Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Social Networking in the Classroom

Up until this point I've found very little use in the classroom for the popular social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, Orkut, Plaxo Pulse and the many others. I've literally tried them all, and I've lost count with how many profiles I have on the internet. My running joke is after I've signed up for a new social network, I do a search for Alan Levine, and of course he's always there. I usually lose myself in the service for a few hours, playing, tagging, posting, and adding all kinds of fun widgets. Soon I realize that the site is just too distracting to have any use in the classroom. I can't even control myself enough to stay focused on the goal. My students would never make it. There's just too much to do and too many people to play with.

The biggest drawback is the inability to separate your personal profile on any give network from a professional or student profile. Students already networking in MySpace with their friends sharing videos and photos of parties don't want to have to share that with their English teacher or their classmates they barely know. And as a teacher, I don't want to be responsible for policing what students are doing on their social networking sites. There would then be a necessity for more than one account, but I still have no control.

The benefits of using social networking are there if there was a way to limit the distractions. It would be so neat if I could create my own social networking site, I could utilize some of these benefits in the classroom, especially for online courses. Here's my list of benefits:
  • Building community among students
  • Harnessing collective intelligence
  • Centralizing communications (forums, email, direct messages)
  • Sharing
  • Folksonomy
Well, there are "create your own" social networking sites out there, but none that I tried were as easy to use as Ning. It has straight forward set up with a few options to have to deal with initially, and lots of color choices for themes. I was up and running in a matter of minutes. I know that's a cliche, but it's true. I just typed in the name of my new network and my url choice and I was off and running. This is my choice for creating my ENG102 social network for next semester.

TechCrunch took a look at some of the players in this field, including Ning. See their post:
Nine Ways to Build Your Own Social Network
We have taken a sample of nine of these companies - Ning, KickApps, CrowdVine, GoingOn, CollectiveX,, PeopleAggregator, Haystack, and ONEsite - all of which provide free baseline services, and reviewed them individually below. We have also included the chart on the right summarizing all of these companies’ offerings.
I've only tried KickApps, CollectiveX, and in this group. They each have good features, but KickApps was way too complicated for me, and I didn't like the look and feel of it. GoingOn and some of the others will only let this "begging for free stuff educator" have limited users in a network before forcing me to spend $20 a month. That's just not going to happen. I'm a teacher. It should be free for education. Ning is doing a trial offer of removing ads from K-12 networks, so if you're teaching the youngins, that's a great deal for you. As for the college crowd, we're stuck with ads for now. At least they're not too intrusive. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Using USB Thumb Drives in the Classroom

I've been thinking about USB thumb drives and how students can utilize them better in the classroom. As part of my learning grant, I want to look at how faculty can set up these portable drives with open source software to help students obtain and use the software needed to do assignments in a more efficient manner. My idea is to utilize a few Firefox Extensions to help with the online research process in the ENG102 course. More on that later, but first let's talk about what a thumb drive is.

In the old days (I love saying that), we used to transfer files from one computer to another using floppy discs. You can find an interesting history of the floppy disk at Wikipedia. The first disks I remember using were the 5 1/4 disks that had a storage capacity of only 360 KB. Wow! That wasn't much space, and when we got upgraded to the 3 1/2 disk in the late 80's, we thought we had a lot of room with 1.44MB. Of course, we laugh at that now with the invention of CD and DVD drives and now the portable drives. I use my iPod as a portable drive, so I carry around 60GB of space with me.

But today it's all about size, speed, and convenience, and that is what the USB thumb drive gives us. I've seen them as small as a half a stick of gum. Do they sell stick gum anymore? Well, you get the point. They're small.

They are also convenient because they work in most computers without having any special software to install or any special hardware attached, like a special drive. Most computers come with USB drive installed. I can plug my USB drive into my Mac and access/save files, and I can do the same on my PC with the same USB drive.

One of the reasons we need these portable drives is because many colleges don't allow for students to install software on the school computers, so if they want to use something like say, Firefox on our campus, they have to have a portable version installed on their own drive. It's also helpful if they don't have internet access at home, they can carry a portable version of an office program and email program, so they can access their files from home. The glory is in the fact that what happens on your portable drives stays on your portable drive. Your work is always with you and not spread out on every computer you happen to use on a daily basis.

I'm going to focus on two specific portable apps for the USB thumb drive even though there are many out there to explore. Here are a few options:
U3 Pre-loaded on select flash drives
Platform not user installable
Apps in compressed format
Auto-run apps via CD-ROM emulation
Released September 2006
Ceedo Runs on any USB storage
Apps are uncompressed
InstallAnything can move Windows apps to Ceedo
Can't auto-run apps
$34.99; 30-day free trial
Released September 2006
PortableApps Runs on any USB storage
Runs on Windows 98 and up
User installable
Not Proprietary
Free / OpenSource
Released November 2006

I'm using the last one, Portable Apps. My idea is to provide students with OpenOffice and Portable Firefox with several extensions installed. The extensions being Zotero and bookmarks. OpenOffice is a open source office program to replace MS Office. This is an easy one to explain - Free vs. $100. As for Firefox, one of the greatest things about web browsers is the ability to personalize for your needs, and then having access to the things you collect within the browser. Zotero and will do just that. As soon as students load up their portable app on any computer they will be ready to pick up where they've left off. Zotero is an awesome tool that help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. I'll be posting more about Zotero soon.

So get out and grab a USB thumb drive and see what you can put on it. You'll be amazed at how easy it is to carry your computer around everywhere with you. Just don't leave it behind. That could be a disaster.