General, ICT, Social Education and General Studies

21st Century Superpowers – Search, Find, Evaluate

Context

There are few skills more important to students in today’s world than the ability to search for, to find and to critically evaluate information. These skills are a key focus of my role in assisting teachers and students at Castlemaine Primary School.

In 1851 the discovery of the world’s richest shallow alluvial goldfield in Castlemaine sparked a gold rush that transformed Australia. It’s something all Australian students learn about, but there are none for whom the story is more relevant than the students of Castlemaine Primary School. That’s why I chose ‘Castlemaine gold rush’ as the search term to illustrate the 21st century superpowers made possible by new search technology.

Google vs Bing vs DuckDuckGo

Our quest to search for, find and evaluate information about the ‘Castlemaine gold rush’ depends on Internet search engines. Three of the best are Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo. How do their results compare for the search query ‘Castlemaine gold rush’?

The number of highly relevant links in the first ten results returned by the three search engines was ten for Google, nine for Bing and eight for DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo provided two links to less credentialed websites than Bing or Google, though the information was still relevant. Bing also linked to a less relevant page of the Friends of Mount Alexander Diggings site than Google. Based on the first ten results Google performed best, though its edge over Bing was less substantial than its edge over DuckDuckGo.

All three engines allow advanced syntax making complex searching possible, nonetheless, Google provides more depth and variety of searches via menu selection on its results page. For the search query ‘Castlemaine gold rush’, Google demonstrated a clear edge.

How do we know search results are trustworthy?

The site that appeared as the fourth result for the query ‘Castlemaine gold rush’ with both Google and Bing was the Friends of Mount Alexander Diggings website at fomad.org.au. To check the trustworthiness of this site I used Kathy Schrock’s 5ws of website evaluation – who, what, when, where, why – since these criteria are specifically intended for student use.

By asking these questions of fomad.org.au students can judge with greater confidence whether they have found a reliable source of information.

WHO? One of the site’s main contributors, David Bannear, is a credentialed archeologist. A search for his name brings up three pages of Google Scholar results and three pages of Google Books results. A search for ‘fomad.org.au’ brings up ten pages of Google search results.

WHAT? The site states FOMAD’s purpose is “to protect, preserve, and promote the cultural heritage sites and artefacts which make up the Mount Alexander Diggings.”

WHEN? FOMAD was formed in 1999 and the site contains news updates from late 2012.

WHERE? The organisation’s address is a Castlemaine PO box. Castlemaine is the administrative centre of Mount Alexander Shire, the site of the site of Australia’s first large scale gold rush.

WHY? The website provides detailed information about the impact of the discovery of gold on the region during the 1850s. It also provides a list of FOMAD publications and links to relevant third party websites and publications containing information about the history of Castlemaine and the gold rush.

Whilst there are no guarantees that the site is free of bias or errors, based on Kathy Schrock’s 5ws, students should have a high degree of confidence that they have found a reliable source of information for their studies on the Castlemaine gold rush.

Conclusion

When I began teaching I could not have found this much relevant information without visiting a large library in Victoria. Today, students on the other side of the world can find detailed information on the topic in a fraction of a second. Evaluating that content takes longer, but search technology makes the task vastly simpler and quicker than ever before.

Many of my students take this for granted. I’m old enough to find it totally amazing!

Forest Creek (Castlemaine Victoria), 1852

 

 

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Animation, Audio and Video, General, ICT, Literacy, Social Education and General Studies, Social Networking

Voki Characters Make Writing Fun

— Click the play button to hear me speak.—

http://vhss-d.oddcast.com/vhss_editors/voki_player.swf?doc=http%3A%2F%2Fvhss-d.oddcast.com%2Fphp%2Fvhss_editors%2Fgetvoki%2Fchsm=54d751b6f62f5f178f1546233d9b8154%26sc=8016828

The text to speech capabilities of Voki characters make them great motivators for student writing. Students enjoy having Voki characters read out their written assignments, stories and other pieces of writing on places like the Ultranet, websites and blogs. Here’s a video from 2011 of one of my year 4 students at Winters Flat Primary School in Castlemaine. He talks about his writing process and use of Google Docs, Voki Characters and Global2 for blogging.

