Wiki here, wiki there, wiki wiki everywhere

I just finished my Sandbox wiki page, Life in the Math Lane using Wikispaces.¬† This was not my first experience with wikis. I used a collaborative wiki study guide with my college algebra students last year, as I noted in my previous post, Why Wiki?, using PBWorks for Education. I must admit I found Wikispaces somewhat cumbersome to work with. Maybe I just haven’t found all of the bells and whistles yet, but it seems like I have more options for formatting and page setup with PBWorks. I like to adjust fonts and font sizes, move things around, set up columns using tables and so on. Many of those options were not available in Wikispaces or were more difficult to use.

I know that nothing is perfect, but the perfectionist in me gets frustrated when I set spacing for visual purposes and it gets ignored in the finished product. To be fair, I’ll go back to the Sandbox and play some more to see if I can’t get things to work more to my liking, but my initial impression was not exactly enthusiastic.

Note: Opinions expressed herein are strictly my own and do not reflect those of the management ūüėČ

Thing 8: Why Wiki?

I’ve already used Wikis in my math classes and plan to continue to use them, although I wish that I’d had been able to check out some of these Wikis first to get some ideas. There definitely are pros and cons to using wikis, but I think they are a valuable tool for online collaboration. In reviewing some of the listed wikis in Thing 8, I was surprised at the varied formats and organization of the wikis. Some seemed very well organized, while others seemed unclear as to even their purpose.

For example, Mr. Lee’s Math 12V Outcomes Portfolio interested me for several reasons. First, it was similar in focus to the study guide wiki that my College Algebra students developed last year. The goal in both was to provide a summary and examples of content objectives. Since this was my first wiki,¬† I thought I was communicating my desires to my students, but I never really got them to organize their information in a meaningful way, making it somewhat difficult for me when I was grading them. I liked the manner in which Mr. Lee had his wiki pages organized and labeled. It looks like he had one wiki portfolio per class, which I think that I may do next year. Having one wiki with group folders for each class didn’t work out quite the way I had envisioned it and my students never created or used their own group “front page” as a table of contents the way I wanted them to. I think in the fall I need to be much more specific in this regard and it probably would be better to have separate wikis for each class or group. I’m also curious about the equation editor that was used in the Math12v wiki. Finding a LaTex editor that worked well and was easy for my students to use was problematic. For some reason I couldn’t get the equation editor in PBWorks to be reliable.

The second wiki I checked out was Jen Dorman’s Grazing for Digital Natives. The title alone intrigued me, but I was disappointed in the wiki itself. Although I enjoyed her Voki (it’s such a cool tool – and great for students to explore) I couldn’t really see the purpose of the wiki at first, other than to plug her blogs and other wikis. I couldn’t make the connection of the content to the title of the wiki. Then I scrolled down far enough to see the links on the left sidebar. I guess their purpose wasn’t initially apparent to me. I did find a lot of information – almost too much – it was difficult to wade through it all and pick out what was valuable for me. I will probably go back to this wiki to explore it further, but I really need to have a specific goal in mind when I do.¬† I’m not sure if it was just me, but I would have preferred some clarification as to the purpose, format, and content of the site.

After that experience, I checked out DiRT – Digital Research Tools. Now this was more like it. The front page was simple and links were well organized, much more to my liking than Digital Natives. I had fun with this wiki and was ecstatic to find the link to Webpsiration under brainstorming tools. I’ve used Inspiration and Kidspiration with students, but the idea of using a visual mapping tool such as this in a collaborative manner is simply awesome. Teaching 16 – 18 year olds overbooked with extracurriculars, sports, and work, makes group projects difficult to manage outside of class time without online collaboration. This would be a great asset for them, and I can already see applications for my own use in peer collaboration. I am currently developing an engineering program at school along with two of my colleagues. While our face to face meetings are productive, we are running out of time when we can actually sit down together and email just isn’t as effective. With August just around the corner, using collaborative tools, such as Google Docs, wikis, and, possibly Webspiration, will help us a great deal, especially during the month of July when we are all scattered around the country for various reasons. This is exciting! My head is already reeling from the possibilities.

