Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 3

My role at school is all about trying to helping teachers leverage technology to come up with more interesting and engaging ways to help their students learn.  Some of our older students are in laptop programs which gives them fulltime 1:1 access to their own computer but many still do not, especially in the junior years. Which is a bit of a shame since there is, I think, so much scope in the younger grades to use technology in interesting ways that support the curriculum.  Unfortunately, with the way things are structured at the moment, our primary kids get scheduled into a single one hour lesson in the computer lab each week.  That’s not really my preferred option, as it’s hard to get technology integration working in an ongoing, embedded way when it involves trotting off to the computer room once a week.

Ironically, all our primary classrooms do actually have a small pod of four desktop machines in them, but unfortunately I don’t really see them getting used in any consistent, meaningful way.  Technology integration is still, by and large, reliant on that one hour a week of “computer time” in the lab.  However, whether I like it or not, it is what it is, and until the system changes it’s a limitation I have to work with.

Ludus - our school Blog ServerOur Year 4 students are doing a unit of work on Australia at the moment, so I started the term by having a planning session with the Year 4 teachers to look at how we might weave ICT into the unit.  A couple of years ago, the ICT component was – you guessed it – making a PowerPoint about Australia, but thankfully we’ve tried a some new approaches over the last few years. For the past two years we’ve been using blogs to get the kids writing about Australia, in fact I think we’ve come up with some good ideas for structuring the writing process when blogging.  We started off using Edublogs, but after having a particularly frustrating series of outages, the school decided to set up our own WordPress MU server and gave every student their own blog on that system. It took a bit of fiddling to get the feeds on the front page working the way we wanted, but that internal WPMU site worked quite well for us.  Because we run Moodle, we recently installed Mahara as well, which also provides blogs for students and so I guess we’re a bit spoiled for choice at the moment when in comes to school blogging.

Although the blogs had worked quite well for us in the past, for the unit of work on Australia the Year 4 teachers felt that they wanted to try something a bit different, so we brainstormed some ideas and came up with an idea that I think has worked very well.

For me, ICT integration becomes far more interesting when it involves lots of little skills used in a lot of different ways that student have to piece together into a finished product.  I like it that way because it give them a broader understanding of the way that technology tools fit together, and I think helps their understanding of how technology can assist them cross over into many areas.  I also like the idea of providing a structure, a scaffold, so that even our struggling students have a clear framework to work within.  However, surrounding that scaffold should be flexibility, options, choices, and a way for more able students to scale their work up and allow for that important differentiation.

What we came up with was a project called 25 Moods of Australia.  We brainstormed a collection of words (it started as 25 words, but grew to 50) that described various moods – haunting, hostile, creepy, effervescent, etc. Using a free wiki (where every student and teacher was given their own login) we published a list of all the words.  Working in pairs, the students then adopted a word from that list. There are 50 students in the two Year 4 classes, so working in pairs required 25 words.  The reason we came up with 50 was to give them a choice of what word they wanted to select, and to provide some extra words in case any students wanted to do a second one.

Armed with their chosen words, each student pair started by creating a new blank page on the wiki for that word. Then they had to find a clear, concise definition for the word (so that they understood it) and they then added that definition to the wiki page.  They used both regular paper dictionaries as well as online dictionaries. It was useful to compare the two.

The next job was to use Flickr to find a photograph taken somewhere in Australia that they felt captured the meaning of that word.  This was quite tricky… the Flickr search engine is not as sophisticated as Google’s and so to find a photo that both described their word and was taken in Australia required some thinking.  It involved looking carefully at the images, at the tags, at the captions, and using a bit of detective thinking to find photographs that met all the criteria.  To make it even trickier, we had a talk about copyright and the use of other people’s photographs without permission, which led to an interesting discussion about Creative Commons.  The students picked up on this idea very easily, and now know how to use the Advanced Search feature in Flickr to find photographs that are free of traditional copyright restrictions.  (I was feeling very encouraged to hear from their teachers that they are also now being much more mindful of copyright in other areas of their school work, and they’ve been observed looking for Creative Commons images for other projects as well! I consider that a major win!)

