Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wiki Wiki

I believe wikis are possibly the most misunderstood and under-appreciated web tool available to educators today. It is so simple but so powerful, yet many teachers cannot figure out what goes on in a wiki and how to use it for their classroom.

Wikis are a direct result of the Web 2.0 revolution; that is, web pages that can be changed or edited by anyone. The monster example, of course, is Wikipedia, which is a public encyclopedia that can be edited and added to by anyone in the world. I still run into people I would consider tech-savvy that don't understand Wikipedia is not a standard encyclopedia, like Britannica, etc. People can write anything and present it as the truth. (Wikipedia is monitored, and obvious falsities or inappropriate statements are often deleted, but more ambiguous statements often remain.) For this reason, Wikipedia must never be used directly as a source. Its real value is that properly cited pages can provide numerous links to legitimate sources. Wikipedia also shows the traits of a good wiki. Visual elements are used very often, including pictures, video and audio files. And those who wish to edit the pages find a simple, user-friendly interface. 

Our studies this week led us to look at a couple of educational wikis created by teachers. I hope all educators check out such wikis, because they offer students a real-world learning experience that combines creativity with collaboration. It can be fun for the students and the teacher. Mrs. Lodes' "Treasure of Learning" wiki uses a pirate theme to bring her students into the wiki page. The theme is age-appropriate, which is very important. Visually, the pages are colorful, but I do think some of the images are distracting. On one page there is a widget apparently called "wall wisher" that I found to be way too busy and unreadable.

It is possible that my browser was causing this, but it is worth remembering that teachers should make sure the students can properly access the wiki with a choice of browsers. I also found this wiki that is made for history teachers. It is very interesting to me as a history teacher, but I still think it's too busy. Movement on a page is cool, but in very small doses, in my opinion. I have seen boring wikis too, but if I had to err on one side or the other, I think I would prefer not enough graphic elements, rather than too many.

Looking at this wiki that deals with literacy tools, the overall feel is so clean and subdued that I find it very appealing. One concern would be with the sheer number of links on the page. The table of contents is quite long as well. Still, the intended audience is educators seeking resources, so in that aspect the site delivers in spades. Every link I clicked on was current; and that is important to remember when constructing a wiki or blog. Many times links go dead, or change. Site administrators must make sure their links are still active. This wiki was created with Wikispaces, which happens to be the tool I use to experiment with creating wikis. I am hardly and expert, and I was certainly intimidated at first, but I found the creation process to be fun and productive.

This is something I want to communicate to other educators: Creating wikis is not tortuous, and the results can be tremendous. The greatest positive in my opinion is the collaborative aspect of wikis, the ability for students to post their work to a page that all can view, comment on, and even add to if they wish. For groups of students, or entire classes, this is invaluable. And the work is saved forever. Next year's class can build on what this year's class does. Or teachers can compare last year's accomplishments with this year's. Teachers can also evaluate their own progress. How did the students respond this year compared to last year? And parents can monitor the entire process, if desired. It's a great way for teachers to keep a record of the work being completed. And once students learn how to use the wiki, teachers can basically step aside and let the kids go at it! (Not completely of course!) 

I'm sure creating and maintaining a wiki page is a daunting task to many teachers. One reason -- maybe the biggest reason -- I am seeking the MET degree is to help teachers get over their fears and learn how to use wonderful tools like wikis.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What is Literacy?

So what is Literacy? Why, it's about readin' and writin' of course. Right?

Actually I think the answer is yes, but I was intrigued by the points brought out in the blogs I read and the videos I watched this week. First of all, before I define 'literacy' I want to define 'technology.' Because there seems to be some confusion in the EdTech community at large. One person in the video seemed to suggest that technology equals computers. That is wrong, in my opinion. When the pencil was invented, it was ground-breaking technology. At one point, overhead projectors were 'the latest technology.' Any tool that teachers use in the classroom is in some way 'technology.' 'Modern technology,' or '21st Century technology' refers to the tools we are talking about in this class; and the tools we need to master to obtain the degree we are studying. That's fine, but let's not dismiss older tools just because they are not cool enough.

So using technology to teach means something much greater than putting MS Word on the computers, upgrading to Windows 7, or buying an iPad for all of the students. 'Using technology' is the art of incorporating all of the available tools in the classroom, in a way that expands knowledge, differentiates between learners, and involves the parents and community. After all, that is what the students will need to do in their adult lives, right?

Sometimes, a book is the perfect tool to use. Sometimes, a worksheet is the most efficient way to involve everyone. Other times, one would be crazy not to use web tools to help students collaborate effectively. My point is there is no one tool for every one task. In fact, relying on modern technology to do our teaching for us is a critical mistake, in my opinion.

Personally -- and my experience is limited -- I like to keep the students guessing. I might use the web for a certain task, but revert to the textbook for a similar task in a different unit. To me, teaching literacy is helping students learn to use all of these tools.

Still, the foundation of reading and writing must not be overlooked. Students in the 21st Century have no lack of social media experience. They need no help in sending email, uploading graphics or commenting on posts. In fact, they need no help in searching for whatever their wondering eyes might be tempted to see on the Internet. But I digress. What students do not regularly receive are prompts on reading, comprehension, and writing skills. They know how to text, but they cannot write a simple essay. They know jargon, but too often they do not know how to communicate, especially one-on-one.

Computers draw us away from each other, into our own little worlds. This might be cool, but it can easily become unhealthy. Although we must sharpen technological skills for our students, we must make sure they are learning and understanding the importance of those foundational skills that will help them stand out from the Facebook crowd.

Yes, I'm talking about readin' and writin'. The 21st Century model would suggest that those skills can be learned on a computer; and since that is the tool they will use as adults, that is the best way to prepare them for the real world. Well, they can learn to read on a computer, but should we get rid of all books? Students can learn to type, but do we dare abandon the pencil and paper? Are these the trends of the near future? Are they healthy trends?

I think those questions need to be seriously asked and debated in the EdTech community.

Finally, I have very few man-crushes in my life, LOL. My wife tells me I have a man-crush on Adam Bellow. He is a EdTech guru from New York that is possibly the most dynamic and informative speaker on the subject. Here is 15 minutes of brilliance from Adam at a conference he spoke at in 2011. I saw his keynote at METC last year, and I was blown away. If you want to know the EdTech guy that influences me the most, it's Adam Bellow.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Shifting sands

As you read the posts below, written about a year ago, two things will surely take place: firstly, you will be bored beyond comprehension; secondly you will see a student who didn't want to rock the boat.

Those two things will change. I refuse to be boring; and I refuse to 'toe the company line' as it were. There isn't enough time left to try to make others happy. Forces are coming together that are affecting our children. We must keep perspective and tradition in the conversation, or we will be lost in a sea of political correctness and scores.

We must take every step to teach our children character. But this is useless if character is not being taught in the home. We must give our students the tools to succeed in their world; but there is more to this than providing them with an iPad and teaching them how to create a blog.

I am always involved in the EdTech conversation: I love it. I see a lot that I like, and a lot that is useless. What I often do not see is common sense. To many people, this makes me an old codger; a fool, irrelevant.

I am still learning, and will always be learning. My posts should reflect that. But I have something to offer, too. That's why this blog will now be known as the Codger Report.