• Popfly is SO cool! Published 2007-05-21 under , , ,

    This morning I came across a service/website created by Microsoft called Popfly. From the website, "Popfly is the fun, easy way to build and share mashups, gadgets, Web pages, and applications." Popfly consists online visual tools for building mashups without programming experience.

    Our team's vision is to democratize development by making it approachable to an entire class of people that want to "create" without necessarily having to write code. We believe that if you can send an email, you should be able to build and personalize your own website, mashup, social networking site, or blog.

    This project is still in an Alpha release, but it is really cool and offers wonderful opportunities for educators. The downside, it only runs on IE (6.0 +) and Firefox (2.0 +). Nonetheless, check out the Popfly screencast. You will be amazed.

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  • What Assumptions Are We Making? Published 5/21/2007 12:18:00 PM under

    Take a look at the following statements:

    • "I think there is a world market for about five computers." (Thomas Watson, founder of IBM)
    • "Everything that can be invented has been invented." (Charles Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899)
    • "There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will." (Albert Einstein)
    • "The phonograph is not of any commercial value." (Thomas Edison)
    • "Man will not fly for 50 years." (Wilbur Wright, 1903)
    • "640K ought to be enough for anybody." (Bill Gates)
    • "With over 50 foreign cars on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market for itself." (Business Week, 1968)
    • "I don't need body guards." (Jimmy Hoffa)

    I wonder what assumptions we are making regarding education.

  • Boring Workshops Published 2007-05-17 under ,

    I just finished a week of attending various workshops put on by the Foundation Center and despite the quality of the material presented I could not help but to notice the lack of creativity with which each presenter approached his/her lesson. You can probably guess the outline:

    1. Speaker Bio
    2. Goals of the Session
    3. Historical Perspective
    4. Overview of Current Practices
    5. Linear Examination of the Details
    6. Conclusions

    Now, there is nothing wrong with this approach. Throw in a few anecdotes and exercises, you have a traditional workshop. But is this the only approach or even the most appropriate approach? What assumptions are made that make this the most popular approach?

    Let's start by examining the practice of stating your goals right at the beginning. It certainly makes sense. If I am going to battle 2hrs of rush hour traffic to attend a workshop, I would like to know what I am going to get out it. But providing motivation is much different than stating goals. I have often wondered how many of my students ever actually read the list of goals that appear at the beginning of every chapter in their textbook. For me, this list is to be consulted after reading the chapter so I can check to be sure I got all that I was suppose to from the reading. In reality, I expect that the list is completely ignored.

    Another assumption that is often made is that a linear presentation of the material is the best way to convey the concepts of the lesson. This is certainly a tried and true approach. But for me as well as several of the other attendees at these workshops, the approach left us wanting more. We agreed that a more hands on, exploratory, approach would have been better. Sitting and listening to the presenter works for a while, but soon it looses it appeal and its effectiveness.

    So, why do presenters and teachers resort to such a teacher centric approach to a lesson? It is harder to come up with a more exploratory, student centric approach. It requires more work, more creativity, and it is riskier. It also requires more class time. I am always finding myself reverting to a more lecture type of presentation when I have a bunch of material that I want to cram into a limited time span. Rarely, though, do my students come away with anything more than just exposure to the ideas presented. They don't understand the concepts. They would have been better served to have spent the time on activities that resulted in solid understanding of a subset of the topics. The rest of the topics could be covered in subsequent lessons or referenced in some take-home material for students to explore on their own.

    The term "hands-on" workshop has come to mean - I will show you how and then you will have a chance to replicate what I just showed you. Can't we redefine such workshops to be more exploratory where participants discover the skills and concepts? I would love to hear of your ideas on how to make workshops more interesting and effective.

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  • Way To Go, Midd! Published 2007-05-01 under , ,

    Do you remember what you did during the summers while you were in college? Get a job, hangout with friends, travel? But for a some students, this summer will be spent capturing radio narratives of children in Uganda, running a workshop in Jerusalem encouraging people living in the divided city to test their idealism against political and physical realities, hosting religious tolerance workshops for youth in Pakistan. All of these not-so-typical summer activities are being made possible by a group that encourages students to use their summers for life learning opportunities.

    The Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace is a wonderful program that funds innovative summer projects for college students. "The objective is to encourage and support today’s motivated youth to create and tryout their own ideas for building peace in the 21st century."

    The projects mention above are three of five projects submitted to 100 Project for Peace by students from Middlebury College. While these three projects were accepted by the organization for funding, Middlebury decided to fund the other two projects itself. As a result, one group of students will be heading to New Orleans to work with youth in civic peace and another will see a senior head to Thailand to explore the effects of micro-credit loans on the country's economy and environment.

    This is about taking advantage of that four-year window and doing something that is a little scary... For many students, it seems as though they have so much to do and they’re so busy. They’re trying to get on to that next thing when they graduate, sometimes graduate school, which means they’re checking the boxes. And they don’t even think about the fact that they have these opportunities.

    Middlebury College has setup what they call "The Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts", a new initiative encouraging all Middlebury students to expand their education beyond the classroom. The goal is to direct extra funding and administrative support to aid student projects and to find a way to inspire similar projects in students who aren't as eager to leap "outside the box".

    Our educational system fosters a safe place for students. By safe, I am referring to an intellectually safe environment. There are factors that affect our students physical and emotional safety but in general, we try and create an environment that fosters success. Our curriculum is designed to walk students through a subject exposing them to the necessary knowledge and skills for them to succeed.

    Contrast this with the risky behaviour of our youth. Kids like to take risks; it is part of growing up. Many of these behaviours (sex, drugs, alcohol, crazy driving) we consider anti-social in that they don't make the world a better place. But what if that propensity toward risk taking were directed toward venturing out to help in a homeless shelter or crafting a program to bring awareness to environmental problems and solutions? What if students got their high by helping rather than consuming?

    It is so exciting to see programs like 100 Projects for Peace and institutions like Middlebury College and their Project on Creativity and Innovation" that encourage students to extend their learning to beyond the classroom. Check out this article for more details on this fascinating project. I am always amazed an in awe of students who create outside of the classroom and am convinced that the education they gain from such projects is at least as valuable than that they get in the classroom.

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