This morning I was thinking about an activity my 7th grade social studies teacher assigned called the Redwood Controversy. My classmates and I were each given different roles. In order to understand how great this assignment was, I need to preface my description of the activity and my role in it by explaining I was easily the most liberal child in my class. In our class election, I was the lone student who voted for Walter Mondale. I remember going with my parents to the polls, begging them not to vote for Ronald Reagan (I knew they planned to). I remember desperately trying to change their minds. The Redwood Controversy (look: you can buy it here) is essentially an RPG, or role-playing game, in which students are given roles in a senate hearing about a logging company wanting to begin logging on protected forest land. I was outraged. How could a company want to do that? Of course they were in the wrong. Then Ms. Snyder assigned me my role: I was to be the logging company’s attorney. It was a big role. I had to research my position and answer my senator classmates’ questions. I knew the case wasn’t going my way, but as the game progressed, I wanted to win. Even though I didn’t agree with my own position, I was increasingly frustrated by my classmates’ inability to see how reasonable my arguments were.
Well, I didn’t win. The environmentalists won the day in my class. Some few days later, I was called to the assistant principal’s office while I was once again in Ms. Snyder’s class. I was terrified. I had never been called to an administrator’s office for any reason. I couldn’t imagine what I had done. My fear must have shown on my face because I remember he said to me, “I’ll bet you’re wondering what you did.” He reassured me that I was not in trouble. He had a certificate in his hand and he read it to me, presented it to me, and congratulated me. Ms. Snyder had given me an award for my performance in the Redwood Controversy debate. When I went back to class, I remember she caught my eye and gave me a sort of smile. Being recognized for my hard work felt good. I still have the certificate somewhere, and naturally, when I looked for it to include the exact wording here in this post, I couldn’t find it, but I remember Ms. Snyder wrote that I defended my position well without becoming overwhelmed. This learning experience stands out in my mind today as one of my best. I had to think about my arguments and do research about my position. I had to look at an issue from a point of view that differed from my own, which was actually the most important part of the learning experience for me. Taking on a role, especially one I wouldn’t have chosen, taught me a great deal about the environmental issue at hand. It was early exposure to bias, too: I remember seeing some of the materials my classmates had and realizing that the information was presented to them in a much different light in their materials than it was in mine.
My point in bringing it up again (because I’ve written about it before) is that it is easily one of the most memorable learning experiences of my K-12 education. I think I learned more about environmental issues and controversy in that one assignment than I did in the rest of my education experiences, even in college. I still remember it quite clearly. Admittedly I don’t haven’t done any research to back this up, but I am wondering if role-playing gives students an active way to learn that will not only make students learn better but also personalize learning. Any readers have similar experiences with RPG’s? I do intend to see if I can find some research to back up this assumption, and I am sure I’m not the first person to examine the question of how good RPG’s might be for education. After all, I think a lot of us remember playing Oregon Trail in order to learn about what westward expansion was really like for pioneers. However, I haven’t noticed it being used a lot. My current school has Mock Trial, and I know other schools do Model U.N., but I haven’t personally witnessed (or experienced) a lot of teachers harnessing the power of RPG’s, whether computer games or physical games, to teach students. One time in which I used an RPG to great effect was a Thoreau lesson I found on Discovery’s website.
I’m wondering if introducing students to reenactment might not be a great way to pique students’ interest, too. Historical reenactors, such as Civil War Reenactors and Society for Creative Anachronism members, are often viewed as huge history buffs. They read everything they can get their hands on about the time they reenact, but they reach a certain point at which they really want to live it, not just read and learn about it. Rather than being the endpoint of serious historical interest, reenactment could be the gateway for learning. Have any readers taken students to reenactments, had students participate in reenactments, or invited reenactors to school?
Many long-time readers know I have participated in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It took place the week after school let out, and I have never wanted to get back into the classroom so badly the week after school let out as I did that week. I immediately wanted to take everything I had learned back into the classroom. Essentially, drama, RPG’s, and reenactment have many similarities and involve many of the same kinds of thinking skills, decisions, and learning experiences.
