Using an Online Community

kbrown2When teachers go online, one of the things that they are looking for is great resources for teaching.  If each teacher were to find just one of their favorite resources that they always point their students towards, then together we could amass an amazing list of great teaching tools that we can all untilize.  I think that with a list of great sites to visit we might all be a little more enthusiastic to teach with these new ideas and experiences for our students.  I think we can use a blog to explore sites and tools especially in areas that our students struggle. 

I will start with just two.  There are some great annotated web links that help our students understand concepts.  Go to and look at the organized list of animations that Lone Star College has put together.  This would take some time and my students love to look at these animations from across the web. 

The second site is the Genetics Education Center at Kansas University Medical Center.  Debra Collins has been updating this site for years and it is a great source for all things Genetic.

Check these out.  If you have not visited them, do so and share some of your own.

I hope you are all having a great start to your year.


Written by kbrown in: Teaching Tools |

E-Rate Funding to Re-Imagine Schools

Meet Chris Lehmann, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. Lehmann is a interesting guy – he started out as a High School English teacher and technology coordinator.  Over the years, his abiding interest in and thoughtful blog (Practical Theory:  A View From the Classroom) about new technologies applied to teaching and learning has put him in the national spotlight.  On 8.20.09 he gave a talk at the FCC National Broadband Planning Workshop in Washington, DC.   The blog entry I’ve linked you to includes the ustream video of his talk as well as his notes.

I found his talk inspiring. I particularly appreciated his very well articulated point, that if all we do with new broadband technologies is find a more efficient way to deliver content, we are missing the boat. What do you think?

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,

To the Moon

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Where were you on July 20, 1969?  I put that question to my friends and family last week and I got a wonderful collection of answers. A common element in all their stories was a small, scratchy (typically borrowed) black & white TV set, with a large group of people, crowded around to watch the flickering images of the first walk on the moon. Breathlessly.

I was 11 years old and a camper in the Feather River Canyon in California, attending a two-week summer camp. Apollo 11 landed at 4:18 pm EDT, so that would have been 1:18, California time, just after lunch.  I remember crowding into a room behind the camp’s dining hall with a hoard of other people, straining to see the small black and white TV screen.  The only broadcast they could receive in that remote location happened to be in Italian (go figure) and so, between the scratchy image and the fact that no one present understood Italian, we had to piece together and narrate what we were seeing.  I can remember the distinct feeling that this was history in the making.  This was something special. And this was something that I would always remember.  

At 10:56 EDT, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and the world watched.  Buzz Aldrin, emerged soon after. Over 2 ½ hours, the two astronauts collected 47 pounds (!) of lunar surface material and re-entered the lunar module.

We Choose the Moon site.

We Choose the Moon site.

Just as the folks at the John F. Kennedy library hoped, their re-creation web site, We Choose The Moon, is tuning Americans into their memories of the historic mission. This is a wonderful site, well worth the visit.  It’s a real-time mission reenactment, tracking the actual mission events (with historic images and footage), just as they happened 40 years ago. You can follow newsroom feeds, monitor the flight path, get updates from mission control (via twitter or from the Mission tracker widget on your web page or social media site).  It’s a very good example of the kind of teaching that can be done with new technology.  My only gripe about it is that they missed the opportunity to make it a 2.0 site by failing to invite people to share their memories and embellish the site with their perspective.  Too bad.

Aldrin's boot.

Aldrin's boot.

After you’ve taken a look at that site, take a look at some of the other, amazing online teaching resources in NASA’s vaults and others – it’s just incredible, what’s available online. NASA has just released newly restored Apollo 11 footage – excerpts really – from the take off, to the landing, and the lift-off back to earth.  You can find it in this New York Times article, along with a hilarious “hoax” video (scroll down to find that one) – and, yes, apparently some people still think that the whole thing was a hoax.  And, in case you wanted to compare, here’s the actual landing footage (pre-restoration).


