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Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Power Of RSS


As I have read

"Raw Materials for the Mind: A Teacher's Guide to Digital Literacy" by David Warlick and

"Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms" by Will Richardson ,

I have come to experience and see the power of RSS or Real Simple Syndication.

RSS is a distribution system that has been compared to our more familiar newspaper or magazine subscription format. When you subscribe to a magazine, the magazine is delivered to you. You don't have to go to the publishing center and obtain your copy. It is sent out to you and you can easily enjoy the contents of your favorite publication. How many magazines or newspapers would you subscribe to if you had to do the running around to get the content you are interested in? Probably none or not very many. The content would still be valuable to you for whatever purpose you use it for, but the frustration and bother to search out this information might decrease your enthusiasm to seek out the info. This is very similar to what you had to do to seek out your information on the internet. You might find some sites that had exactly the content you were looking for and would check back often. The only problem being, you had to visit each individual site to gather the digital information. Enter RSS and aggregators.

An aggregator is much like your mailman or newspaper boy. It is usually software, installed on your computer, that retrieves digital content, like weblogs, podcasts, vcasts, or news sites. Now that you have your aggregator working for you, the RSS address for sites that you visit can be added to your aggregator. Based upon the schedule you determine, the aggregator will visit each of the sites, all on its own, and check the RSS feed to see if any new content is available. If new material is present, it will be delivered to your web browser. You no longer have to point your web browser at each site. The aggregator will check it for you.

I currently have 30 weblogs that my aggregator checks. I am using Sage, which is an extension for the Firefox web browser. When I visit a site I find interesting, I can have Sage check for an RSS feed. If one is present, I can click it and add it to the sites that Sage will visit the next time I request an update of sites. While Sage is working, I can visit other websites, work on something else or sip my coffee. When I am ready, Sage will obediently show me which sites that have updated content and I can look at the titles or the simplified pages. If I wish to visit the actual site, I click the link, and I'm taken there for a closer look.

Will Richardson also suggests time saving use of RSS for teachers. If you are having your students weblog or use a wiki for assignments, you could subscribe to their pages. When they have new content to comment upon or grade, your aggregator would let you know that their work was ready and waiting for you. Now I don't know about you, but many teachers are reluctant to make better use of technology in the classroom because of the perspective that it will only make for more work. If you use the technology for the students educational benefit, why not also be sure you can benefit also. Instead of checking 60 or 90 weblogs or wiki projects, you spend your time giving quality assessment and input to the content that your aggregator brings to you. This might seem like a little thing but don't be fooled. When teachers start to use the technology that is available for their students and for themselves, everyone will win. In the future I want to share what I've learned of how to have your research come to you.

(The ideas shared here have been gained through the works of Will Richardson and David Warlick. I highly encourage you to visit their blogs and buy their excellent books)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Weblogging For School Improvement

I've been reading Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms by Will Richardson and am enjoying it immensely. The uses for weblogs that are suggested are some of the same that I had thought of through reflection and reading other blogs, but Will's list also opened my eyes to new possibilities, especially in use by teachers.

The use of weblogs as a tool for teacher professional development makes total sense. I have been following the NECC 2006 Conference through blogs and podcasts of those attending by checking tags at Technorati and HitchHikr and have gained so much even though I was not on-site for the event. It would be sooo easy for our staff to do the same as they attend state, regional or national conferences for their content areas. Many times the school foots the bill for the workshop/conference and the teachers are asked to report back at a staff meeting or in-service day. By asking that the staff weblog about the event, we would have a record of the knowledge gained, a searchable digital source, and staff could recover this resource when it is relevant to their need. Sorry to say, teachers like students, are not motivated to their best effort unless relevance can be shown.

Our school improvement team was approached by a staff member who wanted to act as a "historian" that would record what was accomplished at in-service events, professional development etc... We agreed that this would be a good idea but didn't know how it could really be of applicable value to the entire staff. Now when school starts this fall I will be suggesting that our school improvement historian maintain the record with a weblog that the entire staff can view/comment.

Like many schools, we have monthly department meetings for the core content areas. The department chair could have the meeting and then weblog the information. It would be available to the team members of the department and would be a record of the work done by department members. Archiving of the digital record would allow members to search and refer back to information that was not relevant to them at the time, but has become important to their teaching situation.

