Technology tools pros and cons

With the first week of class under my belt, and lots of hands-on work with tools both in and out of the classroom, I’ve been thinking about the good and the bad of the tools I use for teaching.  I have not mastered the Michael Wesch level of technology integration.  I tend to focus on a couple of things–blogs, maybe a wiki, and usually some kind of multimedia project.  Twitter, Ning, delicious–I’m afraid to go there.  Which I know is saying something for someone who works in and is in the middle of teaching a course on educational technology.  The course is stretching me just a bit beyond my comfort zone, which has me trying out lots of new things for teaching, things I may use on my own but haven’t incorporated into my pedagogy fully.  One of my students suggested that she was feeling like the tools we had looked at so far were more useful for her professional development rather than for teaching.  I know how she feels!  Here are some of my thoughts so far.

Overall, the number of things out there that one *could* use is enormous.  This makes finding the right resource or tool very difficult.  I’ve been digging through my various networks in search of resources for chemistry and biology teachers.  It’s harder than it looks.

The textbook.  It was suggested to me that I use a textbook to provide some structure to the class.  I was glad to do so since I’d never taught this topic before, but now I’m sort of regretting that decision for a several reasons.  One, the book wasn’t in when the class began, as I’ve mentioned previously.  Two, I chose to use the electronic version for myself and told the students they could choose either option.  They’ve all chose the hard copy version.  The electronic version, while convenient, is kind of lame.  The links are not clickable.  There’s an affiliated website, also not clickable when mentioned in the text.  Instead, you have to type in the url and then dig through an index to find something.  Despite being published in 2009, some of the links to examples and external resources no longer work.  Despite being a book about incorporating technology into teaching, there are so few specific examples, it’s laughable, and almost no use of technology within the subject matter itself.  There pdf’s to print out or online quizzes to take and an occasional video to watch, but there’s no tutorial that would take you through a lesson plan or technology integration process (there are, to be fair, links to external versions of these–but you have to type the link in yourself).  Besides the technical issues, I’m finding myself too closely tied to the book.  I ventured away from it today and felt much more comfortable.  I have used textbooks or readers in the past to good effect, but for some reason, this isn’t working as well as I’d like.  Tomorrow I’ll be reading next week’s sections, so I’ll see what I can add of my own to make it much more palatable.

Google Toolbar.  My students are all using it for bookmarking and other things, so I thought I’d use it too.  I switched to Google Chrome a few weeks ago, mostly for speed reasons.  Ironically, the Google Toolbar will not work with Google Chrome.  Really?  So I switched to Firefox and lo, and behold, it works fine.  The share button is especially nice, letting you share pages with your social network quite easily.  When you click on it, it gives you about fifty or so sites that you can share the page with.  Pretty amazing.  You can also bookmark on bookmarking sites, put something into your reader and all kinds of other things.  I’m hoping we can experiment.

Edublogs.  I decided that since this was a popular platform for K-12 educators, that I’d give it a try.  After all, it’s built on WordPress, which I’ve always liked and am familiar with.  I also recommended the site to my students.  Two of them went with Edublogs, two with WordPress.com.  During our “pimp your blog” segment in class today, we found some major differences between the two.  I already knew that the widgets/plugins available via Edublogs were limited, in part, I’m sure, to keep things simple.  But, there were some key plugins that weren’t available in Edublogs that I think should be.  One, RSS Feeds.  It just seems silly that I can’t include a simple RSS url that will then display the latest posts from that feed.  I’d love to be able to do that for my student blogs, which for now are just linked to.    I don’t see why a handful of other plugins besides the very basic ones provided, couldn’t be included for free.  Considering that the target audience for the site are K-12 teachers, many of whom shell out their own money already for classroom supplies, you would think that more free stuff would be readily available.  Wordpress.com includes the RSS plugin, btw, as well as many others that Edublogs does not include.

Widgets, gadgets, embedding objects.  Without the more automatic widgets for WordPress available, we resorted to the tried and true method of cutting and pasting lines of javascript into the text widget.  It works, to be sure.  But it’s a little over even my fairly tech savvy students’ heads.  Both Google reader and delicious have codes for embedding their feeds into any web site, but they’re both pretty hard to find, and delicious’s is nearly impossible.  Part of this is that a lot of blog applications now allow you to include these things with the click of a button.  WordPress.com had a delicious widget, so that one could enter their username and voila! delicious feed.  But some people want or need to go old school.  It’d be nice if those scripts were more easily found or foregrounded.

It’s hard to keep in mind that I’ve built up my tool collection over several years and that I may have switched specific providers of tools–from Bloglines to Google Reader, from Blogger to WordPress–I’ve developed an understanding of how these tools work that my students don’t necessarily have.  For me, switching products is like buying a Toyota after driving a Pontiac for years.  Sure the gear shift is in a different place and the radio works slightly differently, but I still know how to drive the car.  For my students, who’s familiarity rests primarily with Facebook, email, IM and course management systems, it’s a little like riding a bike and then learning to drive a car.  Yeah, they both have wheels and gears, but the functionality is quite different.  Warning: learning curve ahead.

5 Replies to “Technology tools pros and cons”

  1. As you may have noticed from an incoming link, I’m teaching a very similar course. I’ve decided to go “all in” on the technology this time and try to get students to play around with the tools a little more than I have in the past.

    I had been interested in your post on using a textbook. I chose not to use one, and after reading your post, was a little ambivalent about that choice. I now feel a little better about using material from the web, but I’d like to see an appropriate “textbook” for the kind of course we are teaching because I’ve had to scramble several times now to put something together that seems appropriate.

    Still, I’m looking forward to learning from your discussion of the course.

  2. As I just posted, I am now thoroughly frustrated with the text. I actually stole a couple of your documents from your syllabus on Flickr, so thank you for linking! The textbook pretty much sucks. It serves as a decent reference and overview (it’s a Pearson book, btw), but despite being published in 2009, is not all that up-to-date. It’s pretty conservative in its approach, which I think is fine for what it is, but I’d rather go out on a limb and be pulled back rather than start from a super safe place. I’m teaching science teacher who are simultaneously taking their methods course, so they come to me without the educational theory or practice background that I’m used to. And, add to that, I know nothing about science! I don’t think that’s a huge problem, but it would certainly be nice if I could pull examples off the top of my head that were more science oriented.

    BTW, I’ve been putting a ton of resources in delicious–which I think are also getting fed to Twitter and are posted on the class blog. But they might be useful (http://delicious.com/lblanken). Some of them are tools, some are specific to science instruction.

    Maybe what we need is an open textbook–one that actually has links that work! Perhaps sections for disciplines.

  3. Thanks for the Delicious tip. I’ve been posting stuff there, but I have been less attentive to what other people are posting. The thought of an open textbook actually crossed my mind as I wrote my comment. I’ve seen a couple of wiki-based textbooks that are pretty helpful (and could, theoretically) be updated easily when links go dead or technologies/tools are added.

    Most of my students are language arts teachers, and some of them have built wikis before, so that makes it easier to connect with them. Many of them are graduating soon, so they should already have the theory, but I’ll admit that’s a weak point for me and the course as I have designed it.

    Good to know about the limits of the textbook so that I don’t bother to adopt it in the future.

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