My Grandmother's Country

Just wanted to share this Voicethread that some of my students did (there are still more kids to add their voices yet). In my Year 7 art class we were looking at the work of contemporary Australian aboriginal artist Sally Morgan, and the students had to examine a painting called My Grandmother’s Country. We had quite a long discussion about it in class and looked at some of the symbolism used in the painting. The students then had to write a response to the work.

In the past, this task is usually done purely as a text-only task… it gets discussed in class and they then do the writing at home. I thought I’d try using Voicethread instead, because it allowed them to access the artwork from home, to zoom in to see detail, and to hear me re-explain what they needed to do with it. (I know, I know, YOUR students never forget anything you tell them in class, but mine sometimes do).

They were a bit shy about leaving voice comments at first, so instead they wrote a written response as usual, but many said it was really useful being able to hear the task explained again from home. After they submitted the written task, which I thought they mostly did pretty well, I got them to record some of their responses as audio files which we uploaded to Voicethread along with their photo. This ability to upload audio to Voicethread instead of having to record it directly onto the page is a feature of a Voicethread Pro account, which is available to educators at no cost. I found it made it so much easier to collect the audio comments, especially since this class is not in a room with computers. I use my MacBook Pro to record their audio to QuickTime, convert it to MP3 using QuickTime Pro, snap a photo using Photobooth and then I do the uploading after class or whenever it’s convenient.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some of their observations so far… if you want to leave an encouraging (moderated) comment for them that would be wonderful…

[kml_flashembed movie="http://voicethread.com/book.swf?b=15007" width="600" height="450" wmode="transparent" /]

It will be interesting to see if the quality of their speaking and recording changes once they realise that they have an audience…

PS: Thanks to @nzchrissy via @alannahk for pointing me to the solution to embedding these Voicethreads into the blog like this. Nice!

Twitter has left the building

Twitter was down for a while today. In order to feed the Twitter addiction, @shareski started a group Skype chat and started to drag people into it, who in turn started to drag more people into it. Pretty soon we had our very own pseudo-Twitter going, as everyone continued adding people into the chat space until there must have about 50 people in the room… easily the biggest Skype chat I’ve had.

Twitter eventually came back up, and a huge collective global sigh of relief was breathed.

Still, the Skywitter chat was a fun experiment. As Vicki Davis observed…

“It is like an Elvis impersonator — not the real thing but close enough when the real one is dead.”

That comment made my day. 🙂

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Learning. Your time starts… now!

I was invited by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach to contribute some thoughts to a session at the Texas Tech Forum today in Austin TX. It was very nice to be asked, especially when I found that I was in the company of such respected educators as Terry Freedman and Emily Kornblut. The topic for conversation was Virtual Communities for Professional Development and Growth, where all three of us had been invited to share a few minutes talking about how we use virtual networks to support our own learning.

Unfortunately, my audio stream was largely unusable and we had to abandon it before I really got started. Seems that the trans-Pacific bandwidth gods were not smiling this morning (or was it David Jakes using all the bandwidth in the next room playing with Google Earth? Hmm, we’ll never know)

Nevertheless, here’s the brief outline of what I would have said, or something very much like it…

If you accept that Learning is a Conversation, and that some of the most powerful learning can take place in the process of conversing and exchanging ideas with others, then setting up ways to have as many of these conversations as possible seems like an obvious thing to do.

How many would agree that some of the most powerful “take aways” from many conference events come from not just what you hear from the stage, but from the informal conversations you have over lunch, in the corridors, etc? There is great power in those conversations. It might be easy to think that the people on the stage at conferences have the knowledge and that if we simply listen to them we will get wisdom, but the truth is that sometimes it just doesn’t work like that, and even if it does, most of those ideas gather far more momentum once we start to internalise them through further conversation with others. Ideas beget ideas, one thing leads to another, and you often find some of the best, most useful ideas come to you not from what was said by a speaker, but from things that came to to you as a result of further conversation about what was said.  (by the way, the same logic applies in classrooms too!)

So if we accept that conversations are powerful learning tools, then how can we encourage more of these conversations?

If we limit our notion of learning to the “official” channel – the teacher, the textbook, the syllabus – we miss so much. Yes, learning happens at school, but what about outside school? Yes, learning happens in the classroom, but what about outside the classroom? Yes, learning happens in the act of “being taught”, but what about when we are not “being taught”?

