We are rethinking our technology professional learning in Birdville. New courses (including online, Moodle-based classes and webinars presented through eLuminate), revisions of existing ones, and an emphasis on helping our teachers develop 21st century skills for themselves and our students are among the changes. This emphasis on 21st century skills will be the focus of this series of posts. I will try to first explain what this means, then try to share some tools that fit into the curriculum and can encourage the development of specific skills.

What Are 21st Century Skills?

First of all, it should be acknowledged that some within the field of education are reluctant to even use this phrase. They assert that we are a decade into the century, therefore the term is in desperate need of a replacement. Personally, I think this is largely posturing. We have another 90 years remaining in the century, and, although the skills our students will need in the decades to come will evolve and have likely not been imagined yet, it is still a good way of communicating the need to move beyond the outdated applications of technology still apparent in many schools and far beyond the basic skills many classrooms emphasize in this NCLB world.

Two useful resources for identifying 21st century skills in their current incarnation are from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the International Society for Technology in Education. The Partnership, comprised of business leaders, educators, and policymakers, put together their Framework for 21st Century Learning, which includes descriptions of student skills as well as support systems that must be in place for their development. ISTE, in the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS are also available for teachers and administrators), outlines five categories of needed skills, including:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Technology Operations and Concepts

Creativity and Innovation

ISTE further breaks down the meaning of creativity and innovation:

Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology. Students:

  • apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes.
  • create original works as a mean of personal or group expression.
  • use models and simulations to explore complex systems.
  • identify trends and forecast possibilities.

It is no secret that creativity has taken its share of lumps in the past decade. Schools, faced with financial strain and immense pressure to perform on tests assessing only traditional subjects, slash or cut fine arts programs. This leaves teachers in traditional subjects with the responsibility for doing whatever they can to promote creativity and artistic expression. Technology programs have suffered, too, eliminating courses that have promoted higher-level applications and innovation. Fortunately, there are tools and strategies available whereby teachers can promote these skills within their curriculum. As an added benefit, these tools are relevant and highly motivating to students, leading to high levels of engagement in learning (Did I miss any buzzwords there?).

Collaboration and Brainstorming

It is no secret that great ideas are usually the result of great planning (Apples falling on one’s head being an exception, certainly.) and, very often, the result of collaborative effort. The following sites offer tools for sorting out problems, brainstorming, experimenting, and communicating with other learners.

  • Solvr–really interesting site allows a user to enter a problem to be solved. A unique URL is created that can be shared with collaborators, who can ask questions, make suggestions, etc. Comments are nested and organized to help the group find solutions.
  • Decidealready–similar to Solvr, users enter a question, then possible solutions. Collaborators can rate solutions, offer feedback, alternative solutions, etc.
  • Wallwisher–very easy to use site. Post a question or topic, share the url, and visitors can add comments, share images, videos, links, etc.
  • Twiddla–allows groups to collaborate in a virtual whiteboard environment, including the ability to use voice conferencing, share images, share video, and more.
  • Bubbl.us–create and collaborate on Flash-based mind maps.
  • Webspiration–online version of popular Inspiration and Kidspiration software. Allows for collaborative brainstorming/mind-mapping, outline creation, more.

Art

This holds a particularly dear spot in my heart, as I once dreamed of becoming an artist (or a professional bass fisherman). Expressing oneself through visual arts not only benefits those who get to enjoy the final product, it also stretches the mind and the imagination. Students need opportunities to share ideas, visions, opinions, and viewpoints in ways other than the written word. The following sites offer such opportunities to individuals or groups of students.

  • Bomono–lets students create and save abstract works using a variety of tools. Controls are not extremely precise, but the results can be very interesting.
  • ArtPad–simple painting tool that lets users use either brushes or splatter effects with various sizes and colors. Saving is a bit problematic, as users have to have an email address (and one for a friend–teacher’s would work) where the works will be sent. (Of course, there are numerous screen capture tools that can get around this.) The example to the right was created in a few minutes at this site.
  • Virtual Lite-Brite–easy to use replica of an old favorite. Saving requires screen grab or capture, however.
  • Yourstudio–really cool painting tool with a variety of brushes, rollers, spray cans, etc. Users can also choose a variety of surfaces upon which to paint, and creations can be saved.
  • Scribbler–Site transforms simple sketch drawings into hard to describe creations that look a bit like the drawing done as a spider web. Printing is done via right-click, but saving is, again, not built-in. Still, scores high on the interestingness scale.
  • Pixlr–My favorite art creation site. This one is suitable even for advanced students (probably more so). It resembles an online version of Photoshop, and lets users create, save, and print original works from scratch or using uploaded images. Very powerful!
  • Twitdraw–lets users create collaborative drawings using Twitter followers as fellow collaborators.