I can’t help but think we really need to be doing more with RPG’s in education. Do any of you have resources you can point me toward? Interested in joining me on this research excursion? Might be a good project for a group wiki on RPG’s in education, which could be a collection of ideas, resources, and research citations (wish educational research wasn’t so often behind a paywall).
Are you in?
Yesterday, Adobe announced Creative Cloud and Creative Suite 6. Creative Cloud will be subscription-based ($29.95/month for teacher/student editions). Users will be able to download and install CS6 applications through the Creative Cloud. Creative Cloud also works with tablet apps like Photoshop Touch and will enable users to sync and store files in the cloud so they can be accessed on different devices. I’m really excited about the opportunity students will have to create mobile apps and magazines and catalogs for iDevices and Android devices. I envision schools creating their literary magazines using Adobe and publishing them via the web and iPad. Since users will have access to Adobe Typekit, which includes over 700 fonts, students can experiment with the look and feel of their publications’ typefaces. Creative Cloud users will also have access to upgrades before they are launched as major updates. Creative Cloud also includes Adobe Muse and Adobe Edge, two new tools for HTML5 design and development. Soon, users will also have access to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 and Digital Publishing Suite via the Creative Cloud.
Creative Suite 6 has updated Photoshop. I was most impressed to learn that the new autocorrect tools do a better job of correcting issues, and the new Content-Aware capabilities look great. Illustrator has a new user interface and Image Tracing Engine, Pattern Creation, and Gradient Strokes. InDesign has new Adaptive Design Tools—Alternate Layout, Liquid Layout, Content Collector Tools, and Linked Content. Dreamweaver will make it easier to design interfaces for different devices, making the process of designing websites to work on iDevices and Android devices easier. Flash Professional includes a toolkit for CreateJS that will help users transition flash skills to HTML5. Premiere Pro has a new editing environment and now supports Open CL on MacBook Pros. After Effects is faster and now includes a caching feature that will make it easier to move among several projects.
You can learn more about Creative Suite 6 here.
Full disclosure: I am an Adobe Influencer and received a free version of the Creative Suite 5.5 Master Collection.
While Randall Munroe’s XKCD cartoon above is mocking university websites for deficiencies in design, the same could be said of many public school websites. A few years ago, my kids’ school website only worked in Internet Explorer. It was the most terrible design you can imagine, done in Front Page I think, with all the most important information buried or even out of date. The reason for that was that the media specialist, who had a full time job running the library, teaching classes that visited the library, and working with teachers, was also tasked with running the school website, and she didn’t have the time or the expertise to do so. The school now has a technology specialist who runs the website, and it is much better than it was. However, it’s still not close to being a slick-looking as some of the private school websites I’ve visited. I think several factors may influence a school’s website design, and the deck is stacked against public schools:
- Private schools have to market themselves. They’re competing against every other private school in their area, and they have to allocate funds to attracting students. Part of their marketing is a good website. The first step in exploring a school is most often taking a look at their website, and if it’s bad, the family might never even move forward with an application. Information needs to be easy to find, and the site itself must be easy to navigate. It should look professional and give visitors a sense of what they might see in the school.
- Private schools often hire outside web designers. Public schools tend to assign the task to employees or students, with mixed results. Sometimes you get someone really good who knows what they’re doing, but designing and running a website is a big job, and employees are often stretched too thin to do a good job. A variety of designers cater to private schools. Contrary to popular belief, private schools are not necessarily swimming in money, but they do need to spend money on good websites because of marketing.
- Public schools seem to communicate more via email, telephone, signage, paper, and snail mail. They probably don’t have a real reason to duplicate all of that information on a website, although I would argue that they should if they want someone outside the community to find the site useful. For instance, we’re moving to Massachusetts this summer, and my husband complained that the public schools’ website in the area we’re moving to was quite difficult to navigate. I tried it out, and he’s right. The district website attaches a frame around the website for the one school I looked at, and navigation was impossible. I never could find a faculty directory.
- Sometimes the appropriate staff (a technology director, specialist, etc.) floats among several schools or even a whole district. Because private schools are independent, they have to hire faculty and staff to cover these areas (or outsource some of it). Otherwise, they won’t have it. If they don’t have technology faculty, they run the risk of being behind the times and therefore losing potential students to schools that spend more on up-to-date technology.
