OCR, Meet Common Core

Posted by Jack Jarvis on September 8, 2013

Smart phone scanning text for OCRAs we move into Common Core, a new emphasis is upon us in the form of text-related instruction. Thankfully, the days of teaching isolated skills are being replaced by deep examination of complex text.

You might think we would have the necessary techniques and strategies already ensconced in our teaching repertoires, but the uncomfortable truth is to the contrary. This is not surprising, considering the weighting of comprehension questions on the standardized tests that have driven all our instructional decisions during the last decade. While comprehension of what one reads would seem to be the only “standard” that counts when it comes to skills that get you through college or into the workplace, we now find many students who can score in the basic or even proficient levels in reading while missing half or more of the reading comprehension items on the test!  Ultimately, the deficiency shows up in middle school or high school, where the inability to really understand what you are decoding dooms many students to lag behind or drop out.

Are we on the same page?

In Common Core reading comprehension instruction, directing students towards examples of text in books on their individual desks isn’t satisfactory.  How can you ensure all students are looking at the same page, let alone the same paragraph you are teaching from? All a teacher really knows is the kids are looking down—and then probably at a smart phone!

The crucial need to be addressed will be finding a way for elementary and secondary schoolteachers to display rich examples of complex text on their presentation screens for all to see at once.     Where will this text come from? Some textbook publishers already allow copying and pasting of their text; Harcourt Science and Holt Social Studies are two examples. The Houghton-Mifflin Medallions eBooks do not allow that access.  And many great examples will be found in hard copy texts that are not online.

OCR to the rescue!

One solution that is, amazingly, little known in K-12 education is optical character recognition software (OCR). OCR takes a scanned picture of text and recognizes the characters as text, converting them to “regions” where the text can then be pasted into PowerPoint or other applications and manipulated, highlighted, et cetera.

To me, the best product for this task is Omni Page Pro, the industry standard since OCR was first developed. I have used Omni Page Pro extensively as both an administrator and teacher for ten years and am amazed at how few educators are even aware of this application.

There are other similar products, including Presto! OCR, which received the second highest marks in a recent review. Microsoft OneNote also has some ability to perform OCR, but in a limited fashion. When Omni Pro was virtually the only game in town it was expensive, but the price has come down by almost 75%. Now, there is not much price difference between it and competing products.

Understanding and mastering this technology will prove extremely valuable as applied to Common Core.  Yes, there are issues of copyright that are involved and one must be diligent and abide by local acceptable use policies.  But by being familiar with fair use and exercising care and good judgment, there are a lot of useful pieces of text in many hard copy books that would be great for Common Core instruction.  The chore is getting them up front and center, and OCR does the trick.

Learn more about OCR tools.


Tech No Substitute for Thought and Preparation

Posted by Jack Jarvis on August 19, 2012

Chalkboard with "unprepared" with X on "un"Last winter, tired of the abuse I was always heaping on it, my bad knee finally gave up on me.   An old football injury necessitated a total knee replacement.  Given the circumstances and timing, I volunteered to return to the classroom, as there was no guarantee I would recover enough to continue as principal.  So for now, my next career stop will be 4th Grade position in our district.

How do I feel about this prospect?  Perhaps a dream I had in June is indicative: I awoke to realize I was not, thankfully, being set on fire by a bunch of 4th graders.  Perhaps the phrase “complete, abject terror” does not put too fine a point on it.  How was I going to do all that prep?  And determine the routines?  And?  And?  And?

Fortunately, given my TICAL membership, I supposedly have some knowledge of tech integration, and in fact, I do.  I started drawing on it last month by digging into tech resources I might use in my new role.  Suffice it to say, what a vast cornucopia of resources to chose from—all ready for delivery via my laptop and projector.  I mean, I already had a good idea what was available, but boy, oh boy!  We have come a long way.

For example, there is the Pearson enVision math series that includes the whole book online, electronic manipulatives and tools that nicely eliminate any drawing by hand (a boon for me, since my drawing skills leave much to be desired).  In addition, each topic comes with movies that speak to the students in the language they prefer: cool visuals and sounds, to say nothing of the clarity, or the lack of wait time while the teacher is drawing out an example.

We also have Houghton-Mifflin’s Medallion reading series, which we have had going on ten years now. The first adoption year was 2002-2003, when few if any teachers taught with their computers.  Back then we scanned and processed the text so we could do a better job of teaching reading comprehension. Now everything is already there, making it much easier to present clear conceptual knowledge.

