Monthly Archives: September 2006

I've spent the evening playing around with a few of the StartPages that are around the place for a couple of reasons - one, to see if there are any good "gluing" solutions for my e-portfolio possibilities and two, because I'm covering them in one of my 15 minute sessions for the Web 2.0 Showcase at TSOF on September 21 and I need to know what I'm talking about. I've been using two of them, Protopage and PageFlakes for a while now but I wanted to see if any others were better or offered more features than the other.

So, what's a StartPage? To me, it's one of those great ideas that helps to make sense of the web as it is today. Most are powered by AJAX and have small modules, feed boxes, widgets or "flakes" that can be added and customised. I have so many web services that I've signed up for and that I visit as part of a weekly or daily routine - a StartPage ties a lot of things like that into a one-stop-shop or portal that can launch you into the key parts of your online existence. A good StartPage should give me access to my email, link me to websites of personal importance, should use the flexibility of RSS and have multimedia capability so that some stuff can be viewed from within the StartPage itself. A StartPage should have the potential to be viewable easily (on monitor or IWB, I think) and the content switched around to suit personal taste. I personally like to have a fair bit of choice but not choose between bits of rubbish or trivia. A box that gives me daily quotes from George Bush doesn't add to my daily productivity.

So here's what I reckon.

protopage.jpgProtopage. This is the first StartPage I started playing around with last year and I haven't really added much since then either. It has different colour backgrounds and themes and the ability to add one of seven types of widget including shortcut links, rss feeds and sticky notes. The idea looked pretty good when I first started but the fact that there aren't many widgets to add or services that can be added in means Protopage is looking a bit dated already.

pageflakes.jpgPageFlakes. I really like PageFlakes. The first bonus is that it doesn't have a huge header which means browser real estate is maximised. I can add in a Flickr feed by user or tag, I can add in interesting "flakes" like my account, clock, rss feeds and searches. There is also a sizeable community developing flakes for use although some of them are not terribly useful to me. I can add tabs for other pages and everything is just neat and tidy. For a while it all looked a bit sterile but now PageFlakes have added a handful of colour scheme choices to jazz things up but for me it's the bonus partnerships for different functional flakes that work really well - a good example is the link that means my files stored there can be accessed from my PageFlakes page. There looks like more potential for new "flakes" to make this an even better StartPage environment.

netvibes1.jpgI then had a close look at NetVibes. This is a very attractive StartPage and like PageFlakes, features modules that cater for more than just RSS feeds, including a Google Maps module, weather module, search engine function, feeds and so on. I'm not sure if this would be better than Bloglines as a feedreader only however if you track a lot of blogs - I set one page up with my Must Read Blogs and that looked and worked well but was still only 15 feeds on the page (Bloglines looks after more than 100 in my account). I think that the only disadvantage Netvibes holds over PageFlakes is the fact you can't make your StartPage public.

webwag.jpgThe final contender in this interesting new category of web application is called WebWag. It seems to be following hot on the heels of NetVibes and PageFlakes but still needs to develop some unique features to make it an attractive alternative. If you wanted to set up an international news feed, it does come with plenty of pre-configured news feeds from all of the major players in the world of news media. I'm not a big fan of the wasted space in the header and there is no obvious ways to add new modules easily. It's pretty new so could be worth watching for future developments, but it would probably run fourth in this particular race.

So, there's a layman's look at the main StartPages around. I realise SuprGlu has been around for a while as well, but I see that more as a republishing format that weaves and blog posts together more than this new category. My tip - Pageflakes is the best choice especially in the context of gluing together my free-range, small pieces e-portfolio format but if Netvibes added a make-public feature, it might be worth developing that as a StartPage option.

Doug Johnson, over at the Blue Skunk Blog, leverages his Learning Network and looks for answers to his own questions about the hiring of tech-savvy teachers. I'm game!

