Facilitating A Squirrelly Strategy


The following video was recently posted by a colleague on a nascent district network that will go “public” in a few short weeks.  In what I see as an emerging “best practice” in setting up and facilitating online networks, we are busy adding rich instructional content prior to inviting members.   In other words, making it look -even upon first glance- as if “someone is home.”  Far too many folks try to set up a network on the Ning platform only to have it flail about in cyberspace because it doesn’t immediately grab people as a place where they can imagine investing a little of their time.  Take five minutes to watch the video before reading further…

How great is that?  In Angie’s (a fellow instructional coach) description immediately below the video, she said: “A great video with amazingly appropriate music to show goal setting and teamwork to achieve a goal.” I certainly do see those ideas reflected within the video.  However, I clicked to view the video full screen before reading, and my personal reaction was somewhat different.


To me, even more than goal setting and teamwork… this video speaks to the idea of honoring a constructivist approach to learning… and the gentle scaffolding required to get students to the ultimate goal within such a framework.

It seems that I chose to see the video not through the interactions with “momma squirrel” but instead through those that happened between the baby squirrel and the human observer. To me, the human (with the bigfat human brain) was the person in that situation who clearly knew how to achieve the objective.  You could easily argue that the momma squirrel didn’t get it.  Although, we truly have no idea what the ultimate goal was.  Perhaps going a different route, one that avoided the wall altogether, was not an option.  Though perhaps it was.  This we’ll never know.

Like a teacher honoring the fact that all true learning takes place within the brain of the learner… the observer(s) didn’t intervene at first.  They allowed the most powerful personal learning (in the brain of the baby squirrel) to take place first. They gave credit to the struggle that is inherent in accomplishing anything of real and lasting worth. They allowed small failures themselves to “teach.”

However, they ultimately they chose a strategy in which to intervene in a “least invasive” way… and then carried it out.  This initial strategy did not prove immediately successful for the learner.  The baby squirrel simply didn’t succeed after the “help” was applied.  The observers then took a step back, rethought the situation, likely looked around for other pertinent resources, and then applied another strategy to facilitate the baby squirrel’s accomplishment.

Pink Pearl

This series of calculated interventions is a good metaphor for what I see as one best case scenario for teaching and learning. Of course with today’s tricky world, and the complex sphere of standardized assessment we live within… allowing this full continuum of experience to play out with every learning objective is just not feasible. Yet, if we are truly focused on constructivism as a “best case scenario” for learning, then we will all make room for that very thing within our classrooms.  We can’t exist in a purely constructivist world today.  However, this is not an “out” for studying and practicing this approach to learning.  It is merely something to consider as you map out the classroom environment for you and your students as learners.

Once a teacher gives credit to the power of this approach to learning… they then begin to see its potential in more and more places. I think this is the point where we become sharp about when to allow this type of learning to run its course and when we have to “cut and run” to nail down the less “essential” objectives in order to allow the time for everything we want (and are responsible to) for our children.


So yeah, in short… I love the video as a reflection and teaching tool. In fact, I wrote 75% of this blog post in the comments section of that particular video on our network.  I could link to my comment there, but then I’d have to break my rule of going public with a network before it is already a microcosm of what I want it to eventually become.  You wouldn’t want me to hedge on my own philosophy for this would you?


So what do you think?  Did you see something different?  What metaphors did you see in the video?  How might you use this little clip as a teaching tool?


Pink Pearl by Heather Beltz Ingram on Flickr

Collaborative social media: How do you do business?

Shifting practices

Not long ago, the MS Office suite comprised the bulk of computer applications in the world of mainstream business.  I have to admit that as a career biology educator and instructional coach, I have precious little knowledge of the “real” business world.  That said, this past year I have found my work overlapping many trends in business as I explore the efficacy of collaborative online applications in education.  I am deeply interested in them as a framework for professional development as well as for classroom utilization.

