Category Archives: Communication

• Communicating effectively with a variety of styles, modes, and tools (including digital tools)
• Communication is tailored for a range of audiences

Different Approaches To Using Student Blogs And Digital Portfolios

More and more educators are discovering the importance of having their students build some form of digital presence. Blogging is an excellent way for students to create their own online space, but what do you call this?

  • Simply a student blog?
  • Digital portfolio?
  • ePortfolio?
  • Learning showcase?
  • Blogfolio?

When I first started teaching in 2004, each of my grade one/two students had a scrapbook where they would paste their work samples each term. The goals of this process were: documentation, reflection, assessment and sharing with parents.

Often the same goals apply to the online equivalent of this scrapbook. But if we aren’t doing things any differently than 10-15 years ago, why are we bothering with student blogs? Why aren’t we still cutting and pasting in a scrapbook?

When blogs are used as more than substitution, they offer many advantages.

  • Research tells us that student work is of a higher quality when it involves an authentic audience.
  • The opportunity for feedback and discussion through an online presence is greater.
  • There are many skills to do with writing online, using technology, understanding digital citizenship etc. that are not only useful for students to know, but required in most curriculum standards.
  • Influencing your own digital footprints from a young age can be a powerful experience.

This post explores a range of approaches to student blogs and digital portfolios. We have included classroom examples, and encourage you to share your approach to student blogging in the comment section.

When To Set Up Student Blogs?

When I first started blogging in 2008, I didn’t really know what sort of blogging framework would work for me, but along the way I came up with a model that suited the age of the students, our combined experience, our objectives and our equipment.

This digram shows the progression some classes make from class blog to student blogs

The model I adopted was as follows:

  1. I established a class blog and wrote the posts, while teaching the students to write quality comments.
  2. As students became more familiar with blogging, some students start publishing guest posts on the class blog and learned posting skills.
  3. When I was teaching grade two, had limited computers and was new to student blogging, I didn’t think it was practical for all students to have have blogs. Instead, certain students who had demonstrated enthusiasm, parent support and blogging skills, earned their own blog. This added a new layer to the skill set of commenting and posting: maintaining a blog.
  4. When I was teaching grade four, had a one to one netbook program and had experience managing student blogs, I set up blogs for all students, as digital portfolios.

Throughout all four stages, quality commenting and parent participation is taught and encouraged.

Many teachers begin their blogging journey with a class blog and perhaps progress from there. However, you can jump in at any point of this framework.

You might only be comfortable with having a class blog initially. There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach, although keep in mind that aiming to have more student involvement at some point in the future can be advantageous.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might have the confidence, experience and equipment to set up student blogs from day one. Go for it!

Whatever your approach, a class blog always complements a student blogging program. It provides a home base where you can post assignments, showcase student work, publish recounts, communicate to parents, establish community/global connections and more.

How To Set Up Student Blogs

We have many resources in our Edublogs Help Guides that will walk you through the process of setting up student blogs. Sue Waters’ five step guide to setting up student blogs is a good starting place.

One really useful feature on Edublogs, that takes the hassle out of the logistics of student blogs, is called My Class. This is a tool that allows you to:

  • Easily create your student blogs after you’ve set up your class blog
  • Control the privacy of the blogs and control moderation settings
  • Read and/or moderate student posts and/or comments right from your own dashboard (no need to open up 25 tabs in your browser to keep track of what your students are up to)
  • Install a widget to the sidebar of your class blog and student blogs which links to all the student blogs in your class. This means students and readers can easily visit all the blogs, without searching, bookmarking, or adding links individually.

Digital Portfolio Expectations and Frameworks

Many educators refer to their student blogs as digital portfolios.

Academics and thought leaders often debate the meaning of the term digital portfolio. What does this mean? What does it look like?

Perhaps an useful alternative term is ‘blogfolio’ which Silvia Tolisana describes as the glue that can hold it all together in learning. 

Blogfolios are the glue that can hold all curricular content, goals and objectives as well as support school initiatives, observations, assessment and accountability requirements or personal passions, interest and projects together.

Diagram breaking down the concept of blogfolios

For the purpose of this post, we are less concerned with semantics and more concerned with exploring the different frameworks that teachers adopt. Hopefully considering how other teachers approach student blogs will give you some ideas on what would work for you and your students.

I have observed differences in how student blogs work in a variety of areas. There appears to be a spectrum in at least six key areas:

duration privacy content reflection quality control - 6 aspects of student bloggingLet’s break these down and consider where you might sit on each spectrum.

1. Duration

Some student blogs are only active for a year. The student might move up to a non-blogging class and their individual blog remains stagnant. This can be frustrating for teachers who invest time in establishing an effective system for their student blogs. It can also be disappointing for students.

Other institutions think ahead with a whole-school approach. At The Geelong College, which operates their own Edublogs CampusPress platform, there are long term plans.

