Thursday, March 29, 2007

ITM 6: And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

A quick overview of how social networking sites and online communities are impacting teaching and professional development.

> Quicktime MP4 (19 MB)

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Show Notes:

Well, Steve and I couldn't have coordinated it any better. His great post yesterday is the perfect lead-in to ITM 6! Obviously, "social networking" has the tech world buzzing, but we tried hard to find examples where it was really making an impact in K-12 education. And even though "online communities" have been around for a while, there seems to be some new momentum in school districts around the country as the tools become less expensive and easier to use.

So, let us know what you think. Is this all just a fad? Or can these tools really improve classroom instruction and professional development? And what other tools do you use to help break down the walls between the classroom and the real world?

Here are some of the examples highlighted in the show...

Social Networking & Online Communities for younger kids:

> Club Penguin is a safe, fun online environment for elementary kids to play games, chat with other kids, and take care of your own virtual pet. Dangerously addictive for 6-9 year olds!

> Whyville is very similar to Club Penguin, but without the cute little penguins. Instead, kids play and communicate in a virtual city where they engage in "constructive educational activities while promoting socially responsible behavior."

> Imbee launched in 2006 to "provide a secure, dynamic environment where children can safely explore online social networking." It's specifically geared to 8-14 year olds.

Social Networking & Online Communities for teens and adults:

> MySpace is one of the world's most popular Internet sites. Because it's not controlled, teens use it as a way to express their personalities, share media, and communicate with friends. Although there has been a lot of controversy over the site (and many schools block access to it), there are a number of teachers and students that have found positive ways to use the tools available on MySpace. The Weber Institute's "Weber's World News" is one great example. See more details below.

> Sconex is a school-friendly version of MySpace where high school students can "read about your classmates, share stuff with your friends, and communicate with people from your school and nearby ones."

> Second Life is a "virtual world" & community with over 5 million "residents" who collaboratively build the world together. Joining is free, but it takes money to buy land and other items. Many colleges are experimenting with "virtual schools" in this environment, but some people think it's not a "safe" environment for kids. "Teen Second Life" was created as a "gathering place for teens 13-17 to make friends and to play, learn and create." Restriction is limited to teens, and some additional monitoring takes place.

> FaceBook is more of a straight-forward "social network" where teens, college students, and adults can find people with similar interests. You can share your bio, photos, and thoughts on your personal homepage, and then decide who should see it.

A huge "shout out" to the students at the Weber Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Stockton, CA, for their help explaining MySpace to us. More importantly, you have to check out Weber's World News - a MySpace group run entirely by the students after school. Through this online forum, they share their views on a wide range of current topics. Keep up the great work Mr. Hall, Tony, and the whole crew at Weber!

TakingITGlobal "is an online community that connects youth to find inspiration, access information, get involved, and take action in their local and global communities. It's the world's most popular online community for young people interested in making a difference, with hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month."

Moodle is a free, open source, course management system that helps educators organize and facilitate classroom instruction.

Blackboard offers a wide range of web-based tools to support learning, communication, and transactions at schools, districts, and universities.

The Acalanes Union High School District is a great example of how Blackboard can support professional development throughout the district. Special thanks to Acalanes Tech Coordinator, Cheryl Davis, for sharing their story with us. Feel free to contact Cheryl via email for more insights on how to get your teachers on-board!

Google Groups is a FREE tool that teachers and students can use to communicate and collaborate. Groups can be public or private, but each member needs to have a free Google Account to participate. Features include discussion boards, easy to create web pages to share pictures and links, and a place to store files.

Special thanks to the students from the Student Technology Showcase at the CUE Conference for their shout outs!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Social Networking as Professional Development

Will Richardson has written:"I've learned more in my four-plus years as a blogger than I have in all my years of formal education." He's not talking about blogging as a teaching tool--he's talking about blogging as a personal and professional development tool. And he's saying that it's been a better learning tool than all his formal schooling. How could that be?

It's because, for Will and many others of us, to blog is to be engaged in really meaningful conversations about education. Indeed, the tools of Web 2.0 (or the "read/write Web") often trigger a personal learning renaissance. I now engage daily with great thinkers as I use the tools of Web 2.0 to read, to listen, to interview, and then to blog myself.

