Monday, June 29, 2009

Free Collaborative Platforms for Teachers: Part 1 - Google Apps

Google Apps Education Edition is a free suite of hosted communication & collaboration applications specifically geared at schools (universities and K-12).

If a school board does not want to, or is unwilling to, invest in Google apps for education, a teacher can still easily integrate all of the features offered simply by creating Google accounts for all students / participants: a Google account offers a vast array of collaborative tools such as Docs (excel, presentation, doc, and forms), Notebook, Picasa web albums, allowing users to share documents in real-time. In addition, Google docs offers a form of versioning, or version control, which ensures all 'participation' gets captured: Docs' version control is called Revision History and is available under the File tab of the doc you happen to be working on. While the version control is not as sophisticated as certain wiki apps or enterprise services such as SharePoint, it works and allows large groups to manage collaborative projects and fairly capture who did what.

One thing to be aware of is that working with Google Docs has a very different feel from working with a desktop Office application suite such as Microsoft Office. It's much more "raw" in terms of the formatting offered, but they have smartly designed these docs to capture most of the common formatting standards and remain light-weight, so you experience very little "screen freeze" in Google Docs. A really important design feature given the context of real-time collaboration.

A couple of other Google tools to keep in mind for collaborative projects are Blogger and Google Talk. Many educators and schools are traditionally nervous about using public facing blog software, such a Blogger, because of the privacy and security issues related to the possibility of sensitive student or school information being made public. However, you can password protect Blogger and use it as a secure platform to engage students in longer, staged projects, such as journals. And keep in mind that the teacher can create all the Blogs and permissions right from their account, giving them the ability to filter and manage any misuse.

Google Talk is Google's IM tool and the perfect accompaniment to collaborating in real-time with all the other tools. It has become even more attractive with the addition of video and audio chat.

User Level: Junior High+
It would make very little sense to introduce Google apps to a classroom that is pre-junior high. In fact, I would say this platform and all its tools are best aimed at a high school and post-secondary school crowd.

Product Features: Good to Excellent
I rate all the available features in Google apps as good to excellent. The key features are product integration, document migration, and ease of use. The ability to save a doc in a word compatible format eliminates any worry about limiting one's arena of use. The range of products is immense, and we can now integrate Google Tasks with Google Calendar, a great feature for students to learn the value of simple project management.

And while Google docs' formatting may be a little raw by traditional desktop standards, its ease of use easily makes up for what's lacking in terms of document richness.

Any Complaints?
Over the last 6 months I've experienced some disruptions to the service that have caused me to lose some work: this happened more-often-than-not in Notebook, and some innate bugginess may explain why they've discontinued support of this product.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Can Wordnik be Used as a Literacy Tool?

The common problem with getting students to turn to dictionaries or similar tools to verify spelling, pronunciation, or simply learn the meaning of a word, is the basic limitations of the experience. When a generation that has grown up participating in and / or leading the creation of narrative online (via their social networks and blogs) is faced with a non-to-low interactive and non-social experience, we can easily predict the outcome: boredom and disinterest, and they will only do it if absolutely necessary. Wordnik offers the younger generation some relief from the perceived drudgery of learning a new word.

Wordnik is a highly interactive and social alternative to the traditional dictionary (print or online): in fact, it does not want to advertise itself as a dictionary.

Wordnik clearly and nicely displays all of the standards:
  • definitions, with easy to understand descriptions of the word as a noun or verb, and provided by a number of sources, such as American Heritage Dictionary, Webster's Unabridged, and WordNet
  • the word you're looking for in context - Wordnik harnasses large archive of blog posts, web sites, and newspaper and magazine archives, as well as out-of-copyright books from Project Gutenberg, and shows usages of the respective word
  • synonyms and antonyms taken from Allen's and Roget's II
  • entymologies
  • audio of the pronunciation (...and they let you record your own pronunciation)
But what really sets Wordnik apart are the social and interactive features that will definitely speak to a younger generation.

Wordnik will display real-time examples of the word in use on Twitter, for example a search for the word influence provided me with these real-time examples from Twitter:

It also provides images from Flickr tagged with the word influence; gives the user the option to add a tag to the word page (allowing the user to create associations and folksonomies that work for them, and help them learn); and offers a cool, but arguably useless, statistical feature which indicates how often a word is used on a weekly basis.

