Saturday, December 29, 2007

St. Paul Paper has article on XO

Nice Associated Press article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper about the XO's reception in Peru. Good to see more coverage.

Friday, December 28, 2007

XO Pros and Cons



Okay, I'm back home on a regular keyboard so I can reflect a bit on my XO experience so far.

I've just begun to explore the One Laptop Per Child XO computer. I purchased it as part of OLPC's Give-One-Get-One program. Here are some initial thoughts...

Pros
  • Great software set for kids. It comes with a great collection of constructive software that encourages kids to explore, create, experiment. I think many of my students would come with such a strong schema of "computer" that they would have trouble diving in and figuring things out. I hope kids in developing nations find that easier.

  • Wide variety of applications. The XO ships with a great variety of apps already installed, from photo, video and recording, music creation, measurement, writing, drawing, painting, web browsing, chatting, programming, memory games. There are more available online and still more in development, including Scratch. Can't wait for that!

  • Amazingly strong wi-fi receiver. My old ibook has a good antenna in it, often finding 5 or 6 more networks than Kent's Powerbook can detect. The XO has a much farther range than my ibook, and it is just a click to access unsecured networks, such as coffee shop wi-fi.

  • I don't have access to a second XO or I'd be testing out the mesh networks. Get two XOs in range of each other and they automatically form a mesh network. That in itself is interesting. When you realize that MANY of the applications on the XO are collaborative, then the idea of mesh network becomes amazing. I can invite you to collaborate with me on my picture, my story, my music. I can even invite you to browse the web with me.

  • Visually appealing. I was sitting in a coffee shop today near a window and people on the other side of the window kept stopping to look at it. I would have been interested to see children's reactions to it, but none came by.

  • Expandable. I just bought a 4 GB SDHC card. There is a slot under the monitor. It slides right in. You can't run apps off of it, but you can store files there. Has 3 USB ports so I can plug in mouse, keyboard, thumb drive or other peripheral goodness.

  • Sturdy. Light, rugged, easy to carry (built-in handle), sealed keyboard.

  • Great community. There are already good resources online. Here are a few I've used the most:

Cons
  • Tiny keyboard. That's GREAT for its intended users, but is making me crazy. I've ordered a folding keyboard to use with it.

  • Slow typing. I can type much faster than the letters can appear on the screen. Not sure why that is. It doesn't seem to matter if I get way ahead of the display. The letters get there eventually. However, I can't check for typos as I type.

  • Lots of lag time. Slow to start. Web pages were slow to load. Slow to switch between home and a running app.

  • Track pad is a bit dodgy. I've grown too used to my mouse with the scroll wheel and the the ability to scroll from my ibook's trackpad. The XO's trackpad doesn't scroll the window. Mine isn't very well callibrated. I've recallibrated it and that helped, but it is still tricky to click exactly where I want to type. It is also slow. I haven't found a place to speed it up.

  • Bookmarks are temporary. They persist until I close the browser, then they are gone. I hope this is a bug that will be fixed.

  • No tabbed browsing. Didn't realize how dependent I was on browser tabs until they were gone. I can open more than one copy of the browser, and move between them via the home screen.

  • News Reader isn't working. Not with the subscriptions already in it. Not with ones I tried to add.
Of course, the biggest Pro is that if you buy one, a child in a developing nation receives one as well. Pros don't get much bigger than that.

I'd love to hear from you if you have one. How is it working for you? Any killer apps you've found? What do you love/hate about it?

Photo by Manu Contreras

Written on my XO

This is my first entry from my XO laptop. (It will be short because the keyboard is too small for me to touch type on it and the spacebar requires a heavy hand.)

I am just starting to use it. I am impressed that I can access Blogger Dashboard with the Browse program.

More later when I am on a full-sized keyboard.

Friday, December 07, 2007

For Your Listening Pleasure...

The last few weeks have been amazing at my school. The Learning 2.0 Conference started it last September. Then the Laptop/Wi-fi pilot in the high school helped key people start seeing the shift that needs to happen. Vision planning and strategic planning are making evident the need for 21st Century teaching and learning skills. All of it deserves to be blogged.

However, it is Friday night. I've been worked on budget stuff until the wee hours. It seems a better use of my time to introduce you to this amazing kid. Enjoy!


(Thanks to Chris Sloan for posting it.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Creating Comics Online

A teacher asked me to recommend a comic strip program that will allow the students to add a few sentences of text and have a number of panes. I hadn't looked at comic strip programs since last year, so I decided to see what I could find. Here is a summary of my research.

[NOTE: After experimenting with different ways to show the strips in this post, I decided to put them in my Flickr account and then upload them here full size even though the strip gets truncated. Any other way shrunk the strip so much you couldn't see enough of the detail to get a feel for the program. Clicking on any of the comic strips in this post will take you to the full strip in Flickr.]


MakeBeliefsComix.com

I had a brief chance to use MakeBeliefsComix.com last year with students.



makebeliefcomix

Pros

  • No registration required.
  • Strips can be 1-4 panes long.
  • 15 characters to choose from, each of which can be flipped to face the other way. Each has 4 expressions.
  • There are writing prompts that drop down from each pane to help the cartoonist flesh out their strip.
  • Very easy to flip, scale, move or delete objects.
  • Lack of background choices, props, and limited number of characters means students will get down to work more quickly.
  • Invitations to view the strips can be emailed to people.
  • No comments from viewers allowed, so no need to monitor them.
  • No gallery of comics that were created by other people, so no need to worry about objectionable content.
  • Many teacher resources on the site.

Cons

  • Talk balloons can only contain 7 lines of text.
  • Lack of background scenes and props may limit the types of cartoons created.
  • When I emailed myself the link, the linked cartoon had a rendering error. One of the characters appeared in a frame twice. The strip did not look like that when I sent the link.
  • Site URL is tricky because of the "s" after beliefs and the "x" in Comix. Students found it difficult to type correctly.

StripCreator

I found StripCreator via a Google search tonight.


stripcreator2



Pros

  • Has different character sets and each character in a set has 2 positions.
  • Has different background sets such as urban, rural, fantasy.
  • Can handle large talk balloons.
  • Choice of 1-3 panes.
  • Good privacy controls. You decide if your email is visible. You decide if your comic strips are public or private. You decide whether or not to allow visitors to leave comments.

Cons

  • A bit tedious when setting up the same scene for each pane; no way to set it once and have it persist for all the panes.
  • No way to email your comics or embed them into blogs or wikis. Could not right-click-save the strip; I only got that element that I was clicking on.
  • There may be objectionable cartoons on the site. There is a gallery of strips created by other users.
  • Down at the very bottom of the home page is a link to the creator's Brad Sucks site which is where you buy creator's music CD. It is all innocuous, but having the word "sucks" on the page may make it objectionable to some teachers.
  • Had a rendering error that I couldn't fix- the broken park bench in the first frame.
  • Requires email address to register. It sends you the password which is not easy to remember. Fortunately, you can change your password after you log in.

ToonDoo

  • I had heard of ToonDoo and was surprised to find I already have an account there. However, the feeble efforts in there tell me I didn't play with it for long. This is the most complex of the web apps I surveyed tonight. I was getting tired by this time, so the strip I created is a bit discombobulated.


    toondoo

Pros

  • This is the most full-featured of the programs I tried. It has many pallettes of characters, backgrounds, props, and talk bubbles.
  • Much flexibility, provides lots of options so can be used to create a wide-range of strips.
  • Looks professional; I think students would be pleased with how good their comic strip looked.
  • Can handle lots of text. You can click a button and the talk balloon to make it fit better.
  • Create strips from 1-3 panels.
  • Can create online comic books! You could tell entire stories! Check out this Learn A New Word ToonBook.
  • You can upload photos to integrate them into the comic strip.
  • You can alter the facial characteristics of the ready-made characters. I didn't try out this feature so I can't comment on how well it works.
  • Has buttons to allow you to embed, email, and tag comics you view or make.

