NewsELA: Science and Current Events Written for K-12 Students

Since I started working with AJ Tutoring over the summer, I have regularly needed fiction and nonfiction material designed for middle-school students so I can provide diagnostics, reading comprehension exercises, and writing assignments for my clients. Whereas high-school students can generally read political and scientific news from sources including The New York Times, Time, The Economist, and Scientific American, these periodicals sometimes cause difficulties for younger students who would clearly benefit from their real-world content. Unfortunately, some media outlets specifically directed at children either oversimplify complex problems or focus upon trivial subjects which do not accurately represent current events or recent scientific discoveries.

NewsELA.PNG

The education website NewsELA has solved this problem with its own writers who read and revise articles from credible journals, newspapers, and magazines for multiple grade-levels. Each NewsELA article includes three or more difficulty settings so teachers can choose the reading-comprehension level most appropriate for their students, and these settings range from elementary school to high school. My students and I have successfully discussed the recent Tesla autopilot accidents, the controversy over whether or not athletes with prosthesis should compete against their “able-bodied” counterparts, and a scientific study concluding Greenland sharks may live for around 400 years. While you cannot read full articles from the site without registering your email address, the investment more than repays the cost of another weekly newsletter. The site also follows one of the central principles of technical communication: it evaluates the needs and capacities of its intended audiences and designs its content accordingly. You can explore the website yourself using this link: NewsELA Homepage.

EdTech and Technical Communication

The relationship between the subjects of this site, education technology and technical communication, may seem somewhat arbitrary, so I decided I should briefly explain why they fit together. Education technology, and education generally, involves translating content and processes (including writing essays, solving equations, analyzing complex problems, and conducting research) for the students placed under the direction of the instructor. The students themselves then supply direct and indirect feedback about the activities and discussions from the class via surveys, comments, and assessments, and the instructor adjusts his/her content based upon the results.

This negotiation between the expertise and objectives of the instructor and the priorities and preferences of his/her students matches the interaction between the producers and users of interfaces and products. I have always prioritized usability during my technical communication courses because its principles form the backbone of healthy interactions between “technicians” and “laypeople.” While teachers and technicians may have more content-knowledge and experience than students and the everyday users of commercial products, the short-term and long-term performance of end-users remains the best method of assessing the value of instructional and corporate designs.

Continue reading

Design, Usability, and Emotion

Designers and usability professionals often disagree about the relative value of usable and visceral interfaces, and Don Norman has historically promoted functional designs. The Ted Talk posted below discusses how Norman has gradually revised his scheme for usable designs and analyzes the complex interactions between our sensory experience of products and interfaces and how effectively we use them. I also highly recommend the most recent edition of Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things.

Usability Tests with Fruit

While usability testing has entered the mainstream of technical communication and education technology over the past twenty years, engineers, students, and executives do not always grasp the value of these tests. The video below will bring back fond memories for anyone who has conducted usability tests and humorously introduces some of its methods: think-aloud protocols, eye-tracking, post-test interviews, etc. If nothing else, the video demonstrates the patience of usability professionals and reminds us why even simple designs should always involve real users.