I also checked out some of the student generated wikis, such as Code Blue and Dr. Reich’s Chemistry Wiki looking for ideas for my own classes next year and I’m starting to think about how I want that to look. I was excited by Dr. Reich’s Chem II unit on energy and water, since that is the focus of one of the¬† engineering projects I will have girls working on this fall and the theme of the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) engineering competition next spring. This may provide a valuable starting point for their work and provide some inspiration for their own wiki. I used a wiki with my engineering group last year to help them prepare for the JETS competition. You can see it by clicking here. While I had envisioned this wiki as a place where the students could share their research and ideas, it ended up more informational than anything else. This year I plan to have the project teams maintain their own wiki to share ideas and information and to record their progress as the competition will be only one aspect of the program. Also, this year the group will be tackling real problems in engineering and will receive class credit for their efforts, so the wiki will become an assessment tool as well. Hey, I should also introduce the teams to Webspiration, as well.

So, I guess I need to get started. I have the new Study Guide wiki to develop and organize, along with more specific instructions for its use, for my College Algebra classes. I have to rethink the wiki for my Women in Engineering group. And, I need to determine where I will host these Wikis. Our school will be using Moodle as a course management tool beginning in the fall, which has its own built in wiki and blog features. I’m thinking that it might be a good idea to have everything self-contained, all in one location. Easy access for all parties that way. Time to put on my thinking cap.

Thing 7A: To “Feed” or Not to “Feed”?

Google reader was nothing new for me. I already had everything in place, set up as part of a course on Collaboration and Communication in the 21st Century that I took last summer through PBS Teacherline. At the time, I had added about 4-5 educational technology feeds that seemed interesting and worthwhile, including Kathy Schrock’s Kaffeeklatch, with musings on the latest gadgets and gizmos and their use in education. Developing a true RSS reading habit, though, was more difficult. Oh, I was diligent – for awhile – but then school started and life got busy and finding time to peruse the latest feeds fell by the wayside. They say it takes at least 40 repetitions of a task before it becomes a habit. For me, that is obviously (painfully so) true. So, here I am, starting over. THIS time it will be different, I tell myself. THIS time I won’t go so long between access to the reader (at least not so long that 2 of the blogs I was following haven’t been updated in 6 months, all but abandoned, and one had moved entirely.) Only time will tell.

My strategy now is to take 15 minutes (more or less) every other morning when I get up (that’s around 4:30 AM – ouch!) to skim through the most recent additions in the reader. If I find anything interesting, I’ll check it out quickly and bookmark it for further exploration later. If I can continue this practice for the rest of the summer, I think I stand a good chance of success this time.

I really do think its worth the effort. I’ve been able to branch out in finding interesting blogs, sites, and news feeds, although, I have already trashed one or two that didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected. My focus has not been on educational technology in general, but ways to use new technology tools in math, as well as simply latest research on math in general.¬† Interestingly enough, one of the blogs I came across using the Google search, called Secondary Mathematics Education, actually took me to the Peace Corps blog. Who knew.¬† Also, I must admit, I’ve added one or two on Napa Valley and the California wine scene, just for fun. You never know when you’ll come across a review of a 90+ cab or viognier. I still have a little room left in my 250+ bottle collection to add something intriguing.

So, what have I found that is interesting so far? Funny you should ask. One of the feeds I added was the optional Google News feed, using STEM education as my filter. One of the articles that came up, coincidentally as I was drafting this post, was Redesigning Education: Building Schools for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, which had some interesting perspectives, including a video clip of¬† Brian Greene, author and theoretical physicist, who stated that ”¬†we have educated the curiosity out of the math and sciences. … [W]e have paralyzed our children with the fear of being wrong. Risk-taking and making mistakes are critical to the scientific process. This fear of being wrong has resulted in disengagement from science and mathematics: learning science and math is a drag!” How sad! The article goes on to say that we need to engage our students, develop their curiosity, problem solving and critical thinking. We need to let them know that it’s OK to make mistakes. This was really an eye-opener for me and got me thinking. How can we change our pedagogy to rekindle that curiosity in our students? Which means, I’m going to need some bread crumbs. I just might be heading into the underbrush to follow this idea and see where it leads.

Thing 4: Betcha can’t [read] just one…

I started this assignment with the idea that I would skim/read a few of the posts that I thought might be relevant to my needs with the goal of looking for ideas/suggestions I could use in my own math classes. A “go-zillion” (as Forest Gump would say) posts later, all I can say is WOW!

I began with Dan Meyer’s Why I Don’t Assign Homework because I’m always interested in new perspectives on the subject. My students typically are those for whom math is there least favorite subject, yet they need the practice, so I’m always looking for new ways to engage them in that practice, whether at school or at home. Dan had an interesting perspective, although not one with which I necessarily agree. From the comments I read, I am not alone in this regard. Blogging is certainly a way to get a discussion started.

