A Better Bookmarkshelf

2008-04-24_05-30-07-828About three years ago I discovered Spurl and was quickly enamored with the idea of saving bookmarks online. Because the great sites I discovered at school and the great sites I discovered at home could be saved to the same list, my bookmark collection grew to more than 3,000 sites. Spurl uses a hierarchical folder structure and every good site could be added to a particular folder by clicking a button embedded on the Firefox toolbar. Completing the usability circuit, Spurl provides javascript and rss feeds for individual folders so I could share the subfolders for each of the unit folders for AP European History and AP US History. I threw the Spurl rss feeds into Pageflakes and the presentation wasn’t bad at all. But with an hour or so of cut and paste, each unit could have a page in the course website that includes categorized bookmarks of resources related to that unit. Every time I add a Spurl bookmark to a particular folder the web page is updated. This became a crucial element in building a course in which all of the class material, calendars, unit plans, etc. are available online.

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The presentation of the links is important, a quick summary follows each one and there is not a lot space used for tags, buttons and options. This works and it works well, so why fool around with it?

Diigo is why I have to fool around with it. It also offers a account of bookmarks online, complete with an embedded tool in Firefox, it’s just as easy to use as Spurl. But it also provides tools to highlight pages and even leave sticky notes on sites. I discovered Diigo a little more than a year ago and used it mostly to forward sites to other people, which can be done with just a click and an address. Diigo is mostly tag based, and when I imported the Spurl bookmarks into Diigo, it assigned tags based on the folder names. When I come across a good site now, I have to decide whether to add it to Spurl or Diigo. Although there is a Diigo option that will automatically throw a Diigo bookmark into Spurl, it will not land in the correct folder.

Several months back, Diigo added a “list” feature which could be used to create the same sort of unit page of bookmarks provided by Spurl. But the presentation is not the same.

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All that space and you can only see one bookmark, there is no way to quickly scan and review fifty sites. There are no sharing option that provides just the name of the site and a short description. So as much as Diigo excels with some features, it fails in others. Not only that, those tags assigned during the import from Spurl are going to take some time to clean up. Is it worth the time? Should I use Diigo or Spurl?

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The Tyranny of Cursive

He tried sitting at the dining room table, he tried at my desk. He even tried while lying down in bed. Yet he failed every time and got more and more discouraged with every fruitless attempt. My third grade son has a bright, curious mind, but last week his homework was wearing it down with frustration.image

For this particular assignment, he had to pick out three syllable words from a list, which he can do easily. However, he must then write the words on a tiny, 1.5 inch line on a worksheet His cursive writing is much better than his print, but he still couldn’t fit his answers on the line. As much as I encouraged him to keep trying, he was erasing what little was left of the line and getting more and more angry. He knew that my feeble argument that he has to complete his work just like I have to do my job didn’t have my heart in it.

Am I wrong in thinking that asking children to write with a pen and pencil on tiny little lines on a piece of paper is about as relevant as teaching them to ride a horse?

They will have to commute one day, and therefore need to get around town and go to the store. Why not teach them to ride a horse? Yes, everyone uses cars now, but we used to use horses, it was an essential skill for the 19th century American. Yes, everyone writes with a keyboard now, but we used to write with pens and pencils so let’s force the kids to do it.

Eventually my son finished his homework, but it wasn’t pretty. His younger brother wasn’t as lucky, he did not finish writing every word on this week’s spelling test five times each. And for such an egregious irresponsibility he will have to sit with Mr. McChoakumchild in lunch detention to finish his homework.

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Handful o’ Keys

Teachers who have already shifted to a digital work environment have accepted the tedious necessity of keeping track of several dozen usernames and passwords as the price of admission. A lot of the tools we use are free, but almost all of them require an account. Mine are kept an undisclosed location that I frequently visit because I can’t possibly remember more than forty combinations. Although it is inconvenient, I’m already sold on the benefit of the tools they provide. I want to use my Google account, Yahoo, Vitalist, blog, Flickr, Moodle, Ning, NBPTS, AP Central, Voicethread, Spurl, Diigo, Widgetbox, Trailfire, Linkedin, Gliffy, Skype, etc., etc. etc. So I will keep track of the passwords.

