Using ICTs to Unpack and Repack Ideas: Part 1

One of the standard routines in any classroom is the way in which teachers mediate content for their students, taking abstract ideas and making them more accessible, more concrete: finding metaphors, examples and ways of explaining a concept to allow students to understand it better. Then, of course we find teachers helping students move the other way, to formulate their concrete experiences into abstract formulations, how to take a bunch of discrete facts and build an argument, or reach a conclusion. At the nub of ICT integration in the classroom is the question of how to use ICTs to facilitate this process.

ICTs are really great for encouraging students to explore and discover information on their own, or to find and express their own voice. Teachers will often let students loose on Google to “find out” about this or that, or to create a PowerPoint or write an essay about something. The result is often a disappointing cut & paste job in which a series of disconnected facts are poorly cobbled together without ever constructing an argument. Clearly what we want is for students to be able to research a topic, and come to understand, or unpack the question we are asking them to explore, and then to re-pack what they have found into a coherent argument which makes a valid point.

I believe that ICTs have key affordances which can be utilised to achieve this.

A great tool for unpacking abstract concepts and making them more real is the simulation such as the one on the right, illustrating the superimposition of two waves, taken from Daniel Russell’s web site. This type of visual representation of a concept is a great way to help students understand abstract ideas, and flash simulations and animations are fantastic for this sort of thing, especially for Science and Technology. I saw a great simulation once which allowed students to change switches on an electric circuit, and have the results displayed on the screen.

Educational games, likewise, can be used to foster understanding through the simulation of experiences. I’m not suggesting that Grand Theft Auto can teach valuable skills, but there are many so-called serious games which have a great deal to offer. Even recreational games such as DotA or CounterStrike teach collaboration and co-operation in the broadest sense.

Another useful digital tool for helping unpack ideas is the now ubiquitous YouTube video. Studying literature can often involve teachers trying to explain what life was like in the trenches in World War I, or what a Victorian Poor House was, or what Medieval jousting was. A quick video can convey details and help make concepts concrete far more readily than a verbal description. Google images is as useful. Before the Internet I used to draw pictures on the board all the time while teaching poetry, trying to convey the ideas my words could simply not convey. In much the same way as a simulation helps make abstract ideas concrete and real, YouTube offers wonderful opportunities to allow students to visualise things they would otherwise have no opportunity to experience. Any school that blocks YouTube is missing opportunities!

Online Forums and Discussion Boards can also be used to unpack ideas through talk. By posing a question about a poem, for example, and asking students to comment and discuss, ideas can be unpacked ahead of in-class discussion, making that discussion far more fruitful! Alternatively discussions unpacking ideas can be extended beyond the face-to-face discussion. What is useful about discussion forums is that students get to read other students’ unpacking of concepts. While they might not challenge the way a teacher unpacks an idea, they are prepared to challenge each others’ perceptions – which can be very beneficial!

In terms of research, although the Internet presents key affordances for leveraging discovery, the key is not so much in the technology itself, as in the question posed. To avoid cut and paste answers, the question should force students to unpack ideas and re-pack them again in different forms. For example, if you ask students to compare Christianity to Hinduism you are likely to get heavily plagiarised responses: Christians believe [ctrl & V], Hindus believe [ctrl & V]! You need to phrase the question in such a way as to force students to process both the ideas being searched, and their responses. Rather ask them if there is a universal idea underlying both faiths. Google then becomes a valuable research tool because students must evaluate the information they are searching in order to answer the question.

I am a firm believer in Thinking Map software. Specific software that helps students organise and unpack ideas they are researching. Used in conjunction with Google, the Thinking Map software helps students organise their thoughts as they retrieve them from the search engine. The Cornell note-taking system does the same thing, and I believe should always accompany any search engine task. There really is no excuse for just telling a class to do some research on a topic without trying to scaffold their unpacking of the content.

In this post I have argued that ICTs offer key affordances for mediating and unpacking ideas. In part 2 I will look at the affordances ICTs offer for repacking ideas.


ICTs & The Jigsaw Exercise

Jigsaw exercises are a staple ingredient in any constructivist pedagogy. They are exercises designed to foster collaboration. The basic exercise is as follows. Imagine a group which is researching, say, their city. In each group one student is responsible for looking at sanitation, another at transport, a third at entertainment, and so forth. Each student, in other words becomes an expert in a particular aspect of the overall topic. This pattern is mirrored in other groups, and at a certain stage students go out of their own groups to meet in expert groups: all the sanitation people will meet and discuss their findings, for example. The expert will then report back to their own group armed with a much greater understanding of their own sub-topic.

