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Animation Sensations

Have you ever visited a website with crazy–and pointless–animations jumping out at you every which way? Have you been to said pages where they also commit the crime of allowing these atrocious animations to repeat ad nauseum? Of course you have. We all have, unfortunately. In today’s world, where any Joe Blow can create a web page or blog, there are literally millions of poorly devised websites out there just waiting for unsuspecting visitors to stumble upon them.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for animations and interactivity on the web. Absolutely! I recently tested out a wonderful high school level science unit on photosynthesis that used animations and graphics brilliantly and I truly felt I learned a lot from the experience, even as an adult. The key is that the animations: were carefully thought out and designed, were clear, followed a logical progression and added to rather than detracted from the experience. There really are some things that words  can’t describe or at least that images can describe better or faster. Such was the case with the science unit where a single interactive animation took the place of hundreds and hundreds of words that would not have imparted the same knowledge, in the end (for the lack of interactivity which allowed me to create my own understandings).

In the end, it isn’t that animations are used–that seems inevitable these days–but rather HOW they are used that matters.


Better Off TED

So, I wanted to take this opportunity to share one of my favorite YouTube / TED videos of all time. As a former high school teacher who often railed against the current high-stakes-testing craze and dumbing down of curriculum, I “felt” Sir Ken Robinson’s video at a deep level. It is a simple but profound statement about the death of creativity and original thought in schools, and is quite a polemic against the anesthetizing force that is industrial-revolution era education. I believe it should be recommended viewing for all education-reformers, parents, teachers and those in administration.


Learning via Podcasts


For the past year or so, I’ve availed myself of audio and video podcasts from iTunesU and YouTube (though you need a separate downloader for that last one). The web is such an endless source of information and learning opportunities, and the ability to take these podcasts with you on your phone or iPad opens up learning to other places and times and people.

Here is an example of one particular “podcaster” whom I’ve been following for a while now, “Senior Jordan.” He has a low-budget but high content quality video blog / podcast that goes over several years worth of Spanish vocabulary, grammar and other lessons. He mixes in images and animations with his narration in a way that, for me at least, augments my learning.

Check him out here:

And of course, if you want a more “traditional” podcast experience where easy of transfer / download to portible devices is ensured, then it doesn’t get much better than the TED talks which are put out each week. You can watch these online or download them in various formats (MP3 (audio only), MP4 (video podcast), etc.) to your devices and listen / watch on the go.  A popular podcast–and one which I find both interesting and educational–is Ken Robinson’s video podcast below:

Check it out and you will likely look at schools and schooling in a new light:




An Image Worth 1,000 Words?

I’d like to take a brief moment (the time it takes to read this blog post) to point out the importance of properly and skillfully integrating graphics and images into websites and textbooks. Done right, and graphics can save readers a lot of time and better explain some concepts in ways print and text just can’t compete with. That being said, there are far too many examples (sadly) of images and graphics done the wrong way, where they become an eyesore and detractor to a page and to a readers’ enjoyment and comprehension of the content. I offer up two examples to make my point:

The Good: Apple’s “Apps for Education” Showcase.

What’s great about this page is that each category (or school subject) is augmented and enhanced by the included pictures. Each section is not overwhelmed by the graphics and the menu below each graphic allows the user the option to see more graphics and examples, rather than the page being cluttered by potentially unnecessary images.


The Bad: Discovery Education’s Lesson Plans Page

Though it isn’t a truly “bad” example of graphics implementation (meaning that there is obviously a rhyme and reason for the placement of the graphics), Discovery’s page shows a less than stellar effort where graphics are involved. Each page, regardless of the topic or difficulty of subject matter, only has one picture. Each picture is a rather non-descript thumbnail that truly neither adds to nor detracts from the page. The images themselves are mostly low-res and don’t offer any functionality or improved experience to the user. …they are just pictures, and not worth a thousand words, or even two.

Traditional Text vs. Hypertext

photo credit:

There are many features of traditional text that can (and should be) adopted in hypertext. Just think about when you are reading a textbook, for example. What are the features of the text that most stand out to you and are the most helpful? For me (and most readers, I’d assume) the most helpful features are: the headline, subtitles, keywords (or vocab) and captions to photos.

In hypertext, all of these features can be made active, through their own links. Instead of having to read through all the subtopics, for example, a discerning reader could jump (via a clickable subtitle at the topic of the page) straight to a section he or she needed to bone up on.

Likewise, instead of having a giant index or list of terms at the back of each chapter, with hypertext, you could create a check-box style list of words where readers could self-select only those words he or she didn’t know, and the hyperlink would lead to a pop-up (or other style) definition. Much better than a textbook with far fewer choices, in my opinion.

In hypermedia, the game expands even further. Imagine a dense introduction to a fiction novel, full of lush prose describing the setting and era of the scene. For readers with less background knowledge (or visual learners in general) you could have a brief intro video that showed the layout of the land, some of the costumes from the era, etc. I bet that most students would have better recall and higher levels of engagement if these sorts of changes were made to traditional texts. So…why aren’t we doing these things in schools? Why have we persisted in purchasing “old school” textbooks by the truckload that end up stolen, damaged or lining the shelves of a dusty stockroom? …Don’t ask me, as I find it makes neither sense nor cents.

Hypermedia: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

In 2011, webpages look worlds different than the plain text and links of the 90’s. Between some amazing Flash and Java examples out there now, educational websites have come a long way in the past couple decades. …that being said, not all websites / hypermedia examples are created equal. Here is a list of three that gives a good overview of the state of educational sites in 2011.


