Becoming an active, critical reader…

Back in September, Jim Groom shared his thoughts on the importance of reading for context. An approach to reading that for me is about becoming a more active, critical reader. As I read his post, I found myself nodding along, each sentiment reflecting what I find myself saying to both my GCSE and A-Level students on a weekly basis…

I’ve taken pains to reinforce how essential it is to read for context. To read for the things that don’t make sense, read for the things you do not know, and read for the ideas that make you stop and think. And in the process take the time to play detective. Look things up. Follow the lead the writer gives you, try and build a context for your reading. What’s more, with the ubiquity of the web the process couldn’t be any easier.

Without an understanding of context…

You miss something in the understanding. And with the web always already right there it makes the excuses of not doing it nothing short of paltry. Contextualizing and augmenting one’s understanding of any book is that much easier, faster, and more powerful—and it should increasingly be expected of students.

Yet I often find that it isn’t or hasn’t been. And as Jim exemplifies in the age of Google there is no excuse.

With my own students I begin at an even more basic level. When they encounter a word they do not know, I encourage them to work to figure it out; to contextualise it. And should that not work, to turn to the dictionary and find the definition. What I won’t do is tell them the answer nor will I allow them to ignore it. Why? Because…

…the act of reading is not to be taken for granted.

Reading is an active, critical process that needs to be cultivated. While it may not seem likely to them at first, I believe that most of my students come to appreciate that rather than taking the pleasure out of reading, stopping and looking things up improves their understanding and their enjoyment with it.

Responsive Part Two (Fine-Tuning)

After updating my blog and home page to be more responsive, I continued with a little fine-tuning. Here is a brief account of the additional changes I have made…

Blog

Blog Home 01.09.12

Typography

  • I have added a Google font called ‘Bitter‘;
  • I edited the sidebar CSS to make the font size and colour more consistent with the blog body.

Functionality

The majority of tweaks that I have made are focussed on improving the way the blog functions…

  • I have switched back to featuring whole posts on the front page of the blog rather than excerpts;
  • The about page has been updated to include an accurate list of my most popular posts;
  • To make it easier for visitors to find specific content, I have added category links at the top of the archive page;
  • All internal links now open in the same window; only external links open in a new window;
  • As well as videos and images, embedded Google Docs now resize automatically. I achieved this by editing the  FitVids.js script within my blog’s theme. While it doesn’t specify this on the FitVids.js github page, it will work with both ‘docs.google.com’ and ‘drive.google.com’ documents embedded using the iframe tag.

Home Page

Improved Home

My home page now features a mini-profile with links to specific content, rather than a series of buttons. I think that it is more personal and does a better job of providing an overview of who I am, what I do, and where I can be found online.

I have also employed the built in menu to display direct links to key aspects of my online footprint, including my Twitter and Google+ profiles.

These changes have also improved the way the home page displays across all devices.

Why this Apple fanboy loves his Android phone

Android Phone

Some of you will know that I am quite the Apple fanboy. I currently own a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro (my second one) and an iPod touch. Having blogged twice about the apps I have installed on the iPod (during the early days of this blog), I felt it was time to confess to the fact that the iPod has been relegated to the status of ‘portable entertainment centre’. It now gets charged and used on long journeys mainly having been replaced by a HTC Wildfire – my ‘productivity centre’. Even with my deep love of all things Apple, I am not missing the iOS user interface one bit. The Android UI is just as pleasing and the phone was half the price of the iPhone 4.

Mobile phones and I

While I am a self-confessed technophile I resisted owning a mobile phone for a long time. I love technology but I felt that having a mobile phone would be too big a distraction and would put me in a situation where I am too contactable. I did not want to feel guilty if I was called and chose to ignore it. I knew that I would because I view my time as being extremely precious. However, I found myself frustrated using the iPod touch due to the lack of 3G connectivity. I didn’t want to text or make calls but it was highly frustrating to have to rely on finding a wifi signal when I was out and about. The Wildfire was my compromise then, not invoking a terrible cost to my pocket, I set up a PAYG account with Orange and away I went.

I have kept myself sane by putting in place a number of rules as to how I use the phone. All notifications are switched off so that I am not distracted. If I am doing something really important, I turn the phone off completely. I do not give out my number; only a small number of people have it. And finally, I only reply to text messages if it is really necessary. The people who do text me know this about me so I don’t feel any guilt if I forget to reply.

What I have gained by owning the phone is immense. It is my personal productivity machine; fully integrated into my day to day life. To illustrate this I am going to talk through the 10 most used apps on the phone:

The five apps I can’t live without

Twitter for Android – The main reason I bought the phone was to engage with my Twitter PLN at any given time. I tried a few apps including TweetDeck and for a while Twidroyd but have happily settled on the official app. In my opinion as good as any third party and it’s OS and iOS equivalents. I can keep up with the various streams, tweet, retweet (new and traditional methods), DM, search, even manage my lists which you can’t do with Twitter for Mac.