What makes a tech savvy teacher? (Is it attitude or knowledge of specific minimum of hardware/software packages?)
A tech-savvy teacher is one who acknowledges and enters the students' world of constant change and wants to utilise that expertise to further their own. I don't think that any specific knowledge of software is all that important because that could change as new apps hit the classroom and if Web based apps are all that the future say they will be, then transferable and adaptable tech skills are the real priority. They need to be able to demonstrate that they can access, use and manipulate whatever digital resources come their way - in fact, how they tackle a new unknown software package will tell you more than if they come with a certificate in Excel spreadsheets or Inspiration mindmaps. A tech savvy teacher isn't just computer based either - you'd want to see them turn their hand to mp3 players, pda's, mobile technologies, interactive whiteboards etc. and be salivating at the prospect. So, yeah, it's attitude every time.
How should a tech-savvy teacher create lesson plans? What is the mix of off-the-shelf apps, teacher-created projects/apps and traditional media (books etc.)?
The tech savvy teacher should use all of the above in a bid to cater for all of the students in their care and their individual learning needs - it's that flexibility to adapt to the situation and the concept that will dictate the tool of choice and the guidance that the teacher will provide. Lesson plans no matter how they are created (use a wiki like Doug Noon if you want!) have to be evolutionary and be engaging and relevant to the targetted student population.
Is tech-savvy teaching actually more effective than traditional teacher methods or is it really just a dazzling death by PowerPoint?
I blogged about this a little while back when I wrote about Maria, one of our new IWB users who does what a true tech savvy teacher should be able to do with technology, connect the concepts from the curriculum together so that the teachable moments all hang together and are brought together seamlessly. It's all stuff an excellent teacher can do anyway but with their tech savvy skills, it comes together quicker for the students.

When hiring a tech-savvy teacher what are some do’s and don’ts? What are some warning signs?
The warning sign would be someone who is Windows only or Mac only, or Smartboard only or ACTIVboard only - you want someone who is open to new challenges and wants to be at the front of the queue for when the new tech tools are being wheeled in. You want some history of developing initiatives or projects that explore the boundaries of learning.

As has been stated before, it's time teaching stopped being the only profession where utilising technology has been optional. Any good, Doug?

My initial raw thoughts for an ICT vision for my school have had a few boosts through the blogosphere over the last few days. I even sat down yesterday and had a brain-spill over a large piece of A3 paper for about 40 minutes, trying to distill my ideas about what we should be using to guide our thinking (and our spending) in continuing to develop 21st Century classrooms. I did my thinking in "digital immigrant" style, using a Sharpie and a good quality felt tip and ended up posing more questions than concocting solutions. Basically there are heaps of ideas swirling around the page and it's even too big to scan and reproduce here. I thought I'd summarise a few key points and point to a few more influential quotations from some of the best edublogging thinkers out there.

I broke up my visionary word grabs into a few broad categories. Starting at 12 o'clock on the page, I started with an arrow sticking out of the C -> for communication, the more commonly overlooked word in the acronym and posed a few questions. Communication for who? Between students? Teacher to student? School to community? To world? Students to teachers?

Moving around the page clockwise, I started a big section on Inquiry Learning (otherwise known as Problem Based Learning, Resource Based Learning) especially because my current role involves using this methodology to embed the use of ICT in learning. My statement to be critiqued by my colleagues - Inquiry learning actively involves the use of technology skills and information literacy. The Inquiry learning skills are listed along with the emerging Information Literacy issues for learning - sorting information, facts v. opinions, intellectual property, managing the flow of information and verifying sources. (There's heaps more, I know but this was a brain-spill!) Basically, both threads meet up in the common ground of sorting information, classifying and making new meaning.

