Friday, April 11, 2008

What's next?

Last year, there was no technology in my classroom. The closest any kids came to a computer was one little boy I had take an online colour blindness test on the computer on my desk. Pretty sad considering my self-professed love of technology, but quite simply, I couldn't figure out how to integrate technology into my early childhood classes with just one computer in the room. And honestly, even if I had a couple extra machines, would I have done anything besides load some games? I doubt it.

This class-- the readings, the discussions, and best of all, the blogs-- has inspired me to change all that. I've got an old laptop that will be living in my classroom and it will be our gateway to web 2.0. I'm going to convince our tech guy to let my classroom be the home base for the digital projector, because I'm going to use it... a lot! Here's what I've got planned so far:

-a "what did we do today?" blog composed by students at the end of each day
-videos to go with each letter/sound we learn, similar to this great teacher tube video
-an alphabet voicethread that I will create for students to comment on for each letter/sound
-a group project to create a counting video
-I will invest in a pair of kid's digital cameras to use as a journalism centre (pictures for our blog!)
-those pictures will go to our (password protected) classroom's Picassa account for parents to view and print
-each student will have a voicethread portfolio that will be continuously added to and parents will be able to view (Thanks for the inspiration, Val!)

I'm excited. This course has made technology seem, well, within reach. While I had a working knowledge of most of the web 2.0 tools we looked at coming into the course, I didn't have an appreciation for how flexible and powerful they could be. Blogs were just an annoyance, now they are a way to reflect on my learning and listen to what others are learning. Photo sharing was just for baby pictures, now it's for teacher-parent communication. Video sharing was a way to waste a few hours fooling around, now it's a way to learn about other cultures and showcase student learning. Wikis were for school calendars, now they are for everything!

Several times during this course, I found myself saying "how did I not know about this?"

The most important thing I have learnt in the past three months is that it is very easy to not keep up with what is happening with technology, and more specifically, technology in schools. There are always new ideas, new possibilities, and new tools being developed, and if you keep your head down to long, you are going to miss them. While I've always proudly considered myself to be a lifelong learner, I realize now that that doesn't mean just going to conferences and taking courses. It means keeping up all the time and being willing to take chances with new ideas. For all my time constraints and whining about reading blogs, I'm going to try to keep up with a few. I've subscribed to Wesley Fryer's podcast as well as David Warlick's. And I really am going to make an effort to spread the tech gospel: take my last post about PD, and change each 'would' to 'will.' I'm pretty nervous about it, but if I don't take the chance, who will?

At the start of this course, I was scared. Sure, I knew a bit about the tools we would be looking at, and reading articles about technology in schools was right up my alley, but having to explore a new technology in depth just about each week on top of readings and discussions was overwhelming. I reacted predictably, by being primarily an observer rather than an active participant. I regret that, but then that's the story of my school life. That said, this blog has given me much more confidence to share my thoughts with colleagues. Yes, it's an assignment, but making it available to others in this class, and the world, has encouraged me to think and work harder. Which is exactly why the tools of the read/write web are so powerful for teachers.

If I worked harder, if I thought more critically, then yes, I believe these tools can transform how our students feel about learning. Next September, I get to set that transformation in motion. Excited? You bet!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Professional Development

Blogs and wikis and Youtube oh my! Every week, every new technology, convinced me to feature it for the PD assignment/blog. Each seemed to have so much potential. I could honestly see each different web 2.0 tool making a positive difference in my school, for my students. So which to choose?


Voicethread was the one technology we looked at that I had never heard of and the one I was most excited to try out once I discovered what it was. Voicethread's simplicity, flexibility, and compatibility makes it in some ways the ideal web 2.0 tool. It is accessible to even the youngest students because they can record their thoughts without writing, and yet can be used to create sophisticated products for older students. It is interactive, yet has built in controls for teachers to closely monitor that interactivity and keep students safe.