But let's face the reality of talking about the value of blogging to educators. It's not easy. Most educators are far too busy to squeeze in another hour (or more) to each workday to 1) learn how set up a blog, 2) start writing in it, 3) comment on others blogs, 4) learn how to track the conversations that take place where they comment, and then 5) "speak to the empty room" for six months before their audience builds up. So, is there an easier way to experience the value of blogging and the read/write web? The answer is yes, and it's coming from somewhere I never expected it to: a social networking site.

I've watched the MySpace phenomenon, and have even gotten an account there--and while I understand the appeal of creation and connection that it provides, just haven't felt it was worth any time for me (the unsolicited "friendship" invitations from immodestly-dressed young women to this 45-year-old male are, let's face it, not believable and just plain creepy). When Facebook opened its doors to the general public, and because I have a daughter in college, I got an account to see what it was all about. I have to say, I've been pleasantly surprised. Facebook has none of the garish ads that make MySpace so busy, and the ability to connect socially in appropriate ways with total transparency is actually kind of comforting to me as a parent (I know more about what my kids are doing because of it than I did before). But as good as Facebook is for social interaction, it really isn't that great at facilitating an in-depth dialog. I started and joined several Facebook "groups," but there don't have any good tools for engaged conversations, and mostly the feedback I've seen from other participants is: "OK, I'm here. Now what?"

But then I tried Ning.

Co-founded by Marc Andreessen (of Netscape fame), Ning has evolved into a fascinating kind of "do-it-yourself" social networking site that probably didn't make sense to anybody except those working on it, but now that it is out is something of a "wow" experience. It could be, for educators and students, the perfect way to test out the waters of Web 2.0 quickly and easily. Ning's social networking platform introduces you to some of the most engaging aspects of the read/write web: social networking (of course), user profiles, blogging, forums, photo and video sharing, and even RSS!

Encouraged by a "Library 2.0" network that had been started at Ning (and that currently has over 700 members), I created a "Classroom 2.0" social network in a just few hours last Friday. While I would encourage you to join Classroom 2.0 just to see how it works and to network with some great folks who are talking about the read/write web in the classroom, here's the best part: you can now create your own social network. A class, a school, a district, a region, or any other group you care about can now be introduced to the benefits of engaged dialog on the web with very little work and safely. Profiles can be anonymous, and both the network creator and each user can opt to approve content and comments before they are posted. All that we have to do to make this completely student-friendly is to get Ning to allow educators to eliminate the default Google ads for bikini/singles stuff. (For $20/month you can turn the ads off, but they can do better than that for educators. I'm emailing them a copy of this post.)

So if you've been looking for an easier way to be part of the Web 2.0 revolution, give Ning a shot. See you there!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Big Brother or "Big Mother"

A few years ago Coca-Cola ran a promotion called "The Unexpected Summer." In it a combo cellphone GPS device was rigged to look like a can of Coke and placed in over a hundred 12-packs around the country. A companion Web site allowed people to watch the blips as satellites tracked the lucky winners within 50 feet of anywhere the US.

Recently a few news items reminded me of this and the role of technology in keeping track of our whereabouts. Hitachi has developed a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) "powder." The chip measures .05 millimeters square and 5 microns thick, about the size of a grain of sand. Another interesting development in the world of RFID was a patent taken out in February by Kodak for an edible RFID chip. Among other potential uses is for nurses to know if you've taken your medicine.

Less invasive might be the GPS sneakers now on sale from Isaac Daniel. The sneakers work when the wearer presses a button on the shoe to activate the GPS. In some emergencies -- such as lost child or Alzheimer's patient -- a parent, spouse or guardian can call the monitoring service, and operators can activate the GPS remotely.
We could add to this list the cell phone services and GPS car units designed to let parents know where their children are - out of harms way, one hopes. What will be very interesting as these technological developments continue is who monitors them and for what purpose.

In 1984, Orwell invoked a Fascist "Big Brother," representing the power and interests of the state. In "Big Brother - the TV series," a house and voyeuristic citizens take the role of omniscient observer of our every move. As Web 2.0 technologies converge with mobile communications, multi-nationals and corporate marketers anticipate the day when our physical location and long tail of previous purchases unite in an endless stream of opportunities to "impulse buy."

