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Category Archives: Blended Learning

Five Apps that Support Student Voice in the Classroom

Essential to a healthy diaologism in the classroom is the need to foster student voice. Students need time to explore their ideas, formulate and reformulate thoughts and sharpen their understandings in their own words. Despite being perhaps the most crucial aspect of the educational process, it is often the least scaffolded and least supported. Student essays, for example are frequently corrected and handed back, but very little is done to offer students usable strategies to organize their thoughts better or focus their thinking. Digital technologies do, however, offer some affordances to help teachers scaffold student voice better.

1. Google Docs

One of the problems with paper is that teachers can only really see what students are writing after they have written it. Even if students hand in a draft version of their thoughts, the difference between a draft and a final version is often cosmetic at best. Unless time is spent on the revision process, and this time is usually not available in the classroom, thoughts and arguments are set in place by the end of an initial draft. At worst the final copy is frequently just a neat version of the draft! One of the key affordances of Google Docs, however, is that it allows the teacher, and other students, to read and comment while the document is in the process of being written. This represents unparalleled access to thoughts being formed during the process of writing, as immediate, almost, as discussion. I enjoy the ability to reflect before commenting on what a student is writing. Sometimes in a discussion moments are missed. Just a few moments of reflection allow more considered responses.

As a teacher you can also create documents which serve as templates scaffolding thinking, working towards a formulation of their thoughts, leading up to the final presentation of ideas. This offers very real opportunities for teachers to teach thinking and writing skills, beyond anything that paper can offer. Documents can be shared for class or group discussion.

2. Flipgrid

While Google Docs provide opportunities for scaffolding writing, Flipgrid provides ways for students to record brief messages using a web camera or mobile phone and posting them on a wall to exchange ideas, or reflect on a topic. Students can delete at any stage and recommence a recording. They can view what peers are posting and if you upgrade to a paid version, comment on others’ posts.

These posts are then available to further in-class discussion or as the basis for a piece of writing. Students can speak off the cuff, or prepare what they are going to say for more formal purposes. Teachers can also use the platform to introduce a topic, or to add comments at any stage of a discussion.

Flipgrid is thus a useful tool for monitoring students’ thoughts and using this to help scaffold their thinking.

3. VideoPad

VideoPad is powerful video editing software which can be freely downloaded and used by students to create and edit videos in a sharable format. Students can use footage captured on their devices or stills images. They can add narration, subtitles or animations. Even green-screen capability is included. Clips can be precisely edited to put together a presentation using dramatization or explanation.

Creating a short movie is an effective way for students to organise their thoughts and present their ideas in formats other than the essay or PowerPoint presentation. It allows students to respond to literary texts or present content in different ways. The process is engaging and fun. The ability to be creative around how narratives are structured and woven together makes this kind of digital authoring an excellent way of varying the diet in the classroom.

What I like about VideoPad in particular amongst the video-editing options available is its relatively sophisticated functionality alongside its fairly simple interface. Importing footage in different formats can be an issue, but the software is quite robust. The ability to easily add sub-titles and captions, and to overlay more than one audio track is a definite plus. Students will often spend a great deal of time creating movie projects so it is best to set time limits!

4. WordPress

WordPress is a blogging platform that provides students with an excellent platform for creating opportunities for students to write in authentic, or relatively authentic contexts, with a real public in mind. You can create an account for each student which allows them to author blog content and publish to the site. It is a great platform for a class magazine. Students will often write fairly telegraphically and you will probably need to scaffold their first contributions to ensure that they are meaty enough, and set the tone for the submissions that follow. You can create blog sites around particular themes, such as an historical period or literary work, where students will contribute pieces that appear as “newspaper” like entries exploring themes and topics being studied.

The genre of writing that can be done on a blog can vary from pure creative writing to perspective exploration or even factual discursive writing. This flexibility is useful and the same platform can be used. You can use a blog to collaborate between different classes, schools or continents, exploring a common theme, topic or problem. Students can leave comments on each other’s posts which can be very useful. Appointing moderators is a good idea.

