Tools for a Classroom of the Present

1st March, 2007

In a previous post I wrote about a few php scripts connected to an SQL database that produced a Class Tag Cloud where members of my class can anonymously contribute words or phrases while we dialogue, and the words/phrases they contribute end up projected on a screen for all to see. Words may be sent via phone or PC. The font size of the words/phrases are proportional to the prominence in the database, so, if someone contributes something to the class tag cloud and you want to emphasize the thought you would then submit the same word/phrase and that word/phrase would literally become larger on the screen.

Here’s a recent pic of the display:

I’m writing about this again because I’ve put it into practice lately and can report that it has been a valuable aspect of my classroom work, permitting the expression of notions, associations, and other ideations that tend not to bloom under the protocols of traditional classroom decorum – i.e., speak in turn, raise your hand, contribute proper sentences, etc.
While contributions to the class tag cloud do not have one specific, individual author associated with them I can’t call them strictly anonymous as sometimes it becomes clear who submitted them, and they have a agency within the group that, like their authorship, is shared. My experience tells me that this is understood by the class.

As an addition to the class tag cloud (which I do a screen capture of at the end of each class), last week I used Twitter and found it to be another valuable addition. The way we did it was that each class member signed up for the service and we all then took the time to issue the “follow_ x_ “ command for each classmate. At various times during our work the room fell silent as we were all focused on the sms flow around the group, then, one by one, the group became more vocal, and less twittered, and the form became more about speaking and tag clouding, and so on. It was, I think for many of us, a fine in-class experience.

For me, though, the magic occurred once class had ‘stopped’ and I continued to receive messages via Twitter from classmates throughout the week. The messages had a random quality but, as we’ve been discussing bohm style dialog and collective intelligence lately, the challenge of associating these messages as aspects of our respective and collective ‘here’ opened our work and class out in a way that I found beautiful. Twitter also provided the possibility and architecture for meetings (online and/or offline) to occur at any time, allowing the class to take a variety of forms throughout the week. Twitter also provides a method for students to let everyone know if they are running late, sick, near a store that has supplies that others may need, etc.

This experience with Twitter gave me the image of taking our Class Tag Cloud out for a walk – allowing us to know each other better, while exploring the relationship of environment to idea. I strongly recommend these tools and welcome your feedback.

Below are the scripts with instructions for the class tag cloud, they require the creation of a simple database table (in the examples below called ‘cloud’) comprised of two fields: ID (int, auto-increment, primary key), and Words (var chars, at least 25 characters long).

Here is how to make your own class (y) tag cloud.

    1. Create a database table (use PHP ADMIN or MYSQL wrapped in PHP, for example) called cloud with two columns: ID and words. Make ID your primary key, and make it an int, that auto-increments. Make words a varchars with a length of at least 25 chars.
    2. Create (or download below) a script called code.php. You’ll need to replace the ‘database_name’ in the scripts below with your database name (database name is not the same thing as the table name), along with your username, and password. If you make other changes (name of mysql table and/or columns for example, or if you change the names of the scripts below you will have to make changes within the body of the scripts to reflect those changes!!! Use search and replace to make things easier!
    3. When you first launch tag_cloud_input.php (input) you will see some errors because there is nothing in the table. Enter a word and the errors will disappear. To view the tag cloud open tag_cloud_display.php. tag_cloud_input.php is formatted to work on cell phones as well as a desktop.
    4. NOTE: the scripts below all work. I have commented out a lot of added functionality (principally a way to keep track of the most recent six words – on the input page I’ve boiled it down to the most recent three words, with the most recent in black, then gray, then white.) I’ve left the scripts as is, with the comments, in the event that you’d like to explore this history on your own.

Scripts for INPUT/DISPLAY>> You’ll need these two scripts (code.php and tag_cloud_input.php) to input words into the tag cloud, you’ll need the tag_cloud_display.php to display the tag cloud. When you first launch the input script you will see some error messages followed by a text input box and a submit button. This is normal as there is nothing in the database yet. Once you place a word in the database the errors will dissapear.

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