While I suspect many other teachers will be in the same position I was a few weeks ago, having no idea what a voicethread is, I think once they are introduced to the technology and its features, they too will see how many educational possibilities exist for voicethreads! That leaves it to me to get them started... here's what I'd do.

To start, I'd take Wesley Fryer's advice and "focus on the few teachers in your building who are very enthused about using technology." In his article "Working with reluctant teachers" in June 2005's Technology and Learning, he describes strategies to improve staff development in schools where teachers "believe computer activities are just a waste of time, and students should focus on reading and math." This describes the majority of teachers I work with, but I can think of a few that would be more receptive to trying something new. Once I've provided PD to that core group, enthusiasm should spread.

I would get in touch with those teachers and start an informal discussion of voicethreads, along the lines of "have you seen this new technology? What do you think?" I certainly respond better to professional development when it is tailored to my needs and interests, so I would like to make sure that voicethreads are of interest to my colleagues before I forge ahead. If they aren't? Well then I start publicizing all the great things I'm doing with voicethreads, until I get some interest! This is a take on another piece of Fryer's advice in that same article.

Once I have a small group of interested teachers and an idea of their needs and wants, I would set up an abridged version of Glazer and Page's collaborative apprenticeship. I keep coming back to this model of staff development because it doesn't just dump new knowledge into teachers' brains and run... we know that isn't good enough for our students, why should it be good enough for our teachers? Instead, it works to "advance and sustain" teacher knowledge. In the May 2006 Learning and Leading with Technology they outline the collaborative apprenticeship model in 4 parts: introduction, development, proficiency, and mastery. While Gazer and Page suggest spending at least several weeks in each phase, I would cut this down considerably, since I am focusing on a very narrow slice of web 2.0 technology. Still, I think the framework of collaborative apprenticeship will be useful for teaching teachers about voicethreads.

The first phase, introduction, I would do in a short workshop where I could show a variety of voicethreads all notable for their educative value. I would pull most of my examples from the Voicethreads4Education wiki, encouraging teachers to look through the site during some free time as well. I would do this in a computer lab, using a projector so everyone could easily see what was going on, but also had access to their own computer. Trevor Shaw ("Tech Training and Modeling Effective Teaching, Part 2", MultiMedia & Internet@Schools; Nov/Dec 2004) advises that staff developers take plenty of time to model technology based tools, so I would demonstrate how to search for voicethreads to use in their classes, how to comment on them, and finally, how to get started creating one. Then the fun really begins! I would have us work together to create our very own voicethread to publish. We know that students learn best when they are active participants in their learning, and us grown-ups are no different. Mary Alice Anderson suggests keeping things informal, and encouraging discussion and participation during PD sessions in "Jump-starting staff development", an article in the August 2003 edition of School Library Journal. She also backs up my decision to keep things short, sweet, and frequent, suggesting that "quick classes in small doses may have a higher success rate than formal sessions that last longer."

I would give participants about a week to mull over what they learned about voicethreads, while encouraging them to show voicethreads in their classrooms, maybe even having students make comments. I would also provide teachers with the link to the great web site Digitally Speaking, a wiki created and maintained by Bill Ferriter. It contains a wealth of information for teachers regarding voicethreads (and other web 2.0 technologies, too!) including some fantastic handouts. I would ask teachers to explore the wiki as part of their thinking about voicethreads

The next step is the developmental phase. In this phase, I would work with participants to design a lesson for their classes that has students create a voicethread. I would like to start out with another group session where we discuss possible lessons and begin planning, followed up with one-on-one sessions with each teacher during their prep time. Time is tight for all teachers, and I think teachers would react better if I was able to work with their schedules rather than ask them to add to their own. This would mean, however, finding ways to opening up my own schedule at appropriate times. This is where administrator buy-in would be crucial. I would need not only permission to leave my classroom for these sessions, but depending on the timing, possibly a substitute teacher. I am in the enviable position of having a full time TA next year, but it could still be an issue.

