Category: Teaching Tools

Rebuilding a Reader

When I first started getting serious about learning from a lot of smart people about edtech, one of the most important things that I did was fill an RSS reader with blog feeds. First of all, I couldn’t believe the time that I saved by logging in to one site and having all of the things I wanted to read in one place, and second of all, filling a reader with feeds that I was interested in was like having access to a gold mine of smart people from around the world who were thinking deeply about issues that I cared about.

Rebuilding a Reader

Over time, two things happened. The first thing that changed was the time bomb of twitter. While applications like skype had given the edtech community some immediacy in the past, twitter changed things completely. My log in now became a real time conversation with all of those smart people I had been reading. I also found that people started posting links to things they were publishing on their blogs on their twitter account.

My visits to my reader began to fade….

When Google declared war on RSS and the open web by killing off their reader it was a heavy blow for deep thinking and for blogging. At first, I didn’t miss it. I still had twitter after all. But over time, I began to realize that relying on twitter only for what I was going to read and learn was like relying on the remote control of my TV. It put me too much at the whim of other people and things I just happened to see. I had a great form of synchronous communication, but I had lost the intentionality of using asynchronous tools.

So I’m starting to rebuild a reader.

I started with feedly, but I just wasn’t comfortable with it as a tool. And then, strangely enough, I ran into Netvibes. For me, this was like finding a dinosaur out in the bush someplace. Netvibes was one of the original web 2.0 tools that I had used a decade ago. But it wasn’t the old Netvibes; it was new, fast, light and easy to use. I made an account and quickly found that I could use some of their pre loaded apps (like igoogle used to give us) and I could add RSS feeds that I wanted to read. I could switch between a number of layouts that looked like a customized homepage or I could have a more Google reader look.

Very importantly for me as a teacher, I could make pages of feeds on any topic and then share that entire page and all of its feeds with students in my class. We can build our own custom textbook on any topic.

Rebuilding a Reader

So I’m slowly rebuilding a reader for myself and with my class. RSS is an important technology.

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25 000 iPads? I have a few Questions…..

I don’t usually jump at this stuff when it’s posted online, but this one I just couldn’t let pass by.

This morning a link to this article was posted on twitter. A district rolling out 25 000 ipads this fall to students and staff. I’m interested. Sounds like a major initiative. My first questions are about training, sustainability and the inevitable “what are you going to do 4 years from now when all of those machines are outdated,” but that’s not what really caught me. I’ve got questions.

The very first piece of the article (which is a set of questions and answers):


Margo Pierce: Given the popular notion that technology is only for play, how and why did you decide to so thoroughly incorporate technology into the educational process?”

Since when is it a popular notion that technology is only for play? Why would an interviewer ask this? Does this interviewer not understand what technology makes possible? I’m troubled.

Unfortunately, I find the beginning of the answer to this question just as poor:

“Pat Karr Jr.: Students today are digital natives…….”

Really? Have we not moved past the digital natives argument? Is there not a better justification for spending the enormous number of budget dollars needed for 25 000 ipads?

The answer to this same first question continues:

“This is our business–our students are our product, similar to any other business.”

I thought we were past this as well….. “our students are our product” First of all, students aren’t a product. They are humans. They are not manufactured, standardized or produced. They are individuals who need a learning space that is customized and fit to their needs. Second, while all enterprises have some similarities, education is not like “any other business.” Our first concern is the people in our classrooms, their families and their lives. We are about people first and their relationship with, and knowledge of, the world around them. We are not about profit margins. We are already too often, too much about numbers. This kind of rhetoric needs to disappear.

The next one I run upon is more of a question, and it may come from inaccurate wording. The quote from the article is:

“Website filtering is performed through a Cisco AnyConnect client, so students are not allowed to visit unauthorized websites.”

I’m troubled by the last part of that. To me, it sounds like students will only be able to visit white listed websites. Is that true? Are they closing off the entire web except for certain places?

“Further, we enable blacklisting to ensure students and teachers do not install unauthorized applications that do not contribute to the educational process (for example, Angry Birds).”

I would love to see a definition of “unauthorized applications that do not contribute to the educational process.” People can learn something new from almost any material they access or experience they take part in. While certainly there are apps that we could probably agree on as being fairly close to useless, this is a slippery slope to be on. Who decides what gets approved? Can I get around that process as a teacher if there is something that the kids (or even one single kid) in my classroom would benefit from?

