A Tantalizing Tabblo

May 6, 2008 · Posted in graphics, Teaching 2.0, Tools, Web 2.0 · Comment 

Over the past three semesters, my education undergraduate students have been working with Panraven, a compelling and interesting web site that allows users to create, publish, and even print online storybooks. We have used Panraven to create sense-of-place projects with an eye toward using Panraven as a K-12 classroom tool. My students’ reactions to using Panraven–expressed personally and through their blogs–have been remarkably similar. While they love the final product–a nicely-formatted online storybook–they consistently struggle with Panraven’s many frustrating limitations and apparent beta bugs. Among those:

  • Upload of images is frustratingly slow and often hangs in progress, requiring a browser restart and loss of work;
  • Dragging images from the media folder to a project sometimes simply doesn’t work at all, again requiring a restart;
  • Text boxes cannot be resized to accommodate more (or less) text than will fit in a given box;
  • Images are fixed and cannot be moved around on a page to facilitate creative layouts;
  • Viewing storybooks online seems inordinately slow, even on a fast campus-wide network.

For these reasons, most of my students reluctantly conclude that Panraven is not a reliable classroom tool, particularly for younger elementary students. The final product, while very compelling, is not worth the potential frustration of using the tool in a K-12 setting.

That’s why I was thrilled to be directed by a colleague to Tabblo (pronounce it “tableau”). Like Panraven, Tabblo creates online storybooks. (It also creates comic books and posters up to 24″ x 36″, but that’s another blog entry.) Unlike Panraven, however, uploading images is very fast. In fact, in my side by side tests on the same computer using the same network, Tabblo uploaded images many times faster than Panraven. Tabblo never hesitated to upload properly, and dragging photos into a story within Tabblo worked perfectly each time I tried it.

Viewing storybooks online is also much faster than with Panraven. Turning a page in Tabblo produces a pleasing”page curl” effect (which works forwards or backwards at both the top and bottom corners of a page) and there is no noticeable delay in loading the next page as there is with Panraven. On the other hand, Tabblo stories appear much smaller on a web page than do Panraven stories (which give you the option of enlarging the display if you want), making captions or small text difficult to read. If there is a way to enlarge Tabblo books, I have not found it yet.

Creating layouts in Tabblo is a breeze, and, while you can choose from a variety of preset layouts, the author is afforded complete control over the placement of images and text boxes on any page. Pictures can be moved from one place to another on a page or dragged off the page and stored in a virtual lightbox for use later. Text boxes can be any size and can be resized easily. It’s simple to insert new pages or delete unwanted pages. And–these actions happen quickly, with no discernible delay in execution.

Tabblo doesn’t win in every category, however. Panraven allows you to embed your stories into a blog, wiki, or other web page. I like this feature very much. Tabblo generates code that “simulates” embedding (that is, it places an image of the storybook cover in your blog), but that image is in reality just a link to the Tabblo web site. It would be wonderful if Tabblo allowed true embedding of projects into web pages.

Below is a test story that I created with Tabblo. Notice that the captions are difficult to read. I cannot find a way to increase the text size in the captions.

Tabblo: Canwell Glacier Tour April, 2006

See my Tabblo>

Even so, it looks like I am going to have to change my fall semester syllabus. We’re moving to Tabblo as an alternative to Panraven.

The Power of Embedding

March 27, 2008 · Posted in Blogging, social networking, Tools, Web 2.0 · 2 Comments 

As an educator, I find myself posting content on a variety of online sources. In addition to semi-regular blogging, I manage several wikis, maintain a faculty home page, store and publish presentations on Google Docs, and I (somewhat reluctantly) use Blackboard for my ed tech classes. Many of those sources employ the same content. For example. a “How to Use Flickr Slidr” presentation might appear on my professional development blog for faculty, on Blackboard as a resource for my students, and as a URL on Google Docs. Reposting that document in numerous locations every time the original document needed to be modified would be time consuming and prone to mistakes. Besides, it violates my basic principle of doing work only once.

That’s why I find the idea of embedding media so powerful. Most online content services provide ways to embed media into a web page of just about any variety. All you need is a bit of site-generated code and authoring access to a web page. Blogs and wikis are great places to publish embedded media. Even stodgy old Blackboard will allow embedding and display of most media types. Imagine–you no longer have to upload a PowerPoint slide show to Blackboard and have your students download it for viewing. You can upload it Google Docs and embed it on Blackboard as a content item. Any changes you make to your slide show through Google Docs are immediately available to your students (it may require refreshing the Blackboard page) and it doesn’t take up any of your limited Blackboard storage space.

