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Last week the press claimed that a virtual reality (VR) application was “making pre-school spaces safe”.

While I applaud the attempt, I question its wisdom.

I am all for experimenting with technology and exploring possibilities, hence the applause. But with practical realities, limited budgets, and finite energies, I wonder if the creators of the VR application learnt from similar attempts in Second Life a decade ago.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

Just because the technology has evolved does not mean that human imagination, critical thinking, and research and reflective practice in the field have followed suit.

Just because you can do something does not mean you should. It could create wrong expectations. For one, the application is a simulation, but it is perceived as a game, at least to one interviewed student who said as much. For another, the simulation is designed to engage. That is the rhetoric in much of schooling now. Effective technology integration goes beyond mere engagement.

The simulation is rudimentary now, but it can improve. One clear improvement is how learners might be empowered to create by authoring environments. This is the more important application of VR, but the press relegated this to the end in a single sentence.

The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones. -- Todd Rose (In “The End of Average”)

There is always some harm in trying to do good. Sometimes the harm is unanticipated and other times it is unseen.

The harm of overkill VR is that we will keep doing the same things differently and thus add very little value with the technology. This will add fuel to the fire started and maintained by naysayers. Then when better applications of VR (or any other technology) come along, the change agents face a fire wall.

Turnitin’s Feedback Studio needs some serious feedback.

Yesterday I shared how its web application, integrated into an institutional LMS, kept logging me out and had UI controls reminiscent of the 80s.

If its web application was unstable and finicky, then its iOS app was bare-bones and underwhelming.

Turnitin’s Feedback Studio

I was hoping that I could do on the iOS app much of what I could already do with the web application. I was disappointed early on.

As I accessed Turnitin from an institutional LMS (BlackBoard), I had to log in with an “activation code”.

According to the instructions (as of 10 September 2017), I had to first log in to the institutional LMS on my iPad, pick any assignment, and click on an information (i) icon to reveal a “Generate Code” button.

When I tapped on the button, nothing happened. I could not get a code with the iOS app.

Hoping that the code was not tied to a device, I decided to try this on my laptop. Clicking on the button using my laptop gave me the code I needed. I had to use this workaround because Turnitin’s instructions did not work.

The UI of the app is simple. At first I was disappointed that what I did not use was plain to see and what I really needed to use did not seem available.

UI of Turnitin’s Feedback Studio

What was clearly visible were tappable areas for a rubric, summary comment, voice comment, and similarity (matching scores to other artefacts in the database) at the top of the page. I did not rely on any of these.

I do not even use the scoring element because 1) I keep the marks elsewhere, and 2) the point of this assignment is for students to respond to feedback via a reflection and to incorporate changes in the next assignment. Provide a score and the learning stops (and the badgering for marks begins)!

The actual tools for providing specific formative feedback, i.e., highlighting, commenting, selecting canned responses, etc., were not obvious. There was no initial-use help on screen. Such a job aid is practically a standard feature from app creators who practice user-centric design.

Thankfully tapping on the screen a few times revealed the highlighting, commenting, and type-over functions. I managed to markup and comment on a student’s work. In the screen capture above, I pixellated the work (grey) as well as my comments, canned comments, and highlights (all in blue).

Highlighting was somewhat laborious as the app selected an entire line when I wanted to focus on one word. It was also not easy to select several sentences in a paragraph, but I suspect that this problem is common to apps that display PDFs.

As I was trying this at home where the wifi was fast and stable, the markups in the app synchronised with the web version almost immediately. A better test might be at a public hotspot or transport where the signal is less reliable. This would test Turnitin’s claim that any app edits would update the web versions when a reliable connection was established.

I am not sure I would recommend the app for processing class upon class of scripts. The typing of comments alone would be a pain. An external keyboard might alleviate this issue, but not everyone has one. There is also the option of audio feedback, but this does not highlight specific parts of an assignment.

I would not recommend this app to the paper and pencil generation. I would hesitate to do the same even to those who consider themselves mobile savvy. I would not want my recommendations to be soured by association with an app that feels like it is in perpetual beta.

The basic tenet of most types of design is that form must meet function. This principle is applied in the design of cars, buildings, furniture, websites, human-device interfaces, etc.

I tweeted this as I was in a neighbourhood library grading and providing formative feedback on assignments.

The library itself had questionable design. It shared a wall with a community centre. With boisterous activity comes happy noises. That is to be expected at a community centre. When the noise leaks to the study area, the people in the library half of the building become unhappy.

I became doubly unhappy as I was at the library to grade and leave feedback on assignments. The screenshot below illustrates the problem.