Our schools system implies that when we ring the bell to signal the start of a class, we are really saying that the learning starts… wait for it… now!  And at the end of the lesson we ring it again to say the learning now stops. Ok, school’s over, you can all stop learning now. Until tomorrow.

Is creativity important in education? If you’re not sure, I suggest you watch the video by Sir Ken Robinson, or read the report “Are they really ready for work?” Yes, I think creativity is important. So, if we acknowledge that creativity in education is important, then how can we teach kids to be creative if we continue to focus on just regurgitating standard answers to standard questions, year after year. Because if it’s only about learning pre-defined content then you don’t need creativity, and you don’t need conversation. Learning in messy and there is no point extending our thinking into new and creative areas if we aren’t committed to that notion, because that just muddies up all those nice clean facts we have to remember.

Papert said that the one really valuable skill for a 21st century learner is that of being able to “learn to learn”… To be able not just to know the answers to what you were taught in school, but to know how to find the answers to those things you were not taught in school.

So how do virtual communities fit into this? They are an obvious and convenient way of extending conversations with other likeminded people, no matter where (or when) in the world they might be. Once you establish the right communities – ones that work well for you – you have an amazing brains-trust to tap into, to bounce ideas off, to share with, to give to, to take from, to argue with, to feel validated by, to learn from, to teach to… once established, you have a powerful 24/7/365 mechanism for generating creative thoughts.

Getting to the point, the tools I personally use to generate my own personal learning networks – my own virtual communities – consist of…

  • Email lists – yep, you heard me… good old fashioned, asyncronous email lists. They still have a useful place and for many people are a great introduction to online communities.
  • Web Forums – same thought as email lists. In fact forums are really just email lists without the email. Great for specific topics and threaded discussions that gets archived.
  • Blogs – wonderful public and private thinking space. You really have to formulate your ideas in clearer ways in order to write them down, so blogs are great for really figuring out your stance on things. And the fact that blogs become so interlinked, with commenting and cross-reading between other blogs. They are like “idea pollination”, only without the allergic reaction.
  • Wikis – great for collaboration, which is another way of saying conversation really. Great for group projects, great for post conference wrapups (extending the conversation). Just great.
  • Podcasts – some of my most powerful learning takes place through listening to podcasts. And when I decided to start my own podcast and began to have real conversations with people… wow, that certainly turbocharges the learning experience.
  • Twitter – so much has been written about Twitter recently. It’s live, it’s immediate, it’s awesome, but you won’t get it until you try it.
  • Skype – My favourite tool for conversation. It encourages quality conversation like no other.
  • Ning – Sometimes the fact that there are so many Ning communities makes it hard to focus my attention in the one place, but certainly a great tool for building communities around a central theme.

So there you have it. Some of my favourite virtual community tools and some of the rationale behind why I use them. At the end of it all, I think belonging to the right combination of communities has the potential to improve what you do… not by a small amount, but by an exponential factor. Tapping into communities increases the quality of your thinking – not by 5-10%, but rather by doubling or tripling your creative flow and understanding.

If you doubt it, just try it and see. Then leave a comment and we can have a conversation about it 😉

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Mind Tools

I occasionally feel a little guilty. Although I am very much committed to the idea that technology should be integrated, no, more than that, embedded, into what happens in a classroom on a day-to-day basis, the truth is that I have spent many years teaching computing as a discipline in its own right. And I have to keep telling myself that that’s ok, that there are still many kids who have a deep interest in technology for the sake of technology and find the very nature of computing highly engaging as a stand alone topic. So I’m cool with that. It’s ok to be a geek.

I believe one mark of a good teacher is to be able to take complex ideas and simplify them without making them simple. For example, there are a couple of concepts in the realm of computing that are not really all that hard to understand but can be very hard to explain. Binary numbers can be one. Vector graphics another.

vectormagic.jpgSo I was really impressed when I saw VectorMagic, a somewhat geeky (yet very cool) web app put together by James Diebel and Jacob Norda from the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I blogged a couple of thoughts about EPS files and vector graphics the other day and in the comments I was pointed to VectorMagic by Kathy Nann. What an amazing tool! Thanks Kathy!

I won’t blather on about the need for vector graphics and when you should use them… I blathered enough about that in that other post, so go read that if you dare.

