Last week I read a post by CogDog where he talked about a voice recorder app for the iPhone that looked really promising called, Recorder. It reminded me of how much podcasting I used to do and how much I would like to be able to do it on the fly with my iPhone and the nifty little headset/microphone combo. I didn't end up trying Recorder, but this morning I downloaded an application that does recording and syncing back to the Mac. It is iTalk by Griffin.
Here's what is so cool about it (other than the free price) -- it has a separate client that runs on the Mac that syncs your file back to your Mac via WIFI. For me that is killer as I don't sync my iPhone with my work laptop ... but in this case I simply make my recording (using the headset), launch the iTalk Sync client on my MacBook, connect to the iPhone with two taps, and drag the file to the desktop. For the sample below I then took it into GarageBand to put the cheesy music under the voice. All in all it took no time at all.
Now, if the application would allow me to do some simple editing ... say place a bumper at the front, perhaps a little music under the voice, and mix it all down before I move it to my Mac we'd have the perfect mobile podcasting kit. Even without those features this thing is a winner and the quality is actually quite good!
So after my post the other day where I was lamenting the lack of opportunities I see for engagement in the school system I got a handful of comments telling me the same thing -- "take matters into your own hands." Good advice and it really got me thinking about some things. My wife and I have always spent time reading with our daughter ... as a matter of fact, the little lady has always really been into reading, talking, singing, and all sorts of other really creative and engaging activities. She pushes us more than we push her and that is really cool. But, I've never really taken the time to bring my own interests, research, and perspectives home to her.
Night before last, she and I sat down at the kids' eMac and opened up iWeb for the first time. I decided that I was going to find a way to work with her to create a digital portfolio, journal, blog, or whatever where she and I could spend time reflecting on the work she was doing in school, the things she was thinking about, or anything in between. The goal for me is to get her used to the idea of actively reflecting on her activity in an ongoing way. As a sidebar, I personally think it is an incredible opportunity to develop a life-long story about her intellectual development ... that is, if it sticks.
So we created a website with iWeb and published it into a password protected space within my .Me account. Very easy and relatively flexible. The real win here is that with only a little instruction she is getting the hang of it. Last night, for example, she wanted to publish a story reflecting on her kitty, Misty. We sat at the desk searching for a picture at Flickr tagged Misty and she dragged it into iWeb. She then proceeded to dictate the words and I was surprised how she spent time really reflecting on what Misty had meant to her ... Misty passed away almost two years ago. The time we spent reflecting was good for both of us. She talked while I typed, but then ran and got her Mother so she could read her reflection to her. She was really proud and I was happy to have spent the extra time with her.
The other thing we're trying to do is capture some of her analog work and put it into her space. Two nights ago she was showing me a picture and the story she wrote to accompany it on a piece of paper. I grabbed the camera and snapped a picture of it. She helped me import it and drag it into iWeb. She then told me the story of how she drew it, what it meant to her, and when I asked her where the story came from, she looked at me at said, "from my mind." I probably should have known that. Either way it is reflection and that is something I now can trust she is engaging in.
Last week I went to beautiful Bedford Springs, PA to speak to Superintendents from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit ... it was both intimidating and exciting. I am always a little nervous speaking to K-12 educators because I always make the mistake of thinking our worlds are so different. It was exciting because I always end up finding out how similar our problems and issues really are. This was no different. I went in thinking I was out of my element and left with a new found appreciation and confidence in my understanding of our shared issues.
I shared a mix of stories and statistics that described how social computing is being used (typically outside of formal learning environments) to create new and engaging online conversations. I was surprised that this group didn't come at me with the typical doom and gloom questions -- they instead were (for the most part) eager to embrace what was happening in the "real world" and engaged me in a pragmatic discussion over what to do. One of the things that was funny was that many of my answers seemed so basic, yet created so much more thinking. I was particularly struck by a question over how teachers should use social environments ... as I answered I heard myself talking about how critical it is for teachers to understand how the environments work. If you are going to use youtube for teaching, understand how related movies are chosen, know when to embed a video instead of using the youtube page, and make sure you can navigate the environment. Talking about facebook felt similar ... we stressed how important it is to know how the privacy features work, how to really use the environment, and again, just know how to move around. Not earth shattering ideas, but ones that surprised me how much they resonated.
This was a smart group of K-12 administrators who are striving to do great things for their teachers and the students in their districts. They, in general, were very open to new ways of thinking and wanted me to assure them that the teachers we are producing at PSU are prepared to deliver the kinds of educational experiences that will ultimately make students successful in higher education and beyond. We spent a lot of time talking about how important it is for new teachers to foster feelings of creativity -- even in the face of strict state standards and the constraints of the no child left behind initiative. I was a little worried about the emphasis on new teachers and not just teachers, but in general I was heartened to hear it and felt like our schools were in good hands.
