“What’s your red paper clip?” Will Richardson asked the 30 K-12 educators assembled before him last July. The educational-technology consultant’s intent was not to kick off the all-day workshop outside Boston with an office-supply riddle, but to illustrate the snowballing effect of interactive software on teaching and learning.
Richardson is the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, a how-to manual in which he refers to what’s known as the Web 2.0 phenomenon as the Read/Write Web. He was recounting for his audience the story of Kyle MacDonald, a 27-year-old Canadian who began swapping items with readers of his weblog in July 2005. As the blog’s title, “One Red Paperclip,” indicates, his first offering was a seemingly insignificant item. Fourteen trades and one year later, however, he’d bartered up enough to land himself a mortgage-free house in a small town in Saskatchewan.
“The new Internet isn’t about technology anymore,” Richardson told the teachers, librarians, tech coordinators, and administrators from across North America, each sitting in front of a monitor in a computer lab at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts. Gone, he said, are the days when Web publishing involved manipulating HTML code and other complicated technical processes. New software is mostly “open source,” meaning it’s available online for free. “Instead, it’s about your imagination,” Richardson said, “about thinking, quite literally, ‘out of the box’ of the traditional classroom.”
It was 10 a. m., Monday, July 17th, the first of the four-day Building Learning Communities conference. Every year for the past seven, Alan November, founder of November Learning, an edu-tech consulting firm, has paired experts with those eager to learn how to integrate technology into education. This year’s event drew more than 400 participants from around the world. Richardson’s workshop was a leadoff session, demonstrating the use and effects of Internet tools. Tanned from a recent vacation, the tall, muscular 48-year-old radiated a positive, robust energy as he projected PowerPoint slides and Web pages onto a large screen.
“There are over 1 billion people connected to the Web,” he told the crowd, “and that will double within a decade. The Internet contains a trillion links on 100 billion Web pages, with 7 million pages being created daily. Where there were only a handful of people blogging in 1999, there are over 50 million blogs today, and 50 new ones created every minute.”
The effect that this statement had on Suzanne Stacey, a 34-year-old English teacher at Falmouth High School in Maine, was predictable. She sat at the back of the room, shaking her own light-brown, ponytailed head. Consternation flashed across her youthful face. Later, she admitted, “Richardson talked really fast, and I felt totally overwhelmed at the beginning. There was so much information.”
But instead of slowing down as the workshop progressed, Richardson sped up, as if to demonstrate his premise: that the Web’s exponential growth and penetration into every facet of society has created a cultural tsunami. What’s needed now is what another conference presenter, Darren Kuropatwa—a Canadian high school math teacher—terms “liquid learning. We are awash in so much information that we have to learn how to manage as it keeps expanding.”
“For educators,” Richardson said, “this means getting our children on board with Web literacy, or they’ll be left behind in the global economy.” Then, in a reassuring tone, he added, “But the task is far more exciting than daunting.”
He should know.
Four years ago, Richardson was teaching English and journalism at Hunterdon Central Regional High, a large, achievement-oriented suburban school in central New Jersey. Up to that point in his then-19-year career, he’d helped students publish their work in school newspapers and anthologies, believing that public exposure encouraged kids to write better essays, articles, and stories. But he wanted them to have a bigger, more immediate audience. So in fall 2002, Richardson integrated a blog into his Modern American Literature class. Juniors and seniors were now able to read and comment on classmates’ work as soon as it was produced, and anybody with an Internet connection could access the kids’ writing.
The Internet was once mostly about surfing from one static Web site to another while collecting or viewing data along the way. But now users share information, collaborate on content, and converse worldwide via social-software tools. Such tools “leverage the Web into a learning environment as well as an information source,” says Will Richardson, a former high school teacher and current edu-tech consultant. “It’s about the give-and-take,” he adds, “that engages students more in their own educations as active content producers and improves teachers’ professional development.” Richardson’s favorite “tools” are listed and described below, as are the names of his preferred instructional Web sites.
A wiki is a communal, subject-specific Web site where users are free to add and/or edit content. When it comes to Internet-based collaboration, there’s nothing easier to use, according to Richardson. In schools, wikis—some of which are password-protected—enable groups of students, teachers, or both to gather content and share written work. Some classes create their own textbooks and resource sites. One great example is “High School Online Collaborative Writing.” For instructional tips, check out Stewart Mader’s blog “Using Wiki in Education.”