Embedding media is simply a matter of copy a few lines of code from a content service and pasting it into your blog, wiki, web page, Blackboard course site, or any other web page to which you have authoring privileges. The code is automatically generated by the content service site.

Here are a few of the content services that provide automatically generated code that can be copied and pasted into your sites:

  • Flickr (photos)
  • VoiceThread (voice and video annotated stories)
  • Panraven (online storybooks)
  • Google Docs (MS Office compatible word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet files; requires a Google account)
  • Flickr Slidr (generates code for embedding Flick slide shows
  • YouTube, and virtually every other video sharing site (videos)

There are some potential tradeoffs when using embedded media. For example, PowerPoint slide shows uploaded to Google Docs cannot have sound or animation. Careful authoring with these limitations in mind, however, usually results in useful and effective documents.

Below is an example of an embedded VoiceThread project, which I’ve chosen to present in a small size for faster access. Because I have allowed public comment on this project, video or voice annotations added to my original presentation on VoiceThread will automatically be reflected here, and vice versa.

Research on Social Networking

September 12, 2007 · Posted in social networking, Studies, Web 2.0 · 2 Comments 

Wired for FaceBook?

As my university students and I delve more into the phenomenon of social networking, I find myself looking for research that addresses the reasons that so many folks find social networking so compelling. Many of my students have an almost palpable fear of being un-connected to their network of friends, be that realized through cell phone, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook/MySpace/LiveJournal, and even e-mail. Some of my students maintain contacts in more than one of the aforementioned media simultaneously. The rapid rise of Twitter (“what are you doing right now?”) as a communication platform is further evidence of the need for constant affirmation through social contact. But how does this compare to “real,” face-to-face contact?

Evolutionary psychology may give us some clues. Michael Rogers, a columnist for MSNBC, recently reviewed a book by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar called “Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language” [Amazon link]. In this book, Dunbar examined the behavior of humans long before civilization or language developed. His basic premise is that understanding one’s place in the social hierarchy of early hominid groups was critical for survival and that this was largely accomplished by the same kind of grooming behavior that we currently see in apes, chimps, and monkeys. As these early hominid groups became larger, mutual grooming of every “tribe” member became impossible. The vehicle that replaced grooming as a social contact was language. Language facilitated quicker communication and the ability to communicate with multiple individuals at the same time. As Rogers puts it, “we haven’t stopped gossiping since.”

Intriguingly, Dunbar points out that there is a practical limit to the number of individuals with whom a single individual can maintain this kind of contact. That number is about 150. Large scale groups have developed a series of ways to compensate for this limitation by forming bureaucracies, social stratification, or other mechanisms to keep the numbers down to a manageable size, but the limitation still exists.

So–is social networking the next evolutionary step in increasing the number of contacts that an individual may have while still being able to understand one’s place in the hierarchy? Are we “wired” to have a Facebook page? It’s clearly too early to tell, but these are interesting times…

Who Are Your Friends?

“Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace do not help you make more genuine close friends, according to a survey by researchers who studied how the websites are changing the nature of friendship networks.”

That quote is from an article by Guardian science correspondent James Randerson titled “Social Networking Sites Don’t Deepen Friendships.” Citing results from a survey about the nature of friendships and how they may be influenced by social networks, Randerson concludes that, while an individual may have thousands of friends collected on MySpace or Facebook, these friends are not the same as friends developed in traditional face to face situations. Researchers found a distinction between friends made through a social network and “close” friends made by traditional means.

This is probably not a surprise to anyone. Trust engendered through traditional friendships is difficult to build and maintain through a medium in which it is so easy to misrepresent yourself. However, it appears to be the case that the generally accepted limit of 150 acquaintances (or 5 close friends) may be expanded through social networks by making it easier to keep in touch over distance and making it less expensive–both financially and in terms of effort expended–to maintain a large number of social contacts.

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Random Tools

August 30, 2007 · Posted in Blogging, Teaching 2.0, Tools, Web 2.0 · 1 Comment 

Today’s post is a collection of tools and resources that have come my way over the past few days.

