Top 100?

I got an email today passing on “The Top 100 Tools for Learning 2009” list. I know I should have left when some people chose Animoto as their number one choice but I didn’t. I wanted to see what the compiled list from 278 people looked like1.

In order to look at it in a more interactive way, threw the data into Exhibit.
Picture 4

It’s interesting to click around and see the data grouped in different ways. Mostly it makes me think that asking for a top 10 is about 5 items too many.

I also wonder a good bit about what people think of when they list “tools for learning.” Photoshop made it to #35 this year.

1 There are a number of problems I have with the way the whole collection of items works but we’ll ignore that for now.

Sharing Ed. Content In Ways That Don’t Suck

I work in a decent sized school system. We have 69 schools and about 50,000 students.

That means we have a lot of teachers, a lot of teachers teaching the same content, a lot of teachers struggling with the same problems, a lot of teachers re-doing work that’s already been done.

At a district level we spend untold hours and untold amounts of money trying to provide support for teachers and trying to promote best practice. We have teachers who exemplify the concepts we’re trying to share but they are, too often, unknown outside their school, or their grade, or their subject, or their classroom.

So our current goal is to end anonymity, to effectively publicize best practice on a global level. One of the ways that we’d like that to happen is through online content distribution and building conversation around that content. The ability to put multimedia content online is nothing new. What has changed is the facility with which it can be done and the ability to easily have conversations1 around very specific pieces of media.

Changing the concept

It’s important to look at how educational content sharing has failed in the past and present if you’re going to try to get it right. I looked at as many different online sharing options as I could find.2 I’ve also been on the user end of a number of systems.

I think we can go ahead and skip the file hierarchy systems. They suck in such a huge number of ways. There’s no visual, no readily available meta data etc. etc. Their one benefit is they’re easy to publish with but that’s not much of a benefit when no one bothers trying to use them.

The place I’d like to focus is on the database backed web content creation systems. I think it’s key to have them on the web and open to anyone who’s interested and it’s key to have the database backend to prevent needless duplication and other hassles for the creator and consumer.

There are two big places these systems tend to fail. They can fail to provide what the consumer needs and/or they can fail to facilitate the creation of content on the producer end. I’m arguing that these two aspects are more tightly linked than it might initially appear. I see both issues stemming from a misunderstanding about what teachers want out of these sharing sites. Most sites focus on providing a highly structured and rigidly standardized lesson plan format. Essentially, ‘Here is your lesson in a box.’ I don’t think that’s what teachers want and it’s certainly not the way you get teachers thinking about changing practice. The other path for these sites is ‘Here’s your widget to add to your widget collection.’ The most interaction either option tends to give teachers is the ability to rate the content.

I think we’re pitching the wrong content and doing it in the wrong way. “This is perfect. Download it and follow the directions. We know what’s best.” is not a message that works. People drop in, they glance around and if they don’t find engaging content before having to go download a file, they leave.

My Pitch

So here’s my pitch on how I’d like to see this system work.

Philosophy: Teachers are looking for inspiration and community as opposed to directions. This is as much about the conversation that occurs around the content as it is about the content itself. As a result –

  • loosely structured narratives should replace highly structured lesson plans
  • content should be housed in a way that encourages conversation to occur around it (as opposed to elsewhere)
  • it’s not just about perfect finished products, this is a valuable space for exploring ideas


Main Page: On the consumer end, you have to make this content look interesting and keep it fresh. What shows up, as well as how it shows up, is absolutely key. So my main page would be very similar to the way a number of consumer sites work. I think those sites have quite a lot to teach in terms of what people expect and want when browsing for content online. I think iTunes is an interesting model to look at. It has a wide user base and I think it does a good job of displaying content.3

Picture 4
We’re not talking rocket science here. Many blog themes also echo this display format. Essentially, you’ve got a larger box that is animated and shuffles editor designated content. Then you’ve got some content showing up based on user interest and activity. All of this is visual and allows the user to drill down into more specific detail. It is simple but it’s also the opposite of nearly every education based website I could find that shares content. Apple’s Learning Interchange gets close on the display side. I also really liked the revamped look of the CUNY Commons site. Compare these initial interfaces to sites like Merlot, Lola or the OER Commons. I’m not arguing content, social purpose etc. here. I just want you to look at the page and compare how you feel viewing it.

Search: The next place people will end up is the search page. There are so many ways this is done in unpleasant ways. I’ll use the Merlot example below because it’s actually one of the better options but suffers from pretty universal flaws.
Picture 5

The only image on the page is the “Editors’ Choice” badge. The data is laid out in ways that don’t really take advantage of the space, nor do they use formatting to help make the data more legible. I found the dual star based review systems somewhat unpleasant and for some reason it was hard for me to count the stars. What data is present in this view should also change pretty radically if it doesn’t function as a link to other information in that same category.

I remade it with the same essential information below.

Picture 8 4
or alternately
Picture 9

In a perfect world, I’d probably have a number of things activate based on mouse overs. So you could get a better description if you wanted it but a lot of the initial interest would be based on the look, title and metadata regarding ratings and conversation.

That’s probably enough for now. Next time around I’ll get into tagging, searching, aggregation and what the content and conversation might look like.

1 I’m defining ‘conversation’ pretty loosely here.

2 Feel free to send me any good examples you’re aware of. I have no need of additional bad examples.

3 Music is not an inherently visual piece of content but album art has played a major role in its packaging for some time. iTunes certainly takes advantage of that.

4 You may say that image sucks and has nothing to do with the content. I’d agree except it’s from the content which sucks in ways I have a hard time explaining.

Progress on 21st century skills?

