Forklifts for Your Mind - Tech Learning

Forklifts for Your Mind

“Software,” shares one author, “is the forklift of the mind.” This quote, appearing in Daniel H. Pink's, A Whole New Mind, illustrates the power that technology can play in the hands of people like you and me, as well as our students. At a recent conference, I was made painfully aware of
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“Software,” shares one author, “is the forklift of the mind.” This quote, appearing in Daniel H. Pink's, A Whole New Mind, illustrates the power that technology can play in the hands of people like you and me, as well as our students. At a recent conference, I was made painfully aware of the shift from desktop productivity tools to online collaborative tools. While the old forklift — productivity tools — are still necessary, being able to use new collaborative tools in combination with the old is becoming critical. Pink puts it in a way that is unequivocal — Thinking is indispensable. It's just no longer sufficient. Restated, that quote might read, Desktop software is indispensable, it's just no longer sufficient for our needs in a connected world.

His book also suggests the idea that knowledge work — a guiding principal of how we use technology as a tool — is being done at significantly lower costs in other countries like India and China. This forces knowledge workers in the advanced world to “master abilities that can't be shipped overseas.” He suggests that we must develop six essential aptitudes on which professional success will depend. Below are the aptitudes to which he refers:

  1. Design – It's not enough to just make something that is functional, it's also important to create something that is beautiful and/or emotionally engaging.
  2. Story – When we have abundant access to information and data, it is important to create a compelling narrative that persuades, communicates and embodies self-understanding.
  3. Symphony – Synthesis, or being able to see the disparate puzzle pieces as a big, cohesive picture is critical.
  4. Empathy – Being able to better understand others and nurture relationships and connect with others in a caring way.
  5. Play – It is important to be able to play.
  6. Meaning – As we move into an abundance of things, including technology and free software, we now have the time to consider our purpose in life and fulfill ourselves spiritually.

Over the last year, we have seen an explosion of Read/Write Web technologies. Simply, these technologies make it possible for ordinary people to write to the Web as easily as browsing and reading. Read/Write Web technologies, such as Content Management Systems and blogs, can help us develop these aptitudes in adults, as well as in students. Juxtaposing these aptitudes and Read/Write Web technologies, these questions come to mind:

  1. How can I make sharing ideas easier via the Web at a campus/district level?
  2. How can I better use technology to make meaning of, and share stories, of the work I'm about as an learner, a teacher, parent, and/or community member?

Question #1: How can I make sharing ideas easier via the Web at a campus/district level?

“Imagine, I tell a director of a Curriculum & Instruction Department, “if you didn't have to depend on a Webmaster or techie type person to update your Web site. Imagine how you could get your message out there if everyone on your team could modify the content of your Web site.”

This is exactly the message I have shared with curriculum and instruction directors, as well as with campus administrators. It is a simple, powerful message. It is a story about people who control technology and use it to share who they are and what their campus is in a compelling way. While we hoped that traditional Web sites would allow us to do that, we usually ended up delegating the job to someone else with more technical expertise. Now, using a Content Management System, or CMS, after the initial setup, non-technical staff can learn how to update the pages for which they are responsible. Since a CMS is just one big database system, it makes it much easier to control how content is displayed.

There are a variety of Content Management Systems available, and many have an online following of supporters. Many offer a wide variety of enhancement methods.

Beyond Design

“I got an 'F' in Art when I was in kindergarten. How can I design a Web site?” Now, with Content Management Systems, you focus on the content, but take advantage of free designs available on the Web. The beauty of Content Management Systems is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pre-made designs. These designs enable you to have a beautiful Web site whose content can be re-channeled into a new design at will. Don't like the look? Change the design (a.k.a. skin or template) and your whole site takes on a new look. The power of design — and the ease of content management — lets you focus on the message. More importantly, you can change the design to match the meaning.

In San Antonio, Texas, a large, urban district, they are using Content Management Systems to manage Curriculum & Instruction Web sites. They are also slowly moving 100 school Web sites to a FREE Content Management System. Some districts pay dollars per student for such a solution, but you can save both the political capital you will spend trying to justify this system and the critical funding for instructional applications.

Before this, parents and community members saw schools with Web sites that had content referring back to TAAS. The campus administrators were at the mercy of the level of technology expertise present on their campus. Now, non-techies — including the principal — can update their own Web site or Web page. The power of distributed, collaborative editing is making a difference. As I write this, in the San Antonio disitrict, almost 50% of schools are in the midst of transitioning. The greatest successes are marked not by how many tech-savvy educators started the project, but how many non-techies are now managing their site's Web content. The new functionality of content management means that we could empower more people than ever before to share their message in beautifully designed virtual spaces.

Several software solutions are available, and ou can find a complete listing of Content Management Systems and their features online at OpenSourceCMS.

Meanwhile, here are a few that we are using successfully:

Note: the last two requires PHP/MySQL (check below for more information)

Question #2: How can I better use technology to make meaning of, and share stories, of the work I do as learner, teacher, parent, and/or community member?

Content Management Systems empower organizations. But, blogs — whether text, audio, or video — enable individuals to better connect with others. One of the strengths of blogs is that they enable individuals to form social networks, allowing others to leave comments. These comments form the basis for additional conversations. Conversations can begin with text or audio (a.k.a. podcasts) and expand into video (a.k.a. “vodcasting” or “vlogging”). Aside from that, blogs allow the voices of our students and teachers to be more clearly heard than through a Web page.

