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Widening the Writing Circle – student writing online

Teen Ink and the rather more strident Power Poetry are sites where students can read and share their writing online. They afford secure spaces for teens to publish their own writing and engage in discussions around writing and receive feedback from peers. While the open nature of the site may worry teachers and parents, submissions are apparently vetted for content before they are published. The opportunity for young writers to write for an authentic audience is something worth its weight in gold and the Internet is awash with sites which can be used for this purpose. Click here or here for a useful list. It is, however, harder to find a more localized arena for the students in your class to publish their creative writing. Not all students are brave and fearless writers who are ready to publish their work for the world at large. If all you want to do is give a space for less accomplished students in your class or school to get their feet wet so to speak, what can you do?

acadaI’ve been pondering this for quite a while. I’ve tried Moodle and Edmodo as platforms, and used Kidblogs and WordPress with a degree of success. Students can set up a blog on which they can publish their writing and other students can leave comments. Kidblogs can be made totally secure, with registration  only available from within your own classroom or an emailed link should you wish. Google Docs is another approach, allowing small groups to collaborate on any writing project by sharing the document with other members of the writing group, who can be given comment or even editing rights.

My approach to writing in the English classroom has always been to try to set up Writing Circles, small groups which work as a unit when it comes to supporting each other’s writing – offering editing suggestions and helpful criticism. In the past these have always been paper based, but the affordances of online tools allow for the writing circle to act more effectively and efficiently, and to become scalable. Teachers can set up tasks in which writing is shared by an audience of two to infinity. The limitations of paper are always rooted in the difficulty of sharing editing around a table beyond about two people, and sharing with a class only really possible if you have a visualizer, or if you run off the piece of writing for everyone to have a copy. Using blogs, fan fiction sites or Google docs, however, allows for varying degrees of asynchronous or even synchronous editing or collaboration.

The online blog can be set up as a class e-zine, and used for various purposes, with sections for fiction, poetry and non-fiction. The glossy look of the site you produce is a considerable lure for students, along with the appellation published author!

There is one function of the paper-based writing circle, however, that is enormously valuable, and that is the chance to talk face-to-face about a piece of writing. While Google docs does provide an opportunity for synchronous comment on a piece of writing, I would strongly suggest that every time you use online writing, you also give students a chance to discuss it face-to-face in the classroom. I find that students still need that verbal feedback. While they are writing online, they often call me over to ask advice or seek feedback on what they are writing.

“Oo, I like that!” and “Yes, that works well!” or “I don’t get that! What were you trying to do here?” has no real digital equivalent!

 

Flipping Your Feedback!

memoThe Flipped Classroom is a model of classroom management which is gaining traction. Much of the focus has been on transforming instructional input – using “lecture” style videos, podcasts or documents which are posted online and viewed ahead of class so that classroom activities can be freed up to embrace more intensive and personalised interventions safe in the knowledge that the content has been explained.

A somewhat neglected aspect of any classroom routine has been the feedback part of the loop. Sometimes it is extremely useful to go over a test or assignment in class, unpacking the questions carefully. Sometimes, however, it is not necessary to do so. Where answers are either right or wrong, it is probably best to post a memo online rather than waste time in class poring over it.

I would argue, however, that online feedback can also be beneficial where more intensive analysis of an assignment is needed. Just as the ability to stop, rewind and replay a video “lecture” is valuable, so too with feedback. In my computer skills classes, for example I make a memo video using videopad and debut screencasting software to go over any test. I post this on my Moodle page and make access to it dependent upon completing the test. In other words it is available only after the student’s work has been assessed. This system seems to work well. As soon as a student’s test or assignment has been assessed on Moodle, the memo document or video for feedback discussion becomes visible to them. Feedback is thus as instantaneous as possible. It does not mean that student responses will not also be discussed in class, but it does mean I do not have to go over the assignment in detail, I can highlight key areas of concern, safe in the knowledge that students can access a complete break-down online.

In my English classes I usually hand out the printed memo when handing back assignments. This memo discusses not only model answers, but approaches to answering that type of question. For open-ended assignments I prefer to use student feedback in the form of questions and discussion after a presentation.

Flipping Feedback is not something I would do all the time, but it does add a useful string to my bow. It also adds variety, which as we know, is the spice of life!

