Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's a 5 o'clock world

In the 1960s, the Vogues released “It’s a 5 o’clock World,” a catchy tune that became a big hit. "It’s a 5 o’clock world,” they sing, “when the whistle blows, no one owns a piece of my time.”

The song conjures up images of the 9 to 5 factory worker anxious to reach the end of the day so he can go home to “the long-haired girl who waits, I know, to ease my troubled mind.”

A reflection of its time, right? Well, maybe not so much. Despite huge changes in our society and advanced technology it is still a 5 o’clock world for many of us. You only have to venture out at rush hour to realize people are still living in the 9-5 workday world, all fighting each other to get to work at roughly the same prescribed time and fighting each other to get back home at roughly the same prescribed time.

Yes, some jobs simply require you to be in a certain place at a certain time. If your job is to check people out at the grocery story, attach a door to a car on an assembly line or see patients at the clinic, you pretty much have to be there to get your job done.

But for many 21st century jobs, a dramatic shift is taking place, and technology is driving it. I know many people – myself included – who spend at least part of the day – or a day here a day there - working from home or doing work at the coffee shop or even while on vacation. And, of course, there is no 5 o’clock whistle that protects us from working evenings and weekends. The trade off for this less rigid schedule is that in some ways someone “owns a piece of our time” all hours of the day. But for most of us, that is a fair tradeoff.

More and more jobs are moving away from the clocking-in, clocking-out routine, and schools are beginning to get into the act too.

No more snow days?

At the recent SLATE conference in Wisconsin Dells, Discovery Education’s Hall Davidson raised these very questions: Do student have to be in the school building from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day? Do teachers always have to be in the classroom?

As schools make increasing use of online education resources, students and teachers – just like people in the workforce – can get more of their work done remotely. There are of course virtual schools, but I am talking more about the hybrids – schools that combine face-to-face instruction with online learning. Maybe one day in the classroom and – for students – one day at home completing projects online, with online access to their teachers, who likewise might be at home. Maybe a student would have three classes at school in the morning and two at home in the afternoon.

A snowstorm forecast for the next day? Have the students connect to their teacher from home, Davidson says. Yes, that’s right, no more snow days! And if done right, schools could save a lot of money on transportation. Child care and technology access are issues that would have to be addressed, but there are many ways to work these amended schedules out, and many schools are experimenting with them.

Yes, the school schedule of the 21st century is still pretty much like it was in the 20th century, but ever so slowly change is taking place. In schools, as in the workplace, the clock is ticking on our 5 o’clock world.

Monday, November 22, 2010

ClassTech: Spanish teacher uses technology to make her lessons 'muy interesante'

You might think that someone who has taught for 38 years would know everything they need to know about teaching their subject. But Pardeeville High School Spanish teacher Kathy Casey says she never stops learning new and exciting ways to teach.

Kathy's students don't just work out of a book, they experience Spanish in multiple ways, including through innovative online learning tools with strange names like Yodio and ToonDoo. They interact online with people in Spain, and they share their work through wikis.

Kathy has devoted a lot of her time to learning these new technologies and putting them to work for her students.

She shared some of what she does with me and WEAC Assistant Editor Matthew Call during a recent visit to her computer lab classroom. Embedded below is our first edition of ClassTech, where we examine how educators are using technology to Move Education Forward in Wisconsin public schools.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Will the new Groups feature revolutionize how we use Facebook?

Facebook just did something I had been hoping for years that they would do, and I think it’s going to revolutionize the way we use this incredible tool. They call it Groups, and it allows you to easily share status updates with social circles of selected people. (Yes, it has the same name as an old Facebook feature called Groups, but it differs markedly.)

What does that mean? Well, suppose you just took some awesome pictures of your baby (or grandchild) taking his/her first steps. Of course you want to share it on Facebook, right? But do you really want to share those pictures with that crabby guy in Topeka you met two years ago at a business conference? And does he really want to see them? Probably not. So now you can create a Friend Group of people you know (or at least think) would be interested in those really cute pictures. And stop bothering the crabby guy with your personal status updates.

You can create a Group for your work friends, your immediate family, your extended family, your old high school friends, or even people you “friended” (even though you don’t really like them) just because you didn’t have the nerve to ignore their request. Then, every time you post a new status update, simply select which group or groups you think are worthy to see it. How cool is that?

Facebook says it’s not eliminating Friend Lists, which provided a more complicated way to do pretty much the same thing, but they may as well. Unlike Friend Lists, I predict usage of Groups will become commonplace because it is logical and because the incorporation of dropdown lists to easily select groups associated with certain tasks (such as status updates) will make it more visible and accessible. With Facebook Groups, you can also have chats and send emails just to people in a group you created.

In addition, Facebook Groups help alleviate at least some of the privacy concerns people have about using Facebook. If, for example, you have 800 friends (which, by the way, you really shouldn’t because you can’t possibly know who all those people are), and you tell them all that you are going out with a close friend to The Social Network at a local theater, you never know whether one of them might take advantage of that information for nefarious reasons (such as breaking into your apartment). But you may want to tell five of your close movie-loving friends who you know you can trust. Now you can.

I have already been experimenting with the new Groups feature, and it’s working very well for me. I created a group for my immediate family, so we can share status updates on everything from family vacation pictures to my daughter’s latest activities at college. Of course, the college activities she shares with me may be very different than the ones she shares with her friends, but believe me I am OK with that. And, with Groups, my children won't have to see the work-related “junk” (as they see it) I might post. I can limit that “junk” to an entirely different group of people.

