Where have all the web site tools gone?

If you have been interested in educational technology for some time, you probably remember the days before blogs and Twitter. Most of us started by creating web pages. We started by creating HTML pages by hand, but then for reasons of practicality moved on to specialized tools such as Claris Homepage, Adobe Pagemill, or Apple iWeb. I used them all. Companies sometimes had both basic and advanced tools. For example, Adobe offered Pagemill for the hobbyist and what became Dreamweaver for the more series site designer. It seems to me that with the advent of cloud services (e.g., Google Sites) and a focus on “short form” and continually changing content (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Google+) interest in the low end “site builders” declined. For educational settings, I think there is still potential in creating sites rather than posts and a need for less expensive tools for this purpose.

Web sites seem suited to authoring projects – a way to describe and teach with multimedia what has been learned from a project. There are simple ways to create multimedia online content, but it seems possible that students have grown to expect more sophisticated looking pages. Whether this “look” is of educational value or not is not the issue. What matters is the willingness of students investing in the production of the content.

This was perhaps a longer than necessary introduction to get to some comments regarding the potential of Weebly. I have been aware of Weebly for some time as an option made available through my Internet hosting service (Bluehost). I have invested time in developing content with Adobe Dreamweaver (don’t get me started on what I think of Adobe’s rental approach to software) and so I did not make personal use of the Weebly option. What got my attention was the recent release of the Weebly authoring app for iOS. I tried the app and liked it. I then backtracked to explore the web-based system available through a browser.

Both versions use a “drag and drop” approach. You select a page template you find appropriate and then drag “elements” onto this template to add types of media (image, text, video, maps) and structural elements to generate a desired layout of these elements. Ready-made options such as slide shows, image galleries and contact forms are also available.

Weebly is available as a free version and as more advanced paid versions. There is also an option for educators that is lower in cost (for the paid options). For example, the “pro account” is $40 per year and includes 40 student accounts. Weebly offers a way to password protect individual pages if desired and argues this is important when student security is a concern. If educators are interested in Weebly for the classroom, it is important that they understand the distinction between the opportunities offered to the public and for classroom use.

Here is an image captured from my iPad showing some of the elements available as I created a site. My sample site is available.


For information of greater depth try the Weebly help center

Political ad bingo

This is the season for political ads. The frequency and approach of political ads drive me crazy. There seems so little meaningful information and so many obvious attempts to manipulate.

Anyway, I think an examination of political ads offers a great opportunity for developing critical thinking and/or media literacy. I have been trying to come up with a way to involve such skills without getting into the emotions that come with politics. I happen to think emotion in education is great and we should take on issues that raise enthusiasm whenever possible, but I also recognize that some would rather such issues be avoided.

Here is my basic idea – analyze political ads by creating and applying bingo cards. This seems a popular way to explore the “in terminology” during conference presentations I attend so why not apply in other contexts. Here is my first effort based on phrases and images (I). Obviously, some of the imagery or phrases would not apply in all areas of the country.


Consider that multiple students might create cards and apply to see who had done the best job of spotting trends. Popular images or phrases might also allow scrutiny of the messages ad creators think sell. Does the phrase “all politics is local” apply? Are there more negative or positive messages? Does the incumbent or challenger use more negative messages? Are voters being manipulated or informed based on phrases or images are emphasized?

What happened to the dream?

I have wondered about this feeling I have had recently that not much was going on. That things in general were boring. I thought it might be the general political climate or various vague threats that we face. I thought it might even be me. Perhaps I had somehow become jaded or fatigued. I am getting older.

I happened on a blog post describing a new documentary that sounded interesting. The description was vague but there was mention of the OLPC and Peru. We donated an OLPC some years ago and purchased one for ourselves. I happened to find the device a week or so ago as we packed up our house to move. The combination of random events caught my attention. I wondered what had happened to the project. You no longer hear about the project online or at conferences.

I thought I might be able to watch the video using Amazon Prime, but it was not available. For a couple of bucks you can view the movie from Amazon or iTunes. I recommend it for education and tech people. The themes kind of take you back to a time when we hoped tech could change things.

It seems we have momentarily lost our fascination with the dreamers and their dreams. Maybe this is reality, but I think it is too bad.

Why Twitter for edchats?

Why has the Twitter “edchat” become so popular? There are so many characteristics of the tool and the way it is used that are either limiting or annoying. This drives me crazy. I think online discussions are so valuable, but I am bewildered by the selection of Twitter for an opportunity that is being squandered.

140 characters is too limiting. I wish some grad student would analyze the responses in a Twitter chat? What % are “borrowed” platitudes? How many individuals actually participate in an hour session? I get the feeling many are multi-tasking and watching television or reading their email while “participating”.