Here’s a QT movie of the mission, put together by NASA.  And the official NASA site on the history of the mission. NASA has also posted the private taped conversations between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, recorded aboard the command module, Columbia, and the lunar module, Eagle, along with an audio database of other recordings. You can find all kinds of downloadable images, videos and pdfs (from NASA) and here is the Apollo 11 image gallery (some great stuff to be found!). To get a better sense of the lunar landscape, here’s a QTVR image scape of the moon taken by Apollo 17 and first published on anniversary #35 of Apollo 11.  Use your mouse have a look around and around and around. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11 site has lots of information on the mission, the crew, the spacecraft, the landing site and some amazing images. Discovery Channel has an impressive archive of videos of the various NASA missions – lots of fun to explore there.  Just for fun, you can pick up a Lunar Module service manual or a space suit replica (for $9,500) on eBay. 

Unfortunately, as we learned from NPR this week, NASA isn’t the best steward of history. Check out this 7.16.09 story explaining how the original tapes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk probably destroyed during a period when NASA was re-using old magnetic tapes to reuse them for satellite data.   The newly restored video that I mentioned earlier was actually pieced together from a variety of sources, the best of the various broadcast clips.



The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s inspirational goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960’s.  But it did so much more for all of us.  It gave us the first images of the Earth, taken from the moon. Images that undeniably changed our perspective on our fragile planet and the need for stewardship. The mission showed us men, closely encased in technology, operating dials, levers and computers to sustain their lives in an inhospitable environment. The mission gave us courage to strive for things that might seem unattainable.  It made us explorers again.


Jaguar Conservation and Google Earth

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

I just returned from a participatory media workshop that I organized for a group of high school biology teachers at Washington University in St. Louis.  They were there for the summer institute portion of a very special masters degree program called the Life Science for a Global Community, funded by the NSF.  These 30 teachers will work together, over the next two years, to expand their science knowledge and improve the quality of their teaching in a program that combines face-to-face summer courses (at Wash U) with online courses, taken throughout the academic year.  They are a wonderful group – very curious, quick to learn, and high energy.

The program’s director of professional development, Phyllis Balcerzak, invited me to organize a workshop for this year’s cohort on new media tools, as applied to teaching biology.  I had two sessions with the teachers – the first was a hands-on afternoon to experiment with wikis, podcasts, photos, and video.  The second was an optional hands-on workshop with the virtual world of Second Life, conducted with my colleague, Liz Dorland.  As usual, when I do these workshops, I ended up learning more from the teachers than they learned from me.

I was so struck by their observations – what was easy, what was hard.  Better ways to do things.  Creativity in the face of student (and parent) objections.  Clever ways to use the new tools (one of the teachers works with deaf children and makes video – to show signing – content units).  They took to the tools well but kept a healthy dose of skepticism in making decisions about what would work with their students and what was worth their time.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

In order to get into this LSGC program, candidates have to submit a project that speaks to their creativity and teaching horse sense. One of the “students”, Brant Reif, a high school teacher from Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa showed me his projects and I just had to share it here. The project, The State of the Jaguar, is a lab investigation that examines the status of the jaguar in Central and South America, with the hope of preventing it from becoming an endangered species.  He taped into existing data from the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a KMZ file (KMZ – or compressed keyhole mark-up language – is a file format used for displaying geographic data as an additional layer in an Earth browser, like Good Earth) for Google Earth and then wrote up a lab activity where students assess the distribution and status of the jaguar in several sites, current threats to the jaguar, identify priority areas for conversation, and then compare their recommendations for conservation areas with those of research scientists.  Whoa.  Call me impressed.

He walked me through the Google Earth layer (KMZ file) he created, zooming in to show key topographical features and to click on related photos. He created about 20 markers (from which the student could choose), that linked the actual data with images and cleverly crafted journal entries that made sense (from the data and the surrounding terrain/features) to give the students a sense of presence.  For instance, you might click on a geographical site and read entries like, “Saw scat today…” or “Spotted a single jaguar near a farm…”.

In each Jaguar Conservation Unit (JCU), students are asked to estimate the percentage of the area threatened by a set of factors (habitat loss, hunting, human activity, insufficient prey, etc).  To get a better estimate of the threats to each JCU, the students pool their data with data from two other students. When they’ve completed all the data tables, they use them to estimate the priority that each JCU should be granted. Assigning a “3″ if they feel it is low in need of conservation efforts, a “2″ for one in need of some conservation, and a “1″ if it is high need.

