When Bud Hunt wanted a new way to get students interested in writing, he eschewed traditional brainstorming exercises and turned to technology instead. "Kids are deeply involved in using the Internet and writing e-mail, not to mention just playing around with new applications," says Hunt. "Harnessing that for the classroom can be very powerful."
As media specialist and English teacher at Olde Columbine High School in Longmont, Colo., Hunt had become interested in the way new forms of technology like wikis, blogs, and podcasting could be integrated into teaching.
Since the tech was comparatively easy to learn, and drew on the increasing digital savvy of students, Hunt knew it would be effective, and even fun, to blend traditional tactics like short story collaboration with cutting-edge tools of the Internet age.
The result was a wiki where students could build on each other's writing, and Hunt could edit and survey the results. "The quality of the writing was much better than what they'd done in the past," he notes. "Their excitement about approaching writing in a new way showed up in their work."
Wikis, blogs and podcasting are in their infancy in most schools, if they've appeared at all, but the technology is likely to gain momentum, thanks to librarians and teachers that embrace the tools. There are challenges to implementing the digital strategy, similar to those seen when employing any new technology, but many believe that benefits like student engagement far outweigh the difficulties of getting the tech up and running, and teaching its use.
"Tools like blogs and wikis could have a major impact on how students learn and communicate," says Hunt. "They can bring teaching efforts together with the library, or with parents. And that's very exciting."
Now in Use
Part of the reason blogs have become so popular is due to the ease of set-up and maintenance. Services like Typepad and Blogger have made posting entries to the digital journals easy through the use of templates that are geared toward simplicity. Bloggers don't need to know standard Web formatting like HTML code or even to use a Web site format application like DreamWeaver. Instead, they can simply log onto a site, put their entries into a text box, and they're on the Web.
Many librarians and teachers using blogs are at the experimentation stage, trying to tweak how to use them most effectively. At Dutch Fork Middle School in Irmo, S.C., media specialist Mary Haddon set up a blog where students, teachers, and parents are encouraged to respond to postings about book reviews, favorite titles or collaborative projects.
Although the blog hasn't taken off quite yet, Haddon is hoping to collaborate with teachers to boost interest in the library's catalog and the blog in particular.
"Information literacy and technology skills are being integrated in all curricular areas," says Haddon. "Collaboration is important so that something like a blog is not seen as separate and isolated."
Blogs can also be used to streamline library operations, according to Steven Cohen, Library Scientist at educational software firm Pub Sub, and editor of Librarystuff.net. Several school libraries have used blogs to post listings of new books, answer frequently asked questions, and link to book reviews, he notes.
"Blogs can be great for creating a community around the catalog, and it would be wonderful to see more of that interaction being created," he says. "There's a huge potential for the librarian to build a community that allows users to comment on certain books they find useful or enjoy, or [to] bring parents into the discussion."
Wikis and Podcasting
A newer phenomenon, wikis, are catching on in some schools because they are as easy to use as blogs, but prompt communication among students, teachers and media center specialists. The online collaboration tool is similar to a series of blackboards, where students can write on one, then move to another and comment on what someone else has written there.
At West Hills High School in Santee, Calif., world history teacher Dan McDowell used wikis for a project on the Holocaust, in which students had to create a family, and write their history throughout the war. Wikis work best when there are numerous online resources, so users can link to other Web pages and access their content, so McDowell felt the Holocaust project was perfect, given the number of online sites that discuss the topic.
The project was such a success in terms of student enthusiasm and level of performance that McDowell is now planning to incorporate wikis into his classroom lessons more often.
"Most students know how to do a blog, so for them, a wiki requires only about a 10-minute lesson in how to use it," he says. "But beyond its ease of use, the wiki was a tremendous tool just because it allowed me to harness technology for educational purposes, in a way that put the students' ideas first."
Even newer than wikis is podcasting, a method of putting audio files online, where users can use RSS technology to download the content to an iPod music player. Although podcasting is fairly new, some have already envisioned how it can be used effectively in the classroom.
"Podcasting is an exciting tool when audio would add to the lesson," says Gretchen Hartke, project manager at educational consultancy Type A Learning Agency, and a former seventh grade teacher. "For example, a student could create a radio broadcast that covers a major historical event like the Lincoln assassination. All you need is a computer and a microphone."
