So now what?

I had SLR film cameras that I used sparingly on Auto modes through the years starting in about 1992. Prior to that, I had crappy film point and shoots and even developed my own film for a spell. I didn’t understand the nuance of photography, but I enjoyed it.

In 2011, I started a photo-a-day project with a Nikon D70, Panasonic TZ5, and an iPhone 4. I barely touched the D70 and relied on the TZ5 that I had bought in 2008 for a semester in Europe. I spent a month in Africa and only took the TZ5. That’s how bad I was. But I was sticking to my photo-a-day project and beginning to think about composition.

Finally got serious around August and pulled out the D70 for a trip to the northeastern shores of Lake Superior, Ontario, CA. But it was bulky and I hated that. And I was pretty ignorant about it. For example, I read at dpreview in 2007 or so that the 50/1.8 was an excellent lens. I bought it and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get the lens to zoom when it arrived. Prime lenses were not something I realized existed. I was ignorant. I didn’t realize the D70 was an APS-C sensor . . . to me, it was just a bulky version of the point and shoot camera, which made little sense to me. I figured the D70 just had better lenses and I wasn’t yet displeased with the point and shoot cameras.

Anyway, because of the bulk I bought a used Panasonic LX5. It had more dials and a better lens than the TZ5, but it was still a point and shoot. I didn’t understand that at the time. I was disappointed in this point and shoot and returned to the D70, but I heard rumblings about a new NEX 5N coming out soon. I preordered it and put my D70 on craigslist.

The NEX 5N arrived around Sept. 12th and my joy of photography and wanting to learn shot through the roof. I was hooked. I loved the images compared to the point and shoot cameras I had largely been using. The kit lens was fantastic to me. I was still shooting A mode all the time. I bought a Canon FDn 50/1.4 lens and wow! Shallow depth of field amazed me. I still love it this many years later. I also did the photo-a-day again in 2012 (actually, I didn’t miss a day until 2014, I believe). And I bought the Sony Zeiss 24/1.8 lens. It never came off of my camera. It was also the most expensive lens I had ever even considered, let alone bought. I was sooo nervous to have it. I bought insurance. I was ultra careful. I was certainly not good enough to have this lens and spend this kind of money, but I wanted to get better. I was improving all the time. The 24 lens (35-ish FF equivalent) forced me to start seeing the world from that perspective. Every shot I could see started to fit into that focal length. I didn’t look for the shots I was missing. I went back to Africa for a month and this is the only lens I used, beyond 1 day with a SEL 50/1.8. I loved it. Loved it. I improved so much with this camera and lens.

In January, 2012 I had my first photo hit Explore on Flickr ever so briefly. It got 5 Favs, so it was nothing, but that was huge for me since even one Fav was a big deal and rare for me. By the summer of 2012, I could get 3 – 5 Favs pretty easily. I was learning post processing and I had a very good feel for that Zeiss 24 lens. I was reading photography theory books and technique books and videos. I was obsessed with getting better. Later that year, I was hitting Favs into the teens. And I recognize that Favs don’t necessarily mean anything, particularly since I was joining more groups and getting more eyes on my images. 100 views to start 2012 and thousands by the end at points. At least increased views meant that someone was looking and that was pleasing to me.

The 35 focal length was made for me, I thought. It’s what I had largely shot for a year+ and it felt right. So I bought an RX1 to go full frame at the end of 2012. Wow! But the shutter leaf mechanism on my RX1 had 1 weak leaf that didn’t fully work. I couldn’t see that my images were impacted, but it was still broken. I kept the camera through Dec. and January because of the healthy return date by Amazon (I was returning a defective camera so I kept it the length I was allowed and they made it later January for purchases from late Nov. which is when I got the RX1). Back to my NEX 5N and Zeiss 24/1.8 for a few months. No biggie.