My Friend Flickr
This excellent article from Edutopia outlines a variety of student-safe uses of Flickr, the online photo sharing site. Amy Standen (author) does an excellent job of pointing out the potential pitfalls of turning students loose in a social networking site and demonstrates that such a resource may be used safely and productively in a school setting. Be sure to check out the links at the end of the article.

Free Flash Cards
Sometimes the old fashioned tools are the best. This is a nice repository of free flash cards on a wide variety of topics including math and science, business, arts, languages, etc. You can create your own flashcards and embed flashcards in your own blog or web page.

SchoolTube is “a network of students, educators, and industry working together to foster video production and internet publishing in a safe online learning environment.” Modeled after YouTube (and many similar sites), this site publishes teacher-moderated and approved videos submitted by schools. These are not “educational” videos in the typical sense–rather, they are student or teacher produced videos from a variety of genres, including comedies, music videos, school events, careers, ceremonies, and even student council meetings. Great fun and a good option for uploading student productions.

Blogs in Education
A narrated PowerPoint presentation on basic blogging, from how to find a place to blog to why you should consider blogging. It includes a good discussion of the potential “dark side” of placing students in a social networking environment. Highly recommended as an introduction to blogging for those who are new to the concept.

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Education in Rural Alaska

August 28, 2007 · Posted in NCLB, Rural Alaska, Teaching 2.0, Web 2.0 · Comment 

Three weeks ago, I spent a very exciting and enlightening week with a dozen pre-service teachers from rural Alaska. This was an “intensive” class–a week of face-to-face teaching and learning followed by a semester of distance-delivered coursework. This was an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic group which gave me much hope for the quality of instruction in our rural sites. I learned as much from this group as I hope they did from me.

I was reminded of an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the many problems faced by rural Alaska educators (“In Alaska, School Equity Elusive”). This article outlined a number of challenges faced by rural school systems, made even more problematic by the No Child Left Behind litany of exit exams, highly-qualified teachers, and adequate yearly progress. Finding a “highly qualified teacher” is impossible when one of the main challenges is finding a teacher at all:

“Educators have cited several reasons for rural schools’ woes: poor language skills among students, a dearth of early education opportunities, alcohol abuse and other social problems in the communities, and a difficulty in attracting and retaining teachers. The last is probably the biggest challenge, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. “If you don’t retain teachers, you get, by definition, inexperienced people,” he says.”

Add to that inadequate teacher housing, lack of services (including such basics as grocery stores and running water), and cultural gaps and you have an educational system that typically underserves rural students. This notion was underscored by a recent Alaska Superior Court decision that found that rural education quality was so poor that rural students should not be required to pass the same exam that their urban counterparts take.

” “It is fundamentally unfair for the State to hold students accountable for failing this exam when some students in this state have not been accorded a meaningful opportunity to learn the material on the exam – an opportunity that the State is constitutionally obligated to provide them,” Judge Gleason said in her ruling. The state must do more to improve education in troubled districts, located in generally impoverished areas of rural Alaska, before reinstating the exit-exam requirement, Gleason said.”

It seems a bit like a Catch-22–some rural students aren’t qualified to take the state-required exit exam because of poor educational preparation, but the state is required to provide adequate preparation for all of its students so that they can pass the exit exam that all Alaska students are required to pass, but some rural students aren’t qualified…

That’s why I was so encouraged by the dedication and enthusiasm of the students in my intensive class. They have a real chance to make a positive difference in their schools and districts once they become teachers. I think it’s already beginning. I require the students to keep blogs about their experiences living and teaching in their towns and villages. Their reflections about life in rural Alaska provide some powerful stories that we all need to hear. An example–this post in Betty’s Uqqaluvut blog profiles life in Kivalina [aerial photo], a small whaling village north of the Arctic Circle. It should be required reading.

