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Category Archives: 1:1 Computing

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!

 

The Curate’s Egg: A Blended Approach to ICT Integration

ICT integration is a bit like the proverbial curate’s egg: good and bad in parts. I believe that is is absolutely vital to remember that when you start using ICTs in your lessons, not every bite is going to nourish, there will be many sour moments along the way.

When it works, it can deliver spectacular gains and generate a great deal of excitement. When it doesn’t, frustration and anger follows in its wake. You organize a fantastic lesson in which students are going to use their devices to follow a trail of QR codes to find the answers to a question, and suddenly there’s no wi-fi … you’ve found the perfect YouTube video to use for a listening comprehension, and suddenly the Internet goes down!

A teacher, taking their first timorous steps in ICT integration, faced with this experience, sometimes does not make another attempt. Even tech-savvy teachers can get totally frustrated. But that’s not what I’m talking about, although it is a very real problem.

The blended classroom is a classroom in which both face to face, and online instruction is used. Blended pedagogies, in the same way, deploy both digital and analogue technologies. Students may watch a video, and then write a response on paper, or act out a scene in class, and then maintain a reflective blog online. I like to use the metaphor of the curate’s egg to think about both the good and bad moments that are inevitable in any use of ICTs, and to think about the necessity for a blended approach. If I remember that all lesson units should have both a digital and an analogue part, I am more likely to strike a balance, and avoid over-reliance on either.

I believe that this balance is necessary because knowledge, and how we access knowledge has changed radically. Google has transformed the amount of facts and figures we have at our finger tips, and the speed with which we can find things out. This is a vital part of a twenty-first century world. And yet the ability to find something is not knowledge. Knowledge is about the way things are organised: how we relate one idea to another, the meaning and significance we attach to raw facts. This requires deep, and reflective reading, rather than rapid fire assimilation and synthesising of facts. To understand something you need to follow a sustained train of thought and reflect on the logical connections between ideas, and how they relate to everything else you know about the world. And yet you also need to be able to assimilate information rapidly, given the plethora of information available these days. Knowing how to use Search Engines effectively is vitally important to allow one to scan the horizon for salient facts, but so is reading the page, reading deeply for the narrative.

Combining digital and analogue reading, and by reading I mean understanding, is very much a curate’s egg. What’s good for one purpose may be bad for another purpose. This creates a massive conundrum for teachers, and highlights the perilous situation we find ourselves in. Ignoring digital media is clearly wrong, but so is racing to adoption before thinking it through. The safest approach is to ensure that we use both, and try to establish a balance.

 

Driven To Distraction: ICTs in the Classroom

When I first started teaching there were no iPads, mobile phones or laptops in the classroom to distract students’ thoughts away from the matter at hand, but make no mistake there was still plenty to distract. Instead of surreptitiously texting each other, students would pass notes, which would snake their way across the class from hand to hand under the desks, or glide in paper aeroplane format gracefully over heads while my back was turned. I know this happened because I have intercepted quite a few in my time, and because I was a student too.

I haven’t seen any notes passed in quite a while, but I know that students in my class don’t always use their devices to take notes, or work on the task at hand. Any teacher who tells you that students are never distracted in their classroom is seriously delusional. Electronic devices are particularly prone to distraction because they form such a part of the fabric of our lives. Just as bad habits gained watching television at home has made talking in the movie theatres so annoyingly prevalent, so our capacity to multi-task with our devices has made classroom distraction emerge from the surreptitious art it used to be and blossom into full-blown addiction.

In the old days when you caught a student passing a note they were apologetic. They knew they were doing wrong and accepted your admonition to get back to work with easy grace. These days students seem genuinely puzzled and sometimes indignant that you are insisting they stay on task! “I was just checking my emails!” To be fair, they still see games play as something the teacher has a right to interrupt!