Director of Teaching and Learning, Adrian Camm, explains the philosophy:

…each student from Year 4 to Year 10 at our College will have a digital portfolio that follows them throughout their time at the College and has a unique identifier accessible on the web.
The ability to export their content easily when finishing Year 12 to be used in the tertiary admission process or in future work endeavors has also been a key point…

Consider: If you’re investing time in establishing student blogs, how can you showcase this to the wider school community and motivate them to establish a school wide plan?

2. Privacy

Should blogs be public or private? This is always a contentious issue.

Ronnie Burt raised some excellent arguments about the advantages of public blogs a few years back, including the power of an authentic audience, ease of access, and the potential for collaboration. Ronnie noted,

If you hide student work behind passwords, then you might as well have them print everything out and hand it in the old-fashioned way. You are losing out on connections, extended dialogues, and the motivating factor of working for an authentic purpose.

In the comment section, there were some well considered opposing views.

J. McNulty argued the consequence of permanence,

Try to imagine that every stammering oral presentation, every 5th grade writing sample and every stick finger drawing you ever made in a classroom was permanently posted online, forever. As a teacher how would you feel if your class of iPad toting students were surfing through your complete “virtual portfolio” while you were trying to assign them an essay?  … Blogging is great but this new information era needs educators who fully appreciate the long term consequences of posting everything publicly.

There is a middle ground. At The Geelong College, students are encouraged to decide for themselves whether their blogs will be public or password protected.

Another option is to create a public blog but password protect certain posts or pages.

Consider: What are the pros and cons of having student blogs as public? Some schools seem to default to the private option if in doubt. Does this mean you’re giving up all the powerful advantages of posting publicly?

3. Content

What will form the content of your student blogs? What will they actually publish?

At one end of the spectrum is total freedom where teachers are less concerned about what the students are writing about, and more concerned about the students simply blogging and finding a voice.

At the other end of the spectrum, some teachers see the blogs as a space that must be in line with the curriculum and demonstrate what is happening in the classroom.

Certainly not always, but sometimes the age of the students influences this issue.

Julie Moore in Tasmania, Australia, teaches grade 2/3. The students begin by contributing to the class blog before some students establish their own blogs. Julie says,

Mostly – the children have a free spin on what they would like to write a post about. It gives them an outlet for writing about their passions/interests, and it then gives me an “in” for feedback and improvements to their writing.

She also finds this approach opens up a very wide range of possibilities to meet certain individual’s requirements.

For example:

Julie understands that the students do require some explicit teaching around blogging. She finds The Student Blogging Challenge a great way to achieve this. In addition, she runs a lunchtime club and a weekly timetabled blogging session.

Heather Alexander in Florida teaches year 9-12 ceramics. Her students use their blogs purely to document and reflect on their own art work, and respond to the curriculum. Teaching the same class multiple times, Heather has come up with a logistal framework to organize the student blogs,

What I have done is name all the students’ blogs with their class period prefacing the name so they appear in order on the page.

Heather encourages students to comment on classmates’ blogs and set up an effective system after finding students were taking too long to find a post to comment on.

I have students work in “peer blog mentor” groups. They self-select a group of 3 -5 peers and then I match their group with a group in another class. I moderate the comments so I can check for accuracy and completion before they are published.

This idea touches on the additional issue of feedback. Who will provide feedback to your student bloggers? Will you set up a peer system like Heather? Or will you personally visit blogs? What are your goals for feedback? Simple encouragement and conversation? Or scaffolding to reach learning goals? All questions to consider.

Can your blogging framework involve set tasks and freedom?

Somewhere in the middle of the freedom/structure debate, is the approach adopted by Adam Geiman, an educator from Pennsylvania. He used the first 30% of the school year to provide structure around tasks for his fourth grade students.

The students were given guidance, yet also had some freedom of choice in how they’d present set tasks. Some would do a Google Doc, while others would present their task as a comic, infographic etc.

For the remaining 70% of the school year, students were given more freedom and many came up with their own ideas on what they wanted to publish. For example, Jackson announced the new school trout, while Brooklyn talked about her new glasses. 

Consider: What are the needs of your students? Are you trying to engage them in the blogging process and help them find a voice? Or are you wanting the blogs to be a vehicle to demonstrate curriculum outcomes? Are these two things mutually exclusive?

4. Reflection

Some form of reflection is often a key feature of digital portfolios or blogfolios.

Educator Jabiz Raisdana, has documented some compelling thoughts on student blogging. He advocates for freedom, stating that:

If you want your students to blog effectively, give them the freedom to experiment and write about what interests them.

Stay away from portfolios and forced reflections on their learning, at least until they get the hang of it.

Wait until they find a voice, find an audience… before you push your agenda of meta-cognition and reflective learning.

Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum is the argument from Matt Renwick in his blog post ‘Think You’re Doing Digital Portfolios? Think again’.

Of course, all of the posted artifacts of student learning are accompanied with reflection, self-assessment, and goal setting for the future.
Otherwise, it’s only sharing content. Nice, but not necessary for students’ education.

