Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Being on the Bleeding Edge

As many people at the forefront of technology know, being at the beginning of changes in operating systems and new pieces of technology often comes with great excitement and lots of learning. It brings a tech geek great joy to figure out a new piece of technology and how to manipulate and make it do something that it has never been able to do before. Although, tech geeks are not the only people that desire to be the first. Take the millions of people that have lined up in the last few months to purchase a new iPhone 4, Droid, or iPad.

The same excitement that tech people get when they figure out a new piece of technology also often brings lots of pain and headaches along with it. Being one of the first to figure out, break, and try to fix a new piece of technology is not easy nor is it always fun either. You kind of feel like a man walking out on the moon without any support along the way.

This was very much the case as this summer we were blessed to expand our 1-1 Program at the FAIR School Downtown to include both our 9th and 10th grade students this year. This spring we purchased sixty new uni body MacBooks and early this summer we prepared to image them for the fall. We had a debate about which operating system to put onto the computers because they came shipped with 10.6, Snow Leopard, even though the rest of our environment (the roughly eighty-five other computers that we have) is currently is running on 10.5.8, Leopard. We weighed the pros and cons and even though there is not a large visual or end user experience difference between the two operating systems we decided to keep the environment the same for everyone. We began the process to create an image for this new machine based on the 10.5.8 operating system and tested out that image on a few machines. At face value the image looked good, the programs were operating, and the main components were running. So we decided to begin the imaging process for our sixty machines. After three days, and many hours of preparation, imaging, and take down, we completed the process of imaging all these machines ahead of schedule.

However, as we went to do final testing, installation of anti-virus software, and preparation for roll out early September we began to notice some problems in our image. For instance, the sound did not work at all. It had a gray X though it. We dug a little deeper and came across a few other minor errors in our new machines. At first we thought it was singled out to a few machines and then we realized it was all our machines. To the Internet we went, searching for sound drivers, other people that were having the same issue that we were having, or any piece of advice about our problem. We found a few people experiencing the same issue, but no one had a solution to the problem that we were having. After a while I had my fellow tech call Apple Care and see what was going on. The representative that we talked to had us run a bunch of things that we had previously run, resetting the PRAM and checking for updates.

Sometimes I wish that there was an Apple Care support line for tech staff who could call in and say you have done x, y, and z and now here is the issue and what are your thoughts. They could talk to us like geeks and we could talk back to them like geeks and we can get the issue solved. Instead, we have to sit though all the steps that we previously did and that any normal geek hopefully would have already tried. I get the rational for Apple to do it the way it does, but it pains me to sit though the direction from the Apple Care representative to Check for Updates when I tried that three days ago.

After walking through the basic steps from Apple and semi-stumping the Apple Care representative he suggested that we move our computer back to 10.6. Needless to say we did not really enjoy his suggestion, especially because we had all sixty computers imaged with 10.5.8. What choice did we have though? It was not like on the box the computers shipped it said: “Do NOT revert this machine back to 10.5.8 because it will not operate properly.” In hindsight maybe it should have. There was no mention of this warning, but once again we re-created the image and then spent the time to re-image and bring the machines back to the 10.6 operating system they came shipped with.

The very next day an Apple Engineer came out to work on some syncing issues we were having with the Apple server we use for the 1-1 Program. I asked him about the 10.5.8 and 10.6 issues that we were having and his response intrigued me. In no uncertain words he said that 10.6 was built on a completely different platform than 10.5.8, which for people who read about this stuff they recognize the 64 and 32 bit differences. Furthermore, he said that the hardware inside of a machine that is shipped with 10.6 will not work properly when the machine is reverted back to an older operating system. This explained our sound issue with the Logic Card. Finally, he said that if a machine was shipped with 10.6 and is reverted back it runs the risk of overheating and Apple will not support it.

Bottom line: Do NOT revert an Apple computer that comes shipped with 10.6 on it.

We learned our lesson and in the end I am happy that we are giving our students the best possible machine to complete their work on. However, the challenges of maintaining a multiple operating system based site are going to be interesting. We looked into the process and possibility of moving our entire school up to 10.6, but the cost of doing that was too great to consider at the moment.

