Thursday, July 30, 2009

RSS? Oh! Really Simple Syndication

I'm a relative newbie to RSS. I've got an understanding of how it works and the why's as well. I've looked at it before in the past, but wasn't really sure how I might use it, or even why. To be fair, that was a couple of years ago when I first looked at it, but it was mostly top news related stories then. I wasn't so sure how I would use it to scan through specific news topics and stories, or if I would want to for that matter. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) allows a person to subscribe to a news site or blog that feeds stories as they are posted, so you don't have to go to multiple sites to read them. Instead, you can go directly to your reader and get all the story headlines in one click. In theory, it sounds great. But you need to be fairly organized to enjoy this service. A person needs to determine beforehand the story topics they want to read.

So as an exercise to see about whether I see any merits in using this type of tool with students, I needed to see if I would use it myself. I was pleasantly surprised at how many education related feeds are out there. In no time, I set up 15 different feeds related to online education, educational strategies, web 2.0 tools and more. Immediately, I had 361 new stories for me to look through on Google Reader. Google Reader is the RSS feed reader that I use. There are lots of other readers out there. Firefox has added on tools that allow for reading in the browser, while Safari has a built in reader. There are other standalone readers that you can download and use. But it really comes down to preference. But back to Google Reader, when I opened it, I had multiple story headlines to go through. Each story is a headline with a synopsis of the full article. The results? I found some great stories, as I scanned through the stories. First of all, I added Tedtalk RSS feed. I love this site so much, that I have it linked to my Twitter as well, so any new video that is posted comes to my Smartphone via text with Twitter.

I added the eSchool RSS feed for top stories and conference news. There was a great video from the recent ISTE conference in Atlanta, Georgia by keynote speaker, Malcolm Gladwell. Very interesting! So I'm linking it here for you to see. It's worth watching.

At Alltop RSS, I learned that a new release of MindMap 1.3 is out now. That's a great web 2.0 tool for mindmapping with students. I wouldn't have known about the new release, if I hadn't added this site to my reader. But in a flash, I had it at my fingertips.

Also, this week I had a copy of the eLearners Survival Guide emailed to me by one of my eTeacher's. It's a free download, and this was also posted on my reader feeds from Workplace Learning Today. If you are an eLearner or working in this world, this is a 325 page manual that covers a lot of important information, and well worth downloading and reading. Susan Smith Nash put a lot of work into it, and should be given alot of credit for it.

That's just a few of the things I picked up in a few short minutes going through Google Reader. So do I think it's worthwhile as a tool to list resources and topics for students to access when doing research for projects? Absolutely.

Teachers just need to setup an account and add feeds for students to access. They don't have to spend a lot of time surfing the Internet and trying to find sites about information they are looking for assignments. Teachers can organize the feeds into topics, or different projects for the matter. The nice thing about the information, is that it is so current. Generally, the information is well sourced and researched as well. So overall, it's been a good week searching out RSS feeds. I've heard it said it can be addictive. Watch out, because I think I may be in trouble. ;)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Podcasting on the GCast

First of all, I'm back from a 10 day mountain hiking experience in the Canadian Rockies. I went to Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park, Yoho National Park, and Jasper National Park. Absolutely amazing and breathtaking! This picture to the left is of a the Inkpots above Johnstone Canyon (a 6km hike up). It's a beautiful up there. I had no Internet for 10 days. Slept in a tent and saw three bears (each at different times) and survived. It is kind of weird coming back to technology and switching gears, but I must.

I spent a little time with GCast this week, and although I'm sure a lot of people use the free Web 2.0 service, I'm still trying to figure out how I would use it with students in a classroom situation. So many of our students need to feel entertained in order to keep their attention, so I'm not sure how GCast will do the job. If I was teaching English, or Communications, I might use it for students to do readings of poetry, short stories that they have written. Especially if students are reserved about speaking in public. I might use it for virtual public speaking or having students record skits or plays and creating radio dramas. One of the challenges I find is how to use it in the maths and some of the sciences.

I certainly don't want podcasts being used in the classroom because it's the newest and latest thing going. It has to have purpose. Besides, there are some challenges before you even get to using GCast. To GCasts credit, it is a very simple tool to use online. A person can have an account created and a podcast produced and published in 5 minutes. It's really that simple.

My challenge was using Audacity, since I'm not using a Mac with Garageband built into it. And from what I hear from friends with Macs, it's very easy to use. But this week, I sat down to create my mp3 file with Audacity, and it wasn't anything like Adobe Premiere, which I've used a great deal before. I was almost tempted to switch over half way through, but I decided to stick it out with Audacity. Because time was an issue, I wasn't able to figure out how to use some of the features that later on, when I went through a number of Youtube video tutorials, I learned about mixing and adding music to voice.

