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Coding is the new Shop!

DSC00169When I was at school we had a subject called woodwork & metalwork, which was compulsory for all boys. Leaving aside issues of sexism, and the often desultory efforts made by my teachers to teach me the elements of joinery and metalwork, the sense was that all boys needed to be able to make, or at least fix, household furniture, and tackle DIY jobs around the house. By the same token, girls had to do home economics, cooking and sewing. I wish I had taken woodwork more seriously because I lack the kind of DIY skills today that would have stood me in excellent stead. Fewer schools offer home economics, woodwork & metalwork these days, but whatever one thinks of this, I would argue that in the twenty-first century, coding is the new shop!

Just as in previous decades, everyone learned some of the basic skills they might require in life to make and create things around the house, so, in the digital age, I would argue the ability to tweak and hack our programmable machines emerges as crucial life skills which everyone should learn. I’m not saying we all need to become programmers, or that we need to study computer studies as a full subject. To my mind the issue is that all students should be able to, at the very least, use HTML to tweak their blog posts or Facebook page, or mod their favourite games, or tweak their avatars. If MIT has its way the future will be awash with programmable machines, and the ability to actually tweak those settings would come in handy too!

I also believe coding gives one cognitive skills which would be of benefit to all. Coding forces students to think logically and accurately. In these days where opinions are largely expressed by sharing or liking, there is more need than ever for a discipline which emphasizes clear logical thinking. I think that creating games is an excellent way of introducing coding to students. Creating Flash games in particular can be very motivating for students because in a very short time, and with very few skills they can have a superb up and running, and this can be converted to an iOs or Android app.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Coding For Kids

 

In Search Of The Holy Grail – How do ICTs foster Critical Thinking?

DSC00161The Holy Grail of ICT integration in the classroom is that almost mythical quest for the application of ICTs to foster critical thinking. The assumption that the introduction of ICTs would somehow magically transform teaching practice, leading to more learner-centred, problem-based, cognitively rich classrooms has not borne fruit. I am not saying that ICTs have not had an impact, or that they have not been used properly. There are many excellent examples of good practice, and yet the effective use of ICTs to uniquely engender critical thinking is far rarer. Critical thinking is extremely hard to define, and happens far less frequently than we would like to think in any case. Kahneman’s notion of fast and slow thinking: system 1 thinking which is based on intuition and emotion rather than system 2 thinking which is more deliberate and logical, illuminates the problem. Most of our thinking is rooted in fast, quick reliance on assumptions and pre-digested opinions rather than consciously working through an argument and examining evidence.

In the classroom much of what passes for critical thinking is actually firmly rooted in the rehearsal of handed-down opinions and prejudices. I would contend that the prime characteristic of critical thinking is that student’s assumptions are questioned, the reasons for believing something are examined, and that arguments are unpacked and critiqued. I’m not convinced that this happens as often as we would wish, and sometimes it is not happening even when we think it is.

Actually this is very rare in life as well. Most of us live inside a universe of comfortably held views which are seldom questioned, and outside of which we seldom step. The problem is not really that ICTs have been ineffective. The problem is that we just don’t think enough! We never have.

Can ICTs be used within a classroom to change any of this?

I would argue that just as the Holy Grail is chimerical, so is the search for any single tool or application that will uniquely foster critical thinking. Just as a piece of paper and a pencil can be used to write meaningless doggerel or a thought-provoking essay, the tools themselves are not guarantees of any result. You can use Skype, for example to talk to your granny or to Stephen Hawking, and the likelihood of any serious critical thinking emerging is based more on the content than the tool. And yet tools do have affordances, properties which enable certain types of interactions. Because Skype enables communication, it can certainly enable critical thinking. Because Google docs enables synchronous collaborative writing, the likelihood of greater reflection in the writing process is increased. Tools may not guarantee any result, but they are not neutral, as is often claimed. ICTs do have a role to play in transforming our classrooms into thinking spaces.And yet no single tool can be claimed as the holy grail of critical thinking!

The greatest exemplar of critical thinking that we have is probably the Socratic method, a pedagogical methodology in which the teacher challenges a student through dialogue, to question their own thought and develop more rigorous and robust arguments. The teacher will help the student expose weaknesses and contradictions in their thought, highlight contrary evidence and scaffold the process by probing and questioning, as well as modelling thinking. The key feature of the Socratic method is dialogue, that the student develops their ideas under the mentorship of a teacher who teases out the student’s thought, and offers input from a more experienced standpoint. Dialogue is essentially the bringing together of interactivity, of communication, with collaboration, the joint development of an argument or idea.

