Technical (& Ideological) Questions around Curriculum Change

Consider how knowledge should be made accessible to students. In an age of distance learning and technology, one could take this to mean how children “technically” receive the curriculum and even their “technical” experience in the classroom. However, I think the more valuable discussion here is the intent and philosophy behind how the curriculum is presented.

One of the significant challenges of critical inquiry based curriculum is that it promotes “a new approach to learning”. The curriculum asks teachers to use an inquiry approach to learning and to look at events and experiences around them and throughout history through a multitude of perspectives. This “technical” change, in effect produces an ideological change, in that curriculum becomes inquiry driven versus being content driven. This presents a significant challenge for classroom teachers, who in the past relied on the content to be the engine that moved them along. It also produces questions around the ability to measure specific outcomes. In Alberta, Provincial Achievement Tests and Diploma Exams have long been geared to the content and a move away from this makes one wonder how future accountability measures will adequately examine this technical and ideological change?

Understanding the Roots of Curriculum Development

Thought I'd try to use some previous writing to kick-start my blog. Feedback always appreciated!

As a Social 30 teacher one of my main challenges was to teach students how to analyze and explore issues. Ultimately, the side-effect that I hoped would come from this is that they would become better essay writers. That they would be able to research and explore an issue, determine a position of their own and back it up with solid examples and case studies. At the same time, I wanted them to be able to see the “other” side of the issue. I wanted them to be able to understand why reasonable people might think differently than themselves on a given issue.
At the heart of this, the developing of a good social studies thesis paper, lies the intent of the entire Social Studies Curriculum.

As Alberta embarked on overhauling the Social Studies Curriculum, the writers needed to not only embed models of critical inquiry, but needed to produce a document that took multiple perspectives into consideration. They needed to consider that all groups may not have the same view of history as they, the writers, viewed history. Finally, the authors had to be wary of their own biases in developing curriculum and at the same time needed to be cautious about not overcompensating and over-representing interest groups.

As the Social Studies curriculum is designed around the notion of critical inquiry, I felt that Beyer and Apple’s “Curriculum as Complex Questions” lent itself nicely to this particular curriculum. The model consists of eight questions designed to make us consider the morality of curriculum (Bolotin Joseph, 2000). As space is limited, I will not examine the curriculum using all eight of the questions laid out by Beyer and Apple. Nor will I move through each of the three general outcomes of grade four Social Studies. Instead, I plan to focus on the questions that will highlight some of the underlying beliefs, assumptions and values present in the social studies curriculum. I will narrow my focus of the grade four curriculum specifically to general outcome 4.2 (The Stories, Histories and Peoples of Alberta). This outcome, combined with the philosophical background found in the Front Matter, should provide enough detail to explore the “complex questions”.

My plan is to present this in a series of postings beginning with Epistemology:

The first question is really about what should count as knowledge (Beyer, 1998)? This may prove to be the most difficult question to answer given the artifacts available. Alberta Learning (2005) provides a “scope and sequence” that outlines the content of each grade level and the “dimensions of thinking” required at each level, but there is little recorded discourse available to understand why things are included. Reference is made to respondents “preferring grade 4 and grade 5” to focus on Alberta and Canada in that order (Alberta 2003, p.7), however no specific reason other than preference is provided. One can only assume that this preference came from the fact that the previous curriculum was arranged in the same way. Whether or not this is the best order to present curriculum would still be a source of debate.

In the bigger picture, the Front Matter (Alberta, 2005) refers to the core concepts of citizenship and identity. While this will be explored in subsequent questions, a link can be made between historical and political reasons that influence epistemology. What should count as knowledge is influenced by who controls the curriculum. In this case, governments have a vested interest in promoting concepts such as “democracy”, “individual and collective rights”, “respect” and “equality” (Alberta, 2005, p. 3).

Qualitative Data Gathering

I might be jumping the gun here a bit with an early reflection, but it's timely for me, so I'll post!

I've completed 2 of my 4 interviews and have transcribed the recordings. Wow, I went into that blind! I was completely caught off guard by the amount of time it took to do this. I think I got better (about 2/3 of the way through my second interview) of playing the tape slowly enough that I could keep up with the typing (I'm about 70 wpm typing) but even then it was like listening to two really drunk people talk (because the tape was going sssoooo sssllloooowwww). Thank goodness for modern software - now if I could only afford that Dragon Naturally Speaking I'd interview more people!

The main thing I want to reflect on here and get feedback from others is with regard to the actual transcripts. Cresswell suggests recording everything word for word, indicating pauses, laughter, even gestures. I've tried my best to do this, but as you transcribe you realize very quickly that we speak MUCH differently than we write. I also plan to do some member checking and indicated to my participants that I would share their transcripts with them so they could make sure that I've captured the essence of what they meant to say.