 

 

 

When to Use IT and When not to use IT!

DSC00181I get really worried when I see teachers putting too much faith in IT! I’ve been a teacher long enough to know that while fads come and go, there are some universal truths that remain. For me the largest factor in any lesson’s success revolves around presence, that indefinable quality that speaks to the investment teachers make in being there for their students, and that students make in investing in their studies. I’m not saying IT has no place in the modern classroom, it clearly has! But I am saying that IT is only one part of a much bigger picture. I believe that when IT is introduced into the lesson, it needs to be there for a reason and not just because teachers think it will provide a magic bullet.

As a teacher I am considered a champion of ICT integration, and that’s true, I believe that many lessons can benefit from the judicious introduction of IT. Instead of writing on lined paper, many students can receive huge benefits from writing online, for real audiences. Instead of imagining the effects of actions on an electrical circuit, students can experiment with a simulation inside a browser. Instead of listening to a teacher in class, students can listen to input online, and spend class time receiving one on one assistance. IT has its place, but what I see happening all too often is that IT is used for IT’s sake, when there might be better, non-technological solutions. As teachers our major task is to fathom out when to use IT and when not to use IT. Unfortunately that usually involves using it a bit too much at first!

Back in the early days of the introduction of computers in the classroom, the computer was used as a teaching machine, and drill and kill practice was over-used. I can see some of that still going on, with students being required to spend hours on repetitive and largely meaningless tasks. All the teacher needs to do is post a link and the mind-numbingly-boring work is managed and assessed by computer. It’s very handy for an over-worked teacher, but represents the kiss of death for education.

IT needs to enhance teacher presence, not reduce it, and I think if all ICT integration followed this simple criterion, it would ensure that IT becomes a positive force in the classroom.  If a simulation, for example, frees up the teacher to engage more one-on-one with her students, or an application opens up channels of communication which allow for deeper interchanges between teacher and student, we can speak of IT benefiting education. If not, then it should be ditched in favour of something which can do that job. IT can and does do this. When, as an English teacher, I am able to comments on a student’s writing in a  Google doc, in real time, I am doing something I could not do using traditional pen and paper technology. Technology often allows teachers to gain greater insight and access to work in progress, and this is of a huge benefit.

The key to when to use IT and when not to use IT lies in whether it will enhance teacher presence or not. In online teaching this is a key notion, how to establish presence, but in hybrid classes it is equally important, and cannot be taken for granted.

 

Thinking Skills & The DigiTeacher

There is a commonly held view that teaching Thinking Skills and Technology go hand in hand. Somehow the use of digital media will transform educational practice and the critical thinking skills we so desperately need in the twenty-first century will fall into place. I would like to believe this is so, and indeed I do believe that digital technologies do offer key affordances for developing critical thinking, but I fear there is nothing automatic in this process. The argument advanced by the Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow programme was that the introduction of computers would lead to greater student-centered learning practices and hence gains in encouraging thinking skills, but this has not really panned out as planned.

Very often the use of technology has simply reinforced the ways teachers were teaching, and left little changed. Interactive Whiteboards have replaced chalk-boards, but the way they are deployed in the classroom left pretty much the same. The ready availability of information in the form of the Internet was going to change education from a process of learning facts, to learning skills. Again, this is clearly true, but how far have we come in implementing this approach? Not very far!

IMG_9743I think that teachers who encourage thinking generally do so independently of any move to introduce technology. And yet technology is clearly here to stay. Despite what I said previously, the ubiquitous presence of information available more or less anytime, more or less anywhere has made a difference to education. Technological innovations such as Interactive Whiteboards are nothing like the old chalkboard even where the pedagogy is largely the same. Even the case of an Instructivist teacher, putting up a YouTube video instead of text represents a difference of some order. The fact that a teacher can ask a question to which nobody knows the answer and can have students use their mobile phones to Google the answer is significant. It is not trivial.

The moment you introduce a computer into the classroom, the teacher, even if a dyed-in-the-wool instructivist, will be sidelined to some extent, no matter what the nature of the task set. I get the sense, not of a full-blown revolution in progress, but of one of those evolutionary changes that ends up changing everything once some perspective has been gained by the virtue of hindsight! What teachers are doing is quietly getting on with the business of experimenting with technology, finding out what works and what doesn’t work, and slowly but surely altering their practice to incorporate those elements of new technologies they find useful.