In March of 2013, I bought the Nikon D600. I had the Sigma 50/1.4 because the 35/1.4 wasn’t out yet. Great combo, but my D600 had a greasy/spotty sensor and I tested it the first day. I knew it was going back, but I fiddled for a week. In late March I decided on the Canon 6D. I bought the 50/1.2L. This was an amazing lens. I rented the combo first and went to New Orleans for a week. By day 1, I knew I’d be buying the combo. Wow! You can see my 42 images from that trip here and you’ll see a pretty nice improvement over my photo-a-day links above, with a lot of room for improvement still as well. Then I bought the Sigma 35/1.4 and it gave me the love I had with the NEX 5N and Zeiss 24. The 50/1.2L stayed on the shelf as the Sigma 35 rarely came off of my camera. I continued to grow and continued trying to learn. With the RX1 and Canon 6D, I had finally shifted to shooting in manual mode (M) and still do today. I had learned enough through my reading that it finally made sense. Compositionally I was starting to get it as well. I could finally see light and 2013 was a great year for development.

2014 is when I shifted to the Sony A7 and Sony Zeiss 55/1.8 in February. Best combo I had ever used. I couldn’t take the lens off of my A7 and I was now seeing the world through the 55 focal length. Finally I was seeing more than 35. Heh. I was getting my love on Flickr at this point. Here’s a self portrait I shot in March, 2014:

self portrait

selfie, self portrait March 2014

After getting 70 Favs on that shot, the next day I got over 9000 views and 72 Favs on this shot:

Beer at Founders and bokeh

KBS and Bokeh

Photography was clicking. I felt like I was good at it. But I didn’t let up on my learning. I was reading more and more and studying the art side of photography. I knew I didn’t want to be a photographer who shot senior portraits and weddings or anything like that; rather, I wanted to produce art. That’s all I wanted from my photography.

I serve on an art committee that visited the Muskegon Art Museum in June of 2014. This was the 86th annual show and had 200 works that were selected from artists all across Michigan. As I looked at the photography in the show, I remember thinking, “I can do this.” I even joked at the next art committee meeting that I was going to win the show next year and everyone chuckled, including me. Stay tuned.

In August, I pulled $300 in $5 bills out of the bank and reserved space at Heartside Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids (they serve homeless individuals and folks in poverty). I shot portraits of people in poverty much of the day until my money ran out. I paid each person $5 to sit and chat a bit and then get a few portraits taken and sign a release. I had rented lighting and set up a mini studio. I didn’t know how to use lighting, but I figured it out the day before so I’d be ready. I also returned a week later and gave each person a 4×6 print of their portrait. This was a huge experience for me, but I used the images for my first Art Prize entry, which was at Fountain Street Church. It was titled, Antepenultimate and it was very well received. That was all printed on metal and looked very sharp. If you aren’t sure what Art Prize is, read this. It’s awesome for Grand Rapids and transforms our city for 20 days or so each year.

I was invited to put my entry into an after Art Prize event in Lowell at LowellArts! They told me they had an art festival coming up in early 2015, and invited me to enter that as well. I did enter with a single photograph that I printed on paper with a nice frame and matting (about 24″ image). It was really my first juried show since Art Prize is more of an event to experience. This LowellArts! show was a single showroom full of jury selected pieces. Just getting in was exciting.

My entry finished in 5th place. Wow! I hadn’t even considered entering art shows yet beyond Art Prize and I was winning 5th place against oil paintings, sculptures, and other beautiful pieces of art. I started chatting with the other artists and making friends. It felt so very good to be a part of that group with so many talented people. And I belonged. This was really the culmination of a lot of hard work paying off up to that point. It really helped validate the time I spent.

homeless guy portrait

Homeless guy portrait

I then got bold and entered 2 photographs into the Muskegon Art Museum’s festival (87th annual). This is the show I had visited the previous year and joked about winning. They had 725 entries. Both of my submissions made the show, which is a huge accomplishment. HUGE! But even bigger than that, I got a phone call telling that I was awarded 2nd place by the jury. Holy Geez! Here’s an article about it, and they’re using my photo over 1st place (probably because B&W photo looked better in B&W than the colorful winning sculpture). I also sold this 2nd place photo to a foundation before the show even started. My award money for the year was around $2,000. Unbelievable to me. Here I am during a reception speaking to the crowd about my photograph.

