution AS he learns. The beneficiary? Not just the student, but the world! Wikipedia by the way, is a perfect playground in which this can be made to happen!