I then swing around to about 4 o'clock on the page and cover an essential part of everyday life in Australian schools - the curriculum. This vision has to develop into something that is grounded in current reality, not utopian impossibility. My key question is: How can ICT's assist student learning more efficiently than before? By before, I'm talking about "traditional" teacher transmission models but the idea of explicit teaching isn't left out altogether. Using technology like the IWB, special needs kids and kids with learning difficulties have access to a tool that can cement essential skills into place before they are used in ways that are described so well in this great post from Wesley Fryer yesterday. I remixed this quote to match my purpose (my changes in bold italics):

ICT in our school should be all about changing teaching and learning in fundamental ways– NOT simply “doing school” with digital tools. We don’t need digital worksheets. We don’t need endless hours of computer-aided instruction. What we DO NEED are opportunities for students and teachers to engage in investigations about real world issues and problems, using digital tools to both conduct research and communicate their ideas with others. ICT in our school , to be successful, MUST be focused on transforming predominant pedagogical models of instruction.

And almost as if he knew I needed more fuel for the fire, Wesley expanded on this post today, summing up the necessary way forward succinctly:

I resonate with this last idea: Digital learning should not and cannot be optional for students and teachers in our schools. Do we need to force every teacher to use PowerPoint? No! This should be an invitation extended, not a mandate from on-high communicated by a stick-wielding administrator. And of course, we are talking about the use of digital tools which extends far beyond a mere “accomodation” level use, of replicating analog practices with digital tools. We are talking not only about teachers modeling the effective use of digital teaching strategies, but also students being invited to become digital content creators. Inviting students to discover and share their own voices. Recognizing that there are many more voices in the classroom that need to be heard, that simply CAN’T be heard because of time limitations in a face-to-face setting. We are talking about pioneers of digital teaching using blended learning methodologies from a growing menu of tools– selecting those which are appropriate to the content, audience, and task at hand. A tall order to be sure, but one we must collaboratively strive to fill for our students– who are in the final analysis our customers, rather than the “products” of our educational institutions.

This ties in perfectly with my next section on Staff Expertise, an area that keeps defaulting to me. This spawned a whole bunch of questions to pose to my staff.

  • Are we going to let kids "learn on their own" in this digital world?
  • Can we learn from each other? (Students as well as adults.)
  • Student access to technology - better at school or school?
  • Do we value the new skills being used in a digital world?
  • Is it just about mastery of technology? Or is it more about ethics, responsibility, high expectations, empowerment and creativity?
  • What's the balance? What are the right choices for our school?

My next stop on this little journey was a section I titled Exponential Change. Alex Hayes prodded this idea with a stick in the comments section of this blog recently - How do we cater effectively for these students whose life has only known exponential change? I had three prongs to this section - moving teachers' view of the internet from having students using it as a resource for viewing along to creation and participation on the web. The second prong was Emerging Technologies. My question for my colleagues is :- What do we do about emerging technologies - mobile phones, ipods, pda's etc. Ban, ignore or integrate? Then over at the TALO Group, Alex provided some answers of his own envisioning how a disruptive technology like mobile phones could be integrated into classroom practice. Seeing most schools don't want to know about mobiles or haven't any ideas on where to start (myself included), Alex's scenarios make good pedagogical sense. Check this segment out:

Scenario One
This is the idea that students are encouraged during discrete times of the day to use their 'phones' in ways which best suit a range of activities. During other times in the day students would be required to have the phone on discrete or the flight mode.

Scenario Two
Students are actively encouraged to use their mobile devices ( notice the shift from 'phone to 'device') to record, document and upload their findings using the advanced features of their phones including the camera, voice note taker, video camera and SMS out / in. There is no cost in using these aspects of the device and if you look around the learners setting these days you'll be suprised at the level of technologies that one or many of your group possess and use regularly.

Scenario Three
Students are credited using a range of options to enable them to interact with learning experiences on / off campus and either in real time or asynchronously. The user ( notice the shift from 'student' to 'user' ) is encouraged to participate in learning experiences which requires an advanced interrogation of the MMS capacity of the phone, video and photo blogging capacity of the mobile device and perhaps even the wi-fi, bluetooth, infra-red and GPS capabilities of their device.

Scenario Four
Peer to peer networks. The networking of mobile communication devices in hubbed clusters, swarming in learning pools, descending into learning experiences as mobbed groups. Constructing m-portfolios inter-fed with servicing updates, subscriptions and portal access to mobile web 2.0 online environments.