Many teachers use a mixed approach

Teacher, Lee Pregnell, from Moonee Ponds, Australia, described how they include some set tasks in their grade 5/6 blogging program. One of these tasks is a weekly 100 Word Challenge response (see student Carah’s example) and a report on a Behind the News article (see student Mariana’s report on dreaming).

While the Behind the News task has some element of reflection, there are other set tasks that involve more meta-cognition. One of these is based around term goals. Check out the example by Alexis to see the format of this reflective entry.

What about our youngest students? How can they reflect?

Using tools like voice recordings can offer students with emerging literacy skills the chance to reflect. Kathy Cassidy is well known for providing all of her six year old students a blog. The students regularly used tools like Book Creator to document their thoughts and learning. Here is Gus reflecting on his writing. 

Another idea is to collate social media posts in a Storify like kindergarten teachers Aviva Dunsiger and Paula Crockett. Short student interviews and reflections offer a rich insight into learning. These innovative teachers have created a special section of their blog called ‘The Daily Shoot’. This is something Aviva has done with students from K-6. It is worth checking out.

Following in her students’ footsteps, Aviva even uses a blog of her own to reflect. What a mighty combination!

Consider: Most teachers agree that some sort of student reflection on learning is powerful. How can you incorporate this into your student blogs without making the process a chore or turn students off the enjoyment of blogging?

5. Quality

Would you like your students to document their learning journeys or their best work? Will your student blogs be process portfolios, showcase portfolios or hybrid portfolios?

This is a tough decision, but also one that can evolve as you go along. It also links back to the public/private debate. Do your students want every evidence of learning as part of their digital footprint?

Again, there is certainly middle ground. George Couros reflects on his dilemma about what end of this spectrum he would sit on: ‘growth’ or ‘best work’.

Since there are benefits in both options, it was tough to decide on one, so we ultimately went with the decision to go with both. The “blog” portion of my digital space allows me to share things that I am learning (like this article I am writing) while also aggregating my best stuff into solitary “pages”.

Consider: Is George’s approach something that could be worth exploring in your own blogging program?

6. Control

Many of these five areas are underpinned by the question of control. Who is in control? The teacher or the students?

Can there be a gradual release of control as the students become older and more experienced?

Perhaps there are some aspects of their blog that even the youngest students can have some control over?

For example:

  • Their title
  • Theme
  • Choice of tool or post format
  • Where they leave comments

Most teachers would agree that it’s important to consider how students can be in charge of their own learning. Digital portfolios and blogging offers a lot of potential for student-centered learning.

The My Class tool also allows you to hand over responsibility as you choose. You can begin by moderating all student posts and comments, and then turn off these settings as appropriate.

Conclusion

Are your student blogs igniting a passion for learning or are they just another chore to be completed?

How can you set up digital portfolios or blogfolios that allow for rich learning, creativity, excitement, deep reflection, collaboration and authenticity?

These are some key questions to ask yourself but in the end, sometimes you just need to throw in the canoe and start paddling.

Figure it out as you go. There is a big blogging community and support behind you.

Don’t let fear or indecision around student blogs freeze you into inaction. Worrying too much about whether you’re ‘doing it right’ can lead to not doing it at all.  At any level, student blogs provide benefits. Embrace them.

We would love to hear your ideas. Please comment and share your thoughts on student blogs. 

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The end of the cloud is coming

Viktor Charypar is a Tech Lead at UK-based digital consultancy Red Badger.

We’re facing the end of the cloud. It’s a bold statement, I know, and maybe it even sounds a little mad. But bear with me.

The conventional wisdom about running server applications, be it web apps or mobile app backends, is that the future is in the cloud. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are adding layers of tools to their cloud offerings to make running server software more and more easy and convenient, so it would seem that hosting your code in AWS, GCP, or Azure is the best you can do — it’s convenient, cheap, easy to fully automate, you can scale elastically … I could keep going. So why am I predicting the end of it all?

A few reasons:

It can’t meet long-term scaling requirements. Building a scalable, reliable, highly available web application, even in the cloud, is pretty difficult. And if you do it right and make your app a huge success, the scale will cost you both money and effort. Even if your business is really successful, you eventually hit the limits of what the cloud, the web itself can do: The compute speed and storage capacity of computers are growing faster than the bandwidth of the networks. Ignoring the net neutrality debate, this may not be a problem for most (apart from Netflix and Amazon) at the moment, but it will be soon. The volumes of data we’re pushing through the network are growing massively as we move from HD, to 4k to 8k, and soon there will be VR datasets to move around.

This is a problem mostly because of the way we’ve organized the web. There are many clients that want to get content and use programs and only a relatively few servers that have those programs and content. When someone posts a funny picture of a cat on Slack, even though I’m sitting next to 20 other people who want to look at that same picture, we all have to download it from the server where it’s hosted, and the server needs to send it 20 times.

