Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best Classrooms

I saw a reference to the article below in a mailing from The Alliance for Childhood (more play!):

Brilliance in a Box: What do the best classrooms in the world look like?

The title of the article (by Amanda Ripley, and appeared in Slate) pretty much sums it up, but there are a couple of stand-out lines:

"Classrooms in countries with the highest-performing students contain very little tech wizardry, generally speaking."

"'In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,' says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). 'I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.'"

"But the most innovative schools around the world do not tend to be the ones with the most innovative technology inside them."

There are other observations about what may be making schools successful -- pedagogical skill, parent involvement, length of school day -- no great surprises there. The technology aspect, though, was the standout for me.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Making Khan Academy-type lessons on the iPad

I like, very much, the spirit of the Khan Academy videos (free!), and the content too (1800+ per the website, and growing). They are also available on the iPhone and iPad. If you have never seen them, they are basically screen captures of Sal Khan writing on a computer screen, with narration of what the instructor is doing. According to the site, this is how he does it:
I use Camtasia Recorder ($200) + SmoothDraw3(Free) + a Wacom Bamboo Tablet ($80) on a PC. I used to use ScreenVideoRecorder($20) and Microsoft Paint (Free).
I wanted to see if I could make the same -- creating something specific to my class, using my Mac, without buying anything new. I have an iPad, a MacBook, and am playing around with Apple's relatively new Magic Trackpad. Seems simple enough, right?

The Magic Trackpad didn't work very well as a drawing tablet. The Pogo stylus I have required a lot of pressure to draw with. Fingers were okay but it seemed unnatural, and difficult to simulate the click-drag combination required to draw with a mouse (which I find equally difficult to use to write legibly). The trackpad works well as a mouse replacement, but it really isn't a drawing tablet.

The iPad is a great tablet platform. Adobe Ideas, for example, has nice line-smoothing drawing ability, and with a stylus, it is very easy to draw legible handwriting (like Khan!). Plus, the iPad has the audio recording hardware, and an app like PaperDesk includes both drawing tools and recording tools. However, there is no sanctioned way to capture video of the iPad screen from what I can tell (single frame captures are part of the iPad OS, press the home and power buttons at the same time). There is software for jail-broken iPads (ScreenRecorder + FullForce) to record the screen, but I'm not ready to jail-break my iPad.

Another approach is to display the iPad screen on the Mac. You can use something like Veency on the iPad (a VNC server), and record that portion of the Mac screen, but again, this requires a jail-broken iPad. Another way to get the iPad video signal to the Mac, without jail-breaking is to use a converter from Epiphan, but it lists for $299.

An app like Whiteboard, which allows you to share whiteboards with other iPad users, would probably work if there was a Mac version of Whiteboard (and so capture the Mac version of the Whiteboard using screen recording software on the Mac).

My current, albeit crude, solution, is to use a web-based whiteboard-sharing software, GroupBoard (free for up to five collaborators). Groupboard has an iPad app (free). I created a shared online whiteboard by creating a page on a site I manage, and included the one line of HTML that Groupboard provides. On the iPad, I logged on to the Groupboard whiteboard I set up. I did the same using my browser (Firefox) on the Mac. On the Mac, I used iShowU HD ($29.95) to record the activity on the screen, in this case capturing what showed in Firefox. I used the built-in microphone on the Mac to record the narration (the sound recording was handled by iShowU as it recorded the screen activity). I used my Pogo stylus to draw on the iPad, and narrated as I drew. Here is the result:

Khan Experiment 1 from James Davis on Vimeo.

It worked pretty well. The handwriting is rather blocky on the shared whiteboard, but passable. Groupboard has a text tool which I used for the title. Unfortunately, the controls for the Groupboard app are on the bottom of the screen, so it is easy to rest my palm on the buttons when drawing and accidentally select the settings options (but this doesn't show on the video because only whiteboard drawing is shared to the Mac). The Groupboard app crashed when I tried to change the text size and line width, so I just avoided those.

The challenge of talking coherently while drawing at the same time and managing the drawing application tools is a real skill, and makes me appreciate all the more what Sal Khan has achieved. I blather on a bit at the beginning, before drawing anything, so patience.


P.S. I would love to hear of other ways people have done this on the Mac, and especially with an iPad.