I asked Brant how the lab worked with his students and he explained that they loved it, but it took longer than he’d thought.  The students didn’t read the directions and so wasted a lot of time figuring things out or failing to see important information (sound familiar?).  Brant already had a plan for how he was going to address this next time (demo one JCU site in class and have the students just pick three to investigate, find new ways to make sure they read the directions).

There’s so much to love about this activity, it’s hard to know where to begin.  First off, the clever and very specific use of a powerful tool. Google Earth has so much potential but it takes a carefully crafted investigation like this one (on a topic important enough to the course to be worth the effort) to harness it and make it relevant to the study of biology.  By zooming around from location to location on the virtual Earth, Brant’s students got a sense for the enormous distances, the inaccessibility of the region, the topography, the land’s relationship to water, the proximity to major cities, and the conservation issues.  The fact that he connected the investigation to real data gave his students a feeling for how we know what we know and the way scientists work.  The students had to make important judgments and decisions – but they weren’t left hanging at the end – they had a real-life index with which to compare their decision making (at the conclusion, he asks them to explain any differences between the conservation ratings they’ve given and the actual ratings).  I also liked the way that Brant mixed media types – in addition to Google Earth, he used photos, snippets of a National Geographic video, excel for the data tables, and text to create the master document.  And there was a storyteller’s flare to the whole thing (which Brant modestly assigns to the National Geographic article he references).  The student lab introduction reads like this….”At dusk one evening, deep in a Costa Rican forest, a young male jaguar rises from his sleep, stretches, and silently but determinedly leaves forever the place where he was born.”

A wonderful, shining example of new media tools used to improve teaching and learning.  In the true spirit of the networking, Brant says he’ll be happy to share the lab and the KMZ file with biology teachers – you can contact me if you’d like them emailed to you.


21st Century Skills

updatedrainbow_smI’ve been thinking a lot about “21st Century Skills” lately.  Mostly because the publisher of our high school biology program has asked us to add a section to the front-end of the textbook on the topic.  Seems a bit ironic to put such content into a print medium, but that’s ok.  People will at least read about it and, maybe, they will want to dig further.

Since that’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately but wasn’t sure I completely understood, I asked our editor what exactly is meant by “21st Century Skills”? She sent me to a web site called Partnership for 21st Century Skills, citing it as the definitive resource on precisely what these 21st century skills are all about.   The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is an advocacy group with the intention of rallying federal resources (Department of Education), businesses (publishers, network providers, hardware/software manufacturers), administrators, and educators around the idea of bringing 21st century skills to schools.  Here’s a quote from their mission statement:

There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces.

To successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce, U.S. schools must align classroom environments with real world environments by infusing 21st century skills.

Sounds good.  And when you read their materials there’s not much there to disagree with…creativity and innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, flexibility, self-direction, social awareness.  Those all sounds good.  But I thought that this “21st century skills” thang was about technology skills, social networking, and participatory media?

Well, there are technology skills listed on the web site too –  information literacy, using technology tools to access, manage, and evaluate information – but they feel awfully general and, to my eye, they get lost in a sea of impossibly wide-ranging, “achieving-world-peace” kind of goals.  It sort of reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone where “all the  children are above average”.   How can a school administrator or a classroom teacher be expected to apply this?  So many (many!) hoped-for skills here and not a lot of specifics. I worry about the mandatory media skills for future survival getting lost in the ocean of other goals that one might want to have for our students – a sort of unfortunate dilution effect.

So what to put in this front section of our book?  What would I want to put forward as fundamentally important media literacy skills, from my perspective?  Let’s make it real by making it personal.  My kids. When I think about the media literacy skills that I would like for my children (and I attempt to be precise and reasonable about it). Here’s what comes to the top:

How to distinguish between dependable and undependable information.  In a networked world where everyone is participating, the commentators number in the hundreds of thousands, and its all happening at lightening speed, I want my kids to be able to readily distinguish good information from less good.  