Some schools, or teachers, of course simply ban devices from the classroom, confiscating cell phones when they surface. Others have policies which stress the need to turn them off when they are not being used, or at least to switch off the screen. These are all very sensible, of course, but when so many use tablets for note-taking, even this policy is hard to implement at times. I agree that there should be switched off moments during any lesson, and I uphold this approach in my own classroom, but there are those messy grey areas, those moments when some students are using devices productively for sanctioned work, and others are clearly just getting distracted. The other day I was moving from group to group as my students were working on producing a news report from the trial of Shylock: part of our study of The Merchant Of Venice. Some were editing footage they’d shot in the previous period on their iPads, Others were trying to find the script they’d written on Google docs and now couldn’t find.

One student was playing a game.”The others are editing, sir,” she said innocently.

“Aren’t you part of the group?” I asked reproachfully. She shrugged, and reluctantly closed her iPad and slid across a vacant seat to rejoin the group. If I hadn’t checked I might have fondly thought she was searching for a graphic to use, or downloading some music for the soundtrack. I wanted to use the moment to help her combat her distraction, though. “What game was it?” I asked. I didn’t know the game, but I persisted. “What level are you on?”

She became quite animated, and told me she was close to the end of the game. I can sympathize with that. So close to completing the final level and to have to work on some silly project. I almost wanted to tell her to go back to her game, and apologize for interrupting! Compared to the epic win, any question about Portia’s mercy, or lack thereof pales into insignificance.

It struck me that blanket bans on devices, or strictly enforced switch-offs, while clearly necessary at times, are not very helpful in teaching students to manage their distraction. This sounds odd, but we live in a world where multi-tasking is seen as a virtue, and the value of focus is in peril. If we want to help students focus when we need them to, we need to go beyond simply imposing periods of digital silence, we also need to help them manage the ability to set distraction aside when they need to. If we don’t, they will never learn this skill. I don’t think this can be done when devices are forcibly switched off: the device needs to be on, and you need to be managing your impulse to play with it. We need to be engaging in discussions with students about device addiction, and stepping in and helping them get back on focus when they slip. We should be gently, but firmly, vigilant about distraction and steer our students towards greater ability to set a device aside when appropriate, and leaving it switched on, still stay focused on the activity of the moment.

To this end, I would like to suggest a slightly different policy towards device distraction: a three-phase approach, much like a traffic light. Student devices are then in one of three phases: The phase gives a guideline as to whether devices should be switched off completely, available for use, but with screens off, or are on and in use. The phase also determines what sanctions are in place for infractions.

traffic lightRed: All student devices are switched off. Maximum focus is required on a task which does not require devices in any way. Any digital distraction is policed by the teacher and there are sanctions for infractions. Devices may be confiscated for the duration of the lesson, for example.

Amber: Devices are on, but with screens switched off. they may be used if necessary for note-taking, checking a fact, or making calculations if necessary. Distraction is still policed by the teacher, who tells students when they may or may not use devices, but no punitive action is taken, and the focus is on students managing their own need to use a device. The teacher assists by identifying when use is appropriate or not, and advises when the screen should be switched off, but devices will not be confiscated.

Green: Devices are integral to the task at hand and students are encouraged to use them freely. Self-management is essential and any off-task behaviour is flagged, but not policed. Ask students to report on and reflect on how well they managed to stay focused and avoid distraction. Students are being encouraged to manage their own behaviour. In group work, the group may become jointly responsible with the individual. If the teacher spots off-task behaviour they may ask the individual or group to remember to report it in their reflection.

The desire is to have a system which both makes plain whether devices may or may not be used, and to encourage self-management.

 

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.

 

 

 

Laptops vs iPads Revisited

IMG_9707A number of years ago my school looked at the question of whether to introduce laptops or iPads as part of our IT strategy. The junior school went for iPads and bought a class set which can be booked out when needed, but in the senior school our response was more cautious. We felt that iPads did not give us the kinds of opportunities to enable students to author digital products we were after, and that laptops were too expensive. We have therefore been adopting a BYOD policy favouring a mix of pupil-owned smart phones and laptops enabled on our network, with a small number of school-owned netbook computers supplementing the desktop computers in our media centre and computer rooms.

