20 April 2010

Thing 23: All Done?

Phew.  I've been working all night to try to finish my 23 Things, not just because I really wanted to meet the second deadline after I missed the first, and not just so I can check it off my neverending list of things to do, but because I also enjoyed it.  This truly has been one of the most rewarding professional development opportunities I've been afforded, and I'm so grateful.

Before I started 23 Things, I considered myself knowledgeable about the web and pretty comfortable searching for and finding what I needed from it, but not an expert.  I was so flabbergasted by how much I didn't know - and I don't mean for that to sound like a defeated or discouraged thing to say.  Rather, I quickly gained a more realistic vision of all the tools that are out there, and the way that content delivery has changed, and the kinds of literacy I needed to develop to take full advantage of them.

My favorite discovery was probably Google Reader.  My day just isn't complete now unless I get to follow up on the headlines that appear there for me each morning.  But as soon as I say that, I remember the Mash-ups thing and how cool I thought some of those were, even if they weren't as functional as the others.  My least favorite discovery is an easier call - LinkedIn.  Enough said.

The 23 Things program was perfectly structured for someone like me who is curious but has a busy schedule, who likes her independence but occasionally needs support.  I would love to do more of these over and over again.  But even if I don't have that opportunity, I'll be okay, because the whole process has been so rewarding that I think I could pursue more on my own.  Not only have I discovered a lot of new and practical tools, I feel so much more confident in my ability to figure technology things out by myself. 

Still, please offer more!

19 April 2010

Thing 22: Now I'm a Pro

I did Thing 22 a little out of order, and I've been doing it for a while, largely because my excitement about so many of the things has compelled me to share what I've learned with friends of mine who likewise consider themselves sort of techie in the classroom.  The biggest hit by far was the English Companion Ning, but Wordle was a close second.

My pupils were my husband and my best friend, both of whom are upper school English teachers.  (Dave, to be fair, doesn't integrate technology nearly as frequently as Amanda does.)  Both of them were happy to learn about the ning after I raved about a site that had such a strong collection of ideas and documents.  A couple of years ago, Dave and I got a professional development grant to work on an electronic resource that would provide links to articles, images, files and interactive activities that complemented the core texts we were teaching in the upper school English classes.  If we'd known about the EC Ning, it would have gone a lot faster.  I know both Dave and Amanda have found good stuff since joining the ning, and it's a good find.

Wordle also proved fun.  Dave shared it with his English department after I showed him how to, and he actually got to use his wordle in the classroom even before I did.  Amanda, who's a poet in addition to being a fabulous teacher, uploaded her most recent manuscript and we had some good conversations about the words and ideas that appeared large there - it was really a good opportunity for her to look at her own writing through a different lens, and that reiterated to me the potential it has for student writers.

Amanda's also responsible for my introduction to Wordnik, a site that allows users to create individual wordlists that others can comment on.  She's been successful using it in the classroom to supplant the boring vocabulary lists we both loathe.  I'm still not nearly as confident that it's user-friendly enough to facilitate easy classroom integration, but I've created my account and I'm checking it out.  Honestly, I checked it out a year or two ago, and found it a little frustrating, but having gone back to it, I'm more impressed, so I'm giving it another try.

Thing 21: Tweets Are Kinda Sweet

I was totally and completely infatuated with Twitter back in '08 for 4 whole weeks. At my old job, we all got accounts and made each other laugh in the faculty room by tweeting across the room. Then we all got bored, and stopped. Then I got a Facebook account, and I never thought to go back to it.

I think the novelty wore off for me when I started trying to use it more socially - the character limit was, well, limiting. And when I saw how much other sites (again, like Facebook) added to their interfaces, I started thinking of Twitter as the ugly, boring stepsister to far cooler and capable sites.

I might be over that now. I liked the way that one of the Project Term groups used Twitter instead of a blog to update family, friends and faculty back at school - that was actually the impetus for my re-creating a Twitter account. And having looked at a certain dinovan's tweets, I see also the possibility for tweeting on a certain subject, but not having it be my primary social media.  It seems best suited for quick points of information and reference, instead of conversation starting or more personal communication.