Once they found an image they like, they then used the All Sizes selector in Flickr to find the 500 pixel, medium-sized version of the photo and they copy it to their desktop. They also copy the URL of where they got the image so it can by pasted into the photo caption as an attribution, required by all CC licenses.  Once the photo is copied to their computer, they then upload it into the wiki (we used Wikispaces) and insert it into their page.

The next job is to go to Google Maps and find the location of where that photograph was taken on the map. This is also tricky, since not every photo makes this clear.  Some photos are geotagged with the exact location of where they were taken, but many are not.  We talked about geolocation.  We learnt to look at the tags, the keywords, the captions, the other photos in the Flickrstream, and to look for clues that might give us an idea about where the photo was taken.  And sometimes, when their were no clues, we had to make educated guesses about where the photo could have been taken.  Once we decided on a location – either a definite location based on real clues, or an imagined location based on common sense, the students found that place in Australia on the map.

Using the Link option, they then generated the embed code for the map, copied it, went back to the wiki and created a widget. They pasted the embed code into the widget and saved the page to reveal the embedded Google Map of their best estimate for the location of the photograph.

The last step is for the students to then write a couple of paragraphs talking about their photograph and why they think it represents their focus word. This can be quite a challenge, as they have to think very carefully about how exactly they will justify their selection, describing the photo and linking it back to the key ideas in the definition of their word. They also need to write about the map location and explain how they knew (or guessed) that the photo was taken in that place.

As you can see, it’s a task that contains a LOT of small pieces.  It contains lot of ICT skills and techniques and understandings in a number of areas. It is a task of small pieces loosely joined.  It’s also not a task that can be plagiarised.  It’s not a task where there is a “right answer”, as any answer could be right if it was justified well enough.

Remind yourself, these kids are 9 and 10 years old. And they have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of moving information around, remixing, repurposing and restructuring it in fairly sophisticated ways.  They quickly pick up the ideas of bringing all the pieces together to make something new. I think they are using some reasonably advanced information skills, as they learn to search, evaluate, synthesize and create with the information they find, and then add value to that information by interpreting and summarising and justifying it.  In short, I’ve been really impressed with what they can do. And even more impressed with what they can’t do, but can learn to do.

You can visit the wiki at http://ausmoods.wikispaces.com, although at the time of writing it is still a work in progress.  The final stage, when everything is complete, will be for them to use the discussion tabs on the individual pages to leave comments and feedback for each other.

I think it’s been a really good task, with plenty of really worthwhile ICT skills built in, as well as an integrated use of literacy, writing, geography, thinking and reasoning, collaboration, and so on.

If only we had more than an hour a week to do this stuff…

The Remix Society

I’ve been talking to a lot of teachers lately about copyright, Creative Commons and how we might deal with the issues that arise when we want to use other peoples’ images and media and remix them into something new and creative. The restrictive thinking of traditional copyright has become an anachronism in the digital age. It just doesn’t serve us well any more.

The example I’ve been citing is the one I heard Larry Lessig mention, and that’s the story of how when land owners were once given title to their land, the title of ownership used to be phrased in language that essentially said they owned not only the parcel of land, but all the ground below it to the center of the earth and all the sky above it to the heavens. It was a nice romantic concept, this idea that you owned not just the surface of the land but the infinite column of space that extended above it.

Well, it was a nice romantic concept until the airplane was invented, that is. As more aircraft started to appear in our skies a number of greedy land owners started to make demands for payment to allow these aircraft to pass through “their” space, which they technically owned. The point is that the original land titles which gave them ownership of this space above their land were drafted in a time when the idea of travelling through the space was unimaginable. It was simply not a problem that anybody envisioned and so the laws were written in a way that did not take account of the possibility. As aircraft took to the skies, the laws had to be changed to allow for it… for to not adapt the old, outdated laws would have completely stifled the development of flight. Put simply, the old laws no longer made sense – the airplane caused a complete rethink of how these laws should work.