And here's the really cool feature, it allows you to recommend words, add your input on a word, and publishes urban slang that is not available in regular dictionaries...yet.

Yep, it's a handful of social media glitz. But which would capture the attention of an 11 year old, Merriam-Webster Online or Wordnik? I think Wordnik is worth giving a try with students: have them upload their own pronunciations, check Flickr photos to see if they can infer the meaning visually, and let them create their own associations - I think this would generate a little more interest in this traditionally "flat" activity.

The only drawback, from what I can see there's no option for starting groups or collaborative spaces, that would turn this into a real project tool.

Some Useful Social Networks for Educators

Just joined Ning in Education. Ning is a hosted social networking platform, and it appears some educators have created a nice spot to build educational social networks. This network of educational social networks is made up of 158 groups covering everything from writing groups, to intercultural awareness, to professional development - a good resource for teachers who want to learn new ways of integrating technology into their classroom activities.

Using Web Annotation Tools for Projects and Research

All of the sudden we have quite a few players in the web annotation and notes game. A number of startups have been around for a while, like Diigo, Fleck, ShiftSpace, TrailFire, and Stickis, they let you add notes or comments in a sidebar to any public web page you happen to be browsing. These notes can be to yourself or an you can share them with friends or your network, and likewise you could also view notes from others on your network. Very recently, Reframe It, became yet another web annotation application offering much of the same features, plus a few social whistles like a Twitter-style feature to follow other people's comments.

Information Literacy...What a Mixed Bag

Information literacy has, unfortunately, become a "hyper-term". There are so many varying definitions and interpretations of information literacy, that it's become sidetracked in its own meaning and self-analysis by well-intentioned academics and information professionals. And there's nothing wrong with refining the theoretical framework of an increasingly salient phenomenon, but we believe there's a very basic and real thread of human/user experience which can connect the various definitions; and especially when applied to the contexts of information technology and the classroom.

Information literacy is well documented in the context of library studies, and in its most basic form a service concept mapping user to information need, and which emerged out of generations of librarians working to help their users learn how to research. The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), an American Library Association division, defines information literacy as "the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information", and sets of standards have been created that outline in detail the skill set needed to be information literate.

However, the definition that most appeals to us is the one put forth by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in 2005. Known as the Alexandria Proclamation it proclaims that "Information Literacy forms the basis for lifelong learning. It is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments and to all levels of education..." The report (The final report of the High-Level Colloquium on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning) argues that information literacy is part of the basic right to lifelong learning, that it is far more than a library or education issue, and that in a digital world it should be considered a basic human right.

The association between information literacy and lifelong learning seems to resonate best in the present context of our students' digitally-infused social, play, and learning activities. Exchanging information has now become central to play, "throwing sheep" at your friend on Facebook, or sending an emoticon-ladden IMs to your friend for them to decipher, there are many steps and connections they have to learn to participate in these activities and we need to translate this energy into classroom activities and learning.

Here are some really useful sites focusing on information literacy:

Information Literacy, Educators, and the Digital Classroom

The rate at which information technology has become integrated into our daily activities is nothing short of mind-boggling. The web we were all fascinated with 10-15 years ago is absolutely common place - a normal, daily activity and not given a second-thought by most under the age of 35. In fact, an entire demographic now view e-mail the way many of us view fax technology - ordinary and antiquated: recent studies found most teens get their first e-mail at the average age of 13 and the quickest way to reach them is by text message, and that a number of universities are no longer providing incoming students with e-mail addresses.

Meg's Notebook

We're a wife and husband team, and we agreed to share this blog as a spot for us to pursue education and digital learning discussions with whomever is interested. Our blog, like most, is largely a vehicle for providing us with our own "opinion" platform and a space to have some creative fun.

I'm Megan Hickman, I've been an Elementary Teacher with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) for 10 years. I'm interested in critical thinking, web 2.0, literacy, and curriculum planning.

I'm Peter Marques, I've been a librarian for about 12 years, and have a strong professional and personal interest in digital learning, the social web, and online collaboration.

We hope you enjoy the articles and discussions. Please do comment and if you have any questions you want to ask us directly please e-mail. Oh, and it's called Meg's Notebook because I always found myself doing my web work on Meg's Toshiba notebook...

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