Lastly, by having teachers take such an active role in collaboration of information through weblogs, the staff will be providing the students with a model to follow and learn from. When teachers grow, students will know. The experience of learning lasts a lifetime.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Wikis, Wikipedia and On-line Content

Andy Carvin in a recent blog gave me more insights on what I will need to do with my students as they create and manage their wiki pages. Andy makes the case that teacher's fears about the quality of on-line sources, Wikipeida and others, actually provides a teachable moment. As students research on-line they need to be taught to look at the information with a critical eye. Is the information offered with citations for the source of the knowledge or is it someone's opinion? By training my students to look for reference citations, I will be providing scaffolding for the basis of their future learning and showing the importance of citing references in their own scholarly work, whether wiki or written.

As my students prepare their contributions to the class wiki, I will be requiring that they provide citations from at least 2 -3 reference sources. This will be good practice for them and will help maintain a wiki that will be knowledge based rather than student opinion.

This will also help meet one of our school improvement goals: relevancy of content.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Wiki Work Goal Progress

The last few days has found me researching and learning more about wikis than I thought possible. I have tried out wikis at PBwiki and Wikispaces. I have installed MediaWiki on my site. I have done Technorati searches on wiki in education. I have listened to podcasts about wikis. I have visited many sites such as the Westwood Wiki to see what other excellent teachers are doing. Through all of this it becomes more clear to me that this wiki stuff is going to have a real impact upon the way I teach and more importantly the way my students learn. How do I know this? From my personal experience. Searches for information that I have done, adding to my knowledge base , and turning around and sharing with others is the exactly what I want my students to do. Why? Because we can't really share what we don't really know. Sure you can repeat back what you have heard but you don't have any context to gain meaning. I think that the relevancy that wikis work in my class, yes more than one, are going to engage students because they will have an audience of consumers for their gained knowledge. It just isn't for the teacher, test, report card, or mom/dad. It will for themselves.

For others getting started in wikis, here are my reflections:

  • PBWiki - a free wiki (remove adds/upgrade for subscription fee) that takes the pain out of getting started in wikis. Some good templates for preformatting pages or to use as base ideas for formatting your wiki pages/information. The free wiki provides for one group password that allows members of your community to post/edit pages. Greater control on permissions is available through the subscription fee service.
  • WikiSpaces - a free wiki (remove adds/upgrade for subscription fee) that is also very easy to get started. Public, Protected, and Private wikis are available. One of the things I like about this wiki provider is that you can have a protected wiki that is still free. This means that as the teacher/organizer you can establish your wiki as open to public viewing but pages can only be posted/edited by members of your site. As the organizer you invite your students through an email to join. When they sign up, they will have their own username/password that will allow for more accountability when you check the page history of the edits, or you a established a requirement for posting/editing for an assignment. Templates for formatting the look of your site are available with greater control provided to those who have subscribed. The Westwool Wiki, hosted on WikiSpaces, is an excellent example of what I hope my students will attain.
  • MediaWiki - this is the open-source freeware used by Wikipedia to run their site. I downloaded a copy, installed it (good directions and an easy intall compared to some programs I have tried) and started playing with it. This is a very robust program that as a novice wiki user/provider I was not able to fully enjoy. One of the problems with the version (v1.6) I installed was the lack of an installed set of help pages. I could always go to the MediaWiki site to check things out but that seemed inconvenient. I would also point out that the most current stable version is 1.7 but my server did not have PHP 5 so I had to install an older version. Perhaps that version of MediaWiki has a set of help pages that are part of the install.For a newbie like me getting started, this was taking too large a bite of the wiki pie! As I gain more experience I would consider trying this program again.
There are many other sources for wikis that any search would find. These are just a few that I looked into.

What kinds of things do I hope to have my students do with our class wikis?

  • Vocabulary - I would like to see the students establish a class vocabulary wiki page. I know many students are required to keep a notebook for the year of vocab that is taught or they encounter. I plan on asking my students to do an online version with the wiki.
  • Unit Reports/Summary - My students have several units that they are assigned research reports that are then presented to the class. They become the class expert and share this knowledge with the class. I would like to see their work posted on the wiki so the other students could truly benefit from the efforts. By having on the wiki, students could revisit the information or edit/add to the contribution. At the end of the year the students will have a digital record of their learning and more importantly, how they contributed to each others learning.
I'm sure there are a many more ideas and I will continue to keep searching. As Mulder from the X-Files might say, "The Wiki is out there."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Welcome To My Blog

This is the blog of a former MS band director (17 yrs) who has now become a 7/8 Social Studies teacher (NCLB Highly-Qualified). I have been able to take a more active role on the school improvement team and am now able to share my love of Social Studies with my students.