Friday, November 12, 2010

Thoughts on Re-creating the Wheel

I have heard many say over the years something to the tune of "There is no need to recreate the wheel".

For the most part, in many instances, I would agree.

However, I would like to say that part of me delights in recreating wheels - especially in the online environment.

I know there is so much out there in terms of resources and I think most would agree that you could spend way too much time checking them all out. I know that I can become easily consumed by the fun of screening all the videos in order to pick the right one.

BUT - in a digital time when we are striving to have students become producers rather than consumers I think we often spend way too much time going along for the ride on the wheels of somebody else.

I think it is time to have students figuring out how to build their own wheels that others can ride on. Develop the skills and mindset that it takes to design, produce, and share.

Generally, if I can do it myself, I try to make my own wheels. Video files, audio files, tip sheets, rubrics, lessons, learning objects - using the tools of the trade. If I can't do it myself - I find ways to inch closer to that capability. Learning, building, growing, developing.

Kinda like the saying goes "Give a man some fish and you can feed him for a day - Teach him to fish and you can feed him for a lifetime."

How might this compare with giving students resources vs teaching them to make their own?

What might learning look like if students were all making their own wheels? I want my students, my children to know how to make their own stuff - to critically think - analyze - evaluate - compare - improve.

I think there is something to be said for the ability to recreate a wheel even though we may not always do it. I remember being one of those kids that wanted to take things apart to see how they work. Today I still like to learn how technology works - I take apart computers and put them back together and I examine code to see why websites look the way they do.

So even though I found a great video about density one day - I think I will still make my own. It might be more work but it is also more satisfaction, it is more challenging but more rewarding, it is perhaps more primitive looking but more fun - it is learning.

I think re-creating a wheel once in a while is a very valuable experience.

Then I might have students find a density video, evaluate the effectiveness of it to inform, make suggestions for improvement, then have them make their own wheels...

Are you teaching students to re-create the wheel or just giving them a ride?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Remove the Ambiguity in Grades

Some discussions in a meeting today got me to thinking again about grades that students get in school. Grades, particularly at the middle and high school level can be very misleading. I have often been frustrated that the valedictorian shares the same diploma as the student with the D- average. While this represents the extremes of those crossing the stage in June there are several "A" students out there that don't leave with an 'A' level of knowledge and some 'D-' students that do.

Make the Grade Mean Something

I remember my days of assigning grades and I will be the first to admit that I did things pretty much status quo as far as the points-based grading scale went. At the same time, I remember wishing that it could be different. I want to look at a high school transcript, see an A and feel confident that the student who earned the A really knows their stuff in that subject area. Likewise I want the D- to reflect the fact that they don't really know the material well. Instead, I see lots of very smart kids that get a D- because they often turned in work late or not at all. Now - in a points based system it is hard to grant points, and thus, a grade if they haven't turned in something to slap points on. But does that truly reflect what they have learned about the subject? If I turn in exceptional work 2 days late all the time and get a C on all of the work (because it is late) it is not a true reflection of my knowledge of the material. It is a reflection of my time management skills. As a teacher, shouldn't I be grading your level of ability in the content? Isn't that how the transcript is interpreted?

Opening the Can of Worms - A Proposal

Ok - so here goes... Why can't we have a separate line item for each category like what I used to get in elementary school? Something that holds a great deal more meaning for those interested in looking at it.

  • Chemistry  A

  • Time Management  C+ (for getting work in on time and use of class time to work)

  • Punctuality  B (for tardies to class)

  • Respectfulness  A (for interaction with others)

  • Neatness  D+ (quality of handwriting/work)

  • Collaboration  C- (for work in groups)

  • Participation  F (for class discussion and interaction)

OK - so I know that the list could be bigger, add whatever categories that you think might be appropriate. the point is that this might very well reflect the quiet kid that sits in the back and does his/her own thing and just wants to be left alone to serve their time in school. Since many teachers consider other factors into their grades, the scenario above could easily reflect a C+ on a transcript (2.333) but it would not accurately tell you how good they were at chemistry.