5. PowerPoint

PowerPoints Presentations can be the worst things ever. But if done well, nothing beats a PowerPoint for supporting a well-delivered presentation. It is available on most people’s computers, has a host of functionalities and is portable and so ubiquitous as to provide few technical challenges. Students enjoy using the software and if you take the time to help them create presentations that complement their verbal presentations, for example using only keywords and images, students learn a very valuable and marketable life skill.

Most classrooms at some stage or another will call on students to make a verbal presentation, and the use of a PowerPoint can not only help a student through what for many is a nerve-wracking experience, it can also add to the presentation greatly.

Giving students an opportunity to organise and voice their ideas and receive feedback, preferably as early and as often as possible is at the heart of education. technology can help make that thinking more visible to the teacher and to peers, and thus invite a dialog between teacher and students over how best to communicate one’s ideas.

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Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. Bubbl.us

Bubbl.us is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument.

Bubbl.us allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Strategies to Avoid Digital Distraction in the Classroom

Students will often have several devices about their persons on any given day. Smartphones are almost de rigueur, but if your school has a BYOD policy, many will also have a tablet or laptop. This opens up some great learning opportunities, allowing students to search for information and use digital authoring tools to create content of different kinds. But these devices can often lead to distractions. Some teachers are so concerned they are arguing for devices to be banned from the classroom entirely. Many students are seemingly surgically attached to their phones, and struggle to overcome addictive behaviours. I have some sympathy with the notion of creating device-free zones or periods of time, but believe that the benefits of digital devices far outweighs the dangers they present, not least because as teachers we have a duty to help students learn to manage and control their digital consumption.

Here are five strategies which can be implemented in the classroom and in homework/study routines to address this issue.

1. The Digital Traffic Light

If you are going to allow students to use devices during a lesson, you need some protocol for signalling to students when they are, and when they are not expected to use their devices. The digital traffic light signals what state a classroom is in at any stage.

When the light is red, no devices are allowed. Phones and tablets must be off or on silent and put away.

When the light is amber, students have an option. They may use their devices for note-taking or to answer questions, but it does not form part of the task at hand directly. For example a class is reading and discussing the English set-work in class. Some are taking notes on paper, others on their iPads. Some are reading the text on paper, others from as eTexts. The class then needs to break into groups and answer some questions. In the group the meaning of a word is queried. Students do a Google search to find out what it means.

When the light is green, the teacher is signalling that students must use their devices. The task depends on the use of a device.

This strategy has the benefit of removing doubt from students’ minds as to whether or not they should have their devices on or at hand. It also forces teachers to think about the issue up front.

2. Work First – Reward Second

When students are working on homework, many procrastinate, and so seductive are web platforms like YouTube, that work can quickly become a distant memory. A useful work ethic to develop is to reward yourself for any work done by giving yourself digital entertainment time upon completion of a block of work. If I study for an hour, I can have a break and fifteen minutes screen-time! This strategy is difficult to implement, but once it becomes habitual it can offer huge benefits.

3. Do One Thing At A Time!

As I write this I have several tabs open, a few devices at hand, and several applications running simultaneously. My email is running on my second screen so that I can deal with any issues that arise. I am listening to some music and checking my whatsapp messages regularly. Many screenagers like to multi-task and are very good at minimising their screens whenever an adult passes by! The injunction not to run multiple apps, multiple tabs or multiple devices is hard to follow, but should be a strategy one tries to adhere to. Of course there are occasions where running more than one application is beneficial. If I am writing an essay in Google docs and using another tab to research a quote I can use, for example. Or I am using PhotoShop to create an image for a project, watching a YouTube tutorial on PhotoShop on my iPad, pausing and rewinding as I go to help me work on the image I am making. But striving to do one thing at a time can really help students focus on what they are doing.

4. Monitor Your Distraction

Trying to implement the strategies above will only work if you are able to monitor your distraction. This sounds obvious, but is actually very hard to implement if you do not have a strategy for ensuring that you do it! A simple log of what you are doing can help.

