What Hogwarts has to teach us about Online Education

hogwartsHogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry has recently launched itself online. You can enroll at the legendary school, join a house, buy your textbooks online at Flourish and Blotts with money placed in your vault at Gringotts Bank and enroll in courses such as Defence Against the Dark Arts or The History Of Magic. Your professors and teaching assistants are volunteers. You have textbooks to read for each course, sometimes a prezi as well, and write essays and take online quizzes to pass your courses, gaining points as you go. You can also collect chocolate frog cards which pop up periodically! You can join a dorm, and make friends from among your fellow students. Your points contribute to House points, and there are leaderboards and bragging rights to be had.

All good fun – but what can it teach us about real schools and their online offerings?

In essence Hogwarts presents itself as a pretty mediocre MOOC. The learning material is created by volunteers and the quizzes and assignments suffer from the same vagaries as one finds on Coursera, for example. Some are well thought out and others are idiosyncratic and bear little connection to the instructional input. Some courses promise engagement and others are pretty pedestrian. No surprises then!

The gamified elements are not innovative either – the usual Points, Badges, Leadersboard stuff! But simple is often best. I like the way that students’ academic assignments earn House Points, and maybe schools need to look at this. The moment your assignment has been graded, your points are incremented. The site is in its infancy, and I am sure many features will be added, many opportunities for exploring the world of Harry Potter in unique ways. Fan fiction is already an option, and users may write their own books and post them.

What is genuinely exciting about Hogwarts, of course is its brand! You’d have to be quite churlish not to feel a twinge of excitement upon receiving your acceptance letter – who would not want to study at Hogwarts?! The glossy look and feel to the home page exudes confidence, and is exactly what you’d expect from an elite school. It is this aspect, the sense of wonder which real schools need to try to emulate. Not all schools are exciting as Hogwarts, but schools need to find what is exciting about their ethos and mission and sell it to their students.




The Potential of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain) “Surprise” Educational Reforms are Possible

Originally posted on kennethfetterman:

The excerpts that follow may be found in the original source material.

Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals–Handbook 1 [the] cognitive domain. New York, NY: David McKay, Inc.

Historical Perspective 

The idea for this classification system was formed at an informal meeting of college examiners attending the 1948 American Psychological Association Convention….  This meeting became the first of a series of informal annual meetings of college examiners.  Gathering at a different university each year and with some changes in membership, this group … considered the problems involved in organizing a classification of educational objectives….  [Although the members of this cohort (including Benjamin S. Bloom) have accepted responsibility for producing the taxonomy], ‘credit’ for ideas, suggestions, and sound criticism should be distributed more widely among all those who have attended one or more meetings of the group. (pp. 4-5)

[As indicated], this Handbook is…

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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in Uncategorized


Why I prefer the SOLO Taxonomy to Bloom’s

Bloom’s Taxonomy is without a doubt the most often used taxonomy for educational outcomes, but in many ways the SOLO taxonomy of Biggs & Collis (1982) represents a more useful tool for assessing the levels attained in students’ work. SOLO stands for Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome.

The taxonomy enables teachers to assess students’ work in terms of its quality not in terms of what they got right and got wrong. There are five levels, rising in complexity and competence. At the lowest level, (pre-structural), students miss the point entirely. At the next level (unistructural), students are able to identify only one aspect of a topic, At the third level (multistructural) students are able to identify several aspects but they are unrelated. At the fourth level (relational) students can integrate different ideas into a whole. Finally, at the highest level (extended abstract), students are able to generalise and hypothesise.

soloWhat I find particularly useful about this approach is that it looks at the work students produce in ways which are intuitive and easy to understand. This makes it a usable framework. One of the problems with Bloom’s taxonomy is that it focuses on behaviours which are often hard to discern. How does one know when a response reflects analysis rather than knowledge, or synthesis rather than comprehension? Anyone who has ever tried to differentiate between elements of a student’s response will understand what I mean. This is compounded by the fact that few students ever attain any ability to display the higher order thinking skills. Perhaps this only really happens at post-graduate level. Many students are, however, capable of multi-structural or relational thought, and some of abstracting to new situations or contexts.

The taxonomy is more relevant for high school, and less tainted with the charge of being Behaviourist. SOLO was designed within a Constructivist framework. And this is where its usefulness really comes to the fore – as a tool for helping students think about their own thinking and how to make it more complex, using simple rubrics.