But what about the teachers who are still in an analog environment? If they are not sold on the benefits of these tools, the username/password issue becomes just another problem easily thrown into the “this is too complicated and unreliable” pile of reasons not to bother. What’s worse is the way in which many teachers (and students as well) have trouble navigating the different sequences of steps that follow the “forget your password?” link.

Last week a colleague and I were proud that we completed more than three dozen screenshot video tutorials for teachers in our district. It made sense to us that the concerns voiced over storing them in the high school’s Moodle may prevent elementary school teachers from accessing them because they only used their Moodle account on a professional development day two months ago. Yet the concern was voiced again when we suggested that we publish them in the district web site, which also has password protected regions. Schools require teachers to be responsible for the key to their classroom, can they also require teaches to keep track of two or three usernames and passwords?

More importantly, and this is where you, the reader (usually silent or absent though you may be) come in. What is the best way for teachers to keep track of their accounts? I understand the frustration of remembering passwords, because I have to go back to my list a couple times a day. There has to be a better way.

And something tells me that the “post-it pasted to the monitor” method isn’t the answer.

If you build it……wait…they’re already here

As much as I feel connected with the latest developments in the ed tech world, there is much that passes under my radar. I can’t understand how I missed the The National School Boards Association’s report Creating & Connecting//Research and Guidelines on Social—and Educational—Networking which was released in July, 2007. There is much we can learn from this survey of students, parents and school district leaders.

Almost 60 percent of students who use social networking talk about education topics online and, surprisingly, more than 50 percent talk specifically about schoolwork.

This means that the majority of our students are already using the Internet as a social communication tool. What we need to do is take this activity and carve out the school niche. If there is a student conversation about school assignments and projects wouldn’t it help to have a teacher’s voice added to the mix? I’m not suggesting that we storm Myspace and facebook, that’s not our place. But if we create a school-wide social network, designed for school work, infuse it with energy of active student and teacher participation, we will create an active learning community of untold benefits. The merchandisers and marketers are already taking advantage of the Webkinz revolution, why shouldn’t we?

I can’t come up with a reason why we shouldn’t, though I see many reasons as why we aren’t. Focused, directed and informed administrative support is the first necessary ingredient. Active teacher participation are modeling are the second necessary ingredient. School-wide social network learning environments will not spontaneously generate in the same manner as Myspace and facebook. The raw material of adolescent gossip, banter and bravado easily scale to those environments. This study has shown us that schoolwork just gets caught up in that stream. We need to find a way to take that conversation about learning out of the flotsam and jetsam of social networks and give it the respect it deserves.

60% of schools prohibit the sending and receiving email in school

How many working parents and business leaders know how the misuse of email in the form of poor writing, nonexistent “subject” references and “respond to all”s are harming the economy? These school districts, guilty of gross negligence, have decided that their fears of discipline issues regarding email are insurmountable. Who do they think will teach children how to use email?

Do I need to hunt down the statistic that proves the ubiquitous nature of e-mail in the modern workplace? Why are we still having this conversation?

Students and parents report fewer recent or current problems, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying and unwelcome personal encounters, than school fears and policies seem to imply.

Take a look at the survey result details that support this assertion and you will find more and more evidence of a disconnect between the fears and the reality of online safety. It has much less to do with the distinct and unique qualities of the Internet and much more to do with irrational fears. It’s like the difference between the fear of flying and the fear of driving. The mathematical probability of injury does not match the level of concern.

However, just like flying, a school district only needs one accident and aggressive lawyers to suffer overwhelming harm.

This does not mean however, that school districts should be excused for insisting on a restricted, blocked, and antiseptic learning environment. What it means is that teachers, administrators and decision makers have to participate in these social networks to they know how they work.

While a significant percentage of educators require their students to use the Internet for homework, school policies indicate that many are not yet convinced about the value of social networking as a useful educational tool or even as an effective communications tool. This may indicate that their experience with social networking is limited.

I’m convinced that anyone who creates their own learning/working environment online will discover its overwhelming advantages. An expanding library of bookmarks, collaboration with a network of professional colleagues, and the daily reading of a personal RSS newspaper make a better informed, better skilled and more effective educator. Any educator who immerses themselves in that world will work to move students into that world as well. I’ve never known of anyone who has not.

Students have already moved into that world socially, we now have to show them how to use that world academically and professionally.