Monday, March 31, 2008

How to Flatten a Classroom

Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay started the Flat Classroom Project profiled in our blog entry
"Taking Down the Classroom Walls: The Flat Classroom and Horizons Projects" last week. In a recent post at the Techlearning blog, Davis outlines the phases teachers and students need to go through to achieve a Flat Classroom project or similar beyond-the-classroom collaboration. At each phase, critical online skills are modeled and taught, which contribute to the success of the Flat Classroom Project, the Horizons Project and similar online collaborative projects and programs.

The first two phases Davis outlines connect students at a school to prepare them for online collaboration. The first phase, "The INTRA-connected Classroom," connects the students in a single classroom with each other. Davis uses a Ning or other "walled" or private blog, instant messaging and Skype within the class, and a wiki for "intraclass collaboration." In this phase, Davis uses a backchannel to "teach appropriate behavior and what it means to be a professional student." She adds that using the technology is easy but "the behavior takes time and vigilance." The second phase, "The INTERconnected Classroom," links classes within a school or site to each other with a Ning or walled blog, interclass projects (good for cross-grade and cross-age collaboration), a wiki, and asynchronous communication through blogs, videos, photos and other non-real-time online sharing and collaborating. This phase, Davis writes, "helps you pick up on potentially troublesome habits of students while ALL students are still under your direction and policies."

The third and fourth phases connect a class to off-site experts and groups. "Flat Classroom: Many to One Connections AND One to Many Connections with Teacher Direction," phase three, connects a class to one person or a single group, like another class. This phase also helps guide and model appropriate behavior. In this phase, a class presents to another class or individual (Davis seems to prefer Skype), interacts with an expert through videosharing or a wiki, and uses public/anonymous blogs (but only for students with parental permission). Phase four, "Flat Classroom: Many to Many with Teacher Management," brings many students together collaborating on a digital project. The teacher still guides group behavior and interactions as needed and is also available to help with technical or project issues. Students write and edit collaboratively and engage in digital storytelling. Experts and other teachers are used to widen the range of experiences and voices heard. RSS readers are used for self-directed student research and learning and to access assignments on a group wiki. Davis writes that this phase can be "overwhelming" but I think her phases are great preparation for the challenge.

"Flat Classroom: Many to Many Connections with STUDENT Management" is the fifth phase and brings teacher and students to the Horizons project level, combining the Flat Classroom with student management of the project and learning teams. Davis emphasizes the need to move through phases to give teachers time to learn and contemplate the process. At Davis' Cool Cat Teacher blog (the Techlearning post is simulposted here), Davis writes about her current classes' progress through Horizons 2008. She has a "Most Valuable Posts" category with useful information for all kinds of online teaching and collaboration. There are also links to wikis and Davis' Cool Cat Teacher podcast for more information and updates.

SOURCE: "The Five Phases of Flattening a Classroom" 3/28/08
photo courtesy of JohnLeGear, used under this Creative Commons license

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lottie Mosher: Bridge-Building with Toothpicks and Real-World Math

Jennifer Prescott in Scholastic Instructor profiles four math teachers across the country who are "standouts" in math instruction, teaching math in ways that excite students and connect math to the real world. One of these standouts is Lottie Mosher in Virginia. Her bridge-building project answers the perpetual "Do I really need math?" whine we often hear from bored middle-schoolers.

Mosher teaches sixth-grade math at Spring Elementary School in Fairfax. She created the bridge-building project a few years ago to show students "how math affects our lives." Students work in teams to create a bridge using glue, toothpicks and other simple materials. Mosher provides the parameters, such as height minimums, and requires that students use a computer program to scale their bridge design. Students must also adhere to a budget. Each student in a team takes on a particular role that parallels one in real life, like architect, carpenter, accountant or project director. The final product, the bridge, has to pass certain strength tests to be acceptable.

When Mosher taught at Mantua Elementary School, she used a distance-learning lab at the school to connect students with other classes overseas who were also involved in bridge-building projects. She was also able to digitally link students with civil engineers in New York to discuss students' projects and bridges. That contact with engineers was a big boost for the students, Mosher added.

Mosher believes that student motivation can be created with real-world problems and by keeping repetitive work like drills to a bare minimum: "If students can do three of the same type of problem, that's enough." Her advice for a large group project includes helping group members resolve conflicts and get along as they work, making the roles students need to adopt clear, and helping each student find a role he or she would like to do and has the ability, skills and interest to do so that every student experiences some kind of success during the project. Mostly, Mosher believes in looking at the larger picture in math instruction: "What are the major things students need to know? They have to develop number sense; think critically; make connections; collect, understand, and analyze data; see geometric shapes in space and work with them; and so on. Mathematics is so much more than just computation."

SOURCE: "We Love Math!" 2008
photo courtesy of Mai Le, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taking Down the Classroom Walls: The Flat Classroom and Horizons Projects

In a recent blog post, Brenda Dyck, a writer at Education World, examines how to make old pen-and-paper assignments "new" through Web 2.0 tools. One telecollaborative project she praises is the Flat Classroom Project which uses a mix of free Web 2.0 collaborative tools. The Flat Earth Project ran in 2006, 2007 and has a current program. A sister project, Horizons, in its second year, is running from now until June 2008.

The Flat Classroom Project is a collaborative project for middle and high school students started by Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis in 2006. The goal is to use Web 2.0 tools to aid communication between participating classrooms. In 2006, the topics classes studied and discussed all came from The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. The main idea of the project is to "lower the classroom walls" to eliminate the isolation that being in a classroom can encourage and to open students and teachers to more collaborative, project-based learning. Lindsay, teaching at the International School Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Davis, at Westwood High School in Camilla, GA, linked their classrooms with various free tools like Blogger and EduSpace blogs, wikis, videos at YouTube and TeacherTube, bookmarking, Facebook and MySpace accounts to connect students and have discussions, Flickr for pictures and Meebo for instant messaging when project managers held office hours for consultation, questions and other needs.

