September 2006

I am about to tell you something that may be slightly offensive. If you’re not one of those who can handle truth too well, I suggest you click that ‘x’ on the top right hand corner of this page. 

Still here? Good. I knew you were too smart to miss out. 

Here it is – Stop teaching your students. 

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You read that right. Stop teaching them. It’s old, out-dated and out-of-fashion. The days of being ‘the sage on stage’ are well and over. It can come in useful when educating kids younger than seven, but even that, I’m not so sure. 

Before calling the ‘looney-tunes’ brigade on me, maybe you would like to hear me out. Your students you see, are digital natives. They’re probably more digitally literate than you are. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s the reality of today’s brave new world. As such, this generation of digital natives is forming distinct patterns of learning behaviour. The wide array of new media technologies that are available to them and the speed at which information is published and opinions are exchanged means not everyone is able to keep up with everything. Hence, the new formation of learning behaviour. If that’s the case, then dropping pearls of wisdom to students is not concomitant with their methods of learning. Today, it’s more about conversation and collaboration. And that’s exactly what digital natives do online. Converse and collaborate. 

This is a generation that is extremely comfortable with sharing their insights, thoughts and experiences with the entire world – utilizing new media technologies like blogs, podcasts, and social-networking websites like MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, FriendSurfer and PeepsNation. You can read this 57-page report (it’s free and you’ll need the free Acrobat Reader to read it) that expounds on this progression in further detail.

Therefore, to achieve your educational objectives, you have to meet them in their natural habitat: cyberspace. Technology has forced your hand on this. You may not be comfortable with the concept of using technology in education and might want to bypass it altogether, but to pursue productive conversations for learning outcomes, you need to use today’s technologies. It opens a new channel of conversation with your students, which enables you to meet them on the same page. If developing countries are poised to pounce on the opportunities offered by online tools, then you know you’re not dealing with a passing fad. 

Today’s learning environment requires an infusion of community based learning which comprises of interconnectivity and social networking. Technology isn’t supposed to make this difficult. In fact, the place for technology is way at the back, hidden from plain sight. It’s not that it’s ugly to look at; it’s just that technology is meant to be transparent. That’s where it belongs.

Communication and collaboration on the other hand is at the forefront; and technology should not get in their way. So the push for intuitive simplicity using technology can only come with using it correctly. Simplicity is what humans strive for. But it is usually disguised in various forms. Technology, to the untrained eye, is a quagmire of sorts, but has earned enough of the respect of the majority to become an indispensable tool.

In an earlier post, I mentioned youths interacting more with gadgets than humans, interacting with information differently to adults. Northlight School has recognized this fact and created an environment which quite clearly, is exactly where students feel they’re at their best and most comfortable. Good stuff. No harm is done if more schools can ‘steal’ some of Northlight School’s approach to educating their students. Only time will tell how effective this approach will be. 

Going back to intuitive simplicity, I wrote about Moodle being a fantastic extension to your classroom materials. Drupal is another, which enhances this aspect of collaboration and conversation for learning purposes. But Drupal takes it further by allowing you to build a community – open conversations taken to the fore. Drupal creates an environment so transparent that your students will take a self- paid guilt trip if they fail to put in the effort asked for. Why? Because it becomes so blindingly obvious who are performing and who aren’t. The days of pounding down the door to get their assignments handed in may be over – if Drupal has anything to say about it.

You can build a personal web page with Drupal, create a forum, build a blog, or launch a community website as alluded to earlier. With most software, getting to grips with setting it up and coaxing the best out of it can be daunting. But there is always help with the supportive Drupal community. If not, there is David Mercer’s book on Drupal, which should get you on track, swimmingly.

I don’t have to remind you that Drupal is open-source (a.k.a. FREE) as well, do I?


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Death Of A Salesman

I’m hazarding a guess.

There must have been at least one point in your life, where every time you heard the doorbell ring, you’d cringe. You knew it had to be another smooth talking, door-to-door salesman – about to wax lyrical about your house, your good looks and before realizing it; leaves you standing with the ‘Super Broom DMX 5000’ and $69.99 poorer.

