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Category Archives: Blended Learning

Lite Beer: Google Classroom Revisited

google classroomI have previously declared myself an avid Moodler, and this has not changed. However, most of the teachers in my school have swung over to Google Classroom, many from Edmodo, and so I have decided to give it a second look.

I now run my English classes off a Google Classroom platform, so I’ve been able to have a good hard look at it. Other teachers tell me they have chosen to move to Classroom because it is easier to use, and looks good. They do, however, then complain about lack of functionality. I have to say that I find Classroom neither pretty, nor particularly easy to use. In terms of functionality it is light years behind platforms like Moodle. My opinions regarding its strengths and weaknesses have not really altered.

So what has changed? I have to say that ultimately the only thing is that most teachers at my school have now adopted Classroom and so it has become the nearly universal platform. Having a single platform in a school is a great benefit, especially for students who do not have to access multiple platforms. Assignments are reasonably easy to create, although teachers have struggled with aspects such as creating copies of Google docs for each student. You need to be careful not to save the assignment and add the document later, which is not very intuitive. Being able to create copies of a single document is, nevertheless a great function, and perhaps Classroom’s single greatest strength, its ability to seamlessly link to Google Drive and the collaborative power that brings! The ability to email groups of students who have not completed an assignment, for example, is also a key benefit. Beyond this, though, the lack of ability to create rubrics, to assign students to groups within a class, the lack of plugins and modules allowing for peer assessment, or ability to add html elements such as twitter feeds for back channels renders Classroom somewhat emasculated. The design is stilted and grading assignments tricky if the connection slows. Were it not for its ubiquity, I would certainly not be using it!

Like a lite beer, Classroom seems like a watered down version of the real stuff! And yet it is winning hands down. Is it simply that it has the backing of Google? Or is it that its uncluttered functionality better suits teachers who are not focused on the technology but need a handy tool they don’t have to think too much about? I suspect that both of these reasons apply. As a dyed-in-the-wool Moodler my hope is that Classroom will get teachers used to the advantages of using a LMS, but will either acquire necessary functionality or will ultimately drive teachers towards proper platforms like Moodle. What Moodle needs to do is ensure that it improves its look and feel, become more intuitive and user-friendly, while retaining the ability to get under the hood and customise as need be.

 

Page vs Screen: Technology in the Classroom isn’t Hobson’s Choice!

CiPQ5hgWEAAm-2RIt seems to me that in any class I teach there are three distinct groups of students: one consisting of enthusiastic adopters of digital technologies; a second group of those comfortable enough with the technology, but rather less gung-ho about it; and finally a group which struggles with anything to do with a device, and is all at sea. I gave my grade 8 English class a writing task the other day, and told them they could submit digitally, or on paper. A large group reached immediately for their devices, but some put their tablets to one side, and took out pen and paper. Likewise, when it comes to reading, most of my students have a textbook, but a few use eBooks downloaded on their kindles.

This is, I believe, exactly what it should be. The introduction of technology in the classroom should never amount to an all or nothing affair. The research on the effects of reading and writing on page and screen is by no means conclusive, and with something as important as reading and writing, I believe we should be very cautious about any change. On the other hand so much reading and writing is done on devices these days, we would be ill-advised to ignore it. My common sense, unscientific intuition is that both page and screen form important modalities for literacy practices, and that we need to cultivate good habits in both.

I try to give my students opportunities throughout the year to read and write on page and screen. This has some obvious advantages. When my students are writing in Google docs I can view and comment in real-time, as the writing is happening. This allows me to engage with the process of writing in ways which are more constrained on paper. But I do worry that writing on paper may well be developing other skill sets, such as fore-planning, which screen writing might be eroding. So I make sure that we do writing on paper as well. And sometimes I give them a choice. I have to admit that this is all hope and pray for the best – I have no idea what I am doing. But I do hope that by mixing things up sufficiently, hit and miss tactics will result in more hits than misses.