Asking technology faculty to float is a horrible idea. Each school should have a dedicated member of the faculty who works with teachers to integrate technology. I don’t say that because it’s my job, and I need job security. I say it because I think it’s true. Otherwise, you’re going to have more difficulty getting faculty to integrate technology. You will always have the dedicated teachers who spend their own time learning how to use technology on their own, but if you are trying to make a real school-wide shift, it’s not going to happen if your faculty doesn’t have someone to help them. It’s no wonder public schools can’t dedicate more time to making their websites attractive and user-friendly. They don’t have the personnel, and the personnel they do have don’t have the time. However, websites are an important communication tool, and in the year 2012, it is not asking too much to have a website that visitors can enjoy using to learn more about a school. Many free and cheap CMS’s exist to help schools (which doesn’t solve the time issue). A good website should be something to which schools dedicate time.
I regularly see blog posts sharing 10, 50, 100 apps for educators, and I haven’t written one before mainly because it seems to be well-trodden ground, but last night I decided perhaps it couldn’t hurt to share my list. After all, these other blog posts still regularly introduce me to apps I’ve never heard of, so perhaps a few of you haven’t heard of any of these apps either. I use all of these apps to help me with my role as a technology integration specialist working with colleagues both online and off and with students.
- Twitter. Seems like an obvious one perhaps, and I am probably not sharing anything you haven’t heard of, but I love to use Twitter to see what other folks are talking about, what apps they’ve found, and to bookmark links (more on that in a moment). I talk with other folks in my field and also keep up with what is going on in the world of books. I follow along with #engchat discussions on the Mondays when I have time and the topic at hand is something that intrigues me. I often also use the hashtag #edtech if I want something I tweet to catch the eye of educational technology folks, but as far as I know, they don’t have a regular chat set up.
- Diigo. I was an early adopter of Firefox, and early on it was kind of buggy and kept losing my bookmarks. I liked pretty much everything else about it, so I decided to search for bookmarking alternatives. Back then, the major player was Delicious. Then Diigo came along. It’s a wonderful service. Teachers can have added features for free. I can set up Diigo to automatically post my saved links to my blog either twice a day, daily, or weekly. I can also connect my Twitter account to Diigo so that any tweets I favorite will automatically be saved links in my Diigo account. This has become my preferred method of saving links because most of the good things I bookmark I find via Twitter. Diigo also has groups. You can share bookmarks with a class of students and give them access to share bookmarks, too, so that everyone is contributing to the pool of resources, and you can also create groups for colleagues. I regularly share Diigo bookmarks with folks on the English Companion Ning because we have a Diigo group. You can also tweet links as you save them. Also, Diigo has browser extensions you can use to easily save bookmarks. I can also have Diigo sync with my Delicious account so that I don’t have to add bookmarks in two places, and folks who subscribed to my Delicious bookmarks can still see my new bookmarks.
- LiveBinders. I have not begun to tap the potential of LiveBinders, but it’s a tool I’m excited about. LiveBinders is the digital equivalent of the three-ring notebook. You can save resources and organize them. Links you save will be a collection of pages instead of lists of links, which can give you a better idea of what is in the resource collections. You can use them to go paperless or create your own digital textbooks. You don’t need to know anything about coding to use them. You can also upload your own files like documents, presentations, and interactive whiteboard files. You can essentially create a collection of resources on virtually any topic. An added bonus: LiveBinders shares their favorite collections on Twitter, so if you follow them, you’ll regularly come across great collections of resources.
- Evernote. Evernote is one of those tools I wish had been around when I was in high school and college. Of course there wasn’t really such a thing as the Internet back then, but I digress. Evernote is a great note-taking tool. You can clip web pages and save them. You can create online notebooks that sync with your iPhone, iPad, or Android apps so you have your notebooks wherever you go. You can also use tags to make your notes easy to find and collect your notes in notebooks (different ones for each subject or topic). Evernote also connects with a series of other apps you can get in their “Trunk,” their version of an app store. The Trunk has so many cool apps that work with Evernote that it would be hard to begin to discuss them, and perhaps that is fodder for another blog post. You can use Evernote as a web app or download it on your Mac, PC, or mobile device and sync it across all your devices.
