March 28, 2007

How Low Can You Go?

When Chubby Checker sang "How low can you go?" in his 1962 hit record, "The Limbo Rock," he was talking about dancing, but it's just as appropriate to ask that question in relation to technology. Most teachers encounter technology in their courses by way of what is often called "technology integration." This can mean that technology is used in various mainstream subjects such as English or Social Studies or that it exists as a standalone subject with the goal being to teach students to apply technology to their other classes.

As software gets more powerful and computers get cheaper and more widespread, the temptation is to use the "highest" technology available. This often means using business-oriented software in the classroom. Microsoft Office is the prime, but not the only, example. The theory seems to be that the goal of technology instruction is first and foremost to "prepare our students for the workplace." I hear this from parents, technology teachers, and of course from software vendors. Since many businesses use Office, the theory goes, we need to teach today's students to use Office, otherwise they won't get good jobs. The proof of the fallacy in this argument is that none of today's office workers used MS Word when they were in sixth grade. It didn't exist back then, at least not in it's current incarnation. Similarly, there is no justification for teaching students to use business presentation software such as PowerPoint so they can use it later in their careers. There may be some good educational applications of PowerPoint, but getting them ready to work isn't one of them.

So what is the reason to teach technology in a secondary school, and what is the best software with which to do it? Those are two of the key questions of technology education. I believe that the answer to the first one is that we should teach technology so that students can become more effective at learning. Technology should enable their ability to think, analyze, express, organize, research, understand, and create. Any time spent learning to use the technology is actually at the expense of these skills. There are only forty-five minutes in a class period, after all. If the technology takes too much time, it's in the way.

This runs counter to what many technology teachers think and practice, however. The computer geek in us wants to be able to own and operate the Ferrari of technology--the fastest, most powerful tools available. Most often, however, a Ford Fiesta more than does the trick. Unfortunately, that may not seem like good job security to the technology teachers among us, so we build our curricula around learning advanced programs even though they have little practical benefit in the classroom. Simple software is less intimidating, has a shallower learning curve, and is easier to master.

The second question--What is the best software with which to teach technology?--is a little easier to answer. Although there is no specific list that will satisfy everyone, I believe the guideline should be "err on the side of simplicity." Lets go back to word processing for an example. Students should use a word processor when it facilitates their writing. Sometimes the best means of expressing an idea is a paper and pencil; if so, put the laptop away. Too often I've seen students working at the computer trying to complete a writing assignment. They type the title page; choose the font, then the color. They use the advanced features of Word to twist the title so it's more "attractive." They change the color of the title to a different shade. Twist the text in another direction. Elapsed time--ten minutes, maybe fifteen if they get into more of the "advanced" features. As teachers we should be asking ourselves and our students what this actually has to do with the writing assignment. The answer, of course, is probably, "very little." Yet it's easy to fool ourselves into believing that their technology here is really worthwhile.

MS Word is so powerful and has so many features that students can be overwhelmed with the possibilities, or they just practice "work avoidance" by trying out one option after another. Google Docs (or any other simple word processor that you may prefer) does all of the necessary functions that you need from a word processor. Plus, there are fewer choices, the learning curve is not as steep, and there are fewer opportunities for distractions. Will this guarantee better writing? No, of course not. But it will facilitate better writing. It's up to the teacher to take it from there.

Here's another example. PowerPoint is the most widely used presentation software in the world, yet it has many more features than necessary and generally teaches bad presentation habits to boot. Err on the side of simplicity and choose something better. Consider large sheets of paper and some markers (I'm not kidding.) Or just have the students write on the board. That may be too low tech for some of us to stoop, but give it a try before you laugh at the idea. If the presentation requires an electronic medium, try a simple word processing document with a large font. Microsoft has an excellent program called Photo Story 3 that you can download for free at the Microsoft website here. It's not identical in function to PowerPoint, but it is much more intuitive to use, and students can be more creative because they aren't locked into the five-by-seven-inch-bulleted-slide format that PowerPoint users create ad nauseam.

There are many more examples I might give, but the point is this: Once you've decided that technology will assist your students in a particular lesson, try to pick the simplest, easiest-to-use application. Rarely will you find that it is too underpowered for your needs. If it is, you can always advance to the next higher level. Remember that the point of technology integration isn't to teach technology as an end in itself; it's to teach students to use technology as a means to an end. And when you're looking to use technology, remember the words of Chubby Checker in "Limbo Rock." Ask yourself "How low can you go?"