The time has come to start developing a comprehensive notion of what it means to read or write on the screen, and how to teach good habits towards hypertextual reading and screen writing. here are some initial thoughts:

  • Reading Hypertext is about scanning for information and synthesising ideas from hyperlinked sources, so students need to be given tasks which call for them to browse rapidly to find relevant information, and need to have these skills scaffolded. How do you evaluate what is relevant and valid? How do you go about assessing what it is you need to find: what is your question? How do you go about assessing where to find this?
  • Reading the page is more about following a narrative or train of thought and understanding how the argument is structured. This can be practised through more searching “comprehension” style exercises.
  • Screen Writing is less about setting out your thoughts before you begin writing, planning the structure of your argument; it does afford a more exploratory style. You need a more recursive writing strategy in which you interrogate what you have written to reveal the argument that is emerging from the words. These habits can be practised.
  • Page Writing, because the ability to edit is constrained, needs more thorough planning, and a sense of the structure of your narrative or argument before you begin writing, or recursive drafting.

At the moment very little work is being done in developing ways of teaching and assessing these different modalities. I suspect language teachers are largely winging it, as I am, but we do need to start addressing these issues before we lose a generation to bad page and screen habits!

 

High School MOOCs – an idea whose time has come?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were widely predicted to disrupt tertiary education, even to replace Universities. This has not really happened, for many of the same reasons that ICTs have not disrupted classrooms to any great extent. But this is not to say that MOOCs have failed. Despite the high drop-out rate, and concerns that only those who already have tertiary education are really benefiting, it cannot be denied that many people are getting a huge amount of value from MOOCs. I have taken several MOOCs on different platforms. Some have delivered great content in engaging and innovative ways, others have been more pedestrian in approach, but still gave great content, and so, were of value. Some were not for me, and I dropped out as soon as I realized it wasn’t offering what I was looking for.

While it seems certain that MOOCs will never replace Universities, what about High schools? On the face of it MOOCs look more appropriate at tertiary level. Students of high school age still need teachers to mediate content and scaffold learning far more actively than at tertiary level. While online delivery of lectures is hardly very different to lecture-hall fare, classroom teaching is far more interactive, and more difficult to reproduce online. This is not to say, however, that MOOCs could not be devised which are more suitable for high school students, and while they are extremely unlikely to disrupt high school, I believe they will increasingly start to fill a niche purpose. Here’s why!

The first argument for introducing MOOCs at High School level is that it would help students prepare for life long learning. MOOCs can be intimidating places unless you are confident that you can overcome the isolation of online platforms, and it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to prepare students for using online solutions to further their education.

Secondly, there are areas of the syllabus that may not be able to be effectively covered in the classroom for whatever reason. We all know that most syllabi are far too long and teachers struggle to complete all the content necessary to prepare students for high stakes examinations! Being able to take some aspects off-site and online, and maintain a guided approach to the content, could be vital to being able to complete a programme in preparation for an examination. For example, my colleagues and I are really struggling right now to get through The Merchant Of Venice with our grade 8s. Our Head Of Department insists that we cover every word, and I would like to ensure that I can help students unpack the major speeches in some detail, and do exercises in class to explore their own understanding of the play. This balancing of the need for instruction and meaning making activities, combined with long syllabi and shrinking contact time means that I am always chasing my tail. All it takes is one day lost to a Biology field trip, or school photographs, and I’m sunk!

Using the Flipped Classroom model, I could certainly record some videos in which I unpack the meaning of the major speeches, giving more time in class for discussion, and activities designed to encourage students to make the material their own. Many teachers are already doing this. If you use apps like Zaption, you can insert quiz questions into the video to ensure that students are watching it and understanding it. Videos might lack the affordance of live questioning, but they can be paused and re-played at will, and questions can be asked and answered online, or in class the next day. You can also use Open Educational Resources to add extra context. At this stage you are not just flipping your classroom, you are creating a MOOC. Platforms such as Moodle or Google Classroom will allow you to post videos and allow students to submit assignments online. Moodle even allows for peer assessment.