Socrates had the luxury of a one-on-one engagement with his students, and was free from the need to pursue an imposed syllabus or common core standards, or to produce a battery of continuous assessments. He didn’t even have to coach soccer to the Lower Vs! I’m not saying that the Socratic method cannot work in a whole class situation, but it’s application is constrained, and often truncated by the annoying ringing of bells or the intervention of another student. Our schools are simply not set up for prolonged interrogation of thought. Our schools are predicated on system 1 thinking, the acquisition and memorization of second-hand ideas presented in bite-sized chunks called lessons.

Some have argued that a key affordance of ICTs is that they might enable greater personalization of learning, that students could progress on their own individually tailored learning paths. This idea, while seductive, is tantalizingly out of reach currently. The Personalisation by Pieces approach offers insight into some of the ways it might work – through skills ladders and peer mentorship, and we should be vigorously trying to find ways to make this work. But for a classroom teacher in 2015, it appears as far away as it was when the idea first came out. Students are kept so busy in any given school day that the kinds of solutions teachers can apply such as using technology to add remediation and enrichment tasks are difficult to apply in the face of a relentless syllabus. Unless the entire system swings over to a personalised approach, individual teachers’ hands are tied.

Nevertheless this does open up the question of the centrality of infrastructure and architecture. Perhaps we should look at the role of ICT infrastructure and the types of classroom interactions that can be supported through this architecture. Perhaps the unique contribution ICTs can make to thinking lies not in individual properties, but in the aggregation of their affordances. Put another way, perhaps it is the ability to bring together communication and collaborative tools which uniquely affords critical thinking in the classroom? Stevan Harnad’s notion of a fourth cognitive revolution brought about by the bringing together of the immediacy and interactivity of oracy with the reflective power of literacy in the nearly synchronous world enabled by the Internet is an idea which is pregnant with possibility. The unique enabling of communication and collaboration through a networked society is a powerful notion which has inspired many classroom interventions. But the mere addition of near simultaneous communication and collaborative tools does not guarantee critical thinking. And most classrooms are not routinely connected in this way. If it is to happen it must be through the provision of an adequate architecture.

A Learning Management System is a must for any teacher seriously engaged in integrating digital tools within their classroom. Digital tools mean digital output, and imply the need for some interface for pulling it all together. That interface is effectively your LMS. Teachers who simply ask students to email them their digital assignments and then record assessments on a spreadsheet are using Outlook and Excel as their LMS. Those who use Moodle, Edmodo or Google Classroom will have custom-built tools to achieve classroom routines such as instruction, assessment, feedback or discussion. Most LMSes are pretty good at hosting digital SCORMs, podcasts or videos to supplement instruction, and of enabling assessment of digitally submitted assignments using rubrics or online annotation. Feedback is also a common-place function, but discussion is currently a weakness in most LMSes. Chat and forum modules are usually built-in, but do not generally commonly foster genuine discussion.

Much the same could be said of classroom discussions as well.How much of it is on topic? How much of it is insightful rather than trivial? The problem is not with the tools – it’s with how we use them. The average classroom already enables communication and collaboration. Put the chairs in a circle and students can discuss and collaborate. What is lacking though is the ability to delay and reflect. Immediate synchronous discussion has huge power, but students quickly move on to the next task, and seldom revisit a discussion, and lack the means to do so because oral discussion is ephemeral. An LMS which is able to record and store discussion for future reflection would go a long way towards enabling critical thinking.

I would like to argue then, that a necessary first step in creating a situation where ICTs can meaningfully foster critical thinking, is to focus on how we can bring together communication and collaboration. A focus on individual tools and applications is fine, but it needs to go beyond that to look at infrastructural issues. None of the major LMSes truly achieves this key affordance effortlessly and fluently. I would argue that the infrastructure really requires a space which allows students to effortlessly upload recordings of face to face discussions for future reference, to discuss in writing collaboratively and to edit and update files at any time. Currently all the major LMSes view the assignment space as a single upload without any linked discussion space. Google docs offer the ability to mutually edit, to comment and to chat! But then Google Classroom does not incorporate this feature in the assignment module. And You cannot set up groups. Moodle allows groups, even peer assessment, but does not allow for mutual editing and commenting on a document. Edmodo allows for groups, but similarly misses out on any collaborative features.

It may not bring the Grail Quest any closer, but for me the sine qua non of any LMS needs to be the enabling of a space where students can work in flexible groups, able to edit, comment and chat about any kind of file or files they are working on, seamlessly and synchronously or asynchronously.

