Saturday, February 26, 2011

To the Cloud - Wikis

The phrase "to the cloud" has become very common in recent days and with this phrase comes hope for education. With the freeze on school budgets, Web 2.0 tools are opening up a whole new world of opportunities for educators and students alike. Most of these tools are free or relatively inexpensive to use. They cover a whole gamut of activities that include anything from brainstorming tools to collaboration tools to document creation and storage. The possibilities are endless. Through the next several blog posts, I'd like to touch on a few that I have used in my classes and describe how I have used the tool for instruction.

In this post, I'd like to focus on the use of wikis. The word wiki is derived from the Hawaiian term wiki wiki which means "fast" or "quick." In other words, a wiki is a web site that is easy and fast to edit. There are many wiki hosting sites, called wiki farms. Some of these hosting sites are free while others require a relatively inexpensive annual fee., my host of choice, offers a free upgrade to educators, thus providing an advertisement-free site. While there are many wiki hosts to choose from, all of them provide great opportunities for educators and students alike.

I daily use a wiki in my 6th grade Computer Applications class. Students are instructed to go immediately to the wiki when they enter the classroom. There they can find instructions, lesson plans, links, document files, and other important things necessary for the class. Using a wiki designed for specific courses eliminates a lot of frustration for teachers because it provides students quick, immediate access to all the tools (links, files, video, etc.) they need for a given unit or lesson. With a wiki, students who are absent can keep up with what goes on during class just by going to the "cloud."

Near the end of the course, I have students show what they have learned through an activity that asks them to demonstrate all of the skills they have learned throughout the course. In this activity, students create their own page within a different wiki on U.S. national parks or world national parks. Students choose a national park to research, then they report on that park through the creation of their very own page (click here for details). The beauty of using a wiki for this project is that students are not limited to class time to work on their project, and they can work on it from anywhere that has internet access. (There's that "cloud" again!) An added bonus is that students can show off their hard work to anyone, anywhere, anytime. I've even taken the national parks project to the next level by collaborating with students 500 miles away! But I'll save that for another post.

The possible uses for wikis is endless. I encourage my readers to consider how wikis can enhance their current curriculum, then jump in and get started.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Redefining Schools

I'm writing this blog post with frustration (and a little trepidation) stemming from an incident that hit me rather hard recently. Schools everywhere are pushing technology into the hands of their teachers and ultimately their students at an alarming rate around the globe. And that is exciting! But is it enough?

I do what I can to keep up with technology by reading everything I can get my hands on, by following "up and comers" on my PLN, and by trying out new technologies whenever I can. It is exciting to discover something new that I can try with my technology students, and that excitement spills over into my conversations whenever possible. But what I'm discovering is my excitement isn't EVERYBODY'S excitement. I am finding that I make the false assumption that my passion for integrating technology into instruction isn't a passion for everybody (although I will never understand why!).

It is great that schools are finding money to purchase new technologies for teachers to use, but I fear a key element is being overlooked - training. If school leaders give a teacher a new piece of technology, say an interactive whiteboard, but fail to train the teacher how he/she can effectively use it to enhance student learning, they've wasted a lot of money on a piece of equipment that looks nice but will just gather dust because the teacher doesn't have the know-how to fully utilize it. Administrators can't expect that a teacher will automatically spend his/her own time finding ways to implement technology into the curriculum just because there is something new sitting in the classroom. Teachers are busy. They need guidance and direction on something new, just like students do.

Yet my frustration doesn't end there. With the integration of technology into the curriculum, there is one more key element that rarely gets discussed - camaraderie. If teachers are to be successful at integrating new things into the curriculum, there must be a willingness of colleagues to be flexible. Let me share my example:

I am doing a collaborative project via Skype with a group of students in Arkansas. In order for our schedules to jive, I had to find a classroom that would be willing to be flexible and change lunch schedules with me (we're talking LUNCH here, not rocket science - note the sarcasm). I put out an APB plea via email and got ONE response. The response read this: "I'm sorry, our team is too established in our regimen to change lunch sections with you." Basically what this said to me was, "We are too set in our own ways to help your students learn." Needless to say, I was shocked. Not one of my colleagues was willing to give up his or her precious routine to help advance the academics of my students. How sad is that?

In order for tech integration to be successful, teachers need to see themselves less as individual islands, and more as a COMMUNITY. We have to learn to be flexible. We have to come to the realization that there is more to our students' learning than what goes on between the four walls of our individual classrooms. They need to say to themselves, "My class is not the only one out there." If timing is an issue, then teachers need to realize that students may have to miss part of another class if that's the only way to collaborate with students 500 miles away. Flexibility is essential if we want tech integration to work.

Somehow we need to redefine the term school. Instead of being "an institution for educating students" it should be known as "a community of learners with multiple learning-facilitators."

How do we get there?