An Idea for Aggregation of Student Online Artifacts Using Visual Rendering and Metadata Collection

Diagram of Visual Aggregation.
Diagram of Visual Aggregation. Click image above to view full resolution version.

This afternoon, I participated in an online reunion with my colleagues at Georgia Tech–Nirmal Trivedi, Pete Rorabaugh, Andy Frazee, and Clay Fenlason–about the first-year reading program, Project One.

During the conversation, I thought of this idea for aggregating student online work in a database and presenting student work through a website.

This builds on Pete’s ideas about dispersed exploration and fragmented student artifactual creation. So, if we have our students working online using any service, platform, or software, how can we bring their work together so that we can see and more importantly, they can see how their work fits together with the work of others? We can build a simple website that collects information (a URL, a brief, optional description, tags, and an affirmation that the content linked belongs to the student and is legal), generates a rendered image of the content, and presents those images as thumbnails with the collected information on a visually dynamic website that supports different ways of arranging aggregated content (by date, by dominant color, by tags, etc.). Beyond making these aggregated student artifacts available through the presentation website, the archive of rendered images and supporting metadata can be dispersed once the project is over (dispersing the archive–an idea I received from a conversation with Bob Stein of The Future of the Book project).

The image that leads this post illustrates my idea:

  1. Students login to a collection site with Active Directory (no new account needed). The collection website asks for the URL to the student’s work anywhere publicly available online, a brief description (not required–move this down the page and elevate tags), content tags or keywords (required), and a commitment that the content belongs to the student and is legal. The student’s name is automatically associated with the content after logging into the site with Active Directory.
  2. A service running on the site creates a JPG or PNG image of the rendered website URL supplied by the student, which is added to their content’s entry in the aggregation database. The site’s backend takes the URL, loads the URL in webkit, and captures the rendered page as  JPG or PNG. CutyCapt does this kind of work.
  3. On the public-facing side of the aggregation website, the students’ work is presented in either a grid of images (with ordering options based on dominant color, date of publication, tags) or a word cloud of tags (which can be clicked revealing the artifact thumbnails associated with that tag). Other possibilities can be concurrence between tags–visually depicting links between different tags, etc. On the visual presentation of artifacts, the square thumbnails enlarge as the user mouseovers each thumbnail to reveal a larger preview of the content, description, tags, student name, etc. (think of Mac OS X’s dock animation). There are lots of different ways to use visualization techniques and technologies to make the presentation of student work interesting, engaging, and layered with additional meaning and context.
  4. Finally, after the project is completed, the archive of student work exists online on the website and distributed among the students on flash drives. The content can be in directories for each aggregated student project, or a Java app that recreates the functionality of the website (or Java can be used on the presentation site, too–the website connects to an online database and the thumb drive version connects to the local database).

1000th Blog Post, or Randomly Meeting a Student Bound for the Stars

Besides being preoccupied by a few publishing projects and the upcoming Science Fiction Research Association conference in Poland, I have been wondering what I should write about for my 1000th blog post on Luckily, the topic presented itself earlier this evening when Y and I were at the local mall.

After dinner, Y asked if we could go look for a light sweater, so we hit the local mall and its several relevant stores looking for options. When we stopped by American Eagle Outfitters, Y tried on several things and she eventually settled on a couple of nice sweaters in white and black.

When we walked up to the counter, I thought that the lone female cashier looked familiar, but I wasn’t completely sure. Was she one of my former students? Her hair was slightly different as were her glasses, too. She appeared more mature than most of my freshmen students, but if she were a former student, several years might have passed. I did, however, remember her light freckles. Almost sure, but not quite, I didn’t say anything in case I had misjudged the margin of error.

Y and I said “hi” when we stepped up to her side of the counter, and she gave me an evaluative look and asked, “did you teach at Kent State?”

In that instant, she had broke the ice, and I was glad to know that she was a former student and that it was okay to talk about school. She reported that she was doing well and that she was one year away from graduation.

I remembered that she was one of my first College Writing I students, who I taught with a class theme of “space exploration” [look back at my syllabus here]. We read a number of non-fiction and fiction works relating to the human exploration of outer space, and the students wrote a number of essays evaluating and researching topics that we discussed based on their readings.

