Sunday, April 29, 2012

Technology in the classroom? Always a good thing?!

Getting out of the box:

"How to teach the so-called soft skills demanded of tomorrow's workforce - creativity, problem solving and the ability to work in teams - is a conundrum preoccupying educators. Once upon a time, schools prepared the workers of the future for the industrial age, according to leading British education expert Professor Stephen Heppell. Children sat in rows with the teacher at the front of the classroom. The teachers had all the answers; they were the sole purveyors of knowledge. Students absorbed what they were taught and regurgitated it in tests. After graduation, they worked in factories that mass-produced hubcaps or they joined the typing pool. Ingenuity was not particularly important. But while such schools may have worked in the 1950s, Heppell says the third millennium poses new challenges. The internet means children have access to more information than ever before. Teachers are no longer the font of all wisdom."

'via Blog this'

Just read this interesting article on a primary school in Australia which Microsoft have declared a 'mentor school' because of their use of technology.  On one level, it sounds fantastic.  All those kids engaged in their learning.  Brilliant.


... I don't know - there's something about it that makes me feel rather uncomfortable. Too much of a 'good' thing? The quote 'Education extinguishes the skills that you actually need in life' might be true, but why do they feel that exposure to technology which will be hugely dated by the time those children enter their independent adult life is the solution, I'm not sure. Imagine if there had been the insistance that all learning for children in the early / mid 1980s was mediated through BBC Micros (and I know there was some, but the cost of the kit prevented it from being ubiquitous in the curriculum) - those weren't the skills that would have been useful now. Encouraging the skills of curiosity, a love of learning, the ability to reflect and challenge - those are surely key skills which haven't changed?  There is so much time for children to get to grips with technology - and so many different avenues in which they can.  But, instead of thinking about face-to-face social skills and how to nurture those, their faces are instead turned towards a screen of some sort.  They're going global before they even know that *they* exist as an individual in the world.

As soon as someone points to the iPad / [insert name of other hot shiny technology] to enable learners to become 21st Century citizens, I think how we would have laughed in the 1990s if someone from 1912 was declaring that they had found the key to being a 20th Century learner.

It isn't the thing, it's the thinking we should be focusing on.

Friday, April 20, 2012

RSS feeds from tagged items on Delicious

In the good old days, you used to see RSS feeds all over the place for Delicious.  The subscribe option was at the bottom of just about every page.  But then... they disappeared.  And all of that aggregating loveliness disappeared.  Yes, you still get an RSS feed for your personal Delicious bookmarks and that's easy to subscribe to - and of course you can subscribe to other people's RSS feeds too. However, one of the very nicest things about social bookmarking is... well... the social bit.  And subscribing to a particular tag from all users is just not easy at all.

I'll just go back a step and answer the question 'Why would you want to do that?' before I waffle my way into oblivion.  Well, subscribing to a tag rather than an individual is perfect if you have a team that's constantly finding useful resources on the web and they're all linked in some way - just ask them to tag them with whatever they want plus your unique tag and you can happily bring all of them together to share with others.  It doesn't matter who's saving it, you can bring it together with a unique tag.  For example, in the past I've used the tag 'NTUEDU' as a unique tag and asked anyone at Nottingham Trent University to tag resources they saved on Delicious with that tag.  What I could then do was say to other people 'this is what we're interested in, this is what we think are good resources about learning / technology' and get them to subscribe to that link or bring them into places like NetVibes.  Equally, you can use services like to tweet a link that's been saved to Delicious from any user - provided you have an RSS feed for it.  Or use something like Google Reader to find out if anyone's using a hashtag to save resources for a conference you're going to attend.

However, those RSS feeds for tags saved by multiple users disappeared from Delicious a year or so ago that makes trying to do the above things kinda frustrating!

But, I've just been tinkering about with setting up a new NetVibes page and wanted to share what items are being saved from me and others which relate to our work.  Easy.  Just aggregate the things people are saving with a unique tag.  Ah.  Problem.  The missing RSS feeds.