What I'm worried about is this: I can recall, this summer, one of our presenters talking about sharing the transcript and the interviewee being very offended by the number of "umms", "yeahs", "you knows", "likes", etc. How much of this can I clean up or can I clean up any of it? It seems to me right now that some of it is noise and I'd like to remove that, I don't want people to read what they said and feel surprised about speak patterns and at the same time I want to make sure I stay true to the process and not lose any meaning in the data?

Look for you thoughts?

Research Process: Reflection #1

Outside of flying, anytime I travelled to Vancouver from Alberta we would take the Trans-Canada/Coquihalla route. A beautiful trip on a great highway and even though the trip was long the sights are always so stunning that time goes by quickly. A few summers ago, we planned a trip to Victoria and needed to attend a wedding in Waterton just prior to our trip. We decided to combine the two trips and left for the coast directly from Waterton.

The people I spoke to prior to leaving gave me mixed reviews. Some talked about the beauty, some spoke of the perils of single lane traffic on the #3, some highlighted places I needed to check out and still others told me I was crazy and that I wouldn’t save any real time. In the end we decided to approach the trip with open minds. Being teachers and it being July, we also decided that we would not rush the trip at all. We would stop when we felt like stopping, if we saw something interesting we would pause to check it out. If we wanted to stay an extra night somewhere, we would.

As I embark on my research, I am reminded of this trip. I’m going down a road I haven’t travelled before; like others I’m not sure how hard the transcribing is going to be or how good I’m going to be at interviewing or whether or not my questions are any good. I’ve read lots, many people have “told” me what the experience will be like, but until I’ve been down the road, I will not truly understand.

The groundwork for me is finished. Permissions granted, consents received. This part was surprisingly easy and I feel that I have a nice cross-section of people to interview. My project is a qualitative study of four teachers engaged at various stages of a District wide professional development project. My hope is to better understand how these initiatives are perceived by teachers and to learn a bit about what they perceive “effectiveness” to mean. I certainly have some concerns about whether some of my participants have had enough time/experience to reflect on their involvement in the project, but at the same time I think this will offer an interesting contrast with those that are involved for the second year.

My first interview is on Tuesday and I am busy preparing for that: reviewing my questions, testing my recording device(s). Like others, I’m anxious to get started and to see (hopefully) some patterns emerge from my data.

In Search of a Metaphor

I thought of many angles for this final blog:

1. I was going to use the metaphor of the television show “Law & Order”. For those that have watched it, you know that the show is very much story driven and while you know the characters, you don’t really “know” them. In any given episode information might be given away about one of the main characters that allows the ever constant viewer to better understand the motives of that character. In episode X, we learn that one of the detectives has an ex-wife and suddenly we understand a bit more about that character. Not a lot, but a bit more. In a lot of ways, I thought that this might be a great metaphor for this course or for web 2.0 in general. In the course we learn snippets of things, but given the timeline, we can never “go deep”, our superficial knowledge allows us something, but never quite enough. Same goes for the social web in general, sure I can follow Lee Kolbert (@teachakidd) and know that she got shin splints last week. The main part of the story is that she has some great ideas about teaching kids, the extra info just helps to paint a better picture of her.
2. I considered too the idea of only pulling resources from this week’s blog from twitter. That I would jump in my canoe so to speak and ride the river that is twitter and see where it would lead me. Documenting this trip would form the basis of the blog entry and serve as a kind of metaphor for where this social networking thing was headed. I thought too, that because things are changing so quickly (see my last blog entry) it’s hard to consider using the U of A database for this kind of research because by the time it’s posted, things have already changed so dramatically.
3. Another angle came from watching my five year old nephew surf his mom’s iPhone. Without hesitation, he picked it up, pressed some buttons and was in an app store looking at games he could download for the phone. This whole notion of risk taking for him is like speaking a different language. From his point of view there’s no risk in trying. And sure, he’s going to mess up, and mom is going to freak out that he downloaded $50 worth of games, but he’s not going to learn about risks until an adult tells him about it. Maybe the problem is that we just need to structure the learning environment a bit better.
4. Finally, I thought I’d do this whole comparison between the buzz-terms “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants” and how some of us easily fit into one of these categories (if you are over 30 years old, most likely the latter) but that some of us have a foot in each of these worlds. I was an undergrad in the early-to-mid 90’s as the Internet really began to take hold. So in lots of ways, I was in at the ground level, learning about PING and FTP, upgrading to my 14.4 modem, downloading my email with Eudora and thinking I was pretty incredible by being able to network two computers to play head-to-head DOOM. However, as the iterations of the internet rolled out (reference here) I fell further and further behind. In the world of web 2.0, I am indeed a digital immigrant. My knowledge and/or experience with web 1.0 probably has made me less afraid of exploring or trying things out for this course, but in lots of ways I know very little about the web 2.0 world because I am not “native to it. At the same time, while I can say I’m not afraid to try things, I think my age/experience/positon has some impact on restricting me from trying some things (see my blog entry on facebook).

