and I'm all out of bubble gum…

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As teachers, we instinctually know how to use a lot of the tools that come our way: pen, paper, whiteboard, textbook. These all have self-evident uses. Not only do we understand how to use these tools, but we can think creatively about their purpose, and how they might be used to teach, challenge and push our students.

Where this gets a bit sticky is when we’re presented with a tool that we aren’t quite sure how to use, or what it’s purpose might be. To this end, I’ve been thinking about ways to explaining some of the technology that we’ve been talking about this year at its conceptual level: not what it’s for, but simply how does it work? (Perhaps this is residue of reading too much David Macaulay in my mispent youth.) Once we grok the working of a tool, then we can start to think about the purpose to which we might put it.

This week, what I share with you is not a finished thought, but a rough cut of the first half of a video explaining how blogs work. This is the work of an afternoon — not a polished product in any way shape or form. And I would be delighted (nay, indebted) to you for feedback on this proto-explanation. Does it makes sense? Does it help you to think about a blog as a device? What would make it better?

March 18th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip (and it is, again, a bit FirstClass-centric, focused on some of our internal systems — we’re running a WPMU blog server and a MindTouch DekiWiki).

We won’t rehearse all of the problems with email attachments here (Can I open that file? What happened to my disk quota!? Which version was it?) Instead, let us focus on things that improve the experience. In fact, here’s a short video Top Ten list:

Links from the video

March 11th, 2010

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As teachers, we are perennially swapping the hat that we wear: lecturer, confidante, counselor, coach, security officer, parent. With the ability publish work instantaneously to the entire globe with a single click comes a fresh and daunting hat: copyright lawyer. The Gordian Knot of copyright law raises its Medusa-like head at several times during the year: preparing readings, vetting student research and writing, and presenting student accomplishments. At this time of the year, it seems most appropriate to focus on the last of these…

What copyright concerns come along with exhibiting and presenting student work? What follows are some questions to ask yourself (and your students) to clarify this situation. (Remember: IANAL, so this is not technically legal advice, this is friendly, collegial advice!)

In general, if you can’t answer yes to at least one of these questions, your best bet is to not publish: you’re taking a risk not just for yourself, but for your student and the school. Treat work that doesn’t meet these criteria as a draft, available only within the school walls. Push your students to revise their work to meet these criteria in exactly the same manner that the editor at your publishing house would push you.

March 4th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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The tough thing about best practices is remembering to practice them: a while back I started to collect my screencasts on particular topics into one, easy-to-remember link (e.g. iMovie ’09 information is at I spent a while uploading my Flash tutorials to one of my class conferences the other day, forgetting to just create the simple link (and thereby limit repetitive work). So, with that in mind…

Here are a few tutorials on animation (at a basic level) in Flash 8 Professional. They need to be re-recorded and cleaned up a little, but they’re a useful starting place for someone totally at a loss when faced with Flash’s ridiculous learning curve. The link to this post and to anything else I might have to say about Flash is

The videos in this sequence are (with links to higher-quality, but less-firewall-friendly, Screencast-O-Matic videos):

  1. Create a Simple Animation — How to create a simple Flash Professional 8 animation using a Motion Tween between two keyframes.
  2. Adding Complexity to a Motion Tween — How to use rotation (or scale, skew or other Transformations) to adjust a simple animation.
  3. Adding a Motion Guide — How to add a Motion Guide layer to a simple animation in Flash Professional 8.
  4. Shape Tweens — How to use Shape Tweens to animate motion (or, well, shapes) in Flash Professional 8.
  5. Reverse Exploding Animation — How to have a scattered group of shapes “resolve” themselves into your design in Flash Professional 8 (this was a request from my media design class).

February 26th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip. This one is, perhaps, particularly our-setup-specific (My Classes, Handins, Returns, etc.), but I think that the core ideas are worth sharing to the world.

One of the real challenges that we confront when teaching in a digital classroom is that there are a tremendous number of documents, spread across a tremendous number of computers, often in tremendously varying states of completion. A team of faculty is coalescing around digital portfolios this spring, and file management is the single greatest challenge that we’re looking at initially.