IMG_9717There are many variations of course, but that is the basic idea. It is a commonplace remark that ICTs can help promote collaborative learning, and I believe that’s true, but you very seldom find any discussion of exactly how to go about it. What tools can you use, and how do you go about using them?

I believe there are three crucial moments in any jigsaw exercise routine where ICTs can really help out. In a hybrid situation I would certainly make sure that I did not do all of these stages digitally. You will want the bulk of the discussion process to be face-to-face. However, devices can be used at any stage even when students are talking to each other in the same room. If you are using a Flipped Classroom model, you will need to decide which stage or stages of the task will be done in the classroom, and which outside the classroom.

The Research Stage

Most jigsaw exercises inherently involve an information gathering stage, although sometimes this is telescoped into a pre-provided information pack in which different students or different groups receive different information. One excellent idea is to use QR codes strategically posted around a classroom highlighting different information. This mirrors the “could all Group As meet in that corner” instruction! Or you can give each student a different printed QR code on a sheet of paper.

UntitledFirstly there are enormous possibilities for using technology during the research, information-gathering stage. I like the mix of technology and old fashioned pen and paper – for example using the Cornell note taking strategy, captured on pre-printed note-taking sheets (each sheet with the relevant QR code on it – if appropriate). These can be used while researching off an iPad or laptop. There seems to be some research suggesting that pen and paper summarising skills are more effective than any form of digital note-taking, and when it comes to reading and writing I am always more inclined to be more conservative in approach. Reading and writing is just too important cognitively to mess with! One thing I like to do is get students to tweet search terms that have been useful, or the links to useful websites they have found, using the class hashtag. If you are using QR codes, you can get students to create and share QR codes as well!

It is useful, I think, for research to be done in the expert group, and for students to work in the same space, but using devices to scour the Internet for information.

An alternative idea is to use your Moodle, Google Classroom or Edmodo platform to post different input materials, such as video or document files for each group – as Flipped Learning , before you come to class homework. This material can be used to guide the subsequent research process.

The Collaborative Discussion Stage

Secondly at the collaborative discussion stage (expert or general group)  you can use a range of tools to facilitate the move from research to discussion itself and in to the creation and publication of any report-back or product. You can use a platform to allow the experts to share research and discuss their discoveries, or for the expert to feed their specialist knowledge back into the group. I would not do both as too much of the same thing destroys the freshness of the task, and one reason for using ICTs is to vary the type of task students are doing.

If you are flipping your classroom, this part can be done outside of classroom contact time, and be the homework component of the task.

Pinterest, for example allows users to set up a board with a list of collaborators who are also allowed to pin items to the board. Comments and links can be posted, allowing for ways in which the experts can share the information they find. If you want the expert collaboration to be more formal, you will probably want to set up a dedicated forum for them to talk to each other. If you want more general discussion a dedicated forum for high school students is available at Collaborize Classroom for free. You can set up different discussion topics for each group, and then allow the experts to use the forum to share research and ideas. Alternatively you can use Google Groups to set up either an online forum or email based listserv. You can create many groups each with their own discussion topics.

The Presentation (Product) Stage

Finally, at the reporting stage when the general group produces their final product or report back, you can use Google Docs so that students can collaborate on putting together a shared document, or any software designed to allow for presentation or publishing, PowerPoint, Prezi, Voicethread or movie-making software are all good options.

An excellent strategy is to ensure that the final product requires a summary of the research process and not just a re-hashing of it. If students have been collecting data on Pinterest you can get them to use Google Docs to produce a report, because the information is in a different form, and therefore requires synthesis and discussion, but if they have been collaborating on Google Docs during the research phase, the final product should be something different, again so that discussion is necessary to convert the information into a usable form.

One good idea is to turn words into numerical data. If you are getting students to research the lives of historical or literary figures, the final product can be a spreadsheet of data collected on their average age, etc. If you are getting students to collect numerical data, then a written report will guarantee that the information needs to be synthesised.




The Assignment Amnesty!

amnesty2Being a library recidivist myself, I really appreciate the annual library amnesty! You know how it works, bring back your overdue books this week and no questions will be asked! One thing a large number of students struggle with is the pressure of submitting work late. The modern schooling environment places a huge demand on students, and many end up falling foul of late submission penalties. In my IT classes all submissions are made on Moodle, and I find that there is always a percentage who do not hand in work.