As servers move to the cloud, i.e. onto Amazon’s or Google’s computers in Amazon’s or Google’s data centers, the networks close to these places need to have incredible throughput to handle all of this data. There also have to be huge numbers of hard drives that store the data for everyone and CPUs that push it through the network to every single person that wants it. This gets worse with the rise of streaming services.

All of that activity requires a lot of energy and cooling and makes the whole system fairly inefficient, expensive, and bad for the environment.

It’s centralized and vulnerable. The other issue with centrally storing our data and programs is availability and permanence. What if Amazon’s data center gets flooded, hit by an asteroid, or destroyed by a tornado? Or, less drastically, what if it loses power for a while? The data stored on its machines now can’t be accessed temporarily or even gets lost permanently.

We’re generally mitigating this problem by storing data in multiple locations, but that only means more data centers. That may greatly reduce the risk of accidental loss, but how about the data that you really, really care about? Your wedding videos, pictures of your kids growing up, or the important public information sources, like Wikipedia. All of that is now stored in the cloud — on Facebook, in Google Drive, iCloud, or Dropbox and others. What happens to the data when any of these services go out of business or lose funding? And even if they don’t, it is pretty restricting that to access your data, you have to go to their service, and to share it with friends, they have to go through that service too.

It demands trust but offers no guarantees. The only way for your friends to trust that the data they get is the data you sent is by trusting the middleman and their honesty. This is okay in most cases, but websites and networks we use are operated by legal entities registered in nation states, and the governments of these nations have the power to force them to do a lot of things. While most of the time, this is a good thing and is used to help solve crime or remove illegal content from the web, there are also many cases where this power has been abused.

Just a few weeks ago, the Spanish government did everything in its power to stop an independence referendum in the Catalonia region, including blocking information websites telling people where to vote. Blocking inconvenient websites or secretly modifying content on its way to users has long been a standard practice in places like China. While free speech is probably not a high-priority issue for most Westerners, it would be nice to keep the internet as free and open as it was intended to be and have a built-in way of verifying that content you are reading is the content the authors published.

It makes us — and our data — sitting ducks. The really scary side of the highly centralized internet is the accumulation of personal data. Large companies that provide services we all need to use in one way or another are sitting on monumental caches of people’s data — data that gives them enough information about you to predict what you’re going to buy, who you’re going to vote for, when you are likely to buy a house, even how many children you’re likely to have. Information that is more than enough to get a credit card, a loan, or even buy a house in your name.

You may be ok with that. After all, they were trustworthy enough for you to give them your information in the first place, but it’s not them you need to worry about. It’s everyone else. Earlier this year, credit reporting agency Equifax lost data on 140 million of its customers in one of the biggest data breaches in history. That data is now public. We can dismiss this as a once in a decade event that could have been prevented if we’d been more careful, but it is becoming increasingly clear that data breaches like this are very hard to prevent entirely and too dangerous to tolerate. The only way to really prevent them is to not gather the data on that scale in the first place.

So, what will replace the cloud?

An internet powered largely by client-server protocols (like HTTP) and security based on trust in a central authority (like TLS), is flawed and causes problems that are fundamentally either really hard or impossible to solve. It’s time to look for something better — a model where nobody else is storing your personal data, large media files are spread across the entire network, and the whole system is entirely peer-to-peer and serverless (and I don’t mean “serverless” in the cloud-hosted sense here, I mean literally no servers).

I’ve been reading extensively about emerging technologies in this space and have become pretty convinced that peer-to-peer is where we’re inevitably going. Peer-to-peer web technologies are aiming to replace the building blocks of the web we know with protocols and strategies that solve most of the problems I’ve outlined above. Their goal is a completely distributed, permanent, redundant data storage, where each participating client in the network is storing copies of some of the data available in it.

Above: Source: Wikimedia Commons (http://ift.tt/2xzBAaf)

If you’ve heard about BitTorrent, the following should all sound familiar. In BitTorrent, users of the network share large data files split into smaller blocks (each with a unique ID) without the need for any central authority. In order to download a file, all you need is a “magic” number — a hash — a fingerprint of the content. The BitTorrent client will then find peers that have pieces of the file and download them, until you have all the pieces.

The interesting part is how the peers are found. BitTorrent uses a protocol called Kademlia for this. In Kademlia, each peer on the network has a unique ID number, which is of the same length as the unique block IDs. It stores a block with a particular ID on a node whose ID is “closest” to the ID of the block. For random IDs of both blocks and network peers, the distribution of storage should be pretty uniform across the network. There is a benefit, however, to not choosing the block ID randomly and instead using a cryptographic hash — a unique fingerprint of the content of the block itself. The blocks are content-addressable. This also makes it easy to verify the content of the block (by re-calculating and comparing the fingerprint) and provides the guarantee that given a block ID, it is impossible to download any other data than the original.

The other interesting property of using a content hash for addressing is that by embedding the ID of one block in the content of another, you link the two together in a way that can’t be tampered with. If the content of the linked block is changed, its ID would change and the link would be broken. If the embedded link is changed, the ID of the containing block would change as well.