Me talking about my photographs

Me talking about my photograph(s).

My other photograph that was accepted into the show also received more than 700 Favs on Flickr and was one of my most popular photographs off all time. Again, Favs don’t really mean much, but it’s nice when a photograph is recognized by a jury and also by my peers as being worthwhile.

homeless man with wrinkles

Homeless man with wrinkles

So here I was 3.5 years after starting to take photography seriously. I was winning awards in every show I was entering. I was at the height of my photography life. Shooting photos daily for years and studying and working and studying some more was paying off and I was reaping the benefits of my hard work.

As I sit and wait for the 88th Annual Muskegon Art Festival, I can’t help but feel like I’ve peaked. I don’t shoot a photograph every day any more because I have set the bar too high to achieve what I desire by simply snapping a photograph and studying it. I understand the technical stuff quite well now, so testing settings is something I can do in my head before I even take the shot to see the result. I still want to grow and I now understand that shooting a photograph that can be considered great takes much work. I was an available light and handheld shooter much of photography life, but I also recognize that using extra light can also help and that using a tripod can often ensure better sharpness. I get that. That takes much more work. I am busier at work since becoming a department chair in April, so “much work” is not as easily accomplished. I also worry that I cannot possibly match the success I’ve already had, so I think about letting myself down.

In November of 2015, I read about a huge storm hitting the lakeshore with giant waves. I forced myself to get up and rolling at 5:45 AM and head to Grand Haven to see the lighthouse. I grabbed some terrific shots as daylight was just breaking on the stormy scene. The rain and wind were blowing off of Lake Michigan right onto my Rokinon 135/2 lens (I have a hard time taking this lens off of my camera lately). I couldn’t shoot more than a single shot before I had to wipe my lens clean of rain. I had to stand with my back to the lake because of the rain and wind and then quickly turn around and fire a shot or 2 and then turn back around. The light wasn’t great early in the morning so f/8 meant a higher ISO (ISO 1250 – 2000 is nothing for Sony full frame sensor, though). But even my shots that weren’t in focus still managed to satisfy me greatly. For example:

Stormy Lake Michigan

Storm in Grand Haven

I still shoot occasional shots that just catch my eye, but I have hit a plateau to the point that I am not feeling like I am getting better any more. That’s sort of a gnawing feeling of being in the photography doldrums, so to speak. I can produce nice images that people like, but I also know that they are just more of the same thing I was producing. I do not feel the same level of growth I had for so many years. I guess that’s natural in any field.

It’s now 2016 and I do not know what is next. Part of me wants to buy the Sony a7R II Full-Frame Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera, Body Only (Black) (ILCE7RM2/B) and see if that helps me jumpstart my creativity and inspiration. Perhaps if a good deal comes along. Another part of me is content to just do what I do and realize that I had a good run and I would have killed to shoot this kind of photography a few years ago. I should be happy and realize I reached a very high level. But I know I can get better. Time. I need time. Come on lottery! Heh. Thanks for reading and happy shooting to you.

Rowster Coffee

And here is the larger version on Flickr.

Tech Specs: Sony ILCE-7 FE 55mm F5.6 ZA ƒ/1.8 1/125 ISO 160

I took this at the coffeeshop down at the end of my block. It was much darker inside than out, so this one took a bit of post processing. I don’t typically go for the HDR look, but my edits here sort of mimics what an HDR process might do and I like the end result.

Lightroom 5 on a Mac was used. I cropped the image because I wanted to remove the door knob on the left and I wanted a 16×9 image for more of a cinematic feel (5753×3236 – original was 6000 x 4000). I had to create a custom white balance to account for the yellow outside and cold blue inside. I also increased the contrast +30. Clarity is at +100 and Vibrance is at +7 while Saturation was dropped to -8. Highlights are -100 and shadows are +100, which is how this approaches an HDR feel. The only HSL I do in this image is Luminance for Yellow is -31 (again, the outside was too yellow compared to the inside). When you bump shadows so much, you are much more likely to add noise even on a low ISO shot, so I bumped the Luminance of the Noise Reduction to +27.

