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Category Archives: Authentic Learning

Why Online Teaching is so Taxing!

Teachers who have been doing remote teaching over the last month or so report complete exhaustion. Not just because they needed to take time to re-design their curricula for remote platforms. Not just because they needed to record videos or re-purpose learning resources for an online platform. Not just because online assessment is a nightmare. But chiefly because of the exhaustion involved in conducting online lessons. And all this at a time when many teachers have to look after their own children and families, when they themselves are experiencing all the stress that we are all going through at this time.

So, why is online teaching itself so taxing? In the classroom you see your class for a set period of time, and you do what you can during the time you have with the class. Your energy goes into being present for your students, either in how you present content, or how you guide and shape their understanding of that content. You have to read the faces in front of you, notice who is beginning to goof off, who wants to ask a question, but needs encouragement, who has a puzzled look on their face, or who is clearly engaged in something else and needs re-directing. From the nods of understanding, or the expressions of sudden realization, you know when you can go on, or whether you need to try explaining something in a different way. You can judge whether or how long to wait after asking a question, or whether to rephrase it better. Face to face interactions require a great deal of work, and it can be exhausting in itself. Teachers suffer a great deal of cognitive overload. You have to keep not only the content you are teaching in mind, but also all the questions around how best to teach it. It is exhausting! But bells ring, and the day has an end. As exhausting as ordinary teaching may be, the week ends, and eventually the term ends. I have always thought that the length of a term is designed precisely to wring the most work out of students and teachers without completely destroying them in the process.

But online work demands a different level of presence. To be digitally present is to be available long beyond any scheduled lesson, worrying about those who never showed up to any online check-in, or who have missed a submission deadline. Teachers online don’t receive absence notes from parents explaining that a student is down with something, or will be away for a few days, but will catch up the work. Often all we have online is a silence that begins to prey on the mind. As emails expressing concern over a student missing in action go unanswered and days become weeks, the mind begins to invent all sorts of explanations, fears of all sorts and grieving for lost time and contact. Teachers are concerned about reaching all their students. But during a lock-down, if emails go unanswered, this concern can become all consuming!

Furthermore, students check-in at all hours of the day and night, with queries and concerns. I had one student ask a question at 2 am in the morning. There is far less of a switch-off point. If you are expecting students to work asynchronously, you more or less have to expect to maintain an asynchronous digital presence yourself. You may have announced that you will be keeping office hours, but if students have been missing in action, when they do pop up at an ungodly hour, it is hard not to respond immediately.

When you are teaching synchronously, reading the room is not easy, either. All the usual cues are largely missing. Facial expression and body language are harder to read, and a great deal more effort needs to go into understanding who wants, or needs to speak. Even managing conversations is more difficult with the false starts and technical glitches that bedevil meetings on Zoom, or whatever platform you are using. As someone who finds it difficult enough to read social cues under normal circumstances, learning how to do it all over again online is a nightmare!

All of these things make teaching remotely particularly taxing intellectually and emotionally. The cognitive load is much higher than in face to face teaching. It seems to me that the only way to cope with this added stress is firstly to recognise it, and secondly to begin to re-align our expectations and curriculum planning to accommodate this new reality. Most syllabi stress a relentless loading of content, breadth not depth has always been the name of the game. School administrators, districts and examination boards need to reassure teachers that the same coverage of content will not be expected during this period. Educational aims can still be met, but expectations around curriculum content needs revision. Is there really a need to study 18 set poems, perhaps covering 12 meets the same aims!? Perhaps one major piece of writing can be assessed rather than three? Perhaps some units of study can be left out, and more time spent on the remaining units?

We all need to go easier on ourselves, or teachers will be facing major burnout by the end of the school year!

 

 

The Importance of Teaching Media Creation Skills

There is an abiding myth that kids today are born digital natives. Anyone who has ever taught ICTs in any form will know that this is simply not the case. Digital skills very much have to be taught! Kay and Goldberg have described computers as a metamedium, a medium, in other words used in the creation of other media. As such it would seem axiomatic that computing should be taught to everyone. And yet this is far from the case. All over the world computing has to fight for a space in the curriculum. No doubt much of this contention stems from the expense of acquiring computing resources, and from securing adequately trained teachers. The great onlining of education has shown us the importance of computers as a medium of communication, but as a medium of creativity it can scarcely be less important. I have taught PhotoShop, Flash and Dreamweaver for many years, often in the context of web design, or game creation. I find that it is an excellent way to segue into coding for middle school students. Computers can be used to create all manner of digital content, but games are particularly alluring for students.

