Bridging the Digital Divide

circuit board… and doing it $100 at a time, if those wacky geniuses at MIT and AMD have anything to say about it.The more I read of this article, the more happy I became about it. To make a long story short (Trust me, my story’s shorter. Their story’s 3 pages), A bunch of MIT researchers have decided that it’s possible to design a wireless laptop for $90-$100, provided they get a screen that’s cheap enough. AMD (one of the leading processor manufacturers and Intel’s main competitor) and Google have promised to help out as well.

Naturally they’ll be using open source stuff like Linux (I’m sure they’ll pick one of the free versions over Red Hat or Linspire) and OpenOffice to make sure only the hardware needs to be purchased. Does this mean that people will miss out? Well, sure, if you mean spyware and viruses.

All is not perfect in this wonderful dream. Apparently one of the ways to cut costs is to only manufacture orders of one million or more, so unless a school district has $100 million spare cash in it’s budget it might be a little difficult to see computers like these showing up in schools. I suppose school districts could always team up to pull their resources though. I can even see them instituting some type of clever reselling system to earn their money back. I know I would totally buy one of these if it went on sale.

And the bottom line would be: everybody wins.

On Demand Education

circuit boardMany of us are old enough to remember when VCRs first became popular. Before then if you wanted to watch a movie you had to go to the theater or wait for it to show up on TV. Once VCRs got past the legal problems (The movie industry thought it would COST them money .. HA!) you could see a movie any time you wanted to. If there was a cool show on TV but you still wanted to go out someplace with your friends, all you had to do was program your VCR and walk away.(Yes, I’m looking at history through rose colored glasses. Our display was always flashing 12:00, I admit it.)

Nowadays we have Tivo and other digital recorders to do the same thing for us, only better. On top of that we have podcasts, RSS feeds, voice mail, and all other kinds of cool things that let us get our information when we want it, not just when it’s convenient for others.

That right there is the heart of this little spiel of mine.

You see, we can use this to our advantage in education. Imagine a school where every student is required to have an MP3 player. The teacher could record the lecture and / or supplemental information and distribute it to the students. They could listen to it while on the bus, doing chores, or even when playing their favorite video game. Students could make the time for education while doing other things as well, thus taking a load off of their shoulders.

Now I don’t think that audio should replace text entirely. Not all students perform well by being lectured to, just like not all students perform well by being given worksheets. Rather, I think it would be ideal to have the two elements combined, with one reinforcing the other.

Sound like more trouble than it’s worth? Not really. Most podcasts out there right now have corresponding “show notes” for each episode, including links, downloads, and more. If people can do this for a hobby, why not do this for a class? If each teacher had an RSS enabled blog, the homework, notes, audio recordings, handouts, JPG files of sample artworks, and anything else that needed to be distributed could be sent directly to the students. The students could even have their own blogs with which they could submit their assignments. Imagine: students could no longer use the “You never gave me that,” or “I know I handed it in, you just lost it,” excuses. One quick trip to the news aggregator would prove them wrong or right instantly. (Those excuses would have to be replaced with “I have a virus,” but that’s your own fault if you’re still using Explorer.)

Naturally this could invigorate distance learning programs, (I’m in one now as I’m enrolled in University of Phoenix’s online Master’s Degree program, but I think they could make a good program into a great program if they started using RSS and podcasts in addition to the newsgroups and email they already use.) but I can see this being used in the regular classroom as well. The only things holding us back are the lack of a 1:1 student/computer ratio (not including an MP3 player) and the inertia that keeps teachers from trying new things.

I know I’m not the only person who’s thinking along these lines. David Warlick, Steve Dembo, & Steve Sloan have voiced similar opinions. I’m just agreeing with them here.

Free Site Features

circuit boardI’ve added quite a few free things to my web sites over the years, including some new ones quite recently. As such, I decided to take the time to plug each of them for you. After all, you might want to use some if them on your own web pages.Thingamablog: This is a nice open-source blogging program. It’s written in java, so practically any OS can use it. There are some good points and bad points to it, but it creates RSS feeds and it’s customizable so I like it.

Haloscan: One of Thingamablog’s bad points is that it doesn’t support comment or trackback codes, so I signed up with Haloscan to add them.

eXTReMe Tracking: Of course everyone needs their ego inflated now and then, so I use eXTReMe Tracking to tell me from where my visitors are coming. I’ve been using this free service for years and I’m very happy with it.

