Digital Classrooms 2016

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Why 2016 is the year digital classrooms become the dominant paradigm and what infrastructure steps schools should take to be a part of it.

GUEST COLUMN | by Daniel Rivera

CREDIT Aruba digital classroomFor some years, K-12 educators and experts have discussed the coming of “the digital classroom” with many schools deploying various types of technologies in an effort to turn the vision into reality. Although 90 percent of teachers now report technology is having a positive effect on student participation, most classrooms still look the same as they did 50 years ago. But, in 2016, that’s about to change.

Although 90 percent of teachers now report technology is having a positive effect on student participation, most classrooms still look the same as they did 50 years ago. But, in 2016, that’s about to change.

Historically, the classroom has reflected the business world. For example, the one-room schoolhouse for our agrarian society gave…

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Digital Vygotsky: Using ICTs to bridge the proximal zone of development

jsroa45d7i971imncps4srh8q3984448.jpg-final.jpg-finalOn of the most influential ideas about learning to emerge in the last century was Lev Vygotsky’s observation that all learning is first social, and then individual. Unfortunately he used the rather cumbersome term proximal zone of development to describe this gap between what someone knows or can do with the help of others, and what they can do on their own. ICTs offer a number of affordances for helping to bridge the proximal zone of development, and as such are formidable learning tools in their own right, but they also point to how ICTs can be used as cognitive tools to enhance social thinking.

ICTs are communication devices par excellence. They allow people who have never met to share ideas and passions, whether via email listervs, forums or Google hangouts, for example. They enable communities with shared interests to share ideas and collaborate on projects. These communities of practice are often very nurturing places where beginners are mentored and helped, and in turn, as they gain experience, can assist others. When I was learning to program in php, for example, I sought out an online forum where I could post problems I was having with the code I was writing. Perfect strangers took the time to make suggestions, to point out errors in my code, and to help me learn. In return I tried to answer queries from those with less experience than I had. The Internet gave me access to mentorship that would not have been available otherwise. I note that my son, who composes music, uses Sound Cloud in a similar way. While he was preparing for his matric exams he also used Google docs to create and share study notes with his class mates.

I would like to look at two ways in which these ideas could be harnessed for the classroom.

Personalisation By Pieces is a programme developed by Dan Buckley, which uses peer assessment to encourage mentorship and assessment. In essence the system works on a student being assisted and assessed by a more experienced peer – one who has already been credited with a skill. Once they themselves have been accredited, they too can help those below them on the skills ladder. Some Learning Management Systems, such as Moodle, have peer assessment modules which might be used to facilitate this process, but Google docs could probably be used just as effectively. The teacher would be required to create a skills ladder, a list of sequential skills leading to mastery. Students would need to submit documentary proof that they have mastered a level. Peers who are a level or two above would be responsible for accrediting this proof, and for creating criteria for this assessment.

classnotesSocial Media also offers fertile grounds for social learning strategies by creating forums for communities of practice to flourish within the school. Students tend to use Whatsapp for this kind of thing, but teachers could encourage a more formal collaboration by sharing a Google doc or wiki on a particular topic and requiring students to contribute to its maintenance. All these measures help students move from social collaboration towards personal mastery. I suspect that it works best though when it is informal and student directed, but if carefully scaffolded you can bring a majority of students on board. They make a pleasant change from individual worksheets, and I find students appreciate the idea that by collaborating on a set of notes on a Shakespeare play, for example, they are saving themselves effort, and benefiting from the combined effort.

I believe that once we start to explore the idea of using social learning in the classroom through ICTs we will begin to unleash much of the hidden power of learning that often lies dormant in our schools.


Trends | Coding, Electronics and Creativity Collide

Originally posted on

CREDIT Arduino and AutodeskIt’s exciting to see how many schools and libraries are getting started with 3D design and 3D printing. But there is something else out there for teachers looking to bring maker-based learning into their classes this fall – electronics. Recently Autodesk announced that it’s teaming up with Arduino to bring creativity and electronics to everyone with the release of the Arduino Basic Kit. This kit for teachers comes with 15 step-by-step tutorials available through the Project Ignite learning platform. What’s in the Arduino Basic Kit:

  • All the physical and digital components you need to build simple projects and learn how to turn an idea into reality using Arduino and Autodesk 123D Circuits.
  • The digital simulations in 123D Circuits provide a unique experience to engage and learn about the power of smart objects.
  • Exclusive online access to 15 step-by-step tutorials, through the Project Ignite learning platform, to make simple projects using…

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Posted by on November 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


The Digital Jigsaw Method: Critical Thinking with ICTs

sonjaIt is always a considerable pleasure to be able to watch great teachers in action. I recently observed a very successful lesson which combined Google docs with the Jigsaw Method. The teacher was Dr Sonja Vandeleur, who teaches technology at my school. The lesson was with grade 8s and was focused on different forms of energy. The Jigsaw Method is commonly used to reinforce collaborative and critical thinking. Students meet first in expert groups, each group researching and discussing a specific topic within a wider theme. Each member of the expert group then reports back to a home group where experts from each group bring back what they have learned to share with their peers.

