Monday, April 20, 2009

Long Live the Pen Tappers!

I have to say - and I don't know if this is just me - that one thing I just cannot stand in class is students tapping their pens - incessantly! Maybe it's some primal urge to express ourselves in rhythm or something, but I seem to spend a lot of class time 'hammering' the tappers.

And then I watch this...

This is Erik Mongrain from Montreal. I stumbled across this video this evening and was blown away. Reading his bio I see that he is completely self-taught.  To develop a style like this surely must require a good dose of the tinkering mentality and the space just to be creative.

Now I have no doubt at all that if I were to speak to his old high school teachers, they would tell me that he used to tap his pen in class.  If that is so, all I can say is, "Long Live the Pen Tappers!"

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Digital Thugs

In the weekend I watched an ABC report on Four Corners about cyber-bullying.  As an educator with a strong interest in educational technology, this is something I take very seriously. There is so much scope for wonderful learning experiences and connections made across the planet - yet there is also so much scope for harm as well. The dark side of ed tech.

It was heart-breaking listening to the parents of children who had experienced cyberbullying, and in one case had committed suicide because of it.  The one thing they all said was that while they were at home in the evening, watching tv or whatever, they thought their child was safe because they were in their bedroom. These days it seems even a child's own room is not safe, as the bullies are right there on the screen that the victims themselves just can't seem to pull themselves away from.

On a related note, Andrew Churches has just blogged at Edorigami about the phenomenon of 'sexting', and what the implications of this are for bullying and for young people's digital footprints:
But it does not end there, Bullying resulting from sexting is claiming lives as young people are stressed and harassed to the point where they feel that suicide is there only way out.

This six minute video that I found at Ewan McIntosh's is a great portrayal of what some kids suffer because of cyberbullying. Definitely worth watching, and even showing to your class as a discussion starter.

Professor Donna Cross was interviewed on the ABC show, and claimed that one of the biggest reasons that young people do not tell their parents about cyberbullying, is the fear that they will lose the right to use their computer if they do. 

So in a way, the bullying is the price they are prepared to pay to stay connected.  This is how important it is to them. (Imagine if someone threatened to take away your computer! Aaarrrggghhh!!!)  I have experienced this parental reaction with a student in my own class, complete computer privileges withdrawn -  not for bullying as such, but for fear of the prospect of personal information being put online.

We really must as teachers try to see things from a parent's perspective. There are real dangers out there, and we teach under the principle of in loco parentis. This is a serious responsibility, which demands that essential parental balancing act of urging learners forward into new challenges and experiences, yet not dropping them out of the nest before you know their wings work well enough to survive the experience.

This is where I believe digital literacy meets digital citizenship. I would suggest that one cannot be digitally literate without an understanding of the responsibilities of digital citizenship. I have just been reading some research by Eshet-Alkalai (2004, Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital Era. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 13(1), 93-106). It includes 'socio-emotional literacy' as an essential aspect of digital literacy. This type of literacy is all about the ability to manage one's identity and relationships safely in a digital context.

This makes me consider exactly what I want the group of learners I have responsibility for to leave my class with at the end of the year. Yes, it would be great for them to know how to use a few cool digital tools, but most importantly I want them to have a sense of digital citizenship, an awareness of the traps that exist and strategies to confidently navigate around these.

By the way, I found a great webquest about cyber-safety called 'Playing it Safe'. It looks as though it hasn't been updated for a while, but looks good nevertheless, and could easily be adapted. I'm planning to use this with my class next term, and will let you know how it goes when it's finished.

David Warlick has blogged recently about 21st Century literacies. He quotes extensively from Howard Rheingold. These comments struck me in particular:

And don’t swallow the myth of the digital native. Just because your teens Facebook, IM, and Youtube, don’t assume they know the rhetoric of blogging, collective knowledge gathering techniques of taggers and social bookmarkers, collaborative norms of wiki work, how to tune and feed a Twitter network, the art of multimedia argumentation - and, by far most importantly, online crap detection. (Rheingold)

This comment could apply equally to the socio-emotional literacy our kids need. Digital natives? Digital citizens? A citizen of anywhere needs to be inducted into the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and it is a mistake to mistake technical fluency with ethical and responsible use.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

One Month of Webb-ed Feet

Yes indeed, my one month blogoversary!  Not all that long really, yet I really feel this has become a big part of my life and has changed my 'metacognitive processes'.

Blogging about blogging does seem a little indulgent, and posts have been written cursing the practice of 'metablogging'. Nevertheless, it is worthy of a personal reflection, and why not share that?!

These are some of the ways that blogging has changed the way I think:

Blogging has 'forced' me to make connections between ideas. Maybe it's the 'pressure' of finding something new to blog about (!), but I find that when I read other blogs and comments, or articles about teaching/learning, and when I think about my own practice, I am always looking for ways that these things connect. Taking several separate ideas and connecting them, and perhaps developing some new ideas. New for me at least.  In this way I'm a much more reflective practitioner because of the blog.