So have you tried the new Facebook Groups yet? What do you think?

Monday, July 5, 2010

A digital camera, a little know-how and a lot of luck

I recently returned from a once-in-a-lifetime Mediterranean cruise with stops in Spain, France, Monaco and Italy. It was a photo-hobbyist's dream, and I took all the obligatory vacation photos, including the one where my wife appears to be pushing the Leaning Tower of Pisa back up where it should be. Of course, the photos are great - especially the ones from the towering hills overlooking Monaco - but you probably wouldn't expect any of them to win a photography award.

But then again maybe, just maybe, I am wrong about that. After all, if you were to combine location, opportunity, composition, timing and a very smart digital camera, you might get that exceptional photograph that actually stands a chance at winning an award. In fact, I believe that is exactly what happened to me.

I wanted to make sure I had a high-quality, reliable, easy-to-carry camera for our trip so before we left I did a little research and ended up buying a Sony Lumix DMC-ZS6. I consider myself a semi-professional photographer, having been the chief staff photographer by my organization for the last 20-plus years, although that admittedly entails only a part of my job and I have very little professional photography training. Anyway, I picked this camera because it got great reviews for travel photography.

On the third day of our cruise, we stopped at Naples and my wife and I signed up for an excursion that included the beautiful cliffside city of Sorrento overlooking the Mediterranean. My wife loves shopping, so we ended up in a tourist-oriented shopping district in the center of town. While she was examining the leather purses, wallets and belts, I wandered a little on my own. I quickly spotted a beautiful historic-looking church-like building, with inviting open doors and decided to explore.

I took about three steps into the Sedil Dominova, which houses the Societa Operaia du Mutuo Soccorso - the Worker's Mutual Aid Society - and immediately held up my camera and snapped a picture. One shot. That's all I took. Here I had a digital camera with hundreds of free shots available, and I took one single shot. Automatic settings. I was in the building for probably less than a minute. I liked what I saw and I knew this had the potential to be a special picture, but for some reason I only snapped one picture. I walked back onto the busy shopping promenade and went back to taking standard tourist shots.

Later than night, back on the ship, I downloaded the day's photos to my Mac. When I got to the Sedil Dominova picture, I was taken aback. The photo I shot in this storied community building was like a piece of fine art. Seven middle-aged Italian men sitting around tables engaged in conversation and a card game. The room was piece of art in itself - slightly faded but stunning 18th century frescoes - wall paintings - of pillars, mantles and even babies with wings reflecting the character of this historic and artistically rich country. Set amid that backdrop - with perfectly even lighting - the men in the foreground almost appear to timelessly meld into history. A well-prepared professional photographer with the best equipment and lighting could have spent hours in this room trying to capture this moment and never have achieved it. All I had was a small - but very advanced - digital camera and a little luck.

Yes, I give myself some credit for looking beyond the surface for a better picture, for spotting the photograph in front of me, and quickly identifying a unique angle. But this is a picture that owes a lot to the incredible technology of digital photography. The camera made all the tough technical decisions for me, allowing me to act quickly and capture the moment.

The composition, the light, the background, the colors, and even the gestures and expressions on the men’s faces capture a moment that simply could not be planned or artificially created.

One moment in time. A real moment. A genuine reflection of a place and a group of people who represent a generation, a history and a culture.

I don’t know whether I will ever actually enter this photograph in a contest. But to me, it is an award-winner because – more than any of the 300-plus photos I took on this trip – it provides a genuine, deep insight into this fascinating country that I was so fortunate to visit.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How big is the Gulf oil spill?

Thanks to a very easy-to-use website by Andy Lintner, anyone can relate to the size of the horrible Gulf oil spill. Just go to and you will see just how large the spill is as it is superimposed over your home town. I live near Madison, Wisconsin, and the spill – as you can see below – runs from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to north of Green Bay. And I can tell you it has increased significantly just in the last couple of days.

This is a great example of how web technology can be used to both inform and depress.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Funnel clouds rip through old media

Where the old media failed residents of Sun Prairie Wisconsin on Saturday, the new media took over.

At about 2 p.m., funnel clouds started dipping down from the clouds above Sun Prairie. Everyone who wasn’t looking skyward was surprised when local authorities, responding to reports from citizens and law enforcement officials, sounded the tornado warning sirens. Yes, it was raining, but neither the National Weather Service nor any of our Super Storm Radar, Weather Tracking, Doppler fanatics at the local TV stations had predicted any severe storms. There were no warnings or watches whatsoever.

Not knowing why the tornado sirens were going off, I quickly clicked on the TV and shot through all the local channels looking for any sign of a weather update. Nothing.

Then, the text messages, photos and videos started coming into my wife’s cell phone. One of her friends was pumping gas when she looked up and saw a funnel cloud. She immediately snapped a picture, shot a little video and sent it out to her friends.

Yes, thanks to personal mobile technology, we knew about – and saw video of – the funnel clouds before TV ever acknowledged that they existed. That was quite surprising considering all the times our TV screen has been cluttered with storm maps and warnings of tornadoes that never materialize.

Fortunately, Saturday’s funnel clouds did no damage on the ground. But they did do a lot of damage to the reliability and reputation of the National Weather Service and the old media local TV weather stars who are constantly portraying themselves as our weather warning saviors.

