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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Closing Thoughts

Experiencing the EDES 545 course with its newly minted Web 2.0 emphasis has really opened my eyes to the Web as a place where students can build and share their learning. I had previously treated the net primarily as a place to find information. Looking at each service very intentionally, from photo sharing to blogging, has made it clear that user created content is here for real.

Several of the Web 2.0 technologies stand out as “made for student use” to me. A couple of them (social networking and video sharing) didn’t seem to have as much potential, but in the end, I am glad to have examined everything carefully. The discussion and blog sharing really took things to a new level. I’ve mentioned this before, but having a group of educators really looking critically at Web tools on a weekly cycle yields a fantastic resource to draw upon. It is also a very rich experience to express ourselves with such flexible mediums. I have never felt like I knew the group this well during my previous course.

I was very concerned at the beginning of the course about producing regular blog entries. Writing is a painful process for me. Doing entries weekly really helped to get in a rhythm. I felt the most comfortable when there were things to actually try out (podcasting, photo sharing) and then reflect on afterward. Fortunately, our group brought a wide variety of strengths and perspectives to each topic. The blogs as a whole covered each topic wonderfully. I really enjoyed the discussion threads. There were times that I didn’t seem to have anything fresh to bring to the posts, and I did more lurking than writing.

The collaborative work (using a wiki) of presenting a research article was very fun, and not nearly as difficult as I had anticipated. Some of the things that Val and I discovered (on the gender gap) are going to stay with me for the duration of my teaching. The discussion afterward brought out even more implications of the paper. It is great to share with staff members about something like a wiki, having had some genuine experiences using one.

Many ideas have been shared. I wonder if there is an easy way to wrap all of the blogs into one resource that we could look back on? There is one downside to using virtual spaces to present our findings. The work can become digital dust. I am going to poke around Blogger to see about archiving things. Wordpress will likely have some mechanism to do this also.

A great big thanks to Jennifer for helping us find our way through this course, and thanks to the course members for putting so much thought into the writing.

Time To Pass It On

Having touched on the whole spectrum of Web 2.0 services as we worked through this course, there are almost too many worthwhile ideas to share at my school. Still, narrowing the focus as I work with teachers helps ensure the success of a project and keeps everyone from feeling overwhelmed.

First Web 2.0 Tool, Blogging - At our last staff meeting, I was given time to present on some useful Web services. I gave a demo of Voice Thread and the 21 Classes blogging site. Both were well received, and there was some good discussion afterwards. I am finding that to really get things happening, I need to work intensely with one Grade Group at a time on a particular topic and give lots of support. Staff meeting inspiration fades quickly when the teacher walks back to the classroom and sees that stack of marking on their desk.

Fortunately, our Grade 5 students are spending the final 2 months of their science classes doing a Wetlands Unit. The teachers and I are reworking the unit into more of an inquiry experience. This will happen within a 2 month time frame. It is a perfect opportunity to tap into student blogging as a tool for shaping questions, reflecting and perhaps sharing their findings.

Some of our Div. 2 students have already experimented with blogging when working on larger projects. It proved to be very effective. The students could easily add and edit entries from school or home, then present the whole package to their classmates. To really develop student blogging effectively, I need to help teachers manage a set of blogs and give some control to outside access.

I have begun to set up a student blogging area on the 21 Classes site. It seems to fit the bill very nicely. There is some good discussion of its suitability here and here. I am beginning to understand how the security and editing tools work. It’s a pretty layered service, and I have gotten confused at times. Some of the features are more easily accessed using Firefox instead of Safari. Overall, things are a bit clearer now, and as I log in as a student, I can see how it will present to them. I have imagined being the teacher as well. It seems that if a teacher logs in once a day and reviews the student activity, they should be able to stay on top of the student activity. There are some great features for the teacher to communicate with the class or a particular group.

At this point, I will begin working closely with the teachers to explain how to moderate student entries and comments. This year, I will lead in the teaching on the blogging technicalities, but look to the teachers to develop clear expectations for the actual writing. As students gain confidence and wish to post photos or other documents, I will be available.

The Grade 5 teachers are a strong group, technically savvy and very creative. They also have the confidence to let students run with an idea, which has fostered some great inquiry experiences in the past. I hope that the use of student blogging will integrate well with the unit. Any successes then might overflow to other staff members as they plan for the next school year.

Next Tool, Voice Thread – Our Div. 1 teachers were very intrigued with the Voice Thread examples. I hope to do a short project with one of the Grade 2 classes where each student might have a chance to share some of their writing in the spirit of the Tall Tales Voice Thread. The timing of this isn’t clear yet.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

21 Classes - Setting Up A Class Blog

There are many possibilities for students using a blog to share their learning. When it comes time to actually implement a class blog, I have 2 issues that give me pause as an elementary teacher. The first is student privacy and related concerns that many parents have. The second is student to student communication. As I move into Web 2.0 tools with students, I have some control issues to work out.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

I found a Blog Host ( 21 Classes ) which seems to offer some nice features to structure student blogs and moderate posts and comments. Because I am using a blog for student reflections (A Grade 5 Wetlands Project ) in May, I thought I should set up a test site. I registered at 21 Classes and created a site with two fake students (Figure 1).

The only obstacle was that each new student seems to require a unique email address. I made 2 GMail accounts, but may use fake email addresses when adding 30 students. The email addresses serve no purpose in my scheme of things.

I started by having the accounts public. Sure enough, when Student Two put up a post, her blog was visible to the whole world. I don't want to start this way, and so I upgraded my account ($9 per month) to have more control over public and private posts (Figure 2). Things started to get pretty cool. I made the blogs private to non-members. I am notified of all new posts (Figure 3) and student blogs are published only once I approve them (Figures 4 & 5). Comments must also be approved by me. It is easy to set up links and blogrolls. News and assignments can be sent to the students, although I have a few things to learn with this feature.

On the less paranoid side, students can give each other co-authoring rights for an account. They can upload movies, pictures and other documents to share. The editing tools feel quite useable. Students can control the look of their pages using a handful of themes. I have struggled to change background images and banner images, and hope to get some help from the site authors.

If you are curious and have the time, check out the hypothetical site. If you log in as SCE-Student-One or SCE-Student-Two, you will be able to poke around. The password is password.

All in all, the 21 Classes blogging tool is helping to give me the confidence to plan the use of a class blog in an inquiry project. If there are other service providers, I would love to know about them.

Blogging - The Long And The Short Of It

Through the duration of the course, Blogger's usability has stood out. Set up was quick. Editing has been smooth. There hasn't been any real downtime on their servers. The themes available are tasteful, and seem to have been created with editing the styles in mind. Blogger has also made it easy to have the blog hosted on a different site. This has made the embedding of media simpler.

The many alternative host sites include WordPress, Blogsome, Movable Type, MSN Spaces, Squarespace, TypePad and Yahoo 360. A review of these and other blogging tools can be found in a very helpful Forbes article.

Tumblelogs - For the last several weeks, I have been thinking a lot about Tumblelogs, an interesting variation on blogs. Wikipedia defines them as follows:

A tumblelog (or tlog) is a variation of a blog that favors short-form, mixed-media posts over the longer editorial posts frequently associated with blogging. Common post formats found on tumblelogs include links, photos, quotes, dialogues, and video. Unlike blogs, tumblelogs are frequently used to share the author's creations, discoveries, or experiences while providing little or no commentary.

A Blog Site which is tuned for tumblelogs is Tumblr. This site came up before on a couple of our blogs. A few (kind of edgy) sites highlighted by the Tumblr group are here, here, and here. Merlin Mann authors another example. [Warning, M.M. doesn't mind swearing in print some days]

These pages have quite a different feel than the blogs I am used to reading. I like the style, and I'm pretty sure that some students will feel more at home moving towards this way of expressing themselves. The trick is to avoid having your page become simply a video repository.

Microblogging - An even lower word count has been experimented with using sites like Twitter to microblog. Using their service, you have exactly 140 characters to express your idea. The text box even counts down the remaining characters as you type. Twittering works best when you have a separate application to appear and fade as tweets come and go.

I am a lousy microblogger right now, but there is some potential with its use. Doug Noon wrestles with the concept here . I am not participating in "the flow" in any real way. I am just lurking on Twitter, but love following the tweets of some of technology personalities I have admired. As a TL, watching some great ideas and fantastic links just float onto my desktop has led to many great discoveries.