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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Students and PowerPoint

Part I - Before the Lesson - March 26

Tomorrow, I'm going into a US History teacher's class to help her introduce her students to an upcoming project. They are researching various aspects of early 20th century history, and must create a PowerPoint to accompany a presentation to the class.

Now, if you're like me, you've seen plenty of PowerPoints from students (and maybe from teachers, keynote speakers, business professionals,...) that have slides full of text which they proceed to read to the class. Or alternately, PowerPoints are turned in instead of reports, but the PowerPoints contain just as much text and information as the report would - same format, different application.

I'm taking it upon myself - with the full agreement and support of the teacher - to try to change how students approach using PowerPoint. I'm hoping to show them that a good PowerPoint only enhances what the speaker is saying, not replaces. They need to think more about the content than what animations or fonts they include.

I'm providing the students with a page they can use to storyboard their presentation, as well as some tips on effective PowerPoint design. I've also got a PowerPoint with some do's and don't's; I've uploaded it to Slideshare, although it's not much without narration or the animations. But in any case, here you go:

(You can download the actual presentation from Slideshare here - maybe that way it'll make more sense...)

I'm in the classroom Thursday - when students are beginning their research - and Friday - when they're designing and creating their PowerPoints. I'm going to try to sit in on some of the presentations next week to see how things go. Stay tuned for Part II to see how things went.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Teaching 21st century skills - oh, the irony...

A colleague of mine earlier today sent out a link to the article A Taste of Web 2.0, as published by T.H.E. Journal. While the article spends eight pages discussing a variety of web-based tools - many of them free or with ad-free educator plans - that might be desirable to teachers and even school administrators, one thing that caught my attention was the short summary on the first page:

[E]ducators have concerns about risks for K-12 students and wasting time. Many are banning school use of the very applications (e.g., social networking, blogs, wikis, chat) integral to online learning systems[...]. Even without a ban, another contributing factor for avoiding Web 2.0 might be educator fears about changing their teaching methods to better engage learners. The International Society for Technology in Education [hyperlink added]...indicates that to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly digital world, students should know and be able to use technology for creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making; digital citizenship; and technology operations and concepts. Thus one might say such banning limits development of skills valued for the 21st century. [emphasis added]

Later in the article, Wikipedia is cited as an example of a Web 2.0 site that is addressing the need for "21st-century-skill instruction" - greater encouragement of citations in articles, encouraging contributors (read: students) to verify posted information. Thus, Wikipedia users are now given one more tool to help them think critically - not everything on the web can be taken at face value; what is the veracity, the "weight" of this particular piece you're reading? (Does this effort mean that Wikipedia is really Web 2.1?)

Emil, a teacher at my school who also received the email about the post - he teaches networking, robotics, and engineering - replied back with the teacher-in-the-trenches perspective:

I see the distraction factor daily. I think it is not so much a teacher’s risk or inability or fear to use the tools as it is “knowing” the tangents that kids will go off on that are not related to a given project. We all do it to a certain extent, but the kids go off with total abandonment. We have a sense of responsibility to get the job done, that we have NOT passed on to the kids. They would play games, blog, etc. all day every day with no focused purpose if we let them. We must show them a purpose to their exploration. THAT I have not found a way to do just yet, as there are no real consequences for anyone’s actions...except for the teacher of course. Any recommendations??

Sorry, Emil. The bad news is that I don't think it's a quick fix - we're talking about changing the fundamental way a lot of us (myself included, although less and less every day) think about education. How can we structure classroom learning that does impart some "weight" to what students are doing in the classroom? The irony is, I think that allowing students to use these tools - to start to produce learning products that are on the world's desktops, not just the teachers - can provide us with a venue for that kind of instruction, but until they get that kind of instruction, we can't trust them to use these tools.

The other disparity is that while the change is occuring within education - from one teacher to another, conversation by conversation - it is a slow change, like most in education. But the pace at which technology and its tools changes might find us prepared to use Web 2.0 in the classroom - and we look to find that we're now facing Web 3.0 (or 4.0, or...)

But when students do get a chance to use these tools, man, can they shine! I'll close with this additional anecdote that Emil shared:

...you should see the networking of my Robotic Club kids and their phones, texting other clubs in the robotics world when a new release is eminent. The providers are being “Hush Hush” just before the info is made public. Kids can connect and get the lowdown as fast as it is put out. Sometimes, before it hits the official websites. When they have a purpose, stand back and be amazed.

When [standardized tests] have questions/tasks that expect students to social network and engineer a solution to a problem instead of taking a multiple guess test, then maybe we will have a handle on it. I look forward to that day.

