16 May, 2007

Introducing Publish Me! Beta

I am officially announcing the beta release of Publish Me!, my project site developed for IT 578. (I think I just coined a new oxymoron: “officially beta.”)

In this post, I want to document some questions, doubts, and struggles associated with the development of Publish Me!

First of all, a little background about my schizophrenic semester. I enrolled in two challenging courses this spring: IT 521 and IT 578. In IT 521 (computer applications in education) I learned about blogs, open source software, web-based applications, and the concept of “web 2.0,” a term that refers to the Internet's growing capacity for participation, collaboration, and networking. In this class I developed a nascent appreciation for what some educators are calling “classroom 2.0.” Check out this succinct description of classroom 2.o with helpful visuals.

OK, so all of this makes IT 578 (intro to web design for educators) seem pretty conventional. Our assignment for the semester, by no means small, was straightforward enough: develop and create a web-based instructional module (an educational web site) using Dreamweaver software. My idea for a site was based on a desire to improve publishing opportunities for budding student journalists and creative writers at the high school level. Thus, Publish Me! was born.

I have always said from the get-go that my primary objective in starting the master's program in instructional technology was NOT to become an instructional technologist (an end in itself) but to find out how to use the technology to support my classroom practice. How do I integrate technology into instruction in ways that are motivating and relevant for students and, at the same time, teach them to engage more critically and responsibly with all forms of new and electronic media? (That last part is a plug for media literacy, near and dear to my heart.)

I think classroom 2.0 is the answer to my original question. But now I have new questions.

For starters, can Publish Me! stand up to the classroom 2.o standard?

If classroom 2.0 is based on a radical restructuring of information transfer, in which top-down models give way to collaborative and creative exchanges, then Publish Me! leaves a lot to be desired. I mean, even the name connotes passivity. It suggests the "old way" of doing things: the publisher as the authoritative middleman, connecting the writer to the audience. Should I have named the site "I Publish"? Am I overthinking this?

Then, by way of Judy Breck's Golden Swamp blog, I stumbled upon an excellent article about the future of journalism written by Bruno Giussani for the Knight Forum. Following Breck's advice, I read the article looking for implications for educators. It's an enlightening exercise; read the last two paragraphs, as she suggests, and replace all instances of “journalism” with “educator/education.” Here is a portion of the article that may resonate with teachers:
The new power of editors and journalists will depend on their ability to take on new tasks: to animate a group of people; to develop ways to organize how information is gathered and used, with the participation of what used to be called "the audience;" and to help people navigate an information landscape that's increasingly crowded and constantly shifting. If it sounds confusing -- and scary to some in the media -- that’s because it is. Nobody really knows how this emerging immediate, unmediated world will develop.

Throughout the article Giussani emphasizes the transformative nature of web 2.0; those in traditional gatekeeping roles will become nurturers and facilitators instead. I really like this! He uses the term “soft structure,” a perfect description of the teacher's contribution to the classroom 2.0 model.

So, Publish Me! will keep its name. For the moment, the site doesn't promote or employ any of the really powerful and empowering applications – social networking tools like blogs, wikis and so on -- but some day it can! It has the potential for lots of development in these areas.

In the interim, Publish Me! is what it is: a portal, a collection of external links connecting teens to traditional print and electronic publications. Aside from a word processor and Internet connection, the only application you need is email, which hardly ranks as a social networking tool, and if it does, then it has got to be the “granddaddy” of them all.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a teacher told me a few weeks ago (just days before Publish Me! was due to be evaluated) that the county school system prohibits student email use on campus. I am still trying to confirm this claim through the proper channels, but the person I spoke to was adamant and had a story about student trafficking in pornography via email to back up his vehement protest.

Of course, when I spoke to other teachers, I heard plenty of positive examples of instructionally sound email use -- everything from "my students use email to turn in assignments" to "I just helped one of my students register for a Gmail account so she would have an email address to put on her resume." Yet, I can't put a web site out there and ask my fellow teachers to use it if I suspect that it violates school policy. Can I?

When I shared my dilemma with an English teacher who uses technology regularly, she suggested that a student could submit writing to her on disk and she could send it to an online publication using her school-sanctioned email account. In other words, the teacher becomes the conduit of information between the student and the publication. This is certainly an option, but it is decidedly un-2.0.

I never resolved the email question. With the assignment due date looming, I scoured every page of Publish Me!, looking for references to email. The site is now laden with notices to "always ask an adult's permission first," and I come across as a strident prude who doesn't trust teenagers.

I also created a resource section titled “Think before You Post” with links to PSAs produced by the Ad Council in collaboration with the U.S. Justice Department. A few days later, I read a scathing review of these ads at the VirtualPolitik blog. I like the VirtualPolitik blog; it contains numerous, thought-provoking critiques of government-produced media. Now, I felt like a big dope. I thought the PSAs would be a good hook for engaging young people in a conversation about appropriate use. I had not considered the inherent "voyeuristic sexism" of the ads.

Whew! For me, this process represents a perfect example of the chasm between educational theory and practice. I may be working outside the classroom, but I am still seeing the tightrope, if not walking it.

If you have managed to read through all of the above and not be completely turned off, please consider working with me! I need classroom-connected people to help refine Publish Me! and take it for a test drive with students. Any takers?

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