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Monday
Apr232007

Application triage

There isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going - Edna St Vincent Millay 

Laura Pearle's post "A-flutter about Twitter?" on the AASL blog struck a chord with me as I read it last evening. She writes

 I'm trying to provide a good program for my students. I'm trying to create passionate learners, independent thinkers and be a partner with my teachers in curriculum. I've got to consider budgets and previewing books and websites and databases for student and faculty use. I don't have all the staffing I could want (or use). There are standards and testing that I need to support. Our website could use an overhaul, not to mention our A/V equipment (which I'm responsible for maintaining). And let's not forget all the union/district/school meetings and professional development/in-services I need to attend. At the same time, I'm reading blogs and e-lists to connect with other librarians, and reading professional literature.

And then I'm supposed to Twitter and set up IM reference and create a MySpace page and be a real Friendster (or is it Facebook?) and Furl and... and... and...

and adds

The problem is that many of us are trying very hard to keep up, but technology expands while time seems to contract. 

and cites a great post by Kathy Sierra about  how new technologies like Twitter decrease time between interruptions.

Most of us can identify with Laura and Kathy. A new technology or two seems to pop-up almost on a daily basis. I know it is my job to keep up with all this and to figure out how it might benefit my students and teachers. But just how possible is it to keep up with everything?

I find myself practicing "application triage" more and more. I look at the same factors I identified seven years ago in a column named after the opening quote when reviewing a new application:

  1. Simplicity.
  2. Ubiquity.
  3. Reliability
  4. Usability
  5. Affordability

And I tend to move through three stages as I work with a new program: 1) Awareness and understanding, 2) Personal application, and 3) Educational application. I will stop considering a new application at any one of these stages - I have to to survive.

Ning hasn't even got to stage one yet - I don't understand it clearly. Twitter did not made it past stage one - it sounds dreadful.  And Second Life is in stage two - I'm practicing and looking for ways I might actually put this program to use.

blueskunkden.jpg I spent a significant amount of time in Second Life over the weekend. Thanks to the patience and generosity of Kathy Schrock (fast becoming a Second Life guru) and Kevin Jarrett I now have a home (be it ever so humble) in this virtual world. Drop by anytime. I changed my hairstyle (from an accidental mullet), adopted a new skin color, and bought a pet mouse (rat?) who rides on my shoulder. Learned to make objects and create a SLURL. My walking is getting better but I have to work on my landings.

I also have a better understanding of the world's educational offerings thanks to a great tour conducted by Ryan (Existential Paine) Bretag on Saturday morning. We visited libraries and classrooms and even had a chance to visit with a "real" instructor using Second Life as a classroom.

 I haven't quite yet figured out how to actually put Second Life to use professionally. It's very engaging, even addictive, but right now it doesn't really pass my 1. Simplicity, 2. Ubiquity, 3. Reliability, 4. Usability 5. Affordability tests of promoting it to my teachers. But then, it will improve, I'm sure, and it will be interesting to follow its use by educational pioneers.

Application triage - give it a try... 

 

Sunday
Apr222007

Sisyphus

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on - Omar Khayyam

Then the Moving Finger comes back,
And re-writes - Doug

You remember old Sisyphus from Greek mythology. The poor guy in Hades doomed to roll the big rock up the hill only to have it roll back down just as he reaches the top. Condemned for all eternity to keep pushing that darned rock. I'm thinking about him this weekend as I  look over the handouts and slides for my upcoming workshops and presentations in Saskatoon and Chicago.

sisyphus_cartoon.jpgLittle did I realize when I signed on as author, as speaker and as consultant that nothing I wrote or prepared for presentation would stay written, stay prepared. A talk I created what seems like only moments ago, turns out to be two years old - ancient in Internet years. (If one dog year equals seven human years, one Internet year must equal at least twenty human years.) This basically means that every handout and every set of slides and every bit of content needs to be reviewed, revised and updated every single time I go anywhere. Once in a while I will miss something in my talk that is a couple years old and really embarrass myself. I hate it when that happens.

Where was the warning that once one has written a book, one has a life-long obligation to keep cranking out revisions? My books came out in 1997, 2002, 2003 and 2004. And they all need revising again. I've been putting this off for years now to the extent that my publisher isn't speaking to me any longer. If you pride yourself in being a lazy person like I do, writing books is not for you!

Or write fiction. Now there is writing that once writ, stays writ! I just finished Cormac McCarthy's allegorical The Road. No names, no dates, no technologies mentioned - only a bleak landscape populated by starving survivors of some unnamed cataclysm, all described in gorgeous language.  Depressing enough that every 11th grade English teacher will slap it into his/her curriculum for years to come and royalties will flow into perpetuity. McCarthy is a smart guy.