This mechanism of embedding the ID of one block in the content of another makes it possible to create chains of such blocks (like the blockchain powering Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies) or even more complicated structures, generally known as Directed Acyclic Graphs, or DAGs for short. (This kind of link is called a Merkle link after the inventor Ralph Merkle. So if you hear someone talking about Merkel DAGs, you know roughly what they are.) One common example of a Merkle DAG is git repositories. Git stores the commit history and all directories and files as blocks in a giant Merkle DAG.

And that leads us to another interesting property of distributed storage based on content-addressing: It’s immutable. The content cannot change in place. Instead, new revisions are stored next to existing ones. Blocks that have not changed between revisions get reused, because they have, by definition, the same ID. This also means identical files cannot be duplicated in such a storage system, translating into efficient storage. So on this new web, every unique cat picture will only exist once (although in multiple redundant copies across the swarm).

Protocols like Kademlia together with Merkle chains and Merkle DAGs give us the tools to model file hierarchies and revision timelines and share them in a large scale peer-to-peer network. There are already protocols that use these technologies to build a distributed storage that fits our needs. One that looks very promising is IPFS.

The problem with names and shared things

Ok, so with the above techniques, we can solve quite a few of the problems I outlined at the beginning: We get distributed, highly redundant storage on devices connected to the web that can keep track of the history of files and keep all the versions around for as long as they are needed. This (almost) solves the availability, capacity, permanence, and content verification problem. It also addresses bandwidth problems — peers send data to each other, so there are no major hotspots/bottlenecks.

We will also need a scalable compute resource, but this shouldn’t be too difficult: Everyone’s laptops and phones are now orders of magnitude more powerful than what most apps need (including fairly complex machine learning computations), and compute is generally pretty horizontally scalable. So as long as we can make every device do the work necessary for its user, there shouldn’t be a major problem.

So now that cat image I want to see on Slack can come from one of my coworkers sitting next to me instead of from the Slack servers (and without crossing any oceans in the process). In order to post a cat picture, though, I need to update a channel in place (i.e., the channel will no longer be what it was before my message, it will have changed). This fairly innocuous sounding thing turns out to be the hard part. (Feel free to skip to the next section if this bit gets too technical.)

The hard part: Updating in place

The concept of an entity that changes over time is really just a human idea to give the world some order and stability in our minds. We can also think about such an entity as just an identity — a name — that takes on a series of different values (which are static, immutable) as time progresses (Rich Hickey explains this really well in his talks Are we there yet? and The value of values). This is a much more natural way of modelling information in a computer, with more natural consequences. If I tell you something, I can no longer change what I told you, or make you unlearn it. Facts, e.g. who the President of the United States is, don’t change over time; they just get superseded by other facts referred to by the same name, the same identity. In the git example, a ref (branch or tag) can point to (hold an ID and thus a value of) a different commit at different times, and making a commit replaces the value it currently holds. The Slack channel would also represent an identity whose values over time are growing lists of messages.

The real trouble is, we’re not alone in the channel. Multiple people try to post messages and change the channel, sometimes simultaneously, and someone needs to decide what the result should be.

In centralized systems, such as pretty much all current web apps, there is a single central entity deciding this “update race” and serializing the events. Whichever event reaches it first wins. In a distributed system, however, everyone is an equal, so there needs to be a mechanism that ensures the network reaches a consensus about the “history of the world.”

Consensus is the most difficult problem to solve for a truly distributed web supporting the whole range of applications we are using to today. It doesn’t only affect concurrent updates, but also any other updates that need to happen “in-place” — updates where the “one source of truth” is changing over time. This issue is particularly difficult for databases, but it also affects other key services, like the DNS. Registering a human name for a particular block ID or series of IDs in a decentralized way means everyone involved needs to agree about a name existing and having a particular meaning, otherwise two different users could see two different files under the same name. Content-based addressing solves this for machines (remember a name can only ever point to one particular piece of matching content), but not humans.

A few major strategies exist for dealing with distributed consensus. One of them involves selecting a relatively small “quorum” of managers with a mechanism for electing a “leader” who decides the truth (if you’re interested, look at the Paxos and Raft protocols). All changes then go through the manager. This is essentially a centralized system that can tolerate a loss of the central deciding entity or an interruption (a “partition”) in the network.

Another approach is a proof-of-work based system like Bitcoin blockchain, where consensus is ensured by making peers solve a puzzle in order to write an update (i.e. add a valid block to a Merkle chain). The puzzle is hard to solve but easy to check, and some additional rules exist to resolve a conflict if it still happens. Several other distributed blockchains use a proof-of-stake based consensus while reducing the energy demands required to solve a puzzle. If you’re interested, you can read about proof of stake in this whitepaper by BitFury.