So with all of this in mind, I don’t know that I’ve actually chosen any one metaphor to organize my thinking here. Do know that these are the kinds of thoughts running in the back of my mind as I work my way through this reflection.

Highlights of My Learning
The highlight of my learning was probably getting to share some of these new ideas with both my staff and with some of the 4th year ed students at our college. By no means am I an expert, but trying some of these tools and having my staff see me try them, has inspired some to experiment with some of the tools. If anything, that notion of being a bit of a risk-taker and chucking it aside has been a highlight for me. I’ve probably clicked on more things and more buttons than I ever would have in the past, afraid that something nasty would happen to my computer. And while I did have to get my computer re-imaged once during this course (not necessarily blaming it on the course!) in the end, I think the risk taking was well worth it.

As I’ve said before, through this course I have discovered some very key tools for me: iGoogle, Twitter, Voicethread and my blog have all become tools that I’ve started to use regularly and tools that I’ve become a bit evangelical about!

Lowlights of My Learning
For me, this is probably facebook. I get the appeal, I get how people use it as a communication tool with their friends and family, I get all of that. However, I think I put my canoe in the water too late on this one. I don’t have many friends that use facebook, and my wife takes care of most of the family photo-sharing etc. I would bet money that if I had jumped into this sooner, when things were first taking off, I would be a better user of this tool. My guess is that I will likely delete my account or let it stagnate after the course.

Future Plans
One of the pillars of my school is “meaningful, integrated technology." As a staff we fundamentally believe that you don’t “do computers” for the sake of doing computers. That in the real world, the computer, or software is a tool that can be used to enhance learning and to help students to construct new meaning. So when I look at a tool like Voicethread, I think about the practical and meaningful ways in which student assessement (both summative and more importantly formative) could really be enhanced.

Even though a lot of my learning in this course has focused on me as a learner and how I might apply things to my school, I want my next step to focus on researching how students can be using these tools to enhance their learning and our school at the same time. Instead of me blogging (although I’m not throwing that notion out) I’d like to see their book reviews posted on our site, or photos that they’ve taken or glogs (NB – another thing I’d like to explore) they’ve created linked from our site. In the end it will be the students who drive this bus (canoe?) it’s simply a matter of how much latitude we are willing to give them.

Tools to Share
I was at a CASS meeting last week in Calgary and roomed with my superintendent. We were talking about learning and professional development and I told him how surprised I was at how valuable I found Twitter to be. I told him that he needed to give it a try and that I could provide some suggestions to him as to who to start following. He was surprised by this, as are most people, because the tool – on the surface – looks to be at best a mildly entertaining distraction. If I knew that staff would follow it regularly, I would create a list for my staff and provide links (mostly through re-tweeting) but it would certainly provide them with valuable ideas.

More importantly than any specific tool though, is that I want to encourage teachers to explore and try new things. I want them to do some of the reading that shows that while we know what the pitfalls are around online learning, do we really understand the benefits. Check out the link below to the BBC article this week that shows, rather surprisingly, how much students are reading and writing and how much they feel they are improving through blogging or reading other people’s blogs.

As a member of our district’s technology learning committee, we’ve pushed for the IT people in our district to at least experiment with some ideas. I’m happy to say that because of some of this lobbying, next semester in one of our high school physics classes, students will be able to bring their own electronic devices to log on to the network and participate in a course that will combine “live” teaching with some aspects of Moodle.

Learning from Others
Without getting too specific, there are really three things that I learned from others in this course. The first and most important came from the reflective dialogue in our discussion groups. I’m a huge advocate for teachers getting into other teacher’s classrooms. Watching them teach, figuring out what makes them effective. However, this is only the first part of the process. The most important part comes afterwards when those same teachers have the chance to sit down and engage in meaningful reflective dialogue. Why did they choose to ignore a behaviour, weren’t they worried about not covering something, didn’t they…? It was great to have this discussion venue that allowed us to engage in this kind of dialogue that I think truly moved our understanding forward and was something that simply couldn’t be gleaned from reading one another’s posts.

Secondly, I think the “linkage” that people provided was crucial to my learning. Whether that was a link to a website in a blog post to a citation for a book, my colleagues in this coursed shared with me many great resources.

Courage is the last thing I learned. Each of us shared or at least alluded to the apprehensions or intimidation factors we felt going into this course and yet each week I’d learn a new skill from someone’s posting on the discussion board or in their blog. Want to figure out how to do a screen capture? Just visit someone’s blog and someone has tried it (thanks to Jackie for referencing! Again I think about what this would be like in a classroom setting where students are learning from other students, through playing and experimenting. Being able to create that kind of learning environment is what I want to be able to do.

