Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Blog Post #9 RSS, Blogging (EDES 501)

Reflections on the Process of Learning About the Tool

At the beginning of the course when we were initially asked to sign up for Twitter, an RSS feed, and create a blog, I thought I was in way over my head. But, there I sat adding all the people we were required to follow, as well as practicing my deep breathing, calming exercises. My first step, I thought, find out what RSS stands for. Will Richardson's chapter, "RSS The New Killer App for Educators," was like a breath of fresh air following my moments of hyperventilation. I love that he writes with such simplicity, but at the same time uses the technology lingo that surrounds us in the 21st century. Real Simple Syndication, a tool, "Aimed at helping you consume all that information in more efficient and relevant ways," by sending the information to you. Once I wrapped my mind around what that actually meant, I exclaimed to my husband, "You gotta come check this out - we can have news feeds or information sent directly to us." He casually walked over, pointed to our google page and said, "You mean like the TSN and CBC updates we already get?" Argh! I thought I was really going to be able to impress him with this new information I possessed. So, I guess I had already been exposed to RSS feeds and didn't even realize it.

Since we already had a Google Reader account, I began adding the required feeds and a couple of my own that I thought would be interesting. I am always looking for new, updated skating drills for use with my Ladies Hockey Team and the Learn to Skate program I teach. So now I get all these wonderful drills sent directly to ME - I don't have to go looking for them. I have to admit it took awhile to get into the habit of checking my RSS feeds, and at one time when I checked them I had over 1000 new items - yikes! Richardson discusses his ability to check about 80 feeds of information every day. He has, "Read or skimmed literally tens of thousands of posts and developed a fairly keen eye for quickly spotting the most relevant and interesting information." I would imagine you would have to possess amazing skimming and scanning skills to manage this amount of information. I have talked about the importance of teaching our students skimming and scanning skills to help with information overload in previous posts and discussions. This is further supported by Richardson's notion that, "This is another one of those skills that our students, the knowledge workers of the future, are going to have to develop in order to flourish." The amount of information available to our students is only going to increase and if we don't teach them these skills on how to sift through and manage it, we will not be enabling their success for the future.

As for setting up a blog, I decided to visit Dawn's and Peter's, as they were the first blogs posted, to see what a blog consisted of. I remember thinking, wow, these look pretty professional, the layout, colours, images, etc., how on earth am I going to do this? Then I tried signing up for blogger and realized, once again, my husband had already created a blog to share photos and updates of our kids with family and friends. Again he beat me to the punch - that guy! He had showed it to me when he first created it and I thought it was pretty cool, but admittedly, he has not gone back to it since the day of its creation to update it and add additional photos. As I have found with many blogs, they simply fade away and are not maintained. Creating the blog for this course was not difficult, simply a matter of making some choices and trying to personalize it with some information and images. Adding gadgets is also very straight-forward, and the only thing I can remember having trouble with was embedding something right into the blog post versus adding it as a gadget. I was excited to learn how to become a "blogger," because I do see the importance of educating myself on Web 2.0 applications. Now I realize blogging is considered pretty "old," and there are new tools being added everyday to the web. Even though, blogs remain to be an important and efficient way to share information, either for reading or publishing. As well as scholarly journals and e-books online, educational blogs can be considered an authentic, trustworthy form of content.

At the beginning of the course I learned the connection between RSS feeds and blogging from Richardson - instead of having to visit each blog you are following everyday to see if there's anything new, you can simply check your RSS feeds for that blog (if available) to see if there is any content worth exploring further. Our very first discussion question was regarding information overload and managing all the new online spaces we were required to sign up for. I revisited my initial assignment because I remembered writing something about RSS, Twitter, and blogging. I found a section in my final reflection where I referred to a blog that gave some suggestions on how to deal with online information overload from blogs, RSS, and Twitter. "
Its first suggestion was to bookmark (socially) any useful links, label them either “to read” or “to blog”, check them after, and you will find few will be worth a second look." Also, "Regarding RSS, scan headlines in Google Reader, put ones in a folder that you need to keep and then clear your Google Reader each day by, “bookmarking, sharing, starring, Twitter “ing”, and blogging." This last suggestion is one that resonated with me, and save for the "Twittering," is the order in which I approach my Google Reader aggregator. So where am I now when I reflect on the process of learning about the tool? My affective experiences have definitely changed from feelings of being totally overwhelmed, can't catch my breath to those of being somewhat stable, confident, yes I think I can do this. Cognitively, for me personally, I have also experienced substantial growth in the areas of blogging and RSS. I had done neither at the beginning of this course, and although it has been a short time exploring these tools, I definitely have shown that I know how to use them. Now, I can't keep up with 80 RSS feeds like Will Richardson, or write funny and relevant blog posts like Doug Johnson, but I have made some gains.

