My Teacher is a Zombie – Marking by Rubric on Moodle

bczI have just finished marking a whole bunch of flash animations as part of a grade 8 computer skills examination, and the topic of the animation task just happened to involve a zombie. After assessing about a hundred of these things, I felt pretty zombie-like too! But the point I wanted to make is actually about rubrics. When I was a kid, teachers never used rubrics, or not that I was aware of anyway! The mark you got seemed fairly arbitrary for it appeared at the bottom of your essay with a circle around it and a disembodied comment such as “Good” or “Poor”. After a glass of wine, we speculated, the comment might have become more expansive, but also more illegible! Perhaps this is an unfair assessment of my teachers. There were, after all, helpful annotations in the form of underlined spelling mistakes, and red lines through phrases felt to be inappropriate or colloquial. I have to say though that I seldom understood why I had been given a particular mark, or how to go about improving my performance.

These days, the emphasis is on using rubrics to try to help students understand the criteria by which they have been assessed, and there is no doubt that a well-designed rubric can lay bare where marks were gained and lost. There is, though, still something awfully mechanical and routine about the whole assessment process. Anyone who has ever had a sizeable number of scripts to mark will know that catatonic, zombiesque state that marking induces. The petty nit-picking, or the cavalier acceptance of partially correct responses, the moments of self-doubt and angst over whether to deduct marks for spelling or not! Even intelligent human beings can be reduced to mind-numbing pedantry when faced with the challenge of assessing a pile of scripts that need to be finished before Monday 8am!

One hears stories about teachers who deliberately lose scripts rather than mark them, or the legendary stair method – throw the scripts down the stairs. the ones at the top get an A, the next step a B, and so on! Go into any staff-room during exam time and listen to the hysteria build after days of being forced to sit in front of piles of marking, armed only with a red pen and the promise of caffeine and nicotine at predetermined moments of the day, rewards for each batch of twenty, or every half-hour crossed off the boredom of the day! Some teachers mark a whole script at a time, while others tackle questions or batches of questions in sequence. If it gets too much you can count the scripts remaining. Some mark in solitary isolation, others in groups calling out particularly juicy answers to each other as they draw a red line through the page!

I’ve drawn a pretty gloomy picture about what is probably every teacher’s least favourite part of the job – the part that is least rewarding, and perhaps the least affirming both for student and teacher. Even loving, caring individuals become like zombies when marking!

rubricOne aspect of marking online is the magnificent affordance offered by rubrics. The screenshot shows my rubric for assessing the zombie flash animations which have haunted the last few hours of my life! The rubric module on Moodle allows you to set up a rubric, which you can then use for delivering feedback and assessment. After opening the file to be assessed, you simply click on the relevant box in the rubric, and attach relevant comments for each question, and a comment at the end. You can attach a feedback file if you wish. The one assessed here was perfect, except for one error, which has been noted. At the end I attached a positive comment and the software automatically adds up the marks and appends them to the grade-book which can be downloaded as a spreadsheet at the end!

Using a rubric in this way minimises a great deal of the pain, and possibility of error associated with adding up manually, or transferring to a grade-book, leaving more time for helpful comments! Rubrics can be saved as templates, and re-used, edited, or tweaked over the years. As soon as you have marked an assignment the feedback, rubric and mark becomes available to the student on their Moodle page together with any memo or exemplar you upload. I often make a screen-cast video of myself doing the exam, talking through sticking points and why something has been assessed in the way that it has. I post this on the Moodle page so that students can check their work against the exam questions. I find this works very well, and makes the task of handing back exam papers less fraught!

I do worry though that using the rubric module has made the process so slick, that I am running the risk of just going through the motions. Using an electronic rubric frees up the time to prepare a memo video, and to write out longer comments, but it is in many ways as zombiesque a process! Electronic or otherwise, … tick … tick … tick! Click … click … click!



Posted by on November 20, 2014 in Assessment, Graphic Software, MOOCs, Moodle


Using ICTs to Unpack and Repack Ideas: Part II

IMG_9705In Part I, I discussed how ICTs offer key affordances for unpacking ideas and abstract concepts, making them accessible to students. In this post I will look at that other major routine in every classroom, the re-packaging of concrete experiences and ideas into the organised expression of abstract thought. If unpacking is largely about reading of texts or experiences, re-packing is about writing. More particularly it is about learning how to express oneself in genres, in academic language, in empowering new discourses. By writing, of course, I mean thinking as well. Students studying Science or History are essentially learning how to think like a Scientist or an Historian, how to use the ideas and vocabulary of those disciplines to construct meaning.