The Whole Picture
I’d like to tie this up by connecting three things. The first comes from the Davies and Merchant text. They provide this little vignette near the start of the text that talks about riding on a train and seeing all of the different ways that people are using literacy and language. From reading newspapers to listening to iPods, the point is that our concept and definition(s) of language and literacy have changed over time and that we cannot simply say that one is better than another.

This is supported by the recent BBC article that surveyed over 3000 nine to sixteen year olds and found that those that blogged rated themselves as significantly better writers when compared to those who did not engage in blogging or social networking.

All of this I want to contrast with the epilogue of Will Richardson’s text. He paints this picture of fictional teacher “Tom McHale” engaging seamlessly in a web 2.0 world. Mr. McHale does so in a manner that makes his life much simpler and his teaching much better. Life is good for him and it is implied that life is better for everyone around him (parents, students, colleagues) because of Tom’s skill.

It is this final kind of thinking that I think we have to be really careful about. I don’t think it was Will Richardson’s intent, but I think this kind of narrative is exactly the kind of thing that intimidates and pushes teachers away from technology. They read this and think, “there’s no way I can do that.” And in some ways they are probably correct. Learning these tools and trying to make this all feel “seamless” is a lot of work. Ask anyone taking this course! (As a funny, yet sad aside, my 4 yr. old daughter told my mom that “daddy didn’t help set up the Christmas tree, he just does computer.”)

We know it is valuable but we have to be careful to not paint it as a panacea. Reflective dialogue is essential for educators so that we consider why we make the choices we make. This is where I would begin to connect these questions to more philosophical considerations like those of Posner (I knew that History of Curriculum course would com in handy!). Where does all of this fit into the official, operational, hidden and null curriculum? If we use technology for technology’s sake are we engaging in some sort of hidden curriculum and simply using technology, as Donald Normans says, as a means of conforming learners?

Rogers suggests five stages of the diffusion of learning that educators may want to consider. The first is knowledge and he suggests that here we know the technology exists but we likely don’t use it, in fact are prone to not use it. This turns to the persuasion stage (perhaps where those around me are at) where they start to emulate others who have begun adopting the technology. Their use of the technology at this point is very simple and designed to support the official curriculum they are teaching. This moves through a decision stage where teachers decide to accept or reject the innovation followed by an implementation stage where they begin to use the innovation in more creative and relevant ways. Finally, the confirmation stage has teachers seeking out others to collaborate with and improve their teaching.

Each of these points represents a philosophical jumping off point for us. We clearly know where many of the technophiles we have followed this semester stand. Each of us has a better understanding of how these tools can be used to impact the classroom positively and now each of us faces the challenge of sharing this with others. It will be crucial that we understand both philosophically and pedagogically where we stand.

References & Linkage

Davies, J. & Merchant, G. (2009). Web 2.0 for schools: Learning and social participation. New York, NY: Lang Publishing.

Goddard, M. (2002). What do we do with these computers? Reflections on technology in the classroom. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 35(1). ProQuest Education Journals.

Norman, D.A. (1993). Things that make us smart. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

Posner, G.J. (1995). Analyzing the curriculum. New York: McGraw Hill.

Richardson, W. (2009). Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other powerful web tools for classrooms (2nd ed., p. 90). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Rogers, E.M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.

The More Things Change…the More They Change

Reflections on Learning

I got an Ironman watch for Christmas a couple of years ago and have proceeded to lose the watch a few times. Lose is a loose term here, because mostly it has been my toddler son who finds my watch fascinating and then puts it in strange places. Once, for about a month, the watch was in the house somewhere. I knew this because every morning at 6:45 am the alarm on my watch would go off, but I was never quick enough to find it before I lost the signal. I eventually found it inside a container of Elmo dominoes. Last month I was reorganizing the garage and found it tied to a kid’s set of golf clubs. Don’t know how that happened, but I was happy to have it back.

Time is this constant, and I know this because each time I’ve “lost” my watch, when I find it, it is still keeping the proper time. Perhaps daily savings time has been implemented and I need to make a slight alteration, but for the most part things are pretty much unchanged in my relationship between my watch and I the time while we were apart.

But what if that wasn’t the case. What if while I was away, my watch decided to start telling time differently? A bit far-fetched I suppose, but what if? What if by some cosmic force time had been altered and I didn’t know about it, but my watch did? How would I react or adjust to this? Would I simply tell my watch to go back to its old way of keeping time or would I adjust to the new?

For me, the Internet is a real-life version of this far-fetched scenario. And if it feels like this to me, how does it feel to someone who isn’t immersed in its use? I can’t imagine. In a lot of ways we teachers are assembly line workers who like to break things down into manageable patterns. Sure we add a few different tricks every once in a while, but when we find something that works, we like to stick to it. How else to you account for PowerPoint being so pervasive and simultaneously so useless?