- Dropbox. I don’t carry around flash drives anymore because I can save everything in my Dropbox. Users have access to their Dropboxes via Mac, PC, the Dropbox website, and mobile apps. Like Evernote, Dropbox syncs across devices. The amount of storage space is generous, and you can obtain more space with referrals or you can purchase it. You can also associate Dropbox with other apps (similar to Evernote’s Trunk). One of my favorites is DropItTo.Me, which I use to collect student work digitally. They can upload their work to my Dropbox without having access to any of the other content. You can also easily share documents with others via Dropbox without having email them attachments. I shamelessly used my referral link here, but if you do sign up for an account using that link, both of us get extra space.
- Mac’s Dictionary app. Sorry PC folks, but you are missing out on a great app. Mac’s native Dictionary app has been in my dock since I have had my Mac, and as a matter of fact, just yesterday, I was teaching my students with Macs how to use this app. We are talking about word choice, and all of you English teachers have read an essay in which it was clear a student looked up a word in a thesaurus and used it without making sure they understood what the word meant, leading to unintended and often humorous consequences. I showed them that this app allows them to look up a word in the thesaurus, and all the synonyms are hyperlinked, which allows you to click on the synonyms and see the dictionary definition so you can be sure you know what the word means. On a related note, I was pleased to discover that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary app is now free for iPhone/iPad with ads. You can get a premium version with no ads for $3.99. Ads don’t bother me much. A few of the students in my class whipped out their phones and downloaded that app yesterday when I brought that up in class. The Merriam-Webster app has a hyperlinked list of synonyms after the word definitions. Dictionary apps like these should be seamless parts of our workflow now because they add the hyperlink functionality to the traditional dictionary.
- iCal and Google Calendar. I group these apps together because I use them together. I sync my Google Calendars with my iCal app, which also syncs with my iPhone’s calendar. I find that copying and pasting events is much easier in iCal, so I created my teaching schedule (we have a weird rotating schedule at my school) using iCal, but I add appointment slots to my calendar using Google Calendar. Folks can sign up for time to meet with me, which ensures they have my full attention for one-on-one training. I wouldn’t know where I was supposed to be at any given time without these two apps working in sync with one another. Google Calendars can also be shared so that folks can collaborate.
- Things. Things is not free, but I like it. It’s a good to-do app that I used all through grad school to keep track of due dates. Most recently, I set up a project using Things to keep track of all the things I need to do as part of my relocation to Massachusetts. As I think of more things, I add them to my to-do list. Things also has an iPhone/iPad app that syncs over wireless with Things on my Mac. Everyone probably has their favorite to-do app, and different apps work for different folks, but Things works for my own particular workflow. Things makes sure I do what I need to do when I need to do it, and it feels great to check items off that list.
- Wix. Wix is a great website builder that has flash and HTML 5 templates, many of them free. I think it would be great for creating student portfolios. It has a drag-and-drop user interface. You can use it for free, but premium accounts allow you to use Wix on your own domain, eliminate ads, and also come with unlimited bandwidth, extra storage, Google Analytics site stats, and other goodies (depending on the premium level you choose).
- WordPress. I have been using WordPress for years after trying other platforms such as Movable Type and Blogger. WordPress is great. You can install it in a flash, and you can add plugins that give you more options. For instance, I have plugins that automatically post my blog posts to Twitter so my Twitter followers know when I’ve updated, and I also have a plugin that helps me find great Creative Commons-licensed images on Flickr to use in my posts. The sky is the limit with WordPress. In fact, I recently learned from Wes Fryer via Twitter that WordPress powers nearly 15% of the world’s top million websites. In fact, 22% of new active domains are using WordPress. Students and faculty can both use it to blog or manage content on their websites.
I’ve heard many people say they think the subject with which is hardest to integrate technology is history. Nothing could be further from the truth if you have a little imagination! The folks at The History Press proved that yesterday with their live Twitter commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. Followers could read events live from the viewpoints of passengers, Captain Smith, officers, crew members, and nearby ships in real time as the ship approached its doom. This kind of idea would be great for commemorating any historical event. Students could do the research necessary to plan such a Twitter event and select a date (an anniversary would be great, if possible) to hold the event, then drum up interest and build excitement as the event approaches.