The same is true for the explicit teaching of thinking skills. Whether using De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Heyrle’s Thinking Maps, Thinker’s Keys, Visible Thinking, CoRT, Habits Of Mind, and many other programmes, teachers all over the world are making concerted efforts to shift from content-based teaching to Thinking-based teaching. Again, trial & error and slow incorporation into existing teaching practices is the order of the day! As a teacher who has been grappling with both these movements, I have often puzzled over the connections. Can digital technologies really enhance Thinking? Or put another way, can we teach kids to think better by using technology?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, or a one-size-fits-all solution: it’s not about the technology, it’s not even about the pedagogy. It’s really about individual teaching moments in different contexts, and what it means to the participants. I think the question teachers need to ask when evaluating any piece of technology or application is whether it will help their students think more like a mathematician, scientist, historian, or writer, or whatever subject you are teaching. There are undoubtedly so many instances where the answer is yes that we can begin to discern some common features around why it is that technology can indeed address the urgent imperative to  foster better thinking skills.

One key feature is that of Authenticity. Technology offers opportunities for real world collaboration, publication and engagement which makes tasks authentic, or rather, more authentic. Thinking is context based, and the more real, the more relevant a problem is perceived to be, the better the thinking is likely to be. As an English teacher I know that many students do well on discrete, grammar type questions, but can’t use that language knowledge when composing their own writing. Many students can solve discrete Mathematical problems, but can’t use these Maths skills to solve real world problems. Students need to learn how to think like a writer, for example, in real-world contexts. Authentic publication offers an exciting route.

I have just managed to get a class signed up on WordPress, and given them an opportunity to publish their Flash fiction online on the class magazine. They get real views, and real comments from the general public. Suddenly spelling seems to matter to them, and they began to agonise over writing decisions!  Not something you see in a for-the-teacher’s-eyes-only exercises!

The Internet also offers opportunities for students to grapple with real world problems and engage directly in their community. For example, when teaching IT skills I like to get my students to design an eSafety campaign for the junior school, producing posters and a video. I believe that by producing a product which will actually be used within the wider community of the school, students are more focused in their thinking.

The second key feature is Metacognition. Making thinking visible, and making students aware of their thinking helps them to self-monitor. I believe that technology has key affordances for metacognition in a number of ways. Technology stands at a remove from reality. It is quite clearly not the real world, and yet it can be used to mediate or model the real world. In doing so it encourages one to think about the real world and how one is interacting with it. An interactive Flash animation which allows a student to play with electrical circuits and see the results of decisions, for example, enables students to do things easily which would be hard to set up in the real world, and also encourages students to form and test hypotheses very rapidly. One of the best examples of this sort of thing is the bridge-building software which allows students to design bridges, and then test them with various loads. Games are good at this sort of thing.

A third feature is Engagement, although this is often over-stated. Students will spend hours of concentrated effort on a game, for example, but quickly tire of class-based pen and paper exercises. You can create neat, professional looking results using technology, which pen and paper tasks just cannot compete with. Getting students to offer feedback on their discussions by creating a vine, or recording their feedback on a webcam to embed on a PowerPoint is simply so much more fun than standing up and repeating what other groups are saying! An essay typed, or delivered using a Prezi or VoiceThread is much more engaging to create than a hand-written paper. Drill-and-kill practice is sometimes unavoidable, but can be less painful on computer.

How does engagement stimulate thinking? I asked a question in class an hour ago and saw two different responses in a range of my students. Some eyes were dead! It was half-term, the last period of the day and I was probing students about validity and truth in logic! I could see a lack of engagement in many eyes. Some eyes, however, were shining bright. This was new stuff – unlike anything normally studied in school, and it was clearly engaging a percentage of the class. When the lights are on thinking is going on!  When they’re off, they’re well and truly off! Engagement is a sine qua non for thinking.

Digital media also engage by  allowing for Inclusivity, another key feature. Face to face a teacher can often only hear from a fraction of the class at any one time. Even in a no hands up classroom, many students park off and wait for the bright ones to answer the question. Digital technologies, such as polling, twitter feeds and back-channels can help involve more students more of the time.

