Next time you are driving down the road and listening to the radio, think about how amazing the technology is that brings voices and music to us. If you are like me, you take the technology for granted without thinking of the engineering, imagination, and collaboration needed to broadcast every show. All we need to do is turn a dial and enjoy. The Internet is quickly evolving to allow us to bring content and functions to our blogs, wikis, social networks, websites, and other Web presences with fewer technical skills.
These prepackaged functions are called widgets. You can think of a widget as being a lot like television. When you watch TV, the sportscaster, weather person, or herd of charging zebras don't actually reside in your home. Similarly, when you add a widget to your site, you copy and paste a tiny bit of code onto your page, and games, videos, forms, sound recorders, and any number of additional functions appear on your site. The best part is that you don't need to know the advanced programming that is required to make this happen.
Finding quality widgets is becoming easier. You can go to most social media sites such as YouTube, SlideShare, or SchoolTube to find content. When you find a clip you want to use, look for a button labeled embed code or just code. Many sites have made the process even easier by adding a copy button. You can use widget search engines such as www.Widgetbox.com to add games, forms, and even live chat features to your site.
Most places on the Web that allow you to edit content will accept widgets. www.Wikispaces.com, for example, makes adding widgets very simple. Upon editing a page, you click the icon of a television set. You can then add suggested widgets or opt to add one that's not listed. Sites that offer widgets make it really easy for you to add your favorite widget to popular social networking or blog sites. Just click on the icon, and you'll get the code to use with Facebook, WordPress, Blogger, Ning, etc.
Learning management systems (LMS), such as Moodle, Blackboard, or eCollege, allow you to edit pages using a WYSIWYG toolbar. Simply copy the widget code, edit your page in your LMS, insert your cursor where you want the widget to go, and click the <> button in the WYSIWYG toolbar to switch the editor to HTML mode. Now just paste the code supplied by the widget host. If you have several choices of code to copy, choose the selection labeled "other" or <>. After you save your page, you will see the new widget embedded into your site. This trick will work with most Web presences. If you use Dreamweaver, FrontPage, or another Web authoring program, look to see if you can toggle between a WYSIWYG and HTML mode. If you can, chances are you can add a widget.
A quick word from the copyright police: If you are using a widget that is shared under the Creative Commons license, make sure you are honoring the wishes of the content developer. Creating curriculum or other content meant for resale may violate the terms of the agreement. Taking this into consideration, you may wish to make your own widget. This can be easier than you might think. Most social media sites will offer embed code for any content that you create. If you upload a video to TeacherTube.com, for example, you can grab the embed code and add the video widget to your blog for the world to watch. If you create a form using Google Docs, you can click the button labeled link to get the code to embed it wherever you want. Add live streaming video by copying the widget code from a uStream.tv channel. If you have a Flash-, Java-, or HTML-based program you'd like to share as a widget, you can go to Widgetbox.com, click Make a Widget, and follow the step-by-step directions.
The idea of bringing content to our sites really opens the doors for creative and customized uses of a fast-growing library of educational resources. Science departments can add virtual labs to a project wiki. English classes could embed chat functions into a class blog. Elementary classes might want phonics games on a resource site. Administrators can place a questionnaire on a virtual bulletin board to collect data. You no longer need to be a programmer to have the benefits these tools offer.
We may not yet be at the point of simply turning the dial to tune in to Internet content, but the process is a lot easier than even a few years ago. Bringing tools, content, and fun to a previously stagnant site can really help to expand what we can offer. We are finally able to begin focusing less on the complexity of technology and more on the ideas of educators.
Michael Baker is the online learning coordinator and technology teacher for South Side Area School District in Hookstown, Pennsylvania. He is the founder of the Eduwiki.us project and was selected as one of the 20 to Watch by the National School Boards Association.