Living offline

Apologies for the lack of updates this week. Normal service was to be resumed yesterday after returning from a school trip to the WWI battlefields in France/Belgium (http://battlefields.posterous.com). However, Orange, in their infinite wisdom, cut off our Internet connection earlier this week instead of migrating it from my mobile phone contract to Hannah’s. 😮

I’m obviously meant to have a break. My Ed.D. supervisor’s ill so couldn’t meet up with me today, Nick Dennis isn’t able to come up to collaborate on some work we’re doing for a publisher and, finally, it would seem that my house is no longer in a 3G area.

I’m writing this using the WordPress iPhone application. Whilst it’s fine for short text entry, it’s not really able to create my usual sort of blog posts. It would seem that this is a blessing in disguise. I’ll *have* to slow down this half-term! 🙂

Orange have promised to have us up-and-running by the end of next week. In the meantime, check out the battlefields blog (see link above) and the work I’ve been doing in my first half-term as E-Learning Staff Tutor at my school (http://elearnr.edublogs.org) :-p

 

Using del.icio.us to synchronise bookmarks & find new, exciting stuff

This week’s elearning staff session is on del.icio.us, the ‘social bookmarking’ site. As I mention in the guide below, I find it useful for 3 reasons:

  1. Storing links to useful websites and web applications to access wherever I am.
  2. Discovering new resources that other educators have recommended.
  3. Creating a repository of useful links for a particular purpose (e.g. a department or for pupils on a certain course)
Using del.icio.us to synchronise bookmarks & find new, exciting stuffUpload a Document to Scribd

There are many more features of del.icio.us than I’ve had chance to explore in this session. For information about some of these, check out this slideshow from Jon Hoff:

 

What does it take to build a community?

I spent today down in London with some great educators and those involved in the Open Source community. We were part of an advisory group for a Becta-funded project allied to the website opensourceschools.org.uk. Part of the discussion naturally focused on starting a community of educators interested in using Open Source Software (OSS) in their schools. The question we were tasked with was: how do we get started?

AlphaPlus, the consultancy firm employed by Becta to run the project haven’t had a great deal of experience in Open Source, although they’ve done a decent job so far. What was great was that there were some ‘big hitters’ there to get things moving along. At the meeting, apart from myself, were:

In the morning session we discussed who we were aiming the website at. It was agreed that there already exist some excellent ‘technical’ website for network administrators and the like, but that more was needed for ‘beginners’ and those new to OSS. At the moment, opensourceschools.org.uk is a framework to build the community upon. We were concerned with how to go from eager early adopters using the site to gaining mainstream traction.

The key question of a previous blog post of mine (Why as an educator you should care about Open Source Software) was used as a stimulus to discussion. The point was raised that actually we need to move one step back: why should teachers even care about software? From there we discussed recent Becta license agreements after which Josie mentioned that at present students are taught how to use specific software (usually Microsoft) instead of more generic skills.

Michelle shared with the group the policy at her school of giving Year 7 students a USB flash drive containing all the software they will need during their time at the school. It is all Open Source and the school computers all run Linux. As a result, teachers can be confident that students have access to the software they need at home as well as school. A representative from Becta built on this, talking about the complex license agreements for some companies mean dealing with OSS is a lot easier for schools.

This got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if the (eventual) community at opensourceschools.org.uk could discuss and agree on customised versions of the OSS available at portableapps.com? For example, a version of Firefox with useful plugins for students pre-installed, or OpenOffice with everything set up in a way students and teachers alike would find intuitive.

Josie then took over to do some scenario planning for the community we are planning to attract and build on the site. She asked us to split into groups and come up with two axes on a graph in order to think about the type of community we want to foster. our group wanted to steer a course between a place that was almost unbearingly positive and back-slapping and a forum that involved lots of flamewars. On the other axis we put ‘enablers’ and ‘reticent’. Obviously, there’s no point in ‘preaching to the choir’ and just setting out to attract those who already know and use OSS. Whilst those people are needed, we need to focus on those who are at present disinterested and do some evangelism. Other groups talked about having specific roles in the community and whether the site should operate largely as a repository or a community.

After lunch, we had more of a freeform discussion about the website and how we could go about building the community. Many agreed that whilst Drupal is a good example of Open Source Software, it perhaps isn’t best for the purpose in mind. One of the AlphaPlus team mentioned that they’d planned to have ‘roadshows’ in order to do some form of evangelism. I suggested that they may want to run some ‘unconference’ sessions in a spirit similar to that of TeachMeet. The short presentations could be filmed and form a set of rich-media case studies to go on the site. More importantly, however, people would be able to meet face-to-face and share advice and ideas.