What VectorMagic does is to take a bitmapped image (jpg, gif, bmp, etc) and trace the shapes contained within them in order to to convert them into vector outlines. This gives a remarkable crispness to the image at any resolution. Vector images don’t get blocky and full of artifacts as they get bigger. They just recalculate how to draw that shape a bit bigger using a nice sharp edge. I’m so glad I found this tool and I know I will get lots of use out of it. (Well, maybe not lots, but just knowing its there and what it can do makes it all worth it.

But the other thing that really struck me is just how good this sort of application is as a teaching tool. Because of the way it steps through the process and how it asks the user for questions about the image, it makes it so much clearer as to the real differences between bitmap and vector graphics. It even places them next to each other at the end, and lets you zoom and pan in real time to inspect the two image types. Visually, this is a really powerful way to learn about a concept that can be otherwise quite nebulous and hard to explain, and after using Vector Magic to convert a few images it would be hard NOT to understand the difference.

And it got me thinking about just how much we can use the the intuitive and malleable nature of software to assist us in explaining and investigating tricky ideas. Programs like VectorMagic are amazing in the way they can be used to visually demonstrate the bitmap/vector concept. Trying to explain sound waves to junior students can be hard, but when theses students can create, see and manipulate waveforms directly using Audacity it makes it much more concrete. Playing whatif games with spreadsheets, tracking data visually using Gapminder, directly manipulating the globe with Google Earth or creating 3D models with SketchUp… these tools make it almost trivial to convey what used to be challenging and hard-to-grasp ideas.

All of this should pave the way for us to help kids come up with better questions, and make better use of this new information. I’m going to try harder to make these tools do the jobs that they are good at, so that I can spend more quality time working with kids on the thinking skills that really matter.

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Audio Plumbing

picture-1.pngI’ve been trying to make a screencast of Skype conversation. And I thought it would be pretty simple. But as so often happens, there are technical issues to overcome that can make things so much trickier than you first thought they would be.

I’ve done quite a bit of screen capturing before, usually for short training videos on how to do certain software tasks. In fact I made a CD for a commercial training organisation a few years back that had over 80 tutorial screencasts on it made with Capture Cam Pro, so I figured I knew how to do this stuff. I’ve also been using Jing lately to make short screencasts on tech tips for our school network users. I think that screencasting is a great way to learn (and teach) this sort of practical, “show me” sort of stuff. Atomic Learning is another excellent resource based on this idea.

So I wanted to make a couple of screencasts to demonstrate how to use the features of Skype. I’d been using Snapz Pro X on the Mac, but wasn’t totally happy with it. I’d heard good things about iShowU so I downloaded a copy to try. I only had to use it a couple of times before I realised that it was going to be well worth the $20 they were asking for it, so bought a copy immediately. Easy to use, lots of professional options, and very customisable. A cool tool.

So I set up a screen capture, fired up Skype and called the Skype call testing service at echo123. iShowU captured all the on-screen action easily, as well as my microphone input, BUT not the audio coming out of Skype. Hmmm, that’s no good… I can’t do a demo of Skype if I can’t hear the conversation played back in the screen capture. I thought of a bunch of ideas to solve this, including using Audio Hijack Pro to capture the Skype audio, iShowU to capture everything else, and then dropping it into iMovie to edit them into a single movie but that seemed like it was all getting too hard and time consuming. I’m basically quite lazy, so I wanted a better, more elegant solution.

After quite a bit of trial and error I finally figured out how to do this, so here is my solution in case you ever need to do it yourself.

picture-2.pngThe trick is to use Soundflower, a Mac system extension that lets you route audio around the system in non-standard ways. From the Soundflower website, it says “Soundflower is a Mac OS X system extension that allows applications to pass audio to other applications. Soundflower is easy to use, it simply presents itself as an audio device, allowing any audio application to send and receive audio with no other support needed. Soundflower is free, open-source, and runs on Mac Intel and PPC computers.”

So, here’s how you do it – or at least it’s what eventually worked for me after much trial and error…

  1. First, I set the audio inputs of the Mac to Soundflower (2ch), that’s input, output and system.
  2. Then in the Skype preferences, set the Audio input to your desired microphone (I used a USB headset mic) and the Audio output to Soundflower (2ch). I set the ringing to Soundflower as well, but that’s probably not so important.
  3. picture-3.pngFinally, in iShowU, set the Input selection to Record Microphone Audio, Force it to Mono, and turn on Record System Audio. Set the microphone input to the USB headset (in my case). I also prefer to get the monitor feed while both previewing and recording, so turn that on if you want.
  4. By the way, setting the compression to H.264 makes a huge difference to the size of the final files.

