Ed Tech in Review

About a year a go I wrote a post, 2.0 Things I’ll Try in ’09, on the then-emerging web 2.0 technologies I’d try in 2009, saying

I have two goals for the new term: 1.) to get a better feel for new technologies and 2.) the way each will best add to my teaching–if they can add anything at all. Here’s my list.

  • expand collaborative note-taking using wiki
  • try Twitter
  • try blogging
  • bring parents into the 2.0 conversation
  • experiment with tagging web content
  • buy a cell phone

Did I make my goals? Yes, I’m happy to say, even though I didn’t meet them in the way I had planned as a number of tools and services I hadn’t even considered in December 2008 made their way onto my laptop and iPhone. But twelve months later, I believe I have a good framework for organizing the web tools for middle school students.

Here’s the review in summary:

[table id=1 /]

Here are some detailed notes on what I thought was going to happen and what actually played out.

Expand collaborative note-taking using wikis.
Trial: I’ll open this up to the other three grades, 6 to 8. I’ll also spend a few classes–more with the Grade 6s, fewer with the 8s–working over revising and editing posts.
Biggest problem: The Grade 6 class. They don’t quite have the maturity to be self-policing when working online. 2.) After 5 years of schooling they are so competitive for marks it’s frightening; getting them to work collaboratively will take considerable coaching.

My students and I do use wikis, but as a publishing tool, not a note-taking tool. For notes we use Google Docs. In any class where the students have to take notes I ask a couple students to open a Google Doc, shared with everyone as editors, and make a set of official class notes http://novemberlearning.com/resources/archive-of-articles/digital-learning-farm/. When the note-taking is done, we project the Google Doc on the whiteboard and together review and revise them so they’re as accurate as possible. The rest of the students still take notes in their books or laptops, but they have the official ones as backup.
The policing problem disappeared after a while. In fact, there’s competition to be official note-takers. Also, because the students know their notes will be scrutinized by the whole class, they tend to take things more seriously.

Try Twitter.
Trial: I think this will have to be linked to the WikiEducator project somehow. That means I’d run it with just a small group of eight students. We’ll ow what we’re Twittering about once we settle on content for wikiEducator.
Biggest problem: It won’t do to set up a private microblogging network because that is a closed space and takes away any advantage of Twittering. (For that reason, Edmodo seems like a dud.) So, we’ll need a parent-education program to go along.

Although I am an avid Twitter user, I decided to put off getting students on the service until the end of the year, but only because we had our hands full with other technologies that were giving us a better ROI on our time, in particular Google Apps, wikis and Nings. We may play around with Twitter, especially as a way to establish contact with other schools. but I have a feeling that we will be building our connections mainly through our Nings.

Incidentally, I’ve completely turned around on Edmodo. They’ve revamped their service and I think it’s outstanding and vastly superior to Moodle as course management software for 21st century teaching.

Try blogging.
Trial: I think we have to set up a blogging project with another group of kids outside our school. We may explore this in our WikiEducator project. I’d really like to set up a joint project with First Nations students from the Squamish and Lil’wat nations here in Howe Sound as part of my Master’s thesis. More on this later, but the idea would be to mashup Google maps etc. to rename, redraw, retell the Howe Sound story so it reflects a collective understanding of both cultures.
Biggest problem: I like the idea of having my students engage with people from all over the planet, but getting enough people outside the school actually to engage with them to make blogging significantly different from a classroom conversation will not be easy. Building a blog and driving traffic to it is a lot of work, work that I think takes away from the business of middle school education.

I limited the blogging experiment to my senior students–the grade 8s and 9s. It took them a while to see the purpose–Why not just write a paper? they said. But they seem to be developing it as a thinking tool and a place to experiment with ideas before they hammer out an assignment. Here’s an excerpt from a grade 9 students blog.

I’d like to see more back and forth comments on the blogs, which are run through our Ning, but it has indeed proved difficult to set up and maintain contacts with other schools. I had a philosophy Ning going with some great teachers and students at the Calgary Science School but that group had to move on to other work. I hadn’t anticipated how timetables get in the way of collaborative work. The trick to expanding blogging and to setting up meaningful dialogues between schools will be to get students involved in building the connections as collaboration coordinators.

WikiEducator sits on the shelf for now. The user interface was clumsy compared to wikis such as PBWorks or Wikispaces, and that proved to be a barrier to use. I am however hoping to revive the First Nations project though that runs way beyond blogging.

Bring parents into the 2.0 converstation.
Trial: Host a couple parent information nights. We did this very successfully when we launched a new assessment practice for the school. That gave us great buy in from families.
Biggest problem: Managing the risks, or perceived risks, that come with working on the open web.

This worked very well. We’ve had many parent information nights to roll out, explain and discuss everything from assessment policy to Google Apps. We make a point of scheduling as many sessions as families need to be sure all have their questions answered. This has gone a long way to building trust.

Experiment with tagging web content.
Trial: The WikiEducator project.
Biggest problem: Tagging needs Twitter.

As I said, we dropped the WikiEducator project. And I was wrong–you don’t need Twitter to gather tags, though it’s handy. Tagging remains important. It’s to web 2.0 what filing is to, says, Windows 3.0. We’re still waiting for the semantic web and liked or structured data and until those play out fully, I think tagging is at the very least a good scholarly habit. This will definitely be a focus of our work next term.

Buy a cell phone
Trial: I’ll try calendaring with the Grade 8s or Grade 9s, assuming they all have cells with SMS. Even if some don’t, I may do it anyway as a way of building a case for a bigger trial either in the last term or next year.
Biggest problem: Cost. Data plans in Canada are not cheap–about $70 month.

I bought an iPhone and can’t imagine how I went without a smart phone before. It’s dramatically changes the way I work online and significantly changed the way I work in class. But, we haven’t used mobiles at all with the students. As I said before, the students aren’t really digital natives and it’s enough to keep them all on Google calendar, let alone a host of calendars offered by various phones and telcos. SMS is also uneven at school, although I’d like to put some pressure here.

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