Next: My Favorite Things

March 14, 2007

Trust, But Verify

There were very few statements that Ronald Reagan made during his presidency with which I agreed. One of them was "Trust, but verify." Reagan famously used it when referring to negotiations with the Soviet Union, but it's appropriate in reference to validating information on the web as well. The knee-jerk reaction of my students (and most of the rest of us) when researching a subject is to go to Google or Yahoo and perform a search. We search, read, and believe.

The problem is that, just because something is on the web, doesn't make it true. So, how do we teach our students to trust, but verify? And what, exactly, does it mean to "verify"? Not only is the web full of truths and lies, but it also has a full range of opinions on just about any subject you can imagine. Is a moon-landing denial website merely one person's opinion, or an outright refutation of an accepted fact? That's the first problem; the viewpoint of the writer isn't necessarily the same as the reader. We need to teach students to be able to differentiate.

One difficulty with search engines such as Google and Yahoo is that they overwhelm you with information. Search "iPod" on Google, and you'll get more than 230 million hits. A lifetime of verification wouldn't be long enough to check out the veracity of that many websites. Unfortunately, search engines don't have a "truthiness" algorithm to help you decide which ones are valid, and the ranking doesn't necessarily put the accurate websites at the top of the list. That's the second problem that students face--too much information without an automated method of sorting it out.

Some websites present a different problem. They give the appearance of truth with no guarantee of certainty. The most frequently noted culprit is the online encyclopedia that everyone either loves or hates--Wikipedia. Unlike traditional encyclopedias such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica whose writers and editors are experts in their fields, anyone can contribute to or edit an article on Wikipedia. If you read something on Wikipedia that you believe is not correct, you can go in and edit it. Despite the obvious potential for abuse, Wikipedia works quite well. And it is an incredible resource for current information and trivia that never makes it to the more mainstream sources.

Want a history of Pokéman? Don't bother with the Britannica; you won't find it there. However, you can find everything you've ever wanted to know and more here on Wikipedia . If you're a Pokéman expert, feel free to add whatever else you know. Wikipedians seem devoted to keeping articles current. For example, within twelve hours of the rock group Van Halen's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, the Wikipedia article had been updated with the details. Printed material such as a traditional encyclopedia is disadvantaged by a much longer publishing cycle.

Critics of Wikipedia claim that, since anyone can edit an article (even your sixth grade students), then all articles are suspect. That's true in theory, but a recent study by the scientific journal Nature, comparing scientific articles in Wikipedia and the Britannica, found that each had about the same number of errors. There are high-profile exceptions, but generally, the self-correcting nature of Wikipedia's open-access approach seems to work.

The problem with using Wikipedia is not that it contains some inaccuracies--all newspapers publish corrections to their previous day's articles yet we keep reading them every day. The problem is in relying on Wikipedia, or any source, as the only source. This is another hard truth that we need to teach our students. We need to help them to become critical researchers and critical thinkers. Too often students submit research papers with only Wikipedia sources. The Boston Globe recently reported that the history department at Middlebury College has banned students from using Wikipedia as a source. Middlebury professor Neil Waters says, "Wikipedia is an ideal place to start research but an unacceptable way to end it." This should be true for everyone from college on down. Interestingly, some colleges assign students to write or edit articles for Wikipedia. Obviously then, there's a commitment by those institutions to using Wikipedia and making it better.

So how do we teach students to evaluate the accuracy of information on the web? My school's librarian and I recently did a project on library research with my grade six technology class. First, she presented information on evaluating websites using some of the excellent materials from CyberSmart! After a discussion in which she talked the class through the characteristics of reliable and unreliable websites, we had the students evaluate a site using a Site Evaluation Form. Not only did this help lead the students through a step-by-step evaluation procedure, it set the stage for a discussion on the difficulties of evaluating sites. After some analysis we concluded that there are telltale signs of an obviously unreliable site.

The difficulty is that even the most reliable sites don't always have the characteristics that one would expect. For example, although a sign of an untrustworthy site is a lack of an author, many reliable sites don't list an author either. In any case just having a name doesn't guarantee that there is a real person behind it. Again, the conclusion that you shouldn't rely on one site for your information became apparent. There's strength, and truth, in numbers.

After using the Site Evaluation Form we moved on to the second part of the lesson in which students evaluated one of several sites from a list that we gave them. These were all sites that had none of the obvious signs of unreliability. They were all bogus, but we didn't tell that to the students. They all meet most or all of the criteria of a valid site. Here's the list.

