Thursday, February 23, 2012

Connecting Through Video - Stories of People Helping Communities

This morning I had a Skype conversation with Rushton Hurley about his non-profit's, Next Vista for Learning, latest projects. One of those projects is Connecting Through Video. The Connecting Through Video Project is an attempt to gather videos made by students that tell the stories of their communities. The idea is to create videos that feature the good works of people and organizations in your community.

Below is a video from the Connecting Through Video Project.

The project is sponsored in part by the Rotary eClub of the Southwest USA, but students don't have to have a connection to a Rotary Club to participate. These are Rushton's words about the project: We're trying to get videos by students telling about their communities and about people who help others.  Don't worry if you don't have a connection to a Rotary club, just let me know, and I'll help you out. 

Applications for Education
One of the things that Rushton and I talked about when he told me about the Connecting Through Video Project was my school district's requirement that every student has to do some type of community service project before graduating from high school. Creating a short promotional video for a local charitable organization could be one way to do a service for the community. Upload the finished video to Next Vista (the video could also be uploaded to YouTube) to help spread the word about that charity. Or as Rushton said much more succinctly than I just did, Community service requirement - help a charity tell its story!

New Discussion Option for Google Docs Presentations

Last March Google introduced threaded discussion comments to Google Documents. That feature is great for suggestion edits or asking questions when you're collaborating on a document with other writers. I have used the feature for that quite a bit over the last year. Yesterday, Google announced that threaded discussion comments is an option for Google Docs Presentations.

Using the discussions option, collaborators can comment on a part of a slide or an entire slide. Discussions will allow collaborators to have threaded conversations in the margins of a presentation. By including the @ symbol before a collaborator's name you can reply directly to that person. Discussion comments can be tied to a specific part of a slide. Discussion comments can be removed when the suggested edit has been completed. Learn more in the video below.

Applications for Education
Discussions in Google Docs Presentations could be a great tool to use when editing students' presentations. You can tie comments directly to a part of a slide to suggest to students that they change color schemes, font size, or resizing an image.

SpiderScribe Leaves Beta, Adds Features, Stays free for Schools

Last summer SpiderScribe was one of the most popular tools that I showed during my mind mapping workshops. At that time SpiderScribe was still in beta. Last week it left beta and announced some new features. The new features include new keyboard shortcuts, new stencil options, and the option to embed your interactive SpiderScribe mind map into your blog or website. Most importantly for teachers, SpiderScribe will remain free for schools. If you would like to see how SpiderScribe works, check out Russell Stannard's series of how-to videos or watch this two minute demo.

Applications for Education
One of the aspects of SpiderScribe that the teachers I showed it to last summer liked was the option to include images and maps within a mind map or web. One teacher that I worked with liked that her students could create webs about books they read and include images to represent important characters and places in those books.

Creating an Online Classroom With Posterous - Guest Post

© Nathan Hall
Before becoming an English language teacher, I had primarily worked in the photographic industry as a salesperson, manager, and teacher/trainer. I was a prime example of the old adage, “those who don’t, teach” since I don’t have an artistic bone in my body (I blame my older sister for taking all the talent with her when she was born). My focus was on the technical skills, helping people learn how to use their cameras, especially during the seismic shift from film to digital. Once I started teaching English, I thought I would never again have the opportunity to use my photographic knowledge in the classroom. I was wrong.

Shortly after moving to a new city and starting a new teaching position at a language school, I was approached with the idea of starting an English and photography class. I had never even considered the idea before, but since I was in the middle of a curriculum development class for my MA TESOL, I thought it might be an idea to explore further. I scratched out a few ideas and started planning my course with the idea of integrating the four main language skills into a content-based photography class. Knowing that it would involve a fair amount of technology, I sought out a place online for the students and myself to post and share what we were learning and creating during the course. It would be a spot where I could post classwork, lectures, and homework and the students could share their creative projects, presentations, and homework. That was when I came across Posterous.

There is a plethora of blogging and online website creation options such as Wikispaces, Blogger, Wordpress, etc., but I wasn't overly impressed with how each of these sites handled images and documents and didn't feel that they were simple enough for what I was asking the students to do in the class. I wanted a place where photos could be displayed in a gallery type viewer, presentations could be watched, and documents such as PDFs could be read and downloaded. Sure, some of these sites could do this with the help of other online tools such as Flickr, Picasa, or Scribd, but I wanted it to be straightforward and simple for the students.