Alexander Russo reported on the 2007 Flat Classroom Project in Edutopia, noting that the four to six week program was usually part of a computer science or media literacy course at the participating schools. Instead of using email and MySpace for student contact and discussion, in 2007 Davis and Lindsay created a Ning page for networking and sharing audio and video files. Davis said the Ning made student interaction easier to monitor and schedule: "The connecting piece is the most difficult part...Last year, we were doing it over email. We couldn't supervise. Here, all the group dynamics are out in the open for the teachers to observe." Another free program on the Web, AirSet, was used to schedule interactions. The big challenge with linking the classes is the asynchronous nature of international communication, a lesson students and teachers in the Flat Classroom Project had to learn. Davis said, "I'm trying to get my students to understand that the world is becoming asynchronous...The workday flows around the world, and I want my students to understand that while they're sleeping, others are moving things forward." The Flat Classroom Project mainly used live videoconferencing (usually through Skype the first year) for initial planning and final student presentations.

The Flat Classroom Project won multiple awards in 2006 and 2007. A 2008 Flat Classroom Project is underway (details were not readily available). A sister project, Horizons, is also running a second year now until June. The Horizons Project is using Elluminate and other tools to link eleven classrooms in six countries. More information on the Flat Classroom Project can be found at the FCP wiki, the FCP Overview page, and the FCP Ning. Videos by Lindsay and Davis discussing the 2006 Flat Classroom project can be found at the wiki, YouTube or TeacherTube. The Horizons Project 2008 has a wiki with more information on its current program. Davis also has an award-winning blog with updates on her classes' involvement with Horizons 2008.

SOURCE: "Using Web 2.0 Tools to Breathe New Life into Old Projects" 03/21/08
SOURCE: "Global Education On a Dime: A Low-Cost Way to Connect" 11/12/07
photo courtesy of dullhunk, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Connecting through Web 2.0

Web 2.0 has some great tools for education in an increasingly digital and global world, but K-12 teachers have understandable concerns about security for their students and academic usefulness. No one has time to waste these days. Patrica Deubel in THE Journal provides a great round-up of helpful guides to Web 2.0 and a summary of some of the great and mostly free tools available in a format meant to help already-busy teachers at all levels and with all levels of technological expertise and experience.

Deubel points out several online videos and quick start guides that explain terminology, such as what RSS feeds and aggregators are, and provide links for free online web applications for "bookmarking managers, file storage/transfer, productivity, collaboration, and internet/network tools like Web-based e-mail, online fax, online chat, and more." There are lists for open source software and guides for using Web 2.0 tools in your classroom. Some tools that seem most useful for middle school teachers trying to connect students to the world outside the classroom (and also to some homeschoolers looking to connect) include the following:
  • For a fee, teachers can sign up for Ed.VoiceThread, a more secure and safe version of VoiceThread. Ed.VoiceThread is private and made "for creating digital stories and documentaries, practicing language skills, exploring geography and culture, solving math problems, collaborating with other students, or simply finding and honing student voices." Student work can be made public to share and make assignments more meaningful. (We know how publishing work can alter student effort and motivation.)

  • Elgg is free, open-source software for creating social networks that comes with "blogging, networking, community, collecting of news using feeds aggregation and file sharing features." Access controls allow work to be shared and tags make it easier to categorize and search for work. If security is still a concern, Elgg can be installed on a school server and controlled by a system administrator or a teacher.

  • Ning is also a great, free social networking tool. (Classroom 2.0 is a fabulous Ning group page for teachers wanting more information or feedback on using collaborative technology.)

  • is also free and has password-protected online environments for K-12 students and teachers. At, students can collaborate with others on projects, create Web pages and hold online discussions. Teachers can monitor the spaces they create for student work and collaboration. is also ad-free and has spam filters.

  • TIGed from TakingITGlobal has free teacher-controlled online environments for project-based learning and collaboration, safe social networking and galleries, podcasts, blogs and an online magazine for student publishing. Membership at TIGed is free but there are fees to create virtual classrooms and to access activity databases and teacher discussion groups.
At the end of the article, Deubel provides a link to a booklet by Terry Freedman that has advice for using Web 2.0 applications effectively and purposefully in education. There's also a list of links for all the resources mentioned in the article ranging from AltaVista's Babel Fish translator to Engrade (a free online grading package) to Scratch (student art-sharing on the Web) to Whyville (a virtual world for ages 8-16).

SOURCE: "A Taste of Web 2.0" 03/2008
photo courtesy of kevindooley, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

TeensConnect: Maryland to Estonia

In a recent Gazette.Net article, Mankaa Ngwa-Suh reports on TeensConnect: Teens and Technology that brings together 11-17-year olds in Maryland and Estonia. Teens collaboratively work on language skills and learn more about the world and other teens while having fun.

Made possible through a partnership of the Carroll County Public Library, Carroll County Public Schools and McDaniel College, TeensConnect offers safe online places for teenagers to blog, search online, connect to each other and learn about Web 2.0 tools. Teachers and librarians create presentations on the tools and how to use them safely and effectively. One member of the committee in charge of TeensConnect is Pam Lichty, a media specialist at Mount Airy Middle School. Though she creates the lessons with student needs in mind, she says she has "really learned a lot" about the tools and potential uses of them through teaching the students.

Free Internet chats through Skype have been a popular part of TeensConnect. Starting this school year, Carroll County students signed up for chat sessions with students in Paide, Estonia. The Estonian students use the sessions to hone their English skills while all students involved benefit from the cultural exchange. In the first two Skype chats of the year, students discussed how holidays are celebrated in the U.S. and Estonia and how the Estonian students set up and held a fashion show. Students in Mount Airy and Eldersburg participating in the chats have also connected with each other, expanding their understanding of their own small corner of the world. In general, the chats expand teens' understanding of the world, said Heather Owings, a library associate and a project manager for TeensConnect: "[It’s] really important that they get that sense that there are other countries, there are other cultures and there isn’t a Target on every corner...It broadens eyes. I just think it’s a great opportunity.”

The third chat between Mount Airy and Eldersburg students and Estonian students took place yesterday, March 24, at 8:30 a.m. For more information on the chat sessions or to sign up for future ones, teens can send an email to You can also check out the TeensConnect website for great links for middle schoolers and high school students.

