Monday
Feb112013

Reprint: Searching For Google Alternatives

 

Note: This article was originally published on May 18, 2012 on Technology Integration in Education, where I am Blogs Editor and Featured Blogger

Like many technology-focused educators, I find my life these days to be full of Google. My employers are Google Apps schools, and I'm currently working towards my qualifications in Google Apps training. Generally, I'm a huge fan of Google products, and I constantly work with my teachers to blend them into their instruction. Google Sketchup, Earth, Maps, Apps, Reader - all of these products are at the top of my EdTech toolbox.

The Google brand name, like Aspirin, Coke, Jello, Kleen-ex, or Bandaids, has become a synonym for the product that the company sells. "Google", as a verb, is now thrown around casually in everyday conversation by techies and Luddites alike.

Increasingly, however, we are hearing a chorus of voices concerned about a company that seems almost too ubiquitous, too far-reaching, too powerful to be trusted as the primary gatekeeper for all human knowledge. Still, we rarely hear much serious discussion about the alternatives to Google's core function of internet indexing and searching.

 

Search Engine Market Share: May 2012

SOURCE: http://www.karmasnack.com/about/search-engine-market-share/
 

Partly this can be attributed to the weakness of the other big players. Microsoft-owned Bing, generally acknowledged to be the #2 search engine, is similar to Google in many ways. It, too, is backed by an oft-criticized, monopoly-sized technology behemoth. It collects and sells surfing habits and personal information, and is following Google's lead towards a more social-based approach to surfing. It may offer a comparable service to Google, but very little to excite those looking for alternatives.

The other main player, Yahoo, has spent the last several years in a self-destruct sequence, and looks poised to join Excite, Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves, and a host of other search engines which slid into irrelevance after facing bankruptcy or restructuring, failed rebranding, or absorption by larger companies.

Whether we are talking about textbooks, testing, cafeteria food, or EdTech, educators need to look deeper than "what is most popular" when deciding what comes into the schoolhouse. We need to think about the consequences for our students and classrooms. We should critically examine all of the alternatives, and teach our students to do the same.  

Today, Google is the dominant search engine, with a host of other applications that benefit our classrooms. They should be enjoyed, exploited and celebrated. But for educators, the search for new and better strategies, tools and resources should be a constant, never-ending concern. So, why should we be so automatic in our impulse to Google something?

With that in mind, I thought I would investigate a few services which are not just Google-clones, or meta-searches aggregating results from the big players, but which endeavor to offer unique and interesting approaches to internet searching. 

 

My Favorite Google Alternatives
 

DuckDuckGo - DuckDuckGo distinguishes itself from Google and the other major players in one important area: it doesn't collect, share, or store personal information in any way. It has perhaps the most strict and rigorous privacy policy of any search engine. It also offers a searching environment largely free of spam, sponsored results, or other advertising.  

Like the big players, it offers a number of tools and goodies that work right from the search bar - calculations, conversions, fact-searches and more.

In short, it has a lot of the functionality of Google, without a lot of the crap that concerns and annoys people. For this reason alone, it seems well-suited to a school setting.

 

Wolfram Alpha describes itself as a "computational knowledge engine".  In short, it specializes in returning results based on objective data, statistics and calculations. Their (rather ambitious) goal is to "provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries."  Personally, I'm not really a number-crunching kind of guy - but Wolfram Alpha offers an impressive suite of inline statistical and calculation tools, and covers a vast variety of data sets (see some examples), which have many, many, potential applications across the curriculum. For math and science teachers particularly, this could be an incredibly useful tool.

 

NowRelevant solves a problem with the basic Google search that I personally find constantly annoying - sorting through older links when looking for up-to-the-minute information.  NowRelevant only returns results that are two weeks old or less, and with a simple scrub bar you can quickly narrow your search down to the last 24 hours. I know that Google Advanced Search offers the ability to filter results by time, but for a quick search for the latest information, this engine is definitely useful. I'll be using it frequently from now on.

 

Million Short is a search engine based around another very interesting premise. It purposefully drops the first million most popular websites, and searches whatever is left. The idea is that popular does not always mean relevant, and that there are gems hidden in the "under-web" that most people never see - certainly not by relying on the first page of a Google search. If you find that dropping a million websites is a little too aggressive, you can adjust the filter to remove other levels as well (100K, 10K), or to search the entire web if you want. As a tool for exploring little-explored corners of the internet, it is very useful.  As an educator, I think it could be used to teach about search engines and illustrate various ways they control the information we are presented with. Lesson plan: students conduct web searches using Million Short, comparing the results they get as adjust the number of "popular" sites they are searching.  Reflect: Do the "popular" sites have anything in common? Are they really better, in terms of the information you are searching for?  What are the consequences of people using popularity-driven search engines to find information? 

Tuesday
Jan292013

Getting Classroom Blogging Right

Coming to terms with digital authorship in education

 

Note: This article was originally published on May 18, 2012 on Technology Integration in Education, where I am Blogs Editor and Featured Blogger.