The free version of Voki.com lets you create colorful characters who can replay your voice recordings or convert text to speech in a variety accents. These characters are easy to place on blogs and websites, and they each have their own unique URL. It’s possible to save the characters you create as HTML code in a text editor like Notepad or Word, but it’s easier and more convenient to save them directly on Voki.com using a free account. A 13+ age restriction makes this unsuitable for primary schools, though younger students can still use the free site legally provided they don’t create accounts and login. Voki Classroom ($29.95 per year) lets teachers add primary age classes and students who can then save their characters for future use. Classroom Voki also provides a significantly larger range of characters and lets teachers access additional resources and create lesson plans which can be shared with others. Regardless of which version you use you can still access sample lesson plans such as that shown on the screen below which came from a search for writing lessons for year 2.

I didn’t read the terms of service agreement when I first signed up for Voki, but having read it for the purposes of making this blog post, it seems that Oddcast, Voki’s owners, protect themselves no more or less than most free and paid-for service providers on the web. The use of Voki characters must be non-commercial, which excludes for profit schools, and the terms of service include the condition that “any material” submitted to Voki.com “shall become the sole property of Oddcast to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law.” The terms also state that “Oddcast reserves the right to limit or revoke your access to this Web Site, or any area thereunder, in its sole discretion, at any time…“ They also reserve the right to change the terms of service any time. Given the nature and pricing of the product, those conditions sound like reasonable commercial protections to me. The terms imply that a separate commercial understandings with Oddcast for uses otherwise prohibited by the terms of use are negotiable.

Cyber Safety, General, Social Networking

Professional Networking – Learning from people I’ll never meet.

Social Networks and Online Communities

Learning through Social Networks and Online Communities is mostly about learning from people I’ll never meet. Occasionally, to my delight, the unexpected happens, and I get to meet a person I’ve interacted with extensively online. When that happens we greet like old friends.

I’ve learned a great deal from my direct teaching experience, from face to face PD sessions, from my students, from my teaching colleagues and from reading material they’ve recommended, but I’ve learned still more from connections online.

I’ve connected through Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and online communities like the Google Teacher Academy, the PLP Network, and more recently, VicPLN. The sharing and discussion in the VicPLN and the Australian-e-Series Facebook groups illustrate just how useful online communities can be for discovering educational ideas and resources.

I’ve still much to learn about professional networking online, especially on Facebook, which I’ve used mostly to stay in touch with family and friends, and Pinterest, which I’ve used less frequently. I’m looking forward to learning how to better use Facebook professionally this year. I’ll continue exploring Pinterest too, though I’m less sure how active I’ll become there.

Google+ and Twitter

I do most of my networking on Google+ and Twitter which are now the second and third largest social networks respectively. They make it easy to read the thoughts of interesting people and to share my own thoughts with them. We can converse, argue, laugh, learn, engage, and, if we’re busy, ignore one another – something we can’t do face to face. Often the discussion revolves around a shared link to an online article or resource outside Google+ or Twitter, but it can also be a direct conversation with no external linking involved.

The key to success is making connections – to circle people on Google+ and to follow people on Twitter – the more the merrier. If you don’t do this, you’ll suffer the ‘ghost town’ syndrome or, if you’re a celebrity with many followers but minimal people you’re following, your ‘networking’ will be no more than advertising.

It’s also important to share, though you can start by ‘lurking’ as a follower or circler until you gain confidence. With Twitter it helps to use hashtags like #VicPLN or #edtech. They make it easier for people who don’t follow you to see your tweets. With Google+ it helps to join Communities which function like Facebook Groups.

Managing the Avalanche of Information

As I write this post I have more than 4000 people in my Google+ circles and more than 7000 people have circled me, so there’s too much information to show in readable form on screen. The flow is filtered automatically by Google and Twitter so that it’s possible to read, but it’s too rapid to digest. I use three strategies to manage the avalanche of information.

Firstly I use simple search. Both Google+ and Twitter allow me to enter searches that return posts or tweets relating to whatever search term I enter. If I want to read what people are saying about the Gonski education reforms, all I need to do is search for ‘Gonski’.

