Reviewing Will’s Book

(Note: I wrote this book review for a graduate class semester — Kevin)

Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classroom

Will Richardson

Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press. 2006. 139 pp. $27.95. ISBN 1-4129-2767-6

To deny the tidal wave to technology at the fingertips of students these days is to deny the reality of the world. It is a losing battle. As educators, no matter what discipline we find ourselves in, we must not only be aware of this fact, but we must also be willing to explore, experiment and entice our students towards learning with the tools now emerging from the newest version of the World Wide Web.

Will Richardson, who has been a prominent name in the world of educator-bloggers for almost five years, argues strongly for teachers in his new book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom to embrace these changes and to utilize technology in all curriculum areas as a collaborative opportunity that weds the theories of writing to learn with emerging technology. While some experts in the field of composition’s Writing to Learn movement extol the virtues of the act of writing as a way to process information and provide critical thinking skills, Richardson takes it one step further and articulates an argument that technology is more than a tool for schools. It is a conduit of collaboration, critical thinking and cross-disciplinary learning.

In the course of this book, Richardson touches on a wide range of subjects, as the title of this tome suggests, but he does so with an even balance of pedagological theory, classroom examples, and practical advice on how a teacher can experiment in the various fields of emerging technology. He also writes with a very engaging voice, offering assurances and confidence to even the most neophyte of his audience. For teachers who worry that the shift into technology means more computerized scoring programs and more games for students to play on the machine during recess or so-called “enrichment” time, this book provides a path to something different.

Richardson notes that there is a growing gap between today’s students, whom he refers to as Digital Natives (a label generated by design guru Marc Prensky), who have grown up understanding the computer as a source of entertainment and resources and are not afraid of their desktop, and the greying cadre of teachers, whom he refers to as Digital Immigrants, who are trying to either learn this technology in context with pre-computer days, or are ignoring the wave altogether.

Giving credit to technology pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, who is often cited as one of the few visionaries who theoretically paved the way for the graphic-orientated World Wide Web that is now in existence, Richardson calls this trend of engaging writers via technology the Read/Write Web, and he strongly suggests that passive use of technology (i.e, gathering information) will be replaced by active users (i.e, the writers of that content) who will have to learn new skills around the concepts of collaboration, hypertexturalized reading and globally-published content. This, in turn, will change the term “literate” when considering students to mean far more than reading and writing. Richardson forcefully argues that digital literacy will be the key to the future. He postulates, too, that this influx of digital information and skills is creating an entirely new genre, which he terms “connective writing.”

With characteristics such as an electronic format, public audience, thematic-linked ideas, multi-media expression and collaborative tools, this new genre is “…a form that forces those who do it to read carefully and critically, that demands clarity and cogency in its construction, that is done for a wide audience, and that links to the sources of the ideas expressed (29).”

“Right now, teachers are employing Weblogs and Wikis and the like in ways that are transforming the curriculum and are allowing learning to continue long after the class ends. They are tapping into the potential of the World Wide Web that is a conversation, not a lecture, where knowledge is shaped and acquired through a social process, and where ideas are presented as a starting point for dialogue, not an ending point. In case after case, the walls of the classroom are literally made irrelevant by the creation of communities of learners that span oceans, races, genders and generations (126).”

The book is divided logically into sections on Weblogs, Wikis, RSS feeds, the Social Web, digital images, podcasting and screencasting, and what Richardson calls “the big shifts” for educators now and into the future.

As a brief primer:

Ø Weblogs and Wikis are online publishing tools, with Weblogs providing more security for owners while Wikis are the ultimate in open publishing, as anyone can edit and post their writing to a Wiki site;

Ø RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds are applications that allow you to collect and collate information from the web by bringing it all to a single source, such as a Weblog;

Ø Social Networking is a model of collaboration, as users connect information with others in the field through websites and bookmarking systems;

Ø Podcasting is the publishing of audio content to the Web;

Ø And screencasting is the marriage of image of a computer screen to audio narration.