I’ve got to deliver a 15 minute presentation tomorrow on what we’re doing in good ol’ HCPS with regard to 21st century skills1. The audience is high level people from other local school districts. My goal is to let them see where we made some errors and hope they’ll then be able to avoid them. In a perfect world, I might also inspire them to try similar projects in the future with the goal of sharing both resources and expertise.


Step one, will be to discuss how we’ve tried to set a vision for what a 21st century classroom looks like. That’ll basically cover the evolution of the TIPc chart which I’ve already done here. The focus will be on the movement towards simplicity, student focus etc. I also intend to bring up the effectiveness of the TPCK model in having this discussion with teachers and administrators. It really seems to clarify things.

It’ll also be worth noting that this is now our mission statement.

Henrico County Public Schools, in partnership with the community, will inspire, empower, and educate every student to be prepared for success in the 21st century.

There are some interesting things you can read into that if you want to.


Step two, will cover how we’ve tried to share best practice and lessons. In my opinion, this has not gone well. Despite huge amounts of time and effort we simply do not share good practice and resources effectively. If you look at the content specific links here, you’ll notice that there’s a mixture of tools used (iWeb, blogs, Dreamweaver) and that many of the sites have been abandoned. Part of the reason for abandonment has been because of a push to put all these resources into shared object repositories in SchoolSpace (our Angel CMS).

It makes sense in a lot of ways to do something different. We have tried

  • intranet based systems based on a series of folder hierarchies
  • web based systems built in iWeb or Dreamweaver
  • shared object repositories

None of these systems really meet what I see as our total needs. One major aspect is the ability to hold conversations around specific pieces of content. The ironic thing is that this conversation is probably more valuable in terms of changing instruction than whatever piece of media inspired it, yet we do very little to encourage this type of communication. We also neglect the community and social aspects that need to be addressed, built, and continually focused on in order to get real change to happen.

So we’re trying to define what our needs are in that area.

  • What kind of content do we share?
  • How do we share content in ways that engage teachers?
  • How do we build conversation around ideas and concepts in ways that improve teaching?
  • How do we do all this in ways that are sustainable?
  • How do we design things so that the best content rises to the top?
  • What does the structure that does this look like?


We’re doing a voluntary program that’s been titled “reflective friends.”2 You can read about the process here.

Essentially, principals volunteer their school and then decide on what kind of data they want to collect on practice in their school. We meet with them and then come back with an outside team to collect that data. The data is then presented and we work with the administrators to provide support and direction

1 I have a number of issues with the label/concept but it does allow us to address a number of aspects which are positive.

2 Critical friends sounded too frightening. I have nothing nice to say about either title but the premise is good.

Harken, ye anti-texting dogs


I Profe{|s|s}e to teach thee, that art vtterly ignorant, to reade perfe{ct}ly, to write truly, and with iudgement to vnder­ {|st}and the rea|son of our Engli{|sh} tongue with great expedition, ea|se , and plea­|sure.

from the English School Maister

Clearly Langvich, like Arithmeticke, doth naught chan-geth.

Language is your servant. Language is not your master.

Too many people seem to think language is in charge. English is the bastard child of any number of languages and times. What we have now is a confusing, ever shifting and evolving, mess.

One squiggly line means the number two and three other line arrangements represents the word for the number 2. We have three words pronounced too but meaning three different things. On the other hand, we have the word lead which is spelled the same but pronounced differently and with an entirely different meaning determined only by context. We just accept that.

Words also change in meaning and spelling over time, right? If enough people say a word means something for long enough, no matter the word’s original meaning, that becomes what the word means. It’s kind of like evolution mixed with democracy.

I’ve actually listened to teachers brag that they never abbreviate when texting and that they used full and complete punctuation. That pretty much says to me, “The arbitrary ‘rules’ of English are more important than its purpose. Changing styles for different purposes and media doesn’t make sense.” I can’t think of a worse lesson for a student or a worse mind set for a teacher.

I’m not saying students should be able to write papers in text speak. I just want people to put this into context. Srsly.

Some Improvement

Here’s the revised video for our 21st Century push.

Improved 21st Century Plea from Tom Woodward on Vimeo.

Old Version

Another 21st Century Plea from Tom Woodward on Vimeo.

I find video work to be incredibly time consuming and difficult to do right. After I watch something 1000 times, it’s gets far harder to be objective and not let my mind fill in gaps. I’ll have to figure out a trick similar to reading an essay aloud that will give me fresh eyes. Until then, I’ve found getting other people to watch the video and give me feedback to be invaluable.

This minor clip still has many ways it can be improved but it has improved thanks to the comments offered by people on this site. Thanks for that.

There is now one continuous track in the background that helps unite the disparate clips and improve the mood of the piece. The tricky part about that was trying to lay that track down behind clips where people were speaking and the clips themselves had background music. I tried removing it the original background music in a variety of ways using Soundtrack and Logic but had no real luck. I did, however, get really good at making Ken Kay sound like a robot.

Another issue that was hard to deal with was video formats. Since I was getting them from other sources I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I did learn that Final Cut does not like editing the mp4 format. It does not like it at all. It will stall and balk in horrific, patience shattering ways. Do not attempt this. I ended up using Apple Pro Res 422 and it was good for editing but the files were large and not as clear.

Finally, I’m going to have to watch film critically a lot more than I do. I learned a lot about photography by submitting my shots to “Hit, Miss or Maybe- Why?.” It’s not that I believed all the comments I got from that group but there were things that made me think and I also had to critique three other people’s work for each picture I submitted. It helped to look at other images and analyze what made them work/not work. I need to do that with video.