Forklifts for Your Mind

Copyright 2005 Miguel Guhlin
Revised 2006
http://www.mguhlin.net


“Software,” shares one author, “is the forklift of the mind.” This quote, appearing in Daniel H. Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, illustrates the power that technology can play in the hands of people like you and me, as well as our students. At a recent conference, I was made painfully aware of the shift from desktop productivity tools to online collaborative tools. While the old forklift—productivity tools—are still necessary, being able to use new collaborative tools in combination with the old is becoming critical. Pink puts it in a way that is unequivocal--Thinking is indispensable. It's just no longer sufficient. Restated, that quote might read, Desktop software is indispensable, it's just no longer sufficient for our needs in a connected world.

His book also suggests the idea that knowledge work—a guiding principal of how we use technology as a tool—is being done at significantly lower costs in other countries like India and China. This forces knowledge workers in the advanced world to “master abilities that can't be shipped overseas.” He suggests that we must develop six essential aptitudes on which professional success will depend. The aptitudes he refers to are shared below:
  1. Design – It's not enough to just make something that is functional, it's also important to create something that is beautiful and/or emotionally engaging.
  2. Story – When we have abundant access to information and data, it is important to create a compelling narrative that persuades, communicates and embodies self-understanding.
  3. Symphony – Synthesis, or being able to see the disparate puzzle pieces as a big, cohesive picture is critical.
  4. Empathy – Being able to better understand others and nurture relationships and connect with others in a caring way.
  5. Play – It is important to be able to play.
  6. Meaning – As we move into an abundance of things, including technology and free software, we now have the time to consider our purpose in life and fulfill ourselves spiritually.

Over the last year, we have seen an explosion of Read/Write Web technologies. Simply, these technologies make it possible for ordinary people to write to the web as easily as browsing and reading. Read/Write Web technologies such as content management systems and blogs can help us develop these aptitudes in adults, as well as students. Juxtaposing these aptitudes and Read/Write web technologies, these questions come to mind:
  1. How can I make sharing ideas easier via the Web at a campus/district level?
  2. How can I better use technology to make meaning of, and share stories, of the work I'm about as an learner, a teacher, parent, and/or community member?

Question #1: How can I make sharing ideas easier via the Web at a campus/district level?

“Imagine if you didn't have to depend on a webmaster or techie type person to update your web site,” I share with a director of Curriculum & Instruction Department. “Imagine how you could get your message out there if everyone on your team could modify the content of your web site.”

This is exactly the message I have shared with end-users. It is a simple, powerful message. It is a story about people who control technology and use it to share who they are, who their campus is, in a compelling way. While we hoped that traditional web sites would allow us to do that, we usually ended up delegating the job to someone else with more technical expertise. Now, using a content management system, after the initial setup, non-technical staff can learn how to update the pages they are responsible for. Since Content Management Systems (CMS) are just one big database system, it makes it much easier to control how content is displayed.

There are a variety of content management systems available, and many have an online following of supporters. As such, many content management systems come with a wide variety of ways of enhancing the CMS.

BEYOND DESIGN
“I got an 'F' in Art when I was in kindergarten. How can I design a web site?” Now, with content management systems, you focus on the content, but take advantage of free designs available on the Web. The beauty of content management systems is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pre-made designs. These designs enable you to have a beautiful web site whose content can be re-channeled into a new design at will. Don't like the look? Change the design (a.ka. skin or template) and your whole site takes on a new look. The power of design—and the ease of content management--lets you focus on the message. More importantly, you can change the design to match the meaning.

In one large, urban district, they are using content management systems (http://itls.saisd.net/) to manage Curriculum & Instruction web sites, as well as slowly moving100 school web sites to a FREE content management system. Some organizations pay dollars per student for such a solution, but you can save both the political capital you will spend trying to justify this system and the critical funding for instructional applications.

Before this, parents and community members saw schools with web sites that had content that was 5 years old or more. The campus administrators were at the mercy of the level of technology expertise present on their campus. Now, non-techies—including the principal—can update their own web site or web page. The power of distributed, collaborative editing is making a difference.

The greatest successes are marked not by how many tech-savvy staff started the project, but how many non-techies are now managing their site's web content. The new functionality of content management meant that we could empower more people than ever before to share their message in beautifully designed virtual spaces.