How to read (really read) in linked environments.  Reading linked text calls for a different set of skills.  There are new neural pathways to be laid down in order to keep track, make sense, remember, and connect.  I want my kids to be able to read with focus and attention but also to be able to skim, parse, suss, and then dig in when they need to.

How to search, tag, and organize.  My kids will need to know how to find information on line, yes – but beyond that, they will need to understand folksonomy and tag their information for later retrieval and sharing.  They will need to know how to use tools to organize, store, and manipulate information.  

How to find teachers and mentors.  For any problem with which you might be struggling, there is an expert out there somewhere who will be able and willing to help you.  Our networked world is a perfect way to map solution to need.  But getting the word out there about your need (framing the question), finding the right coach/mentor/teacher, and then making the most of the connection (in whatever form it takes) all require unique and nuanced skills.

How to edit in shared knowledge environments.  Whether its Google Docs, a classroom wiki, an Elluminate session or wikipedia, citizens of the world will need to be able to edit, contribute, constructively critique, and collaborate in these shared environments.

How to create a digital footprint.  I want my kids to understand how indelible the web is and that photos and videos uploaded, stories told, or blog entries posted will not only be around forever but might be shared, linked to, mashed up, amplified, and viewed by many.  But my hope here is not just to avoid the pitfalls and dangers.  I want them to be safe – yes – but I want them to go beyond that and learn how to build a lasting digital profile of which they are proud.  One where a future employer will type their name into the search engine of tomorrow and say, “nice.”

To understand the network effect.  I want my kids to fundamentally grasp what a network effect is – how to create it, leverage it, and ride it.  To understand, down in their bones, how much more valuable something is the more people know about it and use it.

I didn’t find any of these specifics on the Partnership web site.  Maybe they are there, in some form or in one of the many downloadable pdfs, but I gave up after swimming in a sea of generalities. Or maybe it’s the name given to this idea  – 21st Century Skills — it just seems so, well, HUGE.  And in its hugeness, ineffective.   I’m sure my list is not complete (and would love to hear your suggestions on what to add) but it’s a start – and its specific.  I think I know what I want to include in that textbook section. I think I know what I need to talk to my kids about this afternoon.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,

Twenty of my Favorite Things

my favorite things

Recently, a colleague asked me what ideas I might have for interesting student projects that would take advantage of these new, participatory media tools.  I thought about it and started to make a list.  I came up with about 30 ideas but some of them were a little weak…. so I whittled the list down to 20 of my favorites.  And here they are.  With linked examples, where I had one. I hope you like…(and a yellow jelly bean to anyone who can name the song from the photo above).

1.  5-Photo Story
Plan and storyboard a five- (or ten?) image story. Take the photos with a digital camera and post them to a Flickr group. Ask all members of the group to comment on each others photos. Design a rubric to guide the comments (in order to avoid platitudes or uniformed praise)

2.  Annotated Reading
Start a conversation around an article. Bookmark the article’s online location (using Diigo) and insert comments/questions. Provide the group with your bookmarked version (url) and then they add their comments/questions. Example.

3.  Wiki Process Journal
Create a wiki space for a group to use over the course of a project or an experiment. Team members keep their notes and observations about the process.  The group’s final product will be in some other form; the wiki is there to document the process. The process journal could be organized chronologically or by team member (with each team member owning a page).  The team could document their process with video, photos, or text.

4.  Project Timeline
Use a web-based time line creation tool (xtimeline, timetoast) to document a product/process or to plan a future project.  Comments are embedded in the timeline, document/photos are attached, and links embedded. The timeline is stored online so that others can view it, edit it, and add to it.

5.  Self-Published Book
A book is identified as the outcome of a particular process or project. The team works together to write the book and then self-publishes, using one of any number of online publishing sites (LuLu, Myebook).