Then there is Brain Pop. I had not spent much time on this website, but am I glad it’s here. Since my district subscribes to it, I have access to a plethora of ready-made lessons complete with activities and assessments. I can’t begin to express how much work this will save me.

Add to all this the nifty little iPad app Splashtop, and I am able to use my iPod as a remote controller and present from the back of the room, allowing me to better monitor student attention levels and also annotate on the fly. Now if I can just buy the right stylus.

Of course there is one caveat to all this bounty.  In the old days we pulled out our teacher’s edition, turned to page 63, and explained the exercises to the students.  That scenario didn’t take a lot of brain power, especially when the teacher’s guide was designed to be “teacher-proof.”  You would think that all this great tech stuff I mentioned would make teaching even easier.  Not so!  If you want your students truly to learn, not to mention perform well at test time, you still need to seriously prepare for every lesson.   You need to work through and understand all those movies and apps and simulations in order to ensure you are using them with your students effectively and comprehensively.

Regardless of what some people may think these days, a well-prepared teacher is even more necessary in the age of technology, and will be for many years to come. At the same time, it’s sure great to have most of the construction work done for you.  It allows you to put more thought into what you’re doing rather than spending hours creating materials.  I still have lots of work to do between now and the first day of school, but my chore will be to become fluent in the new tools, not create them using PowerPoints and other apps.

I’ll let you know how it goes—now that my old and new knees have stopped knocking together.






Administrators Need Tech Training, Too

Posted by Jack Jarvis on May 25, 2012

early surgery using anesthesia
First etherized operation (re-enactment)

A current buzz phrase in educational administration circles these days states, when it comes to classroom instruction, “The curriculum you get shouldn’t depend on the teacher you get.”  This refers primarily to the fact that some teachers still cling to outdated practices even when evidence to the contrary often exists right next door in a colleague’s classroom.  I would submit that the concept also applies when it comes to the quality of technology use at the school level; that is, the technology you get shouldn’t depend on the principal you get.”

I offer the following analogy to demonstrate how this concept translates to decisions made by top administration in regards to tech integration in the modern school:

Imagine you live in a society in which you may only seek medical attention from the physician or hospital in your Medical Attendance Zone (or MAZ). You are limited to receiving services only in that area.  Now, consider needing a heavy-duty procedure (like the knee replacement I just underwent) and being limited to receiving services from a surgeon and a hospital in your MAZ.

Your surgeon is new at your hospital, younger, very tech-comfortable, and entirely capable of using an MRI to evaluate what should be done.  However, the hospital administration doesn’t understand the whole “tech thing,” as they call it, and refuses to provide a modern MRI machine.  Nor has the administration provided training to the Head of Surgery in how to use even the hospital’s older technology so the Head can train the surgeons he/she supervises.

Now imagine your brother, who lives a few miles away, needs the same surgery.  His MAZ surgeon not only has state-of-the art technology available but also training in its use.  After your scan, his hospital sends the MRI data out to a company that  transforms that MRI image into a 3-D model of your arthritic knee and then virtually corrects any deformity to return the knee to its pre-arthritic state.   Using all this information, a set of custom cutting guides is then created for your surgeon’s use during your individual surgery.

This is exactly where we find ourselves in ed tech these days.  The technology experience students at a given school get depends greatly on the district, superintendent, central office educational supervisors, and site administration.   What makes the situation more serious is that we’re not talking about knee replacement surgery but about students’  survival in the future job market and the accompanying quality of life itself.

As a site administrator for 13 years in a large urban district, I can attest to the fact that in all the district meetings held to train us administrators, not one ever included or was devoted to tech integration within the classroom. I’ve known supervisors  who not only knew little about technology but discouraged tech use.  While most districts in the state have beefed up their tech infrastructure and put computers in classrooms, few have trained their leaders in how to integrate those resources into modern instruction.

On the bright side, there are clearly superintendents and principals who are now definitely “getting it.”  Through programs like TICAL and professional development opportunities like Leadership 3.0, these leaders are building a vision and understanding of how to use technology to advance learning.  Yet we still have a long way to go. Those of us who are tech pioneers and advocates need to continue to push our organizations to move ahead.  To return to the medical metaphor, no school leader should be encouraging students and teachers to bite on sticks when effective anesthesia should be the norm.


Five “Smart” Tech Skills

Posted by Jack Jarvis on December 28, 2011

During the last decade, schools received unprecedented funding through both federal and state initiatives.  For example, in California, we had Immediate Intervention for Underperforming Schools and the High Priority Schools Grant Program.  Together, these two programs alone pumped millions of dollars into California Schools, and many schools tapped these funds to purchase technology in the form of laptops, projectors and “smart” technology.  Projectors and speaker systems were mounted in classroom ceilings and control panels patched into walls.  The “modern classroom” was born—for the moment.

