Developing blogging as a department

One of the most exciting changes I’ve had to contend with recently is that I am now a Head of Department – in Media. This (pretty much) ideally fitted the work I’ve been developing in this blog, so the opportunity to take some of the matter contained in here and begin to develop it more closely amongst colleagues is proving to be really interesting.

One of my first aims was to develop a departmental approach to using blogs – i.e. to actually build it into the actual SoW and assessment of our teaching Media, rather than just trying to make it an optional, or ‘bolt-on’ extra.

We’ve started this by doing it Key Stage 5 (or A-level – 16-18 yrs). It made particular sense with Media because the syllabus for A-level strongly encourages teachers delivering the course to use blogs (forward thinking from exam boards for a change!). Setting up a blog proved more difficult. As alluded too many times, blogging sites (including this very one) are all blocked by Local Authority internet filters. This draconian measure means those of us who see the potential in blogs can sometimes not even get started. Luckily though, the very helpful IT guys at my school worked out that the mac server that our computers runs off also came with a blogging/networking facility, that, until now, had gone completely unused. Fantastic!

First step was to set up my own blog which would act as:

  • A conduit for students to find work for lessons and for independent study
  • A place for other teachers within the department to see how I was using the blog and hopefully, gain ideas from it.

As well as this, I created a ‘student’ blog, to model what kind of things students should be producing in their blog. So far, I have really underused it, instead focusing on just getting my own blog in order, but I plan to use it much more once blogging as a system is established. I wonder, if, in part the idea quickly became defunct – as students quickly became more used to the blog, they naturally started looking at each others’ work – a handy feature for encouraging students to think about their own work and adjust it accordingly.

This was one of my own blog posts. As well as more typical ‘how to do my lesson’ type posts, I tried to post tutorials for neat little tricks they could do, such as taking screenshots. What I found good about doing this particular post is that when one student looked at my own post they showed me an even quicker keyboard shortcut to doing what I was talking about. Excellent – so I was able to very quickly edit the post and put that in as well, thereby showing how the collaborative nature of the blogs could be both ways rather than just one. The blog itself looks like this to students as they click into it:

Attaching files is fantastic – instructional ppts are the mainstay, but also something as simple as having a picture on the different blogs means that students can find the appropriate blogs for their class that bit more quickly. I am also training students in the use of tags – and have tried to make my own blog reflect that. Once my blog gets into the 30+ posts mark, it will be interesting how quickly students get into the habit of clicking on the correct tag as opposed to spending ages trawling through the pages.

Conclusions

Currently, both AS, A2 and OCR national students are using the blog – roughly in excess of 40 students. Also 2 other members of staff are using them to set and mark their own work in their lessons. One member of staff has also created a youtube channel for the department, then linking it to their blog, creating a great way of linking different multimedia together. The intention is to continue to get students to look at good and bad blogs – and use these to generate discussions on standards and allowing for improvements. As a final aside, I am just wondering if anyone has any experience with using these MAC-servewr generated blog – one issue we seem to be having at the moment is that embedding video (i.e. from youtube) just doesn’t work. Although (and I think this particularly cool!) my students figured this out, got annoyed by it, but then some managed to download the videos (*cough*TOS*cough*) and insert them into their blogs that way. And that’s my favourite thing about using the blogs across a whole department so far – it seems to be encouraging resourcefulness – from both staff and students.

Social networking: The new ‘McGuffin’ in Education?

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Harrison Ford refers to the treasures that Indiana Jones chases as 'mcguffins' - a treasure that fuels and drives the plot forward, but that isn't really that important to the overall story. Is the use of social networking in websites in danger of appearing in the same way? (Used under CC, by redplasticmonkey)

‘Social networking’ is the latest ubiquitous term in educational usage of ICT; right now to me it feels like it is everywhere. Controversy continues to abound regarding the issue of teachers having personal profiles on websites like Facebook and Twitter. I have very mixed feelings about whether I should make my Twitter profile private – I feel that it actually runs in direct contrast to the spirit of the site, but I am careful to exercise common sense in the messages that go up there. Likewise, I don’t consider that my facebook account is anything other than very private and flat out refuse to add students, even old ones.