“Yeah, but mainstream businesses aren’t using the Web 2.0 stuff…  those are mostly a few cutting edge companies with money to burn.”

How much more “mainstream” can you get than Best BuyWill Richardson pointed to the above video a couple of days back on Twitter, and I have held that browser window open since that time.  I really enjoy some of the language found within.  For example, one gentleman interviewed said that Web 2.0 applications allow the workforce to “…try a lot of different things, fail really fast, and then try things again.”  I dig that attitude in almost any endeavor.  To me it is pretty clear that being fearless and willing to innovate is a big plus in much of the business world as well as in education.  I also like the fact that another interviewee listed the following things as benefits to social media applications being implemented within the company structure:

  • better loyalty
  • less office politics
  • ability to meet other individuals passionate about the same things
  • ability to stretch an idea across an entire organization

fail gloriously

Shifting schools

Now which of those things is not good as well for a school faculty?  Of course blind loyalty leads often to the Abilene Paradox, and this is never a good thing.  However, other than that, I’m betting that this list of four things is something all school administrators and staff would value in their world as well.

Those four items, as well as a few others, are a target of our school’s shiny new social network- Virtual Southside.  This site was piloted by a cohort of 20 teachers and administrators at Benton High this year in the midst of an academic technology integration program.  Starting next year, with our entire staff online in the program, this site will be a major part of how we conduct asynchronous staff professional development.  Today I interviewed several cohort members about the benefits of working within our social network this past school year.  A short list of their replies about our foray into social media is as follows:

  • develop general comfort with social media
  • ability to collaborate asynchronously
  • differentiated professional development
  • makes all staff a “professional developer”
  • makes professional work transparent
  • allows feedback from a wider dynamic of personalities
  • provides an archival record
  • creates an avenue for extrinsic motivation

virtual southside

Nearing the end of our first year employing social media in our school and in our classrooms, I am excited to see some of the benefits rolling in.  In my opinion, the featured video showing similar strategies in a mainstream business model provides another interesting nod to the value of utilizing these strategies with our teachers and students as well.  Are collaborative social tools being used currently where you work?  What role do you see for social media in our schools and with our students?

Artwork thanks:

*Thanks to Stephen Collins for the “fail gloriously” slide image.

The Educational Remix- At Odds With Copyright?

Allow me to be frank-  as busy as my world is right now, the requirement to read “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi was a very frustrating thing.  With a stack of ten or twelve books with immediate professional impact to juggle  -just waiting on my desk-  this read seemed frivolous.

Not only did I have to read the book (one of nine in six weeks) but I have to crank out a formal paper and an “author presentation.”  Before you pull out the tiny fiddle, rest assured that this is a positive post.  Like any of the other requirements of my little grad program that don’t seem to professionally apply right at the moment, I usually choose to steer the task toward a place where my learning can benefit someone else in our school’s learning network.  For this presentation I decided to try a different technique for integrating text into an Animoto video:

(*update 6-5-11: I changed the embedded version here. I swapped out the YouTube version for this one. You’ll have to wait a bit for it to load via Animoto, but watching it in full screen mode this way is much improved.)

The above clip is my version of a biographical “author introduction” for class.  However, since the book itself is tightly autobiographical, it made little sense to parade an endless list of factoids in front of 18 adults who all read the same book… and at least a few of whom had Google in the pockets.  The last tidbit to know here is that this is a graphic novel.  Within the pages, the author allows beautifully stark images to tell a good amount of the tale alongside the words.  It really is a masterful work about……  well, I’ll let you watch the clip and see.

Rarely do I dive into the minutiae of the nuts and bolts of a creation like this.  Sometimes I sort of ignorantly assume that others will analyze the creation of digital media by simply examining how it presents itself.

