Why Blog with Post-Secondary Students?

September 5, 2008 · Posted in Blogging · 1 Comment 

I have been requiring my post-secondary education students to blog for the past four semesters. At first, I wanted to experiment with the medium–to see if it improved writing and communication between students and between faculty and students, to see if it could be an effective way to turn in and reflect on assignments, and to see if it led to improved awareness of and facility with other social networking tools. It didn’t take more than a semester to see that active blogging by students did all of the above and more, to the extent that now I can’t imagine not using student and faculty blogs as a main focus of my instructional process. Part of the proof? Most of the students from four semesters ago are still blogging and are in active contact with me and each other. They talk about their classroom experiences, their job searches, their personal lives, cultural issues in their area, and much more. My first task every morning is to check Google Reader (my RSS application of choice) to see if there are any new blog entries from my students. It’s something I look forward to.

From a personal and professional standpoint, there have been some unexpected benefits of blogging. I enjoy the cathartic aspects of organizing my thoughts on various topics and logging them for other educators or for my own future reference. I think I’ve become a better writer. I can collect research on topics that concern me or my students and archive those using tags and categories that make finding them later a simple process. This is exceptionally helpful when a student asks me a question like “Is there any evidence that using a computer improves writing skills?” More often than not, I can point that student to my blog for an answer and a link to the original research. My blog has become, in effect, the text for my class. I no longer require textbooks in my classes. I consciously collect and publish topics that are relevant to my instruction, and that collection is subject to review and comment by the academic community at large. It’s a very liberating experience.

Most of the faculty I work with do not use blogs as a part of their instructional design. There are many reasons for this, all legitimate and understandable on some levels. It takes time (particularly when you initially implement it), it requires learning something new, there are potential privacy concerns, etc. For some, the lack of awareness of the social networking context in general is a deterrent. Others simply may not see how blogging fits into their subject area or how it could have any value for their students.

In my efforts to raise awareness of these issues among faculty, I am on constant lookout for pedagogically sound rationales for venturing into blogging. That’s why I was delighted to run across Anne Davis’ “Rationale for Educational Blogging” from EduBlog Insights. Ms. Davis presents a clear, well-conceived set of reasons to consider blogging. I could reiterate them here, but I’d recommend visiting her blog and reading them there. The comments are also worth your time–and, they serve as a shining example of the power of communicating your ideas in a public arena.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. In fact, that’s the point…

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.

TextCasting the Easy Way

October 4, 2007 · Posted in Blogging, Tools · 1 Comment 

EDIT: I decided to drop this blog’s connection with Odiogo a few months ago. While I was initially excited about the idea of having blogs spoken, there were some elements of the service that did not suit my purposes very well. First, the availability of the audio portion of the blog expires after a few months, so you can’t listen to archived posts online (although you could still listen to the mp3 file if you happened to have download it before it expired). Second, the preponderance of technical terms and brand names in my blog entries created pronunciation problems that I found distracting. Odiogo is a fine service that should work well for many purposes, but in my case it wasn’t what I expected.

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may notice something different with this entry–the small “Listen Now” button at the beginning of each entry. It seems trivial, but it has opened up a huge landscape of possibilities for podcasting, student self-review, and serving visually-impaired or learning disabled readers.

A few weeks ago I became interested in text-to-audio possibilities through a colleague of mine who suggested that I take a look at BlueGrind, a web site that allows you to upload text and have it converted into a downloadable mp3 audio file. I signed up for an account, uploaded some text, and, after some rather non-intuitive clicking was able to download the mp3 file. The text, while clearly synthesized, was completely understandable and well-inflected. Although the site advertises easy conversion to podcasts, it was not immediately apparent how to do this so I went in search of other possibilities.

I found this article from profy.com that reviewed BlueGrind as well as Talkr and Odiogo, additional services that promised to turn my text-based blog into audio that could be accessed directly in the blog by clicking a button or by subscribing to the feed as a podcast. I played around with Talkr for a bit and then tried Odiogo. I ended up liking the ease of use of Odiogo as well as its multilingual possibilities. As a result, I submitted two of my blogs (this one, using WordPress) and Skip’s Tips, a Blogger site, for testing. A day or so later, the Odiogo folks had processed my blog and sent me directions for activating audio services. In the case of Blogger blogs, it’s quite easy–just click on a link, agree to allow Blogger to install the Odiogo widget, and you’re off and running. In the case of WordPress blogs it’s a bit more complicated, but the directions from Odiogo are clear and easy to follow. Once set up, readers can click the “Listen Now” button to hear the text spoken aloud (try it!), download the mp3 file, and even subscribe to the blog as a podcast.