In this blog post I would like to walk through my thoughts about how the nature of remote teaching will have to change my curriculum and instructional design. I would like to cover the same basic concepts: namely photo-editing and game design introducing elementary programming procedures.

Starting with image manipulation in PhotoShop one can teach not only photo-editing skills, but also copyright issues. I usually teach students to use the Creative Commons Search Engine to find suitable images to use that are copyright free. There are many plarforms available for games creation. Up until last year I used Flash, despite the increasing difficulties as the platform becomes less and less supported. I have been considering using Scratch instead, but the seamless integration inside websites and the ability to run in a browser still made Flash a viable choice. My school had an Adobe licence, so justifying that expense was also a concern. I usually teach students how to create buttons in flash and use interactive behaviours. This requires starting to use ActionScript. We use existing scripts and learn how to tweak them. After a few tutorials I get the students to design their own games and then help them get it to work. The graphic shows one of the games created by students which depended upon drag and drop behaviours to work.

So, here’s my problem. I am due to start teaching this unit in May with my grade 8 class, and yet we are likely to be on lockdown, and I am wondering if it is a unit of work I can teach remotely. Certainly not with PhotoShop and Flash, as students are unlikely to have the Adobe Suite. But apart from the problem around access to the software and the necessary data or devices – most of my students use iPads if they do not have a laptop. This presents a number of problems. Firstly, I will be really sad not to have the linkage between image editing and games creation. Realizing that everything about remote teaching and learning takes longer, I will have to concentrate on the game design alone. For remote teaching an online Photo editor such as Photopea appears to work well. The crucial skill is removing a background and saving as a gif with transparency. I am not sure that I will be able to adequately support students through photo-editing online, and the games design, however. So I will have to play this aspect by ear.

In my experience getting students to the point where they can design their own games requires a good few basic tutorials teaching base skills, and then a great deal of scaffolding the process of discovery, especially where it requires coding beyond my own capacity! Tackling this online presents problems. It is difficult to help students debug their code when you can’t see their screen, or where you have to reconstruct it to test it on your own screen! It also needs to be something that can be done on an iPad if a student does not have access to a laptop or pc. It should also not involve any downloading of software or purchase of an app.

So I have decided to use Scratch on the MIT platform which works inside a browser, and apparently works fairly well on an iPad and allows students to use a free account. Students can also share their projects with others. This is crucial because I would like students to work in small groups. I usually get students to do a few tutorials online and then set the project as a group project. Working with groups might prove tricky during remote teaching and learning, but might also help overcome some of the isolation of working from home.

To test the versatility of the platform I created a quick pong game and a tamigotchi game, and it seems to me that Scratch works very well at enabling game creation. The platform also has tutorials which allow for students to work on their own, and develop capacity beyond any tutorials and tasks I create for the class. It also has an extension for the BBC micro:bit controller, which I use for robotics. I have not been able to explore this, but it seems to me that it creates some potential tie-ins, which is important. I also use the MIT platform for mobile app design with my grade 9s, so using Scratch on the MIT platform to introduce coding seems a good fit all round.

To my mind the key to instructional design in a case like this is to have a programme in mind which can be cut short, or can be extended, depending upon the time available and the capacity of the students. In this case the vagaries of remote teaching becomes a particular concern. I will write a follow up post after completing the unit.

Bibliography

A. Kay and A. Goldberg, “Personal dynamic media,” Computer, 1977, pp. 31-41.

 

Fake News & Conspiracy Theories – Teaching Fact Checking!

The Cambridge Analytica story has foregrounded the imperative that we teach students to distinguish between fact and fiction online. All too often, however, the responsibility for this is left to librarians, who often lack sufficient contact time with students in which to do any meaningful work, or, even worse, left to no-one at all. Subject teachers have full syllabi in which detailed work on how to evaluate truth is hard to shoe-horn in. There needs to be some discussion over how this is taught explicitly and how it can then be used across the curriculum.

The standard approach to teaching students how to evaluate websites is to use fake websites which have been created for pedagogical purposes. Here are some examples:

Students are then asked to evaluate these websites, often in conjunction with legitimate websites, to detect which are hoaxes. Common evaluation techniques are usually based around a checklist of concerns: the CRAP Detection method, for example. CRAP stands for Currency, Reliability, Authority and Purpose (or Point of View). Students are asked to evaluate any website against these criteria and then give an evaluation. As an IT teacher, I have included this kind of thing in my curriculum for many years. At my school the headmistress felt I should not use a word like CRAP, so I had to invert the acronym, as in the poster shown here.