With that in mind, it seems timely to suggest some best practices for working with files in the My Classes folder on FirstClass:

  • Email attachments hurt. If students are turning in their work an email attachments, it counts against their disk quota (which is pretty slim by this point in the year). And you have to open each and every single message to download the attachment so that you can read it. That’s a recipe for frustration. Instead, have your students upload their files directly to the Handins folder — they can just drag them from their computer desktop into the FirstClass folder (or choose Upload… from the File menu in FirstClass). Files in the My Classes folder do not count against anyone’s disk quota. The best part: you can now select a group of files in your Handins folder and drag them to your computer desktop to download all of them all at once (no more opening every individual email).
  • File names matter. Ask your students to include both the name of the assignment and their name in the name of the file that they’re uploading. If the students don’t put their name on their files, it’s a hassle to figure out who turned in what. And likewise, if they don’t put the assignment on the file, you’ve got to open the file to find out. The file names don’t need to be Homeric epics: “Feb. 18 Essay – Seth B.doc” works great as a file name.
  • Students can’t cheat from the Handins folder. They aren’t able to open other people’s work (or even their own), nor can they remove their work once it’s turned in (so no coming back with an “improved” version after the fact). In fact, the only person who can open the files in the Handins folder is… the teacher.
  • Students need to be told about the Returns folder. Every class has a Returns folder that has an individual folder for each student in the class. You can drag files you are returning to those students directly into those folders (from, say, your computer desktop). Only the student whose folder it is can open the folder and read the files (and they can’t change them). Plus, now you don’t have student files cluttering up your inbox and counting against your disk quota as email attachments!
  • Be clear, but firm. You’re teaching technical skills, and your students won’t get it right at first. Help them to turn in their files correctly (i.e. in a way that is easy for you to work with), rather than fixing their mistakes. Every mistake you fix will end up being a mistake you have to fix every time.

Obviously, the list goes on, but these five best practices should help cut through some of the chaos and confusion accompanied by the proliferation of documents produced by a digital classroom!

February 18th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I have long used Flickr for my own personal photo sharing needs — it’s pretty much a de facto standard in circles in which I travel: a clean interface, strong support for connections between Flickr and other Web 2.0 services, and very real support for innovation in terms of user-designed and coded add-ons. All this adds up to Flickr being a very flexible, very powerful photo sharing service.

My idea was that my students could get to know one of the standard photo sharing services as part of the new media design experience. Using Flickr would expose them to some of the new media concepts inherent in working with Web 2.0: hosting information online and then reusing that information in other forums (for example, embedding their Flickr-hosted pictures in blog entries on our blog server). As Flickr also supports sharing within groups, comment boards and tagging, my hope was to have the students engage with each other’s photos online via Flickr.

In Practice

Signing up for Flickr was a real challenge for my students. Partly this was because they needed more support from me in understanding how to sign up for access to a web site. Partly this was because Flickr is owned by Yahoo, so they needed to (confusingly) sign up for a Yahoo ID and then link that Yahoo ID to a new Flickr account. (I had signed up for Flickr so far back in the day that I hadn’t had to jump through those hoops — and had already had a Yahoo ID to link to my Flickr account when they merged). The sign up process provided an opportunity to discuss digital footprints and privacy online, to help my students think about both protecting their privacy (concurrent with the school’s legal obligations under FERPA) and about how they present themselves to future employers and the like.

My students also wanted a significantly more structured guide to how to upload photos and share them to our class group on Flickr. Note that I say “want” — they were not eager to explore and figure out features on their own (or to read the help documentation from Flickr itself). I gave them a (privately throw-away) assignment to post their first few pictures that only one student completed, who already had a Flickr account before the class.

When it came to linking our class blog to their Flickr accounts, my students also ran into difficulties. The process, while well-documented on Flickr, is somewhat technical and they did not have a clear enough idea of the purpose or desired outcome to really dig in and engage with the process. Plus, they had a lot of typos trying to enter the blog XML-RPC address by hand. It was not a confidence-inspiring performance. Similarly, when it came to posting to the class blog from Flickr, very few of the students really grasped that this was a one-click process — almost all opted for much harder (and, frankly, lower quality and more annoying, approaches to embedding their photos in the blog initially).

