and I'm all out of bubble gum…

I wrote this originally in response to a question from [the assistant head at Jewish Day School] about how I think about web tools. After writing this, I chatted with him and [my opposite number in the middle school] about how folks that are using OTSW in the middle school that are more successful — largely because they’re using it as a “gateway drug” to a web presence, rather than trying to bring an existing web presence into one place.

Here my general thoughts on selecting tools for teaching and learning, and how OTSW measures up against them. This is in no way meant as a slam on OTSW, but rather an explanation of my thought process in selecting tools with which to teach and learn, while examining the OTSW system.

In general, when looking at a tool, my first concern is how well it does its intended job — whether intended by the developer or by the user. Education is strewn with unintended, but serendipitous uses of tools never intended for that purpose: consider the military’s use of game systems for training.

Assuming that a tool does what it is intended to do, and does it well, my next concern is how well this tool will connect not just to any existing tools, but specifically to the tools that I already use (although a little forward-thinking at this moment, considering tools I might want to use down the road, is not uncalled-for).

Having looked at these two considerations, the final — and really potentially gamestopping — concern is how well this tool will support a safe learning environment for my students and myself. What “safe” means can certainly be construed in different ways, depending on the purpose of the tool (a discussion tool would certainly have different safety concerns than a research tool).

With these three concerns in mind, let us turn our eye to OTSW and our current set of web tools:

What does it do? And does it do it well?

OTSW provides a Facebook-like environment for users of our FirstClass system. It allows users to post status updates, to maintain blogs and wikis, and to comment on each other’s postings.

User status updates are handled reasonably well — there are no major surprises. The status updates are limited in length (as is true of Twitter, Facebook, SMS messages, etc.) The system will display a somewhat shortened (truncated) version of the status message to users who “follow” that user. The users cannot type a longer status update than will fit into the field, but there is no warning when the status update is longer than can be displayed to one’s followers. Potential uses for these status updates are unknown, but a creative mind could certainly come up with something. Mostly, they’re just for fun.

Consider the blogging system: the word processing system for writing posts is comparable to the FirstClass document editor in the FirstClass client, although perhaps more limited. It is also comparable to the WordPress or MindTouch wiki document editors although, again, perhaps a touch more limited: fewer formatting options, no support of the style associated with structured documents built for the web, limited capabilities for facilitating linking to other documents on the same system.

The blog commenting system is apparently “un-threaded” — or, at least, controls for turning on threaded comments are not apparent. This means that a comment posted in response to another comment is shown in the overall list of comments by date, rather than by thread of conversation. This makes complex, truly interactive asynchronous conversations about a blog post difficult, if not impossible, to read. Additionally, already read comments automatically collapse upon the return to the page (with no preference otherwise), providing limited context for new comments.

The wiki document editing system is somewhat more advanced than the blogging system, allowing for the creation of links to other pages within the specific wiki on which you’re working, although not to other wikis on the OTSW system. Additionally, three styles of structured text (body, heading and subheading) are supported on wikis, as well as a few more rich formatting options.

The organization of the wiki pages within a specific wiki on the OTSW system is flat, rather than hierarchical. While this limits the confusion associated with the page hierarchies on the MindTouch wiki, the presentation of the pages for the wiki is now as a “page cloud” in the tool bar, organized apparently by date of creation or modification (making the placement of pages unpredictable between visits). There is no clear way to move or copy a page from one OTSW wiki to another.

As [one colleague] has correctly noted, another oddity of the OTSW wiki system is that, when commenting on a page, the actual content of the page is hidden (although the other comments on the page are displayed as on the blog, along with links to different versions of the page in its revision history). This is at best unhelpful, and certainly confusing to the novice (or experienced) user.

In both the blog and wiki systems on OTSW, the ability to tag posts and pages with keywords is provided. The tagging system in beta versions of OTSW was highly vulnerable to non-alphanumeric characters in tags (e.g. “Seth’s tag” — the apostrophe in one tag rendered an entire community inaccessible). In the current version of OTSW, non-alphanumeric characters are accepted in tags for display… but clicking the tag link to view all documents tagged with that keyword has unpredictable results (in the case of “Seth’s tag” the link takes the user to a page list all documents tagged “Seth” — which does not include the pages tagged “Seth’s Tag”).

Additionally, depending on what actions have recently been taken in the OTSW environment, the tagging tool will appear in unpredictable locations or may not even be accessible. (As is also the case for initial edits of wiki pages: once posted, the user has to leave the wiki and return in order to find an Edit link for that page.) Tagging wiki pages, at least in Safari, appears to be undo-able, as the tagging tool appears the bottom of the page, with scroll bars turned off, and no save button available.