There you have it. From what I can figure out, it works by routing the Skype microphone input to Soundflower, then routing its output to be the Mac’s regular audio input as a Soundflower stream. Then the Mac uses that diverted audio stream and treats it as the regular mic input to the computer (except after passing it via Skype it now has the entire Skype conversation in it) and then using iShowU to monitor the standard audio feed, which now contains the Skype audio. This may all be totally useless information to most of you, but for someone out there it may just save you a whole lot of time. I hope so.

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Good Ideas come from complete Twits

twitterrific-1.jpgTwitter is a really interesting bit of software. When I first heard about it on MacBreak Weekly I thought it sounded pretty interesting although it still didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Being naturally curious I headed over to the Twitter website and signed up for an account. After having a play with it for a while, it seemed to make even less sense so I gradually lost interest in it and moved on to other diversions.

I’ve now changed my mind about it. Twitter is a way cool tool!

How to explain it? Twitter is designed as a sort of cross-hybrid tool that merges email, SMS, instant messaging and waving your arms around trying to get attention. It is aimed at answering the very simple question – “What are you doing?” You simply type your response to that question in no more than 140 characters and send your current activity, thought, question, mood or state of mind out into the Cloud that is the Internet.

My first thought about Twitter was the same as most people’s first thoughts about blogging… “Why?” Why on earth would anyone be at all interested in what I am doing right now? Who would care? The idea of taking the time to write a short sentence stating my current activity or thoughts, and sending them to who-knows-where just seemed to be totally bizarre to me. Not only that, but it seemed so inconvenient to have to go to the Twitter website just to do this… I simply couldn’t see what the attraction was.

And then I started to piece a few things together, and it slowly started to make sense to me. First I changed my primary browser to Flock. Flock has a lot of very neat integration with Web 2.0 tools and one of its benefits is built-in support for Twitter using a plugin called TwitterBar. Instead of having to go to the Twitter website to add a “Tweet”, I could just type it into the browser’s address bar and click the send button. That made it very simple to send a message but I still couldn’t quite see why I’d want to do that.

Then I discovered that Edublogs had a sidebar widget plugin called Twitters and it was able to take the RSS feed from my own Twitter account and automatically make my own messages appear on my blog. Interesting, but still bizarre. It meant I could now easily send a short message to the web stating what I was doing at any given moment, and then have it appear on my blog without actually doing anything to put it there. Conceptually interesting, but for what purpose would I want to do this?

But I kept hearing people talk about Twitter in glowing terms. I had to be missing something surely? So after quite a while of ignoring it, I eventually revisited my Twitter account to see if I could get to the bottom of this bizarre tool. I noticed that some other people’s tweet lists had other names with an @ symbol in front of them, so I tried to find out what that meant. It appeared to be a sort of conversation taking place and the @ symbol was being used as a way of indicating who was being replied to in a much larger group conversation.

Still intrigued, I started to see who else was using Twitter that I might know. Browsing through the users list, I spotted someone whose name I recognised and a button marked Follow. I clicked it. You are now following this person. Hmm, not sure what that means but let’s keep playing. I wonder who they know? Oh,I recognise this other person that they know. Follow them too. Hey, they know this other person that I’ve heard of too. Click. Follow them as well. Eventually I started to build a biggish list of people whose names I recognised who I was now “following”. As I played, a couple of emails arrived telling me that some of these people were now following me. When I went back to my main Twitter webpage I started to see several messages in the list from the people I was following. All of a sudden, I got it. These people, who I have some respect and interest in, are telling me what they are doing right now. I was getting an insight into what was going on in their world. They were sharing ideas, insights, websites, links, suggestions, all appearing in a list on my own page. Ahhhh! I get it! This is my network of people, and I can stay in touch with them constantly, vicariously, discretely and silently.

