Edmodo, it’s not you, it’s me. Okay, it’s both of us.

Edmodo profile

I adore Edmodo. Long before my school went one-to-one, I was seeking out ways to streamline the work submission process and better methods of tracking student work. It’s hard for me to believe that my friend Mike only told me about it a year or so ago, since it now serves as the nerve center of all my classes, including my college courses. It’s how I quiz, assign homework, and share resources with my students. I’ve tried every competitor, but I’m still married to Edmodo. Nearpod is nice but pricey, Schoology wasn’t really intuitive, and I don’t like anything about Blackboard, so while it’s in some ways a marriage of convenience, it works remarkably well for me and my students.

But I want to be in love. Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoy spending time with Edmodo. I feel like we know each other at this point; I know not to let my students take quizzes through the iOS app (because it will crash and the kids will lose their responses), Edmodo knows when to send my assignments (provided I tell it), and I think I focus more on the strengths of our relationship than the weaknesses. But, if pressed, I might admit to occasionally longing for a more functional library, or easier methods of collaboration, or even a cleaner interface. I’m not proud; if you really care about someone or something, you don’t give him/her/it a list of ways to change. So it’s with a heavy heart that I offer my suggestions to the good people of Edmodo. I still care, and I have no plan on leaving, but I want us to be better. I think we can be better. But you have to take the first step. Edmodo, you have to change, because I’m not as happy as I once was.
Edmodo smileys

  1. Grow up. When we met, it didn’t matter to me that you looked a bit immature. I knew what was beneath your appearance was most important, and I felt like others would see that once they met you. But I have to admit, I was a little embarrassed when I showed you off to some of my college friends and they thought you were a little young for me. “I don’t think you should ask us to get to know Edmodo,” they agreed. “It seems a little young.”Seriously: there’s no reason Edmodo shouldn’t be sweeping college campuses across the country. It’s a simple, powerful way to organize a class, and most younger professors don’t want to carry around a hernia-inducing shoulder bag filled with student papers. But a lot of profs and adjuncts I’ve spoken with are reluctant to use a site that puts such a premium on badges and asks students to respond with smiley or frowny faces based on how much they liked an assignment. Why not offer teachers some level of control over which Edmodo features they integrate into their classes? It wouldn’t require a major overhaul of the site; just some options in a user’s settings regarding user feedback, badges, etc. It isn’t impossible to provide some user-selectable skins so our college students don’t feel infantilized when we direct them to Edmodo.com.
    Sorting options Edmodo
  2. Clean yourself up. It’s kind of cool to be young and unkempt. You can get away with it when you’re growing up because when you have a lot going for you, most people will look past a bit of messiness. It almost becomes part of your charm. But you’re getting older now, and it might be time to get organized. Sift through your stuff and start sorting out the important stuff from the junk. Let’s make this place livable. My Edmodo feed reminds me of my Facebook feed, and that’s not a good thing. Posts comes in waves, and there aren’t filtering options sufficient for cutting through the clutter. Alerts rise above the noise to some extent, but I would love to have granular control over what’s displayed in my feed, and certain limitations (like having to switch to a class to view only its posts rather than that being a sorting option) seem unnecessary. The solution is simple: more robust sorting options. And if that doesn’t seem like enough, consider changing the default interface so that it offers two or three examples of a particular post type, then a little + sign the user clicks to expand the view and see all the posts of that kind. I’m absolutely certain most users don’t want to be overwhelmed by a cluttered, busy interface with dozens of posts scrolling by.

    The. Worst.

    The. Worst.