16h00: studying Biology
16h48: Watching YouTube music videos
17h02: English essay
17h45: Rick & Morty!

Keeping a log can help you see where the problem lies and start to address it. In a classroom the teacher can help students monitor how focused on a task they are by reminding students what they should be doing and noticing distractions.

5. If All Else Fails, Go Cold Turkey!

Sometimes the only solution may be for a student to have their parents keep their phone in safe-keeping while they work or study.

In a classroom sometimes the distraction is so seductive that only a temporary ban will work! When the Matric Dance photos were released, even students with iron wills were covertly scrolling through the pictures when they should have been working on their spreadsheets. At first I tried a work first – reward second approach and promised them five minutes at the end of the lesson to view the photos, but when that didn’t work I had to become a policeman, imposing a ban on all devices and open tabs!

I believe that helping students manage their digital distraction is far more worthwhile than imposing blanket bans on digital devices or cracking down on all digital entertainment by blocking sites on the school firewall. Trust me, kids will find a way to circumvent the bans and then you as a teacher have absolutely no traction to help them deal with the curse of digital distraction.

 

Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Scoboco at https://www.flickr.com/photos/62159569@N08/10546981384. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.

 

Making Thinking Visible – Mind Mapping on your Interactive White Board

Whenever a class is engaged in a heated discussion, generating ideas that you want to refer back to, it is a good idea to record the thoughts that get flung out, so that they do not get neglected at a later stage. Old-fashioned teachers used to use flip-charts, but the digital teacher has new tools available.

Mindmeister is an easy to use online mind mapping platform which allows you to create and share conceptual diagrams. The free version allows you to generate a side-show (Prezi style) but not to download this as a Powerpoint or other format. The free version only allows you to download as a Word outline, but you can do a screenshot and paste into Paint to create an image file. You can also share to Social Media, or copy a link.

Mind maps are created by starting with a title and adding topics and sub-topics using the tab key. You can customize the theme applied. It is fairly intuitive to learn.

I have found that it allows me to collate student contributions to a class discussion in a very tangible way on the Interactive White Board, grouping ideas and pulling together discussion threads. At the end of the lesson I take a screenshot and create an image file I can post on my Google Classroom as a record of what was discussed, and as a trigger for further work.

 

 

 

A First Look at Microsoft Teams for Education

I have to declare my bias up-front. My favourite Learning Management System is Moodle. I love the functionality of Moodle. However, most of the teachers in my school have gone for Google Classroom and I have gone along with that. What Google Classroom lacks in functionality it makes up for in simplicity. I am currently testing Microsoft’s answer, Teams for Education, which our Network Admins are punting, and I have to say I am somewhat torn. This may seem trivial, but my first reservation lies with the name of the platform, Teams. Had it been called Microsoft Classroom, for example, one would have had a sense that the platform was custom-built for educational purposes, rather than being a business tool adapted for use in the educational sphere. My fear was that it would prove a poorly adapted tool at that. A first glance at the interface did not inspire confidence either. Nothing about its look and feel suggests either ease of use or educational functionality. And yet persistence is rewarded by a sense of hidden power, something generally lacking in Google’s offering.

It is surprisingly easy to create a new Team (Class) or collaborative space. Let’s say you are creating a space for a class. You can add other teachers and students to the classroom easily by clicking on a button to add members. You can change settings and permissions in the general channel, and add other channels for different topics or purposes. Each channel comes with a OneNote Notebook which allows for the insertion of multimedia content, and gives each student their own notebook space. The power of OneNote is truly awesome and alone makes Teams a serious contender in the educational space.

You can also add other apps to the channel such as Quizlet or Flipgrid and any kind of file can be shared. This seamless integration of multimedia content and educational apps immediately catapults it ahead of Google Classroom’s functionality and puts it within spitting distance of Moodle! Assignments can be added and graded online too. Markbooks can be downloaded in CSV format.

