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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