Insight On Academic Blogs

Here’s an interesting article from Inside Higher Ed titled “A Skeptic’s Take on Academic Blogs.”

Here’s my favorite piece, on that supports the decentralized argument. The author is talking about moving from a decentralized form of blogging (people have their own blogs) vs. a group blog format.

I have come to the conclusion that what was so good about the original disorganized format of the University Without Condition conversations was precisely that it was so decentralized. This feature allowed it to escape one of the major pitfalls of conversations based in blog comments — the inherently hierarchical nature of the format. In blog comments, someone has written out a thoughtful post in what they will often regard as their own personal space. They have an established community of commenters who are, for the most part, sympathetic to the author’s point of view. Thus, when someone comes along and starts criticizing the original post, there is naturally a temptation toward “circling the wagons.” Additionally, comment forms are generally cumbersome and difficult to use for in-depth conversation — with the paradoxical result that one will either dash off a quick comment that by definition cannot match the rigor of the original post, or else an overly long comment that people will experience as an imposition. Having various people responding on their own personal blogs rather than in comments gets around all these problems — the conversation is decentered, not localized to anyone’s “turf,” and people are more likely to write lengthier, more thoughtful responses if they are producing it for the sake of their own blog instead of writing something that will be hidden away in some obscure corner of someone else’s comment sections.

There’s some great insight, capturing a bit what I’ve learned being involved in an academic blog.

Virtual Pedophillia and Second Life

TechCrunch has featured a story on the growing problem of “virtual pedophilia on Second Life. Check out this Sky News inside report.

Beyond my disgust, I continue to see that such virtual worlds and user-generated content can bring up some unique moral and legal issues. While I’ve never believed that video game violence is directly related to real-world violence, I think very differently about those fantasizing about sexual encounters with children.

Read more at TechCrunch.

CAREO Being Decommissioned

D’Arcy Norman writes that today that “CAREO, the learning object repository we built at The University of Calgary, is being officially decommissioned. Unplugged, mothballed, and put into storage.” I’ve always though this was a very impressive initiative, but I agree with D’Arcy that there is no longer a need for this type of institutional repository.

CAREO was important, back in 2001-2004, as a prototype. As a sandbox for trying out some of these concepts. As a place to easily host metadata and content and try the repository model. From that perspective, I think it was a huge success. Without CAREO, I would likely still be saying that we need centralized institutional repositories to tightly manage resources.

But, because of CAREO, I now know that we don’t need repositories at the institutional level. Personal repositories are much more powerful, effective, and manageable. They’re called blogs, maybe you’ve heard of them? And small pieces, loosely joined. Want to manage photos online? Use Flickr. Videos? Use YouTube/GoogleVideo/etc… We don’t need a monolithic institutional repository.

A job well done D’Arcy, we’ve all learned a lot about knowledge in the last few years, and the LORs were another important and crucial step for our overall understanding. Here’s to celebrating this piece of collective achievement.

Encyclopedia of Life

Why have I not seen this before? This looks like a terrific idea!

Comprehensive, collaborative, ever-growing, and personalized, the Encyclopedia of Life is an ecosystem of websites that makes all key information about life on Earth accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world. Our goal is to create a constantly evolving encyclopedia that lives on the Internet, with contributions from scientists and amateurs alike. To transform the science of biology, and inspire a new generation of scientists, by aggregating all known data about every living species. And ultimately, to increase our collective understanding of life on Earth, and safeguard the richest possible spectrum of biodiversity.

Does anyone know if this is still happening, if this is a live project?

Loading Up My New Mac

I’ve recently purchased a new Mac Pro, and now I’m looking to my other two Macs (iMac, Macbook Pro) for the essential software that I need on this new machine. I feel that my other two machines are way too bloated, so I’m looking to install only my most relevant apps. Through this process, I’m realizing that I use many apps on a daily/weekly basis.

Here is my list of my essential Mac apps. This does not include the preloaded apps, such as iLife ’08.

Firefox: I’m not sure what’s up with Safari, but I try it from time to time and it never seems to properly load the pages I need. Does anyone else have this experience? Firefox is my “duh” app … everyone should use Firefox. IE is just awful and it continues to be a source of grief for any of my students still using it.

Journler: This personal journaling tool is terrific. I use it for almost every place I take notes or reflect. In fact, I built this list using Journler.

Skype: I use Skype to communicate all the time, with people at a distance, and even people on campus. It’s the simplest tool, it’s still great quality but I wish I could actually get SkypeIn service in Saskatchewan.