It easy to see the parallels with copyright law in the digital age. Many of our copyright laws were written in a time when the implications of the digital age were equally unimaginable. Copyright law is not written with the notion that creative works could be infinitely reproducible and easily mashed together to form new creative works, and that digital convergence allows all media types to be easily brought together and combined, edited and remixed in new ways. Copyright law was written in a time that never imagined that the price and power of computing devices would drop to the point that they could be used to make artwork, create music, edit movies and build media that would have required highly specialised equipment and thousands of dollars only a few short years ago, so that the barrier to entry is such that anyone who wants to create can produce professional looking work with limited resources. Finally, consider that not only has the cost of making media dropped to virtually nothing, but the cost of distribution of that media has also dropped to almost nothing… consider that a creative kid sitting in their bedroom can now use a computer and their own creativity to make a video and distribute it to a global audience of millions at essentially no cost. This is not the world that copyright was written for.

Creativity has always been built on the work of others. Our great artists, musicians and film makers have always stood on the shoulders of the giants that came before them, building on their ideas and extending them into new areas. Very little creative work comes from a foundation of nothing… it nearly always uses, references or extends upon the work of others. Manet influenced Monet, who influenced Renoir, who influenced Gauguin, who influenced Picasso, who influenced Duchamp, and so on. Some of the greatest creative minds in history were great because they built on the ideas of those who came before them, adding to them and creating yet more new ideas because of it.  We have always been a remix society.

I have no idea what the long term answer is to all this but I do know that we need to find one. Creative Commons goes some way towards providing a balance between protecting the intellectual property rights of the creator and allowing some reasonable use of their work for remixing and recreating. It provides some common sense to an area where it often seems to be lacking.

This video is a great example of what can be done when someone wants to be creative with the work of someone else… the song, Again and Again by The Bird and The Bee, is borrowed to provide a soundtrack for an amazing piece of visual work that is creative in it’s own right.  Created with nothing more than a Macintosh computer and an amazing degree of creativity, the video has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube.

Peekaboo, I see you!

For a bit of voyeuristic fun, you might like to take a peek at one, or all, of these sites… Twittervision, Flickrvision and Wikipediavision. There is a strange fascination watching them do their thing.

All of these sites tap into the Google Maps API. I mentioned in a previous post about Twitter how an API (Application Programming Interface) can be used to give programmers backdoor access to a particular web app, enabling them to connect into them with another service or application that may or may not have ever been deigned to do so. Think of apps which have open APIs as Lego blocks that can be easily joined together, where the output of one app can be seamlessly plugged into the input of another, so that they talk to each and share data very nicely.

Google Maps in particular have had plenty of interesting uses made of their very open API, and these three examples show you that in action. By using the data coming out of Twitter (the Tweets being made by people), or Flickr (the photos being uploaded by people) or Wikipedia (the edits being made by people) and then feeding that data into the Google mapping API, those events can be made to appear on the map, in near real time. Neat huh? And quite compelling to sit and watch. And just in case you were wondering if it really is “near real time”, I’ve had Twittervision running on one machine while I Twittered on another, and yes, it does appear within a few seconds. Mind you, each event shown on the map is taken as a random selection from all the events that happened in the last few seconds, shown as the number (I assume) indicated at the top of the map…

One of the scarier uses of the Google mapping service is the Florida Sexual Predator service. I’m having trouble getting it to load right now so maybe they’ve pulled it, or maybe it’s just under load, but it’s a pretty controversial use of the API. Apparently someone has managed to plug the Google Mapping API into a database of known sexual predators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The result is a map of the Florida area which clearly marks the exact location where all these sex predators live. Clicking on each marker reveals a full bio of these scary looking dudes. It’s quite chilling, and is a great conversation starter with kids when you begin to talk about how data can be used and where the lines might be between ethical and unethical uses of data. I’d certainly hope the database is kept up to date though, because I’m not sure how I’d feel if I moved into an apartment where the previous inhabitant was one of these guys and the database was not yet updated…  no wonder the neighbours are looking at me strangely!

It’s an interesting world we live in…

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Twitter – Killer App or Overkill?