During this phase, I would also like to arrange to be in the classroom when the teacher is teaching their voicethread lesson, if that is what the teacher wants. I would offer to co-teach to provide that teacher with the confidence to implement that first lesson.

In the next phase, proficiency, "teachers become more autonomous in their use of technology" (Glazer & Page, 2006). I would encourage teachers in the group to discuss how they are using the technology with each other informally, but also continue to schedule at least 2 short afternoon sessions for trouble shooting and more formal discussion. I would also stress to teachers that I am available to consult on their lessons, all the while encouraging them to be creative with their voicethread plans.

The final phase gets me really excited about the process: mastery. Here is where that small group of teachers get to showcase what they have learned to others! Fryer recommends publicizing success, and I agree. With a core group of educators successfully integrating voicethreads into their lessons, we should have plenty of good news stories to showcase to parents and other teachers. Once the community sees the positive benefits of using voicethreads for learning, they will begin to ask other teachers to participate as well... and that first group of teachers can begin the collaborative apprenticeship process anew.

Finally, I would evaluate my attempt at staff development. David Jakes (Staff Development 2.0, Technology & Learning; May 2006)summarizes a five-step evaluation program from Thomas Guskey's book Evaluating Professional Development. I would evaluate my program on those five components: participants' reactions, participants' learning, organizational support and change, participants' use of new knowledge, and student learning. I would carefully examine what went well and what I need to improve for next time. And there will be a next time. There are plenty more great web 2.0 tools I want to introduce my colleagues to!

I work in a community that is very resistant to change. Sure, everyone fears change to a degree, but I find the Northern communities I work in particularly resistant to new ideas. In light of this, I need to add that I will persevere. Too often I've seen great ideas booed once and disappear. I pledge to myself and my students that even if voicethreads don't catch on with my first group of teachers, I will keep on trying with another group, and then another, until their value is appreciated. Hopefully that dogged determination to bring better educational technology to Northern students will make an impact.

Part of the reason I chose voicethreads for this topic has to do with that resistance. Voicethreads presents so many obvious educational uses that I hope that the teachers I connect with will be more likely to adopt the technology compared to some of the more controversial web 2.0 tools. Once I have a core group of dedicated voicethread users in the community, I hope to branch out into other tools, particularly blogs and video sharing. I would approach those two subjects in much the same way as I've described for voicethreads. While doing staff development on voicethreads though, I will be using blogs and video sharing (and very likely several other tools!) in my classroom and happily telling anyone who will listen about all the great learning we are doing with these tools. With concrete examples of the technology in use and someone on staff (me!) willing to mentor them, I hope other teachers will be more willing to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


I have been dreading this week's topic.

At the beginning of this course, I professed my disdain for blogging. But, I'll admit, some of that disdain was a result of ignorance, so I committed myself to giving the process, and the products of others, a fair shake.

As each week has gone by, I have grown more and more appreciative of the process, that is, learning with blogs. I find blogging to be a particularly useful form of reflective learning for myself. On the other hand, my appreciation for learning from blogs hasn't changed much.

My dread comes from trying to make sense of that peculiar difference. After all, it comes down to "I like writing a blog, but I don't like reading other people's." Ouch. Pretty self-centred. Thankfully, however, that statement isn't entirely accurate. Let my try, and I stress try, to explain.

Here's a quick picture of my personality: scatterbrained, curious, multiple divergent interests, and busy. I have learned the hard way over the years that in order to get anything done in a brain like mine, I need to get focused and work in short, intense bursts. The Internet, as much as I love it, does nothing to help me focus. While it nurtures my diverse interests, it can suck up time like no other distraction I know... time I just don't have to lose. I limit my Internet time out of necessity for myself and my family. Babies just aren't interested in computers (although Kneebouncers does catch her attention) and it's hard to cook supper while watching videos on Youtube!