The best bit of the day, for me, was meeting in person people I had only previously met online. It’s great to spend time with like-minded, positive people who care deeply about education. 😀

Check out opensourceschools.org.uk. What would YOU suggest? Are you interested in using OSS in education?

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3 ways to prevent being ‘unfollowed’ on Twitter

Some people reading the title of this blog post may claim not to be bothered when they’re ‘unfollowed’ on Twitter, FriendFeed, etc.  I don’t believe them.*  😉

Most people on Twitter also have a blog. The reason you have a blog rather than write in a personal diary is to share your ideas with the world. You’d like to influence others in some way.

As a result, whether you like it or not, if you’ve got a blog you’re in the marketing business. You are (potentially) a global micro-brand.

All this sounds a bit business-like, especially for an educator with a professed aim to change the education system for the better. But, as I have blogged about recently, our ideas gaining acceptance is one way to achieve a sort of immortality. And if we do want to change the education system, we need to influence as many people as possible! 😀

So yes, you do need to be concerned when people ‘unfollow’ you on Twitter. One or two may not be a problem, but if there’s somewhat of an exodus, it means that they’re not getting what they thought you’d be delivering. Let’s see how we can make sure that state of affairs doesn’t obtain…

1. Speak in full sentences

When I teach lessons that involve students answering questions, I stress the importance of making sure they don’t start their answer to a question with ‘because’, and that they explain the context. Otherwise, when they come to revise, they won’t ‘get it’. Similarly with Twitter, you’re not just having a conversation with another individual – people who are following you are also listening. Don’t say ‘it’ – say what you mean and link to what you’re talking about (if relevant) – and in every tweet involved.

2. ‘Direct message’ people more

Just because someone’s used an @ reply to you (e.g. @dajbelshaw: my interesting message) doesn’t mean you have to do likewise to them. If what you’re going to say is unlikely to interest others apart from that individual, send them a direct message. Just be sure to double-check that you’re following them as well, otherwise it could be slightly embarrassing. I talk from experience… 😮

3. Don’t binge-tweet

I use FriendFeed as well as Twitter. FriendFeed summarises when someone sends more than one tweet in quick succession. Yesterday, someone I follow posted 25 messages in quick succession. When you’re following hundreds of people, that’s too much to handle. Be focused.

I’m always very aware that my tweets are one of the first things you see when you visit dougbelshaw.com. That means I try to keep the most recent tweet fairly interesting and relevant to both Twitter followers and visitors to my site. If I post a reply which may be useful to others but fairly geeky, I try to follow it up quickly with something of greater relevance.

These ideas may not work for everyone, but they work for me. What do you use Twitter for? What are your tips for using it?

* This post came about after a discussion about a new service called Qwitter that emails you when someone stops following you on Twitter.

(Image by Mykl Roventine @ Flickr)

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Digital Permanence: Death & Data

I’m worried about dying. No, not in terms of my mortal flesh and immortal soul; I’m worried about what will happen to my data when I die. :-p

That may sound a little, shall we say, geeky, so let me explain. There’s two ways you can ‘live for ever’ in this world. The first is to become so famous that people talk about you until the end of time. As that’s difficult for most of us, the second way is more likely. All you’ve got to do with the second way is to pass on your genes (and your surname) to your offspring. I’m doing well with the latter: my son Benjamin Belshaw was born 20 months ago and will, I hope, continue the illustrious Belshaw line. With the first method, however, I’m still struggling.

My problem is this:

  1. Most of my ideas are in the form of writing in the digital landscape (i.e. on this blog or others on the Internet)
  2. Books and other printed matter in the physical realm are a lot more ‘permanent’ at present that writing in the digital realm.
  3. When I die dougbelshaw.com will cease to exist.
  4. Ergo, unless my ideas are so amazing that they become ubiquitous during my lifetime, they will have little impact after my death.

So I’m left with a problem. Should I start writing a book? Is all I’m writing here ultimately futile? Should I be creating static HTML pages so archive.org can index them?

Does this even matter?

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Why we should adopt the OA5 system in education

My friend Paul Lewis, he of the infrequent blogging, very kindly let me have his Dilbert omnibus last year. I’ve been reading it again recently and it’s got me thinking about conformity and creativity. The omnibus brings together 3 Dilbert books into one volume. Joy! 😀

In The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams outlines the ‘Out At Five’ business model. Enshrined within it are not only some comic gems, but some great pieces of advice. If we stuck to some of these in education, we’d go a long way to reforming the whole system.