6.  Animated Movie
Make an animated movie to tell a story, present a case, or explain a principle. (Goanimate makes animation easy, xtranormal is a unique movie generation service that converts a text description to a movie)

7.  Introduce Yourself
Make a media piece that tells your personal story (or your school’s story) to use for group introductions (back to school night?).  Animoto, IAMUNIQUE, Eyejot, or Wordle are all good tools for this sort of high-impact, at-a-glance”capture”.  Perhaps post all individual “introductions” to a wiki page?  Example.

8.  Create a Bell-Ringer
To wrap up a chapter, a unit, or slam home a complex topic, have students create a “bell-ringer” (using Animoto) to summarize the main points or the experience. ExampleAnother example.

9.  Put it in the Funny Papers
Use a comic generator (Pixton) to create a comic strip to explain a concpet, describe an assignment, or model appropriate team behavior.  First build the story with a mistaken conclusion or a wrong answer and then build it with the right answer. Have a discussion around the two scenarios.

10.  Build a Collaboration
Use VoiceThread to create a conversation around a series of images, a concept or a scenario.  Use the audio recording to narrate a series of still pictures/photos. Once complete, provide the link and all members of the team can comment on the story (leaving their own voice recordings embedded or commented through text).  With time, the recorded observations, insights, and suggestions from all team members are captured within the case’s VoiceThread file. Maybe even invite an outside expert to add comments to a class VoiceThread. A VoiceThread allows a group conversation to be collected from anywhere and then shared in one simple place. Here’s a terrific example of a Voicethread created by Tod Duncan (UC Denver) for his cancer biology course. And another example built by Kelly Hogan  (UNC Chapel Hill) for her non-science majors’ biology course.

11.  Prezi Presentations
Traditional Powerpoint presentations can be boring and they don’t travel well without the presenter.  Create your presentation in Prezi which allows you to narrate, annotate, and focus the students’ eye on the points you consider most important.  Post your Prezi on your web site or put it on a CD. Students can create prezis too.  Here is an excellent example prezi presentation created by one of Cheryl Holinger’s (Central York High School) students.

12. Broadcast Yourself
With an internet connection and a webcam, you can create a live, broadcast show online with any of the interactive web streaming platforms (Livestream, Blogamp, or UStream). Broadcast an event, a talk-show, an interview, a field trip, a debate or deliver a live conversation with participants in different locations. Viewers can pose questions or comment in the chat window. The show can be recorded and archived for later viewing and reflection.

13.  Tell a Digital Story
Use digital tools to tell your story (a project, a personal story, a success story, a retrospective on a failure).  The Center for Digital Storytelling has a number of helpful tools and articles.  Example Stories.

14.  Produce a Film
Using small, easy-to-use low-cost video cameras (like the Flip camera), it’s relatively easy to create simple videos.  Video is an effective way to model behavior, demonstrate a successful encounter/experiment, document an event or a field trip, record an interview with a subject-matter expert.  Post your video online and use either veotag or bubbleply to annotate your video and direct students to particular segments.

15. Podcast It
Ask students to create a podcast (or a series of podcasts).  Short (3 -5 minute) descriptions or explanations, based on a script they write.  The podcasts can be simply audio or they can enhance them with video or still graphics (using Garageband or Audacity).  Podcasts can be posted and distributed online through iTunes or Odeo.

16.  Crossword
Use Crossword compiler to create an online crossword for others to complete.

17.  Analyze What You’ve Written
Challenge students to use Wordle to take a critical look at a report, an essay, or an assessment. Paste the entire document or block of text into Wordle and analyze the resulting map.  Are the most prominent words what you expected?  Does the document reflect the major points you wanted to make? If not, why not?  Make changes to the document and then paste the new version into Wordle.  Compare the before and after results.

18.  Locate Yourself
GoogleEarth works well for creating location-based stories (Darwin’s HMS Beagle Voyage, WWII battles, the expansion of the Roman Empire). Use it to visualize all of the member locations in a particular group or provide location context for research or world events.  Take someone on a tour of a city or a neighborhood by pre-locating place pins and recording your commentary with built-in audio recording.  GoogleEarth 5 also now includes historical imagery from around the globe and ocean images.