Hey…it happens to the most discerning of us. No biggie. Do what I do – just pretend you ain’t home, even though your TV could be blaring loudly in the background. It’s not a very nice thing to do, but it works. This just got me wondering though…whatever happened to that bow-tied encyclopedia salesman? When was the last time you’ve seen one of those? They’re as elusive as the yeti, yet nobody seems to know why.

I have a few theories. It might have been Microsoft’s release of the less bulky, Encarta CD-ROM, in 1993. Or Encyclopædia Britannica’s electronic venture. Or quite simply, the Internet.

But my most plausible theory for the disappearance of the encyclopedia salesman is due to one man – Jimmy Wales.

The founder of Wikipedia, who turned a radical concept into a global source for authoritative referencing (this is open to debate) in less than five years, Jimmy Wales has intentionally applied the chaos theory to the encyclopedic world. He, I believe, ‘killed’ the last of the encyclopedia salesman.

With more than two million Wikipedia articles (The Encyclopædia Britannica can boast only about a 120,000) in several different languages, there’s information about practically anything you could possibly think of. Try it out for yourself.

Do a search on Wikipedia for a topic of your choice, and see if it pops up.

Wikipedia Search

You might want to try either of these independent search engines that specifically searches in Wikipedia as well:

  • FUTEF : search engine that currently searches Wikipedia only

  • Qwika : search engine that is specific to searching wikis in all sizeable languages

Wikipedia is the world’s largest encyclopedia. And you own it. As an owner, you are also given the license to write and edit any article that you think needs correcting or updating.

What if you may need to use the information for a project, but you’re afraid of infringing on any copyright law? No worries. Wikipedia’s free licensing mode gives you absolute freedom to do as you please with the information you see. You can copy it, redistribute it, repackage the information and sell it with no fear of receiving a cease-and-desist order.

Jimmy Wales describes Wikipedia as having free access to “the sum of all human knowledge” and it’s quite easy to see why. It’s probably the most referenced site on the Internet. It’s a blogger’s Holy book; turning to it for answers when they need it. Mainstream journalists are joining in the fray too. It’s hard not to turn your back on it when it’s perfectly built to be current and all-inclusive.

But of course, like most good plots, there must be a twist thrown in there somewhere. That comes in the form of what Wikipedia’s detractors would like to call, ‘credibility’, or the lack of it. What credibility can Wikipedia possibly have when any Harry, Dick, Jane and Sally (did I miss Tom?) is allowed to poke around and modify articles? A valid question. One that had me bothered too, until I heard Jimmy Wale’s reply.

He said, Wikipedia’s credibility is based on the social concept of cooperation. A policy of neutrality.  A close circle of volunteers (can’t remember the exact number) – are constantly monitoring the changes that any one of us makes. Once a change is made, it enters a page called, ‘Recent Changes’. If the changes are suspect, leaning towards vandalism, then this group of volunteers spring into action and revert it back to the original article. Communication among volunteers is conducted via technologies such as RSS and IRC.  

A very workable system I admit, but its still without its flaws. Apart from the occasional vandalism that slips through the cracks, the problem of unjust biasness towards a more familiar Wikipedian with higher standing is conceivable. Therefore, is there really equality when determining what materials gets published and what is dumped into the digital incinerator? How does one really determine that the article published has escaped any kind of slanted prejudice merely because of greater ranking within the Wikipedian ‘in-crowd’?

The nit-picking is elevated to a higher degree when questions about quality and accuracy of articles are posed. How do you know which entry to trust?

Another potential issue with Wikipedia is striking the balance between the past and present. Because Wikipedia is web-based, celebrity gossip and breaking news are fairly common entries. The very virtue, which sets Wikipedia apart from traditional print encyclopedias, appears to be a liability. Do entries about current events take precedence over past events? 

Ok, so I have more questions than answers, but I realize that Wikipedia is still at its embryonic stage. It will only get bigger and better. If you’re keen on familiarizing yourself a little better with Wikipedia’s less-than palatable internal operations, feel free to read Aaron Swartz’s, Raw Thought.

On a more optimistic note, it’s exciting times ahead for the educational sector as Wikipedia’s new project, Wikiversity, aims to provide access to freely licensed learning materials for all age groups. It is a community where teachers and learners are strongly encouraged to participate. It’s another fine example of what the wiki model can conjure up.