Being at the front end of technology is a lot of fun and constantly challenging, but with it does come many bumps in the road. Those bumps, although costly in time and headaches, do make us the unique person that we are and for that I give thanks as a tech geek educator to be on the bleeding edge.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Just Create a 'Drop'

Every once in a while we come across a tool that can radically change the way that we do things in the education world. For some it was a computer, for others the interactive whiteboard, but for me it has been Drop.io.

Simply put, Drop.io is an easy to use, online collaboration and file sharing service that provides users with a simple, real-time and private way to chat and share images, video, audio, documents, and other digital content through unique, user-created and controlled sharing points called ‘drops.’ Check out this link for more information and their introduction video.

In only two clicks users are able to seamlessly create personal sharing points, upload content via web, e-mail, MMS, Facebook, Firefox extension, phone and fax inputs and share it on-the-fly through drop.io’s various outputs including the web, e-mail, MMS, Twitter, iTunes, fax, and a whole lot more.

Furthermore, each ‘drop’ is non-searchable, non-networked, and does not require any type of account registration and can be password-protected and set to expire after a period of time. This allows sharing of information to happen for only as long as you really want it to.

‘Drops’ are being currently used by a wide range of people who seek a convenient and private method for sharing all types of digital content in dynamic, collaborative, and real-time workspaces.

As a school we got into creating ‘drops’ when I went to a conference with our high school social studies teacher. The presenter showed us how a Spanish teacher was using a ‘drop’ to have students call in their Spanish homework. At first I was a bit confused, but then the presenter explained a bit more. With each ‘drop’ a unique phone number can be created and hooked up to a voicemail hosted by Drop.io. Students in Spanish class were receiving homework written in English and were then required to translate it into Spanish and respond by calling into the Drop.io voicemail and leaving a message in Spanish - essentially turning in their homework. Their message automatically showed up on the ‘drop’ in an MP3. The teacher was able to collect and grade speaking assignments from all the students in a fraction of the time and inconvenience that it took in a normal classroom before. Now our Spanish teacher is using her ‘drop’ for this feature and a whole lot more.

About a week after I turned on the Spanish teacher to using a ‘drop’ for her Spanish class, our other high school English teacher approached me for a simple, non-password protected way to have an out of class discussion. Many of his students were reading a book, but due to Post Secondary Education Options many students are not present in class throughout the week, thus making in class discussions difficult. He searched for a way to have this discussion happen both inside and outside of his classroom so that all his students could participate. After searching the web and looking into a variety of security settings and options with Wikispaces and Blogger sites I kept coming back to the idea of a ‘drop.’ Ever since I was introduced to a ‘drop’ I knew that there had to be more to the idea than using it as a voicemail box for a foreign language class. So I looked closer and found that indeed a ‘drop’ was the perfect way tool for my fellow English teacher’s class. Students do not need to login, but can comment on a Note posted on the ‘drop.’ The English teacher would go in and put information up or a discussion topic on the ‘drop’ and ask his students to respond by leaving a comment below the note. It worked out perfectly for him and his students. In addition, he moved into a film unit and put up images of the films the class watched and links to websites with pertinent information. He is currently completing a research paper unit and his students are submitting their papers electronically through the ‘drop,’ making grading a lot easier and the environmental and financial impact on paper use significantly less. This ‘drop’ for him has replaced his webpage, his Facebook account, and any other form of communication with his students. All the information his students need is on the ‘drop.’ To check out his ‘drop’ click here.