As an aside, I liked Note 2 on the assignment sheet - I've been lurking on Google Buzz trying to make sense of it and figure out if it's worth getting involved in.  I do have a few contacts who are giving it the college try, hoping, I think, to see it eclipse Facebook.  My own personal jury is still out.

Thing 20: Just Whelmed

Before I get started with the real meat of this post, let me say this: the funniest part of browsing Slideshare was absolutely seeing the thumbnails of the Powerpoints and recognizing how many of the design templates I've used in the past.  I was having all kinds of flashbacks to every presentation I've ever made for students and workshops and classes.

But I digress.  The thing is, I wanted to like Slideshare.  I really did.  I liked it in theory.  However, when push comes to shove, as far as my teaching goes, I really don't see too much of an advantage of putting a presentation up on Slideshare instead of just emailing it to those students or colleagues I need to share it with. 

After exploring a few Slideshares, I found myself disappointed.  Maybe if you could record audio to accompany the uploaded files, I thought, there would be some more value added, but without that, it's kind of boring.  In fact, I think Voicethread is more useful, even if it's a little more cumbersome to create the presentation.  I'm not kidding - I was so desperately wanting for there to be audio that I checked my speakers at least 8 times to make sure they weren't muted while I was looking at the presentations.

Still frustrated, I went back to the Slideshare that explains this whole thing and it found that you can include audio after all.  That left me with a whole different problem - why isn't anyone using it?  And why isn't searching for the Slidecasts that integrate audio easier?  The browse feature is pretty straightforward for the regular Slideshares, but much less user-friendly for the Slidecasts.

Ultimately, I didn't find anything too impressive on Slideshare.  I'm willing to admit that my frustration levels and initial disappointment might have rendered me a tough audience, but I didn't stumble upon anything great like I did on the Ning site, or get really excited about the application like I did with Voicethread, or immediately start generating ideas for lessons and projects like I did with wikis.  I'm sure for some people, this works - I see the value maybe for corporate types who want to ensure some kind of standardization of training and not share original files lest they be altered - but for me, emailing presentations is just peachy.  Not overwhelmed, not too underwhelmed...just whelmed.

But here's the first something I found that I thought was kind of interesting:

Thing 19: Podcasts = Love

How do I love thee, podcasts?  Let me count the ways:
  1. I love thee for thy convenience - there are a lot of radio broadcasts on NPR that I live and love to hear.  However, I'm not always actually in the car when they're on.  Podcasting has revolutionized the way I listen to these programs.  I subscribe to a number of them (including This American Life, which if you're not listening to, you're really, sorely missing out on), sync them on my iPod, and then I can listen at the gym, or in the car (even if they're not on the station), or even at home while I'm vacuuming or my husband's watching baseball.
  2. I love thee for thy entertainment value - Continuing in the same vein about my favorite NPR shows (not just This American Life, but also Car Talk and Wait Wait Don't Tell Me), I used to hate when I was slave to the radio and howling with laughter that I knew I'd have to retell and paraphrase whatever it was that made me so hysterical, and that I knew I wouldn't do it justice.  The new re-tell-ability (yes, I coined the phrase) is terrific, not just for giggles, but also because I've used a lot of them in class.
  3. I love thee for thy knowledge -  There are some fantastic podcasts that I've used in class, and legions more I need to look at for integration.  There are others I've used not to share with students but to deepen my own background about a text before I teach it.  Overall, I've been impressed by the quality of the humanities podcasts available through iTunes U, especially those created by museums and libraries. iTunes U, incidentally, also has what I think is the best directory system.  It's easy to search and provides just the right level of detail about the podcast.
  4. I love thee for thy cheapness - It's pretty cool that so many podcasts are free - I almost got carried away raving about how it's bringing knowledge to the people and breaking down some walls to information, but the truth is, you still need a computer to locate and hear the podcasts, so it's not nearly as proletariat as it could be, but it's a good start.