So this is an example of a kid that gets a lower grade than they deserve - the flip side of this is the kid that gets a higher grade than they deserve. (In terms of content)

  • Chemistry  C-

  • Time Management  A (for getting work in on time and use of class time to work)

  • Punctuality  B (for tardies to class)

  • Respectfulness  A (for interaction with others)

  • Neatness  C+ (quality of handwriting/work)

  • Collaboration  B (for work in groups)

  • Participation  B+ (for class discussion and interaction)

So here is the kid that is so nice, does all the right things, is polite, turns in everything on time, but face it, chemistry just isn't their thing. That being said, they always try their best, follow rules, do their part in labs, and they have done some extra credit work for extra points. A teacher might take all this into account and award a B to that student. The above grades would average a B but it would give a better representation of how the student performed in the content area.

The problem is that just seeing the B or the C+ does not tell the whole story. I vote for a revision of the grading system.

Yes, easier said than done but I know, that I would love to see this data on my children and on potential new hires were I in a position to hire someone. Certainly this type of grading could be accomplished at the post-secondary level as well.

So what if this was the type of report card students got? Valedictorian could be based strictly on the content knowledge or perhaps a combination of things on the transcript in the event of a tie. Certainly, this sort of change would involve a lot of discussions and logistical work.

Alright - let's start discussing then - maybe share some of your own proposals.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Interactive White Boards - (A Rant)

Coming to a classroom near you...

OK - so if you haven't noticed, interactive white boards seem to be the latest craze in public schools - at least they are in my neck of the woods. I have had the luxury of installing about 3 dozen SMART Boards and about a dozen Prometheans. I have even went through training to become a certified Promethean trainer. I have also used some other popular units in the past but please know that I am not here to advocate for any particular brand. I am here to speak about how they are being used.

Here is my beef...

This is a student tool not a teacher tool. Over the last several years I have watched excitement grow over the interactive white board (IWB) - and with good reason. The IWB is an awesome tool to have at one's disposal. Any brand, while different in construction, design, and software basically affords the same general possibilities for interaction with your students. Most of the vendors will even tell you that you can use other IWB software with their system (if appropriately licensed, of course) All this aside, the key word in the name of this tool is INTERACTIVE. Unfortunately, I have watched way too many teachers use this tool as a glorified projection screen or PowerPoint clicker. The IWB should be used to engage your students so, teachers, I urge you to take advantage of the power of your technology.

Make the most of your IWB... A few simple suggestions to start...

  1. Design lessons that bring students to the board. Add some kinesthetic learning to your routine. Have students construct sentences, build molecules, or count change by manipulating objects on the board. Find what works at your level and content area and get them out of their seats.

  2. Record the session. Some teachers may not know that they can record what happens on the board. Get a wireless microphone (it is cheaper than the IWB setup you have...) and start archiving what you and the students do at the board. Combine this with the internet, and I would recommend, a CMS like Moodle and you have a great way to retain activities and make them available for absent students or those that need to review.

  3. Take time to learn the features of your software. Invest your time. Don't use the "I don't have time excuse" - make time. If you want to excel at what you do, you need to be willing to go the extra mile. Attend trainings and create engaging, student-centered lessons after hours if you have to. Be creative with the tools. Revealers, spotlights, layers, quizzing and polling, graphic libraries, magic ink, screen capture, duplication, transformation, opacity, animations, and so much more can all be harnessed to excite your students. I bet your students could probably help come up with some great ideas. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if you had them creating some of the lessons as an activity, not only do you save some of that time but you might even help some of your students reach higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy with your content area at the same time.

