Review – PollEverywhere

I will be reviewing PollEverwhere, an app designed to let teachers easily make polls for their students and instantly view their responses in an intuitive way.

PollEverywhere has several pricing plans depending on the volume of your students and the features you want to include on your account. The cheapest plan (free) is lets you create a poll that will receive a maximum of 25 responses. A medium plan costs $79/month,  allows for 100 responses, and has includes features such as automatic grading, custom usernames, and the ability to moderate responses. The most expensive plan costs $2000/month, allows for any number of responses, and includes additional features such as allowing for team competitions, the ability to include more teachers on the plan, and better support.

Polls are set up through a web browser. However, students can respond to a poll using a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. Students can also vote in a poll using twitter or a simple text message.

PollEverywhere was created (and is managed) by the PollEverywhere development team, a team of about 20 people.

Where to get it: You can sign up for the service on the PollEverywhere website at http://www.polleverywhere.com/

PollEverywhere was designed to let teachers poll students and receive instantaneous feedback. Teachers create the poll and show it to the students. The students will have a certain number to send a text message response to, or a certain URL to enter from their mobile device.

Using the web entry form, teachers create a poll. They first enter in the question, such as “What is your favorite color?” Then they either choose for the poll to be a multiple choice question, an open ended question that accepts any response, or an image that can be clicked on. Then the teacher clicks a button and the poll is created but not yet active. Depending on the view chosen in the previous menu, the poll will be set up to display results differently. A button is then clicked to active the poll. Users can either text their answer to a number shown on the screen, or go to a URL on their mobile phone and to respond to the poll. In real time, the bar chart updates with the results of the students’ responses.

polleverwhere

The user interface is very intuitive. You choose one feature at a time and the features are separated by pages, so you don’t get overwhelmed by lots of options. The buttons you can click have images that illustrate how results will be displayed. Fields generally include sample text so you know how to format your quiz question, title, etc.

One real-life use case of PollEverwhere is how it is often used in my economics class to engage students. Often the professor will use it to test our knowledge of material. If he gives us a question and 40% or more students choose the same wrong answer, he goes over the material again and repolls us. He also uses it before exams to ask us what song we want to use to start the final exam.

I would recommend this app for educators to use in the classroom. The only real obstacle they face is the startup price, which is hefty if you have to pay for it out of your own pocket. However, once you have the service, it is intuitive to use for both teachers and students.

Another way to accomplish what the app does would be for students to write down answers to questions on cards and pass them in, then have TAs total up responses and give the results to the teacher. However, this does not provide the immediate feedback that is the point of PollEverywhere, and makes a lot of extra work for TAs.

The real advantages of this program lie mostly in student engagement. Giving students the chance to test their knowledge DURING the class, while they have just recently learned the material, helps cement the concepts in their minds. Students are also happier when they can participate in the flow of the class and give feedback on items of interest to them. These significant advantages far outweigh the cost if an engaging classroom is your goal.

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“Learning” Games

Actually, the idea of games that are designed with a learning aspect in mind is a topic close to my heart. When I was in Middle School, I discovered that I have a passion for making games. I spent hours and hours and hours in my middle and high school years learning and practicing everything related to game design: art, writing, storyboarding, coding, all of it. However, eventually I became dissatisfied simply making games for their own sake. I wondered what real good was coming out of the hours I spent making games. Sure, I loved doing it, but I wanted my games to mean something – to contribute something to the players besides just being fun to play. That desire was what led me to consider making games that had an educational aspect to them. And although my dreams of creating meaningful games have been put on hold while I do other life things (marriage, school, job… life), I still take an interest when I see games made for a purpose besides simply entertaining.

That said, let’s examine two online games created to educate the player: Chevron’s EnergyVille game, which I consider to be an example of an ineffective educational game, and iCivic’s Argument Wars, which I consider to be a highly effective one. We will consider a few questions: What point was the game trying to get across? Was the game effective in conveying this point? Was the game fun to play?