Well, at least we saw some good coverage of the funnel clouds – but, again, not from the reporting professionals wielding their fancy equipment and expertise, but from our local citizen journalists wielding nothing but their smart phones.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Telling teachers how much they are appreciated

Before Dwayne’s daughter met Wisconsin Rapids teacher Stefanie Tryba, she was struggling.

She is deaf and has MD. She was in a wheelchair, and Dwayne says he feared she was heading down a path that would lead to "a lonely life devoid of friends, and peers.”

Then Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School teacher Stefanie Tryba came into her life. I could not tell the rest of the story any better than Dwayne did this week on

"Since her time with Stefanie, she has abandoned her wheelchair, and while difficult, walks everywhere she can. My daughter has also developed friendships with other students, and can now not only express her needs, but can communicate her thoughts. She has also, with Stefanie's help, completed courses at Mid State tech, with the goal of obtaining her day care license. She recently won an academic award due to Stefanie's care. We had once figured our daughter would be wheelchair bound by the age 21, due to her health issues. We figured she would lead a lonely life devoid of friends, and peers. Everything we had once thought, or 'had figured out' about her, was thrown out the window by Stefanie. We, and our daughter, are eternally grateful.”

When we make the observation, as we frequently do, that teachers make a difference in people’s lives, there is no exaggeration or hyperbole. Stefanie Tryba is a great example, and there are countless more out there. The people who have honored their favorite teachers on prove that. This special website was set up to help celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, May 2-8, and the response has been phenomenal!

Here are just a few other samples of comments:

  • "Just because of my teachers at Marinette Middle School, I love to wake up in the morning and actually be excited to go to school."

  • "Mrs. Marx pushes us to new, higher levels only because she believes we can reach them."

  • "Mrs. Ebersold is kind and wonderful to the children and supportive of the parents. We are so fortunate to have an educator like her!"

  • "Mrs. Mayer is the best teacher because she is loving, caring, and really takes the time to get to know her students and their parents."

  • "I am an OB/Gyn physician and am on clinical faculty at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health here in Madison. I still keep in touch with friends from my high school in Door County and we all agree that TONY KISZONAS is the best teacher ever! "

  • "Mr. Jennerjohn speaks to his classes in a way that makes you wish his period was three hours long."
There is still plenty of time to honor your favorite teacher during Teacher Appreciation Week by telling us about your favorite teacher or education support professional on And we will keep the website up and running even after the week is done, because any week is a great week to say thank you to someone who has made a real difference in your life or the life of someone you love.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Installing software on your computer? Soooo 90’s!

Remember the days when you used to load software on your computer? Pretty much everything you wanted to do on the computer required you to purchase software, either online or at a store, and then install it: email, photo editing, writing, designing, page layout, spreadsheets, creating forms or website development? Boy, have things changed!

I thought about this last week as I created a form for our website. It never even occurred to me to purchase software. I simply went to an online provider of forms (this is not an ad or necessarily a recommendation but the one I used is called and whipped the form together. It was actually very cool and very easy. I could simply drag and drop text fields onto a page and then write whatever question or statements I wanted. I embedded the code on my website, and now the application gathers all the information and creates reports that can be organized and reported in many different ways, even displayed back on my website using an embed code. No software, no installation, no registration key, no worry about using up disk space, no long-term investment or obligation.

Of course, this is just one example of a change that has been revolutionizing computing – what is often referred to as cloud computing. Instead of loading software onto your computer, you use software and servers accessed across the internet. Often, the provider will allow you to use a limited version of its application for free, with embedded advertising. You can pay to get rid of the ads and to access a higher level of service.

Instead of installing Outlook on their computer, people just use gmail or yahoo mail or any of dozens of other email services. Instead of installing Photoshop, they can use online photo editing software provided by many companies, including Walgreen’s and Kodak. Instead of installing Dreamweaver, they can use Wix or WordPress or Blogger to create websites or blogs.

Lately I have been using Ning and Groupsite to create social networking sites without loading any software. For my personal computing, I used to use Quicken to manage my checking account; now I just use my bank’s online services. Even TurboTax is now available online with no need for software.

A fully functional high-end computer without software? I’m not quite there yet, but I am very close. Premiere, InDesign, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Photoshop may be my last big hold-outs, but I really believe their forecast – at least as software products individually installed on personal computers – is cloudy with a good chance of extinction.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Blending art, activism and social media

We all know that activism and social media produce a powerful combination, whether it involves politics, the environment or any of a thousand other issues. And we know we can find many forms of art throughout the social media sphere, from photography to videos to poetry. But it is when art, activism and social media are all skillfully molded into a single force that social media reaches its pinnacle, not only educating and motivating an audience, but inspiring it as well.

Milwaukee poet and educator Ryan Hurley proves this point with a moving new YouTube video that not only displays his varied artistic talents – including poetry, photography and video production – but serves as a rallying call on behalf of the arts themselves.

Using art to promote art is the power behind this video. Moved by the dedication of Milwaukee students who are weary of seeing art fade from their schools’ curriculum, he and colleague Eric Mire document how these students take to the streets – both as artists and as activists – to fight to keep the arts alive.


(In the interest of disclosure, Ryan Hurley is my very talented son.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Where are the flying cars?

For all the incredibly fast changes in technology in our lives, some things just don’t change at all.

Take the toilet, for example. Still pretty much exactly as it was 50 years ago.

Cars are starting to change, with hybrids and such, and the engines are more efficient and reliable but the basic gas-reliant technology is pretty much the same as it has always been for the vast majority of car owners. I think about that every time I pull up to the gas pump. And what ever happened to the Jetsons’ flying car?