Cons

  • The many palettes were slow to load. May have been my connection since my Starhub often slows to a crawl at night, but other pages are loading fine.
  • The large array of options may prove insurmountable; some children would spend all their time searching through the palettes and never finish their strip.
  • Text doesn't wrap; you need to hit returns to keep the text within the pane as you type.
  • There may be objectionable cartoons on the site. There is a gallery of strips created by other users.
  • Site requires an email address to register.

Now it's your turn. What online comic creation apps have I missed? Do you have experience using any of these programs with students? Any words of wisdom to share?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Need Your Suggestions for Photo Sharing Sites

One of my colleagues sent me the following request ...
Would you be willing to throw out a request for input from your Twitter/blog/facebook/whatever community and ask them if they could recommend the best photo sharing service out there? I’m looking for something to suggest to groups of people who have large amounts of photos or other files that they wish to share – cross platform etc. For example, for my house building trip, people want to pool their photos and have access to the originals. But this is also a huge need for Interim trips, and other school groups. I would even be willing to pay for a corporate account to something. Any feedback from your web mavens and gurus would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks!


Any suggestions for him? I'd love to show him the power of personal learning networks by presenting him with a bunch of helpful suggestions from all of you. Thank you in advance for any advice you can give him.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What Was the Gateway Drug to your PLN?

I was sitting in on Kim Cofino's amazing session at the Teach IT 2007 conference here in Singapore. Her topic was Developing the Global Student: Practical Ways to Infuse 21st Century Literacy Skills in Your Classroom. I could blog for a month on all the compelling ideas she presented, but for now I'll just tease apart one idea that she sent skittering across my brain.

Part of her presentation had her showing teachers how to choose the best Web 2.0 tool for the job. As she discussed social networking, she dropped a comment about her personal learning network (PLN) only being 1.5 years old. My jaw dropped as I realized she was right. How could something that had only been part of my life for less than two years feel like such an essential part of me?

That brought to mind Alan Levine's post titled Twitter The Gateway Drug. I laughed out loud when I read the title, and I DO think time away from Twitter brings on drug-like withdrawals. Just this week I felt myself twitching a bit as conference prep kept me away.

Thinking about what Kim and Alan were saying I realized a few things. First, my personal learning network has been around much longer than Twitter or Ning. I think it actually started in the mid- 1990's when I scored my first Internet account as part of a grant that had me teaching science and math teachers about radical new tools like email and Mozilla and Netscape. It was around that time I joined the TAWL listserv for teachers applying whole language. I gained valuable knowledge and a sense of community from belonging to that group. Within a few years of that, I joined the EdTech listserv and I still make use of that group today when wresting with tech problems or questions.

That was probably the extent of my online learning network until fall 2003 0r 2004 when Kent installed NetNewsWire Lite on my computer. It had a directory of blogs and although I didn't know what a blog was, I started poking around in the education and technology sections and found one by a passionate writer who was blogging about educational blogging. I'd never heard of him before but his passion for the topic, for the educational potential of blogs hooked me. Soon I was reading Will Richardson's Weblogg-ed blog a few times a week and started to expand my blog roll, started to comment on other people's posts. By spring of 2005 Will's blog had convinced me I needed to be doing this with students, and this blog was born.

Much to my amazement Will himself promoted my blog and soon other educational bloggers like Bud Hunt and Clarence Fisher started leaving comments on my blog. You should have seen the happy dance I did in my living room in KL when I was listening to one of Bud Hunt's podcasts that spring and he mentioned my blog online. I admit it-- I reversed the podcast and listened to it again (and again), amazed that someone in Colorado was reading and podcasting about what I had to say.

For the next few years, blogs were really the center of my PLN. They still are the biggest chunk of it, the part that most informs my practice. Podcasts are also a huge part of my PLN. As my job has left me less leisure time, podcasts entertain and inform me as I wash dishes, work out, and ride the train.

Chat and VOIP are peripheral parts of my PLN. I am not exaggerating when I say that I had Skype on my computer years before I had anyone to Skype with -- the down side of being an early adopter, or just a geek with few social skills? Now, I find that I mostly use Skype in my PLN when we are in Twitter or even Gchat and we start having a real discussion and need a smoother tool in which to have it. I also use Skype a lot when testing out other web apps with friends. We chat in Skype while trying to get the tool working.

In the past year, my PLN has expanded to include Ning and Twitter. Ning is still only peripheral. I think it has tremendous potential but at first it was too slow to access here in Singapore. Even now that it has RSS and is faster to use, I still have to make myself go there and check my networks, interact with them. Something about it isn't a good fit with my own learning process or flow. I also find its navigation cumbersome but I keep going back because I know at some point it is going to click for me.

Twitter eluded me for a long time. I think it was some time last year that I joined, or maybe I just looked at it and didn't join until this year. The reason I question if it is a gateway drug, is that Twitter seems to work best when you already have a PLN. You add those people to your Twitterverse, and then see who they follow to expand your own list.

When I first started using Twitter, I had very few people on my follow list, and most of them were in North America so they were Twittering when I was asleep. Now I have Twitterific so my tweets appear every few minutes on my desktop without me needing to refresh a web page, and I follow more people who are in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, so I am able to be part of real-time twittering rather than reading old tweets after the fact. I also follow more North Americans who seem to never sleep because they are twittering when I am online (I'm talking about you Jennifer Wagner, Chris Craft, John Pederson, Dean Shareski, and D'Arcy Norman!) That has brought Twitter to life and let me leverage its potential.

Now I am constantly amazed at how much I learn from Twitter. From the Alan Duke webcast to a ridiculous amount of just-in-time learning, it channels me to resources that inform my practice. Faster than any other tool in my PLN, it helps me know the people in my PLN on a different level, somehow a more superficial and more personal level as their tech journeys are interspersed with tweets about a daughter's engagement or a relative's illness.

I enjoy Twitter so much that I was confused to find something about it niggled me. I couldn't quite figure out what that was until I read Kathy Sierra's post Is Twitter TOO Good?...

Twitter scares me. For all its popularity, I see at least three issues: 1) it's a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines. 2) The strong "feeling of connectedness" Twitterers get can trick the brain into thinking its having a meaningful social interaction, while another (ancient) part of the brain "knows" something crucial to human survival is missing. 3) Twitter is yet another--potentially more dramatic--contribution to the problems of always-on multi-tasking... you can't be Twittering (or emailing or chatting, of course) and simultaneously be in deep thought and/or a flow state.
I'm trying to sort out if this niggle is a legacy brain sort of thing or from some other cause. I'll leave you to chew on that.

So now it is your turn...
What was the gateway drug to your PLN?

Excellent Webcast on New Literacies by Allan Luke

This morning, I was fortunate enough to be online when Jo McLeay Twittered about finding a webcast by Allan Luke focusing on New Literacies. I had never heard of Allan Luke before, but now I'll be seeking out more information. The web cast really made me think-- and that is not an easy thing to do on Sunday mornings. Not ready to write about it, need to keep chewing on it in my head.

Every Wonder How Google Works?

Here is a quick visual explanation of what happens when you start a query using Google. It won't tell you the secrets behinds its search algorithm, but I found the process interesting and this site makes it visually appealing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Game and an Easy Click to Fight Hunger

In case you haven't heard, there is a new, free, fun online game that just might increase your students' (or your) vocabulary and fight world hunger at the same time.