There’s a level at which everyone can understand the phrase, “You’ve used several ideas, but you haven’t made connections between them to make an argument” while telling a student that they have analysed but not synthesised is pretty meaningless for all concerned. Teacher and student can then focus on particular thinking skills to help progress to the next level. Pam Hook’s website is a fantastic resource, filled with ideas on how to go about this.




What Tech have you found most useful?

In all my years as a computer/English teacher I’ve used quite a few technological tools to help me try and teach a little better. This morning someone floored me though with a very simple question, what digital tool have you found most useful? I say floored, because I honestly couldn’t think of one on the spot. I started saying Moodle, becasue it’s what I use everyday as my platform of choice, but then I stopped. Is a platform really a tool? It’s just there to enable everything else you use. It’s more like a work-bench than a tool itself.

OK, well, how about PowerPoint? I do all my lesson plans on PowerPoint because that allows me to share with my students, and have links to resources. It allows students who are absent to find out where we’ve got to, and what comes next. But PowerPoint, the way I use it anyway is a classroom management tool rather than a pedagogical tool per se.

Except of course when I use the Presenter plugin on PowerPoint to create Flash SCORMs as tutorials to post on my Moodle page! But that’s classroom management again, isn’t it? What about Adobe Flash. I love to get my students to create Flash animations and games. But Flash isn’t free, so it can’t really be my top tool …

DSC00181So … O I got it. Twitter. I use twitter, embedded on my Moodle page as my back channel. Students can use the class hashtag to ask questions, send links and comment on what they have done. I can send links to resources and class announcements too. Everyone can follow on my twoodle, my twitter feed on Moodle. But again – that’s more classroom management, isn’t it? Well, with some pedagogy …

OK, Skype! My wife uses Skype all the time to teach Italian over the Internet. I don’t use it that way, but I use it for students to record video messages as feedback after group-work assignments, for report-backs. I also use VideoPad for the same purpose. These video messages can be saved and uploaded to Moodle as reflection. I can then post them on a reflection page.

So what about Camtasia? Audacity? WordPress? Edmodo? All good stuff, but really about me as a teacher creating or hosting content? What do I get my students to use? PowerPoint, Word, Prezi, WordPress, VoiceThread, yes they use them all at some time or another, but really, what do they use everyday?

Why, Moodle, of course.

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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Web 2.0 Tools


Zhush Up Your Moodle

takkMoodle is a very powerful Learning Management System, but it has always been a little clunky. It takk3needs zhushing up! Luckily Moodle has the ability to embed content created using HTML, and this can go a long way towards allowing you to design your Moodle page if you have that inclination.

If, like me, you are not that gifted in the design department you can create content online sing sites that help with the design, and then embed it. I recently found a useful website where you can create great-looking sharable content easily online. You can then share it to FB, twitter, etc or create embed code to pop into your Moodle page.

The site is called Tackk and it allows you to add very elegant content using words and graphics, which can then be shared easily.The result is pretty much like a Facebook post which users can then comment on. I created a notification of a class project, for example – and then embedded that on my Moodle page using an HTML block.

What is great about this approach, and this particular little widget is that students can then comment on the embedded feed. Moodle has long lacked this kind of Facebook-like interactivity, and being able to introduce it,via the back-door is a huge plus!

Because comments can also include links to uploaded content, this is potentially a very useful way of sharing interactive content. Moodle acts as the portal page for the sharing of content, and because it embeds on the page, the user does not need to go off-site to see what others are saying, sharing, or uploading.

I have yet to see the results of these trials, in the field, so to speak, but I would love to hear from others trying it out, and I will report back on my own experiments.


Writing On PowerPoint – Creating Interactive Books

sjcI am convinced that the way to turn boys on to writing is to play games. Research shows that boys who are judged in school to have reading ages well below their chronological ages are writing on games forums and fan sites at a level appropriate or even above where the school expects them to be. The message is clear – for the majority of boys schools are dysfunctional, whereas gaming offers a world which engages their intellectual interest and produces literacy practices their English teachers would envy!

I run a games club at my sons’ school, and the boys use the club’s website blog to write copiously about the games that they are playing. The level of literacy displayed on the club blog would appear to back up reasearch results.

I teach at an all girl school, and one of the more successful writing tasks that I have set girls is to use PowerPoint, and specifically the action buttons function, which allows you to establish clickable links from one slide to another, to create interactive “books.” You know the kind of interactive Role Play Game Books that were created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in the 1980s? You would read a passage and then be given a choice, each choice leading to a different outcome on a different page of the book. The reader could thus navigate different narratives with alternate endings, including, of course, the fateful – ‘you die!” Any combats were resolved with a roll of the die. This type of book has recently re-incarnated in the form of apps on your iPad or phone.

