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Storytelling Apps and Online Tools: An Evolution of the Written Word

Posted on Nov 30, 2012

Digital storytelling is making its mark in education. Teachers are finding that it is a useful way to inspire kids to put pen to paper, or, stylus to screen. Challenging a student to voice their ideas and express their imagination is a great way to help them develop literacy skills, discover an outlet for creativity and emotion, and learn how to become an effective communicator. The reason storytelling is able to accomplish these things so easily is because it’s fun.

I’ve witnessed this offline, back in my hometown whenever my nieces would go to their “Storycraft” classes. It’s what the name suggests – taking the art of storytelling and combining it with the art of craft. The teacher would prompt the kids to come up with some sort of narrative, and once this was done, they would literally craft their story – books forged from colored paper, glitter, and glue, drawings of their characters, 3D models of the setting or climax, anything to help show what they were trying to say. The children can even “publish” their story – the whole family can order a copy of their book or view it online.

Now, with the advent of online learning and the impressive tool collection it’s been building, this concept is becoming more readily available. There are visual storybook prompts just waiting to be explained with a storyline; avatars ready to be dragged-and-dropped onto the pages of a blank comic book; pre-made videos in need of narration. Students can take the traditional route too – they can upload drawings and hand written stories into slideshow narratives that can easily be forwarded along to relatives and friends anywhere in the world – for free.

All of this is just another progression of storytelling, one not all that different from the oral histories, legends, and myths that once found permanency in the comfort of cave walls, scrolls of papyrus, lengths of vellum – all the things our ancestors once used to record their stories leading up to the pages of a Penguin Classic (most of which are now available as an eBook).

For a teacher or parent, finding a way to make reading and writing fun for kids is rewarding in its own right. Online learning tools are simply taking that to a new level, as they often do. You could ask your student or child to write a comic book about photosynthesis, a fictional narrative explaining why they should wear a seat belt, or a one-act play, “What Really Happened on Roanoke Island.”

The point of these kinds of tools is to engage the student in an enjoyable way, and help them learn something. For the parents and teachers, they can be proud of what their child or student has learned. For the student, the reward is what every writer dreams of – having an audience and a finished piece of work.

The Journal article, 9 Creative Storytelling Tools That Will make You Wish You Were A Student Again provides us with these websites and apps: Storybird, Popplet, My StoryMaker, StoryLines for Schools, ZooBurst, Sock Puppets, Meograph, XtraNormal, MentorMob.

And here are a few more that I’ve stumbled across: StoryJumper, Link Edu Tech17 Free Digital Storytelling iPad Appsand The Literacy Shed.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

Day 4: Blended learning, E-Montessori?

Posted on Nov 27, 2012

The Guide on Development and Implementation of Blended Learning notes that blended learning supports three areas of change (in education): Thinking less about delivering instruction and more about producing effective learning, reaching out to students through distance education technologies, and promoting a strong sense of community among learners. We see these changes in this comparison:

Montessori: Multiage groupings that foster peer learning.

Blended Learning: Partial online delivery of courses.

Montessori allows multiple grades to be taught in the same classroom – usually a span of three grades will be taught together. The purpose of this is to promote peer learning; the third graders learn from the sixth graders and when those older kids teach the younger ones, their knowledge of a topic is reinforced all over again. They are able to achieve a more efficient learning environment and a stronger community, but still, they are confined to the classroom.

In blended learning, peer learning could occur within a Rotational-model, where students move from online instruction, to teacher-led instruction, to collaborative activities and stations. I like this peer learning and teaching idea and feel it is great educational tool, but what fascinates me is the community that environments such as these can form.

With some of the courses being delivered online in the blended model, brick-and-mortar teachers could stick with their area of specialty and move up the grades along with a set group students (I’ve touched on this before with the hypothetical Mr. Feeny situation). The environment this creates is much more personal and thoughtful than the random pooling of students each year like we see in a traditional school. Further, the blended community exists online and off. Student involvement and connection doesn’t necessarily depend on how much they’re physically together; from their phones, their laptops, video chats and discussion forums, the blended community stretches far beyond the schoolyard and far beyond the classroom – much, much further than the traditional planes of interaction.