Meanwhile, social networking is frequently being added to new ICT resources at what I consider to be a ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ rate. Our school is about to begin using B-Live, a careers website that has high standards of professionality – it looks great for starters, and provides good guidance and advise on progression in an accessible way. Part of the website allows students to engage in social networking – they can create avatars and social profiles that other members of the site can view. While B-Live is one of the best careers websites I’ve seen, I am unsure of the need for this type of element to the website.  Many students in my school already have their own facebooks (strange in itself, considering its minimum age tag) and myspace profiles and funnily enough I do believe that students themselves are cynical enough (oh yes!)  to notice when they’re being marketed to in a way that isn’t really useful or new to them. Why go social networking on a new site when they already have their own personal network which they see as efficient and engaging enough for expressing their own interests and socialising with their peers?

In this case (and in a few other websites I have seen that purport to have educational purpose), is there any in-depth consideration of how the social networking element of the site actually adds to the experience and the learning for students; or is it bound to just become a way in which they can wonder off task, or worse use the websites to break rules of e-safety? Are there any social networking sites for education that offer an effective use of the concept? Something devised by the UK goverment, cyber-mentors seems to me to be an admirable attempt to take the concept of social networking and use it in a positive way (only negative thing is the use of ‘text language’ on the main webpage, but hey that’s me with my English teacher hat on). Essentially the idea is that students mentor each other through difficult experiences associated with bullying. The difference is that a student could be mentoring another student from the other side of the country. I think it encourages students to make social connections and express themselves in an emotionally literate, mature way. Its definitely worth checking out, particularly if you’re a teacher in the UK.

Twitter and Education

My twitter is here.

I’ve briefly talked about twitter before, but those eagle-eyed web-perusers will have noticed that in my left sidebar I have an RSS feed which I’ve named ‘Twitter and Teaching’. I’m still not sure how the heck I’d use twitter in the classroom – the main problem is that the site is, well, blocked. Does anyone else have this problem with just about any website being blocked? I’d be curious to know what it’s like in other schools in the world, or even in different counties in my country (it’s the Hertfordshire Grid For Learning that does the blocking, not my school per se).

Anyway, I digress. Following the call to action on Edublog (here), I decided to make sure my little-used twitter account was also being used to participate with others in a discourse on education. The results are startling – there’s the usual slew of links (though always relevant and often insightful), but what’s struck me is just the open-minded nature of discussion. Everything quotes from handy little tips are thrown around, all with the interest in informing others of great practice.

So, still no idea how to use it in the classroom (d’oh), but an excellent place to learn more. You need to know how to hashtag (Stephen Fry seems currently to be extremely exasperated with peoples’  inability to do it), but that is also explained in the aforementioned post.

Upcoming blogs:

  • Further experimenting with Diigo to come soon.
  • My initial impressions of wikis – in particular, wetpaint.com.

Plans afoot with diigo and skype

Over the next few weeks in school I’m beginning to push out in some new areas with regards to using technology in the classroom. I’m beginning to feel relatively comfortable and proficient with podcasting, through the use of audacity. I hope in the future to start the process of getting other teachers in my school involved in doing this – currently I seem to be the only one.

This is only one of the elements I want to focus on playing with in my school. I remain incredibly excited about the possibilities of using SKYPE in the classroom, video-conferencing with other students around the world. I’ve noticed that a lot of the schools taking part seem to be American or Australian. Can anyone help me locate some UK schools that are doing this? It would be useful because I’m already worried about the opposition my school might have about using a webcam in school. That’s not intended as a criticism of my school either, I just feel that in British education there’s such a mistrust of these kinds of technologies. Nevertheless, I shall begin the process of delicately asking people there thoughts on whether I could be allowed to do it in my school!