I’ve become quite a fan of Twitter, although I’ll readily admit I never really “got it” to start with. However, as I mentioned in a previous post, and also in a recent tutorial video, Twitter makes a lot more sense once you add a group of people to your network. Having a likeminded group of fellow Twits from which to tap into some collective wisdom turns Twitter from a curious plaything into a rather amazing personal learning environment.

Twitter has an open API (Application Programming Interface), which mean that programmers who can think of interesting ways to mash the basic Twitter feed into another service are able to tap into the guts of Twitter in order to get it to power their own apps. There are a number of interesting tools/toys that hang off the Twitter API, from useful local clients like Twitterific, Twitterroo, Snitter, Spaz and Twitterbox, to fun implementations like Twittervision and Twittervision 3D. And just to show how circular life is, I’ve just been alerted to Twitterposter, thanks to, none other than my very own Twitter network.

Twitterposter creates image grids of the top Twitterers’ icon files, arranged so that the more influential (most followers) are shown larger than the others – sort of a visual tag cloud idea. Two things struck me as I browsed the grid… one was the number of people whom I actually recognised, at least by reputation. @Scobleizer, @ijustine, @Biz, @Gruber, among others. Seems that despite its vastness, the Internet is still a finite place full of very real people.

The other thing was just how big some of these Twitter networks can become. There were several I saw with well over 4000 followers and the largest following I saw was @Scobleizer with 6893. That’s crazy enough, but he is also following 6923 people!! How anyone could manage that sort of volume is totally beyond me, or why anyone would want to. Surely there must be a limit to how many in your network is the “right” number? If you can believe Dunbar’s Number, the “right” number is about 150. I tend to agree, and imagine that things would start to get a little messy after that. Just doing the math, I’m following about 100 people at the moment and I get tweets popping up every couple of minutes (especially during the North American daytime), so I imagine that following nearly 7000 people would have tweets popping up every few seconds? That’s just crazy stuff, and I would think totally blows away any usefulness that you might be able to get out of the collective wisdom of the network. Maybe someone with a large follow list might leave me a comment and let me know how that works for them. I’m really curious.

PS, In late breaking news, for a long list of Twitter-based apps, take a look at http://twitter.pbwiki.com/Apps, courtesy of @whynot88. Thanks Anne!

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Domo Arigato, Mr Animoto

I was just playing around with Animoto, the fun online video creation toy that all the cool kids are talking about. It probably doesn’t have a huge deal of educational merit (because aside from picking the photos and music, you really don’t have any say over what it actually creates) but there is no argument that what it creates looks very funky indeed. And with so little effort!

This was thrown together from some photos I had on my hard drive just to see how Animoto worked…  I’d forgotten I had these pics… they were of some of the great teachers I worked with last year on my exchange year to Canada when we were messing about with PhotoBooth one day… wow, I really miss you guys!!

It’s amazing just how a bit of music and a few special effects can make a presentation look so cool though.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://widgets.clearspring.com/o/46928cc51133af17/46ef6fa73ea1c92a" width="432" height="250" wmode="transparent" /]

Turning Data into Knowledge

Steve Madsen emailed me a few months ago behalf of the NSW Computer Studies Teachers Association, asking if I’d like to run a workshop at the next CSTA quarterly meeting. He didn’t have any particular theme in mind at the time, and indicated that he was happy for me to pick the topic… anything that might be useful to teachers of computing… and he asked that I get back to him with my idea for a workshop. No problem I said.

I thought about what might be useful to a group of computing teachers. They would be a tech savvy group, so what could I possibly share with them? As much as it might sound like a buzzword, it seems to me that there is still an awful lot about the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon that many teachers are still trying to get their heads around, so I thought something along those lines might be useful. I didn’t want it to be too predictable though, and simply talking about blogs and wikis seemed like just a little too… I don’t know… obvious? I started thinking about ways to explore the ideas behind Web 2.0 in a fundamental yet interesting way. Around the same time, I was struck by a couple of websites that do some very Web 2.0 sorts of things, and when looked at in context with each other it became clear that they were tapping into the same fundamental principles in some very interesting ways.

