The conversation is stale, for some

Just read Will Richardson’s post, De-Echoing My Reading Practice…Help Wanted. As usual, he discusses some good points, most notably that great “conversation” in the realm of educational technology has stalled. He is looking outside the usual network, deleting all of his edublog feeds to try and get new ideas that can further the collective thinking of educational technologists and teachers.

I understand his perception – I love exploring new ideas, but like I mentioned in a previous post, some still don’t know about the conversation or are still trying to wrap their brains around it. I hate to say it (I hope the buzz word gods don’t strike me down), but we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. While we can’t stop looking forward, let’s not forget to help those still contemplating its importance, use, or even existence.

In August, this blog will celebrate five years of sporadic existence. The echo chamber back then was more like a small box. What we have experienced is a growth so large that the central “conversation” has been diluted. We have reached a scalability issue that promises to be a part of the conversation for years to come. There are now over 250 Google Certified Teachers. During NECC there are hundreds of people live blogging,Twittering, etc. all of the sessions. If we all try and participate in the same discussion, most of us won’t be able to get a word in or at least we will be repeating each other. Thus, creating that echo chamber. I see that vast chamber actually as a sign of the success of this movement because it means more people are participating. Sure there might be 30 people blogging about using Google Docs with their students – but that means those who exploring the potential uses of Google Docs with their students can see multiple examples from people with varied backgrounds.

We need to keeping looking for ways to increase participation. We have come so far, but this grassroots movement has only just begun.

Web 2.0 and San Diego Fires

When there are 500,000 people being evacuated, over 200,000 acres burned, all the local schools closed, and local news that has too much to cover – where are you going to stay informed?

Well, the local newspaper, the San Diego Union Tribune turned to a blog at Blogspot when its own web site became sluggish and at times simply unavailable (I assume from the sheer volume of hits). They and our local PBS affiliate (KPBS) are also using Google Maps to show evacuation areas and the current placement of the fire.

Overall, this information has been easy to access and has allowed me to turn off the television and still feel like I know what is going on.

I’ve been lucky to be in between the two major fires. A good amount of smoke, but it appears that my home will remain unthreatened. Hopefully it starts to calm tonight and tomorrow.

Plagiarism, Just Fine

OK, it’s not. However, a group of students are suing for archiving their papers after they submit them so they can later be referenced. Make sense? If you are not familiar with, it is a service used by universities and high schools to check for plagiarism. A teacher sets up a class on the web site and requires students to submit their work through this site. Student then get to see the results of the plagiarism scan and resubmit if necessary. The teacher can also see the results of any paper officially submitted (although I think a student can have the paper scanned before he/she actually turns it in). The program checks the submitted papers against the Internet as a whole and thousands (millions?) of other papers submitted into the service.

The lawsuit alleges that the company is violating the high school students’ rights under U.S. copyright law. The students are required by their schools to submit some essays to, a Web-based service that compares the documents against a massive internal database and other sources to look for signs of plagiarism. It then places the student works in an electronic archive. (from Education Week)

Interesting approach. Actually, you could argue just opposite! By archiving student work, students can be ensured that one will take credit for their personal work. Buy, anyway…

Well I don’t specifically use (my school pays for the service, I just haven’t had the time…), I’ve caught too many students over the years plagiarizing information by typing in a particular un-student-like line of text into Google. Most of the time, that does the trick. Some inventive students actually pull resource from a number of sources and paste them all together, creating the Frankenstein of essays and term papers. Needless to say, these are particularly easy to spot.

However, over the last few years, I’ve changed my approach to academic papers. I no longer ask for the standard report or general essay on a topic. I force them to think about the information and do something with it. I’ve done many different versions of a WebQuest on the Industrial Revolution where students create a newspaper. In the original version, students had to do a short news story on an invention and/or an inventor from the era. Sounded good at the time and it hit the standards. What I discovered was that numerous students simply copied and pasted that section from a source I PROVIDED! The first year I caught almost ten students. Even the second year when I WARNED them I would be looking specifically for plagiarism, three students committed the same offense. The next year I reworked that section and instead of the bio/report, I required students to create an advertisement for an invention. A much more creative task where students demonstrate their understanding. Plus there are no advertisements “out there” for the spinning jenny or early steam engine.