Free Rice provides 10 grains of rice for each word you correctly define. The grains appear in the rice bowl on the screen. The rice is paid for by the advertisers at the bottom of the screen.

As I write this, my partner Kent has probably fed an entire village one meal because he has a huge vocabulary and likes to play computer games. Of course, because he is so good at it, the words are getting more difficult to define. The game has artificial intelligence to adjust the difficulty level. Get three right at one level and it goes up to the next level. Get some wrong and it drops back down.

This is the kind of game to leave open on a computer in your classroom. See how full the bowl can be by the end of each day. No need to belabor the point that your students are also helping themselves while they help others.

Another easy way to fight hunger is to visit TheHungerSite.com. Click the button on the page and the advertisers pay for one+ cups of food for people in places struck by famine. No registration, no spam, just click each day and make a difference.


And while you are there, why not click the tabs across the page to visit the other click sites. One fights breast cancer by providing mammograms to women who can't afford them. Another provides basic health care for needy children. One supports literacy by providing books to children. One purchases rainforest land to preserve the rainforests of the world. The final one allows you to provide a bowl of food for an animal at a shelter.


These are all easy steps that any child or adult can take to make a difference. You could easily add them to your class website during specific units. For example, my fourth grade classes are studying rainforest and we need to be careful to not overwhelm the students will all the bad news about deforestation, extinction of species. Having them click each day on the rainforest site can give them an immediate way to feel like they are part of the solution.

My third grade classes study basic human needs and usually gather funds for the Heifer Project. This year, I'll suggest that they add clicking on TheHungerSite as part of their efforts.

Note: I think the site tracks IP address, so having your entire class take turns clicking from your computer may only count as one click. Might be better to do this in the lab or as homework-- and you can also click once a day from your classroom computer.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

HTML + IWB = True Love

Last year, I was pleased with the success of the web design unit I did with my fourth and fifth graders, but I wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between me teaching them a tag, and them successfully using it, especially early on in the unit before they "got" it.

One thing I tried was to insist that they split their screen. On one half was their Notepad document where they were coding their page, and on the other side was WebMonkey so they could be looking at the lesson, referring to the codes. For some there came an "Aha!" moment and then they took off, looking at codes, trying them out, tweaking them. They had learned to learn and I was thrilled to have launched them down that road.

For others, I felt like I was just outside of the Zone of Proximal Development. There would be momentary glimmers, but not enough spark for it to catch. The HTML was too abstract for them.

This year, I have a Promethean interactive whiteboard in my lab. I felt I was under-utilizing it until this unit began. Now it has become essential. Right from the first day, I used it to help the kids start being aware of file extensions, since this is the first time some of them had to type them in.

I created a simple matching exercise with the extensions on one side, and the file type on the other. When they paired the file type with its extension, the white hidden text appeared "magically" in the black box where the extensions were. The kids named this "the X-ray thing!" and keep asking for more such activities.

As important as their enthusiasm for this type of activity is its effectiveness. I taught the same concept last year, but it didn't stick. This year, after that one brief activity, when I say. "File extension, remember, the file's last name?" I get instant nods and looks of recognition, and if someone is adding a photo to their web page and it isn't working, I can say, "Did you remember to add the extension to the file name?" and instead of a blank stare, they'll glance at the screen and say, "Oh! That's the problem."

Next, I introduced the concept of tags and taught them the four key tags that must be on every web page. Then they practiced putting these tags in place by dragging them around on the IWB. I don't know if it is the large muscle movement helping to make the abstract concept more concrete, or the fact that since so many kids want a turn at the board, that we spend more time in guided practice before they try it on their own. Whatever the reason, it is working. When the kids leave the group area and head to their computers, I'd say 2/3 of them now seem to know what to do, compared with 1/3 after the first lesson last year.

I am only referring to fourth graders who haven't done any coding; my returning fifth graders have amazed me with what they retained. I do think many of them didn't get it last year, but as so often happens between fourth and fifth grade, things that seemed beyond them as fourth graders, be it editing their work, reflecting on their learning, or writing HTML code, they suddenly seem to understand it when they return as fifth graders. That was one of the many reasons I love teaching a combined fourth/fifth grade classroom for so many years back in the US. If I'd only taught fourth, I have never know that the lessons did finally take root, they just had a long gestation period.

As we move into more complex tags, the IWB has continued to be a powerful tool. As I mentioned in the previous post, the tag we use to insert graphics into web pages, is long and confusing. Kids often leave off a bit of it or put the bits in the wrong order. As I pondered how to make them more successful, I created a number of flip chart pages around this tag. The first page introduced the tag. Then in a large font size, it showed the tag as it would need to be typed. I colored coded it so I could point out what they were likely to forget, which parts were easy to accidentally flip, etc.


The next page was a matching activity so they could match the parts of the code with each part's purpose. To keep everyone engaged, I had the student who were sitting in the audience be ready to give each try a thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate whether or not they agreed.

The final page had all the tags we had already learned in their proper places, and then all the pieces of the image source tag waiting to be inserted. That was a real challenge; sometimes it took the entire class working together to correctly assemble that line of code, but every class eventually succeeded. And in the work time after that, students had good success, and were very willing to help each other until everyone had an image on their web page.

Adding the IWB to this unit has been a positive experience all the way around. The students seem to be learning the content more easily and are clearly engaged. I'm learning to use the IWB. Life is Good.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Return of the WebMonkey

Last year, my web design unit with my fourth and fifth graders went on forever. I started it in Front Page, which is how it had been done for a few years at my school. I was new to Front Page. After working with it with my students for a few weeks I decided that...

  1. It had too much propriety Microsoft stuff in it.

  2. It was too temperamental.

  3. The kids weren't learning much of value.

For me, #3 was the kicker. I felt they weren't learning much because they were already comfortable users of Microsoft Word, and much of Front Page feels very Word-ish. And the parts that don't feel Word-ish are their own strange Front Page thing that won't help the kids anywhere else in life.

And so, I decided to teach them to code. Never mind that I was far from adept at coding, I just dove in.

Fortunately, I used a site called Web Monkey as my starting place with the children. It steps through the basics of web design with irreverence and a blue monkey with a hammer-- Who could ask for more?

We are using that site again this year, but more as a reference than a read and follow it step-by-step type of thing. Older or more experienced students could do that, but most of my 9-11-year-olds find that too daunting at first.

Thus far, this has been our sequence...

Lesson 1: Intro to HTML
We start with quick look at the idea of HTML, including the concept of tags. They then open Notepad and add the html and body opening and closing tags, add a few words to the body, and then learn where and how to save it. At this point, a miracle happens (at least in their minds.) Their simple text document now has an Internet Explorer icon and when they double-click it, they can see their web page. Life is Good.

Lesson 2: Body Tags
The next week, after learning how to right-click, and the "Open with Notepad" their index.html file, they learn how to expand the body tag so that they can change their pages background color and text color. When I show them the handy chart of the 216 web-safe colors with their hexadecimal codes, you'd have thought I was showing them photos of Eden given the reverent "Oohs!" that are heard around the room, soon followed by genuine happy dances of joy as their pages change color.

In addition to the bgcolor and text tags, I teach them the font color tag. They oblige by joyfully creating truly garish text color combinations on their pages-- we'll deal with tasteful design after this pure joy has worn off.

Next I challenge them to figure out how to change the font tag to change the size of certain words. They leave feeling very clever and talk web design all the way back to their homeroom.