Thing 18: Writing on Wikis

So I feel very accomplished, having contributed for the very first time to a content-rich wiki.  Admittedly, my contributions were about my favorite books and restaurants, so not necessarily all that academic, but I do feel very powerful.  At the beginning of the 23 Things project, I thought a lot about how all kinds of Web 2.0 tools provide opportunities for self-publishing.  I had a long post about how that was both exciting and terrifying to me because I'm sensitive to and aware of how people might perceive me based on what I put out there in cyberspace.  What I didn't consider then, because I was imagining more of a forum for personal expression, is another concern about expertise - I'd be beyond mortified to publish content to an educational or informative wiki that turned out to be inaccurate or biased or incomplete.  I know enough to be skeptical of online sources and Wikipedia because of shared authorship, but every time I've contemplated how dubious it is, I've been thinking as a reader rather than a writer; now I have a whole new anxiety.

And at the same time that I'm a little embarrassed to admit how self-conscious I am about the possibility of making a mistake in something I post to wikis, I also secretly hope that everyone who posts to wikis considers that fear as much.  Already, however, I suspect that that's not the case; that's exactly why I iterate to students time and time again that Wikipedia is NOT a totally reliable source.  I'm stoked about the democratizing the exchange of ideas and information, but careless or deliberately misleading posters poison the well and undermine the whole project.

In either case, as I played with the ones I was referred to, I also kept thinking about classroom applications.  One that I keep thinking about is vocabulary.  I struggle every year with how to make vocabulary instruction relevant to students - I hate the idea of generating lists with definitions and passing them out before we read books.  For one thing, students have a wide range of vocabulary levels and don't all need the same words (or number of words) defined.  Secondly, I don't think it should be so passive for students - I think they should look up definitions and be involved in the research.  A vocabulary wiki could be a great idea - students could contribute the words they came across in their readings that were unfamiliar and share them in context, but also share links to definitions.  It would be a much more student-centered and student-owned list.  In the past, I've made students create their own vocabulary lists, but then I had to photocopy them and pass them out to share them with classmates if I wanted to quiz them on the complete list - this seems to be a better idea.  We'll see...

Thing 17: Wiki What What?

I've been dying to know more about wikis for a long time.  I've heard co-workers rave about how they're using wikis in classes, and I have classmates in my grad program who've taken courses that require them to make contributions to wikis, but I've never really played with them myself (save for one foray into wiki-world I'll explain in a moment).  But all that's different now - I've seen the light.  I enjoyed seeing the different wikis we were directed too, and I already have some ideas about how I might start integrating them in my classes.

My only real experience with wikis has been a kind of boring one.  My So Be Fit team has a wiki that consists of a chart that all our team members can enter our steps for the day.  It's simple and straightforward, but not so dynamic.  Functional, sure, but blah.  That's not at all the reaction I had to some of the wikis put together by different classes.  My eyes were opened by how much more engaging a wiki could be, and also to how many different kinds of applications they might have.  I love the way that a fifth grade class is using a wiki to invite responses to questions about what to do in the summer.  It is a simple project, but friendly, and I'm sure the students love seeing the suggestions that arrive daily.  The Small Stones wiki is super impressive!  It appears that a class has essentially created their own online textbook based on topics covered and work done in class.  They share ownership of it, and have successfully supplemented the course materials in a way that's useful not only to them, but to other students who study calculus.

I can easily see ways to use wikis in class.  I like the idea of having students collaborate on a sort of online coursepack that might provide historical or cultural background for the stories we're reading.  If we created different topics and students had to upload just one link or small piece for each of them, there would be a lot available to all of them by the end .  I also like the potential that wikis have for allowing collaboration even outside the classroom.  I teach three sections of American Literature that, because they meet at different times, feel as if they're three different classes.  Using a wiki to do some processing of course content would give students in the three sections an opportunity to engage in a dialogue or project with others who have the class at a different time, and I think that's very cool.

I used to wonder how wikis were different from blogs, but I see now how significant the shared authorship idea is, and the ability to allow visitors to actually alter content (instead of merely to comment upon it) is huge.  I'm a fan.

P.S. The Simpsons Wiki is just about the funnest thing I've ever seen on the web.  I plan to waste hours and hours poring through it.