SOURCE: "Teenagers connect to each other and the world via technology" 03/20/08
photo courtesy of daneen vol, used under this Creative Commons license

Monday, March 24, 2008

NASA Explorer School: Key Peninsula MS

A recent column by Hugh McMillan in The Peninsula Gateway reports on Key Peninsula Middle School's continuing relationship with the NASA Explorer Schools program. Recently, Key Peninsula's library hosted a videoconference between students, teachers and NASA astronaut Dr. Janet Kavandi.

Students got to ask questions and get answers from Dr. Kavandi in real time through the interactive videoconference. Dr. Kavandi was in Seattle at the time for a conference and the interaction was relayed between her, the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and KPMS in Lakebay, Washington. Students asked questions about zero gravity, about being in space, and being an astronaut. NASA Explorer School Team Leader Kareen Borders watched the videoconference from Seattle and said she was "so proud of our students. I talked with Dr. Kavandi, who was very impressed with our students and their level of critical thinking. She thought student questions were great.”

Students loved the chance to talk to a real astronaut in real time. One student, Hunter Smith, who hopes to one day work at NASA, said the interactive videoconference was "a once-in-a-lifetime chance — most people never get to do something like that." Gavyn Rutz, another student at the videoconference, called the event "a one-shot deal — if you make it, it’s like a victory. If you did not come to the video conference, you missed out on your diploma." Amy D’Andrea, KPMS Mission Specialist Class teacher, added that the IVC created a lot of excitement in the students and made them even hungrier "for more NASA, more space exploration, more engineering, and more learning about the world beyond Earth.”

KPMS is still partnering with NASA though schools usually have just a three-year relationship with NASA. NASA Explorer Schools get NASA content for science, technology and math courses; summer development workshops for teachers and administrators; collaboration throughout the school year with "NASA aerospace education specialists, Space Grant consortia, educator resource centers and NASA Education networks"; student programs; technology grants; and opportunities for family involvement. Fifty schools sign up every spring for a three-year partnership. More information and applications can be found at the NASA Explorer Schools website.

SOURCE: "Key Peninsula Middle School students pose questions for NASA specialists" 03/19/08
photo courtesy of brionv, used under this Creative Commons license

Friday, March 21, 2008

Eastview M.S.: Videoconferencing with the World

At one middle school in White Plains, NY, videoconferencing has changed the lives of teachers and students around the world. Jody Kennedy and Jan Zanetis report in Learning Connections (PDF) on the changes at Eastview Middle School after 9/11 and the huge role that videoconferencing played in the development of the Global Run project.

Initially, Eastview Middle School teachers used interactive videoconferencing (IVC) after 9/11 to increase their students' awareness of other cultures and perspectives. They engaged in projects, "language exchanges, music presentations" and other cultural experiences. Soon though, especially as teachers and students became more comfortable with the technology, teachers used IVC to link their curriculum with "experts in the field...people from all walks of life -- sharing their experience, cultures, and traditions." Students had powerful exchanges with young HIV/AIDS sufferers in Africa, Afghanistan war refugees, Sudanese child soldiers and volunteers in relief efforts around the world.

As their awareness grew, students became more empathetic and needed an outlet for their new passions and understandings of the world. The Global Run project was started in 2005 as a "global service-learning project" that raises money to address the growing shortage of fresh drinking water worldwide. Those who participate in Global Run walk to raise money for organizations like Rotary International and TANDBERG. Eastview teachers and students collaborate and communicate with teachers and students at 111 schools in Pakistan, Sweden, India, Senegal, England and the U.S. throughout the year through video conferences, video on demand, simulations, podcasts, blogs and wikis. Interdisciplinary content created by Global Run teachers include math lessons on miles walked and money raised, science lessons on health and body issues, and foreign language discussions.

Teachers have created working relationships and personal friendships across the world and regularly expand their technology skills to meet challenges and expand their contact with each other. More about this excellent program can be found at the White Plains Middle School-Eastview Campus website and in a video of the 2006 Global Run project.

SOURCE: "Developing Global Citizens: The Global Run Project" (PDF) 11/2007
photo courtesy of laszlo-photo, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Point: Linking Students with the Community

In 2006, Linda Starr in Education World (available at the National Education Association website) reported on the success of the Literary Book Club online forums in Fayette County, Kentucky. The original Literary Book Club site is being shut down, but the club is alive and well at The Point, the Fayette County public schools blog. Through The Point, classrooms can also collaborate with each other and authors and illustrators can be scheduled for videoconferencing sessions with students.

The Literary Book Club was developed by three technology resource teachers -- Amy Ford, Cathy Brandt and Barbara Hardy -- to encourage students to read more books and discuss what they read. A side goal was to help teachers and students sharpen their computer skills. At The Literary Book Club site, K-12 students could write book reviews. Classroom teachers had to register for students in their classes to submit to the site; this also ensured there was feedback and help for student writing. The publishing aspect, according to technology resource teacher Mike Johnson, gave "students a purpose and an audience for their writing." He added:
"They like being able to log on to the site to see what students are writing, and being able to add comments to each part of the review. Teachers have reported that the site has increased their students' desire to read and write.

"Students are eager to have their work published online and they seem more interested when they're writing for a real audience...They can show their reviews to their parents at home, and e-mail the link to distant friends and family."

The reviews are now housed at The Point, "Fayette County's Student Online Writing and Blogging Platform." Students and teachers log into private blogs and forums. Public blogs offer information on school events, curriculum issues and upcoming technology projects and events. Two guest pages offer guidance for community members who want to collaborate with teachers: a general information page that allows authors or other experts to submit a request form, and a page that outlines the process for collaborating with a teacher and his or her class. Guests are screened and then registered in The Point's system. After that, forums can be accessed and even videoconferencing sessions can be scheduled to bring authors into Fayette County classrooms.

The Point has great information pages for teachers and students and about blogs and current and past projects. One page, Author's/Illustrator's Corner, announces upcoming videoconferencing sessions, such as one in mid-April with cartoonist Bruce Blitz, and websites of interest by or about authors. The only videoconferencing session described is for grades 3-5 but Fayette County's schools clearly have the technology and structure needed for remote expert access.