The most exciting conversations can flow from experiences we as teachers have with our students, or from the students themselves, in our classrooms. Conversations about who we are and what we are about makes blogs ideal vehicles for digital storytelling.

Digital storytelling has become an even more important process, and as Daniel Pink points out, an imperative in this Conceptual Age where, as Pulitzer-winning author Thomas Friedman tells us, The World is Flat. Digital storytelling is described on “The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling” Web site as:

...short, personal multimedia tales told from the heart.” The beauty of this form of digital expression...is that these stories can be created by people everywhere, on any subject, and shared electronically all over the world...digital stories as "multimedia sonnets from the people" in which "photographs discover the talkies, and the stories told assemble in the ether as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a gaggle of invisible histories which, when viewed together, tell the bigger story of our time, the story that defines who we are."

Stories that define who we are — what an apt expression for the practice of blogging. Since digital storytelling can involve a variety of media, there are multiple software programs that you will end up using. However, with a “blog” you can bring all this media into one place and make it easy to share via the Web. You can use a variety of software programs to create the digital content that will end up in a blog. Some of the tools listed below, like Audacity for Windows/Mac and Skype for connecting with others, have been featured in recent issues of TechEdge, the publication of the TCEA, or Texas Computer Education Association:

  • Creating/Editing Audio:
  • Creating/Editing Videos:
    • Audacity — Works on Macintosh, Windows and Linux computers.
      • Web Resources for Digital Storytelling
      • Fostering Communication between Campuses and Districts: While online text/audio/video blogs enable conversations to take place, it is now possible for schools to communicate with one another using VOIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol, a free, broadband “phone service.” These services are free when placing classrooms call one another. All you will need will be a microphone.

      Some Internet phone services include:

      • Skype
      • Gizmo. One advantage of Gizmo over Skype is that it enables you to easily record the conversations, although some have complained that Skype has better quality audio. Since both tools are free, you are encouraged to try them out and see which works best for you.
      • GoogleTalk

      Even though you can use various tools to create the content, organizing it all in a simple way for posting on the Web can be difficult. You may also encounter problems placing video and audio on free Web sites such as Blogger; Blogspot, which it has absorbed; EduBlogs; and others. Also, these blogging services are free, but outside of the district's control. As I write this, there are several debates raging on multiple national and international email lists about this very topic. You can find a review of some of these arguments in my “Mousing Around” blog. In the meantime, my recommendation is that you consider keeping text/audio/video blogs within the control of schools.

      Blog Platform

      What a school district needs, then, are blogging tools that enable you to quickly launch multiple blogs. I term these “blog platforms.” Several choices are available, including the following:

      Software Available:

      • b2Evolution: This is an excellent solution that has grown tremendously over the last year. It rates my top recommendation because it makes user management and permissions simple enough for non-techies to understand after the initial set-up. Furthermore, you can launch as many blogs as you like with different user permissions (critical for controlling student and teacher access).
      • Blojsom: Although Blojsom can be confusing at first, one of the benefits is that it does not require MySQL/PHP. It, like b2Evolution, allows you to run multiple blogs and supports multiple users. I would definitely read the QuickStart Guide to get going.
      • WordPress: This blog platform is the standard out on the Web; however, user management is done one blog at a time. This can be time-consuming to set up for a school district working with multiple systems. There is a Multi-User version of WordPress in the works, but is still too rough for regular use, although if you have the PHP coding skills, you can customize it. Of course, for this reason alone, I would pass on that solution.
      • OpenCMS: Content management systems have blog features, either built-in or as add-ons. The benefit is that they offer so much more than a simple blog. However, their complexity may make them “overkill” for simple blog hosting for a campus or two.

      What Free Tools Do I Need to Get Going?

      For the most part, Content Management Systems and blogs are database-backed Web sites in one form or another (exception is Blojsom above). To get them running, you should be using an Apache Web server as well as PHP/MySQL. Even if you are currently running MS Internet Information Server (IIS), you can still use Content Management Systems and blogs provided you install PHP/MySQL.

      This has gotten much easier due to the prevalence of easy installers. Here's the short list, depending on your platform of choice. One of the best installers is known as XAMPP. While XAMPP is available for all platforms, I have also used the following successfully on Windows and Macintosh computers.

      • If you want to run a Windows server, you can install WAMP. It includes the Windows version of Apache and MySQL/PHP.
      • For Macintosh computers, use MAMP, the Macintosh version of Apache, MySQL/PHP.

      Not sure you're up to setting this up? I can only counsel you to jump in. There are excellent support networks available via the Web. I refer you to “Facilitating Access to Campus Technology Data," the sidebar of this article written previously. You can also refer to Jamey Osborne's tutorial “Creating Custom Database-Driven Websites With PHP, MySQL, and Dreamweaver MX 2004.”

      Conclusion

      Not sure about implementing these solutions? Remember that it's all about connecting with others. When you focus on that goal, you're less likely to be stopped by the technical obstacles that are a part of setting up your own server. However, server setup using tools like XAMPP have made it much easier for end-users — like you and me — to use Read/Write Web technologies to develop the aptitudes key to success in the Conceptual Age. Remember also; something that our students will find increasingly necessary in their lives — as we do now — is the ability to collaboratively develop Web-based solutions to common problems.

      Email:Miguel Guhlin
      Website: http://www.mguhlin.net/blog

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