The TV has changed a lot, with color in the 50s and 60s and now HD and DVRs and cable channels and flat screens, etc., but AM radio hasn’t changed a bit. You can still get faraway stations at night if the climate conditions are just right, and if you drive under power lines you still lose your signal. And our local public radio station, which broadcasts only 15 miles from my house, gets all crackly as soon as the sun goes down. Can’t they fix that?

Anyway, with all the focus we always put on our changing technology, I thought it might be fun to think about the technology in our lives that doesn’t seem to change much at all. What else can you think of?

Monday, April 5, 2010

So much technology, so little time

On the day that Apple released its iPad, I was not standing in line to get it.

On the day that Apple released its iPad, our family was celebrating my daughter’s 22nd birthday. We were sitting around the living room as she opened up her present: a new Motorola Droid, an incredible phone that rivals if not surpasses the iPhone in the Wow Factor. When we bought it for her we knew it had some amazing features, but we didn’t know it has a voice recognition browser. Tell the phone what you want, it automatically Googles it for you. It has a built-in GPS and, of course, an MP3 player that syncs with Windows Media, which syncs with iTunes.

We sat around the living room. I had my MacBook Pro and was looking up directions for tethering her new phone to her PC. My 26-year-old son was working on a YouTube video he is creating on his MacBook. My wife had her Mac and, just for fun, was Googling my 90-year-old mother’s name as my mother sat next to her to see what would come up. My sister had her iTouch out and was hooking it up to the Wi-Fi in the house. We all had cell phones with us, including my mother.

So, here we were, six of us of all ages sitting in our living room. Among the six of us, three of us were on our computers, all of us had cell or smart phones (including one iPhone, one Blackberry and one Droid), and we had one iTouch and an iPod in the room, although our background music was coming from the cable box hooked into the stereo system.

It was the day before Easter, and we had rented a movie to play on our Blu-Ray player but we never got around to playing it. We have two HD TVs but never got around to watching them. And the Wii we got a month or so ago was not even turned on, despite the fact we had a cool new Resort game we wanted to play.

On this day that the iPad was released, we clearly already had far more technology to use – and play with – than we had time for. And that’s not to mention the time we spent just talking among ourselves over Easter brunch and playing a highly non-tech bean bag toss game in the backyard.

Sure, the iPad is very cool, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point I will purchase one, mainly for newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and maybe even some books. But on the day the iPad was released, my only thought was – how on Google Earth will I find time to work another tech toy into my life?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Newspaper Nostalgia vs. Social Media Mania

In his book, Late Edition: A Love Story, famed Chicago journalist Bob Greene laments the decline of newspapers and the outright death of so many of them. As a longtime reporter and editor for several newspapers, including the now defunct Milwaukee Sentinel, I directly relate to his tales of quirky newsroom characters at the old Columbus Citizen-Journal, and how he developed a deep affection for the days of "extra, extra" and newsprint-stained hands.

Greene has a touching way of reliving the days when reporters would yell "copyboy" to him as a newspaper intern when they needed him to take their hard copy (typed on paper) to the linotype operators or walk a couple blocks to get them coffee and a sandwich. When he mentioned that the guys who operated the presses would fold newspapers into hats, I couldn't help thinking, "Really? They did that at the Citizen-Journal too!?"

And he - like me - was in absolute awe at the mere idea that he would walk into a newsroom for a day's work knowing that the next edition of the paper was a clean slate and that the work he and colleagues did that day in the newsroom would become the next morning's newspaper that would start the day for thousands of people in his city. As you read his book, you can just feel his genuine love of newspapers; Greene has newsprint coursing through his blood.

To Greene, the guys at the Citizen-Journal, where he began his newspaper career, like mid-size newspaper reporters and editors throughout the country, were just regular people doing a days' work and loving it. And he deeply respected them for their expertise, hard work and dedication.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he projects what these grizzled journalists would have thought if someone told them that someday any old Joe could write a story, or a column of rambling thoughts, and send it out directly and immediately to potentially millions of people using something called a blog. "I think reporters, hearing that, would have deemed the proposition so loony, they would have done pirouettes - they would have placed their fingertips on the tops of their heads and twirled around on their toes like ballerinas. It just would have struck them as deranged - to think that a reporter (not to mention anyone else who owned a computer) would have the ability to reach the world, and without having to wait for an editor's approval, or for the presses to roll."

There absolutely is a sadness to watching this bedrock of American democracy and society - the newspaper industry - wither away like a crumbling sheet of newsprint that's been exposed to the searing sun for days on end. And the thought that we have fewer and fewer highly trained, experienced reporters and editors covering, and uncovering, the news and sorting fact from fiction and putting news in proper perspective is disturbing and worrisome.

But, frankly, it's not all doom and gloom. It's a new era. It's a new world. The newspaper industry has had a great run. But today we have so much more. As fascinating as the concept of a daily newspaper once was, it pales in comparison to the depth, the speed and the reach of the Internet. We have millions of Web sites and blogs and social networking sites. News - from a war breaking out to grandma getting her hair done - has never spread faster, and we have far more choices than anyone could ever have imagined. As someone who - like Bob Greene - has always been in awe of newspapers, I am a thousand times more fascinated by new media. It's more convenient, more extensive, more useful, more interesting, and more exciting.