Albert Einstein -- A Biography for Kids
Solar System Information: MARS
Dog Island
Mankato, MN Home Page
Whale watching in Kenosha
California's Velcro Crop Under Challenge
Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus
Republic of Molossia - Official Website
POP! The First Human Male Pregnancy - Mr. Lee Mingwei

Each student had to review at least one site and write a commentary in his blog discussing the validity of the information. The essential question was, "How does one determine the reliability of a website?" Without prior knowledge, it isn't easy. Even a resident of Minnesota may not know that Mankota is a fictional town. The idea was to lead the students to the conclusion that the best practice is to verify information by cross-checking with other sources. These could be other websites, printed material, human beings, and common sense. Although none of these four categories is one-hundred percent reliable, in combination they are a useful means of verifying information. In the end, the lesson to the students was that determining veracity is as much an art as a science. It takes practice, but it's something that is a necessary skill of a good researcher. So, "trust, but verify" is as important in website evaluation as it is in Soviet negotiations.

Not one to give Reagan any more credit than he deserved, I verified that he was not the first to use the "trust, but verify" line. That honor goes to the American writer, Damon Runyon. I found it here in Wikipedia.

Next: How Low Can You Go?

March 07, 2007

Worth More Than a Thousand Words

"Why do we take photographs?" That's the question I pose to my seventh graders at the beginning of the semester-long technology course I teach. After some discussion we arrive at the answer: "To express ourselves." Of course, that's also the reason we write. Photography and writing may seem like two disparate activities that don't mix well in the classroom, but I've found that in combination, they create a powerful synergy. After our discussion, the students begin to see a natural connection between the two activities too.

Many of my students are not native English speakers. I've found that through photography they can express themselves more easily and more comfortably than in a writing assignment alone. With a photograph, they can convey an idea without words getting in the way, and when writing about a photograph that they have taken, they have an anchor with which to express their thoughts and ideas.

The trick with photography, as with all technology in the classroom, is to keep it as simple as possible so that the students don't get bogged down in the technological details on the way to your objective. I do this by using simple digital cameras and simple software. If you have Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements on your computers, leave them alone. Instead, download Google's Picasa if you're using Windows or use Apple's iPhoto if you're on a Mac. These two programs have more than enough power to allow students to edit their photos quickly and accurately. My school has a set of three-megapixel cameras (enough for each student to use one). These have sufficient resolution for what we're doing and just enough options and controls so that the students don't waste time fumbling around with superfluous controls. If you have fewer cameras, the students can work in teams of two or three.

There's no one right way of using text and photography in the classroom so feel free to improvise on these ideas. The key is having projects that combine the expressive nature of photography with that of writing. Wendy Ewald's excellent book, I Wanna Take Me a Picture, Teaching Photography and Writing to Children, is a great resource. Here are three projects with which I've had success in the seventh grade.

  1. The Best Part of Me. Have the students decide on one part of themselves that they think is their "best part." They photograph it and write some text (a poem or several paragraphs) that goes with the photograph. The text should be more than just "I like my eyes because...." It should complement the photograph and go beyond a mere description of it.
  2. Emotions. Students choose one emotion and then make a photograph expressing that emotion. They also write a poem or several paragraphs that refers to or describes the emotion.
  3. Dreams. Students represent, in one photograph, a dream they've had. They write some accompanying text that supports the photograph.

In each case, students place the text on the same page as the photograph itself. They write it by hand, print it on a separate piece of paper and glue it on, or print the text from a word processing document. This last option can be a bit trickier because it usually requires printing twice--once with the photo and then again with the text. Lining up the text and photo takes a few trials. Usually we make the photographs 5x7 inches, so there is plenty of room for text on an 8.5x11 inch page. You'll also get good quality prints at this size even if you're using lower-resolution cameras.

The specific details of each project aren't important nor is the grade level of the students. I've done some of these projects with third graders using one-megapixel floppy disk cameras and a laser printer in a ninety minute session. I've been equally successful with high school students using better cameras, a high-quality ink-jet printer, and several hours of class time. Although quality is important, the main focus (no pun intended) should be what my seventh graders identified at the outset as the most important aspect of photography--self-expression.