Now, if you had it up to your neck with all this talk of Wikis and you’re desperately in need of a ‘fixer-upper’, I have the perfect solution for you. I want you to mosey along over to wikiHow (you read that right, another wiki!) and type into its search box, ‘Save Me’. And see what pops up.

This wiki model works exactly like Wikipedia’s. It’s a community-powered how-to manual which aims to be – you guessed it – the world’s largest how-to manual. Never thought it possible to get rid of a hickey? Well…eh…now you can (can’t imagine the number of marriages this how-to might save!).

Hmmm, maybe Jimmy Wales could do something about those pesky bill collectors.


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The post which I have written below, was meant for my Technopreneur blog. But it has much to do with educators as it has to do with entrepreneurs, so I am posting it here too. I will be sharing many open source tools with you in future like Moodle, so it’s will worth the read.” 

Have you ever just paused for a second and wondered, what life would have been like if the Internet did not exist? Yeah, I know…it’s almost unthinkable. 

The Internet has become an integral part of our lives and it’s partly due to the large chunks of communication that we conduct online. The collaboration via e-mails, the free exchange of ideas and information that we perform on a daily basis is to a large extent, what brought about the Web in the first place. 

What we perhaps tend to forget, is that during the early stages of the Internet, there was a huge availability of free software and programming languages (paying over-the-top prices for software today tends to induce such amnesia).

It was available freely mainly to get the Web to where it is today. In the process, a few individuals have reaped, massive financial rewards, where for them, like Warren Buffett, donating 37 billion dollars to a charity organization is merely chump change (you can tell I’m bitterly envious, can’t you?). 

Call it utopian or otherwise, but we have benefited tremendously from the development of the Internet. And this development has spawned a whole community in and of itself. It’s called the OSI – Open Source Initiative. Open source is what is used to describe the free usage of software I alluded to earlier. But there’s more to it, as explained on OSI’s website:

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

We in the open source community have learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits.

Open Source Initiative exists to make this case to the commercial world.

Open source software is an idea whose time has finally come. For twenty years it has been building momentum in the technical cultures that built the Internet and the World Wide Web. Now it’s breaking out into the commercial world, and that’s changing all the rules. Are you ready?“

So as an user, you are attributed rights to take freely, an open source’s application source code, modify it as you please, as long as the distribution terms of the software is complied with.

The open source community is one that challenges the absurdity of having to pay exorbitant prices for proprietary software, or even paying for software, period. Mind you, the open source community is not some, ‘fly by night’ bunch of misfits, who sounds the clarion call for ‘free-dom‘, every time Microsoft releases a press statement.

Open source has become a serious contender to companies selling proprietary software. More and more businesses and non-profit organizations are turning to open source for business solutions and even as part of their innovation strategy. William C. Taylor and Polly G. LaBarre, both of Fast Company  fame, have expounded on this growing popularity of open source in their new book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win. If you’re harboring doubts about the viability of open source in business, their book can help alleviate them.

Linux, Unix, Wikipedia, Mozilla Firefox, are some examples of open source development. You could well be using an open source application right now in the form of the Firefox browser.

So Why Should I Care About Open Source?

Well for one, you could be saving a whole lotta cash. Because apart from buying your PC, everything else – you can get for FREE. And that includes your operating system.

I just mentioned the Firefox browser – a direct competitor to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The OS’s equivalent to Microsoft’s Windows would be Linux. You can get an open source version to practically any software that is commercially available on the market today – it’s just that those who live outside of ‘Geekdom’ are not aware of this.

There are of course the cons of choosing the open source option over the commercial equivalent – one of which is – if you’re need of technical assistance, it’s not as easy as picking up the phone and speaking to the tech guy. You will need to get your hands dirty by rummaging through the forums to get the help you need. This could be time consuming and slightly frustrating in an emergency situation. But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys getting under the hood of your car and tinkering with the engine, then open source is probably your cup of tea. The money you save makes a difference.

Is Open Source The Same As Freeware?

No. Freeware is free for you to download and use, but the copyright belongs strictly to the programmer, developer or originator of that software. You are not allowed to toy with the code.

What About Shareware?