19.  Join the Blogosphere
Start an individual blog (your letter to the world) or do a group/class blog with rotating posting responsibility.  Blogs can be text-based or video blogs (vlogs). The best blogs have a strong voice, something worthwhile to say, and invite commentary.  Example, Howard Reingold’s excellent vlog.

20.  A Little Online Brainstorming
Online, shareable white boards (like Skribl or Scriblink) and mind mapping applications (like text2mindmap) can make a group brainstorming activity more interesting. Upload images, doodle, share the pen, chat and when you’re done, print, save, email the results.

Send me a few of your “favorite things”, and we’ll get the list up to 40.  Or more!


Say “hi” to Google Wave

picture-14Looks like there’s a new tool in town – Google Wave.  It’s basically a real-time communication platform.  One-stop-shopping for email, IM, wikis, chat, project management, and social networking. The press about it so far has been very, very positive.  One reason for the raves is that it is open source – so extensions and applications can be fitted to it in order to modify it to your specific needs.  It will be released later this year (according to the Google site).

Here are a few links to help you get a feel for it:

GoogleWave sneak peak (from Google).

Article about its release.

A guide to the terminology (but of course, there’s new jargon!).

A video clip showing a demo of it.

A few of the extensions that have already been demonstrated will allow collaboratin with maps, auctioning extensions for selling things, rating /reviewing items, and extensions that push content out to an existing blog.  Looks like this could be very interesting.  Keep your eyes and ears open.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,

Make a Book Online


Here’s an online utility that you might want to consider using for student projects – - online book creation sites.  Sites like Lulu, XLibris, and Bookemon are free utilities that allow you to create a book, using your own assets (text and images).  These sites are well designed, easy and intuitive to use.


In order to build your own book, you go to the site of your choice, create a free account, upload your pictures or text (word documents) and the site creates the book for you.  On Lulu and XLibris, you can create your own cover design. In the case of Bookemon, you can go further and design your own layout, adding text boxes, borders, and frames.

Once your book is just as you want it, you can publish it and  – if you want – buy a copy.  The price of the printed book depends, of course, on a variety of factors (e.g. length, color, type of binding) but you can typically purchase a 50-page physical book for about $20.  On the Lulu site you can list your book in their online catalog for others to purchase and you can offer up ebook versions of it for people to download.

On the Bookemon site, you can share the online version of your book with others either by providing a link or embedding code into your web site or social networking site.

Here’s a 41-page book on Acadia National Park that one of Cheryl Hollinger’s (Central York High School) students created using the Bookemon site.  The photos above are pages from this students’ book.  Her wonderful creation gives the reader a very good feel for the park – both scenically and biologically.  And she was careful to provide references and options for more information at the end.

Poetry, cookbooks, memory books, or books on a topic (like Cheryl did with her students) all sound like useful and creative ways for students to express themselves.


The new web site

The new web site

The federal government just launched a new web site:  It’s a compendium of pretty amazing (and amazingly huge!) data sets and tools – all free and available to the public.

In the “About” section of the site, they explain that the “open government” priority of the Obama administration is the driving force behind this new site.  It is an attempt to improve access to Federal data and expand the creative use of those data beyond the walls of government.

I’m thinking there might be some good stuff in here for biology teachers.  Here’s a sampling of a few intriguing data sets that I found on the site:

- FluView:  a natioanl flu activity map (there’s also a state-by-state map)

- Cancer Incidence:  Surveillance, epidemiology and end results

- Residential Energy Consumption Survey:  conducted every four years, provides national statistical survey data on the use of energy in residential housing

- American Census Data

- American FactFinder:  a tool designed to search the American Community Survey, Decennial Census, Economic Census, and population estimates.

Fun stuff.  There’s a handy search engine on the home page of the site where you can indicate the kind of data you’re interested in and which federal agency(ies) you want to query.

It’s not perfect (of course).  The data available is limited (they’re promising to add more) and, curiously, there’s nothing from the Securities and Exchange Commission (hmmm…).   I would love to hear ideas about how this might be used in teaching.