The first thing that crossed my mind was that visually-impaired or learning disabled readers would have an easy way to access my blog. As I experimented more, some other equally intriguing possibilities occurred to me. One was the simplicity of listening to a blog while doing some other task that didn’t require complete concentration–reading e-mail, catching up on news, installing software, etc. Odiogo’s player has a convenient pause button if you need to focus on the task at hand and pick up your blog later.

The possibilities for teachers are endless. Students can listen to your blog entries for study or review or download and listen to them in iTunes or on their iPod (or any other mp3 player). Then there is the possibility for self-review. For this purpose, BlugGrind seems to work best. You can copy a block of text, paste it into a text window on the BlueGrind website and download it as an mp3 audio file. This strikes me as a great tool for rote memorization of text passages or plays, vocabulary review, etc. And again, visually impaired or learning disabled readers can upload a text file and have it returned as an mp3 file.

There is, of course, one major difference in audio files created this way as opposed to those recorded directly from speech–the speech in these files is synthesized from text. They will not have the richness of pronunciation or inflection that a native speaker might bring to a language study task or that an inspired orator might lend to a speech or lecture. But, I think you’ll agree that all of these sites produce clear, intelligible speech that has a myriad of uses for educators.

If you don’t, please let me know.

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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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Of Books, Blogs, and Teaching 2.0

July 21, 2007 · Posted in Blogging, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

Two seemingly disparate articles came my way this week and got me thinking (again) about the nature of Teaching 2.0. (I have been defining Teaching 2.0 as the shift in pedagogy brought about by participatory Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, social networks, etc.)

The first is a story from the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah. Ron Hammond, a professor at Utah Valley State College, is leading a protest against the exorbitant and rising price of textbooks for college students by not requiring any for his classes. Instead, he assigns journal articles and original research available from online sources or libraries. In addition to saving significant amounts of money for his students, Hammond has found that engaging students with original research teaches students powerful research skills that will help them in their careers. [Read the article here.]

I have not required textbooks for my university classes for the past four years. The impetus was not necessarily to protest against the cost of textbooks–although my students were very happy about not having to purchase any. Rather, it was an effort to provide current information to students in a format that was easily accessible and extensible. My reading lists vary from semester to semester as I constantly locate new and more current sources of information relevant to my topics. They are also responsible for finding some of their own sources. In a field in which information becomes obsolete almost weekly, it’s an advantage to students to be exposed to current information and also to learn the skills for locating it on their own. I’d urge all educators to critically examine the texts that they use to determine if they are really necessary for their classes. It’s very liberating to be free of the tyranny of the textbook.

The second article deals with what has become–for me, at least–a major alternative to the textbook. By most calculations, I came late to blogging. As of this writing, blogging is officially 10 years old–an eternity in computer years. I have been actively involved for about three years as an author, and for a few more as a consumer. It’s as an author, though, that the power of the medium has come into such sharp focus and why I have come to believe that blogging is such a critical tool for our students, both K-12 and post-secondary.

21Classes (as of this writing still in beta but available for use) is offering a unique take on blogging with students. 21Classes is both a blogging portal and hosting service aimed at getting students to blog. Because it offers a variety of blog management tools (e.g., reviewing entries, control over student content, making some content private, etc.) it seems targeted at K-12 students whose posts may need review prior to publishing. However, it would also be appropriate for post-secondary students, particularly as an introduction to students who may not be familiar with blogging or to those who have some privacy concerns.

21Classes is a free service at it’s basic level, which includes advertising. For about $9.00 per month, you get no ads, more storage space, and the ability to create 100 separate student accounts rather than just 50.

So–not only do we have some sound pedagogical (and economic) reasons for looking beyond textbooks, we have some easy tools to let us get started with some powerful supplements.