An interactive white board is capable of so much more than just displaying what is on your computer desktop and advancing PowerPoint slides. Please, I beg of you, do not insult the wonderful technology you have by reducing it to performing such mundane tasks. Get beyond the PowerPoint and start really using the tools in a more meaningful way. Don't your students deserve better?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

BrainStorm 11.0 Day Three

Day three started off with some nicely fresh cooked omelets to order. The cooks were proficient at flipping the fixins around in the pan. It was fun to watch. My first session was on managing netbooks and laptops with Linux but I changed it since I did not want a repeat of the same material that I got twice the day before. I went into a session on Community Area Networks instead. It was not really something for me at this time though so it was a loss anyway. The second session of the day was on Google Apps, Linux, and Open Source in an Economic Downturn. This was the best session of the conference, at least for me. There was a lot of great Q&A that took place and I felt as though I actually got some things that I can take back and consider or try out from this session.  My third session of the day was on mobility for the end user in a 21st century classroom. This was an OK session but there was not a whole lot that I was able to take away from this. Finally, after lunch, my last session was on migration to Open Office. It was nice to hear about some of the roadblocks that were encountered by other districts and how they dealt with them.

After it was all over, another 5.5 hours in the car back home was on the schedule.

So this was my first BrainStorm conference. Ultimately, I did not really get out of it what I was expecting. I did not go to "get sold" on something but to get educated on things. I really wanted to learn some stuff about Linux but mostly got some sales pitches about how someone else could do it all for me. Perhaps I simply did not pick the right sessions. Next time maybe I will be a bit more savvy about how to choose the sessions that are less sales pitch and more professional development.

I was pleased enough to desire a trip to BrainStorm again next year.

BrainStorm 11.0 Day Two

The day started off with a small continental breakfast followed by the keynote by Andy Ihnatko. The keynote kept my attention and was entertaining but was, in many ways a small push for the iPad. He did make some curious points that will require some thought but overall was not especially inspiring. We then moved on to some round table discussion sessions. I chose to sit in on one about networking electronics. It was nice to hear some opinions on what others thought of various pieces of equipment.

Lunch time already? Yup.

Then we went to some breakout sessions. I was looking forward to these. The first one was called 'A Comprehensive Linux Back-End Infrastructure'. I must admit that I was expecting more information on how to accomplish creating one than getting a vendor description and being told that it is possible.

The next session was called 'The New 1 to 1: Scalable and Affordable Ubiquitous Computing Using Open Source'. OK - believe it or not, I got an almost carbon copy of the last session from the same vendor but different presenter. I left early.

To wrap up the day, we had the vendor expo. It was fun to walk around and see all of the stuff available although most of it was not new.

I was asleep by 7:30. I have four more sessions to go and really hope that I can latch on to something exciting that I can take back and use.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

BrainStorm 11.0 Day One

After 5.5 hours in the car driving to Wisconsin Dells - Kalahari Resort, It was time to get some lunch and get settled into my room for the next couple days. The lines for check-in were rather long and the rooms were not ready yet so a brief tour of the resort was next on the agenda. The Kalahari is a rather large place complete with movie theatre, bowling alley, shops, arcade, Ferris wheel, and of course, a large water park.

[caption id="attachment_66" align="alignleft" width="400" caption="Some tools for the conference!"][/caption]

My first session of the conference was about using the ActivExpressions by Promethean which are student response systems. It was a quick session that lasted about an hour and was basically just an introduction to the device. I admit that I was interested in going a bit more in depth with the device but it did not work out that way. Dinner was a traditional Wisconsin cookout style meal of brats and burgers with baked beans and potato salad - hard to go wrong with that. There was some great networking around the table which I found to be the most valuable from the day. Went to investigate the entertainment for the evening and was not very interested so went back to my room and knocked out the first 20 cards of Square by Square and then decided to recap the day. Now if only the kids upstairs will stop jumping on the beds.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Brief Review of 280 Slides

I recently came across a web based, PowerPoint-like application called 280 Slides - created by 280 North. I thought it might be nice to do a small review of the application based on my first impressions.

First Impressions

On the home page, the big button that says "TRY IT NOW, FREE!" truly delivers. You do not even have to register or anything - just start creating. I found out, however, that you will need to register if you want to upload pictures. It was a very simple registration, though. In fact, it was probably one of the easiest I have done. Just an e-mail and type password twice - no need to even do the confirmation e-mail thing. I liked how easy it was to get going with the application.