Yes, we have to be more careful about what we believe and don't believe when we get our news from sometimes dubious online "reporters." We have to take the source of our news into account. But having to be on our guard is a small price to pay for what we get in return.

When I started at the Milwaukee Sentinel in the late 1970s, I remember when bells would ring on the AP wire machine as important news came streaming into the newsroom. I would always walk over to see what the big, breaking news was. I loved knowing I was one of the very few people in the country at that moment to know about this news. Most people would have to wait for the next morning when the paper would arrive on their doorstep.

Now, I get an automatic text alert when breaking news occurs. I'm no longer one of just a few who get the news first. I am one of millions, but that's OK. Even though I no longer work in a newspaper newsroom, I have never had more access to the news than I do today. And I love it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Adding a kick to YouTube

Have you ever wanted to download a YouTube video? Of course you have. Who hasn't? But, when you tried, you probably discovered it's just not as easy as you thought it would be.

Although you can usually count on the brainiacs at Google (which owns YouTube) to turn such a task into a breeze, in this case they simply don't, or won't. (I imagine they have their reasons, although it seems hypocritical to me that the world's biggest advocates of online sharing of information - and the world's biggest privacy disregarders - have concerns about protecting - of all things - YouTube videos.) Yes, there are several third-party tools to help you get-r-done, but I have yet to find one as convenient and straightforward as KickYouTube.

No software to download, no URL to remember or bookmark, no pop-up ads, no annoying icon blinking away on the top of your menu bar. This is work-around at its best. And all you have to do is remember one word: Kick.

Here's what you do:
  • Go to YouTube.
  • Open the page with the video you want to download.
  • Add the word Kick in front of YouTube in the URL (so, for example, it reads
  • Hit enter, and that gives you a new KickYouTube frame around the video (like the picture below).
  • Select the type of file you want to create (options include AVI, MP4, HD and iPhone).
  • Click the green Go button to the right, which changes to Down (I know, this is a little weird).
  • Right click on the Down button and click "save target as ..." or "save link as ..."
  • Give it a name and save it on your hard drive or external drive.
  • Share and play.

It's a great way for anyone to save these videos, but it can be especially useful to teachers who maybe want to show an educational YouTube video (seriously, not all YouTube videos are sleazy and the weird - just, it seems, the most popular ones). Often, teachers can't access YouTube from their school computers. But with this tool they can download the video at home, save it to a jump drive and take it to school where they can do something that budget cuts and administrative roadblocks often prevent them from doing - use technology to help educate the masses.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

This is not your father's classroom

I really didn’t expect to see this at the conference of educators I attended over the weekend – about 25 participants gathering in a darkened meeting room … dissecting a frog.

But this wasn’t the kind of sometimes-disturbing frog dissection I remember from middle school. No, this time there was absolutely no mess. In fact, there was no frog.

This very clean, very humane, very un-queasy dissection took place on a Smartboard, the leading brand of interactive whiteboards that are replacing chalkboards in classrooms throughout America (other brands include the Promethean ActivBoard, Luidia’s eBeam, Mimio, and PolyVision). Using a whiteboard, a computer and a projector, this class of teachers sliced and diced the virtual frog wide open, revealing the amphibian’s anatomy as well as one of the many awe-inspiring features of this new marvel of classroom technology.

Trainer Naomi Harm demonstrated the SmartBoard, and the participants were as captivated as, well, a pinned down frog.

For me, this was nothing short of amazing. I caught myself with my jaw hanging slightly open, like a kid watching a puppet show. I am somewhat of a tech gadget geek, and I work for an education association, so it surprises even me that I have never before seen a SmartBoard in action. I have heard and seen enough about them to instinctively know they are cool and useful but I had no idea about the incredible extent of their abilities to enhance learning, raise student interest, help teachers manage their curriculum - and their students – and make education so much more insightful and fun.

And while I knew they were becoming increasingly common in classrooms, I didn’t realize the extent to which they are permeating schools until Naomi told me that 74% to 88% of classrooms in her area at least have access to one. (In many cases, that means more than one classroom share an interactive whiteboard on wheels.)

I don’t have space here to go into all the things a Whiteboard can do – and I couldn’t possibly do it justice anyway – but you can get an idea by watching this YouTube video.

One thing I learned that I didn’t know before is that the image on the whiteboard is projected from a regular old computer or laptop equipped with special software. I guess I thought the whiteboard had a computer inside of it. Not the one I saw Naomi demonstrate. Another cool application of an interactive whiteboard, I learned, is that the teacher can record a lesson so students can review it later – maybe because they were absent, either physically or mentally.

According to Naomi and some of the teachers I talked with, many of the interactive white boards in use were purchased with grant money, including recent federal “stimulus funds.” Others were bought with targeted money included in school district referendums. But, of course, many school districts don’t win the grants and just can’t afford them.

As you can imagine, the things are not cheap, although they are not quite as much as I thought they might be. Naomi gave me some general figures which I calculate as suggesting you can get an entire package – the board, cart (wheels), computer, and projector – for around $3,000. But we all know that school district budgets are going the other direction. And whiteboards, unlike the old fashioned chalk boards, require a lot of professional development in addition to the hardware and software. Yes, the software accomplishes amazing things, but that means that teachers have a lot to learn about it to make good use of it. And, as with any software, the training is ongoing. And, as with any technology, I suspect there are ongoing maintenance issues and costs.

