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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blending Mobile Technologies: Handhelds, All-Weather Writing Paper - Interview with Ryan McDonald, J. L. Darling Corporation

Hybrid learning can involve more than a blend of face-to-face and web-based courses. They can also involve mobile devices combined with traditional books -- for example, all-weather field notebooks, digital pens, and mobile devices with GPS. With that in mind, welcome to an interview with Ryan McDonald, "Rite in the Rain" All-Weather Writing paper, which can be used in conjunction with digital pens and geographical information systems, as well as other innovative learning.

What is your name and what is your involvement in e-learning?

My name is Ryan McDonald and I am the Marketing & Advertising Director at the J. L. Darling Corporation, manufacturers of "Rite in the Rain" All-Weather Writing Paper.

What is Rite-in-the-Rain, and what is its mission and vision? What kinds of products do you offer?

"Rite in the Rain" ( is an unconventional "retooling" of conventional paper. Relying on a unique "weather-proofing" manufacturing process, the J. L. Darling Corporation transforms regular paper into "Rite in the Rain", outdoor note taking tools unrestricted by the elements. Available in a wide variety of different formats: bound books, spiral notebooks, loose leaf, copier paper and padded sheets, "Rite in the Rain" is a more durable, 100% recyclable, all-weather, alternative to regular paper.

(Image is of the traditional all-weather field notebook... inspiration for many things....)

What is your involvement in facilitating education or educational experiences?

As a manufacturer, we don't have a hand in facilitating education so much as assisting others in their educational experiences. Many programs, especially in the Geological, Biological and Environmental sectors depend exclusively on "Rite in the Rain" while in the field. In fact, the demand became so great that specific bound log books were developed to meet the unique needs of Geologists, Biologists and Environmentalists. More recently "Rite in the Rain" has seen a growing number of Universities stock "Rite in the Rain" in their bookstores and many Professors include "Rite in the Rain" on their "required textbook" list when their area of study takes students outdoors.

What are your new initiatives? How does new technology meet traditional technology in the field? How do you see old and new technologies coming together?

"Rite in the Rain's" Journalx Field Books are a perfect example of the "union" between old and new technologies. Journalx Field Books combine the durability and all-weather qualities of "Rite in the Rain" with the ease and familiarity of digital documentation. Using a pre-printed dot pattern on each sheet and a digital pen (Penx) written information is mapped and stored in the pen's memory. Dock the pen in it's transfer device (USB connection to a PC) and the information that was written in the field book will be converted to an editable document. While still early in development, this combination of old and new technologies is a very exciting breakthrough in field technologies and will continue to improve - and expand, in the coming years.

How do your products work with hand-held GPS devices in the field?

Outside of being able to record and plot current locations gathered from a GPS device, there is no specific relationship between "Rite in the Rain" All-Weather Notebooks and hand-held GPS devices. However, "Rite in the Rain" is available in large format sheets as well and can be used to print Topographic Maps to aid GPS navigation.

Using a digital pen with Rite in the Rain paper (onto which a map has been printed).

Here is a demo:

How might your products enhance certain field technologies?

"Rite in the Rain's" greatest strength is it's simplicity. It will never break down, it will never malfunction, it doesn't run on batteries, there is no learning curve, it's relatively cheap and ultimately, disposable. As such, "Rite in the Rain" notebooks are a perfect compliment to more sophisticated technology. They can act as backups, replace expensive equipment too valuable to risk in poor weather, and allow field operators greater mobility.

How might a "hybrid approach" that combines mobile technologies and traditional paper-based products enhance one's learning experience?

The most practical "hybrid approach" approach currently available is the Journalx Field Books and digital pen mentioned earlier. Utilizing both technologies would eliminate the need for manually converting gathered field data into a digital format.

How could your products be used in conjunction with podcasts (video and audio)?

"Rite in the Rain's" use in conjunction with podcasts is limited. Outside of broadcasting company/product updates, reviews and demonstrations it's hard to imagine other uses.

Thought: Could one use this approach for fieldwork involving collecting information that you need to attach to a position / location... and which you need to share? Could be used in the field with wind farms, for collecting market information -- anything... ! Twitter plus positioning ?

Susan's note: I love the possibilities of combining old and new technologies. The possibilities that are unlocked are just endless!! Never throw out the old... just repurpose it!

Also -- poetry inspired by sketches from a field notebook... then shared on the web..
link to one resulting work..