The natural inclination of students is to grab the cameras and go. Instead, I require them to do some initial investigation. For example, on the emotions project we discuss the definition of "emotion"--what is and what isn't an emotion. We create a list of emotions. Then they research the dictionary definition and create their own definition of the word and choose the emotion that they are going to photograph. I have them write all of this in a blog. We then discuss the design of the photograph. What are the technical issues? Who will be the subject of their photograph? We consider lighting, composition, other aspects of photography as well. I make them previsualize their image by making a rough sketch. They write about this in their blog too.

Now it's time to begin photographing. If the students really have put some thought into the previsualization of their photos, they generally come back with some good results within 30-45 minutes. They download the photos and begin editing on the computer. They also write about the creation of their photos in their blogs. Part of the create step is writing the text that will appear on the photo itself. I have them write drafts and show them to each other and to me for comment and correction. They also make test prints of their two or three best photos. We discuss these, and they choose one "finalist."

After they have completed the editing of the photograph and their text, we make the final prints, and place the text either by writing, cutting and pasting, or printing directly on the photographs. Then I have the students sign their work. The final step is a self-evaluation of the entire project. How did it go at each of the steps? What could have gone better? What would they do differently next time? They describe this in their blog as well.

Those teachers familiar with the International Baccalaureate's Middle Years Program will recognize this as the design cycle that is at the core of the technology subject area. However, you need not limit it to a technology course. The idea of a project methodology fits well in any discipline. I find it helps the students by providing them with a structure that keeps everyone focused and on track. The writing assignments, whether in the blog or for the photograph itself, are short enough that they don't overwhelm even ESL students.

Our last activity of the project is to sit around a table and briefly discuss the students' photographs. I usually start by asking each of them to discuss his own work. We then move around the table and keep the comments constructive; everyone learns a lot from this activity. It also reinforces the concept that each student can improve by helping and learning from the others. This last "exhibit" provides a good closure on the project.

There are many variations on the theme I've presented here. Try one, experiment with it, and adapt it in a manner that works for you and your students. Their ability to express themselves will surprise you and them.

Next: Trust, But Verify

February 28, 2007

The Philosopher's Stone of Software

In my last post I reviewed some of the free software that Google offers and discussed how one could use it in the classroom. This time, I'd like to talk about another free Google product, but it's one that has a "darker" side to it, at least in terms of its educational applications. I'm referring to Google's Language Tools. There are four tools; three of them are useful but innocuous. The "Translate" feature is my subject here.

Translate gives you a choice of twenty-five language pairs (English/Spanish, French/German, etc.). After choosing your pair, you enter the URL of a website, and Google will translate it from one language to another. (To see TeachingTech in Spanish, for example, click here.) You could also copy text from a Word document or some other source and paste it in for translation. The result in many cases is far from perfect. Too often, it sounds like Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat--strings of three or four words make sense but full sentences are convoluted and unclear. So Google's Translate is the philosopher's stone of language translation--that legendary substance that could transform any material into gold. Never mind that the result isn't twenty-four carat; the quality of the translation will only improve over time.

As you'd expect, the accuracy of the translation is related to the degree of complexity of the source text. Beginning level English-to-Spanish, for example, comes through reasonably well. A Spanish-to-English translation of an article from the technology section of a Venezuelan newspaper is clumsy and fractured. To some degree however, this is true of language translations done by anyone with less than the highest level of fluency in the source and target languages.

For teachers, and especially for language teachers, Google's Translate raises some interesting questions. For example, if a teacher of first-year French asked students to translate a paragraph from English to French, what grade would he give to the paragraph generated by Translate? Probably not an A, but probably not an F either. I showed two paragraphs from this blog to a Spanish teacher at my school. She said that, although she could understand it, it wasn't well written and contained a number of errors. But that's probably what she'd say about my Spanish too. (I've been studying Spanish since moving to Venezuela in 2004.)

There's no point in trying to prevent students from using Translate; if it's available on the web, they'll find it sooner or later. So teachers need to develop strategies to live with it, or better yet, to use it as a tool to teach languages more effectively.

Here's a hypothetical homework assignment that language teachers give regularly: Write a paragraph describing what you did over the weekend. The student could write the paragraph in English and then run it through Translate to get a version in Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, German, Korean, or Japanese. Unquestionably this would be a case of academic dishonesty. And unquestionably it would be trivial for the student to accomplish and difficult for the teacher to detect.