So that all leads to this growing dilemma: If classrooms are going to teach students in ways they can best understand, and in ways that they find interesting, and in ways that will truly prepare them for our technology-dominated world, they are going to have to keep up with technology, and interactive whiteboards are in many ways the epitome of that technology in the classroom. Yet, the demand is growing for this expansive – and expensive - technology at a time when schools can least afford it.

How is this all going to play out? Educators, students and parents are anxious to find out. And so are a lot of very nervous frogs.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The magic of hashtags

If you still think Twitter is just a nonsensical collection of people’s inane ramblings about trivia … well you just might be right. There certainly is that side to Twitter. But if you want to see the other side … if you want to turn this 140-character chaotic community center from an annoying prattle of drivel into a social and educational goldmine, I have just the tip for you to get started - hashtags.

Yes, hashtags will revolutionize your Twitter experience. And they are as easy to use as a keyboard. Anyone can add a hashtag (such as #reading) to any Tweet. On the day I am writing this, the most popular hashtag is #amitheonlyone, as in Am I the only one? A quick look produces this … amitheonlyone:

  • Who thinks they should legalize marijuana?

  • That is not obsessed with Justin Bieber?

  • Who randomly gets extremely irritated over nothing?

  • Has been on a blind date with something they already met?

OK, yes, this particular hashtag produces more drivel, but at least you get the idea how it works. The amitheonlyone hashtag is so popular right now it is hard to keep up with the flow of Tweets. (#justinbieber, by the way, is another very popular hashtag. If you’re like me and didn’t know who this teen pop star is, you can find out all about him on Wikipedia.)

This word cloud from shows the top 50 Twitter hashtags and search words of all time.

Now here’s the thing … hashtagging isn’t all just silly fun and games. The hashtag organizes and targets conversations to subjects – and people – that matter to you.You can tag your own Tweet simply by adding a hashtag to it – such as #education (I work with educators). Then you can click on a #education hashtag from any Tweet or do a search within Twitter for that hashtag. That will bring up all the Tweets that contain that particular hashtag. Wella. You just became part of a targeted conversation. Want to talk about social studies? Yes, you can talk about it with others interested in the same topic by hashtagging #socialstudies. Algebra? Yes, there is an active #algebra hashtag. Heck there’s even a hashtag for people who want to talk about #hashtags. Or you can start your own hashtag.

Last week, I “attended” the Ragan Social Media Conference in Atlanta via Webcast and joined in many conversations by using the hashtag #ragancoke (the conference was at the Coca-Cola headquarters). Over the weekend, I kept up to date with breaking news – and joined in spurts of conversation – by using hashtags #tsunami, #hitsunami, #hawaiitsunami, #chile and #chileearthquake. People from all over the world were sharing their thoughts – and news – about these breaking events on Twitter. At times, as I observed, Twitter was spitting out more than a dozen Tweets per second on #hitsunami. keeps track of hashtag trends. This chart shows the huge volume of activity on Saturday for #chile.

Now, what interests you? Go to Twitter and create or search for a hashtag of your own making. Hash it out, and have some fun!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tsunami generates huge wave of social media activity

Thankfully, Saturday’s great Hawaiian tsunami scare turned out to be little more than a splash of excitement. But the online wave of activity leading up to the 11 a.m. (Hawaiian time) anti-climax left news hounds and social media aficionados awash with options for staying informed. You could monitor the tsunami build-up through the eyes of experts (the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center) or through the 140-word thought-spurts of sometimes-insightful, sometimes-lame keyboard observers (Twitter hashtags #tsunami, #hitsunami or #hawaiitsunami), or through streaming video of media outlets in affected areas.

On real TV, I was toggling between CNN and MSNBC (no Fox for me) and had a tab open to two online Hawaiian media outlets., apparently a joint venture of the local CBS and NBC affiliate (anyone know how that works?), had, by far, the best coverage of what was happening in Hawaii, including a live shot of Hilo Bay, with expert analysis, as the waters receded and filled back in several times over. CNN had the best analysis of how the waves were spreading from Chile across the Pacific (although the CNN host bordered on obnoxious).

Overall, the extensive media and social media build-up almost led me to expect I would see a huge wave form and wipe out buildings along Waikiki Beach. Although the small wave action was a letdown from a strictly news-hound point of view, I was certainly glad to see the event resolve itself without any damage or injuries.

Two of the best social media comments I read online were from the same person (who I do not know), Erick Straghalis, on Mashable:
  • “There have been these events for centuries... we're so connected that we hear about everything instantly. It feels like things are getting worse, but really, it's the constant availability and instant technology that gives us so much information! 20 years ago, we would have heard about this briefly on the evening news -- a side note to the Olympics.”
  • “Have family and friends in Hawaii, Chile and Central America -- it's been great to get information straight from the source, streaming, twitter, facebook, etc... instead of waiting for CNN to pick up feeds or general information. I can hone in on the information that's important to me, not just what CNN picks and chooses.”
A few other quick thoughts about the role of social media on Saturday:
  • Mashable came through again, putting together a great package of streaming video, Twitter feeds and other live online coverage of the tsunami scare.
  • As the event unfolded, I discovered through Facebook that two of my friends were vacationing in Hawaii. One was keeping us informed of what she could see from the 15th floor of a hotel on Waikiki. I was very happy to hear that she, like everyone in Hawaii, was safe.
  • It’s now time to turn our attention to Saturday’s real tragedy, and organize to help the victims of the tragic Chilean earthquake. Mashable already has come through again with a comprehensive page on How to Donate to Chile Earthquake Relief Online, including options for texting donations.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Ragan webcast: My window into distance learning

So there I was, sitting at home with my laptop computer, watching Social Media guru Brian Solis live from the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta talking about the future of social media. And I wasn’t just watching and listening, I was engaging in conversation with dozens of people through Twitter, discussing his presentation as he delivered it – and making new connections. It was my first complete “distance learning” experience, and it was awesome.

