Schools are popular targets of those who wish to find a scapegoat for every societal ill from a sour economy to the pitiful season the Dallas Cowboys put us through this year. I believe we are part of the problem, because we don’t do enough to shout about our successes from every rooftop in every community. While I don’t pretend all schools are equally successful, neither are they equal failures. The budget crisis looming for Texas and for its schools, in particular, has heightened my own awareness of the need to become self-promoters. I intend to devote more time than ever before in sharing the ways that our schools are using technology to engage students like never before and to give them opportunities to learn in a real way, infused with 21st century tools and skills. Our communities and leaders need to see how amazing things are happening, not just the negative, isolated events that make our newscasts.
In the spirit of this resolution, I wanted to share some of the ways that Web 2.0 technologies have had a powerful impact on our students, teachers, and schools in Birdville. It has been just 4 short years since I had the opportunity to share my vision for Web 2.0 with our district’s leadership team. It has exceeded my expectations in many ways, and is the most gratifying thing I’ve been a part of as an instructional technology specialist. It has not only made learning more relevant and engaging. It has also thrust our district into the national spotlight, as we have been cited for our progressive stance toward use of the vast Internet resources available. We have been assembling a slide show that highlights how tools such as YouTube, Glogster, Google Docs, Xtranormal, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, podcasts, Skype, and many more are being put to powerful use in the district. The show is embedded below, or is alternately viewable here. More examples will be added in the coming weeks. I hope they might provide some inspiration for teachers looking for ways to use the technologies in the curriculum.
We held our convocation last week, which focused on 21st century teaching and learning. Aside from some complaints about the length (We have been spoiled by getting released by 11:00 for a leisurely lunch in the past–this year’s went closer to noon.), I’ve heard numerous positive comments about the subject matter and productive discussions about how to turn the vision into reality. I am very optimistic that more and more students and teachers will be engaging in authentic, relevant, technology-rich classrooms this year.
I had a role in convocation this year for the first time. I was called to a planning meeting a week before the event and asked to assist. My task included creating a video with students/teachers talking about 21st century learning they had engaged in during the past year, creating a short Polleverywhere quiz about technology and society, and finding a few folks to connect to via Skype to demonstrate how educating our students is a global matter. While this was quite a set of tasks to accomplish in a week (one when students were still out on vacation), it was interesting and amazing that the last, the Skype connection, was probably the easiest. I simply reached out to educators who I had initially come to know via Twitter, asked them to share how students in their parts of the planet were learning 21st century skills, and set up the times to connect. We connected to Jeff Utecht in Bangkok, Thailand, and Sue Waters in Perth, Australia. Both were amazing (despite technical issues on my side–never fails).
Reflect on this for a moment! These are educators I have had the distinct privilege of meeting in person, but only after establishing a relationship through Twitter and Edublogs (Sue is THE go-to person at Edublogs.). A decade ago, I essentially collaborated only with the teacher next door, and my professional acquaintances were primarily limited to the educators in my building. As recently as 4 or 5 years ago, I would have not known either Sue or Jeff if I bumped into them on the street. Now, they are not only people whose ideas and insight I value, but who I can call upon on short notice and have them share their great minds with our educators, despite being separated by thousands of miles! This is the power of today’s technologies. It isn’t about electronic textbooks, interactive whiteboards, iPods, or any other device. It’s about the connections, the relationships, and the collaborations that are possible. It is about viewing the education of our students as a collaborative effort involving the entire global education community, not the teacher isolated in his room. I know I am a better educator because of my relationships with Jeff, Sue, and the hundreds of other dedicated educators I’ve connected with through Twitter, blogs, social networks, and other technologies.
If you are an educator who has never attempted to use any of these technologies, or one who has tried but not persevered, I cannot encourage you enough to jump in and begin to get connected. Twitter is a fantastic place to start, and there are numerous catalogs of educators to begin building your community (e.g. Twitter4teachers). All it takes is finding a few similar teachers to follow, engaging them in conversation, and sharing your thoughts, questions, and ideas. Blogs, education social networks on sites such as Ning are also fantastic tools for building collegial relationships.
Teaching is a noble call that suffers when we practice in isolation and flourishes when we work together, and at no time in history have we had the tools we do today that allow us to work together for the good of our children. When we take the time to learn and embrace these tools, we grow as professionals–I can testify to that wholeheartedly.