And finally, Precision. Thinking is nothing if not rigorous, and yet humans are extremely tolerant of imprecision. We get tired and accept second best for the sake of moving on. Yeah, that’s close enough! Computers, on the other hand, take some drudgery away, produce slick-looking results and therefore make space for transferring the attention to the content and to accuracy. The ability to edit a second draft, and move towards a final draft with minimum effort enhances this striving for perfection, and I think this is very good for developing thinking skills.

core competenciesThe devil, however, is always in the detail. I believe that teachers need to ask themselves how they intend to use technology to teach students to think better in the subject discipline they are teaching.

I have altered the popular TPACK model to integrate Thinking Skills in a previous blog, Since writing that piece, I have become increasingly convinced that we need to consistently ask ourselves not only what we are teaching (Content Knowledge), and how we are teaching it (Pedagogical Knowledge), but also how we will do that using technology (Technological Knowledge) to enhance thinking skills (Thinking Skills Knowledge).

For example, as an English teacher I might design a lesson which aims at teaching students to use Thinking maps in order to analyse a character in a novel in order to produce a blog post which describes the plot of that novel from the point of view of that character. In this case the thinking skills and digital skills operate in parallel with each other rather than work in tandem. I could equally well design a lesson in which students use Skype to collaborate with other students at another school in another country to  produce a fictitious TV panel discussion between characters in a novel. This uses the digital media directly to facilitate and enable collaborative thinking.

Just as we need to think about how we teach particular content using technology, we need to think about how we teach thinking skills in that subject using technology.

 

 

 

Using Mailmerge for Feedback!

Over the years my handwriting has deteriorated to the point where even I cannot read it! This makes writing feedback for students a somewhat fraught experience for both of us! I wrote last week about the digital layer that sits above the physical layer in your classroom and a neat way to work around a poor handwriting is to use this digital layer to facilitate feedback. I have found that the mailmerge function, available in Word, for example, is very useful for painlessly providing students with feedback on their work which is both legible for the student, and useful to me.

mailmergeThe method I use is to create a spreadsheet with student names and email addresses at the start of the year. Because my Moodle uses LDAP authentication – in other words students log on with their school email account, this information is already sitting on Moodle in downloadable form in the Gradebook module. I can then use this spreadsheet as my mark-book for the year, even if I am not capturing grades on Moodle. A mailmerge document is a document, such as an ordinary Word document that can draw in fields from a database, such as a spreadsheet and display them in a letter, or email format. At the end of every term, for example I email students the marks I have recorded against their name, and this helps spot any errors, or jolt memories that a piece of work is outstanding, allowing any discussions about this to occur well before reports go out to parents! In its own right this is a powerful tool which has considerably lessened the load of classroom administration. Students respond well to this because it gives them a chance to see how they have done, sort out any issues, and because, as a process, it preserves privacy.

You can also type in feedback comments, however, and I believe it is this which elevates the humble mailmerge into a transformative tool in the classroom. Your mailmerge document can pull through student’s marks and comments and display these in a letter or email which can be given or sent to the student after an assessment.

This is especially useful for assessment on oral work, or other presentations where you cannot write comments on the script that has been handed in! As an English teacher, one of the more awkward moments is the need to give feedback on oral presentations. General comments can be made to the class as a whole, but one does not really want to give personal feedback to the whole class, as it is too personal. I always make notes and hand these to the student after their speech. But my handwriting renders these all but useless. What I do now is type my comments into the spreadsheet after the class, and then email the assessment and comments to the student as a mailmerge. A great benefit is that I then have a record of the comments in my spreadsheet, which helps me keep tabs on different aspects of a student’s performance, and spot improvement, or lack of it, more easily. I do the same with major pieces of writing, and end up with a tool of considerable diagnostic power when compared to a simple gradebook which only records marks achieved. The true power of the gradebook is the ability to record impressions and comments, and keep these on record painlessly!

If you use skills ladders, as I do when teaching computer skills, you can use similar techniques to record progress across a wide range of criteria, and provide feedback to students at the click of a mouse!

 

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs!

