Saturday, March 31, 2007

My Web 2.0 Toolkit

I've been exploring and using all sorts of Web 2.0 tools and technologies for some time now and thought I would share the ones that make up my "Web 2.0 Toolkit". These are the Web 2.0 tools that I use pretty much everyday in both my personal life and as an adult educator. So, in no particular order, here they are:
  • Blogging - Well - I'm obviously using Blogger, but Wordpress is pretty cool too
  • RSS - I'm sold on Netvibes - it's become my number one source of online information - I literally get hundreds of feeds from it daily
  • Pictures - Flickr and Photobucket. I use Flickr for storing and showing off my photos and Photobucket for my stock photos that I use on line. I also use flickrCC to find stock photos online (remember to abide by the licensing terms of the owners - msot use one of the Creative Commons licenses)
  • Wikis - I have several different wikis now at wikispaces but pbwiki is a really good tool as well. Wikis are a great educational tool, particularly if you get your learners to maintain them. A good way to answer the question "What do we do now that the course is over?".
  • Collaboration - Google Groups and Google Notebook. Two great tools from Google, I plan on using them to replace textbooks in my courses.
  • To-do List - Remember The Milk is an easy to use to-do list that keeps me on track
  • Calendar tool - Google Calendar - just about runs my life now, would be lost without it - and I can share my calendar too so people know what's going on with me.
  • Social Networking - Facebook - a great tool for staying in touch, I'm in the process of setting up an alumni group for my former students
  • Video conversions - is great if you absolutely must have a local copy of that favourite online video. A great tool if you don't always have a high-speed Internet connection
  • Staying current - Twitter is a great tool for letting people know where you are and what you are up to although I do not use it nearly as much as some. I actually use the custom status messages in GMail more
  • Conferencing - Elluminate's vRoom - a great free tool from Elluminate gives you all of the capabilities of Elluminate except for recording and a limit of three sites. Not really a Web 2.0 tool (try Vyew if you want a Web-based conferencing tool).
Well there you have it - my current Web 2.0 toolkit - I am sure that it will continue to evolve over the months to come and I'll do my best to let you know what I am using...

(Photo from David Babylon)

Third Life

This is a great ad from the Netherlands (a country well represented in Second Life) for Kit Kat bars. It answers the question - "What does your avatar do for fun when you aren't around?"

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Term paper IS Dead

How many term papers have I written outside of academic settings in my life - ZERO!!! How many times have I taken multiple sources of information and synthesized a report, briefing, or presentation - I've lost count. So - should i be getting my learners to write single subject term papers or should I be helping them develop the skills that they will have to use in industry - to be able to find, verify, assimilate and produce work from multiple information sources and types? Hmmm...

The Washington Post has an interesting article on the subject that has prompted this blog rant. The article, "Cut and Paste Is A Skill Too" by Jason Johnson, makes the point that while plagiarism is on the increase and many institutions and educators have instituted systems to hunt down the plagiarists, "it is important for learners to be able to synthesize content from multiple sources, put structure around it and edit it into a coherent, single-voiced whole.

Students who are able to create convincing amalgamations have gained a valuable business skill. Unfortunately, most schools fail to recognize that any skills have been used at all, and an entire paper can be discarded because of a few lines repeated from another source without quotation marks."

(In fact I just cut and pasted most of the previous two paragraphs from the article - so did I plagiarize it - or do the quotation marks save me? Hmmm...)

Learners today are exposed to instantaneous information from multiple simultaneous electronic and other sources, not to mention the "traditional" sources of books, journals, magazines, newspapers, etc. (assuming any of them read paper-based words anymore). They are swamped by the sheer volume of data they they are exposed to and asked to make sense of most of it on the fly. One essential skill required by our learners is the ability not to just source information, but to determine its veracity. These pressures can lead to the "easy way out" of cutting and pasting information that they find, most times without citation or attribution.

So what are we as educators to do? We need to do what is suggested by Jason - "acknowledge what the paper is today: more of a work product that tests very particular skills -- the ability to synthesize and properly cite the work of others -- and not students' knowledge, originality and overall ability." Let's get creative and have learners engage in activities that do reflect their knowledge originality and overall ability. Stress the applied learning, not the theoretical.

Show me what you can do, not what you know (oh and make sure that you do give attribution, credit, and due acknowledgment to the sources of your information - it's the right thing to do) - demonstrate your competencies and learn to learn - that will prove what you know better than any term paper ever will.

I rest my case.

(Photo from everdred)

Is Second Life a Game or...

I have been active in Second Life (SL) now for about 10 months. In that time I have come to see great potential in SL as a social networking tool, as an educational environment, and so much more. I have seen things and been to places in world (that's SL-speak BTW) that I could not have done in the "real world (RL)". I have met people from all over the world and have made many friends that I think of no differently than my RL friends even though all I have met is their avatars. There is a vibrant and growing educational community in SL that is doing some amazing things. There are artists, entertainers, entrepreneurs, and ne'er do wells in world. In many ways it emulates the RL, with the good, the bad, and the ugly that any society has.

