Conferences, Smartboards, and Russian, oh my!

Computer training today went better — although all my criticisms of the email/conferencing/messaging system remain, and perhaps have grown even stronger.

Most importantly, I learned about course conferences. These are required for every teacher in the school to create and use for each course they teach. And when I say “use,” for example, I mean that each day teachers are required to post that night’s homework by 3:30pm; if a teacher forgets, technically the students are officially absolved of the responsibility of doing it. (I don’t think it works that way unofficially.) So my school takes this technology really seriously.

I finally did get a sense of what a “conference” for a course is, and if you’re wondering, it’s basically a place to archive emails you’ve sent to a class with their homework assignments or additional information, and also a place for students to submit their homework electronically. That’s it. And there’s nothing special about it. So if a student needs to see what the assignment was on any given day, they open the course conference message whose subject reads “HOMEWORK: 2007 Aug 21.” Although there is a steep learning curve for managing these conferences, it seems like it won’t take much to get a grasp on it. And an added benefit is that if a student joins the class late — or if a teacher takes over a class mid-stream or wants to reference what a previous teacher emailed out — you have that information to give them. It’s institutional memory. And as a former historian, I know how important these sorts of archiving practices are. [1]

Still, when push comes to shove, I would much rather there be a requirement for a course webpage for each course instead of this list of emails that get stored. First, the page has the exact same content the conference does (you can even design it so there is a place to drop assignments electronically on it). Second, it is better than the conference because information is presented in a visually pleasing and visually organized way. You can put text, images, files, and links grouped by project/chapter/assignment rather than have them all in a list by date. (If you saw the way our software looks, you would see why I keep on harping on the visual. You might even cry. It is truly terrible.) Third, there are ways to make website creation a total piece of cake for teachers to create — where teachers can have as much control or as little control as they want. (At UCLA, as TAs, we had the ability to create our own course webpages, and although it wasn’t perfect, we had the ability to customize it and upload documents and files for students to download, display links, email the entire class or select sections, etc.)

With that being said, the more I think about it, the more the need for at least some sort of system that does what our system does becomes at least plausible, possibly even beneficial. The world is becoming more electronic, less paper based. Students need to learn to collaborate — and this appears to be a long-term goal of the technologists in my school. (They push teachers to come up with innovative uses of wikis and blogs.) It also teaches organizational skills and creates a complete online community, one that wouldn’t exist if we just emailed.

For now, I’m going to take this software with a grain of salt, learn it to the best of my ability, and see what I can do to make it useful for me, or if that doesn’t happen, figure out how to use it so it is at least the least of all evils.

On a much brighter note, and I mean much brighter note, I learned how to use smartboards today. And these, my friends, are amazing. I was inspired by dy/dan’s keynote presentations (example here) and I think that I could possibly design smartboard lessons to work similarly.

That’s all for today folks. Let’s see what wiki and blog dreams tomorrow brings us.

[1] I think that some of the information on the system only lasts 6 months, however, so if that includes the course conferences, then this benefit isn’t much a benefit.

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