Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Using the Web 2.0 Force: Help Me, Obi-Wan ...

Image Credit: "Blue Light-Saber Special." Sean Dreilinger, 12/25/2006
I'm going to find out two things later today:

1) What happens to the grades when you enter them into the Web 2.0 grading program without saving BUT leaving your computer on and open to the program overnight, OR
2) How many new combinations of naughty words I can come up with if I can't recover the grades.

Or maybe both.

I've been reassured by those in the know that the program locks up after ten minutes of idle time, so they are likely there, and all I'll have to do is log back on and hit the save button. That doesn't help me right now - I wanted to finish entering grades at school today before the last day of the trimester. When I logged on this morning to finish off the last few assignments, there was a whole lot of nothing on the screen - no evidence of the grading I had completed the night before. I've taken a pretty powerful and convenient student management tool and ... well, I'm not sure what I've done with it. For me, at least, it's not helpful.

I have a colleague who can say the word "awesome" with the exact sarcastic tone necessary for this precise situation.

Web 2.0 tools are great, no arguing that point. They still require a bit of attention from the user, but for the most part, they take a lot of guesswork out of the picture. For example, in the time it has taken me to write this paragraph, I've seen the "save now" button at the bottom of the Blogger window flicker over to "saved" about three or four times. I haven't had to do anything in that regard.

Not so with the grading program - there is a save button and you have to manipulate it manually. The safety valve is the locking function after ten minutes, and the prompt you get to save when you changes classes or screens, or try to quit the program. It's good not to have the automatic save because you need to verify the grades before you save. I'm sure that whoever thought of this had no idea that there would be knucklehead moments like the one I created for myself. I just want to have the option of using "the force" to unlock my laptop - right now at home - from where I sit - right now at school.

I suppose there is a network setting, download or utility that can allow me to do that - but I don't care because the here and now is what is my concern. I won't rule out that I'll do this again, but I don't know if going through all of the work to set up my laptop to prevent this is worth it.

Web 2.0 is helpful. Only a handful of times has the network been slow or gone down, and that's only been at school. It's been something of an issue lately with the district network bandwidth being used up more and more with online teaching tools, and no real plan for expansion in then near future. That's when we could really use the force. The force to expand the bandwidth, to reduce unnecessary use of YouTube and other streaming that's not really used for classroom purposes, to eliminate drop-outs with the wireless network. Those issues are largely out of our control as teachers, but they do affect how we use our Web 2.0. When all of that is clicking, Web 2.0 is great. When it ain't, it ain't.

Every time we use a new Web 2.0 tool, we learn something - and usually make some mistakes. The mistakes will always give the reluctant teachers a reason not to continue using those tools, but it should also push us to find new ways to keep pushing for better implementation in the classroom. Even when we have "the best thing out there" such as PowerTeacher, there is always room for improvement and new learning. There will always be knucklehead-moment-producing people like me to show how even the most intuitive features can be rendered unconscious. Just don't let it ruin the party.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Anyone Can Run a Spotlight, Right?

Image Credit: "Chicago Poster." Stacia Drafahl, 2010
This week at Cedar Rapids Washington High School we proudly present our annual school musical. If you're in town, come on over and catch Chicago this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM.

Before anyone thinks that I'm using the blog for some gratuitous publicity, the ticket sales are going great and there is buzz among the student body about show. The entire production staff is really proud of the cast, crew and musicians. I'd love for you to come if you can, but that's not this posting's point.

The thing about this week is that while I've been spending more time in the theater than I have in my classroom, I've also been thinking about recent assignments in my Instructional Design course at UNI. I find myself breaking down the tasks that I have my students doing and creating task analysis flow charts in my head as I instruct the kids on the light board how to change the cyc color from red to blue.

In a weak  moment I imagined that this is the first step towards insanity. I mean, really - I'm in a dark room with lots of changing colored lights, imaginary flowchart geometry swirling around my head, disembodied voices coming through the headset ... tell me that YOU wouldn't have walked out of there talking to yourself.

But, no, I have always maintained that I am an educational theater instructor, and this is exactly the thing I should be thinking about when instructing students in the technical theater subject area.

For example, we usually put our less experienced students in a backstage post where they can  learn by doing a task while observing the more experienced students perform their own tasks. Let's take for example our spotlight operators for this show. Spotlight operation is generally considered one of the least challenging aspects of technical theater; students who have done this task will tell you that operating the venerable Lycan 1206 takes some skill. Both of the operators are relatively new "techies" and have had limited experience backstage - and no real experience with spotlights. In eight rehearsals, they have gone from square one to two individuals who I would put behind a spotlight for a future show without reservations.

How did this happen? Here's what I think:

Their entry level skills would be:
  • Abliity to climb a ladder to get to the spotlight position (as we have students with physical needs, this is a skill that has to be taken into consideration
  • Knowing the basic stage directions (stage left, stage right upstage, downstage etc.) and being able to remember that those directions are the opposite to their orientation - they face the stage instead of facing the audience.
  • Being able to see and hear the actors on the stage
After that, we go through the basics:

Operation of the Spotlight:
  • Powering up
  • Safe handling (these units get hot)
  • How to pivot the unit successfully
  • How to use the boomerang (color changer)
  • How to use the shutter and iris (light-blocker)
  • How to use the aiming sight 
Spotlight Use Techniques:
  • Knowing what headroom is  
  • Keeping the spot centered on the performer  
  • Keeping the spot movements smooth
  • Knowing what a "cold pick-up" is and how to execute it
  • Knowing what a "fading track" is and how to execute it
  • Replacing a burned-out lamp  
  • Repairing or replacing the plug
  • Replacing the colored gels
  • Cleaning the lenses
  • Cleaning the fan grills
  • Maintaining a solid physical connection between the spotlight and the batten mount
From there, we then go into the specific operation for the show we are working on, which can be up to 40 cues. It will be different for every show.

Image Credit: "Roxie" from Chicago; Leonard Struttmann, 11/09/2010
Mind you, this is one of the simpler technical theater tasks, and with every student new to running a spotlight, we teach them how to do this. It doesn't take long, but everyone of these steps are essential. Written down, it is clear that there is a clear system in place and we use it every time. Does this constitute successful instructional design, blind-ass luck, or a combination of the two? (On a few of our past shows, I'd have put my money on blind-ass luck.)

It feels good to know that what I've been doing successfully for going on 24 years now has some good, solid roots in instructional design. I understood that I was doing things right - I just didn't understand all of the whys and hows. Someday I may get around to the flow chart, but for now, I'm just happy to have a successful show to step back from and watch happen. And in case you're wondering if we have success with our spotlight operators, the photo above says it all.