English Teaching is IT (*new blog)

You don’t have to dig too far down the blogroll links to see how immersed I’ve become in the digital world: blogs, wikis, nings (x3), websites, twitter …

So, it was with some deep thought that I got involved in yet another blog, but I did! This idea came about on a bike ride a couple of weeks ago, chatting to another  English teacher named David Baxter about some of the ideas he’d been using in the classroom and talking also about what I was doing. He’s the teacher I blogged about a little while ago in m provocative 😐 Tale of Two Teachers post (it was the best of times, it was the worst of times)

Anyway, we thought it might be good to collaborate on a blog aimed at English teachers looking to use technology in the classroom, a blog that would be more practical and tips based than the meandering theorising that mostly goes on here, but looking at things that work, and some that don’t. Hence English Teaching is IT was born. It’s on WordPress, its up and running, and I hope it’s useful for English teachers and others too. I hope you’ll take a look and maybe even subscribe.  While I  expect there’ll be some cross-over with what I’m writing about here, the focus of the new blog is on the classroom, and tools that work for English teaching and beyond.

English Teaching is IT

The Kindle

bezos_kindle

Had my first touch and play with the Amazon Kindle eb0ok reader, now available in Australia. At first glance it’s smaller and lighter than I imagined, more the thickness of a magazine than a book, and lighter.  Not super cheap at $269AUD and the screen wasn’t quite as clear as I was hoping: I’d need to sit down and read a couple of chapters of a book to see what the reading experience actually was like.  There’s other objections too; black and white!, a lack of flexibility in the format that can’t read PDFs and needs a special format conversion to take something from your own PC to the kindle format.  For a traveller I imagine this would be a great device, light enough not to get you fined for excess baggage and still have plenty of books on hand.

But what about for the student? I’ve heard a few people arguing that the ebook reader might spell the end of textbooks, but haven’t we heard that before? Many of the textbooks I see around the place include a CD of the contents in PDF format, and lots of students have notebook computers, but I don’t see many of them replacing textbooks in this way. Or is that teacher choice rather than student choice? And, if a student does have a notebook computer what advantage is an ebook reader over reading the text on their own computer?

There’s still some way to go I think, but I can imaging that we’re going to see big progress in the technology in this area. Let’s hope that open standards prevail, that publishers can all come on board and real choice, including Australian small press publishers, is there for the readers.

 

 

Palm sized computing

I must admit I’ve always been a fan of the full sized (notebook) computer.  Forget weight issues (I’m a strong lad)  the bigger and more powerful the computer the better: a decent hard drive, widescreen and especially a full-sized keyboard for those of us who learned to touch-type in the heady days when the Public Service typing pool seemed a job for life.

So, I’ve generally argued against netbooks, PDAs and mobile phones as replacements for ‘real’ 1-1 computing solutions except in cases when the $200-$300 price difference makes a critical difference in getting the program going.  And, while I stick to those guns, I must admit being pretty impressed so far with my new 64GB Ipod Touch with full wireless capacity and the ability to work with all the downloadable Iphone applications.

It’s not going to replace my computer, and I’m not going to write my thesis on it, but I can quite happily read emails, check my calendar,  work with Twitter and quickly move through my rss feeds via Google Reader. I can make Skype calls with the headphone microphone plugged in, read from my EverNote account and read the Age or the NY Times. I can record voice memos, or my cycling training and probably play a bizillion games I’m too nervous to download in case I get addicted.  When I was walking around lost in Salem recently I could stop for coffee at a wireless cafe and fire up the Google Map and figure out how to get back to the ferry.  And did I mention it’s got ALL my music on it?  With voice control so if I say ‘Play artist Neil Young’ it does! And I say that a lot!

It’s a powerful little hand-held computer and it’s got potential which I’ve been busily exploring as I download lots of little applications for it.   The big drawback remains that it’s hard to create on it; to write much, to draw, to brainstorm, to produce. But you can access information with ease and I can see, with this user interface, how hand-held mobile devices might have a bigger part to play than I thought.

Here’s how I’ve organised my Ipod so far; three screens. I’d love to hear how you’ve set yours up and whether you’ve found the perfect application to go with it.

ipodscreen12009-10-05_1712

The GMAIL App works seamlessly with Gmail accounts as does Evernote, Tweetdeck and Skype. Everyone needs a shopping list and To Do list right? The cycling log is a bit specialised but does the job nicely.

ipodscree2_2009-10-05_1712

Screen 2 is less commonly used apps; a couple of Melbourne public transport specific apps and the ubiquitous ‘AppBox Pro’ and it’s bag of tricks (I would have loved to have had the ‘Tip Calculator’ when I was in NY recently) Urbanspoon is a restaurant finder and very cool. iTwitterPro I bought, but it isn’t as good as Tweetdeck.

ipodscreen3_2009-10-05_1713

Screen 3 are web slices; direct links to web pages I read a lot. Sort of visible bookmarks. The Google Reader is an application that makes reading your RSS feeds a breeze.

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Screen 4 is apps I don’t use, but can’t delete. I haven’t got any stocks and the ‘Music’ button is much better than the iTunes one.

