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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.

 

 

Running a Book Club using Moodle & Goodreads

bookwormsAs an English teacher I have always run book clubs as a way of encouraging reading for pleasure. Some kids loved it, some hated it, and the logistics were always messy and complicated. Kids would forget to bring in a book on the right day, and it never really had the effect I wanted – getting kids to read more. A few days ago I had a bit of a brain wave – why not create an online book club? After a bit of research I decided to use Goodreads. You can set up a free user account, and can even add an app to your phone which allows you to scan the ISBN number to call up all the details of a book. Users can rate books on a five-star system, add reviews and share recommendations. The site also allows you to set up private groups so it is perfect for a school.

Better still you can generate a widget which you can post on your blog, website or moodle page which pulls through books being recommended by group members – keeping the book club visible at all times. You can also run discussions, events and polls within the group. I have only just  set up the group, but already I can see that its potential far outstrips the once a term bring in a book to share approach I had been using before.

What sites,and apps like Goodreads does so successfully is bring together the real and digital worlds in a seamless manner. I have no doubt that the students I teach will do a great deal of reading online, but I do not believe that print books will die, and research seems to indicate that the cognitive benefits of print reading are enormous. Print supports sequential reading, the development of a coherent argument. On screen reading can be sequential and narrative, as in reading a novel on your kindle, but print seems to encourage a sense of knowing where you are in the logical train of thought. Screen reading also supports hypertextual readings which allow people to rapidly assimilate a wide range of inputs and get a sense of a field. The future will be one in which both types of reading, sequential narrative reading largely done on paper, and hypertext readings largely done on-screen, both have a role to play. Reading for depth, and reading to synthesise large amounts of information are both important cognitively and are supported by different delivery systems.

What I think an online book club adds to the mix is a commitment to valorizing both page and screen and making reading accessible to the ways in which we share our ideas via social media, and how this can be connected to the classroom.

 

Using Smartphones & Twitter to Support Learning

DSC01905One of the most powerful tools afforded by modern smartphones is the ability to take a picture and upload it onto twitter to share, almost instantaneously. This functionality, the backbone of social media, is also very useful in the classroom. That picture can become available within moments, either displayed on a screen in the classroom, or on everyone else’s phones using a hashtag. This is an excellent way of sharing information quickly and having it available for discussion.

We started the year with our grade 8s by holding a workshop on Thinking Skills. One of the exercises revolved around getting the girls to find objects around the school that filled them with “wonderment and awe” and photograph it with their cameras and use a twitter hashtag to post it in a form where they could show an entire grade packed into the school hall what they had found. This combination of sharing something you have photographed and talking about it represents a very powerful pedagogical tool, bringing together observation and reflection.

twitMany students use the camera on their phones to capture their homework, or notes on the board. They can do the same to share something they have written in their books. I find twitter the best for sharing because most students have twitter accounts and access it on their phones. Getting students to create images like the one on the left is a great way to spark debate, and is very engaging. By getting students to write or draw something, and then share it, rather than calling an individual to the board to do so, ensures that everyone attempts the question or task, and allows you to select responses to discuss that address interesting teaching points.

One can also get students to create six second videos “vines” as feedback responses. Having only six seconds to play with forces students to summarise their responses into a single sentence or idea. Allowing groups to record a short piece of feedback and then post to twitter also means that you do not have to go through the often laborious, and frequently pointless process of listening to every group’s feedback on a task. You can pick out any interesting points raised for a follow-up session. I often hear it said that twitter is useless for education because it allows only a limited number of characters – but in fact that’s all you need to summarise your main point. The reflection and agreeing on a main point is where the learning happens. Twitter does allow the class to access aspects of an individual or a group’s thinking to fuel further discussion, and as such, is an invaluable tool in the classroom.