Discussion of the Tool in Terms of Personal Learning

Exploration of blogging and RSS feeds have allowed me to extend my learning in several ways. I think the most important aspect for me is the realization that many blogs are an amazing resource in finding relevant, authentic, and educational information. At the beginning of the course when we were required to follow certain blogs, I found myself wondering how I was going to possibly follow them all and also, will they really have anything useful to offer? I'll admit in the beginning I did not follow them very closely as I was still getting my feet wet with all the new information and technologies coming my way. But as I began to get a little more comfortable with the course and it's expectations, I was able to visit these sites more often and really see what they had to offer. And of course before I really began using my RSS Feeds I would visit the blog directly to see if they had any new ideas and resources. When I found out how easy it was, and much more effecient, to check my RSS Feeds FIRST to see if anything new had been posted, my life got a lot easier (in regards to RSS and blogging, that is!).

New learning, in regards to blogging and RSS, for myself has also included updating my Google Reader profile, although I have not been able to upload a picture, and I've tried several smaller sized-pictures. I added Joanne as a friend and am now following her and also shared some interesting blog posts with her. I also added my RSS Shared Items to my blog from my Google Reader page. Capturing screen shots of my Google Reader page using Snagit was also new for me and really quite easy to do. Snagit provides a free 30 day-trial version for its screenshot capture product and provides many useful tutorials to assist newbies such as myself. Chapter 5 in Will Richardson's book, RSS The New Killer App for Educators, does an excellent job explaining what RSS is, how to set one up, info about reading and sharing feeds, ways to use RSS with students and a whole lot more. This is where I first turned to for help when we were asked to sign up for an RSS aggregator at the beginning of this course. As well as all those really useful tips, one in particular seemed to me would be quite beneficial if one was away from their computer for a brief or extended period of time. "Google Gears" ( is a tool that can be downloaded and installed to allow you to keep up with your feeds if you are not going to have online access for a period of time. Google Gears saves, "what is waiting to be read in your Reader onto your laptop for later reading, online or off. The best part is you can still star or share or edit tags as you go, and when you get back online, Gears will synch up all of your actions." A program like this could help out with that overwhelming feeling one may get when they check their feeds and find that they have over 1000 unread items! I thought that program in particular was worth mentioning.

Social implications in regards to blogging could be seen as quite significant if we look at their effects on communication and collaboration. Not only can someone search for and find information on a topic they are interested in, they can then comment on it, add to it, and ask further questions to extend learning for themselves and others. On the Virtual Handshake Website, there was an article posted called, Social Implications of Social Software, where blogging was one of the tools discussed. They define social software in The Virtual Handshake as ‘Web sites and software tools which allow you to discover, extend, manage, enable communication in, and/or leverage your social network.' They think of 'Social Software' as a "subset" of Web 2.0 technologies and that the web is now such a social place because there are so many people online, exploring digital and multi-media spaces. They quote Danah Boyd on her thoughts of social software, "The advances of social software are neither cleanly social nor technological, but a product of both." The article then discusses ten social implications resulting in the increasing numbers of online interactions. The following points seemed the most relevant to the social implications of blogging:

1. Basic computer skills really matter…and fortunately the next generation is much more technologically skilled than the current generation.

2. Communication skills really matter…but they’re not improving as fast as we would like. Here they discuss how one's writing abilities are directly related to a successful blog post. Also, how do we address the issue of poor spelling and grammar, where it seems to be thought of as okay in blogging, texting, and messaging? They write, "What has become more important is getting an idea across succinctly and compellingly. This requires better training in critical thinking and understanding other people’s viewpoints."

3. Your professional competence will be more and more visible- considering this statement, how DO we look upon those individuals that are technologically more savvy? Do we see them as being more professional? If I honestly think about it, I know I do.

4. People will become more effective and more thoughtful in building their personal networks - if we think people from all over the globe could be reading what we are writing, adding their thoughts and ideas, not only are we building networking relationships, but perhaps also personal relationships with others.

One more personal implication for me as a learner, that makes my life on the ice a lot easier and builds my confidence, are the skating/hockey drill videos that get sent directly to me through my RSS feeds. Skating has been apart of my life since I was 4 years old and I think it always will be, starting out as a figure skater, coach, hockey player, and now back to coaching. I am always looking for new, updated skating drills and now instead of just reading about them, I get a video sent directly to me that I can watch! I love Google Reader and RSS!