Here was my first kick at it. It's just me talking. And really, that's where I think unless the students know how to enhance the audio, it's going to come off very flat and stilted. It's really important that students don't just read a script without emotion. But a great rubric could be created for elements of voice control and delivery that would address some of these challenges.

For this GCast, I was talking about the history of the Water Quality Project from the wikispace site. Here's the enhanced podcast with music, after playing around with it on Audacity and adding some Freeplay music.

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Hope this makes sense.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Anyone for a Picnik?

Had a chance to work with Picnik this week. I had a lot of fun with it. So I am going to review it this week and provide some feedback how I used it and the many uses it has for students in the classroom.

To the left, I took a few pictures today as I headed out on my big camping trip in the mountains. - Sure got to be thankful for free Internet outside hotel lobbies :) Silly me, I forget to change the settings on my camera. For those of you who know a little about cameras, I left the ISO at 1600 for indoor photos, instead of using a 200 setting for outdoor pictures. So the picture was completely overexposed as shown in the left.

So I logged on to my Picnik account and uploaded this picture. In a few minutes I began to work the contrasts and exposure and add a few simple effects to the picture. What an improvement! I was able to take a poor photo and turn it into a quaint little photo. I realize it's not perfect, but when I think about the potential for students to use it, I'm very impressed.

I've used expensive software, like Photoshop, but not everyone can afford to buy these kinds of software, especially schools that can barely equip their computer labs with P4 computers or better. Here's a great online Web 2.0 tool that students can access from their classrooms without having to install anything special on to the computer. Anybody and everyone can access this for themselves.

Students can edits photos with great ease. It didn't take much to use the tool. Changing the exposure, brightness, cropping, touch ups was very straight forward. Adding a few effects like a drop shadow, or a 1960's look, or changing a photo to look more vintage, or softening the photo was as easy as making one simple click, and it was changed. A person can add text, do touch ups that eliminate blemishes as quickly as they edited the photos.

I would encourage any student to use this tool just to learn about colour and presentations. As a student plays with some of the adjustments, they immediately see the effects of the changes. Quickly, students develop a sense of what makes a good photo, because they see the improvements before their eyes. I would want students to then use the photos to enhance their presentations, which I will talk about next week.

In closing, here's another picture I took today. The antelope was too far away to zoom in anymore. So I cropped and zoomed into the photo with Picnik; I think it turned out okay.

Monday, July 13, 2009

DIIGO (dee go) - Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other stuff

DIIGO - Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other stuff. What a great service this group provides! Love what it does, how it works! Love it, Love it, Love it! Fantastic! I realize this sounds pretty biased, but what can I say.

I've been using Diigo for about six months, and it's one of my favorite Web 2.0 tools. I love to be organized, and this tool does it for me. I'm a bigtime user of Spread Firefox Affiliate Button browser. Prior to finding Diigo, I used and still to some extent use Xmarks. It allows me to synchronize my bookmarks between computers by creating an online account that stores my information and updates automatically when I bookmark a site. This is good, but still requires the user to have a high level of organization.

Generally, Diigo is classified as a social bookmarking tool, and I suppose it probably is used this way by tweenagers around the world sharing the latest bookmarks of the Jonas Brothers sites with their friends, but that is not how I use Diigo. It's certainly not a social bookmarking service, but instead a professional bookmarking service. I'm not sure I'm ready to share out my bookmarks to my friends for easy access to links to my online banking, or bookmarks to to my email logins. That's why I still use Xmarks. In fact, Xmarks has added an encrypted security feature that is very good at preventing people from using your computer to access your bookmarks. But for me, Diigo allows me to create categories of topics that I can share out among my staff and colleagues. I realize there are other sites like this out there like, or Reddit, or StumbleUpon. They all have their strengths, but I'm still partial to Diigo.

Here's a video overview worth watching.

After watching this video, it's not hard to see why educators love this tool. Here are a few ways to use it with students:
  • Create a group and have your students become members of a related specific topic or theme, where they will add bookmarks for others students and the teacher to view,
  • When the students add Diigo bookmarks, often a tag lists comes up with it already, so you don't have to add more, or you can list as it relates to the theme or topic they are working on,
  • A teacher can have the students highlight specific parts of a webpage that really stood out for them by right clicking and highlighting the text and then adding an annotation for others to view, (Students need to download and install the Diigo Toolbar for Firefox or Internet Explorer for this feature to work properly),
  • When a teacher wants to leave a note for students to read about a site when they get there, they can right click and leave a digital sticky note for students to read and add comments,
  • It's a great way to collaborate and share information between students and students, and students and teachers,
  • After the teacher and students have created a list of bookmarks about a topic, they can organize them, annotate them, tag them, and then share them in a webslide format. I did my first webslide this past week about Web 2.0 tools I particularly like and use, and added music to the slideshow by clicking on the customize feature. Here it is: Web 2.0 Webslide. This a great feature to publish your findings for others.
Here's a video that provides a demo and overview of a few elements of Diigo, particularly how a teacher might use it in giving feedback to students.