I have lens correction turned on. I also had to turn on Remove Chromatic Aberration and the bottom right side of the many had some blue-greens I had to remove with the eye dropper. I have Post-Crop Vignetting turned on for Highlight Priority at -25. I ended with a brush applied on areas that were too bright as shown below. The brush was set at Exposure -.62 and Highlights -37.

LR brush

Brush strokes

I’ll be ending each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera or Accessories. I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.

sunset through grass


And here is the larger version on Flickr.

Tech Specs: Sony ILCE-7 FE 55mm F1.8 ZA ƒ/1.8 1/80 ISO 100

I took this on my university’s main campus just outside of the newer library. Obviously, the sun was going down so I had to slow the shutter speed down to 1/80 just to ensure I’d get an ISO of 100 (which I nearly always prefer when I can get it).

Lightroom 5 on a Mac was used. I cropped the image because I wanted a square of the key grasses (the sides weren’t very interesting and I knew I’d crop all along. Only a little off of the top was cropped out. I had to create a custom white balance to get more of a golden hue to the image. I also increased the contrast +30. Clarity is at +32 and Vibrance is at +43 while Saturation was dropped to -11. I have -8 on the Hue for Orange. I also have the saturation bumped for Orange (+24) and Yellow (+28). Luminance of Orange is -13 and -70 for Yellow. I have no lens correction turned on. I do have Paint Overlay at -44 for the Amount and -40 for the Roundness. Ta da! I was quite pleased with the end result.

I’ll be ending each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera or Accessories. I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.

Cindy retired a year ago. She was my best friend on faculty. We served on a college level personnel committee together and we went up for full professor together (we were both promoted). She was my sounding board and mentor. We also enjoy drinking a Guinness together. I got to hang out with her not too long ago.

Cindy portrait

My friend Cindy

And here is the larger version on Flickr.

Technical specs: Sony A7 with the FE Zeiss 55/1.8 . . . ƒ/1.8 55.0 mm 1/125 ISO 1000

I took this at a dinner function in a campus building. The lighting was okay, but I was shooting wide open and a normal shutter speed and still needed ISO 1000 for the perfect exposure. She did have an overhead light that was hitting her in a good way, so that helped.

Lightroom on a Mac was used (latest version). I cropped the image because 16 x 9 fit it better. I then converted to Preset B&W Look 2. The image was a bit dark so I pushed exposure +40. I bumped shadows +100 and lowered highlights -87 (thank you dynamic range of the Sony sensor). I used a brush to reduce the clarity -100 all over her face (women don’t want details of their skin enhanced; most men probably either – the clarity slider going in reverse can also add darkness to skin, so be careful where you slide it negatively). I then focused on her eyes. I brightened the eyes (iris only) with a brush at shadows +30 and exposure +12. Finally, another brush was set at sharpness +70 and I used that on her left eye, particularly the eyelashes. Because I bumped shadows so much and added to the exposure, that introduces more noise to the image so I used the noise reduction slider to 22. I also enabled the lens profile for this lens. Doing that reduces the vignetting while making some distortion corrections. I wanted vignetting so I bumped it to -41. And there is the final image you see here. Hope you found this informative.

I’ll be ending each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera or Accessories. I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.

I plan to start posting some of my photography and talking about the photos I publish using this blog. I don’t necessarily think the social media sites allow for the reflection I’d like. Perhaps nobody will visit, but this is more like a public diary that I am doing for myself anyway.

selfie, sean lancaster

Distracted Selfie

Size is sort of small, but I’ll always link to the larger version on Flickr.

Technical specs: Sony A7 with the FE Zeiss 55 . . . ƒ/1.8 55.0 mm 1/125 ISO 6400

I took this in the basement of the Morton Building during Art Prize, 2014. I was leading part of a photowalk and someone called me just as I was pressing the shutter. You can see from the camera settings that this was very low light. I still like how it turned out. I did have to brighten the shadows so I wasn’t lost in the shadows.