This has the benefit of requiring each expert to “teach” their peers, which in itself has a number of benefits. The lesson I observed also incorporated Google docs as the platform chosen to share the fruits of the research into different forms of energy. The big question was which form of energy would suit South Africa best. I did not observe the lesson in which students met in their expert groups to research their chosen source of energy (wind, solar, coal, nuclear, hydro-electric, etc), but I saw the follow-up session which began with the expert groups meeting to compile their report on Google docs. Individuals had each looked at different aspects and they quickly shared and copied summaries of the findings into a single document. This process was somewhat chaotic, as might be expected. Not everyone had been able to access the Google doc for whatever reason, and some had to send their findings to others via email to post to the document. The group I observed appeared to get their act together in the nick of time to be able to report back to their home groups.

I then observed one of the home group’s discussions. Students began largely by reading out from their different Google docs, but some had included useful images or videos which were viewed by the group on each expert’s iPad or laptop. Despite some somewhat stilted report backs, the discussion quite quickly became lively and spirited. Genuine questions were asked of the experts, and some free-wheeling examination of what solution would suit local conditions best was engaged in.

Google docs formed a very effective way for students to collaborate on putting together a report on their research, and also for sharing with their peers in the home group. Theoretically, by widening the document sharing, each student in the class ends up with access to all the documents created, in effect forming a digital textbook created by the class. I can’t say that the process wasn’t messy, and noisy! Not all the students had managed to share, either because they had not completed the work, or because they had technical problems. But I think there was far greater engagement than there would have been reading a paper-based textbook, and more was learned.

The marrying of the Jigsaw Method with Google docs is an inspired choice of ICT integration, and I am convinced that it should become part of every teacher’s toolbox!


Which LMS?

As the year trundles, or rather hurtles towards its end I find myself with an agonizing decision to make. Do I stick with my current Learning Management System, Moodle, or join those in my school, who have turned to Google Classroom? This is not something I have thought about since adopting Moodle – it seems a life-time ago now. I am a happy Moodle user, indeed an enthusiast. It is not that Moodle has dropped off in performance, in fact quite the opposite, it has been improving substantially! Is it that I have become smitten with Google Classroom? No, not at all. Google Classroom can’t set a candle to my Moodle!

So why am I considering writing a Dear John letter to my beloved LMS?

The school where I teach is currently rolling out a new IT policy, which has greatly upped the ante, and meant that the vast majority of staff have adopted Google Classroom as their platform of choice. Although Moodle, Classroom and Edmodo all have their adherents, both the older platforms have lost significant support to the new-comer! All our devices are now synched to Google drive so the weight of institutional support for a Google environment has meant that Edmodo and Moodle users have found themselves rapidly depleted in numbers.

I ran one of my classes on Classroom this year to see if I could live with it, and found that although the platform has none of the raw power of Moodle, or none of the appeal of Edmodo, it is easy enough to use, and is improving with time and exposure. What at first I found very counter-intuitive has become tolerable enough to consider moving in together! I’ve gotten used to the hairs in the sink, or the lipstick on the tea-cups, so to speak.

I had a long think about it this week, while invigilating exams, drew up a mental list of pros and cons. My list looked something like this:

Moodle Google Classroom
Pros Cons Pros Cons
Can do just about anything. Like Mary Poppins it is practically perfect in every way!

No, seriously, it is custom made for classroom management and handles these things very well indeed!

Can do groups, sub-groups, peer assessment, online quizzes – everything!

Assessment using rubrics

As fewer staff are using it, it is less familiar to students and harder for them to use

It takes up local server space

Integrates well with Google Drive which is very useful for online collaboration tasks

Easy to mark written work using comments

Integrates with your email well

Can’t do groups

Doesn’t notify you of new submissions or re-submissions o you have to check everything to see if new works has been submitted

So, after reflecting on this for the length of an excruciating invigilation session, it seemed to me that for my computer skills classes I simply could not give up Moodle as it gave me the ability to assess using rubrics, and to create groups and peer assessment effortlessly. For my English class, however, the affordance of easily linking to Google docs for collaborative writing was irresistible, and despite all Moodle’s benefits, I actually preferred Google Classroom.

