This article appeared in the Journal of the New England League of Middle Schools in 2006. As that is no longer available, I am making it available here.
Ackerman, G. (2006). Technology for Turning Points. Journal of the New England League of Middle Schools, 18(1), 22-6.
Middle school practice is guided by Turning Points 2000 (Jackson & Davis, 2000) in which practitioners find both the vision and the design for effective middle schools. In recent years, a number of technology tools have emerged which, although not originally intended for educators, can be applied to the design of an effective middle school. This article presents some of those tools that are available for all operating systems at little or no expense beyond existing computer systems, and describes how those can be used to address elements of middle school design as envisioned in Turning Points 2000.
Build Community through Blogging
Middle school practitioners recognize the importance of cultivating a sense of community and including parents and the greater community in activity within the middle school. Frequent and open communication between school and community and public celebrations of middle level learning are important aspects of this design. A dynamic and updated web site is a tool with which modern educators can communicate and publicly celebrate. Blogging is a method of quickly and easily publishing information to the World Wide Web that is gaining increasing application in public schools (Martindale, 2005). A web log or blog is a web page originally created with and updated using protocols that automate much of the process. For bloggers, publishing to the web involves entering text into a web page or a word processor, clicking a button to initiate the publishing, and entering a password to secure access the web server. Although blogging protocols have been available since early in the history of the web, blogs gained popularity late in 2001 (Medoff & Kaye, 2005), and blogs are emerging as a valuable source of information for students (Ferdig & Trammell, 2004) as well as a forum for communication.
Educators can choose from a number of blogging tools, including both web sites and software that is installed on a local computer. Regardless of the tool used, the process is essentially the same: A blog is established by configuring the software to publish to a web server on which the blogger has permission to upload files (this requires information supplied by the administrator of a web server) and then defining the fonts and colors that will be the defaults for the page (the producers of blogging software frequently provide templates for users). These publishing and appearance preferences become a permanent part of the blog, and are usually unchanged so bloggers pay no attention to editing those preferences. To update the blog, the user opens the software used to maintain it, adds new content, edits existing content, and clicks a button to publish, and then enters a password to access the web server.
In addition to being a very easy method for publishing content on the web, blogging software automatically arranges content on the page and automatically archives old content. Content is added in chucks called posts, and each new post is placed near the top of the page, and older posts are moved down the page when new posts are published. The result is a chronological arrangement, so as readers scroll down the page, they see older posts, each with a similar font style for the title, and each with a date and time stamp indicating when it was posted. Typically on the first of each month, the blogging software archives the older contents by moving older posts from the front page of the blog to other pages; at the same time, the software adds links to the pages of the blog so visitors can navigate to older content with ease. Over time, a blog can grow into a site with many links to content within the site, but the links are all created and updated with no effort from the blogger.
Commenting is another feature easily enabled on blogs and it allows visitors to post replies to content on the blog. Although a blog becomes more interactive and dynamic than a traditional web page, commenting also adds the potential for abuse, so school leaders should take steps to control access to this feature. When the blog is established, the blogger can set the level of access visitors will have to the commenting feature; commenting can be disabled, enabled only for those supplying authenticated user names, or moderated (which means an individual must approve each comment before it becomes visible to visitors). Without using such controls, the blogger has no way to regulate who posts comments or what comments contain.
Blogging in Middle Schools
Because blogging decreases the labor of web publishing (compared to using traditional web authoring software), much information that traditionally did not make it to the web can be posted to the web. One type of such information that is immediately useful and appreciated in middle school communities is homework assignments. For teachers who key homework into a word processor, publishing to a blog requires only a few more steps. Not only does a homework blog provide information for students and families away from school, but a homework blog can provide a teacher with a record of assignments over a school year which can be a valuable data source for curriculum assessment and planning.
Blogs also provide an option for publishing announcements and events happening in the middle school. Individual teachers, academic teams, clubs, sports teams, music groups, the cafeteria staff, guidance counselors, the school nurse, and the principal are all examples of individuals or groups who can establish their own blogs to keep the community up to date. Because each blog is a separate web page, school and technology leaders have options when deciding who will administer each blog. Either a single web master can be assigned the task of updating all school blogs, or the work can be distributed among adults in the building. By establishing a subdomain and an account with permission to upload to the subdomain using file transfer protocol, a webmaster can configure a web server to host multiple blogs that can be independently administered. Those adults charged with maintaining a school blog must understand the importance of keeping private the user names and passwords that secure the blog against unauthorized posting.