Perhaps the most powerful Internet tool is the Weblog, or blog, an online journal that is continuously updated by its author or authors. Blogs are Web sites that facilitate instantaneous publication and allow for feedback from readers. They’ve been used to form professional development communities, both within one school and across continents. One notable edu-blog worth visiting is Clarence Fisher’s “Excellence and Imagination.” Instructional blogs include Anne Davis’ “Improving Instruction Through the Use of Weblogs” and Stephen Downes’ “Educational Blogging.”
Real Simple Syndication refers to what are called “feeds”: programs that take content from various Web sources—news sites, blogs, online journals—and deliver it in summarized form to the Web user. Richardson calls RSS “the new killer app for educators” because it enables them to collect specific data without having to sift through innumerable Web and print pages. Richardson’s “RSS Quick Start Guide for Educators” is available on his own site, weblogg-ed.com.
Through social bookmarking, Web users share their sources of information by allowing anyone to copy their RSS feeds. So an educator, no matter how unfamiliar he or she is with online technology, can easily archive, for example, all of Richardson’s sources of research via sites such as Del.icio.us and Furl.net. This allows students and teachers to build Internet resource pages they can share and pass on to future classes. For tips on social bookmarking, check out Andy Carvin’s “Tag-You’re Delicious!” at PBS Teacher Source and D-Lib Magazine’s “Social Bookmarking Tools (I).
Podcasting enables Web sites to provide visitors with audio and/or video recordings that can be listened to and watched at any time. The results range from amateur radio broadcasts—by 15-year-old Matthew Bischoff at Odeo.com, for example—to sophisticated video productions, such as those produced by high-schoolers in San Fernando, California, at Sfett.com. “Podcasting in Education” at the Halton District School Board (California) site and blogger Gardner Campbell’s “There’s Something in the Air: Podcasting in Education” can help you get started.
Social Networking Sites
Richardson calls these “social content-sharing sites,” the most notable being MySpace.com, where members create profiles, network, and share opinions, photos, and audio-visual content. But there are about as many social networking sites as there are interests, and among Richardson’s favorites are Flickr.com, where photographs are posted and shared, and the video-sharing site YouTube.com.
The blog was also used to “discuss” The Secret Life of Bees, a coming-of-age novel that had just been published. Richardson initiated talks about Bees in class, but the kids took it from there, posting their homework in the form of essays about the book’s characters, themes, and literary devices. They responded to each other’s work online, and Richardson graded their efforts. These cyberconversations “helped one girl in particular who was very reticent to speak in class, then wrote lots of interesting stuff on the blog,” he recalled.
Soon inspiration struck: Why not invite the book’s author to participate? Sue Monk Kidd agreed because she was able to log on at her convenience from her South Carolina home, where she was busy writing another novel.
Toni Gibson, now a sophomore at Penn State University, was one of Richardson’s initial bloggers. “We had heated conversations about what the bees … and so on represented, but everyone’s answers made sense,” she says. “Then we heard directly from the author what she meant, which enabled us to explore the book so much beyond the surface.”
Although Kidd couldn’t be reached for comment, the following is taken from one of her blog entries:
When I was growing up, we had what we called the “family bees”… [living] inside the wall of a back bedroom. ... I thought all the time about ... how they sounded, their incredible vibrating hum. They engendered feelings of awe, even mystery, inside of me. ... When I anticipated writing a novel ... I started to picture a girl in early adolescence lying in bed while a cloud of bees poured through cracks in her bedroom walls and flew circles around the room. I imagined the bees coming as a visitation, as if there was some hidden purpose in it. I kept trying to imagine what it might be. I asked myself: Who is this girl? What does she want? Take a vivid image and ask those questions, and before you know it, you will have a novel.
Within weeks, Richardson recalled, “enormous numbers of people all over the world were visiting the blog. The kids were amazed, and it flipped a million hits in less than a year. The Secret Life of Bees made the New York Times bestseller list for a long time, yet our blog came up first on Google—before the author’s or Amazon’s sites—and still does.”