 

Saving the Universe – Alternate Reality Games

DSC01789Jane McGonigall, in her TED Talk talks about the four powers of games: urgent optimism, blissful productivity, social fabric and epic meaning. These are qualities often missing in the classroom, which games have in abundance. This year I ran an alternate reality game for our end of year programme in grade 8. Alternate Reality Games are games which present themselves as real life events. In this game, I assembled all the garde 8s for a collaborative project with another school. When accessing their website to contact them, students had to solve a mystery and save the fictitious school from alien invaders. To accomplish this they had to crack a few codes, sift through some clues to solve a mystery and figure out how to use the lyrics of a song to find a secret web-page to communicate the solution. I used a fictitious blog and some fake twitter accounts to sprinkle clues around.

The task was run on the second last day of the year as part of an extension programme, and was meant to show-case our cognitive education programme. There is a concern that our girls are not as confident in problem solving skills as we would hope, especially that they give up too easily. The current task was adapted from one I ran a few years ago, and was shortened, with a little more scaffolding early to try and ensure that students did not give up too early.

DSC01775In the reflection, girls were generally positive about the game, although significant numbers found the tasks too challenging, and felt they had not received enough support from me. This was deliberate, and expected. I wanted my role as puppet-master to be hidden, and I tried to act surprised and bewildered as events unfolded. What hints I made to groups who had given up were done purely to get them engaged in the task again. Some groups were unable to crack any codes and were sent to spy on groups that had done so. About two-thirds of the students did successfully crack substitution cyphers. All groups were able to correctly identify what the fictitious school needed to do to defeat the aliens, but the biggest struggle was over finding the easter egg on the index page, and translating the song lyrics into a URL.

I believe that students need far more exposure to problem solving tasks than they are getting, and that alternate reality games offer a wonderful way to accomplish this. McGonigall’s powers of games offer a useful perspective.

Urgent Optimism

The predominant attitude in games play is for players to search around for tasks to engage in. This was evident in this Alternate Reality Game (ARG). At times girls were running around the room to consult with other groups or find out what could be done next. One aspect of the game I particularly enjoy is the richness of the red herrings. A group can explore a blind alley and really enjoy doing it, uncovering all kinds of unexpected and unintended associations which appear to lead to clues. These red herrings are actually as beneficial in terms of problem solving than the intended clues.

Blissful Productivity

The ability to spend hours engaged in a task while losing all sense of time is one common in games, and absent in many classrooms! In the ARG, I noticed that while pursuing a clue, girls seemed to lose all track of time, but when they gave up, time dragged. This was an aspect of the game that I will need to improve on, perhaps by insisting that all clues solved get shared. Some groups translated the task into a competition to solve it first, and this  competitiveness, while useful, did hamper those who needed extra help at times.

Social Fabric

Most games are strongly collaborative, and players will help each other with clues, inventory and so on. In this ARG, too many groups became competitive, but, what was enlightening was that groups formed naturally. Nowhere in my instructions did I ask them to form groups, in fact I gave no instructions at all. Groups are often problematic in the classroom, but seem to be intrinsic to the game format.

Epic Meaning

Games have a purpose, one often not very visible in the classroom, and their relevance and importance are self-evident. This ARG had as its point the saving of the planet from alien control, and the students appeared to take up this task with gusto. I was at first bombarded with questions about what they had to do, but after it became clear that I was not going to say anything, or give any direction, the class naturally splintered into groups and started working on clues, not all the same ones at the same time. As soon as the narrative was revealed, once the easter egg had been found, groups seemed instinctively to know what to do and what the “game” point was. The task fitted into game play genres and so made sense. When the game was “solved” there were loud cheers and frantic attempts on the part of all groups to submit the solution online. I think even groups who had not “won”, felt they had shared in the task by solving parts of the puzzle.

In conclusion, I think that Alternate Reality Games have a great deal to offer the classroom. But they need to be carefully designed and structured. They are much harder than any board game, role play game or computer game, because they need realia rather than playing pieces or pure imagination, but this makes them, in some ways, more rewarding.

 

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!

 

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

 
 
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