Saturday, May 26, 2007

Configuring the Web: individualized content delivery using common Web 2.0 tools

I'm posting this because I'd like feedback. Both positive and negative feedback will help. You won't hurt my feelings, so give it to me :-)

Individualized instruction is the goal expressed by many of us who expouse the glories of technology in the classroom. For a long time, however, I have not been truly satisfied with my suggestions on how to do this.

Too Much Information

In my attempt to process all of the information coming in on new Web 2.0 technologies, student blogs, friends blogs, news sites, and so forth, I welcomed the use of RSS aggregators. These wonderful applications/services collect all the stuff I wanted to follow, organized it in one convenient location, and even reminded me of which posts where read and unread. I knew that these could help graduate, education students in the Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) class to process the loads of information that I was throwing at them and expecting them to find on their own.

What About Language Students?

After implementing this with a couple of classes, I found that it worked with those who an aggregator (which most had to in order to keep up). This left me wondering about how these teachers can take this technology and use it with their students. We talked so much about using it for our own information gathering needs, but the only thing that the teachers could conclude was that students would use it in a similar way. They could follow some blogs, wikis, or other content sources with their aggregators, but little thought was given to directing content to the students other than posts on the class blogs.

Therefore, I started thinking about how we could use the existing, configurable, Web 2.0 technologies (in other words, no development, only configuration) to both individualize the content we provide for students and enable them to build their connections to content. This is what I'll now lay out for you in version 1.0.

Configuring the Web for individualized Content Delivery

I'd like to state that while this is an entirely unique idea for me, this very well could have been written up or implementation before. I would really appreciate comments on this. Point me in the direction of any mention to it in articles, sites, or listserv archives. I would like to give credit where credit is due.

Here is my original sketch of the organization. Note that there are 2 responsibilities represented here: teacher and student.

I've changed this somewhat, but the concept remains the same. Teachers simply gather content and tag it. This content then gets pushed only to the students who need or want it. Let's get started.


Teacher's Role

  1. Teacher has or sets up a account (
    1. This can also be any account that enables RSS pages for individual “tags” or “keywords”. Many blogging applications will do this as well. However, I find that is easy to use and integrates well with and is supported by many services.
  1. Teacher begins to populate with pages of interest for the class (or classes) that they teach. This can be anything from grammar to writing and from audio to video. Of course, this is an ongoing process, but it's nice to start off with some content if possible. In, these can be imported from your browser of choice. An even better way is to install this add-on to your Firefox browser or this Explorer add-on, which will import your bookmarks (or favorites) to delicious and add a button to your browser that makes adding bookmarks to very easy.
    1. These “bookmarks” must be “tagged” in order for them to be sorted automatically at a later time.
      1. These tags should be somewhat standardized, if possible.
        1. Class name (e.g., web2esl)
        2. Skills areas (e.g., writing, grammar, speaking, culture, etc.)
        3. Types of content being linked to (e.g., audio, podcast, video, videocast, quiz, blog, etc.)
        4. Student names or pseudonyms. Of course, with larger classes, you will likely want to stick with skills areas because doing this for individual students could get unwieldy.
  1. Continue to add to your bookmarks whenever you find interesting resources or whenever your students need some outside assistance. There is enough content already out there to keep you and your students busy for a long time. If you need something a little more customized, blog about it or publish it in another RSS-friendly manner.

  2. That’s it.

Students' Role

  1. This is not a transmission approach to learning and, therefore, students are required to be somewhat independent learners. With this in mind, there are some things that students will need to do to take control of their learning and become part of this approach.

