Sunday, September 2, 2012

How does Richardson's "Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts" hold up six years later?

Will Richardson talks the future of education on YouTube.

Will Richardson's excellent book "Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts (and other powerful Web tools for classrooms)" explains how teachers can integrate online media into their teaching to help students learn and be engaged - no small task, as any teacher knows.

(I recently read the book as part of my master's degree studies at Central Michigan University).

As someone who attempts to keep up with the latest digital media and technology, it's interesting to see where some of Richardson's suggestions have already been replaced by other online tools, and read his predictions in the context of where we're at today. Example: Richardson imagines a tablet, which we now know is called an iPad. And no one giggles when you say it.

That the book came out in 2006 (the third edition was published in 2010) shows how quickly technology has changed and is changing, and how nimble you have to be to incorporate it into the classroom and just know "what the hell is going on online" in everyday life.

Richardson begins the book with a discussion about Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, who was recently honored at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony (and flummoxed the NBC commentators, who suggested - not ironically - that viewers Google his name).

Berners-Lee's vision for technology is the Read-Write Web:
"Berners-Lee saw the potential to construct a vast "web" of linked information, built by people from around the globe, creating the ability to share not just data but personal talents in new and powerful ways." (Richardson, P. 1)
It's a theoretical idea championed by the public relations industry for years (in the industry, we call it "two-way symmetric" communication), but it took the Internet to make it come to life.

Richardson's resources

In the book, Richardson gives examples of how teachers can use the read-write Web to communicate, get and pass along information, create content, and encourage students to create content. Richardson's suggested classroom resources (in his order), and how they hold up:

1. Blogs

I've been a champion of blogging for years, though I admit that I arrived late to the party. But as soon as I started blogging, I made up for lost time.
"I will never forget the first time I posted my opinion, and the first time someone responded to it. There was something really powerful about so easily being able to share resources and ideas with a Web audience that was willing to share back what they thought about those ideas" (Richardson, P. 17). 
 Amen.

In Richardson's chapters on blogging, I particularly like his suggestion that teachers use blogs with other schools - in their neighborhood or around the world - to encourage discussion. It's an idea I hadn't considered.

For my students, the biggest blogging benefit is a chance to practice expressing themselves in writing in a public forum, which is something they'll be expected to do for their potential employers or clients.

I see every chance to write as a chance to get better. I recall Stephen King's advice in his excellent book, "On Writing":
"Practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and...honesty is indispensable" (King, P. 195). 
 Blogging checks both boxes.

The biggest downside to blogging, from a teacher's perspective, is that it's difficult to legislate students' blogging and commenting. It's the age-old problem: how do you teach (or encourage) passion?

The other issue: the complaint that "no one reads my blog, so why should I bother updating it?" The answer, of course: "You need to update your blog, so that people will read it."

2. Wikis

I've never used a wiki as a classroom tool, other than for the classes I'm taking myself.

So, I felt a little ashamed when I read Richardson's chapter on wikis and then came across this article on Smartteaching.org: 50 Ways to use wikis for a more collaborative and interactive classroom. Ideas include "virtual field trips," "exam review," "fan clubs," data collection, "adventure story," "school tour," and "teacher collaboration."

Among Richardson's suggestions: creating an online classroom text, lesson plan exchange, or class Wikipedia.

The strengths and limitations of using a class wiki are apparent when you visit a class' shared wiki pages - the variety of fonts, colors, and formats (not to mention coding issues and broken links) can make for a disjointed read. In addition, the ability to edit and be edited can be a help and a hindrance. What if, for example, a well-meaning student edits a classmate's work, but makes an incorrect edit? And what if a student posts weak work, knowing that someone else will likely correct it?

Of course, if Wikipedia founders would have listened to these arguments, we'd be missing one of the key sites on the Web.
"No one person or even small group of people, could produce Wikipedia, as currently edits appear at a rate of around 400,000 a day. The extent to which this happens and to which it is successful is truly inspiring" (Richardson, P. 56 and 57).
3. RSS
"I think it's the one technology that you should start using today, right now, this minute. And tomorrow, you should teach your students to use it" (Richardson, P. 70 and 71).
The difference between what RSS readers used to be and what they are now is stunning. For instance, I now find Google Reader to be a difficult way to enjoy reading my favorite feeds. What's better? My heart goes to the Flipboard and Pulse mobile apps, which turn RSS feeds into very readable social magazines and news tickers, respectively.

The upside of this technology is enormous: the ability to "read more content from more sources in less time" (Richardson, P. 72). In this age of "too much information" that's the real trick. The downside of this technology is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make 'er drink; you may subscribe to the prescribed RSS feeds, but that doesn't mean you'll read them.

4. Twitter and social bookmarking

I tweet, therefore I am. And I hope that it makes up for my lack of work in the wiki world, because with Twitter, I'm all in.