I have had to come to the conclusion that reading blogs is not a good fit for my personality. I've been using Google Reader to follow Blog of Proximal Development, Dangerously Irrelevant, Webblog-ed, and Moving at the Speed of Creativity. [an aside: Google Reader has made this experience possible... I don't think I could have done it without the wonder of RSS. It is so much more convenient to have the updates delivered to me that checking those blog pages every few days to see what is new, particularly on top of all the blogs for this course.] Each of those blogs contains lots of interesting information, thought-provoking insights, and great links to other material. They are professional and well written. But here's the rub: I don't want to miss a thing! Even if the subject line suggests the post won't be of great pertinence to me, I am compelled to read on. Likewise, I am compelled to follow links, view embedded videos, and read comments. Suddenly it's 11pm and I haven't started researching my next blog post.

Lifelong learning takes commitment and time. While I have the commitment, I don't always have the time. I am a strong believer in balance, and reading blogs as part of my commitment to lifelong learning throws off my balance. Again, I'm not suggesting that blogs are of little professional development value, they just don't fit my life and personality. I have much more success reading journals, listening to podcasts, and taking courses. I find I am better able to make good judgements about the educative value of a journal article, podcast, or course ahead of time to determine if it is 'worth' spending my time on, or is better to leave alone for another time.

While the blogs I chose to follow are generally applicable to my situation (namely, as a student of this course), I still find myself reading them with frustration, wondering when I'm going to find something truly relevant. Still, I'm compelled to read on, just as so many of our students are compelled to keep googling, convinced that they will eventually find the perfect web page.

Whew. Enough negativity. On the plus side of the blogging argument:

What a great tool for reflective learning! During my time at teachers' college, a few fellow students and I would refer to certain instructors as 'reflection Nazis.' Particularly during practicums, it seemed that reflecting took more time than any other task. Looking back, thank goodness they forced it down our throats! I know it has made me a better learner. That said, I quickly dropped the habit of reflecting in writing. But my blogging experience in this class makes me want to start again. The difference is subtle, but important: potential audience. Knowing that others may (or in this case, WILL) read my reflections makes me more rigorous, more thoughtful, and more solutions oriented.

Reading the blogs of other students in this course has likewise been a great learning experience. We have so many ideas to share! Particularly the wiki and voicethread topics seemed to bring fabulous teaching and learning ideas out of us. It was also encouraging to read how other students sometimes struggled to adopt a new technology, but always came out the other side more tech-savvy and confident. I found the blogs made us more of a community than would have happened with just the vista discussion boards-- maybe it was the personal touches we each gave our blog pages? I'm not sure what it was, but I personally always felt more comfortable on the blog pages than I did on the discussion boards.

This brings me to an interesting article I found on Proquest called Blogs: Ending isolation, from the September 2006 edition of Principal Leadership, by Cynthia Mata Aguilar. The article focuses on a small group of teachers from rural schools in the Southern USA participating in professional development to improve literacy at their schools. The teachers needed a way to communicate across a distance, and so started blogging. Like me, those teachers found that blogging helped them to learn, but also to connect with other learners.

My experience in this course, and that article, makes me believe that blogging can be a great professional development tool, both for reflecting on learning and communicating with other learners. The format encourages more thorough writing than you might find on a discussion board or social network page, but still allows comments and even collaboration (blogs with multiple authors). I mentioned how I thought collaborative apprenticeship groups could benefit from social networks in a previous post, but blogging might also be the ticket-- it has certainly done the job here.

There. I did it. Hopefully I managed to express in this, another long-winded post, how while I`m sure blogs are a treasure trove of PD for some teachers and librarians, I`m going to stick to old fashioned magazines, courses, and face-to-face encounters for my PD, if only to save my sanity.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A note on PD

Having explored Ning a bit more, I think it would be a better forum for PD conversations, and could provide some solutions to the time demands placed on educators engaged in collaborative apprenticeship (Glazer & Page, 2006). While I still think face-to-face would be best, it isn't always possible: here we all are learning at a distance! Social networks built on the Ning platform do seem to encourage more of a conversation than what I've seen on wikis and bulletin boards. In fact, I wonder if it might be more conducive to conversations in courses like this than the vista discussion forum? It is certainly more visual and easier to track than clicking on messages and following 'threads.' I always seem to get lost in the formality of that system. There could be security and privacy issues though, although Ning seems to have taken great care to address those concerns.

