Saturday, December 31, 2005

Using Blogs as part of Teaching

Yes the web is overwhelming, and information (knowledge?) management is a huge issue. There are solutions, but it takes a while to find them and then get into the habit of using them. That's the nature of the beast (feast)!

In my opinion, you do have to find a chunk of time almost every day but after the initial surveys of the terrain, you can decide on your focus and stay up-to-date in that area (depending on its breadth and complexity) with an aggregator (like Bloglines - which is free and easy to set up). I found this description of how a teacher could use Bloglines with a class really helpful - After reading it I set up my own Bloglines account and now use it to track the educational blogs I'm interested in, scan their headings, and, if I'm interested in the topic, link to it and get the gist.

Blogs are being used more and more as part of teaching and learning. For a basic understanding of how to use blogs, check out Jakob Nielsen's info - - He's the senior acknowledged expert on web design. provides an overview on using blogs in the classroom with lots of links to explore (Or not ;-> depending on your time and interest.)

Finally, here's a link to a short video describing the uses of blogging in high school -

A friend says -
My feeling is that we have to treat "computer reading" like people used to treat reading the newspaper in the past. It was an activity that occupied a certain part of everyday.

and I agree.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Shifting Semiosis

Two or three years ago I began talking about a "shifting semiosis" and I felt like Cassandra - although I wasn't prophesying a disastrous war, but rather a massive, fascinating and largely positive change. It was clear to me that we were at the start of a change in the way we humans signify meaning that would dwarf the printing press, audio & visual recording, and mass media combined. And now, in my daily newspaper, I find that my intuitive recognition is being substantiated.

I read an article, linked to this post's title, in the Toronto Star, - called Old Idea, New Media. The subheading asks this provocative question -
Are you reading this text on paper, or as pixels? Does it matter? Some think not.

As newspapers realize that they sell content, not ink, their future is taking hold.

I put down my paper and went immediately to my computer and read the same story in pixels, because I wanted to share this increasingly undeniable change. I wanted to blog about it.

The article is about how newspapers are still remarkably profitable (many at 20% a year!)about how newspapers are a natural fit as a web portal, about how the papers' managers are finally beginning to realize that, and about how transportable digital downloads are coming. I picture these as much like ipods in function but looking more like paper or a book.

So, yes, our semiosis is shifting! Not that I expect any more attention to my message than Cassandra got to hers. (In some ways I wish I was more like Paul Revere;->)

The papragraph that electrified me, which follows, clearly indicates that the web is a platform, not a medium.
A newspaper of the future might employ web editors for each section of the paper whose task would be to rapidly accumulate multimedia content relevant to each story. Articles posted on reformulated newspaper sites will be accompanied by related photos, audio and video clips, speech transcripts, discussion forums and archival images from the CBC, CPAC, C-SPAN, the National Film Board and other partners.

Such wonders we are seeing as human communication continues its development
  • from speech and drawings
  • to (chirographic) writing
  • to printed text and engravings
  • to photography, audio recording, film, & television

and now to versions of all of these available asynchronously on the World Wide Web!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Students' Computer Patterns

Here is a current, brief, informative interview with Robert Kvavik on how students are using computers, and their attitudes towards how computers are being used in education. Mitchell Weisburgh quotes Kvavik as saying -
It’s not that tech doesn’t affect learning, it’s that we are only at the beginning of seeing how tech can be used in support of that goal.

I think he makes a truly important observation here -
One of the interesting things with Google is when you ask a question, you always get an answer. But you don’t know if it’s a good answer. So how do you show students how to sort that and digest it so they can tell the difference?

One of the things is that these students have more and quicker access to information than our generation did, but there would be a great benefit to learning how to winnow it out and apply it in a sophisticated way to a problem.

All teachers in all classes should be modelling and teaching how to evaluate the information found on the web, in my opinion, as a part of learning the content of courses.
On course management systems, Kvavik has this to say about student attitudes:
To the extent the faculty uses the CMS so that students can take sample tests, access readings, contact the professor, and submit assignments; the CMS has made it easier for the students. The biggest complaint is that the use is not consistent, it’s only used in about 20% of the classes in a lot of the institutions. Why in one university, would the Poli Sci dept decide not to use the CMS at all while the history dept is 90% using it? Students do not like the inconsistency.