New Tools

I’ve commented on Twitter about a couple of these things but I thought it worth detailing here some web 2.0 tools that I’ve been impressed with lately and that have become party of my daily work on the web.

NING

Ning is a tool for you to create your own social network.  I didn’t get it at first. I thought: what for? Do I really want to compete with Facebook? I envisaged maybe using it as a site to connect the extended family. I tried once to set up a multi-user blog on WordPress for the family and half of them failed the login test! So I turned to myfamily as an easier alternative.

But recently I started using NING in a couple of different contexts; a group of like-minded cyclists first up, then in a network of learning technology teachers. It began to make sense. Forums, multiple blogs, pictures, videos, even chat. You can set up a network in a few minutes, and teachers are beginning to use it with their students.

NING describe NING like this:

Ning empowers people to create and discover new social experiences for the most important people and interests in their lives.

Ning was started with a simple premise: when people have the freedom to create a new social experience online, uniquely customized for the most important people and interests in their lives with no effort, no cost, and infinite choice, the world is a better, more colorful and certainly more interesting place in which to live.

With Ning, people are creating new social experiences that are:

* Infinitely customizable
* Beautifully designed
* Easily created and moderated

By providing people with a better way to discover and stay connected to the most important people and interests in their life, Ning represents a new chapter in how people create, organize, and communicate online.

Tonight I joined Classroom 2.0 Ning, ‘the social network for those interested in Web 2.0 and collaborative technologies in education.’ I thought I’d give them support and join in; then realised they have 24,000 members in that network already! Okay, maybe I was wrong about Ning.

ning_classroom2

Transferr

Transferr is a pretty way to organise your favourite web sites as icons on your start up screen. They say:

Transferr is an online application which allows you to add your favorite websites as icons to your own personal page. You can customise your icons with colors, share them with friends and drag and drop them to keep them in order. You can also organise your icons into tabs which allows for your own organised system

Okay, I know that Safari and Chrome do something like this by default, but it’s only the sites you most often visit, not necessarily the ones you want to keep in your head. And what about the tabs you can create with pages on things that interest you? Note below I’ve got tabs on cycling, shopping, tek, curriculum etc. To be honest, I tried this out thinking it would last about a week. But it’s been over a month now and I’m still using it.

A long while ago now I created my own start.htm page using Dreamweaver, based on the simple Craigslist template. A couple of colleagues along the way have asked how I did it and wanted one themselves, but couldn’t be bothered with the html. I can now show them this.

transferr

Jing

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the need to create some screencasts and went out looking for the best tools. One of the wikis I’ve been working on has as its audience member of the public often with very low tech skills. I needed to SHOW some users how to edit a page, insert an image, link to other pages.

Jing is a great solution. A free tool that allows you to create screen shots or screencasts up to five minutes long.

They say:

Elegant and simple, Jing’s minimal feature set keeps the focus on instant sharing. We think it’s the perfect companion to the casual, fast-paced online conversations we all have every day.

It works beautifully, has a pro version if you want more features, and links to Camtasia if you really want to get into editing it all. But,  as a simple tool for capturing screenshots or movies, it’s hard to beat.

There’s a number of YouTube videos around showing how it works. (search JingProject) This is one:

I would talk about Feedly too, a Firefox extension that works with Google Reader to create a magzine like start page, but I’m not qualified. I just started looking at it today. I love it already, and will talk about that some other time.

Scribble Maps

I love maps, and the applications that developers are building on sites like GoogleMaps.  One of the nicest I’ve seen lately is Scribble Maps, which allows you to draw on a Google Map.

I made one for the ride our staff BUG (BIcycle User Group) is planning for the day of the Swimming Sports. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t embed here (I don’t think WordPress loves java) but you can see the map here.

My other favourite map tool is UsaMap, which allows you to create a personalised map, with permanent URL to share for an event or activity. I think I would have enjoyed Geography at school a lot more with these tools. Mind you, I’ve yet to see GoogleEarth being used in a classroom, so maybe things have still got a fair way to go.

Here’s our meeting place for the ride to the sports, if you want to joins us! I’ve embedded it as a screen shot, because that wouldn’t embed in WordPress either. (sighs) No wonder some of our teachers don’t stick with these tools.

usamaps

Street View

pastry-kitchen

Google Maps, a handy little tool I often use when travelling around Melbourne, just got a little more powerful and a trifle scary with the introduction of ‘Street View’ in Australia, the ability to zoom in at street level on just about any street.

I’ve never seen them, but apparently little Google-branded cars have been trawling our streets photographing everything they can, and pulling it into one giant photogrpahic map of the world (or at least three countries so far) If you had a faster internet connection than me you could even cruise up and down the streets of your choice, looking at houses, or shops.

It’s all slightly Orwellian in some ways, except that we all have access to it.  I like the way that you can create your own Google Maps of places you go to, favourite restaurants and the like, but this is a new dimension to all that. Imagine the data involved! If you want to talk to me about it I’ll be at the Pastry Kitchen (above) for a coffee around 8.30 this morning.