Me too, Emil. Me too.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Teaching internet use instead of forbidding it

I recently conducted a training on creating and usings blogs and wikis for instructional purposes. It was somewhat sparsely attended, but those teachers that did attend were very excited about the prospect of using them in the classroom. One foreign language teacher who teaches Advanced Placement German - I'll call her Michelle - wanted to create a blog in German for her students to engage in regular free-writing and topic-based writing exercises.

Rather than create a blog on our network course management system (ANGEL Learning), Michelle wanted to create an internet-based blog. This would allow her to invite other students, teachers of German, and even native Germans and German-language speakers to visit the class blog and comment on the students' work. What we had talked about in the blog training was that this "instant global exposure" can cause students to take much more seriously what previously might have been just a classroom exercise - because only the teacher (and perhaps the students in class) would read it, it wasn't a very "real-world" exercise.

We started to set up the blog on Blogger, only to find that just beyond the sign-in page, the website was blocked by our district's internet filtering software. We tried a different service - Edublogs - to find the same problem arising. It's not the entire blog service that's blocked; I know some specific blogs have been passed through the filter (this one, for instance). Instead, it's the blog management page that's blocked.

What that means is for some of these third-party internet tools, if teachers in my district want to use them, they need to use them primarily from home. This means setting up and posting to blogs, managing comments (probably from students), etc. While I have many tech-savvy teachers at my school that would be fine with this, that's not really the point of my job - I'm trying to help the ones that aren't quite that tech-savvy get there, and that's tough to do if they have to do it themselves all from home.

This issue is actually secondary to my point in this post. My district is very forward-thinking towards classroom technology. Every permanent classroom in the entire district has a Promethean interactive whiteboard; every portable has ActivSlate technology. We have computer labs, a bevy of professional and educational software for teachers and students, and the district has been recognized for its efforts in implementing classroom technology. (A couple of articles about it are on my district's website.)

And while the hardware and software is great, there's more to it. I've always understood the term "instructional technology" to mean the application of currently available tools in new and innovative ways. When websites become accessible to the "common man" through programs like Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver, teachers can start using them with students. When the development of JavaScript and then AJAX allows internet sites to update themselves in real time, spawning the birth of "Web 2.0," a plethora of new communication, writing, and information tools is at teachers' disposal.

With so many tools emerging every year for teachers and students to use, I think the crucial missing piece is showing teachers how to manage the technology in their classrooms. Students are using these tools much more than teachers are - shouldn't teachers be able to at least relate to the software and show how students can use it effectively, even if they aren't using it as much as their students?

I've been reviewing training topics for next year, and I want to include some professional development that's not just "how-to's." I'd like to share with teachers how to teach students to use these tools properly. This new generation of interconnected, interpersonal information is going to take entirely different mental tools to use properly - tools that today's teachers probably and for the most part aren't yet teaching. It's one of the most exciting and frustrating things about education - always getting to be, and at the same time having to be on the cutting edge.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Tracing a blog

Whether you're a blogger or a reader, this is an interesting interactive image - a blog road map, if you will - from Wired magazine. Trace the route of a blog from writer to reader - and everything in between. If you've ever wondered just what a text scrapper, ping server, or aggregator is, get a little explanation and see where they fit into the information superhighway.

I wonder how many of these elements student bloggers (or teacher bloggers) are aware of? How would their writing be affected by a greater understanding of this map? My initial reaction is that if students really knew that the online words they write would find their way to search engines, or that depending on the content their words might be seen by corporate representatives - for good or for ill - how much more care would they take in writing and proof-reading their own work and the work of their peers?

Monday, March 3, 2008

No limits - but when?

TechLearning had an article a couple of weeks ago sharing some examples of schools and school systems that are instituting 21st century classrooms, in which students are using collaborative networking tools. I couldn't help but notice that phrases used in the article like "give the new student-centered strategies a try" and "With the right support and leadership" indicate that, unfortunately, this is not the norm in classrooms.

I particularly like the description of the new kind of student, one who can choose what kind of tool or tools to use to collect and synthesize information. The 21st century classroom is not one in which students are expected to memorize or regurgitate raw information - it is one in which these students learn how to turn raw information into a useful schema of knowledge.

But how much will this replace traditional teaching? Of the whole of human knowledge, how much still needs to be delivered from teacher to student? So many teachers are used to covering "the curriculum" - the details that are considered important for students to learn. But how much of that information is essential - how much will be retained as those students become productive citizens? The teacher can serve as a “filter” to focus the students’ learning on the essential information – minutia can be gleaned from information on the web, in books, or whenever the need arises.

What are the new strategies that need to be present in the 21st century classroom? What percentage of classroom teaching needs to be on the “facts”, and what percentage needs to be on teaching students to work with the facts – critical thinking, analysis, source evaluation, synthesis, etc.? I'd like to think that the 21st century classroom is evaluated not on the "facts" - the teaching of facts becomes moot - but rather on what kinds of thinkers it produces.