Considering the apparent purposes of the OTSW system:

  • Status updates: nothing particularly unique or different or unusual, automatic truncation without warning.
  • Blogging: limited formatting options, lack of threaded discussions, lack of ability to link even to other posts in the blog.
  • Wikis: limited formatting options, confusing discussion format, no ability to organize pages.
  • Tagging: easily broken, predictably unpredictable.

Interoperability with Other Tools

When it comes to interoperability with the OTSW communities, the highest priority concern would be how well the tools work with our existing array of tools on campus, including our blog and wiki servers and, especially, FirstClass.

The communities are stored as a special type of conference on the FirstClass server. In current versions of the FirstClass client, clicking on these conferences will open the community in a web browser. When viewed by older clients, these conferences will open to reveal a list of documents (the pages, posts, comments, etc. within the community) with an array of specialized columns reflecting how these documents would be displayed in the web browser.

When a user is invited to a community, they receive an email invitation, with a link to click to accept the invitation. Users who have not already logged in to the web interface to the communities have found that these links often are not active: they do nothing. Ideally, the result of clicking this link is that an alias to that community’s conference will appear on the user’s FirstClass desktop, giving them access to the community. Moving these conference aliases off of the desktop (perhaps into a folder called “OTSW Communities”) renders the group memberships inoperable — the conference aliases must remain on the desktop, although each functions only as a bookmark to the web interface to the communities when accessed through the FirstClass client.

When a user creates a community of their own, a new community conference is created on their desktop, and all pages, posts and documents posted to that community will count against the creator’s FirstClass disk quota.

When a user posts a page, post or comment to an OTSW community, that content is displayed as an outgoing message to the users’s My Shared Documents conference in their mailbox. This is confusing.

In terms of interoperability with our blog and wiki tools, there are three standard ways to connect tools to each other on the web: links, RSS feeds of recent updates and embedding.

OTSW communities do not provide any RSS feeds. Links to OTSW communities, pages or posts, will fail if the user is not currently logged in to the OTSW communities in their browser. Following a link to an OTSW community while not logged in will drop a user into their OTSW desktop, rather than the target of the link. OTSW communities provide no options for embedding their content in other tools.

Looking at the flip side of this interoperability, bringing external tools into OTSW provides a somewhat better picture. OTSW supports regular web links in all posts, pages and comments. OTSW supports attaching any kind of document to a wiki page (e.g. a movie or audio file, or Word document).

OTSW does not provide any facility for subscribing to RSS feeds from other tools.

OTSW does provide some support for embedding external content in OTSW pages, posts and comments. These embeds are performed by pasting arbitrary HTML into the OTSW content embedding dialog. Unlike WordPress, which provides some filtering, OTSW will allow anything to be embedded — and, in fact, embeds most objects as IFRAMES (which allows the embedded site unlimited access to OTSW — not great for security).

One oddity of OTSW embedding is that embedded content is masked by the OTSW embed logo, which must be clicked upon to reveal the embedded content (perhaps as a security measure?). Once the logo is removed to reveal the embedded content (which must be done each time the page is loaded, for each embedded piece of content), the embedded content is presented in an IFRAME exactly the same size as the previously masking logo. The logo is smaller than the standard YouTube video, for size comparison. This means that all embedded content is viewed through what amounts to a porthole.

One possible way around the lack of ability to access an external site’s RSS feed (for example, a feed of recently updated instructional videos from YouTube), would be to use a third party tool such as WebRSS to generate a “badge” which could then be embedded in OTSW.

Considering OTSW’s interoperability with other tools:

  • FirstClass: Rube Goldberg-like dependency on community conferences to remain on the desktop, no warning about disk quota use for conference creators, confusing display of posted content, flaky invitation system.
  • Web Links: outgoing links from OTSW work fine, incoming links are functionally useless.
  • RSS Feeds: non-existent.
  • Embedding: no options to embed OTSW content elsewhere, very limited ability to embed external content in OTSW, requires manifold click-throughs.


OTSW provides a very well-secured environment for users, in that it leverages our existing FirstClass userbase to automatically limit access to communities. While I have no clear understanding of the true security capabilities of FirstClass, I note that the FirstClass messaging system was, for many, may years, a de facto standard across education — quick and easy to setup, very reliable, very secure. Nine out of ten dentists use it themselves, etc. OTSW does not seem to waiver from the FirstClass security model. In terms of operational security, OTSW appears to be a seamless layer on top of our existing FirstClass system.