Will Richardson, in writing about connective writing defines the ultimate goal in blogging as "extended analysis and synthesis over a longer period of time that builds on previous posts, links and comments."   That's what I aspire to as a blogger, and what I want to model for my learners.

Blogging has also given me a sense of accountability about my teaching.  I have such a clear idea in my head of what I would like the learning in my class to look like, but inevitably this is a step by step process, day by day on what can seem like a long journey.  It's great to blog about amazing things other educators are doing and to discuss new ideas, but are these ideas and practices filtering their way into my classroom? Is what my class is doing/learning worthy of comment?  I want it to be! Not so that I can blog about it, but because it means exciting things are happening which I want to share.    

As teachers we experience a kind of professional isolation of sorts. We're all in this together, but each in our own room doing our own thing. I would love to have a look in the classrooms of the people whose blogs I read, but how often do we get that opportunity?   Clarence Fisher recently gave us this opportunity in posting a short video of his class and what they are about on his blog.

Inspiring stuff, and great to see the real everyday context of an educator whose work I admire a great deal. Yes, I am overcome with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy when I view this (!!), but it makes me ask the questions: What would a video like this of my class look like? What would I like it to look like? Being here in the blogosphere spurs me on to make it happen.

This post by Steve Dembo (definitely subscribe if you have not already done so!) explores the question of what success as a blogger really means. Is it audience size? Posting frequency? He suggests these three questions to ask ourselves as bloggers: 

1. Do you get a good feeling after publishing a new post?

2. Did you enjoy blogging even before anybody knew your blog existed?

3. Would you keep blogging if the comment system didn’t exist?

Great questions, and like Steve, after one month I believe I can also answer these questions in the affirmative!

So glasses raised, and here's to more adventures in the blogosphere!

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Tony Foster, in his recent comment on this post, alerted me to this article in the Biologist by Aric Sigman, "The biological implications of 'social networking'".  Let me quote Tony's comment:

Where online contact replaces, rather than supplements, F2F interaction (and this is becoming the norm), biological changes, he claims, make us more vulnerable to physical and mental illness. "Social networking is in many ways an oxymoron ... and is not a substitute for flesh-in-the-flesh relationships." (BBC Radio 4 interview, 19 Feb 09 - the technical shortcomings of prevent me from attaching the 5-minute clip.) His argument rests on the thesis that virtual interaction is actually perceived by the body & mind as loneliness, and this in turn can make us susceptible to a whole range of potentially serious diseases. Well worth considering, if this is what we're actually encouraging by promoting online interaction.

This certainly raises some interesting questions for us as educators committed to developing digital literacy in our learners, and harnessing the incredible potential for connectivity that the Internet brings.  This is our vision and we are excited by the possibilities, but is there a chance that by 'going digital' with our learners we are contributing to the breakdown of face-to-face communication (not to mention the onset of a few diseases)?

I love the phrase Sigman uses in this article, 'iPod oblivion' referring to those so zoned out by their iPods, Blackberries etc that they become oblivious to their immediate surroundings, sometimes with fatal consequences. (Just as an aside, there's an interesting discussion going on over at Open Educator about whether or not students should be allowed to use their iPods at school.)

Sigman's article goes on to say, 

A decade ago, a detailed classic study of 73 families who used the internet for communication, The Internet Paradox, concluded that greater use of the internet was associated with declines in communication between family members in the house, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness.

The first thing that stands out to me about that quote is that a decade is a long time in the world of the Internet. Now we have Web 2.0! Does this make a difference? The fact that people can participate so much more in what used to be a read-only environment, surely must mitigate against these other negative effects??

In this regard Sigman points out that 

A recent editorial of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine made the timely point that social networking “…encourages us to ignore the social networks that form in our non-virtual communities. … the time we spend socialising electronically separates us from our physical networks.”

Dr Gary Small's new book iBrain looks at neuroplasticity, and the way that digital natives' brains are actually biologically different because of the 'constant presence of technology today'. Interestingly, his book includes a section on 'social skills for reconnecting face to face', and 'empathy upgrades for digital natives'. (Hat tip: Edorigami)

The balance we need to strike is to make the most of what we have digitally (and what a great time to be a teacher/learner), yet never lose sight of the importance of our PLN (physical life network).  We could end up with a generation that is digitally literate, but sociophysically incompetent.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Political Pinocchios on Wikipedia

I had to laugh watching the news this evening: a government minister, Richard Worth is currently involved in a conflict-of-interest scandal, (which is not really all that uncommon for  a politician). The thing that made me laugh was that he was exposed as having edited his own entry on Wikipedia so that it noted not a 'potential conflict of interest' but a 'perception' of one! In doing so he earned a telling off by the websites editors. 