I tried to track them down.  I spent a while messing with to create an RSS feed from my searching for the tag I wanted on Delicious.  And it worked.  But mangled my head en route with all those {%} doobries, extraction rules and the like.  And it just doesn't seem like an easy solution.  But it is one way around it.

However, after doing that, I did a bit more Googling to find out the back story to the missing RSS feeds and spotted this from someone else:

And the lightbulb moment happened. 

Just change that end bit - and there's your RSS feed.

If the tag you want to aggregate is 'elearning', your RSS feed would be

With that little RSS feed you can then aggregate, auto-tweet, auto-save, easily share and really use some of the benefits of social bookmarking.

Oh, and if you prefer to use Diigo for your social bookmarking, then you can do that, but set up the 'Save to Delicious' function in Tools, and it'll automatically push your bookmarks, complete with tags, to Delicious.  To be honest, this is the option I do because I prefer Diigo, but have always like the RSS-ability of Delicious!

The final RSS treat I discovered on my RSS traipsing was a list of all the RSS Feeds for Yahoo services - I accept this is a little nerdy, but if you like your RSS and like squishing it together with other services / tools, then it's useful to know what else is readily out there.

And here endeth my geekish stuff for the week!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Google+ Circles in Plain English

Of all the things about Google+, one of the things that took me longest to get my head around was Circles.  They just didn't intuitively make sense to me.

However.  The penny has finally dropped.  So, if you're not sure about how a Google+ circle works... this is as simple an explanation as I can manage!

1. Circles are a way for you to organise people you're interested in and to restrict the audience for your posts
2. Putting someone in a circle allows you to follow their public posts

3. It does not mean that if you share something with the circle you've put them in, it'll appear in their stream
4. They can see what it is you shared if they happen to visit your profile
5. For it to appear in their stream, they'd have to have you in a circle too

6. Remember... a circle is not a lasso that you throw around someone else to yank them into a circled conversation!

And that's about it!  Circles have to be mutual for there to be conversation, otherwise all you're doing is following someone's public posts.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ten ways to use Google+ in Education...

Google+ is a funny thing.  Just the other day, Google were saying that the service had over 170 million users with 100 million of those active in the previous month.  And yet, if you've thought you'd have a go yourself, it can feel eerily quiet.  Well, I've had that experience too and at first found it extremely off-putting.  Add into the mix a confusion between my personal Google account and the university Google Apps account I've got, well... let's just say it took me a while to get my head around it!

However, because I think that as learning technologists it's our job to see the potential in things and to explore them fairly and fully - I persisted.  And I have to say that I'm glad I have.  So, I thought it would be helpful for me to share ten of the ways I've used Google+ which have helped me to find a role for it in the portfolio of online tools I currently work with.

1.  Sharing curated content with comment

Link shared with comment on Google+
One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective) of Google+ is that you can't auto-publish content to it.  This means that rather than feeling spammed you know that every item involved someone thinking about the way it was shared - and that's a good thing.  Because there's theoretically no limit to the number of characters (although I believe it's around 100,000) people can use to comment on a link, it means that you can get the context of whatever's been shared and it can help open up items for further discussion and sharing.  Overall, it boosts the quality of what's there and means that dipping into Google+ is more likely to pull up something useful.

2.  Sharing with a very specific audience

Photos of our new offices, shared only with the team
While it's easy to send out an email to multiple recipients, it's very easy to share with specific groups in Google+.  You just create a circle with those people in it, and then whenever you want to share something with them, you chose that circle as the audience.  It means it goes only to them and for things like shared images / video, you don't open them up to the world or weigh down someone's inbox.  For example, when I took some photos of our new offices, I knew only my team would be interested - so I uploaded the photos, shared it with my 'Learning Technologies Team' circle - provided they had me in a circle, it would appear on their Google+ stream.

3.  Carrying out asynchronous interviews online

Interview via Google+ with David Read, April 2012
There are lots of ways of interviewing someone.  In person.  On the phone.  Via Skype.  Via email.  But what about Google+ too?  I've recently done an interview with David Read - one of our teachers from the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield - on his experience of being at the Google Teachers Academy UK.  And since he was away from the university and I was working from home, but neither of us around at the same time, that left us with my emailing a list of questions to him.  Or... using Google+.  So, I posted a message on Google+ with just David as the audience (you can share with individuals as well as with circles / making things public)... and away we went.  Easy.  Like chat but asynchronous.  If we had wanted to chat 'face-to-face', then starting a hangout from the post would have been just a single click away.

