Sunday, January 11, 2015

Teacher Creativity Skill: Create Digital Learning Spaces

One of the most useful creativity skills we can develop is the ability to imagine and develop the spaces in which creativity can most easily happen. Great classrooms have always been the fertile earth for creative work, but in the Digital Age, we have the responsibility to adapt to new opportunities and new environments.

Online learning experiences can be both transformative and restrictive. Learning when and how best to use digital environments in the service of learning requires more than just a passing thought. The upside is that digital tools allow us to extend our learning, not just in terms of time, but in terms of capacity and opportunity. We can now create opportunities to collaborate and learn together at any time, and we can bring in great new tools that make new experiences possible.

The downside is that digital environments can feel impersonal and artificial when over-used or when used poorly. Poorly designed spaces can interfere with a student's ability to engage and learn.  The skills and knowledge needed to create useful digital spaces, so that we can take advantage of their creative potential, are topics we have a responsibility to explore.

Where Should We Start?

Teachers are already making great use of many digital learning spaces to support online and blended learning, sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes because they see the potential. If you are just getting started with teaching online there are four areas you might consider for establishing your digital presence and for developing online learning spaces.

Learning Management Systems (LMSs) offer digital spaces that often are structured similarly to physical classrooms. They often have a space for discussions, announcements, assignments, assessments, and resources. Many also feature a calendar and gradebook. There are great free LMSs, and there are very complex LMSs that districts purchase. The advantages of LMSs are that they are built for learning. The disadvantages are that they can often feel institutional and, honestly, a little too dependent on a traditional view of teaching and learning. That said, used well, LMSs are a great space in which to work with students. The field of LMS choices can be pretty overwhelming, and if you are looking for one on your own (as opposed to finding one for a district), your search can be different. Our district uses My Big Campus, and I like it really well. but at the end of the day, your selection will depend on your needs.

Websites, Wikis and Blogs are another great way to create a central online hub for collaborating, information sharing, and building community. My first attempt at establishing an online community with students was through a blog. Honestly, I think it was a great way to interact after the bell, and I liked having a space to put the resources my students needed. The upside to all of these options is that they are super-easy to create, develop and maintain. Many great options are available for free. They also have a lot of resources and extras built around them. The downside is that they are less full featured than LMSs and they tend to be more static in nature. Students can find this boring if you don't find ways to create engagement. If you are just starting out, I would recommend that you look at Weebly and Blogger as good beginner spaces that offer ease of use, functionality, and nice visual design.

Social Media offers a group of very useful (and free) tools for creating community. I know teachers who use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to great effect with students. The challenges with social media can be related to district policy toward social media, student access (especially based on age), and the un-gated nature of social media. Using social media with students well requires a bit more learning, but can also provide great rewards. Some of the advantages are that social media is built around community and collaboration, social media is fluid and more organic in its nature, and people are already there which makes sharing with parents easier in some cases. If you are considering social media platforms, I really like Google+ Communities and Facebook Groups for collaboration. For information and resource sharing and for backchannel discussions, Twitter is a fantastic tool.

Other Digital Tools include texting tools like Remind and Celly, Backchanneling tools like Today's Meet, classroom interaction tools like Plickers, NearPod, Kahoot and Infuse Learning, and classroom management tools like ClassDojo and ClassCraft. Each of these tools adds another layer of digital interaction that can enhance online and blended learning.

I would also be remiss if I didn't include in this list Google Apps for Education. The collaborative tools provided there are increasingly becoming indispensable to the teachers who are leading the way in terms of designing meaningful and engaging online learning experiences. While these tools are more loosely connected than the tools in, say, an LMS, together they represent a nearly complete set of classroom tools that can easily be integrated with other online spaces.