TrueFresco: Another thing you can do is return the favor to people who link to you. TrueFresco allows you to do that instantly, but I only recommend it if you already have a lot of incoming traffic. If you don’t, it might be a little embarrassing.

Furl: There are a few services out there that allow you to bookmark sites for future reference – like a web browser does it, but better because you can check them out at any computer. Some people like del.icio.us more, but I like how Furl has extra features.

Flickr: A lot of the bloggers I’m reading nowadays have Flickr accounts to show off their pictures, so since I’m an Art teacher I said “Why not?” I haven’t fully integrated it into my site yet, but right now I have 22 pictures uploaded onto my account. (Sorry, no pictures of students. I refuse to do that without parental permission.)

Feedburner: This service is only useful to you if your site generates an RSS feed, but if your site doesn’t then you should really think about adding it. It allows you to maintain the same RSS address in spite of a change of web URL, track to see how many subscribers you have, and even incorporate your Furl, del.icio.us Flickr, and Bloglines Clip Blogs into the same RSS feed.

WebAlias: Sometimes, having an incredibly long and hard to remember web address can be a bit of a problem. I use WebAlias to create a new, more memorable URL and forward visitors to my site through that. It causes some slight but acceptable problems, such as a small pop-up, but you’re already using a web browser with built in pop-up blocking, right?

Bravenet: I use Bravenet for it’s free web counter service, but they’ve got all kinds of site tutorials, services, and add-ons. If you’re creating a web site on a small or nonexistant budget, then you should really check this one out.

Google and the Global Community

Browser Window pixI suppose every blog should have at least one rambling post about the global
community, so here’s mine.

You may or may not have heard the story about Google wanting to create an online library of famous / important books. Good for them, I say, but not everyone agrees.


Some people over in France, for example, are concerned that this new
universally accessible library may focus too much on the U.S. perspective
of world events. The example given was “I don’t want the French Revolution
retold just by books chosen by the United States. The picture presented
may not be less good or less bad, but it will not be ours.” When I first
read this article I was a bit indignant. After all, they more or less said
the U.S. way of looking at things is no good, right?

Wrong. What they’re asking is that the library show more than JUST the U.S. point of
view.  David Warlick has some commentary in one of  his podcasts (I forget which one) about how back in the day the internet was for the most part a U.S. phenomenon. Now of course, it’s international. That person you’re talking to in a chat room? They could be next door or on the other side of the world. The United States cannot claim ownership of the internet, and the world is better off because of it.

One of those buzz words that keeps popping up is “Global Community.” Ok, that’s two words, but you know what I mean. With the internet we’re able to share a lot of
things in common, but we have just as many differences as commonalities.  Rather than ignore those differences I see them as things to explore.  Doing so can help us learn about other cultures just as much as exploring our common traits.

So what does all this make any difference in the world of education? Believe it or not, it can and does. History books might be filled with facts, but they’re also filled with interpretations of those facts based on the culture of the organizations that published the book. (Today a coworker of mine told me about how one of her U.S. history
classes had used a textbook printed in the U.K. – I would have loved to see their view on the American Civil War.)

Foreshadowing?

I’m seriously hooked on listening to podcasts, particularly ones geared towards education – Connected Learning, teach42, & Teachnology post such wonderful things. Unfortunately a 64 meg card only holds so much. Sure, I could buy a a new card for my Palm Tungsten E, but I’ve been thinking about getting a new MP3 player for a while.After a little bit of research, I found this little beauty. Not a bad price for the storage space, and get this:

It has a built in microphone.

Could podcasts of my own be in my future?

Could be.

Thingamablog updated!

Browser Window pixFor those of you that tried using Thingamablog to build a web site and felt intimidated by it’s heavy use of code, you might want to check out the latest version. Don’t worry, it’s still free.

Thingamablog’s now been updated to be a lot more WYSIWYG (That’s What You See Is What You Get, for those of you not in the know), so those of you that aren’t html freaks might have an easier time with everything. I think I’ll stick with editing the code by hand, though. What can I say, I’m a tech geek!

So is the new version of Thingamablog better than the old version? I’ve no idea. I’ll have to play around with it first to find out.