Altogether an interesting read - I recommend it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Academic Research - The Process is Changing

Academic research is changing, just as academic writing has changed with the arrival of the computer. Academic writing is radically different since I was an undergrad many years ago. When I wrote my Ph.D. thesis a year and a half ago, I made rich use of the capabilities of word-processing as an integral part of my writing process. I used Styles for my headings and for generating a table of content. I used the caption feature to describe the images I inserted, and to generate a table of figures. Of course I used the spell checker and the word count and all the flexibility of copy-and-paste. Plus I made sure the font was attractive and readable, and for my particular thesis, I used the font to help deliver the meaning. Writing with a word processor is more fun, more visual, and easier than the ugly old manual typewriters of my youth.

I also used EndNote to make my citing much easier and to generate my "Works Cited", and I paid highly for the privilege; it was expensive. During the process of writing my thesis, I was forced to switch from an IBM laptop to a Mac iBook; (don't ask.) I had to pay again for EndNote to get a Mac version. But anything was better than the picky work of sorting out the anal details of citing the the "Works Cited".

(These days I point my students to easybib where they can generate MLA bibliographies for free and APA for, I think, about $6.00 U.S. a year. Not quite as good as EndNote but much cheaper.)

And now researching and citing is going to get much easier, in the same way creating a document got much easier with the advent of the computer and wordprocessing.

I wrote a couple of months ago about changes coming for the University of Toronto library and for all the Ontario universities - - and today Stephen Downes posted a link to this site - - on the upcoming SmartFox.

SmartFox will enable users, with a single click, to grab a citation to a book, journal article, archival document, or museum object and store it in their browser. Researchers will then be able to take notes on the reference, link that reference to others, and organize both the metadata and annotations in ways that will greatly enhance the usefulness of, and the great investment of time and money in, the electronic collections of museums and libraries. All of the information SmartFox gathers and the researcher creates will be stored on the client's computer, not the institution's server (unlike commercial products like Amazon's toolbar), and will be fully searchable. The Web browser, the premier platform for research now and in the future, will achieve the kind of functionality that the users of libraries and museums would expect in an age of exponentially increasing digitization of their holdings.

SmartFox is being developed by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Being a scholar is becoming more and more about knowledge and ideas and less and less about arcane processes and details. And that's great, in my opinion

Friday, December 02, 2005

Resistance to Teaching Online

Christopher D. Sessums' blog post Resistance is Useful: Thoughts Concerning How to Respectfully Move Teaching and Learning Online a commentary on education in the online age is an interesting and thoughtful piece. He concludes:
Whether you are teaching online or face-to-face, educators are presented with a number of challenges in getting students to adopt skills and demonstrate intellectual and practical dexterity of many complex concepts. We might even say, teaching and learning is all about being open to and coping with perpetual change, taking calculated risks. Many academics view online teaching and learning with suspicion, and rightly so. Today’s learning technologies will revolutionize and affect colleges and universities as we know them. Faculty and administrators should be aware of the changes technology affords and question the implications deeply and critically. This act of looking critically should not stop at the technological level; it needs to consider the entire range of operations that comprise the acts of administration, teaching and learning; from the effectiveness of tenure and promotion policies to the effectiveness of multiple-choice high-stakes student examinations.

I have been teaching in face-to-face classrooms using laptops (for the "mobile" programs) with the web and WebCT, for over six years, and I largely agree with his analysis. However, I am going to comment on two aspects that are probably beyond the scope of his article.

First, the students today write, read, and learn differently than they did even five years ago. (I have an article that expands part of this point at ) Increasingly we teachers will have to learn how to help students learn how to learn in their new semiotic landscape. And we are digital immigrants ourselves!

In addition, the students, even the technologically proficient among them - and that's fewer than many people assume, need to learn critical thinking skills about the sea of content they swim in on the web. This worries me tremendously because so few educators are taking leadership in this vital area, in my opinion. Which brings me to my second aspect ...

The web is a multi-media platform, rich in visuals and sound as well as text. Almost all educators got their credentials in a text-focussed environment. Many of them (us?), I believe, fear the web (quite rationally) because it requires abilities and even perceptual training that they simply don't have. The story of what happened at Sheridan when we put thousands of students - and their teachers - into a mobile environmentover a very few years which I lived through, illustrates the kind of learning community that can develop and support educators in this transition, and how some adapt and some resist, no matter what the circumstances.

I agree with Sessums that the "the entire range of operations that comprise the acts of administration, teaching and learning" need both a critical examination and change as rapidly as possible.