SOURCE: "Online Book Club Promotes Student Literacy" 2006
photo courtesy of cogdogblog, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Diana Laufenberg: AZ Technology Teacher of 2007

Chelsea DeWeems in the Arizona Daily Sun reports on Diana Laufenberg, the 2007 AZTEA Innovation Award Technology Teacher of the Year. Laufenberg teaches Social Studies at Mount Elden Middle School in Flagstaff. The Arizona Technology in Education Alliance (AZTEA) uses its award to recognize teachers using technology in the classroom to enhance student learning and enjoyment. Laufenberg well deserved that honor.

Laufenberg has been teaching at the secondary level for over 10 years and she has always tried to integrate technology into her teaching. At her first high school teaching job, she was lucky to be in a small Kansas town close to universities that offered access to technology for her classes. When she moved to Arizona and Mount Elden, there wasn't as much technology being used and she has been a contributor to Mount Elden's growing use of technology for teachers and students.

Laufenberg's students create blogs and online magazines and regularly use the Internet, streamed videos, digital mapping and GIS (geographic information system). Laufenberg believes technology opens classrooms to the world. It provides a larger audience than students' classroom peers and teachers which serves as a great motivator. She said, "When you provide that kind of opportunity, their (students') commitment to doing a good job, their interest, their engagement -- everything goes up."

Projects that Laufenberg has spearheaded with her classes include the "Power of One" project in 2007 that culminated with a live visit to Flagstaff by Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina. Students created multi-media movie clips on social activists. One student's movie on Martin Luther King earned her a spot at a luncheon with Rusesabagina. A more recent project is an online magazine on American Indians. You can see some of the Power of One project at the MS Social Studies wiki. The wiki also has rubrics for the online magazine articles and a Native Nations Movie rubric and also invites teachers to share some of their best practices for teaching middle-school social studies. Laufenberg also has a Classroom 2.0 page and a blog (no recent updates, unfortunately).

SOURCE: "High-tech teacher is state's best" 03/28/07
photo courtesy of kevindooley, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Do You MeBeam? Or Cocinella?

There are lots of options for online chatting and/or videoconferencing but it can be hard to choose which will work best for your situation or needs. Most people probably choose what friends have used or whichever program is most familiar or comfortable. Mebeam and Coccinella are two more free options for getting live chats or videoconferencing.

MeBeam offers multi-person videoconferencing that is based on Flash and can be run in any browser. It's web-based so nothing has to be downloaded. Users type in a name for a room to create that room or users can open an existing room. Rooms can be made private, a real help when you are arranging something for a middle school classroom. Once you set up your audio and video settings, you can invite others by sending the room link in the browser address bar via email or an instant message. Files can be uploaded to the room, too, another plus for classroom use. A help page has instructions and screenshots to help you get started. At the MeBeam blog, you can find up-to-date advice and learn more about MeBeam's features.

Coccinella is open-source and cross-platform, able to connect to any Jabber/XMPP instant messaging program such as Google Talk, Live Messenger, ICQ or Spark. Coccinella also comes with a whiteboard that can take text, pictures, MP3s, drawings and more. It works with Windows, Mac OSX and Linux. The Coccinella website has forums for finding more information. Coccinella also supports Voice over IP though it is not clear from the available pages and forums how this works or how well.

Coccinella requires a download. A system administrator needs to tweak settings for it to get behind firewalls. And it has no videoconferencing capabilities as of yet. MeBeam is limited to 18 people per room and files sent to the room can only be 30MB or less. On the homepage, a Random Room button can take you to any room and, like other online meeting sites, MeBeam has its fair share of obscene and questionable rooms. This feature is beyond your control and a real problem for classroom use. It may be easier to control the environment on Coccinella. How do you use Coccinella or how might you use it? Is videoconferencing more important than chat or a whiteboard? Or does that depend on the lesson or project, the expert/author, the grade level or group of students?

SOURCE: "Help for MeBeam" 02/12/08
SOURCE: "Coccinella: About"
SOURCE: "Coccinella: Frequently Asked Questions" 03/31/07
photo courtesy of N1NJ4, used under this Creative Commons license

Monday, March 17, 2008

WebEx? Ning? More on Getting Connected

How can teachers safely, easily and cheaply set up sessions with remote authors, scientists, performers, instructors and other experts? Instant messaging has the real-time contact teachers and students want, but comes with vulnerabilities. And many school networks block or don't allow instant messaging programs. Using one on the Internet that doesn't require installation poses its own problems, mostly that of security. For example, Yahoo! Messenger on the Web is just as vulnerable to spam as Yahoo! Mail. Teachers need to get students in real-time discussions without the fear of intruders or the hassle of sometimes vulgar spam.

WebEx offers "secure instant messaging" with AIM Pro Secure Instant Messaging. The application is geared toward businesses which need to connect workers without going public on the Web. It offers chat, audio and video in a tool that can be managed by an administrator to include or exclude anyone from a group or discussion. WebEx promises full security with "comprehensive end-to-end encryption, user authentication, and configurable content and URL filters." All of this comes at a price. You can try it for free, but it is a subscription service with a monthly fee. But because it is web-based, there is nothing to download or install and it can be accessed from any browser.

Ning allows members to create social networks that can be used for intra-group communication. The creator of a group or network controls who is in the group and messages can only be received from and sent to members of the group. The platform for Ning is programmable and can be adjusted for different uses, according to the About Ning page. When you create a group or network, you can select a public or private setting, discussion forums, photo or video sharing or other options. Group discussions or forums can be initiated by clicking "Start New Discussion" on the group or network's home page. Ning is free. Ad revenue supports the site and that may be something to consider. Do you want a network or group page with ads that are beyond your control? (In looking at sample groups and networks, I did not see any ads on the group homepages.) It is supported by Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari which also eliminates any need for downloading or installing on a school network. Samples of established networks can be accessed on the Ning homepage.

Has anyone used Ning? Or subscribed to WebEx? Is WebEx a possibility? Are there secure options offered by Internet providers? Or created by a school system for its schools? Or is videoconferencing easier for bringing an author, researcher or teacher from another school into the classroom? Ning seems to be a good tool for group discussion but how well does it work? As LIVEbrary on Demand prepares for Season 2, your comments will really help get our authors into classrooms.