If you are a Mac person and are familiar with Keynote - you should feel comfortable with this. It had very much and 'Apple' feel to it. Apparently two of the creators were Apple employees though. If you are more of a PowerPoint user, this is no problem. I felt this application had a very small learning curve. The user interface was very simple to understand without tons of buried menu items.

Some Advantages

OK, so I by no means did an extensive review but there were some things that stood out right away. I liked that the UI was easy to grasp with friendly icons. Since there was no installation of any kind, startup was fast - no waiting for the program to load. In a hurry? This might be your ticket. The registration was even fast and hassle-free. The media support is pretty good with the ability to upload pictures and videos along with some simple built-in shapes. I thought the opacity slider was a neat feature. Sharing via blogs and such is simple too. You can get the embed codes needed with a few quick clicks.

Some Disadvantages

OK, again, not an extensive review but there were a few things that I identified as drawbacks. First, there are only nine these to pick from and five of those are just solid colors and pretty boring. Three of the other four are OK but not stellar and the graph paper theme might be OK for some math lesson but careful on the eyes with that one... Second, and this may not be that big a deal - there were only three layouts to choose from but then again, how many do you really need? You can place things wherever you want anyway. Third is the big one in my book. I did not notice a way to create hyperlinks. Since this is web-based, there seems a strong chance to want to link to something on the web from your presentation. Ultimately there is not a lot of capabilities with the product but it does what it needs to for the most part.


Overall, I thought this was well made - attractive and functional. I am not sure how much demand there is for a product like this with PowerPoint, Keynote, GoogleDocs, and OpenOffice Impress out there especially when GoogleDocs and Impress are free and have much more functionality. I can see, however, in a pinch when you might be limited to someone else's computer or something and your favorite resources might not be available that this would be a good place to go.

Here is the sample presentation I created - it was very easy and sharing is a breeze.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Forum Tracking in Moodle

Please note that this walk-thru was created with a 1.9 version of Moodle. Newer versions may not look the same.

Ok - I thought that I would make a blog post on this one since it is a question that is often asked by teachers using Moodle.

"Can Moodle show me the new posts so I don't have to filter through them all and try to remember which ones I have not read yet?"

The short answer to this is YES! Woot!

Here is the long answer...which includes the answer to the follow up question of HOW?

By default, this feature is not turned on. Each individual has to activate the setting in their profile in order to be able to see the tracking. Also, please note that whoever created the forum needs to also make the tracking available on that forum so even though you have it set to track unread posts in your profile you may not be able to see them if the tracking on a particular forum is turned off.

Here are some visual steps to being able to see the forum tracking. I realize that there are many paths that one could follow to accomplish this task. This is just one of the options that can help you to achieve this result.

For teachers creating forums,

1. Start by clicking on the forum you want to adjust the settings for.

2. Then you want to choose Update this Forum. This button can be found towards the upper right of the page.

3. You should find a setting called 'Read tracking for this forum?' By default it is set to optional which means that students can adjust settings for that forum individually if they don't want tracking for that particular forum. If set to yes or no - tracking on the forum cannot be chosen by the student. Since the default is set to 'optional', tracking will be enabled if it is turned on in the student's profile.

Don't forget to save your changes.
This button can be found at the bottom of the screen.

4. The next step is to click on your name in the upper right corner. This should take you to your profile. Once we get there, we will need to edit your profile.

5. Click on the tab that says 'Edit profile'

6. The setting we need to adjust is not readily visible so you need to click on the 'Show Advanced' button. This will bring up some more options.

7. This is the one we want to change.  Remember, you are updating your own profile. All students will have to make this adjustment as well if they want to see the tracking. Again, don't forget to save your changes.

Now when someone posts a new thread or reply in the forum, you will get a nice notification.

Again, I realize that there are a few ways to get to these spots but both things are required to view forum tracking.