Starting a hangout from the original interview post

There are lots of other ways that using circles and Google+ posts could be used - especially for small groups.  If you were wanting pairs of students to work together, then getting them to use Google+ is an easy way of having them chat to one another - and keep their work private too.

4.  Setting up a Google+ page for an interest group

The Learning Technologies at the University of
Sheffield Google+ page, April 2012
Whether this is for a class project or for a team - setting up a Google+ page is like creating yourself a mini web presence in just a couple of clicks.  You can have Hangouts with 9 other people, you can share links and ideas, photos, videos - but unlike an ordinary web space, you get the ability to control what content goes to which audience with the use of circles.  You can have multiple people manage the page too, so as with the Learning Technologies at the University of Sheffield Google+ page which I recently set up, it's not only proving to be a great way to have additional places for people to chat about learning technologies - but having multiple managers means the responsibility for looking after the page doesn't fall entirely on one person's shoulders.

5.  Sharing content... and seeing where it went

Ripples for a public share on Google+
Ever wondered what happened to something you shared with others?  On Google+ if you share something and it gets re-shared by someone else - that's what's called a 'Ripple'.

Well, those ripples can go pretty far and wide - and it's fascinating to see how something went viral.  And even for things that got shared with only a few people, it's still great to see where things went.

6.  Creating a form in Google docs... then sharing it with a Google+ circle

Sharing a form with a Google+ circle from within Google docs

The integration of Google+ with other Google services is one of its strengths and if you've created a form in Google docs recently, you may have noticed a little Google+ share button at the top when you've been editing.  It not only means that you have another way to share / promote things like surveys, but that you can quite finely control the audience by using circles to control who it goes to.  For example, a staff survey going only to particular members of a team or a sign up sheet going to certain students.

7.  Taming the information flow

Drag the slider to allow more or less content from a particular circle
to appear in your Google+ stream

One of the problems with social media - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr etc is that sometimes it can feel like the information flow is less of a flow and more of a torrent.  Well, not only is the curation on Google+ one built-in way of controlling that flow, but once you've sorted out your circles, you can then adjust how much content from people in that circle appears in your stream.  From everything to nothing.  That really helps to put some of the control back in your hands.

8.  Sharing connections with others

Sharing a circle with other people
Why would you want to do this?  Well, if you want to recommend other people to follow, then sharing your carefully curated circles (and that's the trick - make sure you think about how you're grouping people) can really help people make connections and find relevant and interesting people.  If you've got a circle for your team, group or class - then sharing it with a colleague is just a click away.  If you're setting up groups for an activity, create them as circles, then share the circles.  Simple!

9.  Collaborating with others

Creating a hangout based on a shared item in your Google+ stream

Hangouts are fantastic for collaborating.  Where 'hanging out' is the very Google+ specific hanging out.  So far I've used them to remotely participate in a meeting and to collaboratively author a document with a colleague (Google docs is well integrated into Hangouts).  The possibilities for small group work are vast and whether you want to create hangouts on the fly or off the back of particular discussion topics / at prearranged times, the fact that they're so well built into Google+ makes them very straightforward to use.

10.  Using unique hash-tags to aggregate content and discover related items

Searching for the #cicsltt hashtag on Google+

I'm a big fan of hash-tags for tagging and aggregating content - whether that's on Twitter or on services such as Diigo or Delicious, tagging is a powerful thing.  And on Google+ it's fantastic for tracking your content, not least because when someone re-shares something you've created (and tagged), they can't edit that content and the tag travels with it - which again, means that you can find what's happening to your resources.  You do that by searching for the hash-tagged items - and then save those searches for future reference.  If you're working on a project and want to bring together items from multiple sources, getting people to use a unique hash-tag is the way to go.  We use the hash-tag #cicsltt (CiCS Learning Technologies Team) for our Google+ posts - but I also tag things with #elearning or #edtech in case other people are searching for those terms - it means our content is more likely to be discovered.