 

 

 

Moodle vs Google – King Kong vs The Kraken

gc3In a previous post I compared Moodle and Edmodo. I’ve been playing around with Google Classroom and would like to make a preliminary comparison. First off I must declare my bias towards Moodle, which I have been using for many years. When Google Classroom arrived last year, with much fanfare and great expectations I felt, for the first time, that it might seriously challenge Moodle for my affections. It had so many potential advantages, after all – the weight of Google behind it for one, and the hopes that the collaborative power of Google docs could be leveraged behind a Learning Management System which could offer a serious alternative to Moodle.

I have to say that it hasn’t quite panned out that way. Although Google Classroom is clearly evolving, the same is true of Moodle, so one can only compare where they are currently, and I have to say that I am somewhat underwhelmed by Google’s offering. Moodle is often criticized for having a clumsy interface, and yet one of the most annoying features of Google Classroom is that you have to poke around Google Drive to even find it! Maybe I’m just a wee bit stupid about using Google Drive, but I find it hard to find stuff that I haven’t bookmarked. It’s almost as if the seamlessness of integrating Classroom into your Google experience is a bit too seamless. I end up using the URL to get there, as I do with Moodle, so despite the potential advantage, for me at any rate it’s honours even in terms of finding the page.

moodle1Creating a Course was easy, though: considerably easier than with Moodle, which requires the Moodle Administrator to set one up for you! However, this ease of use is balanced by a severe inability to customize the course! Moodle gives you many options, and with a bit of HTML you can tweak the page to suit your needs. Classroom lacks all this – what you see is pretty much what you get! You can choose a theme, and that’s about it really! And this goes to the nub of the difference. For those who need a quick, painless LMS, easy to use but light on power, I suspect Classroom is a God-send, but for those a little braver in their approach to technology the power of Moodle will undoubtedly prove more attractive.

Adding Announcements and assignments to Classroom was extremely easy, and again edges ahead of Moodle, although the greater number of options available in Moodle counter-balance this. One thing which annoyed me about Classroom was that one attaches resources such as files, video links and URLs to a single assignment. In Moodle one attaches resources and assignments to course segments, which appears far more logical to my mind. I teach in units, which contain resources and assignments, input and output if you wish, and each unit can be as small as a single lesson, or as large as a term’s work! Moodle is very flexible in this regard, while Classroom is not! This, to my mind is what ultimately puts Moodle out in front. It works the same way teachers think.

While Classroom has the supreme advantage of integrating well with your google account, a point I grant despite my own struggles in this regard, it does raise some issues. Our school runs a Windows environment with roaming profiles allowing students and staff to log on to any computer on campus or via the wi-fi using their device. In some instances this creates problems using Google Chrome as Internet Explorer is automatically set as the default browser over our network, something my network administrator tells me he cannot change. This means that on occasion Google accounts do not log off, or Chrome will not access the Internet. I cannot pretend to understand the whys and wherefores of this, but it does complicate matters., Having said that, our school Moodle is also offline occasionally, and so it’s pretty much honours even there too!

In summary then, on Classroom I found I could easily set up a course, invite students to join, add an assignment and make announcements, and attach resources to both. I could view student’s uploaded work and grade it, and download the grades as a csv file. The grading was somewhat clunky and awkward, however, and not that intuitive when all is said and done. What I couldn’t do, as I can in Moodle, is organise students into groups, give a single grade to a group, and enable peer assessment. I could not set up conditional loops, activating certain follow-up assignments when students failed an assignment, or activating enrichment tasks when they passed, for example.

Classroom has nowhere near the power of Moodle, but I can’t help thinking that with the weight of Google behind it, Classroom might well represent something of a slumbering Kraken, waiting to be roused from its sleep!

 

 

 

The Benefits of Chess

Originally posted on Moves for Life Blog:

Chess1“According to research, Test scores improved by 17.3% for students regularly engaged in chess classes, compared with only 4.6% for children participating in other forms of enriched activities,” states 4-time World Champion Susan Polgar in a recent interview.

In approximately 30 nations across the globe, including Brazil, China, Venezuela, Italy, Israel, Russia and Greece, etc., chess is incorporated into the country’s scholastic curriculum. Just as athletics are a part of the required agenda at schools in the United States, Chess has been that way in the European Nations abroad.

Cognitive Benefits

Chess has long been regarded as a game that can have beneficial effects on learning on development, especially when it is played from a young age. below are some of the most critical benefits that chess can provide to a child:

  • Develop analytical, synthetic and decision-making skills, which they can transfer to real life.
  • Learn to engage in deep…

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Posted by on May 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Whatsapp rules with students.. Facebook & Twitter down to nil!!