At this point, these machines and their connectivity are starting to sound pretty locked down to me.

 Pierce: You have data showing that productivity has increased 300 percent during non-school hours. How are you measuring productivity?

Karr: We measure non-school-hours productivity by the amount of bandwidth being utilized by the device during those hours. We have seen bandwidth on our servers increase by 300 percent during non-school hours. We are absolutely seeing more productivity and engagement during school hours through bandwidth usage, as well.

How do productivity and engagement fit together here? Is the amount of bandwidth being used a measure of engagement? While certainly this might be one clue about what is going on, there needs to be a larger picture looked at. For example, if students are doing writing assignments now digitally and before they used to do them on paper, they are obviously using bandwidth which they didn’t in the past. But this isn’t a measure of increased productivity. It’s a simple change from a paper based activity to something that now needs bandwidth. Have the assignments changed to reflect the change in technology? Are kids now required to do different things than in the past? These are important questions.

The article closes with Mr. Karr making a statement about technology:

“Our children need access to resources that they feel most comfortable with so that they can excel. If we don’t create, implement, maintain, and sustain a functional, easy-to-use, and manageable environment, we will be depriving them of their greatest tools: creativity and resourcefulness.”

I absolutely agree with this. I’ve got a magazine article coming out this fall that pushes down this same path. Technology is great, lets make sure that our kids are using it to be creative and see all of the possibilities it can bring to learning. But I wonder how this fits in to the rest of this article. I’m not seeing a space that emphasizes “creativity and resourcefulness,” but instead one that focuses on the “manageable environment.” I don’t see anything in this article that emphasizes a vision for learning. There is nothing here about professional learning, possible assignments and projects, communities for teachers needing to learn how to best use these expensive tools in their classrooms. I hope that is part of the plan that is being put in place.

I get it. I really do. This is a huge rollout. A massive investment. It is important to do it well and correctly. But to me this seems to be either an article does this project injustice or is a planned rollout that is thinking about how we did things five years ago when you really need to be planning for five years from now.

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Building Trust in Your Online Community

I found a great post on the Social Media Today blog that applies as much to teachers who build online communities in their classrooms as it does to companies and brands that build these same networks. So here are there tips they have given, with my spin on them for education:

1.) Lead by Example – As a teacher, our jobs are to instruct students, no matter whether they are present in a physical classroom or in an online space. It is an essential part of our jobs to model what we would like to see. This means we need to be present in our networks writing, taking pictures, making videos or doing whatever it is that we expect our students to do. This is especially important in education as we often are beginning new communities each year.

Building Trust in Your Online Community

2.) Get Personal – Online communities are unique, privileged spaces in education. They often give us an opportunity to get to know each and everyone of our students in ways that would not have been possible just in a classroom. This is often especially true of those quiet students who want to sit in our classrooms and not share of themselves. These are the students that often blossom the most in these communities. Be willing to share of yourself. Share your stories and your life. This doesn’t mean that you need to share every detail of your life, but be willing to be open.

3.) Be Honest -Honesty goes along with openness. Be willing to share your opinions about things. This doesn’t mean that you need to be openly political or openly controversial, but it does mean that you need to be willing to share your thoughts and opinions about things.

4.) Accept that You’re Human – Teachers work a lot of hours and yet we cannot be everywhere at once. Despite our best efforts, we cannot see everything and be everywhere in our communities. We need to put in our best efforts, but we will do things wrong. Learn for mistakes and move on.

5.) Be Knowledgeable and Share: Think about the content that you actually post on your classroom blog or in your communities. Is it interesting? Is it things that you  find online that you think the students in your class might find interesting? Your communities need to be so much more than spaces to simply post homework and assignments for your class. Share the things you find online. Share of yourself and of your passions. Make your presence in a space one that has personality and share what you have.

6.) Maintain Consistency – This is true in all ways. The community discussion standards that you build in your communities need to be enforced for everyone present. Maintaining consistency will allow your students to be comfortable in your space, understanding what happens there and able to concentrate on what they are being asked to do.