By and large, once photos were uploaded, students were successful in sharing those photos to the group photo pool. They were also good about going in and providing comments to each other, when assigned to do so. Interestingly, they could spend an entire class totally obsessed with flipping through each other’s photos online, but actually adding comments was not a voluntary instinct.

After the first few photo uploads, we ran into Flickr’s free account limitations (which, again, I had forgotten about because I don’t run up against them): only 20MB of uploads a month, only 200 photos per account maximum. Complicating this was that the Flickr interface (uniformly reliable in other environments), routinely hung when attempting to upload files from the media lab (probably having to do with the school firewall). Students would spend 20 minutes trying to upload three photos and find that the process had, in the end, failed. To get around this, by the end of the first quarter, I was uploading the lion’s share of the classes photos to my own Flickr account.

In addition, once uploaded, the photos in free accounts are not available at full resolution. My hope had been to use Flickr as a repository for the class’ photos. Instead, it was at best a secondary viewing area: the students didn’t have access to the full resolution images for editing purposes via Flickr. Worse, several of the students didn’t grok that they could download photos from Flickr at all and opted to take screenshots of the photos at very low resolution on the web. And then edit those screenshots. Rather than working with their original files. And I discovered this not because they asked me how to do this, but because I saw them at work editing the screenshots. Enterprising. Stupid, but enterprising.

Flickr did provide a great basis for discussion of photography, composition and style. Flickr’s gallery function allowed me to collect sample photos “live” from the web to present concepts and be the focus of class discussions. This could be a useful tool for having students do a photo scavenger hunt, for example.


I was distinctly underwhelmed by the experience of trying to use Flickr in the classroom. I think that there were really three things that were a marked failure in this:

  1. I really failed to anticipate all of the limitations of a free account on Flickr (and the complexity of needing a Yahoo ID to play the game at all). This was totally my bad: I knew all of these limitations, but either didn’t think that they would be an issue (“oh, we won’t take that many photos…”) or just didn’t process their ramifications (“20MB a month should be enough!”). I had actually looked around at other photo sharing sites, including Google’s PicasaSmugMug and using our FirstClass class conference and decided that Flickr provided the best interface and flexibility for what we were doing in class.
    In retrospect, I think I would have separated the photo sharing from the photo archiving plan and explicitly started my students off using the Classes share as a repository for all their images, and then having them post images directly to the class blog for discussion and portfolio purposes.
  2. I mistook “digital natives” for web experience. Which is pie on my face, since I’ve long made the argument that these are not one and the same, and that our students really benefit from our teaching in terms of critical analysis, literacy and just plain common sense online. The students just didn’t get how to sign up for an account on a web site online by themselves, and they weren’t really interested in learning. I should have structured that process differently, and, well, in a more structured manner.
    I think that I came in with misplaced expectations about both the background and attitudes of the students. I anticipated a more web-savvy crowd and they were not. In retrospect, I was rushing through much of my material at that point, trying to “stay on top” of the course outline as I understood it. Everyone would have been better served if I had taken a day or two out of my outline earlier in the semester to sit down and talk through:

    • Sharing files online. Literally: where are those files and how do you put them there.
    • Accounts on web sites, how to get them and how to use them
    • How different web sites can be made to work together.
  3. The school firewall and web filter did me no favors. As I learned over the course of the first quarter, any time that I decided to rely on sites not directly hosted by the school, I was in for a world of pain at some point along the way. Usually, this pain took the form of problems signing up to use the site (as happened with Flickr) or uploading content to the sight (as happened with Flickr). On the one hand, this is a strong reminder that the school does host a number of useful tools and that I should turn to those tools first, where appropriate. On the other hand, this was just infuriating — I was having experiences with web sites that I have not had ever before — and that I didn’t have when I left our campus network. They claim that the the home crowd is the 12th player on the field at football games. The school network was definitely the 12th player on the field in my classes this fall.
    Using external sites does raise very real and very consequential privacy concerns — and concerns that need to be presented clearly to faculty at the outset in the form of simple guidelines. The rule of thumb that students’ last names never appear online is great, and workable. But cutting us off from free and useful technology is really just exasperating.

In the end, I came away from this experiment feeling pretty dejected.