She smiled when I asked if she had been in the “space” class. She told me that it had been one of her favorite classes at Kent State, and she enjoyed the readings a lot.

Then, she told me that her mother back home had found her copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the science fiction novels that I asked the students to read. Not only did she like the novel, but she also desperately wanted her boyfriend to read it and she wanted him to see the movie, too. Knowing that I had turned a student on to one of my favorite (and earliest read–right after I had gotten to know Asimov and Bradbury) authors and novels. I consider this a great triumph, because I have not yet had an opportunity to teach a straight science fiction class.

After saying our goodbyes, Y and I made our way out of the mall and back to our car. We tried to snap a picture with my iPhone of the two of us with the sun setting in the background. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough, but I did get an arms-length shot of the two of us in the expansive parking lot.

Driving home, I was happy to know that I had made a good impression on at least one student through my teaching science fiction. Since my “space exploration” writing class, I have tried other things with “cyborgs” and “cognitive science,” but I am particularly fond of that first foray into student composition aboard a rocket ship found in the imagination. I am also glad that that rocket ship continues on with at least one student manning the controls.

Writing Delayed, Reflection on High School Psychology

Today in our last class of Teaching College Writing, Brian held a workshop on teacher evaluation and responses to student writing.  While I was talking with Dave and Dale about our first round of exercises, I remembered how a poor evaluation of my own work in psychology during my senior year of high school.

In other classes, my teachers commented very positively about my writing, and my grades reflected my growing skill in written communication.  My Latin teacher, Magistra Metz, gave me kudos for a paper that I wrote on the Roman pecuniary system–not only on the substance, but on the way that I wrote it.  However, a particularly poor evaluation didn’t make me fully doubt my writing ability, but it did make me shut down in the classroom when I should have maintained my focus prior to going on to Georgia Tech.

In psychology class, the teacher (her name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t recall it right now–I can see her face and I remember where her room was on the side of the wing nearest the library) gave us a research paper assignment.  We had to research some aspect of psychology on our own and write at minimum a 5 page paper on that topic.  It’s important to remember that there was no Internet access when I was in high school–at best, you could search CD-ROM databases for information.  Though, I didn’t have any problem picking my topic.  Independently of class, I was reading Roger Penrose’s (he’s a well established and respected mathematician and theoretical physicist–more on wikipedia here) latest book, The Emperor’s New Mind (available on Google Books here).  His thoughts on the quantum hypothesis of human consciousness excited me.  It combined two fields that I still enjoy reading about–physics and neurophysiology.  I was so jazzed by the assignment’s possibilities that I began writing and citing with gusto.  Before I realized it, I had a 21 page paper on my hands–the longest essay that I had ever written.  I was beaming with pride when I gave it to my teacher for evaluation and grading.

A week or two passed, and she handed back our papers.  I got an A- for some spelling and grammatical errors.  At first, I was a little put off that she concentrated on grammar and spelling when the ideas were so much more significant and above the bar for a high school psychology class.  But what threw me for a loop was my seeing a cheerleader in the row next to me receiving a big “A+, Terrific Paper” on a four page pamphlet on sports psychology.  Even though I got a respectable grade, I believed that I deserved a higher grade for doing a greater amount of research, critical thinking, and writing than my peer.  I was so incensed that I didn’t talk to the teacher or participate in the class for the remainder of the semester.  This means that I didn’t take tests or hand in any more work.  I thought that if my teacher devalued my work in such a pedantic way, I didn’t have the energy or desire to give her the satisfaction of my attention and time.

This took place just prior to graduation.  I was warned by other faculty that I should do something to mitigate my eventual “F” in the course, because it would lower my class rank.  I told them I wasn’t that concerned about it–mathematically I knew I would be bumped down a slot and remain in the top five.

I don’t want this to happen in my classes.  I don’t want to shut down a student, because I focused on the wrong things in their papers.  Students are writers, and as writers, they have something to say, and it’s part of my job to listen to what that is.  By listening, I can help guide them to revising their work so that it’s even stronger, and in so doing, they become stronger writers.  The “tip of the iceberg” stuff (form) will follow the “under the surface stuff” (function).  Form follows function (Shuy will back me up on this).  And more importantly, I want students to own their work, be proud of it, and not stop writing.  Therefore, I have to do my best not to do something boneheaded that might shut them down or feel that they need to shutup.