Honestly, how hard would it be to at least implement Scenario One and Two in a primary school setting? I know someone will cry "inequitable" but we ask kids all the time to produce computer generated assignements or internet based research knowing that access and levels of technology vary wildly from home to home. Mobile phones are no different. This leads to the third prong - safety. The filtered school online environment (protection or false sense of security?) vs. the reality at home. Bill Kerr sums the issues faced here in South Australia well in a post from earlier in the year. Identity management of all school based users looms as a big issue as we ask them (students and teachers) to access more and more web based tools.

Finally I round off my vision splatter with a cloud on Documenting Learning. How do we capture and assess learning in digital form? Can other forms of learning benefit from ICT recording, storage and analysis? I had my e-portfolio headset on here - it's an area that needs more fleshing out and maybe my Action Research Project (even though it's teacher focussed) can help provide some direction.

It's going to be a week for visions. On Tuesday, the MYLU team have a planning day to map our way forward for our middle school students. Maybe another brain-spill could be useful there - technology has a big influence in adolescents' lives and both Wesley's and Alex's thoughts could drive some conversation. Anyway, this has gone on for long enough. I'll finish with another quote to round off my 200th official post here at Teaching Generation Z, this time from Mark van’t Hooft at Ubiquitous Thoughts, following on from Wesley's first vision based quote:

Finally, and most importantly, stakeholders need the VISION that teaching and learning with technology is not a privilege, but an essential part of education if we want our kids to succeed in the 21st century.

I've spent the last couple of hours scouring the web for information relating to my e-portfolio Action Research Project and it's been hard going. Perhaps it's a measure of my lack of effective digital literacy skills or just perhaps the ongoing conversation about this idea is a bit thin on the ground. I have two RSS search feeds over on my PageFlakes site that track the phrase through the blogosphere and I've been picking through the links coming in. I did find a post from Graham Attwell which speculates whether the concept of PLE and e-portfolio are merging to be essentially the same thing. That really tells me what I already know - an e-portfolio is a lot more than a CV, and is a learning landscape that evolves with the user. Graham blogs from Europe where he notices;

e-Portfolios are moving beyond the first adopters, beyond the pedagogic researchers into mainstream use.

I definitely don't see that here - I haven't really patched my own version together yet, and I'm struggling to get my focus group together (illness, other commitments). Next week, Chris Bennie from TSOF comes out to video me on my project and I don't know what he's going to tape. It's not like I haven't been thinking and reading on this idea but it's very hard to nail down and organise efficiently.

So, what have I done so far? Let's try some dot points for efficiency's sake.

  • set up a wiki to record my project - links, thoughts, snippets etc. (I know wikis are great collaborative tools but they are a dead simple way to make a navigational website and keep things neat and tidy. I'm erring more on Doug's personal use philosophy rather than Artichoke's "let the floodgates open" approach.) By the way, do you like my fancy logo?
  • using Google Notebook to snip key passages of information about e-portfolios as  find them on the web. It's a really efficient way to gather notes as it automatically cites the source. It can be made public too - I was going to do that but changed my mind as I'd have to check the licensing on all of the sites I've accessed so far. Four wouldn't take me long but I will add to this as I go. My link to Graham Attwell's work above will provide a lot of fodder for my brain.
  • set up a page on Pageflakes for this project. Again, not much there except the RSS search feeds, links to my wiki and Notebook.

I've also started listing possible e-portfolio software solutions for my focus group. When I meet with them, I want to have a conversation about their needs and it could well be that one of them wants to try a hosted solution, wants their own domain name and so I am accumulating some possible one-stop-shop solutions. That of course isn't the way I personally want to go - so the next section is a list of possible web based applications that can be "glued" together for a Web 2.0 version of an e-portfolio. I have this blog as one piece, I have ready to go for static content (although it's a bit sparse) and I'd want to use either PageFlakes, NetVibes or WebWag as the gluing solution for any other pieces I'd want to join on - Flickr images, and ourmedia files, other places that I contribute to and so on. The freerange approach is definitely the method that will answer the question "Are teacher e-portfolios sustainable?" for me, but whether other teachers will be quite as enthused remains to be seen. As for the video shoot, I could just blabber for a while and use this post as my cue cards. We'll see.