Technically speaking, this is what I did:

  • Sat down with the cover of the book after reading and matched basic graphical elements to the style of the book using Adobe Photoshop.  I wanted everything to “match” the book.  Why?  Don’t ask.  I’m a sucker for design details like that.  I’m weird.  I know.  I tried to match the colors, the fonts, and other subtle design elements present.
  • Copied these design elements over into Keynote where I assembled all of the presentation materials as a traditional slide show.
  • Trolled iTunes for a bit of Iranian contemporary folk music to use as a soundtrack.  I know absolutely nothing about Iranian music.  Therefore, I wanted to simply find a track that mirrored the stark simplicity of the novel itself.  I think I found a good one.  I like it quite a bit, really.
  • Exported all slides as .jpg images into a folder on my desktop.  This took less than a minute in total.  Also- this conveniently numbered all images consecutively.
  • Uploaded all images to Animoto.com.  Because they were already arranged in slideshow-order, no further shuffling needed to be done.  All that was left to do in Animoto was to select certain images to be “spotlighted,” followed by an upload of the .mp3 file for the soundtrack, and choose one of three overall presentation “speeds.”  Animoto then does the rest.
  • I ultimately remixed the video again to change speed and rearrange a couple of the highlights.  (one text-heavy slide displayed far too quickly)

Applications & Repercussions?

In the end, I felt like I created a pretty cool little video.  It certainly took a bit of time to do as a first run, but was largely automatic once the original slideshow was completed in Keynote.  Actually, this little clip made me so happy that, well… it almost makes me want to go back and re-read the novel.  To be perfectly honest, Persepolis is a pretty special work of art.

If you are new to this blog, you may think I have a exorbitant love for educational uses of video…  especially this one little free online tool.  In reality, while also juggling Lawrence Lessig’s Remix, a fascination with mashed-up content seems to be fresh on my mind.  That, and a recent discussion of the read/write/remix culture of 2009 in Doug Johnson’s session on copyright at METC 2009 last week.  In the Q&A afterwards I brought up an experience I had this past year regarding Animoto, UMG, YouTube and the YouTube content identification program.  In fact, Doug recently published one of his latest “Fair Use Scenarios” on this very issue.

Hossein Alizadeh and Madjid Khaladj


A New Hope

I think we are starting to see some really creative resolutions to fresh new uses of content…  that benefit all involved parties.  Even this video contains most of a copyrighted song entitled: Passion by Hossein Alizadeh and Madjid Khaladj.  Can readers of this blog download the song to an .mp3 later?  No.  Can they burn a copy of the song to play in a CD or DVD player?  No.  Is this educational use a mechanism to potentially generate more interest in the music as well as the book?  I hope so.  I wouldn’t highlight it if I didn’t think it held merit.

I decided to post the clip here after I realized that this might be a really cool way for an instructor to build interest in a book that an entire class might soon read.  (yes- like it or not, we still do this)  In fact, perhaps this is a really good way for a media center specialist, or librarian to pimp a set of newly-acquired novels to prospective students.  Perhaps it is even a way for students to reflect and then share a book with their classmates. (virtual booktalk?)  I think this could be a really great student-to-student viral marketing tool for discovering new reading material.

What do you think?  Is this song repurposed to a reasonable degree?  Does this use infringe upon the artist’s right to generate income from the song?  Does this use in any way cast a negative light on the work?  Is this kind of edu-marketing for students a reasonable educational use of the content?  Please share your thoughts on these and any other questions you see fit.

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A N I M O T O !

Ok, I have to confess. I thought I had better do this sooner or later. 😉

I have been waiting to expose Animoto for the beast that it is becoming. I just thought it would be nice if you thought my latest two videos were the result of hours and hours of devoted video artistry by yours truly. The plain truth is, I take beautiful photos. There, I said it. I am cocky about my photographical sKiLLz. I took some pretty photographs, chose some particularly dynamic and tasteful music, uploaded them to Animoto and voila… they made the videos for me. Or rather, their computers made the videos for me. The Marine Biology video sitting at YouTube is here, and the leadership retreat video is here. However, many of you have already seen them right here on our own little Ning site.