Another aspect of security that is well worth considering in a teaching and learning standpoint are the types of habits promoted by a particular tool. For example, blog servers promote, well, self-promotion and publication, hopefully also critical, analytical engagement with external information sources. Wiki servers tend to promote collaboration, with individual accountability, on large documentation and research projects.

As a Facebook-like communication system, OTSW should, then be viewed as a safe learning environment for social networks and media, where students can learn good habits and social graces. Much of the system works in this manner (as did FirstClass in relation to traditional email), providing the ability to track revisions, flag offensive content, engage in asynchronous discussion, etc.

The one oddball is the profile system (and this may be dependent on system settings). By default, the OTSW user profiles are set to demand more and more and more personal information from each user, reminding the users that their “profile is only X% complete… add your [fill in the blank personal information] to complete your profile.” To my mind, without deeper discussion in the classroom, this type of message promotes a culture of thoughtless exposure, rather than a carefully managed digital footprint.

September 26th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, Social Media

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 of the oft-touted features of social media, blogs, and news sites is RSS feeds. The phrase “subscribe to my feed for updates” probably connotes some twenty-something layabout in a coffee shop, but, in fact, RSS feeds are enormously useful to grown-ups (like thee and me) for managing large (vast, huge) amounts of information.

First, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. In this case, we’re using syndication in the same sense as a newspaper syndicate (not a crime syndicate — there’s different software for that): suppose Dave Barry writes for the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle carries the Bizarro cartoon. How is it that we open the LA Times and see both of these in our paper? The newspaper syndicates distribute all of the updates to Dave Barry’s column and Bizarro just prior to the newspaper going to press each night.

RSS, really simple syndication, is a newspaper syndicate for the rest of us: we can subscribe to the RSS feeds on web sites for updates from that web site, and use a feed reader (Google Reader, Newsgator, Bloglines, iGoogle, etc.) to present all of these updated feeds to us in one place. Common Craft has a short (brisk, even) video explaining this:

All of the blogs on our school blog server have RSS feeds. In fact, you can subscribe to updates from a particular category on a blog, or to updated comments on a particular post on a blog, if you want. Major newspapers provide lists of RSS feeds for their articles.

As a voracious newshound myself (I used to read two, three and sometimes four newspapers in a morning), I’m finding that — with RSS feeds — I no longer even open a physical paper. Instead, all of my information comes through Google Reader subscriptions to blog and newspaper feeds. About 5,000 updates a week.

For more plain English explanations of web technology, check out Common Craft’s YouTube channel.

April 22nd, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

One goal of [my media design class] and [my computer animation class] is for the students to develop a portfolio of completed work that demonstrates their skills and creativity in digital design and presentation. In both classes, I have been collecting projects and final products on the [local network shares] and (in the case of [media design]), on Flickr (more on the Flickr experience specifically under Social Media).

At the end of the digital photography unit in [media design], I asked my students to draw on their body of work to present a portfolio of the 5-7 most representative pieces, and to post these pieces, with some annotation, to our class blog. The students each created a category on the blog for their portfolio (so that we could bring up everything related to their portfolio on a single page). I posted my (public) feedback to the students into these portfolios, and asked the students to provide feedback to each other (in public) on the blog as well.

A major part of my rationale for asking the students to publish their portfolio to the blog was to provide them with a public arena for “publishing” their work, hopefully pushing them to take pride in their presentation (and allow them to share with their friends, family, etc.).

In Practice

Thus far, one unit (digital photography) has been posted to the blog. I anticipate that we will post videos shortly, although this may be a more restricted process (I don’t feel good about publishing interviews with students to the world without some pretty clear and explicit permission from the families involved). We may end up having conversations about the videos on the blog without embedding the video (instead, we will probably link to the videos posted on a Ning).

I would like to get my computer animation class to the same point of presenting their work in a portfolio, but the lion’s share of the file collection and organization has been mine. The students in that class have had far more problems losing their files, misnaming them, forgetting to turn them in, and so forth. In fact, on Parent’s Night, I realized that, although I had required a JPEG of each model that that they had constructed, such a vanishingly small minority of the students had turned those files in (and had, therefore, taken a full grade hit on their scores), I didn’t really have enough to put together a slide show for parents.


