Application triage to enable differentiated learning

Doug Johnson of the Blue Skunk Blog had an interesting post the other day about how to choose from the zillions of software and web 2.0 choices bombarding us every day. He called it – Application Triage.

His criteria:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Ubiquity
  3. Reliability
  4. Usability
  5. Affordability

In a comment, I suggested adding “Extensibility” – the idea that applications selected for students should have ways to accommodate more expert use, without compromising the simplicity and usability criteria. Doug asked if I could provide examples, saying, “I’ve personally always like what I call “tinker toy” software that lets me build instead of just use things that are already built. And a lot of kids do too. Not so sure about adults!

Unfortunately, there used to be more examples in widespread use in schools. Logo, HyperStudio and HyperCard were great applications that provided this “no floor, no ceiling” experience.

Good examples: hardware – cameras, computers, even ipods have hidden features that most people don’t know and don’t care about. You can click the button and get a nice picture or hear a song, but if you want to, there are settings and options that allow greater creativity and artistry. When you are ready, the hardware accommodates your new interest.

I think the key phrases here are: if you want to, and when you are ready

Tools with programming – There are a few programming languages very appropriate for students that offer easy entry and quick ways to do presentations and multimedia projects, but also allow for user control of objects (if you want to, when you are ready…)

For example, why teach PowerPoint when Flash is just as easy to learn, yet can be programmed AND do animations? I hear people say that PowerPoint is a good place to start, but it’s often the end as well. What a shame. For a student who has the potential to develop more expertise, PowerPoint is a limiting technology, not an enabling one.

Sure, use PowerPoint when needed, but it’s hardly worth teaching students endless lessons and activities to improve their PowerPoint use. Move along here, there’s nothing to see.

Or – Why not teach kids HTML instead of making them learn some “easy” editor. Most student web pages use 3 or 4 basic HTML tags. It’s hardly rocket science. I know, I know I can hear the groans from teachers everywhere.

But HTML (if you want to, when you are ready…) is the basic building block of every website from to your own school site.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many issues surrounding teaching technology reflect adult fears, not student ability or needs.

We talk about differentiated instruction, but that concept shouldn’t stop at the instructional door. Everything we put in kids’ hands should have the ability to offer differentiated and leveled experiences for kids when they want to, when they are ready


Constructivist teaching – virtually

Here’s a video of a music teacher in Newfoundland who teaches students across the miles.

From a teaching point of view, there are many noteworthy things in this video that are applicable to any subject, whether virtual or not.

  1. The teacher’s personal passion for the subject.
  2. The teacher’s focus on connecting the student’s existing interests and experiences to the class material.
  3. The teacher’s interest in finding tools that allow students to construct final products that are meaningful to the student and that can be shared with others.

The fact that this teacher uses a particular blog tool or sound editor is not as important as the fact that he makes these choices to leverage the students ability to produce something beyond the blog and beyond the mere output of a sound file.

Blogging is not a magic tool. Just the mere act of blogging is not constructive, it’s just another way to write. There are blogs being assigned to students today that are the virtual equivalent of the 5 paragraph essay–unauthentic and completely lacking value in the real world.

Creating a constructivist learning experience still takes a teacher who can create a learning environment, virtual or not, that pushes students to see themselves as capable of producing something of value to themselves and to others, and then facillitates them doing just that.

Thanks to Kelly Christopherson who posted this (and where it’s from) on his blog on Classroom 2.0.

WOW – Way Out West

On Saturday I ironically traveled east to attend Way Out West in Glendale, Arizona. I promised to put up my session presentation so that everyone didn’t have to furiously take notes as the URLs flew by. Sorry about the speed – 45 minutes is such a short time when you are talking about Web 2.0!

I exported my Keynote slideshow to a PDF file. There are a number of advantages to that – it’s portable and simple – everyone can open PDFs. The links are still clickable. The disadvantage, of course, is that any videos simply show up as a picture. So here’s a previous post that includes the link to the RSS in Plain English video and why this is such a great example for students to make their own help guides. Anyway, if anyone would like this in the original Keynote format, just email me. (It’s my first name, Sylvia at

Web 2.0 with StudentsSlideshow in PDF format

PS If this is your first visit here, welcome! There is an easy way to subscribe to this blog over in the right column, click any of the subscribe buttons, or click the Subscribe by email link to get new posts in your inbox.

PPS Earlier blog posts that connect to the presentation on Saturday:

RSS in plain English – Ideas for student-made help videos

Here’s a great video about RSS (Real Simple Syndication). RSS is the heart of how blogs work, and how you can easily get great content to come to you instead of searching the Internet for it.

If YouTube is blocked at your school – you can find the video here at the CommonCraft website.

Sure, you can show this video to students (or teachers) to explain how RSS works. But this is a terrific example of a video students can make themselves. Student-made help videos can be a vital resource to teach both students and teachers about how to use the technology your school already has.

You could set up a podcast (vodcast) library, put them on school or district portals, or burn them to DVDs and hand them out to teachers.

Things to point out about this video:

1. It’s short. There is a reason movie trailers are 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 minutes long. If someone can tell the story of Star Wars in 2.5 minutes, your students can explain a concept in the same amount of time. Challenge students to edit, then edit again.

2. It’s low tech. This looks like sheets of paper taped to a whiteboard.

3. Audio is separate from video. Sometimes the audio part of making a video is the hardest part. This type of video can shot, edited, and completed with a voice-over.

