Saturday, April 12, 2008

Blogging to Learn – A Reflection

Writing this blog has been a meaningful and worthwhile learning experience. The process has truly been one of Inquiry. While researching and writing blog posts, I found myself connecting with and progressing through Alberta Learning’s Focus On Inquiry stages, identifying with the elements of the affective domain. Although creating this blog consumed a considerable chunk of my time available for homework, I was motivated and excited about my learning; driven by questions and able to construct knowledge based on my research and experiences. I now have a product that I feel I can refer to and share with others to continue to build understanding.

I felt very intimidated creating my first few posts, mostly because of the audience. I found it challenging to move from the relative privacy of an (online) classroom to the public realm of the internet. It took me a few weeks to find my “blogging voice” as I was uncertain about my online identity and concerned about the quality of my writing. A turning point for me in understanding the value of blogging was when Will Richardson commented on one of my early posts; I suddenly realized the potential for and the power of connection and knowledge sharing in blogging. Reading blogs, commenting, and reading and responding to the comments on my blog, soon became a highlight for me. I only wished I had more time to read more thoroughly and respond in more detail.

Frustration in this process came in the form of technical challenges. I am relatively new to technology (I made my first hyperlink just 6 months ago) and while many of the tools we explored were user-friendly, there were many late nights and early mornings where I was struggling: stumped at how to get the technology to work. Online tutorials, referring to Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms and reading the blogs of others were a great help. Having a deadline was necessary, but at times, incredibly stressful. (I certainly wish I had read the course outline more carefully to realize I had two weeks for pod-casting instead of one!) Although pod-casting was the biggest technological challenge for me, I think there is tremendous potential for this tool to transform teaching and learning. I intend to make further attempts at pod-casting this summer, perhaps using a Mac computer, in order to feel more comfortable using it with my students.

I learned a great deal from reading the blogs of my classmates. My bookmarking site (invaluable) is rich with sources I have gathered from these blogs. Many design ideas and techniques to enhance blogs (screen shots for example-thanks Ronda and John!) have come from the blogs of my classmates. I have enjoyed and learned from the different writing styles and the various choices for blog software. I have set up a new blog on Edublogs to use with my colleagues for professional development where I plan to use many of the blogging techniques I have learned from the clever and innovative folks in this course.

Overall, the creation and management of this blog to explore the use of Web 2.0 tools in the classroom has been significant in my learning, albeit challenging. As a result of researching, experimenting, reflecting and writing to complete this blogging assignment, I feel confident using many of these tools in my teaching and am prepared to help others to learn to use them. Although I am a bit exhausted from the pace, I am entirely grateful for this experience as it has inspired me to begin integrating technology into my teaching in more effective, collaborative ways and to continue to blog and read blogs, connecting with other learners.

A Note on Assessment

Ross Todd on Evidence-Based Practice states, “You must make clear statements based on concrete evidence that your students have benefited from your lessons.” As teachers work through the Developmental and Proficient stages of Collaborative Apprenticeship, progressing toward Mastery, we will encourage them to gather evidence to highlight how the technology of blogging plays a role in boosting student achievement, in shaping attitudes and in constructing a more effective learning environment. We will also encourage teachers to comment on the integrated use of technology on report cards. This evidence will help us encourage other staff members to adopt the use of integrated technology and will help us evaluate our progress in meeting school goals.

Hopefully by this time next year, most teachers in our school will be using blogs successfully with students. At this point we will assess the effectiveness of the Collaborative Apprenticeship Model to determine if we will continue to use this approach to introduce further Web 2.0 tools.

A Plan for Pro-D

It is clear to me teachers at my school have different levels of readiness with regards to learning about using Web 2.0 tools in their teaching. In Online-Learning Communities: The Next Generation of Professional Development, Melinda George reminds us that “…every educator has different skill sets, goals, and challenges at various times in their professional lives, so their desire for information, knowledge, expertise, and technical competence varies accordingly. No one professional development offering is appropriate for all.” Offering a whole group professional development on blogging, with everyone expected to participate, would be ineffective with my staff and would likely create some resistance. At this point there are some teachers who are excited about learning to use these new tools, eager to explore ways these tools can enhance student learning. In our conversations around school goals, there is consensus that there is a need for teachers to build capacity in their ability to integrate technology into the classroom. These teachers are ready to begin building that capacity.