But the nagging question is this - is Second Life just a game or something else? Is it a virtual reality with a real economy employing a lot of people and allowing many to get rich? Is it a place where people can be anyone or anything and do anyone or anything? Is it a great place to learn, to collaborate and communicate with educators and learners from around the world? It is all these things and more, but is it a game?

Clark Aldrich has an interesting post on his blog - "educational simulation". He defines an educational simulation as "A type of sim that brings together significant simulation elements and pedagogical elements with limited Game Elements." He then goes on to describe how educational sims differ from games in that they:
  • Are built primarily to nurture specific learning goals in participants (called students or learners), often with real-life actions reflected in the interface.
  • Often are supported by human coaches/facilitators.
  • Tend to have lower production values than complex game.
  • Focus on replay using different approaches.
  • Are often chosen or paid for indirectly by program sponsors, not the participants themselves.
  • Come in specific genres including branching stories, game based models, interactive spreadsheets, virtual labs, practiceware, just to name a few.

Yet like with all simulations, educational simulations:

  • Require participants to necessarily develop skills, and do so through emergent learning.
  • Can be single player, multi-player, or massively multi-player.
  • Are built around levels.
  • Will appeal to some people and not others.
  • Focus on what actions are available, how the actions impact systems (including units, maps, and processes), and how those systems then produce results, often presented in a practice environment.
  • Are surrounded by multiple communities.
  • Are first described in design document, before programmed, debugged, and distributed.
  • Can be complex or mini
(Many thanks to Clark Aldrich for this great definition - check out his blog - it's a great source of terminology and other educational resources for all things dealing with simulations and Web 2.0)

If you examine Second Life using these requirements and features, I think it is safe to say that SL is indeed an educational simulation. But is that all it is? No, it is so much more, and yes, at some level it is a game. But to simply dismiss Second Life as a game is to miss an incredible opportunity for learning, commerce, socialization, and so much more. Anyone who does this risks missing out on what could be a wonderful experience for them and their constituencies.

Maybe we need a new description for Second Life - it's not a game, it's not a simulation - it's a parallel synthetic reality - one more universe in the ever growing multiverse. Hmmm...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Blog Power and Other Things

It's been a good day for Blog Power...

One of my fellow faculty members has just been selected to attend Microsoft's Tech Ed 2007 conference June 4-8 in Orlando. While attending a conference is not that unusual, the manner in which he has chosen to report on the conference is. He plans to blog and use wikis to keep us all up to date on his preparation, attendance, participation, and after action. This is not new in the world of the blogosphere, but is pretty new to us - very cool. I think it will have a major impact on things here at NSCC.

Robert Talbert is an associate professor of mathematics and computing science at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest who writes the Casting Out Nines blog. He has a recent post "Escaping Textbooks" that is near and dear to my heart. He is in the process of developing a textbook-free course in Modern Algebra and already has a textbook-free problem-solving course which intrigues me as I also teach a Logic and Problem-Solving course. More importantly he will be blogging his course development process. I'm really looking forward to following along.

One of my students read my earlier post about not using textbooks "My Next Textbook - Google Notebook", and has decided to create a Google Notebook of common Visual Basic syntax and structures that he will share with his fellow classmates. Very cool.

I'm now exploring the use of Google Groups as a collaborative learning space/resource repository and will be running all of my courses this Fall using blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 tools to support learning and foster engagement. I have been greatly encouraged to do this by the generosity of other travellers in the blogosphere as they share their educational experiences through their own posts.

All in all, a VERY good day for Blog Power...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Engagement - It's Very Commons

No, that's not a typo in the title, although those who know me would suspect that as I can make Mavis Beacon weep. Just be thankful I DO know who Mavis is or it would be really painful reading this.

No, what is on my mind today is Learning Commons. I had the privilege today of conducting, with a colleague, a workshop at an Open House held at the the Pictou campus of the Nova Scotia Community College (I am faculty at the Institute of Technology campus in Halifax, about a 90 minute or so drive from Pictou). There are 13 campuses all told in the NSCC system.

The Pictou campus has been renovated in the past couple of years and now has a learning commons at the front of the building by the main entrance. It is a central location, almost the hub of the campus where students can congregate - spun off of it almost like the arms of an octopus are the campus bookstore, Centre for Student Success, and the other administrative and support services of the campus. Talk about one-stop shopping!

As you can see it is full of activity with students engaged with each other about what they are doing. I love the idea of a learning commons, a space for students to be with other students, to relax, to study, to talk, but most importantly to learn from each other. Students from different programmes can cross-pollinate with others and get a much richer educational experience. Students really are each other's most valuable assets and having a learning commons allows them to exploit this resource to the max.