Everpaper – As there is no native Instapaper client for Android, I experimented with a few third party apps. Everpaper is by far the closest in matching the experience of the web and iOS apps. It is feature rich while managing to maintain that all so important minimal UI. I save a lot of reading material to Instapaper – blog articles, essays, reports… the list goes on. If I am not reading a book I will catch up with my Instapaper during my journey to work. I will also read it while queuing at Costa Coffee or any other time where I am forced to be idle and do not have access to my laptop.

Kindle – I have been totally converted to the value of being able to sync the book I am reading across multiple devices. I mean, it makes so much sense right? So I now have the Kindle app on my MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Android phone. I don’t think it will be too long before I buy a Kindle as well. I use the Android app almost every weekday morning during my journey into work. So far I have read the entirety of the following books on it:

Focus by Leo Babauta
Poke the Box by Seth Godin
Keeping it Straight by Patrick Rhone
Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Ken Robinson

I am about to start reading Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change by Keri Facer.

Calendar – This is one of the few built in apps that I use. Synced with Google calendar; all appointments, meetings and urgent stuff are added with ease. It is the only app where, when necessary, I have the notification reminders turned on for urgent deadlines, meetings and appointments. Things that it would be absolutely detrimental for me to forget. However, I do not add my ToDo list to my calendar. My ToDo list is a text file which I keep in nvALT; synced with Simplenote. As a highly organised and motivated person, there is rarely anything in my ToDo list that I would forget to do any way.

Gmail – Again synced with my Google account I rely on this app to check my personal email at lunch time. I designate times for a number of specific tasks and this is the case with email. I check my work email first thing when I arrive at work and again at the end of the day. I check my personal email first thing in the morning and at lunch time. I try to avoid looking at email in the evening unless I know there is something urgent I need to reply to and did not manage to do so during the day.

The five apps which are useful at very specific times (but not essential)

Internet Browser – I use the pre-installed web browser. I use it mainly on an ad-hoc basis, for example, if someone shares a link in Twitter, it kicks me out to the web to view the image etc. Other than that I rarely use it.

Google Reader – As previously mentioned I allot specific times to a number of tasks. Task number one every morning is to catch up with the RSS feeds I subscribe to. I read the short ones and save the longer articles to Instapaper. I only use the Android app if that didn’t happen for some reason and on the rare occasions I am not reading a book and my Instapaper is empty – i may save this activity for the journey into work.

Evernote – As eluded to earlier, I am using Evernote to maintain my organisation as I work towards an Masters in Education. The mobile app has been used for two specific tasks. Taking photos of long extracts from books where I have not been able to access and electronic version and to take photos of slides at meetings/conferences. With the auto-sync it is a fabulous tool. See Doug’s post here about how he has used it.

mNote – As with Instapaper there is no native Simplenote app for Android. mNote is my app of choice. I occasionally need to update something and so will do it here. My use of this app has decreased since I bought my MacBook Air. Due to the Air being so light, I am tending to now take it to meetings – using nvALT to make notes instead.

Dropbox – This one needs little explanation. I want access to my documents at all times. My most common use is to read PDF files which I can’t access from Instapaper or the Kindle app.

The one app that I could live without but I’m glad I don’t have to

Swiftkey Keyboard – The built-in keyboard to the Android OS was not very good and this was one of the first features that I changed. It is the only app I have installed where I have handed over money but it was definitely worth it. Swiftkey has (IMO) the most accurate and useful predictive text I have experienced between using the iOS keyboard on my iPod touch, an LG touchscreen phone, and the built in Android keyboard. Part of the reason it works is that the keyboard’s UI is so clear and not over-sensitive that it is rare to make mistakes when typing. This combined with excellent ‘learning’ algorithms, Swiftkey predicts correctly most of the time.

iPod touch with 3G?

I have been asked by a few close friends who have had to endure me waxing lyrical about the phone whether I would buy an iPod touch, should it be released with 3G. After all, I make little to no use of the traditional phone features. To be honest, I don’t think so. I have become accustomed to the Android OS and until Apple includes something in iOS that is so revolutionary, it makes the Android OS obsolete, I will be sticking with what works for me. Besides, I’m a firm believer in the ‘one thing well’ philosophy. My Android phone does productivity really well. My iPod touch does entertainment really well. I’m happy with that.

Beware Walled Gardens – Part 2

Wheel

This post is the second in a four two part series, you can read part one here. Having set out a case for social networks in place of VLEs in part one, one of my other criticisms of learning platforms is that many of the tools they come pre-loaded with are simply not up to scratch when compared to the myriad of tools freely available on the World Wide Web.

Collaboration (and a healthy dose of assessment for learning)

Google Docs does collaboration effortlessly and in genuine ‘real time’. This makes it far more powerful than its competitors.  I spent more than two years wrestling with the wiki module in Moodle before I made the move to Google Docs. I have never looked back since. The fact is that real time collaboration is far more meaningful for students. They feel empowered by the fact that they can make instant changes instead of having to wait in turn. This has been my main criticism of Moodle, many of the tools lack the instancy that I and my students have come to expect, particularly when it is available in other tools on the Web. I can’t speak to what Diipo will offer in this area but as an avid Google Docs user I can’t see it making me want to switch.