Originally posted on Jak's Thoughts:

I recently surveyed my students on which communication method they actually use to read class messages I’ve been sending out (the messages can be received on all the channels). Here are the results:Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 7.31.57 PMSome surprising findings:

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Posted by on May 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
Gallery

Student Portfolios in Evernote

Originally posted on The Virtual Grammar Junkie:

Evernote_Premium

I first adopted Evernote at the personal level.

It was a great way to organize my life. I had notebooks for lesson planning, recipes, household documents, kids’ measurements, etc.

I soon discovered that I could use it on top of my Moodle pages. Linking to specific notes, such as agendas for the week and study guides, I could make my changes locally. This reduced the hassle of logging in and maneuvering Moodle’s clunky editing process.

Evernote makes adding text, images, audio and files to the notes easy. You can even add checkboxes to notes to create interactive checklists.

It made research and paper writing a delight. Project organization is easy as well, whether it is individual or collective.

Once I got comfortable enough with my personal use of the software, I decided it was time to have my students participate. I wanted them to not just be consumers of information…

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Posted by on May 3, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The Wu Wei of Whatsapp!

whatsappWith over 500 million whatsapp users, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous, whatsapp is a part of the fabric of the school, whether you as a teacher are using it or not! It is the single biggest social messaging platform and offers key affordances in the classroom. It is cross-platform, allowing users with different phones to message each other effortlessly.

On Whatsapp you can set up groups and subscribe users (up to 30) to each group. When you send a message to the group all members are included. It is for the mobile phone what a listserv is for email! Attachments such as pictures, audio or video can be added, and messages can be sent using phone data or over wi-fi. Within a school environment where students and teachers are hooked up to the school wi-fi, this effectively means communication can be instantaneous and free to users, an important consideration. Conversations can also extend beyond school hours, and this is a huge advantage.

It seems to me that whatsapp use in the classroom started with students forming groups based on interest or need. It was a useful way to find out what homework had been set, and pages could be photographed and sent to the group. My sons use it for this purpose, and I know that as a family it is a fantastic application for spreading information quickly to everyone. My son tells me that the other day in his Maths class, many of the boys had not brought their books for whatever reason. The relevant page was photographed and sent to the class whatsapp group. It is now fairly routine for a student to photograph the homework on the board and whatsapp it to the rest of the class! It is usually best to ask your students to set up a whatsapp group for the class, and to add you to it. This gives students a sense of ownership of the group. You can then use the group to answer student queries, and to send out information such as a reminder to bring a particular book to class. It allows for those sudden unavoidable changes in plan too, including things you forgot to mention in class. You do need to remember though that whatsapp can never be an official channel for communication. Not all students have smartphones, some may run out of data, some may lose battery, and you cannot penalize any student for failing to receive a message! This is important to note – I have heard of teachers using it as if it were an official channel and seriously disadvantaging students because of this! My advice would be to keep the class whatsapp as a student run channel, which you can use, but always as a reminder, never as the primary information channel.

Students feel free to use the channel for chat, and this more sociable reaction to classroom announcements is an invaluable tool in promoting your digital presence in the class. It’s a good platform for happy birthdays and well-wishing messages when someone is ill. I encourage students to broadcast a summary of any class for those who are absent.

I find it especially useful for extra-mural activities where do not always see your students in class during the course of any given day, and unexpected changes are de rigueur! Whatsapp is clearly very useful as a classroom management tool, but can it be used pedagogically too?

One feature of whatsapp is the ability to send a recorded audio message. If everyone in your class is signed up on a whatsapp group, you can use it as a feedback mechanism in group or even individual work. Ask students to record a quick reflective feedback on any task and message it to the group. This can then be used as material for a follow-up lesson, or allow you, as a teacher, to gain insights into students’ understanding of the task. These messages can be retrieved from the whatsapp media folder if necessary, but they are essentially ephemeral in nature.

You can also use audio or video messages, or links to these as byte-sized flipped learning content as preparation ahead of a class, or as a wrap-up to a class. I like to store this content on Moodle or other platforms, and use whatsapp simply as a reminder of the link. You can encourage students to discuss the material over whatsapp, but I feel that that serves to take over the channel too much. Part of what makes whatsapp successful is that it is an unofficial channel and is student-driven. Official class chat can be housed on a Facebook group or twitter hashtag.

Essentially I see whatsapp as a tool of inaction. It’s not so much what you do with whatsapp – it’s more about what you allow students to use it for, to support that and chip in when you can!

 
 
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