He divides his principles into two subcategories:

Staying out of the way

  1. Scott Adams advocates letting the ’employees dress any way they want, decorate their work spaces any way they want, format memos any way they want’. This is because that there is no proof that any of these impact productivity. Instead, they create a message that conformity is valued above efficiency or creativity. Whilst I would still advocate some form of school uniform to prevent undue focus on students’ clothes, I do think schools in general could be a bit more laid-back about the ways both students and staff express themselves. I’m certainly not saying profanity, drugs and alcohol should be imported to create some type of dystopian educational system. Instead, I’m saying that we should value difference and (that abused word) diversity over conformity and standardization.
  2. Eliminate artificial processes. In businesses these are obvious, but in education they can still be seen. For example ‘Every Child Matters‘ and ‘Personalising Learning’ agendas. They’ve got titles no-one can disagree with, but lead to bureaucracy and a loss of focus on the actual students themselves. It’s my belief that every educator has, at their core, the well-being and interests of students in their charge. As Scott Adams puts it:

If you have a good e-mail system, a stable organization chart, and an unstressed workplace the good ideas will get to the right person without any help The main thing is to let people know that creativity is okay and get out of the way.

What does an OA5 manager do?

  1. Eliminate the assholes. Quite blunt, but you know exactly what he means. There’s people who put a downer on the whole enterprise of education. They’re quick to blame students rather than themselves, they’re more interested in internal politics than student wellbeing and achievement, they like being controversial for the sake of it. Let’s get rid of them. In fact, I’m all for moves to make it easier to remove teachers from their posts. Why should we get, in effect, ‘immediate tenure’?
  2. The second is my favourite: make sure employees (i.e. teachers) learn something new every day. As Scott Adams remarks:

    The more you know, the more connections form in your brain, and the easier every task becomes. Learning creates job satisfaction and suports and person’s ego and energy level.

    But more than that, as teachers, we should be good role-models as everday and curious learners! 🙂

  3. Cultivate all the little things that support curiosity and learning. Questions such as ‘What did you learn?’ when you make mistakes are more powerful than, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’
  4. Teach employees how to be efficient. Lead by example – keep meetings short, refuse to take part or go along with low-priority activities because it’s ‘polite’, and (my favourite) respectfully interrupt people who talk too long without getting to the point. I’d force everyone to read blogs such as Lifehacker, Zen Habits and Unclutterer every day. But that’s just me… 😉

What do YOU think? Besides the name (Out At 5) is there anything with which you’d disagree?

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Give your students a voice with VoiceThread

Sometimes it’s hard to get the views of everyone in a class. When you’ve 25-30 students in front of you, it’s easy to miss the views and ideas of the quieter members of your class.

That’s why VoiceThread is so good. You put some type of stimulus material – a picture or video, for example – on the website and then invite your students to give their opinions on it. I’ve been using it with my GCSE History students for them to be able to practice analysing historical sources. The great thing is that each user can annotate pictures and videos to illustrate their point. They can also use a microphone or webcam to record their thoughts, too!

Follow the guide below to get started with VoiceThread and click here to see one in action!

Give Your Students a Voice With Voice ThreadUpload a Document to Scribd
 

My Ed.D. thesis: introduction and a ?

Having found readers of this blog very helpful in the past – especially when it came to my most recent job description – I thought I’d ask for your help again. The input of all my readers to what follows, but especially those of a philosophical persuasion like Stephen Downes and George Siemens, would be fantastic.

What follows is a rough, not-long-enough first draft of introduction to my Ed.D. thesis. Trouble is, my interests have led to a slightly different focus from that outlined in my thesis proposal; I need a new working title, please! :-p

The structure of my Ed.D. thesis is going to be something like:

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature review (including discussion of ‘literacy’, ‘visual literacy‘, ‘media literacy‘, etc. and how these terms developed)
  3. Worldviews on ‘digital literacy’ (how various education systems around the world discuss the area)
  4. ‘Digital literacy’ in the UK (analysis of stakeholder policies and discussions of the area)
  5. ‘Digital literacy’ & educational institutions (suggestions of ways in which schools & universities can promote the skills congruent with the area)
  6. Conclusion

So please, read this rough outline to my introduction and I’d love it if you could think of a title. I’m currently thinking of something as simple as: What is ‘Digital Literacy’? A Pragmatic Investigation.

(Rough) introduction to Ed.D. thesis

“All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, is apprehended by the performer as that pattern.” (Berger & Luckmann, 2002:42)

Human beings are tasked with making sense of the external world. We feel the need to decipher and communicate oft-repeated experiences and sensations, allowing other minds to share the same (or similar) conceptual space to our own. For example, research in Phenomenology tells us that two individuals may have two markedly different sensations when viewing a red pillar box. If, however, they agree on the category ‘pillar box’ to refer to approximately the shape they see before them, and that the colour sensation they are experiencing shall be called ‘red’ then meaningful discourse can ensue.