Evan M.Glazer and Kathy Page (2006) in Collaborative Apprenticeship, have found that “after-school workshops and one-on-one assistance to teachers have not enabled many teachers to become self-reliant in their regular use of technology.” Glazer and Page found that following a process they call Collaborative Apprenticeship, where the technology coordinator and a teacher leader facilitate the learning of a group of teachers to advance and sustain their collective knowledge, teachers have become more comfortable solving problems and developing ideas to integrate technology rather than relying on the technology coordinator as their sole source for new ideas and technology training.

I think the Collaborative Apprenticeship model would work very well in the context of my school. I have volunteered as the lead teacher, working with our district Technology Instructional Support Teacher (who likes this idea) to provide ongoing support and development for teachers as they integrate technology into their instructional practices. To start, we will ask teachers from different grade levels to volunteer to be part of a “Technology 4 Learning Team”. In establishing this group, we would need to address the readiness criteria established by Glazer and Page of:

Shared time
Variety of Experience
Structured agenda around a shared curriculum topic

Once the volunteers are identified and a commitment is made to both the shared time and the learning, we will bring our varied experience together to structure our meetings and activities around the first shared curriculum topic, perhaps “Blogging to Improve Student Achievement in Reading”. PSSSST! I am told by my principal that it is possible we will be able to provide incentive for the team members - perhaps a laptop? That might help with commitment!

During the Shared Time the lead teacher will mentor peers, and the Technology Instructional Support Teacher (IST) will consult with the group by giving advice, sharing strategies, and providing feedback. Teachers will explore blogging tools, discuss anticipated challenges, brainstorm new ideas and collectively plan lessons with the lead teacher and the Technology IST acting as guides and facilitators.

Two resources will be used to introduce teachers to blogging in the classroom, Blog Basics for the Classroom and the book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Initially, we will have teachers explore how blogs are used in classrooms by looking at the samples in Blog Basics for the Classroom. Next we will have them read and make comments on a blog I have created for the “Technology 4 Learning Team”. Then we will have them set up their own blogs where they will post their monthly class newletters. Once the teachers are comfortable managing their new blogs, we will begin adding their students to the class blogs, addressing security issues and district policies, having students post their work and comment on the work of other students. After this introduction stage, we will work together to: plan lessons using blogs, implement the lessons and reflect upon them. Gradually the teachers will gain independence and the capacity to mentor others. Throughout this process we will present blogging as a tool that can be used to improve student learning by simply enhancing what teachers already do, rather than adding more to their responsiblities. We will look at how blogging can replace some of what is already happening in the classroom with a more efficient, effective, collaborative approach.

To maintain administrator support (which is strong at this point), we will invite our administrators to group planning sessions to participate in the collaboration and brainstorming and will encourage them to observe lessons that illustrate how technology can be used to spark students’ interest and learning.

Teachers will progress through the four developmental phases of Collaborative Apprenticeship. Glazer and Page believe the first three phases should be accomplished in nine-week intervals with the last phase being ongoing throughout the teachers’ careers. We will attempt to accomplish the first phase before the end of this school year so that we can begin a new cycle by the middle of the next school year. The four phases are:

Introduction - teachers become comfortable, lab based, mentors modelling, hands-on experience to anticipate and address student questions

Developmental - collaborative lesson planning integrating technology, the technology coordinator provides advice and feedback to teachers learning to design technology rich lessons, implement, reflect, repeat, mentor needed less and less

Proficient - teachers develop lessons independently, consulting with mentors when needed, mentors continue to promote peer development, teachers expected to generate original ideas, implement and share (4 weeks to a year)

Mastery - teachers are competent, comfortable and begin to mentor other teachers

As M.A. Anderson in Jump Starting Staff Development states, “Staff development is as much about providing opportunities as it is about direct instruction.” As novices work closely with more experienced peers in Collaborative Apprenticeship, they will be provided with opportunities to explore and build understanding so that they can design, develop, and implement technology-rich lessons within their curriculum.

In “Training” is for dogs: Teachers Teach: Teachers Learn, Janet Murray concludes, "Educational practitioners, researchers, and reformers agree that effecting change and infusing technology in schools cannot be accomplished through simple skill training. Professional development must be grounded in interdisciplinary curriculum which is locally and personally relevant, staffed by experienced teachers who are patient mentors willing to provide ongoing support, and flexibly structured to allow for independent exploration as well as cooperative learning activities. Genuine rather than simulated research of meaningful questions which use technology as an essential tool rather than the goal of instruction will provide the basis for effective professional development."

Choosing a Tool

The teachers at my school are new to Web 2.0, just as I was before taking this course. While many of the tools we have explored over the past three months will improve my teaching, a blog is perhaps the most user-friendly and is appropriate for student use at all grade levels. Embedded in each of our school goals for next year is a plan to include the use of technology to facilitate learning. Blogging is an easy and effective way to integrate technology to enhance teaching and learning across the curriculum.