SOURCE: "WebEx AIM® Pro Business Edition" 2008
SOURCE: "About Ning" 2008
SOURCE: "Ning Features" 2008

photo courtesy of Aaron Jacobs, used under this Creative Commons license

Friday, March 14, 2008

Texas and Florida: Students Teaching Student-Teachers

As teachers, we usually bring experts into our classrooms to bring content, motivation, excitement and real-world experience to our students, no matter what grade level. One videoconferencing exchange between Texas faculty and Florida sixth graders shows how the experts can learn from the students while the students learn from the experts.

Susan Williams and Linda Dombchik of the Hebrew Day School and the University of Texas at Austin write for Apple's Learning Interchange about a "field trip" by UT-Austin faculty and pre-service teachers to a sixth grade science class in Florida. The unit of study involved meteorology and hurricanes. Students were challenged to invent devices that could protect hurricane-prone Florida from yearly storms. The sixth graders presented their inventions and fielded questions from the faculty and pre-service teachers during a videoconferencing session.

For the sixth grade students, the pending videoconference changed their work from busywork for a single teacher to a real-life event with experts in science and education who would be listening to and evaluating their inventions and the presentation of them. The content and scientific procedures weren't the only things the students learned:
The experts’ questions served as an assessment of what students had learned in this unit. Could students explain their inventions and the principals on which they were based? How accurate was their understanding? Would they be able to use the computer technology to illustrate their work?
For the educators in Texas, the videoconferencing project was part of a new UT-Austin program that required all pre-service teachers to purchase iBooks for use in classes and in-the-field teaching. In visiting the sixth grade class, the pre-service teachers were able to "work with middle school students, to understand how they used computers to solve complex problems, learn science content, and communicate their findings, and to understand what students of this age can accomplish when technology is used effectively."

The goal was to make teaching with technology real and to give them practical experience with what students and the technology can accomplish. This program seems like an excellent one to duplicate in college education programs around the country as technology and its use in the classroom keeps rapidly changing and growing.

SOURCE: "iSight Connects Higher Ed to K-12 Classrooms" 2007
photo courtesy of justin, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Do You IVC (Interactive Videoconference)?

Videoconferencing is a great tool for bringing experts in almost any field into classrooms. Fiction authors can field questions about the writing or publishing process, researchers can demonstrate and discuss their work, and university faculty can bring the depth of their expertise to the elementary, middle or high school classroom. On Education World, Lorrie Jackson interviews an expert on the use of videoconferencing in education who points out the many benefits of videoconferencing in the classroom and offers tips for teachers using it for the first or twentieth time.

That expert, Jan Zanetis, is the former director of the Virtual School @ Vanderbilt University and co-wrote Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms: A Program Development Guide, published in 2004. For Zanetis, videoconferencing must be interactive and she uses the term Interactive Videoconferencing (IVC). Zanetis says that the "power of IVC is that students are able to question and dialogue with people and resources that would otherwise be unavailable due to distance and time." Students must also be prepared for the specific IVC session which may involve research and/or problem-solving proper videoconferencing etiquette. These preparatory activities not only motivate and involve students but teach many skills that are best learned in a project-based manner.

The Virtual School @ Vanderbilt creates videoconferencing programs for K-12 classrooms across the country using Vanderbilt faculty and staff, and sometimes community members, as presenters. Teachers can search a catalog of programs and specific videoconferencing sessions. (Schools are charged a per-videoconference fee.) These sessions can be powerful learning tools, and not just in regards to content or facts. Zanetis mentions a specific example from the "Witnesses and Voices of the Holocaust" videoconferencing series:
One of the most touching videoconferences we had was when we first ran our Holocaust Survivors series. Mira Kimmelman, a sweet and gentle woman in her late eighties, spoke with students in six schools about her experience in Auschwitz. Although Mira's story lasted almost an hour, those elementary and middle school students sat still and did not make a sound. Following her talk, the students took turns asking her questions about Nazis, the war, her family…
The Virtual School also offers Career Conversations, videoconferences with professionals who discuss their fields, career choices, paths and challenges. The Black History Month series includes a session with Rhythm and Roots, Vanderbilt's student dance and drama troupe. The full catalog can be accessed at the homepage.

Zanetis says teachers don't need computers to do IVC. A television, videoconferencing camera and a connection -- either through telephone line or an IP -- are all a teacher needs to get started. Planning is even more important; teachers need time to find content and IVC participants, email addresses, schedules, and alternative plans in case something goes wrong at the last minute or midway through an IVC session. She also adds that IVC should be "just another teaching tool in your repertoire. Do not build your lesson with IVC in mind, use it as the 'spice' in an existing lesson, a way to make something special happen that otherwise wouldn't."

It is helpful to look at how other teachers have been or are using IVC in their lesson plans. Education World is one site that has regular features about teaching with technology and specific lesson plans or summaries of IVC in the classroom.

SOURCE: "Videoconferencing Deserves a Second Look" 02/08/08
photo courtesy of Kai Hendry, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

ePals: Connecting Made Easy and Safe

ePals offers a "learning social network" for schools with class email, blogs and other tools. Over 132,000 classrooms are connected through the site, reaching over 13 million students worldwide. Steve Lohr reports in The New York Times on ePals' latest venture: National Geographic has invested in it and is now supplying educational content for its series of learning projects. Aside from the great content provided by National Geographic, ePals has some fantastic tools for teachers, students and administrators.