One unanticipated issue (on my part), was the difficulty the students had in distinguishing between when I wanted them to create a new post of their own, and when I wanted them to comment on someone else’s post. I think (based on their most recent performance), that this is a confusion that is dissipating, but that a good clear explanation of the structure of a blog might have been a good place to start.

I fell into the classic trap: I believed that my students were more technologically able than they are, based simply on their appearance as “digital natives” — particularly embarrassing, as I have spent the last few years railing against this assumption! (Students know how to do something better than teachers — play video games, watch YouTube, IM — but are vastly deficient in the critical and analytical skills related to thinking and learning, which we have learned through years of education (and so will they, albeit moderated through more extensive use of technology).

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Blogs, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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

Particularly in my [media design] class, which is fundamentally more process-driven, but also in my more application-driven computer animation class, I want to push my students to think critically about their own work and the work of their peers, and to reflect on that feedback (and, potentially, my feedback) in a constructive, forward-looking, “lessons learned” manner. To this end, as we reach the end of a project or unit, and we critique work presented, I ask students to respond the criticism that their work has received (while simultaneously providing similar criticism to their peers). I have them post their responses to our class blog, and then ask them to review each other’s responses, posting comments on ideas or insights that are particularly interesting or challenging to them.

In the interest of “pre-thinking” big questions before students arrive in class, I may also present them with a big question and a list of resources as a starting point for beginning to think about that question. I ask them to post their response to the question to the blog as a way of ensuring some level of thought and reflection prior to class, and ensuring that our class discussion can go further and deeper, rather than getting bogged down in background material.

In Practice

This is definitely something that works better the more you do it. And initial forays will be deeply disappointing. The best advice I’ve ever received about asking students to be reflective (especially in public) is that you have to have one or two “throw away” assignments where the focus is on getting the process under their belt, without regard to the quality of the outcomes.

By the middle of November, I have really asked my students in [media design] class to critique and reflect on our class blog only a couple of times, at the ends of units. This is, perhaps, not frequent enough for them to develop real facility. I have interspersed the feedback reflections with the big questions, so that they stay in the habit of posting to the blog every couple of weeks.

I have found, however, that the process of pre-thinking (first espoused to me by my colleague Anna Reid at [my previous school]), is very effective. Particularly when done regularly (I have also used online reading quizzes in a similar way, asking open-ended questions based on the reading to focus their thought while providing mandatory accountability.) I found, for example, that when we sat down to discuss issues of copyright and Fair Use in class, the students who had posted had already developed much more nuanced and thoughtful perspectives on the issues, and that we had a much deeper and more informed class discussion than we had had on the introduction of the assignment before the weekend. (In fact, when presented with optional reading assignments, most of the students read them as well.)

The process of developing an online conversation, in which students are actively commenting on and discussing each other’s ideas and work also requires more development. I have assigned a couple of rounds of online commenting, asking students to post n responses to each other’s work, but have not had in depth discussions of those comments. I have modeled this commenting, particularly early on, although the process of commenting on every student’s work quickly begins to (at least) feel prohibitive in terms of time.


This is actually an area that I want to really hammer away at over the rest of the year. I think that the payoff — not potential, but actual payoff — is huge, in terms of helping students both learn to think critically about their own and other people’s work, and to develop their own perspectives based in evidence rather than hearsay. The big challenge for me, is to really embed this in the routine of my class. (I have mentioned this elsewhere, but the adjustment from 4-5 class meetings per week to just 2-3, is really messing with my rhythm… and I didn’t have terribly reliable rhythm before this.)

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Blogs, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

As part of my education technology role at my school, I am a member of our high school “Laptop Leaders” group. A few weeks ago, at the end of our first quarter, the Laptop Leaders were asked to document the work they were doing, to create a shared resource, both for themselves and for other teachers. Ultimately, this is preparation for more large-scale adoption of laptops and technology in general as teaching tools in the high school.

The teachers in this Laptop Leaders group were selected last spring, so I joined the group late, at the beginning of the school year and had, really, only a sketchy plan for what I would be working on. The outline (lightly revised) is below. My intention is to share my various write-ups related to this process in this space.

Collaborative Writing and Editing

I’m working with students to develop a class wiki as a collaborative information source, with students contributing class notes, screencasts and other updates and expansions on course content.


I’m working with students to use the class blog as a publication platform for ideas/questions relevant to the greater community in their discipline (e.g. develop [my class] blog into a discussion of [media and design] and related ideas in the outside world).

Social Bookmarking

I’m working with faculty (and students) to use social bookmarking tools (specifically Diigo) to create dynamic and annotated resources for each other (and for and by students).