Learning Specialists, Drs. Fernette and Brock Eides believe that blogging has a great deal of potential to positively impact students. They found that blogs can

· Promote critical and analytical thinking
· Be a powerful promoter of creative, intuitive, and associational thinking
· Promote analogical thinking
· Be a powerful medium for increasing access and exposure to quality information
· Combine the best of solitary reflection and social interaction

In addition, blogging is a great way to document professional development. Teachers learning how to blog and how to use blogging in the classroom can use a blog to reflect on their experience and communicate and collaborate with others. Blogs can also provide evidence of professional development for Personal Growth Plans.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Blogs and Pro-D

Finding blogs written by leading researchers or practitioners in a field (Joyce Valenza comes to mind) and adding them to a blog aggregator is an effective way of enhancing professional development. Reading an article in a professional journal is valuable but interacting on a blog by responding and reading responses to that article enhances understanding. Reading the latest reflections of bloggers like Valenza, Warlick and Richardson not only keeps me current but gives me the opportunity to actually connect with these “big thinkers” by responding to their posts. Also, being able to follow links from a blog makes the learning a richer experience. Often books (for further professional development) are featured on blogs and can be easily ordered.

Blogs that include videos of conferences and ask follow-up questions (like the TLDL blog) can bring communities of professionals together to discuss research findings and new ideas related to their practice. It is even possible to participate in an entire conference on a blog like the K12 Online Conference 2007.

The quality of professional development delivered by a blog aggregator is only as good as the quality and relevance of its blogs and the degree to which one participates in those blogs. In addition to those mentioned above, some blogs I have included in my aggregator are:

Moving at the Speed of Creativity
Teachers Teaching Teachers
Bud the Teacher
Edublog Insights
The Committed Sardine
The FischBowl
Infinite Thinking Machine
Libraries Interact
Strength of Weak Ties
Alan November Weblog

To look for other blogs that might enhance professional development, consider visiting blog indexing sites like Technorati, where you can create a “watchlist” for your topic of interest. Will Richardson’s wiki of Blogs on Educational Blogging is another list of blogs for educators.

Choosing an Aggregator

Google Reader and Bloglines are web-based services that can be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection and are simple to use. I like the visually pleasing straightforward interface of Google Reader.

Setting up and account with Google Reader was as simple as providing an email address and a password, then confirming registration in an email. I began entering my subscriptions immediately by clicking Add Subscription and copying the URL of the desired blog in the space provided. Now whenever I want to see what is new on the blogs I have subscribed to, I simply open Google Reader, where I will find a list of the latest additions from all my subscriptions. I have the option of creating folders for my feeds and can also access Google Reader on my cell phone! Once I had added a few subscriptions, Google Reader produced a list of recommendations for further subscriptions, based on my interests (indicated by my subscriptions). It is also simple to add blogs to Google Reader (or Bloglines) by clicking the XML or RSS link on the blog and then selecting the blog aggregator with whom you are registered.

From Wikipedia:
“More advanced methods of aggregating feeds are provided via AJAX coding techniques and XML components known as Web widgets. Ranging from full-fledged applications to small fragments of code that can be integrated into larger programs, they allow users to aggregate OPML files, email services, documents, or feeds into a single interface. Many customizable homepage/portal implementations such as iGoogle,, My Yahoo!, and Pageflakes provide such functionality."

What is a Blog Aggregator?

When I first started reading blogs, I was overwhelmed by the amount of new information being created and found myself baffled, wondering how to keep up. I was relieved to learn about RSS (what Will Richardson refers to as “The Killer App for Educators”) and feed aggregators, also known as feed readers or news readers. RSS, which stands for Real Simple Syndication, is a technology that can simplify life with the internet and deeply enhance the quality of information we receive. (For a clear explanation of RSS, see this CommonCraft video from YouTube.)

Blogs (and many other internet sites) generate a feed (marked by a small box labelled RSS) that allows readers to subscribe to the content that is created on that site. What this means is I no longer have to check each of my favourite blogs for new information. With Real Simple Syndication, the information comes to me. When I use an aggregator to subscribe to the RSS (sometimes labelled XML) feed of a blog, new information from that blog automatically appears in my aggregator.

Aggregators, like Bloglines or Google Reader greatly reduce the time and effort needed to regularly check websites for updates, creating a unique information space or personalized news collection. The aggregator provides a consolidated view of the content in a single browser display.