The self-proclaimed “nerds” at Animoto state on their website that the program works by “automatically generating professionally produced videos using our own patent-pending technology and high-end motion design”. The entire process for the end-user takes place online; there is no software whatsoever to download. When you get in the end result, makes you feel like this is all a big sham, that some video experts sitting in a box in cyberspace quickly made your video and sent it back to you in final form. The service has started quite a buzz.

The official description goes like this: “Animoto uses patent-pending technology to analyze your images and everything about the selected music — its structure, genre, energy, build, rhythm — before developing a blueprint for the motion design of your video. The remaining time is spent rendering your video, using a giant farm of computer processors to custom-generate 15 new images per second for your final video.” In a word: amazing. In two words: amazingly efficient. Three?: amazingly efficient and creative. Ok, so that’s four, sue me.

Here is a very cool Animoto fact: videos under 30 seconds are free. Here’s another cool fact: full-length Animoto videos cost only $3 to make. An even better cool fact: a year-long license to make an unlimited number of full-length videos: $30. Ten in a year and it is worth it by those prices. But wait: *drumroll* for what seems to be the best part: for teachers, the service is FREE. The only thing that could have been better would be to have known that before spending thirty of my hard-earned dollars before finding out that little factoid.

Wow. Animoto. Give it a try.

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A Cooperative Resolution?

What is the proper way to deal with intellectual property rights? In my opinion we are still in the early days of figuring out how to handle the rights of individuals and corporations with regard to information rights in the digital age. Look no further than the battle between individuals who use file sharing software over the Internet vs. the recording industry.

It is easy for most people to recognize that music is an art worth paying money to enjoy. Therefore, it is pretty simple to see how the recording industry, acting as a whole for the artists would crusade against illegal sharing of music made much easier over broadband Internet connections. Think of it, you pay for a CD once… then copy it to ten friends. You have essentially just taken 90% of the profit due to the artist for those transactions.

However, this issue is not that simple. To convince the RIAA to allow music to be legally downloaded from iTunes, etc., digital rights management code (DRM) was added to all of the songs. At first, I had no problem with this fact. However, recent issues have cropped in the use of my songs to do certain things. Now when a new technology comes along, such as Animoto, I find that I don’t have the rights to add my own music to videos I make on the site. This is very disturbing to me. In my opinion, if I want to hear music that I have legally purchased playing in the background of images of my wedding and honeymoon, I should be able to do just that. Instead, it only allows non-DRM music in the form of .mp3 files to be added.

This is NOT a solution. It is only an inconvenience to ethical folks who play by the rules. All that means is that I can slide any hardcopy CD that I have purchased (or borrowed for that matter) into my laptop drive and copy the file in .mp3 format to be used however I want. This amounts to DRM code being nothing but a crutch added to allow you to conveniently purchase music online. Because of this, I only download from iTunes when I am either in a hurry or want only a song or two from a certain LP.

To test some of these ideas, I created a video of a school planning retreat on Animoto and uploaded it to YouTube. The video can be seen here:

When this was done, I quickly received an e-mail from YouTube stating that my video had been flagged as having copyrighted material. The soundtrack I added for this two minute and four second video was “With My Own Two Hands” by Ben Harper & Jack Johnson from the Curious George soundtrack. For doing so, I was given three very reasonable options:

1. remove the video from YouTube immediately

2. dispute the claim via a link they provide

3. leave the video up and allow UMG, the recording company, to place ads on the page as well as track the public statistics of the video, such as number of views, etc.

To me, this is a very smart, savvy, consumer-friendly way to handle a minor “rights dispute” such as this one. I get to play my video the way I wanted to in the first place, and they get free advertising. This seems like a win/win to me. Therefore, I chose option three… the video still plays online, and everyone is happy. I can only hope that future decisions about information rights are solved in such a cooperative way.