Looks like I will end up being unexpectedly promiscuous next year!




Developing Thinking Strategies for teaching with ICTs

I recently argued that we should add a new Habit Of Mind – Thinking Digitally to our armoury: to help us think critically about how we navigate the new cognitive technologies. When I was a boy, I remember being taught explicitly how to navigate a book to extract the information I needed. We were shown how to use the table of contents, the index page, the title page, the blurb. These were skills which stood me in great stead over the years.

In many schools students are taught explicitly how to use search engines and online databases effectively, but, as one of those teachers myself, I don’t believe we are going anywhere nearly far enough to equip our students with good critical skills for finding and evaluating digital information. It is all a bit hit and miss.

searchWhen students Google something they may or may not get the results they are seeking. If they find information straight away, that is well and good. Search engines are becoming more and more intuitive, and are better than they used to be at getting around a sloppy query. But students need effective strategies for when they are not getting the results they need. In the course I run for my grade 8s, I teach them how to use quotation marks, plus and minus signs to refine their searches and generally think about what’s wrong with the results they are getting so they can refine the search accurately. But it is not enough. It’s a single session which gets lost in the day-to-day confusion of lessons. As a key cognitive strategy, it’s something we need to be foregrounding far more than we are. We need, in short a better strategy for teaching students to find information in a digital world.

When I floated the idea of Thinking Digitally as a new Habit Of Mind, one of my motivations was to move the whole question of how we use cognitive technologies centre stage, so that teachers across a range of disciplines, and not just the one responsible for teaching digital or information literacy would begin to see it as central to critical thinking practices within their subject specialization. Finding information in Maths presumably looks different to finding it in English, for example, and may well involve different tools and approaches.

There is, however, a common algorithm, and the beginnings of a common strategy. All memorable strategies need a good acronym. I call the framework TASER.

  • Tools: The first step is choosing the right tool for the job. Some questions need different search engines or databases. Wolfram Alpha is great for some uses, but Google will trump in other circumstances, while only Google Scholar alerts may be best for some purposes. Students need to know about a range of search engines, databases and search tools they can use within documents. Teachers cannot simply ask students to Google their research. They need to scaffold this process carefully and thoroughly.
  • Analyse: Students need to be taught how to analyse the question so that what they are looking for will actually help them answer the question.
  • Search: Students need to know how to refine their searches, to search online and within documents and their own devices! This also needs to be carefully scaffolded. Most of us learned the hard way! There are numerous tips and tricks that students can be taught. For example if you type -merchant in Google it will remove the obvious advertisements. That alone can help refine a search significantly.
  • Evaluate: Students need to be able to evaluate the veracity and appropriateness of the information. How can you trust the information on the site you’ve stumbled across? There are a number of CRAP Detection strategies which can be used, but again, they need to be taught. You cannot expect students simply to do it. We live in a world where information comes at us at such a rate we cannot possible evaluate everything. It needs to be a conscious act, with conscious strategies. Teachers need to guide students through it. Only subject teachers can really do this because so much depends on our sense of what fits and what doesn’t fit into our knowledge schemas.
  • Research: Students also need research skills. How do you take notes? How do you bookmark effectively, how do you capture citation information? All of these are important skills in terms of organising the information you have found so you can use it effectively without cut and paste plagiarism. And again teachers need to actively teach these skills. They don’t happen by accident!

Of course this is simply a skeleton framework for developing strategies for effective use of digital media and cognitive technologies for research purposes. But it needs to be taken out of the Information Literacy class and embedded in every classroom, or it will be ineffective, which is where I think we are at the moment.


Cool Tools | GameDesk’s GeoMoto and Pangean

Originally posted on

CREDIT GameDeskAn innovative learning games organization just released a couple of new and novel interactive gaming titles for education, GeoMoto and Pangean. Their embodied learning experiences allow players to create and manipulate geographic features with movement. For the IOS, Android, and Leap Controller/PC platforms, GeoMoto and Pangean allow players to learn through direction and movement by creating geographic features by pulling, smashing and grinding tectonic plates and moving entire continents. The games emerged out of research and development and performance testing supported by The National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Science, the Betty Moore Foundation, as well as the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Working in collaboration with content experts from Bill Nye the Science Guy, LucasArts, Cal Tech’s Tectonics Observatory and Boston University, GameDesk merged its assessment-driven and game-based learning design practices to foster deep conceptual learning of various geosciences subjects. GeoMoto, which is now currently available in the Apple App…

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Posted by on November 14, 2015 in Uncategorized


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