Using PowerPoint, and action buttons a student can write a similar book, using clickable links instead of turning to a particular page, and different slides instead of pages. The writing can be complemented with graphics in a way that engages screenagers. Within an hour most students can already write a story with 3 or more branches, and many take it on as a personal challenge.

I don’t teach boys at the moment, but I was assessing some of the PowerPoints that my students had written, and my 14-year-old son looked over my shoulder at the screen. I showed him how to use the action buttons and he was hooked, immediately starting one of his own. It seems to me that this task would go down quite well with boys, and might be something a teacher could use to try to close the gender literacy divide.


The Digitally Dialogic Classroom

The Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin has much to offer teachers who wish to transform their classrooms into places of lively debate where the voice of the student is heard rather than the monologue of the teacher. Despite a broad consensus that learning needs to be learner-centred and active, rather than authoritarian and passive, perhaps the majority of classrooms continue to reflect what Bakhtin called, an authoritative discourse. Teachers tend to give lectures, and students are treated as passive vessels being filled up with knowledge. As Irwin Edman once put it, teaching is the art of casting false pearls before real swine!

For Bakhtin all language and thought is a dialogic process. All language, and thought is social. Meaning is made, constructed by a process of interaction. The very words we use are formed under the pressures of centripetal unifying forces (something like the dictionary definition of a word) where the meaning of that word is socially agreed, and centrifugal forces, for all utterances have an individual flavour shaped by our unique experiences in this world. The meaning I invest in the word horse is similar, but different to yours. We both mean four-legged creatures you can ride, but what I mean is coloured by the fact that I was savaged as a boy by a Shetland pony anxious to wrench a sugar-cube from my hand, and your meaning may be largely shaped by more pleasant experiences of money won off the backs of Arabian stallions at the race-track.
If we wish to get away from an educational system centred on the lecture and passivity, we need to be able to introduce the voice of the student into the conversation. Not that I am against the lecture. It is often necessary and beneficial. It is an efficient way to introduce new material to students. I have argued elsewhere in this blog, that in the sage-on-the-stage vs the guide-on-the-side debate I am very much in favour of the meddler-in-the-middle! Teachers need to transmit knowledge from time to time and provide students with the knowledge and skills they need, they need to work with students’ voices as well, work collaboratively and in communities of practice. Most of all they need to roll up their sleeves and engage with student learning, constructing meaning with students, side by side. Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism is a useful theoretical underpinning for any teacher trying to explain to administrators or parents what they are doing.

One of the critical thinking approaches that I find works best in my classroom is the Philosophy For Children approach (P4C) where a lesson becomes an enquiry, and all voices are heard in the conversation that develops. I use it most often for the discussion of poetry, both in the face to face classroom, and on a forum. The question is always, what does the poem mean? I see my role as a teacher in this enquiry as being to introduce key ideas that might help sharpen the discussion, to focus attention when it is wandering and to try to draw in those who are not participating. A follow-up to an enquiry is usually an explicit lesson on some formal aspect of the discussion such as unpacking narrative voice or what irony means. As a pedagogy then, for me, dialogic pedagogy means that balance between the authoritative monologic teacher voice and the dialogic student chorus where meaning is made socially.

harnadI believe that forums, either on Moodle or another platform, are an excellent way of encouraging student voices and valorizing students’ opinions, and in terms of the Flipped Classroom represent an ideal way of flipping discussion. It allows students to continue the debate once the class is over, and provides an opportunity to maximise discussion time in class if you hold some discussion online ahead of the class. Student comments on the forum are a great way to kick off in-class discussion, for example. I love the fact that a forum post also involves more reflection. Students, because they are writing out a response rather than speaking, are able to think an reflect just that little bit more. Their response is still immediate and often in reaction to what others have said, but it is also considered, more crafted. Stevan Harnad suggests that this power of reflection and immediacy is what characterises the power of the new digital technologies to unleash a fourth cognitive revolution.

Students are often reticent about posting discussion online, just as they may be in a face to face situation, but often it is different children who are drawn into the discussion, so I would always recommend running both discussions, face to face and on forums simultaneously – get the one to feed or continue the other. Being active on the forum helps draw students in. And make it compulsory! Don’t be afraid to assess participation both quantitatively and qualitatively. When students realise that it counts they will post!


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