What a British teenager can teach us about the transformative power of sharing and social media


I’ve written numerous times about the power that social media and sharing can have in transforming a student’s educational path in a positive way. My thinking on this subject hasn’t formed in a vacuum. It’s easy to find these forces in action in the real world.

Case in point…

This young Briton, who goes by “Harv” to his international audience of over 110,000 subscribers, has become an unlikely rising star in the world of science and technology.

Harv recently turned seventeen, but he has been creating entertaining and educational videos about topics in physics and astronomy since he was fourteen years old. These topics are often presented through the lens of Kerbal Space Program. Harv’s deep, velvety voice is perfect for YouTube narration, and it belies his high-school age. “The deep British voice gives people an image of someone much older, it seems,” Harv has admitted. “So, likely under the illusion that they’ve been listening to [an adult], my YouTube channel has grown phenomenally.”

Harv’s willingness to share his passions with a public audience has yielded clear benefits for him in terms of providing academic opportunities, yielding professional contacts, and reinforcing the strength of his own intrinsic motivation.

Using experimental-stage hardware such as the Oculus Rift DK2 and the Leap Motion, Harv is currently developing a motion-controlled virtual reality puzzle game for a school project. Harv doesn’t view this as work; rather, he remarks on how fortunate he is to receive credit for pursuing his passion for VR. “I get to justify spending my time doing VR development when most of [my peers] are doing schoolwork,” he gushes. “It’s fantastic.”

Science, technology, and VR aren’t his only passions, though. Despite his young age, Harv has leveraged the power of his audience to organize and execute two wildly successful fundraising events for Charity Water: Kerbal Polar Expedition at the age of fifteen ($10,723 raised) and Kerbal Polar Expedition 2 at the age of sixteen ($23,624 raised). He’s even picked up occasional voice-acting work through his dense web of contacts– not a bad after-school job for a teenager!

Harv recently shared his ambition to apply for admission to Cambridge University. It sounds like he has his academic life in order, and given his already-incredible record of international educational and charity outreach, I think Cambridge would be foolish to turn him away.

Best of luck, Harv!


4/3/2 in the 21st Century: Formative Assessment of Fluency through Digital Recording


Hello, Three Rivers TESOL! See below for my presentation and related resources.


Maurice (1983) pioneered a 4/3/2 fluency activity for intermediate to advanced learners in which each student speaks on the same topic three times in shrinking time frames: four minutes, three minutes, and finally two minutes. Shrinking the time frame places pressure on students to use time economically by avoiding hesitations and increasing fluency of speech. While Maurice’s original activity had students speaking with partners and involved little teacher or student assessment of performance, the ubiquity of cheap digital recording technology (computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.) enables teachers of the 21st century to reconstruct the activity as a formative self-assessment with teacher feedback.

In my version of the activity, students watch a humorous short film full of concrete, reportable events two times (Eggleston, 2000). Students then record themselves narrating the events of the film for two minutes, after which they listen to the recording to notice their hesitations and self-assess their fluency. Students then record the same narration in one minute thirty seconds, followed by listening and self-assessment. Finally, students record the narration in one minute and again listen and self-assess. Students discuss and reflect upon their experiences, especially on the extent of self-perceived improvement. The teacher collects the final recording in order to review it and provide written feedback targeting hesitations, word linking, or other fluency-related performance targets.

Works cited:

Here are some more videos appropriate for this activity:

Four short videos to help your language students improve their fluency



Google Cardboard: 3D for 3 bucks?


Hey, my Google Cardboard finally got here!

I’m not going to take my own photographs, both because I put my Cardboard together rather poorly and also because photographs don’t communicate much when we’re talking about 3D virtual reality.

The “device” (if you can call it that) looks like this:

Source: CNET
Source: CNET

You put your phone into it like this:

Source: CNET
Source: CNET

Apps designed to work with Google Cardboard display on your phone in split-screen. The left side is your left eye’s field of view and the right side is your right eye’s field of view.

Source: CNET
Source: CNET

The way Cardboard works is that it holds your phone steady and aligned in front of two specially calibrated magnifying lenses– one for each eye. When you hold your eyes up to the lenses, each eye only sees its respective half of the screen, and your brain is able to combine the two slightly different images into a coherent 3D image, just as it does in normal vision.

The potential educational value of 3D virtual reality is probably self-evident to readers of this blog, but to give one quick example, VR enables things like virtual field trips to faraway cities (Athens, Rome, Beijing, etc) or to natural wonders. VR games and simulations could also have educational merit in the right context, such as virtual operations in medical school.

My impressions of Cardboard, though, are slightly negative. Fundamentally, Google Cardboard is a very simple, cheekily-named toy designed to force your phone to be something it was never, ever meant to be: a 3D virtual reality visor. The fact that it works at all- however poor the final experience is- is incredible.

Let’s dig in a bit:

First of all, I got an ultra-cheap knockoff from a Chinese vendor which, at the time of writing, costs $2.99 shipped. The kit was confusing and didn’t quite have all the correct parts, but it did include the lenses, and I was able to fold the cardboard kit up securely enough to use it. For what I paid for it, it was worth every penny. However, I’m sure one of the more expensive kits out there would have given a better experience.

When I tried the popular Tuscan Drive demo, I was surprised at how terrible the graphics looked. Thanks to the magnifying lenses, everything had a “soupy” or distorted quality, and individual subpixels were highly visible. (Have you ever sat so closely to a TV that you could see the individual pinhead-sized red, blue, and green dots that make up the screen? That’s what I’m talking about.) In fact, the graphics were poor enough that although I was indeed seeing things in 3D, the “wow-factor” of the 3D graphics was overwhelmed by the “meh-factor” of how subpar the image was. Maybe the distance between the lenses and the screen wasn’t perfect or something, but there’s nothing I can alter in the calibration of the lens setup.

Plus, the headtracking that can be managed using cellphone-grade accelerometers just isn’t that great. On my Galaxy S3, there was noticeable lag between my real-life head movements and the corresponding in-game head movements, and the field of view often rattled oddly up and down or side to side based on messy data from the accelerometer.

I’m still excited by the technology, though, and rough as the experience is, I’m very glad to have gotten my own Cardboard to play with. Once the Oculus Rift is released, I’ll be sorely tempted to snap one up. If nothing else, the first mass-market VR goggles since the Virtual Boy will have some kitch value in the future, if not necessarily collector’s value.