Yet another approach for specific problems revolves around CRDTs — conflict-free replicated data types, which, for specific cases, don’t suffer from the consensus problem at all. The simplest example is an incrementing counter. If all the updates are just “add one,” as long as we can make sure each update is applied just once, the order doesn’t matter and the result will be the same.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to this problem just yet and there may never be only one, but a whole lot of clever people are working on it, and there are already a lot of interesting solutions out there to pick from. You just need to select the particular trade-off you can afford. The trade-off generally lies in the scale of a swarm you’re aiming for and picking a property of the consensus you’re willing to let go of at least a little — availability or consistency (or, technically, network partitioning, but that seems difficult to avoid in a highly distributed system like the ones we’re talking about). Most applications seem to be able to favor availability over immediate consistency — as long as the state ends up being consistent in reasonable time.

Privacy in the web of public files

One obvious problem that needs addressing is privacy. How do we store content in the distributed swarm of peers without making everything public? If it’s enough to hide things, content addressed storage is a good choice, since in order to find something, you need to know the hash of its content (somewhat like private Gists on Github). So essentially we have three levels of privacy: public, hidden, and private. The answer to the third one, it seems, is in cryptography — strongly encrypting the stored content and sharing the key “out of band” (e.g. physically on paper, by touching two NFC devices, by scanning a QR code, etc.).

Relying on cryptography may sound risky at first (after all, hackers find vulnerabilities all the time), but it’s actually not that much worse than what we do today. In fact, it’s most likely better in practice. Companies and governments generally store sensitive data in ways that aren’t shareable with the public (including the individuals the data is about). Instead, it’s accessible only to an undisclosed number of people employed by the organizations holding the data and is protected, at best, by cryptography based methods anyway. More often than not, if you can gain access to the systems storing this data, you can have all of it.

But if we move instead to storing private data in a way that’s essentially public, we are forced to protect it (with strong encryption) so that it is no good to anyone who gains access to it. This idea is roughly the same as the one behind making security-related software open source so that anyone can look at it and find problems. Knowing how the security works shouldn’t help you break it.

An interesting property of this kind of access control is that once you’ve granted someone access to some data, they will have it forever for that particular revision of the data. You can always change the encryption key for future revisions, of course. This is also no worse than what we have today, even though it may not be obvious: Given access to some data, anyone can always make a private copy of it.

The interesting challenge in this area is coming up with a good system of establishing and verifying identities and sharing private data among a group of people that needs to change over time, e.g. a group of collaborators on a private git repository. It can definitely be done with some combination of private-key cryptography and rotating keys, but making the user experience smooth is likely going to be a challenge.

From the cloud to a … fog

Hard problems to solve notwithstanding, our migration away from the cloud will be quite an exciting future. First, on the technical front, we should get a fair number of improvements out of a peer-to-peer web. Content-addressable storage provides cryptographic verification of content itself without a trusted authority, hosted content is permanent (for as long as any humans are interested in it), and we should see fairly significant speed improvements, even at the edges in the developing world (or even on another planet!), far away from data centers.

At some point even data centers may become a thing of the past. Consumer devices are getting so powerful and ubiquitous that computing power and storage (a computing “substrate”) is almost literally lying in the streets.

For businesses running web applications, this change should translate to significant cost savings and far fewer headaches building reliable digital products. Businesses will also be able to focus less on downtime risk mitigation and more on adding customer value, benefitting everyone. We are still going to be a need for cloud hosted servers, but they will only be one of many similar peers. We could also see heterogeneous applications, where not all the peers are the same — where there are consumer-facing peers and back office peers as part of the same application “swarm” and the difference in access is only in access level based on cryptography.

The other large benefit for both organizations and customers is in the treatment of customer data. When there’s no longer any need to centrally store huge amounts of customer information, there’s less risk of losing such data in bulk. Leaders in the software engineering community (like Joe Armstrong, creator of Erlang, whose talk from Strange Loop 2014 is worth a watch) have long argued that the design of the internet where customers send data to programs owned by businesses is backwards and that we should instead send programs to customers to execute on their privately held data that is never directly shared. Such a model seems much safer and doesn’t in any way prevent businesses from collecting useful customer metrics they need.

And nothing prevents a hybrid approach with some services being opaque and holding on to private data.

This type of application architecture seems a much more natural way to do large scale computing and software services — an Internet closer to the original idea of open information exchange, where anyone can easily publish content for everyone else and control over what can be published and accessed is exercised by consensus of the network’s users, not by private entities owning servers.

This, to me, is hugely exciting. And it’s why I’d like to get a small team together and, within a few weeks, build a small, simple proof of concept mobile application, using some of the technologies mentioned above, to show what can be done with the peer-to-peer web. The only current idea I have that is small enough to build relatively quickly and interesting enough to demonstrate the properties of such approach is a peer-to-peer, truly serverless Twitter clone, which isn’t particularly exciting.

If you’ve got a better idea (which isn’t too hard!), or if you have anything else related to peer-to-peer distributed web to talk about, please tweet at me; I’d love to hear about it!