No, shareware is not similar to open source as well. Shareware is usually offered to you as a free download for a specified amount of time; otherwise known as a ‘free trial’. After which, you are required to buy the product. 

To get a better idea of how freeware and shareware works, head on over to Browse through its offerings of freeware and shareware. You might wanna grab a Subway sandwich though. It could take some time getting through even a quarter of that site.

Open source has its fair share of fanatics and critics. It has drawn enough attention to itself to force some leading analysts and researchers to address this issue. In my upcoming posts, I will be pointing you to valuable open source applications that I know you will be delighted with. Whether it’s for home or business, you’ll definitely find a use for it.

Who knows, commercial software may even be a thing of the past for you.

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Liz Lightfoot, Education Editor for the Telegraph, highlights a startling statistic – that more than 5 million children were subjected to flawed teaching methods in the areas of reading and mathematics. An admission by the British government, last Thursday.

This is not a revelation that will be too well-received by more than 5 million parents in Britain, I’m pretty sure of that. Tell me if these figures aren’t worrying:

  • 77,100 boys failed basic English test at age 11
  • The British government missed its 85 percent targets for mathematics and English for the ninth year in succession

More of these stats are published here.

It is fairly obvious that the government’s literacy program is flawed, if these statistics are anything to go by. And its the pupils who sadly, bear the brunt of this failure. Will these kids suspect it’s the government’s educational program at fault for their dismal performance? Obviously not.

More often than not, these children instantaneously believe that it’s only themselves to be blamed, believing they are not smart enough to make the grade, inevitably losing their motivation to push themselves further.

Parents on the other hand are quick to blame the teachers. The best of teachers can only do so much with the resources they have at their disposal. The blame, is mostly unjustified.

We’ll have to wait and see what measures the British government will take to correct these failures. It was only last month, when employers were laying the blame on the government and schools for the lack of basic skills in many school leavers. The alarm bells have sounded.

In Singapore, it’s fortunate that our government has a carefully monitored system in place, although there is always room for improvements. Lessons have to be learned from governments like Britain, to ensure we do not commit the same ones. At the same time, we can study what is working well in Britain and measure its effectiveness in Singapore, if we have not implemented it already.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. The system our government has put in place, is not within our control. But you are the frontline of success for your students. And this means you’ve the power to determine where their success, or failure lies.

Make use of the Internet (a very powerful weapon in your arsenal), to get your students motivated and engaged with the kind of interaction that only the Internet can provide (it’s importance is a rung below human interaction).

Take a leaf out of the gaming industry. Asking a child to choose between doing his homework or picking up his joystick – well… it’s obvious what the answer is. The gaming  industry knows what makes a child tick. I mean…of course there are probably more adults than children who are addicted to gaming. But let’s not go there.

So what if you were to combine both elements, and instead of gaming points as rewards, offer them something tangible? I’m sure many of you have thought about this. I’m sure that many more are already doing it. Let’s hear it. Share the tools you use with the rest of us. How effective has it been? Any proof of measured improvements?

I’ll be pointing out many resources for you to experiment with, and see if it can fit into your teaching methods. I say, if it works and makes a stark difference in results (for the better of course), then the extra effort on your part will be well worth it.

Steve Irwin

A True Educator

1962 – 2006

“He died doing what he loves best.”

Moodle I gotta admit, ripping off a line from PB & J Otter’s “Noodle Dance” and altering it slightly for my blog title is pretty lame, but it’s a catchy tune and and I just can’t seem to get it out of my head. This even after hardly watching it with my son anymore. Whoops!…I mean…eh… my son hardly watching it anymore.

Anyway, I digress. It’s Teacher’s Day here in Singapore and I thought I’d better deliver what I’d promised you on 23 August; yes, about that free LMS thingy, called Moodle

Moodle is the world’s most popular open-source pedagogical course management system that allows for anyone to download and create their own online learning communities. As an educator, this gives you the opportunity to have full control over your lesson materials that you want to share, quizzes or surveys you want to conduct, online discussions and chats you might want to hold, review assignments and tracking your students’ progress. This is an extension of your classroom onto the World Wide Web with a wider range of possibilities at your disposal.