In so many ways, I feel like the Internet has shifted spaces on me since the beginning of this course. Nowhere is this more apparent for me then with blogging and RSS feeds. It’s like I put them in a special place so that I knew just where my information would always be, but when I went to get them, they had moved. Not physically, but fundamentally.

The Personal Level

There are definitely multiple levels to my learning about blogs and RSS feeds during the course of this course. I had some experience with these things before the course and used them, but only slightly and only for personal interests. In that way, I have a tremendous amount of thanks to this course for expanding my list of sources and resources.

The most significant change for me is that this course has fundamentally changed how I use Google. Where most people I know see a typical, rather white, Google search page, mine now looks like this:

Perhaps not a huge change for some, but I think it goes back to the notion that Phil McRae researched about – the way the web self organizes. Previously, so much of this information for me was all over the place – in my browser history, in my favourites – with passwords to remember and sites to remember. Now things are compiled. Between my “iGoogle” page, my blog, my Delicious tags and Twitter, most of what I need or am interested in can be managed in about 4 tabs.

For me this means that my approach to learning and to the Internet has become so much more organized and simplified. Whereas before I would have had about “30 clicks” to make to get up-to-speed on things, it’s done in 3-5. Rather than me going out and finding the information I want, the information is coming to me. This is something repeated by Will Richardson over and over in his writing, and something I didn’t really comprehend until I lived the experience.

The Professional Level

At the professional level as I started to follow more and more educational blogs, I probably became more and more annoying to my colleagues at school and in my district. I was constantly sharing links about interesting articles from the Blue Skunk blog or weblogg-ed or some other blog. I was/am constantly being asked where I was finding this stuff, which in and of itself has been a great way to spread some knowledge (showing others how to develop their feeds, etc.). Now teachers within my school are starting to use some of the tools I’ve become familiar with and reciprocate the sharing. I don’t think I could have asked for more in terms of professional development and application to my work setting.

The biggest question for me at the professional level is not how we can use other people’s blogs as resources, but rather how can we use blogging ourselves as a resource? I look at my blog and wonder if staff members would find any use in it. I’ve shown it to a couple of staff members, but haven’t truly “shared” it yet. I’m inclined to do so, if only to get feedback, but I’d like to let it evolve a bit more.

Blogging for PD to me means that you need to build some sort of community where people are reading your thoughts, commenting on your work and sharing back. I don’t think I’m really part of this world yet. I’m one of the people reading other people’s blogs and comment, but I’m not a blogger – yet..

Our conversations this week in our discussion group are directly related to the overall concept of blogging. The idea of voice applies to both us as educators and to students as well. Blogs in the classroom can be a great way of creating community, a way for students to establish or find their voice, a way for those that might not have the confidence to speak up to perhaps share some ideas.

Will the average educator engage in this? I think if I took a survey of this right now, the teachers on my staff would laugh at me – and they are relatively progressive thinkers! The demands being put on teacher that are “lumped” into the area of technology (IPPs, SIRS, teacher logic, homework updates on website, etc.) could make something like this feel like another add on. Sure there would be some who try, but I would expect resistance.

The challenging part then is implementing this with students when teachers don’t necessarily understand the concept. The benefits are obvious (I’ve listed some of these above) but there are challenges as well. Access is a definite issue as is deciding how these will be assessed. Ultimately having been through this process, I would suggest to any educator that they are going to need experience with the tool first in order to understand how to apply it in the classroom in a meaningful way.

New Knowledge

Back to my original metaphor about “time” and wondering what would happen if “time” changed? Here’s a look at a screen shot of my Google reader account:

I’ve subscribed to about 20 or so blogs. The one’s we were asked to subscribe to, my classmates, some personal interest ones and some others that I stumbled across during the course. I definitely subscribed to more/most of these in September and early October as we got into the course. I found the articles interesting (of course) and daily would log in to my Google reader account to check things out. Then things began to change for me – time moved for me, so to speak.

Perhaps because there is only so much time in the day or only so much room in my brain, or because one simply can’t be using all of these tools all of the time, my patterns began to shift. As I built my iGoogle account (see first screen shot) my usage of Google reader diminished. While Google reader was still obviously running in the background to feed my iGoogle page, I stopped visiting Google reader regularly. Now the info I wanted or used from the blogs was coming at me through both my iGoogle account as well as linked directly to my own blog. This was a fundamental shift for me, but it was nothing compared to what Twitter did to my usage patterns.

As I began using Twitter, my feeds were now coming at me directly and live in a lot of ways “previewed”. Someone like @courasa or @mastermaq would retweet something from Scott McLeod or Ross Todd and I could immediately follow that link. So not only was it immediate, I had along with it a 140 character or less review of the new blog posting:

As you can see, within a 10 minute span I received two really interesting links from Joyce Valenza. Multiple this by the number of people I’m following and I have more than enough information to sift through.

