Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Edutainment: Move Beyond Entertaining, to Learning

Randomly clicking on letters, the young boy I was watching play an educational game "won" each level. He paid no attention to the letters themselves. His focus was on the dancing aliens at the end of each alphabet invasion.

Situations like this occur in classrooms and homes every day. Technology appeals to parents, politicians and some educators as a path towards more effective teaching. We often bring technology into our schools and homes, imagining the latest gadgets and software will magically transfer skills and information to our children.

This school year, I left teaching business communications to return to my doctoral specialty in education, technology and language development. As a board member of an autism-related charity, I speak to groups on how technology both helps and hinders special education. Business students will always have the best professors. Special needs students deserve more attention.

Like many educational technologists, I have visions of technology enabling more access to education and better results for all students. Idealism tends to meet classroom reality. Our schools are victims of the best intentions, forced by the public and politicians to embrace the latest trendy theories with the slightest evidence. Technology companies have been selling their magical elixirs to schools since the 1970s, with mixed results.

Unfortunately, most educational technology embodies little more than "edutainment" that might transfer some factual knowledge through repetition, but primarily entertains the player-learner.

The young boy I observed was playing a top-selling educational game. He was learning little or nothing because the game did nothing to discourage guessing. Researchers know that failure is a part of learning, as is some frustration. The game, however, didn't frustrate the player who was merely guessing. The player always "won" the game and received the reward.

The next youngster I watched was playing Super Why! The game, based on a popular PBS series, had the same flaw as the first edutainment title. The girl playing would click and click, until "winning" each level. The game had no time limits, no consequences for guessing or offering incorrect answers.

Don't misunderstand, "educational game" is not an oxymoron.

The classic game The Oregon Trail has both deaths and a final score for players. With nearly 100 million versions sold since the game was first released in the 1970s, Oregon Trail has won praise from educators and researchers for helping students understand the Westward Migration. Students tend to replay the game, trying to improve their scores by reaching the West faster and with more survivors in the wagon train. Today's versions of the game look better, yet the basics of the game remain unchanged.

Parents, teachers and school districts looking to buy effective educational games need to consider how the game challenges players and rewards right answers. Research suggests games that decrease the time allowed to complete levels or increase the difficulty of problems also help retain knowledge.

At best, games and activities reinforce what a teacher or parent has taught a child. Younger students still need teachers, because they haven't learned how to teach themselves through reading and research. Some of the apps and games I have evaluated this year are good for reinforcing knowledge, but most seem to be advertisements for popular characters.

Reinforcement is part of learning. That's why children repeat favorite songs and love to hear the same stories over and over again. If games use familiar character for reinforcement of basic skills, then the games are useful. But, the popular titles generally fall short of what is possible.

Maybe it is my age, but I find that nothing beats the standard "newsprint" paper with blue solid and dotted lines for learning to write. Observing students use LeapFrog Scribble and Writer toys, which teach basic lettering through tracing, I noticed the students don't always transfer what they did on screen to paper. For young children, it can be difficult to recognize that the screen and paper are similar.

LeapFrog's LeapReader, which is an electronic activity book device, does seem to work for young children. You can add books to the set, which work with the LeapReader pen. The pen is impressive technology. It can be too complex for some youngsters to operate without an adult around to help.

I'd like to see more research on the LeapReader's effectiveness versus paper pads, especially with the cost of the device and several books easily surpassing $50. I buy the newsprint pads at various dollar stores for $1 each, along with 50 cent crayon boxes. It's hard to beat the price of crayons and paper.

The most educational applications are not games or glorified activity books. Analysis, evaluation and creation represent the highest levels of cognitive development. I encourage parents and teachers to seek out technology that fosters creative play and creative expression.

Kid Pix, KidsPainter and other simple illustration apps are ideal for children. TuxPaint, originally for the Linux OS, is a free painting program for children. Drawing with a computer improves spatial skills and awareness of geometry. Best of all, students go from drawing copies of what they see to creating new imaginary worlds. The reward for learning to use the drawing app is intrinsic, an image that belongs to its creator.

Likely the best option for allowing a child to type on your computer is the WordPad or TextEdit applications included with Windows and OS X. You'll be surprised at how quickly young children who know simple words master a basic word processor. Show a child how to change fonts and colors, and you've just introduced a new favorite computer activity.

Tablets, with touch interfaces, are easier than a mouse for children. A LeapPad is inexpensive and rugged, but the games are overpriced. The games vary in their effectiveness, so you need to read online reviews before spending $15 or $20 for a game. I'd consider an inexpensive Android tablet with a case, instead. As an Apple user, I'd only suggest an iPad if you are passing one along to the child; they simply aren't a good buy for the minimal needs of a child. An iPad is better suited to preteens and older users, though, with some great content available.