A project like this has a built-in authentic audience. Students need to think about the audience who will read their tweets and draft the tweets in advance. They would need to find out, if they can, the exact timeline for the historical event. Students can feel experience history “live.” I know that as an audience member, I felt like a part of the event, almost like I was watching it happen. I was glued to the Twitter feed. Creating a Twitter commemoration would give students intimate knowledge of the historical event and even allow them to take on roles as major players in the event. I can’t think of a better way to learn about history. After all, isn’t that what made Oregon Trail so much fun?
Obviously, this kind of project has other implications. A book’s events could be reenacted for a reading/English class, for instance. More ideas for integrating technology in history to come. Exciting stuff!
Sarah Horrigan asked in a recent post on her blog, “What makes a good learning technologist?” I love this question, and it strikes me that I’ve never even really reflected here on what makes a good English teacher (that’s a separate post for another day, though). This year was my first year as a technology integration specialist at my school, and while I am kind of green as far as the role goes, I have some definite ideas about what a good technology integration specialist looks like.
Sarah and I agree here. I don’t know how to do everything, and since I only have one year’s experience, there is much I haven’t tried. However, one thing I do have is curiosity. I want to learn how to do things, and I’m willing to try, even if I don’t know how. I also want to learn more about how others are integrating technology and keep up with news and trends. I actually like learning in general a great deal, and sometimes, even when I’m frustrated by a problem, I like the challenge of learning how to solve it myself. The other day, for instance, my MacBook’s fan was going nuts, and it looked like Spotlight was the culprit, but I couldn’t figure out what on earth it was trying to index that was taking so long. I tried various solutions until I discovered a command I could input into Terminal to find out what it was indexing, and it turns out my computer was just unhappy that I had not moved the entire Audacity folder into Applications instead of just the application itself after a recent software update (which the installation instructions did, after all, tell me to do). Once I moved the folder, the fans immediately settled down. I was really frustrated by the problem, but I felt great that I figured out how to resolve it (with the help of Google).
Helpful and Approachable
One of the things some old school IT guys get zinged for is how aggravated they get whenever someone wants help. They grab the mouse when someone they are working with doesn’t move fast enough or click the right spot. They sigh and roll their eyes. They don’t listen. As a result, folks just stop asking them for help unless they are forced to do so, and can you blame them? Who wants to feel like they are putting someone out just because they need help learning how to do something? I don’t ever want to be that person. I want teachers to feel they have learned something after working with me, and I want to support them in their learning. Sometimes it is frustrating to work with someone who has very minimal technology skills, but we only perpetuate the problem if we roll our eyes, sigh, grab the mouse and do it ourselves. I have found a little bit of patience goes a long way. I use the same skills I learned working with students when I work with teachers. I haven’t found them to be that different after all (unless perhaps more set in their ways and less willing to try things, but even that varies). If I am approachable and willing to help, people are more likely to seek my help when they want to try a project in class.
Good technology integration specialists seek out opportunities and approach teachers and students with their ideas. It doesn’t do to wait for classroom teachers to come up with their own ideas for using technology, although they do come up with some great ideas. A technology integration specialist, however, is a leader in this area, and teachers and students look to the technology integration specialist to generate ideas. The technology integration specialist shouldn’t feel afraid to approach even reluctant teachers with ideas for integrating technology. Obviously, teachers may resist and even turn you down flat. However, if they can be convinced that your idea is either going to 1) save them time or make something they do easier, or 2) be more engaging for them and for their students than something they already do, then usually you can convince them. When you can’t, you should just keep gently trying. Teachers don’t give up on their students and just decide that it’s not important to teach their students, say, how to solve quadratic equations or how to write a good argumentative essay. We keep plugging away, sometimes feeling frustrated. We hope the students will understand the importance and relevance of what we teach, and we understand it’s our responsibility to sell students on the importance and relevance of learning. Technology integration specialists are no different. They need to help teachers and students they work with understand the importance and relevance of using technology. Why? Because Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is right when she says, “The truth is that technology will never replace teachers; however, teachers who know how to use technology effectively to help their students connect and collaborate together online will replace those who do not.” It is the technology integration specialist’s job to help teachers learn this important truth and to give teachers they support they need to learn to integrate technology. It is the technology integration specialist’s job to help teachers understand technology is not a fad or an add-on, but an important part of how people today learn and work, and students need to be able to learn how to use it effectively for both work and play.