So, what’s that overall message we’re supposed to take away from this four-day series?  Montessori and blended learning might appear radically drastic educational formats, but they’re not. They’re based on the traditional foundations of education, but designed to be accommodating for all students. Blended learning, to me, and I hope to you now that we’re at the tail end of this, is a lot like the online format of a Montessori school, but with rockets strapped to its back – NASA, not ACME.

Blended learning fosters a structured and efficient exploratory environment, it’s self-motivating for the students, and it accepts, adapts, and works to help students learn information in their own individualized way. What makes it unique, from all forms of education, is its ease of use. There is no format (that I know of) more supportive, more accessible, or more efficient than blended learning.

With that said, I hope that more people being accepting and embracing blended learning as just another progression of our society. The repercussions of an ill- or uninformed change in a student’s education could be detrimental to their education and their futures. With so much at stake in our children’s education, we definitely don’t ever want to do anything to hold them back or hinder their learning, but not changing at all could do just exactly that. So don’t be afraid of blended learning. It won’t bite.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

Browser Extensions for Accessibility

Posted on Nov 26, 2012

Recently, Internet browsers such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox began allowing users to design “extensions” that other users could download and integrate with their web browser. Many individuals take advantage of extensions to personalize their browsing experiences, but what many probably fail to realize is that some extensions promote accessibility. In fact, several extensions appear to be designed explicitly for making the Internet a more accessible place. The cost of these extensions is also a key factor in that these extensions are free. Ordinarily, an individual with disabilities might have to buy specialized, and often expensive, software. Now, though, those with disabilities can have increased access without any costs.

In Chrome’s web store, there is an extensions category labeled “accessibility.” Firefox, unfortunately, does not have a similar category, but a search function exists to find Firefox extensions that might help with accessibility. Based on a quick once-over of the two browsers’ extensions, though, it appears that Chrome has the edge in terms of number of extensions,

The Chrome web store features extensions including Read&Write for Google Docs, Chrome Daltonize, ChromeVox, and Readability Redux. Read&Write “adds accessibility features to Google Docs such as Text To Speech with Dual Synchornized Highlighting and Study Skills tools.” Daltonize, which might be one of the neatest extensions I’ve seen, allows “color-blind users to see what they otherwise would have missed,” which is to say that Daltonize makes images accessible to individuals suffering from color-blindness as well as individuals who may struggle with differentiating various colors (Protanopia, Deuteranopia, and Tritanopia). ChromeVox is a screen reader that helps with across the various pages of the Internet, and Readability Redux “makes reading on the Web more enjoyable by removing the clutter around what you’re reading.”

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

Why the Academy Must Embrace Online Learning

Posted on Nov 19, 2012

In Why the academy must embrace its online future, Wei Lien Dang, a JD/MBA student at Harvard University guest writes for VentureBeat and discusses several reasons why universities are under pressure to develop and distribute online courses, and also suggests that the universities that fail to do so may not be able to continue existing.

The basis for Dang’s reasons why online learning is a must is that “a perfect storm of record-level student debt, stagnating job growth, and soaring tuition prices” suggests that “traditional approaches are failing to adequately equip students with the skills they need to be successful.” Eventually, and seemingly sooner rather than later, students and parents will reach a breaking point where they are no longer willing to incur debt or pay exorbitant amounts of money for a university experience that is not at all what was promised on the package.

A major problem in higher education is that, despite climbing tuition, universities are continually struggling with budget cuts. This results in students paying higher rates to have a selection of fewer classes with more students in them that may not be taught by the highly qualified individuals a student may have been led to believe would be teaching a given course. Even worse, students may find that classes they have been told the classes they must take are full. The more this sort of thing happens, the less reasonable it seems to attend university, especially when jobs are not available, despite having a college degree. Dang argues that “online platforms are a low-cost way for universities to support, rather than hinder, students’ learning in light of the resource constraint.”