The process moves too slowly. So many questions seem superficial and then there is the delay for the combination of response generation and reading. This issue in combination with the limited nature of the responses is deadly. A format based on a few general questions and a more free flowing approach would seem more productive. I just don’t think the tool is suited to a flexible approach.

The public nature of the process is self-centered and annoying to nonparticipants. Any Twitter user has been on the receiving end of a Twitter feed when one or two of their “follows” are participating in a chat. A3 – use it or lose it. It is very much like being trapped in close proximity to someone talking on a cell phone. It is inescapable spam.

Most educators have likely heard of the term affordance. It is the notion that the characteristics of a situation or tool make certain actions easier. This notion is seldom considered in the negative, but the opposite of an affordance also applies. Certain characteristics make things more difficult.

What is wrong with a Google hangout? If some members of a group are bandwidth deprived, you can still rely on text. The length of comments is not limited and the general public is protected by circles and invitations from numerous comments out of any meaningful context. Of course, the audio/video option would offer the opportunity for conversations of greater depth.

If not a hangout, there are so many other free or inexpensive options. I applaud the effort, but wish educators would show more creativity and/or independence and move to a more effective tool. It seems folks want to be part of a club based on a given approach rather than considering the purpose to which they have committed and being willing to recognize better options are available.

Ask the engineers!

One of the recent educational controversies that has bled over into public awareness seems to center on whether schools would be more successful (whatever that means) if they borrowed more “real world” business practices. Some focus on what they assume is a lack of accountability in the performance of individual teachers or the lack of clear goals for achievement. The other side argues that education is different because the goals are different and the inputs to the process cannot be controlled.

I raise this issue as backgound to the following comments. I have been reading Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s book “How Google Works”. I did not purchase the book because I thought it would provide insights into educational practice. I bought the book because I have broad interests and a fascination with successful tech companies. As the title suggests, the book as about the authors’ analysis of how Google works and the lessons learned as they as managers came into and learned about the company. It seems their management practices were more shaped by the culture of Google than they were responsible for shaping the culture. Of course, adaptability and insight are important characteristics of effective managers. There is always the possibility that what you read is intended as much to create a positive image as it is to offer lessons learned, but the story here seems consistent with several other accounts I have read.

With the caveats I have identified in place, I return to the initial focus on learning from “real world” companies. There are all kinds of business models available just as there are all kinds of ways to run educational institutions. There is another book I have read titled “What would Google do?” In this case, how might educational institutions borrow practices from Google? I did begin to think about educational institutions as I read. The authors list occupations to which certain management principles might apply and education was listed, but no effort was made to draw parallels. This is mostly my attempt to draw parallels.

The relevance of certain key ideas should be considered before any effort is made to generalize principles that are identified. The most important idea is probably whether the work of educators should best be performed by “smart creatives”. Are individuals who deserve this title likely to be most successful as educators and are educational institutions willing to hire and offer the incentives such individuals will find appealing? A second key idea is captured in the phrase “ask the engineers”? Google had an early history of being dominated by engineers and only took on employees with other skills after the direction of the company was established. Even when “adults” were brought in those who were successful honored those who actually did the work. My son is a producer and uses the term “the talent” to refer to those individuals in front of the camera. I have always liked this way of thinking. By analogy, the teachers and not their administrators are “the talent”.

So, if teachers need to be “smart creatives” and are understood to be “the talent”, what does administration looks like?

The authors suggest that creating the culture of the institution is paramount. Operationalizing culture is difficult. You can spot when it changes – I have watched school districts deflate like a balloon with a slow leak when the administration changes. Of course at Google and many other tech companies there is the tendency to equate culture with free coffee, free food and video game machines, but of course there is more. A core value in “asking the engineers” involves respecting the competence of those doing the work and helping them identify issues and potential solutions.

Many of the values I describe (I hope accurately) may seem quite attractive. With great freedom comes great responsibility. A problem is everyone’s problem. There is no – that issue is no concern of mine. There is also the assumed responsibility for getting a job done. The mantra “I have a life” is not used as an excuse. One final issue I remember is that individuals are valued for their contributions and not their seniority. I take this to be a rejection of constructs such as tenure, but also a focus on accomplishments and not talk.

Anyway, I understand books I read (hopefully at a deep level whatever that means) as pretty much like a Rorchach test. I project my own ideas on what the authors say. Hence, take this as recommended reading rather than a book report.