But would it be dishonest for a student to use Translate to get to a starting point, a basic translation, and then clean up the grammar and vocabulary himself? Is it much different than asking a tutor or another student for help? My guess is that language teachers wouldn't all agree either way. Now suppose the teacher gave the original English version plus the Google translation and asked the students to correct the errors. Is that a reasonable assignment?

One day, perhaps in the foreseeable future, Google's Translate will be able to pass the Turing test, and it will be impossible to tell if the translation was done by man or machine. In the meantime, teachers should be aware of what Translate can do and adjust their teaching strategies to accommodate or better yet, use it to their advantage. No technology is inherently bad. Translate has a potential dark side, but with creativity, we teachers can use it as another tool in our technology toolkit.

Next: Worth More Than a Thousand Words

February 20, 2007

Using Your iPod Backwards

The most common use for an iPod is, of course, to play music. However, there's another great classroom application that, in effect, uses it backwards. Hidden inside the iPod is all of the circuitry necessary to make CD-quality recordings. The only item you need to make it work is a microphone. Unfortunately, Apple hasn't provided a standard microphone input jack, so you'll have to buy a device that does it all for you. You have several choices: Griffin's iTalk Pro Voice Recorder, Belkin's TuneTalk Stereo, and XtremeMac's MicroMemo Digital Voice Recorder. Each sells for under $50 from Each has advantages and disadvantages. Each lets you record high-fidelity audio (16-bit at 44kHz) using either a built-in microphone or by plugging in external microphones. One common disadvantage is their limited compatibility. All three work with the fifth-generation iPod videos, and the Griffin is also compatible with the 2GB iPod Nano. If you have something else, you're out of luck. I've used the TuneTalk with excellent results, but everything I describe below would work as well with the other two models.

So why would you need a $50 microphone attached to a $300 iPod when you can use use the built-in microphone that's found in many laptops for free? As in many situations, size matters. In this case smaller is better. The iPod/microphone combination is compact enough to fit in a pocket. You can pull it out for an interview or to record a concert. Here's one an example of how I've used it. I was recently traveling for several days in a remote area of Venezuela. I wanted to make a podcast of the trip, so I recorded one of the crew on our boat singing and playing as we traveled upriver. Then I caught the sounds of the night insects before we went to bed. The next day I carried it along as we schlepped through the jungle and gave a running commentary of the sights and sounds along the way. Not exactly NPR, but with a bit of editing I had a serviceable record of the trip. (You can listen to it on my podcast. Search Pojman Podcasts on iTunes and download "A Trip to Amazonas.")

It's amazing that even when the folks at Apple include a hidden feature, they design it with their usual elegance and ease of use. The audio recording feature of the iPod is no exception. You can start, stop, pause, save, and delete your recordings with the iPod click-wheel. When you connect the iPod to your computer, iTunes automatically copies the recordings to your music library and creates a playlist for you. From there you can open them in your preferred sound-editing software. I use SoundStudio, but Audacity is also good (and free). Don't expect quite the same quality that you'd get from a professional digital recorder, however. In really quiet moments I can hear the hard disk in the iPod starting and stopping, but generally, the quality is excellent. Anyway, unless you're teaching an audio recording class, the iPod will be more than adequate.

There are many educational uses for this type of setup. Many schools are now buying iPods to load audio and video for use in the classroom or for students to access outside of school, and you've probably got quite a few students in your classes who have their own iPods. Buy a couple of these devices and you've got a mini-recording studio. Students can create podcasts while out on school field trips. They can record student musical selections. I've had students interview new members of the faculty for our school's podcast. Oral history projects become easy.

Of course, there's nothing here that requires an iPod. One could accomplish these types of recordings with any number of other hand-held recorders. However, the analog (tape) models require that the recording be converted to digital before they can be edited and uploaded. That adds complexity and makes the process messier. Most hand-held voice memo recorders have a lower sound quality than what the iPod is capable of. That's not always a problem, but it's certainly not an asset either. Anyway, I usually carry my iPod when I travel, with one small additional plug-in device I've got a high-quality recorder too.

Remember it's not the technology per se that's important, it's how easily it helps you achieve your educational objective. So if using another device works for you, use that rather than waiting for the iPod microphone. The point is to turn your students loose on a recording project and see what they can come up with.

Next: The Philosopher's Stone of Software

February 13, 2007

How Suite It Is

Educators know that technology is one of the most expensive parts of the school's budget. History teachers need new books and art teachers need art supplies; but using technology requires computers, servers, broadband connections, and software to list just some of the expensive components. Although the cost of the equipment has gone down per computer over the years, the overall costs can go up as schools adopt more sophisticated installations.