My gut feeling at the time, after limited exposure to iPads, it must be admitted, was that iPads favoured consumption rather than production and hence were unsuitable at a more senior level. The apps that I looked at seemed suited more to presentation of content than to digital authoring. And my question was, since laptops could do both multi-media content presentation and allow for powerful authoring programs, why would one choose an iPad over a laptop, even given the extra mobility of the iPad?

As the holidays loomed, however, I booked out an iPad to play with – just to see if my views had changed, of course! It is a wondrously sexy machine, I have to say. It sits easily in your hands, and is sleek and seductive. The touch screen appears fabulously Science Fiction to someone of my generation, and the rotation of the screen still wows me every time! But that is pretty much where the wow factor ends, I’m afraid. I can see that it is useful because of its weight and size, and if all you need is to surf the Internet, or view content, it is great, but the moment you need to do anything, it becomes a cumbersome monster of a machine, as clunky and ham-fisted in execution as it is sleek and sexy in looks. When trying to activate the right part of the touch screen I kept getting it wrong – the calibration seemed slightly off. There was not enough storage on the machine to download files either, and typing was an absolute nightmare, especially where I needed a mixture of numbers and characters! I found typing my passwords the worst!

I tried to use Garage Band, but couldn’t because there was not enough memory! And for me that clinched it. My views have not changed. I can see that iPads are useful pieces of kit, but their expense is not justified in terms of what they can actually deliver in a classroom. If a student has one that’s great, but I would not recommend a school going out of their way to purchase them.

 

The Tablet Wars – The Kindle Fire

The launch of the Kindle Fire, rekindles the debate about what mobile platform is best for education. Honestly, I don’t think there is an answer to this question. Here is a demo of the new Kindle, for what it is worth.

The issue is not really about whether the iPad is better, has more apps, or whether the Kindle Fire is cheaper. The software applications, the price, are both vital issues for schools to consider. What formats each device supports are also vital. You really want a solution which is as open as possible. It is absolutely no good if a device does not support a wide range of formats.

The Kindle Fire lacks a camera, which, in a classroom environment is a huge disadvantage. Nevertheless, it is clearly a player, and will have its proponents amongst the teaching fraternity.

To my mind the best solution lies in supporting all devices, where possible, within a Bring Your Own Device policy. The IT Department at my school has been informally registering students’ mobile devices as they have been brought in, and the policy appears to be working, allowing students to access their emails and access Internet from anywhere on campus. This programme has proven popular with students and goes a long way to create the kind of anywhere, anytime access that a 21st century School needs without engaging in the expense of initiating formal 1:1 mobility programmes.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2011 in 1:1 Computing, iPads

 

iPads – it’s all about the app in appeal

I have just seen a demonstration Science lesson in a grade 7 class in which iPads were used most successfully. I have to own up to my prejudices here. I am an iPad sceptic. I am not convinced that iPads are the way to go in terms of 1:1 programmes. I cannot for the life of me see why an iPad would be preferrable to a netbook, for example.

The lesson I watched was all about the digestive system, and it used an app called Organs which combines graphics, text, sound and video files, as well as interactive quizzes. The students worked enthusiastically, and stuck to the task, which was to use the information learned from the app, to prepare a presentation on the digestive system. They were reluctant to leave when the period ended, even though all they had really done was to “digest” a great deal of information, potentially a very dry task. The iPad clearly scored high marks for engaging the students.

I wonder, though, to what extent it will continue to do so as the novelty wears thin. I did not really see anything on the app itself, which could not have been accomplished on a laptop connected to the Internet. Indeed, once the task shifted to preparing the presentation, which I was not able to watch, I have a feeling that the advantage of the laptop would have been pronounced.

Although I am a sceptic, I do want to give the iPad, and any other tablet, a chance to prove itself. It is an extremely sexy machine, with a great deal of appeal. But ultimately it is the app in appeal that will determine whether the iPad earns a place in our schools or not. Its price will have to come down too. The iPad does not seem to be a very good contender when it comes to enabling digital authoring. This may change, and I hear that students can become very fast typists on the iPad. But as things stand I have to say that no matter how engaging they are, they just lack the power to create content, and schools need devices which encourage creating rather than simply accessing content.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2011 in 1:1 Computing, iPads

 
 
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