Encyclopedia of Life

Hooray! As a science teacher I am of course very happy that the Encyclopedia of Life is up and running.

It is an ambitious project aimed at compiling information on every catalogued species, that's no small task when there are 350,000 documented species of beetle alone! Nonetheless they have made a start with 25 exemplar pages like the one for the mosquito below.

"That doesn't sound ike much of an achievement!" I hear you say. The exemplar pages are rich with knowledge: text, images, video, and are the 'ideal' that the EOL is aiming for. There are also tens of thousands of species pages that are on their way to getting there and 1 million 'minimal' pages that need fleshing out.

They have put a call out for people wiling to be 'curator' for one or more species from their field of expertise. Why not sign up if you have the chops?

In the meantime this is another blow to the development of student research skills. It's all there for them.

Comparison: Google Sites vs Wikispaces vs PBwiki

The battleground is set: Google has finally unleashed it's version of what a wiki should look like after buying one of the, at the time, major players, JotSpot, back in 2006.

How does it stack up when compared with two of the current most popular wiki providers to educators?

Read this doc on Scribd: Google Sites vs Wikispaces vs PBwiki

PBwiki: I have used PBwiki on the past, it was my first 'wiki love'. I administered a wiki that was used by 80+ students who created over 600 pages. It was mostly stable but the major problem was that students had difficulty with formatting. They kept expecting it to act like Word and for all that the editor is supposedly WYSIWYG: WYS is not always WYG. In particular they found tables tricky and formatting around images.

I spent quite a bit of time on their forums, there were some helpful users but the prevalence of spam made it look like the support staff were not keeping on top of things. They have since migrated the forums to a more professional looking provider so let's hope that support has improved.

I am now really looking forward to PBwiki 2.0. I received notification of an impending invite to the beta so I'll let you know how it goes once I have signed up and played around. One of the most highly anticipated features is page level access which seems to have been implemented with teachers in mind. It will enable the admin to restrict a student's access to only their pages, their group's pages, or their course pages depending on what you want the wiki to do.

Wikispaces: I have been using Wikispaces more often than PBwiki of late because I like the clean lines, all of it's components seem better integrated and because they give so much more storage space. It also looks a little like Wikipedia so students have that instant recognition of what it is for.

The lack of variety in fonts and colours is a double-edged feature. On the negative side, pages can look downright boring, on the positive side, students spend less time mucking around with formatting and concentrate on the content. Embedding HTML elements has always gone smoothly for me, unlike once or twice when PBwiki did not like what I was trying to embed.

Google Sites: What can Google possibly have to this offer in this already mature field?

  1. Seamless integration of Google Apps

  2. A huge wealth of expertise in making things just work

  3. A nice interface

So far, in the limited time that I have been testing it out, the WYSIWYG editor has worked as advertised. Tables have behaved properly and uploading files has been a cinch. Embedding Youtube videos was, of course, effortless.

But then they have gone and done something weird. Google sites is only open to organisations signed up to Google apps. I can't just sign in with my Google ID. As an individual I can't make my own Google site, to organise a family reunion, say without buying a domain. You need a corporate or education domain so as a teacher I was able to set one up using my school email address and the domain of my school. Its odd but I guess they have their reasons. No doubt the news is out there and I just haven't read it yet.

An Oldie but a Goodie: xlmarks

Now this app is not web2.0, its not web1.0, heck, its not even web beta. It is seriously old school.

I have been using xlmarks for a number of years because:
- It works
- It's simple
- It's small
- It easy to retrieve / mine student data
- Multiple class results are easily combined
- It does pretty much all I need it to

What is it?
As the name suggests it is an Excel template that can be used to track student results in a course or subject. It was developed by Efofex software who incidentally make great graphing and other mathematical / scientific software. Xlmarks is freeware, anyone can distribute it so long as they don't make any financial gain.

Read this doc on Scribd: XLMARKS

If you are a whiz with Excel and wish to customise it you can, Efofex will give you the password if you ask them nively. They do warn you, and rightly so, that the formulae used are pretty tricky. I hhave messed with it in the past and have had to start all over again due to unintended domino effects.