Even though podcasting is likely to appear in schools gradually, students are already growing fond of the tool, Hartke notes. "Student podcasts are popping up all over, and they're fun to listen to," she says. "What better way to know what kids are thinking than to hear them talking?"
Meeting the Challenges
As with any technology, from digital projectors to new software applications, there are issues to address when thinking about implementation. Although wikis, blogs and podcasting are easy to set up, prompting their popularity, there's also a learning curve for teachers and librarians who might already have enough to do without having to incorporate another tool into their lesson plans.
At Westbury (N.Y.) Public Schools, director of technology Jay Marcucci has been trying to get more teachers interested in creating blogs, but with limited success. He estimates that only about 5 percent of the district's teachers have set up blogs or experimented with the technology, but he hopes to create more interest in the next few years.
"Many of our younger staff members are familiar with Web access and blogs," says Marcucci. "But it's not good to have just some of the teachers using it, because that creates a disparity. So, we're in the process of creating professional development programs that will get them more comfortable with the technology."
In addition to simply learning how to use the technology, teachers and librarians will likely have to change the way in which they teach or distribute information. Traditional models of teaching, in which instructors are the leaders of the classroom and all knowledge disseminates from them, don't apply when it comes to using tech like blogs and wikis, says Hartke.
"With this technology, the teacher isn't in the position of expert," she says. "Instead, it puts the learner in the driver's seat. In the blogosphere, in particular, we're all equal, with what we have to say given equal weight."
The shift can be terrifically beneficial, Hartke says, because it causes students to think at a higher level, and take more responsibility for their own education. But it can also be a challenge with teachers and librarians unused to the model, and who might need some time to adjust to such an unfamiliar strategy.
Another challenge lies in student access. Because these tools are Internet-based, many students happily add to their wiki entries or create blog postings from home computers. But if only some of the students have that capability at home, it creates an uneven playing field in terms of homework and performance.
"Technology access is, on a bigger scale, a social issue that needs to be addressed," observes Hartke. "But it's also an issue on a smaller scale, when you're talking about a single classroom and a single assignment. That's where the technology divide can really be felt."
Learning to Experiment
For librarians and teachers new to wikis, blogs and podcasting, or just wondering whether to dabble in experimenting with them, one recommendation is the jump-right-in approach, instead of reading about the technology at length.
"There's nothing like simply creating a blog and playing around with it, or starting a wiki and seeing how it works," says Linda Braun, a technology consultant who works with libraries, and a board member of the Young Adult Library Services Association division of the American Library Association. "If you just take the plunge and don't be scared, it demystifies it. You can see how easy this technology really is to use."
The benefit of such basic technology is that it's simple to use and can be put in place quickly. From there, it's just a matter of splashing around in the digital stream. Since students are so tech savvy, they can even act as in-school experts, she adds, and get a library or classroom running a blog or wiki quickly.
When thinking about how to actually use the technology in teaching or community building, Pub Sub's Cohen recommends that some thought should go into goals, and why the tech is needed. He notes, "If they don't serve a purpose, if there isn't a problem you're trying to solve, then think twice about why you're putting the tools in place."
That doesn't mean that librarians who are content with their current methods should eschew using wikis or blogs, or that teachers should avoid podcasting, he emphasizes. Instead, the lack of a solid, obvious educational goal should spark discussion about creating that goal, says Cohen.
When setting up the technology tools, it's also important to keep security and access controls in mind, according to West Hills High School's McDowell. Although he wanted to encourage student collaboration in this Holocaust project, McDowell also created access blocks that kept students from actually editing each other's work.
"With K-12 students, you need something password protected, definitely," he notes. "You don't want them to be able to sabotage other student's writing. I made sure password controls were in place mainly because I didn't want outsiders to get in and edit my students' work, but I also don't want a problem child in there either."
In general, even if they're not ready to use the tools just yet, librarians and teachers would benefit by simply being more aware of the technologies that are available and consider how they can be used, notes Braun.
"Blogs are growing steadily, but it's possible that wikis will prove more popular in a school setting," she predicts." Podcasting, too, is due to take off. Playing around with the technology now will give districts a better grasp of how these tools can be used to build community, both in the library and in the classroom."
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.