The main goal of ePals is to provide safe and easy-to-use tools and forums to connect students and teachers around the world. Its purpose is to enhance not only curriculum-based learning but to expand students' worlds and contribute to the kind of higher-order thinking that educators know is critical in an increasingly globalized and information-heavy world. The following tools are available at the ePals website (teachers or schools can sign up for free) and will be made available on Classmate PCs being shipped by Intel and laptops provided by One Laptop Per Child in developing nations:
  • in2books is a "curriculum-based online mentoring program" that offers adult pen pals for students. When students receive a book, they also get a letter from their new pen pals. These pen pals motivate students to read, think about and discuss books. The pen pal aspect is meant to encourage higher-order thinking beyond word recognition and vocabulary. The pen pals serve as an authentic audience for student writers and thinkers. They also connect students with real adults who can serve as role models, coaches, friends and guides into different parts of the world, country or even students' own city.
  • Classroom Match connects classrooms statewide, nationally or internationally. ePals' instant translation tools make this kind of connection fun and easy. Teachers can choose a learning project or make one of their own to invite others to. Connected classrooms can share emails, blogs and discussion forums. The search engine makes it possible to search for a particular classroom, for a class in a certain part of the country or world, or for other classrooms doing the same project.
  • School Blog is meant to be user-friendly and safe. Many teachers, parents and administrators have legitimate concerns about the open memberships of blogs, email and social networking sites generally available. School Blog allows teacher control so that blogs are worry-free. On the School Blog page, you can find links to a sample blog and links to featured school blogs. The page also lists available tools and has a brochure to explain how to best use the tool. There is also a PDF of a research article on the benefits of blogs in K-12 programs.
  • School M@il takes a lot of the headaches out of email for teachers and school administrators. ePals' well-known translation tool is one of the highlights here. Of even more interest to teachers, principals and parents are the blocking tools that can be set by an individual teacher for his or her class or by administrators for the entire school's use of School M@il. Teasing and attacking emails can be blocked, particular words or combinations of words can be blocked, and outside users can be blocked from entering or participating in the system, reducing concerns about predators and others who are unwelcome and freeing up a teacher to deal with academic content, writing skills and other educational matters. The mail service also has a spell checker, virus checker and spam filters. The centralization makes this a great tool for class use.
All of ePals' options and tools can be accessed at the main web page. You can find featured teachers and learning projects, a poll asking teachers and students to tell ePals what kind of content they are looking for or want, and featured videos and discussion forums. There is also a great "Ask an ePals Teacher" section where users can connect with other educators, get answers and advice, and share projects or exciting news about their classroom activities. With the near-bewildering range of Internet tools available out there, ePals certainly makes connecting students to the world easier and more secure for already-busy teachers.

SOURCE: "A Capitalist Jolt for Charity" 02/24/08
photo courtesy of Wesley Fryer, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Teaching Mandarin in Ohio

What enhances acquisition of another language? Most would say regular exposure to a native speaker. And even better, a native speaker who is also a trained and experienced teacher. In Ohio, videoconferencing is bringing Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken language in the world, to select sixth grade classrooms. (English is the second most widely spoken language.)

In the Columbus Dispatch, Kevin Joy sums up the uses of a range of tools adding "spark" to classrooms in central Ohio. In addition to SMARTboards, podcasts, Moodle and MP3 players, he reports on how some central Ohio schools use videoconferencing to teach Mandarin to sixth graders. Two televisions, a camera and microphone allow Dun Zhang, a teacher at Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, to teach live, daily, 40-minute classes to sixth graders at Trinity Elementary School near Grandview Heights and classes in Newark and New Philadelphia, Ohio.

Zhang can see and hear the students in the linked classrooms on one screen, split so everyone can see and hear each other in real time. The other screen displays Zhang's notes; an electronic pen lets her highlight particular points or trouble spots or just help answer student questions. Students like the notes display especially. A student in a Columbus classroom, Brianne, said, "You can see what she's writing. Her hand isn't in the way...You get a better view of the notes." Though students also use pen-and-paper workbooks, the class focuses on dialogue to really teach the students the language.

Trinity isn't just using videoconferencing for Zhang's class. Recently, students videoconferenced with a class of high school students in Taiwan. There are plans for other Trinity classes to virtually visit a museum and also to talk to an author. Though the videoconferenced Mandarin class has its technical drawbacks at times, like occasional screen freezes and subsequent audio delays and lack of one-on-one time with a teacher, students and staff welcome the addition to their curriculum and the excitement it offers. Another Columbus student, Valerie, said of the Mandarin class, "It's so much different than what we usually do...It makes you look smart, and you're excited to come to class."

Foreign language instruction through videoconferencing creates more options for students -- now, with the right equipment and access, schools, no matter where they are located, can offer more than French and/or Spanish -- and can level the playing field for rural school districts. Videoconferencing can also enhance language acquisition and fluency in general and truly prepare students for a more global future. There are many videoconferencing options, from VoiceThread to WiZiQ to Skype, with varying benefits (and drawbacks) for teachers and students. Our earlier entry, "ooVoo? Yugma? WiZiQ? How Do You Get Connected?," discusses a few of the free options out there.

SOURCE: "Plugged in: New technology adding spark to schools " 03/05/08
photo courtesy of kevindooley, used under this Creative Commons license

Monday, March 10, 2008

Viewers Wanted: Science Videos Online

The alarm has been sounded over the need to engage middle school students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. More and more, visual tools for the classroom and home use have popped up to make this easier. Not only do they make science something done by real people, students also get to see things happening, changing, forming, dissolving and reacting.

eSchool News reports on some of these science video websites. A recent addition to the mix is SciVee, started by Phil Bourne, a pharmacologist at the University of California-San Diego. He saw how popular YouTube is with his students and wanted to create a "reputable virtual place where researchers could trade techniques without the potpourri of topics found on general video-sharing sites" like YouTube. At SciVee, researchers can upload "pubcasts" that summarize published articles. The goals of the site, according to Bourne in an introductory video, are to expose scientific work to a larger audience, to create communities of knowledge and to reduce the hierarchy often found in scientific research and the dissemination of findings.

JoVe, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, aims to look and behave more like a peer-reviewed journal. Instead of researchers making their own videos, JoVe sends professional videographers to different labs to record interesting work. The editor-in-chief, Moshe Pritsker, said that JoVe was meant to solve a particular problem:
For most of his academic career, he was flustered by what he called the “black hole” of science: Despite attempts by well-intentioned scientists to explain their experiments on paper, some procedures are so complex to mimic that a person must physically explain them.

Pritsker said he once flew to Scotland for a week when he was a Ph.D. student just to see how a research group performed an embryonic stem cell technique. He couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn't a way short of jetting across the Atlantic Ocean to reproduce a two-hour procedure.

“We need to show our experiments—and show, in our age, means video,” Pritsker said.
JoVe sparked another science video website, LabAction. Siddharth Singh, a computer science graduate student in India, started it to focus on biology. LabAction functions more like a community than a peer-reviewed journal of research. Members can subscribe to groups and channels aimed at specific biological techniques or processes. The videos range from illustration of basic concepts to dissections and real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Another community-like site is DnaTube, which encourages uploads of research, lectures and seminars. The goal is to make scientific concepts easier to understand. There are taped lectures, interviews, animations, demonstrations and more. (DnaTube has ads but you can usually click to skip them and go straight to the videos.) One video shows schoolchildren simulating how infectious agents spread in an epidemic.