In the future, I’ll post more in-depth commentary about my photographs. But I’ll also end each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera Accessories (or equipment). I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.


RX1 ISO 100, F/2

So, I am on day 3 of having a new Sony RX1 full frame camera. I am going to be describing my experiences using this camera over the holidays as I learn the camera’s nuances and enjoy its image quality. I will try and keep each posting fairly short and specific. This first post is specific to initial impressions about the body.

Right out of the box, the RX1 had a very professional feeling heft to it. I knew right away that Sony didn’t cut corners on giving the camera a professional feel. But I quickly also decided that holding this camera is not as easy as my NEX 5N. I can walk around town with a wrist strap on my NEX 5N and the camera dangling from my fingertips. With the RX1, I use a wrist strap as well, but the camera must be consciously grasped at all times. I suspect I would feel much better about walking about and holding the RX1 if I had the RX1’s Thumb Grip, but that smallish piece of metal is priced at $250. For just another $100 I could be buying a new NEX 5N. There is no way in hell I pay $250 for a thumb grip, so I’ll have to be content to work a little harder to hold my RX1 than my NEX 5N.

Before I took any photos, I wanted to set the camera up to meet my needs. On my NEX 5N, there are not many external controls and I often felt constrained having to dig into the menu system. In fact, this is partly why I wanted to upgrade to gain external controls. The RX1 does not disappoint. There are many programmable buttons and I have all of the options I’d want available so that I can access everything I need with 1 button press. I didn’t realize how much I’d appreciate that, but I cannot go back to a camera body . . . and my plan was to keep the 5N for other focal lengths (e.g., fisheye, 50, 55-210) and use the RX1 for my main focal length (35) and most of my shooting. Just playing with the RX1 makes me want to greatly upgrade my other focal lengths, too. I need to figure out quickly if I want to go all in with regard to full frame or whether I just want to upgrade my 5N to the 6 to gain more external controls. Hmmm. But I quickly learned my way around the RX1. I am already using Exposure Compensation more often than I ever considered on my 5N.

Continuing my shooting experiences . . . I was used to flipping up the LCD of my 5N as needed (e.g., shooting a flower down low I could lower my 5N and flip up the LCD to check focus). With the RX1, I am forced to bend way down to see my LCD screen. This is really annoying. I know I can buy an expensive electronic viewfinder, but I gave up viewfinders on my old Nikon D70 and was very content with the LCD that articulated on my NEX 5N. With the RX1, I feel like I am taking a usability step backwards. On the other hand, the resolution of the LCD on the RX1 is incredible. Do you remember the first time you viewed a high definition television after being on standard definition? That’s how I felt when moving from my NEX 5N to the RX1. The screen is simply gorgeous. I feel like I am looking through a window at the subject I am shooting. I played with a Nikon D600 and I thought it made my 5N LCD seem innovative and impressive. Well the RX1 LCD puts the NEX 5N LCD to shame. I just wish Sony would have made the screen adjustable, particularly since the camera does not come with an EVF or VF by default. I am happy to shoot just using the LCD, but the RX1 makes this more difficult than my $350 NEX 5N at times and that’s unfortunate.

Finally, I bought a cheap $7 metal lens hood off of Ebay. I also attached a nice B+W UV clear filter. The filter screws into the lens and recesses a little bit, which is nice. The lens hood screws into the filter just fine as well. I do not notice any vignetting when shooting with this combo. However, if I use the flash then there is some shading on the bottom right portion of my photos so I would have to remove the lens hood when using the flash. I should also note that the lens cap does not fit into the lens hood very well. I can get it so sit in the hood and seem stable, but it doesn’t lock, per se, like it should. I am comfortable with how it does fit. Speaking of the lens hood, it’s really nice. The lens hood is metal and has a nice professional heft to it. Very complimentary to the RX1.