Teaching and Learning with Wikipedia


Every once and awhile we hear a chorus of educational outrage over the idea of students using Wikipedia as a resource for their essays or projects in school.  Each time the kerfuffle flares up, I’m amazed all over again.  If I understand the parent and teacher concerns correctly, they are 1) that Wikipedia is not a primary source, 2) that it is not a reliable source (the information there is somehow suspect), and 3) that students will begin and end their research right there.

OK.  Let’s take those one at a time.  The first point is absolutely true.  Yup, Wikipedia is not a primary source.  But that’s alright, isn’t it?  Students have to start somewhere and it seems perfectly reasonable to start your quest with a secondary source that will give you the big picture in clear, easy to read prose.  Students can go from there to more specialized and (hopefully) primary sources (depending on the assignment).  In fact, most of Wikipedia’s 2,847,000 entries (in English, that is) have an impressive list of references and external links at the end.

The second concern, that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, is where I really have problems.  When you talk with people who get incensed about this, it usually becomes apparent that they haven’t spent much time on Wikipedia themselves.  The whole point and power of Wikipedia is that it’s self correcting – amazingly self correcting.  Every Wikipedia entry has a history tab (up at the top).  Try clicking that tab on a particularly meaty or controversial entry (like “Stem Cells” or  “Barack Obama”) and what you’ll find is a chronology of  corrections, insertions, deletions,  explanations, fixes, and debates. Experts, librarians, and amateurs are weighing in, discussing, challenging each other in order to get to the truth.  Some articles (stem cells, for instance) also have a discussion tab up at the top. This is an additional space set aside to document the ongoing collaboration to improve the article’s veracity. Seems to me that  these history and discussion pages could be a good classroom tool. Isn’t that what we’re trying to get our students to do?  To think critically about information, to question, to dig deep?  Wikipedia could be an object lesson in precisely the kind of thinking we want our students to be doing.

Consider an article that appeared in about 100 different newspapers, radio broadcasts, and on ABC news this last week:  Irish Student Hoaxes World’s Media with Fake Quote.  What happened is that Shane Fitzgerald, a University of Dublin student, inserted a made-up quote into the Maurice Jarre entry on Wikipedia, a few hours after the composer’s death on March 28th.  The made-up quote ended up in dozes of blogs, newspaper sites, and newspapers all over the world.  And here’s the interesting part.  The self-correcting Wikipedia community caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it promptly.  But the news media?  Not so much.  Finally Fitzgerald contacted several media outlets in an email and a slow process of corrections and retractions began.

The third objection – that students will begin and end their research with just Wikipedia – seems ground we’ve covered before. That’s a familiar teaching and learning challenge – not a weakness of Wikipedia.  That sort of reasoning is often applied to technology (you can think of it as making up a good-sounding reason to dismiss).  That is, people blame technology for a problem that is really a much larger, human problem. We ban cell phones from school because students will misuse them and get distracted in class.  We blame Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites for bullying attacks on vulnerable teens.  We blame Craig’s list for the violence perpetrated by Phillip Markoff.  We blame the internet for pornography. If teachers are worried about their students not citing sufficient sources in their research, shouldn’t we be addressing that problem? Teaching students the proper use of a secondary source, like Wikipedia, will help them to put it in the proper context and show them how to use it (and we know they are already using it anyway) more effectively.


Video Tools

picture-1Video is a powerful medium.  No doubt about it.  Not only does it have an emotional quality to it (that amplifies its impact) but it packs information efficiently.  The only catch is that when we show a video to students, we like to sort of narrate it, explain it, or at least provide context.  We like to point out important things, ask questions, or make sure that the students get all the connections. Those requirements usually mean that valuable in-class time is required to show video.

There are a couple of new online tools that could help with this dilemma. The first one I found is called Veotag.  With this application you can make a table of contents to go with a video (with chapter or topic headings).  The video plays side by side with your constructed table of contents. Students can jump to the various parts of the video by clicking on your pre-created links.  You can also add notes, tags, and comments to further explain or amplify what’s going on in the video. Your notes and the table of contents display next to the viewing window.  As an additional benefit, if you are working with one of your own videos or a student-created video, these veotags are apparently automatically picked up by search engines so you’ll get more search engine traffic to your site by posting veotagged videos.