First, EnergyVille. The concept is this: The player is the director of energy operations in charge of supplying energy to their custom-named city. They do this by clicking and dragging machines from a list of possible energy sources (solar energy, hydro energy, wind energy, nuclear energy, etc.) to the map. Once a certain energy level was reached certain buildings would be powered. Once all buildings were powered, the player would be taken to the next level, up to three levels. upload2

What point was the game trying to get across? 

I am really not sure. Probably something about how we need to be able to adapt the way we obtain energy for the future, as things change.

Was the game effective at conveying this point?

Obviously it wasn’t, since I’m not sure what the point was! I felt like the game was trying to teach me things, but I found that the information given on the little cards throughout the game did not actually affect gameplay, so there was no advantage to really reading/learning them. It was like I was looking through flash cards, not playing a game.

As I dragged different power sources onto the map to power my city, I had no idea what the advantages and disadvantages of using one over the others were.

Was the game fun to play?

Nope. It was too easy to win. All I had to do was drag different sources onto the map until the city was fully powered. It took less than a minute.

The graphics were nice, but not very captivating. There was little to no movement – no panning or zooming. Some things moved in the city but it got boring very quickly.

Other comments: 

I felt like the game was programmed and drawn by people who knew how games should be, but that the game was designed by someone who knew what they wanted to teach, but not how to teach it or how to engage the players.

Second, let’s consider the game I found on iCivics.com: Argument Wars! The name alone indicates that the game will be more intriguing than EnergyVille. The premise of Argument Wars is this: The player takes the role of a lawyer defending a certain ideal in court. He wins the case by constructing valid arguments from a list of given choices. upload1

What point was the game trying to get across?

I feel like the game is meant to introduce players to relevant topics of debate today, including exposure to both sides of the matter.

Was the game effective at conveying that point? 

Yes! I feel like I could successfully argue for and against the topic whose scenario I played through in court. Being forced to read through and choose the argument that was most relevant to the case, and then having the argument re-iterated to me, made it stick in my mind better.

Was the game fun to play? 

Yeah! I was almost surprised how fun to play this game was!

Visually, the game was very appealing. It changed a lot – zooming in to focus on the judge when he talked, zooming out to focus on the player’s character when points were being presented, changing perspectives to make a choice.

It was very clear what needed to be done to win, but it was not too easy. It required thought and consideration to tell what would be the best argument to present, and whether or not to object to the opponent’s arguments.

Other comments: 

I feel like this game is a winner, being both effective at teaching the players about its subject matter and being fun to play. I will keep it in mind as an example when I someday return to the educational game-making scene.

In today’s blog post, I will discuss various tools that I have used to stay organized – paperlessly.

Google Drive

drive

Google Drive is number one on my list of paperless organization. Google Drive comes free with a Google account and is used as an online file storage and organization service. Examples of things that I keep on Google Drive include pictures and videos, homework assignments and code examples for school, personal geneology records, wedding plans. 

Pros: It’s great to have access to these files anywhere, especially homework files and personal geneology projects.

Cons: Just like on my home computer, things tend to get unorganized and hard to find. It takes a bit of upkeep to keep things clean. Also, I tend to end up with multiple versions of the same file and can’t remember which one is the one I actually need.

Google Calendar

calendar

Google Calendar is just what it sounds like – an online Calendar that lets you track appointment and events. I used Google Calendar for a while, but stopped because I found that it took too much effort to update it every time I thought of a To-Do or an event that needed recording. 

Pros: Allows for recurring events that happen every day, week or month

Allows for color coded combinations of calendars

Cons: Takes too long to add, change an event

To-do list is hard to get to and not intuitive.

HabitRPG

habit

HabitRPG is a great, free website that focuses on helping motivate its users develop good habits. You set up your To-Do list and Daily tasks. If you do them every day, you gain experience, level up your character, and find items and food to feed your pets. If you don’t do them, you lose health and risk dying. 