There are so many more things a teacher can do with this tool. I'm barely scratching the surface about its potential. Because I'm not in the classroom, I use Diigo mostly to share resources for professional development of teachers. But if I was in the classroom, I would use this tool all the time. Check it out, it really is a worthwhile Web 2.0 tool.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Twittering Thoughts

I’ve been Twittering for a couple of months now. It's been a somewhat interesting experience. I think largely why the experience has not been as positive is because of the reasons behind why people use it. Is it an amazing tool? Absolutely, if you use it correctly. As you're reading this, I'm sure you want me to clarify what I mean. I recently viewed a video online with Liz Pullen, a sociologist, who has been researching Twitter to determine whether people are using it as a micro-blogging or information platform, or treating it like a social network. The creators of Twitter have recently spoken out that Twitter is an information platform and not a social network. Here's the video. It's worth watching.

The Sociology of Twitter, Video Interview with Liz Pullen from ReadWriteWeb on Vimeo.

I think this interview addresses the question that if clarified by the users can correct some of the challenges I have run into. First, I find people write the most bizaar things about themselves. One Twitter reads like this: 1) Just got up! 2) Going to shower now. 3) Ate breakfast, Not much to eat, Need to go shopping... and so on. Personally, I'm not interested in that much boring information, but these folks are treating it like Facebook, and are essentially updating their status every 15 minutes so their friends know their every move. Sometimes the information is way too personal as well. Twitter has recently turned off some search features because a person could search out information about a specific topic, you could find a list of entries from various users, and some of it not very carefully posted.

The second challenge I have is people saying they are following me that are, how should I say this tactfully, just looking to advertise their love interests. Basically, it's a spam feature. Some sites are generating inquiries and sending out requests to follow so that people will go to there porn sites or whatever. That being said, it creates great concern for having students, especially younger students sign up to use this service and have them being spammed by tasteless spammers.

However, before we throw out the tool completely, there may be ways to use it among peers for professional development purposes and to support pedagogy. I have had to place boundaries on what and why I use Twitter, or who I follow to get their messages. I do not use it provide useless personal information to professional colleagues and friends. I only use Twitter to post something I have learned about Web 2.0 tools I am using, or wanting to learn about, and how I would use these ideas in a classroom situation. Essentially, I developed a purpose for using it. I think Twitter can very useful in sharing ideas between teachers about particular topics. You get to post a question, and have your peers make comments that could be insightful to your question. For example, I was having trouble with understanding how to change a page in wikispace. I posted the question, and had a few responses from colleagues suggesting solutions within hours.

The other day, I announced that I finally figured out how to add Statcounter and Clustrmaps to my blog site. Now if any of my friends want to know how to do it, they can just contact me, and I can lead them through the process. In the end, they don't have to go searching all over the Internet to find solutions like I did, which takes a lot of time.

I was also interested in a recent article with the Wichita Eagle at College professors find Twitter a useful educational tool, that highlighted the uses for Twitter in a higher education setting, which I think has it's uses. Some students enter lecture highlights on the Twitter site with a laptop or use their Twitter cellphone feature for note-taking purposes. One student commented that by doing this, it helps him remember the lecture better, and besides, he can just print off the page later at home. Student can twitter discussions about topics among others doing group work to share ideas. Teachers can Twitter due dates and expectations for assignments. These ideas may work better for older students. It's pretty tough to think about how to use Twitter in grade two with great effectiveness.

Two other great sites that promote Twitter in teaching are: 25 ways to teach with Twitter and 100 Tips, Apps, and Resources for Teachers using Twitter.

Overall, Twitter has potential to be used by teachers and between teachers, and possibly older students, but everyone needs to remember it's a information platform, not a social network.

Key Elements for Effective Blogging

I've read a lot of blogs this week. Some good, some bad. Some which haven't been updated for months and more, even years. As a result, I have a few ideas that might make your blog more effective for your targeted audience, especially if you are wanting to use it with students for educational purposes.