The difficult aspect of this is the randomness of it all. Interspersed amongst the good information is someone telling me what the sunset is like, or what they are eating for dinner. I don’t necessarily have this problem when I’m only reading blogs and not the minutia leading me to the blogs.

With that in mind, my reading for this portion of the course turn from investigating blogs and RSS feeds, to wondering about the future of these applications and how change was going to affect them. I wondered what would happen if teachers spent months learning and integrating a new tool (new to them at least) like Google reader into their classroom only to have it become obsolete before they really got into it. I know one of the librarians in our district lamented to me recently that she teaches an information processing course and can’t get the students to email in their assignments. I told her that students don’t use email and she couldn’t believe that, nor could she believe that she had invested considerable time designing a course that appealed to 21st Century learners, only to find that she was still a year and half behind!

Simon Mackie of Web Worker Daily says, “Personally, I still think that RSS readers are useful, but I know that I don’t check mine as religiously as I used to (maybe just once per day in the morning), as I know that I’ll discover anything really important through Twitter.”

Dawn Foster found much the same thing. That “people working in the technology industry who once used RSS readers but had mostly abandoned them in favor of using Twitter to find news and interesting blog posts.”

And here Robert Scoble provides his top 8 reasons why he don’t use Google reader anymore.

Each of these are interesting points and support the same type of feeling I was having around RSS readers and finding information. The difficulty right now I think is that RSS Readers allow a level of organization that Twitter does not. RSS readers provide a much better interface for returning to interesting content. As Twitter develops its “list” function this may change, but for now I know I can count on Google reader being more organized compared to Twitter’s randomness. However, if I subscribe to the notion that the web is a self-organizing place, I have to believe that at some point these tools will ultimately integrate themselves into one another in a way that will be helpful to me.

So, like my misplaced watch, RSS feeds started in one place for me and ended up in another. This will be a challenge for teachers, teacher-librarians and administrators as the pressure to use technology meets the reality of that same technology changing on us even as we are using the tool.


Davies, J. & Merchant, G. (2009). Web 2.0 for schools: Learning and social participation. New York, NY: Lang Publishing.

McRae, P. (2007). Interculture collaborative inquiry on the Internet: Epistemological humility in a global era. University of Alberta.

Richardson, W. (2009). Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other powerful web tools for classrooms (2nd ed., p. 90). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

The Vinegar of the Internet?

Reflections on Learning

My wife tells me that vinegar can do just about anything. And if you do the research, you’ll find out she’s right. In fact, if I told you that I actually had vinegar write this post for me, you’d have a tough time arguing that contention. Vinegar is simply amazing.

When the ancient Egyptians were using vinegar, I’m fairly certain they didn’t think that they could use it to put on their automobile windshields at night so that they weren’t frosted over in the morning. Nor did ancient Chinese cultures think that vinegar was the best for getting out ketchup stains or stopping lint from sticking to their laundry.

There are plenty of other examples of products starting out as one thing and ending up as another. Coca-Cola was originally intended as a patent medicine designed to cure many diseases, including morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence. Post-it notes were the result of a failed attempt by a 3M scientist to create a glue with an unbreakable bond.

And so it is with Twitter. Originally designed as a micro-blogging application, Twitter, like vinegar, has been morphed and manipulated by the users (rather than the developers) into a tool that does things the inventors never imagined. The analogy might not extend too far beyond that though as I can see that Twitter, like vinegar has many uses, yet I’m not entirely convinced that Twitter is as useful as vinegar.

I’m going to take a bit of a different approach to this blog entry. I’ll discuss briefly the personal and professional implications, but mostly I’d like to focus on some of these “other” uses I stumbled across as I learned about this application and how this impacts me and potentially the classroom.

The Personal Level

I’ve mentioned in other postings that I was and probably remain a bit of anti-facebook person. For whatever reason though, I was using Twitter fairly early on. I first discovered it as a way of getting real-time information about baseball’s spring training. Reporters would cover games that weren’t being broadcast and tweet what was happening. They would provide the latest rumours about free agent signings and provide links to other stories. This was interesting to me not necessarily because I’m a baseball nut (I’m not) but more because I’ve taken an interest in seeing how teams are constructed. The pre and off-seasons of sports allow for a fairly public view of how this happens and Twitter, I discovered, allowed me to get information faster than ever before. Since that time, as is the nature of the Internet, new applications like CoverItLive, have replaced Twitter coverage somewhat.

As a personal tool, I can’t say that I’ve found much use in it. It’s nice that my brother-in-law posts the odd photo so we can see how the nieces and nephew are doing, but there are other ways for him to share this info too. I’m a little leery about using Twitter in this way (see Twitgoo below) and I’m not too interested in sharing mundane things about my life with “whoever”.