  3. Upgrade your space. When you’re first on your own, it doesn’t matter how you live. You’ll move your stuff into any place you can find; aesthetics take a backseat to basic functionality. But time marches on, and now you find yourself at a crossroads. I can’t keep living without expansive living and storage space, and right now, you’re not getting the job done.Edmodo’s library is the reason many teachers at my day job don’t want to use it. Uploading each file individually is TORTURE, and very few services ask users to complete a simple task in such an arduous way. The interface is clunky and unattractive, options are severely limited, and several steps are required to share files. And there’s such a simple solution: partner with a cloud storage service, then bake it into Edmodo. Instead of the Library tab, maybe you click the Storage by CX tab (for more info, check out my cloud storage review blog entry). Partner with a storage provider that can offer students and teachers some serious space (CX provides 10GB, SkyDrive 7GB…just read the review I posted!) and allow me to click one box to share that resource with an individual, school, or district. Finding a partner would allow you to ditch paltry file upload limits and would make Edmodo the center of student work it has the potential to be.
  4. Be nice to authority figures. I don’t know why you think it’s okay to make things so difficult between my folks and me, but it’s not, and you’re stressing me out by not being more open to them. No matter what you think, they’re an important part of our relationship. I need them involved. Even worse is how you treat my boss. Rebelling against authority figures works when you don’t have families to support, but now it just makes me feel like you’re not considering my needs.Our Dean of Faculty asked to see something posted on my Edmodo page last week, so I created her as a student and added her to my class. In the midst of doing this, I realized how weird it was that administrators couldn’t look in on classes that are part of their school or district without becoming users or being provided parent codes. And that parents can’t see their child’s Edmodo assignments without a different parent code for every class. Why not offer a skeleton key option that allows district supervisors to check out every class connected to their schools? Why can’t parents be connected to their kids’ classes with ONE code? Many parents find the process of connecting to five or six classes plus clubs, teams, etc. an arduous process, and we have to make it easier so we encourage them to become involved. The more barriers we create to parent-student-teacher interactions, the less we can expect to get out Edmodo.
  5. Talk to me. Look, I know it seems like I have a lot of complaints. And the truth is, sometimes I see you more for what you can be than what you are. But that’s only because you have such incredible potential! At your best, you can do it all. But there are times when I need to communicate, and you’re not there for me.Why have a Twitter account if you won’t answer user questions on it? Why have a support site if there’s no way for a user to track questions he or she asks? As someone responsible for keeping an entire school running smoothly via Edmodo, I have A LOT of questions that never get answered. I would think you’d want to provide some kind of real support to district level leaders, but up to this point that hasn’t been the case.

So there you have it: five steps to building a better Edmodo. I hope you understand that this doesn’t mean I don’t care…if anything, it means I care more than most. I know we’re going through a rough patch, but if you can just hear me out and make a few small changes, I’m sure we’ll come out of this stronger and smarter.

Plus I really don’t have a lot of options. So I’m probably not going anywhere.


The Mom Test


My mother doesn’t get along with computers. She doesn’t hate them, exactly, but she tends to find that they thwart her best efforts, regardless of what she is trying to do. This is not to say that she can’t use them; you don’t spend as many years as she did running the WP division of a major law firm without knowing your stuff. It’s more that they’ve always managed to make her life more difficult rather than less. She doesn’t enjoy them like I do, and that’s always made me a little sad because I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and edification from my first 286 right up to the iPads, MacBook, and Mac Pro sitting on my desk as I type this. I feel like well designed mobile devices can connect us to the world in a way few other things can. The right device is a portal to the world’s knowledge, a way to communicate locally and globally, a library and bookstore, the biggest local record shop on the planet, a hundred photo albums, an arcade — a virtual Swiss army knife for the human brain. So when the iPad came out, I wondered if it would be the first device to pass The Mom Tech Test (heretofore known as TMTT).

TMTT is how I assess most mobile technology at this point in my life. If my mother, a smart, motivated woman with some pre-existing computer knowledge but no natural predilection towards any device, can’t get motivated to learn how to use a product, then she either a) doesn’t need it or b) won’t be able to comfortably use it. A total luxury with a steep learning curve probably won’t survive for long (Surface Pro, I’m looking at you).

I should also be able to sum up the device in a pithy sentence. To wit:

“Mom, you should get an iPad. It’s a giant iPhone — touch an app and it launches, or go to the App Store to buy more cool stuff like books, magazines, apps and more.”

“Mom, check out the Surface Pro. It’s a tablet-notebook hybrid, so you can use the keyboard cover, stylus, and your fingers as input devices, but make sure you’re using programs designed for the Surface Pro’s x86 architecture rather than RT’s weaker processor, and remember that some programs are full Windows 8 ports while others are app-ish, so you want to be cautious about what you launch — yes, there’s an app store, but it doesn’t really have any apps yet, so you might want to — oh, I don’t know about loading old software onto this…”

My mom “got” the iPad; she’d still be reading the Surface Pro’s box. That’s the essence of TMTT. I’m not measuring tech knowledge or aptitude, but rather whether the device makes my mom want to use it.

I spent a few months talking up the iPad before she took the plunge. Once she did, there was no doubt that a long and fruitful relationship had been forged. It wasn’t long before my stepfather had his own iPad, which was a MAJOR step forward. My stepdad is the PC equivalent of Mad Cow Disease: once he takes hold of a computer, it’s only a matter of time before it’s creaking and croaking violently, deep in the throes of death, using system beeps to tap out Morse Code. I frequently hope his laptop will sprout legs and scurry down the fire escape ladder before he performs any more unspeakable acts (Emoji browser toolbar? Noooooooo…) on it. Like my mom, he’s a smart person who has used computers for decades in his work life; it’s that they have thwarted him everywhere BUT work. Despite his creative mind and curious nature, no device fit his lifestyle or adapted itself to his needs. The iPad did both. Before I knew it, the iPad had become an integral part of their world travels, and they now have two Apple tablets with more passport stamps than I’ve managed to accrue.