Focus on a child's learning, not only on how entertaining an app or gadget might be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Dictating as Writing

Speaking is composing, but is it writing?

I have long used dictation software to quickly compose drafts of short stories, plays, essays, and magazine columns. The results tend to read more naturally than when I type directly into a word processor. I am pondering whether or not the dictated documents are "better" because they are more approachable for many readers.

When I type, I aggressively attempt to avoid forms of "to be" and a list of "weak" words and phrases lacking precision. For this reason, I have considered my typed documents superior to dictated documents. After all, we tell our students that writing should be more refined and precise than the spoken word.

Yet, when I read student papers, their attempts to sound "educated" produce jarring prose. In their eagerness to demonstrate vocabulary skills, they instead expose a lack of reading and true word comprehension. Overly complex sentences also reflect internalized models students have developed based on past teacher expectations.

Our students have learned that big words and long sentences are associated with higher grades on writing assignments. Overworked teachers with too many papers to grade skim for these indicators of academic skill and implied intelligence. This is precisely why automated grading often parallels human grading. Computer models based on analyzing teacher graded samples easily mimic the models are students have developed, often without the students realizing they have accomplished this impressive task.

Many writing instructors, including myself, encourage students to read their papers aloud to classmates. Even better, asking another individual to read the paper allowed quickly reveals how artificial and affected attempts at academic writing can be.

By asking my students to dictate short assignments, those not requiring complex formatting, I was able to reveal how their spoken language differs from their typed assignments. The students argued that the dictated papers sounded "casual" – yet they also said the papers were more enjoyable to read. Notice the criticism students are offering of academic writing, without realizing how insightful this critique is. Class discussion led some students to conclude that dictating could be used for first drafts, and then revised for a more "academic" final papers.

Dictation software has improved greatly since I first purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking more than a decade ago. Early software required speaking slowly and artificially, yet today I can dictate this blog post at a natural speaking speed. The only complications, for me, are attempts to format text while speaking. However, I would rather focus on the words first and the formatting after a document is drafted.

Creative writing is not the same as academic discourse. My characters speak like "normal people" and I do not need to use the language, the jargon, of academia. The more natural my writing, the more appealing it might be to its intended audience.

I encourage instructors of writing, both academic and creative, to experiment with dictation software and consider the lessons learned by students and by us, their professors.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Call for Papers: Rhetoric of Typography and Letterforms

Call for proposals for an edited collection:
Type Matters: the Rhetoricity of Letterforms
Edited by C.S. Wyatt and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss

Stephen Bernhardt warned us almost 30 years ago that our "preoccupation with conventional essay format" excludes the rhetorical rigor of typographic elements. Later, John Trimbur extended this argument, noting that "one of the main obstacles to seeing the materiality of writing has been the essayist tradition and its notion of a transparent text." Many visual rhetoric scholars have interrogated the ways in which meaning-making happens iconographically, photographically, and via other visual means. Few, however (save for Anne Frances Wysocki), have paid much attention to the rhetorical work that typography does.

Although always part of any text's argument, the choice of typeface is an under-articulated and under-studied aspect of textual production within composition and rhetoric. Today, even as there are thousands of font face options available to us, composers and rhetoricians often take the power of  letterforms for granted or—worse yet, we would argue—situate typography as ideally invisible, meant only to convey thought and ideas and not as itself contributing to rhetorical meaning. Typographic choices convey meaning.

Design scholars—including Robert Bringhurst, Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton, Alex White, and Edward  Tufte—have emphasized that the layout of a page affects the reading and interpretation of the text. Type Matters seeks to bridge the scholarship of typography and design with the field of rhetoric.

We thus invite authors to situate "texts" broadly; to think rhetorically, technologically, and culturally; to draw from scholarship ranging from rhetoric and writing studies to graphic design theory and beyond; and to explore the ways in which the visual and tactile shapes of letters convey persuasive information to audiences.

We seek chapters in which authors articulate the ways in which and places where typography rubs up against rhetorical principles. Specific questions we ask proposal authors to consider include but are not limited to:
  • How does text design function rhetorically? In what ways are letterforms persuasive?
  • What have been some perhaps common trends and intersection points in the history of rhetoric and typography?
  • In what ways can we—rhetoric and composition studies scholars—better attend to the work of typography in our teaching and our scholarship?
  • Where and in what ways do typefaces and culture intersect? To what end?
  • What are the interconnections and/or implications of typefaces and dis/different abilities?
  • How have decorative fonts and even emoji fonts changed the concept of "writing?"
The deadline for 500-word proposals is September 30, 2015 (with notification to authors by October 30, 2015, and draft chapters due by January 15, 2016).