What’s more, as I have already chronicled on this blog, Google Docs offers excellent opportunities for assessment for learning. I use it on almost a weekly basis to develop my students’ peer and self-asasessment skills. I also try to assess as much work as possible using it at the formative stages. My students really enjoy using it.

Oliver Quinlan has also blogged about his use of Google Docs for collaborative assessment. In his concluding comments he discusses the notion of students developing their own workflows. This is an interesting concept, which I insert here, because I have had similar experiences. The wiki module in Moodle is quite cumbersome and in actuality rather than promoting collaboration, inhibits it. Google Docs offers multiple ways for students to collaborate, discuss and edit their work including a simple back channel. My students have thrived using Google Docs and I have found myself rethinking the way I plan these sorts of activities, trying to allow them to tread their own path.

As for security, there is little to be concerned about here. Documents are private by default and can be shared and unshared at the author’s discretion. One of the first things that I discuss with my students is the benefits and potential hazards of sharing information with others, particularly publicly. The benefits of sharing documents though are clear and I can’t think of one collaborative tool offered within a VLE that could generate or reproduce the level of creativity displayed in this video:

A range of apps with infinite possibilities

There are a whole bunch of other useful Google tools that your students can harness via the World Wide Web that won’t be found inside Diipo or Moodle. Lets start with the cornerstone of the web: Search. While some will argue that as the teacher I should curate resources for my students, which I could link to from within the VLE, I would rather teach them to make better use of Google’s excellent search engine. Rather than me trying to write about it, hop on over to Ian Addison’s blog and let him show you some of the hidden tools that can make Google search a highly valuable experience for learners.

Another tool that Google offers is Maps. For this one I’ll let Tom Barrett’s blog do the talking. He made excellent use of it during all that snow we experienced last year.

Nearly all Google apps (Scholar, Books, Earth, YouTube) offer valuable learning opportunities but none are tied down within a learning platform. They are free and available online. The only thing that will stop you using them is your imagination and possibly your schools internet service provider (you might have to get them unblocked). Every Google app I have used with my students has worked well, I can’t say the same for some of the tools I have tried in Moodle.

If you want to get more out of using Google apps with your students you should definitely check out Richard Byrne’s guides and tutorials on his blog. Or check out the excellent range of teaching ideas for Google Search, Docs, Forms, Maps and Earth from Tom Barrett’s Interesting Ways series.

It’s not all about Google though, there are many other apps out there that are worth using with your students. One I use a lot is Lino it. Lino allows you to add sticky notes to a canvas. It is great for starters, plenaries, homework. I can begin a discussion with it in one lesson and then re-use it for homework the next. The principal of mind-mapping or generating ideas could be done in a forum on Moodle I guess but it can’t be re-ordered afterwards, it can be reused in half as many ways. I have written about Lino in more detail here.

In a recent Moodle training session I delivered I used Lino to get feedback at the end. The 16 teachers who attended were more wowed by Lino than they had been by everything we had covered in Moodle. I wonder if its because it took them less than two minutes to figure it out. Shouldn’t VLEs be that easy?

Another fantastic tool is Voicethread. It allows you and your students to comment on text, audio and video, giving you something that can be referred back to later and, like Google Docs, is fantastic for formative assessment. Check out what David Mitchell and his Year 6 class have been doing with it at Heathfields.

Is a learning platform necessary?

I can already see that one of the responses levied at me will be: “Having a VLE doesn’t mean you can’t make use of these tools, you can link to them or embed them within it.” However, the notion of adding or embedding links within a VLE makes me ask: Is the VLE necessary at all? If I’m going to go outside of the VLE to find tools that I actually want to use and believe that my students will enjoy, can’t I curate those on a well managed website or a blog. Why do I need to invest in VLE to do that?

And in the current climate, with funding in education being the way it is, would I not be better off encouraging staff to take a pick n’ mix approach to IT based tools rather than buying into a heavy duty content management system that needs to be paid for (there are servers that need to be maintained after all) and having to employ someone to look after it? When that person is let go because the school can’t afford to pay them anymore, who is going to help fix broken VLE pages or modules? If Google Docs has a problem there are a whole team at Google who will sort it out and it won’t cost the school a penny.

Natalie Laferty responding to part 1 of this series on Twitter yesterday shared this post with me. Two students, at the University of Pennsylvania, created their own learning platform in response to their dislike of Blackboard, describing it as: “overloaded with features and dreadfully designed, making simple tasks difficult”. Perhaps, that is part of the problem; VLEs are suffering from ‘feature bloat’. If they were stripped back they might have more of a purpose.


In part three: blogging, file sharing and the importance of the hyperlink.

Image by James & Vilija on Flickr.