I contrast this with the experiences I am having with my daughter's public school education. I hear very little mention of innovative practice and I am certainly not seeing the ability to be flexible in the delivery of curriculum. I am not pointing fingers at teachers I am just seeing a system that wants so badly to be agile and effective, yet is trapped by red tape and outmoded methods. I don't see anyone openly discussing learning styles, embracing digital literacy, digital story telling, or portfolio thinking. I mentioned reflective practice to a teacher in my daughter's school and got a very strange look, as if she were saying, "why do that?" I want so much for my daughter to love school -- she is still only in first grade ... and I want her curiosity and creativity to be promoted, not stunted. Unfortunately what I see is a path that has been walked on for decades being the only direction, that change in thinking isn't going to be tolerated, and that a push to the middle is the only option. So, with all the hope and promise of administrative leadership comes the realities of the trenches and I once again realize just how different my environment is than theirs. I am disheartened.
I am still struggling with what we really should be calling the Blogs at Penn State initiative. When we were making the case for investing in a platform I made the call for us think critically about how we should be thinking about this opportunity as so much more than a blogging service. I think some people got it right away, but we are still trying to figure out what the right language is to support our thinking.
Really in the last six months or so that original vision is coming to fruition -- the Movable Type environment we selected is truly empowering publishing across lots of areas. I'd like to share a couple of them and ask that you help me think about what is the best way to market and communicate it. There are lots of people now saying the Blogs at Penn State name is limiting peoples' imagination.
Two weeks ago we worked with the ITS Training Services group to completely redesign their public website. What is unique about it is that we used MT to do it. The resulting site doesn't look much like a blog, but it is built using our blogging software. What we discovered while building this is that we can do anything we really want with the look, feel, and functionality without much effort. This site took far less time with MT than it would have with other tools -- and management is drop dead simple. What we now have is a very easy to use, template based, web development environment that can produce personal or unit level websites in very little time. As a matter of fact, we recently rolled out the new home for Blogs at PSU and are in the process of moving the Podcasts at PSU site from Drupal to MT.
Over the Summer we hosted Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul as our ETS Faculty Fellow. Her work this Sumer was to better understand MT as a viable ePortfolio platform. We worked with her to design new template sets that allow students to quickly create ePortfolios that are easy, remove barriers, and can allow them to focus on reflection and not HTML. The work she did with our team was both ground breaking and inspiring. We've now made progress on the concept and the Blogs at PSU are being promoted as the ePortfolio platform of choice. Part of this work is a new tool, called the Pack it Up system. This simple little tool will allow a person to browse an entry on an ePortfolio and suck the entire entry down into a package that can be pushed into a University assessment system to be used as evidence for accreditation purposes. Again, a blogging tool that doesn't look like blogging.
The last example I will cite is the notion of the Blogs at Penn State as an eLearning design and development environment. Recently I took an old topic from an Online IST course I helped design about seven years ago and republish it via the Blogs at PSU environment. It took only a handful of minutes and produces a portable package that can be customized by an entire team in a collaborative way. And since our platform allows for easy export and import, a faculty member who wants the content can easily download an export file and import it into a new blog space to customize the look, the feel, the content, the activities, or anything else for her own instruction. I built two versions of the topic ... the first is what I called a Master Course. The Master Course provides a baseline version of the content in a central location -- perhaps in an Open Courseware model. A faculty member could browse the content and download a simple file. This file contains the entire course and structure. This is ideal because it allows that faculty member to manage and customize the content as their own. This can then be used to create a personal version of the content.
Finally, it is obvious, but the ability to produce a standard blog also exists. So, my question is related to communicating this potential. People are catching on, but it is taking a lot of explaining ... and I wonder if it has to do with us branding this Blogs at Penn State. What do you think?
My friend and colleague, Brad Kozlek has been updating some of the stats for the usage on Blogs at Penn State. He put together a little spreadsheet and shared it with me the other week. I was sort of stunned to see not the total numbers, but the jump from Spring 2008 to Fall 2008 use. I think it is fair to say it is growing considering last Spring we ended up with about 800 blogs. Interestingly we did a week over week view and saw an increase even in the middle of a semester. That to me is an indication that people are beginning to see the blogs as more than a blogging platform and are looking at them to manage websites, resumes, ePortfolios, and other things. You know, a real publishing platform.
What is amazing about this to me is not just the total number of blogs (which is cool to see at 3,932), but the number of posts. This is a good indicator to me that people aren't just setting up their blog out of curiosity ... they are actually writing in them. If you look at last week's numbers (19,456 posts), we're looking at right around 5 posts per blog. Add to that the 7,700 comments and we're seeing the birth of some serious writing and conversations. One other thing I am noticing is how the total number of users is coming into line with the total number of blogs. Early on we were seeing a user create a number of blogs. It seems that we are perhaps doing a good job of talking to people why one blog utilizing a strong tag/category structure is more powerful in the long run. Perhaps ... but interesting to see these numbers come closer together -- right now there are only 239 more blogs than there are users, compared to August when there were 372 more blogs than users. Finally, I am quite literally stunned by the fact that users are uploading so many assets through the system. I am encouraged to see that maybe people are seeing the blog as a place to share and store pictures, documents, audio, video, and other objects. I would not have guessed that the Blogs at PSU would be managing 10,771 assets at this point.
These are by no means close to what our course management system, ANGEL sees in utilization -- where there are currently 79,646 students with at least one course in ANGEL. ANGEL has been in play at PSU since 2001, so it would be interesting to go back and look at adoption a year into that initiative. Maybe I will if that is of interest. We'll keep watching and reporting -- I am really wondering what the numbers will look like at this time next semester ... I am encouraged and energized by the possibilities.