With the massive of amount of information online and the numerous services that sell term papers, it seems we (the teachers) need to re-think the term paper. We have to get beyond the write a report mentality. We need to teach them to use the information out there in some way, not just regurgitate information on a topic. While there are elements of formal research papers that we need to teach, I believe the traditional term paper of my youth (80’s and 90’s) is dead. Yes, dead. We can get a dozens of these papers with a few directed searches, why make the students reinvent the wheel? Why tempt the students? Instead we need to find better ways to get our students to think about the material.

What do you do beyond the term paper?


That’s Mr. Google Certified Teacher

Yesterday I attended the Southern California Google Teachers Academy in Santa Monica. I’m exhausted. In addition to five hours in the car, the conference lasted another eleven+! From 8:30 am to 8:00 pm we lived and breathed Google tools and, perhaps just as important, Google culture. I’m still wrapping my brain around the day and need to reflect the uses of the tools more deeply (meaning, I will discuss some of them in future posts, no really, I will).

Living the Google life. Living la vida Google. OK, I’m still a little punchy from yesterday. Now I only got to visit the Santa Moncia office, apparently the Mountain View “campus” is monsterous compared to this office.

Without sounding too much like a Google employee (we were well fed, but didn’t receive any actual compensation!), I was taken with some of the elements of the Google culture. The environment was very simple, definitely not cluttered in any way. Even most of the work stations seemed clean.

In one of the main work areas we toured, there were a series of cubicals with tinted glass separating the employees. All of them opened up into the same area. I saw people meeting together in the center of the area having a discussion and others who wheeled their chairs into another person’s work station to look at something on one of the pair of 24 inch monitors each person had at their station.

One of the most inviting aspects of Google involved what employees did when they weren’t working. Microkitchens apparently dot Google facilities around the world, complete with drinks and a variety of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks – all completely free of charge and stocked by the company. In main kitchen, lunch and dinner is prepared by a gorumet chief. I overheard some Google employees eating at a table next to mine, talking “shop.” I can’t forget the game room, complete with a pool table, couches, and two wide screen televisions connected to a WII and my personal favorite, an Atari 2600 (I regret selling mine on eBay!). My tour guide also spoke very highly of the subsidized massages!

The most striking element of working at Google is what they call “20 percent time” which allows them to spend a fifth of their work week on a projects outside of their job description. Some of their newer products started as someone’s pet project. What a great way to spark innovation. Pay people to do it.

The collaborative and straightforward nature of the Google work place mirrors the nature of a lot their tools. Mostly in that they are collaborative, user-friendly, and not terribly imposing (plus they are mostly free!). They enable and reward innovation. I got the feeling that the employees were very happy to be there, that they lived and breathed their jobs. Heck, in a place like that, I’m sure it could be very easy. I have no idea how “family friendly” they are, but everyone I saw looked about 12 (which means they were probably in their early 20’s). Probably when I was that age, I would have loved a job like that, but now….

Throughout the day, I tried to think how this new corporate culture can be applied to education. I like the 20 percent time idea – both at the student and teacher level. If we gave our students the power to explore what they wanted within the context of our classes once week, some would no doubt do great things, others might not. The most influential characteristic of the Google culture has to be the collaborative nature of the work environment. So often as teachers we are isolated from one another, except for small chunks of time. I know my own experience at true collaboration this year has been powerful and positive. Google makes it an essential element of their philosophy.

Enough Google loving today. More soon.