Just finished reading and responding to a great post by Vicki Davis over at the Cool Cat Teacher Blog on the importance of balance and perspective in education and life in general. Now, I'm not a religious person by any stretch but I found myself nodding my head more and more as I read on. Then I felt compelled to comment as her words hit a chord from within my brain.

Vicki, I loved this post not just because you share with me (and the rest of your readers) more about yourself and your life journey but it enables me to put a mirror up to my own existence. I turned 40 this year and have found myself more and more cursing myself for not being more ambitious, not seeking out career furthering opportunities and wondering if I should be "further along" in my contribution to my chosen profession. But when I read your post, I think that I should be happy with what I have achieved, high profile or not, that even if I don't do anything more substantial in this field, it doesn't really matter. I saw a job vacancy the other week - right up my alley, next step up the promotion ladder, interactive whiteboard expertise required and all that but I decided to leave it alone. The school I work at is less than two minutes drive (I should ride my bike more often!), the stuff we are doing is exciting and I have a chance to really cement some good practices in place. Plus with a young family nearby, there are plenty of reasons to keep the balance. Vicki, I'm not a driven personality as you describe yourself but you recognise the dangers of that path - there is danger also in my own pushing towards something that I "think" I should be doing as opposed to what I want to be doing. I don't want to so busy or over-committed that I can't get down on the carpet after work and play Thomas trains with my youngest son or read Dr.Seuss books to my oldest every evening. Vicki, thanks for sharing how you strive for perspective - I think balance is a really important message for us in this hyper-connected world.

Vicki's words are better. Go read them.

Balanced Rock with balanced rocks by ghewgill

Flickr Creative Commons 

When I first started in my current job, my role was defined by a one line section of our school vision statement. That vision had been developed in 2002 just before my arrival in 2003. It read:-

We will have a strong learning culture supported by a harassment-free environment and up-to-date technology. Students will be confident and enjoy their learning.

See that little bit in bold - that's what has been guiding my work in the implementation of ICT here. Now using up-to-date technology is a fairly vague statement and I've been able to work on quite a few things under that banner (Problem Based Learning, Interactive Whiteboards, Digital Photography and Editing) but with my new boss taking the reins this year, it's time to put some detail in that vision and develop something with more definition. We've been looking at putting a plan for next year's ICT budget and rightfully so, we've decided that all spending should be driven by a vision as opposed to a wishlist. So the idea is that anything that is budgeted for must tie back to this vision that I will coordinate with the staff.

So I'm starting here - one point that my principal and I agreed on was that vision must be about learning, not just technology. So my wanderings through the edublogosphere are going to have a big bearing on the broad ideas I'd want to present back to my staff. I like the overall thought that we are working towards a 21st Century School and what that might entail. What is essential learning in the 21st Century? How do we use technology to address the curriculum in a more relevant, efficient and engaging way? How do we cater effectively for these students whose life has only known exponential change?

So, before I put my own formative thoughts out here for the world (well, anyone who reads this blog, anyway!), here is my process for gathering some ideas to present back at school. I've found Google NoteBook to be a really great for "snipping" key quotes and paragraphs of concise information about the topic at hand, so that will be my tool of choice. So now as I scour my Bloglines, I can capture these gems and then look back at them to create an overall visual representation (probably using CMaps) of what this vision could or should contain. It has to look beyond this coming year - it can be utopian but it has a responsibility to be practical and rooted in reality, the reality of where the school is currently at. So, what have I gathered in my NoteBook since I started thinking about this on Friday afternoon?

A great quote from George Siemens:

We have designed education to promote certainty (i.e. a state of knowing)...we now need to design education to be adaptable (i.e. a process of knowing).