Lesson 3: Adding Images

The img src tag is a real challenge for lots of reasons, including...
  • it's length
  • the tricky words (is it img src or img scr? Most kids choose the latter for some reason.)
  • the need for quotation marks (which are easily forgotten)
  • the need for us to use ../ because we are on a network
  • the need to put the images inside their web folder
  • the need to know the file extension on the image.
A typical image tag ends up looking like this:
img src="../susans/images/cardinal.gif"

They thought back ground tags were bad, so this is a bit daunting. However, I have carefully prepared a folder of animated GIF images for them to copy and use. The anticipation of having a flapping butterfly, a barking dog or a flaming, flying dragon on their web page pushes even the most reluctant to persevere.

I use my "first dones" as experts and soon everyone has an image on their page. As they leave class, I usually hear a few scheming to go online and find images of something they are passionate about, such as Runescape characters.-- Means I need to have the "Can't use copyrighted images on something we are posting online" talk soon, but not today.

For a few classes who were ready for it, I gave them the optional homework of going to Flaming Text to create a banner for their page. They need to put the image into their Digital Dropbox in Blackboard to get it to school, thus reinforcing a skill I've been helping them learn.


Lesson 4: Messing With Text
In which we emphasis text using b and i or em tags. Then we learn to move text and other elements around the page using the p and p align tags. Finally we explore headlines and agree that it is vexing that with the font size tag, larger numbers create bigger text, but with the headline tags, H1 makes a larger headline than H6.

We'll go on from there, but I'll stop writing this for now. It is such a delight to teach my students something that they find so meaningful and engaging. The rest of us may argue that "real" webmasters don't code by hand. However, my students see this as an important way to spend their time. A number of them have gone home and on their own created a simple page. I wasn't offering extra credit; they did this for their own delight. If only everything was this fun to learn...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Vision of Students Today

Michael Wesch has done it again, and done it well.




He's a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University and he created this video with his students. Or maybe I should say that his students created it with him, since it came out of a Google Doc worked on by all 200 of them. Like his previous video, The Machine is Us/ing Us, he shows some of the implications of Web 2.0.

At the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai, Will Richardson encouraged us to look at conversations outside of education to inform our practice and help us envision the needed changes. He made me realize how much of what I read has been written by classroom teachers, which is good, but limiting.

Being a cultural anthropologist, Michael Wesch brings a different perspective to the issue of 21st Century Literacy. For example, in "The Machine is US/ing Us", he starts out showing how digital text is different than printed text and then goes on to show the implications of that, how it has changed and is changing the world. By the end, he is pushing us to reconsider key definitions of copyright, and even family.

This new video is yet another push that I need to start making changes. I do all this reading and thinking, but not much acting. I was much more constructive and progressive as a classroom teacher than I am as a technology coordinator. Part of that is due to the tremendous learning curve I went through last year working in a new school in a new country on a platform new to me. Part of it is working in such a large school. As a classroom teacher, I could still close my door and move ahead on my own, if need be. Now I am a coordinator trying to move 50+ teachers and more than 800 students forward.

Those are all valid excuses, but they are still excuses. As I get a better handle on this job, one of my obstacles now is empathizing too much with the classroom teachers. They are so stressed, always working so hard, that I am loathe to add more to their load. I too clearly remember the heavy feeling of not being able to add one more thing to my schedule without imploding.

When I was a classroom teacher, I turned to tech in part because it made my job easier, and also because I was finding it the most effective way to make the curriculum more engaging and meaningful. When I was a technology integration specialist in Malaysia, with some teachers I was able to share this vision, help them move along. I think most would did so would admit that it didn't exactly make their job easier, but it was such a powerful learning tool that it was worth the effort. [I find it interesting that the projects I created with them were much richer, more worthwhile than the projects I did as prep activities. All I can say is that I was new to the job and kept teaching the outcomes, even though the outcomes were too skills based.]

So, it looks like my challenge this year, is to keep pondering the messages of Michael Wesch, Karl Fisch's "Did You Know?", and Kim Cofino's definition of 21st Literacy Century, to make me passionate enough about all of this that I DO feel justified in adding on to the teacher's burdens. Hopefully I'll find a way to keep it from being a burden to them. Either way, that's my job. I'd better get to it!


Thanks to Bud Hunt for Tweeting about it. (How exactly, should we credit Tweet sources? It there an APA citation format for Twitter yet?)

Friday, October 12, 2007

The K12 Online Meme - Three Things I Hope to Get Out of the Conference

Participate in the free K12 Online Conference

The K12 Online Conference has begun! They started a meme to help publicize the event. Here's my response.

1. Watching the dialogue develop- Many of the bloggers I follow are presenting at this conference. I'm interesting in hearing what's new in their thinking, what new steps their thoughts have taken.

2. Professional Development with/for Learning 2.0 - I know how tremendously web 2.0 technologies have impacted my own professional development. As a tech coordinator, I am struggling to provide PD for my staff that helps them move ahead, and embrace these technologies, both because they make the curriculum more engaging, and because at the moment, our students are getting left behind.

3. Practical Knowledge and New Frontiers - After attending the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai, my staff is starting to bring these disruptive technologies into their curriculum. I want to be well informed to help them do this. I also want to have my own thinking pushed.

Krabi

Oh Dear,

I am on holiday in Krabi, Thailand, enjoying the sun, sand and surf. I had looked forward to finally doing some substantial blogging while here since I'd have time to really reflect and write. Instead, I've been watching the tide roll in and out. I've never really done that before. It might sound a bit like watching paint dry, but it holds my attention.


Also spent low tide climbing around on rocks, exploring mud flats and tide pools-- who'd have thought so much could be living in the water in crevices in boulders?


After that, someone had to check out and follow the animal tracks in the sand. Do rats live on beaches? If not, what four-footed critters with feet the size of rats live on beaches in Thailand?

I couldn't come this far and not swim in the blue-green water and comb the beach, and eat dinner near the shore watching amazing sunsets while local guys play a mean game of soccer on the beach.



In the evening we had a massage and ate ice cream and watched "Return of the King" for at least the sixth time (and it was still good.)

Tomorrow we head back to Singapore, where I'll get to publish this post and maybe even add a photo or two. No words of wisdom besides these... Go spend some time by the sea.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Custom Typing

Last year I realized that our keyboarding program was not meeting our needs. The problem wasn't the software or instruction, it was the lack of access to the computers. Typing is better learned in shorter sessions many times per week than one long session of equivalent length. (There is research to support that statement, but it is back in Minnesota in my Hamline materials, instead of here where I need it. Just call it packing mistake #236.) Unfortunately, our lab spaces are maxed out as it is, no chance to get the classes in more often. And since we are stuck in the tech integration-as-prep-time mode, I can't front end load extra typing sessions early in the year. Therefore, a home option seems best.

This week, I'm introducing my fourth and fifth grade classes to Custom Typing. It is an online subscription typing program. We piloted it last year and were pleased with the students' progress. I was also pleased by the great customer service we received. We usually received a useful response within 24 hours. This fall, I was able to upload the accounts via a database file. It was a life saver as I created more than 700 accounts.

This year I made it available to any fourth or fifth grade class as long as the teacher agreed to...
  • assign it as homework for at least 3 nights per week
  • monitor student progress on a regular basis
  • become familiar enough with the program that they can provide student support for basic problems.
This introductory lesson that I taught this week has the kids logging in, choosing an animated coach, choosing a background, and going through the introduction. They loved choosing the coach and the backgrounds. They found the intro deadly dull. They found the initial exercises long, but most were able to complete their first quiz. They needed a score of 61, but most has a score over 100. That was just the hook they needed.

Of course, it is not free of problems. One problem is that the workstations at their homes were probably set up for adults, not children. Fortunately, the site has a good ergonomics section built in. It has helpful photos to supplement the kid-friendly text. Some teachers are making it an assignment to view that section and report back on how their home workstation measures up.