Turnitin Feedback Studio logs me out while I'm providing feedback!

Turnitin calls its “improved” tool Feedback Studio. It logs me out in the background while I am providing feedback on an assignment. I find out only after trying to leave feedback on a document and am shown the error message on screen.

I cannot even click on the “OK” button and have to exit the session and start all over again. This means having to close the pop-up window where the assignment and feedback are, returning to the Blackboard interface from which Turnitin was launched, and refreshing that page.

When I do that, I find out that I am not logged out from Blackboard. There seems to be some sort of invisible timer or quota for this “log out” problem. I have discovered that I can process six to eight assignments before the problem rears its ugly head.

This is an unwelcome distraction when I have about 30 scripts per class and a few classes worth of assignments to process. I am never sure whether my next set of comments is going to be saved with the assignment. I only find out when the error message pops up and I have to retype everything I did earlier.

I also cannot scroll the contents of the assignment window with a touch pad or mouse. I have to move the cursor to the scroll bars and move them up/down or left/right. Have we regressed to Apple’s single mouse button and ancient UI era?

The previous version of the same tool did not do these things. It was marginally less pretty, but it let me do my job efficiently and effectively.

It is one thing to be frustrated with the quality of student assignments. It is another to be antagonised by an unstable system. To the application designers and developers I say: Form must meet function. It does not matter if it looks nice but functions like an airhead.

No, I have not found a way to bring Richard Feynman back.

But the world needs still needs his knowledge and wisdom. Case in point:

I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned. -- Richard Feynman

Call it what you will: Lifelong learning, life wide learning, growth mindset. I call it being open and child-like.

A rose is rose is a rose. It is what it is.

Likewise an LMS is an LMS is an LMS. It is where progressive pedagogy goes to die and it does not smell as nice.

You can rename an LMS all you want, it will still suffer from the same problems (e.g., insidious pedagogies) and inadequacies (limited access).

I can rename a part of my body to Waste Aperture and Release Point (WARP) to anoint it with a fancy name or give the impression that it is futuristic. But it is still the terminal end of my alimentary canal.

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This funny-yet-sad tweet reminded me of why I need to do what I do.

Viewed positively, you might say that the teacher was very consistent about his attire over four decades.

Viewed more critically, you might ask if his dressing was a possible reflection of his unchanging mindset.

Symbolism aside, the teacher’s attire does indicate how many teachers operate. They might get older, but they do not change how they appear to others.

Ask most lay folk what a teacher looks like and you will likely get traditional views. You will hardly, if at all, hear of distinctions between teachers and educators, or educators who reach through walls, teach over the Internet, or operate without school principals.

These are educators who are pushing the boundaries of the past so that their learners are better prepared for the present and look forward to shaping their futures. There is value in looking back, but facing backwards while trying to walk forwards is a recipe for falling and injuries.

I liking showing people how to look and walk forward, strange as that may sound. I start by pointing out that they have their feet pointed in one direction and their eyes in the other.

Two things prompted this reflection — an interview I watched on YouTube and interactions I had with a special breed of teachers.

A few weeks ago, I watched an interview of Ris Ahmed on YouTube [focused segment]. The actor explained how “Asian” meant very different things in the UK and the USA.

Video source

I can vouch for what Riz Ahmed said because I lived in the USA for several years and had to minor incidentally in socio-political geography to educate those around me.

Now fast-forward to the present. For the last few semesters, I have interacted with pre and inservice teachers who are pursuing diplomas in special needs education (SPED).

I find the “special” in SPED to be a misnomer. It has different meanings in different contexts and it is an insufficient catch-all term.

If you go to almost any school system in the USA and are labelled “special”, you are atypical. You might have a genetic, physical, or behavioural condition that distinguishes you from “normal” or typical. The label is generally a negative one.

In Singapore’s context, being in a special stream of schooling might be a highly sought label. Being a student a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school is a mark of academic excellence. For some history on SAP, read this NLB article.

However, the special-as-atypical meaning is more dominant now in our context. This is because students with special needs are more visible and are given more equitable opportunities than before.

Despite the “special” label being more common, those of us who consider ourselves typical might still gawk at atypicals. This is because our social circles do not overlap as much as they could.

This is why a newer term and phenomenon is on the rise. It is called inclusive education. This could mean including students with hearing impairments or ADHD or certain forms of autism in neuro-typical classrooms.

Inclusive education recognises that atypical students need more or special assistance while not isolating them all the time from the larger world. This is big step forward in special needs education. It might just be the equivalent of bringing the “real world” into typical classrooms.

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