The real magic happened when I discovered a wonderful bit of software for the Mac called Twitterific. Twitterific installs and runs in the background, popping up a small message using Growl whenever one of my Twit friends sends a message – or tweet – out. I then discovered that by sending a return tweet, and prefacing it with an @ symbol followed by their username, I could indicate to who this tweet was replying to. This is necessary because tweets are public to anyone following me so the @ convention helps keep the conversation making sense. Twitterific suddenly made the whole thing make sense since I no longer had to monitor the Twitter website for activity… the activity came to me! (PC users might like to try Twitteroo, which is kind of similar) I can also tweet directly from my mobile phone by sending an SMS message or going to Twitter Mobile.

Now I get it, I really like Twitter. You have to have a few people to follow, and a few people to follow you, before it really makes any sense. I’m currently following 63 people, and 67 people are following me. It makes perfect sense, in a kind of bizarre exhibitionist way.

What does make perfect sense is what Twitter suddenly enables. I have a network of 63 people, comprised mostly of some of the world’s most innovative educators. 63 people to bounce ideas off, share links with, get advice from. 63 people who are willing to share a little insight into how they think and what they do. 63 people all stumbling across new cool web tools and willingly sharing them. 63 people to tap into when I need to gather a crowd to try an idea, find a partner to test a technology, or simply have a whine about my day.

I know it sounds bizarre, but it works, and its awesome.

Magical Bundles of Numbers

The other day, a colleague on a mailing list asked for some background info on EPS graphic files. It seems her school wanted something professionally printed and the printer asked that the artwork be provided in EPS format. Thanks to the ubiquity of the web, we are mostly only exposed to the more common web graphic formats like JPEG and GIF files these days, so some of the more exotic types like EPS are not as well understood as they could be. For what it’s worth, here is my reply…

Ah, EPS files! A thing of beauty and a joy forever!

For anyone who works with graphics Encapsulated Post Script, or EPS files, are the holy grail of image formats. They are the ideal format for storing original artwork, although they are generally pretty useless for actually applying that artwork to a final format. By that I mean that most final applications for graphics, whether it be the web or printed documents, cannot use EPS files natively. But for a way of storing the original artwork, EPS files reign supreme. Here’s why…

Imagine you have a school logo image that gets used for a variety of purposes. It gets printed on school letterheads and business cards in very small sizes, reproduced on school coffeemugs and Tshirts at slightly larger sizes, and even gets blown up to very large sizes to make a banner for outside the school on open day. To get an image that looks good at all these different sizes, the artwork needs to be at different resolutions… A small jpeg file suitable for printing on the letterhead will look awful when stretched to be a large image for a banner for example. What you need is a way of creating these images that is resolution independent, so you can have the right resolution for the right situation.

That’s where EPS files come in. In an EPS, all the shapes and lines in the image are described mathematically. A very simple example would be a circle… Imagine you had a circle in an image, all you’d really need is the formula for creating a circle and the specific information about that particular circle. Mathematically, a big circle is exactly the same as a little circle but with different values for the key factors of radius, colour, edge thickness, etc… In an EPS file, this technique of using functions to describe objects is how the shapes are defined. This is very different to a JPEG or GIF, where shapes are created by a mosaic of pixels placed next to each other, a technique known as Bitmapping. Using bitmapping, a small circle and a big circle are two totally different patterns of bitmaps, which is why small graphics look so awful when they get stretched to be larger… You cannot just create new pixels from out of thin air to fill the gaps… the original pixels need to stretch, making the image look blocky and rather awful.

So in an EPS, the basic mathematical descriptions of the shapes that make up the image (called vectors) are embedded into the file using a language called PostScript. Postscript is a language that many laser printers use to describe how an image will be printed… When you print to a postscript-enabled laser printer, your printed image (whether that be text or pictures) is bundled up as little mathematical descriptions and sent to the printer where it is decoded back into the images and then printed. EPS files are that bundle of mathematical descriptions which define the image, but instead of being decoded by a printer they are just stored as a file.

Here’s the good bit… When you open an EPS file (which is vector based) in a graphics editing program like Photoshop (which is bitmap based), it asks you what size and resolution you’d like the image to be created at. Once you tell it the desired size and resolution, the EPS is then converted to a bitmap using the exact values you specify. This is the real magic of an EPS file… EPS gives you a single vector-based, size and resolution-independent file that unpacks to a bitmap-based, size and resolution-specific file at whatever specs you like. No wonder people who work in the printing industry love ‘em! They can be all things to all people. A single EPS file can be used to convert the image into whatever size and quality is required, be it the tiny artwork for the business card or the huge artwork for banner.

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