Happy Moodle-ing!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Installing Some Extras for Ubuntu 9.10

OK - so here is the deal. I have been increasingly interested in Linux and using it for various projects. I started with Ubuntu 8.04 and ran it for a while - then I tried Fedora, Debian, and SUSE. Now I am back to Ubuntu but with the 9.10 version. I have to admit that the more I use it, the more I am liking it. Now, really - I am a Linux noob so all that I have done with it so far has been through hours of research on forums, blogs, and other various documentation. There always seemed to be something that blocked my progress from fully accepting a Linux distro of any kind.

From all of the searching, I never came across one spot that really laid it all out to have a working system the way an average Joe might want to have one. That means playing DVDs, viewing flash video online, and interacting with java applets.

I recall when I first installed Ubuntu 9.10 - It was sharp! I like the look of the login screen. I also recall wishing I could have the login screen background as my desktop wallpaper but that is not really a big deal. I started to try out all the goodies, of course, and came across some issues that needed to be resolved.

  1. Flash player

    • I used the Firefox browser (which I use on the PC anyway so was not unfamiliar with it) and quickly realized that there is no flash player installed. OK - no biggie, right? Well, that is what I thought. I went out to download flash for linux from Adobe's website and found the file no problem. Downloaded no problem. There it was on my desktop. I tried a few things to install it to no avail including some hunting online for solutions. Eventually, I found an answer that worked. That is a bit hard to swallow when flash basically downloads and installs pretty much on its own or with a double click on the install file in Windows.

  2. Java Runtime Environment

    • Same deal. If you are gonna browse - you need to have JRE installed to help maximize the experience just as you would with flash. Again, did some forum foraging for answers. It was about this time that I discovered the Synaptic package manager. That is pretty neat. However, do a search for flash or java and you will get a lot of returns. AAHHHH! Which one is the right one to choose?? Back to searching the forums. (Don't get me wrong, this has been a great learning experience.) Finally something that works.

  3. Play a DVD Movie

    • Alright, time to toss in that new copy of Star Trek you picked up at Wal-Mart last week. (You saw that, right? It was very good) No dice. No URI error pops up. Yeah, I get it - can't play movies on a PC either without the right codecs. Back to the forums. The frustrating part was that Ubuntu comes with the Movie Player. When my PC comes with a movie player like InterVideo, it has the codecs too. I eventually gathered enough things from various sources to get the DVD to play.

Well, all that being said, I wanted to combine all my efforts into one post that helps with each of these things as I am guessing that this is a common issue but it can be frustrating to try to find all the bits and pieces scattered across the web.

Getting it all to work in Ubuntu 9.10

First of all, this assumes a fresh installation of Ubuntu 9.10 without any other modifications that would possibly render one of these steps useless.

Second, I am going to give you all command line information. I personally found that to be just simpler than the package manager.

Third, if you are not wired and are having trouble with your wireless connection, you may want to try checking to see if the drivers are available on the machine but not installed.

  • Go to System > Administration > Hardware Drivers

  • Check to see if you have a wireless driver in the list (I have had some laptops just work and others that needed this step)

  • I had a driver called Broadcom b43legacy wireless driver

  • Select and install that driver

Now for the real meat and potatoes of this post...

  1. Download Ubuntu 9.10 and burn your ISO file to disk. Boot your computer with the disk in. Make sure your BIOS settings will allow you to boot from your optical drive. I am not going to walk you through installation of Ubuntu with this post though.

  2. When installation is complete and you are at the desktop - Go to your Terminal by selecting Applications > Accessories > Terminal

    • As a side note, I use Terminal so much that I added it to the panel. (right-click on Terminal and choose Add this launcher to panel)

  3. Now you will have to be a superuser in order to do all these installs so you will be prompted for your password several times in this process. You should be able to use the one you provided during the Ubuntu install process.

  4. Here are all the installs I did to get the DVD playing. **Disclaimer - the DVD might play with less than this but from what I learned all these options allow for better performance so I installed all of them. I also know that it may not work on your system at all - this is what worked for me so I can only hope it will work for someone else as well. OH - and make sure it isn't just a CD drive. They won't play DVDs. :) I also recommend running these in the same order as listed. Accept any prompts.