  • Currency: Is the information reasonably up to date? Does it matter in this case?
  • Authority: Can the author be trusted? Are they an expert in their field? Do they have a reputation? Authority can mean an individual writer or the website or publisher as a whole.
  • Reliability: Is the information factual or is it just an opinion? Does the author give sources so you can check up on what they are claiming?
  • Purpose: Can you detect any bias? Is the site trying to sell you something? Are they trying to persuade you about something?

There are some problems with this approach, however. Students find it very difficult to move from a checklist to an overall evaluation. Students tend to get bogged down in the detail and lose sight of the big picture. For example, a student may correctly identify the author as being suspect, but then rate the website as reliable because it is up to date. Or they may discount a website simply because it is anonymous. Because context means everything, and truth depends on a wide range of concerns, it is hard enough for adults to pick through the minefield of detecting fake news online, for a teenager it is doubly difficult. No single factor should usually be taken as definitive.

So much rests on possessing a robust general knowledge. I would argue that while checklists are useful, they need to be combined with a process-oriented approach which is better able to balance all the factors involved.

The use of fake websites (usually created entirely for the purpose of teaching website evaluation) is also somewhat problematic. More suitable for younger students, with older teenagers it is better to evaluate real world examples. Conspiracy Theory websites present a much more nuanced content base for honing evaluation skills. The problem, though, is that conspiracies are not necessarily fake, and even highly intelligent and critical thinkers can disagree over which should be taken seriously and which not. As recent court papers attest, drug companies do tell deliberate falsehoods and historians have exposed false flag operations such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And yet students need to be inoculated against undue trust in conspiracy theories. If you Google Climate Change on YouTube, most of the videos apparently question the reliability of scientific evidence. If you Google Vaccinations and Autism you might well be mislead into believing it is a real debate.

The only way to untangle fact from fiction is to have a world view which is based on a really good understanding of the Sciences and Humanities. Truth can be evaluated both on the basis of Coherence, that what is being claimed makes logical sense, and Correspondence with the real world, with data and evidence. Real facts can be totally misinterpreted, and logical claims can be based on shaky evidence. No checklist approach can really help untangle this, and yet evaluation needs to be based on a range of factors.

With this in mind I have, over the years, developed a model for teaching website evaluation which takes note of the factors, and tries to define an overarching process for evaluating coherence and correspondence. The poster gives some idea of the process, but I usually design worksheets customized for the particular task at hand with a space for answering the questions.

The first step is to complete an evaluation matrix. This can be calibrated in different ways, but produces an evaluation diamond which gives a graphic representation of the different factors. This allows the student to look into the Currency, Authority, Reliability and Purpose of the website, but to keep this information in the background. It does not immediately lead to an evaluation. The matrix, though, forms a visual reminder. The tighter the diamond the more likely the website is to be fake.

The student then answers four questions which are designed to get them to think about how the information presented corresponds with the real world and is coherent. It is only with the fourth question that students are asked to give an overall evaluation based on their gut feel. This is done to try and discourage making an evaluation until all other factors have been considered.

  1. Does the information fit with everything else you know about the world?
  2. Is the information confirmed in other sources?
  3. Does it make sense?
  4. What does your gut tell you? Give a rating from 1 (Fake) to 10 (Reliable)

Students seem to enjoy filling in the CARP diamond, and comparing the shapes they produce with others’ responses. Having a visual summary of the evaluation checklist really helps stimulate discussion. The four questions allow students to use a search engine to fact check the content and the author in greater detail. I would recommend that you scaffold this in any worksheet you provide. I always find it useful to get students to work in groups to evaluate a few websites, and then have a report back to the whole class where the group delivers its findings. You can use an online platform like flipgrid to facilitate feedback. By working in groups students are encouraged to voice their responses to the website and defend their points of view.

I believe it is also vital to correct poor findings – and yes, I have had groups make presentations that the tree octopus is real, or that dihydrogen monoxide (water) is a dangerous substance.

 

 

The Matrix Game as a Thinking Tool

Matrix Games (developed by Chris Engle) are an excellent classroom tool. A handbook detailing their application in education and other professional settings has recently been published. They represent a flexible and easy to use game mechanism for any role play or simulation setting. In brief, players (either individually or in teams) make arguments about what they wish to do and why this should happen. An umpire then assesses these arguments and evaluates how likely they are to succeed. A die is rolled to simulate luck and the argument either happens or fails to happen. Games can be relatively free-flowing or more structured depending on the context and desired result.

