Manage Learning with a Teaching Web Site!!

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I launched my first teaching web site on 9 March 1996. I thought it was great because there were so many important things to say and remember in my teaching, and I could simply post and there it remained. As a Business Education and later CTS teacher, I often “taught” (as in “to facilitate learning”) different subjects in the same class, which remains, in my opinion, one of the most destructive practices exercised by administrators. When we find a Phar Lap, we should let them excel rather than throwing weights in their saddles, “but I digress.”

Integrating a web site into my teaching meant that I could teach Legal Studies to one portion of a class while other students focused on their Computer Programming course. Within a year I was posting directions and examples of source code and thoughts that I felt were important to share with my students. I was “blogging” years before the colloquialsim was coined in 1999 by a fellow named Peter Merholz, from the cojoined terms “web” and “log”. [ See: WikiAnswers ]

I can’t imagine teaching a course today without leveraging the convenience and ubiquity of the Internet and, significantly, the resources channeled by the Internet.

Below is a table of categories of software that I believe are extraordinarily effective in the establishment and maintenance of a teaching web site. I wanted to bring it all together; for some it will be the first time that they even imagined that such software existed.

Free stuff is often good and sometimes better than commercial, but it has been my experience that the commercial stuff is usually easier to use and more polished. Maybe that is why people are willing to pay money for it. That said, some products such as Moodle are so well supported by educators worldwide, that even if your board or school purchases a commercial service, you still feel obligated to “Do Moodle” to keep pace with “the latest and greatest”. When I worked for a board that used d2L, I only heard of features after they rolled out. With Moodle, I know years in advance what is planned and where “we” are going because it is open source, which means that its development is wide open for me to watch and participate in. I like being part of the action. I don’t like my “superiors” determining the tools of my trade.

For the record: Don’t even think about doing your own web hosting!! I ran my site for several years off my home hard drive. I had to leave it on day and night for my students. Pay a commercial hosting service $7 a month and enjoy the wonderful luxury of having your site maintained by experts. I have used Blue Host for years and feel really happy about both their service and costs. I do not mean to suggest that other services are of lessor quality, but I will only comment on the service that I know.

You absolutely need a piece of software called an “FTP Client”. You want to transfer files from your computer to a remote hosting provider with the same ease that you copy files from one directory to another on your own computer. A friendly and powerful FTP client lets you do just that. By the way, the hosting service software is the “server” because it will “serve” your files over the Internet for you. Your computer’s FTP software is the “client” because that software allows you to deliver your “client” software to your host’s “server” software.

I have used and loved WS_FTP for years, but I frankly find its free, GNU public license look-alike FileZilla to just as good for all that uses that I have. There are other comparable products in the market. For now, download and use the free, open source FileZilla and you won’t be disappointed.

Web authoring with Dreamweaver is awesome! They let you code by hand whenever you want to, so you have the best of all worlds. NVU is free and can be learned in minutes, though.

Publish or Perish! Every Canadian parent who ever had a child in Beavers (think “Scouts Canada”) knows, the Beaver Motto is “Sharing, Sharing, Sharing“. I can still hear that years old chorus ringing in my years from when my two now adult sons were Beavers, aged 5-7. Sharing is one of the most valued obligations of academia, and high school is certainly not too soon to emphasize that obligation. The IB Computer Science program dossier is one of the most challenging high school assignments in the world. It really is! Done best, it takes months of focused efforts. That said, it must also be said that it is one of the most valuable learning experiences in the world as well. I can’t count the number of returning students that told me that, years later, that was the single most valuable academic achievement of their high school career. (I will do a full blog on the IB program dossier one day.)

Each year end, following the May IB international exams, I insisted that my IB students wrap their dossier projects in a web page that I posted on my web site. They had accomplished much. It was their obligation to publish the fruits of their endeavors. Now they must “share” the proceeds of their labours! Astonishingly, it never failed that some of my IB students had never done a web page. With NVU it was a snap! With NVU, they learned to publish on the web in a single session and then do their project on a weekend or, more commonly, in a couple of weeks during class.

Sometimes you want to download an entire site, or portion of it, so that you can browse and capture offline. I used “Webstripper” for years, but the nanny software used by my board would block my access to its website. It didn’t like the word “strip” in the title. Later we learned to override the software. Still, whatever you use, consider downloading entire megabytes or even gigabytes if that is the size of something that you want ensure you have at your leisure.

Aside: I just used the measure “gigabytes” as it is a large quantity of data to download in 2010. I will read this in ten years and just shake my head at how relatively little that measure will be by then.

PhotoShop is amazingly powerful and ubiquitous. There is support all over the Internet for it. I personally find it irritating that it takes umpteen mouse clicks to create a transparent gif background which can be done with a single click in MS Publisher. But you really can do everything with PhotoShop, much more I will ever know how to do. That said, Google’s free Picasa is awesome and does really well most of what you will ever want to do with pictures.

Another Aside: Bear with me on this. I have an important point. A PhotoShop compliant or other pen tablet can replace your white board for scripting notes and diagrams. I used a large WACOM pen tablet for several years before retiring in 2009. When teaching, I used to project PowerPoint slide shows and “on-the-go” programming software development from my computer to a screen, which was great for “showing by doing”. However, I also liked to give impromptu notes and I teach with diagrams whenever possible. So, several times each class, I would turn off the projector, run to the front of the class where my overhead projector resided, turn it on, and write my notes and diagrams on rolls of plastic that was projected to the screen. That done, I would turn off the overhead projector, turn on the computer projector, rush back to my desk at the rear of the room, and proceed with the slide show or program development. You may not be surprised to hear that my students found this to be a bit disconcerting. That was how I became motivated to try a pen tablet.

The WACOM pen tablet was wonderful! I never used it with PhotoShop, even though it was designed for that software. I used it with (yeah, I know, LOL) MS Paintbrush (now simply called MS Paint) which comes most (maybe all) version of MS Windows. But what I did with the combination of tablet and Paint revolutionized my presentations! First, no longer did I jump up and down switching projectors off and on several times per class! But here was the big deal: I could “Alt-Tab” switch my way from one application to another. In the middle of a slide show, I could switch to Paint and draw a diagram illustrating a point in the slide show, and then effortlessly switch back to the slide show. Similarly, when developing code in Eclipse (an integrated development environment wrapping functions for program editing, compiling, executing, debugging, etc.), I could switch to Paint, write free-hand notes that I wanted to give my students, perhaps with a simple diagram in the notes, just as I would on a white board, and then switch back to Eclipse. Third, I could save each Paint screen to disk and later post it to my web site for my students to review and download as they wished. Fourth, I could print all or some portion of the Paint screens of notes in under a minute at the end of class and my students could grab a copy (literally) from the printer as they exited the room. Talk about JIT (“Just In Time”) service!!

Every teacher should know how to grab and crop anything that appears on your screen, and then paste it to a WORD or browser page. SnagIt is fancy but ScreenHunter is free and convenient!

I like to capture video to files on my computer and show them to students later at my convenience. RealPlayer captures just about everything that streams. Windows Media Centre, which comes with Vista and Windows 7, is a superior TIVO that captures television programming and saves that to files.

We are fortunate to have so much choice in web browsers these days. I prefer Google’s Chrome because it is constantly upgraded with neat and convenient ideas.

This is the age of virtual learning. Today course management systems allow us to build web sites with drop boxes and search engines and self-administering testing capabilities. Commercial products like Blackboard and d2L are fine, but not better than the free, open source platform Moodle. I really clicked with Moodle when I realized that, while it would hold my hand when I needed that, it also allowed me to implement my own HTML generated web pages in the interface. Now I can combine what I learned over 15 years with my older web site with the powerful technologies of the engines that package and mold great pedagogical tools.

I was blogging before the term was invented. You are more than a “SME” (Subject Matter Expert) to your students. You are a multi-dimensional adult with experience that allows you to integrate what you teach with so many other threads of life. It is not enough to show how to do it. You must explain why it is worth spending the time and creative energy to learn to do it in the first place. You model both wisdom and attitude as well as cognitive skills. You must address the affective domain if you are to motivate other domains. Blogging does that. I want to say something about blogging software.

I tried using something called PmWiki for a year. The problem with PmWiki and many other applications that commit the same sin, is that it reinvents the wheel. The software did some neat things, but I had to learn an entirely different set of conventions and key presses to do the simplest things. That is nuts! If software, be it for course management or blogging, will not allow you to use HTML, then I recommend that you dump it pronto! HTML is not the best scripting language, but it absolutely fundamental to integrating what you do with every browser in the world. HTML is not best, but it is fundamental. My legs are not the best vehicle for locomotion, but I am not ready to chop them off if that be the price of using a rocket to cross the street.

This blog that you are now reading has been rendered in WordPress. I learned to use WordPress in one sitting. For some time there has been a WordPress iPhone app that you can use to read WordPress blogs. Most recently (May 2010) Automattic released the WordPress Android app.

I love WordPress. It is powerful and intuitive and, yes, it lets me use HTML. The reason that is important is that I can do some simple, tricky things with HTML that are not addressed by an application’s widgets.

Dreamweaver and Moodle and WordPress all let you work with HTML. Sometimes you just want to walk. Sometimes you don’t need a rocket ship to cross the street. You should have that choice!

The 21st Century teacher best manages learning with a web site as well as Smart Boards and projectors and good old fashioned “lecturing”.

After all is said and done, students still learn a great deal from a teacher standing in front of them, engaging them in presentation and discussion. Share your excitement and let them see that you care and wonder and will risk making erroneous statements that they, your students, will happily correct. Ironically, Moodle and WordPress do a great deal of the resource archiving and distribution and even evaluation, freeing you to do what we love to do most: interact with our students verbally and with body language and extemporaneous anecdotes and teasing and humour.

Learning is by nature fun because it engages our minds, and socialization is the lubricant of learning. Anyone who has ever experienced jet lag knows full well that you stay awake by visiting and talking and kibitzing. My wife and I took a dozen graduating students through Europe in 1988. I booked us into a play that first evening in London: dark theatre, quiet voices on stage. After about half an hour, I glanced down the row of seats only to see my charges … literally ALL of them … lounging in all manner of postures slumbering away the evening. Yet those same vibrant people would stay up an entire weekend cramming with friends for a diploma exam.

Routine gives us freedom to apply our creative energies to the more challenging problems of our lives. A teaching web site gives teachers freedom and time to engage our students in a more personal and humane manner.

I have below summarized popular and superior examples of the types of software that I think will serve you well in managing learning with a teaching web site!! Go for it.



About the Author:

Gerry Donaldson was Calgary’s first high school teacher to use a lab of personal computers. Gerry taught CSE, including CTS, AP and IB Computer Science, for 30 years before teaching and consulting to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary.
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