Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Trackstar is a star (...and so am I)!

Finally got around to conducting the workshop on 'Internet Use in Schools' described in my previous post. It was a "huge hit" (those are a participant's words - but I would have said something similar anyway - one does have a sense for how things have gone down in a workshop.)

Thirty teachers - mostly from elementary school - attended. While they learnt a lot more about google and how it works, gained a good sense for what children below 11-12 years of age are - and are not - capable of in terms of information-gathering from the Internet, as well as issues of 'copy-pasting' and child safety, it was the new tool Trackstar, that I introduced to them, was truly the star of the event. The tool allows a teacher to create a "track" of websites (that s/he would typically have identified prior to, or during, a unit) along with annotations(questions/notes or things for students to keep in mind). The track number is all that the students then need to go to the web page (at home or in school) that contains all the websites (along with annotations) - that come up as frames within the Trackstar site. Safe and productive, especially for elementary school students.

The section on kid safety on the Internet was an eye-opener for teachers. One of them asked me to have a session on this subject in June with the parents of her incoming 6th grade class. The teachers also agreed to make 'OneKey' - the kidsafe version of google that I made them try out - the homepage for all computers in the school labs. I have also decided to make a "Search" link on the IE toolbars in school that will link to 'onekey'.

An 'inspired' science teacher wrote me the same evening about having created a "track" for her 7th grade students, on the topic of environmental science. Felt good to get that email - felt like I had accomplished something that day...

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Google Page Creator (GPC) - Arrgghhh!

So I was supposed to conduct this workshop last Thursday (April 13th) for teachers on "Searching on the Internet". Teachers (like everyone else) are increasingly searching (or rather google-ing) the Internet for information on topics related to the curriculum (as they should) and expecting kids as young as 7 and 8 years old to do the same - notwithstanding the fact that good searching requires some higher order thinking skills and a level of general awareness that makes it difficult for young kids to pull it off without adult help. The focus of this workshop was to be on --

  • how to conduct better searches (handy tips on coming up with good keywords based on how Google works),
  • how to scaffold the process of information gathering for elementary school children (using Trackstar, or or plain ol' bookmark folders in the classroom computers),
  • critical evaluation of websites (making it a conscious process for the naive user - as well as kids - until practice and more awareness makes it the intuitive process it is for many of us),
  • plagiarism (many kids do not even realize that they may be committing a wrong-doing by extensively cutting-and-pasting to prepare a report!), and
  • child safety on the Internet (if you're going to let them loose in this deep, dark forest, know that there are bad wolves lurking behind many a tree - parents and teachers in India are abominably clueless!)

So, what does GPC have to do with all of this? Well, crazed fans of Rajkumar ('demigod' filmstar) in Bangalore made sure that the workshop be postponed and roughly 36 hours on Wednesday & Thursday be spent completely locked up indoors (esp. if you live a couple of streets away from Rajkumar's residence like I do). Putting up a website with the newly approved 'googlepages' account seemed like a great way to spend time - and one that would finally be a 'home' for the nearly 100 pictures from my Robotics club sessions, certainly a very worthwhile cause as well. Late last night (Saturday, April 15th), I finished publishing this plain-jane website comprising only 8 pages.

So, what transpired in between Thursday and Saturday? An unspeakably frustrating (pulling teeth…?) experience with Google Page Creator. Without ranting in too much detail I will just say that this terribly buggy piece of software (yeah! yeah! I know it's a beta version) that allows you so little flexibility in designing your website, is a blot in Google's product suite. If I weren't so pig-headed about sorting and putting up these pictures that I'd been promising my Robotics students for years, I'd have actually felt good about abandoning the project! 100 MB of ad-free space on the google server for a website plus 100 file uploads (I even uploaded some other images for access on some other sites) is tempting, but waiting for a better version of this software would be not be un-smart at all.

While painfully perservering through the entire website creation process, I often wondered about the intended user profile from Google's viewpoint. I could think of no one other than young school kids - my 7-year old son was ecstatic when he was able to put up his very own website in about 1/2 an hour!

Well, the site is up (phew!) – and I think I deserve another 36 hours (not necessarily cooped up indoors) to recover…..!

Friday, April 14, 2006


(Disclaimer: Though this does not relate very directly to issues of Technology & Education, if you try hard, you could draw some tangential links [smile]).

While on the subject of creativity, thought I'd devote a few bits n bytes to its close friend 'Innovation' .

The cover story of the latest issue of Business Week is about the World's Most Innovative Companies. (The rest of the issue also dedicates much real estate to the subject of Innovation.) The usual suspects all made the cut - Google, Apple, IBM, Starbucks...