Viktor Charypar is a Tech Lead at UK-based digital consultancy Red Badger.

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Is AR Good 4 Teaching & Learning? Or should we get real?

Augmented Reality is nothing new for youth. It has been a part of student’s social experience in apps like Snapchat and it made a big splash when Pokemon Go made its debut. But when it comes to learning, does it have a place?

While seeing an object, insect, or animal up close in an augmented reality is certainly preferably to reading about it in your science text, is it really the best way to help students learn?

Is learning via AR it better than that?

Well, yeah. Probably. It will engage kids with the wow factor for a bit, but then what?

And what about the source? Who wants us to buy into this? A textbook provider? A publisher? A testing company? A hardware or software provider?

What’s in it for them?

And, what about all the other ways to learn? Is it better than that? Is it cost effective?

AR: The Verdict? It depends.

When compared to textbooks, most would agree that AR improves upon the learning experience. It can also help make a textbook a bit more interactive and give it some life.

But what about other options? A powerful novel? A game? A MagniScope? A PBS documentary? A YouTube expert?

To help think about this, I turned to my friends at Modern Learners for some insights.
When thinking about AR, VR, mixed reality, and etc, Gary Stager, asks, are we “investing in reality first” before we invest in such technologies?

That’s a good question. Especially for kids who live in big cities like where I work. In New York City we have cultural neighbourhoods, experiences, some of the finest museums, zoos, gardens, and experts right in the backyard of our schools. Are we taking students there? Or if we aren’t in such communities, are we using resources like Facebook Live, Periscope, and Skype to connect and interact with real people and places in other parts of the world?

When I served as a library media specialist in an inner city school in Harlem, we had immersive experiences in places like Chinatown, Little Italy, and Spanish Harlem. We visited places like El Museo Del Bario and the Tenement Museum. We had scavenger hunts around the neighbourhoods and the museums were happy to freely open their doors to our inner city youth visiting on weekdays.

Of course there are times when a real experience can not occur in place of a virtual experience. For example, a trip to Mars or the Titanic are out of reach. Engaging in or witnessing a dangerous activity for a newbie such as driving a car, plane, train, are other examples.

But even with such extremes, there may be a movie, field trip, game, or museum experience that might provide a better learning experience.

In his Modern Learners podcast Will Richardson puts it this way. If for some reason we really can’t invest in realities, then yes, these “halfway measures for poor kids” make sense, but only if it really is not possible to bring students more authentic opportunities.

But let’s make sure those real experiences are not available before jumping into augmented ones.

Consider this…

When trying to determine what is best for students, here are some questions you can ask:

  • How would a student use this outside of school?

  • Does it help a young person create agency over learning?

  • Does this have a real-life use?

  • Is this better than…

  • Reading about it?

  • Watching it?

  • Doing it?

When you consider those questions, you will be better positioned to determine and explain if augmented reality should become a reality for the students where you teach.

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10 Reasons Kids Should Learn to Code

Learning about Computational Thinking, often referred to as coding (which is really the “written” part of process), is a new literacy that is overlooked for myriad reasons: “It’s too hard”, “I don’t understand it so, it will be impossible to teach”, “It doesn’t fit into any curricular area”, “There is no math in it at all”, “It’s just not appropriate for little ones”. I’ve pretty much heard the gamut of reasons why this process, not dissimilar to Design Thinking or Inquiry processes taking placing in Making/Tinkering and STEAM environments, is not viable in classrooms today. The reality is that computation thinking is a YAIEP or Yet Another Inquiry Entry Point. This should be a comforting thing for most. Inquiry and more recently Design Thinking are processes have been used extensively in the STEAM and Maker Movements that has swept educational institutions. These programs feature pedagogy that empower students to take more responsibility for their learning pathway; directing their learning through questions and personal perspectives; try to find and solve unique problems that have meaning and importance them; collaborating together to makes sense of data collected; communicating with authentic audiences and experts to share and obtain information; demonstrate their understandings in unique ways. This is Computational Thinking at it’s best as well. But there are added benefits as well and the article highlights these beautifully….  (Keith Strachan)


Word Splash of Coding Words

10 Reasons Kids Should Learn to Code

When it comes to preparing your children for the future, there are few better ways to do so than to help them learn to code! Coding helps kids develop academic skills, build qualities like perseverance and organization, and gain valuable 21st century skills that can even translate into a career. From the Tynker blog, here are the top 10 reasons kids should learn to code:

Coding Improves Academic Performance

  1. Math: Coding helps kids visualize abstract concepts, lets them apply math to real-world situations, and makes math fun and creative!
  2. Writing: Kids who code understand the value of concision and planning, which results in better writing skills. Many kids even use Tynker as a medium for storytelling!
  3. Creativity: Kids learn through experimentation and strengthen their brains when they code, allowing them to embrace their creativity.
  4. Confidence: Parents enthusiastically report that they’ve noticed their kids’ confidence building as they learn to problem-solve through coding!

