Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ideas for Managing Academic Blogs

In the course of a year I get to run a lot of workshops about blogging. One of the questions that frequently comes up in those workshops goes something like this, “do you recommend that I have just one blog or should all of my students have their own blogs?” There is not a clear cut answer to this question because the answer depends upon how you envision using blogs in your teaching practice.

If your use of blogging is going to be limited to just distributing information about your class(es) to students and their parents, one blog is all that you need. Even if you teach multiple courses, one blog is sufficient if you’re only using it to distribute information. Simply label each new blog post with the name or section of the course for whom the information is intended. From a management standpoint it is far easier to label each blog post on one blog than it is to maintain a different blog for each course that you teach. That is a lesson that took me one semester to learn.

In the fall of 2005 I was teaching five sections of the same ninth grade social studies course and even though the content was the same each class always seemed to be in a different place than the others so I tried to maintain five different blogs. Before long I found myself either posting to the wrong blog or my students were going to the wrong blog because they had forgotten the blog’s URL and asked a classmate from a different section of the course for the blog’s URL. After that semester I decided to create one blog to use as the central online hub for all of my students. All students who took a course with me would have the URL for my blog and go there whenever they needed an update about their courses. I found it very easy to say to students, “go to my blog and click on the label for your class.” Even when I started to have students contribute to group blogs they started out by going to my blog and clicking the link to their group blogs.

If you envision having all of your students write blog posts, proper planning of the blogging process is critical to being able to keep track of your students’ work. Teachers who have twenty-five or fewer students might be able to have each student maintain his or her own blog and keep track of all of them, but even twenty-five blogs is a lot to keep track of. The solution that I recommend is to create a group blog for each class that you teach. Create the blog using whichever platform you like then make each student an author on the blog. To track who wrote what on the blog make sure that the author’s name (first names only or use pen names with young students). Alternatively, you can have students label or tag posts with their names or pen names to sort out who wrote what. As the creator and owner of the group blog you will be able to see who wrote what from your administrative panel, but that doesn’t help parents who want to check the blog to see what their children have been sharing.

Teachers who want students to use blogs to experiment with web design and coding will have to allow each student to maintain his or her own blog. Likewise, if the goal is to have each student showcase work for college or internship applications then each student will need to be the sole author on that blog. Keeping track of all of those blogs is a challenge, but a manageable challenge. One quick management method is to create a spreadsheet of all of your students’ blogs. Another quick management strategy is to create a list of links to the blogs then post that list in a side column on your own blog so that you or anyone else visiting your blog can quickly jump to a student’s blog.

On a related note, if you're trying to convince a teacher to start a blog, this slideshow that I made five years ago still illustrates one reason to have a blog that every teacher can relate to.

Cryptocat - Create Encrypted Backchannels

Cryptocat is an open source project that allows users to create private encrypted chat rooms. Cryptocat can be installed in Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or as Mac desktop application. After installing Cryptocat open the application, enter a room name and username, then click connect. To have others join you in your chat room they have to know and enter the encryption key provided by Cryptocat.

For those of you who get that nostalgic feeling when you see old 8 bit graphics, Cryptocat will make you feel like a kid again.

Applications for Education
I often talk about using TodaysMeet for backchanneling in the classroom (I featured TodaysMeet in this free PDF about classroom backchannels). The only complaint that hear repeatedly about TodaysMeet is that you cannot password protect your conversations. Cryptocat allows you to do that. Cryptocat is not going to be for everyone, the encryption keys are long and it has a very "old school" geeky feel to it. But if you're up for it, Cryptocat might be the backchannel tool for you.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Week in Review Featuring Chicken Bones, Power Outage, and Google Reader

Image credit: Jen Deyenberg
Good morning from Greenwood, Maine where the sun is shining and the snow is melting. It was a busy week here at the Free Technology for Teachers world headquarters. The week can be summarized in three parts; power outage, chicken bones, and Google Reader.

Power Outage
This week I started three new Practical Ed Tech webinars. The first one went off without a hitch. The second one hit a snag when the power went out all over my town just ten minutes before the start time. The outage even took out the cell tower nearest to me. I scrambled, drove 15 miles to the next town where I was able to finally get some Internet access on my phone to tell people what had happened. Thankfully, everyone was understanding.

Chicken Bones
While I was driving to the next town in the power outage my younger dog, Max, decided to help himself to chicken wing bones from the garbage. When I came back in the house the garbage bin was knocked over and all of the chicken bones were gone. So off to the emergency clinic we went for x-rays and doggie stomach pumping. He's okay now, but it was a stressful evening that didn't end until 2am.

Google Reader
The biggest news in the web technology world this week is that Google has decided to shut-down Google Reader effective July 1. There has been all kinds of panic and digital gnashing of teeth on Twitter and blogs about this. The closure of beloved services is part of the territory of the modern web. As I wrote this week, don't panic, try Feedly instead.

Here are this week's most popular posts:
1. 13 Good Chrome Apps and Extensions for Teachers and Students
2. Six Free Alternatives to PowerPoint and Keynote
3. Create a Text Message Exchange Between Fictional Characters
4. Three Tools Students Can Use to Create 3D Models Online
5. Google Announces the Closure of Google Reader - Don't Panic, Use Feedly
6. A Map of Nearly 100,000 Historic Sites
7. Opus - Sample Math Problems Aligned to Common Core Standards

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20 Chrome Apps & Extensions for Teachers and Students

This morning I got up very early by Saturday morning standards to be a virtual guest in a class at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. The topic for the morning was using Chrome apps and extensions in schools. I put together a little slideshow of the 20 apps that I thought they should look at first. As I told the students, for every one of these apps and extensions there are probably three or more that do the same type of thing so if you see one that is similar to one in the list, give it a try.

All of the images in the slides are linked directly to the Chrome store, just click the image to get to the app in Chrome store.

Friday, March 15, 2013

5 Resources to Help Students Understand the Size of the Universe

Sometimes when I take my dogs outside on a cold clear night in Maine I look up at the sky and I try to wrap my head around the size of the universe. Tonight was one of those times. Over the last couple of years I've shared some resources that can help viewers understand the scale of things in the universe, here they are.

The Scale of the Universe 2 features a huge selection of objects in the universe that are arranged according to size and scale. You can zoom-in on the image to objects as small as neutrinos and quarks or as large as planets, constellations, and galaxies. When you click on an object in The Scale of the Universe 2 a small window of information about that object pops up.

3D Solar System Web is a neat website that I discovered through the Chrome web store. 3D Solar System Web features a narrated tour of the solar system beginning at the sun and working out through all of the planets. The tour explains the classifications of each planet, how long it takes each planet to orbit the sun, and each planet's unique features.

Magnifying the Universe is an interactive infographic that allows you to see the size of atoms, animals, buildings, mountains, planets, stars, and galaxies in relation to other objects in the universe.

100,000 Stars is a Google Chrome Web GL Experiment that does a good job of helping viewers understand the scale of the universe. 100,000 Stars is a visualization of the 100,000 stars closest to Earth. You can view the stars on your own or take an automated tour of the stars. that also does a good job of helping viewers understand the scale of the universe. 100,000 Stars is a visualization of the 100,000 stars closest to Earth. You can view the stars on your own or take an automated tour of the stars. 

The Known Universe is a six minute video tour of the known universe that starts with Earth's biggest mountains in the Himalaya and zooms out from there. Watch the video below.