A third reason for developing a MOOC is that it can be used for extension or remedial programmes. Some students might need further explanation, and this could be delivered via online videos or readings. While it might cover similar material to that covered in class, it allows students who miss class, or are falling behind to review content. It also allows those who are moving ahead to be able to tackle extra questions or concerns. While moving remediation offline might seem counter-intuitive, the reality is that in the frantic day-to-day of the classroom, vital one to one interventions sometimes slip through the cracks, and careful explanation available 24/7 online forms a useful safety net.

A fourth rationale is that it allows teachers to play to their strengths and compensate for lacunae in their knowledge. If a department works together to create materials for a MOOC, it is likely to be far more valuable for all their students. Even where team teaching is not possible, it allows for students in any class to be exposed to different perspectives and approaches. The extension of this idea would be for teachers from different schools to collaborate on creating content which could be shared for all their students. This content could be made available nationally and internationally to under-resourced schools, and help to compensate for skills shortages. I believe this would make a powerful contribution to education generally.

And lastly, the use of collaborative platforms would add value to traditional aUntitledapproaches. Google docs, for example, allows for students to engage in collaborative authoring of documents such as study notes or assignments. Such documents, attached to the MOOC, would allow for students to use the MOOC platform to explore the ideas being raised and discussed in class. While this might be confined to a single class, extending to the whole grade, or neighbouring schools, considerably adds to the value being co-authored.

While high school children require more scaffolding than tertiary level students, I believe that setting up your own MOOCs, by sharing them with other faculty, and schools presents a powerful model for transforming student learning. It is indeed an idea whose time, I think, has come.

 

Flash Feedbacks – ICTs For English Teachers

English teachers have usually found that ICTs are a good fit for creative self-expression. There are numerous multi-media authoring tools for computers or tablet devices which can be used to allow students to create multi-modal presentations of one kind or another. But it is not so easy to see how to use them when unpacking a work of literature or working on language accuracy. There are, of course, numerous drill and practice type sites online where students can fill in the missing word, or select the correct form of the verb, or answer multiple choice questions on comprehension texts, but I’m not going to consider those at this time. For the most part they are kiss of death, not too bad for the occasional exercise if you want to ring the changes, but hardly anything to get wildly excited about!

When it comes to teaching literature, however, there is very little substitute for guiding a close reading of the text and for discussion. Some of this happens in a whole class context, some of it in groups. But the essence of grappling with a text lies in the throwing out of ideas and seeing where they lead. ICTs can certainly be used in this process. Some of the discussion can happen before, and after the class on an electronic forum. Students can express their ideas about the themes or characterization of a novel in blogs or in wikis, but the heart of any literary study is in the face to face discussion in the classroom while doing a close reading. I have not yet found any digital advantage over reading a text with a class and interrogating particular words. What does this word suggest about the protagonist? What other possible meanings does this word have? It’s this process of worrying away at a text, like a dog worrying away at a bone, that produces understanding – often unexpected understandings. English teachers need to model this process, making their thinking visible to students, helping scaffold it for students, guiding their thoughts as they wrestle with a text. This process of coming to grips with a text has always formed the basis of my literature classes, interspersed with activities and exercises which aim at deepening or consolidating what students have learned from a close reading. I have tried different methods, but always come back to this as the only really effective way of engaging with a text with a class.

Snapshot - 1ICTs are no real use in this. However, I do see some use in terms of either recording discussions so they can be viewed later, or recording quick summaries of points made for later storage and retrieval. Note-taking during a discussion is not easy, although I encourage students to use the Cornell Note Taking Strategy. I have previously used quick Flash Feedback sessions at the end of a lesson, or activity, where students use their devices to record (audio or video) a quick summary of what their group decided or found. These can be shared on a LMS platform, and can form the basis for further discussion in class, or in a forum.