The Professional Level

I gave a presentation the other day to some of our 4th year ed students at the local college. It’s actually a satellite program of the U of A and they were looking at how they might use Web 2.0 in elementary social studies classrooms. The prof knew I was taking this course and asked me to share some thoughts. I talked with them about many of the applications we’ve looked at in this course, but my biggest point of emphasis was on Twitter. The reason for this was not necessarily because I felt they could use this as a tool in the classroom, but because I’ve found Twitter to be an incredible resource for reading. And even though Twitter itself is a bit “stream-of-consciousness”, it provides these connections to fascinating reading that allows one to grow as a professional.

One might argue that Google Reader can provide you with the same sort of access to excellent articles, and I have enjoyed my subscriptions, but Twitter is full of some great surprises (as long as you follow the right people!)

At this point, as a classroom application, I think Twitter is fairly limited. In lots of ways it’s far too “open” to use in the classroom. At any moment any kind of word, inappropriate or otherwise, or any kind of link can show up taking any element of control out of this for the classroom teacher. Micro-blogging, unlike blogging, makes it difficult to take things back. Students are less inclined to think, edit, etc. their 140 or fewer characters post, as compared to writing and editing their blog post before publishing. Even then, a blog post can be edited and tweaked, whereas a Tweet is out there, forever. A student that writes something inappropriate will have no opportunity for recovery. In yesterday's newspaper, it was noted that just this sort of thing happened. Chief of Staff for the Wildrose Alliance (Stephen Carter) mocked premier Ed Stelmach's speaking style and was later made to retract his comments.

This is not to say I didn’t come across some interesting ideas about how to use Twitter. Will Richardson talks about the New Jersey teacher that uses Twitter as a way for students to micro-blog (journal) what they see on a field trip. Or the teacher that uses Twitter as essentially a way to replace Senteo devices in the classroom. Students can tweet their responses to instructor questions and teachers can get immediate feedback on student understanding. This works of course only if students have immediate access to user stations or cell phones which of course is often a whole other debate.

In fact looking for ways that I might choose to use this service with my class proved to be difficult. Even when authors such as Laura Walker suggest using Twitter in schools, they are really talking about professional development and not student use. Of Walker’s list of “9 reasons to start using Twitter in schools” eight are clearly functions of PD. Only writing concisely (140 characters or less) could directly apply to students.

On the professional development side, I’ve already hinted how I think Twitter can be useful. One of the more fascinating things that I read was in the Time article about #hackedu. This “Twitter conference” that began with 30 or so people in room and grew into a meeting of the minds around the world was simply astonishing and another example of how Twitter, like vinegar, has been morphed by its users.

New Knowledge

The obvious thing that stands out about Twitter and what likely speaks to its appeal is that it is a very good marketing and self promotion tool. This makes it very appealing to business people and entrepreneurs and will likely eventually be the economic engine that sustains Twitter. I could get into the annoying, mundane aspects of Twitter (I don’t need to know that Mack Male is sleeping – although I understands why he does this) but for this post I want to focus on interesting and positive (mostly) aspects of Twitter.

Twitter is also obviously a very useful tool in terms of immediacy of information. For this reason it can serve as a news reporting service of events as they unfold, or for getting real-time updates of traffic or for communication in the event of emergencies. Interestingly, this last point is sold in many of the articles you read about Twitter, but given the number of times over the past couple of months that I’ve noticed Twitter to be over capacity, I wonder how its servers would hold up in a real emergency situation? I recall not being able to get information from places like on 9/11 due to Internet traffic issues.

As technologies seem to merge, the idea and reality of multiple interfaces is something else that will help to sustain Twitter. I no longer have to be at my computer to read information, to give and get updates, it’s right there on my cell phone. This, along with the integrated nature of Twitter with blogs, facebook and just about every website out there, it makes it so pervasive. The fact that I can link my “tweets” to my blog so easily makes this a useful feature.

In an information culture, we want the most up to date information possible. Where else to get the most “trending” information than from a place like Twitter that actually compiles what is trending? I can now be “up-to-the-nano-second-cool”! How else would I have stumbled upon this. Related to this, Twitter seems to be a great tool for asking questions and getting immediate (and diverse) answers. Forums obviously have their purpose, but if you don’t want to wait around for a reply, ask your question in the twitterverse.