If you want to write a book, write a potboiler or a "modern classic." Trust me on this. 

Cartoon source unknown, but I like it.

Saturday
Apr212007

The Need for Community

I am still trying to get my head around the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech earlier this week. Is it even possible to understand the depth of loss experienced by those who cared about those killed and wounded? Is it even possible for undersand the psyche of the young man who perpetrated the violence? And it is possible for anyone to reduce the likelihood of this happening again?

Two years ago, Minnesota experienced a school shooting on the Red Lake Indian Reservation and these were my thoughts I shared in a column that appeared in my Head for the Edge October, 2005. I guess I am reposting them here because I needed to re-read them.

The Need for Community
As I write this, Minnesotans are still in shock and mourning over the tragedy at the Red Lake School and its community. On March 21, 2005, sixteen year-old student Jeff Weise brought a gun to school and killed five students and two staff members and wounded seven more before killing himself. This was after he had earlier killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s companion in their home.

According to news reports, Jeff was considered an “outsider” in his closely knit, but impoverished community on the Red Lake reservation. He participated in online “communities” – ones that espoused violence and intolerance at nazi.org and www.abovetopsecret.com. Ones made accessible via the Internet even in this remote northern Minnesota location.

One of my first questions was how much did Jeff’s access to the Internet contribute to his terrible decisions and actions? I am sure I am not the only parent, educator or community member who wondered if he not been able to express his violent thoughts and receive support from other like-minded individuals, would he have made the choices he did?

Establishing cause and effect in incidents like these will always be speculative, and there are plenty of places at which we can point accusative fingers. Jeff’s life had been horrific. He reportedly had been abused and neglected as a child. His father committed suicide and his mother lived in a nursing home after a serious car accident. Jeff was American Indian, one of the state’s (and nation’s) most impoverished and disenfranchised ethnic minorities. And of course, the “bad seed” theory always surfaces as well. Jeff did not leave a note explaining why he took the actions he did, leaving us only sadly speculating.

One factor might be that Jeff, like all kids, looked for and did not find a sense of community “on the res.” When he could not find like-minded, sympathetic, caring individuals around him physically, he looked elsewhere and found it online.

So what does this have to do with technology, libraries and schools? We can ask how and why was Jeff “allowed” to visit and interact with others on web hate sites? Do the dangers and risks of such groups outweigh the useful, productive resources available on the web? Who was monitoring Jeff’s Internet use? Were the adults in his life even aware such vicious places on the Internet exist? Important questions, to be sure, but to me, Jeff’s Internet use ought to be considered more symptomatic than causal.  

Most kids look for and find “communities” with values that are life affirming and socially responsible. Boy and Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, church groups, and both formal and informal groups revolving around special interests such as bicycling, hunting, literature, or sports play a big role in most young people’s lives as they grow up. Schools provide opportunities for socialization through athletics, music, drama, newspapers, business or art clubs. In these groups, young people learn not just about personal interests, but also about one’s fellow students and mentors and why they are worth caring about. And they are where kids often find that others care about them as well.

In our efforts to improve our schools and reduce school expenditures, extra-curricular activities are often first on the chopping block. Politicians and taxpayers see music, arts and athletics as superfluous. The “basics” are reading, writing, math and other purely classroom pursuits. Guidance counselors, teacher-librarians, coaches and club sponsors are nice extras only tangentially related to the real purpose of school. Sigh…

How many of us as teacher-librarians or technology coordinators make a conscious effort to create “communities” for our own students, especially for those kids who do not seem to have much success with the traditional organizations? Do you have a “geek squad” in which members gain self-esteem by helping students and staff with technology problems? Do you have library volunteers who watch the circulation desk, help re-shelve materials and created displays? As a former member of the “projector sector” – students who assisted technology-challenged teachers set-up 16mm projectors in my high school, I personally recognize how important such a seemingly small thing helped me establish a sense of belonging and camaraderie in school. And it’s why I, as an educator, encourage all of us to enlist the aid of kids for whom football or band are not exactly their thing.

I am not so naïve to believe that there is a single cause of school violence or a single way to prevent it. But St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter David Hanners wrote, “In the online world where he felt most at home, Jeff Weise has gained more attention in death than he ever did in life.” We all crave attention. What small part can we as teacher-librarians and technologists do to make sure the Jeffs in our schools get that attention in positive ways? Are we helping create “communities” for everyone? You never know what one thing may make a difference.