On the same page is a story about a Labour MP who fell victim to an April Fool's prank when someone set up a Twitter account in his name and started 'tweeting' from the House that he was upset about not being able to ask more questions. He accused a 'right-wing blogger' of pulling the prank.

It made me wonder how many other politicians have been caught out by web 2.0. Worth is certainly not the first politician to realise that web 2.0 has a huge amount of power to control discourse, and also not to realise that there are so many observers in cyberspace that this kind of malarky is unlikely to go unnoticed. You just can't get away with editing out all the embarrassing stuff from your Wikipedia entry!

This site has tips for budding politicians on how to avoid embarrassing themselves on Facebook, and this article (referring to Twitter) claims that, "Finally the Web has generated a product that is shallow and narcissistic enough for (politicians') needs."

Anyway, the education connection: this story (and the others like it) show us how important it is to teach our learners to be critical consumers of information on the Internet. How many of our learners know that anyone can edit Wikipedia, and the implications for the accuracy of the information found there (which some studies have shown to be incredibly high)? Perhaps more importantly, how many of them know that if you do make changes, the changes are recorded for all to see?

How do our learners know that the person whose tweets they are reading really is that person? I believe that the learners who have learned in an environment where these tools are used all the time (and used appropriately) are going to be so much more aware of how they can be misused as well. Those who know their way around a wiki will read other wikis more critically and know to check the history and discussions.

Those politicians running for office when our students are old enough to vote: Beware! If we as teachers do our job properly, you won't get much past them!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Twitter, TED and terrorists

I've just been watching Evan Williams on TED, recorded in February this year. For those of you who don't know, Williams was one of the co-founders of Twitter and Blogger (both started as side projects, as he explains).

The focus of his talk is the concept of Twitter itself and how its uses have been adapted by its users (now numbering an estimated 4-5 million) since it was launched in March 2006.

Some of the more interesting factoids he mentions are that plants (yes, plants) can tweet for water, and even babies can tweet when still in the womb! Talk about digital natives...

He ends his talk on a hopeful note, saying, "When you give people more ways to share information, more good things happen."

To demonstrate the power of the tool, by end of talk over 50 tweets about the talk itself were already on Twitter, providing an instant feedback mechanism (for better or worse, as you'll see at the end).

I hope he's right about more good things happening when people share information. That's our hope in education, of course.  I'm not so sure the US military shares the enthusiasm, according to this report in the Washington Post, which claims that this very 'information sharing' capability could lead to Twitter being used as a tool by terrorists! They give three examples of how this could occur, which I couldn't help but think was just giving the terrorists ideas!

The nature of web 2.0 tools makes them neutral in the hands of their users. Is this malevolent kind of use inevitable? 

Delicious highlights #1

Since I opened my Delicious account I have noticed I am so much more likely to bookmark a website than I was when I just stored them on my laptop. I think maybe one of the key things for me, apart from having my bookmarks available online, on any computer, is the fact that I am adding to a collective pool of recommended sites. Recently I have been turning to Delicious to do a search rather than Google, and usually finding that if I enter the right search tags I can find exactly the kind of websites I was looking for. What's more, I can search my own bookmarks, my network's bookmarks or everybody's.

Anyway, because it is a virtual treasure trove for me, I thought I'd pick out some of the highlights from the last week and share them with you here:

  1. The New Media Literacies - this is a reasonably short YouTube video about the way our conception of literacy is changing in the 21st Century. I found this over at Lunchbox.  
  2. Spelling City - I've put my students on to this one already. A great spelling site, and thing I like most about it is that the students can either choose from lists on the site or enter their own list, and the website will test, teach and create games using those words. Great!
  3. KEEPVID - Many schools have blocked websites like YouTube, and teachers know how frustrating it can be to find something really useful but not be able to show it. KEEPVID enables you to easily download a video so you can play it back later from your computer. Problem solved!
  4. Youtubetime - while we're talking about YouTube, here's a useful website that provides a way to link to a specific part of a YouTube video.
  5. Teachers TV - As the website says, 'Thousands of education programmes on TV and online.'  Andrew Churches put us on to this at his workshop last week.
  6. Graphic Organisers - teachers love this kind of thing: lots and lots of free graphic organisers in pdf format.
  7. LibriVox - ok, last one: this site provides free audiobooks from the public domain, and the option to record chapters of books in the public domain. I have some students who are excellent listeners, but who really struggle with reading. Sites like these have the potential to turn these students on to books and literature. (hat tip: Andrew Churches)
Well, that's it for last week's highlights. I wonder which websites out there are waiting to be discovered this week!  Hopefully you found some of these useful, and by the way, don't forget to bookmark Webb-ed Feet on Delicious using the tag at the top of the sidebar!