I’ve been searching and watching and experimenting, and in the last few months I’ve come to realize that these handful of technologies, some very well known, some less so, have a lot to offer teaching and learning but are less well-used for those purposes than they perhaps ought to be. Here’s my rationale:
Some of the real leaders in instructional technology have been using wikis with students for some time, but they’re just not as widely-used as they should be, not by a long shot. Wikis can be both extraordinarily challenging for both the instructor and the students, or they can fit rather seamlessly into a traditional classroom. This flexibility makes them almost universally useful. Students can use wikis to keep collaborative notes in small groups or with the entire class, collectively annotate a poem or other text, create a collective bibliography, collaborate on assignments, write documents in a group, or create a document (an encyclopedia, a book of chapters, a picture book, anything) that end up supporting, say, a classroom in an underprivileged area, for instance; collectively rewriting the syllabus of the class; the options are almost limitless. Wikis, in short, are cool. They take very little training to use, they revolve around traditional skills and activities of writing and citing, and there are few classes that can’t benefit from their use. In time I believe they will be a standard tool inside courseware, simply because they are so incredibly flexible.
Pretty much anyone with a camera and an internet connection uses flickr already, so flickr alone isn’t the revelation. The reason I include it here is primarily because I’ve pretty much given up trying to discourage people from using powerpoint. Most people in my circle of influence are married to powerpoint and won’t give it up regardless. So I’ve decided instead to encourage people to be a bit more conceptual and interesting with their powerpoint instead. Why not use creative commons licensed images from flickr to make that powerpoint more punchy? Under advanced search, flickr allows you to search only for content that you can borrow and reuse. Why not take advantage of a free source of amazing-looking images? My favourite powerpoint presentations are the ones that use no text at all, but represent points and ideas through creative commons images only. It fulfills the instructor’s desire to have a prompt for the next point, and it at least gives the class an opportunity to try and guess the point based on the picture alone. Hey, at least it’s something beyond endless bullet points on slides, right? We are turning into a user-content driven society, but so far we have been focusing more on creating it rather than using it. There’s a time for both!
Odeo and Seesmic
I’m linking these two particular technologies, but really it could be any of the significant number of online audio and video recorders. Odeo and Seesmic are, I think, only the simplest of them. (Though, the video recorder in facebook is stellar.) Here’s why I put it here: we waste a lot of time in education being talking heads. Often, people don’t even want to be interrupted; they want to read their their paper, or process their way through their detailed notes of the lecture, and take questions afterwards. Why are we wasting valuable in-class time for this? Why not read the paper at home into a microphone and/or webcam a couple of weeks beforehand and post the audio/video stream as a reading? Then you can use the time you have in class to actually build upon that lecture, build on the ideas and communicate with the students. I know lots of faculty feel students won’t watch it or listen to it or pay attention to it, but I think our fear around that support it happening. Listening to or watching the lecture is required; put them on the spot when you’re face to face. Tell them they need to come up with 3 questions and 3 comments based on the lecture and the readings, and post them before class starts. Expect them to do it. Students might be just lazy, but I think in fact we train them that they don’t need to do the required reading, because most of the time they sit in a lecture hall bored out of their skins and they don’t see the point of all that preparation. They’ll do the reading when it will matter, ie, before an exam. In graduate seminars you are expected to talk, and everyone feels the pressure to get the reading done and have something to say. Put the same pressure on undergrads! I see audio as a way to off-load our easiest ways to use a 2 hour lecture slot and do something that actually requires everyone’s presence and attention during that time. Life is short. Every face-to face minute should have value. The hardest part is figuring out what to do with 2 hours when everyone’s already heard your excellent lecture. What a great problem to have, I’d say.
As much as some technologies are almost universally useful, Second Life is not. I know there are cohorts of educators that believe all courses should be at least partially in Second Life, but I don’t understand their reasons. Second Life is an amazing tool, but only where its particular kind of tool is needed. I think most people are excited by the togetherness factor; unlike message boards or email, when you’re all logged into Second Life, you’re all in there together. You can see each other moving around, and lately, you can hear each other’s voices. That’s very cool for distance ed courses that require face-to-face time. It’s also pretty cool for language learning. However, I’d say for the most part that Second Life’s greatest use is in building. I believe that the tools inside Second Life are excellent for in-depth research projects where students work either alone or in groups, where it is too easy to plagiarize or buy a paper rather than learn anything. If you’re ready to throw the traditional essay assignment out the window, a Second Life building project (say, a particular historical moment, a biography, an idea or concept like postmodernism or the nature of the hijab) might be just the thing. Students need to do a lot of research to get the details right and build it, and then they make a movie out of it that fits into another class, or on a website, or as part of a larger project. It’s interesting, it’s different, it’s engaging and unique, and it’s a lot of fun. With the right concept and the right support, I think this could be one of the most rewarding projects for instructors and students alike.
This is brand new. When people first look at it, they don’t get why I think it has any relationship to education. I did a bad thing in that I grabbed an article from First Monday to try and explain it: check it out here. Look for the little bar at the bottom with the button “start chatting”. Get it? Basically it puts cursors and chat over top of a document, anchored to the document. So if I start typing while I’m reading the introduction, anyone else reading the introduction will see it. If I start typing while I’m in paragraph 5, others at that point will see it. If I get confused part way through, I can hover around the confusing part with others who are also confused. Essentially, we can now book a time and read collaboratively with students. Students can meet together and go through a document. You don’t have to wait until you get to the end anymore. I think this is way more valuable than you’d think, because one of the first skills students need to pick up when they start university is a new kind of reading. Reading an academic article is not like reading a book; it’s more like sitting in someone’s office and hearing a personal lecture. You to learn to respond as you hear it, you need to become part of a conversation with the article. If we encourage that early on, we end up with more vocal students. Also an advantage: with a tricky article, the class and read together and the TA or instructor can scroll through and see where the clusters of cursors are to see where students get stuck. And work it through right there!
Those are my current top 5. More next week or so, I’m sure.