So, that’s my impressions of the RX1 body (click here to buy one on Amazon). A parting shot of my dog . . .

I’ve apparently forgotten about my blog for the past year. I am not even sure personal blogs even for a professional audience are even warranted any more. Many folks in my field have shifted to spending much more time on Twitter. Twitter is not for me. I appreciate nuance too much to be limited to 140 characters per post. I don’t even particularly enjoy sifting through retweet after retweet or link after link being posted. Twitter serves a purpose for some and I can see that some people really feel connected and part of a professional learning network . . . and that’s great for them. I see more promise with Google+ (largely because of how well it’s working for photographers — my hobby). Google+ expands on Twitter and allows nuance. I find it hard to justify a blog that might be seen by 10 people versus the same message being posted to Google+ where the potential for a much wider audience exists. So, I’ll probably keep this blog going. I mean, 1 post a year shouldn’t be too hard to maintain, eh?

First, I think everyone should read through Dr. Yong Zhao’s series called, “Ditch Testing.” A local superintendent, David Britten, today has a blog entry about the ACT and it’s college predictive value that is also worth checking out as it also adds fuel to the faulty standardized testing emphasis fire.

Standardized test scores have become the panacea to all perceived ills in public education. The emphasis on standardized test scores fails to recognize that we do not have standardized schools. We do not have standardized classrooms with standardized resources. We do not have standardized students. We do not have standardized parents, nor do we have standardized homes. So trying to compare teachers and schools largely based on standardized test scores is erroneous before it even becomes practice. A great teacher could transfer into a classroom of extreme poverty and, at best, likely look average and, at worst, look like a bad teacher . . . even if this teacher is doing his/her best work. Yet, that’s essentially where we are with the new tenure reform signed into law in Michigan. Test scores are far too valued. And this is not a hypothetical situation as this letter from Andrew Lindsay, a great teacher, explains. We’re turning even more to standardized test scores without the evidence that this is even a valid path to take.

A *good* principal can tell you who the best teachers and worst teachers are in a building far better than looking at average standardized test scores in a classroom. Many of the teachers in a school probably know who the best and worst teachers are as well. Unfortunately, we don’t have great principals or other administrators across the board to rely on any more than we have great teachers across the board. What we have are politicians who love a cheap and easy solution to hang their hats on . . . that’s test scores. Test scores are perceived as something that can be used to compare district to district, school to school, or even teacher to teacher. It’s relatively cheap and relatively easy to give a test. However, standardized tests are a solution to a problem that isn’t even as pervasive as we’re led to believe. Are there problems in public education? Sure. However, there are strong arguments that American schools are among the best schools in the world even though the media and politicians want you to believe otherwise. This flew under the radar when the latest PISA scores were announced, but everyone would do well to read about how poverty in the USA affects test scores and how controlling for the poverty variable demonstrates that American schools are the strongest in the world and perhaps not in need of *major* reform. Our schools are pretty great even if there is room for improvement. But politicians campaign on pretending that they’re placing an emphasis on education because they have standardized tests that teachers need to consider in their teaching. Under NCLB, test scores provided the ammunition to actually do more damage to the poorest schools for many years as lower test scores resulted in lower funding to the poorest schools, which we’ve know about for a long time now.

Politicians all feel like experts on education because they were all educated, presumably ;~). And, this long emphasis on standardized test scores demonstrates that politicians feel the need to steer how schools operate. Politicians haven’t lately made our schools better with their contributions. And, many of us realized a long time ago that their meddling has done damage to public schools in this country by going for easy solutions (i.e., a standardized test). The fact of the matter is that there aren’t easy solutions to improving schools.