Onto something I will definitely be using with one of my classes next week, Diigo. I have waxed lyrical about this website on here before; I think its wonderful and solves a lot of the problems that we associate with students researching things on the internet. So next week I’m going to get students logged on with their usernames and accounts. My page for my Year 12 English Literature Group currently looks something like this:

y12

 The group page on Diigo for my Year 12 group.

The idea is that tomorrow I will give them two challenges (once we’ve got past the logging in and installing the diigolet feature). Firstly they are all going to have to look at one specific page I have bookmarked for them on W.H. Auden. I will have already highlighted key points on the webpage using Diigolet. They must also leave annotations, using the ‘post-it note’ feature, which we then review later. Hopefully this will introduce them to the annotating features on diigo and encourage to use them on other websites they find. They then need to find a few other websites on Auden and bookmark those too, which the rest of the group will then be able to see.

I shall report back on how it goes; am really excited about it!

 

 Other things I’ve been using this week and discovering that I like them:

  • TinyUrl – ok, so I’m like *well* behind here (and slipping into the voice of one of my students), but I’ve discovered that this is a great time saver. Remember when you write a link on the whiteboard and it can take ages? Especially if you have a HTML extension on it, or lots of dots and slashes. Well TinyURL solves this problem very easily, by condensing the link into something much smaller and much easier to share with your kids. Good stuff!
  • Twitter. Having signed up and been fiddling a few weeks (ahem), jury’s still out on this one for me. Can it genuinley be used for educational innovation? This article would seem to suggest so. I can’t help but get the feeling of it being a little bit ‘cool toy’, but not much else at the moment. That said, a lot of teachers seem to be doing interesting things with it, particularly the really enthusiastic article I just pointed you in the direction of. My username on twitter is ‘andywhiteway’ if you want to add me.

Diigo.com

The subject of this week’s blog is diigo, a website that I have been getting to grips with in the past week or so. I think it offers a real chance to change practice within the classroom.

Firstly, its features: Diigo is a free service that allows you to trawl the web and bookmark websites in a social sphere. Essentially, if you find a wesbite you like, you bookmark it (similar to adding it to your favourites). The difference is that you can then share that link with others who are part of the site; this is the social element and where the phrase ‘social bookmarking’ seems to originate from.

As good as this is on its own, it doesn’t take into account the functionality of Diigo. There are numerous tools that can allow you to reflect on the website you’re using, which again, can be accessible to other members of the site. For example, you can highlight parts of the webpage and leave ‘post-it’ note style annotation on the highlights, meaning that others can then access your experiences/insights of using the website.

Never mind that this is a useful tool for all the trawling I do with journals for my masters, I quickly began to consider the implications that this website could have for teaching practice. One of the biggest concerns with students using ICT is how effectively they are using the internet. Many are comfortable using search engines; far less get into the regular habit of adding good websites they find to their favourites.

If Diigo was used with students they could quickly begin to see the usefulness of such an approach. If a student found a website they liked, they would simply bookmark it. Because of the social networking part of Diigo, that link would then be passed onto other students in. Furthermore, the student could have left annotations, reflecting on what they consider to be the most salient parts of the website.

 diigo2

A still taken from the test group I have set up. Notice how the ‘notes’ I have left for the website are accessible before having to view the website.

 

Things don’t necessarily end there either. Having signed up as an educator on the site (an easy, vital part), I have created a test ‘group’ for one of my classes. They then have access to a message board in which they can discuss what they’ve found and a space where all the bookmarks are listed and summarised.

For a long time there has been a feeling in my school that students, particularly those taking the jump from GCSE to sixth form, struggle with processes of research and the independence that comes attached with this sort of study. Given that students are increasingly doing their research on the internet, this seems like a powerful tool for shaping that experience for them in a meaningful, significant way.