He said he was most impressed, however, with the realization “that this fundamentally changes what we ask our kids to do. Instead of saying, ‘Hand it in,’ which is always, ‘to me, the teacher,’ now we’ll be seeking audiences for student work beyond the classroom walls. There’s some low-hanging fruit here, since students feel far more motivated when writing to a real audience.”
In 2004, Richardson posted a separate set of blogs, linking his journalism students to professionals in the field whom the teens had recruited, via e-mail, as mentors. One student, Meredith Fear, was able to partner with Scott Higham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the Washington Post. (See sidebar, right.) As Meredith developed, reported, and wrote her stories, asking questions along the way, Higham sent comments and advice via the blog, even as he traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a story about a secret CIA detention facility.
Richardson used these and other examples during the workshop to illustrate how profoundly the Read/Write Web affects teaching. “We must become connectors,” he told the participants. “There are lots of people out there who know more than we do about our subject, and we have to start being OK with connecting our kids to them.”
It was Wendy Smith, a software trainer, who introduced Richardson to the Internet in 1994, while they were on a date. “Wendy brought over her computer and took me online for the first time,” he recalled. A romance ignited—with Wendy, of course—and they got married two years later. The Richardsons now have two children: Tess, 9, and Tucker, 7.
Will was also enthralled with the Web, which was then primarily an information archive. It fit perfectly with his fledgling journalism class because, he said, his students responded so positively to researching stories online—just like professionals.
Today, schools still use the Internet mostly as a research tool. Even before attending Richardson’s workshop, Suzanne Stacey, the English teacher from Maine, had her freshmen investigate themes such as suicide and teen romance online as they read Romeo and Juliet. The searches, she explained, not only augmented the text, but also engaged struggling students.
But their interest in the Web was limited. Although the Falmouth district supplies all freshmen with laptops, Stacey said her students considered the computers more of a burden than an opportunity. “They treated them like textbooks and often forgot to bring them to class,” derailing many of her lesson plans as a result.
Part of the problem is that many students—and teachers—consider computers look-up devices only. “We’re now beginning to see Generation Google at the J-School,” says Sree Sreenivasan, dean of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “Since high school, they’ve defaulted to plugging search terms into Google, then selecting material from the first several hits, as if reaching the top of the search engine’s pile proved its validity.”
But Web-literate students dig deeper and authenticate sources, Richardson told the workshoppers. He showed them the home page for MartinLutherKing.org, which, at a glance, looks legitimate. Its link is even positioned high on Google’s list. But the site is maintained by Stormfront, a white supremacist group, and contains racist propaganda. “When students encounter suspicious content,” Richardson said, “they need to know how to determine Web site ownership and what it means.”
They also have to learn how to navigate the Internet’s biggest youth draw: social networking sites. On MySpace.com, for example, sexual material is included in many of the personal profile pages. But the site also serves as a virtual hangout for kids—a place where they can “talk,” share interests, and express themselves. Fear of exposing students to inappropriate material and to online predators, however, motivates schools to restrict access to such sites.
“MySpace has over 93 million members and, as a country, would be the 12th largest in the world,” Richardson claimed. “We have to deal with it, and while I don’t expect schools to unblock MySpace, they certainly need to have a unit on how to create accounts responsibly. Most kids are on it anyway and can benefit, for example, from talent scouts who mine the site. … In music alone, there are a million bands with a presence.”
Richardson isn’t the only one who feels this way. In June, prior to speaking before a gathering of 49 school superintendents in upstate New York, he asked the readers of his education blog (www.weblogg-ed.com) what he should pass on to the school officials. Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, wrote:
Tell them that locking out the sites and tools of this new world our kids live in will render us irrelevant and useless when our students need us most. … Tell them that many of our students know how to reach a larger audience more quickly than any school district memo could ever hope to. Tell them that our students need our help to make them understand how powerful that is. ... Tell them that we can build the 24/7/365 school if we embrace the technologies our students are already using.
Just before lunch, Richardson took the educators step-by-step through the process of setting up their own wikis at pbwiki.com. Much to the relief of the techno-novices, this proved remarkably easy. “A wiki is a type of Web site that allows users to easily add and edit content,” Richardson explains on one of his blog’s resource pages. Most wikis are open to the public, so the content may be changed any time by anyone—and quickly, which is the meaning of the word in Hawaiian.