So, there you go.  Ten ways of using Google+ in education.  How are you using it?  Have you got to grips with it yet?


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What makes a good learning technologist?

I was pondering this question just the other day.  I'm involved in the professional development of learning technologists as part of some of the work I do and over the years I've worked with plenty of them who've zinged with knowledge, enthusiasm and understanding.  What makes the difference?  What makes a learning technologist stand out as being a really 'good' learning technologist?

Some of it is wrapped up in how you define the role of a learning technologist at all.  Just because someone has the job title of 'Learning Technologist' doesn't mean they are one, just as someone who is a Librarian or a Lecturer isn't automatically *not* a learning technologist because they lack that place holder on their CV.  If you think that a learning technologist is someone who can bridge the gap between learning and technology, can translate between the two fields, can spot opportunities and help make change happen within teaching practices and importantly, understands the context of learning in which they're placed... well... there are some key attributes that people who excel in this area seem to possess.

First of all they're...

One of the biggest and best tricks a learning technologist pulls off is to go around with an open mindset.  And one that actively *wants* to find out new things and to learn to do new stuff.  That spirit of curiosity permeates their working life.  They need to find answers.  They want to see how things work.  They ask questions when things don't go as expected.  A good learning technologist always comes with a good dollop of curiosity.  They're also...

Great learning technologists tend to be playful people.  I don't mean this is the sense of a session down the local activity centre or adventure playground.  But, they know that you don't just learn things first off.  It takes a bit of play (and failure and a fair few mistakes) to explore and find out what something and someone can do.  The very best learning technologists I know don't restrict their work to the working arena.  Their 'play' leaks into everything they do.  If they find something interesting to do with learning or technology out of hours, they'll play.  They can't stop themselves.  They just don't clock off because why would you clock off completely from something which was inherently fun? And that leads into the next attribute because you'll also find that they're...

If you're a learning technologist and you know how to make connections between ideas, people, things and beyond - I'm betting you're good at your job.  Ideas aren't picked up in isolation, instead, connections are made and boundaries become elastic and movable.   An ability to look inwards and outwards, to shape your perspective by bouncing ideas off others, to be open to finding out what else is going on through the myriad of connections you've made.  Working openly and collaboratively is the norm.  The people I know in this field who stand out - well, this is a common trait for them - as is the fact that they're...

Here's something.  I bet if you care about what you do in your work it isn't enough to be passive.  Sometimes you have to create opportunities, talk to people you haven't talked to before, listen and understand - and keep on keeping on even when the initial answer is 'no'.  If something sounds interesting, then great learning technologists will find a way to make time to look into it.  Excuses aren't good enough because trying to make learning brilliant is too important for that. This means that they're spotting trends and perservering with a new technology or approach rather than dismissing things because they're 'just not that kind of person'.  Their proactivity makes a huge difference as does the fact that they're...

The best moments I've ever had in education have been when I've been talking to someone for whom passion is like electricity flowing through their body and sparking out in conversation or presentation.  Passionate people create enthusiasm.  They care.  They inspire.  They're not ashamed to tell you they love doing something.  Or that something is fantastic.  The best learning technologists I know make me want to explore and do more than I'm already doing. And this passion for their field means that they're also...

This is the really big biggie of them all.  If you're bridging the gap between learning and technology, academia and the technical... you have to be able to talk the language of your context.  And it never stops needing to be learned and refined.  Let's face it, you can't *not* do your research when you're working with people who are professional researchers.  You can't do things in a sloppy fashion when you're working with those who have a keen eye for detail.  You need to build evidence and underpin what you're saying with solid foundations.  You need to share ideas.  You need to understand.  You need to analyse.  And you need to know there is no end point.  To be a brilliant learning technologist you are forever a learner.  And you accept it.

It's funny.  The best learning technologists aren't all about the technology.  They're not all about the pedagogy either.  They walk the line between the two and care about what they do and what they *could* do as well.  And if you come across a really good learning technologist - talk to them.  They'll fire you up so that you'll believe you could do anything with your teaching!
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