What is blogging?

One of the barriers to a meaningful conversation about blogging in the classroom is a general confusion about what blogs are, both generally and in the educational context. Blogging crosses typical boundaries that teachers have long become accustomed to, and comfortable with.

Out in “the real world” blogs can be expository, narrative, or descriptive. They can be fictional, factual, or satirical. Often they are an expression of a single person’s voice, but they can also be developed by a community. There are blogs that relate to every subject we teach, and countless others which we would probably judge to have little educational value at all.

Blogs can be carefully crafted formal writing, or highly personal and idiosyncratic, and if we expand our notion of digital authorship to include microblogging platforms like Twitter, or others that are almost entirely visual, like Pinterest, we end up with a definition that seems impossibly broad.

There is great strength in this, of course, because of the almost limitless educational possibilities that it presents. The great challenge is developing an understanding of blogging which can both accommodate this diversity while still providing a framework of policies, practices, and pedagogy that can support working teachers.

It seems incredible, but word ‘blog’ only surfaced in 1999, an amalgam of “web log”. The earliest blogs took the form of online journals or diaries. Since then, however, blogging has penetrated almost every aspect of our popular culture. These days, from private citizens to multinational corporations; educators, artists, serious academics and investigative journalists - seemingly everyone has folded blogging into their personal and professional lives.

Defining the “right” way to use blogs in the classroom is a complicated question.  In some ways, blogs are the social media technology that resonates most closely with traditional teaching practices (Davis, Richard 2007).  After all, journaling is a time-tested teaching strategy.  To a certain extent, this is fine - journaling activities can have a lot of merit if they are designed well.  The blogging medium certainly facilitates back-and-forth between teacher and student, and it is certainly easier to follow and respond to student blogs via a centralized collection of links, or an RSS feed, than it is to haul 75 notebooks home for the weekend, decipher the handwriting, and cramping your hand scrawling inked responses.

However, as educational blogging advocate Anne Davis stresses: 

It is not just a matter of transferring classroom writing into digital spaces. Teachers need to address writing for a public audience, how to cite and link and why, how to use the comment tool in pedagogical ways, how to read web materials more efficiently as well as explore other ways to consider pedagogical uses of blogs. Blogging requires us to teach students to critically engage media. Students need instruction on how to become efficient navigators in these digital spaces where they will be obtaining a majority of their information. (Davis, Ann 2007)

Digital authorship has unique characteristics which present both specific opportunities and challenges which must be considered for educational blogging projects to be successful.

 

Uh, okay, so what is blogging?

 

There has been a substantial amount written about the essential characteristics of blogging, and how that ought to translate to classroom practices. The observations below represent a synthesis of a number of different sources, including Edtech guru Will Richardson (2006, among others),  Bartholomew, Jones & Glassman (2012),  Kerawalla, Minoch, Kirkup and Conole (2008), and a score of blog and Twitter-based discussions.  

 

Blogging Is Publishing

The purpose of blogging is audience. It is the primary thing that sets blogging apart from simple journaling or keeping a diary. In many ways, the evolution of blogging can be viewed as a democratic revolution in publishing. Anyone with basic access to the internet can be a blogger. You don’t need a tenured university post, or a publisher, or paid column in a newspaper to express your opinion and attract an audience. Much has been written about the motivating power of authentic writing for an audience. (Richardson 2006)

While most blogs allow private or semi-private posts, and educational blogging platforms are usually capable of operating within a “walled garden”, my sense is that this is fighting against the nature of the medium. Where privacy is desired, or required, I would suggest that perhaps a blog is the wrong choice to frame this learning. Perhaps a private Google Doc would be be more appropriate, while still maintaining some of the convenience of the digital format.

 

Blogging Is Community

Blogging is about audience, but it is important to recognize that it isn’t a static, silent audience. In many blogs, much of the excitement happens in the conversation which takes place when readers start adding their comments.  Community can also be developed by linking together a number of blogs which may share common interests. Also, there have been studies that show the positive educational applications of community-developed blogs, where a group of students collectively share responsibility for producing blog content.

 

Blogging is Personal

While blogs can connect communities of learners together, it is impossible (nor desirable, I think) to escape the personal nature of blogs. Young people often struggle defining and expressing their personal identity.  From the decor of their rooms, to their hairstyles, to wardrobe choices, students are constantly reaching for opportunities to express themselves. Even within the context of school-administered educational blogs it is important to allow students freedom to express this voice and take ownership of their digital footprint.

 

Blogging Is Hyperlinking

One skill that is absolutely fundamental to blogging is the ability to embed links to other online information. Often these are links to external content being discussed, which serve as informal citations that readers can follow.

But this can also be content created by the student using other media, like a Youtube video or a presentation and embedded on the blog. There are a huge number of Web 2.0 tools which can be embedded into a blog, greatly expanding its possibilities. Effectively, the blog becomes a dead-simple platform which allows students to combine a huge variety of audio-visual material into a rich, dynamic document.

 

Getting It Right: Strategies to Consider

 

1. Create a meaningful connection between student blogs and the classroom

The most common mistake in classroom blogging is to allow blogs to become a 1-1 conversation between teacher and student. Students respond to questions or prompts provided by the teacher, and perhaps, if they are lucky, they get a comment or response back. This is the simply replicating the same journal-writing activity that has been used by teachers since the dawn of time. At minimum, students should be encouraged, or required, to read and comment on the work of their peers.

Further, student writing on blogs should inform what happens when they return to class. Ideally, online work should not be separated from classwork. Discussions which begin online should continue face-to-face. The ease of sharing digital writing, either by linking or by simply putting the work up on the data projector makes it ideally suited to anchor classroom discussions.

 

2. Develop norms and expectations

As noted earlier, blogs can take many forms. There is no single, correct, widely-understood formula. This makes it particularly important for teachers to clearly discuss their expectations for any blogging activity.  What is the learning goal?  Is formal writing expected, or something else? What does a successful product look and sound like? How will the task be assessed?  Of course, providing this sort of information to students is best-practice for all learning activities.

Behavioural expectations, such as respectful commenting and awareness of their own digital footprint, should also be discussed. This is an excellent opportunity to incorporate some digital citizenship into the classroom. Again, this is best-practice for all activities which are anchored in online space.

 

3. Require linking and multimedia

Digital authorship is not just about text. Images, media, and links are essential components of the medium and should be blended seamlessly together in digital texts. Teachers and students both need to be taught the technical skills to accomplish this, and the referencing and citation skills to do it responsibly.

 

4. Remember you are always writing for an audience -  A global audience

There are two common mistakes associated with developing an audience for an educational blog.The first is assuming that “if you write it, they will come”, then being disappointed when students don’t receive comments from around the globe. Audience doesn’t happen automatically. You may need to reach out to families, or colleagues, or your Professional Learning Community to help get the audience that you are hoping for. Most bloggers use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to generate traffic to their blogs. Students, too, should be taught these skills.

On the other hand, it is also a mistake to assume that if you don’t advertise student blogs you can expect some sort of privacy. This is a dangerous assumption. Bloggers should write with the expectation that their work could, possibly, be read by anyone.

 

5. Read some blogs

To be comfortable with any medium, you must become familiar with its particular language and features. For some teachers and (to a lesser extent) students, their first exposure to the world of blogging may be at school.

Jumping directly to “publishing for a global audience” may be too much to ask initially . A logical first step for total novices would simply be to begin reading more blogs, working with them as texts to be analysed before moving up Bloom’s Taxonomy to the creation stage. Fortunately, the sheer number and diversity of blogs makes it easy to find good reading for personal interest, academic, or professional purposes.

 

Conclusion

Blogging has fundamentally changed how people read and write. It has shaken the foundations of fields like journalism, putting global publishing in the hands of anyone with an internet connection.

Schools must keep pace with our changing notions of “literacy”. To do this, we must recognize the features that make digital authorship unique. We must guide our teachers and students to take advantage of the unique possibilities, while navigating the potential pitfalls.  We must help our colleagues and students develop the knowledge and skills to evolve past merely replicating traditional writing activities in the online environment.

 

Works Cited/Further Reading


Bartholomew, Mitchell, Jones, Travis & Glassman, Michael (2012) “A Community Of Voices: Educational Blog Management Strategies and Tools” TechTrends Vol. 56/4, 19-25 July/August 2012

Davis, Anne (2007) “Rationale for Educational Blogging” https://sites.google.com/site/annedavis1/home (Accessed Jan. 28, 2012)

Davis, Richard (2007) “A Web 2.0 Education” http://www.education.ed.ac.uk/e-learning/gallery/davis_web2education.html#Blogs (Accessed Jan. 28, 2012

Kerawalla, L, Minoch, S, Kirkup, G, & Conole G. (2008) “An empirically grounded framework to guide blogging in higher education” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning Vol. 25, 31-42

Richardson, W. (2006). Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

 

NOTE: This was originally published on Technology Integration in Education.

There is lots of my other Edtech writing over there, but it is hidden behind a NING wall, so I am slowly starting to repost my best stuff over here as well. Stay tuned!

Monday
Mar262012

I'm moving on ... 

 

Somewhat belatedly, I would like to confirm that next year I will be moving to the glorious city of Prague, Czech Republic, to join the staff of the International School of Prague as the Upper School IT and Media Specialist. 

You can Czech out my new digs here!

Take care!

Friday
Dec022011

Video Added!

I've been adding a bunch a videos, including samples of projects and student work.  Check it out!

Monday
Nov282011

Letters of Recommendation Posted

Hello all!

I have letters of reference posted from my current referees.  (Click on the references button on the top menu bar).


While you are there, check out my archive of references from previous positions, as well as a selection of notes from parents and students - they are my most important references, as far as I'm concerned!