The Ragan Communications 3rd Annual Social Media for Communicators Conference was held Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in Atlanta. It included three tracks, with nearly 30 speeches, discussions and workshops. For the cost of just the conference fee (no travel, no hotel, no meals), I was able to watch every Track 1 workshop live. And Ragan is going to send me a DVD of all three tracks within a couple weeks, so the learning continues. (I participated in the live conference from home rather than the office to avoid all the distractions – phones calls, walk-ins, “crises” – of office work.)

Yes, attending a conference in person has its advantages. You meet people face-to-face, you connect, interact and network in a very personal manner. But this is the age of social media, and I found a way to do that, to at least some extent, without being there. The conference employed the Twitter hashtag #ragancoke, which allowed all of us Twitter users to develop a live online community where we could communicate our thoughts and reactions to what we were seeing and hearing. Not only did I enjoy reading the Tweets from others who were in the audience and participating from home, like me, I “followed” everyone who Tweeted a comment that interested me. As a result, I now have developed more than 40 new ongoing Twitter connections – people interested in the same topics as me … people who have expertise in the area of social media and regularly share information with me, educate me and stimulate me to keep learning and adapting. As a result of these quality connections, I learn something new – or find a link to valuable information – every time I check in on my Twitter page.

Of course, distance learning is not new, but it is moving rapidly into the mainstream. Every school and institution of higher education is at least toying with the use of distance learning, and many have developed extensive distance learning programs.

Attending this conference online, I found great value in distance learning. Yet, I recognize that being a professional attending a conference through a webcast is very different than being a student attending a public school class.

Many of you have had extensive experience with distance learning, both as providers and consumers. What do you think? To what extent will schools be employing distance learning 10 years from now? What will our public schools look like? What are the advantages and opportunities, and what do we need to watch out for?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Throwing out the AP Stylebook (style book?)

I have to confess. The AP Stylebook is longer my bible. Or should that be Bible? I don't know because I didn't bother to look it up in the AP Stylebook. I didn't look it up because, frankly, I don't care that much. And neither does anyone who is reading this. So it's really not worth the time.

Up until today, I was afraid to admit that I have become an AP style slacker. I am a graduate of a major university journalism school. I have been a reporter and editor my whole life. I spent three years working on the copy desk of a major city newspaper for god's sake. (Or is that God's sake?) The intricacies of the AP stylebook were engrained (ingrained?) in me. When I worked for a daily newspaper, if I didn't memorize every single entry, you can be darned sure that I looked up anything and everything I had a question about. (Yes, I just wrote "anything and everything" even though the Stylebook (stylebook?) (style book?) would probably tell me that is redundant. And I just put a couple sentences in parentheses with parentheses inside of parentheses.)

Oh, for the most part I probably do still use AP style most of the time just out of habit and because a lot of it makes perfect sense. And good grammar is still very important. I am not yet using text message abbreviations. Even tho U probably R.

But if I'm not sure of a sticky style issue, something that could easily work either way, I usually just wing it rather than blowing the dust off the stylebook or tracking down the Web site and checking it out. Sometimes I even intentionally spite the AP style just because I want to. I refer to my self as Bill Hurley, Editor and Social Media Strategist, with an upper case E, S, M and S even through the titles appear after - not before - my name. Gasp! And I usually now abbreviate my beloved state as WI instead of Wis., like everyone else, including the US Postal Service (or is U.S. Postal Service?). Does 25 minus 22 equal 3 or does it equal three? I still don't know, and really who cares? As long as it is one or the other and not 2. Or two.

Should I put the period before or behind the quotation marks at the end of sentence? I don't know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the sentence. And how I feel at the moment. And, yes, I know those were not complete sentences and that the last two sentences start with And. Not to mention that the last sentence ended with And and I probably should have put quotation marks around it. Or should I have? I really don't know. But does it matter either way? You know what I'm saying either way, right?

Anyway, earlier today I "attended" a webinar (Webnar?) of a Ragan Communications Social Media Conference from Atlanta, when social media guru (Guru?) (expert?) (Expert?) Brian Solis said it right out loud in front of a whole lot of people - PR people nonetheless: "I threw away my AP Stylebook years ago because nobody speaks that way." You literally could hear gasps from the audience. But he was right ... the AP stylebook is becoming - or has become - somewhat of a dinosaur.

When you work for a newspaper (and fewer and fewer people do), I guess it still makes sense to use the AP style. It's always been accepted that consistency is important. And for a newspaper it is, sort of. But as more and more people scan across the Internet (internet?) (web?) (Web?) and multitudes of social media (Social Media?) sites, there is no consistency. And there never will be. So why spend lots of time agonizing over consistent style minutia on your blog when everyone else is doing something else and it really doesn't matter anyway whether AP wants me to finish this sentence with one of these: a colon, a dash or a hyphen.

Thank you, Brian Solis, for lessening my guilt. Because of you, I am now able to admit it too: I am and Editor and Social Media Strategist from Madison WI who is an AP style slacker.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The changing face of Web habits - and Web analytics

At, we are constantly checking our Web analytics to find out what it is our members like best and to get direction on which areas we should emphasize in our work. We know for example, that they really like our Member Benefits resources, the WEAC Savers' Club, our continuously updated news headlines, and the Educator's Bulletin Board. We also know how many people visit the Web site overall, and we monitor both micro and macro trends in these numbers.