The 2008-2009 school year saw some exciting developments in the use of technology in Birdville schools, and there are increasing signs that many teachers and administrators here no longer view technology as an exciting addition, but as a critical necessity. Among other trends, the district witnessed explosive growth in the number of students enrolled in online courses. A new digital media system will make storing and retrieval of digital content faster and accessible from any Internet-connected computer. Video is gaining momentum rapidly, as more campuses add webcams and small, portable video cameras to the arsenals of teachers and students.
Web 2.0 tools also continue their steady infiltration of the day-to-day activities of students, teachers, and administrators. Our department launched a very successful program to educate administrators on a wide variety of educational technologies this year. Called Lunch and Learn, the program offered short (1 hour) introductions to technology over a gourmet lunch (usually pizza). The response was very positive, and plans are under way to continue the program next year.
The 12 Second Tech Challenge was started on a whim as an effort to encourage reluctant teachers to try new tools in short bursts. I offered the challenges (and possible prizes, such as web cams, graphics tablets, wireless presenter mice, etc.) to my own campuses, and I received excellent participation and feedback asking for more. I am hopeful that the project will be a district-wide offering next year.
Numerous Web 2.0 tools have gained a significant foothold in the teaching practices of our district campuses. Blogging and wikis continue to have a significant impact. Two campuses, for instance, established student news sites using Edublogs. Students published researched stories, conducted interviews, reported on school events, and incorporated videos of campus events. Twitter is beginning to be utilized in exciting ways. As examples, a middle school teacher (Twitter name foxworth) utilized the tool to communicate news and course information to students and parents. Several campuses, such as Birdville High School and Holiday Heights Elementary, are using Twitter to broadcast campus events and announcements to parents and the community. Ustream was used by the technology department, campuses, and several teachers to stream class and district events, training, and more. The availability of YouTube in the district let teachers and students access powerful educational videos and, even more exciting, to create and share their own work with a global audience. Communication tools, such as Skype, Dimdim, and Mebeamallowed classes to collaborate with other students in distant locations and teachers to attend training (see below) from the comfort of their classrooms.
Student creativity was encouraged through the use of online tools such as Glogster, Animoto, and VoiceThread. Online office applications began to be utilized, with tools such as Google Forms showing particular promise for conducting surveys, gathering data, assessing student progress, etc. The online quiz tool MyStudiyo gained a following among teachers who incorporated the interactive products into class websites and blogs.
The list could certainly go on, but this gives a good, general view of some of the exciting ways teachers and administrators have taken to the use of Web-based instructional tools in the district. Were I to create a “grade” for our progress, I’d give us a solid B+. Our faculties are showing tremendous creativity and enthusiasm, but the utilization of technology needs to see continued growth in the coming year. Far too many of our classrooms are still the domain of well-intended but out-dated practices, resources, and curriculums. The encouraging thing to witness is the fire that is spreading from small sparks of innovation, and the potential exists for a blaze of 21st Century teaching and learning to engulf the classrooms of our district.
As an advocate of free, online Web 2.0 tools, I have spent a great deal of time and effort in reading and researching, trying to keep up with the latest, greatest sites for my teachers or presentation attendees to use to transform their curriculums into the 21st century. I must admit that I’ve been neglectful of some other areas of technology, not so much because I failed to see their importance, but rather that the read/write Web has simply captured my imagination. One particular tool that I wish to gain a greater familiarity with is Moodle. Moodle is a learning management system (LMS), defined by Leonard Greenberg as “a high-level, strategic solution for planning, delivering and managing all learning events within an organization.” (2002) Among other things, Moodle is a powerful tool for creating online content and e-learning opportunities. It has become an amazing force in the education world. It is a free, open-source tool that is putting a serious dent in the sales of for-profit tools in the field, especially in the current economic climate.
Miguel Guhlin is one of the foremost advocates of Moodle in education in the state of Texas today. In his blog and numerous trade publications, Miguel offers insights into implentation of Moodle, its applications, and justifications for its use. In an article written for the magazine On Cue and cross-posted in his blog this week, Miguel gives a good, general overview of the tool and some suggestions for its implementation. One thing that caught my eye was that “Moodle comes replete with blogs, forums, RSS feeds, wikis and more that enable it to be seen as an “absolute good” that opens the door, that enables powerful ideas to slay the fears our IMHO – slay the fears that leaders hold.” I’ve been told many, many times that schools cannot utilize the tools I’ve shared because of restrictive filtering policies, so if Moodle is a step to overcoming this, I’m definitely listening.
