Why are tech skills less important than reading skills?

I recently read a blog post by Mark Gleeson called Can EVERYONE in Education really be “Tech Savvy”? In his post he comes to the conclusion that “We have to take it easy with the technophobes on our staff…. We need to accept that tech is not everyone’s number one priority.” He makes his point about both staff and students.

While I agree that it’s important to recognize that not everyone wants to be a computer/technology expert, I think we should be careful not to excuse people for choosing not to engage in the learning around technology.

Literacy and Numeracy

Nearly everyone I know agrees that literacy (reading and writing, mostly) is essential in our society. If a teacher were to say, “I can’t read,” the public (and other teachers) would be horrified (also incredulous, since that person acquired at least two university degrees in a very traditional education system).

Not everyone agrees about numeracy, though. They do intellectually (including bemoaning the prevalence of calculators), but if that teacher were to say, “I can’t do math,” or, “I have a lot of trouble working with numbers,” the public would be sympathetic. That’s a problem with our culture right now, and historic (and sometimes current) math education is partly to blame. I think we can fix it, but it’s going to take a while.

Are tech skills the new math skills?

I’m concerned that skills with technology are seen as being more like numeracy skills than literacy skills. It seems like it’s permissible to say, “I’m not good with technology,” or, “Computers don’t like me,” even as a teacher.

Excusing a lack of commitment to learning technology is just like excusing a lack of commitment to learning to read. You need these skills. Not developing them will absolutely hurt you professionally and personally. You’ll be able to get by, for now, but I don’t know for how long. Certainly not long at all in this field. Technology (and connectedness) can have tremendous power, and you need to leverage it for you and your students.

Talk with some connected colleagues. I know lots of people who say, “I wasn’t good with computers, but I figured it was too important to ignore. Now I love them.”

Be one of those people.

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Audio recording of my last short story

I’ve been listening to audiobooks lately, so I thought I’d record the short story I wrote (with minor edits). It sounded fine while I was reading it; less so when I played it back for myself. Ah, well. Narration is harder than it looks. Enjoy.

Link to MP3 file on Google Drive

Credit Recovery is a Good Idea

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the idea and implementation of Credit Recovery in Ontario high schools. Opponents I have spoken with usually say that CR:

  • gives credits to students who haven’t earned them
  • allows students to have poor work habits/work ethic/organization/etc. but still succeed (i.e. if they don’t fail they’ll never learn resilience)
  • take jobs from teachers by preventing students from repeating courses

There may be other concerns as well, but these are the big three. I don’t think the last one merits much discussion, since it presumes that teacher jobs are more important that student success, which I feel is an unethical perspective. The other two are worth looking at.

How Credit Recovery is supposed to work

Here’s the Credit Recovery process from a student’s perspective:

  1. Fail a course
  2. Repeat parts of the course

Here’s the Credit Recovery process from the school’s perspective after the student fails the first course attempt:

  1. Identify the student’s level of success on each overall expectation
  2. Create/select a custom set of lessons and activities for the student based on their success in the first course attempt
  3. Guide the student through re-learning key concepts from the failed course
  4. Re-evaluate the student’s new work, including a new final summative task/exam (30%)
  5. Base the student’s new grade on their new performance, with the 70% term work possibly including information from the first course attempt

Credit Validity

I agree that this is a concern, for a couple of reasons. First of all, many schools will create a “Credit Recovery Package” for a course, but not for a student. For example, there will be an “AVI1O Credit Recovery Package” which will include 10 lessons about grade 9 visual arts, 4 assignments and a short exam/culminating task. The school will “administer” the package to every student who needs to recover AVI1O; if they pass each assignment and the exam, they get 50% in the course.

This is not okay for two reasons:

  1. The course package is not customized to the students’ needs. If a student performed well on half of the expectations but very poorly on the other half, what guarantee is there that the package is not mostly testing the same items they were originally successful on?
  2. The student gets a maximum grade of 50% (this isn’t part of Credit Recovery, and not necessarily part of this scenario, but it’s a common practice).
A pre-made, standard Credit Recovery "Package" may not be what the student really needs to learn/demonstrate.

