Focusmate: Tool for adults learning to write

Adults in remedial education classes or post-secondary programs (whether degree-granting or not) who sit and stare at their paper or computer screen without writing a single sentence might be helped to overcome their inertia by a new, free, on-line tool called Focusmate.

I suspect adult students who don’t have a support group of other learners also might find the Focusmate procedures helpful to keep them on task.

What Focusmate does is randomly match a user with a partner for a 50-minute, no-talking, no-wool-gathering, no goofing around work session streamed live to the co-worker.

To use Focusmate, a student would have to be at least 17 and have  a computer with a camera and microphone and an Internet connection to use for the sessions.

At the beginning of a session, each partner says hello, identifies their goal for the session, and goes to work. At the end of the session, they say goodbye. In between hello and goodbye they work.

The Focusmate community includes writers, freelancers, virtual workers, entrepreneurs, programmers, designers—people who need to accomplish work alone but need to be accountable to someone in order to be productive.

Both parties must work with their video on. Having the microphone on throughout each session is encouraged, but not required. Hearing someone else working boosts each individual’s productivity—who wants to be the lump who sits and does nothing?— and makes both of them feel accountable for producing during the session.

Just learning Focusmate’s community rules and tips for users would also be very useful for job-seekers in today’s market.

You might want to try Focusmate yourself over the summer. Four 50-minute sessions a week for six weeks could get you ready for fall with less stress than trying to cram everything into one week before opening day.


Technology sprints; understanding plods.

This being Computer Science Education Week, Tuesday evening’s #RuralEdChat was about the role of technology in education.

Black and gray cover of Koestler's Darkness at Noon
A political prisoner reconsiders impact of technology on history.

As so often happens, I ran across an unrelated passage in a novel I’m reviewing tomorrow at GreatPenformances, which struck me as related.

The novel is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Published in 1940, the novel is about Nicholar Salmanovitch Rubashov, ex-Commissar of the People, in an unnamed country that certainly is the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. (Koestler was a communist until 1938 and spent time in Russia.)

Rubashov is arrested for acts against the Party. He’s being held until he produces a suitable confession, at which time he knows he will be killed.

Rubashov writes a diary, meditating on his political career and contemporary history.

He says, in effect that history swings from absolutism to democracy, then from democracy to absolutism, depending on the political maturity of a country’s citizens. That maturity, Rubashov writes, depend on citizens recognizing what’s in their own best interests. Here’s part of that entry:

Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer. It takes sometimes tens of years, sometimes generations, for a people’s level of understanding gradually to adapt itself to the changed state of affairs, until it has recovered the same capacity for self-government as it had already possessed at a lower stage of civilization. …

When the level of mass-consciousness catches up with the objective state of affairs, there follows inevitably the conquest of democracy … Until the next jump of technical civilization … again sets back the masses in a state of relative immaturity, and renders possible or even necessary the establishment of some form of absolute leadership.

Rubashov likens the ability of citizens to understand the impact of technology to the progress of a boat through a series of locks. The boat rises within its lock, but even at the top of its lock, it is far from the level to which it must rise to make progress forward. The mistake of socialism, he thinks, was that it assumed the people’s ability to understand the implications of new technology rises steadily.

The peoples of Europe are still far from having mentally digested the consequences of the steam engine. The capitalist system will collapse before the masses have understood it.

We probably would do well to consider whether the fictional Rubashov is right about how long it takes people to understand the true impact of any new technology.

If he’s right, we’re in deep trouble.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

Are you a technologically literate teacher?

blog post title against collage of technology graphics

Could you, for example, walk into the office of a typical small business somewhere in America — a construction company, for example, or an independently-owned convenience store with fewer than 10 workers — and begin work immediately doing routine work, such as answering the phone and taking messages, using the office computer for recording receipts and disbursements, and faxing documents to state agencies?

Naturally, you’ll say you’d need some training. That’s undoubtedly true.

What’s also true, however, is that small business people expect college-educated people to know or be able to pick up very quickly skills that people with a high school education do every day.

I believe that being able to pick up new skills quickly is going to be the most sought-after attribute of 21st century workers.

The last time I tried to hire an editorial assistant for my publishing business, I asked people who’d lived in this community all their lives for suggestions. An ex-teacher was highly recommended.

She was interested in the work and the pay until I told her we use Open Office rather than Microsoft products because that’s what my customers use.

That was a deal breaker.