Accompanying other newer and developing problems is the age-old problem of a lack of customized programs for students. It is known that not all students learn at the same rate, and while schools have attempted to offer courses of varying difficulty levels, it continues to be impossible to allow every student to learn at the pace that best suits him or her. This is problematic now more than ever because “online classes mean that students can learn at the pace that’s right for them, which translates into better learning overall.” It follows, then, that the universities that pursue online programs will become more popular and produce more successful students then universities who do not follow suit.

The final reason Dang gives for embracing online learning is that it will allows for more innovative content. Currently, instructors generally spend a few years building up a “content base” that they then teach off of for many years to follow. In some cases, it might seem to students that instructors are using the same materials today that they used a decade ago, with perhaps only minor tweaks, and in many cases, this might be true. Rather than force all professors to waste time tweaking material year after year, Dang feels that “moving classes online means that content and teaching materials can be distributed on a recurring basis at a low cost,” which consequently allows instructors more time to develop new and unique content.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

Day 3: Personalized Learning Environments

Posted on Nov 15, 2012

In any school, it’s important for the teacher to adapt their lesson plan to fit every student’s individual needs. Teachers, classrooms, and schools must accommodate for any and all situations that might arise. Both Montessori and blended learning are great examples of learning models designed with flexibility and preparedness for any student need:

Montessori: Specifically designed Montessori learning materials.

Blended Learning: Online course delivery is tailored to suit the student’s needs.

Much like blended environments, Montessori has open spaces suited for group activity rather than rows of perfectly lined desks. The American Montessori Society describes their personalized nature well:

“Each classroom is uniquely suited to the needs of its students. [For example,] preschool rooms feature low sinks, chairs, and tables; reachable shelves; child-sized kitchen tools – elements that allow independents and help develop small motor skills.”

They provide the students with resources that they can access, handle, and learn from. On day one we talked about how Montessori focuses on an explorative learning environment. Students learn when they come in contact with something – a map puzzle of the United States, a Rubik’s Cube, a chemistry set. Without these hands-on tools, exploration would not be possible.

Here, blended learning is a great reflection of Montessori. Students sit down at their computer and all the tools are laid out before them. The keyboard, the mouse, the ergonomic chair. Let the exploration begin. Yeah, you’re right, that does sound dull, but don’t forget that at each one of their fingertips lay a world of infinite and unrestricted knowledge. In a few taps and clicks they can have a map of North America, the Western Hemisphere, the world, the universe.

It’s not just about the amount of information available to learn either. Blended learning provides access to almost every learning tool possible – screen readers, text-to-speech systems, informative graphics and text to supplement the understanding of a topic. Tools such as these ensure that each and every student in the classroom has an equal opportunity to learn something. Every computer and every lesson can be perfectly suited for the student using it. There are far too many tools and ways to customize instruction to list (in this post).

The American Montessori Society describes Montessori learning materials as being, “ingeniously designed to allow children to work independently with very little introduction or help. The students are empowered to come into the environment, choose their own work, use it appropriately, and put it away without help.” The point of this is to play to the students strengths, to let them learn on their own. Sound anything like universal design? Universal design, I’ve noted before, is a course designed to be: usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Both schools were designed to create the most fruitful learning process possible, one that respects the needs of every student. Why blended learning is more fruitful, we’re talking Kansas State Fair, championship watermelon fruitful, is its convenience and freedom. Students can easily learn whatever they need, however they want. This is made possible through blended learning’s differentiated instruction methods. Students learn both online or off, alone or in a group, through whatever means fits them best – visually, audibly, through hands-on experience, whatever works. Like Montessori, it plays to each student’s strength, but doesn’t forget to pay attention to their weaknesses. Simply put, the environment is all-encompassing. It leaves behind no student or form of instruction. Never has learning been so readily available. Never has watermelon sounded so delicious.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.