February 12th, 2010

Posted In: Social Media

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

One major challenge that students (of any age) face when learning how to use a new tool is that, when demonstrated, the application seems simple and easy. But now, on one’s own, finding that button or toggle that made everything easy in class is deucedly difficult. There are a number of ways to combat this, ranging from having the teacher physically present every moment that students are completing their first (and maybe second and third) projects to shrugging our collective shoulders and averring that, in fact, the puzzling-it-all-out process builds character and reenforces learning. Pain doesn’t reenforce learning; pain reenforces aversion to learning. Instead, how about providing instructions? Perhaps even instructions in the manner in which they were presented in the classroom, creating a familiar context and voice? A number of teachers have been exploring the possibilities of screencasting — recording what’s happening on your computer — in teaching with technology this year. It’s easy: it only takes a few minutes to record a screencast and post it to the internet, where you have a link to share with students at the end of a lesson.

An example of a quick use of screencasts to reenforce in-class teaching: A quick introduction to iMovie ’09

All these tools have links to screencasts explaining how to use them on their front pages! (How meta is that?)

Further resources: [A colleague] and Seth Battis talk about their experiences screencasting this year on the Laptop Leader pages.

February 12th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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A quick follow-up on my post from earlier in the week on my Flickr image turning up on

Yesterday morning (via some suggestions from Alex Howard on Twitter and friends and family on Facebook), I got connected with Dean Betz, the Director of Content for the Houston Chronicle online. Dean has turned this into a learning opportunity for his staff, and has been candid with me about how events unfolded. Suffice to say that I am really impressed with his response thus far, particularly his decision to handle this as a teachable moment. He’s planning to post an explanation here, in his own words, of what happened and how he’s handled it.

February 11th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, Ouroboros

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In preparation for a class that I’ll be visiting on Monday morning, and because I have found myself explaining these things a bunch of times this year, I have put together a quick series of screencasts that give an introduction to basic video editing in iMovie. I do this not because I think that my students can learn to work in iMovie by following me stuttering and mumbling through a screencast, but because having a visual guide to refer back to after class is helpful.

A quick link to this (and anything else I may have to say about iMovie ’09) is:

You may also be interested in more specific tutorials, and Apple has a bunch posted online. (And you can search for more on YouTube).

The basic sequence of these videos is (and here I’ll link directly to the original Screencast-O-Matic videos, which are slightly higher quality than the YouTube playlist above):

  1. 5 Minute Introduction to iMovie ’09 – This is a lightning fast orientation to very basic video editing in iMovie ’09.
  2. Using Still Images in iMovie ’09 – Importing and editing still images instead of video clips in iMovie ’09.
  3. Adding a Video Transition in iMovie ’09 – How to add transitions between video clips to make our project look more professional.
  4. Adding Titles to a Video in iMovie ’09 – How to add explanatory text (a.k.a. titles) to a video in iMovie ’09.
  5. Adding Audio Track(s) to a Video in iMovie ’09 – How to add music, effect and voiceover soundtracks to a video in iMovie ’09.
  6. Sharing Your iMovie ’09 Masterpiece with Other People – A brief rant about how to export your iMovie ’09 project as a video file that other people can watch.

February 6th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

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A week or so ago, I recorded a long screencast for my computer animation class, explaining — soup to nuts — the process of constructing an armature for a model in Blender. It’s got a lot of tricky steps, and you have to do it just so: an ideal candidate for screencasting. You can see it. You get it narrated. You can pause and rewind. It’s great.


It’s not so great if your idiot teacher gives you a fifteen minute video that explains the whole process, without bookmarking key moments in the process. This is one of those wonderful learning moments, when teaching material helps you understand how to teach that material better. Which doesn’t do your (well, my) students a lot of good if they’re trying to figure out a particular step.

Screencast-O-Matic offers some bookmarking potential that I need to play with on my long video. But, in the short term, it’s been just as easy — maybe even easier — to just record 1-2 minute videos of specific key steps. We’ll see if this works better for my poor, confused students. None of what they see in these videos is new. But they need to be able to pull up the instruction á là carte, rather than as the prix fixe seven course meal.

So, a playlist of the short videos:

And, for comparison’s sake, the original long video (broken into two pieces on YouTube below):

November 25th, 2009

Posted In: Educational Technology, Social Media, Teaching

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