A pre-made, standard Credit Recovery “Package” may not be what the student really needs to learn/demonstrate.

Aren’t we teaching them to not work hard?

I understand this argument too. After all, if students never fail, never have to persevere, are we preparing them for “the real world”?

Let me give a few scenarios, and think about whether you believe the student should be able to recover the credit involved.

Scenario 1

A student is taking a full course load, including three grade 12 Science courses. The student is working hard throughout the semester. About two-thirds of the way through the semester, he sits at 70% in Grade 12 Biology. Then he starts to have some personal issues, including a difficult struggle with depression. He stops handing in assignments, disengages from the lessons in class, and enters into a spiral of failure. He fails the exam miserably, and the teacher assigns a final grade of 42%; the student basically flunked the whole last strand of the course.

Scenario 2

A student is taking a full course load, including three grade 12 Science courses. The student is working hard throughout the semester. About two-thirds of the way through the semester, she sits at 70% in Grade 12 Biology. Then she starts to spend a little too much time partying, and not enough time on homework. She stops handing in assignments, is often absent, and is disruptive enough to be sent to the office and suspended. She shows up to the exam but barely writes anything on it. The teacher assigns a final grade of 42%; the student basically flunked the whole last strand of the course.

Scenario 3

A student is taking Grade 12 Biology. He works hard, but consistently performs below Level 1 throughout the semester and achieves 42% in the course.

Who should be eligible for Credit Recovery?

These three scenarios are different, but they have some similarities. First, they’re all in the same class. Second, they all achieve 42% overall. Should they all (or any of them) be eligible to recover their credit?

Scenario 1 and 2

These are the same for me. The reason that the student struggled and was unsuccessful is not important to me. If they are both willing to learn the content, to demonstrate their understanding, and to recover their credits, great. Why would we insist that the students work through the first two-thirds of the course again when they have already demonstrated their understanding?

Create a custom package of material for each student. Base it on the expectations they did not successfully demonstrate and the ones they wish to improve upon. This will also allow them to improve their performance on overall expectations that the students didn’t fail but which they have the ability to demonstrate a better performance on given an opportunity (i.e. fix the downward spiral, not just the part that was below 50%).

Wait, what about teaching them a lesson? No thanks. I can think of better ways to teach a student to be more responsible than making them “suffer” through 13 unnecessary weeks of a course they already know. For example, make them fix their mistakes by redoing the parts they did poorly.

Scenario 3

This student should not recover the credit. He’s that nice kid, the one who always puts in the effort, but he failed consistently. The only way to recover the course would be to demonstrate an improved understanding of all of the overall expectations. That’s called repeating a course.

Is this a good idea?

Let’s say you’re learning to make wooden cupboard doors. You study under a master carpenter for 6 weeks, learning to select the wood, prepare it, coax it into the shape you want. When you finally produce a finished door for your teacher, he says that you need to improve your finishing technique. So, naturally, he wants you to take 6 more weeks to relearn all of the components of door construction that you have already mastered, right?

No. He’d work with you on your finish, helping you to improve by providing timely, relevant feedback. When you produce another door that is perfect in his eyes, you start working on the next type of project (table legs, in this case).

Not the best idea, but the best idea we have

Credit Recovery is a way for us to sort of fix the problem of 20 week courses. Students learn at different paces, and life gets in the way. Ideally, we wouldn’t give students the opportunity to fail. Everyone would be enrolled in the right courses, they would all be 100% engaged at all times, they would have the extra two weeks they need to master the topic.