I am writing this in response to Jackie Gerstein’s excellent blog post Addressing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Technology. Gerstein writes that “Technology cannot address nor meet biological and physiological needs.” It is this claim that I wish, rather tongue-in-cheek, to take issue with. At one level, of course she is perfectly correct! Sitting at a computer, or being surgically attached to a tablet or smart phone is hardly taking care of anyone’s physiological needs. Indeed one could quite easily make a case that all that sitting, all that bad posture is positively deleterious.

And yet I can’t help thinking of the eSports men and women I have seen in action, their mouses flying, their eyes dancing across the screen, reaching incredible speeds in clicks-per-second! This level of hand-eye co-ordination is hardly unphysical, and therefore, to some extent satisfies physiological needs of a certain kind! I’m not sure how far one would like to take this claim, but it leaves, I think, a space for considering eSports as fulfilling physiological needs, and I would like to see it added to the infogram above.

Watching people play on the XBox Kinect demonstrates some ways in which human beings and machines can interface, and one can well imagine even enhance physical exercise. Why run on a track, when you can run through a virtual jungle dodging lions and tigers! It may even be that the digital layer enhances our ability to satisfy physiological needs.

And don’t get me started on teledildonics!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Authentic Learning, eSports

 

The Multi-Layered Classroom

DSC01927When you are using ICTs in your classroom, the classroom automatically acquires a few extra layers. There is of course the physical layer with the teacher and students, the desks and tables, pens, paper, books and scissors. This layer is the most important layer, and sometimes it gets forgotten in the rush to adopt digital practices. Computers cannot replace teachers, at least not until they pass a great deal more than just the Turing Test! But increasingly other layers are added to this.

The second layer consists of the World Wide Web, which is now accessible via smartphones if the classroom has WiFi, and even if it has not, if the students have data bundles. Gone are the days when you needed to ask students to look something up after the class. Now you just say, “Can someone look that up!” This layer adds almost instant access to information of all kinds and is a complete game changer as the focus moves from learning content to learning what to do with all that content.

A third layer consists of your Learning Management System, which is being deployed by an increasing number of teachers. In my school Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms are all used. Using an Interactive Whiteboard, or through students’ devices this layer is increasingly accessible to all students at all times. Both Moodle and Edmodo have apps for smartphones, and with iPads or laptops work can be accessed readily off the LMS. This allows for paperless submission of work from within the classroom, and for discussions and content to be available at all times. The interesting thing about the LMS layer is that it extends the physical classroom into virtual time as well as virtual space, leaving the classroom open 24/7.

A fourth layer is the Communication layer. When I was a student most classrooms had intercoms and lessons would be interrupted for announcements. These days many teachers send notifications via email or whatsapp groups! This layer runs like a vein through the life of the school. Being able to email parents straight away when there is a problem also extends the classroom into the home. I just received a whatsapp from my son at school when he got locked in a music room when the handle came off in his hand on the inside! My wife telephoned the Music Department secretary and he was liberated from his sound-proofed cell! This anecdote illustrates quite well how vital this layer can be!

The fifth layer is the back channel.While many students raise their hands in class, many do not, and yet still have questions or comments they would like to make.Back channels from useful ways of including these in the cut and thrust of classroom discussion. For example I use twitter to encourage students to ask questions or post interesting links, answer questions or polls before, during, or after a lesson. The twitter feed is available on my Moodle page, and if this is up on the Interactive White Board, using a hashtag these tweeted responses become available to the whole class effortlessly.

There is also, I believe, a sixth layer, an ill-defined entity, which will become increasingly important as time goes by, and that is the virtual reality layer, or games layer. There are some times when students are playing an educational game, or using Second Life for a pedagogical purpose where the classroom itself may host a virtual classroom environment, where students may interact with each other and the teacher via their avatars. This may sound all a bit Science Fiction, and little of the software exists currently outside of environments like Second Life, but gamification, even at a low tech level, involves the creation of a virtual games world where students and teachers role play.

What fascinates me is the ways in which these layers increasingly interconnect, through QR codes, augmented reality, in class research tasks or back channels. One of the core skills of a 21st Century teacher will surely be the ability to integrate the layers within the classroom seamlessly and meaningfully. It is going to need to become one of the core criteria in teacher pre-service and in-service education.

 

 
 
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