Technology

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A few months ago, I decided to deliver math lessons to my fifth grade digitally. It was the last subject area that I brought into this form. I was reluctant because typesetting needed for math was confusing and frustrating. Beyond that, I was quite pleased with how I conducted math lessons, and my results have been positive.

There is a lot of direct instruction in my math lessons. I make no apology for this. My school and community expect it. The demands of state curriculum and standardized testing demand we cover a lot of material. However, I have long approached math differently from many others. Rather than worksheets or exercises from the book, students in my class have done their work and respond using 9×12 dry erase boards. I have been presenting mini lessons on the chalkboard and putting up problems one by one for students to do. If they grasp it, I continue to new material. If they have not, I reteach and practice more.

While still largely direct instruction, I have found this approach significantly different in that it is social. Instead of students receiving direct instruction, guided, and independent practice, there is constant interaction with rapid shifts in lessons because of the feedback given by the students. I have been better able to scaffold my lessons by starting with simpler work, checking for understanding, then moving on to more complex as appropriate.

OpenOffice Impress is a capable open source presentation application available on all platforms. Windows users may have PowerPoint. I use Keynote along with a multimedia projector and project onto a screen or my chalkboard.

Unfortunately, iWork applications, unlike those in Microsoft Office, do not have an integrated equation editor. I made a brief attempt to get LaTeXiT to work on my computer, but I just did not have the time to fiddle with it and learn the markup language. I ended up buying MathType (also available in Windows) because it integrates with iWork. It was pricey and has an interface that leaves much to be desired, but it does the job. For the amount of time saved, it has been worth it. Bottom line is that you need an equation editor to digitize math instruction. If you use MS Office, you have a tool set sufficient for intermediate mathematics. I found the Open Office tools too limited (unless you learn LaTeX). Grapher, which comes with Mac OSX, has about the same features as Open Office’s Formula. Outside of MS Office, you need third-party party software. If you are willing to learn LaTeX, there are many free options. If you run a Mac, I recommend the MacTeX distribution. It takes care of all the dependent software in one easy installation. Now LaTeXiT and related software run on my computer.

Presentation software packages include capable graphics and charting tools. Learning accompanying spreadsheet software extends the range. Nonetheless, you will need to create graphics beyond the on board tools. Windows users may have MS Visio. ConceptDraw is a premium choice on Mac or Windows. I use OmniGraffle, a less expensive Mac alternative. Dia, an open source diagram tool, is available for Linux and Windows.

While exploring math resources, I was shocked to find Mathematica for $49 in a special offer for K-12 and community college educators. Mathematica is an advanced mathematics and scientific programming environment. I use Mathematica, but I just scratch the surface. I have done some basic formulas and graphing; however, I usually used it with the huge library of Mathematica demonstrations. They can be downloaded freely and played using the software or a free player. Using Mathematica allows me to hack or modify the demonstrations to customize them to my needs. It is also a capable math typesetting application.

Committing lessons to slides, I have focused on the structure and sequence of my lesson in more detail than I had. Laying out the minute details slide by slide makes it clear if anything is missing. Having the lesson laid out as such also has kept the structure and sequence within a lesson tighter. I reflect upon my work more closely.

I have also learned a lot about math. Searching for materials, I have discovered different approaches to teaching a given concept. I have seen many educators’ lessons on YouTube. They have given me deeper understanding and innovative ideas about both mathematics and pedagogy. Beyond that, the Internet provides access to diverse cultures that sometimes use methods different from those prevalent here.

Students are more focused. Delivery of lessons is faster and more efficient. While I interact with the projected material upon the chalkboard, time spent writing is significantly diminished. I work easily with grids, graphics, and multimedia. We have more time for extension, exploration, and review.

The downside has been the substantial time investment. It takes time to become efficient with the applications and develop a work flow. Time is lost in trial and error. Creating problem sets is tedious. Now and then time constraints have forced me to compromise quality or take shortcuts such as copying unaltered problem sets from textbooks.

As the year draws to an end, I now have half a year of math instruction presentations created. I have implemented many shortcuts and efficiencies, so completing the rest will be easier. I think that my teaching has improved dramatically as a result of this work.The next step is to share these lessons with others which brings up another set of issues to be addressed in another blog post.