Advice for Teaching in Digital Spaces

I certainly don't want to offer this as a complete list, but the following represent some observations I've made while working with successful online teachers:
  1. Establish Your Norms-  Just as in physical spaces, it is important to lay out your expectations for how folks will conduct themselves in digital spaces. This helps students feel more secure about participating, and it helps to avoid misconduct. 
  2. Ask For Feedback Early and Often- Asking students what they like about the digital space, what they don't like, what is missing, and what is unnecessary will help to make the experience better for everyone. I used to ask kids these questions as we tried new things with our blog. Their responses were always helpful.
  3. Keep The Space Fresh- Kids will click everything you put in front of them once. After that, they're less likely to return unless there is something new to see. Adding new content and removing unneeded content regularly will keep them checking in more often.
  4. It Doesn't All Have To Be Business-  As with physical spaces, bringing your own personality helps to make the space feel more friendly and accessible. It also helps to build community. I used to post discussion topics that didn't have an academic goal, but that would invite engagement (e.g. "Who would win in a fight- Sylvia Plath or Ernest Hemingway?"). I also shared information like "What's on my iPod," and invited students to do the same.
  5. Be Visually Consistent- When giving students assignments that I needed them to respond to, I always used the same format, text colors, and images for like-things. All discussion topics might have a picture of a microphone, for example. That way at first glance students can identify information that requires a response.
  6. Set Clear Deadlines- In asynchronous digital worlds, time can be a bit wibbly-wobbly. If I say something is due on a certain date, do I mean by midnight? The nice thing is that interactions on blogs, on social media, or in LMSs tend to be timestamped, so knowing when something was turned in is pretty easy to establish.
  7. Keep Organized- In digital spaces it is just as important as in physical spaces to keep your materials organized for everyone involved. Having a space for assignment sheets is good. Having folders with all materials related to a unit is even better.
  8. Be Flexible- While building your digital space, you will run into all kinds of new stumbling blocks. What if a kid's Internet went out last night? What if a website you shared last semester is suddenly blocked this semester? What if your Twitter feed gets hacked? Having a flexible attitude helps when things go wrong.
  9. Remember That Not Everyone is Techie and Kids Need to be Taught How to Learn in Digital Environments- Teaching in a digital environment can mean also teaching how to use a digital environment. A kid's failure to chime in on a discussion thread may have more to do with user-error than it does with not having anything to add. Be sure to follow-up often with kids when they aren't contributing online. This also means that teaching Digital Citizenship is an ongoing and essential part of learning.
  10. Take Full Advantage of the Digital Space- If all you do is the same type of work that you could have done in the physical world, you are missing an opportunity. Technology has given us the opportunity to have kids experience and do amazing things with people from all over the world. A digital learning space can enable collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
For more advice on teaching in digital spaces, check out these links:

Our Task

With new technologies come new practices. While much of what makes great teaching and learning translates from one environment to the next, we also need to be prepared to adjust our methods to take advantage of new opportunities. Today, teaching without some form of online presence seems incomplete even if the work we are doing in the physical classroom is rich. 

Of course, becoming comfortable with designing creative digital spaces isn't just about how we teach. It is about learning the skills that we want to pass on to our students. They will soon enter a world in which navigating, working in, and even creating their own digital worlds will be as important as mastering their physical work environments. Learning these skills together now will ensure that they can apply them wisely in the future.

Teacher Creativity Skill: Design and Convey Information Visually

I’ll never forget the first time that I saw another teacher add clip art to a handout for students. Suddenly, my purely text-based handouts seemed lame and inaccessible. There is no doubt that we have come a long way in terms of our ability to enhance our materials for all types of learners. Today, it is a simple process to add visuals to our materials (as well as audio, video, and animations). Multimedia literacy has become more and more important in life, and it is increasingly important in the classroom. And just as clip art once put my text-only handouts to shame, there are now digital tools that enable us to step up our game beyond the free clip art that we find on the web.

Also, helping students develop the skills to effectively communicate their ideas and to create compelling well-designed visuals that empower creative expression is becoming more and more important as we prepare students for a world in which these skills matter. 

When Can We Practice the Skills in the Classroom?

Visual design and communication skills are relevant in a wide range of classroom experiences. Anytime a student wants to share information visually, express themselves through images and video, or persuade others through lasting graphical images, these skills are in play. Here are just a few specific examples:
  • Designing slideshows for presentations.
  • Designing infographics for research projects.
  • Creating graphics for papers, storytelling, blogs and websites.
  • Selecting, creating, and editing images for social media and online projects.
  • Creating videos as classroom projects.
  • Designing posters, flyers, business cards, and . 
  • Designing interactive images and timelines for learning. 

Some Specific Tools of Note

Knowing which tools to use when developing these skills in the classroom is important. There are hundreds of Visualization Tools, Video Tools, Photo Tools, Drawing Tools and Presentation Tools to choose from. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Aurasma- Aurasma is a great way to share information by layering it onto existing images. You pair a trigger image with a video, picture, web address, or 3D object, and users view the object through the Aurasma program

Autodesk Homestyler- Autodesk Homestyler is a really cool tool for creating detailed graphical floor plans. Which can then be viewed in 3D. This takes the diorama and model project to an amazing new level.