New tools and software

It’s about this time of year that we look again at the software list for next year’s notebook image; what’s new and should be on student and teacher computers, and what is no longer doing the job. I keep a bit of a list on a page here called Essential Software, which I must update soon.

Meanwhile, in my thinking about software I’ve found several new things lately that I’ve begun to use on a daily basis. If you find a tool that you use daily, and does things better or more easily than you could before, then that’s useful. So, here’s some new things that I’ve found useful:

Free Commander

Free Commander is a freeware file management tool that replaces the explorer in Windows (did I mention that these are all Windows tools?) and featuring a split-pane for moving and copying files around, and a bunchof powerful functions including bulk-renaming of files. It’s on the desktop for good!

Keepass

I’ve always resisted password management software because I’ve always feared losing the key! But it’s got to the stage now where every web 2.0 site out there requires logins and passwords and managing them becomes a chore. Keeping them in a text file somewhere isn’t secure. Imagine having your computer stolen with your password list sitting in a text file somewhere? Keepass is open-source, freeware and works beautifully and simply, with the ability to categorise passwords as well as copy from the program into the browser fields directly.

Evernote

I’ve blogged about Evernote a couple of times, most recently HERE, where I talked about my fears of cloud computing. And I wasn’t convinced about the new version when it cam out.  I liked the old desktop version and was worried how the new version, with its online component, would distort that simplicity. However, after about six weeks of using it, it’s becoming THE place to gather snippets and fragments and notes, to ‘remember everything’ as they say.  It’s easy to have multiple notebooks in the one large ‘notebook’ so I’ve got notebooks for ‘curriculum’, ‘teaching’ ‘bikes’ etc. all of which can be easily searched and ‘tagged’ and which can be synched with an online site of your notes, accessible anywhere.

So, three tools, that are new for me, and that I now use daily.

Reading Newspapers Online

A little while ago I was in a meeting of Year 12 English teachers, discussing how the course is going, and planning for next year. One thing that got agreement from everyone was that we needed to improve the way we distributed newspaper articles to students for the language analysis task.

In essence, what we did this year was collate a booklet of articles that the library had found for us their online databases. We were asking students to analyse the language the media had used in their coverage of the issue of whaling over the Australian summer. We had a nice little booklet of articles, letters, editorials and news stories at the end, but it was the format that bothered us. Because the articles had been derived from an online search they were in that online format; a single headline in about 14 font, in one column with no accompanying photographs or artwork. Just text.

In fact, they didn’t look like newspaper articlea at all. We decided next year to use the databases to find the articles, then go and find the originals, and cut them out! With scissors, through paper.

So I thought about that conversation again today when I received a trial subscription to the Australian Online, not the website, but an online version of the newspaper that looks like the newspaper. You can scroll through it, look at a whole double page spread and then click on an article to read it, albeit in text form at that stage. The site also offers 90 days of back issues, advanced search and audio of each article (if you like your articles read in that robot voice from Radiohead!)

I’m not sold on the proprietary nature of the viewing platform, maybe Adobe has a chance to snaffle this market if they’re quick, and I know that various newspapers are taking up this challenge in a variety of ways, but I read through the various sections of Friday’s Australian very easily, and more easily than I would have thought. It certainly provides the visual context that was lacking in the print outs we gave our students, but also the visual context that is still lacking in the online version of most newspaper sites.

Maybe I wont need those scissors after all?

Flip Video


Got my hands on very interesting little gadget this week; the FLIP video camera. Not available in Australia yet (thanks Teresa for organising a USA pick-up) except on e-bay (which I’m never going to use again after their recent paypal fervour) this little gadget is about the size of pack of cigarettes (remember them?), runs on A4 batteries, takes an hour of pretty good quality video, costs about $150US and is ridiculously easy to use. No more brackets I promise!

When I say ‘pretty good’ I wouldn’t want to put it on a wide-screen HD TV but it’s more than acceptable for web use or viewing on your computer. And no cords or cables!; the USB thing just ‘flips’ out and it plugs into your USB port, with software built into the camera.

I can see heaps of opportunities for classroom use of this tool. Group work, oral presentations and no big and bulky video camera sitting in the corner dominating the room. You could shoot short plays or ‘news’ for students and of course students could use it themselves to make video presentations for each other or the class, all of which are editable in programs like Movie Maker of Studio.

There’s plenty of examples of the video that comes out of this camera on the web. There’s a CNET review HERE and below is a 10 minute YouTube review of the FLIP from GeekGirlTV:

Animation via Sims (warning hip-hop content)

A while ago now I remember talking with an educator who was keen on the possibilities of students creating animations and videos using engines from games such as the SIMS.

Apparently these games have powerful tools that can be modified to create your own content, rather than just playing the game. I seem to remember seeing a simple student example too, I can’t quite remember where now, that showed something of the possibilities.

Anyway, the video above is something in the genre; a video-clip created for a hip-hop song using the SIMS engine. I’m not that keen on hip-hop, but I couldn’t find anyone who’d created a blues version yet. Would this kind of thing engage students in creating and presenting narratives of their own, with all the thinking involved  in that? I think so.

More HIP-HOP in SIMS style HERE (content alert)