The three sites that grabbed my attention were www.ilike.com, www.43things.com, and del.icio.us. All of these sites shared the same underlying theme of tagging personal data which could then be viewed as a semantic snapshot of the collective consciousness. That seemed like a cool concept to me; this idea of thousands of people all voluntarily submitting many terabytes of content to the web – a massive collection of text, photos, audio and video. More importantly, they were also submitting their opinions and interpretations about that content, and doing it in a way where it could be collated and organised into a broader meaning. Thinking I was being clever, I decided to call the workshop “I Like 43 Delicious Things”.

I emailed Steve back with the idea and he responded by saying that the DET proxy filters might make it hard to do much with that, since they are locked down pretty tight. A little disappointed, I figured I’d mull it over a bit more and maybe some other idea would come to me. However, the next time I heard from Steve he sent me a copy of the agenda for the meeting and there was my original workshop suggestion, listed as a definite thing. Hmm, now I had to make my clever idea actually work.

I sent a couple of emails to clarify the filter situation and it seemed that I might be able to go ahead with the original idea after all, so I started to gather some resources for the workshop. I kinda sorta knew what I wanted to say, but it was all still a bit nebulous in my head. How could I tie it all together so that it made sense to people? (and me!)

It’s funny how things just fall into place sometimes… a few days before the workshop I was still trying to figure out how to make sense of my original idea, and I stumbled across three items that brought it all together for me… one I’d come across before but completely forgotten about, and the other two I’d never seen. When I put these three resources together with the three original websites, it formed a powerful summary of what I felt was going on behind the Web 2.0 phenomenon.

Del.icio.us’s use of tagging to create semantic taxonomies of knowledge was pretty clear to me. The way the tag clouds formed around large collections of bookmarked resources provided a clear snapshot into their hidden meaning. The same concept seemed to apply to the lists of personal goals submitted by people on 43things.com. Lots of people sharing ideas about life goals and forming patterns of collective thought by contributing those thoughts into one place. By tagging and adding metadata to their goals, it formed a “zeitgeist” picture of what the masses were thinking about. Finally, ilike.com tapped into the large store of metadata collected within thousands of iTunes music libraries and brought it all together online to form a collective community of music lovers that were able to share their tastes and suggestions, linking musical tastes and suggestions from the crowd. Three very different sites that all used a common idea of data sharing, metadata tagging and community building.

The glue that held these ideas together was three more things… Firstly, a website which created dynamic tag clouds based on the past 200+ years of US presidential speeches. Chirag Mehta has cleverly been able to delve into the words of America’s past presidents, analyse the frequency and relative importance of their words, and create an interactive tag cloud concept which gives an amazing insight into the way the issues of their day could be seen as a summary of the culture at the time. It was a powerful example of the way existing data can be easily mined for greater meaning.

The second resource was a video called The Machine is Us/ing Us. Although this video has shown up on many education blogs in the last few months, it really explains well why the web is the way it is right now, and how the contribution of user data, tagging, XML and CSS are increasingly responsible for the new web landscape.

The final resource was a video from the TED Talks series called “The Web’s Secret Stories” by Jonathan Harris. In this video, Harris shows a piece of research work (it was more like conceptual art to me) called We Feel Fine. This incredible piece of work needs to be seen for yourself, but I felt it perfectly tied the loose threads together… it was the closest thing I’ve seen to an IT-based system that constantly analyses the random thoughts of the blogosphere’s collective consciousness in near real-time and massages it into a form that is not only informative and interesting, but utterly compelling. You simply must watch the video, then go have a play with the website. It is amazing.

I think most people got something out of the workshop, at least I hope they did. More to the point, I know that I learnt an enormous amount by preparing to share this information with my colleagues. I felt I came away from it with a much deeper insight in the nature of the new web, and in the process got to grips with tools that I had often used but never truly understood. It’s so true that if you want to really understand something, try teaching it to someone else.

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Pimp my Video

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There is obviously a great deal of interest among teachers regarding the possible educational uses of online video sharing sites such as YouTube and Google Video. Tons of new copycat services are popping up all over the web, with cryptic Web2.o names like iFilm, Viddler, Viddyou, Umundo and even the unambiguously named TeacherTube. It’s clear that the use of short video snippets is proving very popular with lots of people.