Queries are welcome and encouraged. Direct proposals and queries to C. S. Wyatt (wyatt050 -at- umn -dot- edu) and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (devossda -at- msu -dot- edu).

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Google Docs and Writing

My students like to use Google Docs for collaborative drafts of projects. They like the "Suggesting" mode for editing, though it takes time to get used to this approach compared to Microsoft Word, and they really like the "Chat" mode for working together remotely.

I'm not as comfortable with Google's "Suggesting" edit mode. I like the "Track Changes" approach of Word, but that might be out of familiarity.

The "Revision History" is also little clunky in Google Docs. Students have rolled back edits by accident, especially on tablets. Maybe the location of the "Editing Mode" and "History" (the upper right) makes them prone to accidental "palm clicks" when holding the devices.

I've not used the JavaScript-based macro features, but I am glad there is a way to automate editing tasks. One of the reasons I love Word is the ease of Visual Basic for Applications. JavaScript ("GScript") macros might enable me to add similar editing tools to Docs I have created for Word.

The extensions and add-ons for Docs range from lousy to okay. I've not seen many that are "WOW!" and my students don't seem to be curious about the add-on library.

Writing always changes with technology. I'm not sure Google Docs is a step forward, but it is a step towards greater convenience.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Newsreaders Collecting Virtual Dust

I have Feedly, Newsify, and NetNewsWire on my various computing devices. Only a couple of years ago, I used RSS readers daily to check headlines on Slashdot, RealClear, MacWorld, and many other websites. Maybe it is me, but I felt there were great stories every few hours — and RSS made keeping up with the news easy and convenient.

This week, MacOSXHints went into "archive" mode. Slashdot traffic has fallen dramatically. News sites favor Facebook and Twitter over RSS. Even some apps for news sites don't work well. Tom's Hardware for iOS wasn't updating for nearly a month. Only last week did updates start appearing on my phone and tablet again.

Newsreaders and dedicated news apps are collecting virtual dust.

The most disappointing failure might be Apple's Newsstand app for iOS, another stale and nearly useless slot for magazines and newspapers. Apple, which effectively killed RSS along with Google, just doesn't seem to value virtual periodicals.

I don't want Facebook and Twitter to be my news feeds. But, as RSS faded, I stopped using newsreaders, becoming yet one more bit of evidence for sites that they don't need RSS and news apps. There is a downward spiral of news, and I'm part of that.

I wish Apple, Google, and others would somehow revive RSS. I want Google Reader, RSS in-browser, and reader apps to flourish again. The pleasure of using a text-only newsreader with all the latest stories in one place is something only a news geek can appreciate, I realize, but I miss it.

Feedly and Newsify just aren't the text-based, fast, easy RSS experience I used to enjoy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Skills My Students Value

In the last two weeks, several of my students have mentioned that employers expected them to know macro programming for Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel, and Access.

I've written many times that students should aim for at least intermediate knowledge of Word, including the concept of macros if not coding skills. However, the inclusion of Excel and Access was a little surprising. Maybe it shouldn't be, since what made Lotus 1-2-3 the "killer application" for PCs was its macro abilities. WordPerfect also had exceptional macros back in the DOS days, helping it become dominant for many years.

Note: I'm not sure I'd call the VBA code in Access "macro" coding, but it is Visual Basic and often the code used in workplaces exists in snippets. I won't post my gripes with most of what I've seen done in Access, but I have a long list of bad habits I've seen in workplaces. Still, employers use it for small projects and it isn't a bad system — more often a "badly used" system.

Student groups have asked if I might speak to their members about macros, since employers want these skills. That tells me that our schools should be teaching these skills, starting as early as possible.

Why don't we teach the real power behind Office? Because teachers (and most other users) have no idea what is possible with macros.

Over time more and more features once possible with macros have become integrated into applications. But, macros are still a great way to do more with applications.

I cannot imagine an engineer or draftsman not customizing AutoCAD with LISP scripts. Or a serious Web developer not automating pages with JavaScript. Learning macros opens the door to other forms of coding.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Learning to Code: Selecting a Language

If you decide that learning computer programming offers students much needed critical thinking (and job) skills, then the next question is which language(s) should be taught to which students.