Miguel does a great job going into more detail on some of the applications of Moodle in education, but I’ll summarize briefly what he describes.
Online learning environments. Users can create and utilize online groups, such as literature circles, create online quizzes and other instructional resources, build wikis for group collaboration, display student work, keep writing journals, develop online lessons, and more.
District/campus communications. Leaders can create book studies, disseminate news, engage staff in discussions using online forums, etc. All of this can be created in a private setting, accessible only to invited members.
Supporting district initiatives. Moodle’s discussion forums, questionnaires, and synchronous tools (Such as a Dimdim module!) help schools and districts implement initiatives in a manner that is on-going and as needed, rather than the typical isolated and infrequent way that it too often is presented.
Professional development. Moodle has the ability to make professional learning opportunities an anytime, anywhere affair. Teachers can login, take a course, complete a questionnaire, share a lesson plan, and earn needed professional development credits, such as ESL or G/T hours. All of this accomplished in a format that is both cost-effective (no transportation expenses) and fits into already busy schedules.
Breaking Down Barriers
Miguel also offers some helpful tips for overcoming administrative hesitation in implementing Moodle (and Web 2.0 tools) in schools:
Take the time to list the reasons you need the tools.
Share the reasons with administrators.
Create a petition and enlist the support of like-minded educators.
Explain the need for a person to be the administrator of the computers on which the tools will be used and volunteer to be that person.
Cultivate a relationship with the people in “power” over technology and access to resources.
I would add to this list:
Do your research. Administrators generally love data. Be able to support your ideas with evidence.
Educate the leaders at the top of the hierarchy. Show what other schools are doing. Teach them the tools and encourage them to try them out. I know from experience how powerful this can be.
Emphasize the cost-effectiveness of your ideas. The tools are free, but will require some costs in terms of servers, support, etc. Regardless, they are certainly more efficient than many pay-for-use tools.
If those in charge are reluctant, emphasize the ability to create resources whose use and access is totally controlled by the school/district.
Want More Information?
I plan to be experimenting with the tool in the coming months, and I will be sharing my thoughts and experiences here. In the meantime, if anyone is curious enough, you can learn a great deal through Miguel’s writings on his blog and elsewhere. I’ve also found him to be very willing to offer insights and answer questions through Twitter (http://twitter.com/mguhlin). Additionally, Moodle has a very active community of users, and you can tap into this community through the Moodle forums at http://moodle.org/login/index.php.
We’re getting down to crunch time. The big prizes will be announced next week, but for now, intrinsic motivation will have to do! For today’s challenge, you’ll need to create your own blog, using the site Posterous.com. Now, before you click back to the Cartoon Network site just yet, hear me out for a second.
Posterous is a site I recently shared that allows users to post using just an email message, even one that includes pictures or videos. You can even read and reply to comments via email. Accounts are free, of course, and you can blog about anything you like to talk about: family, sports, work, children, movies, food, etc. I want you to see how addictive they can be, and the best way to ensure that is to write about what you know and care about. Just be sure to share your blog’s address here once it’s set up!
First of all, I’ll admit the obvious–I am biased. Blogging has become something that I cannot imagine doing without. It has given me a creative outlet, challenged me to test the validity of my ideas and educational beliefs, and expanded my network of peers. It has met and exceeded my expectations. The platform has continued to become more powerful, as well, giving me and my readers new and exciting ways to interact, such as threaded comments, video and audio comments, etc. It is enjoyable, challenging, and very, very rewarding. Blogging has become entrenched in society, with over 184 million users creating blogs worldwide, ever-increasing readership, and a continual move into more traditional mediums, such as newspapers, television stations, etc. The video below, by Rachel Boyd, does a great job of illustrating some of the benefits of blogging.
For these reasons and more, our students and teachers need to be both readers and creators of blogs. They are powerful tools for reflection, outlets for creativity, and foster critical reading and writing skills.