Whichever you might choose, many agree that these videos make science research more accessible to students at many levels and the public at large. Some sites and videos may be too much for middle school but all of the sites above use tags to categorize videos and with a little searching, some great videos can be found for almost any science class. Even if students do not grasp every single concept, these science video sites male science more about real people doing and sharing exciting things from around the world.

SOURCE: "Video sites make science more accessible" 12/06/07
photo courtesy of procsilas, used under this Creative Commons license

Friday, March 7, 2008

Mathcasts: Kids Teaching Kids

Sometimes, the expert that a student needs contact with is a knowledgeable peer. That's the idea behind Mathcasts, a series of online videos available at YouTube, TeacherTube and In each video, a middle school student guides viewers through a particular type of math problem step by step.

In the Santa Monica Daily Press, Melody Hanatani reports on the beginnings and popularity of the Mathcasts, which began appearing online a year ago. The videos started on the tablet PC of Eric Marcos, a math teacher at Lincoln Middle School. Though the Mathcasts are just one option in a whole range of online sources available at Marcos' site,, the Mathcasts have been the most popular, garnering the attention of educators, publications and students across the United States. Students use them to review concepts when needed, to brush up on skills, or to help with homework:
“When I do my homework and I don’t get something, I can always go on and find out (how to solve the problem),” Emily Claus, a sixth grade student, said during class on Monday. “Then all of a sudden, it makes sense.”

The Mathcast has become a daily ritual for Matthew Cianfrone, a sixth grade student who reviews the day’s lessons online.

“It’s easier and more fun than to just look at a textbook,” Cianfrone said.
Most of the Mathcasts have been made by Aleya and Camilla Spielman. The very first Mathcast, which debuted on Valentine's Day last year, featured Camilla, using the pseudonym "Bob," discussing proportions. In a more recent Mathcast, Aleya, using the pseudonym "Billy Billy," talks viewers through adding fractions with different denominators. The girls rightly credit the success of the videos to the "kids teaching kids" concept behind them. Tiana Kadkhoda, a former classmate who made 6 Mathcasts herself, said, "When a kid explains something, it’s different than a teacher...We’re at the same level of intelligence and our brains work the same way.”

Another math teacher at Lincoln, Rose Supangan, used a Mathcast in her pre-algebra class and got very positive reactions. “All of the kids were so excited to do the problems,” Supangan said. Eric Marcos will soon travel to two educational conferences to present "the kid-driven Mathcast concept" to an even larger audience. Perhaps this student-driven video concept can expand to other subjects, like language arts or foreign language.

SOURCE: "Kids use latest technology to help one another excel" 02/26/08
photo courtesy of foundphotoslj, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Teaching Jeff Corwin Spanish

Sometimes, you don't have to have a person in your classroom -- virtually or physically -- to inspire students and prompt real-world learning. In another great teacher profile in EducationWorld, Cara Bafile introduces us to sixth grade Spanish teacher Chris Craft and the blog

It started innocently enough. Craft looked through programs that CrossRoads Middle School received through Discovery Education Streaming for real-world applications of Spanish. He especially wanted to find examples of fluent Spanish used by people in all disciplines. What he came up with was several clips of Jeff Corwin joking about his deficient Spanish in spite of his frequent trips to Central and South America. One student comment started the whole project:
"One day, after showing a short clip as class was winding down, a student haphazardly remarked, 'We should teach him [Jeff Corwin] some Spanish.' The idea simmered for a day until I saw those students again and we began to brainstorm," Craft recalled. "In the following class periods, after the lesson was complete, we worked on what type of site we would develop, what features to add, and how it should look."
Students worked together to create a "Scavenger Hunt for Spanish" program and "word of the day" posts. Craft set up the WordPress blog and was launched. But at the end of his nine weeks with that particular class, Craft worried that the project would stop.

Fortunately, two girls who had acted in some of the programs were allowed to work with Craft for an additional nine weeks. Because they worked while Craft taught a different class, the girls asked for the video camera and started doing everything themselves. Craft stepped back and let them shine while he set up a podcast feed and got permission to put the videos on YouTube and TeacherTube.

Feedback was immediate and intense. Says Craft: "In the span of roughly one month, we saw more than 1,300 unique views to the site, and more than 500 collective views of the two shows. We have also received a number of complimentary messages." He also stresses that it was important to let the students take the lead: "Had I not been willing to hand those kids a camera and trust them, the show never would have been produced." has been on a brief hiatus because the two girls producing the show are no longer in Craft's class. But two new hosts have approached Craft and a new episode should be ready soon!

SOURCE: "Teaching Jeff Corwin Spanish: Starring: Chris Craft" 02/19/08
photo courtesy of Nancy-, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

ooVoo? Yugma? WiZiQ? How Do You Get Connected?

It seems that there are lots of tools or ways to get off-site writers, scientists, math teachers, graduate students and others into middle school classrooms, but which ones work with which school network or security system? Often, teachers cannot download programs or tools themselves. And even if you find a great tool for your classes, every teacher in the school may not want to use it or find it helpful. Kathy Schrock's "Guide for Educators" mentions two of the services below, Yugma and one that is new to me, WiZiQ, but it does not mention ooVoo. So what's up with these tools?

ooVoo offers videoconferencing over the Internet. The service is free, which is perfect for teachers and students, but it requires a download, also free, and broadband Internet access. You can create an account and invite others to join ooVoo and participate in online sessions. Users can engage in live chats and video conversation calls, similar to those found in Skype. For the best results, a headset is recommended, something that may not be a problem for single users or a small class. In addition, users can send files to each other. An additional feature is the video message option. Users can create video messages to send to single or multiple users. You can also send the video message to someone who doesn't have ooVoo. A link is sent that the recipient can click to access the message without downloading ooVoo. This one sounds good, but I think that there are enough problems for frequent use by teachers that make it a so-so option.

