Sunday, September 21, 2008

Into the Woods

This past summer I read Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space. So I have been thinking about his ideas of "intimate immensity" as they pertain to how students (and well, anyone for that matter) sometimes perceive the World Wide Web. The screen about eighteen inches of my face has the lure of such intimate immensity.

Bachelard provides a metaphor of a forest to explain intimate immensity. It is the experience of being surrounded by the trees closest to you, and therefore, unaware of the vastness of the woods beyond this immediate, intimate circle. Perhaps the woods is as Robert Frost tells us "lovely, dark and deep." Or maybe not. Either way we can't see the forest for the trees. We are lured into a coziness, a security of a verdant canopy and steady bark pillars in our intimate vicinity.

Is that not how comfortable I feel as I type this in my own study, with my own familiar computer screen? Is that not how my students feel when they post pictures of their latest OMG moments with their friends? Sure. It's the intimacy of thinking we are talking only among one's "friends" or writing only to oneself that blogging can be.

Still, it's important before clicking "publish" or "upload" to remember ourselves and remind our students that as intimate as the Web may be when it's eighteen inches away or in one's lap, it and our audience may also be vast and unknown. Indeed, there may be a few "lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!"

Fairy tales warn us about dropping breadcrumbs, straying from the path, and talking to wolves. As we tread into the woods of the World Wide Web and invite our students, these cautionary stories and a mindfulness to Bachelard's sense "intimate immensity" can help us find our way safely.

Image: Nicholas T. “Mossy.” Detail. Flickr. 19 March 2007. CC Licensed: BY-SA-NC

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When Tech Works, It Works Wonders

My previous post was as close to a rant as I plan to get in this blog. Rants usually have an audience of one. Let me make amends, dear reader, by noting some of my wonder when it comes to technology working that pulls me through. I've had several parallel experiences of dealing with online technology-in-education; here I share three.

After six-to-eight hours of reloading my students usernames and passwords to our Edublogs-based blog and then getting my students in successfully, I'm reaping the rewards of the power of scholarly dialogue in our literary discussions. You can take a look for yourself at our English 12 Honors Blog (if you are reading this post within 6 months of its posting). These are great first attempts of students finding their ideas and their audience online. I'm most impressed by the quality not only of the posts but also the comments that go beyond "way to go!" and "I agree." Next I hope to see bloggers bring research and links into support and extend their findings and support their claims.

In addition, for the past few months to I've also been beta-testing an online writing, grammar and research program from Pearson Education. The product is called MyCompLab. It's a poweful, comprehensive web-based resource in grammar, writing, and research and features a dynamic, interactive, collaborative place for composition, peer-review, tutorial, and assessment. We've had some hurdles to surmount with such a rich and complex project. This summer the new MCL was launched and my colleagues and I have been trying to get started with the program, not without several hiccups. Nothing more frustrating than being ready to work in a writing center (after pulling favors and making deals with other teachers for the scheduled time) to not have the students be able to log in. "Okay, class back to the regular classroom!" But in the past week, obstacles flattened, it's been exciting to see students engaging with the media, each other, and me in this online environment.

A particular labor of love has been working with the education department of Carnegie Museum of Art, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, especially during the current exhibition of the 55th Carnegie International "Life on Mars" (now until January 2009). My pet project has been to help teachers with online resources for school visits to the museum, or virtual visits. Again, collaborating with web developers, IT departments, artists, curators, funders, and fellow educators can resemble a instructional technology tower of babel; we all have a common goal but speaking a variety of languages. Sometimes it seemed like that we had aliens-among-us, some sort of educational end users encountering technicians from a different world who we depend upon us launch us into the blogosphere. (I'm sure this resonates with many teachers and IT departments throughout the universe.) After more than a year in the making. the International's online complement is offering unprecedent resources to reach out to students, teachers, and the general public via the Web.
Not only is Carnegie Museum of Art inaugurating it's first blog for this exhibition, which celebrates the finest contemporary art from around the world, but also it has no fewer than five! Museum staff sends its Signals blog to an general public audience who can send back blog posts in Soundings. A group of teen interns offers Zero Gravity blog. Teachers share ideas for the classroom and the exhibition on Ideas & Updates blog. And finally, teachers and students can augment their school visits with private or public blogs devoted to their own school group.

With this many opportunities for writing and reading online in response to one of the world's most significant and historical art traditions--the Carnegie International--it's been worth sweating the details of how to tweak the tech to make it work. My students are gearing up for their visit later this month. We use school-museum visits to inspire narrative writing and other compositions. Stay tuned for their posts.
I invite teachers from around the world to virtually visit the Carnegie International and the works of forty of today's top artists, the "old Masters of Tomorrow," with their students. And if you are in the Western Pennsylvania region, plan a school visit. Leave your teaching suggestions in Ideas & Updates and create a classroom blog with your students via the Classroom Resources. They'll be sharing their ideas on the art of their age for audiences now and in the future.

You know the cliche about "teachers touch the future." Well, when it comes to instructional technology, it's great when the future taps you back.

Image: View from inside Richard Serra's cor-ten steel scupture Carnegie, located in front of the entrance to Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. (cc) 2007 Charles Youngs. Some rights reserved: BY-NC-SA.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hack or Crack?

I'm far from a hack with computers. But I do enjoy figuring out how to do things with technology for the classroom. Today, I'm not sure if I'm more a crackbrained fool than any kind of hack. I guess it comes with the territory of perpetual beta that comes with trying to keep up.

Let me explain. This year I am trying my class blogs with Edublogs. Having used another basic provider since 2003, I'm lured by the bells and widgets of Edublogs and what I thought would be the stability of using a popular site designed for educators and powered by the respected WordPress. Tonight I'm not sure.

A fellow teacher down the hall has switched to EB with me. A few weeks ago he noted that the site when down and we all had to reset our passwords. This afternoon, he stopped by again to see whether I had noticed that Edublogs had suffered another attack and was requiring its users to reset their passwords, again. Ugh, I had just set up sixty student accounts! Not that big of a deal, unless you have your student users all wired to one Gmail account.

It's actually a hack technique suggested by Edublogs, and it's a clever way of getting by not having your students sign up with third-party services. You can set up the blog user accounts without requiring students to have their own email accounts. Students at our district cannot access email at school. So trying to recover passwords can be an impass during the day.

But a teacher can create an email account on Gmail and simply add the student user names to the formula of Gmailaccountname + studentusername @ gmail . com. Gmail ignores anything between the plus sign and the at sign, and all the mail comes to you, the holder of the Gmail account. Thus websites requiring accounts get a real email address and your students get the accounts without disclosing emails, and you get control over retrieving passwords, spam, and errant messages. Nifty, yes.

That is until something like what happened at Edublogs today. All of the passwords need to be reset. This involves a login, an email, a hyperlink, another email, and resetting the password to something the students will understand and remember. This painstaking process made worse by the slowness of the site (perhaps because of everyone resetting their accounts). It's slow-going. Each account adds up about 10 minutes to reset and then redo the profile, maybe more. A process that's taken me five hours and counting. I'm a git more than half way, and I've had to . stop working on the redo because Edublogs seems to have gone off line again. Yikes!

I'm not sure I can endure another crash and run at this process. Better to start fresh, no? As I've said before (here and here) teaching with technology is not for the feint at heart. Times like these I gotta wonder whether I can hack it.
Image remix: Red envelope is a trademark of Google's Gmail and the blue "eb" is a trademark of Edublogs.