Social Media

I’m working with faculty and students to develop personal learning networks that tie together all of these Web 2.0 tools to create an online identity and a group of “fellow travelers” studying and exploring the same area. In students’ case, we’re working on this as a class (blogging), but for faculty tools like Twitter (and personal blogs) may also be useful. Also looking at other sharing sites (e.g. Flickr) for use as collaborative tools.

Useful Tools

In the interests of sharing, when I was at my last school, I sat down and created an profile of the handy applications that I use day-to-day. I’ve added this to my profile [on the school wiki], along with a (slowly growing) list of tools that I’ve built for special purposes around school.

Updated November 22, 2009: I should mention that I have Bowdler-ized some of these posts to protect (at least a little), the identities of my students. When posted to our school wiki, there are a number of links to examples. If you pop me an email or a comment and identify yourself, I’m happy to share these examples. Just trying to do some due diligence with regard to my students’ privacy.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So, a couple days ago, Nate posted about my Yahoo Pipes solution for a blog comment aggregating conundrum he was running into in his history class. My solution ended up being a little technical, but I think it’s an interesting enough example of the power of Yahoo Pipes that it’s worth talking through what’s going on. (I love Yahoo Pipes — although one of my colleagues is a major fan of WebRSS, which meets similar needs.)

A mildly cleaned-up version of the solution is below, in the Pipes’ visual programming diagram:

Yahoo Pipes Solution (click to embiggen)

  1. The pipe itself starts on the left, with Fetch Feed module, in which Nate had helpfully plugged in the comments feeds for all of his students. This takes all of the comment feeds from their blogs and aggregates them into one, enormous comment feed.
  2. Following the blue “pipe” from the Fetch Feed module, we reach the Rename module, which is actually be used to rename a copy of the “link” field of each item to “orig_author”. Clearly, this sentence needs some explanation. In an RSS feed, each item represents a single entry (in this case, a single comment on a particular blog). The RSS feed is made up of a bunch of items (usually the ten or so most recent items in the feed, so the ten most recent comments on each blog). We have aggregated these ten most recent comments from each blog into a feed that includes the hundred or so most recent comments from all the blogs (ten blogs x ten comments each = one hundred comments). Each item is made up of a series of fields that describe the item (title, description, link, etc.). Normally, in a feed reader, we only see the title and description, although we may also “see” the link field when the title is turned into a link back to the original comment on the originating blog. In this case, I have made a copy of the link field, for future reference, so that every item now has a second copy of the link field, named “orig_author” (short for original author, because programmers are lazy). It turns out that, in the comment feeds, the link is the only part of the item that refers to the name of the blog on which the comment was made, and that cryptically (e.g. “…” — i.e., as the first word in the address of the blog itself). More on this in a second.
  3. Again, following the blue pipe from the Rename module to the Regex module, we see two lines, which read, more or less:
    1. In item.orig_author replace


    2. In item.title replace
      (Comment on )(.*)( by .*)


      $1${orig_author}’s post “$2”$3

    What this means, in layman’s terms, is basically that I want to take whatever text appears in the orig_author field (which is a copy of the link field, which was a link to the original comment on the originating blog), and extract only the name of the blog from the URL. I won’t dive into the details of regular expressions right now, but what the first one above essentially says is “look for a pattern that starts with ‘http://’ followed by any number of characters — (.*) — followed by ‘.wordpress’ followed by any number of characters — .* — and replace the text that matches that pattern with whatever was in the first set of parentheses — $1.” In other words, replace the entire link with just the name of the blog that’s between ‘http://’ and ‘.wordpress’.
    The second regular expression is a bit more involved. At this point, it helps to realize that each set of parentheses is referred to by its order in the sequence of the original pattern, prefaced by a dollar sign — $1, $2, $3, etc. In this case, we’re looking at the original title of the comment item, which started off something like “Comment on My First Blog Post by Seth B.” I want to take my newly discovered blog name (from the first regular expression) and insert it into this in a meaningful way. To do that, I create a pattern that breaks the original title into its component phrases “Comment on “, “My First Blog Post” and “by Seth B.” With this in hand, I just plug in the current value of the orig_author field — which I just clipped in the previous regular expression, add some nice curly quotes, and put it all back together again to read something like “Comment on nkogan’s post “My First Blog Post” by Seth B.”