Another problem is that children are unlikely to voluntarily cover the keyboard to prevent peeking. However, this program works well enough that the students in the pilot last year did get past the peeking stage. Each exercise is long enough that they stop looking since they "know" the keys.

I asked the teacher to attend this first session so I could get them up to speed with the program. Initially I had not set up student accounts for the teachers themselves, but a number of them asked for them, so I made them for everyone. Teachers us a different login to get to the student accounts and records. I didn't get much feedback from them. I'm sure they wished they could be having their prep time instead, but they are great sports and attended anyhow.

Next I need to create the support materials for teachers to send home, and to help teachers generate student reports. At least the children have all been able to log in and seem to be enjoying it.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Blogger Play

Think of the times you've been home sick. Too sick to do any school work or even read, but you've slept for 14 hours and need to be awake for a while. You turn to TV and are amazed to find that despite have 70 channels, there's nothing to watch.

Your salvation has arrived from an unlikely source... Blogger. They have released a feature they've had in-house for years. Go to

http://play.blogger.com/

and you can watch the photos being uploaded to Blogger blogs.

Now, you may be thinking this sounds like torture, a play on the old, "Come over and watch our travel slideshow." However, you'd be wrong. What you see is an amazingly diverse stream of photos. In a few minutes of watching I saw teens mugging for the camera, the Sydney opera house, a wedding photo, a grinning dog lounging in a backyard, kids on a soccer field, scrapbooking papers, food, and of course, a few ads.

In our media-rich lives, it is almost refreshing that there is no sound track. Of course, I have iTunes streaming Radio Margaritaville through our AirTunes.

I wonder if you uploaded a photo to your Blog and had this sit in a different tag, if you'd see your own photo go by, or if it is just grabbing one as the previous one finishes showing. If you figure that out, let me know.

So, the next time you are home sick, or needing a break, a visual meditation, give it a try.

Flock 9 is full of Web 2.0 Goodness

I need to work on our WASC report tonight and finish lesson planning, so no real time to blog. However, I did download the newest version of the Flock web browser and I am impressed.

From the start, Flock has tried to be a Web 2.0 web browser. This version takes a big leap in that direction. It has a My World tab that gives me one click access to my Flickr, YouTube, Blogger, Wordpress and other online homes. It posts to my blogs. It uploads my photos to Flickr.

It has a decent RSS reader. I like that I can easily toggle between full posts and teasers. It also has a similar feature for different types of media. As always, it is blazing fast at loading pages-- much faster than Firefox on my Mac or IE on my HP.

It has a blog post editor which has tabs to access the source code and a preview. No image upload in it that I can see, but otherwise it looks good. Strange that it won't talk to my Flickr, but I suppose that is too controlled by the blogging platform of my host.

And unlike it's early, early versions, it's been stable all afternoon since I installed it. Hopefully that will continue.

Go ahead. Give it a look and let me know what you think.

Blogged with Flock

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Free Conferencing/Training Platform?

Tomorrow I'll be meeting with our part time math coach. She is ending her first session on campus as she helps us implement our Everyday Math program adoption.

On her agenda for our meeting is our school's Web-Ex set up. That part of the meeting should be short, since we don't HAVE a Web-Ex set up.

Okay, maybe that answer won't quite fly. I need one that will. We don't have big online conferencing/training needs, don't offer any courses online. Most of the time when a vendor wants to conference with us, they have Elluminate or some similar tool. Therefore, I'm not looking for something that requires a subscription.

For the past hour I've been poking around. Since I haven't met with her yet, my best understanding is that the math coach want's to run little training sessions online. At minimum, I'm expecting she wants participants to be able to see a Powerpoint-style presentation while being able to hear her. More likely, she wants them to be able to converse.

Zoho may partially meet our need. Part of their suite is Zoho Show, an online presentation tool. Within it you can imbed meeting slides that allow the participants to actually see the presenter's desktop. I'm trying to test it right now and it isn't loading, but that is likely due to half of Singapore being online right now.

Zoho may work for the visuals, but we'd need something like Skype going for the audio. It would work best in our IT conference room where we have a conferencing phone system. However, some of the telephones at work have a speaker feature as well.

Another option for the visuals may be Google Presentations. They were announced on Google's blog yesterday. You can use it to co-create a presentation. She can also share it online. Like Zoho's tool, you invite participants to come view it. It has a chat client in the sidebar, which might work better than audio Skype for the participants. Easier for everyone to follow the discussion and there would be a transcript to refer back to afterwards.

Unfortunately, I couldn't test that one either. It crashed my computer at work a few hours ago. However, that may have been the result of huge numbers of people testing it, since it was just announced yesterday.

So, what other free options are out there? If you've used one I'd like to hear about it. I'd like recommendations of what to use, and what to avoid.

(BTW, a big THANKS to D'Arcy Norman and Chris Craft for Twittering about Google Presentations. That's how I heard about it just as I was starting my online search for such a tool. How perfect is that?)

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Learning 2.0 Conference Has Begun

Okay, I admit it. I feel like a groupie. There on the stage, not more than 50 feet away, are Jamie McKenzie, Alan November, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Wes Fryer, Will Richardson and Jeff Utect. Amazing. I get to spend this weekend learning from these educators. Doesn't quite seem real to look up from my Thai green curry at dinner and see Will walk by. We are sitting next to the Brainpop rep.

I have such high hopes for this weekend. I am hoping it helps us all see the shift that Will is discussing tomorrow. (Yeah, I'm a lazy tech coordinator who is hoping this weekend can jump start the fire among my great staff. Rather than waiting for me to start it.)

And so it begins...

Need Email Addresses for your Students?

Just read in the T.H.E. SmartClassroom Newsletter...

ePals Delivers Free E-Mail, Blogging for Schools

Education technology provider ePals is making its formerly subscription-based services available to schools free of charge. These services, available to all schools around the world, include SchoolMail, SchoolBlog, and In2Books.

Read More:
http://www.1105newsletters.com/ppezoon_rlswaslr.html

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Blogging from Shanghai?!

I am surprised to be writing this. Last night when I tried to access Blogger, I received a "Page Not Found" error. I assumed it was because I am here in Shanghai and that Blogger is still a blocked site here. However, tonight I find I can get in.

Yesterday, the other technology coordinators, the director of technolgy, and I flew to Shanghai. Since each of the tech coordinators works in a different division, we rarely see each other outside of our weekly meeting. Having this time together, even the informal times over meals, is a real boon in terms of team building and new ideas. Spending time with all of them is a treat.

Spent a great day today seeing the sites. We bought knock-off goods in the morning, drank good Paulaner beer for lunch, and went up in the Orient Pearl Tower this evening. Now we are contemplating massages. Life is Good.

Eagerly anticipating the start of the conference tomorrow night. As a tech person, I'm used to attending the big EARCOS conference and trying to find a few worthwhile tech sessions. Being here at Learning 2.0 where the entire thing is tech feels to good to be true.

I feel especially fortunate that 10 teachers from my division are attending the conference. I hope it gets them excited and gives them ideas for how to bring Learning 2.0 to their classrooms.

It all starts tomorrow evening...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Really Getting Started with IWBs

Last year my division purchased six SmartBoards as a pilot project. We had months of hardware compatibility issues. By the time they were resolved, the Director of Technology had decided that due to technical support issues here, we would switch to Promethean instead. We were able to swap out 1 Smartboard for every x number of Prometheans purchased. As a result, I know have 8 teachers with Promethean boards and four with Smartboards.

I've been trying to get my brain around how to support these teachers. They are such skilled teachers and have had basic instruction in using the boards, so I didn't want to waste their time on mundane things they could figure out themselves. However, even more so than most groups, this group has a wide skill range. One is a tech integration specialist. Two others have served as technology coordinators in other schools. They are more skilled with the boards than I am at the moment.