Now, I have to say that I have not to date set up a real classroom for a real class with real content and assignments. Only once you do this will you get a sense as a teacher of how the platform meets your needs, and the extent to which students find it easy to use. But first impressions are somewhat promising. Teams for Education clearly has functionality, but it is also somewhat clunky and anti-intuitive. I will have to reserve final judgement until I have been able to use it as a platform in the wild!

 

 

 

Big Data in Education – Big Brother!

The recent shenanigans surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook reveals reasons why we should be very wary of Big Data in education. The argument is often advanced that computerization of the classroom will allow for the collection of large amounts of data on a student’s progress and for increased personalization and more effective pedagogical approaches to be adopted. Teachers are limited and when asked to teach large classes especially, are often unable to give the kind of individual attention we would like. This idea harks back to the teaching machines beloved of Behaviourist psychology and the dream that programmed learning paths could be built into instructional design in such a way as to deliver the right content at the right time for each individual, making learning much more efficient. I have two problems with this notion. Firstly it ignores the crucial understanding of learning as a social construct, reducing it to a solitary interaction between student and teacher (machine). And secondly it dovetails so neatly with the great push for Taylorist efficiency and the erosion of privacy as to raise alarm bells around our civil liberties. If they can gather so much data about us when we are young and in school, how on earth will they use it later when a student has graduated? Will that data be destroyed or sold on for profit? Will the data belong to the student, the school or the educational publishers producing the software?

At the risk of sounding like a Conspiracy Theorist, I do believe that it is incumbant on us as teachers to do everything in our power to protect the data of our students, especially such sensitive data as intimate knowledge of learning patterns and behaviours! If I know how you learn, I have great insight into how to control your behaviour, what shoes you will buy, or how you will vote!

As important as this point is, I do not want to dwell on it. Learning is not individual, It is social, as Vygotsky pointed out. We learn first socially and then internalize that knowledge individually. The distance between the two, Vygotsky termed the Proximal Zone of Development. We need more experienced others to show us not only how to do things or to pass on knowledge, but also to show us what is knowable. What we believe it is desirable to know is also socially constructed. I learn to do things first with the help, guidance and instruction of others, and then, after a while, am able to do it myself. Can machines fulfil the role of the more experienced other? In some ways, yes. Pressey’s testing machines from the 1920s or Skinner’s teaching machines from the 1950s demonstrated that programmed learning could be used with some degree of success. However, these machines, and the computer programs that replaced them have not been dubbed drill and kill for nothing! While there is some research evidence that they were successful for weaker students, their interface and relentless diet of machine delivered question and answer killed all motivation and they lost favour as the fortunes of Behaviourism waned.

As Constructivist learning theories gained traction, learning machines were ditched in favour of new theories about how machines could be used in the classroom. Seymour Papert’s influential Constructionism and approaches such as Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow came into vogue. Computers were to be used by students to author content and as tools for active learning. But beyond this, with the advent of the Internet, computers came to be seen as above all else tools for communication and collaboration, well suited for affording contact between students. Google docs, with its capacity to allow multiple users to author a single document simultaneously unlocked the power of collaboration. Skype could bring other students from across the globe into a classroom, or allow videos to be exchanged across continents. These are hugely engaging uses, and if used properly, can have enormous educational benefits. But they depend on being almost invisible. When you are collaborating in a Google hangout or a Google doc you are not concerned about the technology, you are engaging with other people’s minds! Learning is social, meaning we learn by, with and from others.

The notion of the computer as a device that could track student progress and provide just the right input and feedback at just the right time never quite went away, however, and the growing capacity of computers to do this has led to a resurgence in the belief in personalized teaching machines. Many platforms allow student progress to be tracked and content unlocked depending on progress. Khan Academy, for example has such an interface, and programs such as MyMaths allow teachers to track progress on a dashboard. While this may seem innocuous and indeed beneficial, the drill and kill effect is often cited by students who resist, or try to subvert such programs when they are used in the classroom. These programs are sold in the name of personalization and with a Big Data tagline. The technology may improve, but at the moment these uses of technology are viewed by students as boring and alienating.

And if the technology improves, the Conspiracy Theorist in me starts to be afraid, really afraid!

 
 
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