I want my university students to blog for a number of reasons:

  • To reflect on their studies
  • To develop and enhance writing skills
  • To share articles and their own insights with others
  • To create placed-based projects documenting Alaska’s far-flung communities
  • To keep up with  what their peers (and former teachers) are writing and thinking about
  • To provide us at the university insight into current K-12 classrooms and issues

There’s just no reason not to anymore.

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The Network is the Computer

July 9, 2007 · Posted in Blogging, Teaching 2.0, Web 2.0 · Comment 

When I started my investigation of Web 2.0 technologies as a part of the teaching and learning process, I was reminded of the incredible prescience of John Gage, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems. In 1984, he uttered a phrase that became Sun’s mantra: “The network is the computer.” To put that date into perspective, 1984 was the year that the first mass-market computer with a graphical interface (the Macintosh) was released. It would still be more than ten years before a graphical web browser (Mosaic) would make it’s first appearance. Networks were the province of universities and defense institutions. What was Gage thinking about?

Now, with the advent of Web 2.0 technologies and ubiquitous wifi access, it’s very clear what Gage meant. For the activities that most of us do most of the time, the network to which we have access is far more important than the device through which that access is realized. Online, we can write (and store and collaborate on) documents, build spreadsheets, store and share our photos, maintain collections of bookmarks, develop and deliver presentations, publish our own work, read the news and correspond with others with just about any device that can access a wireless network. For this kind of work, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using Mac, Windows, or some flavor of Linux–you just need a web browser. Increasingly, it doesn’t even require a computer in the connotative sense of the term–phones, pocket PCs, and even game devices can perform most of these functions.

Web 2.0 technologies have caused a major shift in my thinking about the web. In the “old days,” I saw the web as a book with a very good index. It was exciting to be able to quickly locate up to date information, but, like all books, the information there was static and one-way. I was an observer and not a participant.

Now, I see the web as a notebook–a place not only to locate information but also to store it. share it, and even participate in it’s creation and dissemination. Tools like JetEye and Google Notebook let me keep (and share) notes as I do my online research. I can add my knowledge or observations to wikis, comment on blogs, access pictures from my former students, attend meetings, and subscribe to a huge variety of interesting information via RSS. My access device might be my laptop, but it might also be my PDA or cell phone. As these devices increasingly converge in terms of functionality, it’s not difficult to image a single device–devoid of much on the way of local storage or operating system–that will do it all. Then, the network will truly be the computer.

As educators, we need to think about how we view the functionality of the web as a tool for our students. It’s common practice in K-12 education to do a “web quest”–essentially, a guided tour through some pre-selected web sites in an effort to answer some assigned questions. It’s the 21st century equivalent of “read the chapter and answer the questions” that we all suffered through in school. Many teachers think that, because students are asked to use the web to find the answers, they are “integrating technology into the classroom.” This is the “book” view of the web that I alluded to earlier. The problem is that, for most of our students, this approach is SO twentieth century. They’ve advanced way past this in their own uses of the web (think about FaceBook, MySpace, Flickr, etc.) and in their expectations of how the web should work for them. To them, the web is an interactive medium, and they are used to being participants.

We need to take a careful look at how we are using web tools with our K-12 and post-secondary students. Are we still asking them to read the chapter and answer the questions?

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Copyright and Plagiarism on the Web

July 7, 2007 · Posted in Blogging, Teaching 2.0, Tools · 1 Comment 

Anyone writing a blog (or posting any materials on the web) should be aware of how copyright law applies to them. This is particularly important in an age when mashups and remixes of existing materials are not only commonplace but are accepted forms of expression.

Students (and their teachers) need to be keenly aware of the copyright laws as they apply to the work that their students produce. The following sources are particularly helpful in that regard and should be required reading for all educators.

10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained
An excellent resource for students, as the myths are explained in the form of responses to comments that students might make–e.g., “If I don’t charge for it, it’s not a violation,” or “If I make up my own stories, but base them on another work, my new work belongs to me.”

Copyright Explained: I May Copy It, Right?
A very thorough treatment of copyright laws and rights. Topics include what is prohibited, what is NOT prohibited, what to do about plagiarism, and others. The article concludes with an excellent set of links to related articles and resources.

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