Sunday, August 23, 2009

Helpful words from Wordle -- Improving Site Safety

I picked up an item about Wordle from Jane Hart's E-Learning Pick of the Day. For those of you not yet familiar with this Web 2.0 tool, the description from their website says :
"Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends."
I did the one above about my feelings and thoughts about going back to school. There are all sorts of websites that can give you ideas for uses of Wordle in your classroom:

This last presentation from Tom Barrett (found in a blog called Clif's Notes) is my favourite because it's a collaborative effort in Google Docs. You can write Tom and contribute a slide if you have an idea to share.

It was this item in Jane's blog about actions Jonathon Feinberg (Wordle's creator) has taken in response to one teacher's concern about coming across inappropriate word clouds on this website that prompted me to write this post. Feinberg has recently ensured educators and parents that the Wordle front page will never feature such images or links and has made it possible for administrators to "configure a school's site-blocking software to keep Wordle safe for classroom use." His instructions (which can be found in the FAQ) are as follows:

"Simply have your networking administrator block the following base URLs1:


and your users will not see anything that's not safe for classrooms. You’ll still be able to save your work, bookmark your individual Wordle creations, print them out, and share the URLs of saved Wordles with each other and with families.Please let me know whether this works out for you in your school or other institution."

If you have a moment, click his name (above) to go to his blog and leave a comment. I know how many of you especially in the US struggle with prohibitive blocking by your districts and I think this guy has shown some real leadership in responding to all of our needs for safer sites for kids.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Student Discounts & Giveaway of the Day

This morning an interesting article came to my inbox from Amit Agarwal's Digital Inspiration. This is one of the few subscriptions that I haven't yet transferred to my RSS feed -- which is probably a good thing because I haven't been reading that lately. Amit's list of "Most Useful Websites" was the first collection I came across with inspiring tools I could use with my students.

Today Amit's post included a blurb entitled : A Student's Guide to Microsoft DreamSpark -- a software giveaway program announced by Bill Gates earlier in 2009.

Wikipedia tells me that "DreamSpark is a program set up by Microsoft to provide students with software design and development tools" including Visual Studio, Expression Studio as well as studios for Robotics and Game development and assorted servers. Apparently Dreamspark has been available to college students for some time, but the offer was expanded by Gates to include verified high school students and is nearly world wide. Microsoft is also giving away Student Passes for 12 -22 hours of free Microsoft IT Academy online training that leads to the first Microsoft certification exam within each track. High school and university adminstrators can sign up directly.

Note: Amit states that the Dreamspark software is full edition, and that "any sofware you download ... will be free for personal and non-commercial use forever." This means: "Microsoft licenses the software to you for educational use [for you as a student so] ... you can use the software without restriction for school assignments or personal projects. If you write or design something that you wish to sell, however, you need to purchase a standard licensed copy of the Microsoft software before you sell your product."

This made me curious about other deals that might be available to me as a student so I began a search. I suggest that you check out the specific package or product that you want at a number of sites and find out the exchange rate on your credit card if you're shopping from Canada like me.
  • JourneyEd offers software, hardware, books and bags to post secondary students at considerable discounts. For example, Adobe Creative Suite Premium, normally priced at nearly $2000, can be purchased by college students for about $400 (469 Cdn). There's also a price for K-12 students and teachers of about $600. I checked out their Wacom link and also found several discounted tablets. Having a tablet is really useful if you want to develop instructional presentations in math and are less than adept at drawing shapes with a mouse. Products for Canadians can be seen at this link. The first page shows their highlighted items, but if you delve through the lists on the left, you may find exactly what you're looking for. There are products for both PCs and Macs. (Campus Tech seems like a college clone of JourneyEd.)
  • The Adobe Website has North American shopping sites for higher education and K-12 students & teachers. Purchases can be made online or qualify for free shipping before the end of September. There is also a very nice bundle of Premier Elements 7 and Photoshop 7 for $119 US (not online). To qualify you have to go through a validation process. For countries other than the US and Canada, visit their International Store page.
  • Academic Superstore has a much larger product line including many items available on the sites above. Products may be full price discounted, or just great deals such as their collection refurbished tablets. There are additional special discounts for K-12 students and parents. (Proof of enrollment will have to be furnished.) There is also a link to their parallel Canadian site, but I'm not sure if the the student discounts apply in Canada.
  • in addition to their general merchandise has 3 additional features that are quite interesting:
(a) their Studica Skills competitions (original and digital music; photo editing;
video game, fashion or graphics design, TV broadcasting)
(b) Project Lead the Way Challenge -- hands on, project and problem-based
activities for students interested in engineering, biomechanics,
aeronautics, and biomedical sciences (Parent site: PLTW)
(c) Internship Program -- these can be on site or virtual and will provide
high school or college credits
  • -- this is an Adobe-only affiliated program for Canadian students in grades 6-12 or on staff in a school in a participating district. After validation of appropriate identification, you can take advantage of the great prices the offered on their Adobe products and enter to win the Vis Tablet.

