August 2008 Archives

The Power of Mindmapping Software

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I am in the midst of planning my course curricula and some presentations for the faculty at my school, and I am becoming re-enamored with a piece of software I began using some years ago, but whose latest version I am just now seeing. The application is called NovaMind, and it is a simple visual editor of branched mindmaps. The interface is fast and intuitive, so getting inchoate thoughts onto the screen for visualization is incredibly easy. I haven't played much with the bells and whistles, but you can insert images, change font styles, and modify node shapes in addition to moving the branches of the mindmap to organize content through spatial orientation and other visual cues.

Back in the day, the software was Mac OS only, but now there is a robust Windows version as well. I am also trying it out with software called Merlin, which interacts with NovaMind in potentially powerful ways. Merlin is a project management application, complete with the requisite Gantt charts and budget tables, and as such it seems on par with the many other such applications out there already. The keys for me are that Merlin exports files that can be opened and modified in NovaMind's editor, and imports NovaMind files via drag-and-drop into a basic project table. I made a quick mindmap of my course planning tasks, for instance, and within ten minutes had a project timeline for all the major tasks, including expected time to completion and contingent start dates, that I jotted in my mindmap. This kind of interactivity might change my mind completely about project management software, which has been completely boring to me ever since I played with MacProject on my first Macintosh 512K in the late 80s. That's something.
From the AP, via the Houston Chronicle:
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/nation/5951784.html

What the article does not mention is the number of students this will affect who are not college students but high school seniors -- i.e., my students. Of course, many high schoolers are drinking already, and I have only to read their Facebook photo albums and tags to find out about it (they're not so clever about personal privacy online, are they?). But what if, for half the senior class, having a keg party were legal? Would that make it more or less likely that they would blow off their studies? Being able to acknowledge publically that they might choose to get drunk without legal ramifications could lead to some useful discussions about choices: the proverbial teachable moments. But the objections of groups such as MADD are reasonable, and the risk of underage drunk driving is significant.

I went to college right as the national drinking age was changing from 18 to 21 (I know it's technically a state-by-state thing, but in effect it was a federal mandate) and was in the weird group of 19-year-olds who came home one break and could legally drink in bars, and came home the next and could not (no grandfathering in Texas, where I grew up). I was pretty responsible as an 18-year-old, and young for my class, so perhaps my reflections are not terribly indicative. I certainly would have appreciated being treated as an adult as a college student, though, so I'm not sure I altogether object to the lowering of the drinking age. But I do worry that it would affect a broader public than that, and how today's social environments pertain to the issue.

Creepy Treehouses

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From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/3251/when-professors-create-social-networks-for-classes-some-students-see-a-creepy-treehouse

Apparently some students feel uncomfortable when teachers or others they see as outsiders to their online lives begin to inhabit online environments and ask them to interact in the service of education or professional development (depending on the level of student). These environments are being called "creepy treehouses." I don't personally like the metaphor, since I've never been a kid in the internet age and have always felt as at ease with technology as anyone else. (In fact, I have found the younger students today believe they are more adept with online technologies than older folks, when they are in fact often only more immersed in them without being more skillful.) So calling these places "treehouses" implies that adults have never been welcome in them, which is patently not the case.

Since my school has begun to integrate some basic social-networking software into its courses (we're migrating course web pages into Moodle) I will be interested to see how the students respond. Because it's a separate service from something like Facebook, I don't think students will feel that their virtual lives are being encroached upon. They may not, however, engage in their Moodle worlds as fully as they do other social networks unless they see sufficient reason to do so. And for most of them, a grade is the only sufficient motivation, which is tricky to provide for truly collaborative work. So as we adapt to Moodle and other Web 2.0 technologies, we will need to reconsider our assessment measures in addition to our basic pedagogy. Perhaps in other posts I will explore some of the things I've tried in this regard.