So, for example in a History class in a game simulating the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik player might argue that the First Machine Gun Regiment would lead an assault on the Winter Palace, with the backing and support of the party and that this would succeed because the regiment was well armed and prepared, was militarised and supported the party and because the palace was weakly defended by troops whose loyalty was suspect. The umpire might rule this argument average, giving it a 50% chance of success. The umpire’s reasons for ruling this way might be that although the First Machine Gun Regiment historically did indeed ask the Bolsheviks to take action, the Bolshevik leaders turned down their request to begin the revolution, fearing it was premature. Each player makes arguments which either succeed or fail and the game develops in his way along its own trajectory. In this example it is likely that the players will develop a better understanding of the background and the forces at play in shaping the outcome of the revolution. The Matrix Game is an excellent tool for running simulations in the classroom, but I want to argue that the Matrix Game represents a cognitive tool in its own right and should be added to every teachers’ tool box. The Matrix Game supports two major cognitive processes: thinking and communicating with clarity and precision and listening with empathy and understanding.

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity & Precision:

When advancing an argument, players need to think about what they want to happen and the reasons why this action will be successful. This can be scaffolded by providing a matrix of reasons (which is why it is called a matrix game), but usually players use the matrix of the real world or of imaginary worlds to draw on for supporting their arguments. In this way the argument represents the conclusion and the matrix of reasons the premises for any logical argument. The form of the Matrix game thus forces players to think in logical and coherent ways about what they want to argue and why it should work.

Empathy & Understanding:

Players assume different roles and compete against other players to have their perspectives advanced. This necessitates understanding the world from another’s point of view and simulating action from that perspective. I am currently running a game in which different interest groups compete to mine the moon. Each team makes arguments from their own perspective. By setting different victory conditions for each team, the players are scaffolded in framing their actions from a certain point of view. See the graphic on the right.

Because different teams have different criteria for winning they will try to manoeuvre game outcomes in their favour. I like to set Victory Points at 2 or 1 points for different outcomes. A player can claim a win on 2 points, or a partial win on 1 point. They lose if they achieve none of their victory conditions. This encourages players to work with others to reach compromises.

I believe that this mechanism helps students to develop an understanding of different perspectives in ways which encourage a much deeper appreciation of how actions are founded on world view and one’s standpoint.

Setting up a Matrix Game

Matrix Games are easy to set up. All you need is a context and roles for players to simulate. You can set up role play cue cards as depicted for the Mining The Moon game, or allow players to define their own roles. Play normally proceeds in turns during which each player gets a chance to advance an argument, but you can adapt this to suit your needs quite easily. For example, I sometimes let players submit an argument whenever they wish to, but then I make them submit in writing and adjudicate in the order received.

When umpiring arguments it is a good idea to assume average as a starting point and then decide if it is weaker or stronger based on criteria more directly linked to the curriculum. Go with your gut instinct. I always try to reward greater understanding of a context and give reasons why I am ruling something weaker or stronger. Adjudication, of course, is always done in terms of what has succeeded in the game. You cannot have one argument cancel out another. Arguments that support other arguments closely are automatically very strong.

If you try out a Matrix Game in your classroom, please drop a note in the comments. It would be great to hear your experience.

 

 

The Power Of Voice – Reflective Collaboration

I recently came across a site called Flipgrid, which allows teachers to set up a grid which can be shared with the students in your class, or with other classes inside the school or globally. It offers a great opportunity to give students the capability of recording themselves and sharing ideas with other students. The free account allows a teacher to set up one grid. You can delete this to set up a second. Each grid does allow for multiple topics, however. This means that you can set a topic for discussion or for feedback after a project and students can record themselves (90 seconds on a free account) and post it to the topic grid. Other students with a link to the grid can then view that contribution. You end up with a grid of speaking heads which anyone with access to the grid can view.

Students can create their video using a QR Code and mobile phone, or from a PC or laptop using a web camera. They can listen to their recording and re-record multiple times before publishing to the grid. The interface is simple to use and clean. This makes it a perfect platform on which teachers can create different kinds of projects.

I used it for a mini Poetry Slam. My students wrote a short poem and then recorded themselves performing the poem, publishing it to the grid. By sharing the access with other classes you can achieve an inter-school poetry slam with absolute ease. It was highly motivating for students to be able to publish their performance in this way, and to view others. It also allowed me to easily set up a panel of judges to award certificates in different categories!