Several software solutions are available, but here are a few that we are using successfully. You can find a complete listing of content management systems and their features online at http://opensourcecms.com

Software Available:

Question #2: How can I better use technology to make meaning of, and share stories, of the work I'm about as an learner, a teacher, parent, and/or community member?

Content management systems empower organizations. But, blogs—whether text, audio, or video—enable individuals to better connect with others. One of the strengths of blogs is that they enable individuals to form social networks, allowing others to leave comments. These comments form the basis for additional conversations. Conversations can begin with text or audio (a.k.a. podcasts) and expand into video (a.k.a. “vodcasting” or “vlogging”). Aside from that, blogs allow the voices of our students and teachers to be more clearly heard than through a web page.

The most exciting conversations can flow from experiences we have as teachers with our students, or from the students themselves, in our classrooms. Conversations about who we are and what we are about makes blogs ideal vehicles for digital storytelling.

Digital storytelling has become an even more important process, and as Daniel Pink points out, an imperative in the Conceptual Age where the “World is Flat.” Digital storytelling is described in the following way at the Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling web site:

...short, personal multimedia tales told from the heart." The beauty of this form of digital expression...is that these stories can be created by people everywhere, on any subject, and shared electronically all over the world...digital stories as "multimedia sonnets from the people" in which "photographs discover the talkies, and the stories told assemble in the ether as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a gaggle of invisible histories which, when viewed together, tell the bigger story of our time, the story that defines who we are."
(Source: http://www.coe.uh.edu/digital-storytelling/introduction.htm)

Stories that define who we are—what an apt expression for the practice of blogging. Since digital storytelling can involve a variety of media, there are multiple software programs that you will end up using. However, using a “blog” you can bring all this media into one place and make it easy to share via the Web. You can use a variety of software programs to create the digital content that will end up in a blog. Some of the tools, like Audacity for Windows/Mac, Skype for connecting with others, have been featured in recent issues of TechEdge. However, a quick review of useful, free tools for digital storytelling is included below:


Unleashing the Power of Digital Storytelling - http://mguhlin.jot.com**

  • Fostering Communication between Campuses and Districts: While online text/audio/video blogs enable conversations to take place, it is now possible for schools to communicate with one another using free, broadband “phone services.” These services are free when placing classrooms call one another. All you will need will be a microphone.
Some Internet phone services include:
  • Skype (http://www.skype.com). Using inexpensive products ($20) like Total Recorder, you can easily record conversations or conference call type meetings. This can save gas, money and travel time.
  • Gizmo (http://www.gizmoproject.com/). One advantage of Gizmo over Skype is that it enables you to easily record the conversations, although some have complained that Skype has better quality audio. Since both tools are free, you are encouraged to try them out and see which works best for you.
  • GoogleTalk – http://www.google.com/talk
Even though you can use various tools to create the content, organizing it all in a simple way for posting on the web can be difficult. You may also encounter problems placing video and audio on free web sites such as Blogger/Blogspot, EduBlogs, and others. Also, these blogging services are free, but outside of the District's control. As I write this, there are several debates raging on multiple national and international email lists about this very topic. You can find a review of some of these arguments in my Around the Corner blog at http://www.mguhlin.net/blog. In the meantime, my recommendation is that you consider keeping text/audio/video blogs within the control of schools or your organization.

Fostering communications within the District and a campus can also be easily accomplished using free tools that fairly straightforward to setup. Many are embarking on the use of commercial versions of these services because they see the benefits. However, school districts, as well as organizations, interested in creating "a walled garden," or a safe, controlled environment, for use of innovative technologies may find the list below helpful.

Wikis
Service Substitution: Wikispaces, PBWiki
Wikis provide a collaborative space for writing, not unlike a page of butcher paper hung on the wall that students can work in. There are many possible uses, including support of problem-based learning projects such as a web site about a particular issue/topic, a journal of work for cooperative groups, sharing reflections or crafting a report on assigned readings.
  • MediaWiki: Although I've looked at different wikis you can install on your own server, I keep coming back to MediaWiki for ease of use.
  • TikiWiki: Powerful wiki with user admin rights, but lacks the "open-ness" (as far as I can tell) that MediaWiki enjoys. Nevertheless, it can be powerful.
  • DokuWiki: Simple wiki that uses flat files instead of a database, very efficient for smaller projects. Inludes a few templates, good documentation, easy to learn syntax.
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Image Gallery with Tagging and RSS Publishing Enabled
Service Substitution: Flickr
Often staff and students are enamored of image tools like Flickr and Photobucket. Unfortunately, such tools contain inappropriate images unsuitable for viewing in learning situations. However, learning how to share images and other media is a 21st Century skill that should be modelled in school, not learned in the virtual back alleys of the Internet. These two tools allow schools to setup safe environments.
Online Discussion Board
Service Substitution: Blackboard/WebCT
Online discussion boards have long been used in education, however, finding quality discussion boards that can be setup in K-12 education--at no cost--is a recent phenomenon. These solutions present that opportunity.

