Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Leaving the Office for the Cloud

This fall, we have had more students, teachers and administrators use Google Docs in lieu of Word, Powerpoint and Excel. Two factors seem to be driving this migration—first, with a stronger emphasis on collaboration in most districts, Google Docs allows for a more seamless venue for multiple writers. Second, “cloud” computing, as we know, does not constrain us to networks, jump drives, or emailing documents—we can access them anywhere. Many of my colleagues see Google Docs as a great “addition” to their digital arsenal.

But what about a replacement?

I received a call from the tech director of one of our feeder districts who posed that exact question. She discovered that discontinuing their current Office contract with Microsoft would save her tiny district $20,000 annually. Instead, she proposed, they adopt the Google Apps for Educators and use Google Docs as their primary software for word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets. When she surveyed her district the response was explosive. “Absolutely not!” was the resounding cry. Although I empathized with the tech director’s frustration, I also understood the position of the staff. And thinking about it prompted me to ponder, “Could we do that here?” Could two high schools, 6,000 students, and 400 teachers live a digital life on the “cloud?”

Why go to the cloud (Google Docs):
• More cost efficient: no need to purchase additional software

• Reduce server dependence

• No limit of space

• Easy access from anywhere

• Collaboration and individual creation become seamless

• Simpler interface

Why Stay in the Office:
• More robust support

• More sophisticated applications

• More universally accepted

• Perceived improved security

• Not reliant on an internet connection
With regard to the cloud being more cost efficient, there is Open Office, which is, in essence, a free download of “Office-like” software, and if you want to collaborate with word there is Office Live, which uses existing Microsoft Office products in a collaborative environment. These “hybrids” can also be considered.
At this point I would like your feedback. Please respond to this quick survey. I will discuss results on my next post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Is Powerpoint Still Killing Us?

By now, many of you have seen the hilarious and oh-so-true Don McMillan video “Death By Powerpoint,” and, I must admit, presentations I have seen lately are noticeably improved. I have witnessed a decrease in the frequency of distracting transitions, complex graphics and row upon row of bullet points. Unfortunately, this practice has not seemed have filtered down into the classroom. While there are many great tutorials on what and what not to do in Powerpoint, I think we are missing the mark on some of the essentials we need to teach kids about Powerpoint--the most abused software in education. Here are six suggestions to get kids on the right track:

Model behavior If you are using Powerpoint to convey information to your students, hold yourself to the same expectations as you would your students. If you, as a teacher, make use of PowerPoints that are screen upon screen of microscopic text, I have one question: Is Powerpoint the best means to achieve this? Wouldn’t a Word file, web page, or PDF online achieve this better? If you do use Powerpoint make sure the slides are engaging, thought provoking and add to your message instead of become the message.

Call it a “presentation” not a “Powerpoint” We’ve all seen the assignments that begin with “You will create a five minute POWERPOINT.” Your students’ primary goal is NOT to create a Powerpoint, it’s to convey a message. Downplay (ignore?)the role of the software during the research and preparation phases. Have students focus on content and delivery first, then include the Powerpoint as a means to help convey the message.

“Post” a webpage, not a Powerpoint Keep in mind that a Powerpoint was designed to complement a live presentation. Unfortunately, many use it as a self-contained means of conveying information. If a Powerpoint can stand alone with lines and lines of text, chances are, when it was presented, very few people were paying attention to the speaker, and instead, were reading. If the purpose is to create a document for people to READ at their leisure, is Powerpoint the best method? I don’t think so.

Learn and Promote “Presentation Zen Without a doubt, Garr Reynolds has had the most positive effect on combating “Powerpoint abuse” in recent memory. His emphasis on simplicity and incorporating powerful images has created a paradigm shift in multimedia presentations.

Put restrictions on text, not slides In an attempt to reduce reliance on the software, teachers place restrictions on the number of slides students use. This usually results in the cramming of data on to individual slides, which results in an even more confusing presentation. Instead, lift the restrictions on the number of slides and instead impose limits on text per slide. In keeping with Presentation Zen, a great image or graphic coupled with a phrase or even a single word can be much more powerful.

Teach visual literacy Recently, I saw a rubric for a project that included images as one of the criteria. The requirements were: “4 images=A, 3 images =B…”and so on. Unfortunately, some teachers want kids to incorporate images but don’t hold them as accountable as they do for text. Start with things as simple as placement of images on the page, positioning of text, and cropping images keeping in mind the “rule of thirds.” Then you can have students advance to artistic considerations including line, color, rhythm, contrast, and form. Here is a great video interview by Martin Scorcese on the importance of teaching Visual Literacy.

Note that these suggestions have less to do with how to manipulate the program and more to do with why it’s being used in the first place. We must emphasize that what’s on the screen should not upstage the person in front of us.