Friday, June 27, 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wiki: Collaborative Authorship Made Easy

This summer, I’m exploring a variety of Web sites and tools that you can use in the classroom and/or for your own professional development. Each week, I’ll talk about how it works, point out related sites, and discuss classroom connections. This week, I focus on using wikis for collaborative authorship in the classroom.

Most teachers with Internet access know at least one wiki: Wikipedia. Love it or hate it, most of us know that it’s out there. I like Wikipedia and what it brings to the classroom, but it’s not for everyone. Wikis can be however because they offer the opportunity for students to create collaborative texts in ways that pen and paper never have. Not even Microsoft Word can provide the collaborative authoring tools that a wiki can.

First, let me define wiki a bit. A wiki is a collection of extensively linked web pages, stored in a database, that is collaboratively written. Depending upon how the wiki is set up, anyone might be able to edit it, or changes may be limited to a specific group of writers. You can set up free wikis on sites like pbwiki, seedwiki, wetpaint, and wikispaces. For a more detailed explanation of wikis, see How Wikis Work from How Stuff Works or the Wikipedia definition of Wiki.

Back to the idea of collaboration. The Commoncraft Show (whose video on RSS I used a few weeks ago) explains how the collaborative authorship works in the context of a group of friends planning a camping trip in this video (a transcript is also available):

The benefits for collaborative writing should be obvious. Wikis allow multiple authors to edit a text easily. While the video doesn’t discuss it, wikis include tracking information so anyone can look at who makes changes to the texts and compare the different versions at different points in its creation. Try to do that with a collaborative paper written in Word.

Wikis give teachers an easy way to look at how drafts evolve and to determine the participation of various group members on a document. Check out Wiki: Collaborative Editing in Education for additional explanations and suggestions for scaffolding student collaboration, such as assigning roles to group members just as you would for literature circles.

Collaborative authorship is just the beginning of what you can teach with wikis. You can learn more about how other teachers are using wikis across the content areas and curriculum by tapping these sites:

Wikis and Blogs in Education

Identifying Best Practices for Student Wikipedia Projects

Wetpaint’s Wikis in Education

When Wikipedia Is the Assignment

Wiki in a K-12 classroom

One more thing...
No discussion of wikis would be complete without at least a few words on Wikipedia. The open, collaborative authorship of Wikipedia leads many educators to avoid using it. Because the details on the site do not seem to have the same validation system used by sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Robert French outlines the arguments typically used against integrating Wikipedia with the classroom library.

I prefer to turn those arguments on their head. Why not talk about how what we know about the world change over time, depending on a variety of factors such as our perspectives, our access to details, and our ways of thinking? The Truth According To Wikipedia by Netherlands public television provides an in-depth exploration of how an evolving Wikipedia entry demonstrates first-hand that knowledge is socially constructed. You can explore this issue in the classroom simply by looking at the history of an entry and discussing how it has changed over time.

From discussions of how information is published on Wikipedia, you shift to 21st century research skills. As I mentioned in this week’s ideas, what matter to research today isn’t that students must be given the most reliable sources. It’s that they know how to evaluate any texts they encounter so that they can choose the most reliable sources themselves. In other words, students should be allowed to learn how to evaluate entries on Wikipedia and choose for themselves.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

E-newsletters: Keeping Up with the News

This summer, I’m exploring a variety of Web sites and tools that you can use in the classroom and/or for your own professional development. Each week, I’ll talk about how it works, point out related sites, and discuss classroom connections. This week, I focus on the ways that e-newsletters can provide focused details on new resources.

Recently a colleague asked me how I keep up with educational news for my work on Inbox. As I was writing things up for him, I realized how much I rely on email newsletters that come directly to my Inbox. Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of my news comes from Twitter posts and RSS feeds. But as I looked at my folder for this week's Inbox, I find 20 different newsletters, some daily and some weekly or monthly, that I skim through for news and inspiration.

If you read NCTE's Inbox, you know all about the value of e-newsletters. Inbox brings readers “news, views, and ideas you can use” each week of the year. Some people prefer such e-newsletters because they’re simple and relatively passive ways to get information. RSS feeds are not hard to set up, but you do have to set up and manage them. E-newsletters simply require that you have an email account and a web browser. They’re a great first step for someone who is just beginning to tap new information sources.

So how do you get set up? In most cases, you fill out a basic online form like the Subscribe to the Inbox form. To subscribe to some newsletters, you send an email to a subscription address. If you have a copy of the newsletter that you want to subscribe to, look for a link or a paragraph with more details. You’ll usually receive a confirmation message, and frequently you’ll need to reply or click a link to confirm that you want to subscribe.

Signing up is the easy part of all this. The harder step is to find the right newsletters. Here are some strategies:

Hope these resources you find something you’re interested in. Please share other newsletters teachers might want to subscribe to in the comments!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

RSS: Bringing What’s New to You

This summer, I’m exploring a variety of Web sites and tools that you can use in the classroom and/or for your own professional development. Each week, I’ll talk about how it works, point out related sites, and discuss classroom connections. Last week, I discussed Twitter, a microblogging tool. This week, I focus on how you can use RSS to keep informed on the newest resources on the Internet.