Although blogging does provide a valuable resource, educators must recognize the digital divide continues to exist (Mason & Dodds, 2005), and care must be taken to ensure those who do not have access to computers away from school are not disadvantaged by the inability to access school blogs. For example, teachers who publish homework blogs must continue to use other methods of reminding students of assignments and school newsletters and schedules of events must continue to be published in hardcopy, but blogs can add an additional venue for communication. Another caution that deserves attention when educators decide to begin blogging is to ensure sensitive information is not put into the public and to ensure privacy is maintained. School policy concerning publication or student information must be followed and even updated to ensure privacy is protected and safety not jeopardized (Richardson, 2005).
Enhance Curriculum through Podcasts
Creating meaningful middle school curriculum has always been a dynamic endeavor; middle school educators engage learners using a variety of methods and structures (Knowles & Brown, 2000). Digital audio files which are transferred using broadband network connections are a modern tool that contributes to established middle school practice. These files are commonly known as podcasts, a term derived from Apple Computer’s iPod, the most famous line of digital audio players and the industry standard for these devices (Howard, 2005); despite the name, podcasts can be played on digital audio players made by a number of manufacturers. Podcasts are much like radio programs that can be downloaded and replayed. Middle school educators can be both consumers of podcasts, using them as a source of information, or middle school educators can be producers of podcasts with educators sharing their practice or with students sharing their learning (Warlick, 2005).
Listening to a podcast is about as complex as navigating to a web site. Visitors find the file containing the podcast, download it using a web browser, and launch a media player to hear the file. As long as the listener has a broadband Internet connection, the process is not taxing to the connection or a computer system. Podcasts can be played on a computer or transferred to the digital audio player using a universal serial bus (USB) connection. Then listeners can use either headphones or standard computer speakers to hear the file. Digital audio players typically come packaged with software which is used to manage digital audio files; this software is installed on a desktop or laptop computer the listener uses to download files and manage their digital audio library.
Just as radio broadcasters produce new programs periodically, many podcasters produce programs periodically. Using a feature called syndication listeners can automatically download new episodes of favorite podcasts. For syndication to function the podcaster must configure his or her podcast to be syndicated and the listener must use a compatible syndication client. Syndication allows listeners to obtain interesting podcasts without the effort of navigating to the site and downloading the file.
The hardware and software necessary to produce a podcast is standard equipment on modern desktop and laptop computer systems. The microphones included with computer systems and the sound recording software included in operating systems is sufficient to record digital audio for beginning podcasters. Commercial and open source software with which podcasters can edit their digital audio are available for all operating systems, but the use of this software does increase the complexity of producing podcasts. Once a podcast has been produced, it must be uploaded to a web server so that it is available over the Internet.
Podcasts in Middle Schools
Because podcasts can be created with minimal technology resources, middle school educators and students can create podcasts with existing hardware and software. Creating a podcast requires the effort of a variety of role players, including scriptwriters, “on-air” personalities, recording technicians, and editors. Because of the multidimensional nature of podcasting, this medium is well-suited to involving all students in meaningful creation which is a hallmark of middle school pedagogy. Content from any area of study can be subject of an interesting and creative podcast.
The availability of podcasting capacity is a feature that causes nagging trouble for educators who seek to use podcasts as a source of information, as one must differentiate credible podcasts from non-credible podcasts. Several web directories index podcasts in categories and subcategories to help visitors both browse and search the thousands that are listed, but there is little or no editorial control over the content of the podcasts listed on these sites. True! More and more tools are cropping up, as well, that will help individuals to locate podcasts that focus on topics of their choice. Advocates of podcasting suggest it represents a democratization of publishing as it gives a venue through which anyone with the access to minimal technical resources can publish observations, opinions, and ideas (Descy, 2005). Although this may be a feature of podcasting that we value, educators must assess the accuracy and credibility of podcasts before they are used with students. One strategy for finding appropriate and credible podcasts is to use those produced by the broadcast media; many broadcasters, including public broadcasters, make podcasts of programs and program segments available, and those have been edited for broadcast.
Podcasting is a new medium, and school librarians are actively involved in planning the role for digital audio files in school libraries (Bell, 2005). As podcasts become more available for essential functions such as providing audio books, schools are likely to develop large collections of digital audio content. Just as school librarians are vital to the development and management and use of a print library, these professionals will provide vital support using this new medium. An important aspect of using digital audio files will be ensuring users understand the changing nature of copyrights in the emerging world of digital media (National Humanities Alliance, 1997).
Support Your Teachers through Networks
Middle school leaders recognize the need to provide ongoing support to professionals; this support includes both the informal sharing of information and discussion as well as formal workshop activities and graduate study. Network-based systems are providing a venue for a range of professional development activities for educators (Ravitz, 2005). For practicing educators, network-based asynchronous communication and education tools can provide a meaningful connection with others facing the same challenges; modern middle school leaders can take advantage of these tools to support educators working in their buildings.