However, this post is not about saving money, although it will save you money. It's about using some of the best software out there which just happens to be free. I'm referring to the suite of software that Google offers. One could argue that there are better programs than each one of these, but there is no collection that is so well integrated. These programs are great for students for a variety of reasons I'll discuss below, and they have enough horsepower for the experienced user as well.

First, get a Google account. There's no charge. Now you've got access to Google's suite of programs. Although I haven't used them all with my students, I've found many of them to be quite useful. Here's a rundown on my favorites:

  1. Blogger. I've already written about blogging in the classroom here. Blogger is one of the easiest-to-learn blogging systems out there. It's powerful but not cluttered with unnecessary features. It has been rated as one of the three or four best programs for blogging.
  2. Gmail. If you want to use a web-based email program, Gmail is tops. You get nearly three gigabytes of storage, the ability to use POP access, forwarding, an industrial-strength spam filter, and Google's search engine to find anything in your account. The Gmail philosophy is the same as my sister's: "Don't throw anything away because you'll never know when you might need it." With this much storage, you don't need to. Gmail is still in beta, so you need to be "invited" to get an account. Once you've got one, you can invite fifty friends. I've set up each of my students with a Gmail account. Then I created a group for each class. I exported the group and imported it to each student's account. Now we have each other's IDs and can use Gmail even more easily.
  3. Google Talk. This program is tucked neatly into Gmail. Click on a contact and invite him to join. You can text or voice chat. My students contact me via Google Chat to ask about assignments and what we've done in class.
  4. Picasa. If you're a professional photo editor, you probably use Adobe Photoshop. If you're a serious amateur, then maybe it's Photoshop Elements. But if you just want to download, organize, edit, and print; try Picasa. My guess is that Picasa does 90% of what any of us, including the pros, would need to do. Unfortunately, there's no Mac OS version, but that's the only disadvantage. The interface is so intuitive that I had my grade 7 students using it within about ten minutes.
  5. Picasa Web Albums. Flickr and a number of other services allow you to store photos just as easily as Web Albums. What I like about this service is how nicely it integrates with Picasa and Blogger. My students create an album of their own photos, scans, and graphics that they've taken from the web. Then, when they need them for a project, they can edit them in Picasa, put them in their blogs, or download them for some other use. Students save the URLs of the photos as captions so that they're available for citations.
  6. Docs and Spreadsheets. These two web-based applications are the equivalent of Microsoft Word and Excel albeit with fewer options. As with Picasa, 90% of what most of us use is there plus some features that don't exist in Word and Excel. Each program can save files in the Microsoft counterparts for easy exchanging with the rest of the world. Both programs work great in the classroom because students don't get over-involved with all of the options and features that they don't need. The feature that particularly lends itself to the classroom is the ability that Docs and Spreadsheets have for collaboration. You can create a word processing document, for example, and then allow others to see it online and even edit it at the same time. Each person sees the changes that the other makes in near-real time. It's great for collaborative projects. You can also review all of the modifications that were made to a document.
  7. Page Creator. This is web development made simple. The web-based Page Creator is not quite a responsive as computer-based applications like Contribute or Dreamweaver, but most students don't work that quickly, and they don't need all of the features present in Dreamweaver anyway and Contribute is not available for free. This is another application that is perfect for the classroom. Students get a collection of templates that allows them to create a website that suits their tastes and needs. They can be up and running in no time.
  8. Google Earth. I'm afraid to admit how much time I've spent cruising the Grand Canyon and checking out the Pyramids. Not to mention my hometown. Google Earth is a computer-based application, but it connects to the Internet to get updates. There are entire websites devoted to some great and some wacky application. One example of the latter: You can zoom in on any of the hundreds of airplanes that happened to be caught when the Google Earth camera zipped by. Google Earth offers great possibilities in the classroom for geography and history.
  9. Google SketchUp. I haven't actually used this computer-based one myself, but I know from talking with a fellow teacher that he finds it a great application to use in his classes.

There are several other applications in the suite, but you get the idea. The common thread through all of these programs is that they are powerful, easy-to-use, and free. Each application is free of advertisements with the exception of Gmail which does have unobtrusive text ads running down the right side of some screens. Also, the programs have tutorials and/or useful help screens. When you read it, you're not overwhelmed with tons of options and superfluous choices.