RSS, or Real Simple Syndication, allows you to subscribe to blogs, news, and other websites—saving you time and keeping you informed. RSS has been around for a long time, but many folks are still unsure what the terms means or how it might impact the classroom. As John Evans explained in his 2006 blog entry on RSS:

If you’ve never heard of the term RSS or RSS feeds you are not alone. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 26% of the average American internet users have never heard of the term and a further 64% aren’t really sure what it means. [2005 PDF of the findings]
RSS IconThe situation has changed since 2005. More people read and write blogs today, and nearly everyone has seen the little RSS icon (shown right). The little icon indicates that the related webpage uses an RSS feed to send information to interested readers. You may see a whole range of syndication links or icons (also called badges) on a webpage. Those for this blog are in the lower right sidebar.

But what exactly does RSS do? In the simplest possible explanation, RSS gathers the new information from specific sites that interest you and brings this new information directly to you. Take a look at this Commoncraft Show video, which explains RSS and how to begin using it “in Plain English”:

So to summarize the process, instead of going out to visit every blog or site that interests you to look for new information, you subscribe to the sites’ RSS feeds, using an aggregator or RSS reader, and whenever those sites publish new information, it will come directly to you, via the aggregator or RSS reader you have chosen.

The Commoncraft Show video mentioned several readers that you can use: Google Reader, Bloglines, Newsgator, and My Yahoo. Once you have the reader set up, the rest is easy. Go to the blogs and other sites that you like and click on the RSS icon or badge to subscribe. Your Web browser may have some built-in preferences to make the process easier, so check your settings. If you see a lot of RSS icons, choose either the generic orange icon (shown above) or the badge that relates to the reader that you have chosen. Add to GoogleFor instance, since I'm using Google Reader, to subscribe to this blog, I’d use the button shown on the right.

Once you’re set up, it’s time to take advantage of RSS to stay informed and save time. Want to read education news from some national newspapers? Use the Education links on the RSS page for The New York Times, the RSS page for the Los Angeles Times, and the RSS page for Washington Post. Once you’ve subscribed, the news headlines will come to you in your reader—so you can visit one site to skim all the Education headlines instead of having to visit all three!

Looking for more specific news? Instead of scouring online news sites for NCLB news, set up a feed that does the search for you. For instance, go to Google News and search for NCLB. In the lower left sidebar, you’ll find an RSS link. Click it to subscribe to the search in your reader. It’s that simple—and you no longer have to search out news on the topics that interest you. The information will come directly to your reader.

And that’s just the beginning of what you can do. Here are some more options:

  • Set up a search of the news for a favorite author or text (using Google as described above), and you’ll never miss another news story. For instance, even though J. K. Rowling has finished her Harry Potter stories, I still like to know what she’s up to. I have a search for her name, and whenever she’s in the news, I know (and I don’t have to read every newspaper online to find out).

  • There are thousands and thousands of blogs on the Internet, and your planning period is only an hour long. What to do? Use Google’s Blog search to narrow down on the topics that interest you. I like to keep track of blogs that discuss ways that teachers use Second Life in the classroom. After I do my blog search, I can click the RSS link in the left sidebar to subscribe to the search. Whenever new blogs are posted on the subject, they come to me. I no longer have to search them out.

  • Like to know more about children’s and young adult book authors? Many current authors have blogs you can subscribe to. Cynthia Leitich Smith has a list of Children’s and YA Book Authors and Illustrators. Many of the page include blogs that you can subscribe to.

  • If students have computers and Internet access, set up a homework blog with RSS feeds. Show students how to set up readers and subscribe to your fee. No more "I didn’t get the assignment”!

  • Trying to keep up with the latest books on a particular topic? Amazon lets you subscribe to RSS feeds on specific topics. I can look for books tagged “teen fiction” then scroll toward the bottom of the list and find a “ Subscribe ” link. If students have readers set up, you can show them how to subscribe and get a list of new books on favorite topics and authors.

  • Amazon searches aren’t your only option for keeping track of the latest books. Check your local public library. They may have an RSS feed of new books or special events.

  • Have students set up blogs for writing activities or in lieu of writer's logs. To build community, have students subscribe to each other’s blogs. Students can easily share their work, and you don't have to set up a class website with all the links. Likewise, once you’ve subscribed to their blogs, you can keep track of every student’s progress from one site (instead of having to go to each one to see if there have been changes).

  • Have students working on research or inquiry projects on contemporary topics? Show them how to set up news searches on their topics so that the most recent articles come directly to them. With younger students, you might set up a similar feed for the whole class to share. If you have a computer in the classroom or LCD projector, students can read through the news on their inquiry topics with you, without having to filter through all the other news (some of which may be inappropriate for their age levels).