Yugma is also free and can be used with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. It offers real-time interaction with free webconferencing sessions that users can join from anywhere in the world. A free download is needed to get started. A demo video at the Yugma site shows the simple two steps needed to sign up after downloading. Each time a user wants to hold a webconference, he or she starts a session and invites others to the session via email. The emails give a session number and login to participate. During a session, the initiating user, or presenter, can share his or her desktop, hide it temporarily and share it again. The presenter can also transfer the lead role to another user who then becomes presenter. This feature seems to have great potential for reaching experts and other teachers.

Other great features of Yugma include real-time document annotation and the ability to have public and private chats. This feature can be useful for teachers who want to check in with individual students but there is no way to stop students from engaging in private chats during a session. For teleconferencing, Yugma provides a phone number that gives users long-distance access (regular long-distance rates apply) or users can use their own teleconference options, including Skype. Users can have unlimited sessions. Each session, though, must be separate and starting new sessions and inviting users each time could prove to be too cumbersome for a teacher to use regularly.

WiZiQ is a free virtual classroom with multiple tools geared toward teachers and students. It offers live audio-video connections, chat, content sharing and session recording. Best of all, there is no download needed. WiZiQ works in any browser and with any operating system, a great feature for teachers with downloading restrictions or who just want something simple to get up and running fast. The audio tour gives an overview of WiZiQ's features. Once you join, you can invite others by email. The number of sessions, like in Yugma, is unlimited.

Unlike Yugma, users can engage in multiple activities and sessions without being invited over and over again via email. Once you are a member, you can search for other teachers nationwide and contact them to share methods, tools or lesson plans. Like other tools, content can be uploaded and accessed by other users. Content can also be shared across the country. You can search for presentations and materials in the WiZiQ database and even find public sessions involving experts in various subjects. Presentations and other materials can be embedded in class websites or blogs. And there seems to be no limit on uploading; you can submit as many items as you want and access them when you need to. WiZiQ also has a Typepad blog that discusses new items, like the new Tests feature.

If you've tried any of these services, what was your experience and opinion of them? Are you using one of these or another videoconferencing or virtual classroom service? Has anyone tried Voicethread? Or Vyew? Would you recommend one of these tools or something entirely different? What works best with your students, subject and available technology?

SOURCE: "Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators" 2008
photo courtesy of Waponi, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Steve Elwood Meets the Vomit Comet

Remember Roosevelt Middle School's Steve Elwood of the imploding barrel video? He and another eighth grade science teacher from Roosevelt were in the news recently. Elaine Buschman reports in the Herald Journal (Monticello, IN) that Elwood and fellow RMS teacher Becky Stiller spent ten days at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas. They got to work with astronauts and college engineering students on experiments. One afternoon, a live feed let Elwood and Stiller share a little of their ten-day stay with about 200 Roosevelt middle-schoolers.

Students packed a darkened cafeteria at Roosevelt to have a live question-and-answer session with Elwood and Stiller. Though all kinds of questions were asked, many students wanted to know about the new C-9 aircraft at Johnson Space Center which "flies in a roller coaster-like hill pattern and for about 20-25 seconds on each 'hill' has zero gravity, much like actual space travel." Because this roller-coaster motion nauseates some pilots, the craft is commonly known as the Vomit Comet. The zero-gravity environment allows experiments to be conducted in the kind of weightlessness found in space.

Students may have been disappointed to learn their teachers' stomachs wouldn't be tested by the Vomit Comet. Neither teacher is cleared to be on the plane. The experiments were conducted for Elwood and Stiller by Purdue University engineering students. The teachers got to pass on items to be used during the flights, such as an Elmo doll, M&Ms and spinning magnets. Elwood said of not being able to go on the Vomit Comet, "It’s like being at the Super Bowl but sitting on the bench."

After the live feed, Elwood said the students "were excited" and that he and Stiller were, too: "We were having a blast. (Stiller and I) both agree that this is one of the highlights of our teaching careers.” When Stiller and Elwood get back to Roosevelt after Spring Break, they will have lots of video and still images of the experiments conducted on the Vomit Comet. With these kinds of unique opportunities, teachers get to bring not only great material back to their students but also their excitement, joy and new experiences.

SOURCE: "Middle school teachers experiment at NASA center" 03/03/08
photo courtesy of Moody75, used under this Creative Commons license

Monday, March 3, 2008

Benjamin Wilkoff: Blogging Middle School Language Arts

"A Chat with Benjamin Wilkoff," a profile posted by Alexei Rodriguez, highlights one middle school language arts teacher's views on, and use of, technology. Though the profile is written to highlight Ning's social networking service, the bulk of the profile outlines Wilkoff's tools, teaching and philosophy. He offers a lot of great advice for teachers.

Wilkoff currently teaches seventh and eighth grade language arts at Cresthill Middle School in Colorado. He calls himself "hopeless addicted to music, writing, and new technology." His webpage features many of his online tools. He even accesses his blog in class to link to articles, posts and other items saved there. In his Learning is Change blog and podcasts, he reflects on teaching, introduces ways to use technology in class and discusses other tools he likes or thinks work well for middle school language arts. He also maintains a technology integration wiki to guide fellow teachers and share ideas.

One of his favorite tools for language arts is blogging. Blogs involve his students in "authentic -- that is, with a real purpose and a real audience" writing. Every student has a blog that he or she must post to at least once a week. It changes their experience of writing to have their peers, and potentially others in the community and world, as their audience. Wilkoff also uses a lot of online sources for reading in class, not just "paper novels." He particularly likes Internet sources to enhance literary studies and critical thinking:
I like the idea that the internet can enhance our understanding of literature because we can use our collective intellect to analyze the theme, language, or author intent. I also find that my students are much more capable of seeing the relationship between reading and writing when they are creating content for the web. By responding to others' posts in comments or creating a wiki page they are growing their our body of knowledge organically rather than simply observing a unchanging cannon [sic] of words.
Some of his students have started their own blogs, but mostly, students become "better consumers of Internet content," better able to find what they are looking for and interpret what they find -- badly-needed skills in the 21st century.

You can see the entire text of Wilkoff's profile here. You can also find links to new tools he looks forward to using with his middle schoolers, links to student posts of which he is especially proud, and more about his blogs and wikis.

SOURCE: "A Chat with Benjamin Wilkoff, School Teacher" 09/10/06
photo courtesy of Simon Shek, used under this Creative Commons license