The iPad was an immediate success in my mother’s home, and I don’t think another device would have worked in the same way. My point is not that every device needs to prize simplicity above all else; it’s that ease of use is king, especially in schools and other educational environments, and there’s simply no competition when it comes to the elegant simplicity of the iPad. It passes TMTT, which means it’s no surprise that it also passes the Student, Faculty, and Administrator Tests as well. It’s not always about technological aptitude. We should find technology inspiring and emboldening, and it should integrate itself seamlessly into our lives. If the average user doesn’t want to spend time with it, and if it doesn’t make YOU want to learn it, why will your students feel any differently?

Copyright? More like copyWRONG, amirite?

My copyright-infringing masterpiece

Not so fast, E.T.

I designed a BEAUTIFUL etext for my junior and senior film classes via iBooks Author. It opened with a snippet from Raging Bull’s fight montage. The cover featured E.T. and Eliot flying past the full moon, an iconic image from one of America’s most beloved films. A slideshow of stills from Rosemary’s Baby walked students through different shooting angles, just a few clicks away from Citizen Kane and mise-en-scene, my favorite section of the piece. It was a text filled with sight and sound, the type of book students in my day couldn’t have ever imagined would exist. Immersive, interactive, filled with quizzes and clickable images…I really felt like I had accomplished something. I showed it to a few people over the summer and the response was uniformly positive. It was, I decided, the beginning of a brave new era.

I was painfully incorrect in that assessment. If anything, recent developments like the DMCA and TEACH Act have hamstrung educators in entirely new and awful ways, and we should be fighting back.

I’ve always lobbied under the delusion that my teaching materials were protected under the fair use provision of United States copyright law. And they were, more or less, until the horrendous TEACH Act was put into place in 2002 to strip mine not only our classroom materials, but out ability to grow and change with the times. Think you can make a handout with the Mona Lisa on it? Not according to the TEACH Act, which allows teachers to use material only as a part of mediated classroom activities, meaning you’re either in the room or, in a distance learning environment, on the digital stage lecturing. Want to include a still image of Douglas Fairbanks in your ebook? No you don’t, at least not if you want to stay out of copyright hell. At least you can show clips from his films, right? Well, kind of, but not really. You can show “reasonable and limited” portions of his work. What does that even mean? NO ONE KNOWS.

You can use photocopies of an interesting op-Ed in the New York Times, but only if it’s spontaneous. So if you plan your lessons out more than two hours in advance, you’re out of luck. Better start writing your own op-eds. The TEACH Act goes so far as to restrict converting material from analog to digital. So if you’ve ever scanned a document for class distribution, watch out: the Federales may be at your door. My favorite provision is the one that tells schools how far they need to go to protect major corporations’ rights:
“The institution must implement some technological measures to ensure compliance with these policies, beyond merely assigning a password. Ensuring compliance through technological means may include user and location authentication through Internet Protocol (IP) checking, content timeouts, print-disabling, cut and paste disabling, etc.”

Got all that? You MIGHT be able to use a grainy still picture from the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, provided you hire James Bond and Q to run your network security.

You might think this isn’t relevant for you, since many teachers are not creating digital resources quite yet, but I strenuously disagree. Yes, much of the TEACH Act is geared towards distance learning, but for those of us attempting to flip classrooms and create compelling digital resources for kids, it cuts us off at the knees. The TEACH Act expressly forbids making digital course packs, reserve materials, etc., that use copyrighted material. Which leaves you praying fair use will protect you, which is probably won’t, given the utterly subjective nature of the four fair use criteria. One of the criteria is how your work affects the market for the work you’re “borrowing” from. Well, I have absolutely no idea if my twenty second Raging Bull clip will bankrupt United Artists, but an argument could be made that my textbook’s use of the clip makes subsequent licensing less valuable, especially if they are selling licenses to massive textbook producers like Pearson or Houghton Mifflin.

So how do I find out? I get sued! That’s the only way to find out if your operating within the strictures of fair use. And, lest you think I’m just a lazy teacher looking to steal material, I contacted two of the pre-eminent minds in education law and neither could tell me how far fair use would extend. I also contacted a number of major studios. Of course they all tripped over themselves to assist an educator and expose their best work to a new generation.

I’m kidding, they either said no outright or asked for thousands of dollars. Except for one man…Charlie Chaplin(‘s estate). One of my favorite actors of all time(‘s estate) is allowing me to use two pictures of my choosing, and I genuinely appreciate it. I also think it’s an excellent way to give a new generation of students access to material they otherwise might never see. Why don’t the major studios agree?