Saturday, August 23, 2008

How to Use the Read/Write Web

The term "web 2.0" has reached the point in my life where it has become a glittering generality that makes me roll my eyes (sort of like "rigor and relevance", "higher standards", or "maverick"). You find people who haven't the faintest idea of what it means parroting it as though they do. There is a clamor for using web 2.0 tools in the classroom, and yet, there are no qualifications, no best practices, no "when using web 2.0, do this, not that" instructions to help teachers. As long as you're blogging, you're doing good!

Well, that's nowhere the truth. Using web 2.0 tools needs careful thought to create deep learning like any other strategies. It should feature sound professional development, not one-time exposure. And, it requires reflection afterwards, to seek continuous improvement. Speaking from experience, you are almost certain not to get it right the first time you use web 2.0 in the classroom.

This is mainly true because it is not a fully researched implementation. There haven't been control-based studies of n>1000 looking at the implementation effects of blogging on reading comprehension. But, while that it is true, it is a beautiful thing! A better-researched integration, by definition, is not cutting edge.

So, when addressing how to use the read/write web in your classroom, I start with this. Conduct your own research. Don't skew it. If, after trying out blogging, your students aren't improving in your targeted areas, this isn't a bad thing. Blogging, like other web 2.0 tools, is so adaptable that you can refine the instruction without scrapping it. Here is a breakdown of the steps:

1. Identify your targeted outcomes - This can be more than one thing (it should be a few, at the least), but they should be specific outcomes. If you don't have an idea of what you are trying to improve, of course, then you are going to have more problems than just integrating web 2.0... your whole instructional methodology would be suspect. Still, this is where you start.

2. Generate your baseline data - This should be difficult to do. If you are looking to improve the ability to correctly answer questions on a standardized test, then you need to rethink your integration of web 2.0. More likely, if you are looking to integrate web 2.0, you are trying to develop collaboration, reflection, problem-solving, and argumentation skills, and these aren't easily quantifiable.

I would accomplish this by giving a small test over a short story right at the beginning of the year. The test would have two short essay questions requiring the student to create a paragraph that integrates their thought on several different topics. Using my rubric, I'd generate my baseline data (the scores of students at the beginning of the year tended to be 2 out of 5).

3. Determine an integration tool and technique - There are so many possibilities that this post can't cover them all. But, some starter ideas:

• Students create reflective blogs based on individual free-writing questions posed by the teacher to provoke thought
• Students generate a persuasion podcast to try and convince an audience of a particular viewpoint
• Students collaborate through a wiki to create a study guide for the course
• Students participate in a blog forum, commenting on the teacher blog as well as other participant comments
• Students produce a screencast presentation, explaining how to do something computer related, such as navigate a website or post a movie to youtube
• Students post and share photos on Flickr to demonstrate visual literacy of a topic, like emotions or "the 6 pillars of character" or cultural diversity
• Students use Google Docs to peer edit a fellow student's composition
• Students use geotagging to create a slideshow of elements (such as pictures or places in a novel) in Google Earth

For all of these, a teacher will have to adapt the integration technique to the specific curriculum they are teaching. In time, I hope this blog has an opportunity to highlight some specific applications that teachers are currently using in Iowa.

4. Teach - Or, perhaps I should say, let the students learn. Introduce the basics of what they need to know, and then let them learn how to use the tool effectively.

5. Formatively reflect - The first time I started using blogs in the classroom, I had no idea the draw to avatars (the image that goes with the blog). Live and learn. I saw that in the future, I needed to provide them a set amount of time (10 minutes) to personalize their account, and at that point, all personalization had to be done outside of class time. I never had an issue after that mental note.

6. Gather data - This, along with step 2, is where educators usually fail. We will learn about new techniques, try them out, even learn from our mistakes. Yet, if we have to demonstrate if the technique truly worked versus an unchosen alternative (giving them worksheets), we rely on subjective observations only. In my case, I monitored the student writing and kept samples of it for parents as well as administrators. Which leads to...

7. Share your data - Most educators can't get to this step. During parent-teacher conferences, I would talk about blogging and show parents the technique via a laptop at the table. Then I could produce their first writing sample and then subsequent ones to talk about growth (or lack of growth).

8. Reflect on the implementation - The data will give you true confidence in your teaching or drive you to make changes. Both are great things. The thing that isn't great is having no data to see if what you are doing is making a difference. It subscribes to the glittering generality (hey look! I'm using web 2.0! It has to be good!).

My point to all this is, like anything else we do in education, we have to see if it works instead of assuming it does. I'm wary of what web 2.0 is becoming in education, a supposed failsafe that allows misuse. And I'm equally wary of the "researched-based" tag that educators sometimes hide behind. I'm confident in its utility because I have measured its use.

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