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Posh, the open source portal page resembling PageFlakes, comes with a few widgets in its default installation. A handful of other widgets can be found on the Portaneo website. In order to make this software as appealing and as functional as PageFlakes for student, class, or school use, it would be great to have more options. As I discovered there are well over 100,000 options. Google Gadgets and Netvibes Widgets can be implemented as widgets using Posh’s Advanced Widget Wizard.

There is a dizzying array of Google Gadgets and Netvibe Widgets: games, music, video, calendars, clocks, and more. Check them out yourself with the links above. Essentially, they provide little snippets of code that can be added to websites to feed the desired content.

The first step in making the widget is getting the code. First we will look at how to get the code for Google Gadgets. Go to Google’s gadget directory.Note that you can search widgets or browse categories.

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Once you have picked a gadget, click on the “Add to your webpage button.” Usually, you are then given options for customization. What needs to be configured depends upon the gadget. The default width for most is 320 px. That is a little too wide for the default 3 column layout, so you probably want to bump that number down a little. Sometimes you need to enter a little information into the code manually, but it is usually clear and simple.

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You many preview your customization or get code.

Simply copy that code onto your clipboard so that you can paste it into the Widget Wizard.

Now Let’s go and get some code for a Netvibes widget.

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Find the widget of your dreams and click on it:

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You may or may not have configuration options. In this case there are none. To get the code. click on the share button. Grab the text of the code and have it ready to paste into the Widget Wizard.

Now that you have your code, log in as admin on your Posh installation. Click on Widgets Management.

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Click Create a new widget.

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The click Add your advanced widget to get this page:

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Simply paste your code to replace the highlighted text on the page above. Click the test button to make sure it works. If you are successful, click add. (Note, there are links to widgets on the page with an alternative procedure which I found confusing). You will be prompted through the next few pages to name and customize the widget somewhat, and you are done. Your new widget will now appear on the list of options. To make things even more interesting, users can do the same, but their submitted widgets must be approved by an administrator.

Posh certainly caught my attention as a slick open source alternative to hosted solutions. I believe it could be very useful as a student or classroom portal. Now that I discovered a nearly unlimited source of widgets. it is more appealing yet and will undergo more exploration. The widget wizard is a nice implementation that may well be suited to other server side applications. Posh appears to be an open source receptacle for open standard APIs.

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One of the first “tech” things I did in 2007-2008 was to turn workbook activities into interactive slideshows. Our school adopted a new “researched based reading program” to help us comply with NCLB. Last year, I faithfully used the workbooks to my revulsion. This experienced reaffirmed what I came to believe as a first grader. I wasn’t a fan of them then either. I hated the mindless busy work, the lack of engagement, and the confusion students experienced while trying to work independently. I also hated grading these endless pages to be honest.

I simply couldn’t bare to assign workbook pages, but I had to stay with the program. We had bought pdf versions of all the the ancillary materials. Using Adobe Acrobat, and a screen capture utility, I copied snippets of the pages and pasted them into Keynote (Mac’s PowerPoint) using various builds–particularly the smart builds.

Lessons were delivered using Keynote. When it came to workbook practice, each slide presented the instructions. I used the builds to present one question or task at a time. We would go over a few examples, then I would have students respond using their 9×12 dry erase boards.

Student got instant feedback. If there were several wrong responses, I could slow down the lesson, reteach, and prompt to help the students succeed. If, on the other hand, they seemed to get it right away, I could cut the repetition and go on to something else.

This was hardly web 2.0 stuff, but it certainly increased student engagement and help focus instruction to where it was needed. I stayed “with the program” and was liberated endless grading. I felt closer to my students. I even published some of the slide shows to the web. Sometimes we need to find freedom within our constraints.

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As I have begun to immerse myself in Web 2.0 for education, I have been struck by the prevalence of using “free” hosted services such as Flickr, YouTube, Ning, and other such sites. I don’t have anything against them for individual use, but I do have concerns about using such services with students–particularly elementary grade students. I feel that many Web 2.0 evangelists have overlooked open source alternatives. I prefer to run my own web based open source software on rented server space for a variety of reasons.

