Thursday, September 18, 2008

Google Docs in the classroom

I mentioned on Twitter that I use Google Docs in my classroom, and someone asked me to write a short blog post about it. So here it is.

We're blessed at UT because at the CWRL we have several computer-assisted classrooms and the freedom to use these with various types of software. Last year, in the spirit of exploration, I had students write and submit papers using Google Docs, the web-based office suite. Google Docs allowed me to avoid the usual stack of papers as well as the email ping-pong that occurs when students email drafts to me. It also was easy to use -- basically it has the same level of capability as Microsoft Works -- so the learning curve was relatively shallow.

But I was more interested in the collaboration aspects. GDocs allows you to share your document with others, meaning that many collaborators can look at the same document and even edit it at the same time. It automatically allows features that you have to turn on in Word, such as edit tracking and comments. Paired with a project management system such as Basecamp, GDocs was a great way to support the dreaded group project. That's how I used it the first semester.

An added bonus was that I could embed my own comments in the document. That meant that I could review drafts and even insert grading comments directly into the text. (UT does not allow me to post grades on an off-campus server, so the grades are handled through UT's own gradebook application.) So I began to think about using GDocs for all assignments, not just the group project.

Last spring, I decided not to require GDocs. Instead, students turned in papers. It was a nightmare: versions floated around, it was hard to track which version was which, I had to wait until classtime to hand back comments. These are all common and unremarkable issues, but once I knew there was a better way, they seemed intolerable.

So this semester, I required all students to turn in all assignments on GDocs. I simply assign labels to them to differentiate the different classes and assignments (and I have one red label "_TO_GRADE" to track what I haven't touched yet). So far it's working well.

An added bonus is that I was able to lead students through peer reviewing via GDocs. Students inserted comments in each others' papers. When I reviewed the drafts later, I commented on these comments as well. It worked quite well.

I don't believe I've used GDocs to its maximum extent, but it's worked very well so far.

Questions? Drop a comment or drop me a line.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reading :: Soldiers of Reason

Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire
By Alex Abella

In the Foreword to this book, the author tells how he gained access to RAND. "One of the managers," he tells us dramatically, "confided that he thought agreeing to this book was either the brightest or the dumbest move RAND had ever made" (p.3).

Interestingly, I read the Foreword just days after I mentioned to a RAND contact that I was about to begin the book. His reaction was unenthusiastic; he had not read the book, but seemed to imply that those who had were not impressed. Not great, but not terrible, more of a wash.

That's a pretty good summary -- both of the writing style and the book's content. The book is full of hyperbolic statements and characterizations like this one:
RAND's hawkish views of Soviet intentions, distilled in Leites's works and Nitze's jeremiads, fit the paranoia of the age, the national terror over an impending nuclear conflict, the abhorrence of anything that wasn't true-blue American. Nevertheless, RAND analysts believed that with hard work, dedication, and sacrifice -- and the prescriptions issuing from Santa Monica -- there might still be a future worth living. One of these RAND prescriptions would pull the world from the brink of possible nuclear annihilation, while another would rewrite the basic concepts of social welfare, politics, and government in America and the West. (p.39)
Yet the book itself is just okay. Abella is curious about RAND, but that curiosity leads him to attribute all sorts of things solely or primarily to RAND that seem to have deeper and broader roots. For instance, he attributes RAND's development of rational choice theory with "redefin[ing] the foundations of public policy by assuming that self-interest defines all aspects of human activity" (p.52) and noting that "RAND people were the primary practitioners of realpolitik in America's intellectual world" (p.96), while seemingly unaware of the interplay with Machiavelli and Adam Smith (neither of whom, I hasten to add, was a RAND analyst). For Abella, RAND seems to be the obligatory passage point for these fundamental shifts, but RAND is only one vector for the development of these ideas.

I also began to distrust Abella's characterizations of leading RAND figures from the glory days of the past. Invariably, these figures were portrayed as larger than life, with larger-than-life eccentricities and tragic flaws and blind spots. As often happens with this sort of text, the closer we get to the present day, the blander and more colorless RAND researchers get -- just as the miracle-working patriarchs of the Old Testament make way for the people you see at your local synagogue or church. I began to wonder whether the larger-than-life figures from the old RAND were more the artifact of temporal distance than faithful characterizations, and whether they became larger than life because they were mostly dead, known only through documents and recollections, unable to talk back to Abella's characterizations.

In any case, this book was interesting in spots, but I would seek out corroborating histories if I were to use it as a source.

Reading :: Search Engine Optimization for Dummies

Search Engine Optimization for Dummies
By Peter Kent

When I recently Twittered that I was reading this book, I received two or three replies suggesting that SEO was "snake oil." SEO is certainly vulnerable to this claim: search engines are secretive about their exact algorithms, which seem to change frequently, and much of SEO consists of following good web design practice in any case. But this book makes the case that there is a there there: You really can do some things to boost SEO.

SEO, or search engine optimization, "refers to 'optimizing' Web sites and Web pages to rank well in the search engines" (p.14). The author, Peter Kent, argues that although many companies offer SEO without real expertise or measurable outcomes -- and many web designers will claim to build SEO sites without anything to back up that claim -- SEO is actually achievable.

One basic way to achieve SEO, Kent says, is simply to follow web standards: use validated markup, make sure images have ALT text, make sure the META tag is properly filled with keywords. (Coincidentally, these are the same measures you should take for ensuring web accessibility.) But other ways include registering links with web directories; getting reciprocal links; and examining keywords to see which ones will capture traffic to your site, then weaving them into your text and META tags. The latter was most interesting to me, since it involves actual research and some degree of what might be regarded rhetorical analysis.

In all, this book appears to provide a solid foundation for SEO. It doesn't tell you everything you need to know, I'm sure, but it gives you an idea of what SEO is and how it differs from snake oil.