Wikis make especially effective tools for collaborative writing, as Richardson demonstrated with a tour of Wikipedia.org, the online encyclopedia. Hundreds of thousands of anonymous contributors have generated millions of reference works in 200 languages. As an open work-in-progress, Wikipedia is fallible by definition and vulnerable to abuse, but students often cite it as a credible resource, so it can’t be ignored, Richardson insisted. In fact, he noted, the site affords an opportunity to teach Web literacy. Kids need to learn how to fact-check independently by cross-referencing information with online university databases, for example. He also recommended that teachers show students how to use their reports and research to become Wikipedia contributors.
At Hunterdon Central, Richardson’s media-literacy students started using a wiki in 2003 to collect research on advertising and the media. Although Richardson set it up, students maintained the wiki, and it has been expanded and referred to by succeeding classes, making his job easier in the long run.
On his resource page, Richardson lists 19 examples of education wikis, several of which he talked about in July to demonstrate the range of applications. At the elementary school level, “kids from around the world write collaboratively about the places they live on Wikiville.org.uk,” he said. A truly riveting site, he added, is the “Holocaust Wiki Project,” (www.ahistory teacher.com/holocaust). Created by Dan McDowell, a high school history teacher in southern California, it puts each student in the shoes of a Jewish child who lived in Nazi-era Germany.
“Can wikis be used for generating paperless student portfolios?” asked David Sherman, the 42-year-old principal of South Park Elementary School in Deerfield, Illinois.
“Sure,” Richardson answered, “but it’s better to use blogs, since they allow feedback.”
Parents, he pointed out, can see portfolios posted on a blog, and they can comment and ask questions. Also, teachers don’t have to worry about storing every last student paper in bulky filing cabinets.
“Wikis,” Richardson continued, “are more about creating content, and blogs more about conversations. Think of it as connective writing versus the wiki’s collaborative approach.”
As wonderful as blogs and wikis sound, you actually have to possess such tools—and the specialized know-how—to make use of them. While virtually every public school is Internet-connected, some, especially those in poorer areas, don’t have the staff and technical support necessary to make full use of computers. Many underprivileged kids don’t even have PCs at home. Richardson doesn’t mince words; he acknowledges that, without such resources, “not much” can be done to help students become Web literate.
There are also these questions: Is technology overrated? Does it distract from a child’s core education?
Even edu-tech consultant Alan November, a former high school teacher himself, is cautious. “This new technology isn’t a magic bullet that’s going to automatically improve education,” he says. “In fact, it takes a tremendous amount of work and creativity, and you have to recognize what problem you’re trying to solve with technology. Are we simply preparing kids to go into the business world by getting them to understand technology? Or are we trying to transform the culture of teaching and learning to really prepare kids to be self-motivated, true lifelong learners?
“I’m in the latter camp but don’t see evidence that schools are moving in that direction. Currently schools aren’t taking much advantage of technology.”
Which is where Richardson believes that he comes in. And as a believer in the “connective” potential of technology, he considers blogs the Internet’s most powerful tool. After he’d helped the educators set up their own on the conference’s Web site (www.nlcommunities.com/communities), he explained that bloggers are free to write about any topic. They can also post photos, graphics, audio and video files, additional pages of content, and links to other sites. Because visitors can comment on entries, blogs are also open to discussion.
Although blogs have been around since the late 1990s, educators weren’t as quick to make use of them as, say, businesspeople and journalists were. In the last few years, however, they’ve made up for that early reluctance by using the tool in various ways. Richardson’s blog-resource page links to a handful of examples, including a Hunterdon Central-based project called “NJ-Georgia Connection.”
In 2003, Richardson coordinated a blog relationship between his journalism students and a 4th grade class in Conyers, Georgia, in which juniors and seniors taught the principles of reporting and news writing to elementary-schoolers. The 4th graders, in turn, were truly engaged. “They all wanted to write well for the high-schoolers,” says Anne Davis, who coordinated the Georgia side of the project. “Their response was totally different than the usual handing work into the teacher. It was wonderful to find a way to keep kids on task and end up with such high-quality writing.”