  2. Students must use some sort of aggregator. For our purposes, we will be using a “personal homepage” service called Netvibes ( ). This is far from your only option, but, at this time, it seems to offer one of the best services of this type. Students can also use more traditional RSS aggregators such as the Web-based Bloglines ( ) or Google Reader ( ) or desktop-based Feedreader ( ). I believe that there are similar functionalities built into online social networking services like MySpace ( ), FaceBook ( ), and CyWorld ( ). Other services similar to Netvibes also exist, such as PageFlakes ( ) [edit 5/26/2007 - The esteemed Will Richardson posted on using PageFlakes as a student portal. This is similar to what I am doing here and, in fact, portals can do this very well, but Will's idea is a general class (or topic) page and doesn't address individualization. I found this thanks to an anonymous commenter who suggested that PageFlakes is a better option than Netvibes. She pointed to a blog at for more information, which pointed to a PageFlakes page just for students and teachers at] The purpose here is to get them involved in this approach and not to use a particular technology. They likely know these technologies better than you. Let them use whichever service/application that they want to use as long as they get the content delivered to them in a reliable and usable manner.

  3. Have students load their aggregators with some important Feeds. The instructor can also provide an OPML file (list of RSS subscriptions) for import into most aggregators. With Netvibes, you can "share" your tab with the group, which will enable them to add the whole tab to their account. It will load exactly how you had it set up in your account, but after they add it, it belongs to them and they can change it as they like.
    1. Give the students some RSS feed pages to begin with. Here are some examples
      1. Your class blog –
      2. The class feed -
      3. Their personal page feeds – (you should have at least one saved bookmark with their names in the tags) –
      4. Skill area pages – ,


Here are some suggestions on carrying this out with students. I'm sure that many more will be added through experimentation.

  1. Use it - Make this your main form of online communication with individual students and classes. If they are getting messages from multiple locations you're just going to end up confusing them.

  2. Record it - How many suggestions, mini-lessons, and other pearls of wisdom have been lost to the ages in individual or small group discussions with your students? Get this information down in text, audio, or video form and you can re-use it every time the situation arises. Spend more time now to save time later. Start building your own repository using your blog or other mechanism for online storage. Opening these can help you, your students, and other learners/teachers on the Web looking for insite.

  3. Enforce it - For those classes/students who are less than motivated, it might be necessary to check their attention. Here are some ways to do that.
    1. Make it clear that important (and graded) assignments and activities will be scheduled via the feeds, both for the class and for individuals. Make certain that they understand that they are responsible for these activities (no excuses). Then make sure to carry through on this in a reliable fashion.
    2. Quizzes – link to quizzes that the students must take (for a grade) that are only announced on the class feed or individual feeds for more individualized attention.
    3. Schedule activities or assignments using the class or individual feed.
    4. These methods will keep them on their toes and paying attention. You can’t make someone learn, but you can make sure that they are aware of opportunities to do so.

The End

I intend on making a screencast of this process in the near future. I'll post it here when I can.

This is where I'm going to end this epic post (I rarely go over a couple paragraphs). Thanks for making it this far.


Think Before you Post - Public Service Announcement

This is great. Show it to all of your students.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Microsoft Popfly

Microsoft Popfly

I was a little weirded out by the top-level domain .ms, but this seems to be a legit development project by Microsoft.

I couple weeks ago, I posted about Yahoo! Pipes, which is a really cool service that I have yet to even scratch the surface of. Well, it seems that Popfly will be Microsoft's answer to this. However, given their descriptions it looks like it's going to be much more (though there's nothing new about Microsoft hype on products that fall flat).

Right now, they are just starting the buzz. It's currently in private alpha testing (meaning they haven't hit beta testing yet, which would give more of us non-employees access). Stay tuned.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Zamzar - Free online file conversion

If the name isn't fun enough, just check out what you can do here. Zamzar is a conversion service.

These days it always seems that we don't have the right file type when we need it. I have a Word document and need a PDF. I have a MS Video file (.wmv) and need a Quicktime version (.mov). Well, this website will do the conversions for you. Granted a video will take a while to upload to their site, but when you're stuck, you're stuck. This is a great service to use in a pinch.

It's fast and seems reliable. I've converted a few .docs to .pdf so far. I'll have to wait on the video files.

I should add that it will convert files already online. So if you have files, audio, or video online that needs to be converted, this service will do it.

Want to convert YouTube videos? Too bad. You'll have to try something else. This service requires that the URL you supply have a file extension on it, so referring to a database (like with YouTube videos) won't work.