1. Define your purpose.

One thing that is common to most, if not all, is that the authors or writers have something to say. Contrary to the Seinfeld episode, "a show about nothing," bloggers have something generally they want to say, and sometimes abruptly stop because they have run out of things to say, or have moved on to the next fad, or are just too busy to keep it going. Sadly, that's what happened to me in during my first go-around with blogging about 2 years ago. I had great intentions, but I hadn't clearly defined my purpose of why I was blogging, it was something new, and I wanted to try it. I still have that blog, which I should really delete, because I never look at it. Instead, I keep this blog on 21st Century Learning going on a fairly regular basis, because I have set out for myself a clearly defined purpose about what I want to say or accomplish. This is largely in part due to my role as an administrator of a virtual high school, that it needs to be on the cutting edge of technology, not for the sake of using Web 2.0 tools just to say we are technologically advanced, but to engage with students about learning. So each week I try to pick a topic that I can write about and encourage my teaching staff about how to use the technology with greater results, or should I say more meaningful results from students. Too often I see technology used simply for the sake of using it because someone else is using it, and not really understanding how to enhance learning. but I'll save that for another blog. Back to the intend audience, little did I know that what I write is reaching a far greater audience than just my eTeachers.

2. Be aware of the potential of expanding your readership.

Recently, I added Statcounter and ClustrMaps to my blog. I did this because a colleague of mine, Sue Hellman, Small Changes, Big Return was telling me about how many people read her blog weekly, which set my mind spinning realizing I have no idea who visits and reads my blog other than I hope my eTeachers take the time to read it. So I set about a mission to figure out how to add a counter of some sort to the blog. I already had a Statcounter account, and realized I could add a javascript code from Statcounter to one of the Blogger gadgets and it records where people are coming from to read my blog. I was shocked, and pleased to say the least. I did the same with ClustrMaps, which is a cool application that shows the location of visitors from around the world, who are stopping by to read something I said. Honestly, I had no idea that this was happening. I did some shameless self promotion by pinging my blogging site so that Google ranked it higher in searches, but it worked. Now that I know I have people reading from all over, the pressure is on to put even more thought into what I say and even broaden the application of what I am saying to include more than just my eTeachers. But just learning these results of how many more people are reading my blog has really opened my eyes to the potential for students to use blogging as a tool to express themselves and give them a voice to be heard by other peers.

3. Embrace the language of blogging.

I think it is very important to know who your audience is. We tell our students, know your audience, who are you writing for, use appropriate language that will be understood by your audience. Why would it be any different with this medium? It isn't! I, by no means, am an expert on blogging, but I am a former English teacher, and I want writing to have feeling. Blogging doesn't have to be stiff, technical writing. It should express ideas that connect with people. So I try to write less formally and maybe a little more casually. I hope that it increases the readability, because I want it to come across more conversationally.

During this past week while reading a number of blogs, I found many that were simply records of weeks and weeks of tweets from Twitter. Brutal to read actually. I think I stayed on the site for 30 seconds and left. Another group of blogs were just bookmarks, which honestly was interesting for the first few links, but became boring and cumbersome after awhile. Coming back to my initial point, blogs should say something of value. They should make important contributions to ideas on a wide range of topics, but still say something.

4. Encourage feedback or comments from readers.

In some respect blog writing is different than other writing, because it allows for people to provide instant feedback to what you say. The challenge is to get people to comment. Unfortunately, many people read your blog, but never leave any comments, unless you are terribly controversial and you really ticked them off. That shouldn't be the only way people are motivated to comment on your blog. I've seen a few blogs where they put a bold "Suggestions, Comments" at the end to encourage feedback. Overall, comments after a blog make it more meaningful to the writer and for other readers as well. For students, I think it is important that they are encouraged to provide feedback to one another. I would make that one of the requirements that they respond to one another blogs. Of course, I would want to make sure that each student has control over posting those comments before they are published on their blogsite.

5. Consider the length

Some blogs just go on and on and on... It's really critical to get to the point and say what you need to say and avoid rambling. It's a tough sell to get people to want to read something if it's too long. I don't know if it's just me, but it seems like my attention span is getting shorter and shorter. So if you don't grab my attention in the first few minutes, you lost me. Part of it is length, organization, and the next point the look and feel of a site.