Collective Memories – A Cool Wiki Tool

We all have our individual memories of shared events. I have clear memories of where I was when during the Challenger disaster, the death of Kurt Cobain, 9/11, the LA Riots, Columbine, and fall of the Berlin wall. I remember being in a small Baptist Church covering a visit of Jesse Jackson, a UCSD protest that actually moved onto I5 and stopped traffic for hours, and being one of thousands of screaming fans at numerous u2 concerts over the years.

Our individual memories might be recorded in a journal or blog.  We might tell our children or grandchildren, but I can’t imagine them lasting beyond a generation.  One of my biggest regrets in my life so far centers around one of my grandfathers.  He lived an eventful life, fighting in WWII and spending his career as a police officer in Chicago.  I never asked him much about his life.  When he passed 11 years ago, those memories were mostly lost to me.

Technology gives us a new window to our collective memories.  Holocaust survivors are telling their stories to various organizations who are recording them so that the generations to come can witness the testimonies of the witnesses.  What about the rest of us? The importance of our stories has a different importance.  They help define our era, interests, daily life, and  culture.

Well, you probably could have guessed, there is a cool newish web site that is doing just this – it is giving everyday people the opportunity to record their memories.  MemoryArchive is a site powered by MediaWiki (of Wikipedia fame) where anyone can write a story about an event or individual.  You simply add it to the wiki (they have instructions), they review it and then lock it so others don’t change your memory.   They even added a teacher section.  I could see some great potential here.  Students could go out in the community and write the story of a grandparent or neighbor.

Go check it out.  Add a memory to our collective knowledge base.


The Revolution Will be Digitized

I’ve written and talked about how Web 2.0 is leveling the digital playing field and  democratizing the Internet.  But who knew we were talking about a revolution.

Apparently over at, information was posted about a decryption key for HD DVDs. was then asked to remove the post, which it did.  Instead of the situation ending there, it exploded.  Users posted numerous items with the deleted content and overran the main Digg page.  Finally, the owners capitulated and decided to not delete the new posts.

If you are not familiar with, it is a site that allows you to bookmark some sort of media.  Then if others like that media, they can Digg it or Bury it.  Those with the most Diggs, end up on the front page.  Here is their description:

Digg is a digital media democracy. As a user, you participate in determining all site content by discovering, selecting, sharing, and discussing the news, videos, and podcasts that appeal to you.

The populist in me thinks it is pretty cool.  However, as an educator, this lose of control is certainly something to be wary of, while I believe strongly in giving students control.  That controls comes within instructor-set educational boundaries.  I could imagine a poor teacher being digitally over run by hoards of students.  That’s one way to make we never increase our technology funding.  Nothing like a little fearmongering.

Scary or cool?  You decide.

(Taken from Techcrunch)


Cool Tool #2 – TeacherTube

I had planned to make this a regular feature on this blog, in part to get me to write more often.  Hasn’t really worked out.  I seemed to have just forgotten how tough having an infant is.

Anyway, while I haven’t been writing, I haven’t stopped reading.  Yesterday, Vicki Davis – the educational wiki queen (and I do mean that as a complement!), wrote about a new tool called TeacherTube.  Essentially, it is YouTube for teachers.  It has a similar look and feel, has a similar interface for uploading, and a similar method to embed videos on other pages.  The big difference – this site is dedicated to educational videos.  It appears that non-educational videos that are “flagged” will be removed.  I do wonder if that will become difficult to track, will we see “video spammers” try and jam up the service?

I know that many people have mixed feelings about TeacherTube in a YouTube world.  If we only place educational videos (both teacher and student produced) on TeacherTube we essentially remove them from the mainstream that YouTube has become.  However, YouTube is blocked at my school.   I can’t use it in my classroom, nor can I publish videos from my computer at school.  As an educational resource, YouTube is limited to what I do at home – where I can download videos and then bring them into school (I talked about this here a couple months ago).