But I digress… From there, still thinking MATH, I moved on to Dan Kuropatwa’s post The Scribe Post, which then led to an exploration of a number of the student posts as well as checking out his links to other teachers who maintain (or did maintain) similar blogs for student scribes. I was impressed with the depth to which many students detailed the day’s lesson, including equations, graphs, and so on along with emoticons :D, color, and other formatting tools to emphasize their points. In fact, I feel as if I’m emulating their style as I write this post. I was intrigued, as I wandered almost aimlessly from post to post, not only with the student posts, but with “Mr. K’s” post as well. I particularly liked Students Made This! which outlines the guidelines for student bloggers, in which Mr. K writes, “Blogging is a very public activity. Anything that gets posted on the internet stays there. Forever. Deleting a post simply removes it from the blog it was posted to. Copies of the post may exist scattered all over the internet.” Something to remember.

As I continued my wanderings through other blog posts, such as The Digital Native, and The Ripe Environment, I was struck by not only the content, but the structure of the posts. Some were more informal, somewhat freewheeling, while others took on a more formal, academic tone.  Reading each evoked a slightly different reaction. The more informal posts were read out of interest and curiosity, the more academic often prompted me to check out the links presented, taking me deeper and deeper into the web of the Web, until I felt like I needed a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back.

One thing all posts had in common – they were addictive! I wanted to read more, to know more, to explore more.¬† And my head started spinning (not Excorsist-style, however) with all of the choices presented to me. Then I thought, if I can use blogs to learn more about teaching, can’t my students use blogs to learn more about learning? Couldn’t they benefit from maintaining their own class blog, designed with scribe posts, helpful hints and study tips, links to YouTube videos and math tutorial sites? Wouldn’t it be great just to have¬† a place where they could share ideas, ask for help, and collaborate to develop a better understanding of mathematics? The possibilities are endless.

Yet, with all of this jubilation, comes the sobering fact that this IS public domain. That what we post CAN and probably WILL be viewed by others. Will this make us more accountable, more conscious of what we write and how we write? I would hope so.

Thing 2: What is Web 2.0 Anyway?

The web has come a long way in a few short years. When I started teaching 12 years ago, use of technology at school was primarily for word processing. The internet was used for research, searching website, accessing information clearing houses such as ERICS database and EBSCO for scholarly articles and communicating via email. The advent of the instant message made communication via the web a little more “real time” if you will, but tools such as blogging were still in somewhat of an infancy stage and social networking sites did not exist.

The advent of Web 2.0 has changed the way we, our colleagues, and our students access information and communicate with one another. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the options and opportunities available. Users of Web 2.0 are part of a growing community who can exchange information¬† and ideas at a moment’s notice. With social networking sites, such as Facebook, being used not only to share information with friends but with the world. Businesses, corporations, organizations, and even political figures use Facebook to promote themselves, their ideals, and their wares.Virtual communities such as Ning allow us to be part of a community with like interests – to share thoughts, ideas, and questions – to learn from one another as we go. Flash programs and other interactive tools provide our students with a variety of interactive learning experiences to enhance their learning, while Podcasts, both audio and visual, give us access to a virtual classroom, which can be accessed any time, any where. For me, these tools have helped me to stay abreast of current research in mathematics education and to share ideas with other in the profession so that I can improve what I do in my own classroom. With so many options, however, finding time to keep up with them all can be daunting at times.

The ability to access, organize, and share information in the Web 2.0 age has blossomed. With a myriad of search engines to help us locate information, security programs to tell us which sites are trusted (although not necessarily reliable), social bookmarking sites to organize, catalog, and annotate information we find on the web. Google Docs, Wikis, and blogs offer an ability to share documents and information instantaneously with friends and colleagues that has made face to face collaboration a thing of the past. Now, students can complete assignments whenever and wherever it suits them best. However, this leads to issues of reliability of resources, and issues of copyright and plagiarism. It is all too easy, with a few clicks of the mouse, to copy information and paste it into one’s own document.¬† While these tools are valuable for ourselves and our students, we must prepare our students first by teaching them internet etiquette, what constitutes¬† plagiarism¬† and what is and is not appropriate use of web resources. The idea of authorship is being blurred in this new world, often making student research products more difficult to review, even with plagiarism-finding sites such as Turnitin.