From David Warlick, the first:

Much has been written lately about technology in the classroom — as to whether it is optional or even relevant. This conversation is understandable, given the time of the year. I ask myself two questions in reaction.

  1. Can a teacher be a good teacher without using technology? A resounding “YES!”
  2. Is a teacher who is not using technology doing their job? An emphatic “NO!”

But, of course, it isn’t so simple. “My kids use the pencil sharpener. That’s technology.” It’s why I try not to use that word, and urge others to stop trying to “Integrate technology” It’s too big. It means too many things. It’s why I keep hammer on literacy, that it’s information that has changed (digital, networked, overwhelming, and the more esoteric changes that have come about because of the read/write web).

If we can expand what it means to be literate to reflect the changing information environment, and integrate that, then we might start using technology for what it is, the pencil and paper of our time.

And the second: the same time that we teach our students to be responsible consumers of information, we should also be teaching them to be skilled and responsible producers of information. Look at the concept of the long tail and at the thousands of people who have become authors, musicians and composers, and movie makers, many of whom are drawing incoming by marketing their own information productions through the Internet.

In the information age, information will be the raw material that we work with, as we build unique and valuable information products in order to solve problems and accomplish goals.

The great thing is that my blogroll is filled with so many great thinkers that can help fill out this vision. The library's role in all of this - read Judy O'Connell, Doug Johnson or Chris Harris. What about mobile learning - access Alex Hayes or Leonard Low. Classroom practicalities and implementation - Mark Ahlness, Al Upton or Darren Kuropatwa. Just keep adding to the NoteBook and see where it goes.


As part of the preparation for our Parent Information evening, I sat down with one of our new Interactive Whiteboard users to check through what she intended to show as her contribution. Maria is a middle primary teacher and has now had an ACTIVboard in her classroom for nearly six weeks and it was interesting to talk with her candidly about her experiences with this tool that the jury is still very much undecided on. Already, she said that she wouldn't want to give it up and go without this tool. So our meeting was to identify some useful examples to highlight the IWB's potential in the classroom.

During our conversation, Maria talked with passion about her "turning point" in her IWB use which is pretty amazing considering the relatively short amount of time she has had the ACTIVboard in the classroom. It really does hammer the point home that excellent teachers have no problem blending technology into their teaching practice, because they are great teachers not because they are using whiz bang technology. Anyway, back to Maria's story. Her class have been tackling a Problem Based Learning unit on the general theme of water conservation - I've been working with them using Photoshop Elements to create logos and Photo Story to craft community service announcements to educate others about water conservation. Maria had been threading a lot of this through the curriculum, carrying ideas and learning from the Resource Centre back into her classroom and then it all came together in one afternoon.

Maria had started a lesson in a very traditional way with the use of a poem about the water cycle which she had photocopied and handed around. In her pre-IWB days, this would have been a lead-in to a discussion that would be "connected to" later in the week when the students had their computing room time, when they were in the library using resources on the water conservation theme. However, as she had access to the ACTIVboard she was able to go from the poem to an interactive website that showed the water cycle in action, then compared the visual difference between two online diagrams that had been found by a student in a previous PBL lesson. Straightaway the visual learners in the classroom were catered for, which the photocopied diagram and poem struggled to do. Things just started falling into place as the afternoon progressed, connecting the learning quickly and efficiently with Maria's role being of much more facilitator than traditional teacher. She was no longer the expert but the IWB allowed her to access information in multimedia form to present for discussion and dissection by her students. As Maria said to me, she would have done all this but over a much longer timespan and much less convenience. So, it was really great to see that the ACTIVboard could really assist in "just-in-time" learning and help connect concepts when the opportunity presented. This means more efficient learning opportunities for the students allowing them more time to go deeper into their water conservation topic while a more traditional approach might have only skimmed the surface.

Now if all of our teachers push their IWB use in this direction, then it can become a very useful tool in the 21st classroom. But as was pointed out at the Parent Information evening, technology in the classroom is only as good as the teacher guiding its use. Now I have to think long and hard about how to support our teachers in my role so they feel as empowered as Maria and her students.