Pros: Motivates you to do the things you said you would do, or your character will die.

Lets you form a team with friends, motivating you to do the things you said you would, or THEY’LL die.

Cons: Sometimes I forget to update what I’ve done before 12:00, and then my character loses health unfairly.

Trello

trello

Trello is a more boring alternative to HabitRPG. It is purely for keeping track of tasks and To-Dos. We used this website in my work to keep track of steps that needed to be taken for us to reach our goals. It was effective in helping me remember what I had done, and what I had yet to do. 

Pros: Allows for organization of To-Dos into various categories.

Can share To-Dos with other Trello users.

Cons: I’ve never been able to figure out how to delete a To-Do, only archive it.

Blackboard

blackboard

Blackboard is an online organization suite designed to be a “home base” for students, and a link between students, professors, and course work. It includes a Grades section, an Assignments section, an Announcements section, and others. 

Pros: It is nice to have information for 3 courses all in one website.

Grades are visible to me as soon as they are put into the site.

Cons: The site is not laid out intuitively, It takes a lot of hunting to be able to find what I am looking for.

Blackboard floods my email with announcements about menial things that I would rather not hear about.

Paperlessness

In the last 20 years, the world has begun shifting from a “paper” teaching environment,where everything – textbooks, handouts, homework, announcements, syllabuses, quizzes, tests, grades – was administered and recorded physically on paper, to a digital teaching environment, where most or all of the aforementioned items are given in a digital, technological format. When was the last time we kept a physical spreadsheet and wrote grades down one by one? Without doubt, the switch from paper to technology makes administrative, bookkeeping tasks more efficient. But what effects does it have on the actual learning process in and outside the classroom? Let’s think about some of the benefits and costs to using technology in the learning setting.

One advantage the classroom has in using technology in the teaching processes is that it is very easy to link students to other sources. For example – in a traditional classroom, if the teacher found a 5 page article that he thought his class of 30 students should read, he would have to print or copy the article for each student (150 pages), staple them all together, and pass them out in class. Chances are, some of the students would forget them in the classroom, and others would misplace them and not have the information anyway. In a virtual classroom, however, the professor can simply post a link to the article and there it is for the students to access, no printing necessary. Additionally, the link will remain there until the end of the class. Students don’t have to worry about saving their handout in a place where they can find it again later – they simply have to load the class notes and there it will be.

Another positive effect technology can have in the classroom is illustrated in the digital clickers that I use in my university courses. These clickers let students give instantaneous feedback to teachers as to whether or not they are understanding the material. Whereas in the past, teachers would teach a lecture, give out a homework assignment, collect it a few days later, finish grading it a few days after that, and only then know if students had a good grasp of the concept or not, by using clickers a teacher can ask a certain question to the students, wait for 30 seconds while they submit their answers, and then see in an intuitive visualization whether or not he needs to keep going over material. In an article about the positive benefits of clickers in the classroom, a professor is quoted who used the clickers to understand what his students were really understanding: “For me, this was a moment of revelation. … for the first time in over 20 years of lecturing I knew… that over half the class didn’t ‘get it’. (1)” After a few minutes of clarifying the concept in question, the professor retested the students and found that over 90% gave the right answer.

Not all uses of technology in the classroom are effective. Allowing (or requiring) students to use their computer or electronic devices while in the classroom enables them to become distracted very easily. When students (and people in general) have access to the social media or the ability to receive updates, they have a hard time disconnecting. They feel like they can multitask and do both things at once, when in reality the human brain isn’t adapted to multitasking. According to a study done by a software group called harmon.ie, out of 1,140 people interviewed, “during face-to-face meetings, 41 per cent remain glued to their gadgets, texting, listening to voice messages and checking and sending emails. (2)” I believe that students would have a very hard time staying present mentally if given the ability to be connected.