Canva- Canva is an amazing graphic design tool for creating great images that stand out. Canva works in layers, offers plenty of free resources, allows for uploads, and is easy to share.

Photofunia- Photofunia is a quick and fun way to add interesting context to your photos or to convey a short message in unique or unexpected ways. 

Piktochart- Piktochart is a fantastic Infographic creation tool that has many of the same powerful features as Canva. You can select from many great free resources, you can upload your own resources, and you can easily share.

Pixlr- Another Autodesk product, Pixlr is actually a family of tools that enable some very impressive photo editing and design. The best part is that there is a tool for every skill level. 

Prezi-  Prezi is still a favorite when it comes to creating compelling visual presentations. 

Recite This- Recite This is a great tool for turning a quote into an eye-catching image. Finished images are easy to share in a variety of ways.

Smore- Smore is a useful newsletter design tool. It is easy to use and offers slick looking templates and resources. It's easy to share in multiple ways. 

ThingLink- ThingLink allow the user to create interactive images that can be filled with buttons that link to online content. ThingLinks can then be embedded in online projects, taking visuals to a whole new level.

Learning Design

Of course, having design tools and knowing how to put them to good use are two different things. It's important to also learn and teach the fundamentals of design. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Our Task

I often find with students that they are so overwhelmed with possibility, that they over-design their images, presentations, flyers, etc. They may have great content, but it gets lost in the poor quality of their design. It is no longer okay to simply teach students to write to convey messages. Because of the nature of media today, we have to teach them to design communication using multimedia. We have to show them how to effectively use the elements of design and the hyperlinked nature of the Internet to share what they know and to express themselves creatively. 

In order to do this, we have to learn these skills alongside our students. We have to model the skills and design lessons that nurture them. Our task is to take our own creativity to the next level and learn to communicate effectively in the Digital Age.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Teacher Creativity Skill: Record and Edit Audio

An often overlooked skill when it comes to creating with multimedia is that of recording and editing audio. Yet, this was one of my first learning curves when I started bringing more technology into my classroom. I had the opportunity, thanks to a great group of folks in my district (the EVSC ICATS), to participate in a project called the Pod Academy. We were provided with an iPod, access to and training on GarageBand (an Apple iLife recording studio), and the challenge to create educational podcasts. We hosted the podcasts on our district website, and as I recall, the process of getting the finalized projects online was quite an ordeal.

I had students create podcasts of essays they wrote titled "Something Worth Saying." The students wrote and edited the essays, then recorded themselves reading the essays, edited the recordings, mixed them with background music, and published them to the website. It seemed simple enough, but the first time I tried it, the week-long project took a couple of months (on and off) to complete.

You might think that I would have given up, but the project itself had some amazing rewards. I can say hands-down that I had a better completion-rate, engagement level, and effort-level from my students. The essays were truly amazing, and the best part is that for the first time in 10 years as an English teacher, I had a student ask me, "Can you help me with this sentence?" We were definitely going to do this again.

And we did the next semester. And then for each semester after that. And over time, of course, I learned a thing or two about how to edit audio and how to pass that on to my kids. The technology improved as well, so that sharing with the world became easier. As a result, the podcasting project that took several months the first time, returned to the week-long project I had originally imagined, and new projects became possible once I had learned the skills.

Since then, I've become one of the ICATS, and I return over and over to the lessons I learned as I explore more ways to use technology in the service of learning.

What Does This Have to Do with Creativity?

Our creativity is best harnessed when we engage all of our senses. Focusing on and developing our skills with a single sense can often inspire us with new ideas. Additionally, increasing our ability to control the individual pieces of our projects makes new and more complex projects possible.

A Few Reasons to Learn to Record and Edit Audio

  1. Audio has a profound ability to enhance a project and to set tone and mood.  There's a reason that television and movies and video games rely so heavily on sound. There's also a reason why we still listen to the radio and download podcasts. Great audio can paint a picture that doesn't require visual input. 
  2. Bad audio can ruin a project. A great video with terrible audio is unwatchable. Learning to capture good audio can be the difference between a professional and an amateurish product. 
  3. There are a lot of projects that can benefit from a basic understanding of audio editing, including: Videos, Podcasts, Enhanced Podcasts, Music Composition, Audio Interviews, Radio Shows, Lip-Sync Projects, and Book Trailers,
  4. The use of all media is governed by copyright law. While it is often possible to find audio that is licensed under Creative Commons, creating your own audio guarantees that the audio in your projects will be unique and won't require giving credit. 
  5. When you create your own audio, you can often get exactly what you want instead of searching for something that kind-of fits your needs. 