As a teacher I feel I need to incentivize proper submission, so anyone who hands in work before the due date can re-submit work electronically after feedback and will get an improved mark. Those who submit after the due date, cannot re-submit and will receive a penalty, but if they submit before the cut-off date they will still be assessed. After the cut-off date (usually a two week grace period) the assignment is closed and no further submissions are accepted.

All of this is handily automated on Moodle. If a student provides a valid excuse Moodle allows me to grant an extension, and they will be given a new, personalised deadline. This system works well, but there is always a group of students who somehow manage to fall behind – way behind in their work. At this stage, their problem becomes my problem because I have to start emailing their parents and making noises about failing grades because of non-submission. This was always a difficult conversation because parents invariably ask for their child to be allowed a “second chance” and if you do it for one you have to do it for everyone. What I therefore do now is grant an assignment amnesty once a term, and carbon copy parents into this notice. This makes the parent aware of the fact that their child has fallen behind in their work, and makes them aware of the new deadline.

The response from parents is overwhelmingly positive because they see it as a life-line being offered. Sadly the kind of student who falls so far behind invariably does not meet the new deadline either, but at least I have done my duty in informing the parents, and this makes the conversation at parent evening more productive as well.





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Posted by on September 9, 2014 in Assessment, Classroom Management, Moodle


The Case For eSports in Schools

DSC00236Thomas Arnold is best remembered for his reforms of the education system based on the tenets of Muscular Christianity, and most famously for his focus on the importance of team games, especially rugby, in developing character. I would like to argue that eSports could perform a similar function today, and should become a part of every school’s extra-mural programme.

Video gaming gets a bad rap, but a raft of research now suggests that playing video games is healthy, and leads to a positive sense of well-being and social engagement. Up to 3 hours a day, that is! Any more than that and players experience negative side-effects. I’m not going to bore you with a well-documented summary of the research – this article by Jane McGonigal presents the case pretty cogently. What I want to do is to make the link between Thomas Arnold and his Victorian notions of turning unruly louts into gentlemen, and playing video games competitively, and in teams.

IMGA0505Games such as DotA, CounterStrike, League Of Legends or Smite all involve players in a team game with a premium on strategy. Players need not only to plan a strategy over how they will collaborate to win the game, but they also need to learn how to communicate with each other to co-ordinate this plan in-game, and switch strategies in pre-determined game plans when their opponents have “figured out” what they are doing. Each player has a role to play in the overall strategy, and players train before a match to work out tactics they can use. If you can spot what your opponents are up to and trump their strategy you can set traps and gank them!

I cannot vouch for this, but I believe that eSports involves considerably more strategizing than a game like rugby. But even if it is merely the same, I believe it offers the chance for boys and girls to learn to work together on developing strategies and tactics in a setting which does not usually endanger one’s collar-bone! There are many children who can never hope to attain the physical prowess necessary to be chosen for a team at rugby or hockey, but all children can learn to play video games at a level which will involve them in strategizing, collaborating and communicating effectively.

Even the so-called casual gamer, when they play an eSport will need to fit in with the team strategy. I run a gaming club and every Friday I sit listening to kids screaming at each other because someone has not fulfilled their part in the game plan! Kids are frank, and can be cruel, but in eSports they tend to support each other as well. You don’t destroy an individual you are going to have to depend on next Friday when you play again! Older players tend to stop their game and give advice to newbies. It is a noisy, but quite warm and fuzzy environment.

Gamers have something of a reputation for being foul-mouthed, racist, sexist and bent on trolling behaviours, but in a school environment the atmosphere is one of camaraderie and sportsmanship – maybe because there’s a teacher present! While teenagers are racking up those 10 000 hours they apparently spend playing video games I believe it is vital that we give them a structured, disciplined environment to learn how to play with sportsmanship, largess and collaborative bonhomie! If we leave it to chance that they will fall in with the right crowd online we might be in for a rude shock. Let us rather, as teachers and parents, encourage youngsters to join a gaming club at school, compete with other schools, and learn the etiquette of gaming from the ground up.

In South Africa, Mind Sports South Africa runs an inter-school league for eSports. I firmly believe we need to integrate eSports into the sports curriculum, and recognise its importance in socializing screenagers!