With Posterous, I can integrate photos into the post as a gallery, upload documents and presentations directly into the post for the students to view and download, and students can contribute and comment. All of this could be done without third party plugins or storage limits.

The following are some of main features of Posterous I think that could be useful in the classroom.

Mobile use: With mobile apps for iOS and Android, it is easy for students to read, post, and comment directly from their smartphones. Students even posted pictures and did homework directly on their phones. Also, each Posterous site is automatically created into a mobile site making it easy for the teacher to create interactive classroom sites that students can view anywhere. I even have some of my students doing their homework on the bus ride home. 
© Nathan Hall

Embedded files: Posterous automatically embeds files such as videos, audio files, documents, and photos without installing any plugins or using HTML codes. Photos are put into a gallery that can be viewed fullscreen, PPT presentation are converted and can be played fullscreen as well, and videos and audio files are put into their own players to be used directly on the site. This is really helpful when you want to have students give presentations on a SmartBoard, give them listening homework, or you just want to use something in class. Also, there is no limitation on the amount of space you can use for the files.

Simplicity: Everything on the site is meant to be used with the minimum amount of learning. While other sites are more flexible in regards to expansion and customization, the functions of Posterous are more than enough for a class site while making it easy on learners to use.

Integration with social media: Posterous allows for autoposting to various social networks and also has links at the bottom of each post for sharing on Twitter and Facebook. This can be turned off quite easily if the teacher wants to remove it. I found it was nice for students to be able to share their work on their favorite social network and gave them a sense of pride regarding their work.

Email posting: This is an excellent option if a teacher doesn't want to make students register for Posterous. I had one class where I had the students email in their homework to the site instead of web posting. The email posts did not appear on the site unless I moderated it. This way, I didn't have to give my students my email address and they could ask questions at any time. Email posts with attachments will automatically embed the files into the post.

Posting information from other sites: Posterous has a wonderful bookmarklet that allows users to post text, videos, or photos directly from other sites. This can be used in a WebQuest style format and then students can comment on each others discoveries.

Price: Free. Can't get any better than that. Oh, and ad free, too.

Posterous can also be a helpful tool for professional development. Our school has started using a Posterous site for teachers to share ideas and post questions. The ease of adding and removing contributors to the site make it a great place to collaborate on and search for ideas to use in the classroom. Teachers can also have separate sites as well to share their ideas to educators beyond their own school.

No, Posterous isn't perfect, but it certainly works much better than most of the tools out there, even those you have to purchase. As education moves more and more online, sites such as Posterous could play a valuable role for smaller institutions that can't afford a large scale integrated IT operations.

Have you used Posterous in the classroom? What has been your experience? Do you have anything to add?

About the Guest Blogger
Nathan Hall is an ESL instructor with Global Village Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He will be completing his MA TESOL at Trinity Western University in April 2012. He has taught in five countries, including 4 years in Klaipeda, Lithuania as an English in the workplace instructor. He is an advocate for using technology in the classroom and has given various PD sessions on the topic. He can be found online on his blog, and on Twitter, @nathanghall

Teaching in a 1:1 Environment in Maine - Guest Post

Editor's note: Whenever I travel out of Maine, teachers ask me about Maine's 1:1 MacBook program for middle schools. Since I don't teach in a middle school, I thought it would be good to share the perspective of a Maine middle school teacher. 

The great thing about teaching with technology is that it can open new doors for your students. However, you have to be willing to walk through that door with them in order to see those benefits. Since you’re reading a blog entitled “Free Technology for Teachers,” I’m guessing you’re already there.

The trap too many of us fall in to with technology is that we’re just doing the same things we’ve always done, except now there’s a computer involved. Sure, there are some “21st Century Skills” that students achieve (often times we falsely assume through osmosis), but at the end of the day, showing video clips on Youtube is no different than popping a video in the old VCR.

Likewise, much of the same classroom management challenges we faced before we introduced laptops to our students are still there and are manifesting themselves in new ways. Too often I hear teachers blaming these classroom management problems on the technology itself, rather than the real root causes. Texting is just note passing. Even with technology, you still need clear and consistent expectations, engaging lessons, and an understanding of how the adolescent mind works.