Discussion of the Tool in Terms of Professional Learning

Blogs and professional development: a no-brainer! If we could somehow make it mandatory for all teachers to have to follow a specific number of educational blogs, educators could realistically be extending their professional learning every day, not just Professional Development Days. I have learned so much from blogs and wikis from the likes of Tracy Poelzer, Joyce Valenza, David Warlick, Steven Abrams, and my personal favourite, Doug Johnson. And, there are so many more that everyone can find a blog they "click" with, get engaged in, and want to revisit. Combining RSS and blogging, there is no need to check the actual blog daily, any new updates get sent directly to your Reader. Really, how much easier can it get for educators to keep updated and current on what's happening in the education field? For instance yesterday's blog post from David Warlick, "Dreaming in Digital," not only discusses blogs and their effectiveness of quality collaboration and , but also that he was on the Apple Macbook Pro Website as he is going to be purchasing a new Mac. Who cares you're thinking - I do, as we are also looking at purchasing a new computer and value the opinion of a techy like David Warlick. Doug Johnson posted "Cynicism & Distance" on November 29th, discussing whether it's possible to become old without getting cynical. He says, "he's cynical about the teaching profession and their unwillingness to change," and the idea that for every problem or concern someones whines about, they should have to have a solution.  Perhaps if all educators read these kinds of posts regularly, they would really think about issues and the changes in education and look into making some changes to benefit our students.

I checked out the edublogs site where it says "Blogging for teachers & students made easy."  I haven't used this service myself, but if I were to start blogging with students I think this might be the one I would use.  There is a link on the main page to an entry, "10 Ways to Use Your Edublog to Teach."  I think this would be an important step to take - before introducing blogging to your class, the teacher really should have some experience doing it themselves.  Similar to when I was going to create a wiki with my daughter's class, I'm very glad I created a spoof wiki initially, as I learned a lot and was able to work out the kinks and address issues of safety and privacy.  The same should apply in the blogosphere.  There were a few of the ten ways posted for teachers to use blogs that I think are applicable here:

*  A space to post materials and resources that your students have access to at school and at home, and the teacher is able to manage who has access.

*  Blogs are spaces that allow comments and create conversation that can extend learning.

*  A space that could be used for class publications, they compare it to the old "class newspaper" that I think we all did.

*  The Teacher's blog will help get students blogging.  The teacher's blog can be the common meeting place where students can access each other's blogs and the teacher can keep tabs on everyone.

*  A blog can be a place to share with other educators, things like lesson plans, reflections, ideas that worked and didn't work.

*  A blog is an excellent space for embedding multimedia tools like video, images, slideshows, and podcasts to help teach topics to your students.  A place to, "illustrate, engage, and improve your teaching toolbox."

And now that we know about RSS, well, as Will Richardson talks about in his book, "Instead of checking out all twenty-five (or thirty, or more) student Weblogs every day, you could just collect their work in your aggregator using their RSS feeds."  POW! A response just waiting for those teachers who will undoubtedly say, "How can I possibly be expected to check all my student blogs every day?"

I thought I would look around and see if I could find any cons to using blogs with students and in schools.  Although I didn't find any articles with examples of reasons not to use blogging with students (and probably because most educators who publish anything about blogging have only had success), I did find an article by Julie Stugeon in the T H E Journal, "Five Dont's of Classroom Blogging" (2008).  She begins with reflecting on the positive reasons of blogging with students but cautions, "Kids will always push the line on what they say to each other, and what they link to, and educators can find themselves on the defensive," but, "the potential trouble is worth the rewards."  Here are the five DONT'S summarized:

1.  Don't just dive in - set up guidelines and objectives.  For example set up a code of conduct with students regarding bullying, slander, and foul language.  Stugeon reports that if students violate this code of conduct then they lose their internet privileges.  Also, make sure you let the parents know what the project is, the conduct expected, and the consequences.

2.  Don't confuse blogging with Social Networking - make sure you keep the students focussed on using their blogs for academic collaboration and not as a space for idle chit-chat.

3.  Don't leap at freebies - She warns of using Blogger and TypePad with students and suggests using Classblogmeister instead as it gives teachers more control.

4.  Don't force a sequential style - the focus of a blog doesn't always have to be on the date order, sometimes it is more useful or relevant to focus on the topic.

5.  Don't leave blogging to the Students - teachers blogging will have much more impact on their students desire to blog themselves.  Stugeon writes, "You get to know students in ways that they won't reveal otherwise.  A quiet child will give you her opinion in a blog."  This was something we also discussed in our last discussion assignment on blogging 'voice'.

Taking these DONT'S into account, the benefits of blogging are well supported out there.  There are a lot of literature and multimedia presentations available discussing the positive effects or incorporating classroom blogs.  Stugeon believes that, "Students perform better when they know their peers will be reviewing their work as opposed to the sole judgement of the teacher."

Personally I do see the rewards that could be found implementing blogging in to the classroom.  As with anything new, there are going to be challenges, concerns, and obstacles and that is why with any Web 2.0 technology it has to be the responsibility of the educator to explore it initially before introducing it to their students.  I'm not sure what the Ministry is waiting for - these new technologies are not going away - it should be officially making changes to every provincial curriculum.  Of course, that's just my opinion!  To end with, here is a short video made by a teacher in New Zealand about why students should blog.  Enjoy. 

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