Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Harvard Education Letter

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Scratch allows students to reason out and execute programming, using a graphical interface created at MIT’s Media Lab.

Volume 27, Number 2
March/April 2011

Nine Hot Web Tools for Students

Forget poster board. Forget chalk. Forget drill and kill.

Get ready to bookmark a slew of new web-based tools designed to let students take learning into their own hands. With these new web tools, students can now explore lessons introduced in the classroom virtually by creating their own 3-D interactive presentations, for example, or by modeling math and scientific concepts online. Here are some teacher favorites:

Streamlining Student Presentations
Educational technology experts say that a big difference between the tools of the early 2000s and today is their ability to create elaborate environments for student creatiAnimoto2vity. This is especially true for slideshows, which have gone multimedia. Using Animoto (right), students can aggregate photos and videos to create a show complete with musical background. With XtraNormal, students can even create talking avatars for web-based dramatic presentations. Now every student can create a three-minute modern-language scene from Macbeth, or reconstruct the historic Lincoln-Douglas debate by creating avatars.

Like a lot of other tactile information, student poster-board presentations may be headed for history’s recycling bin. Enter the glog, or “graphical log,” developed by the Czech company Glogster. A new version for educators, called Glogster EDU, is virtually walled off from mass-market Glogster, where adults assemble and display any combination of media. The web-based tool gives students a way to aggregate different media in one place—a virtual poster—on a specific topic or concept, whether that topic is binomials or Sojourner Truth.

Robin Metaj’s eighth-grade English class in Oxford, Conn., created glogs around the theme of intolerance, as depicted in Jerry Spinelli’s novel, Stargirl. Because the finished product can be posted online, other teachers, students and their parents can all see the final, public version, motivating students to do their best; it can also be embedded in a student’s wiki. Metaj, who now trains teachers statewide, likes the program for its convenience. “We could swap out the paper and keep the sound instructional elements of the project intact, including standards that address inquiry. The students are expected to research topics using a variety of quality source material that they access online.” Prior to the unit, Metaj taught the students how to evaluate online sources for legitimacy and to determine what could legally be copied from the Internet.

Playing Isaac NewtonNew Scratch
Lest you think the humanities get all the fun, here are a few tech tools catching on with math and science teachers. Scratch (right), a freeware program, has been around for a few years, allowing students to reason out and execute programming, using a graphical interface created at MIT’s renowned Media Lab. Patricia Warner, a science teacher in Grant City, Mo., likes the suite of free online simulation tools available from the University of Colorado’s PhET Interactive Simulations, (Physics Education Technology Project), observing that it’s safer if students explore physics by “throwing projectiles virtually” via the web, instead of across her classroom. Matthew Wright, a science teacher at Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas, uses Algodoo, to illustrate the relationship between radius and velocity in orbiting objects by adjusting different settings for mass, density, friction value, and others. His students then use Phun, a free, earlier version of Algodoo. “The kids love using it because it allows them to control every aspect of the scenario,” says Wright.

Math Made “Hot” and “Cool”
“I happen to know that in the future, I will not have the slightest use for algebra,” Kathleen Turner’s title-role character tells her 1960s math teacher in the film, “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Then again, Peggy Sue never learned to solve for ‘x’ by exploring the highly visual pre-algebra activities at HotMath.com, Cool Mathwhere mouse clicks allow users to test out how different iterations of ‘x’ change areas, shapes and numerical outcomes. The site has free and paid content.

After thrilling to this surprisingly congenial presentation of algebraic fundamentals, students can chill with newfound numerical insights at CoolMath.com (left), where an extremely large, albeit finite, number of games can lead to finding ‘x’ in all its many permutations, through everything from polynomials to quadratic equations. And, CoolMath comes with its own specialized calculators that help you see just how your changes to any given equation change values.

With algebra conquered, the world of arcs and tangents beckons budding Euclids. But rather than mark-up paper with nasty mistakes that just confuse later on, users can run the java applets at The Math Open Reference Project to create digital manipulatives that show an array of possibilities for various geometric scenarios—and they can run them repeatedly, getting step-by-step modeling. Developed by Silicon Valley software designer John Page, this free resource also provides calculators and applets for other mathematics subspecialties like trigonometry.

It seems that in the digital classroom, even Peggy Sue could learn to use algebra.

Dave Saltman is a writer and teacher in the Los Angeles area and a contributor to Spotlight on Technology in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

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