Improving peer editing

One challenge in writing a textbook on technology integration is knowing when to stop including things. You do not want to drift into areas covered in other courses (e.g., Methods) or to extend your comments beyond your areas of expertise. Of course, you also want to include enough information that what you do write leaves learners with enough guidance that they feel they can act on the information provided.

One of our core recommendations has long been a modification of writing across the curriculum or writing to learn we have labelled authoring to learn. We extend the area of writing to learn in to include approaches that involve multimedia authoring. We contend such recommendations are concrete, efficient, and thoroughly researched as a strategy that lends itself to various implementations of project based learning.

In our most recent edition, we explore the role online tools such as Google docs offer in developing writing skills and applying writing to learn strategies. A key component of effective instruction in either area is the revision process – writing is an iterative process that moves toward a higher quality product and a deeper level of understanding when revision is emphasized. A reality associated with such benefits is the time intensive nature of supporting revision. Ideally (although some might question the use of this superlative), teacher review and guidance would offer the best approach. However, heavy use of writing to learn tasks would also place what might be unrealistic demands on teacher time. Peer editing may offer the solution. In addition to the advantage of a division of labor, peer editing should offer a way to develop editing skills. Improvement in editing skill not only would benefit peers, but would also the writing skills of the “editor”. 

Our content on this topic already reviewed the challenges of developing skilled peer editors and provided references both supporting this approach and identifying issues that can occur when peer editors are “turned loose” without preparation and training. Our suggestions for how to support editors offered general guidelines, but did not provide specific examples. This is the issue of straying into the area of methods courses and limitations in our own personal experiences we mentioned earlier.

I have finally located a resource that offers the kind of concrete suggestions to explain the general guidelines we provided. This is a lesson from the ReadWriteThink site. The PowerPoint that can be downloaded gives very specific suggestions for what young editors should do in reacting to the work of their peers.

The gold standard

One more PBL post!!

The Buck Institute just generated a post requesting a search for the PBL gold standard. While promoting PBL activities, the post argues that many such activities are not effective. I like the way they describe the issue:

Do we really need to see another classroom stocked with sugar-cube pyramids or Styrofoam solar systems?

Perhaps what you get when you look at all classroom activities labelled by someone as PBL are the kind of results I point to in my last two posts. There are certainly “activities” that have led to the concern for the importance of “minds on, not just hands on” implying that there are too many busy-work activities. Also, as I described in my recent posts, there are papers identifying cognitive and affective conditions that PBL activities should address (Belland, et al., 2013; Hung, 2011). While it would be impractical to evaluate all activities in this fashion, there are examples of activities that have been studied using careful research techniques (e.g., Wirkala & Kuhn, 2011). If the Buck Institute wants a place to begin, I would propose using such examples.

I get the feeling of deja vu as I follow the new arguments for and against PBL. I was at one time very interested in the WebQuest model. I found it concrete and theoretically sound and it seemed to generate a good deal of interest. What seemed to happen (IMHO) is that many did not understand many of the original expectations for a quality WebQuest. The glut of examples available online left it to the “consumer” to determine whether the activity was a fun way to spend class time and/or a meaningful learning activity. I remember Bernie Dodge attempting to create a curated site (I think users had to pay a small fee to use) that would offer examples, invite feedback, and encourage enhancements. I might now describe it as an “Angie’s List”. Interest just seemed to fade.

This issue also reminds me of Merlot. In fact, I wondered whether Merlot still exists (it does). I remember the interest in Merlot at my University when it first became available. It was promoted as a way to find quality “learning objects” for your classroom. I found that I was the 8th faculty member from my institution to sign up in 2006. I did not find many of the resources of value, but I did find some things I used. I really cannot explain why I stopped looking, but my reaction may have been common. The service seems to generate little buzz of late.

I agree with Buck that we need some high quality examples and we probably need these examples from a variety of disciplines/levels. It seems possible to me that the general advantage of direct instruction may occur because many motivated educators who understand something are simply better at explaining what they understand than they are at creating environments and activities that both motivate and educate students. Asking deep questions and creating authentic problem scenarios are not easy tasks.

Perhaps the design of “problems/projects” should be left to those with the time and skill to generate resources that meet high standards. We certainly do not expect educators to create all of the other educational resources they use in their classrooms.


Belland, B. R., Kim, C., & Hannafin, M. J. (2013). A Framework for Designing Scaffolds That Improve Motivation and Cognition. Educational Psychologist, 48(4), 243-270.

Hung, Woei (2011). “Theory to reality: A few issues in implementing problem-based learning”. Educational Technology Research and Development 59 (4): 529.

Wirkala. C. & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-Based Learning in K–12 Education: Is it Effective and How Does it Achieve its Effects?, American Educational Research Journal, 48, 1157–1186