Having the English department tied into using a ‘drop’ was great, but I wanted to push the technology and the site even further. In talking with our social studies teacher a bit more he began an interdisciplinary project with his eleventh grade American history students. Each student created a ‘drop’ and it quickly became their primary location and depository for research. When they found a source they put their notes up on their own ‘drop.’ Instead of doing a citation at that moment they linked to the pertinent webpage. For grading purposes the social studies teacher looked at their ‘drop’ and then picked up his iPhone and called in with some verbal feedback. This was much easier and quicker than writing anything on a piece of paper or even leaving a note for the student on their ‘drop.’ As the assignment continued on both instructors gave feedback for the students on their ‘drops’ through downloading rough drafts, leaving comments digitally, and uploading feedback all onto the ‘drop.’ It was real-time collaboration and feedback in a true 21st Century educational setting. The social studies teacher also put up his notes for the project and linked all the students’ ‘drops’ to his own original assignment ‘drop.’ Click here to see a student ‘drop’ and here for the original assignment ‘drop.’

It has been really neat to see over the past few months how students have now gotten used to the phrase “Just drop it.” It has come to mean turn in your assignment electronically and not to physically drop anything. In my own English class I have used a ‘drop’ in a very limited way as a simple turn-in box for final creative pieces. Click here to see the 'drop.' Then I projected my ‘drop’ on the SMART Board and used the Preview option on the ‘drop’ to have students share their work with the class. No messy stack of papers to grade and nothing to lose. Everything was on the drop and there was no question of whether or not students turned their assignment in.

In the future I look forward to sharing with others about the power of a ‘drop.’ I feel as if in the high school we have seen only the tip of the iceberg in the true power of a ‘drop.’ I look forward to showing my students a more in-depth way of how to use their ‘drops’ for journals with their current interdisciplinary Personal Change project. Right now the students' drops are very basic, click here to see the 'drop' main page. There are a lot of things in the way of settings and personalization that can be configured on a ‘drop.’ Also, all the features of e-mailing documents, faxing them in, and using Facebook to post are all really intriguing and worth exploring further in the future.

One other part of the ‘drop’ interface that I have yet to fully explore is the functionality of the chat feature. Yes, every single drop is also a full functioning chat room. Imagine chatting in real-time about an assignment with a student in Israel for a family trip? Some of our teachers are doing that currently with a student. There are also some really intriguing options with presenting a ‘drop’ in real time, especially with a built-in conference call feature. This could make a virtual presentation significantly easier. It seems as there is always something to play with and learn with a new tool, but to see the changes in how students turn in and share documents has been incredible.

In closing, Drop.io has to some degree radically changed how students collaborate and turn-in work in our school. It is simple to use for teachers and students alike and is secure enough through either a password or the simple fact that a user has to have the exact URL to find the ‘drop’ that there have been no issues with outside users interfering. I encourage you to look into the examples and see what a ‘drop’ is and what it could possibly do for your school. If nothing else do what I tell my students and “Just create a ‘drop’” to see what this whole thing is all about.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"What’s a Fishbowl?"

That was a question that I have answered a lot lately from my students and from other students as they pass by my class and see laptops, students talking, and two different circles formed by desks. At Arapahoe one of the many awesome things I learned was a Fishbowl style discussion, only in a 21st Century way. Many people are familiar with the traditional style Fishbowl discussion with the inner circle talking and everyone in the outer circle facing the inner circle (IE where the Fishbowl name comes from) and writing down notes and comments about what is being said. At Arapahoe it was very familiar to engage in this discussion, but with a slight change - laptops. The students in the outer circle were not only typing their notes on the computer, but they were having a conversation in real time with each other in the outer circle. It was a technique that I learned how to facilitate during student teaching and it was something I knew I wanted to bring into my own classroom at the right time.

That right time happened last month when the 10th graders began studying The Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I finally had the class in a place where the expectations, respect, and trust level I desired allowed me to introduce the concept of a Fishbowl. At first the students were a bit confused with having an inner circle and an outer circle and what each one was going to be doing, but once I set it up and we had a mock Fishbowl over a different reading in class it made sense. I explained the point values for grading purposes and the different roles - presenting, discussing, and being a member of the outer circle. I also made sure to clarify what my role specifically as a teacher was and that I am not leading or driving the train, but I will put it back on the track if it strays too far away.