Frequently Asked Questions
Responding to a multitude of phone calls can be difficult, but what if you could have a searchable online database that people could subscribe to using their Bloglines.com account? That's what you can do with the following tool.
Miscellaneous Tools that Facilitate Communication
Fostering communication through the use of surveys, online radio, shared calendars and social bookmarking are obviously critical needs for collecting, sharing and organizing the avalanche of information in our lives. The following tools meet those needs:

Online Surveys
Service Substitution: SurveyMonkey
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Online Radio
Calendar Management with RSS support
Social Bookmarking Tools
Service Substitution: Del.icio.us, Simpy, Blinklist

BLOG PLATFORMS
While the use of wikis can facilitate online, collaborative writing, many classrooms have fallen in love with the power of blogs to facilitate publication of student writing, images, audio as podcasts, and video online. Their ease of use offers a low-tech teacher, high tech students with the opportunity to quickly share information. What a school district needs, then, are blogging tools that enable you to quickly launch multiple blogs. I term these “blog platforms.” Several choices are available, including the following:

Software Available:
  • b2Evolutionhttp://www.b2evolution.net
    This is an excellent solution that has grown tremendously over the last year. It rates my top recommendation because it makes user management and permissions simple enough for non-techies to understand after the initial set-up. Furthermore, you can launch as many blogs as you like with different user permissions (critical for controlling student and teacher access).
  • ELGG - http://www.elgg.org
    This is a newer solution that several schools and districts are using to setup a blogging solution.
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* WordPresshttp://www.wordpress.org
  • This blog platform is the standard out on the Web, however, user management is done one blog at a time. This can be time-consuming to set up for a school district and working with multiple systems. There is a Multi-User version of WordPress in the works, but is still too rough for regular use, although if you have the PHP coding skills, you can customize it. Of course, for this reason alone, I would pass on the solution.
  • Content Management Systemshttp://www.opencms.org
    Content management systems have blog features, either built-in or as add-ons. The benefit is that they offer so much more than a simple blog. However, their complexity may make them “overkill” for simple blog hosting for a campus or two.

SO, HOW CAN I GET STARTED?
For the most part, content management systems and blogs are database-backed web sites in one form or another (exception is Blojsom above). To get them running, you should be using an Apache web server as well as PHP/MySQL. Even if you are currently running MS Internet Information Server (IIS), you can still use content management systems and blogs provided you install PHP/MySQL.

This has gotten much easier due to the prevalence of easy installers. Here's the short list, depending on your platform of choice. One of the best installers is known as XAMPP (http://www.apachefriends.org/en/xampp.html). While XAMPP is available for all platforms, I have also used the following successfully on Windows and Macintosh computers.


Not sure you're up to setting this up? I can only counsel you to jump in. There are excellent support networks available via the Web. I refer you to the sidebar of this article I wrote previously. You can also refer to Jamey Osborne's tutorial at http://homepage.mac.com/jrosb/profdev/dbweb/index.htm

Conclusion
Not sure about implementing these solutions? Remember that it's all about connecting with others. When you focus on that goal, you're less likely to be stopped by the technical obstacles that are a part of setting up your own server. However, server setup using tools like XAMPP have made it much easier for end-users--like you and me--to use Read/Write Web technologies to develop the aptitudes key to success in the Conceptual Age. Something that our students will find increasingly necessary in their lives--as we do now--is the ability to collaboratively develop web-based solutions to common problems.


About the Author
Miguel Guhlin currently serves as the Director of Instructional Technology Services (http://itls.saisd.net) for a San Antonio school district. With a small team, he's concerned about doing more with less when managing large projects--and he believes every project is a large project. He is available for consultation on project. You can reach him via email at mguhlin@yahoo.com or peruse his other writings at http://www.mguhlin.net