At the other end of the spectrum are users who just received their boards this week, have had little time to experiment, and some are not naturally geeks, they don't do this for fun. How was I to plan an inservice that met their needs?

And how should we organize? I have teachers from each grade level, plus a tech specialist and an enrichment teacher. Two of the grade levels have both types of boards in the team. The boards each have their own software, and projects made in one cannot be used on the other. It was not obvious to me how to group them to best effect.

It is difficult to get time during the school day, but I received permission to pull them all from their classrooms for all of Friday afternoon. Since we may not get many other large chunks of time, I was really struggling on how best to use the time. Last year I attended a workshop and built into the workshop was time to look at the resources that were presented. That sounds obvious, but usually I walk home from workshops with a pile of resources I don't have time to look at. I wanted to build some of that time into this work time.

I decided to use a portion of the afternoon to give them a chance to assess what they still needed to learn and to explore their options. I used Wikispaces to create an IWB wiki. It contains links to training resources, lesson resources and good interactive web sites. It also has a page devoted to Del.icio.us. I had the Delicious toolbar buttons put in this year's build. This is the first group I've taught to use it. Some people really took to it. It was my hope that they could use it to find what other people have tagged with IWB or smartboard or promethean. We found some good resources that way and soon my teachers were tagging away. I also hoped we could use our own sasiwb tag to share resources with each other. Not sure that will work, but it was worth a try.

Next they explored the training options. Some were delighted to just start at the beginning and work their way back through tutorials. They were pleased to discover how much they already knew. One signed on for the free Promethean course taught via Moodle. He was zipping through the lessons. Others felt they didn't need that and spent more time in Del.icio.us or explored the lesson resources in the wiki.

After that, we went around and each person shared their experiences thus far this year using the board. That was a good use of our time. You could feel the energy in the room build as people gained new ideas from colleagues. The third grade teachers commented that since the primary computer teachers had the boards last year, their students have come up knowing how to use the boards and were proving to be great support as these teachers found their way.

From there, I asked them to figure out how they wanted to organize into ongoing working groups. In the end, all three grade levels decided to work with their grade-level colleagues, but all the teachers were adamant that they wanted to continue to meet all together for work sessions because they gained so much from the other groups.

One grade decided to continue working on tutorials and to start looking for flipchart resources for upcoming social studies lessons. Another group was finding that their most powerful lessons with the board so far had involved interactive websites, or tools from the gallery such as compass and protractors. They wanted to spend time locating interactive sites that they could use with their current units. Since all our teachers have data projectors, they envisioned being able to share those resources with colleagues who do not have an IWB. This year we gave all classrooms a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse set, so they can be up by their screens rather than back by their computers when they use the data projectors. That makes using interactive sites much more effective.

Another grade had four people, two on each platform. They decided to still meet all together because they were getting such good ideas from each other. One teacher has really been using his board well in the week he's had it. Between interactive web sites that supported his current math unit, and just bringing the kids to the board to write their thinking on a math problem, he already has a bank of useful lessons saved. He is finding that having students come to the board to show their thinking, and then saving that page as a PDF allows him to save it and share it with all colleagues. It is no longer editable, but it is a great record of what they did. He can put it in Blackboard for the students to refer to. It makes me think a bit of Mr. Kuropatwa's class scribes.

These teachers were very focused on how to support their colleagues who receive boards next year. When I commented that we didn't know that we would expand this project to include other teachers because we hadn't yet seen that it was a success, they acted like I was crazy. To them it is obvious that all the teachers need these boards.

I am not yet convinced. My board was installed last week and so I used it in minimal ways with the kids for the lessons that were already planned. The kids are mesmerized, eager to use it. That in itself is worth something. I am wondering if for most of my teachers, taking hours to construct a flipchart that is only used for ten minutes is not the way to go. Interactive web sites, and just using the gallery tools as needed in lessons may be a better use of there time.

We are also fortunate that with our new Everyday Math adoption, two of the three grade levels purchased the interactive lessons CD-ROMs for all the teachers. This has the full TE and all the student journals, homework pages and other materials. Teachers are able to pull up a student work page and display it on the IWB and work on it for the class to see.

Yes, if you made a transparency of every page, and didn't lose them, you could accomplish the same thing with an overhead projector, but not quite. These seems a powerful tool.

I wonder if the actual board software might not be more powerful in the hands of the students. Rather than having them create yet another Powerpoint, they could create much more powerful demonstrations of their learning with the layering options the board presents. And they could make their presentations more interactive, and therefore more engaging.

I am also wondering if for our primary students, could the board be an effective way to help children move from concrete to symbolic stage with a concept, since it is a very movable symbolic representation?

All in all, I still feel that I'm not giving them enough direction. They are such skilled teachers that they will do good things with it despite my lack of leadership. I'm hoping that in Shanghai I'll glean words of wisdom from teachers who've been using the board for years. One session is devoted to sharing just that sort of wisdom. Whatever happens, I feel good to finally have this project launched.

I'd love to hear from other people with great resources or IWB training tips to share.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Return of the Geek Girl

First six weeks back at work have been a blur. Not quite in the clear yet, but truly needed some down time, so I spent today on the sofa with the cats. They napped while I started to reconnect with my online life.

First, I peaked at a few of the 1608 unread posts in my blog roll. I know I'll realistically never get time to read all of those, but here a a quick few that have me thinking.
  • Doug Johnson over at Blue Skunk blog has an intriguing post about what his next card catalog needs. It is full of web 2.0 goodness and I think many of the items on his list are needed in more places than just the library card catalog.
  • Cool Cat teacher Vicki Davis has a post about a new online contest in which students create You Tube videos about preventing the spread of flu (as in infectious disease, not magical powder that lets wizards transport from place to place). My school now has a You Tube channel but it is languishing away unused. Now I'm itching to start using it in this type of way.
  • The upcoming Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai has a blog. I hadn't checked it in a while. It was a treat to read through it and see the huge number of presentations that I want to attend. I need to clone myself to do justice to the 45 pages of presentations listed in the program.
And speaking of the Learning 2.0 conference, I spent a bit of time joining the conference Ning, inviting conference attendees to join my network, and creating a blog in my profile. Ning still seems a bit slow, but I'm more comfortable with it now than I was last spring when I first joined the Classroom 2.0 Ning network. Back then it was so slow (at least when used from Singapore) that I gave up on it.

Another social networking tool that the conference is employing is Twitter. Interestingly enough, I first heard about the conference via a tweet by Jeff Utecht. I had played around with Twitter last spring, but I can't access it at work, and most the people I follow in it are in in North American, so not many tweets come through when I am online. However, I just downloaded the new Twitterific. I'd tried out a previous version last spring, but it was buggy. this new version seems much more stable.

Finally, I spent some time in Facebook. I joined last summer to see what all the fuss was about. At that time, not many people I knew were using it actively, and I didn't have time or interest to use it for finding new ones.

Now a few more friends are in there, and through them I'm discovering fun apps to add in, and groups to join. The latter are interesting. I suspect for teens the groups work. For ed tech adults most of the groups that interested me had hundreds of users and no action. I wonder if it is because people join and then never check back or if some key catalyst is missing to make the reaction take off.

So now it is 7:45 pm. I'm stiff from sitting on the couch all day, but I feel grounded in a way that has been missing for months. This Geek Girl is happy again.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Which Star Wars Character Are You?

My results:
You are Luke Skywalker
You value your friends and loved ones,
but can sometimes act recklessly
because of your emotions.
Occasionally you resort to whining.
You look ahead to great things for yourself.