These Flash Feedbacks could easily be integrated into classroom discussion as well by pausing every now and then and recording a student summarising a point or points made. These recordings, posted on the LMS, can then be used as the basis for answering a question or any other activity. They form a digital record of a discussion and might help tease out some of the more interesting points made, which might otherwise have been forgotten.

Quite apart from providing some kind of record of a discussion, it also serves to help students bring together the thoughts and threads of the discussion and creates opportunities for building knowledge so that the ideas emerging from the discussion can be ordered and re-shaped into an argument about the meaning of the text.

 

Thinking Digitally – The Essential Dialogic

Teaching has been defined as “casting false pearls before real swine” (Irwin Edman). Facetious as this comment may be it sums up what transpires day in and day out. Two things happen in any classroom, anywhere you go in the world. Firstly you will find teachers teaching. Some kind of knowledge transmission will be happening at some point in any lesson. Teachers know something, and they will attempt to impart it. If this is not happening one would have to seriously doubt why the students are there! This transmission model of knowledge is useful because it captures the essential reality of the world. There are things we don’t know, and one of the most efficient ways of finding things out is to have other people tell us.

But secondly you find students voicing what they know, and trying to figure things out. Until you put things in your own words you don’t really understand anything. Knowledge, in other words is constructed, and is essentially idiosyncratic. My understanding of quantum physics is probably not as sophisticated as yours, but it is the only understanding I’ve got. This divide between what has been called Instructivism, the transmission of knowledge from a knower to a knowee, and Constructivism, or how we construct knowledge in our own heads forms a common thread in many educational approaches. But essentially they are two sides of the same coin. We need to be told things, and we need to figure them out in our own minds for it to stick.

I’m not going to rehearse any heavy learning theories, because that’s not what this post is about, but it forms a necessary backdrop to everything else I want to explore. My favourite formulation of this self-evident truth, that learning involves both transmission and participation is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, who spoke about monologic and dialogic discourses: the monologic being socially agreed handed-down meanings, and the dialogic being the numerous idiosyncratic voices of individuals. In any classroom the teacher normally represents the monologic voice, teaching the received wisdom of how the world works, while students bring their numerous voices to the conversation. The monologic normally represents the voices of power, the knowledge students will need to acquire to succeed in life, while the dialogic represents the authentic power of voice, often submerged or repressed understandings of the world, which nevertheless have a validity not least because they critique the established world view.

It is my belief that teachers fail if they fall short both when it comes to giving students access to voices of power, and when they do not sufficiently value the power of voice. As an English teacher I need to be able to help my students shape and express what it is that they have to say, but I also need to teach them standard dialects, grammar and how to construct logical arguments so that they can speak the language of academia and of power.

blogDigital technologies offer some key affordances here. Not so much in terms of the monologic voice, but the ready ability to publish thoughts, just to your classmates, or the wider world is one which allows the dialogic voice to be heard in ways which the essay written on a piece of paper can never emulate. Every year I have my students write in a class blog. They join the blog site as authors and post under their handles. Their peers can read and comment on their posts almost as soon as they are published. It is best to have themed blogs with a clear focus, or student blogging quickly devolves into trivial status updates. If you are studying a Shakespeare play, for example, it is a great idea to have students blog about themes or characters in the play. Their ideas are thus immediately exposed to the view of their peers, and can be debated and revised through comment. I require each student to end off with a significant blog post, which forms their current understanding of the topic under discussion. This is the assessed portion of the activity, and motivates all students to contribute. As teacher I also contribute my ideas as one voice amongst many. I believe this is important because it conveys a message about online learning and how mentorship works in any online community. But I limit my posts to interventions rather than outright corrections. If someone claims that Shylock is not in favour of usury, for example, I step in, but grammar and logical errors I leave alone because I don’t want to be seen as too censorious.

I appoint student moderators. Anyone who contributes more than five posts is made into a moderator. This helps establish a sense of community and helps stamp out any flaming should it occur. It never does! Nevertheless I usually use a moderated blog site where access to the blog can be controlled and kept private.