In my room, the desks are arranged in groups that face each other to encourage collaboration among students. Some teachers dictate how their classrooms should be physically arranged based on the need to “see” every student’s screen. I made my decision based on what I felt would be best for my students in the long run, not the need to have a semblance of control (an extra benefit is that it encourages me to move more in my classroom to assist students and monitor their activity instead of sitting at my desk and staring at the back of my students’ heads).

To really revolutionize our classrooms, we have to fully embrace Web 2.0. At the end of the day though, the things that make Web 2.0 great- collaboration, peer feedback, real-world application- are the things that have always been the key ingredients to great teaching. The upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy don’t change because you’re connected to the internet. It’s the fact that you can now access and create content on an international level, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, that makes it truly powerful.

In the past, great teachers have struggled to engage their “hard to teach” kids across the learning spectrum. However, we now have a limitless amount of resources at their fingertips. We live in an age of self-guided learning, where students can access huge amount’s of college-level material from MIT and Yale. If the technology your student needs isn’t out there, they can create (and monetize) their very own app to get the job done! The possibilities, for once, truly are endless.

We have always known that learning never stops, but now we have an incredible amount of resources that make it easier than ever before. If you’re a great teacher, you’ll still build your learning activities with those key elements like you’ve always done, except that the doors you open for your students will be more limitless than ever before. 

About the Guest Blogger
Ryan Reed is a second-year middle school teacher in Maine, where seventh and eighth grade public-school students and teachers have been provided Apple laptop computers for the last decade. You can connect with him on Twitter.

Use Air Sketch with Dropbox for Wireless iPad Presentations

Many times I find myself in a situation where I want to do a presentation with the ability to stay mobile and move around the room, but I don’t have access to install software on the computer. Many remote apps have a small footprint, but even if you do have access to install something on the computer it can very easily stutter and interrupt the flow of your presentation if the network isn’t running perfectly. I found a better solution - one that I feel safe enough to depend on when I am being evaluated and need everything to work smoothly. The nice thing about Air Sketch is that all the action happens on your iPad and it sends updates wirelessly to the browser(s) for the computer to send to the projector. This gives you much smoother feedback as you are drawing directly on the iPad and seeing immediate feedback and responsiveness. At first glance Air Sketch looks like a typical standalone whiteboard sketch app but it can do so much more.

Air Sketch Free serves as a basic free wireless whiteboard. You can move around the room and draw on the projected screen using this free app without installing anything on your computer. Simply press the wireless button on the toolbar and point your browser to the address and port listed inside Air Sketch or use Safari’s Bonjour bookmarks. The basic version uses the same drawing and wireless engine as the Pro version so you can test it to see if it meets your needs before you upgrade. 

If you can splurge a little... Air Sketch Pro adds some features that are definitely worth it. These extra features include the ability to import pictures from your photos, import PDFs from webpages or Dropbox/, export screenshots of your presentation to your photos, email as PDF, or email as an image file. By combining this program with the helpfulness of Dropbox (or I came up with a few interesting scenarios:

Basic Whiteboard:
Sketch on Air Sketch and point your projector-connected computer to the web address in Air Sketch. Use your wireless connection or create an ad-hoc network from your computer to make it work without any Internet connection.

Document Camera:
Take a picture of your document using the camera on your phone/ipad2 or even use a scanning app to make a PDF or image of it.
Save the picture or PDF to Dropbox.
Open the picture or PDF in Air Sketch.
Annotate wirelessly.
Allow students to use the iPad to annotate wirelessly as well so they can interact with the board without standing in front of the projector.

Wireless Presentation:
Convert your PowerPoint or Keynote presentation to PDF.
Save PDF version of PowerPoint/Keynote to Dropbox/
Open PDF in Air Sketch.
Annotate over your presentation.
Change slides and Air Sketch resets annotations and remembers what annotations go with which page. When you go back to a page, the annotations for that page reappear.
Export annotaions as a PDF to email to your class.

Use a free online screencasting program such as Screenr to record your wireless presentation and host it online. Screenr gives you embed codes you can use on your classroom website.

Air Sketch is a powerful but simple tool that is easy to use and dependable. Check out their website at:

Please see the embedded video to see Air Sketch in action.

About the Guest Blogger
Michael Carter is a computer lab teacher and Technology Coach at South-Doyle Middle School in Knoxville Tennessee. His nerdiest hobby includes developing educational database software which is now in use by several schools in 3 different counties in Tennessee. Michael may be found on Twitter, Google+, and on the web.