Where to Start

Much like learning video or photo skills, learning to record and edit audio is a pretty big ocean. It's best to start out with some basics and then learn more as you go. There are many programs from simple recording tools to high-end studio mixing tools that you can learn, but I would start with a tool that lets you capture live audio (through a microphone), upload audio, split and trim audio tracks, control the levels of individual tracks, and layer tracks together and publish them as a file (.mp3, .wav, etc.).

For Apple-users (including iDevices), I don't think you can have a better starting place than GarageBand. It comes free with OSX and iOS, it naturally works with iTunes and iMovie, it has all of the basic features listed above, and it comes with some useful (and legal to use) files. You can also create instrumental tracks using loops or create your own. Honestly, GarageBand is still my go-to editor, even though I have access to higher-end programs like Adobe Audition.

For PC users, a great place to start is Audacity. Audacity has all of the basic features listed above, and it is relatively easy to learn. It is also free which is definitely a plus. There are other free editor downloads as well, and there are a host of good audio-editing web tools and broadcasting web tools to explore.

For Android devices, take a look at Audio Editor for Android as a starting point. 

If you are looking to create music, there are thousands of good apps for both Android and iOS that can create particular sounds. Look for apps that allow you to record your sounds and share them as .mp3's. Two of my favorites are ThumbJam for iOS and PocketBand for Android.

What Equipment Do I Need

Again, there is a wide range of equipment from inexpensive and simple to expensive and complicated. Generally, I encourage folks to start simple, but to still pay for as much quality as you can. Obviously, if you are working with students and need multiple pieces of equipment, then economy can be a factor. Here are some basics:
  • A quiet space to record.  This is free but can be hard to find, especially in a school and with a large class. Still, if you can find a large and quiet space where kids can spread out, like a media center, that will help.
  • A recording device (computer or mobile device). Obviously you need the tool that will capture the sound. If you are using computers, make sure they have sound cards.
  • A microphone. While the internal mics in computers and mobile devices are getting better and better, a good microphone can really improve the quality of a recorded voice. If you are recording a single voice, a decent USB or Bluetooth microphone headset is a good investment. I tend to like Logitech's offerings in this area, but there are others that are good as well. If you are recording groups of people, then consider the ATR 2100 USB mic. If you want to add a mic to a tablet, I'd consider the iRig mic.
  • Headphones for Editing. Okay, if you get a USB microphone headset, you are set. And, of course, earbuds are a fine solution. However, the deeper you get into this, the more a good (and comfortable) set of headphones will matter to you. Regardless, if you are going to have many people editing at the same time, have them BYO-Headphones.

What Do I Need to Know to Start?

Here are a few general thoughts as you begin:
  • Pay attention to your space. Often there are noises that you don't hear until you hear them in the recording. Give a listen ahead of time, and see if you can eliminate some of these.
  • Anticipate possible audio interruptions. I always had to remind my kids to stop recording as the time for daily announcements came near. Schools are filled with interruptions from bells to alarms, to calls from the office. They won't all be avoidable, but some can be anticipated.
  • Test your audio before you begin EVERY TIME. Audio is a funny thing, and something as simple as long hair rubbing against a lapel mic can ruin an entire interview. Better to do a minute long test to eliminate problems, rather than scrap 5 minutes worth of audio.
  • When recording voice, have students slow down and speak at a normal level, just as they would if giving a speech. Kids tend to speed up and quiet down when recording.
  • You don't have to be perfect. A lot can be done in editing. If you mess up. Simply stop, pause, and begin where you left off. Also, understand that some mess-ups are part of natural speaking and don't need to be edited out at all.
  • When recording multiple instruments and/or voices, a little bit of distance can be a good thing. Look for the sweet-spot in the room, to get the best blend before beginning.
  • Pay attention to your levels. Most programs show you in real time how loud the input audio is as you record. Ideally, your levels will all spike before they get into the red zone. 
  • Be aware that the project is not the product. The file you are working in as you edit is changeable at any time. However, in order to share the final product (which isn't going to change) you need to export the file into a new file format.
Beyond that, learning to record and edit takes practice and as-needed advice. Here are a few places to get some support:

Learning GarageBand:

Learning Audacity:

Recording Tips

Editing Tips

Our Task

By working to develop our own skills in capturing, editing, and utilizing audio, we become more familiar with this medium of expression and can better use it to tell our stories and affect our world through creative expression. When we learn these skills, we become comfortable sharing them with our students, and our students are entering a world where effective creative expression is in more and more demand.