But as we look back almost a decade, what do we have in classroom technology? And what should we do next?

Well, what we have is a lot of teachers equipped with the ability to present content with their laptops.  We have content available in many places.  And we have a majority of teachers who have expertise in one area: using an interactive whiteboard as an overhead projector.

Coming from a district of over 70,000, I have seen numerous elementary classrooms where teachers teach with their laptops.  While there are certainly some gems among the rocks, most teachers I observe use slideshows they download from the web or those created by central office instructional personnel.  While this is a vast improvement over 2001 and overhead transparencies, it’s not the most effective use of the technology. In fact, one could argue downloading these ready-made materials has made teachers less involved in the cognitive planning of their instruction.  (I can’t tell you how many times I heard a teacher saying, “Oops, wasn’t expecting that, ha, ha” when an unanticipated slide pops up.)

What do we do to address this, to enhance the instructional experience for our students, to tap into their world of smart phones and iPads?  What we didn’t do in the last decade!
Train the teachers in the right tools.  I’m sorry, but SmartBoard is not it.

All teachers should be trained in and evaluated on their use of technology to teach.  Just projecting images with an interactive whiteboard or throwing up a presentation they didn’t create should not be deemed proficient.  Instead, we should see a movement towards these basic skills:

  1. Creating and manipulating graphical objects.
  2. Creating and manipulating text boxes.
  3. Using animation, especially the path animation in PowerPoint.
  4. Creating hyperlinks from PowerPoint to websites that support the learning.
  5. Accessing/inserting pictures and video into lesson materials.

Why these five?  Because if you are fluent in them, you can create almost any type of presentation. These five skills would give teachers a cornucopia of strategies that would grab student attention and make content more understandable.  Imagine the difference between reading a core selection with your class while linking in and out of websites connected to the subject.  Imagine creating live moving animations to stimulate student thinking about mundane number sense concepts.  Becoming proficient in these tools should be spelled out in the credentialing process more exactly, and should be the focus point for professional development it should have been back when all that equipment was purchased.


What we don’t know will hurt us.

Posted by Jack Jarvis on January 3, 2011

hhos    i wasn’t rofl

Next time you read a 6th grader’s written assignment, don’t be surprised if you see unfamiliar acronyms popping up and a lack of proper grammar and basic punctuation.  The student may simply be stuck in “texting mode.”  Examples: hhos (Ha Ha only serious, as in “funny with an element of truth”) and rofl (rolling on the floor laughing).

We recently observed this incursion of text messaging shorthand into Standard English when students in our advanced computer group switched to the web-based version of their Holt Social Studies textbooks.  In reviewing  online assignments completed by these  students, I was shocked to see what appeared to be bone-headed errors in their written responses to social studies questions: first words of sentences lacking capitalization, ends of sentences missing periods, proper nouns without capitals.  Yet, these kids were proficient or above on last year’s CST.  What was going on?

The answer? These students are avid texters. They live to text. They don’t talk on the phone; they text. They don’t email; they text.  And the practice is now permeating their school writing—brb, culatr, omg, lol.  Not a capital to be found.  Abbreviations abound.  It would be safe to bet that time they spend texting and reading text messages surpasses the time they read and write in school.

We may be unwittingly aggravating the situation.  For awhile now, I’ve noticed teachers inadvertently limiting their students’ reading time by doing most of it for them.  At my site, we recently argued about how much reading a 6th grade teacher should do for the students.  In order to settle the argument, we asked those same proficient students what they thought. Their response? Yes, they can read the text themselves. Yes, the teacher “does it a lot,” said one student,  “and it takes a lot of time. ” “They should let us do it,” her classmate added.

We discovered another interesting fact in working with this bright group. When the students created PowerPoint presentations to summarize what they’d read in their online textbook, the same errors did not exist.  I asked a group of four students to explain.  Their reply? “We may have to present this to other kids and they’ll think we’re dumb.” Aha! A ray of hope.

The staff and I  certainly learned some useful lessons:

  • These kids actually want to read more on their own.
  • They text more than they read or write in school.
  • They sometimes slip into texting habits, but they’ll use better English when they know their work may be seen by a wider audience.

But perhaps the most important lesson we learned was the value of talking to them about their own learning more frequently.   As educators, what we don’t know about our students will hurt us!