 BrainPop is a really good example of an educational website that has both content and quality of construction. The content spans most school subjects (from English to History to Art) and each page leads to other nested sub-pages so that users are truly given a self-selected, personalized experience each time they visit the page.

Instead of a random grouping of activities, each video, song or game on BrainPop is easy to find because of the very clear category navigation built in to the site.

Though the main idea behind BrainPop is that each mini-subject gets its own video(s), there are also other activities and quizzes to round out the package. There is also usually an “FYI” section that is more text based, for those learners that retain more through print than visual media.

BrainPop gets a solid “A” for both content and presentation of media.

The BAD:

 It amazes me that this ranks up there as one of the “best” or most popular educational sites for kids on the web. When you go to their main page and all of their individual pages, your senses are bombarded with a million flashing icons (of questionable quality) arranged in seemingly thoughtless patterns.

When you go to the “Learn to Read” page, for instance, it is doubtful that a child would find the page appealing or user-friendly at all. There is just too much information jammed into a small space and limited instructions for choosing activities.

Though the content itself may be helpful for younger learners, the outdated layout, cheesy icon sets and ugly split homepage make this a less than stellar example of hypermedia in this day and age. (Get it? Stellar?)

StarFall gets a meager “C” from this reviewer, due to the less than friendly navigation and presentation of the media in question.


Now, before the EW people come after me and leave nasty comments, let me say this: EducationWorld does have some great stuff for teachers, including some helpful lesson plans that I used a time or two myself back when I was teaching.

…that being said: EW has to be one of the worst viewing / user experiences on the web for this category of website. Almost every navigation results in an annoying pop up with a force close built in.

The home page looks like it’s stuck in 1993 with almost all “old school” text and links and only a single “high tech” scrolling area with a picture and some relatively current info. The individual pages (such as “worksheets”) are no better, with corny graphics sparingly dotting the page to save the eyes from constant reading and glossing over hyperlinks.

It’s like Wikipedia, but your Uncle Bob’s version (the one whose only had a computer for three days and built his page using a GeoCities template).

The icing on the cake? The GIANT Oscar Meyer Ad on the front page flashing at me despite multiple refreshes to see if another ad would pop up. Yep, this page is the “mystery meat” of the educational website world. Grade: “F minus”.

Digital Natives & Digital Immigrants (MSTU 4036)

Marc Prensky, in “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” delineates the divide between the students of today and the students of yesteryear who are now teachers themselves. For these “wired” students who watch twice as much TV as they read books, “modern” schooling is both a bore and an anesthetizing waste of time, in many cases. Why would teachers force students to spend time searching through dusty textbooks when they can pull up the information on their smart phones in a tenth of the time, in other words? Prensky makes a strong case that the education we are providing today’s youth (whose brains may have literally been altered by their consumption of media and instant knowledge-gratification) is both outdated and stifling…but he doesn’t stop there.

I think it is a wild stretch and gross overstatement on Prensky’s part, however, to say that the gap between digital native students and digital immigrant teachers is the “single biggest problem facing education today” (2001, p. 2). This comment shows a naivety on Prensky’s part, or at the very least, an oversimplification that attempts to gloss over the very real and pressing issues that are at the center of our problems with education in America, namely: poverty and income stratification. When PISA test scores come out each year and the U.S. turns in a dismal showing, no one talks about the *fact* that America’s middle-class and affluent students perform just as well as any students in Singapore, Finland or other “high performing” countries. Income inequality and unequal educational opportunities are doubtless far greater risks and problems than the “digital divide” between teachers and students. It doesn’t even seem like a close race.

In the end, for all of his overstatement, Prensky does evince the importance of altering our current methods and topics (and mindset!) to better suit the interests and trajectories of today’s youth. Increasingly few students are going to find themselves needing the lessons taught in “shop” class at work, for instance, but nearly every kid in every context will need knowledge of the internet, productivity and word-processing software, and media (social and otherwise).

I consider myself a (mostly) Digital Native. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, and by the time I was in high school, the internet was a constant companion for entertainment and learning. I taught myself the guitar and piano, Spanish and statistics…all with the computer and the web. I often found myself bored in classes where tasks were outdated or the content uninspiring when I literally had the *world* at my fingertips. I taught for three years in a school where 90% of teachers, if not more, were…”senior” members of the Digital Immigrant population. Many of them struggled with simple tasks such as uploading an Excel sheet grade-record and sending via email, despite this being the method we used every six weeks, year after year. There was definitely a “divide” between the students who (thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s myopic policies on the issue) dropped off their iPhones and Sidekicks at the metal detectors, and the teachers who were scared to delete desktop icons for fear of erasing entire programs.

These observations tell me that Prensky was surely on to something (despite his overstatement): we do need to better consider the world which our students inhabit—and have lived in all their lives, knowing nothing else—when we design instruction and educational activities and programs. Standing at the board and lecturing for 45 minutes is a sure-fire way to lose the attention of these digital-age students so accustomed to quick cut-aways on the TV and hypertext that lets you bounce from topic to topic as the urge—or need—strikes. There is a very real need to align the interests and habits of today’s youth with the education they receive, which unfortunately, still too closely resembles the Industrial Revolution conveyor-belt style of schooling that should have been left behind decades ago. The real challenge is to find a balance between the needs of the Digital Natives and the beliefs and habits of the Digital Immigrants…a heady challenge, indeed.