Rainbow Warriors

Browser Window pixTo those of you who think that newspapers only report bad news, I say “HA!” and “HA AGAIN!James McHenry Elementary School really has a good thing going for it with Mr. King and his Rainbow Warriors program, which is one of the many reasons why I’m glad it’s one of my schools.

I won’t read you those two articles word for word, but this is one of those programs that just gives everyone involved a positive mental attitude. Kids, parents, teachers, everyone’s glad it’s there. I also like the goals that Mr. King has in mind for the future, although I may have to talk with him about building a web site. A paid site is nice, but there are plenty of hosts out there (Geocities for example…) that can give you space for free.

So, who else has some outstanding news about their school?

Book Review – Photography: A Crash Course

Brushes IconIt should go without saying that a good teacher should know his or her subject area well enough to teach it without a book. Being able to and having to are much different things, however, and I for one am grateful for that. Texts are wonderful resources that can foster discussion, provide background information, and give step-by-step instructions on how to complete tasks. One book that is a good example of some of these things is Photography: A Crash Course by Dave Yorath. (Sure, I could find a lot of this stuff online, but I like the tactile nature of books as much as I like the interactivity of the internet.)

The very name implies that this book is meant to be a textbook of some kind, although it’s my opinion that it would best serve as a supplementary text rather than the main book for any particular course. As rich with information as it is, the book is only 144 pages long, including the index, and a majority of that space is filled with the book’s 400 assorted illustrations.

I must admit that the price was right. The book’s list price was $14.95, but it was in the bargain books section of Barnes & Noble for $4.99, roughly a third of the list price.
As a mostly self-taught digital photographer I found this book to be quite intriguing. True, it said little on how to do this technique or develop that kind of film, but where it lacked in instruction it made up for it in historical information. At the top of each page was also a timeline explaining what else was going on at the time that that page’s content took place – a wonderful way to help readers keep everything in context.

As much as I liked the book, I think it would actually be a bit too difficult for most of my current students (since I’m teaching elementary at the moment). My best use for the book would most likely be to digest it’s information and provide regurgitated chunks to my class as they pertain to any particular lesson. Were I still teaching high school, I think I would seriously recommend the purchase of 30 or so copies for use in the classroom. High school students would be more likely to create involved photography projects anyway.

A day in the life of a tech addict Art teacher

circuit boardAs a teacher, I pride myself in using technology intelligently every day to help with my lessons. I include the word “intelligently” because as cool as computers are, they aren’t always the best solution for every problem encountered.

For example, let’s take a look at my typical day. I start off checking my e-mail and my schedule for the day. As I can only teach each class once before I move on to my next building, every day’s schedule has different classes at different times. My brain would deflate if I tried to remember everything, so I write my schedule out in iCal (a calendar program for the Macintosh) and sync it with my Palm Pilot. I have it set so an alarm goes off five minutes before class starts as well as five and ten minutes before the class ends. That way, I can’t loose track of time.

In the classroom my main use for technology has normally been for presentation purposes, but it’s difficult for me to use it on a frequent basis. As I have no room of my own and teach in four different buildings, I have a wide variety of classroom settings – some rooms have computers hooked up to TVs, some have opaque projectors, and other rooms have only the standard overhead projectors and blackboards. This limits my technology usage, as it’s often not worth it to create a PowerPoint presentation for a single class when you have twenty classes or more for which you have to prepare.

Lucky for me, this does not mean I must forgo technology entirely. Whenever I want to include a photo of a famous artwork or some other reference material for the students, it’s a simple thing to print it out on the school’s color laser printer. Websites like Artchive.com are full of images that are perfect for my lessons, although sometimes I have to pick them carefully.

During the lesson I’ll often walk around the room with my digital camera and take pictures of students with their art projects. The kids really like this and are often more than happy to work harder so they can show off for the camera, but my main objective is to archive the activity for later display. Parents and kids love to see visual references to projects they’ve done, and the display helps to reinforce the lesson later on.

After each class is over it’s my job to show off, or as my job description puts it, set up a display of student work. If the project is flat I can do this by hanging them on the wall and printing out a paper with the project title, objective, grade, and teacher’s name.

I’d love to hang three dimensional work from the hallway ceiling, but then any small air current would cause them to move, which would result in the alarm system going off at 3:00 in the morning.

I don’t wish to be chewed out at 3:30 in the morning when the Principal, Building Supervisor, and local police find out it was my display that triggered the alarm, so photographs have to do. Lucky for me I’ve been taking photos of the kids with their projects during the lesson so I can print them out after minor adjustments.