Ideas for Getting Started
Choosing a blog service
There are many blog services available to students and teachers, some of which cater specifically to the education crowd. Some services are free, while others require yearly or monthly subscriptions. Usually, the pay sites offer certain features that are not available on the free sites. Edublogs (the host of this blog), for instance, offers many extra plugins (such as video/audio comments, threaded comments, etc.) when you subscribe, and the cost is not exorbitant. Discounts are available for bulk subscriptions on Edublogs and many other sites, as well. For most users, though, free blogs are very valid and satisfactory tools. Some sites to check out are listed below (an asterisk indicates blogs specifically catering to educators).
Another option, and one that Jim Hirsch describes as the best option for schools, is to host their own blogs. WordPress is an example of a blogging platform that may be installed to a school or district’s own servers. This allows for far greater control over safety and content, and is much more likely to relax over-worried administrators.
Beginning a blog does not have to be a taxing or overly time-consuming process. While many advanced features exist, and many more are constantly being developed, the basic blog is nothing more than a tool for writing. Subject matter should be personalized, and topics can range from professional issues to hobbies and interests to issues facing schools or society. As Frank Catalano states, bloggers should ask, “Why are you going to do it? To reach individuals with critical information, to express opinions, to teach students writing skills, or simply as an outlet for personal frustrations?” The key is to pick your passion. Some possible topics for teachers might include:
Professional learning experiences
Sharing class/school news with parents and communities
Class discussion starters
Student topics might focus on:
Sharing classroom creative writing
Summarizing daily learning
Social issues and events
Finding an audience
An important next step for student and teacher bloggers is to actively seek readership for their blogs. While the act of writing in and of itself is worthwhile for many reasons, the power and importance of an actively reading and responding audience cannot be overstated. Will Richardson describes blogs as never being actually finished, because the conversations between authors and readers leads to revisions and refinements of ideas. Catalano echoes this, describing the positive effect on student writing of “the power of audience.” Having an audience provides incentive to continue writing, to write better, and stimulates ideas for future writing. Some suggestions for creating an audience for a blog are:
Communicate with friends, family, and associates, telling them about the blog and asking for their input. Use opportunities such as school parent-teacher nights, PTA meetings, etc. to spread the word.
Read and respond to others’ blogs, including the URL of your own blog when you do so. Many times, when comments are thoughtful and well-written, readers will click on the link to see what else the writer may have to say.
Use other tools, such as social networks, Twitter, etc. to inform visitors of the blog and new posts.
Register the blogs with sites such as Technorati, which allow visitors to search by topics.
Use tags. Tags categorize blog entries by topic, and they allow search engines to find blogs based on their subject matter.
Write about interesting topics and don’t shy away from controversy. Blogs are powerful mediums for expressing opinions and generating discussions.
Write frequently. Don’t let the blog sit idle for weeks or months at a time. Loyal readership can’t develop in a vacuum.
A good list of tips by professional bloggers for bringing in readers can be found on the DailyBlogTips site.
Ensure safe and responsible blogging
Before diving in, students (and teachers) should be educated on the rules of the blogging world. Safety and ethics are critical for all bloggers, but for children in particular. Some important concepts to cover include:
What information is/is not okay to share. While blogs may be very personal in terms of subjects, personally identifying information should never be shared by children bloggers.
How to manage comments. Identifying spam, responding to dangerous/inappropriate comments, etc. are skills students should learn, and the teacher should play an active role in modeling this and monitoring students’ comments.
Don’t make personal attacks. “Flaming” is an unethical practice, and, increasingly, it is being viewed by courts and law-enforcement as illegal. Teach students how to express differences of opinions or make revision suggestions civilly.
Observe copyright laws. The availability of vast resources of shared materials via Creative Commons licensing should mean that students never have to use video, images, etc. that lack the required permissions. Flickr, for instance, has a library of tens of millions of images that contributors have licensed for use, free of charge, by others. Also, teach them how to paraphrase and use quotations and how to credit sources.
Now, get to writing
Once these preparatory steps have been taken, the student or teacher simply needs to get started. Don’t worry about readership lacking in the beginning. As content and quality grows, the readers will come. In the meantime, critical literacy skills will be strengthened, and confidence in the medium will grow. As I can attest, it can be quite addictive. I recall vividly the first comment I received from a complete stranger, and the sense of excitement, validation, and empowerment that it gave to me even at my age (very young, of course!). Imagine the same powerful experiences for our students!