Since that’s not going to happen, I think it’s reasonable to give students more chances, and to be careful to keep those opportunities relevant to their past performance to ensure the validity of the credits they achieve. It’s a good idea; we just need to do it right.

e-Book/Audiobook deal; a brief review of Scalzi’s “The B-Team: The Human Division, Episode 1”

Since I’m trying to find short books that will build worlds for me without having to commit to ten thousand pages, I bought and listened to John Scalzi‘s “The B-Team: The Human Division, Episode 1” narrated by William Dufris on Audible.com. This is a book set in the same distant future as his “Old Man’s War” novels, but it’s being released as a weekly serial for $0.99 an episode. The e-Book is also available for $0.99  ($1.16 for me, because I live in Canada, the publisher sets a higher price, and I am paying taxes on the purchase), and I bought it as well.

Why did I buy both?

Well, for starters, $1.16 is pretty inexpensive for a well-written novella of about 90 pages. Or almost any length, really. I also wanted to try out the Kindle/Audible WhisperSync system (haven’t tried it yet, sorry – I’ll get back to you on that one). Lastly, I wanted to read the names of the planets, species, and characters, so I’ll go through the book again. For example, there is a character in the book with the last name “Bair”, but I was imagining it spelled “Behr”. If I’m going to transition later into Scalzi’s longer books, I might need to know how things are spelled. Plus, I find characters more memorable if I can “see” their name in my head.

I like this model of delivery: a weekly release of short books all set in the same world. Books on the Nightstand says it’s the year of the short story; I certainly think it is for me.

Brief review; no spoilers

Overall, it was a good, fast read. The characters are complex enough for a novella, and there are several small plot arcs in the context of a larger plot. There isn’t a lot of time for characters to grow in two hours of narration, so there wasn’t much there.

The narration was good but not excellent. The characters’ voices were usually distinguishable from each other, but there were a few times that I wasn’t sure which male character was which. Also, the voice of the narrator (um…. not sure how to say this… the book’s narrator, not the performance’s narrator…) sometimes sounded too much like the characters’ voices.

He said, she said

But I always knew who was talking because of the number of “saids” in the story. In an exchange in the first few pages, the dialogue looks (structurally) like this:

"Sentence," character 1 asked.
"Sentence," character 2 said.
"Sentence," character 1 said.
"Sentence," character 2 said.
"Sentence," character 1 joked.
"Sentence," character 2 said.

When you flesh out the sentences, it’s not really so bad, but it’s still noticeable. When the narrator has to say all of those saids aloud, it’s a bit jarring and it takes me out of the story a little. I hope I’m not overstating this; it’s a minor problem.

The only other criticism I have is that a few times the characters say things that I don’t know would be said by far-future humans (like references to high school and paper bags). Little things, to be sure.

Still worth it

Overall, great book. 4.5 stars. You should read it if you like space opera. I’ve already bought “The Human Division 2: Walk The Plank” (Audible and Amazon).

e-Books should cost no more than physical books (and maybe less)

I own a lot of e-Books. I don’t read paper books anymore if I can help it (with the exception of graphic novels and other texts which have strict layout requirements). I’ve purchased most from Amazon (I have a Kindle Keyboard, which I love reading on), and a few from other retailers.

I didn’t expect to be able to transfer ownership of these e-Books; I knew that going in. I just tell friends about the great books I’ve read and they can buy the book themselves or borrow it from the library. Authors tend to make more money this way, I think, which is good.

But it sounds like I don’t own the e-Books anyway; it sounds like I’ve purchased a licence to read them on digital devices. (Aside: A greater concern for readers, but maybe not publishers, might be the legal terms like “Amazon reserves the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders in its sole discretion” which might instantly cancel your licence to read. DRM makes this possible. A little scary, and good reason to purchase from non-DRM e-Books retailers like Baen, which also has DRM-free books on Amazon.)

But there is still the matter of my ability to resell a hardcover book (and recoup some of my costs) but not a digital book. Is that the essential difference? e-Books are non-transferable but physical books are?