Systems for Support
Two systems for supporting educators requiring minimal capacity and available as open source packages are electronic bulletin board systems (BBS) and learning management systems (LMS). Each of these tools provides the ability to communicate and share files and each can be installed either on a web server or a files server on a local area network. When installed on a web server, the tools can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection, whereas a local area network (LAN) installation is available only from computers on that network.
A typical BBS allows visitors to read messages that have been posted by members of the BBS; the messages are similar to email messages, except they are open for all to read. The administrator of the BBS can exert much control over who is allowed to access the message board and who is allowed to contribute to the board; a BBS can be made entirely private so that only those who provide an authenticated user name can participate, a BBS can be completely public so that any visitor can participate, or a BBS can be configured for various other levels of control and moderation.
Learning management systems provide more sophisticated tools for communicating. On a full-feature LMS a good teacher to provide a complete course online. Typically, a LMS will provide a BBS, tools for users to upload and download files, systems for administering web-based tests and surveys, chat rooms, electronic whiteboards, and a range of management tools. A good LMS provides everything necessary to teach a course without ever meeting. While an LMS provides the capacity to develop a rich system for providing professional development to a middle school staff, these systems are complex and do require some effort to manage.
Support to Provide
Even with the modest capacity of a BBS, educators can engage in meaningful professional dialogue. In addition to posting announcements, reminders and other notes of interest, educators can engage in dialogue using a BBS. Because a BBS organizes posts and replies together into an outline-like structure called a threaded discussion, a threaded discussion becomes an ongoing exchange of ideas that is created piece-by-piece by participants separated in distance and time. Such discussions are described as one of components of online learning environments that adult learners find very meaningful (Knapczyk, 2005).
Messages exchanges via a BBS can be a very effective alternative to email. Because the BBS administrator can limit who can access the system, users can be sure BBS messages are from known individuals, that the messages are free of viruses or other malware, and free from unsolicited messages. Another advantage of a message system over email is that one can access the system when prepared to deal with the messages. Whereas an email message to a colleague for advice on an upcoming unit may go unread because she receives the message when she is too busy, the same message may get a thoughtful response on a message board as she is likely to access the system with the intention of interacting with her colleagues.
Educational technology leaders recognize the importance of diverse professional development to support educators as they become users of technology (Sandholtz, Ringstaff & Dwyer, 1997). MacKenzie (2002) suggests professional development should be provided through a range of situations and that systems be developed to deliver professional development immediately when the need arises. With a LMS delivering information, resources, and access to colleagues, network-based professional development provides one model for meeting this recognized need in the modern middle school.
Technology is providing inexpensive tools to support the dynamic and lively learning that characterizes middle schools; the problem integrating these tools into school operation remains, however. Given the complexity of the design of the modern middle school and given the complexity of modern technology tools, the task of applying technology tools to middle school design requires the collaboration of both education leaders and educational technologists. It is unreasonable to expect a middle school leader to have the expertise necessary to install, configure, and manage the technology tools described here, and it is equally unreasonable to expect one with the knowledge and skill to maintain modern technology to be an expert in middle school theory and practice. It is reasonable, however, to expect middle school leaders to learn about and understand the potential of modern technology tools and to lead initiatives to install and use these tools. It is also reasonable to expect technologists to understand the needs of middle school educators and to install and manage usable technology.
One exciting aspect of applying technology to the problems facing middle school educators is the creative energy they bring to their practice. Middle school leaders and educational technologists who make technology available and suggest a specific purpose for which the technology can be used provide a foundation that can be the source of activity and learning for both adults and youngsters.
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Ferdig, R., & Trammell, K. (2004). Content delivery in the “blogosphere.” Technical Horizons in Education Journal 31(7), 12f.
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Jackson, A. & Davis, G. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York: Teachers College Press.
Knapczyk, D. (2005). An evaluation of web conferencing in online teacher preparation. Teacher Education and Special Education 28(2), 114-24. Retrieved March 5, 2006 from WilsonSelect database.
Knowles, T. & Brown, D. (2000). What every middle school teacher should know. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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McKenzie, J. (2002). Just in time technology: Doing better with fewer. Bellingham, WA: From Now on Press.
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Ravitz, J. (2004). Supporting change and scholarship through review of online resources in professional development settings. British Journal of Educational Technology 36(6), 957-74. Retrieved March 5, 2006 from WilsonSelect database.
Richardson, W. (2005). Blog revolution. Technology & Learning 26(3), 48. Retrieved February 26, 2006 from WilsonSelect database.
Sandholtz, J., Ringstaff, C., & Dwyer, D. (1997). Teaching with technology: Creating student-centered classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
Warlick, D. (2005). Podcasting. Technology & Learning 26(2), 70. Retrieved March 2, 2006 from WisonSelect database.