Funnily though, while the main story states that (unlike in the 1990s) "Innovation (today) does not have to have anything to do with technology", most of the products/ideas that featured in the slide-show of innovations (about 16 out of 25) had much to do with technology!

Open Innovation is a big theme that is being talked about and touted as the way to go. "These days the world is your R&D lab. Customers are co-opting technology and morphing products into their own inventions. Many companies are scouting for outside ideas they can develop in-house, embracing the open-source movement, and joining up with suppliers or even competitors on big projects that will make them more efficient and more powerful."

Interestingly, according to the article, India (at par with China) is being viewed as a major "source" of innovation and companies are looking to set up product development centers here. So, how should schools produce and prepare this generation of Indian innovators that the world is pinning its hopes on? "Teaching for creativity" (as opposed to "creative teaching") might well have some answers - instilling in our students that skill of possibility thinking ...

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Oh! The Joy of a Good Read

I’m currently reading “Creativity in Schools” by Anna Craft (Routledge, 2005). Creative Learning = “Possibility Thinking” has been the big take-away for me thus far, as also the fine but pertinent differences between ‘teaching creatively’, ‘teaching for creativity’, and ‘creative learning’. While the role of technology in creative teaching and learning has been touched upon only cursorily, it is what I am constantly trying to make links with, as I go through this topical discourse on creativity in schools.

While I reserve further comment on the book until I have gone through it in its entirety, I will say this – I found the foreword by Tim Smit (of the Eden Project in the UK) to be such a beautifully crafted piece of writing. His delectably cynical and unabashedly candid take on creativity in general (and not specifically in the context of education) was an unmitigated pleasure to read. Here’s a sampling…

“Creativity is a word that comes with baggage. In some circles it hints at genius, in others to dodgy accounting practices. Being creative is either praise or an inference of a character flaw. However it is used, the implication is that some kind of cleverness is involved…Most of us are suspicious of it being the Devil’s work unless it is done in the name of a greater good, in which case divine intervention bestows cod sanctity to the practitioner. Latterly, as it has become part of the educator’s armoury, it has taken on a new meaning. It is something we all have, if only we could draw it out of ourselves. … We’re all creative now, and this robs it of its exclusive sting.”

“My youngest son once said in jest that he wished I’d been an abusive father so that he could be a credibly creative musician. All of us know that, by and large, this is a stereotype that doesn’t bear very close inspection, but that there is a grain of truth in it. This is evidenced in part in our culture by awarding artists more latitude in behaviour than we would allow others. There is a wonderful irony that we will celebrate artists to whom we wouldn’t give houseroom on a personal level.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

More of the same...

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post but I've found my thoughts straying back (on more than one occasion) to the issue mentioned in the last posting - that of the burgeoning new web tools that are emerging at speeds too fast for us to keep up, and in the process leaving far far behind the majority of schools in India that are still only awakening (or still oblivious) to the possibilities of the internet.

The Hindu carried an article earlier this week on Cool classroom tools that discussed the phenomenon of podcasting, its use in education and the Duke Digital Initiative as a case in point. Would I come across as too much of a cynic if I said that there is little point in even running such an article in India? "...A school or college in India (reaching out) to its students in a new meaningful and cool way and (creating) a whole new educational iPod lifestyle." Give me a break! The very idea of students and teachers creating audio and video content for streaming onto portable devices just seems light years away in any educational setting in India - heck! even the use of regular audio and video remain untapped technologies in classrooms here! (May I add though that I would, of course, be thrilled to bits if some school in India actually took podcasting for a whirl...)

For more on emerging technologies in education, sans the attendant pessimism and cynicism that have marked my recent ramblings, visit the course website for T561 (Emerging Educational Technologies) being offered at HGSE this Spring by good ole' Prof. Chris Dede (who I was fortunate to have as my Advisor for my Masters) - a true "tech in ed" visionary esp. with respect to technologies that "bridge distance and time." Topics include podcasting, MUVEs, Social Networking, Collaborative Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning Environments and a host of other fun stuff.

And with that I lay this theme to rest (at least for now) and move on to other (less depressing?) topics.

I think I will turn my attention to sharing some insights gleaned from my recent experiences in developing a Technology Plan for a school - a very worthwhile activity that I am quite sure few schools in India engage in...[wry smile]... or perhaps my thoughts on GIS that I am working (with the Geography and Environmental Science teachers and a local GIS SIG) to introduce in the MAIS middle/high school curriculum.

(Think I should change the tagline of this blog to "Musings of a US-educated Indian Cynic"?)