Here’s an example of some book pricing on Amazon. Note that the publisher set the Kindle Edition price at $16.10, which is why it’s not listed in the “Amazon Price” column:

Sample book pricing on Amazon.

Sample book pricing on Amazon.

Right now, many e-Books I consider buying licensing cost as much as or more than their physical counterparts. I can’t resell it, and there are no significant per-unit production and shipping costs, so I think it should cost less than the cheapest available print book (less than $11.55 in my example). I’m not buying a copy; I’m buying a non-transferable licence. I can even choose to revoke my own licence if I want to (I recently deleted a short story that was not very good because I don’t want it cluttering up my library). On the other hand, I like the convenience of e-Books, so that’s worth something too, but enough to justify charging more than for a hardcover? I don’t think so.

I’m fine with not being able to share, sell, and transfer the e-Books I pay for, but pretending that there is no residual value in a physical book or that it’s free to produce and ship that physical book is ridiculous. Make it easy to buy e-Books at a reasonable price and I will buy them (and keep them). I read about twice as many books now as I did pre-Kindle, even with the price discrepancies. I’m interested in reading great books and supporting great authors (and their publishers!) so they can create more great books.

I think I want to read novellas

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I was flipping through Zite the other day and saw an article on the HuffPo about book length and how it’s dropping. Naturally I tweeted about it:

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But, I got thinking some more about how I select books, and it’s not just about how many stories I can pack away.

I like to read a long series

I started reading the Honor Harrington series by David Weber a while ago on Steve Gibson‘s recommendation. I’ve finished eight books, so I’m about halfway. I’m reading e-books, so I don’t have a page count, but these books would be about 400-900 pages each on paper. Let’s say 600-ish on average, which is about ten hours of solid reading for me per book. I’d like to read the rest of the series, so soon I’ll commit to book nine, “Ashes of Victory“, at 672 pages (or 1107 KB, or 11 hours).

The first eight books spanned from good to excellent, and the universe is certainly fascinating, so book nine is a pretty safe bet, I suppose. Goodreads tells me most people like it. So does Amazon (less so). I’ve already spent 80 hours learning about the world, so the buy-in is pretty cheap.

I have commitment issues

If I were to consider starting another series, I’d have to think pretty hard about it. I tried Steven Erikson’s “Gardens of the Moon: Book One of The Malazan Book of the Fallen” (that is a long title); the preface warned me that it would take a third of the book to get into it (that’s 222 “pages”). At 50% I still felt lost. At 100% I still felt lost. I don’t understand how the magic system works at all, so I found it too frustrating. I don’t think I’ll read the next bazillion books in the series because of it, although the writing was otherwise very compelling. I can’t spend 100 hours being confused. I can’t commit to maybe finding my way.

I’ve tried some short stories

I find them a little, well, short. They’re interesting, and they get me thinking about stuff, but I’m usually not satisfied. They feel incomplete to me, as though they’re a snippet of a story. They tease me with a world, but can’t seem to get enough of the magic system down for me. Perhaps I haven’t read the right ones.

I read “Legion” in audiobook

I enjoy audiobooks a lot if they’re well-narrated, and I despise them a lot if they’re poorly narrated. Legion had the right narrator (Oliver Wyman) and was a good story besides (by Brandon Sanderson). It qualifies as a novella (at 88 “pages”, somewhere around 20 thousand words, I think), and I listened to the whole thing one evening while I cleaned the kitchen and so on. I found it very satisfying.

So I want more novellas

I want a fantasy novella that lets me learn enough about a world to decide whether I want to immerse myself in it for 30-100 hours. Long enough to figure out whether I like the author’s style, short enough that I can read it over a cup of coffee (or two).

Message to fantasy and science fiction authors

Please write some novellas in your world. If I like them, I’ll buy the books in your series. You can publish them exclusively online if you like; that works for me. Also, please don’t charge $12.99 for 60 pages.

I’ll take recommendations

Srsly, let me know what you’ve enjoyed. Just keep it under forty thousand words.