At first students were a bit skeptical of how it was going to work. The first one we did over PT Indian was not the greatest. The inner circle really focused on having their own discussion and the outer circle their own too. Not really a bad thing, but that was only half of the idea. I really wanted to see students jumping from one circle to the other, either by physically moving or by seeing the comments of the outer circle on the SMART Board. Students in the outer circle also had a hard time keeping up with the variety of different conversations going on. I was surprised about this. I thought this generation, even more so than me, was supposed to be good at multitasking. So I had to demonstrate to a few students how to pay attention whether you are in the inner or the outer circle.

After a few more conversations with students about what an appropriate comment is and how they are to act in a Fishbowl, as I was creating the culture here, the students have actually been very successful with the discussion method lately. I enjoy that this style allows the students a voice, a structured time where they are given the class to direct and lead in whatever way they desire (this also happens at other times, but it is really awesome to see it during a Fishbowl). I also enjoy the fact that there are basically three (and often times more) conversations going on at once - the inner circle, the dialogue going on between the inner commenting on the outer circle, and the outer circle having their own various conversations. I really appreciate how this method of discussion is much more effective than a Socratic style one when where only one person is talking. Here there are so many different conversations going on at once and they all complement each other that is impressive to see.

From a technology point I set-up a class blog using Blogger and then use a neat piece of real time discussion software called Cover It Live to moderate the outer circle discussion. This software has built-in controls to allow you as the moderator to control what is published in the discussion by approving, sending private messages (For example, reminding students to spell their words correctly), and blocking users from commenting at all. Plus, this software has instantaneous posting, meaning as soon as the students send in their thoughts and I approve them they appear in the blog - something the students enjoy. This piece of software is currently blocked by our district filter, but I am working with them to unblock it so that it is easier to use in the future. Something in the imbed code for the blog triggers a block, even though the homepage is open.

In the end it is a lot of work to set-up the computers for my students, go around the filter, and spend the time setting up the blog and setting up the discussion, but in the end I believe this 21st Century Style of discussion is more relevant, engaging, and productive than some other form. But don’t take my word, check out the students’ last Fishbowl here.

Now my students do not ask “What’s a Fishbowl,” but instead they ask, “When is the next Fishbowl?”

Chemistry and Dance - What a Combination!

When I think back to my high school chemistry days (I know, not that long ago) I remember long lectures, lots of notes, formulas, and a whole variety of experiments in a lab that seemed twenty years behind.

Some of those essential elements still remain, but they have also changed quite a bit too. Our Chemistry teacher, Mr. V., still lectures to his students. However, now those lectures are a bit more interactive, including YouTube videos and funny jokes, not to mention that students are typing their notes on laptops provided for them by the school. These notes are also electronic and can be shared by one another, easily searched, and are a very effective for reference in the future. The formulas and experiments continue in much the same way as before, with slight modifications to using the computers at times instead of pencil and paper in the lab. Lab reports and manipulation of the data have become far easier to accomplish and in a shorter amount of time too. The bottom line though: students are still learning Chemistry.

However, the other day I noticed one unique thing happening. One of our dance teachers was up in the Chemistry room with Mr. V. That is right - Chemistry and Dance working together. At that immediate moment I let it go and rushed off to teach my own class, but later I asked Mr. V about this unique interdisciplinary effort.

He explained to me that the students were learning all about bonds between chemical elements - something I remember learning about using pencil, paper, and maybe a ball and stick model. However, Mr. V said they had done all those exercises, he also thought it would be helpful if they physically acted out the creation of molecules in the dance studio. It sounded like a great idea to me and I asked him how it went. He said that most of the students really got into it and now they really understood the elements necessary in the creation of a chemical. They got it because not only had they done the book work, the ball and stick work, but they physically worked together to create a collective knowledge. What a great idea!

Interactive bonds, Chemistry class, and Mr. V have inspired me. How am I working in a more interdisciplinary way to create more knowledge of the content area in my classroom? Am I engaging all the learning styles? I really believe in my classroom all too often I do a poor job of incorporating the physical aspect into my students’ learning. What Mr. V did with dance was a great reminder to continue working in new and creative ways so that my students can continue to succeed.