Which Star Wars character are you?

Click here to take the Star Wars Personality Test

9 Mistakes That Can Kill Your Positive Growth

One problem I've been having is that my my RSS feeds are just too good. I just read the past 36 posts that Doug Johnson made to his Blue Skunk Blog and as usual, I find myself tagging half of them in Del.icio.us. He's just so good at clearly identifying problems and then providing wise solutions.

One of his posts was a recap of a number of items posted on Abram Stephen's Lighthouse blog. It was a look at Henrik Edberg's discussion of 9 Mistakes That Can Kill Your Personal Growth on the Positivity Blog:

9 Mistakes That Can Kill Your Personal Growth
  1. Thinking you already know everything
  2. Being confused by the marketing hype
  3. Not taking action
  4. Giving up
  5. Worrying about/listening to what others think
  6. Dabbling with it
  7. Having unreasonable expectations
  8. Failing to/not wanting to (at least start to) understand yourself
  9. Not taking responsibility for yourself
I want to really look at these, but not at this moment. I hope you find them useful without my chewing on them publicly.

In Which We Begin Posting Lots of Half-Baked Ideas and Things I Want to Keep to Chew on Later

Nope. I'm not dead. Just doing my best imitation of a hamster on a wheel as this amazingly short summer slips by.

It's been a mixed summer...
  • Good times with family and friends, but too little time to spend with each person. I think everyone feels I've neglected them.
  • Up too late most nights spending time with family, and then up too early due to loud birds, house noises, and the need to workout before it's too warm.
  • In fabulously better shape than when summer started, but thanks to not sleeping, and not being patient, I keep pushing the workouts too hard, not listening to my body (or my heart monitor) which leaves me too tired.
  • Almost no napping! That's bad. I really need to return to work rested. I'm not there yet.
  • Just starting my professional reading and work now. Reading about combining UbD with Differentiation, Jamie McKenzie's ideas on tech, questioning, and other pertinent topics, catching up on my backlog of ISTE journals, and finally dipping back into my RSS feeds after being away from my own computer. It's all energizing, but I head back to Singapore in less than a week, will be traveling for a week with friends, and then work starts again on July 30. No time left to digest, to ponder, to reflect. Auuugggghhh!!!!
And so, for the next week, I'll be dumping lots of half-baked thoughts here to clear out my head, keep the ideas for future reflection, etc. May make for uninspiring reading; you've been warned...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Time to Review UbD

One of the many tasks on my summer list is to revisit the tech integration process for the classrooms. Currently, a person from each grade level team develops the plan for the team and submits it to the tech integration specialists for comment. Teachers who didn't want to use the team's plan were free to create their own plan with the tech specialists. In theory, that document becomes my lesson plans for the semester.

This system isn't working very well. One reason is that our students have outgrown our current tech outcomes so the tech plans aren't stretching them. Another reason is that we aren't really following the plans. Teachers tended to run into me in the halls and say, "Oh! This week could we..." Or else they feel guilty that they aren't giving me better information. Surprisingly good integration was occurring, but it was despite the integration plans, not because of them. And so, I knew I needed to spend time this summer on how to improve the system.

I'd like to come at it from the other direction. It doesn't make much sense to me that teachers are creating the tech plans and then submitting them to use for comments. After all, I am the tech specialist. I should be helping them come up with the integration. However, I was struggling for a framework to use.

Fortunately, tonight I started to tackle the backlog in my feed reader. I started with Kim Cofino's Always Learning blog. One post that especially intrigued me discussed how she has switched to using Understanding by Design principles to plan technology integration units with her teachers. In the post she outlines the process she went through to help a self-professed technology dinosaur become a tech immigrant.

Her process is more in-depth than I'll be able to do with my teachers. They are too swamped to sit and plan the entire year's tech integration to that depth. However, I think there are ways to draw in UbD. Good thing I have this summer to mull it over.

However, now I need to pack up for my holiday back in Minnesota. Too much to do here to follow those thoughts now.

Good luck to all you who are finishing up the year. I hope it goes smoothly.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why Moodle Instead of Blackboard?

Jethro over at Mr. Jones' Education Blog asked why I thought Moodle was better than Blackboard. I'm glad to answer but first must say that my Moodle is just MY Moodle. I've never run one for an entire school or entire district. I've never tried to make it talk to the Active Directory. I'm speaking only from a classroom teacher's point of view.

Last year found me back in the classroom after four years as a tech specialist in Malaysia. Being back in the Minnesota public schools was a rough transition. I was in a new school and all the curriculum I was teaching was new to me. I had also switched from teaching wealthy children to teaching children with a much lower socio-economic status. The challenges that poverty brings often left them with little attention for classroom learning. But that's another story.

I set up my Moodle to try to make some of my tasks easier to accomplish. I first bought web space from Go Daddy but didn't have time to learn how to work with the back end SQL (or was it Php?) databases for the Moodle, so I jumped ship and signed up with BlueHost instead. They've been awesome, but originally I chose them based on one good review and because they have Fantastico. That is a helper application on the Bluehost servers that let me install Moodle in just a few clicks. I know it would be FAR wiser to master enough of those databases to be able to install it myself, but being in a new job, time was my least available resource (along with sleep) so I went with easy and it worked. Later in the year I was even able to use Fantastico to install the upgrade and it did so flawlessly. I was probably just lucky, but it worked. And they now have 24/7 live customer support so even if I had trouble here in Singapore I could get support.

My Moodle worked well last year and I didn't really think much about Blackboard until January or so of 2007 as I finally had enough mental space here in Singapore to dig in. I've used Blackboard before when teaching university classes. I've also taken class there with it. In both of those situations, I was using it in a prescribed way so I didn't think much about what else it could or couldn't do. If you want to know how I used my Moodle, just go back and skim my blog starting in January 2006.

Now as I look at it, I'm most disgruntled about the following things. Possibly you can purchase add-0ns or configure the Blackboard in different ways that overcome these problems. These are just the problems as I see them.
  1. No built in options for blogs, wikis, journals, etc. How can something that costs so much not offer those basic tools? And yes, you can purchase add-ons from third-party vendors, but they are expensive and are rudimentary at best, lacking the granular control that a teacher should be able to expect to have by now. For example, there is no draft area for the blogs where only the teacher or a group of reviewers can conference with the blogger before the post goes live. That's a pretty basic requirement and the vendor didn't even see why we'd need that when we spoke with him. There are all sorts of other things I expect from a student blogging platform, but I won't go into them all here. I haven't checked out Moodle's blogs, but I did use its wiki and journal and they worked well for us.
  2. No place for feedback on assignments. With Moodle, I'd have students draft their writing in a word processor and then paste it in to the Assignment module. I could then score it and give feedback. Finding time for meaningful writing conferences with upper elementary students is different. Their writing is getting longer, and more complex. And my group last year was rarely just working quietly while I conferenced with one student. And even if they had worked quietly, it would take days to conference on just one assignment. Writing comments in the evenings in Moodle and then spending class time in the lab really worked. Students would have my comments in the top half of their screens and the piece in the lower half and for many of them, that really worked. It was much more effective than face-to-face conferences, or notes written on their paper. And it persisted. Both the student and I could go back, read my earlier comments. I really miss this feature now that I'm back in Blackboard. Yes, third party add-ons can give Blackboard this ability. But for what Blackboard costs, I think this obvious feature should be native since it is a learning environment. and you could use email, but my students don't have it and the comments wouldn't be right with the assignment.
  3. Journals. Yes, I mentioned this above, but I should clarify. One way I build rapport and encourage students to write is to journal with them. They write to me and I write back. In the past this meant 25 notebooks and lots of me flipping through the books and writing by hand. I HATE writing by hand. It is slow. I make spelling mistakes. I struggle to write neatly. In Moodle I set up each student as their own group. Then we had a private space for journaling. No more me lugging notebooks around or staying late to write in them. Students could (and did) write from home. I could sit with my feet up and the cats curled up nearby and write with 24 on the television. Much better than my classroom where the heat went off at 4 pm. Admittedly, there may be a way with groups to make this happen. Maybe you can set up groups and then journal in the same way. Since I'm not a classroom teacher this year, I didn't check that out.
  4. Easier to navigate. It sure seems to take a lot of clicks to get to where I want to be in Blackboard. My Moodle was more flexible and quicker.
  5. Avitars. Yep. They are a bother, but kids really loved being able to have some way to express their individuality. Moodle lets you have a tiny avatar alongside your posts.
  6. RSS- Why doesn't Blackboard let me set up RSS for the different modules? If it can't do that, why doesn't it at least email me? It has my email address.
If I were still using my Moodle daily, I'm sure I could be much more persuasive. And I'm not using the newest version of Moodle which probably has even more Web2.0 goodness embedded in it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Movies or Essays?

