Bett 2008: Softease Honeycomb

First impressions of this per pupil subscription based web 2.0 development environment for schools, led me to ask for a follow up onsite demo at school, and to discuss pricing initially for 250 user s with colleagues on the Softease stand.

What is Honeycomb? "In a nutshell, an integrated set of online creativity and collaboration tools that work through the Internet." (Softease 2008)

Based on the familiar object based functionality of other software in the softease stable, A range of web style pages can be quickly and visually compiled within a "wysiwyg" environment. Including page elements is achieved simply by dragging required components onto a page from prepared libraries, and then using familiar drag and drop techniques to place and resize the objects. Images, video and audio content, can be selected from available material within the environment or developed/downloaded and then imported for upload and use in a shared library, either by the teacher or the students. This may at first glance seem complex, but experiences with students using blogs and have shown how quickly students come to understand the idea that unlike local applications, web based material cannot be simply created by copy and paste. Text is also added to pages by drag and drop, by creating a text box object and then typing into it. Since the environment is object based, every item on the page is movable, by clicking and dragging, so items placed on the work space can be dragged and rearranged until the author is happy.

This is quite a development, in terms of the work I have previously done with students. for example, which I still think is a fabulous and powerful place to work with students is essentially modular, with each page being developed through the addition of blocks. Blogging too has a linear feel, with each new post, being added to the page in an essentially linear fashion. What I found appealing about Honeycomb, is the individual design element it begins to facilitate for the student. In some ways it reminds me of the Microsoft Publisher type approach to page design, but with direct publication of outcomes possible. In this way it is possible to bring to the environment a feel for the way you would like your page to look, and then to apply page elements to achieve this. For me viewing textual engagement multimodally requires this page design element to brought into play as a feature of writing as well as reading, and so this environment as a structure for learning about web based texts has possibilities for engaging students with available page designs on the web, allowing evaluation, and extension of work to consider how as authors in this environment we intend to engage our readers.

"Honeycomb is about pupil creativity and collaborative learning. This is at its heart, and its future direction will be founded upon this premise. This is why Honeycomb, similar to our previous release Podium, has been designed to serve specific education purposes and is suitable for pupils of all ages and differing abilities. As far as we’re aware such a development is currently unique in the market place." (Softease 2008)

The environment states an intent to enable pages to to be developed that perform a host of functions, currently these include wiki spaces to support collaborative work, the development of web pages and blogs. Although I am an enormous fan of, and have begun to extend this work through blogging, as I said above both these environments are essentially linear in there nature. That is to say the young user of these spaces have no design control over page layout and design. I have favoured the use of other environments such as PowerPoint, 2simple's 2create, MS Publisher to enable engagement with the process of page design and layout, embedding these within html pages to give web life to them later. The structure of and tools available within the Honeycomb environment may for the first time provide a context in which my students could have their first taste of real, multimodal web design.

I am by no means a company man, favouring instead and strongly committed to a multiple tool and environment approach to the teaching of ICT skills. I would not be happy providing one tool for my students to fulfill all needs. There are still some things I want to further investigate through demo.

Looking at this tool, I am interested in its possible role in content management and development. And how we might be able to use it to support student and colleague ownership over the development of publishable web based content.

Purpose and contextual use of tools for communicating is key I feel in the development of learning with and about ICT. We use a number of other tools to develop material for web publication. The power for example of flash packaging material through export from 2 simple environments, has been incredibly powerful in enabling our students to publish material to the web through a third party. I am sure an argument might be that with Honeycomb, this would not be necessary as the students can use the environment itself to communicate multimodaly, but there are affordances within tools such as this that are currently not available, and personally I like the idea of using a range of software environments to explore representations, using this common format would enable cross compatibility. I am still not clear just how possible this is within honeycomb, though a suggestion was hinted at by importing flash applications to the picture library.

Used to working in Think, I am familiar with the leaving of stickies, messages on pages, by other students. Within honeycomb students can also leave comments as with blogs in the real world, but an exciting dimension to this tool for those of us interested in assessment for learning, is because the environment is object based, special icons can be left in addition to comments on particular page elements. By dragging these and associating them with an object, perhaps a gold star, or a tick, can be used to indicate elements that are liked, with perhaps, a comment being left to suggest an area for improvement. I like this and its potential affordance to engage students in self and peer evaluation. The "two stars and a wish," strategy seem to take on a whole new dimension here.

I know that Honeycomb is not intended as a web content and management environment, though one of the possibilities it seems to potentially afford, is that of student and colleague ownership through the development of communities within school. I would be interested to see how this might or could be developed to allow closed project development, that can eventually be opened live to the web via the school website. This links closely to some ideas I have already begun to develop through blogging in class, and have experienced regarding blogging projects in other schools. I am looking forward to exploring some of these questions and ideas further with James when we meet later this term.

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