ICTs can be very important tools in managing and scaffolding this process. Too often teachers simply set a writing task, and without any scaffolding expect students to produce results. Writing is then graded, and those who fall short receive little additional support beyond a few comments or indications where they went wrong. One of the reasons for this resides in the very labour intensive nature of assessing writing. It takes a long time for a teacher to read every piece of writing a student produces, more time to think about what help a student needs to improve, to keep track of progress and to make pertinent and useful interventions. Assisting a single student is time-consuming, a class of 30 is a nightmare! And if your teaching load includes five such classes … impossible to do justice to! This is true if you are an English teacher or a History teacher, or any discipline that involves lengthy essay-writing.

Learning is a social process, and as Vygotsky pointed out, we learn first to do things assisted by others, and then on our own. I think this is especially so with writing, which is by nature directed at a social audience. ICTs offer exciting applications both in terms of multi-media authoring tools, publishing opportunities.and in terms of connecting writers and encouraging writing.

To my mind, then, the key affordances that ICTs offer revolve around the ability to enhance multimedia authoring, and to foster communication during the writing and thinking about your writing stages.

Multi-Media Authoring

We live in an increasingly multi-media rich society, and text is no longer the only way in which students can express their ideas. There are exciting possibilities available in terms of video, sound, animation, graphic and presentation software which can be used in the classroom as an alternative to the written word. All of these tools allow expression of thought multi-modally, but to a certain extent they also help students organise their thoughts. For example, even a simple PowerPoint presentation directs the author towards the use of keywords rather than extended answers, and, if used skillfully can help students become aware of the bones of their argument, and the importance of knowing what your argument is. A PowerPoint can then be used as a first step in constructing a History essay, if followed up by a full-blown essay.

Just as a Flash animation can be useful in Science in visually demonstrating a process or idea, so getting students to create animations to illustrate processes or ideas can be very useful. Flash is a wonderful tool or this, but animations in PowerPoint can work just as well to show an electrical circuit or chemical bonds, for example.

Presentation applications, such as PowerPoint, Prezi or Voicethread are all useful too when it comes to English literature studies. Poetry works through imagery, and students can use presentations to explore the imagery of a poem, themes, or characterization using images they find on the Internet. I find that this helps them visualize the way in which the meaning of the poem is built upon layers of images. In a presentation the class discussion will focus on the extent to which the images chosen are appropriate to the poem at hand.

Videos are another fantastic way of allowing students to explore a topic. The process of editing the video down to a specified length can be used to help students select ideas or inclusion. This is an important part of the development of any argument. I also find that video encourages students to develop single ideas. In writing essays, students tend to struggle with tying generalisation to specific examples, quotes or anecdotes that develop and contextualize that idea. On video, the graphic format almost forces this to happen, so that if you foreground this process it can help them develop an awareness that any argument consists of both a general idea and highly contextualised supporting evidence or development of the concept.

The genre of the literary essay requires students to make statements about theme, characterization and so on, and support these statements with evidence from the text. Many students struggle with this in essay format, but are able to create a short video in which they find scenes from a set-work to illustrate a theme. You can then ask them to write an essay using the scenes they included in their video.

You will gather from what I have said above that my main focus is on how to use digital tools to support traditional essay writing rather than in replacing it. I honestly do not believe there is a substitute for the academic essay in building and displaying rigour of thought. PowerPoints, animations, comic strips, and videos can all be used to help develop and attain these skills, however, and a considerable part of our responsibility as teachers in the 21st Century is finding out how to do this!


When teaching writing, I have always used writing circles to encourage students to share their writing, talk about it and help each other learn to edit their work. Paper-based writing is difficult to discuss, unless multiple copies are photocopied ahead of time. Even with a visualizer, discussion of any student text can be awkward. Writing posted to a blog, or shared online, however, is much easier to manage, and a record of interchanges is preserved, making it the perfect platform for a meta-cognitive approach to writing. Using fan fiction sites can also encourage creative writing beyond the classroom walls, and is very motivating for students.

Using presentations as the basis for classroom discussion also helps build awareness of the choices made during the writing process. Students can be asked to identify the thesis statement of any presentation, or supporting evidence for any statement. Gradually students can be guided towards thinking of writing as a strategic process: what points are being made, how they are ordered and what use of examples, facts, quotes or anecdotes are made to develop and support the argument, rather than thinking about individual word choices.

Collaborative writing tasks are also very useful. Google Docs, for example, allow students to comment and collaborate on a report in real-time, and for the teacher to make editing suggestions while the report is being written! This ability to intervene even before a report has been presented in first draft is crucial in scaffolding writing tasks, and students find it very motivating as well. To be able to get feedback before turning in a report or essay is a huge advance on the traditional draft, feedback, final draft routine. It is also physically easier as students can invite you to their google doc to receive feedback, and you can comment while they are writing. In terms of the flipped classroom, I think this functionality provides a really concrete way of allowing for extended contact time and support outside of classroom hours.

One way of looking at teaching is to note the delicate balance between helping students acquire dominant discourses and academic language (voices of power), while developing their own understandings and expressiveness (the power of voice). Digital tools offer exciting new ways of managing and achieving these purposes.


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


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