How do we wade through all of these options to decide which is the most useful for us, as educators, and which is beneficial for our students? The opportunities seem endless and at times overwhelming. Not only that, but which devices do we use to access these tools? With the advent of netbooks, iPods,  smartphones, and WiFi, we can access information anywhere, any time. We are not tethered to that desk top computer any more. Now, we can read, learn, organize information and communicate with one another 24/7 Рin the car, or a coffee shop, or between classes at school. Finding an appropriate use for these tools in the classroom can be a challenge, but one that can be worthwhile. Again, however, we must teach students appropriate use of these tools in an educational setting.

For some, the advent of Web 2.0 is a blessing, for others simply confusion and consternation. While I see use of Web 2.0 as something that can make my life easier and a valuable tool for communication and collaboration with colleagues, I find that many of those colleagues haven’t caught up with this new-fangled technology, creating a widening gap between those of us that do use technology and those that don’t. I have one colleague who almost never uses email (or even the phone for that matter) let alone shared documents and course management tools. Yet our students are way ahead of us in their use of technology, creating an even bigger gap. I feel that, in order for the technology of Web 2.0 to be used effectively, and for the purpose for which it was designed, somehow we all need to end up on the same page.

One of the reasons that I am so interested in becoming more proficient with all that Web 2.0 has to offer is to be able to engage my students in learning by making use of the tools they use outside of the classroom everyday. Finding the appropriate tools, both hardware and software, to use in an upper level mathematics classroom, is one challenge for me. Many seem more suited to the English, or social studies, or even science classroom.¬† Getting colleagues in my department up to speed with technology so that we can share ideas and teaching practices efficiently is another. It is one thing for me to incorporate technology beyond the graphing calculator in my classes, but, ultimately, I’d like to bring the department into the 21st century with me. This, I fear, may be easier said than done.

And so, my search continues. So much Web, so little time.

Thing1: Using the 7 1/2 Habits – Reflecting on Lifelong Learning

I am a firm believer in exercise – of the mind as well as the body. We, or at least, I am never too old to learn something new. In addition, I strive to be the best math teacher I can be. As a result, I have become an avid learner of anything and everything relating to teaching and learning in general, and math in particular.

One of the areas that has always intrigued me has been the use of technology (beyond the calculator) in math education. Having spent 20 years in systems analysis and design, I usually feel right at home with technology. Heck, I cut my teeth of on the 029 card punch and mag tapes! Still, there are a myriad of things that I can learn about technology and how to use it effectively in my classroom. Besides, if I don’t keep up with my students and their level of expertise with technology, what kind of teacher would I be?

First, and foremost, I need to consider my students needs and the ways in which I can help them to be successful in mathematics. That is my goal in learning about Web 2.0 and the vast array of technology tools available. How can technology help me to accomplish this goal? Which technology tools are appropriate in a high school mathematics class? How can I teach my students to use them efficiently, effectively, and, above all, safely? I need to keep my goal in mind as I forage through the jungle of Web 2.0 tools searching for just the right tools to bring back to civilization and use in my classroom. But, I must be careful not to venture too far into the vast undergrowth of ideas and opportunities. I must remember that a tool is only useful if it serves the desired purpose, and there is a difference between an activity and a learning experience.¬† Granted, some of these tools may be beneficial to me for personal organization, but I’d really like to connect what I learn about technology with what I’ve learned about best practices in teaching the content. The trick will be to merge the two together to come up with one grand plan. It will be a great expedition.

My challenge, beyond trying to connect both halves of my real goal – content/pedagogy and technology – will be in finding the time to research available technology options. Podcasts, videos, webquests (or ideas for developing my own), etc. are not likely to fall into my lap and new technology takes time to master. How can I expect my students to use technology that I, myself, am not comfortable with? Developing my technology toolkit and mastering its components seems to me like taming a tiger. Do I have the time, energy, and shear will power to complete the task? How will I know whether or not I have chosen the right “specimen”? Will it be before, or after, introducing the tool to my students?

If, and when, I do rise to the challenge and find appropriate technology tools to meet my goal for my students, then I can breathe a little easier. The path ahead will be clear. For me, sharing my knowledge and expertise is a natural part of my life. I am always willing to help, but it is much better when I am confident in my abilities to do so. As I improve my own knowledge and use of technology, I will be more comfortable sharing that knowledge with others and will find ways to use new technologies to improve my own everyday life.

Along this journey through the jungle of technology, I expect I will find a path that is sometimes easy to follow, yet at other times  mired with confusion, doubt, and indecision. Even though my goal is to find tools to help my students succeed, I know that I will be gaining knowledge and experience that will help me succeed as well. I just have to keep on trekking.