The other one you might want to try is Bubbleply.  With this tool you can add a data layer to run on top of any existing, online video. You can put text comments, images, or links in that data layer.  When you’re done, Bubbleply generates a new link. You then send your students to that new link and they’ll see your annotated version of the video. So, with this tool, they will see the video and your comments simultaneously in the same window.

At first I was thinking that these tools could be used to create teacher-annotated content videos so that students could watch them outside of class, even when you’re not there to narrate them. But it occurs to me that they could also be used by students to create their own narrated videos.

Any other ideas?



animotoHere’s a web 2.0 tool that could bring some fun into your classroom.  Animoto is an online music-video creation application.  Go to their site, sign up (it’s free), and you can create a short (30 second) music video, using your own digital photos and a song from the animoto library, that can be emailed, downloaded, linked to, or embedded in a web site.

Right now they have a mother’s day special going on.  The animoto creation you make is sent inside a lovely flash-based mother’s day graphic (hard to explain, but it’s pretty). I just put an animoto together for my mom (who, at 70 years old, has completely immersed herself in email and the web – go MOM!) and it was a lot of fun.  Once I found the digital photos I wanted, it only took me about 15 minutes to put it together.  It’s a way to send something nice to your Mom while brushing up on your web 2.0 skills.

Animoto would be a useful tool to consider for student projects (maybe a fun end-of-the-year sort of thing?).  It’s good for setting a mood and giving a content “impression”.  Not so good for presenting a complex topic or a linear progression.  Here are a few biology animotos that might be fun to create… a series of biodiversity animotos?  Or an animoto for each biome?  Animotos of a local nature area?  Student pets?  Gardens?  Your classroom?  Would love to hear your ideas and see what you create.

Here’s a link to one that I put together on Charles Darwin.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools,Videos | Tags:


vloggerYou may have already started a blog but here’s another idea to consider – a vlog.  As you can guess from the squished-together way these new technology terms are formed, a “vlog” is a “video blog”.  That is, a form of blogging in which the medium is video.

As a teacher, you might set up a blog site in which your students could post videos on a daily or weekly basis.  Video is a very rich, creative media for students and the possibilities (formats, special effects, lighting techniques, subject matter, stop-action) are endless.

One of the best ways to get ideas for your vlog is to visit other, successful vlogs and see what they are doing.  To that end here are a few of my favorites:

Alive in Baghdad
Excellent vlog with Iraqi journalists posting weekly videos (every Monday), detailing life in Baghdad.  Illustrates the conflict through the voice of Iraqi citizens.

Crooks and Liars
Good political satire.  Pretty well done.

I know, I know…but I think these guys are way ahead of the technology curve with live feeds, editorial coverage, featured guests, and regularly scheduled programming.  An impressive vlog site.

MN Stories
I like this one.  It’s a community vlog featuring all kinds of quirky and interesting human interest stories all about people living in Minnesota.  Note that this site has channels so that you can sort through the vlog by area of interest to you (food, music, art, etc).  For a classroom vlog, you could do the same – that is, set up channels for different content areas or elements of the course.

Sustainable Route
Two young women set out on a 13,000 mile road trip to find sustainable solutions to our environmental problems.  Sort of a Thelma and Louise go green.

So, those are my favorites – what are yours?  Oh, and here is a pretty good tutorial that covers the basics of shooting your video, compression, uploading, posting, and RSS feeds.  Whoosh.


awardsHere’s a useful and free tool web site that seems right for this winding-down part of the academic year.  Award Maker.  On the site you can design and print out handsome-looking award certificates for your students.  Check it out.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags:

Visual Story Telling

picture-1Here’s an interesting idea. Gardner Campbell (Baylor University) asked his new media studies students to tell a story in five frames (uploaded to a group on Flickr).  The resulting student projects are really quite clever and intriguing.

What biology story could your students tell in five frames?  Or ten?  What could we learn about what they know (and how they feel about what they know) from their visual stories – and also from the storyboards they create to plan those stories?  Might be a fun project to try?


Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: