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Twitter and Social Networking

All Web2.0 tools need to have a certain ‘critical mass’ before they start to become useful – for example, YouTube is only interesting once a good number of people have uploaded some videos.

With Twitter (and other social networking tools) I think you have to reach critical mass in two different ways:

  1. Critical Mass of People. That is, lots of people* have to be using it. (*By ‘people’ I mean people who you may wish to share thoughts with – friends, colleagues, like-minded professionals, others with interesting viewpoints)
  2. Critical Mass of Communication. I know several people who have signed up for Twitter or Facebook (or Bebo, MySpace etc.) and then asked “what does it do?”; “what’s the point?”. Social Networking does not work if users do not attempt to join social networks.

This is analagous to moving home and making new friends. When you move home, you pick a neighbourhood in which you will ‘fit’. In order to make new friends, there has to be a neighbourhood of people (i.e. a critical mass of people with which to be friendly) and also forums for communication. These forums may include the schoolgates when you pick your children up in the afternoons, the local shop, the local pub etc. People who do not communicate with their neighbours do not create friendships.

Following this analogy, online social networking is more likely to be successful if:

  • users choose the right online social network (i.e. ‘neighbourhood’). I don’t use Bebo because none of my friends use Bebo and it seems full of teenagers. I use Facebook because a lot of my friends have accounts and most of my students also use it.
  • users find friends and communicate. Facebook does not work if you join and do nothing else. It becomes less pointless if you search for your (realworld) friends and throw sheep at them; post pictures of yourself; play games with colleagues etc.

This is particularly the case with Twitter. It took me a long time to ‘get’ Twitter. I joined, found a few friends to ‘follow’ and waited. And nothing much happened. (I don’t have that many real-world friends who tweet; and don’t have much time to tweet myself.)

However, things looked up when I started to follow interesting Tweeters – people who I didn’t necessarily know in real life, but seemed to have something useful/funny/current to say. Things looked up again when I started to tweet a little – even if I just retweeted someone else’s previous tweet. People began to follow me as well. Social networks began to grow and so I began to see how this might be interesting.

Two questions remain though:

  1. How do I find the time to tweet, whilst also coping with work, family and the rest of life?
  2. Twitter may be interesting, but is it worthwhile? In particular, can it help with my work as a teacher?

I’ll consider these questions in another blog sometime. Right now, I need to get back to Twitter!

Awesome Free Maths Software

I could write a very long blog about free mathematics software, but don’t really need to as someone else has done it for me a couple of years ago:

http://math-blog.com/2007/06/02/3-awesome-free-math-programs/

Antonio Cangiano omits my personal favourite – Geogebra. In my view, this is one of the best pieces of mathematical software around. It’s great for five main reasons:

  1. It works well, combining aspects of graphing, computer algebra and dynamic geometry software into one piece of software.
  2. It’s easy to use. The helpful quickstart guide is particularly good.
  3. Based on Java, it works on all platforms.
  4. You can create stand-alone dynamic worksheets.
  5. It’s free!

With the demise of Derive, Geogebra seems to have gained a lot of ground in UK schools recently. There seems to be a growing online community of Geogebra users – their teaching resources wiki is very useful.

Work Smart 2.0

My top e-learning tip is not specifically for mathematics teachers alone, or perhaps not even just teachers:

New technology is, by definition, fast moving and rapidly changing. There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there and it is very easy to get overwhelmed by it all. I try to handle it by letting the technology take the strain. For example:

Social Bookmarking

Sign up to delicious.com or another social bookmarking site and add the delicious bookmarking buttons to your browser. As you wander the web, add favourite pages to your delicious account. This has three advantages over using ‘normal’ bookmarks:

  1. You can access your bookmarks anywhere – so when you’re next in the classroom, you can go straight to delicious.com and see all of your bookmarks. You don’t need to remember the weblinks; you don’t need to remember to bring that piece of paper you wrote the weblonk down on.
  2. You can organise your bookmarks in the way you want. By ‘tagging’ your bookmarks with keywords, delicious.com categorises your bookmarks how you want.
  3. You can share your bookmarks. By giving people your delicious.com account name, they can see your bookmarks. This is great for teachers – for example, you can search through the web for good revision sites, adding them to your delicious bookmarks as you go and tagging them ‘Y11Revision’. Then all you havd to do is tell your Y11 students to go to delicious.com/yourusername/Y11Revision. One word of caution though – make sure you only bookmark the sites you don’t mind other people knowing you read!

For example, see my mathematics bookmarks at http://delicious.com/sjwilk/mathematics

YouTube

YouTube has lots of good revision videos for Calculus. You could create a document and copy and paste all of the weblinks across from YouTube; you could create a webpage and embed the videos into it. The smarter way is to create an account on YouTube and add the best videos to a Calculus Revision playlist that you create. You can embed that playlist into a website or virtual-learning environment.

Other Web2.0 Tools

Social bookmarking and YouTube are two types of Web2.0 tool. You can normally also use the other Web2.0 websites in a smart way to save you time and effort and so make learning more effective and efficient.

  • SlideShare is a great place to find useful presentations.
  • TeacherTube is getting better and better and now contains lots of useful videos for (surprisingly) teachers!

And of course you can always write a blog so that you can keep your notes for lessons online so that you can access them anywhere and your students can see them afterwards!

A Vision of (Our) Students Today

I saw this on YouTube some time ago…

 

Though this may be from the US, I feel that many of the issues presented are also relevant for us.

I’m particularly interested in the lack of engagement/empowerment by students suggested by the video – students sitting in classes Facebooking etc. To me this almost suggests that we (lecturers) need to be concerned about students sitting in lectures with laptops or mobiles etc. (Perhaps this is why LTAS bans mobile phones in teaching rooms??)

However, wireless access and the use of laptops (or even easier, tablet PCs – the laptops that you can write on) can make lectures a much richer experience for students. Imagine watching the lecture and making notes on your tablet PC. You have the lecturer’s PowerPoint so you can annotate that, and you also have immediate online access to the articles / web pages referred to by the lecturer. You can add copy and paste quotes from these articles into your notes, along with the web links, and can follow citations/links to other relevant pages should wish to. Making use of online forums (in Moodle, Facebook etc.) you can post your immediate thoughts – perhaps then getting some feedback from another student that is sitting a few rows away or another who saw the lecture yesterday.

Once could argue that this is all too much for one student to be doing at one time – they couldn’t possibly take it all in. But I know it is possible, because this is how I behave when I’m in seminars at the University – and I’m far too old to be one of the Facebook/YouTube/MySpace generation. Students are well used to handling Facebook, email, txt, Voicemail, blogging all at the same time without pausing for breath. This is how they live.

So what does this mean for us as “educators”?

We could prohibit such technology – by stopping students using their mobiles during lectures; by not allowing them to use their own laptops; by blocking Facebook etc. with the firewall – but this would then seem to imply that “education” is not part of their world.

Do we then embrace the technology? Even though some of it may actually impact negatively on learning and teaching? And even though we don’t know how to work it?

Oblinger in a recent report for BECTA (Emerging technologies for learning, Volume 3, Chapter 1, 2008) concludes:

Our assumptions about students and what is best for their education may not be matched by today’s reality. It is dangerous to assume that we understand students simply because we were once in the same shoes. Times change. Technologies change. Students change. And so does education.

Food for thought…

Teachers and Technicians

EDUCAUSE (http://www.educause.edu/) always seems an interesting read. Though based in the US, and mainly focussed on the US, it encourages contributions from around the world, including developing countries. As a non-profit org. all of its publications are available online for free but this has not stopped it gaining a good name in the e-learning field – many well-known writers (e.g. for example Laurillard; Downes) are published there.

Jugovich and Reeves (2006) is particularly interesting and seems quite relevant to us at Leeds Trinity. They provide a short case study of a university in which ITS support technology, and the pedagogy is left to someone else. This would seem similar to our situation, though once could argue that Leeds Trinity sub-divides even further – ITS looking after IT; media services looking after media and someone else (?) looking after the pedagogy.

The authors make the point that this artificial division is not helpful:

During ITSS [their ITS] workshops, however, faculty began asking us how to teach effectively using technology tools (such as PowerPoint), in addition to questions such as how to animate a slide. Faculty recognized the need to combine instruction on using the tool with using it effectively for teaching. We realized that the organizational separation between ITSS and IDS [their pedagogical support] was artificial and, as technology became woven into the fabric of teaching, made progressively less sense.

The suggestion to weave IT skills with pedagogical skills during staff development makes sense. A more situated type of session, in which lecturers attending the session can actually learn new skills that they can make use of when preparing and teaching should increase engagement and the attainment of transferable skills.

So should ITS know more about the pedagogy so that they can show staff how to make use of the software for teaching and learning, not just “click this, click that”? Such an increased awareness of the pedagogical rationale for certain technologies would certainly help break down the “silicon curtain” between academic and technician – surely anything that allows colleagues to understand each other better is a “good thing”.

Pupils’ Drawings of Mathematicians

Much of the research concerning attitudes to mathematics suggests that pupils and teachers are generally negative about the subject. One of the most startling pieces of research I have come across is that of Picker and Berry (2000). They asked children from five countries to draw pictures of mathematicians.

One of the resulting images, drawn by a 12 year old US pupil, shows a male mathematician, with stained and torn clothing, “bad body posture”, “wrinkles from thinking too hard” and “fat from doing nothing but math”.

Key findings from this study include:

  • Mathematicians are perceived as male (with the exception, in the UK, of Carol Vorderman – TV Presenter of a mathematics component of the British quiz programme, “Countdown”). In Sweden and Romania no pupil of either gender drew a female mathematician.
  • When asked what mathematicians do, many children were unable to provide an answer.
  • Images of mathematicians are overwhelmingly negative – depicted as over-worked people with no fashion sense, unable to form personal-relationships and often unkempt.
  • Mathematicians tend to be drawn as people in power – often as authoritarian teachers, sometimes even with guns or sticks to force children to learn the subject. Similarly, the children in the pictures tend be drawn small (see below).

  • Mathematicians have supernatural powers, allowing them to “do math” in their heads in front of people. Children seem to see mathematics as abstract – a subject outside their experiences, beyond their understanding and almost magical in nature.