  • Are you a member of teacher’s associations or groups? Many have RSS feeds available so that you know when information changes on their sites. *** This feature is coming later this year for the NCTE website! ***
Now get out there and subscribe to some sites! You can start with the feed for this blog. Just click the relevant badge in the right sidebar. And for more information on using RSS feeds, you can consult these resources:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Twitter: 140-Character Professional Development and Writing Tool

School’s out (or nearly so) across most of the United States. Remember all those Web sites you decided you’d check out when you had more time? For the next few weeks, the Inbox blog will take on one site a week, talking about how it works, pointing out related sites, and discussing classroom connections. First up, Twitter!

You may not know what Twitter is, but chances are that your students do. Twitter is one of a number of microblogging tools that ask users to tell friends what they’re doing in 140 characters or less. Similar tools include Jaiku, Pownce, and Plurk. On Twitter, each individual message is called a tweet. In order to save characters, the system shortens any URLs that you post automatically using TinyURL.

At first, a list of Twitter messages may seem odd. Here are some of my tweets from the last 24 hours:

  • wondering if there's a way to make two or three of me so that I can multitask more effectively.
  • Just finished Ideas and Announcements. On to the Inbox Blog!!!
  • warming up today's breakfast and getting to work on finalizing Inbox text.
  • @Intellagirl congratulations :)
  • still reading up on twitter for tomorrow's blog.
  • watching Top Gear :D
  • mmmm. 100 Grand Bar.
  • doing research on twitter, second life, facebook, and other web 2.0ish things for tomorrow's inbox.
That list may make you ask, “Why on earth would I want to know everything someone is doing, moment-by-moment, all day long???” That’s the number one first response that I hear from people who see Twitter for the first time. In isolation, a series of tweets can look a bit silly.

Alice J. Robison, who teaches in the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, pointed out a great explanation of how Twitter builds and strengthens social networks yesterday on the TechRhet discussion list. The Wired article “Clive Thompson on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense” Robison points to explains:
It's like proprioception, your body's ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.
Twitter provides a quick read on who’s doing what, but more than that, it allows Twitterers who follow one another to enter into conversations (on Twitter or elsewhere) based on shared interests.

What difference do tools like Twitter make for language arts and composition classrooms? For teachers, Twitter messages can provide a touchstone for where others are in the term. Those grading commiserate. Those on Summer vacation celebrate. Beginning teachers can post challenges and fears and find support and feedback from colleagues who are new and experienced teachers. At conferences, teachers can post messages about the sessions they are attending—and these posts can become a way to discuss presentations while they are going on. Additionally, tweets can expand beyond professional issues to include details on a special night out, daily family activities, texts we explore for fun, and so forth. The discussion can become an Internet teacher’s lounge. It’s a social network tool that can build a professional development community, where everyone has a say in 140 characters.

In the classroom, teachers can use Twitter becomes a writing tool that can accomplish a variety of goals:
  • The discussion on TechRhet yesterday explored how microblogging might be used to teach students about concise messages. By limiting students to 140 characters to make their point, teachers can move students learn ways to cut their messages down to the cleanest expressions of their ideas. Of course, students and teachers must come to some shared decisions about the use of abbreviations for this process to work, but it is a useful tool with a solid purpose. Students are limited to 140 characters because that is all the technology allows.

  • Alice Robison also pointed TechRhet readers to Howard Rheingold’s exploration of Twitter as a backchannel in his Virtual Communities/Social Media class at Berkeley last fall. Rheingold’s Twitter assignment shows how the Twitter can be used as a notetaking and topic exploration tool.

  • Students can explore the genre of TwitLit, explained in a recent LA Times article. After reading some of the example short stories from the article, students can try their hand at composing their own 140-character short stories. You can find additional examples on the TwitLit Feed. Be sure to review the stories and choose those that are appropriate for your students.

  • Take advantage of microblogging’s ability to “give a group of people a sense of itself,” as Clive Thompson states. Ask students to use a Twitter account to post on-going details on their writing or research. As you and students read, you’ll gain a sense students’ progress, notice the kinds of support students need, and find ways to group students based on their interests and strategies. Teacher educators can use Twitter similarly to follow the work of preservice teachers as they observer and student teach in the field.

  • As a follow-up on a literary or research project, students can create Twitter-like exchanges. After reading a novel, for instance, ask students to choose a dialogue from the text and rewrite the exchange using 140-character messages among the characters. Imagine MacBeth and Lady MacBeth discussing their murderous plans in 140-character lines! Try a related activity for a biographical research project, having students imagine the kind of tweets their subjects might post during a normal day. Or branch out for a meeting-of-the-minds exchange, where students take on researched personas and explore a topic they are all interested in.

The Web site offers a lot of possibilities—whether you just use it to keep in touch with colleagues during Summer vacation, to follow the work of students, or to inspire classroom activities. Want to give Twitter a try? Just sign up, and start posting. There’s no coding or special techniques required. You just have to be able to limit yourself to 140 characters for each idea—a feat that is sometimes harder than it sounds!