Stopping this movement isn't within our means. What might be - for those of us who are parents and teachers - is to advocate and champion a human side to this potential. In other words, demand educational applications that side-step Big Brother in favor of "Big Mother."

  • We know what people surf for, but do we have an algorithm to help us match students' learning to their interests?
  • Databases keep track of what we buy online, but can teachers access a similar tool that provides information about an individual's knowledge, skills and attitudes?
  • Social networking sites match us up with thousands of "friends," but can the software also help us reflect on the wisdom of our choices?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Think Summer!

Summer Professional Development - Google Docs & Spreadsheets

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It's nearly 80 degrees here in Chicago, and it is also my first day back at school after a relaxing spring break. I am getting in the mood for summer! Traditionally, this is the time my plans for June, July, and August start to take shape, and I thought that perhaps others are thinking along similar lines. Here's a list of professional development opportunities that I've been compiling in Google Docs and Spreadsheets with the help of Laurie Bartels, a Google Certified Teacher from Rye, New York. Take a look and maybe you'll find something worth exploring this summer. Having time to retreat from every day life to reflect upon one's professional practices is so important and we teachers deserve quality professional development opportunities.

This list is not a ringing endorsement of any particular program; I simply went searching for anything under the sun that might appeal to colleagues. I do, however, attend NECC every summer, and I can vouch for the value of this tremendous educational technology event. Several years ago, I also attended the Teach the Teachers Collaborative at the Thacher School and found it to be a very rewarding and well-run program. The setting of Thacher School, the fellowship of other teachers, and the opportunity to develop Webquests in this immersion program were fabulous. It was disappointing when it ceased to exist for a few summers, and I'm glad to hear that it is up and running again under new leadership. Bernie Dodge, of course, is returning to teach at TTC, as well as fellow ITM blogger, Mark Wagner.

What do you do over the summer to recharge your batteries? Are there programs that you recommend? Submit suggestions in the comments section, or even better yet, email me ( I'll add you as a collaborator to this Google Doc. I plan to add to this list indefinitely, so make sure you take a peek at it from time to time.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Rumor has it - My wish might come true!

I remember when I first discovered online spreadsheets. Within minutes I was creating charts or graphs in my browser in three easy clicks. First a bar graph; 3 more clicks; and a pie graph of the same data was floating around next to it. Introducing a tool that created visual representation of data so easily made me the tech integration hero in my school for the next few weeks. This tool, truly could be ubiquitously streamlined into any lesson where a visual representation of data lead to greater understanding of the content being taught. From history classrooms to math classrooms, the simplicity of creating graphs in a Web browser took away one of the biggest complaints of my most reticent teacher -- “its not efficient for me to use technology to teach this concept. The upfront’learning the technology’ or ‘setup’ time takes away from my precious classroom time and it does not add enough value to my teaching.” IROWS, a new online spreadsheet tool had teachers and students illustrating ideas without even having to stop to log-in. Logging in was useful for saving and more advanced features, but when you have a classroom of 3rd graders ready to illustrate their data, the three click chart increased usability and made CIPA compliance much easier. Then one sad day, during a professional development workshop, I noticed an announcement on the IROWS website. The site would soon be shutting down. The founders of IROWS had been hired by Google.

Turning my attention to Google Spreadsheets, I discovered new reasons for using online spreadsheets in the classroom. The collaborative features that allows multiple users to share a spreadsheet is great for group projects or engaging your whole class at once in an exercise. The chat feature can be used for reflection and makes a great assessment tool. We used both of these innovative features of Google Spreadsheets in designing the lesson plans and template that you see in the virtual field trip of the ITM 5 video. A few tricks (like using the same font color and cell color to hide the results of a row, and then writing an IF statement to compare a student input to the hidden cell, and providing a positive message when correct) can be used to create drill or practice sheets with immediate reinforcement. To login to online spreadsheets with students under age 13 in a district that does not allow student email, I used email aliases that all point back to my teacher account and created a classroom sets of logins.

But, I still desperately miss the charts and graphs feature I had so enjoyed when using IROWS. Taking the time to compare the features of other online spreadsheets (some of which include chart features) is on my TODO list. Meanwhile, it was my wish that the founders of IROWS are quickly coding their wonderful AJAX graphing capabilities into Google spreadsheet. Rumor has it that my wish might come true very soon. My fingers are crossed, but while I wait, I would love to hear your reviews of online spreadsheets and tricks and tips of features that make online spreadsheets work well as a classroom tools.