(1) Web article: Mobile Phones and Laptops Given to Workers Actually Decrease Productivity, author Fiona MacRae. 4 August, 2011. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2022440/Mobile-phones-laptops-given-workers-actually-DECREASE-productivity.html

(2) Clickers in the Large Classroom: Current Research and Best-Practice Tips, author Jane E. Caldwell. 2007. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1810212/

Blogging and Learning

A couple of semesters ago I took a creative art class in which I was asked to create a blog. This blog was to house my reflections on and reactions to works and ideas presented in class. Throughout the course of the class I probably wrote nine or ten blogs. Now, reflecting back on the requirement to keep a blog about topics learned in class, I recognize some benefits of blogging that were not clear to me in the past. Here are some of my thoughts:

1) First off, blogging requires reflection. According to Kristen Hicks, “A student who has to take the time to write a blog post, for the professor and all the other students to see, will have more incentive to really take the time to approach the material thoughtfully.” (1) Blogging forces the blogger to really set apart some time and think about the subject at hand – more deeply than if they simply had to fill out a brief questionnaire or worksheet about the same material. It encourages creative thought on the part of the student to come up with something that is interesting and worthwhile to blog about. It pushes the student to ask how the subject relates, to think about their own personal experience with the subject, and about implications for the future. While I was writing my last blog post for this class, I came up with a new idea for online teaching that I think would solve many of the problems with today’s technology-driven teaching. If I had simply had to fill out short answer questions about the articles I had read, my mind would not have been expanded and I would not have kept anything from my reading.

2) Keeping a blog allows students to use more of a personal voice. This allows students to write from the heart rather than trying to emulate the voice and perspective of “a scholar”. How much more meaningful is it to a student it they can blog from their own views and experience, and in their own voice? When this is allowed, the blog becomes a sort of journal, encouraging students to write about what they really think and feel, rather than what they think would get them the best grade.

3) In my experience, spending the time to create a well-written blog article about a subject makes me value both my post and the subject more. Almost always, when I finish an entry and post it to my blog, I think to myself, “That was a good one.” I feel like I have actually accomplished something and contributed to the world rather than simply finished an assignment. This in turn makes me value my own perspective, and the subject that I have written about, more than I might have otherwise.

4) Writing a blog on the internet encourages students to look up other views on the subject they are writing about. According to Lou Martin of Demand Media, “As students apply various skills learned in the classroom to writing a blog, the chances that they will encounter scholarly material increases.” (2) In fact, I have just done this as I searched online for other perspectives on what I have just been writing about.

Sources Referenced:

(1) Web Article: The Benefits of Blogging as a Learning Tool, Part 1, author Kristen Hicks. Dec 13, 2013. http://edcetera.rafter.com/the-benefits-of-blogging-as-a-learning-tool-part-1/

(2) Web Article: The Educational Benefits of Blogging, author Lou Martin. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/educational-benefits-blogging-27588.html

Learning Styles and Technology

In the article Facilitating Learning an excerpt from the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory’s description engaged learning principles states that “Students are explorers, teachers, cognitive apprentices, producers of knowledge, and directors and managers of their own learning.” (1) It goes on to say that the role of teachers is not just to get a certain set of information into their students’ heads. Rather, a teacher should be a guide to the student in their specific, individual learning process.

How does this model of learning fit with current technological teaching tools? I’ve taken a few classes online before. In most of these, my experience was dismal. It seems like with online classes, there are two options: either the class must be way too easy and not challenge the student at all (as with an online government class I took), or (as in the case of a math class) the online instruction seems incomplete and fails to effectively lift me up to the next level of understanding.

As Lebow said (as referenced in the article Instructional Design & Learning Theory), “Traditional educational technology values of replicability, reliability, communication, and control (Heinich, 1984) contrast sharply with the seven primary constructivist values of collaboration, personal autonomy, generativity, reflectivity, active engagement, personal relevance, and pluralism.” (2)

That’s the problem with most online classes I have taken: the instruction and lesson plans are entirely rigid – fixed. And when it comes to matching teaching to learning styles, one size definitely does not fix all. A fixed lesson plan as taught online may serve one group of students, but it will leave perhaps an even larger number having received very little benefit.

