August 19, 2011

How to look at a tool

Filed under: economy,edtech,musing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 2:21 pm

toolchest1.jpgMy husband inherited his great grandfather’s wooden tool chest from pre-1900, filled with beautiful hand tools. The wooden surfaces of the brace and bit shine from hours of rubbing against carpenter’s palms as he built shelves and homes for doctors, businesses, and scores of names. Each of the jobs is carefully penciled into small notebooks tucked into the tool chest tray, seasoned with sawdust. When we pull out a tool, we never say, “It does this.” Instead, we imagine the places it has built, feel how it fits in our hands, and assume it can do anything we are brave enough to envision.

When I see a new tool on the web, even one so simple and “old fashioned” that it lingers from a previous millenium, I do not label its place or task. I  wonder about it just as I do the tools in that chest. Somehow, I always come up with more ideas than it offers for itself. Last week I looked at a review of Box Templates. This simple site offers printable patterns for folded boxes. Like a brace and bit, it has obvious uses. But what if… they could be templates for mystery boxes that students make about themselves as a “getting to know you” activity the first week of school? The outside could be decorated with words or images of significance to the student, the inside filled with small objects or symbols or slips of paper with favorite quotes or song lyrics or… What if we challenged students to make their own box templates for other box shapes? What if we invited students to create a 3D container representing a concept we are studying: government by the people or cells or energy or biodiversity? Some might even render it virtually in SketchUp. Others will need to touch it and crease the folds with their fingernails.

Box Templates is my brace and bit this week. The palms that smooth this brace and bit each bring new materials and new products. This tool does what? Anything.

As today’s budgets make us ponder each available tool a little longer,  we can enjoy the smell of sawdust and inscribe a few notes in our own idea notebooks. It’s just a matter of vision.

July 20, 2011

Doing more with less: Choosing a triad

Filed under: economy,edtech,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:06 pm

three.jpgDo more with less. We keep hearing that. In school, as in any other workplace, it means adding more responsibilities to your already full plate.  It also means making supplies go further, doing without tech support (or waiting longer to get it), and having no money available for professional development. Even if you find a regional conference that addresses the very problems we are being asked to solve, you must pay for it yourself.

There is perhaps one silver lining to doing more with less. We get very good using the tools we do have.  And we don’t have to apologize for knowing only a tool or two for making online projects. If the school only pays for one, it is the one we will become expert at. If we as teachers must pay for online tool subscriptions for our own classes, we either stick with the inconveniences of the “freemium”  tools, beg for money from parents or PTO, or shell out the bucks to “do” with one tool.

Doing more with less time matters, too — more precisely, using less time to accomplish the most.  I want my students to move past the tech toybox stage and into the nitty-gritty thinking of creating and evaluating their own information. What if  a class were to simplify to a max of three tools?

As I prepare for an OK2Ask session next month on three Editors’ Choice tools, I wonder which tools I would choose as my triad. I love Bookemon, Glogster, and Voicethread, but Google Earth is completely free. I think I would want a balanced triad: one very visual tool, one that is ideal for verbal/language, and one that offers a broad and perhaps unexpected perspective, such as the “world view” of Google Earth.

What couldn’t we do with these three? Concept maps we could do in a visual tool. Writing and sharing of words in a verbal tool, numbers and quantities we might have to represent in a real or symbolic context: applied in visuals or written in number sentences. We could use a visual tool to represent temporal concepts such as timelines. We could “place” events on the earth and in our hometowns using Google Earth. What other concepts have I missed? I haven’t though about things that require sound, though we could add sounds to our visuals, if we chose the right tool.

Doing more with FEWER may be a good way to create our own classroom taxonomy of priorities and content. Yes, we need to teach kids to choose the right tools, but don’t we also need to teach them to dig deeper and become expert with a tool repertoire? Think of the mental flexibility it will take to use one of the three to show what they know about a sonnet or mitosis or three branches of government. How could you use Google Earth to represented an underlying concept of our constitution? Hint: think analogies.

I’d love to know which triad other teachers would choose.

November 5, 2009

The economy strikes again

Filed under: creativity,economy,edtech,education,TeachersFirst — Candace Hackett Shively @ 4:39 pm

For the past 18 months or so, I have been a big fan of a certain web 2.0 tool that allowed students to create online books that could be viewed interactively and shared by URL. In a big email push this past week, they revised their user agreement. I read it carefuly, but even my skeptical eye did not catch the fact that they had removed the capability to see the book interactively unless you are actually logged into that “personal” account. No longer can teachers have students create books and share them electronically with family and friends at no cost. No longer can teachers create interactive ways for students to understand new content. No longer can all the teachers to whom we have “plugged” this tool use it with their classdrain.jpges in any functional way.

Some of the other changes related to content ownership are even more disturbing, but this one is the deal breaker right up front. If it is not free, TeachersFirst cannot review and recommend it. The sad thing is that I thought their business model MIGHT actually work: provide the tool for free, but ask parents and teachers to pay if they wanted a printed copy of the book. In an ordinary economy, it should have worked. Seeing your child’s (or grandchild’s) clever writing would be enough for parents to shell out the bucks. The school library or a teacher  might select the very best books created by a class for actual printing and permanent display on school shelves. Even in an era where reading has become more and more electronic and less tactile, people can be overcome by the urge to make a moment in a child’s life “permanent.” It should have worked.

But the economy strikes again. So we will be removing mention of this once-amazing tool for scaffolded or open writing experiences from over 80 reviews on TeachersFirst. Instead of recommending that students create online books, we will recommend another content-authoring tool…until that one dies, too. Let’s hope the economy improves before it sucks all creativity out of learning. There are enough forces at work trying to do just that. Economics should not be one of them.

February 20, 2009

Slippery Reality

Filed under: economy,education,musing,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 1:33 pm

SlipperyTwenty or thirty years from now, electronic libraries will be full of cyber-volumes about the opening decade of the 21st century and the confluence of events that turned the world sideways like an iPhone display: the flood of web 2.0, September 11, wars, and unprecedented economic distress. We certainly have no satellite view today. We cannot even feel the tilt well enough to know which end is up. We have all this information, and we can find out nothing.

I just finished editing another set of small tidbits to throw into the Web of information and ideas about the economy: some pages for parents on how to help children and teens cope during tough economic times and some for teachers on how to help all of us learn more about these complex systems. But even collecting and synthesizing good information from reliable sources is a slippery reality. When it comes down to it, nothing we write is any better than the reliable sources we trust — trust just because someone else we trust already trusted them. Even a savvy web user can only use the tests of reputation, references, credentials, and (gulp) Google ranking to decide who to believe. If my network says it’s reliable, I guess I can trust it.

As educators we know that we must help our students learn to compare information, assess it, compile it,  and convey it, but there are days like today when I wonder if we are simply helping them build a false sense of reality. I watch the news and I wonder which “authority” or “expert”  will fall tomorrow, which economic scheme will prove false, which report on the stateus of Afghanistan will be mistaken. I especially wonder what the state of the economy really is. No one knows. And this time Google does not help. There does not seem to be an algorithm for ranking such a total abstraction.

I am afraid I am left simply wondering what they will say in twenty or thirty years about all of us who are driven by the shepherds of the news media and the Internet. Reality is slippery, and we are supposed to help our students navigate it when we do not understand it ourselves. But someone trusts us because someone else they trust trusted us.