Friday, March 16, 2007

ITM Extra: P = A x D x E

Interview with Bernie Dodge where he unveils his learning equation: Power = Attention x Depth x Efficiency.

> Quicktime MP4 (14 MB)

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Show Notes:

Bernie Dodge is an education professor at San Diego State University. He is a leading thinker on how to maximize the use of the Internet for learning, and he is also the creator of WebQuests and QuestGarden - a place to author and host WebQuests.

At the MacWorld Education Symposium, he unveiled a new way to look at the power of learning games: Power = Attention x Depth x Efficiency. This is an interesting idea that has implications well beyond the gaming world.

What do you think of his equation? Is it accurate? What examples do you have to support or refute these ideas? How can we use these ideas to impact classroom instruction?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Great "Mashup:" Mapping Literary Journeys

Jerome Burg wants his students to "chew on" the really, really important ideas of a novels. Take, for instance, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck--which he says, "may have a lot more relevance than any of us should feel comfortable with."

By using Google Earth, he and an associate (Matthew Hart) at Granada High School have actually plotted out three-dimension versions of the journeys made in The Grapes of Wrath, Candide, Macbeth, The Aeneid, and others novels on the site GoogleLit Trips. Jerome says the idea to do this "exploded" in his mind, and he feels these Google Maps projects can draw the students into really studying literature in a way that the authors would have wanted. For example, in The Grapes of Wrath, you can see the flatness of the land, watch a video of a dust storm, see photos or art of the time period, and read chapter notes and questions from the teacher.

In addition to the Google Earth file that has been created for each book, there are short podcasts and screen shots for each one that give a brief description of what you will find when you open it in Google Earth. And talk about being "Web 2.0"--Jerome invites both teachers and students to see the site as a place to contribute "Lit Trip" mashups of their own.

Listen as Jerome describes this Google Certified Teachers project in an Infinite Thinking Machine "Take 5" recording:

Friday, March 09, 2007

ITM 5: Calculate This!

It's our first full episode of 2007! Among other things, this show focuses on creative uses of spreadsheets.

> Quicktime MP4 (16 MB)

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Show Notes:

What time of day is it at the world's largest outdoor, seated Buddha statue in Hong Kong? Post your answers in the comments!

The Holocaust Wiki Project is a history simulation project run by Dan McDowell and his students at West Hills H.S. in the Grossmont Union High School District.

Learn more about wikis on Wikipedia (of course!), or get your own at wikispaces, or host your own wikis on your own webserver using the open-source MediaWiki software.

101 Fun and Relevant Ways to Use Spreadsheets. Thanks to Dr. Alice Christie for posting these great ideas!

Lucie deLaBruere from St. Alban's City School in St. Albans, VT, shares a recent spreadsheet project she did with 5th graders. Thanks Lucie!

You and your students can instantly create, collaborate, and share spreadsheets with Google Docs & Spreadsheets. It's FREE, but every student needs a FREE Google Account before using the tool. A valid email address is required to setup a Google Account. If students don't have one, consider Gmail or use a service like Gaggle.Net if you need safe, filtered email. If your school or district doesn't allow students to have email accounts, then you have two options: fight tooth and nail to give your kids access to email OR setup a series of "generic" email accounts (,, etc.) just to activate your Google Accounts. Then have students login directly on the web to access Google Docs & Spreadsheets.

Learn more about ways to use Google Docs and Spreadsheets on the Google Educators website.

How are you using online spreadsheets in your school or district? Add your ideas in the comments for this post. Come on, it's easy. Just click the "comments" in link above. You'll be glad you did!


Some of the "ITM gang" (our whatever we call ourselves) were at the CUE Conference in Palm Springs last week. It was a great event - great people, great ideas, great tech tools, and great blog coverage. My favorite moment of the conference came when a high school student named Tony ran up to me with a big smile and said, "Are you the guy from the Infinite Thinking Machine?!" Turns out we have a fan or two! Very cool. If you watch long enough you'll see him in this video.

Another highlight was CUE Live. With the help of my production partner, Jonathan Lemon, we recorded a series of informal discussions with speakers, attendees, and anyone else foolish enough to stop by our "studio."