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Teacher Roundtable: Good Deeds Societies

Welcome to a roundtable discussion with Tadeja Toppolnik, a teacher from a Slovenian school, OŠ dr Ivan Prijatelj Sodražica, which participated in a competition revolving responding to a book, Good Deeds Society, and thinking about how children and the community could collaborate in a good deeds society.

What is your name, your position, and your involvement with your school?

Tadeja Topolnik , Teacher of the Slovene language (Slovene teacher )
Pastoral/ Home Class teacher of Grade 8 pupils, The coordinator of programs for children with special needs and also a member of the School Board

What is your involvement in your school's Good Deeds Society essay contest and in potential future activities regarding a Good Deeds Society?

The principal received an invitation for the school to include itself in a literary competition
from Sodobnost International . As I am one of the Slovene teachers at the school the task was given to me . My colleague Lucija Petelinšek and I discussed the matter and passed on the information to all our students from grade 6 onwards. It was decided then that I would coordinate the activity . Children brought their literary works to view and together we discussed and developed thier views.

Maybe an idea for future work would be to encourage or promote »understanding« between parents-pupils and teachers for specific problems. This could be done in the form of a workshop with all three groups of the population present- giving an opportunity for views to be aired and at the same time listened to, and finally discussed. Institutions like »The Centre for Youth« in Ljubljana or qualified professionals could be invited to give a seminar on themes that are common to this target population.

What are three areas where you can see benefits for students by getting involved in a Good Deeds Society? What problems might it address?

Getting involved in a Good Deeds Society is a positive step toward making the environment we live in more pleasant, understanding and tolerant.

The problems it may address could be involved with the

1) environment,
2) the elderly
3) youth

As far as the environment is concerned it could coordinate or help with the organising of cleaning-up activities in Sodražica ( township-square, river,..) and promoting the sense of pride in having a clean environment to live in.

The elderly could be helped through the Good Deeds Club not only in receiving help but also in sharing their knowledge, handicrafts, story telling, etc,.. with the young. This would develop communication between generations.

Spending quality fun/free -time is a very big problem amongst the youth of Sodražica . It should be made clear that alcohol or drugs are not the central reason for getting together and having fun and in this way dealing with boredom. Maybe doing good deeds or being included in a sports club would minimize non-quality free-time!

Money is an important factor in the game. Leadership is also another factor to be considered. Maybe experience from other communities would help in the development of the above ideas in Sodražica.

Maybe by the pupils defining the problems themselves, they become aware and understand that if any changes are to happen they must come from them (or us)!

How can you make sure that the major energy stays at the student level, and that they generate enthusiasm for the activities from a grassroots level?

I believe that discussion gives rise to initiative for projects to happen. Initially pupils would be invited to a round-table discussion – pupils who show empathy for such a project/group - and develop the steps from there. Adults/teachers could lead and nurture the development of such a group and develop the individual potential of the group's members. ( roles - President,secretary,…)

Where is one good way, in our opinion, for students can ideas and work on line on the internet?

Maybe the pupils could create a school web page presenting their activities, continually inviting membership and inclusion of other pupils.
Communicating with other schools which have set up similar projects/groups building friendships.

How can teachers involved in your Good Deeds society benefit from contact with teachers in other parts of the world?

If we communicate with people who share similar ideas our cause is stronger .

Spreading the idea of »good deeds« around the world will make a better world – working at a local level can make Sodražica a better place to live in . In this way pupil awareness is developed and hopefully some action will come forth !

Contacting teachers in other parts of the world could give us ideas for projects etc… and also allow friendships to develop.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Interview with Kevin Chen, italki (language learning): Innovators in E-Learning Series

Web-based techniques for learning languages are expanding, and social networking is proving to be one of the most effective approaches. has adopted an open platform approach, and the resources have remained free. In addition, it has recently added new features which encourage language learners to receive tutoring from native speakers. The platform allows individuals to create classrooms, and to charge a fee for tutoring. Keven Chen, co-founder of, discusses his vision for the future.

1. What is your name and your relation to e-learning?

My name is Kevin Chen and I co-founded with Yongyue Jiang. is a website that helps people learn languages. My ideas for italki came from my experiences trying to learn Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai. While I was studying, I had this thought that a language learning social network would be well-suited for solving problems like finding language partners and sharing learning materials. I also thought that a social network could become the foundation of something much larger.