Computer programming changes, so any opinion I offer will be bad advice in a few years. What I offer below are my views at this moment, and they reflect my biases as a programmer.

Suggestion One: C

It's not flashy, it's not trendy, and it isn't the first choice of most programming courses. Yet, C is the language of operating systems, programmable controllers, and a lot of portable logic. When you learn C, it's easy to transport those skills to almost any modern language.

C compilers are free, there are many integrated development environments (IDEs), and lots of resources are available for learning. You can code C in any text editor, too, and compile from a command line.

For OS X and Windows, I suggest using the tools from Apple and Microsoft to learn C, C++, and either Objective-C or C#. Microsoft offers VisualStudio Express for free, as does Apple.

The LLVM Project offers great C/C++ tools, but they do require some skill to install and configure. The GNU Compiler Collection is older and better known than LLVM, serving as the foundation for many open source projects.

If you do opt for open source tools, the two most popular IDEs are Eclipse and Netbeans. Originally intended for Java development, both IDEs offer good C/C++ programming experiences. And, if you feel the need to learn Java, these are the tools professional Java developers prefer.

Suggestion Two: JavaScript

This won't be a popular suggestion among many programmers, but JavaScript remains an important language on the World Wide Web and its basic syntax teaches skills that transfer. With Apple's recent announcement that JavaScript will replace AppleScript as its primary operating system "scripting" language, there's one more reason to learn the language.

JavaScript (officially ECMAScript) has the benefit of working in all major browsers, on all major computing platforms. If you have a text editor and a browser, you can learn to code JavaScript. It's free and it is everywhere.

Why would I suggest JavaScript, an interpreted language with some annoyances? Because if you want to develop modern Web apps, you will end up using JavaScript.

There are many tutorials on the Web for learning JavaScript, and dozens of good free books.

Other Possibilities

I still like BASIC dialects for teaching programming to young students.

Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) in Microsoft Office is still valuable, but falling out of favor as more companies disable macros. I understand the security concerns, but VBA makes Excel and Access what they are. Complex Word macros in VBA are also part of my life.

For younger students, MIT still offers versions of LOGO that are fun.

Apple's Swift looks promising. It's still not finished, but there are free books and guides online from Apple.

Java is fine, and as mentioned above the tools are free.

What about Ruby, Python, or PHP? Scripting languages offer instant satisfaction, a lot like BASIC did in the dark ages of home computing. If you have to choose one, I'd be torn between Python and Ruby. Most of my students learn Python and use it with R for statistical analyses.

I still believe Pascal was great for learning. And my wife and I both learned Fortran in the 1980s.

There are hundreds of computer programming languages out there, but in the end the tools provided by Microsoft and Apple tend to dominate the industry.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New Play: A New Death World Premier

This is why I haven't been blogging a lot this summer. I've been working on several new plays… 


A World Premiere

By C.S. Wyatt

Directed By Kaitlin Kerr
Assistant Directed By Sarah McPartland

July 18 - July 26
The Grey Box Theatre
3595 Butler St, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15201



Andy Coleman 
Chelsea Faber
Hazel Carr Leroy
Eric Leslie 
Tonya Lynn 
Sarah McPartland
Jared King Rombold 
John Henry Steelman

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lost Promise

What happened to the blogosphere? Why is the USENET dead? How did Yahoo and Google groups (listserv-like services) wither so quickly? Why is podcasting struggling?

The answers to some of the above questions are simple:

  • USENET was killed because ISPs feared being sued for the amount of illegal files being distributed via the newsgroups.
  • Groups and listservs died thanks to a mix of spam and inconvenient delivery methods. Who doesn't stuggle to manage a flood of email as it is, without mailing lists?
  • Forums require frequent visits, and the "loudest," most annoying members drive the curious and open-minded away. Forums are now for true believers… arguing about ideological purity.
  • Podcasts and music downloads have lost ground to streaming audio and audio-on-demand services. It's still "podcasting" in a form, but through larger services like iHeartRadio and TuneIn.

Blogging and forums are the saddest loss, to me, though I miss the USENET programming newsgroups, a lot.

I've been watching Medium and other blog sites struggle, despite seeming like good ideas. I dislike Facebook and the click-bait in my stream, but I dislike the Google+ layouts even more. Nobody I know uses Google+ and the Groups/Communities there and on Yahoo have fizzled.

Slashdot, my favorite website, has said traffic dropped precipitously over the last year. Tom's Hardware dropped, too, not even bothering to fix a broken iOS reader app.