4. It’s about your technology. A student-made help video will show exactly how YOUR technology works at YOUR school, not a generic example.

Finally, teaching is learning. Want students to learn more about blogging, podcasting, using the active whiteboard or other technologies? Making a video help guide will help them learn more as they figure out how to explain it to someone else.

GenYES teachers can find additional resources about student-made help guides (both video and printed) in the GenYES Curriculum Guide (Unit 10.)

When blogging becomes a teacher-centered activity

Recently, teachers have come up to me at conferences and say they had turned off the GenYES or Generation TECH blog tools because “the kids write too much.” At first I was surprised that student writing would be a problem!

But in thinking about it, it dawned on me that the the problem wasn’t student writing, it was teacher reading. The teacher was a bottleneck, and the teacher-centric view of how the blog worked (students write, teacher reads) was clearly causing this problem. What’s worse, could our tool design be reinforcing this?

When we first introduced the GenYES blog, we decided to roll it out in a limited way. We know people don’t like change. We said to our long-time teachers, “it’s just like the old journal tool.” Maybe that was a good way to ease it in, or maybe that was a mistake.

What we did notice is that the student use of the blog over the journal immediately went up, jumping significantly in just a few days. The first year saw ten times the posts of the previous year in the journal tool. We saw more writing, longer passages, and more reflection. It was obvious that the students saw the blog as a “real world” tool and knew exactly how it was supposed to be used. So much for media literacy training — students knew what to do because they had seen it outside of school. And they used the blog as intended, for appropriate, on-task writing about how they were collaborating with teachers to use technology in their school.

That all seems like good news–but is the blog tool really working to create a student-centered experience or is it reinforcing a teacher-centric approach?

Do we need to revisit it to make it more peer editable, so that students can act as blog-leaders? Do we need to add more features? Do the introductory lessons and activities need to change? What can we do to make it more student-centered and less teacher-centered?

Our goal is to facillitate the student-centered collaboration that goes on in Generation YES classes with the best tools available. The floor is yours.

Web 2.0 – share the adventure with students

Web 2.0 is all the rage. You can tell it’s hot because half the sessions at educational technology conferences have 2.0 in the title. Soon they will be labeled 3.0 to show that they are really, really, really cutting edge.

Web 2.0 is a collective term for the “read/write” web, meaning that people who use the Internet are no longer passive content consumers, but are actively creating material for themselves and others. Grandmas, nuclear physicists, army privates and cab drivers are blogging, podcasting, uploading videos, sharing photos, finding friends, socializing, and much more. For many teachers, these tools offer exciting opportunities for students to express themselves and take command of technology that stretches the mind and reaches outside school walls.

There are obstacles to the use of Web 2.0 tools in schools, such as time, security concerns, lack of vision, and resistance to anything new. Media hype has scared parents and school boards into equating technology with sexual predators. Luckily, there many cutting-edge educators working on these issues and sharing solutions. The bottom line is that these tools are here to stay and are a significant presence in the lives of many students. Ignoring/banning them reinforces student perceptions that school is not relevant to their lives.

That light at the end of the tunnel is Train 2.0.

It’s a daunting task to figure out all the options with Web 2.0 tools and choose the “best” one to introduce to students. But this pain can be turned into a gain – by including students in the adventure.

Students can:

  • Research solutions and present options with pros and cons
  • Test hardware – even young students can scrounge up old microphones, tape recorders and cables and test them
  • Try out applications and report on results
  • Maintain lists of add-ons, plug-ins and new options for old tools
  • Debate how these tools can be used within the boundaries of school or district policy and technology use plans
  • Figure out how to use available technology in new ways

For example…

Instead of demonizing and banning cell phones, why not use them to record interviews, or use the cameras to document science projects or field trips? Let students help figure out the nuts and bolts. How do you transfer the files? Where? Do you need a Flickr account? Is that blocked? What other options are there? Have you heard about Gcast?

Want to make audio tours of your school in different languages? Can visitors listen to them while they walk around? Should you put them on loaner ipods? Too expensive? Can you rig up an old tape recorder or portable CD player? Can  you find some? Do they work? What audio software do you need? Does it cost money or can you find a free version? Do the school’s computers meet the system requirements? Do you have microphones that work? Where can you upload the files? Hey, why don’t we make a 3D virtual tour too!

Why is this important?

Authentic problems inspire creative thinking and empower students to exceed expectations and think outside the box. These are true 21st century skills.

  • Figuring out how to use these tools has no right or wrong answer–just like real life.
  • The best solution today won’t be the best tomorrow. By opening this problem up to students, you will get better tools and more up-to-date solutions than if you stick with the same tools year after year.
  • Your students will be more forgiving of the inevitable technical glitches if they understand the tradeoffs that were made in choosing the tools.
  • Your students will be able to share their new understanding of educational uses of Web 2.0 tools with their peers (and maybe even other teachers)
  • In choosing and setting up these tools, you and your students will have to wrestle with the real issues of security, privacy, and policy. Instead of resenting and ignoring rules handed down from on high, students can see the basis for these rules. They may be a lot more restrictive than you expect, or they may decide to protest and lobby for change in district policies they don’t agree with. Since you are on their team, you can direct their energies in positive ways. Either way, by giving agency to the students, you are encouraging them to think for themselves and take responsibility for their own actions.
  • Who has time for all this (besides students)?

Besides, why should you have all the fun!? Share your Learning Adventure 2.0 with your students and you will all benefit from the experience.

Sylvia 2.0