2. What is italki and how is it different from other sites and services?

We've tried to make italki as community-oriented and free as possible. We're unique in this way. Many of our competitors have their own proprietary content, and some have a specific pedagogical approach. We're trying to be more like an open platform and resource center.

We believe our users should choose their own learning (or teaching) methodology. All of our content is generated by our users. The help that users receive from the website comes from other users. Users practice speaking a language with each other, and they answer each others' questions.

It's impressive to see how much help you can get on italki from people freely donating their time. People used to ask me "Why do users do this?" I'm not sure what the exact answer is. I guess there are a lot of good people out there.

3. What is your new marketplace feature?

The language marketplace is where we connect teachers and students for paid language instruction. Students can choose a teacher after considering their experience, academic qualifications, teaching style, lesson price, or whatever criteria they think is most important. Teachers can set a price based on demand for the language they teach and their own economic expectations. We hope that the language marketplace will give students that previously could not get language instruction the opportunity to learn. We also hope that the marketplace will give teachers in remote locations access to students around the world. We believe there is a lot of demand for language instruction that isn't being met due to geography -- and this is a problem the internet was meant to solve.

4. It's great that you're making it easier for people to share skills and expertise. There may be unintended benefits along the way. Can you think of what they might be?

We think there are many benefits that come from bringing together people from different backgrounds. An obvious one is that we hope italki can promote greater cultural understanding. You can learn a great deal more than just the language, when you talk with someone from another country.

Certainly you can make friends on the site. I think italki is a special kind of social network in that it isn't where you go to connect to your existing friends -- it's where you go to find strangers that are interested in sharing their knowledge and experience with you.

5. Here's a skeptic's question: Wouldn't it be just as easy for people to connect via voiceover IP and pay via PayPal or gift certificates? What are the advantages to being involved in the italki solution?

While that's a possibility, we see ourselves playing an important role in dealing with issues like customer fulfillment, dispute settlement, and financial transactions. By intermediating the transaction, students can use whatever methods they have to pay into the system. Paypal is convenient in many parts of the world, but unfortunately not all. In addition, italki helps to protect both the students and teachers from fraudulent behavior. The money is held temporarily by italki pending the confirmation process. Finally, teachers can build up an online reputation this way. As teachers use the system, their students are able to signal to other users on italki that the teacher is reliable and qualified.

6. What are some of the underlying pedagogical pillars that support your endeavor? What are some of your educational strategies and philosophies?

We're trying to avoid taking a stand on a specific pedagogical methodology. We believe every student and teacher has a way of learning that is best suited for them. Some users on italki use the site as a complement to their existing language studies at school. Some users have full-time jobs, and are using italki as their primary source for education. Undoubtedly, there are a broad range of goals and levels of commitment on italki.

In general, we have a belief that using a language in actual communication is a key part of acquiring mastery of a language. Language immersion is arguably the key benefit of living abroad, and we're trying to provide something similar to this --maybe you can call it "virtual immersion." Even a few sessions practicing a language with a native speaker can do wonders for listening comprehension, pronunciation, and general fluency. I'm sure students have witnessed the benefits of spending a summer studying abroad -- we hope to recreate some of that effect online with italki.

7. Interactivity, community, and engagement are great -- how about outcomes assessment? Do you have any way to help people with standardized tests of proficiency that they'll have to pass?

Outcomes assessment is something that is important, and we have some ideas for future features. In general, we rely on the community to create services for our members. For example, we have teachers that offer classes specifically devoted to standardized test preparation. There are also test preparation study notes that users have uploaded to the site. Again, we see italki as a platform, and hopefully our users can respond to the needs of the community.

8. Final question: any encouraging, visionary thoughts?

I imagine that in the future, people will find learning to be a lifelong process, and that learning a foreign language will be an essential part of every human being's education. Getting taught a language from a native teacher presently living in their home country will seem completely natural. The demand to learn languages will be completely satisfied everywhere -- from rare languages being offered in every high school and college -- to every developing country having access to all the teachers they need for international languages like English.

Just like for wikipedia, there will be open source language textbooks, collaboratively created, and free for everyone with an internet connection. These materials will be more than just text -- they'll come in video, audio, and every content format that can be stored online. And these materials will reach into every language pair, and even cover the languages that are in danger of extinction.

People learning foreign languages will immediately become a member of a community of students, teachers and tutors, who are interested in sharing their knowledge, their culture, and their time. Learning a foreign language will become an instant and natural gateway to having friends around the world.

It's a big dream, and I hope that italki can play a part in building that.

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