This platform also allows teachers to easily flip the feedback. Many classroom tasks and assignments end with a report back, feedback session of some kind. But there is often not enough time in class to do justice to this. If students are able to record their feedback report, it can be viewed by the class before the next session and used as the basis for further work, or viewed in class to form the basis for in-class discussion. If it is being used between schools, perhaps in different time zones, many of the difficulties associated with downloading or formatting video files disappears! As a teacher you can record a brief synopsis of what is required as the first recording in the grid.

The 90 second limitation should be seen as an asset! Brevity is usually a good thing, and enough substance can certainly be condensed into 90 seconds! Students are not limited to the number of contributions they can make either! They could use a mobile device to record a group report back, or record individual contributions to a group effort as they see fit.

Because students are able to view others, and listen to what they have said before they record their own and delete and restart their own recordings if necessary, the video contains some of the immediacy of a quick response with some ability to reflect on what others have said. This offers a very valuable space for both reflection and collaboration. The platform has been set up to encourage discussion and debate, to spark controversy, but it can easily be used for more traditional pedagogical aims such as exploring different points of view in History or Literature, or reflecting on a Science experiment, or for a quick research summary.

Some teachers may feel that the simplicity of the interface restricts possibilities. You cannot upload files or assignments alongside the video, for example, but I believe the simplicity makes the platform more accessible and flexible.

 

 

What ICTs allow English teachers to do (which they can’t do with pen and paper)

IMG_20150909_105424Larry Cuban has famously observed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that when the computer meets the classroom, the classroom always wins. ICTs have often been touted as disruptive agents of change in an education system which clearly needs an overhaul, but change has been slow and classrooms today look much as they did when I was a child. And yet it is not true to assert that the influence of ICTs has not been felt, or that subtle changes have not taken place – they have. An Interactive Whiteboard may be used in the same way as the blackboard of old, but it may also be used in radically different ways as well, and increasingly teachers are finding ways of using technology effectively and innovatively.

My own feeling is that if technology helps us to do something more effectively and efficiently, or if it helps us to do something worthwhile that we could not do before, then it is worth using. Otherwise it is not worth it simply to do change for the sake of change. The question for me then becomes, can my students do this with pen and paper? If so, they probably should. If not, then does the technology allow me to do something that I can’t otherwise do as well?

English teachers have been amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of ICTs in the classroom. Take writing, for example. Teaching writing is one of the key areas of concern for any language teacher. Writing is concerned not just with form: the different formats of transactional writing, conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and of course grammatical correctness. It is also concerned with genre, tone, register, lexis and of course meaning. How do you structure an argument? How do you communicate effectively and develop your own style? How do you inject a certain flair into your writing? All of these are really questions of process rather than product. There are teachers who simply get students to write an essay and then grade it with allegedly helpful comments in the margins, but most language teachers see the need to address writing as a skill to be learned.

One of the problems with pen and paper is that it cannot readily be subjected to review during the process of writing, and is difficult to edit. Writing a draft, then editing multiple times until you have a final product is physically challenging with a permanent medium such as pen and paper. Some teachers used to duplicate a student’s first draft and give copies out to peers for editing, so that a piece of writing could be discussed in class and the editing process made visible. Other teachers would form students into writing circles, where peer editing could be more easily facilitated. But again the medium itself gave scant affordance to the process.

Google docs, on the other hand, allows student to share a piece of writing with peer editors, or a teacher synchronously or asynchronously. Editors can leave comments, or even do collaborative editing. The affordances of this technology not only assist the teaching of writing as a process, they make it possible in ways it was not conceivable previously. In tandem with an Interactive whiteboard, or a visualiser, and any text can be visibly dissected and discussed in a similar way. These technologies give a flexibility to the process that was absent before. If you wanted to discuss a poem it had to be available in book or handout form, both of which take planning. Now you can respond as a teacher to the cut and thrust of discussion and bring up any text onto the IWB for immediate discussion.

Another classroom routine in the language classroom, the analysis of text, is also revolutionised by technology. When you are discussing a text with a class, a poem say, one important didactic move is how to make difficult concepts or words accessible to students. I used to draw pictures on the blackboard often so students could see what a particular archaic object looked like, to help make it more concrete. Google images considerably aids this process, and youtube videos can be found which immediately demonstrate to students what a Dickensian poor-house might have looked like, or how a paddle-steamer works – or whatever it is that you need to make visual in order to bring a text alive and make it accessible.

As a teacher I have thus found ways of using ICTs in ways which considerably enhance what I could do before, but this is hardly revolutionary. To misuse Larry Cuban’s maxim then: when ICTs meet the classroom, the classroom slowly absorbs them and is in turn somewhat transformed.

 

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!

 
 
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