Teachers definitely need to try it out.  Create, upload.  The only way to really increase the value of this resource is for all of us to contribute to it.  Here is my first upload… a video describing my Children of the Holocaust WebQuest.  Projects I should be grading right now instead of writing.

Web 2.0 and Technology Education

I’ve been asked to take on our high school Web Design class next school year and I’m trying devise a class that addresses the changing nature of the web.  In the past it has focused on learning Dreamweaver, CSS, and html.   The class was also tasked with maintaining the school web site.

In short, I am trying to envision the Web 2.0 version of this class.  I want to move away from teaching traditional applications and code.   I have visions of digital media literacy, blogging about technology tools, and finding web applications that fit practical personal and education needs.

Can you help?  If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them – either in a comment or an e-mail (danmcdowell at gmail dot com).

I intend to use an open source CMS (Drupal or Joomla) for the backbone of the school web site, so that portion of the class won’t be as dominating.  I will have around 30 students with varying degrees of technology background.  We will be using Macs.



WWI Poetry/Visualization Wiki Project

WWI Poetry AssignmentThis year I decided to take my WWI Poetry Activity a step further. In years past, towards the end of the WWI unit we completed the linked handout together in class. By this time the students were well versed in the horrors of this war (from the poison gas to the machine guns to trench foot). Based upon all of this information students were to write a poem from the perspective of a WWI soldier. It has always been a great assignment. I already shared the most memorable poem written by a student.

In 2000, I decided that I wanted to publish some of their poems on my classroom web site. I did not have time to actually teach them how to make a web page, so I asked students to e-mail me their poems or type them in on one of my classroom computers. I then copy and pasted them and put them on html page in Dreamweaver. I repeated that time consuming process several times. Students shared their poems with their parents and family members outside of the area and it was generally well received. I once showed this project off to some teachers at a “general” technology presentation I did and was asked how I did it. I knew as soon as I started that I had lost most of them. They weren’t web designers and they did have the time to become one.

Due to time constraints I dropped the publishing aspect of the poetry assignment in the last couple years. This time around however, I had a new plan. It was time to put that publishing power into the hands of the students (a la Web 2.0). The basic assignment remained the same, but now the students type their poems directly into a wiki I set up at Wikispaces for the project. Then to take it a step further, I had them find five images from World War I and integrate them into the poem.

Here is the basic lesson plan.

  1. Conduct my WWI Poetry lesson plan (the same one I’ve done for years). Assign the poem to be finished by the end of the week. The rest of the week I did other lessons.
  2. After I checked off the poem, we went to the computer lab for two days. A good chunk of the first day was spent getting the students signed up with Wikispaces and into my WWI Poetry Wiki (I’ll discuss the logistics of this another time).
  3. Next students typed their poems into a page I set up for each student (I just typed their names and made them links). Many of the students had e-mailed their poems to themselves so this was a quick process for most students.
  4. Most of the second day was spent sifting through hundreds of photographs, propaganda posters, and paintings from WWI.
  5. Finally they posted the pictures in their poems. Some did not finish in class and had to finish it up at home.
  6. The final aspect had them read each others poems. We finished with a short class discussion.

I know this lesson is not ground breaking, but it is cool none-the-less. I think lessons like this is a good first step for many teachers who might be overwhelmed and not quite ready for a larger scale project. I also intend to do a couple other wiki-based projects with this group that will be a bit more complex. This project essentially gave them a wiki primer and got them Wikispaces accounts that they can use in the future projects. The biggest hassle ended up having to use old technology. Our lab still runs OS9 (won’t run OSX) and none of the available browsers support the visual editor in Wikispaces, something I didn’t realize until I had 35 kids trying to get it work. Fortunately, brand new computers have been ordered and will be ready for use in the next month!
Wikis (and blogs) allow students to publish for a world wide audience without actually spending a lot of time on technology. I spent only moments instructing them how to use the wiki.

Want to see the World War I Poetry/Visualization Project? Here it is.