All human communication must begin in this manner. We train toddlers and young children to be able to understand the world around them by allowing them to use the constructs we ourselves use. These constructs we largely inherited from our parents, and they from their forebears. There comes a need, however, in each generation to create and agree upon new ways of understanding the world. This can be as a result of natural changes in the environment, new (disruptive) technologies, or some other way – usually involving politics or economics – that alter human relationships.

This thesis shall discuss the concept of ‘digital literacy’. It shall be my contention that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, “some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist.” (Pinker, 2002:202) As we shall see, although a consensus is growing around the term ‘digital literacy’, other competing ways of describing a similar conceptual space have emerged. This is partly due to a lack of clarity over the seemingly-straightforward term, ‘literacy’.

When dealing with conceptual spaces, metaphor and new ways of communicating experience and sensation, it makes little sense to talk of ‘reality’ and, indeed, ‘truth‘. Without wishing here to go into too much phenomenological and philosophical depth, it would seem clear that descriptions and talk of ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competence’, ‘digital fluency’ and so on are of a different order than ‘sky’, ‘chair’, and ‘lamp’. There is a qualitative difference: the first seeks to be a lens in the way the second does not. It is the lens of ‘digital literacy’ that this thesis shall discuss, the aim being to seek to describe the changing landscape and terminology surrounding such conceptions.

To avoid the quagmire of correspondence theories of truth and slips into solipsism, then, this thesis will employ a pragmatic methodology. This way of approaching the world was first suggested in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce and developed by William James. Although there are disagreements within the Pragmatist movement, James perhaps has been the clearest exponent of classical Pragmatist philosophy. He argues that there is no ‘end to enquiry’ and that we “must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [our] experience.” (James, 1995:21)

The above meshes with the phenomenological account presented earlier; if we are socially-constructing what we term ‘reality’, then changes in human relationships will alter our conceptual ‘realities’ and vice-versa. Pragmatists, without needing to hold onto a correspondence theory of truth do, however, reject the notion that the conceptual and practical realms are completely divorced. As James (1995:20) puts it,

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen.

With regard to this thesis, therefore, discussions that either make no or could make no difference in practice shall either be only mentioned in passing or disregarded entirely. Although a non-empirical thesis, what comes hereafter is intended to be of use and be able to inform policy-makers.

So, what do YOU think? Title suggestions, please!

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How to create engaging video starters without any creative talent using Animoto

Students inhabit a visually-rich, media-driven world. Sometimes, as educators with limited time on our hands, it’s difficult to compete. Animoto is an easy-to-use and extremely powerful way of creating short videos to grab students’ interest. Better still, it’s free for educational use!

Follow the guide below to get started… 🙂

How to create engaging video starters without any creative talent using AnimotoUpload a Document to Scribd

Here’s a video I produced using Animoto in an attempt to encourage more Year 9’s to opt for GCSE History:

 

What to do when you can’t be RSSed…

If the following leaves you confuzzled, the BBC have a useful guide to RSS which you should probably read!

If you’re anything like me, you read a wide range of things on t’Internet and, along the way, subscribe to a fair number of RSS feeds. On a couple of occasions I’ve just found the sheer number of blog posts ‘unread’ in my feedreader overwhelming. I ended up just unsubscribing from them all and starting again.

Now, though, I’ve found a system that enables me to keep on top of things. It’s a combination of a really useful web service and a Firefox plugin that works with Google Reader.

AideRSS

Most websites only offer one RSS feed. I have a separate RSS feed for each category, but Lifehacker, for example, goes one step further in having a ‘top posts’ feed. You can actually do this for every RSS feed you come across using AideRSS.

All you do is visit the website, give the website address and it comes up looking something like the screenshot below:

As you can see, there’s an RSS feed for the ‘Good Posts’, ‘Great Posts’, ‘Best Posts’ and ‘Top 20’ posts. The PostRank that you see on the left-hand side takes into account:

  • The number of times that blog post has been bookmarked on del.icio.us
  • How many comments the blog post received
  • The number of other blogs and websites referencing the post
  • How many times the blog post has been ‘dugg’ at Digg.com
  • The number of tweets from Twitter.com linking to the post

It’s out of 10 and is only relative to that particular site, being the top 20%, etc.

If you do this for blogs that update very frequently, it’s easier to deal with the firehose… :-p

Feedly

I’ve been using a plugin called Feedly for the last few months. It’s basically a front-end for Google Reader in that you have to have a Google account for it to work. Feeds are presented in a very good looking magazine-like format:

There’s some great social features of Feedly as well – not least, The Wall:

Although perhaps the screenshot above doesn’t do it justice, The Wall features recommendations from other Feedly users’ that you’ve ‘subscribed’ to. It’s a fantastic feature.

Finally…

Don’t forget Twitter and FriendFeed. The things your friends on social networks share are likely to be of interest to you as well! 😀

How do YOU keep on top of your unread blog posts from RSS feeds?

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