Music

Music offers another means of creatively exploring our world and ourselves. Many students express themselves better through music than they ever would by writing an essay. The following are tools for encouraging and enabling students to create musical products.

  • Kisstunes–wonderfully easy site uses keyboard to create music. Compose, save, and share music (requires registration). Here’s my brief first try (Not one lesson!).
  • Glitchscape–very unusual music creation tool in which users draw shapes on a grid, which then become sounds. If you’re into techno, this is the site for you. My example.
  • Noteflight–this one is a bit more advanced (Actual knowledge of scales, chords, and notes is a big plus–thus the reason I won’t be sharing my example.), and it does require registration, but the possibilities make it worth it. Create, share, and export original pieces –very powerful tool!
  • Jamstudio–This one made me feel like I knew what I was doing (Allow me to dream.). Requires registration, but it makes it so easy to create professional sounding music, it is definitely worth it! Choose from a variety of instruments, tempos, moods, etc.

Programming

The next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs may well be sitting in your classroom today. Wouldn’t it be amazing if he or she, as they stood before a breathless audience to announce their next must-have technology, said, “And I owe it all to my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Jones, who sparked my interest in programming with that assignment to create a video game about the Civil War.” (Hopefully, this recognition would also include a substantial discount, at the very least.) Programming is seen by most of us as something beyond our capabilities. However, it is really nothing more than creating a set of instructions that tells a computer what to do. Fortunately, there are sites that offer this ability in a simplified way, allowing students to get their first taste of the possibilities.

  • Scratch–Free, downloadable tool from MIT that lets students create interactive animations, music, stories.
  • Alice–Free 3D programming tool from Carnegie Mellon University for creating and sharing games, animations, videos, etc.
  • Blender–Powerful, free tool allowing more advanced students to create 3D images, videos.
  • YoYo Games –Site provides downloads, wiki, community resources for creating and sharing games online.
  • Challenge You–Online tool for creating and sharing video stories and games. Kid-friendly user agreement is a plus!
  • Sploder–Interesting new site (still in beta) that uses a drag-and-drop interface to create games.

Animation

Animation is an exciting form of digital storytelling. There is a great deal that goes into creating a good animated product, including writing a story/script, storyboard creation, and working through the actions of characters. The following are a few of the tools available for creating animated pieces.

  • GoAnimate–Fairly easy online cartoon and animation creation tool. Includes large variety of settings, characters, props, even background music.
  • Kerpoof–Site uses drag-and-drop of characters and props to an action timeline to create animated stories. Users can accumulate rating points to earn credits that can buy additional items. Requires registration.
  • Fluxtime Studio–Kid-centered site that lets even young users create and share animations, either alone or collaboratively. Site also features periodic animation contests on a variety of topics.
  • Xtranormal–Relatively simple tool that lets users select settings, characters, actions, and emotions, then use text-to-speech to add conversations to animated stories. Site also features one-click sharing to YouTube.

3-D Design

These tools allow students to create 3-dimensional models of buildings and other objects. This is not only a good way to promote creativity and innovation, but it can also help reinforce math concepts, physics, and other important skills.

  • Google Sketchup–Free download from Google allows users to create 3D models. There is a little bit of a learning curve here, and it might be best suited for middle school and up, but there are some great possibilities for its application.
  • Architect Studio 3D–Cool online resource that lets users design a home in the tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright. Users have to consider client needs, setting, etc. when creating the house. Step-by-step design wizard is nice and user-friendly.

Conclusion

Hopefully, there are some tools listed here that have clear potential in just about any curriculum. It takes very little effort on the part of the teacher to tear up the paper test or worksheet and offer an alternative that is more engaging and in line with our modern world. There is a hint of risk-taking every time we do something new, but with risk comes reward. My next post in this series will address tools for collaboration and communication. In the meantime, realizing that this is but a tiny sampling of the tools that are out there, please join in the conversation by adding your thoughts or favorite sites.

Additional Resources:

100 Essential Web 2.0 Tools for Educators–good list of useful resources.

Collaboration Tools by Robin Good–nice collection of group collaboration links.

Cool Tools for Schools–huge assortment of Web 2.0 resources in a wide range of categories.

Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day–I swear Larry doesn’t sleep. This is one of my main go-to sites for online resources of virtually any educational application.