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Posted by on September 5, 2014 in eSports


Integrating ICTs in your Lessons when you don’t have Enough Resources

I am extremely fortunate in that my classroom is extremely well resourced. I have an interactive white-board, 35 computers, students who almost all have smart phones and WiFi all over campus. If I need iPads I can book out a set of 30, and there are notebooks and so on that students can book out at any time. Not all teachers have this at their disposal, but in answer to those who say, ah well, you can integrate ICTs in your classroom because you have them – I can’t because I have no resources – I have a simple reply. Poppycock!

It sounds harsh, and o so easy for me to say, but I’ve been a teacher for quite a while, and I’ve worked in some schools which had precious few resources, if any. Phambili, the first school I taught in was situated in a squatter camp at Cato Crest Manor in Durban, South Africa. The school had a photocopy machine, and, er … that was about it. Teachers were often not paid as we relied on foreign donors, and foreign donors are quite prepared to fund science labs, but do not like to pay salaries – a policy I find totally short-sighted. A good science teacher does not need a science lab, they can teach using common household chemicals and realia. There was certainly no money for ICTs. This was in the early 1990s, and computers were starting to become ubiquitous.

The school finances got so bad that even the photocopy was suspended. One of the teachers showed us how to make a home-made jellypad to make duplications! I used my own computer to create spreadsheets for class records and even digitise the library stock. Not being very good with jellypads, I printed out my worksheets. I couldn’t afford many copies, so I devised a system of rotating the worksheets so that students worked on different work and all the sheets got recycled. From this I quickly hit on the idea of getting the students to present the material they received to the other members of the class, so each one, or each group would get different input.

clab2When I moved to Johannesburg, I ended up at St Enda’s, which, at the time I became HOD Technology had around 30 Celerons networked but with no Internet. I downloaded complete webpages and created an Intranet that would allow students to surf, well, whatever I could provide. Every day I brought in a stiffy disk – yes, it was back then – with a few more sites and hyperlinked it from the intranet portal. I had complete tutorials on various topics such as HTML, javaScript or A+.

Unfortunately students also started doing the same, and games, pornography and even a snuff movie found its way onto the network, hidden in covert files. It took constant vigilance to make sure that the dark web didn’t get too dark!

It’s not really about what you have – it’s about what you do with what you have. I know that’s easy for me to say, especially now when I teach at a well-resourced school, but we need to make sure that as teachers we never make excuses for ourselves. There’s always something you can do if you take the attitude that where there’s a will, there’s a way. A very powerful technique is to involve students themselves in narrowing the gap between what you’d like to see, and what you have. Just doing one thing may make all the difference.

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Posted by on August 30, 2014 in 21st Century Skills, Pedagogy


Teachnology: – Change Management & the Integration of ICTs in the Classroom

The world we live in is changing so fast it is easy to get disoriented. Teachers are expected to deal with these changes, and implement reforms on an almost constant basis. Some changes are minor – a change to the syllabus, or assessments required in student portfolios. Others are major – a new curriculum or the imperative of integrating ICTs in your lessons.

Change is often seen in terms of individuals adopting and diffusing innovative ideas or practices. A common model is Everett Rogers’ (1962) Diffusion of Innovation model, which, very crudely, sees change in terms of the rate at which adoption occurs.

In this model, within any school you will get teachers who adopt ICTs in their classrooms, and slowly, over time, more will join in until it reaches a critical mass and becomes part of the way things are done in the school, often mandated by administration. If it never reaches critical mass, the innovation fails.

One problem with this model is that it sees a school as a collection of individuals and ignores the social dimension. If ICT integration really worked this way we should have 100% adoption by now, and we don’t! Under Rogers’ model, ICT integration in education has not reached critical mass, and has failed. And yet, clearly, with so many devices in place in classrooms, we have crossed a Rubicon – there is no going back.

We really need to understand, first of all, what we mean by ICT integration. Many classrooms now have computers, even interactive smart boards in them. Many schools have computer labs which can be booked if not WiFi connections that allow students, and teachers to use their personal devices at any time. Most teachers are comfortable using a computer or cell phone in their personal lives, and are using computers to some degree to achieve administrative tasks in the classrooms. There is a great deal of technical support and training available, and professional development, online, has become easily accessible.

What is missing from this picture, which often leads people to assume that widespread adoption of ICTs has taken place, is integration of ICTs into pedagogical practice. In many cases ICTs have simply been grafted onto old ways of doing things, and teaching practice has not been transformed in any meaningful way. Interactive whiteboards are simply used as whiteboards were, or lectures are replaced by lecture-style PowerPoints!