7.) Let it Go – Using social media in your classroom is not a magic bullet that will automatically engage every single student all of the time. Some students feel more comfortable with certain tools compared to others. While I believe that students need to experience all of the tools we can give them, I do not believe that they all need to be experts in all of them. Is there a possibility of platform choice being built in to assignments? Is it possible that some students need time off from some types of communication? Be prepared to see cycles between students and even within the contributions of single students.

8.) Don’t Give Up – Building an online community is not easy work. It is probably not something as teachers that we thought we would have to do. The skills are new and emerging and we all have plenty of learning to do. Don’t give up on yourself or your students. If you are having a tough time with students, step back and think about ways to re-engage them in your discussions. Do they need a different tool? A different timeline? More choices? How can we change what we are asking them to do in order for them to grow into their roles.

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Do New Tools = New Learning?

The tools I’ve been using in my classroom have been mostly static for several years now. While this might seem like an eternity in internet time, we’ve been successful with our model.

Blogs, wikis, google docs and open internet service as cornerstones. Many others on the periphery such as audacity, igoogle, flickr, youtube and delicious. While my teaching has changed in this time (and I hope improved) using these tools, the tools themselves haven’t. I’ve learned to use them in new ways, digging deeper with my students, watching for patterns of use and learning how to help them to use these tools to see new issues.

While not resistant to using new things, I’ve been careful to not chase after every new online service or website that has emerged. I’ve thought of this as the “shiny object syndrome.”

This year however I am hoping to add a few tools to my cornerstones. I plan on working with both diigo and the online community I’ve set up using buddypress at Hive Thinking. I think that these tools will add capabilities that we currently don’t have in the classroom.

And this has got me thinking. Does using new tools allow for new learning? Are there new tools that change the landscape of information that is available? Are there tools that are so significant that they allow students to learn things in new ways that would not have access to without them?

A few different examples. Open internet service allows students access to information they simply could not have with out it. But does access to this information equal new learning? I would argue that it doesn’t. Simply having access does not guarantee anything. It is the same trouble that schools get in to when they go to 1:1 laptop programs. They believe that putting laptops into classrooms will improve test scores and lead to deeper learning and then are disappointed, blaming the laptops when things fail to change. In the same vein, blogging will not develop your classroom into a community and giving students access to Skype will not connect them with the globe.

new teaching tools

They need models to guide them, a curriculum that makes use of the tools and an assessment program that honours the learning they have accomplished.

These things being said, I believe that the capabilities of our tools add dimensions to our pedagogy. We need to choose our tools carefully to ensure we have a full battery of abilities to share with our students.

More examples.

Email might be the most basic one. If our students have an email address and we allow them to access it during the school day and show them how to make contact with others to gain new information, their learning can be changed. They have access to people and information they do not have without it. Diigo can function the same way. Using diigo, students can highlight online text and leave their thoughts and notes behind for others. This concept of marking up and sharing online text is a new literacy skill that has only emerged from this tool and others like it.

If the literacies, skills and information we can access depends on the tools we use, does this make tools that much more important? Are our students missing out on possible learnings if they are not using certain tools?

While many edtech companies would like for you to believe that, I don’t.

First of all, most tools (if not all) are redundant; there are multiple services out there that allow for the same capabilities. For example, many video sharing sites allow users to embed their content. Free blogging and wiki sites abound. Image editing sites like picnik can be used in place of aviary or even free offline equivalents like gimp.

Second of all, the tools simply cannot come first. We cannot choose tools and then find ways to use them. We must consider the skills and abilities that we want our students to have and then choose the paths to help them get there. Our students do not need to know everything. They do not need to know how to do everything either. However, they do need to know how to access knowledge and skills when they need them. It’s the whole “teach a man how to fish” thing once again. Making choices about vital skills and knowledge is well… vital. We need to ensure our students have skills that will stand the test of time, that will be transferrable between pieces of software and that will help them to deepen their knowledge.

Ability to share resources they have found? Important. How to get there? Not as important. They might blog. Post on a wiki. Save to delicious. Share on a diigo network. Post on twitter.

Share their thoughts with a global audience? Important. Write a blog post. Make a video. Record a podcast.

What is not important is the individual software dependent skill. Click here. Then do this. Then that. Etc.

New tools are important. New tools give us access to information we wouldn’t have without them. New tools give our students the ability to share, to network and learn in ways they wouldn’t have without them. Choose your classroom cornerstones carefully. Expand on them. But don’t get caught up by the SOS (shiny object syndrome).

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