“I’d have to go take a course to learn how to use it,” she said.

The woman might have been a wonderful teacher, but she didn’t have the technology skills for an entry-level job in a small business.

If you have to go take a training course in a software program before you can use it, you can’t handle an entry-level job in a small business.

Folks, one word processing program is pretty much like another.

And if your skills are up to the challenge of the entry-level work in 2017, can you honestly say you’re able to prepare your students for today’s workplace, let alone tomorrow’s?

Related reading:

Work Experience as Education

The Collaboration Model for Entry Level Jobs

Dear Applicant: The reason you weren’t hired.


Why testing methods should matter to teachers

laptop computer with keys spelling COMPOSE highlighted. Banner says "Compose here."
Ignore for a moment the issue of whether standardized tests carry too much weight in education.

Do you want to handicap your students unnecessarily on standardized tests?

Probably not.

Steve Graham, who has researched and written extensively on writing in schools, says his research shows that students who take writing tests on a computer do better than those who answered in handwriting, but that is true only if the students were experienced in writing at the computer.

He writes:

A student’s mastery of the method of testing matters. For students with little experience, computer assessments underestimate their writing achievement.

(Handwriting that’s not legible produces a similar underestimation of writing skill.)

It’s 25 years since the first website went online: It’s time every student is fluent at composing at the keyboard.

It’s perfectly OK to have students use pen and paper to doodle their way to a plan for writing if that’s how they’re comfortable, but you need to have students practice composing at the keyboard regularly. I recommend practice at least once a week.

And, yes, you need to require keyboard composition even if you teach art or agriculture: This isn’t just an English teacher thing.


When I looked him up online

A recent post by Eric Stoller about why “getting Twitter matters” to higher education’s student affairs folks was being shunted around Twitter yesterday morning.

The nub of Stoller’s argument is this:

Laptop computer screen bearing quote "Digital capabilities / literacies are important. They are connected to employability, revolution, activism, teaching, learning, communication, engagement, etc."

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the importance of digital capabilities/literacies a bit lately.

My local school district recently hired a new superintendent, Timothy R. Ryan,  who got exactly two sentences on page three of the school district’s June newsletter.

When I read the news, I did what I always do when “introduced” to people I’m likely to meet in person: I looked Ryan up online.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with a stranger. Before long the conversation got around to the local school.

The woman told me about a big hassle she’d had with the administrator who didn’t want her kid to be an exchange student, and her futile attempts to get anyone to respond to her concerns.

She concluded by saying she hoped the new superintendent would turn things around.

“But I have my doubts,” she said, “because I looked him up online and—”

I completed the sentence for her: “And he doesn’t have a digital presence.”

Advanced computer skills for Common Core

Educators have been wailing that students may not have the advanced computer skills necessary to show the extent of their learning when tests aligned to Common Core State Standards roll out.  I have spent quite a bit of time poking around the standards in English Language Arts.  I hadn’t seen any I thought required  advanced skills, but what do I know?

Curious about what advanced computer skills might be required, I signed up for a webinar offered by Atomic Learning on the integration of Common Core and technology. The webinar  began with quotes from teachers about the computer skills they feared their students would not have. Among the vague rumblings of fear were a few specifics.

One teacher feared students wouldn’t be able to open a PDF file.

Another was concerned that students would not know how to copy text from one file and paste it into another.

There’s no way to know whether the quotes are representative even of clients of the company, let alone whether they are representative of American teachers.

But it is rather scary to think even a couple American teachers consider opening a file and copying and pasting to be “advanced computer skills.”

Milestones in my online education

This month is 30 years since I first went online to work.

In January of 1983, I became city editor for a small newspaper with a decentralized staff. Reporters worked from offices in the county seats, rarely coming to the main office.

They sent their day’s news budget by computer. Later, after the stories came in, we conferred by telephone as I edited copy as deadlines loomed.

It was, by today’s technology standards, a clumsy system, but it worked. We got the paper out on time most nights, and we delivered a good product to readers.

Since then, I’ve taken courses in online education and taught online, but that initial job working together with people to produce a product remains the defining experience of my online education:  It taught me the potential of computer connections for collaborations across geographic boundaries.

What was the defining experience in your online education?

Visionary educator anticipated 2012

Twenty-five years ago, the late Freeman VanWickler anticipated today’s harsh educational climate and began to prepare for it.

