Thursday, July 18, 2013

Getting from spelling, to writing: an 8-week course!

By happy coincidence, we were offered an opportunity to try out a course in writing, to help my daughter bridge the gap between her previous work on spelling, punctuation and mechanics, and grammar, to fluent writing. Perusing the class offerings, I was undecided whether the class in sentence-writing, or the class in paragraph-writing, would be best. After consulting with the representative, we resolved to try paragraph writing first, and if that proves too difficult, move to sentence writing and work our way up.

Whichever turns out to be her proper placement, I am certain that this will be an enriching and challenging experience, and that she will grow in her abilities as a result.

For the next several weeks, we will be working on our writing skills at  This online writing program is designed to teach students how to write, focusing on writing structure and writing improvement.  Come back in a few weeks to see how we are progressing!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of Time4Learning

We were pleased to have the chance to try Time4Learning free for 30 days in exchange for reviewing it here.

Time4Learning, so near as I could tell, is simply a service licensing access for subscribers, to Compass Learning Odyssey, a Common Core-aligned data collection and education content provider that services businesses and schools. If that is not correct, I welcome elaboration from Time4Learning on its relationship with Compass Learning.

Due to the age range of my kids, we were able to try both the Upper Level and Lower Level curricula.  At both levels, there was some flexibility to differentiate instruction, up to a full grade level higher or lower than the declared one, and that is a crucial feature when working with learners who exhibit asynchronous development.

My review ended up being ambivalent, and I found myself unable to wholly like, or wholly dislike, Time4Learning. Despite my kids' objections, I am still tempted to subscribe at least for a while and see if the benefits of automaticity outweigh the negatives, and perhaps my daughter's feelings about it might improve once she is used to the format and understands how to "play the game" of standardized test formats. The ability to navigate that despite divergent thinking might be useful.

In some ways the automated system too much resembled an automated telephone answering menu system.
Both kids found having to listen to their answer repeated each time, and then sit through an animated cheer/boo session depending on whether they got the right answers, tedious and annoying.

Both kids found the animated praise or blame based on getting it right or wrong, demotivating. The negative comments on getting things wrong were upsetting, and seemed like a put-down, and the praise for getting something right quickly started sounding hollow.

Test results as a goal and endpoint for learning, promotes superficiality. However, that problem is endemic to schools, and as a support for and supplement to school performance on that basis, Time4Learning ought to be successful. Its execution is mostly good, and people who have no problems with its architecture and philosophy will likely appreciate the animations of the Upper Level learning, and the fast-paced, entertainment-style lessons.

Accepting the basic architecture and philosophy, we move on to a few notable examples of glitches in the execution of it, which are easily addressable and fixable:

In the math section, my daughter was measuring 3-D objects with a virtual ruler. She called me over because an answer she was sure was right, was listed as wrong. The object in question was basically cylindrical, and I watched as she lined up the virtual ruler with the drawn front edge of the cylindrical object's base. She did not line the ruler up with the rear edge of the ellipse depicting the cylindrical base, because in a 3-D object, which this was a drawing of, that would make no sense. The only way the "correct" answer according to the program, would make sense, is if the intention were to measure the total length of a paper cutout or line drawing, without attempting to measure the object it represented. In other words, the way this particular problem worked, had it been a cube she had been measuring the width of, she would have needed to include the depicted rear lines as well, so would be measuring the hexagonal shadow of the cube depicted. Addressing this problem should be straightforward, and I hope will be resolved soon for the sake of the participants.

Similarly, in a problem involving perimeter, the measurements did not add up to the "correct" answer. When her careful measurements and calculations came out wrong, my daughter again called me over. She knew what she was doing; it wasn't a lack of knowledge or user error on her part. So I attempted the problem myself. Clicking and dragging the virtual ruler, I measured and got the same results she had. In order to get the answer that was considered correct, I had to pretend one side of the quadrilateral was 7 cm when it clearly measured longer than that by more than a millimeter. Had it been less than a millimeter, I might have considered that line thickness in the drawing might have thrown the results off, but offsetting for that didn't help, and neither did resizing my screen. The error was too large for discounting as a line thickness and offsetting issue. It was a real error in the problem. Either fixing the error in the size of the quadrilateral, or else wording it to round to the nearest correct answer, would resolve that issue.

Some issues we had were perceived ambiguity, but that is a problem more to do with being a divergent thinker, than with the service, because we encounter this problem everywhere: In the science section, she encountered the question of which system an impulse from the hand encounters: the central, or the peripheral nervous system? She happened to know it didn't engage only one or the other. Had the question asked which system the impulse engaged with *first*, there would have been no problem for us.

Overall, I found the science section weak, but saw in the user forum some complaints about it being out-of-date, and the moderator responded that science is not the primary focus of this service because it is primarily concerned with Common Core adherence, and therefore the Language Arts and Math subjects are the ones that are updated and maintained robustly, with subjects like Social Studies and Science being offered more as a bonus on the side, and that for the price, it's still a bargain. Since people who are passionate about science probably wouldn't be using this service as the entirety of their child's education, I suppose that's acceptable.

Additionally, it offers these nice features which have my attention as a potential subscriber despite the drawbacks:

- It offers a discussion forum where issues, questions, and support are available, both from moderators and other users.

- It sends regular informative emails about the product and how to get the most from it.

- The math curriculum in particular, has my attention, because many elementary-level math curricula treat arithmetic as nearly the sole topic of math, sometimes for years on end. This product emphasizes that while important, math is not merely arithmetic, and offers good opportunities to use math as a way to analyze data, solve real-world problems, think spatially, and use logic and the properties of numbers to solve problems strategically. The shortcomings of presenting nothing but arithmetic and rote for the first several years of instruction are becoming widely acknowledged, but many curricula still present it that way, and this does not. The occasional glitches are something I verify and assist with, on a case-by-case basis. The math curriculum alone may still be worth the entire package and all its warts.

I do see the value of this automated quiz-driven system, for moving through concepts in math and reading in a hands-off way, and am still not entirely writing it off, because even though they find the animated format more groan-worthy than great, it would free up a lot of time on my part, and sometimes that is a pressing need when homeschooling multiple children with a wide age range.