I’m aware that other social networking applications have other tools designed to enhance their usage, however, I think Twitter has a leg up here (thus the vinegar analogy) that is unique. Many of the apps for things like facebook to me seem like distractions, whereas the ones developed for Twitter seem to be based more on functionality. Below is a list that is no where near exhaustive. Just the ones I stumbled upon and tried during the last couple of months. Mindboggling in lots of cases:

Twitgoo – I can’t even remember what I did to use this service. In all of the things I tried, this was perhaps the second creepiest! I tried to upload a photo through Twitter and my PhotoBucket site. I did something (again, I don’t remember what) and suddenly a picture of my daughter was in “twitgoo”. I could see it, and below was a counter of how many times the picture had been viewed by other twitter users. Within seconds, 30-45-60-100 people had viewed this picture of my daughter and then, as other pictures were added, my daughter’s photo moved down the scroll and suddenly was gone and there were no more views. This blew my mind, because first of all I didn’t intend to post this picture in this way (I didn’t know the service existed) and secondly there was no way for me to stop it from happening.

Twitterlocal, twellow – thanks to @mastermaq and his elluminate presentation for sharing this information with us. These tools have been fascinating, particularly in light of Mack Male’s suggestion that you follow local users. Twitterlocal (I have it sitting on my desktop right now) shows tweets from anyone who lives within 16 kilometres (or 10 miles) of my IP address. This is somewhat creepy, but it’s definitely allowed me to connect with some people I wouldn’t have found otherwise. This could be an interesting application in the school setting if not for the unpredictable nature of the tweets. One guy, for instance, always uses profanity in his tweets.

A positive example of how this could apply in school is on Thursday morning there was an article in our paper about one of bridges being refurbished and also questions about how City Council was going to fund a new events centre. One alderman is an avid Twitter user posted, “don’t believe the paper, there will be no tax hikes!” From there a real-time debate evolved on Twitter around this issue, with one of the decision makers. This would have been great for grade 6 students to see.

Hash tags – again thanks to Mastermaq for helping me to understand these as it has changed how I use Twitter and how I search for things on this service. This is another prime example of how the web becomes almost self-organizing. The hash tags have allowed me to truly access the most current information on the topics I’m interested in and more specifically have directed me towards other people I want to follow.

#FollowFriday – these little events that seem to happen in the “Twitterverse” are things I’m still trying to understand. Even though it was suggested elsewhere that Twitter can help us become more concise writers, I think it actually encourages us to be more slangy or even more coded writers. In a lot of ways tweets have developed into another language and you need to be able to decode it to understand it.

Qik – I picked this up from @courasa. Got to watch two minutes of video of him watching the luggage return area at what I think was Pearson International. Weird. Voyeurism perhaps, but the potential of this is really interesting. Being able to communicate with others (friends, experts or otherwise), truly see what they are seeing is fascinating. There are some obvious drawbacks or concerns with this as well, but used responsibly this could be a great tool.

Retweeting – at first I didn’t get this, but soon after following this for a bit, you can grasp the potential of RT. Word can spread infinitely and quickly through retweeting. I find something interesting and tweet it to my 15 followers, who in turn RT to the 300 of their followers who RT to 30000 of their followers. Information can be pervasive almost instantly.

Uber twitter – I mentioned that twitgoo had creepy factor #2, well for me this is #1. It surprises me how many Twitter users use and share this information. Essentially giving away their global position through their Twitter account. When I can see that someone is tweeting from 1201 Southview Dr. SE in Medicine Hat, AB, Canada, I think this is creepy and in some ways irresponsible. If we are teaching kids about online safety, this service has to be at the top of the list. There are other tools that are similar to this like or that allow you to get a perspective of the global nature of Twitter without the safety element issue.

Tweet Deck – Twitter has obviously spawned many platform applications. I downloaded and tried tweetdeck and it really helped me to better understand how to use Twitter and probably made me a more efficient user. From being able to easily use services like to being able to organize my followers, this proved to be a great tool. On the flip side, it was a bit of a resource hog and something you probably couldn’t install on school computers.

Mr. Tweet – I found this through Joyce Valenza’s blog and have just recently subscribed to it so I don’t have much experience with it yet. From what I can understand, Mr. Tweet will provide me with suggestions of people to follow based on the people I currently follow. It will also suggest me to others if we share the same interests. Dr. Valenza has found it helpful, so I hope I do as well!

So, maybe I could coin my own term and get it out there. How about #twinegar? Think it will take off? In the end, I’ve found #twinegar to be 3 parts useful, 3 parts strange and mundane, 1 part creepy, and 10 parts interesting. I look forward to using this tool more and thinking of how I can embed it into my school usage. For now it will likely remain a tool that has served as a very good PD tool and one where I am more of a lurker than a content generator.


Canadian Press, (Nov. 21, 2009). Wildrose in twitter trouble, The Medicine Hat News.

Krishnamurthy, B., Gill, P. & Arlitt, M. (2008). A few chirps about twitter, WOSN ’08. Retrieved Nov. 18, 2009 from

Richardson, W. (2009). Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other powerful web tools for classrooms (2nd ed., p. 90). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Walker, L. (2009). Nine reasons to twitter in schools, Tech & Learning. Retrieved Nov 18, 2009 from,8599,1902604-1,00.html