    • sudo apt-get install libdvdread4

    • sudo /usr/share/doc/libdvdread4/

    • sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly

    • sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly-multiverse

    • sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad

    • sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad-multiverse

    • sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-ffmpeg

    • sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-pitfdll

  5. Get Flash Player installed (no you won't have to pay anything for it)

    • sudo apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree

  6. Get Java Runtime Environment installed

    • sudo apt-get install sun-java6-jre

    • sudo apt-get install sun-java6-plugin

    • sudo apt-get install sun-java6-fonts

So that pretty much wraps up the majority of the setup for me. I know that you each will have needs that are different but this seems like it would be a pretty universal set of applications to have installed. Hopefully it was helpful to you in some way.

Thanks to the many, many folks more knowledgeable than I am for the plethora of posts that helped me get them all together.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Save Time With Photoshop Automated Batch

I recently had about 200 photos that needed to be optimized for the web.  That means opening the pic in Photoshop and reducing the average 3MB pic down to about 30K. It also means saving them with new file names. Photoshop can rename all the files using a convention of your choosing.

OK - so 200+ pics would take several hours to re-size one at a time. UGH, who wants to do that? Not me. With Photoshop, I was able to perform this task in about 5 minutes by doing an automated batch. Basically, all you do is take one of your pictures and re-size it the way you want and record the process. Then you can have Photoshop perform the same steps on a large batch of pictures saving tons of time.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Making Books With Mixbook

My daughter who is in 6th grade was recently given an assignment to create a book about Korea chock full of facts. I happened to catch a glimpse of this book which was  about 3 pieces of paper cut in half the short way, stacked, folded, and stapled together. UGH. There has to be a better way.

I immediately thought of Mixbook and how that might be the perfect tool for this assignment. I showed it to my daughter and let her go to town. I think that the results were much better than what she had started. Not only does the final product stand out as an excellent piece of work but it was also a beneficial exercise for my daughter to start learning how to work with the gazillion free tools out there on the web. Here is the final product created by my daughter.

Mixbook - Create Beautiful Photo Books and Scrapbooks! | View Sample Photo Books | Create your own Photo Book

It goes to show that students today seem much more well suited for working with the technology. They appear to have a natural flair for it. It is too bad that the resources are not always available in our schools so that students can use these tools more often.

Windows 7 Pro 64-bit and Printing

About two dozen new computers were purchased for folks in the office recently. We made the decision to move forward rather than hold back and ordered the machines with 4GB of RAM and the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 Professional. We started deploying them last week and for the most part, things are coming along rather smoothly.

The only real issue that I have encountered so far (not a critical one) is that the printers are not always so easy to install. Tried installing through the print server (Server 2003) - Fail - tried installing through add a printer wizard - Fail - In both instances the computer failed to locate the drivers for the printer. The odd part is that the drivers are already pre-installed on the machine.

At this point, the work-around is to install the printer locally using a TCP/IP port. This way, I am prompted to choose the driver and can choose it from the list of pre-installed drivers - Success! For some reason, Windows 7 was not offering me the option to choose a driver but just gave me a fail message. Folks are printing for now so it is not a serious issue but a puzzle nonetheless. Perhaps it will be fixed in a future patch.

One interesting thing that is good for some discussion is that I had recently set up an old workstation with Ubuntu Server 9.10 and configured it as a print server. When I set the printers up on the Linux box and attempted to connect the new 64-bit Windows 7 machines to the printers via the Linux print server, it just worked! I admit that I was amazed. There is only one other Linux box in the building which is running on the Moodle server and does not really interact with any of the other machines. The Linux box performed superior in the Windows environment to Windows itself. Go figure?!

Well, anyway, no doubt that my windows print server needs to be upgraded to Server 2008. Perhaps that would be sufficient to fix my issues on this matter. That is another summer project to add to the list.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Blog Site!

The official launch of my new site. I am really going for the techie look and really loved this iPhone theme. I hope to share some thoughts and ideas on k12 education, technology, tips, tricks, curriculum, and just about anything related to technology and education in general.