So is there a way to provide an online, automated system of teaching that guides students towards the information that they need to learn, but that allows students to explore at their own pace and understanding? Perhaps!

I think that if an automated teaching system is to succeed, it must provide clear goals so that the students are directed towards something. However, instead of giving them a step-by-step path to get to that goal (one that may be either too fast or too slow for the student), it should push the student to search and discover the answers on his own. In this regard, technology provides a great advantage: The internet is a giant network of information, and in many cases, a source of learning tools.

I think back to all the things that I have learned by looking up tutorials on the internet. In the last month alone my peers on the internet have taught me how to change the battery in my car, who the main participants were in the Crusades, and how to succeed on a phone interview. Automated teaching systems could provide a goal for the student, then let the student go and find the answers on their own (possibly with some links to reliable related videos, or web pages), then tests the student’s knowledge. Think of it! Students who are already experts on the French Revolution would not be forced to read through a tedious presentation, slide by slide. Instead, they could simply take the evaluation of their knowledge and move on to new and undiscovered topics!

Learning in this way, I believe students would gain more (and more pertinent) knowledge than simply following a rigid lesson plan.

Sources referenced:

(1) Article: Facilitating Learning, authors Rhonda Robinson, Michael Molenda, Landra Rezabak.

(2) Article: Instructional Design & Learning Theoryauthor Brenda Mergel. May 1998.

What is Art?

Over the course of this class we have discussed many times the definition of art. What is art? According to Google, art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” But the Dadaists disagree – for them a work does not have to be beautiful or aesthetically pleasing to be considered art. Every time someone tries to nail down an exact definition for what art is, somebody else takes issue with it and tries to prove that their definition is wrong. So, since there cannot be any universal consensus, everyone must be free to have their own definition of art.

After considering my own taste and motivation for creating art, I would like to share my personal definition: what I consider to be art:

Art is anything that you willfully create, that engages your creative drive.

This definition contains multiple assertions:

1)      Art must be willfully created. I do not think art can happen accidentally. If I bump into my art table and spill a bunch of paints, and those spilled paints happen to create a cool or beautiful design on whatever they land on, that is not art. Art must be intended. Consider a beautiful scene up in a mountain – the hundred pine trees lining the side of the lake are reflected in the water. The whole scene is bathed in purple light from the sunset. It’s beautiful to look at… but is it art? Many people would tell you No. A photograph of it, or a painting of it – that would be considered art. Why? Because someone willfully took the time to capture the scene in some form. And I think you would find that those who tell you that Yes, the mountain scene is art, would tell you that because of a belief in God, and that God willfully created the scene that way. Either way, you can see that for most people, to be considered art a thing must be willfully created.

2)      I believe that everyone has a drive to create something that did not exist before – often, something beautiful or meaningful. Sometimes, something to express the way we feel. Sometimes, to inspire an idea or a new mode of thinking. Whatever the reason, when we do create, something engages inside us. We feel driven to continue working on the piece. We connect with it. We feel as if we are accomplishing something meaningful. This is what I mean when I say that the creation of art should engage the artist’s creative drive. Consider a print of a famous painting. Who would you consider to be the author of the piece? The one who painted it, right? Would it make a difference if I reminded you that this is only a print – that the physical piece you are looking at was actually made by a machine, and not the original painter? I imagine that you would still consider the painter to be the author of the piece. Why? Because it was the painter’s creative drive that caused the piece to exist in the first place. The printer had no part in it, it did not get any enjoyment of printing it… no creative drive was engaged during printing.

Although I’m sure there could be objections, I believe that this definition for art reflects fairly well what the average person considers to be art and non-art.