[ by T. McCracken: Software Cartoon 6821]

Finally there is the wonderful Giveaway of the Day. When you subscribe, a new giveaway lands in your inbox or feedreader each day. These are full versions from a wide range of software companies willing to give people 24 hours to download free for non-commercial use. After you click on the orange "Proceed to Download Page" button, ignore all other promotions, and scroll to just below the product description. There you'll find the comments and reviews.

I like to wait until later in the day and read what others are saying about a program before making a decision about whether it's a good one or not. Also, comments often contain links to other online freebies that do the same job and that they like better.

NOTE!!! If you do a download, you must activate it right away. Open the "Read Me" file and follow the instructions exactly to register the product. Otherwise it will turn back into a trial version pumpkin and you'll either have to purchase the product or wait and hope for it to come back again.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Podcasting -- my first try

My brother, Eric, to whom I get closer year after year and who I think is quite brilliant in his own way, says he hates to read. This is totally surprising to me because he is a deep thinker and I associate reading and deep thought. He's a great speaker and a wonderful listener, so this is a bit of an enigma. Perhaps for Eric reading just takes too much time, or it may interfere with the stream of his own consciousness. However, it may also be that he just doesn't like print.

One of the assignments in the Web 2.0 course -- now finished -- was to create a podcast. Here is my first, dedicated to Eric. Perhaps this medium will interest him more -- after all our parents were both radio broadcasters. He could record his various talks and presentations and later edit them for sharing with others through one of his new websites. Eric, if you're listening, this one was for you.

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For a very funny take on Gladwell, I offer Kirby Ferguson's video below. Please be warned, the language and humour are a little 'off colour' and as they say on TV "may be offensive to some viewers," but I include it because I admire the quit wit and inventive thinking that goes into Kirby's work -- so enjoy or skip as you will.

Podcast creation strikes right at my personal perfectionist streak. I have a hard time saying 'enough' until I have every music beat and every bit of narration just right. My podcast was created using a free program called Audacity, and although I don't even understand what all the functions do to a sound file, I 'm confident having completed this first try, that I could get my students started in similar programs as we are not allowed to download Audacity at school. They're pretty quick at figuring out what various software programs can do and would soon show me more effective ways to handle the minimal effects I attempted. With this kind of program a little knowledge and some determination seem to go a long way.

[Note: if using Audacity, you may also need the Lame MP3 Encoder because Audacity does not export in MP3 format. Fortunately you only have to direct Audacity to this file on your computer the first time you need it. After that the process will be automatic. However, to make it work that first time, you must know where this file was installed, so make note of its location on your computer when it installs or put it on your desktop.]

So - how is podcsting a tool educators might use?

I really like this process for classroom work. Without images and video, students have to be really succinct in their explanations. They can't rely on the audience to make unspoken connections. I also think that the processes of editing and repetition that are needed to get the script just right are great ways to reinforce learning. Essay editing often stops after a couple of tries because we don't have the heart to make the kids revisit their work over and over. With podcasting one can hope that their the natural instinct to want this kind of published material to show them at their very best will take over and that the long term memory of the content will linger.

Here are some of the other suggested uses and examples created my co-students in this Wilkes course:
  • creating a series of instructional podcasts to accompany class lectures; embedding or linking to them from a class or school website or wiki. This becomes a great reference for students who like to listen again to the key ideas of important classes and to help students who are absent keep up with the class (from Kate)
  • Denise's podcast was in the form of a riddle to be used to help prepare a group of younger children for a field trip to the zoo; she also pointed out that this would be a good way for speech and second language teachers to get students to practise and listen to their own voices.
  • students can record mock campaign speeches when doing a unit on elections (from James)
  • record math raps or songs-- as Pam said "anything to get students excited about Math"
  • help young children improve listening skills by giving them practice in following instructions (from Patricia)
  • create a jingle or advertisement for a new product or an upcoming event (from Joanie) -- I can see myself using this as an a assignment in a new Science and tech program I'll be writing for our online division this fall. (Her actual podcast about a lesson that mashed up Mcdonald's, math, geography, cultural studies and Google Earth created the most controversy in the discussion forum, but I love her concept.)
  • Tari made a "6th grade survival guide."
  • Donna composed her own musical intro to her podcast introducing young students to an assignment on melodic composition.
  • Gina and several others mentioned the benefits of being able to communicate more frequently with or post special online bulletins for parents.
  • Breanne used her podcast to introduce a very sensitive subject for Black History Month.
  • Meagan and Rod (both fellow Canadians!) mentioned the benefit of using podcasts to share ideas with other teachers; Megan looked at digital story telling and Rod discussed five of his favourite Web 2.0 tools
Finally here are a two podcasting websites of interest:
  • EPN - The Education Podcast Newtork: "an effort to bring together into one place, the wide range of podcast programming that may be helpful to teachers looking for content to teach with and about, and to explore issues of teaching and learning in the 21st century. "
  • Tech Chick Tips: "Tips and tricks for teaching 21st century students using 21st century skills from two Texas educators obsessed with anything digital!"