Thursday, June 30, 2011


Things are pretty busy around here, so I've limited my posts and that's good because, being an old guy and all, I have a lot less interesting material these days. But I did get an interesting phone call in that illuminated me on TOEFL developments, and I thought I'd share that since this is where I keep almost everything I know; my office is so clearly a disaster (see below) that I can no longer find anything that is in writing.

When the TOEFL moved from the paper-based through the CBT (1998) and then to the iBT (2005), we were essentially left behind because we were not made an iBT station; we therefore give and teach the paper-based and my knowledge of the iBT is somewhat limited. It turns out that the new structure of the iBT, with its read-listen-write section, and read-listen-speak section, has students in a kind of a tizzy based on the fact that these are graded by human graders worldwide who have subjective analyses of their ability. And this, according to my sources, makes grammar more important than it had been, partly because a surprising number of subjective decisions at least appear to be made on the basis of grammar. Thus it is now a question of how to teach grammar for the iBT, how to teach grammar as a learn-to-integrate-it-on-the-fly skill.

The TOEFL has become more important, not less, and the Saudi mission now demands its students take one regularly and report the scores; this has made them more TOEFL-crazy, not less.

It turns out we were wrong that the Longman paper-based book was about the only one left on the market, but there is in fact very little left on the market, besides on Amazon or the used book market. And the cd's for the Longman are coming out as digital and easier to get, apparently. I also heard about a Canadian computer thing called Can8, where you can record your own voice and compare it to others; apparently with the read-write-speak you want a good lab to record your voice and analyze it carefully, and all TOEFL classes are of course taught in up-to-date computer labs. How would I record voices in ours? I'm not sure but I know there's a way. The world is leaving me in the dust.

As for good iBT materials, there is plenty out there besides the set of Kaplan books we have around here; I heard of a Longman set, well-respected, Barron's 6th edition, and sets that attempt to combine iBT and paper-based. Bruce Rogers is also well respected although it was unclear to me whether that was an iBT set or what. The question now is how much to put on a CD-rom, and whether to make students lug around a phone book all day to study this stuff. The more online, the better, some people say, since the test is all online anyway. Shrink the book, and make it just a guide to the online tests. But make it clear what the test itself looks like, because that's what the students want to know.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

google guitar doodle

I have always maintained that the three best things on the web are Google, Blogger, and Boggle, but since Google actually owns Blogger, I guess it could be said that there are only two.

Nevertheless the innovation of being able to search a vast database like the web with a very clever and continually improved algorithm like Google has, makes it much better than the other searchers; and, furthermore, its simple yet elegant interface has always been my prime example of the law that, in web design, less is more, or that, to put it another way, the less cluttered a place is, the more it's likely somebody can come to feel at home there.

But something happened this last week that reinforced my general admiration for Google and the people who run it. That was the placement of the google guitar doodle as their logo for a day; it was so popular that they left it, then, for another day. I feel that this doodle, now in its own home, was an innovation that will mark a turning point, eventually, in the development of online musical instruments.

To Google itself, it was just a decoration which they solicit and use regularly to mark significant events; in this case, the birthday of Les Paul, inventor of the guitar. They get people to draw these "doodles," and they save them, and many are quite beautiful and a few have clever innovations like the passing of a shadow over the moon (which appeared later in the week), or, in the case of the guitar, an actual instrument that you could play by using the mouse as you would strum a guitar; you could also press keys to hit the strings individually.

As an instrument, it had a sweet sound, kind of like a cello and banjo combined, which caught my ear and made me want to play it more. It was not organized well from a musician's point of view, but it was sweet and had a nice sound and various chords on various parts of the instrument. I got hooked on it but didn't have time, really, to develop my skills. Nevertheless the world, in particular the people with time on their hands, immediately set to work and created the Star Spangled Banner and a number of other songs, some using the guitar doodle as melody, bass and harmony. Some were quite clever and well done. Google was impressed at the community of music-lovers that it had collected over one innovation, and put the doodle on a separate site where people like me could continue playing with it.

Now the reason I document this is simple. It occurred to me that computer instruments like this are a new kind of instrument. This is not the same really as the moog synthesizer, a kind of modern electronic keyboard that came out in the sixties and supposedly revolutionized rock. This to me had more to do with the combination of mouse sweepover technology with the possibilities of sound creation. What I mean is that as computer has become more sophisticated, with the development of mouse-over technology, the possibilities of making music with different sound qualities and characteristics has really expanded. People aren't really aware of it yet (the guitar doodle is really quite primitive), but when the computer is used to its full potential it will be a new world for those of us who believe that online gives us much more freedom to manipulate time, use of hands, use of petals and like sound-quality adjustors, etc. It's a new world, and I credit Google with at least showing us a window of it.

I know people hate Google for a number of reasons: copying and owning every book in existence, changing the economy to a "giveaway/put online ads on the side" economy which runs everyone broke; ruthless search efficiency, etc. OK OK but I'm not here to argue that stuff. To me Google in the name of blogger has provided me a free pedestal for many years, a place to put pictures and my yapping and my autobiography not to mention my novel as of yet unwritten, and a host of other things. CESL took its web out from under me, and my free photo service folded overnight, but blogger remains true, as does Google, and remains free even to this day. Here's one old-timer who still opens up the web, with everything connected to each other and Google connected to everything, and still considers it a miracle, every single time.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

one hot day at SIUC

article here...

Monday, June 06, 2011


Dreifus, C. (2011, May 30). The Bilingual Advantage. New York Times. Accessed 6-11.

O'Dea, C. (2011, May 31). No more pencils, no more books: Technology-driven education in NJ schools. NJ Spotlight, accessed 6-11.

Johnson, B. and Maxson McElroy, T. (2011, June). The changing role of the teacher in the 21st century. teachers net gazette 8, 6. Accessed 6-11.

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Saturday, June 04, 2011

on the siu campus