Popfly in the Classroom – Trip Report

First the surprising secret - students today are not all that Web 2.0 knowledgeable. Now you wouldn't get that from the media but its true. Oh sure there are a lot of young people out there creating new media, using instant messaging tools, downloading music and software and connecting via Facebook or MySpace. But beyond that? Not so much. Not much in wikis, or blogs, or Twitter, or many of the other Web 2.0 tools that so delight the techie crowd. Believe it or not students have to be taught such tools.

The students who find this on their own get a lot of attention though. And people want to think they account for all or at least the majority of students. But no that is not how it is.

So with that in mind I am a big fan of the teachers who do teach their students those tools. People like Vicki Davis who teaches younger students and  Mark Frydenberg who teaches college students. Mark is on the faculty of Bentley College not too far from me and we've known each other for several years now. Mark teaches a technology intensive introductory technology course at Bentley. It is about as bleeding edge a course and you can imagine. Bentley is a leader in business education with very sharp students so when they teach technology they teach it full out.

This is a Web 2.0 course. As Mark describes things on his web site:

The theme for the current offering of the course is “Learning Information Technology through the Lens of Web 2.0.” In addition to the topics in the standard course, students will actively use (and therefore learn about) blogs and wikis, subscribe to and create original podcasts, collaborate via Skype, monitor RSS feeds, use social networking applications, and learn about tagging and other topics.

Well one of the tools being taught this semester is Popfly. Mark invited me to come down and sit in on one of his classes because he knew I was interested in using the mashup capabilities of Popfly to demonstrate broad concepts. So the other day I drove to Bentley to sit in on his class. By coincidence a professor of Spanish was also visiting the same day. He is was also interested in how web tools can be used to help this multi-media generation visualize language and concepts.

During the class Mark talked about information and applications in "the cloud." This seemed to be a new term for most students but they grasped the idea quickly. It is after all the environment they interact with on the Internet. A big part of the class then was creating a mashup of data, information about Presidential candidates in the example, combining it into a stream and then filtering it for display. User input for parsing was added. In all it was something that would have taken days worth of work using traditional programming tools. Using RSS feeds of search engine searches getting the data in a form of XML using standard Popfly blocks was a matter of minutes (if that). Combining and parsing was also easy with the hardest part being understanding a small line of JavaScript. Another pair of blocks allowed user input and the building of a filter statement and we were off and running.

At the end of class the students had a good handle on what it means to get data from multiple sources, mix it, filter it and display it. This is the sort of thing that anyone dealing with information in the future needs to know about. Other forms of data discussed included location data that was used to create annotated maps. This is of course yet another form of data that modern tools allow people to use more quickly and easily than ever before.

While Popfly is currently set up for hobbyists and people who want to have fun with data I think it is the sort of tool that is the forerunner of data tools for the future. Students need to learn about getting, manipulating, and analyzing data. If they can do that in a fun way using their own data (Popfly connects easily to Facebook for example) so much the better.

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