I don’t pretend to have answers for improving public education in the USA. If the solution was easy then we’d be doing it . . . which is why we are doing what is easy in our perceived solutions. Easy is what politicians do. We could try and improve poverty and that would surely improve test scores if we wanted to stick with the test score model, which we already know to be flawed. My suggestion would be to reform administrator preparation programs to better ensure we have good principals and school leaders emerging from these programs. Many good administrator currently exist, but many more could be added to schools and districts and higher education preparation programs would be a great place to start this reform. I believe starting with good school leaders provides the foundation for schools and districts to hire and keep higher quality teachers. Good leaders will better recognize teachers who need corrective feedback and good leaders can help teachers make improvements . . . or, good leaders can dismiss teachers before they get tenure if these teachers aren’t responding to corrective feedback. Tenure reform wasn’t necessary because good administrators could always do what I’ve just described. And, the emphasis on standardized test scores certainly wasn’t the answer to this reform. We should have focused on improving the people who hire and keep poor teachers rather than starting with teacher tenure reform and leaving poor leaders in place (and let me again emphasize that many good school leaders currently exist). Once again, politicians are looking for an easy path and once again that easy out is relying on standardized testing. Standardized test scores have just gained even more power in our public schools. {sigh} When are we going to have politicians who look for good solutions instead of easy solutions when it comes to public education?

Dusty Computer Lab by jayhawksean
Dusty Computer Lab, a photo by jayhawksean on Flickr.

This is a photo of a computer lab I took in South Africa. This is a poor school that largely serves kids who live in the local township. The school lost its computer teacher and the principal didn’t think the teachers could teach in the computer lab without a computer teacher (because they weren’t trained) so the the lab just gathers dust. It was quite unfortunate that these kids are already facing such few resources in life and this is just another strike against them.

Via Flickr:
South Africa Elementary School

About a decade ago, I decided to no longer use Blackboard. My thinking is that I should be using tools that my students (current and future teachers) can also use. Most k-12 schools do not have Blackboard. Why should I model a tool that ends when students are not taking classes at my university? I shouldn’t. So I began a quest to find the replacement, preferably an open source solution. Through the years I have used static HTML pages to PostNuke (died in 2008). I settled into using Drupal for a number of years and I really liked it. I still really like it; however, it was not a tool that was easy to replicate for the typical teacher even though it is free. I decided I really need to be using Moodle and I switched full time to Moodle about 2 or 3 years ago. I like Moodle well enough. I wouldn’t say that I am an expert at Moodle, but I know it well enough to set up my own Moodle servers and to train teachers to use it and do some fairly detailed problem solving. But I don’t tap into many of the features so that’s where my limitations are with Moodle.

Well, this past semester I started shifting away from Moodle. I still use it, but I now use it mostly as a placeholder. It’s a place for my students to go and login to find the weekly parameters that I post. I also post links to assignment rubrics and other external links in Moodle. But when my students want to see what the requirements are for week 1 then they click on a link to the Week 1 Parameters and it opens a new window displaying a Google Doc. If students want to read an assignment rubric then they are also clicking a link to a Google Doc. I can create my materials in Google Docs as easily as working in any typical word processor (or office app for that matter). When I am ready to share the file I click on the sharing settings and make the file available to anyone who has the link. I also make sure I do not click to give the person permission to edit (at least not for my weekly materials).

Google Docs Sharing Settings:

Google Docs Permissions

My Class Moodle Site:

Moodle GUI

I can post the link in Moodle so that students merely need to click on “Week 3 Parameters” and get a new window open showing a Google Doc with all of the requirements for week 3 provided. Each item has a description of what students do to complete that item. Additionally, the item might have a link to click and get more detailed instructions (e.g., a link to another Google Doc). I can add images or screen shots easily. I can link to a podcast easily . . . all from this single Google Doc that becomes the roadmap for the weekly session. Students do not want to click in one place to find discussion parameters and another place to find the lecture materials and another place to see assignments; rather, students want to see it all in 1 place. Why not provide that to your students?

I am not ready to give up on Moodle, but I am pretty comfortable with using Google Docs as the nuts and bolts of my online classes. I still have the grades being stored in Moodle and I still want to support Moodle as a product. I just think Google Docs is super easy to use and requires very little effort to get up and running. While it’s not open source, it is freely available, for now, so that helps accomplish my goal of modeling free or cheap resources for my students.

next posts >>