I attended a workshop a few years ago where I heard a talk by Hall Davidson. If you’ve not heard of Hall Davidson before he is the guy behind United Streaming, which I understand has since been acquired by Discovery Learning. Hall was really pushing this notion of giving teachers and kids access to short, sharp, to-the-point video clips in order to engage the learner and effectively impart a specific concept. He proposed that video was an exceptionally powerful medium, but that we don’t need to sit a class in front of a TV to watch a full 60 minute documentary (which is typically what we do in schools!) He contended that all you really needed to be effective was a few relevant 30-60 second video clips which conveyed the key points of the lesson, a means of delivering them on-demand, and a teacher who could tie the key ideas together. Video, he said, is exceptionally powerful, and he made the point that when cigarette advertising was phased out several years ago, the first thing to be outlawed was TV advertising. Print media advertising for cigarettes took far longer to be eliminated, his basic point being that when governments legislated against cigarette advertising they shut the door on the most powerful medium first, because video was capable of getting the message across far more effectively than print.

Regardless of whether you accept his contention or not, it would be hard to argue against the idea that video is certainly a powerful medium by which to carry a message. “Give me 60 seconds of the right video footage and I can teach you anything”, he said. The first time I was really struck by the power of this statement was at a staff meeting in my Canadian school where the head of the science department was giving a SmartBoard demonstration to the rest of the teachers. He was explaining how he was trying to teach the kids about basic Newtonian physics and to begin the lesson he pointed his web browser to YouTube and showed a short, sub-60 second video of a motorcycle accelerating down a highway. “Thats what acceleration looks like!” he announced. It made the point powerfully, setting the stage for a discussion about the nature of acceleration and the laws that govern moving objects.

Since then, I’ve been quite a fan of YouTube. I’ve found and shown short time-lapse videos of portrait drawing to my art classes, helping them see some of the drawing techniques that are sometimes hard to explain otherwise. I’ve discovered all sorts of snippets of footage that can be enormously helpful in engaging and explaining key ideas to my kids.

The only thing I don’t always like about these online services is just that… they are online. Sometimes relying on the vagaries of our school’s bandwidth can be a risky exercise when you walk into class and want it to “just work”. So what I was really interested in was a way of getting the video off YouTube and onto my hard drive. Doing this is not as obvious as it seems, since most of these video sites provide the content in Flash’s .flv format, which arrives at your machine as a stream, not a file. I would ideally like to get copies of these videos as stand-alone movies files – ideally QuickTime – so I can reuse and repurpose them as I need offline.

From the number of times I’ve been asked about this and the interest in the idea whenever I bring it up at conferences, it appears this same question is on a lot of other people’s minds as well, so I was keen to find a solution. Sure enough, there are several. The first way I was solving this was to use a Firefox Add-On called Unplug. Unplug can identify the media files on a page and strip them as standalone .flv files. Doing this, I now had a copy of the file in .flv format. But I wanted it in QuickTime. Behold a very useful Mac application called VisualHub which can convert pretty much any video format to any other video format. Drop in the .flv file and out pops a .mov file. Nice! If you’re a Windows user you can get nearly the same result from another free app called Freez flv2avi.

That was all fine, and many people I mentioned Unplug to were excited to hear there was a solution. However, it wasn’t until I sat down with another teacher the other day to show him how to do this task, that I realised just how much the average user struggles with the idea of multistep tasks where you have to flip around from one app to another. The thought of downloading with one application, using an extension app, swapping to another converter app, etc, is just more fiddly than some people are willing to put up with.

And then I found Vixy. What a cool tool is this! Vixy is simply a website that lets you paste in the URL of the site which contains the desired video footage, then it does an immediate conversion task on the file and allows you to download the converted video file to your computer. You get a choice of formats, it’s fast and it’s free and it’s all Web 2.0.

Once you have the video in the desired format, you can now start to reuse and repurpose it as you see fit. Drop it into a PowerPoint slide. Add it to a movie project. Copy it to your iPod.  It’s all good! Thanks Vixy!

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