The Mnemosyne Project

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http://www.mnemosyne-proj.org/

This site offers freeware to assist in memorization through electronic flash cards. The nifty thing is that the cards allow users to rate whether they have memorized the content of each card yet, with a ranking from zero to five (no recall to easiest recall). The program then presents the least-recallable cards more often to maximize familiarity, and presents the easiest cards much less frequently.

The site has some card sets available for download (languages and geography, mostly), which are good for checking out the software (which runs under Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux). I haven't tried creating my own card sets yet, but it appears to be quite simple, and of course the sets can be tailored to my own course content if I want to provide them to students. The better use, though, may be simply to provide the resource for students who might like it (this year: for verb conjugations in English, say, or rhetorical terms, or economic concepts) and want to create their own sets of flash cards for review as we go.

Since memory is one of the five classical canons of rhetoric, I suspect this may have a purpose in the composition world as well. I will think on this a little longer and post any ideas if I have any. Please do the same.

(H/T to Dwight Raulston for the reference.)

Meetings and Memos

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Teacher Magazine: Getting Ready for the School Year: Part III
http://www.teachermagazine.org/tm/articles/2007/08/08/06mentor2.h18.html

From a series of Q&A columns devoted to practical advice for the beginning of the school year. The last prompt and response deals with how faculty and administrators at a certain school might understand each other better, and I love the advice given:

Instead of using after-school staff meetings for reading announcements aloud (pass out printed sheets, please), schedule true meetings of the minds. Small groups or even one-on-one discussions where administrators and teachers sit down as equals might begin with each one answering a simple question like, "How was your day? Tell me about it." Then over time they might evolve into, "Tell me about your top three frustrations," and "What do you wish we understood about you?" It won't be difficult to come up with enough prompts to last a whole semester, and a semester is what it could take to develop any genuine warmth.
Not bad, huh? Respect each other's time and input, and spend more time listening instead of reacting. That sounds like a place I'd like to be.

I would take issue with the notion of passing out announcement sheets in meetings, although I too really hate having a memo list read to me in a public forum. Since there's no need to take up valuable face-to-face time with even passing out paper, simply email a weekly list of upcoming items to faculty and staff only, and not just a list of all scheduled school events, since many of them will not be relevant to each constituency. Not only does this practice reduce paper dependence, it reinforces the belief that teachers are adults who can be depended upon to read important announcements on their own. Cynical administrators would contend that some people never read the memos and might miss important information. I would respond that that's exactly the sort of thing that ought to be documented in personnel files -- provided that documentable evidence can be produced (such as regularly missed deadlines or meetings announced in the memos), and that the messages be frequent enough to be informative yet not so frequent as to become part of the email static (the mailing lists that come every day, for instance, that are interesting sometimes but not all the time and thus get skimmed during less busy moments, if at all). Sometimes memos don't get read because they're not worth reading.

So let's improve our meetings and our memos, shall we?

Wikis at the State Department

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Link by Link - An Internal Wiki That's Not Classified - NYTimes.com
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/business/media/04link.html

A nice instance of wikis (and collaborative writing generally) being used to good effect in the public sector. Here's how the State Department responds to the concern about information that anyone can edit:

What if someone creates disinformation or vandalism? Mr. Johnson [of the State Department's Office of eDiplomacy] was asked in Egypt -- a not-infrequent question when the topic of wikis comes up. He pointed out that unlike Wikipedia, Diplopedia does not allow anonymous contributors, so bad actors could be tracked down. He then observed, "There are plenty of ways to commit career suicide; wikis are just the newest one."
BTW: Did anyone know the State Dept. had an Office of eDiplomacy, lower-case "e" and all?

Teaching is Hard

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"Note to Father: This Is Hard" by John Hatcher, Chronicle of Higher Education:
http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2008/08/2008080401c.htm

I know this kind of article surfaces pretty regularly, but I like this one more than most because it emphasizes the work of teaching and learning, and except for this fellow's felt pressure to publish, it applies just as well to the work I do at the prep level as it does with university-level work. The advice from Hatcher's father is nothing you don't already know, but useful to see repeated in a pedagogical context.

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