Richardson told his workshop audience that, while there were only seven blogs devoted to discussing education when he first got into the practice, “now there are 69,000.” Most edu-bloggers, he added, “establish a small online community of five or 10 correspondents—usually teachers or administrators facing similar challenges—who help each other with suggestions and break through the professional isolation of the classroom.”
Weblogg-ed.com is an exception. According to site statistics, Richardson has hundreds of readers daily, partly because he solicits information and advice from leaders in the edu-tech world. He asked the conference attendees to click on the “ed blogs” tab on his site. Soon they found a list of links to roughly 60 teachers, principals, tech coordinators, and college professors whose blogs Richardson reads and responds to regularly. And they read his.
“This is my learning community that transformed my life,” he declared. “I learned more from interacting with these educators over the last five years than in my entire career before.”
As Richardson built up a blog following, he also began instructing colleagues at Hunterdon Central on Internet use. Soon he was conducting professional development seminars for the entire staff. By fall 2003, he was the school’s full-time supervisor of instructional technology, teaching only one journalism class—instead of the five he’d amassed over the years—on the side.
Tom Smith, Hunterdon Central’s director of curriculum, says Richardson “moved the whole school forward with technology. What he started is being carried on by the humanities departments.” Indeed, half the school’s English teachers and 40 percent of the social studies staff use wikis or blogs, and student blogging is required for many courses.
Richardson also attracted media attention—at first because of the Bees blog, then because of his own. “The New York Times and other major publications started calling me as an expert on the use of software tools in the classroom,” he recalled. “Not long after, my [blog] readership jumped from 250 to 1,800 a day.”
Soon he was also advising educators outside his district, accepting increasing numbers of bookings for workshops and keynote addresses—and making extra money. During the 2005-06 school year, he moonlighted during almost all of his 23 vacation days. So this past spring, he had a decision to make.
“I’d found my passion,” Richardson said of being an edu-tech expert, “and I knew I couldn’t stay at Hunterdon Central and follow it.” After conferring with his wife, he chose to retire from public education and form his own company—which he calls, appropriately enough, Connective Learning. It wasn’t easy. He’d taught for 22 years and loved working with kids. And he wasn’t yet fully vested. “I lost about 60 percent of my pension and all my benefits,” he said. “But I knew I was doing the right thing.”
The new career suits him well. He’s gotten far more speaking and workshop requests than he anticipated, and as the all-day event near Boston drew to a close, he appeared more energized than when it began. “I’ve become a nomadic learner,” he explained later. “I graze on information and knowledge as I need it—and I know where to find it online.”
A self-confessed “blogvangelist,” Richardson is focused on converting teachers and administrators to his viewpoint. He believes the Internet and the right software tools will liberate students from the anachronistic traditional classroom. They’ll then become self-motivated learners and creators, driven by their own passions.
“Right-brainers are going to rule the flat, wired world,” he told the educators, paraphrasing the subtitle to Daniel Pink’s best-selling book A Whole New Mind. “Kids will become designers, or they’ll be flipping burgers. We have to prepare them for what their real place in the world is going to be.”
As the workshop ended, Richardson asked the same question he’d posed hours earlier: “What’s your red paper clip?”
Nobody answered, and the reason may have been fatigue. During the last 90 minutes, Richardson had sped through lessons on posting multimedia files on the Web and using social bookmarking software, leaving everyone gasping for breath. Fortunately most had taken extensive notes, and many ended up buying Richardson’s book so they’d be able to experiment in the coming weeks.
A few days after the workshop, however, Carol Amaral-Ly, head of the computer department at the private preK-12 Wilmington Friends School in Delaware, had an answer to Richardson’s question. “I think that my red paper clip will be to try to encourage other colleagues to identify a red paper clip of their own,” she said. “In addition to some one-on-one work, we will pursue mapping out a mechanism for sharing this information through mini-workshops, at faculty meetings, and possibly by archiving information about these tools in a wiki.
“The most important thing I learned from Will’s workshop was that these are the tools that our students will learn about and use, with or without us. So expanding their learning space to include these technologies is critical.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as The Blogvangelist