But now, as Web sites such as reach out to share information in more ways and find innovative avenues for generating participation, it becomes an increasingly interesting exercise to measure success. It used to be we would just look at our Web analytics. More unique visitors, more page views, more "hits" on our Web site was interpreted as success in reaching our audiences.

While we definitely want to keep increasing those numbers, they simply don't mean as much as they used to. Today, we don't just attempt to drive people to our Web site; we seek to engage them in conversation and we try to meet them where you are in the online world. It is feasible in that environment that fewer unique visitors, fewer page views, and fewer "hits" on a Web site is not such a bad thing at all. Maybe it means we have just found new and better ways to reach and engage people - and that people have found better ways to stay informed and involved.

Right now, our numbers on are strong, and we would like to see them continue to grow. But, like other successful Web sites, we have moved outside the borders of our core Web site to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Groupsite and other external Web tools. We have added email alerts and RSS feeds, and still use our weekly e-newsletter - WEAC Direct - to extend the reach of our online resources. You might say we're making it easy for people not to come

People no longer have to type into their browser to get the information and services we offer or to participate in online conversations. We have to consider how many Facebook "fans" we have, and how many of those fans respond to and participate in conversations on our Facebook page. We also must examine the quality of those conversations. The same is true for all our other "external" Social Media tools. How many people are watching our YouTube videos or looking at our Flickr pictures? These are important measurements as well.

Today, people can stay in touch through our email alerts. They can subscribe to the WEAC News Feed, the Daily News Blog or any of eight other email alerts targeted to specific audiences. Once they sign up, we would like them to continue to come to for more information and services, but in a lot of cases they probably won't. They'll get what they can from the email alerts, and stay informed and in touch that way. They won't show up on our Web stats that day, but we're very happy that they are staying connected in other ways.

We also know that every year people have many more quality Web sites and Social Media tools to visit and use, from to to and literally hundreds of thousands of other options. So we know that for us to maintain and increase the number of visitors to our site takes more work: promotion, organizing of members, and - primarily - continued development of quality, useful content and targeted social networking opportunities that serve each of our niche membership categories.

Friday, February 19, 2010

More broadband in rural areas

It's no secret that the Internet is less accessible in rural areas. Even as the use of Web sites and social media become an almost integral part of daily life for many of us, simple geography is throwing up barriers for many others. Some of my friends and colleagues in sparsely populated parts of northern Wisconsin tell me they pretty much have to access the Internet from their workplace, which severely limits their ability to use Web services and social media tools. In addition, students in schools where Internet access is limited are at a distinct disadvantage, as they prepare for the workplace or college and life beyond in a social media world.

Good news. Two stories that caught my eye this week tell us that help is on the way.

First, the governor's office and the Department of Public Instruction announced that Wisconsin won a $22.9 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act competitive grant ("stimulus money") to expand broadband technology, primarily in rural areas. The state is chipping in an additional $5.7 million.

State Superintendent Tony Evers said the money "will bring fiber optic connectivity to schools and libraries in rural areas that do not have this vital Internet service, which has almost unlimited capacity to carry Web-based services and other applications." It will provide high-speed Internet access to 74 school districts; eight postsecondary institutions, including two tribal colleges; and 385 public libraries; connecting them to the BadgerNet Converged Network.

"Bringing fiber to these sites in predominantly rural areas also will create the opportunity for affordable broadband access to residential and business customers in the entire community," he said.

Is your school or community included? Find out here.

If you are interested in more details, there are plenty of them on this DPI Web site.

The other related story comes from the New York Times, which tells us how school officials in sprawling Vail, Colorado, mounted a mobile Internet router to a school bus, enabling students to surf the Web on the way to and from school. "Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared," the story claims.

Mostly, the students use the Web to help them with homework, but not always. Vail’s superintendent, Calvin Baker, says he knew from the start that some students would play computer games. “That’s a whole lot better than having them bugging each other,” he said.

No mention of whether the district limits access to certain Internet sites. But I suspect they do. That's a topic for another day.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Poetry in Motion

I really ought to do this more often.

Recently, I spent a couple hours with Sarah Rose Thomas and her students at Coleman (Wisconsin) High School, about 40 miles north of Green Bay, and it was one of those afternoons that reminds me so much why I love working with educators and students.

Sarah’s classroom was filled with students who want to learn and a teacher uniquely skilled to teach them the subject matter that she so loves: poetry. At one point, preparing to read a poem to her students, she confessed that she cried the last time she read it. It’s personal, and it’s powerful.

The students, too, talked about how poems – those they read as well as those they write – sometime deeply affect them, including a student who turned to poetry after her grandfather passed away.

I was so glad I brought along my handheld digital video camera, as Sarah and her students were more than willing to talk about a subject that means so much to them: their love of poetry. And I am so glad that today we are able to readily tell these stories in online video that can be watched by people anywhere any time.

Videos such as this provide a visual glimpse into what happens thousands of times over in public school classrooms throughout our state, and does it in a way that people can see … and feel … and experience.

Incredible teachers like Sarah are connecting with students and making huge impacts on their lives. Students are giving back to the teacher and to each other, as these classrooms become communities of learning, sharing and growing. See for yourself: