A New Start


This was originally posted last year at this time.  I enjoyed writing it at that time and would like to take the opportunity to share it again.  I think it’s just as relevant now as it was when originally posted.  I know that there are also some new readers since then.  I hope it resonates with you.

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One of the true benefits of a job in education is that you get a chance to reinvent yourself every school year.  There are a lot of careers that you might have chosen otherwise that just don’t give you that luxury.  Things may change in terms of products that you build, tools that you use, projects that you’re involved with, etc., but it’s only in education that you get a fresh batch of faces and an opportunity for a total refresh every year.

It’s not just K-12, higher education gets that opportunity as well.  A brand new set of faces; perhaps new curriculum; a new chance to establish learning routines; an opportunity to try out new tools.  These are the parameters that make teaching the profession what it is.

You’ve got the curriculum that needs to be addressed but typically, you’re asked to rely on your professional discretion as to how it will happen in your classroom.  While there is the lore of people who have taught a course so often that they have lesson plans laminated and dated, that has to be the stuff that needs to be taken with some scepticism.

It can be difficult to bring in massive change in the middle of a school year, but starting on Day 1 in September, new routines and approaches can be implemented to motivate both teacher and student.  Judicious use also can deliver on the promise of engagement and differentiation.

Think of the possibilities.

Textbooks – Do you really need to dig out and assign those moldy old static content deliverers?  Does your science textbook still have Pluto listed as a planet?  Learning and research is more robust and transparent on the web.

Software – The bane of teachers and IT Departments is ensuring that all of the applications that are installed on classroom computers is done properly and working as it should.  Even when they are, they’re only available at school.  Ironically, computer use and javelins may be the only things that can’t be sent home as homework.  (OK, just kidding about the javelins)  Student workspaces are configured and permissions properly assigned.  A slip and it leads to frustrations.  Change your thoughts from applications needing to be installed to applications web-based that just work.  It opens up a whole new world.  There are even classroom management environments if you’re in search of one.  Flexibility is also required for times of slow connections or maintenance but that’s the world that we live in.

Blogging – There are so many Rs that effective blogging can address.  Reading, writing, reflecting, responding.  The only challenge will be making the decision about whether it’s a classroom blog or whether each student has her own.  Or both?  It’s not just a language tool.  Think of it as an introspection opportunity in all subject areas where students can dig just a little deeper and comment on the thinking of their peers.

Connecting – Can you remember when an expert might be a short term event with a guest appearing in the classroom?  It might happen once a year if the students are lucky.  With the proper connections, everyone has the potential to be an expert.  Instead of collecting monies to hire an expert for a day, make the connection with another class doing the same thing where they are the experts.  Sessions can be as long as they need to be rather than a timetabling nightmare.

Storytelling – There are awesome tools available that allow for remixing, reshaping, and constructing the new story.  The tools can also be used in very trivial ways.  When I talk, I warn against the “low hanging fruit”.  Used properly though, these tools can go far beyond Friday afternoon activities to being a crucial tool for engaging stories to support curriculum.  Look for innovative ways of using tools like Google’s StreetView, for example.

Home and School Connection – The use of online tools open the home/school connection in ways never before possible.  Rather than a paper newsletter that goes home monthly/weekly, web communication can become a true communication enabler.  Find out early if anyone is going to be disadvantaged.  You may be surprised at the various ways that parents and students are connected outside the school.  Consider this a message to go and make all of the online learning transparent to everyone.

Connections – The personal iPod, iPad or cell phone can be the elephant in the room.  It’s going to be a fight that you’ll lose so embrace it.  These are really powerful devices and formally banning them leads to under desk one handed texting.  Have them out and on the desktop for all to see and establish a protocol for their use.  There are times when they are clearly inappropriate but also there are times for learning and active use and discovery.  Use them to expand the connectivity in your classroom.

Amalgamating Content – It’s also important that access to all of these resources is easily available to all involved whether it be students, parents, other classes in your school, collaborating classes world-wide, and principals.  Make it easy on yourself by creating a class wiki that’s easily updated without extra tools, FTP, etc.  Remember that the wiki isn’t just about you.  The more collaborators, the richer the content.

Movies – There was a time when making movies in the classroom involved high-end equipment and specialized lighting, sounds, etc.  There still is room for that as a discipline but the world has moved on.  Online movie sharing has made this activity available to everyone.  Cell phones and mini-cameras bring movie making to the masses.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Even if you aren’t ready to move in that direction, your students are!  Don’t forget that screencasting can be equally as compelling.  The cool educational thing – making a movie requires a lot of thought, scripting, and research!

The News – There was a time when current events was an important component of every day but that has faded in some quarters.  The connected classroom can bring that back with a vengeance.  Subscribe to news feeds or content and you’ll be amazed at what’s available daily.  Imagine a click and you’re watching a movie about something relevant to today’s lesson.  Or, use any of the earth viewing tools to zoom in on locations and put studies in context.  You don’t necessarily have to do the work for yourself.  Follow some great blogs or online bookmarking feeds.  There are lots of people documenting the best of the best.  Why start from scratch?

Do Some Good – As the world becomes smaller when connected, so does awareness of global and local issues.  Good global citizens are aware of these issues and can direct their fundraising or benevolence efforts toward them.  Once students are aware of the need, it may be difficult deciding where to direct their energies.

Make Something – The availability of all of the reading can lull you and students into being passive consumers of it.  You’ll never read it all anyway so don’t try.  Read enough and then get moving.  Write a program; solve a problem; develop web content; solve a puzzle; take and analyze some measurements; build a birdhouse…

Professional Growth – Before this turns into a book, take time to do something for yourself.  You can’t beat going to a conference or other Professional Development event but I would urge you to think of them differently.  Instead of a place to go to learn something new, think of them as a place to make connections and consolidate your thoughts.  Get yourself a Twitter account and follow some great educators and others, read some blogs, grab some RSS feeds and do the reading and thinking daily.  Don’t just subscribe to people that you can easily agree with.  If you consider yourself a liberal in thinking, latch on to one or two conservative voices.  They’ll make your blood boil but open up windows to new sides of the discussion.

Yes, it’s September and classrooms and lecture halls can be exactly what you want them to be.  The first lessons establish the norms and expectations for the new year.  It’s a chance to be exactly what you want to be.  So, what do you want to be as you get a fresh start?

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OTR Links for 08/31/2011


Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

When Jerks Comment


A few years ago, I had purchased a piece of software to do professional development registration for my employer.  We had put it into place and I had kicked the tires and customized it so that it was unique to us and our requirements.  I was scheduled to do a demonstration to the director of education and her superintendents first thing in the morning.  As was my custom, I was in to my desk by 6 and fired up my web browser to do one last minute check to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten things over night.  To my disgust, the opening screen didn’t appear.  Instead, a solid red screen with a white logo showed. 

I fired off an email to support and he got back relatively quickly.  “Oh, you’ve been hit by a Chinese hacking group that looks for unpatched Apache servers and then defaces them.  Give me an hour and I’ll reload things for you.”  I still remember my reaction.

  • How did he know it was a group of Chinese hackers?
  • If he knew immediately that it attacked unpatched Apache servers, why didn’t he have all the patches applied for us?
  • But, most of all, I remember how violated that I felt.  This was “my baby” – soon to be turned over to the system where it would become “our baby”.

I had done what I thought needed to be done but the ultimate event was determined by someone else and it was completely out of my hands.

Today, I think of teachers who attend one of those quickie summer workshops to catch up on 11 years so they can become 21st Century educators.  “I’m going to blog with my kids”.  Great – it’s absolutely one of the best things to do.  But, are you ready for everything?  How will you and your students react — when jerks comment!  And, if you are making these blogs public, they will comment.  How will you and your students handle this?

The easiest away to avoid this is to just not make your blog public.  However, that takes away the whole point of blogging.  You want your students to reach the end of the writing process and to publish for an audience.  Blogging is the ultimate because you can publish for an audience that you don’t know.  It is so powerful when someone on the other side of town or the other side of the world takes the time to comment.  Comments can be supportive of the premise, they can challenge the premise, and they can be just plain caustic.  I think most people are prepared for the first types but the last one can be a challenge.  Now, I’m not talking the little bit of spit that a Peter might throw my way.  I’ll get him back for that.  I’m talking about profanity, phishing, personal comments and everything nasty that ill-wishing people elect to throw your way.

Was that covered in your summer course?  The situation can be minimized by your platform choice but more importantly, how you configure it.  I won’t go into my preferences but I would think that you should be looking for at least the following settings in whatever platform you are thinking about using.

  • Spam protection – ideally, your system catches the spam before it ever sees the light of day.  Is this a legitimate concern?  Absolutely.  Using this blog as an example, I have added 2,487 posts but my spam catcher has caught 22,648.  I just can’t keep up!
  • Approval – you need to configure your student blogs so that all replies are reviewed before they’re made public.  In a perfect scenario, the teacher alone should see them first;
  • Verify – while it may seem like a good idea that people should have a voice, it’s particularly important in education that that voice isn’t anonymous.  Make sure that visitors are identified with OpenID or the like so that you have a sense that they’re legitimate people;
  • CAPCHA – those annoying little images that have a couple of words obfuscated are tough to deal with but ever tougher on robotic programs or people that just want to do a quick deface job;
  • Geolocate – part of the power of blogging is knowing where people are coming from.  Tracking by location is nice but at least ask for their blog so that you can track back to get a sense of where they’re located;
  • Spell checking – of course, you want your student work to be as perfect as it can be but so should be the responses.  Spell checking makes sure that students are not going to be exposed to bad spelling and make it their own;
  • Dashboard – don’t forget that your time is valuable too.  If you have multiple bloggers and multiple classes, you need to be able to manage things.  Having a single point of entry to see and manage the blogs can be a great timesaver.

But, can there be a bit of sunshine in the process?  Absolutely.  Depending upon the age and preparedness of the students, it can be an education to spend some time looking at a couple of the comments that didn’t make it to the blog.  After all, this is the reality of the blogging world.  If they’re excited about blogging and understand all aspects, we may have a new generation of great bloggers.  Don’t be put off about what possibly could go wrong – deal with it and focus on the benefits when everything goes right.

And, above all – if your students are blogging, don’t forget to ask the Twitter community for a little help.  Let us know and use the tag #comments4kids to seed the process.

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OTR Links for 08/30/2011


Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Making You Smarter


Now, when a product comes out with a claim that it can make me smarter, how can I resist?  We all know I need all that I can get.  That’s the claim of a new news reader called Thoora.  The opening pages claim that Thoora will cut through the clutter, taking you to the good stuff, and thereby making you smarter.  I’m a sucker for a news reader and so I gave it a shot.

I’m a real fan of Zite on the iPad and the way that it reaches out and grabs articles for me that I would never have found if left to my own devices to find.

Thoora does the same sort of thing, only in your web browser.  You create an account and start a topic search.  Once the topic has been determined, you supply the sort of keywords or tags that would generate content for your topic.  I’ve said it before – the ability to tag is a skill that’s so valuable.

 

Then, sit back and let Thoora do its thing.  The site goes out and finds relevant stories based upon the keywords for your topic.  The topics are assembled into your own little reading portal.  Pick a topic and start reading.

Topics may be private or public.  I believe in public and so what I’m reading is available to anyone who cares.  At present, this is what I’m reading.  Apparently, you could subscribe to any of these as well, if you want.

I’m not sure that I’m any smarter yet, but Thoora is giving me new sources of information for my online reading.  It works on computer and portable devices which means everywhere I happen to be connected.  So far, I’m enjoying the new reading.

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OTR Links for 08/29/2011


Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Another Hand-in Option


I had this blog post queued and ready to go to complement the Dropbox / Dropitto.me post yesterday.  I didn’t expect the reaction to the original post though.  On Twitter, a spitting match about other services arose.  It’s always good to have a discussion but there’s no changing some people’s minds once they’re firmly convinced they’re right.  There was a great deal of positive feedback from people that I’m sure will give it a shot with students.  Then, there was a comment that Dropbox was blocked within a particular school district.  What a range of responses.  Anyway, I’ll proceed…

The Dropbox / Dropitto.me combination seems to me to be very easy to set up and use.  Just put a link to your upload site in your wiki or on your webpage and students can easily submit assignments.  No degree in Computer Science is necessary.  The only minor gotcha is that you have to leave the current page to perform the action and once you’re there, the design of the upload page is not customizable.  For all intents and purposes, I would consider these to be insignificant when you’re looking for ease of setup and subsequent ease of use.

But, with a little more work, things can be a little more seemless.  There’s a tad more work setting up a Jotform but you might find it worthwhile for hand-in and much more.  There is a free version with paid upgrades.  I decided to give the free version a shakedown.

What Jotform does is prepare the interface with the code to create a real form for your wiki page.  Using a simple-to-use drag and drop interface, you just drag the elements that you want to appear on your form to a workspace.

Each of the elements is configurable.  I decided to see how difficult it would be to create a hand-in folder logic and then embed it into a wiki page.

I was quite impressed with the selection of tools along the left side.  I pulled out a Heading and then a File Upload tool and customized both.  Under Power Tools, I see that they have the ability to insert a Captcha.  I’ve always wanted to do that and now I could.  Just to be annoying, I decided to redirect back to my blog after a file was submitted.  What I really liked was the collection of themes to automatically colour and change the design of your form.

So, I played around for a bit and it was time to put it on my wiki page.  There’s an “Embed Form” that opens a huge collection of destinations for your form.  Unfortunately, PBWorks wasn’t one of them but I just asked Jotform to give me the Embed Code.  Once copied, I went to my wiki page and asked PBWorks to “Insert HTML”, pasted the code generated and saved it.  All’s good so far.  Time to test…

It worked as promised.  (The annoying redirect at the end of the submission is really annoying – I’d think that through better if I was going into production with this.)  So, where did the file go?  Jotform will store your submitted files on their site.  When you select “My Forms”, you get a listing of all of the forms in your workspace and a badge indicates the number of new items.