Secondly, I filter the stream to narrow the results. In Google+ I do this by switching from the full Google+ stream to circle streams or community streams. I might browse my ICT in Education circle’s stream or my Philosophy community’s stream. In Twitter I use TweetDeck to display separate columns for streams like the #vicpln hashtag and for individuals I find especially interesting.

Thirdly, I use automatic collation tools like Flipboard and Paper.li that present my streams in digital newspaper format. These provide a relaxing magazine like experience and, since I’ve only chosen to circle or follow people who share my interests, I invariably find interesting things to read.

Hanging Out

Google+ Hangouts also provide a great way to communicate more directly with others. Hangouts are similar to Skype except that you can have up to 10 people appearing on screen at one time and you can stream Hangouts to YouTube so that others can watch live or view a recording later. I’ve sometimes used hangouts to bring distant experts into discussion I’m having with teachers. The most impressive hangout recipe I’ve seen so far comes from Amanda Rablin and Roland Gesthuizen whose weekly ACCELN (Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network) Google Hangouts offer great value. You can read how they manage their hangouts here.

Google+ vs Twitter vs Facebook

Twitter and Google+ are very different tools. Twitter is better for discovering and discussing breaking news. Google+, like Facebook, is better for longer and more detailed discussion. I prefer the clean advertising free interface of Google+ and the ease of managing sharing compared to Facebook. Facebook’s advantage lies in its massive user base. If I want to find out about the next big family gathering, I go to Facebook, not Google+.

Google’s network began as a place for geeks, but that’s changing.  Already it has passed Twitter to become the second largest social network behind Facebook. I highly recommend it as a place for intelligent discussion. If you want to start Google+ with a bang, here’s my simple four step recipe for success.

Block or unblock? You can’t learn if you can’t do.

Facebook and Twitter are blocked at my primary school. I think that’s reasonable for students, but not for teachers. We expect to unblock Twitter and possibly Facebook this year after we’ve completed some staff PD on professional networking. If I was at a secondary school, I’d favour unblocking Twitter, Facebook and Google+. They all offer powerful educational potential and, to stay safe online, students need to learn how to use them safely and responsibly. We also need to teach them how to manage and control the distraction of social networking – no easy task, but an important one. When we teach students to ride bikes and drive cars we use real bikes and real cars. When we teach students to use social networks, we should use real social networks too.

Administration, General, ICT

Living in the Cloud

Living in the cloud makes it easier to manage workflow and stay organised.

In my teaching role I mostly use Google Apps for Education (GAFE) for keeping organised, storing digital resources, communicating and sharing. Google Drive, Gmail and Google Calendar are the apps I use most. I also use Evernote and Diigo often. At school and on the road I use Evernote on my phone for all notes (never pen or paper) ranging from jotting someone’s name to keeping detailed meeting notes. (Here’s a note listing VicPLN 2013 participants and their blogs.) Later, I transfer notes that require further work or follow up to Google Drive or Google Calendar. (That’s led me to consider Google’s new note taking app Google Keep. It’s not as powerful as Evernote yet, but its inbuilt Google Drive integration makes it attractive.)

Thanks to VicPLN’s prompting I’ve recently started using Pocket. (I used to use it when it was called ‘Read It Later’, but stopped after I ran out of room for apps on my smartphone.  I recently bought a new phone with more room for apps, so Pocket is once again proving very useful.) Instead of sticking things I want to read, but not necessarily keep, in Diigo, I now ‘pocket’ it for reading later and decide then whether or not to archive it in Diigo.

I use Chrome bookmarks for storing and accessing the sites I use most. I love the way Chrome makes it easy to add web-apps and sync my bookmarks, passwords and files with whatever web connected device I happen to be using. I spend 99% of my notebook computer time in Chrome. The only applications I regularly run locally are for editing videos.

For bandwidth reasons I store music and videos on portable hard disks, but I store everything else ‘in the cloud’ using Google Drive. I’ve become so used to being able to access all my stuff anywhere, anytime from any device that, apart from music and videos, I no longer save anything locally. I’m working hard to encourage my teaching colleagues and students to do the same.