I'll be watching this web2.0 technology with interest to see if it is adopted by more professionals as a way to engage in long distance learning conversations.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

One more Ning thing

Just spotted this on Yahoo: musicians are building their own social networks to exist alongside the biggies (Facebook, MySpace...) on platforms such as Ning, so that they have better control over content, advertisers, and user data. So if musicians can do it, why can't librarians?

The good and the bad

"Social networking technologies give teens the chance to practice reading and writing literacy skills in real and meaningful ways. When teens use social networking they aren't just writing and reading for out-of-context classroom experiences, they are writing and reading in in-context experiences that have something to do with their real lives. Is there a better way to learn how to get ideas out there and find out what others are saying about the world in which we all live?"
--Linda Braun, YALSA, from here

I really like this quote. I have been thinking a lot about the usefulness of social networking tools in schools since the beginning of this course. Social networking sites are the only web 2.0 tools blocked on the school computers here. The news is full of teens bullying and being bullied with these sites. There is controversy about them being used for cheating. I was beginning to think sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo had no use in the classroom or library. After all, what can they do that blogs, wikis, and photo/video sharing sites can't? The quote above refers to all social networking (web2.0) tools, but I think it is particularly apt to sites like Facebook. Our teenage students are communicating through these sites: the Ashley Jones reports in the March 2008 edition of EContent that 55% of online teens have a social networking profile, and the number is climbing rapidly. To be honest, I'm surprised the number is that low.

So if we can't beat 'em, join 'em? As teachers and librarians, why not establish a presence on these sites and encourage our students to use them for good? There are Facebook groups dedicated to good causes that students could explore and participate in, or they could create their own to champion a local cause. Librarians could use Facebook groups to teach critical thinking and other information literacy skills as students navigate them looking for opinions on current events and issues. The sites are ready made for collaboration and could be an alternative for students trying to coordinate group work (though I'm convinced wikis or blogs would be better suited here). The incident at Ryerson is a great jumping off point for a discussion on academic honesty, abuse of technology, and the nature of collaboration. And, if monitored by teachers, I think these sites are a great way for students to study together, discuss school work and solve problems collaboratively.

The big 'but' is cyber bullying. The tragic case of Megan Meier may be an extreme, but it demonstrates just how destructive online bullying can be. Bullies feel emboldened by their sense of anonymity, and indeed, often targets don't know the identity of their tormentor. The Carol Brydolf's article in the October 2007 Education Digest Minding MySpace: Balancing the benefits and risks of students' online social networks describes a bullying situation at a school in California and how the school dealt with it. The school principal "decided that his devotion to free speech had to take a back seat to his responsibility as a school administrator." The student responsible for the bullying pulled his nasty post off Myspace and was suspended. The school then used the incident as a spring board for discussion. This is a tricky balance. We want to keep our students safe, but we want to encourage them to express themselves as well. So is the solution banning the sites outright, to save teachers, administrators, and librarians the trouble of striking that balance?
Keeping social networking sites of off school computers doesn't keep students from the sites. Sure, not all students will have access to them at home, but most will. So the bullying will still happen, but school staff won't know about it. Ignorance of a problem doesn't make it easier to solve. If, rather, we embrace these sites, use them, encourage students to push the potential of the sites, we can keep an eye on what is happening and address concerns right away. By being a part of our students' MySpace or Facebook or Bebo experience, we can help them learn how to stay safe and participate appropriately: skills they need on the Internet, and in life.

Another California school district in the Minding MySpace article takes an approach I'd like to see in more schools. Rather than hide from technology, they embrace it by providing every student in grade 6 and up with their own email address, web page, and access to discussion groups, and monitor them, rather than censor them. The district works hard to educate students on how to stay safe, and educate teachers and parents on how to monitor what kids are doing.