Quicksilver: Yea, it takes a while getting used to, but this tool is something that should just be built in to OS X. It’s described as “A unified, extensible interface for working with applications, contacts, music and other data.” It’s amazing and works so well with everything. You have to experience it to love it. Take some time to do that. I don’t use MS Office anymore. Can anyone give me a reason to? does everything I need.

Jing: I use Jing all the time … everyday. If a student asks me a technical question related to my course via email, Moodle, etc., I am able to quickly send them a quick Jing video as a solution. As part of my course, I use student question (sent via email) that I answer via Jing and post solutions for everyone. It’s just so convenient.

Twitterific: Not sure if there is a better Mac Twitter client out there, but it just works.

iGTD: iGTD or i Get Things Done is my master. It tells me what to do everyday, and it makes my life much more simpler and organized.

Miro: This is great cross-platform, open source video player with built in search capabilities. I’ve written about Miro more here. And it’s great with TVShows, for personal entertainment viewing.

VLC: Although Miro is based on VLC, I like having VLC as my default media player. It plays everything I have come across.

Adium: Adium is my multi-service instant messaging client. I use it with my MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ, GChat, AOL and iChat contacts. It doesn’t support video conferencing but it does the basics and is so convenient.

Cyberduck: I’ve used all of the free Mac FTP clients, and this seems to work best … it’s got some issues, but it does the job.

So far everything has been free. Here are a couple of apps that I actually pay money to use.

VMWare Fusion: I’ve used both Fusion and Parallels to run Windows XP on my Mac. At this point, VMWare wins out for speed.

XTorrent: This is the best Mac Torrent client by far! It’s worth the money.

That’s all I can think of for now. It’s a pretty basic list but there are some amazing apps here.

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Power of Wikis Example

Mrs. Owens, one of our digital interns, is just beginning her use of technology in the classroom as she moves into her internship. One of the first tools she’s used in her Grade 8 classroom is a wikispaces wiki.

Mrs. Owens’ first assignment was based around the phrase “what I know is …”, a fairly simple assignment where these Grade 8 students were asked to share their experiences. Expectations were a bit low for the assignment, but the resulting writing blew us all away, both in the amount and depth of the writing.

Here’s one particular passage of note:

What I know is that life is rough. I am only fourteen, but have already overcome a lot of things that most fourteen year olds have yet to experience. Like having my mother pass. Like being forced out of my own home. I am officially alone. The fact of having life thrown at me in one shot at a time. The fact that I am alone I am happy I can’t tell you why. I can’t honestly say the reason of who or what I have in this world. But make sure to make up for your mistakes and life will be allot easier on you. I can not tell you the reason god is being so hard on me but if the people I lost were meant to pass than that is what he wanted that was his plan. Well all I know is that like takes it’s toll and times it can be hard and you and you wont understand but if you live for the moment your life will never end. The experiences i have been through are some no teenager should ever go through this is why I say life can be as hard a a rock or easier than anything before. That is why I say life is what you make it so make it better than ever before. Sure I have not been through everything that is going to happin to me but I sure have been through allot some hard some even worse but no matter what happens to me. I will always be myself.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable, but certainly not surprising, is that (as reported by Mrs. Owens) the students really gained interest and became motivated when they were told that their writing would be shared by a world-wide audience.

I don’t believe this will be surprising to any one reading this either. However, here’s another story to share for those that have not yet come to see this for themselves.

Barriers to Integration: A String of Microsoft Technology Issues

I admit it, I’m biased, I’m spoiled by my Mac. I prefer to do all of my daily work on either OS X or Ubuntu Linux. Yet, when I walk into my teaching world, I get to experience the joys of the Windows environment.

My students, preservice teachers, will enter into a variety of computing environments. In Saskatchewan, we have some school divisions that are primarily Mac environments, some that are heavily IBM/Windows schools and we even have a few Sun Ray (thin client) divisions. Most of what I teach is either cross-platform, or platform-insignificant. Good pedagogical principles do not discriminate. But then, once in a while, I run into one of these days. Here’s what we tried to accomplish.

My class attempted a fairly simple activity. We are entering into a digital storytelling unit and we are using various tools to digitize stories. For the first activity, I’m taking my inspiration from Dean Shareski as we are putting together a simple “Mastercard” type commercial using Microsoft Photo Story. Here’s Dean’s example.