Coding Builds Soft Skills

  1. Focus and Organization: As they write more complicated code, kids naturally develop better focus and organization.
  2. Resilience: With coding comes debugging – and there’s no better way to build perseverance and resilience than working through challenges!
  3. Communication: Coding teaches logical communication, strengthening both verbal and written skills. Think about it: learning code means learning a new language!

Coding Paves a Path to the Future

  1. Empowerment: Kids are empowered to make a difference when they code – we’ve seen Tynkerers use the platform to spread messages of tolerance and kindness!
  2. Life Skills: Coding is a basic literacy in the digital age, and it’s important for kids to understand – and be able to innovate with – the technology around them.
  3. Career Preparation: There’s a high demand for workers in the tech industry; mastering coding at a young age allows kids to excel in any field they choose!

Tynker makes it fun and easy for kids to learn how to code! Kids use Tynker’s visual blocks to begin learning programming basics, then graduate to written programming languages like Python, Javascript, and Swift. Our guided courses, puzzles, and more ensure that every child will find something that ignites their passion for learning. Explore our plans and get your child started coding today!

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Grids, Timelines, and Notes in Google Slides

This week Google added a handful of new features to Google Slides. Some of them are features that teachers and students have been requesting for years.

Please note that some of the following new features may not appear in your G Suite for Education account for a couple of weeks. All of these features are available now for users logged-in with a Gmail address.

1. Quickly insert pre-formatted timelines and other diagrams.

Now when you open the “insert” drop-down menu you will see an option for diagrams. Choose that option and you’ll be able to insert a variety of pre-formatted diagrams including timelines. All of the content within the diagrams can be edited.

2. Add-ons for Google Slides.

There are now seven Add-ons available in Google Slides. Those of interest to teachers and students include Lucidchart, Pear Deck, and Unsplash. Unsplash provides high resolution photographs to re-use for free.

3. Grid view of presentations.

There is now a grid option under the “view” drop-down menu. This lets you see all of your slides in a grid and re-arrange slides by dragging them into different sequences in the grid.

4. Google Keep notes integrated into slides.

Google Docs integrated Google Keep notes earlier this year. That allowed you to drag your Google Keep notes directly into a document. Now you can do the same in Google Slides.

5. Skip a slide without deleting it. 

If you are in the habit of duplicating your own presentations then deleting a slide or two for different audiences, the new “skip slide” function could appeal to you. This function lets you specify a slide or slides to be skipped in a version of a presentation. Skipping a slide doesn’t delete it, it just prevents it from being displayed when you’re in the full screen presentation display.

This post originally appeared on Free Technology for Teachers
if you see it elsewhere, it has been used without permission
.

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NEW eBOOK – SEESAW ENTRY POINTS

Learning Technologies Support would like to take a moment to thank all the teachers and students who made this eBook possible. They have worked tirelessly and extremely hard to both learn the Seesaw tool and have continued to refining and perfecting already solid assessment for learning practices to fit with this new process portfolio/assessment for learning management tool.

The examples shared, highlight various aspects of student & teacher learning reflected on in Nursery through Grade 6. It is exciting to see how insightful and detailed some of the reflections and insights are.

We are beginning to see teachers and students making connections to outcomes and criteria in more purposeful, direct and meaningful ways during the reflection and posting process in Seesaw in Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. This is not to say that this isn’t being done daily at the classroom level, rather the processes in place in the classroom have not yet fully transferred into the Seesaw environment. Hopefully, the training provided over the course of this year and next (also outlined in Chapter 2) will help with this.

The examples in Chapters 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 also demonstrate current practices that one might expect to see in evidence in Winnipeg School Division classrooms today: Inquiry, Design Thinking, Computational Thinking, the 6 Cs, and so on.

There is plenty of evidence of creative connections with parents in Chapter 4: conversations about learning, education, upcoming events, past events, & friendly, community building conversations.

Mobile Learning seems alive and well. Chapter 3 highlights examples of App- & Media- Smashing where learners are demonstrating their creativity and inventiveness when designing and working on completing their tasks. It was encouraging to especially see examples where both various media (dance or clay) was used in conjunction with a digital medium (video or animation).

Overall, the Seesaw implementation is progressing well. Please use this resource as a guide to assist you and your class in creating powerful, learning focused, reflective posts guided by co-created criteria, outcomes and clear tasks for the Seesaw Learning Journals your students will be creating.

The eBook itself is designed to be viewed on an eReader of some kind (iBook, Adobe Editions, BlueFire Reader, and the like) either on a mobile device like a phone or tablet or laptop. Within a short period of time this book may be deployed to all “open” or “non-student” iPads in the Division, hopefully directly in the iBook reader. But it can also be downloaded an installed via the portal at the following link here… Evidence of Learning in Seesaw iBook, or over in the Digital Portfolio section of the our portal site. I will provide a tutorial to lead you through this at the following link… SEESAW: How to Download & install a Seesaw eBook…