Some students, in my experience, do not participate, and resist using technology. Some of these do lurk, however, and that is a benefit. I insist that anyone not posting on the blog submits their post in electronic form directly to me. I don’t understand why a small minority appear unwilling or unable to access or use a blog. It is a small minority, but is always present in any year group. They may fear exposure, may find their cultural or personal sensibilities at odds with receiving peer comment … I’m not sure. It is an issue I always have to deal with. Overwhelmingly, however, I find that students seem to enjoy the cut and thrust of online discussion.

In terms of encouraging good habits of Thinking Digitally it is vital that all students be exposed to how to use communities of practice to express their opinions and learn from others.

 

The Always Available Teacher – What’s the Netiquette?

One affordance that digital technologies bring to the classroom is that of greatly expanded connectivity. Via, Skype or Google hangouts, or any number of platforms your students can talk to other students, experts, or to the teacher in class time or outside class time. Via forums, chat rooms, email or whatsapp they can converse or ask questions anywhere, anytime. Generally speaking this is a good thing. But what happens when you get unwanted connectivity?

I was once phoned late at night by a university student in a TEFL class I was teaching, clearly inebriated, who was asking me for advice on grammar! I have received whatsapp messages at 6 am, and been emailed close to midnight. I have no problem with students sending me messages outside office hours. Indeed it often helps to be able to deal with a problem, and if I am able I often reply straight away. But it is important to have boundaries.

UntitledWhat I tell my students is that they may contact me at any time. I keep my phone on silent while I am sleeping, unless a family member is away from home, so as not to be disturbed. But I tell them that I may not respond outside of office hours. I tell them I am quite bad at remembering to look for messages. There are other teachers who recommend simply deleting any message sent after hours, because it is rude to expect a reply. A friend of mine always addresses correspondents after hours by saying “Good morning!” He does this to reassure the person that even though he is sending late at night, he does not expect the message to be read till morning.

I believe it is important to have a discussion with your class about these ground rules for outside of office hours communication, and to have these rules displayed next to your contact details. I believe it is important that each teacher, or each department within a school sets ground rules like this. It is probably important also that students experience differing policies, so they realize that in life, different people have different tolerances.

So, as the first day of the new school year looms, I am preparing for that discussion on the first day!

 

Thinking Digitally – A New Habit Of Mind?

Thinking Digitally HOM logoI have been thinking recently about how to best meld together a focus on Thinking Skills and ICT integration in my teaching practice. The school where I teach has strategic initiatives both on the importance of Thinking Skills in the curriculum, and on ICT integration. And yet the two strands are usually dealt with separately. I would like to believe that our use of technology is intended to help us become more effective thinkers and problem solvers. Indeed the idea that ICTs will help deliver better critical thinking has often been advanced. And yet, unless we consciously work at ways to make this happen, technology seems far more likely to lead to a dumbing down of our culture. Share if you like, if you know what I mean!?

My school chose to use Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick’s Habits Of Mind to frame our Thinking Skills policy. These Habits Of Mind describe the habits and dispositions of successful thinkers and problem solvers, and provide a focus for developing strategies to teach effective thinking. There are sixteen HOMs which have been described, but I believe it is important to add a seventeenth – Thinking Digitally.

Thinking Digitally describes the disposition of successful people to use the digital tools at their disposal to expand their thinking and solve problems effectively. I believe it goes sufficiently beyond the other sixteen habits to warrant a niche of its own. It finds support, I believe in the newer learning theories of situated cognition and connectivism, and is important to isolate as a concern in Cognitive Education because we need to think consciously about how we teach students to use the new digital technologies effectively as learning tools

Beyond wearable technology, we are told by those with crystal balls, lies a future in which devices will be embedded in us. Already we seem surgically conjoined to our devices so this does not seem too fanciful a notion. Clearly we need to think seriously about what cognitive skills we want to impart to our students to help them cope with this. The cost of not doing so is unthinkable.

 
 
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