The process was supposed to work like this.
1) Create video in Microsoft Photo Story 3.
2) Save as .wmv file.
3) Upload to Youtube
4) Embed video into student blogs.

These are the issues we ran into:

Issue #1: The .wmv that was produced by Photo Story was rejected by Youtube. I read around, received some advice on Twitter and it seemed the that only solution was to re-render the file in another program. As I focus on free, widely-accessible tools, I chose Windows Movie Maker, a program I’ve never been really fond of, but figured it would work.

Issue #2: When you resave the file in Windows Movie Maker, the .wmv file is actually accepted by Youtube. However, for some odd reason, most of my students ran into an issue. When rendered in WMM, the beginning of the video appeared dim, and parts of the end were cut off abruptly. To get around this issue, I asked students to create a short title frame and end credits for each video. This seemed to solve the issue. Videos were sent to Youtube, and everything seemed to work so far.

Issue #3: Embedding videos into WordPress was a success, but only for some of my students. For others, the embed code didn’t work and was revealed in plain text on student blogs. The difference? Students that were successful were using Firefox, students with the technical issue were using Internet Explorer 7. Once students used Firefox, no further issues.

In summary, Microsoft tools provide a wonderful learning experience if the point of your learning is “getting around technical issues caused by really crappy software”. I think my students actually got to see real-time problem solving with technology in classrooms, and ways of getting around issues. This will certainly be common for many of my students. However, that wasn’t the intent. I was just looking for a simple way of using common, free Windows-based tools to publish stories. It eventually worked, but not nearly as well as it should have.

I’m looking forward to moving to both Mac, Linux and web-based tools to accomplish the same thing. I’m almost certain we won’t see nearly as many issues.

Moodle Glossary Tool for Creating Rich Student Profiles

I’m still really liking Moodle. I’ve set up my own installation and I love the freedom this gives me to set up courses quickly and experiment with functionality.

However, the one feature that I think needs improvement is user profiles. I was hoping that I could have my students put together a fairly rich profile (bio, photos, links, etc.) and have this accessible to other students. Basically, I wanted a way for students to get to know each other, and an easy way for me to get to know the students.

So, here’s my story story and how I found a decent solution. I’ll keep the explanation simple.
1) I twit my problem.
2) Durff mentions that Jim Gates will speaking about Moodle on It’s Elementary Live (EdTechTalk).
3) I forget about it for a few days.
4) Luckily, I see a reminder from Durff.
5) I listen online pretty much at the exact moment I need. Jim talks about how he uses the Glossary tool in Moodle to accomplish something very similar.

So this was the solution. Basically, all I did was add the glossary tool to Moodle. If you are familiar with Moodle, this takes about 5 seconds to do. Just go to “add an activity”, choose glossary. So students in my class each filled out this “student glossary” with their profile information. They can include links, photos and other multimedia. Nice feature.

Then, a nice touch is to add a “Random Glossary Item” block to the side bar. So, everytime you go to the Moodle main page, you will see a random student profile featured. Overall, this fix will do a nice job of accomplishing my original goal. I just introduced it to my students today, but I it’s been well-received so far. Now, I’m waiting for their input.

Here’s a quick Jing video to better illustrate what it looks like.

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Rethinking Miss Teen USA Contestant’s Meltdown

Maybe, I’m just becoming soft. Since late last evening, I’ve seen dozens of mentions of Ms. South Carolina’s Youtube debut, a painful 48 seconds where this young contestant badly blunders her response to a question regarding the American education system and geography.

I agree with Dean when he says, “Every high school English teacher should show this to their class and
they’ll never have to justify why students need to learn to write, read
and give speeches.” Yet, when I watch this video, I think of the one big “mistake” made by our friend Ghyslian Raza (aka The Star Wars Kid) that will follow him for the rest of his life. Ms. South Carolina is 18 years old, and was obviously not selected to the pageant for her English, history and geography scores. Certainly we expected some level of coherence in her response, yet should we be so surprised that she didn’t give that to us? She’s an 18 year-old girl, speaking in front of a life audience and on national TV … she may have not even heard the question. And, does she get a second chance, or is this the pivotal incident that we will base her character on for the rest of her life? Just a thought … does this make us all cyberbullies?

Well the young girl did get a second chance today, but I’m sure that this interview will not stick as well as her pageant appearance. At least she got the last word in. She says, “I’m a good person. My parents raised me very well.” I believe her, and I also hope they raised her with a thick skin as, unfortunately,  I know this incident will follow her for a long time to come.

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