  4. Again, following the pipe down to the Sort module, I’ve added the handy little fillip of sorting all of the comments in our aggregated feed by the time at which they were posted (rather than grouping them by the blog on which they were posted, as they would be coming out of the original Fetch Feeds module — the first blog linked to, followed by the second blog linked to, etc.

I hope this is useful, or at least intriguing, in thinking about using the both Yahoo Pipes and regular expressions. A really wonderful reference on regular expressions can be found at, and I really like JRX as a tool for fine-tuning my regular expressions as I write them.

August 31st, 2009

Posted In: How To

Tags: , , , , , , ,

My first year teaching, a bright young thing just out of college, I spent the summer before-hand in a state of panic: I assumed that, having gotten a job teaching AP Computer Science, that I would now need to be an infallible expert in computer science. This level of pressure had me practically hyperventilating before my first class.

Fortunately, what gradually became apparent to me (and has been reenforced often since, even as recently as my most recent evaluation this fall) is that the value in my teaching (and, I presume, all teaching) is not in what I can explain to the students, but what I can help them explain to me. And things get really exciting when my students get to explain things to me that are new to me. In fact, the most freeing moment I have had in the classroom was the first time I said, “Gee, that’s a good question. I have no idea. Let’s figure it out.” The practice of working as a collaborative team to solve a shared problem is real, and it is true learning.

Previously, I alluded to the idea of being willing to get lost in the hinterlands on the way to our educational destination. In this scenario, the teacher serves as the knowledgeable and resourceful guide. My best service to my students is to help them prepare for that journey, to load them with the background knowledge they need to tackle real and challenging problems. In this, the question of how and what to communicate to my students arises. I don’t want to tell them too much, for fear that they will come to rely on me, rather than their own intellect, for answers. But I certainly don’t want to tell them too little, for fear that they will never emerge from the hinterland.

This fall, as my computer science class can attest, we have swung both ways, but I think we’re finding a happy medium. As we reach equilibrium in that state of my life, I am turning my attention more directly to the other part of my life, working with faculty on uses and goals for academic computing. And I find myself in a similar bind. What and how should I be communicating? In a previous incarnation of this position, at another school, I believe I said too much and limited the creativity and actual learning of my colleagues. At the same time, I cannot rely on my colleagues now, who are working the so-called “triple threat” while striving to consistently improve their own teaching, to just “figure things out” on their own.

I think that this is exactly the situation for which we must prepare our students: we want our students to be able to lead, but to be able to collaborate with their colleagues to achieve the best possible results. How then, do we prepare our students to do this? And can we use these same tools ourselves to accomplish these same goals for ourselves (surely we should be as good at this as we would like our students to be, and if we’re not… now is an excellent time to get better!)

I believe the first step is to actually consider the nature of the communication that we are doing and to try to use appropriate tools for the problems at hand. Traditionally we are used to face-to-face meetings (which occur in real and simultaneous time for all participants, in a single location), mail (snail or electronic, it amounts to an asynchronous discussion occurring in multiple locations), or some telephonic communication (simultaneous real-time discussions occuring in two different locations). These same basic limitations apply to our communication with even the latest technology (are we in the same location or different locations? Can we talk at the same time or different times? Will this conversation take place all at once or over the course of several communications?)

But we have new tools that let us make better use of both our synchronous and asynchronous time. Consider the process of developing a joint document (a proposal for a new course to be taught by a team of teachers, for example). With our triple-threat schedule, we may only be able to find one quick time for a face-to-face meeting, but we can use wikis and other shared document tools (e.g. Google Docs) to share a single, evolving draft of our writing. Technologies are coming into play to allow us to do the same for video and audio editting.

Similarly, if we want to work the kinks out of a new idea, we would normally try for a face-to-face meeting (with a whiteboard, of course). But what if we blogged the idea, and then the discussion takes place in the comment threads? The same conversation can now take place asynchronously. Or perhaps we want to thread several discussion topics together, as in a discussion board, allowing for more free-wheeling discourse. Or we would like to link together connected ideas in different threads with hyperlink references.

What this describes is a new paradigm for communication. Processes which are traditionally thought of as happening synchronously and face-to-face can now be done asynchronously and at a distance. And this is what we need to be preparing our students to do. And the tools that we can use as teachers to work together in an increasingly pressured educational environment to squeeze the greatest result out of our efforts.

This does not supplant our traditional communication approaches, which still have great strengths (tone, inflection and body language, anyone) but complements them, allowing us to collaborate in a broader array of challenging situations to get more done with greater coordination of effort and less coordination of schedule.

January 2nd, 2008

Posted In: Educational Technology

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