Integration of ICTs in the classroom is all about how technology can be used to teach particular content better. For example, can the very brevity of twitter we used to teach summarising skills? Can Skype be used to bring real world experts into the classroom as mentors? Can cell phones be used as data collection tools in Science? When technology is integrated into classroom practice it becomes seamless and almost invisible as technology and pedagogy merge into … teachnology … how to teach with technology.

Now, how is this a social thing? Is it not a matter of individual teachers adopting technology and then championing its use, till eventually all teachers are doing it?

Much is made of the difference between old-style teacher-centered modes of teaching, and the new-fangled student-centered style, often equated with Constructivism. There is nothing in technology that automatically supports one learning theory or pedagogy rather than another. A PowerPoint can be used in Behavioural ways or Social-Constructivist, even Connectivist ways, but much of the rhetoric has devolved into an ICT integrated Constructivist good vs a teacher-centered lecture style Behaviourist bad polemic. This is extremely unhelpful and clouds the real issue, which is all about how teachers learn how to use technology to teach.

A Change model that seems to me to offer more chance of helping us do this is Michael Fullan’s Change Theory (1993). For Fullan, change is a complex system which involves the entire culture of schooling rather than just individuals. Teachers need to have their professional capital advanced, and must be convinced that the changes they are meant to be implementing are real and important. Change is then a whole-school/school district process which involves all agents as change agents. Even the resisters are positive forces for change.

What is required is a common vision for change rather than a diffusion of ideas or practices. Teachers need the space, and time to share ideas, share best practices and evolve a common understanding of what teachnology entails.

All learning is social, and this means that I can never simply acquire an understanding that you have of the world. What you do, and what you show me can help me to create my own understanding, but it always needs to be my understanding. Early adopters are important because they can be mediators of new knowledge, but change will only ever happen if all teachers are seen as change agents, and we shift to understanding that if we want change, we need to make the space available for teachers to grapple with those changes in social, collegiate ways.


Rogers, E. M. (1962). Diffusion of innovations. Free Press of Glencoe.

Fullan, M. (1993). The Change Process. The challenge of school change.

Fullan, M. (2006). Change theory: A force for school improvement.


The Poetry Slam & Digitally Reflective Practices

DSC01388We live in an increasingly reflective society. Some would say it is merely narcissism, but I believe that the key affordance of digital technologies is that they allow us to capture moments in time, moments of spontaneity, and then reflect on them. The implications of this for education are enormous. Stephan Harnad has theorized that this confluence of the immediacy of oracy with the reflective power of literacy constitutes a Fourth Cognitive Revolution. While this may be too sweeping a claim to call right off the bat, I believe it is important for teachers to start exploring how to use digital technologies to open up this immediate-reflective, oracy-literacy space.

At the end of last term I finished off with a poetry slam with my grade 10 Academy English class. The Academy is an after-school initiative by Roedean, where girls from inner-city schools in the area attend Maths, Science and English classes. I teach English and I try t try to supplement what they are doing in their own schools with a programme designed to promote digital and communicative skills generally. With the poetry slam each girl had twenty minutes to compose a poem on one of three given themes. They could compose on paper, or on computer, but if on paper had to scan their poem for digital upload. Most of the girls chose to compose on computer, although some used a combination of writing down ideas on paper and then typing their poem out.

At the end of twenty minutes we went outside to the cultural courtyard, and each girl performed her poem, to loud clapping, ululations and great support. The girls then voted on the winning performance. In the meantime, of course they had already uploaded their poems, in Word, or scanned, onto their Moodle page. I took plenty of pictures of the poetry readings, and put together a composite of pictures and poems (where permission had been granted) on the class Facebook page.

DSC01399When the girls return to school after the holidays they will have an opportunity to read the poems, and leave comments on the Facebook page. While the space of a few weeks between the performance and the reflection is not ideal, I think some distance is also helpful. In any event I needed some time to put the poems and pictures together. It is my hope that the students will be able to use the time reading the poems to reflect on what it meant for them as audience, and how it impacted on their sense of identity.

I chose to use Facebook because I don’t want the reflection to be seen as an academic exercise. I just want the students to be able to read a few of the poems (laboriously cut and pasted), and relive the photos. I was hoping that some of the girls would be checking out the Facebook page over their holidays, but no-one has to date!



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