The upside of using Twitter is enormous: I've used it for class discussions and networking (#journchat on Monday evenings is particularly good), for generating and testing comedy material, and to see what students are saying when I'm not around (har, har!).

I haven't yet used a social bookmarking tool in class, but I plan on introducing Scoop.it (website and app) this semester. Similar to Delicious and Instapaper ("read it later"), Scoop.it lets you publish online magazines by curating content (social bookmarking) on the topic of your choice.

The benefits, again, are collaboration and the ability to collect, curate, and share.

5. Flickr

Generally speaking, photo-sharing is easy and part and parcel of running a blog. Apart from reminding students to "post a photo with every blog post," I've never needed to make photo-sharing a separate assignment - it's happened organically.
"The easiest place for teachers and students to begin experimenting with creating and publishing content other than text is with digital photography, a technology that is becoming more and more accessible every day" (Richardson, P. 101).
Flickr is where Richardson and I part ways, although it's only fair to point out that his book came out before there was an Instagram and pretty great digital-phone photography led by the iPhone.

Instagram, of course, is the photo-sharing website that Facebook recently bought for a cool billion dollars. It has some advantages over Flickr: the ability from your mobile phone to very easily take and filter your photos, post them online instantly, and instantly share them with your friends on Instagram or other social networks.

At its heart, Instagram is easier, more flexible, and faster than Flickr. Its biggest advantage, however, might be its "fun factor." Where Flickr is a photo storage site with sharing options, Instagram is all about sharing, liking, and commenting with storage as an afterthought.

The other big advantage is that Instagram is free with no maximum number of uploads (though it's not currently possible to upload whole photo albums). Flickr caps users at 200 photos and then asks them to upgrade to a premium account. Knowing that I could upload the same photos to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook without charge, I decline to pay for Flickr's premium service.

6. Podcasting/screencasting/streaming
"The simple fact is that it has become much easier to create and consume multimedia as well as text and digital images" (Richardson, P. 112).
I'm grateful I had the chance to learn GarageBand this summer and to find out how easy it is to record a podcast. I'm at three and counting - and I'm looking forward to submitting it to iTunes in the near future, alongside my podcasting comedy heroes Adam Carolla, Bill Burr, Greg Proops, Marc Maron, and Joe Rogan.

I will put this knowledge to good use at school: my college's radio station recently discontinued its broadcast license, which means that podcasting is among the best options to replace it. It's unfortunate that students are no longer able to broadcast on traditional radio frequencies, but I'm optimistic that podcasting skills are more forward-looking, since you can no longer imagine an invisible audience listening; instead you've got download and streaming stats and "marketing" becomes the much-needed partner in crime.

The good news:
"About $100 and an Internet connection is all you need to start doing regular radio shows with your students" (Richardson, P. 115). 
It's probably cheaper now. I've recently downloaded the Ustream, viddy, and Bambuser apps, which allow anyone with a smartphone to live stream video.

Also underrepresented in the curriculum: screencasting. The downside of much of this technology is that it's becoming more and more necessary for everyone to own an iPhone and iPad. On a student budget, that is not always a possibility. I can't help but consider how great it would be if our program could provide each student with an iPad on the first day of school.
"Our ability to create and share multimedia in more and more transparent ways is only going to continue to expand...publishing to an audience can be a great motivator for students. Podcasting, videocasting, screencasting, and...live-streaming TV are all great ways to get student content online" (Richardson, P. 129).
7. Facebook/Ning

My school is far from the only one that's afraid of Facebook. Be that as it may, I believe it's a teacher's duty to show "appropriate use," especially in a communications program.
"The key to...these sites for educators is to move beyond the friendship-based connections and really explore the potentials of the networked, interest-based learning that's possible within these frames" (Richardson, P. 132).
Among the benefits of Facebook are creating a strong online community, sharing information, and collaborating. However, if one's school doesn't allow it, what's the solution? Could it be Ning?

Before my class, I'd never heard of Ning. I was looking forward to experimenting with it, but you begin to be charged for using it after a 30-day trial. I'll pass: Edmodo is available for free. Like a Facebook for the classroom, I've found Edmodo do be very easy to use and a great way to meet other teachers. The issue is getting students used to using a site other than Facebook - Edmodo is even more of a ghost town than Google+.

Facebook is also good for classroom discussion purposes: What is Facebook's responsibility toward its users? Personal data? Is freedom of speech on Facebook a right? Should you buy when Facebook stocks finally drop to $6?

***
The ongoing multimedia revolution is mind-boggling and ubiquitous at once. To ignore this revolution in school is to miss out on an incredibly powerful range of communication tools that allow us to publish, consume, discuss, comment, and collaborate.

Students will be using "the new media" in the workplace when they graduate, and it may look very different than it does today. We owe it to ourselves and them to show them how to not only learn about the tools Richardson talks about in his book, but to be on the cusp of whatever replaces them.

Richardson's book is a good reality check for teachers considering incorporating online media into their classes and road map for how far we've already come.

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