Download it from Efofex

Screencasting made easy: FreeScreencast

There are many different screencasting tools out there, read Alix E. Peshettes' recent post on Classroom 2.0 for a rundown on some of the best. Sean P. Aune has also created a list on Mashable of twelve of the best with screenshots.

FreeScreencast is a free, integrated software + hosting solution that has recently come onto open beta that shows promise.

After registering you are prompted to make a small download and install the software. It is very quick. Using the software is simple, you have the option of recording full screen, a window or a user-defined region. When you hit record your screencast begins, when you stop you have the option of previewing, saving and/or uploading it straight away. There is a link to the website from the uploader and once there you can manage your screencasts; change the name, description, and tags.

Of course the gravy in all this is that you get to search other people's screencasts and use the now obligatory comment system. Embeddable, my new favourite unrecognised-by-some-spellcheckers word, is what these are; so of course I have included an embedded screencast below... on how to embed a screencast in Moodle.

Part of their getting started tagline reads: "No tech degree required" and it really is true. Its simple, clean and easy.

How you could use it in your teaching:

- Screencast yourself performing a process on an interactive whiteboard e.g. Solving an equation, drawing a diagram, highlighting verbs (your imagination is the limit here) and embed it in a wiki/social network/ Moodle etc for your students' revision or distance learning
- Illustrate how to use an application for fellow staff or for your students

Quizlet: Rote learning can be fun?

Quizlet is an excellent resource for those students trying to remember definitions, dates, conjugations, names, places, formulae….whatever

Put simply is a site where you input questions and answers and it then tests you on those answers after first familiarising you with them using 'guess and check' type strategies. It will keep hitting you with the things you get wrong until you get them right. It tests you in several different ways, type in the answer, multiple-choice and true or false. There is also an embeddable 'Scatter' activity which is my favourite.

Here is one that I whipped up with a measley 3 terms:

There are already many such quizzes that have been entered by other students and teachers. A look at the home page shows quizzes with titles like: French colours, The industrial revolution, Latin Vocabulary and Geometry Rocks. You can of course search for relevant quizzes

Possible ways to integrate it into your program:

- Individual learning: just alert the students to its existence
- Allocate groups to create quizzes on topics that you allocate or they nominate and try them out on other class members
- Language teachers: conjugate –er verbs in French. Pin yin to English for Chinese
- Students evaluate existing quizzes for accuracy and relevance to your topic
- Set up a glossary for the unit you are working on and have the students complete it and send a screenshot to you of their best scores
- The whole class contributes to a quiz on your thematic unit. Have each student add 2-3 terms.
- Make the construction of an accurate quiz part of an assessment task
- Next year, have the students do one of the above tasks and compare it to what your class did the year before. Students can evaluate their ideas as a comparison. Did they miss things? Did they think of something beyond the last class?

Comiqs: Create comics from photos and art

Engaging some students in literacy tasks can be difficult. Comic books have long been recognised as an effective way of getting students, particularly boys, to read. Now, a web 2.0 site in beta, Comiqs, provides a simple interface to create comics from any images that you fancy. You simply drag across the layout you would like for a page, upload and drag across photos and add speech and thought bubbles. Added functionality includes the option to access your Flikr account from within Comiqs.

Making your own comics is nothing revolutionary, you have always been able to make make comic strips using Word or PowerPoint (or pencil and paper!). However, Comiqs includes the functionality of comments, sharing and embeddability. Here is my lame attempt, created in five minutes from one of my own photos, it is only one page, but multiple pages are easy to set up:

It is not the only site that enables you to do so. I should also mention Comeeko, but a word of caution, some of the advertising is not suitable for children.

Educational applications:

- Junior science: Students could make a comic highlighting lab safety; create a
- biography of a scientist
- Primary/Secondary Literacy/English: Create short stories; develop characters for everyday objects; create biographies or autobiographies
- Art/Design: What layouts work; Colour combinations; Scan and upload work
- History: Biographies
- Languages: Dialogue