Sarah mentioned this trait also. I feel it is critical for technology integration specialists to be active participants in a variety of networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Ning communities, and professional organizations like ISTE. I also think they should be active online. If they don’t have their own blogs, they should be using Facebook or Ning blogs to reflect regularly and think out loud about technology integration. I realize I have a bias toward blogging because it was blogging that introduced me to technology integration in the first place. I was never what I would call a tech savvy teacher until I started blogging, and I taught myself most of what I know now, which leads me to my next point.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with asking for or expecting professional development on tools you plan to integrate, especially if you are a regular classroom teacher and technology is not where you live. However, if it is where you live, I think you need to be willing to teach yourself lots of things. You need to have a willingness to try out a new tool. I taught myself HTML using a variety of online resources (of which, Lissa Explains it All, a website designed by a young girl to teach HTML to kids, was by far the best). I had to do some light coding for a website I used to have, and before long, I was designing my own templates. Next up: I want to learn Java and Photoshop and, well, actually a lot of other stuff, too. I could take classes, but I like the idea of trying to learn these things myself, too, and truthfully, I think figuring out how to do things on your own, finding your own resources (whether those resources are books, people, websites, videos, or other tutorials) is the best way to learn.
Sarah mentioned this one also, and at the risk of simply cribbing her entire post, I had to include it. If I am not passionate about the possibilities of technology in education, I probably should be doing something else. If I’m not passionate about technology, I’m not going to seek out opportunities to help teachers learn about it and use it in their classes. I’m not going to continue learning about it myself. I will slog to work every day and not make a difference in the lives of the teachers and students I work with. Passion ties everything else together. It is perhaps the most important quality a technology integration specialist, or any teacher for that matter, should have.
What qualities do you think a good technology integration specialist should have?
Lately Twitter has been my main go-to tool for learning and connecting. It’s not a new tool by any means, but I don’t think I’ve ever made as much use of it as I have lately; even when I haven’t tweeted much, I have followed lots of interesting folks and learned a great deal.
I wanted to share two tools that make using Twitter easier for me. The first is a Mac app called YoruFukurou that I first heard about from Audrey Watters on Twitter. “YoruFukurou” is Japanese for “NightOwl.” Ever since Nambu pretty much gave up the ghost, I had been looking for an app that was as clean as Nambu and also gave me an unread messages count for my lists as well as my main Twitter feed. The unread messages aspect was crucial, and other clients just don’t have it (for some reason). YoruFukurou actually has Nambu beat. As far as I know, the creators still have no plans to develop YoruFukurou for Windows, but if you have a Mac, and you’ve been looking for a good Twitter client, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The other tool, much newer to me, I found via Danah Boyd on Twitter. Boyd linked to a post on the First Five Tumblr in which she shared the first five websites she visits each day. I had toyed with the idea of creating a Twitter paper before, but I wasn’t sure about it. On a lark, I tried out The Tweeted Times, since it was on Boyd’s list, and I love it. I can set it up to tweet my top stories daily at a time of my choosing. Also, I can set it to tweet my top story whenever it changes. It figures out what my top stories are based on what the people I follow—my “friends”—tweet, and what my “friends of friends” tweet. On one hand, this might be kind of risky because it relies a bit on the wisdom of the crowd, but if you follow smart people, it seems to work. The advantage of having a Tweeted Times is that I don’t miss some stories I previously might have missed. I can also tweet links from the stories within the paper itself. I can subscribe to others’ papers, too. I suppose that Paper.li works much the same way. Can anyone who has used both give me a comparison of features? I’m trying to decide if it’s worthwhile to go ahead and sign up for both (but I don’t want to annoy Twitter followers either).