First off, it gives a great deal of independence. If you want to try a particular piece of server based open source software, you can. If you find something that looks promising or interesting, you can pretty much install it immediately and give it a run. I heard about Elgg, so I installed it. I ran into an educational distribution for Drupal and had it up and running within the hour. Prologue appears promising as a private Twitter and I have it going in a few minutes.

It also avoids issues with “free” hosted web services. First of all, we can host content without the issues involving other, often inappropriate, content on the same site. I run our sites without advertising. I don’t have to deal with as many concerns about privacy. Students can get accounts on the site without revealing personal information and details. Furthermore, nobody is monitoring the browsing habits and creating demographic data and profiles of individuals using the sites we created.

Using open source web based solutions can be as simple or as complex as one decides to make it. Many programs can be installed by absolute novices using a control panel that performs the process with a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes–no more difficult than signing up for a free blog. A simple WordPress blog is very easy to administer–not very different from administrating a hosted blog. As one gains skill and confidence, the options and possibilities grow exponentially.

It also has, at our school, removed obstacles and opened opportunities. If an educator at our school wants to try something, it simply has to pass muster with the tech committee. As long as it is technologically feasible, it can be done without running the gauntlet of BOCES hierarchy and technicians. As an example, one local school wanted to host video through their BOCES run website. BOCES told them that they couldn’t possibly do it because it required too much of their servers and pointed them to YouTube! Our school published video directly on our website with no issues.

Another reason for using rented hosting and open source software is cost. The software is free, although plugins and templates can cost money (many are free). Our school started its website on a $10 per month shared hosting plan. We never came close taxing our server resources to limits. BOCES would have charged us thousands of dollars each year.

There is the investment of time learning how to use, configure, customize, and administer the software. As mentioned above–it can range from simple and undemanding to complex and challenging. In addition, you can pay a little more for a webhost that will take care of some of the set and configuration for you.

Using open source software has been an empowering learning experience. I had very few IT skills other than having hacked together a third rate static html webpage and ftp’ed it up. That was several years ago and I had long since forgotten it all. Once I made the plunge with a cheap shared host account, I immediately discovered the ease of setting up websites through the control panel. Within a few days I had several domains registered, and a few sites launched. As time has gone on, I have continued learning and expanding. I like learning and I have found this rewarding.

I believe there are compelling reasons to consider open source web 2.0 software on private servers. It has been a wise investment for our school and has opened many possibilities. It has been a source of growth and development for students, staff, and teachers alike.

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I was satisfied with my trial of the open-source RSS reader Rnews. While it is not perfect, it has a very simple interface that was easy enough for my students learn. I installed the program on our school shared server space and set up accounts for them. Thursday, they started populating their account with feeds from their classmate’s blogs.

Rnews has a very simple, clean, no-nonsense user interface. It is not as cool as some might want it and it does not support themes. Changes of appearance can only be done by editing the css file. Students add feeds by clicking the blue plus sign on the upper right side (see below). There are a few other controls that are straight forward and students are unlikely to get themselves into trouble.

Screenshot of Rnew Reader

One problem with Rnews, is the lack of an administrative interface. To an extent, this program is so simple, there is little need for it. On the other hand, there is no way of monitoring the feeds to which the students have subscribed within the program. This can be worked around by examining the MySQL database through phpMyAdmin–which is fine if you have access. It works for me, although, it would be nice to be able to browse all accounts as an admin. Of course the lack of such features keeps this program nice and lean. Registration requires a secret pass phrase. Student must log in to their individual readers. There is no access without a log-in.

Students thought the RSS reader was very cool because they were able to see all the blog posts at once. After they logged into their readers, I modeled subscribing to feeds. Feed URLs must be typed in. Many students had errors with their first attempts, but soon became much more attentive to details and began typing more carefully. Since each feed required a url for the blog and one for the feed, students got plenty of practice with cutting and pasting shortcuts.

The kids see the utility of the RSS reader. They also like having their own personal account to manage. Between this and their blogs, they feel empowered. Students can publish and control a part of the web plus they can show their friends and parents. Next, I plan to give them some feeds beyond those of our class. I also plan on creating a class RSS reader using a more full featured platform. I hope to demonstrate the benefits of a class RSS reader to other teachers.

Rnews works fine–it gets the job done. I will continue searching for and testing other open source server side RSS aggregators for future applications. I look forward to seeing how this impacts my students.

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