You can choose to conduct a self-paced course or, conduct a live instruction –  the choice is up to you. Either way, you are now part of an emerging culture called, “contextual collaboration.”

Alright, I sense a little skepticism emanating from you. You’re probably asking why you would  need a LMS when you have been doing so well without one. You’re right. You probably don’t need a LMS. You can retire from your teaching career without even having to look at one. But as with any kind of technology, it’s there to give you possibilities. Possibilities you never had before. Possibilities to improve your students’ grades because of an extended form of interaction – and more.

Jason Cole, author of ‘Using Moodle’, a how-to guide for teachers says this:

Imagine moving most of your content delivery to an online environment and saving your course time for discussion, questions, and problem solving. Many instructors have found they can save time and increase student learning by allowing students to engage the material outside of class. This allows them to use face-to-face time for troubleshooting. Online discussions give many students the opportunity to express themselves in ways they couldn’t in a regular class. Many students are reluctant to speak in class because of shyness, uncertainty, or language issues. The ability to take their time to compose questions and answers in an online discussion is a boon to many students, and instructors report much higher participation levels online than in class.

There are a number of other reasons to think about using a CMS in your courses:

Student demand.

Students are becoming more technically savvy, and they want to get many of their course materials off the Web. Once online, they can access the latest information at any time and can make as many copies of the materials as they need. Having grown up with instant messaging and other Internet communication tools, online communication is second nature to many students.

Student schedules

With rising tuitions, many students are working more hours to make ends meet while they are in school. About half of all students now work at least 20 hours a week to meet school expenses. With a CMS, they can communicate with you or their peers whenever their schedules permit. They can also take quizzes or read course material during their lunch break. Working students need flexible access to your course, and a CMS is a powerful way to give them what they need.

Better courses

If used well, CMSs can make your classes more effective and efficient. By moving some parts of your course online, you can more effectively take advantage of scheduled face-to-face time to engage students’ questions and ideas. For example, if you move your content delivery from an in-class lecture to an online document, you can then use lecture time to ask students about what they didn’t understand. If you also use an online forum, you can bring the best ideas and questions from the forum into your classroom.”

Source: Jason Cole (2005). “Chapter 1: Introduction”. In Using Moodle, pp. 3-4. O’Reilly Media.

And how does Moodle compare to a commercial LMS, such as the infamous Blackboard? To me personally, there is no comparison. One is free and open-source, while the other burns a huge hole in your pocket, or handbag –  wherever it is you stash your money. But Jason Cole has a better answer to that:

 Moodle is the only open source system currently available that can compete with the big boys’ features. In fact, the educators in the developer community have given Moodle some features that the commercial vendors haven’t even thought of. That’s the advantage of an educator- driven, open source system versus a marketing-driven, for-profit system.”

Source: Jason Cole (2005). “Chapter 1: Introduction”. In Using Moodle, pp. 6. O’Reilly Media.

Thomas N. Robb also provides a good rundown of what he thinks of Moodle.

Now that you have a better idea of what Moodle is, you might want to get your hands dirty with it. If you’re already an experienced Moodle user, then I would love for you to share your thoughts and experiences about using it, so that we may all benefit from your experience.

If you’re keen on trying out Moodle but have no idea as to how to get around to using it, head on over to Moodle’s Documentation page and read its guide. Moodle has a huge fanbase as well, so this means you can approach any one of these fanatics by visiting the forum and getting the help you need. There is always someone on the forum who can give you the answers you want. It’s really a wonderful community of Moodle users looking to get the best out of this powerful CMS.

You may also be interested to know that besides Moodle, there are a couple of other open-source Learning Management Systems that are available for use. It’s always good to have options. So here they are:

A final point to note, is about Blackboard’s patent and its impact on open-source LMS. As it stands right now, no light has been shed on it. And because I’m not a lawyer, I’m unable to give you any kind of legal advice.

But I can tell you that Moodle users are still using Moodle to run their courses. People are still downloading and implementing Moodle. Nothing really has changed. Check in with the Moodle forum to clear your doubts. And always read the documentations and license agreements before downloading Moodle, or any kind of software. I am keeping abreast with this issue and I will keep you posted on the latest as it happens.

Happy Moodling.

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Happy Teacher's Day 2006!