Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When Tech Works, It Works Wonders

My previous post was as close to a rant as I plan to get in this blog. Rants usually have an audience of one. Let me make amends, dear reader, by noting some of my wonder when it comes to technology working that pulls me through. I've had several parallel experiences of dealing with online technology-in-education; here I share three.

After six-to-eight hours of reloading my students usernames and passwords to our Edublogs-based blog and then getting my students in successfully, I'm reaping the rewards of the power of scholarly dialogue in our literary discussions. You can take a look for yourself at our English 12 Honors Blog (if you are reading this post within 6 months of its posting). These are great first attempts of students finding their ideas and their audience online. I'm most impressed by the quality not only of the posts but also the comments that go beyond "way to go!" and "I agree." Next I hope to see bloggers bring research and links into support and extend their findings and support their claims.

In addition, for the past few months to I've also been beta-testing an online writing, grammar and research program from Pearson Education. The product is called MyCompLab. It's a poweful, comprehensive web-based resource in grammar, writing, and research and features a dynamic, interactive, collaborative place for composition, peer-review, tutorial, and assessment. We've had some hurdles to surmount with such a rich and complex project. This summer the new MCL was launched and my colleagues and I have been trying to get started with the program, not without several hiccups. Nothing more frustrating than being ready to work in a writing center (after pulling favors and making deals with other teachers for the scheduled time) to not have the students be able to log in. "Okay, class back to the regular classroom!" But in the past week, obstacles flattened, it's been exciting to see students engaging with the media, each other, and me in this online environment.

A particular labor of love has been working with the education department of Carnegie Museum of Art, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, especially during the current exhibition of the 55th Carnegie International "Life on Mars" (now until January 2009). My pet project has been to help teachers with online resources for school visits to the museum, or virtual visits. Again, collaborating with web developers, IT departments, artists, curators, funders, and fellow educators can resemble a instructional technology tower of babel; we all have a common goal but speaking a variety of languages. Sometimes it seemed like that we had aliens-among-us, some sort of educational end users encountering technicians from a different world who we depend upon us launch us into the blogosphere. (I'm sure this resonates with many teachers and IT departments throughout the universe.) After more than a year in the making. the International's online complement is offering unprecedent resources to reach out to students, teachers, and the general public via the Web.
Not only is Carnegie Museum of Art inaugurating it's first blog for this exhibition, which celebrates the finest contemporary art from around the world, but also it has no fewer than five! Museum staff sends its Signals blog to an general public audience who can send back blog posts in Soundings. A group of teen interns offers Zero Gravity blog. Teachers share ideas for the classroom and the exhibition on Ideas & Updates blog. And finally, teachers and students can augment their school visits with private or public blogs devoted to their own school group.

With this many opportunities for writing and reading online in response to one of the world's most significant and historical art traditions--the Carnegie International--it's been worth sweating the details of how to tweak the tech to make it work. My students are gearing up for their visit later this month. We use school-museum visits to inspire narrative writing and other compositions. Stay tuned for their posts.
I invite teachers from around the world to virtually visit the Carnegie International and the works of forty of today's top artists, the "old Masters of Tomorrow," with their students. And if you are in the Western Pennsylvania region, plan a school visit. Leave your teaching suggestions in Ideas & Updates and create a classroom blog with your students via the Classroom Resources. They'll be sharing their ideas on the art of their age for audiences now and in the future.

You know the cliche about "teachers touch the future." Well, when it comes to instructional technology, it's great when the future taps you back.

Image: View from inside Richard Serra's cor-ten steel scupture Carnegie, located in front of the entrance to Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. (cc) 2007 Charles Youngs. Some rights reserved: BY-NC-SA.


Anonymous said...

Pearson's premature rollout of MyCompLab has been disastrous for my writing students and for me.

The product's design is to be praised. However, the current product's functionality and most of all its technical support service are sufficiently flawed to cause students to drop the course or to perform poorly, below their actual writing ability and motivation level.

Pearson's registration process and its printed directions are complex, requiring needless information from students in order to register in the instructor's correct online course. In some cases, students were still waiting for help from Pearson tech support two weeks into the semester -- just to get registered at the site. Further, the registration process is complicated enough so that students who make an error are unable to back out to repair the error; they remain locked in a dead zone, registered at MCL but not in the instructor's course. I have not received confirmation that Pearson is revising this procedure in its December 2008 upgrade.

I have had to call Pearson's tech support repeatedly, often several times a week. In almost every case, the technician is unable to answer my question and must "send it up to a specialist." The technicians are always professional, but they do not have the answers I need to be able to continue with instruction in my course. Support for students is as bad or worse, they report.

This past weekened, Pearson decided to do an upgrade -- in the middle of the academic semester. For my purposes, the key strength of MCL is its support of the instructor's revewing process of student writing. I am able to embed comments directly in student work and return that work for student revision. During the upgrade, Pearson changed the functionality of MCL's buttons, in effect hiding my comments from students. Of course the upgrade was done when there was no tech support available to anyone -- in spite of their 24/7 logo, so the course again ground to a halt. It turned out that in some cases the comments survived (if they could be found), and in other cases students needed to resubmit their papers, and I needed to recorrect them in order to trigger the "new and improved" model. Hours and hours of work were wasted.

Because Pearson has decided to develop MCL unattached to its course-management sytem, CourseCompass, the course-management tools in MCL are extraordinarily weak. One example: If students do exercises to remediate errors in writing, the instructor must open every single exercise to find the student's score. Amazingly, Pearson has developed a roster that is not organized around the student name but rather the Pearson exercise. The function becomes useless to the instructor.

Font size, wasted screen space, unnecessary scrolling and clicks: all contribute to an inelegant screen and a clumsy experience.

I have worked with Pearson's CourseConmpass for years. I was involved in the Beta for MCL. I have taught blended and online courses for years using various platforms. I can adapt and can find end runs around dead ends. But this product, while good in concept -- is flawed. It was sent to market too soon, and tech support was never brought fully into the loop. If you adopt this product now, be prepared for great frustration. Be prepared too for emails and phone calls from your students. The complaint are endless.

To Pearson's credit, they have provided me with the email addresses and phone numbers of some key MCL players. They are mostly good listeners and are certainly well intentioned. They tell me they are working day and night to improve their product. I tell that that my students and I are working day and night to be able to use their product. My students should be working hard at learning course material, not at figuring out dinged-up web sites. Not so good.

Wait a year. Then try what might have become a wonderful product. There is great potential here.

ceyo said...

I agree with Anonymous--the potential is great with this product, though yet to be fully realized. Like you I have found the peer-review and instructor comments to be some of the most valuable assets of this online writing program.