Monday, February 21, 2011

Creating Valuable Class Web Sites

In her article "Creating Valuable Class Web Sites," included in the May 2008 edition of Learning & Leading with Technology, professor of literacy studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia Elizabeth A. Baker, outlines three methods for easily establishing a classroom web site.  The methods increase in difficulty from method one in order to accommodate the varying degrees of technological experience possessed by the user.

The first method described by Baker is to set up a web site through a web site provider such as Scholastic.com or FreeWebs.com.  Many of these providers include advertisements on your site but they are free of charge.  Although these sites provide users with a quick and easy opportunity to establish a web site, the downside is that such sites "do not have as many options for design and content..." (Baker 2008, p.  2)  Another disadvantage lies in the fact that the user cannot take the material from one of these websites and transfer it to another if he or she wishes to change platforms.

For those who are more comfortable using technology, Baker suggests the use of blogs, groups and wikis in method two.  For instructors who wish to allow their students to add to the website or engage in online discussions, Baker suggests the use of one or all of the aforementioned platforms, the creation of which Baker describes as a "valuable literacy activity, giving (students) the opportunity to develop important literacy skills for the workplace." (Baker 2008, p. 3)  She offers Yahoo and Google just a few of the many providers that provide free group spaces.  Baker also provides a table of sites that allow users to create a blog at no cost, such as Blogger and Weblogger.

Method three outlines how instructors can develop web sites independently.  There are a variety of software options that allow users to create more sophisticated and personalizes web sites.  Baker suggests Dreamweaver, FrontPage and iWeb as three options.  Although these programs require a time commitment to learn the content but the payoff is in an attractive and professional-looking web site.

No matter what the level of computer literacy an instructor possesses, there are options for creating a web site.  Class web sites have unlimited potential in keeping students connected with their teachers as well as their fellow students.  Even for a user following the suggestions in method one of Baker's article, there is always the potential to create sites that are increasingly sophisticated as an instructor learns the ins and outs of web site creation.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Computing in the Clouds Reflection

After reading the article "Computing in the Clouds" by Doug Johnson, downloaded from the www.iste.org website, I am excited about the potential of using so-called "cloud computing" in the classroom.  The article starts off with an intriguing recap of how the Johnson wrote the article without the use of word processing software loaded onto his computer, used several computers to write without using a flashdrive to save the file, saved his draft in a place with he could access it without using his laptop or an external hard drive and performed all of this at no cost.

The setup is tantalizing and the implications for the use of this type of technology for schools is clear: the flexibility of cloud computing allows students of all socioeconomic groups to participate.  The secret to this technology is that the computing ability exists on either a network or on the internet.  "This offers several real advantages," Johnson says.  "Because the files and programs are all stored elsewhere, your local computer doesn't have to hold much on its hard drive, so it can run faster or be smaller.  And you can work on any project, anywhere, no matter what computer you're using." (Johnson 1) This means that students using cloud computing can access a project at school, at home or virtually anywhere in the world without worrying about transporting the files or keeping track of the latest version of a document or software as long as they have internet access.

This technology also allows for students or educators to share files and easily collaborate with others.  Not only is the technology free to use but it also allows the user to perform these tasks using less powerful computing devices.  This means that students are not required to have the latest, fastest and most advanced computers to be able to use the technology.  Johnson also says this can help a school district dramatically lower its computing costs by using the cloud platform.  Johnson also envisions a time in the near future when schools ask their students' parents to buy an inexpensive netbook as part of the school supplies list.  "As a parent," Johnson says," I was asked to purchase a $100 graphing calculator when my son was in high school six years ago.  How big a stretch is it to ask parents to provide a $250 netbook computer today?" (Johnson 2)

Johnson also details the relative ease of his transition into the world of cloud computing.  Interestingly, he outlines how the shift from Microsoft Office to Google Docs for his day-to-day productivity has been "surprisingly easy."  Johnson admits that Google Docs lacks many of the fine tuning features of other programs but for 95% of his work and for storing files, the platform works very well.  Additionally, everything he creates using Google Docs is compatible with Microsoft Office.

However, Johnson also points out the drawbacks to using the cloud.  Most glaringly, what happens when there is no internet access?  There is some comfort in the fact that one can use Gmail and Google Docs offline and the documents will be synced when internet access is reestablished.  There is also a chance that this technology will not remain free for long.  The current revenue model draws profits from advertisements and the sale of upgraded features and storage capacity.  How long this model will last is unpredictable.  Lastly, the security of files kept on the cloud is questionable.  Johnson recommends back up all of the data on a local server or computer.