I’m convinced that Web 2.0 technologies can play a meaningful part in changing the nature of education in rural Alaska. We need to tell the stories of education in rural Alaska, and the best people to tell those stories are the folks that live and teach there. In future blog entries, I’ll be linking to some of the place-based projects that my students will be undertaking this semester. Stay tuned…

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96% of Teens Use Social Networking Tools

August 15, 2007 · Posted in social networking, Teaching 2.0, Web 2.0 · Comment 

According to a recent poll by the National Schools Boards Association, ninety-six percent of all US students aged 9 to 17 who have Internet access have used social networking tools (blogs, chats, text messages, online communities, etc.) to communicate and to create content on the web. Some specifics:

  • 49% have uploaded original photos or pictures
  • 25% have personal profiles posted on a web site
  • 22% have uploaded original videos
  • 17% have blogs
  • 16% have visited virtual worlds such as Second Life

Perhaps most interestingly, 50 percent report that they use social networking tools specifically for schoolwork. Anne L. Bryant, NSBA’s executive director, sums up the findings this way:

“There is no doubt that these online teen hangouts are having a huge influence on how kids today are creatively thinking and behaving. The challenge for school boards and educators is that they have to keep pace with how students are using these tools in positive ways and consider how they might incorporate this technology into the school setting.” [NBSA online article | Complete article as PD file]

From my perspective, truer words were never spoken. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that many of our K-12 students are developing their learning styles and preferences in environments that look far different than the classrooms in the schools they attend. They are not simply consumers of online content–they also create it.

The questions that schools need to address involve what to do when students come to school and expect to use their technologies to communicate, research, create, and collaborate. Do we ban these technologies, or do we use them as teaching and learning tools?

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E-mail is SOOOO 20th century…

July 23, 2007 · Posted in social networking, Teaching 2.0, Web 2.0 · Comment 

One of the things we are taught when we are studying to become teachers is to “meet students where they are” in terms of their learning styles and preferences. It does no good to teach at a pace that is too fast or too slow for the learner, nor is it a good idea to use materials or methods that do not directly address the way a person learns. This idea is at the heart of constructivist teaching–find out what motivates a student and start from there to build a teaching and learning system that optimizes a student’s opportunity to learn.

It’s interesting to consider this in light of existing and emerging technologies. As teachers of teachers, those of us in schools of education (if we practice what we preach) should be meeting our students where they are in terms of their learning styles and preferences. These styles and preferences were typically developed in a world of ubiquitous technology in their homes, in a world in which e-mail, the world wide web, and computers have always been there.

That’s why a recent article on CNET caught my attention. In “Kids say e-mail is, like, soooo dead,” Stephanie Olson writes:

The future of e-mail might be found on the pages of MySpace.com and Facebook.

Just ask a group of teen Internet entrepreneurs, who readily admit that traditional e-mail is better suited for keeping up professional relationships or communicating with adults.

“I only use e-mail for my business and to get sponsors,” Martina Butler, the host of the teen podcast Emo Girl Talk, said during a panel discussion here at the Mashup 2007 conference, which is focused on the technology generation. With friends, Bulter said she only sends notes via a social network.

“Sometimes I say I e-mailed you, but I mean I Myspace’d or Facebook’ed you,” she said.

There is a lot to digest in those words. How many terms did you encounter that refer to something about which you know little or nothing? Facebook? MySpace? Podcast? Mashup? Social networks? Does this suggest that your students–the ones in your university classes, studying to become teachers–know about something very important that you don’t? Read on:

“If I’m talking to any friends it’s through a social network,” said Asheem Badshah, a teenaged president of Scriptovia.com, an essay-sharing site that launched this summer. “For me even IM died, and was replaced by text messaging. Facebook will replace e-mail for communicating with certain people.”

Not only are some of the methods of communicating changing, but the devices used to communicate are also evolving. Facebook runs on cell phones. There are more than 15 billion cell phone in the world today and only a third as many computers, most of which are sitting on desktops [citation]. Most cell phones can capture video, send and receive text messages, and even work with e-mail.

Butler replied that she uses Facebook on her cell phone. “I need (Facebook) everywhere I go, but I log into e-mail only once a week,” she said.

More and more, social networks are playing a bigger role on the cell phone. In the last six to nine months, teens in the United States have taken to text messaging in numbers that rival usage in Europe and Asia. According to market research firm JupiterResearch, 80 percent of teens with cell phones regularly use text messaging.

Social networks may or may not be the future of communications–things change quickly these days. But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that we–post-secondary educators–need to be conversant with the tools that our students use and the learning styles that are fostered by them. We may tell ourselves that we’re using technology for teaching because we use Blackboard and send e-mail to our students. We may ask them to look up topics on a web page instead of a textbook or use a discussion board to post threaded comments. But to our students, this is probably neither engaging nor is it technology. It was all invented before they were born.

It’s soooo 20th century…

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