Stephen Abram, in the January/February 2007 edition of Multimedia and Internet@Schools, writes my new favourite analogy on this topic: banning social networking sites to keep students safe "is like teaching traffic safety to kindergarteners by banning roads." The problems with social networking sites are another opportunity for educators to bring current, relevant issues into the classroom for discussion, communication, and learning. We have a responsibility to prepare students for the real world, not a perfect world.

I was just about to end this blog when I found this comment on the Ning in Education site. Ning is a place to create your own social network, which could take care of some privacy and safety issues for schools. Basically, she argues that Ning, and social networks in general, are more like a conversation that a wiki can ever be, which may be more appealing to many people, particularly those most social of beings, teens. Something else I thought of was that students might be less intimidated commenting on a social network than on a wiki, since it is more of a conversation that the altering of a web page, although the way we ran our discussions on the wikis worked well enough for us grown ups.

Social Networking: Friend or Foe?

I've been on Facebook for about 8 months now. I joined up at the behest of my brother, since he said it was a great way to share pictures, something very important with a brand new baby around! Up until then, I had been reluctant to jump on the social networking bandwagon. It seemed, well, phony. I had heard about friend collecting, the practice to building a huge collection of friends for status, and it made me think the whole social networking movement was just a way to continue the social strife of high school forever. Yuck. But, for the sake of baby pictures, I decided to give it a try.

As a picture sharing site, I loved it! Uploads are quick and easy, you can tag people in your photos, you can add a caption to your photos, and people can comment on them. It isn't as full-service as the photo sharing sites we explored earlier, but it certainly got the job done for my pictures.
A couple of months ago, an item popped up in my news feed: I had been tagged in someone else's photo. Huh? I followed the link, and there I was, dancing the night away at a club in Korea, 6 years ago. There was an option for me to remove the tag, but as someone who doesn't visit my facebook page very often, how long had that picture been there without me knowing it? I just looked a bit silly so I didn't mind the picture. But in our time of ubiquitous cell phone cameras, it would be very easy to snap an inappropriate photo, tag it, and upload it, to someone else's embarrassment or worse. Or what's stopping a cyberbully from mistagging photos with a target's name?

As a social networking site, I also enjoyed it. I found some friends from high school that I had long since lost touch with, and had fun catching up with them. It has also helped my husband find some old friends: for two nomads like us, this kind of site could really go a long way to keeping us in touch with far-flung friends!
After the initial catching-up, those friends from high school are silent images on my facebook page. While now I can get in touch with them whenever I want to, using facebook doesn't make non-social people more social.

Facebook has some fun features, likes sending 'gifts' to your friends (I like to send hatching eggs and Tim Horton's treats), and games to play.
You could play a real game with a real person and have a genuine interaction with them. I also find these activities to be real time suckers. They are often not designed all that well and confusing to navigate, so while I want to save more square feet of rain forest with my Green Patch, eventually I say to myself "this is a waste of time! I have REAL things to do!" But there is always one more button to click, one more thing to check out... and one more advertisement to load on your screen. I have friends on Facebook that, by the updates I see in my news feed, must spend hours on the site, playing games, chatting via the wall posts and messages, and posting on discussion boards.

As you can see, social networking leaves me conflicted. Frankly, I'm a fan of real life. I think it is really important to spend time with the people around you, interacting in genuine ways. I would much rather take my daughter for a toboggan ride than post on someone's wall.
I'm not a teenager, and I've never been much of a social butterfly. Students are using this web2.0 tool to stay connected with each other, just like we used land line phones in the olden days. So what's wrong with that? Well, cyber-bullying, false senses of security/anonymity, wasted time, diminished human contact.

But what about better communication skills? And increased information literacy? And engaged learners? And collaboration?

Social networking is a double-edged sword, a very sharp one.