VanWickler saw distance learning as the only way small rural school districts could overcome the challenges of demographics and geography and provide quality education at affordable prices. Under his leadership,  the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in New York’s Delaware, Chenango, Madison, and Otsego counties had an nationally recognized distance learning program.

In that pre-Internet era, classes were created by dial-up connections between computers, which delivered graphic content, while audio was provided by speakerphone. The program’s best teachers, such as  Michael Foor-Pessin of Otselic Valley Central School District, former Colgate University and Norwich High School teacher Raymond T. Howes, and College of Saint Rose special education professor Edward Pieper, understood how to overcome the audiographic technology’s limitations by focusing on its assets: It was an almost ideal medium for small group instruction.

Unfortunately, the policy makers of the DCMO BOCES could not see understand how students could possibly learn when they could not see a teacher lecture. And today’s drivers of online education—declining funding, teacher reductions, emphasis on post-secondary education—were years away.

Distance learning seemed a silly waste of money to school boards and administrators.

VanWickler relentlessly sought publicity and funding for the program, but it was a battle he lost.

When VanWickler retired,  under his successor the distance learning program was dismantled.

Today VanWickler’s successor has retired, and distance learning is the fastest growing segment of education.

In Memoriam
Freeman A. VanWickler
June 18, 1927 – April 13, 2010

[fixed broken link 2016-01-31]

Using technology to deliver professional development

How to get teachers to use technology in  their classrooms is a major concern of some educational administrators and of almost every instructional technician. The most common approach to the problem appears to be offering professional development training. The training often takes the form of workshops and short courses during designated times.

Many of the PD training program descriptions I’ve seen are for generic presentations designed more to show what the technology can do than to show what a teacher can do with the technology. Teachers complain they have to go back to their classrooms and figure out on their own how to use the technology in their situation.

I wonder if a more useful and cost-effective program could be developed using technology to deliver the professional development to teachers in their classrooms at times when they need it.

One technology that might be used for professional development on a small scale is a wiki.  Suppose a school working at implementing Common Core standards in its classes were to allow teachers to create an discipline or area-specific wiki to which all teachers in the school have access.  Having representation from teachers of, for example, math K-12 would allow teachers to see how one years’ program can be made to build on the previous years’ instruction.

Another way to offer PD on a small scale is to using a free services to embed a live chat feature into the webpage of the school’s IT program. Instead of teachers having to figure out on their own how to use a technology for their needs, they could simply join an online chat with the IT person.  Those same teachers might see the value of putting the same feature on their webpages so they could provide outside-class help to students or meet with parents whose schedules don’t permit them to attend conferences. [The chat service I initially suggested, Wibya, is no longer available. has a chat service for collaboration and another designed especially for support desks. A free, one chat channel is also available from Embedded Chat.]

How about instead of saving those slide shows for big presentations, the IT people make less sophisticated resources for teachers, such as a set of slides about 5 free ways to make copies of an assignment available 24/7 to students? That PD could be made available to teachers 24/7 via one or two of the technologies described in the slides.

Other more ambitious uses of technology might be workable in some situations.

Suppose a school district or a group of schools or districts were to offer a professional development program on the order of the Homework Hotline where kids call in with questions and a teacher talks them through the solution.  Instead of live video on cable TV, teachers could join the PD Hotline by going to an online meeting site.

Different discipline areas could be available different days with facilitators sharing responsibility for responding to teacher requests for help with particular classroom problems.  Having directed a distance learning program, I know it would be challenging to find and train people to facilitate a PD Hotline, but the results might be worth the effort. Among other things, the program might use a great teacher to teach the most difficult-to-teach students but also give that great teacher opportunity to teach the brightest and best: your faculty.

Some PD Hotline sessions might be designated for cross-pollination across disciplines:  English language arts teachers might be joined by the fine arts faculty, for example, or the social studies faculty joined by the foreign language faculty.

Use of meeting technology would permit all PD Hotline attendees at a session to suggest options.  Additional resources should be provided via services the instructional technologists want teachers to use: a public folder in Dropbox for documents, Slide Share presentations, etc.

I know none of theses ideas would achieve 100 percent participation from faculty.

I know none of theses ideas would result in seat-time records so important to state education departments.

The ideas might not work at all. I probably have 6 or 8 ideas that don’t work for every one that does. I’ve never found that failure rate any reason to stop thinking.

What do you think?

Photo credit: Help Me 🙂 uploaded by djayo

[Links updated 2014-04-01; Lin repaired 2016-01-22]