Technology clearly has a place in the world of Writing Across the Curriculum, as Richardson provides multiple examples of ways teachers in the various disciplines can use technology. For example, a Weblog could easily become an e-portfolio for students in any discipline, as they collect and highlight their best work and provide immediate research links to data or relevant information. The interactive feedback from readers, which is the backbone of a Weblog, provides many opportunities for revision and editing, and the audience for the writing can be the world, which is an incentive for any student. Or students in science, for example, could use a Weblog to post questions for real experts in the field being studied, or collaborate from a distance with other students on scientific inquiry experiments where data is shared and compiled as an online report, with revisions made as others outside the group offer feedback. There are no geographic walls when using a Weblog, and educators could use this to their students’ advantage.

Any disciplinary class could create an online Wiki encyclopedia for their field by having students work together to compile knowledge (think Wikipedia on a smaller scale) and some examples are already out there as models. One site that Richardson touts is a Wiki called Planet Math, where teachers are compiling information about every known mathematical concept, with experts and observers adding their thoughts. But he also suggests that students in any class could create a similar project on any subject, creating a resource pool of collective knowledge.

Even more radical, Richardson suggests, would be teachers and professors who opened up their curriculum content and syllabus for addition, deletion and editing by students taking a course. Students could add pertinent links, provide questions and topics of discussion, and lead the course in directions that interest them. The Wiki allows such a student-empowered movement, and Richardson does not shy away from the reaction some educators would have over such a possibility.

Creating audio recordings, which would come after extensive research and writing, might be used in the field of history or social sciences as students give “virtual tours” of places and capture the sounds of the present in order to study the history of the past. Richardson even suggests that the free Internet phone service, called Skype, could be accessed by students in any content area to interview people from around the world, then save the file as an audio file and post to a Weblog or Wiki. Prior to the interview with a scientist, or politician, or someone else, the students could use the Internet to research issues and consider questions for the interview subject. It would be a full circle of technology, with student inquiry and publishing at the center.

The RSS feeds would be a perfect fit for the field of political science, as students learn to compile current event news stories or sites about issues that are having an immediate impact on the world (Richardson notes such events as the tsunami in Asia, and the hurricanes of the Gulf Coast as examples of students using real-time information from people on the ground to understand the world). And digital imaging sites, such as Flickr, are loaded with tools that can be utilized in any classroom. For example, at Flickr, students can add “notes” to a photograph and Richardson mentions one elementary student who used a picture of a model she had made of Jane Goodall’s camp in Africa and then added notes, so that when the mouse was dragged over the image, descriptions of various sections of the camp would be displayed for the viewer. Such a tool could easily be used to document a Civil War battlefield in social students or the dissection of an animal in science, Richardson notes. Or a student may create a poem with imagery, and then connect key words to images found on the photo site. All of this echoes the multi-modal work of theorist Gunther Kress and his views on image, design and literacy.

The end result for any teacher, however, is the act of teaching these new literacy skills to their students, and then loosening the reigns of control and authority so that students can actively engage themselves in the learning process. Instead of the sole voice of authority, the teacher must become, in Richardson’s words: a connector of information, a content creator for students to tap into; collaborators with their students; coaches to help guide their students; and change agents who understand the pace of advancements is rapid and unforeseeable.

There are numerous strengths to Richardson’s arguments about educators needing to lead the way with integration of technology into the classroom, not the least of which is that our students will be immersed in even greater amounts of data and content as they move into adulthood and they better be prepared. The software and programs he highlights are often free, or inexpensive, and designed for novice technologists. However, access to computers remains a daunting issue in education and educators cannot assume that their students will have computers for use at home. Some school districts are loaded with computers (often the wealthy districts) while in other schools, the computers are held hostage by technology coordinators uneasy with the idea of data flowing in two directions. This book is more user-friendly for teachers and students with access to the technology than those without such access. Meanwhile, Richardson amply addresses the privacy issues of students, and this is one thing educators should be considerate of.

For anyone in any curricular discipline who is interesting in understanding the emerging world and wondering how they can podcast or blog their way into the future with their students, this book is a wonderful resource. It provides both a theoretical framework, solid examples and practical steps to integration of writing and technology.

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