I think it’s essential that students develop effective workflow and organisational techniques. Digital tools make this easier today than ever been before. I’m encouraging my students and teaching colleagues to store everything in Google Drive, Gmail and Google Calendar so that all their important communication, resources, digital work, tasks, deadlines, and events are accessible anytime from home and school. (We use DropBox as a backup for some files.) A growing number of students are beginning to access their work out of school hours to show their parents or to work on a project, sometimes collaboratively with classmates who are also ‘working’ from home. Some students become very well organised with carefully labelled folders in Google Drive, labels for filtering and categorising email messages, and important events marked in Google Calendar with reminders. When classroom teachers begin doing the same, the habit catches on and becomes part of the daily routine.

Having our communication, resources and digital creations stored in one place with everything easily searchable is incredibly powerful. Even with someone else’s smartphone, you have all your stuff available. And that’s just the beginning of the power you hold in your hand!

General, ICT

Tablet or Notebook? Which do you choose?

I love reading on my tablets. I’ve a Kindle, an iPad, a Nexus 7 and a few smartphones. (Yes, I’m a gadget tragic.) When I manage to pry it out of my wife’s hands, I prefer our Nexus 7, but in a classroom I’d go with an iPad because of the wider range of educational apps. That’s if I had to choose a tablet, but I’d prefer to not to have to choose one. A tablet would be a handy second device if my school could afford it.

I’ve been wavering on this lately because I see children doing wonderful things with iPads in classrooms. I’ve come to realise that middle-aged teachers like me love their iPads. In some cases it’s the first time they’ve felt comfortable with technology. That’s a big thing, and it means that children are getting to use technology more often because their teachers are no longer afraid of it. For infants especially, the intuitiveness of touch screens makes for short learning curves. (Interestingly touch screens are rapidly appearing on Windows 8 notebooks, and they recently arrived on Google’s amazing new Chromebook Pixel.)

Despite the great things being done with iPads in schools, I find myself on the same page as Gary Stager in his piece ‘In Praise of Laptops’. (Thanks to @ricahrdolsen for sharing it on Twitter.) I feel restricted by Apple’s closed philosophy. I don’t like having to go to Safari and Apple Maps by default on my iPhone and iPad instead of my preferred Chrome and Google Maps. It’s restrictions like these that send me to my Nexus phone and tablet first. Relative to iOS, I prefer Android’s more flexible operating system and superior Google integration, but I’d still much prefer a notebook in a classroom.

Steve Jobs famously compared computers to trucks and tablets to cars. Like many people, I’m lucky enough to have both. I like to relax with my car, but when I’ve got work to do, I use my truck. I think students need trucks. What about you?

General, ICT

Hello VicPLN 2013

It’s great to be back on Gobal2 and part of VicPLN 2013. I’ve learned a great deal following past participants in this PD program on Twitter, and I’m looking forward to meeting new people and learning more.

I started my first blog (this one) in 2009 when I moved to the country and returned to part-time teaching two years after the sale of my computer software publishing business. This coincided with my eldest daughter’s first year of school. Spending half a day each week volunteering at her school rekindled my passion for teaching – my first career. I began accepting part-time teaching positions including a six month post in a year 5/6 class with 1:1 netbooks at Winters Flat Primary School in Castlemaine.

I was a rusty teacher in 2009, and I learned a great deal during that first six months at Winters Flat. One of the most important things I learned, thanks to Rob Sbaglia, was the motivational power of blogging. Writing for a real audience of parents and peers, not just the teacher, is incredibly empowering for students. I’m still learning new things about blogging, and I’m in awe of teachers like Kathleen Morris and Kelly Jordan who’ve demonstrated just how engaging and productive it can become.  My most valuable PD experiences in recent years have been participating in the Google Teacher Academy and the Powerful Learning Practice Network. These expanded my Professional Learning Network exponentially. Some of my Google Certified Teacher colleagues and fellow PLP Peeps were former participants in VicPLN. They are all great people! That’s another reason why I’m so happy to be part of VicPLN 2013.

If you browse my older posts on this blog you might notice the large number that are dated 1 Feb 2010. That’s not because I started with a rush, but because my old 2009 posts were restamped with a 1 Feb 2010 date when they moved from my expiring DEECD Global Student blog to this newer DEECD Global2 platform. After twelve months away from Global2, mostly on Google+, I’m returning to record my learning journey with VicPLN 2013. I can’t wait to connect, to learn, to share and to add more great people to my PLN.