In particular, I thought some of you may be interested in our special segment, "We ARE the Infinite Thinking Machine", where Mark Wagner, Steve Hargadon, and myself shared some insights on how AND why we produce the ITM. Let us know if you like it, and we'll put it into the ITM iTunes feed for easy downloading.

BTW - In our FAQ, we recently posted some additional details on the technical equipment and tools we use to produce the ITM shows. Of course, you can produce a video podcast with less expensive equipment than ours, so don't let this scare you off. If you have something to say, don't let the technology stand in your way! Thanks to YouTube, Google Video, and other sites, it's never been easier to "broadcast yourself." In fact, we're looking for students and teachers to be official "correspondents" for the ITM shows, so drop me a line if you want to produce segments with us!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Technology, Education, and Dreams

Today in Monterey, California, a group of luminaries have gathered at an exclusive annual conference called TED and, contrary to its title, sessions are given by various experts in “any subject area offering something fresh and important”. I first became aware of the TED conference (short for Technology, Entertainment and Design) a few years ago via a posting in the blog of Steven Levitt, a TED presenter and author of Freakeconomics. The purpose of TED, according to its web site, is for participants to “gain an understanding of how your own work fits into the larger web of knowledge." The event is quite pricey, and the 2008 conference is already sold out. Apparently, it’s that powerful of a conference.

Lucky for us little people, TED has become accessible in other ways. There is an accompanying blog and fabulously designed web site. Many of the 18 minute sessions (known as TEDTalks) are now available for download from iTunes and are archived on the TED web site. Attendees are also sent a series of important books as part of the TED membership; see a sampling of titles here.

For RSS aficionados interested in tracking TED this year, I suggest visiting Google News, searching for TED or TED 2007, and then hitting the RSS link on the left-hand side of the page. You’ll get any news updates regarding TED (and probably anyone named Ted) delivered to your newsreader of choice. This also works when using Google Blog Search.

Last week, noted New York Times columnist and TED speaker David Pogue appeared as a workshop leader and keynote speaker at the Illinois Technology Conference for Educators, and he joined a group of fellow Apple Distinguished Educators for supper one evening. This is the first time I’ve encountered a TED attendee, and I couldn’t resist grilling David about his experiences at TED. Interestingly, he cited Al Gore’s speech as one of the most powerful and well-executed talks of the 2006 conference. David also mentioned the TEDPrize, an annual award given to innovative people in order to help turn their visions into reality. Ever the idealist, it is heartening to me that lofty endeavors are celebrated and rewarded.

The format of TED and the hype surrounding the conference fascinate me. Why is TED such a success? Is it the glamour of intellectual power wrapped in exclusivity that attracts movers and shakers to this yearly event? Is it the opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded people in a seemingly increasingly mediocre world? How does it feel to be surrounded by 999 other people who want to change the world and more importantly, probably feel empowered to do so? What sort of relationships are forged here that produce partnerships that do, in fact, change the world? Are TED attendees really able to put their ideas into motion, and if so, how do they accomplish this?

It has occurred to me that there doesn’t seem to be much representation in TED specifically from the field of education. Perhaps education is not an “it” field of study. The essential questions for me, as an educator interested in innovation, then are: If education does not fit into the Technology, Entertainment and Design schema, is there a similar event for people deeply involved in our field? If not, what would an similar education-oriented event look like? Is there great interest by others in radically rethinking educational practices? Is there a conference that showcases stellar examples of innovative practices related to the academic, physical, social, and emotional growth of children?

I will go out on a limb here to say that I believe American education is indeed stagnant, and it would be inspiring to have the not only the best, but the most innovative, minds in education and related fields exchange ideas. Like TED, I would like for those passionate about education to have the opportunity to view all the pieces of the puzzle at once, and to reflect on what their own work brings to the table of change. Thinking outside of the traditional education box is critical as we attempt to educate 21st century students.

I am getting off my soapbox for now, but again, I am curious as to what other educators think. If you were to assemble a dream team of conference presenters/discussion leaders with the express purpose of rethinking American education, who would you choose? Who inspires you? Who are the icons, geniuses, and mavericks in our field? What do you think needs to change in our field, if anything? Also, take a look at the TEDTalks in iTunes. Who’s your favorite TEDster and why? Jump in and join the conversation!