Every Slashdot discussion on operating systems or programming descends into useless screaming. That was always a problem, but you could filter the idiots. It is now so bad you can't find the good technical arguments. Looking for information on Swift programming, Apple's new C#-like language, what I find instead of useful information is diatribes. The USENET groups on coding would have featured discussions of the compiler choices, why LLVM works well (or not), and what the implications are of optimistic parsing.

The coding blogs? Dead. The coding listservs? Spammed to death. The IRC forums? More bots…

Remember when the Internet was supposed to create and expand "community" or something? Instead, it has reinforced tribalism (ugh, lousy word) and cliques of like-minded ideologues, while the generalists and moderates walked away.

The good news is that for information I'm back to attending real, physical meetings with other programmers to learn about tech. We don't even bother to update the group websites anymore, though.

The fading value of online communities might lead to… real communities.

Of course, things could change in an instant. Facebook could revive discussion threads. A new alternative could emerge. Google+ could finally be made useful.

Whatever happens, I doubt we can predict how we will communicate and convert information into knowledge five years from now.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What's Next? Who Knows?

Like most educators interested in technology and pedagogy, I have followed the digital revolution down many dead-end paths. We want to believe in publishing (and sharing) for the masses, but I'm less convinced today than I was twenty years ago that the masses want to share serious ideas.

The masses want to share kitties, their latest meals, breaking celebrity gossip, and photos they will regret sharing almost as soon as the images enter the data stream.

Blogger. Facebook. Twitter. Tumblr.

I have five semi-active Blogger-based blogs. My wife and I have a less active writing blog. I have Facebook pages for the blogs, Twitter feeds, and two Tumblr accounts.

The traffic to the blogs is in decline, from thousands of weekly visits to a few hundred. The Facebook pages are also trailing off, as Facebook seeks to charge for promoting content.

Twitter just annoys me, with an endless stream of automated tweets. I do have one account from which I follow real people posting real, original Tweets, but the other accounts are my blogs Tweeting to other blogs, automatically. It is comically absurd.

I miss the old days when the places I visited online were populated by individuals sharing ideas. Not ideology, either, but genuine questions and suggestions. Yes, these were academic forums, generally, but anyone could join and feel like it was a community of learning.

I posted to USENET groups in the 1980s. You can still find my post from the 1980s in literature and technology newsgroup archives. I belonged to CompuServe, was SysOp of a Fidonet BBS, and tried every online "community" system to come along. Their life spans have gotten shorter. The only Listservs I still read are for academics, about 20 years behind the times.

Friendster. MySpace. Yahoo 360. LiveJournal. Yahoo Groups. I checked in on Yahoo Groups, and discovered that groups with 1500 posts a month in 2003 have none this year. I left a few years ago, leaving groups I founded to whither away.

The shifts from text, to proprietary graphics, to HTML, to mobile. Endured them all.

RSS readers. Podcasting. Niche tech, at best, though streaming, on-demand media builds on those ideas. I loved RSS, especially during the brief time that Apple included RSS in its mail and browser applications. Google Reader was fantastic, too. I still like RSS more than visiting sites directly… so why do I forget to use my RSS reader? It's just not in front of me, so like millions of others I have largely abandoned RSS feeds.

Podcasting, which uses RSS feeds to announce new episodes, was a great idea. The problem is, I don't listen to podcasts anymore. Not in iTunes and not in the Podcast application on my phone. No, I listen to streaming radio, which does include some podcasts. Another good idea, the faded away.

SecondLife? The only thing less engaging than LiveJournal. Minecraft? Really? Sorry, this too shall pass... Thank goodness. Let the graphical versions of Internet Relay Chat fade away… it won't be a huge loss.

Yes, I loved IRC and was a regular in several tech and literature channels. And IRC is, for the most part, gone. Right along with Yahoo Chat Rooms, ICQ, MySpace Chat, and other interactive spaces. Okay, they aren't entirely dead, but close enough.

But, I'm still following the meandering tech paths.

Forgive me if I'm not convinced Medium is the Next Big Thing. But, I did create a Medium account, because other writing and digital humanities professors are doing the same. Likely, it's another dead end, but you never know when something will explode for a short time.

Hardware changed online spaces. When you had a computer, sitting at a desk and chatting with groups made some sense. But now that we use our phones and tablets constantly, we interact in different ways. Streams have displaced rooms and forums.

I've made the journey from Apple and Atari, Commodore and Sinclair, to the IBM PC, the Mac, Windows, back to Mac and on to the iPad. Most of my interactions online are probably via a phone, today. That's not a device for reading long documents or composing long blog entries.

I have no idea what's next. But, I'll keep trying new things… just in case.
Enhanced by Zemanta