Overall, cloud computing does not serve every computing need but the ease of use, flexibility and open access could prove to be a valuable commodity for future classroom use.  In short, this technology levels the playing field for students of all backgrounds.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Project Tomorrow: Speak Up

After reading the Speak Up 2009 National Findings, there is one phrase that seems to sum up all the information contained within the piece: "For these students in the schoolhouse, the teacher and the textbook no longer have an exclusive monopoly on knowledge..." ("Speak Up 2009 National Findings" 3)  In an increasingly technological world, the act of learning is now being done on a global scale.  Students can find information pertaining to just about any subject somewhere online.  This accessibility has its positives and negatives, of course.  The positives are mostly obvious, as the old adage "two heads are better than one" would certainly apply to the concept of being able to collaborate with thousands of people on a given topic.  However, the downside is ever-present; not all the information found online is accurate nor is it all reliable.  This is, perhaps, a bit of a cliche because it is so often emphasized but, additionally, this access to communication at all times is problematic in other ways.

The article mentions how much importance the researchers placed on the voice of today's students being heard.  This is definitely a well-intentioned idea and extremely helpful in determining what types of teaching methods will resonate with students.  However, this can also backfire in certain cases.  The article says students have identified that "two major obstacles to using technology more effectively at school is their inability to access personal communications accounts or send messages to classmates during the school day."  While I appreciate the desire to engage students by entertaining their suggestions to improve their own school day, the lack of access to personal communications is hardly what I would consider a necessary addition to their school life and access to learning.

Herein lies the difficulty in having students dictate what they believe would improve their learning methods.  If given access to their personal communication accounts, students would likely become distracted by discussing topics and events with their friends that have absolutely no relevancy to their school day.  They want to have access to these accounts because they are bored in class!  The answer to this problem is not to allow them access to their personal communications but to make their class time more engaging!  Granted, this is only one of the suggestions offered by students on how to implement technology more effectively but it was one that stood out to me as being a kind of, "Of course that's what they would say!" moment.

Beyond this particular instance, there is much to be learned from the findings of this study.  Overall, the use of technology has the potential to engage students in a way that has never been possible before.  The fact that students could have a vehicle to communicate with their teacher outside of school hours without having to set up a face to face meeting is revolutionary.  Think of how much personal attention a teacher could devote to his or her students outside of class time through the aid of computers.  Whether it is through social networking sites such as Facebook or through video communication platforms like Skype, the ability to connect one-on-one with a particular student without sacrificing that opportunity for any other student is exciting.

Another interesting idea in online communication is the ability for students to communicate with one another on school-related issues.  The graph in Figure 6, Page 10 suggests that 55% of high school aged students are using mobile devices to communicate with classmates to work on projects.  This is already an impressive number but if more teachers were encouraging this type of communication between students on assigned projects, the ability for students to feel comfortable sharing ideas and increase their communication over school-related subjects would likely skyrocket.  Recently, many theories of education have touted the benefits of students teaching each other.  What better way to continue that concept outside the classroom than by encouraging the use of mobile devices as well as other forms of personal communication outlets?

Another graph that I found interesting was the Students' use of digital resources outside of school, described in Figure 15, Page 20.  What's intriguing is the number of students who participate in online games and the uploading/downloading of videos, podcasts or photos to the internet.  The educator's reaction to this information might be to find a way to combine learning activities with online games, which has certainly been the goal of many to achieve.  However, one of the reasons, in my opinion, for the large number of students participating in online games is the very escape of their day to day routine which, undoubtedly, contains mostly school and learning.  They want to shut off, disengage and relax.  Trying to incorporate learning into this part of their day will inevitably turn them off.

However, what is potentially useful is the information pertaining to how many students download videos and podcasts.  Educators can definitely use this information to their advantage.  By using video tutorials and podcasts, teachers can reinforce concepts taught in class and give students access to that information on their own time.  Additionally, teachers could have post the day's lecture or learning exercise so that students can refer back to what was discussed in class without have to pore over notes or guess what information the instructor was wanting them to absorb above something else.

Overall, the Speak Up research provides some insight into the lives of today's students and their hopes to integrate technology with their learning process.  The best way to combine these ideas is take some of what students say will keep them engaged and combine it with an educator's good judgment of what must be communicated in a learning environment.  The combined approach has the potential to be the most effective learning model we've seen yet in a school setting.