6. Consider the value of incorporating design elements.

I'm a firm believer of the look and feel of a website or blogsite. Sometimes just the look of a site determines whether I stay on the site and look at it for awhile. Presentation is key. I really like a site to be clean and clearly layed out for readers. If it's cluttered and hard to navigate around a site, it's just easier to go somewhere else instead. There are tons of great resources of templates for bloggers to use to create a feel. Here's a few that I use and work for either or
  • Our Blogger Templates is great. Beautiful designs and layouts.
  • BTemplates is another great site. Really worth checking out if you want to create an atmosphere that accompanies the blog.
  • Blogger Styles is another great resource of templates to help with your design.
  • Check out Blogger Buzz, a blog I follow that always has super information about blogging.
Now maybe it's just me, or others feel the same way, but I think a few pictures or videos help make a blog page look more appealing. It showcases expression and heightens interest. Maybe it's the artist in me, but pictures, images, artwork, video just add so much to blogs. I say this, because I really think we need to encourage our students to express themselves creatively with artwork and images. it's not only the written words that will grab the reader but visual expressions as well. So helping students with design templates and devising a rubric for layout and content elements is very helpful for students.

Please post your pictorial or video reponse to this blog!

So because of the length of this blog, I'm going to go against my own advice and not post a picture or video, but instead ask you to post a picture or video link that you think might me helpful to express the language of blogging.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

PLN's (Personal Learning Networks)?

Well, another week has gone by and it's time to write another reflection about learning. This week I want to talk about personal learning networks. Some people call them personal social networks, which they are indeed, but I guess my focus today is how we turn them around to have an educational purpose or to achieve a learning outcome. When I was searching out online networks, of course I came across the standard Facebook, MySpace, Tagged, Hi5 social networks, which I have heard teachers turn into something educational, like posting assignments and discussions about classroom material. However, there are indeed more Web 2.0 networking tools out there.

But before I go any further, here's a great little video that explains Social Networking in Plain English.

There are even social networks for business people, such as Linkedin, or Spoke that promote building relationships between professional business people, who feel the need to network in a competitive world. There are other networks out there for teachers as well, which I highly recommend. I've been a member of Classroom 2.0 for about a year now, and love the opportunity to posts questions and have hundreds, if not thousands of other teachers comment about what they think about technology, classroom management challenges, pedagogy, and more. Another teacher social networking site that is good, but not near the quality of Classroom 2.0 is Ning in Education. The downside of this ning site, is that I get requests from people, who are members of this site and have no educational background asking me to be their friend, which I have to block, but you'll get that anywhere I guess, but it is annoying.

Social networks can be a great resource for teachers just among themselves, but they also have a great role and purpose in the classroom. I watched a video this week about a teacher who recounted being taught to teach reading and writing a set way, but now that he has introduced blogs and ning, he has seen a wonderful transformation in student success and learning with these web tools. Here's the video:

I think this teacher captures the benefit of using social networking sites for educational purposes. It's exciting to see how people are integrating the Google calendar into the Ning for students to keep track of activities, assignments, pace themselves on projects, and more. Students can upload photos of work they are doing on a project, or create a PowerPoint presentation and insert it for everyone to view. Students can make videos and upload those as well, or search out instructional videos from the internet and embed the code into Ning for everyone to view. If teachers are concerned about security issues, they can make the Ning site a closed account that is restricted to just members.

I was curious how other teachers might use Ning, so what better place to go to see what people are doing but Classroom 2.0 itself. I went to the forum and typed in ning in the classroom. I came up with pages of discussion forums with multiple replies from teachers all around the world using the technology in the classroom.

Here's Margaret Haviland's reply; We are using for a student current events forum. Almost all upper level (11&12 grade history students) at Westtown School, Westtown, PA participate. Students choose an article (news, columns, editorials are all fair game) read it, write a summary, analysis and reaction, and post it within the "Westtown History Classroom" social network at Other students comment! I experimented with this last year with one section and now rather than a pool of 18 students to read and comment we have 74+. Each teacher has a slightly different assessment method and number of original posts and comments. (in my student's case there are limits to using US news sources as well as the, they have to post 2X a trimester and comment 5X) The kids are engaging in great discussions. We are beginning to discuss the possibility of inviting another school (perhaps outside of the US) to join with us in the spring.

Another teacher, Matt Montagne, replied: Last spring one of our 8th grade US History teachers at my previous school did a fantastic activity where each one of his students took on the role of figure from the US civil rights era. He called it the "Civil Rights Era Facebook" project. Students engaged in discussions and other virtual interactions (posting photos, videos, completing polls, etc) using the 1st person point of view of their figure. They had to "friend" others in the community that they would've friended in the physical world (for example, ML King wouldn't have friended Malcolm X, as they had different approaches and philosophies on the movement).

Anyway, the network that they used may be browsed online here:

Pretty neat project done by one of the best teachers I have ever worked with.

These are just two examples of thousands of responses from teachers that are using Ning in the classroom. I'm including a link to the Ning site I created for a Water Quality Research project for grade 10 students. Enjoy!