Still making movies with kids. Still loving it.

Still slightly amazed at how quickly most kids have taken to it. Makes me think back to last year when my students were writing their DARE essays. Essays are clearly not something my students spent time reading, which made writing them very difficult. In constrast, my students have been exposed to a great deal of video. I suspect that is why they found this so easy.

And it was the kiddos who had struggled most this year, the ones who still haven't grasped that ALL their documents are stored in their My Documents folder, that made the biggest gains. So many of those kids are the ones who actually got hold a digital camera and used Legos or Bionicles, candy bars or army guys or rubber ducks as their subjects. They took photo after photo of these subjects in different positions. They found a way (CD-ROM, thumb drive, Blackboard, bringing in the camera) to get the photos to school. They narrated the entire video, usually with different voices for different characters. They searched through our collection of royalty-free music to find just the right sound tracks.

All the children seem to enjoy this unit, but these kids are especially delighted and amazed by what they have created. They sit and watch the video again and again. They keep going in and making small tweaks to make the video just right. They are focused and animated in a way I haven't seen all year, although I glimpsed it during our web page unit.

My next step is to put the videos in a location where the classroom teachers can reach them, and offer the viewing of the videos as an activity for those last few days of school. I hope the teachers are as delighted and amazed as the children and I have been. I hope it sends the teachers off on the summer vacation thinking, "I wonder how I can use student-made videos in my curriculum next year?" I'll be asking myself the same question.

Friday, April 20, 2007

BlackBoard Uses in Upper Elementary

I've used Blackboard on and off over the years. I've taken classes that used it, and I've taught courses that used it at the graduate level. At my current school, all classes in the middle and high school divisions must have a Blackboard component to them. If we had to close the school for some reason such as bird flu or haze, those courses would continue in Blackboard with the students checking in from wherever they were in the world.

Our primary school doesn't use Blackboard at all. My intermediate division has made spotty use of it, mostly with grade 5 classes.

This year, with my frantic start in new country, new school, new job; I was happy to just let it sit. My amazing assistant had created and populated a course for each grade 4 and 5 homeroom, but I wasn't pushing the use of it. Fortunately, even without my involvement, its use has began to grow.

First, two fifth grade teachers decided to team, with one teaching all the science and social studies, and the other teaching all the math. They asked if we could somehow change their homeroom courses to also include all the students from the other class. That was done and soon they were making good use of Blackboard. They post due dates, assignments, resources, etc. Students are able to post assignments digitally. It was making their lives easier.

A few months ago, one of the grade four teachers who hadn't used it, decided to create a forum and post a question related to their current read aloud book. Students responded as homework. It was yet another way to approach literacy and the kids liked it. The teacher found he was gaining useful information so he shared it with his colleagues. Soon I was leading an inservice to teach 6 other teachers how to use it and many of them started posting weekly questions.

In one room, this has really taken off. As a lead in to their study of Antarctica, she asked them to post 6 things they new about the area and 6 things they wanted to learn. Within a week, the children had written more than 300 posts in this discussion. As she read through them, she was delighted to find that the 300 posts were high quality, with the children truly having a rich, respectful discussion online.

She was so delighted that she started looking for other ways that Blackboard could enrich her classroom or make her job easier. She started wondering if it could help her schedule her upcoming student-led conferences. She conferred with another teacher and soon she had set up a conference sign-up discussion board. I checked with her today and many of her families have successfully signed up in the past two days. She is delighted. Next she is planning on using our podcast plug-in in Blackboard to create our divisions' first podcasts. I'll keep you posted on how that progresses. She and I will learn much as the project progresses.

I started using Blackboard myself this spring when I realized it could be that missing home-school link that I've been searching for all year. With the homeroom teachers' permission, I made myself an instructor. I am using it in a big way to provide structure and resources in my movie making unit.

I am pleased with how it is working out. Far more students are completing their homework than during our web page design unit. More importantly, they are learning how to use Blackboard which should make moving on to middle school a bit less stressful.

Next year, I plan to introduce Blackboard early on in the year so that we can all reap its benefits earlier. In my heart of hearts, I still wish it were Moodle instead of Blackboard, but that's a battle I'm not going to win here, so I'll content myself with enjoying our small successes with Blackboard.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Dabbling with Movie Maker

Our students are coming up from the primary division so well prepared that we are able to add on to our tech curriculum. We decided add movie making.

I know that teaching children how to make web sites makes it easier to help them view other web sites more critically. My hope is that we will eventually craft this unit so that it helps students learn to express themselves in this media and also become more critical of it.

Our eventual plan is to use...
  • Photostory with third graders using still photos,
  • Windows Movie Maker with fourth grade using still photos
  • Windows Movie Maker with fifth grade using video-- probably the video from digital cameras, not video cameras due to server space limitations
For this year, we are using still photos with all the students as we find our way in this unit, figuring out what does and doesn't work.

Our first idea was to have them use our online photo gallery to gather images to create their own video yearbook. Unfortunately, a bit of experimentation showed us that our online photos are too compressed. The resulting movie becomes too pixelated.

Our Plan B is to let the students chose their topics and use either their own photos, their own drawings, or images from the Creative Commons section of Flickr. In my most advanced classes, I'll also let them bring in video from digital cameras if they have a way to do so.

I wasn't sure how best to help students plan their videos, but a few years ago at a different school I had learned that students need to make a movie before they can successfully plan one. To that end, my fourth and fifth grade classes raided our school's online photo gallery and make very short movies. For most classes, this took two class sessions. The first session had them gathering the digital photos, importing them into Movie Maker, and then adding them to the timeline. The second session was the bells and whistles, such as transitions, video effects, titles and audio.

Throughout the first two sessions I kept stressing that this was a practice movie for them to learn what the program can do. I encouraged them to experiment, not worrying about ruining anything. When they asked me for help, I kept my hands away from the mouse, always asking, "What have you tried?"

Those strategies paid off and the students are quickly achieving more interesting effects than I've managed in my attempts. As with our web page unit, the students are enchanted with what they are able to do and I have to all but haul them out of their chairs at the end of class because they don't want to leave.

Windows Movie Maker is not as stable as I would like; a few students each hour have it crash on them. However, I like that when you are making a project, all your media is inserted as shortcuts. The actual photos and sound aren't pulled in until the project is rendered. This makes it much less processor intensive, much more responsive while we work on the movies.

For our beginning movie makers, this program is a very easy place to start. Since the program is free, many of the children are realizing that they have it at home and are starting to dabble there as well. I think we've got a winner here!