If you’re interested, you can also configure this to send your files to your Dropbox account.  Once you head off to check submissions, you can download a summary as an Excel or CSV file – a nice touch to compare against your class list to make sure that you’ve got them all.  The whole process went very nicely.  I registered and was up and running literally in minutes.  The flexibility and the ability to customize was quite impressive.

The catch?  Here’s the rub.  I was using the Basic version of the product.  Most of the features are available but there are some limitations designed to make you move to a commercial version.  You’re limited to 100MB of storage space and 100 uploads a month.  Jotform is nice in that it does support payment systems and SSL connections but, again, there is a limitation to the number that you can use.  The first price up is $9.95 a month.  That level gives the amount of functionality that you’d use in the classroom but that equates to $100 a year.  I don’t see too many teacher budgets affording that.  This really is a nice product, generating a nice interface using a best of class builder and toolset.  It’s a shame that there isn’t flexibility in pricing for education use.

But, if Dropbox is blocked at your district, this may prove to be an option that will work for you.

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OTR Links for 08/28/2011


Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Dropbox as a Hand-in Folder


Dropbox is a terrific utility for storing files online.  It’s accessible with any computer that can connect to the internet.  (Don’t ignore the fact that your portable device is also a computer…)  If you’re interested in cloud storage, this is the real deal.  Just upload to your Dropbox account and access it from anywhere.  It should come as no surprise that you can share those files with others as well.

But, that’s not the story here.  Cloud is cloud.  But, I’m thinking now of real-world classroom applications.  Many systems will have centralized storage so that students can hand in their work.  The problem, though, is that they typically have to be using a school computer attached to the school network at school.  There’s a lot of school there!  If you’re moving to a more open approach to assignments, this sort of logic is old school.  Consider the following scenarios that just spring to mind.

1)     A student is using her own personal device and is attached to a guest network at school;
2)     A student is using her own personal device and is attached to the wireless at her favourite restaurant or her network at home.

Old school logic says to email it to the teacher (which means giving out your email address to students) or put it on a memory key, remember to put it in her backpack, plug the memory key into a computer at school and then submit it.

Now, if you’re using a wiki or learning management system, uploading of files is typically built into them so run with that.  But, what if you don’t want the hassle or don’t need the functionality of managing that?  Head back to Dropbox and see what else you can do with it.

DROPITTO.ME
This is one sweet working web application.  It integrates so nicely with your existing Dropbox and you can be up and running literally in minutes.

1)     Create a Dropbox account.  (If you haven’t done this already, do it now.  Even if you don’t go further, you’ll thank yourself)

2)     Create a Dropitto.me account.

3)     Connect the two accounts.  When you create your Dropito.me account, you’ll be asked by Dropbox to authorize this new service so that it has permission to upload to your account.  Of course, you’ll want to do this – you don’t want just anyone uploading to your cloud storage.  At this time, you’ll also set an upload password.  This password, you’ll give to your students so that they can hand their work in from whatever computer or whatever network they happen to be connected to when they finally get their work done.

4)     Give the students the URL to your handin folder or just make it a link in your class wiki.  It should come as no surprise that mine ishttp://dropitto.me/dougpete.  Remind them one last time what the upload password is…  and then get ready to mark.  When the students enter the URL that you’ve provided, they’re challenged for the password and then asked to locate the file to upload.

They find the file and send it.  Work is submitted.  It’s honestly and truthfully as simple as that.

5)     On your end, a new folder called Dropittome is created in your Dropbox space and uploads are time and date stamped.  You’ll know exactly whether or not assignments or documents are submitted on time.  You just open the document like you would any other file on your computer to see the work.

Besides the techy approach here, consider some of the other aspects.

If you’re interested in going paperless, you’re potentially there.  I shudder when I see the assignments that take half a sheet of paper, or assignments that are one page and one line, or computer science printouts that are pages and pages long, or Photoshop documents that run through toner like water or the excess pages printed and recycled because the user wasn’t patient and whacked the print key many times.

It’s a great opportunity to talk about the cloud.  This is a wonderful and practical example for students to try to come to grips conceptually with just where their documents go when they’re sent “out there” and magically arrive to the teacher.

I see it also as a great opportunity to talk about security of documents.  What are the implications of sending files this way?  How can we ensure that the document is only viewable by the teacher?  Could you talk about file sizes and how to optimize or compress the file to speed up the process on the students’ end?  When ready, you could even talk about adding a password to a zip or tar file to achieve both security and size concerns.

But, is it always about the students?  Would you care to know how many times I drove back to school after supper to pick up marking that I forgot to take home?  Or, thinking that I’ve got it all done and arriving at school the next morning to find more to mark in my mailbox or slid under my classroom door?  In a culture where handins are all electronic and cloud based, all of this goes away.

I would encourage you to give this a shot.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly and effortlessly you and your students are firing files around.

OTR Links for 08/27/2011


Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.