Riding in the Saddle

Have you ever seen a novice horseback rider? Every time the horse moves they seem to jump in an out of the saddle. That is how it felt for the first few months of teaching at the FAIR School Downtown. I was bogged down with media, technology, and somewhere in there figuring out how to teach my three classes. I was constantly running from class to meeting to printer issue to computer issue to whatever the next phone call. I was going all over the building the entire day and after a while I realized that I needed to focus in on what is really important - the students. It was not that before I was neglecting them, or focusing on them, or really trying hard to create relevant, worthwhile, and useful lessons - because I was - it was just that all too often it felt like I was doing all these other things all the time and that teaching kind of got shoved to the back burner. I was uncomfortable in my variety of roles because I was too busy trying to do too many things. So days were really good, my students listened, they had a good Fishbowl or a good discussion over the material we were learning. But there were other days when students did not listen, where I felt bad, was tired, and beat up from the stress of the job. It constantly felt like I was jumping in and out of the saddle. I was trying to ride this horse of being an effective teacher/media/technology person, but I somehow I was not good enough to keep it all together.

Since then a few months have passed, an entire semester and half of another quarter, and here I am finally riding in the saddle. My lessons seem to have a good pace and the students are responding in positive ways. In addition, I have figured out how to push each student in just the right way. The classroom management is becoming easier. Students understand the expectations and are following them for the most part. I continue to become more comfortable also in my other roles as the media and technology coordinator. I have gotten used to the questions and issues that keep popping up and the variety of different tasks that I get to complete each day. It is exciting and I really enjoy going to work because there seems to be a constant challenge. Everyday is always an adventure.

I do not know if it has been time that has made me feel more comfortable. Or maybe it has been really getting my students to the place where I can actually teach. Or maybe it is the fact that I am making time for my prep periods and really focusing on segmenting out each day. I now respect the instructional part of my day and the technology/media part of my day equally and they both get fair and separate time. Or maybe it is the fact that I have really focused on not checking my work e-mail accounts after I get home or on the weekend. I also take part of every weekend off to recharge my own personal batteries so that I can really be the best teacher come Monday morning. I have really learned that personal time, combined with exercise throughout the week, has really been key to feeling comfortable where I am.

By no means am I saying that I am some sort of expert at this teaching/technology/media stuff yet, because that is clearly not true. However, as I look back at where I was at the beginning of the year and compare that to right now I notice a significant and positive change. I feel like right now I am finally riding in the saddle.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Civics: 21st Century Style

Sometimes you just have to share what an awesome staff you have...

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a school administrator workshop about using cell phones in the classroom with our high school civics teacher, Mike Elston. I had known about many different class polling tools and had used cell phones in the classroom before, but this training really allowed me to think about and brain storm some really unique ways to use it. It was a great day of learning, sharing, and collaborating. The awesome part is that application of the knowledge from the conference has occurred and students' learning has increased because of it.

This morning I was getting ready for class and Mike came into my office and asked for a projector and a screen. Not an odd request, but an interesting one considering that he already has a SMART Board in his classroom. So I asked him what he was going to to with it and he said, "Set-up PollEverywhere for his class."

My first response, "I can't wait to see this."

What Mike is doing right down the hall is so cool. He is showing the State of the Union Speech on his SMART Board and all of his students are on their 1-1 school-issued laptops. Each student is open to the PollEverywhere question that Mike set-up for his class asking for general responses and reactions to the speech. The students are watching the speech and commenting in real time to each other using PollEverywhere. They are having an awesome, high level discussion about the material and are truly engaged in the content. Real learning is happening in front of my eyes and it is so cool to watch.

As the techie I always search for another cool or more engaging piece of software for Mike to use and engage his students. Immediately I thought of performing the same open question style conversation using Blogger I asked him why he was using PollEverywhere and not something like Blogger or another real time chat piece. He said, "I love the anonymous part of using this website [PollEverywhere]. In a Civics class students that lean one way or the other on the political scale need to be free to express what they think without being ridiculed, which may happen if we used something like Blogger." I thought that was an awesome comment and a great use of the technology appropriately.

So my hat is off to Mike for taking what he learned yesterday and improving his students' education in a new and engaging way today.