Modifications include some cropping, but mostly eliminating those glowing red demon eyes that some kids seem to get. Using the “red eye reduction” setting on my camera doesn’t work well, since that involves multiple flashes and the younger kids just won’t hold still for all of them. (I end up with a lot of pictures of kids walking away when I try that.)
I teach three classes a day like this, with my so-called free time dedicated to setting up displays and preparing materials for the next day.

At the end of the day I check my email once more, throw a few podcasts on my palm pilot for the ride home, and head out.

When I started working for my Master’s Degree my situation was much different. Instead of four elementary schools I taught at one high school. While I had my own room with a TV I could hook up to my computer or one of the two classroom computers (thus allowing me to incorporate all kinds of technology into the daily lessons) I still maintain that wild horses couldn’t drag me back to the higher grade levels. Maybe I’ll teach college some day, but never high school.

I didn’t just use computers and TVs last year; I also made good use of my digital camera. My Art II students spent the good portion of a marking period drawing out short animations frame by frame, then digitizing them using my camera and a tripod. The final steps were completed when they compiled them in iMovie and added sound effects.

Of course I also did the standard PowerPoint presentations, but when we went into the computer lab I also made sure all their instructions were on my school web site. That way if they missed a day (or if there was a substitute) they were still able to work. (Of course few of them worked away from my presence, but it really mattered for the handful that did.)

Suffice to say, I used technology a lot more in the classroom last year than I do this year. I like to think I still provide a good educational experience, it’s just that it’s more analog than digital now. Last year I could open a web page to show the entire class an artwork, and this year I have to either show them a page in a book or a printout from that website. I still think I use technology well every day, but a lot of my tasks are
more support tasks that the students don’t actually watch me perform.

Since I only see my kids up to four times a year this time around, fancy technology lessons are still in development. (Digitizing animations is almost out of the question entirely, although we do happen to have some digital video cameras I could borrow …. )
My students last year were encouraged to use technology several times each marking period, if not every month. My elementary schools this year are quite different, with one school not able to use the computer lab for anything other than testing for most of the first marking period. When I eventually do a computer lesson, it will most likely be in small groups using my own laptop, since it’s the only computer in all my buildings of which I can be certain of it’s abilities.

I’m relatively famous!

Browser Window pixA while back I fired off an email to Steve Dembo of teach42.com about several things, including a mysterious person named GCPS who was posting all kinds of useful educational links on a regular basis.

At first Mr. Dembo and myself were both under the impression that GCPS was a person who was just very, very helpful, but then I got to thinking. You see, I work in Prince George’s County Public Schools, which we often shorten to PGCPS. That made me wonder if the “PS” in GCPS meant “Public Schools” as well. One Google search later and I found this site. Looks like my hunch was right.

So why am I famous? Well, that little revelation got me a mention and a link on teach42’s most recent podcast. Mr. Dembo might not think of himself as famous, but someone who has to get paid hosting because over a hundred people are downloading every podcast he does is much more famous than I am.

The term I like to use sometimes is “relative fame,” although I’m still looking for a better name. Everyone’s famous to someone, even more so in this wonderful world of education. For example: last month I covered a lunch duty for another teacher. It was Kindergarten and 1st grade. You should have seen it! Half the kids were waving and telling their classmates “The Art Guy’s here!” (As if my ego wasn’t inflated enough already.) To them the art teacher is a celebrity, more so than Dan Rather, Ted Turner, Clarence Thomas, or many other household names that we adults know.

On the other side of the coin I’m a nobody to most other people outside my four schools, but that’s ok. I don’t NEED to be famous to everyone. I don’t NEED to be a household name. If I wanted to be, I wouldn’t have chosen teaching as a career. I’m doing this because I love to do it, and because it pays the bills.

I may not need it, but I have noticed that fame can be very encouraging. The kids are always glad to see me, and I feed off of that energy every time I walk through a classroom door. I grew up a bookish introvert, but in the classroom I let my extroverted inner child out to play. I know I’ve had a good lesson when even the classroom teacher cracks a grin at my dry humor or, better yet, joins in and makes an artwork along with the rest of the class.

Well that’s enough ranting for now – I’m off to check the RSS feeds of people who may not be famous to you, but they most certainly are famous to me.