The help even has an occasional sense of humor and personality. Here's an example from the Page Creator help. "If any aspect of using Google Page Creator isn't completely obvious, that's our fault, and we'd love to hear about it. Your comments will help us make these features clearer to all future users." When was the last time you read anything like that in a product that you just paid $100+ for? Bill Gates take note.

Aside from my teaching, I've found these applications to be robust enough for much of what I do outside of the classroom. As a teacher, I find them essential in my classes. Most purchased computer applications have an "everything but the kitchen sink" design built into them. More (features) becomes less (functionality). In contrast, the Google suite is built around the philosophy I learned at Boy Scout camp: Pack everything you need and nothing that you don't need.

Next: Using Your iPod Backwards

February 06, 2007

To Blog, or Not to Blog

The statistics on blogs are impressive. Technorati, the blog-tracking website, reports that they track more than 66 million blogs. There are 175,000 new blogs created every day, and 1.6 million posts are added to blogs daily. These numbers indicate that there is something to blogging that appeals to many people in a way that other forms of written communication do not. Here's what I think it is: Blogging lets you publish your ideas to the world (at least the world with Internet access) quickly, easily, and for free. One needs very little technical training to use blogging software. And once you have a computer and Internet connection, there's no additional cost. You can get on with the business of writing and let the technology take care of itself.

As educators, we can learn a lesson in technology from this. In K-12 technology education the emphasis shouldn't be about learning to use software and hardware (what used to be called computer literacy), it should be about learning how to use the software and hardware get something done. Technology as a tool, not as an end in itself.

The real essence of good education is not in the details of the individual courses and subjects that students take. For example, most of us (myself included) have little need for trigonometry in our daily lives, but I believe it is an important subject for students to study nonetheless. Why? Because by learning trigonometry, the history of World War II, physics, and all of the other subjects that a school offers, our students learn the "meta-skills" that are the core of a good education. Among these I'd include understanding the relationship of man to his environment, how the physical world works, how to organize and analyze information, and how to express oneself in writing.

This is where blogs come in. Any teacher who has student writing as part of the curriculum should consider blogging as an essential activity in the course. Of course there are other ways that students can write. Word processing is one example, but there are several drawbacks to word-processing that blogging overcomes.

First, most blogging software has a limited but powerful set of tools for formatting text. The key word here is "limited." Too often, students get bollixed up in all of the features of today's word-processing programs. (Consider the myriad options in MS Word in the Format/Paragraph menu as one example.) This makes it too easy for students to practice "work avoidance." They don't get on with the actual writing (the content of the assignment) because they are deciding on fonts, point sizes, and text colors. Fewer options mean that students can actually focus on their writing with fewer technological distractions.

A second advantage is that the act of publishing the blog post--making it available to other readers--raises the stakes. Students have a greater incentive to produce good work with proper spelling, punctuation, and all of the other characteristics of good writing because they know that someone else besides the teacher can and will read it.

Third, a word processing document is large, empty page--an invitation to writer's block. In comparison, a blog entry screen, like the one I'm using to write this blog, is a much smaller window. It holds about thirteen lines of text. Much less intimidating. A student can more easily write a paragraph, preview it, publish it, revise it. Other readers; e.g., students or the teacher, can read it immediately. They can post comments to which the original writer can then respond.

Blogging helps in other ways as well. It eliminates the problem of students' forgetting what the homework assignment is and not turning in work because it was lost or left at home. In my classes, I post the day's class notes to my blog including what the homework assignment or project specifications are. (You can see examples the blog for my grade 10 technology class here.)

Students can read the assignment during the class, after school, and at home from my blog. For most writing assignment I have my students post their writing to their blogs. I can read them, comment on them, and offer suggestions anywhere I have Internet access. (I don't put grades on the posts for obvious reasons, however.) In the event that the assignment requires a paper document, students can copy from the blog and paste to MS Word.

There are many blogging systems. You can read details on the web or from a number of excellent books such as dispatches from blogistan by Suzanne Stefanac. In the meantime, I'd recommend Google's Blogger. It's free, easy to use, has no advertisements, and has many advanced features that even powerusers will appreciate.

There is much more that I could say both in terms of specifics and general philosophy about blogging, but it won't make sense to you unless you've done some blogging with your students. So, get a free Blogger account (five minutes). Set up each student with a blog (15-20 minutes in class including time to make a trial post). And give blogging a try. I think you'll be surprised and impressed with how quickly you and your students take to blogging.

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