The IT campus where I work is commonless at this point in time, there is not really a similar place where students can gather like they can in a learning commons - I cannot wait to see the impact of a learning commons on my campus, when it comes...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Kings and Queens of Battle

In military tradition, the Infantry is known as the "Queen of Battle". It is the infantry that takes and holds ground and destroys the enemy. The other combat arms and supporting arms are there to support the mission of the infantry.

Eight Nova Scotian infanteers and other soldiers have died in Afghanistan out of 46 Canadians who have paid the ultimate price. They are for me the Kings of Battle. That's 17 % of the fatalities from a province with about 4% or so of Canada's population. Nova Scotia has always had a grand military tradition, one that continues to this very day and is reflected in the inordinately high casualty rate from Afghanistan.

The current rotation of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are formed around 2RCR based in Gagetown NB, augmented by Reservists from the four Atlantic provinces. This week the first funeral for an Atlantic Canadian Army reservist killed in Afghanistan was held in Stellarton. Cpl Kevin Megeney was a member of the First Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders (North) (1 NSH(N)), a unit with a long and glorious military history. I had the honour and privilege of serving as an Army Reservist in Nova Scotia for 28 years, and over those years spent a lot of time with members of 1 NSH(N). The regiment is your family and more and I know that the whole regiment is in mourning for the loss of their comrade and brother in arms. My condolences go out to Cpl Megeney's family and to all the members of 1NSH(N) past, present, and future who have had and will have the honour of counting Cpl Megeney as one of their own.

Shakespeare got it right when he wrote "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother".

Thank you Cpl Megeney for your dedication, your service, and your sacrifice. You will be remembered.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What Came First? The Chicken or the Computer?

I've been involved in a lot of conversations lately about technology and people. These conversations have revolved around the topics of technology, education and people, and more importantly for me, technology education. As an IT faculty member do I teach technology or do I teach people to use technology, or do I in fact teach something completely different?

I have also been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 1999 ISBN: 0-393-31755-2) He comes to the conclusion that "technology develops cumulatively... and that it finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being invented to meet a foreseen need." (pp245-246). So technology develops as it is used, by the people who use it.

To add fuel to the fire I have been talking a lot to people about online course development and the use of Web 2.0 technologies in traditional (brick), blended, and online learning environments. One of my wise friends has clearly stated that "instructional computing is about people, not technology". He has been preaching this for over 30 years and I believe what he says. I have forgotten more technology than I know, and still believe that I am a good technology instructor. I believe that I am a good technology instructor because, in fact, I do not teach technology, I teach people how to learn and how to use technology. Technology supports learning and learning allows people to not only use technology but to think up those uses of technology that have not even been thought of yet. Many of the jobs my graduates will be doing 10 years from now have not even been created yet, let alone the technology that they will use. So as a technology instructor it is my obligation to give them the skills and knowledge to learn, to use technology, and to push its boundaries, but it is NOT my place to simply teach technology.

What does this mean? Well for one thing it means that I should never focus on a particular piece of technology as the be all and end all of my teaching practice. I teach programming and right now I happen to be using Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 to do it with. What I am doing (or I hope that is what I am doing) is teaching programming principles, skills, and knowledge that are transferable to any programing environment - the learning of Visual Studio is a happy by-product. The same applies to the use of Web 2.0 technologies - the emphasis must be on the people, the social aspects of the tools, the change in how information is gathered and shared, not the tools. So as I go forward and explore new technologies and tools I remind you that at the end of it all - it is the people, not the technology that we are here to support.

So it WAS the Chicken that came first...

(Chicken photo from Mark Lorch) (@ photo from borabora)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Presents? Oh... You Said "Presence"!

I've been in Second Life now for about nine months or so and have become convinced that it has great educational potential. Part of the reason why I think this has to do with presence (and not presents unfortunately).

The two most common ways of communicating in Second Life are chat (public and local) and IM (private and across
the grid).These are also two of the most common ways that we communicate in the current suites of online course tools - LMSs, CMSs, etc.. But there is something different about chat and IM in Second Life. It does not feel (to me anyway) to be as disembodied or remote as it does in Moodle, Blackboard, or a similar online learning environment.

Part of this is, I believe, a direct result of the visual nature of Second Life, but more importantly its immersive nature. Ask anyone who has spent any time in Second Life and they all comment on how fast time went by - it is an immersive, experiential environment and your avatar gives you presence that does not exist in other online learning tools (yes I believe that Second Life is an online learning tool).

So is presence important in learning? Does all learning have to be face-to-face in order to work? I think that the answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second one is a definite no. There are all sorts of examples of very successful online learning opportunities, and legions of happy learners to prove it. But does presence add something to the experience? That is the question that needs answering. I certainly believe that it does, but I have no proof other than my own opinion and experiences and that of several like-minded friends and colleagues.

If presence does add to a learning environment, what are the implications for us as adult educators? How will we have to offer online learning opportunities if we need to have presence? Will Second Life and similar MUVEs spell the end of the current crop of LMS and other online learning systems? Will future online learning environments include a visual component to add presence? Can there be presence without a visual interface? Hmmm...

(Photo from BunchofPants)