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Category Archives: Cloud Computing

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.

 

Writing in The Cloud: the Affordances of Google Classroom

google docs

As an English teacher, I spend a great deal of my time reading what students have written, and trying to help them sharpen up on both the content of their arguments and how they go about saying something. The traditional weapons of an English teacher, a red pen with which to make annotations in the margins, pales into a poor second place when compared with the power of Google documents, though.

I have been using Google Classrooms for my grade 8 English class, and I have found that it has a number of advantages, and some drawbacks.

Google Docs represents a powerful way in which teachers can comment on student writing, and give feedback, both in real-time, as a student is busy writing, and in a more traditional way, after the assignment has been turned in. Both of these affordances, being able to comment while a student is writing, and the space a teacher is given to make comments, represent huge advances on what is possible with pen and paper. Students battle to read my handwriting – heck, I battle to read my handwriting! Since comments are typed in Google documents, it is a great deal easier both to write a comment and to read it!

When making comments in a margin, space is at a premium. Often I find myself pushed to summarise a point. Google documents, however, allows a teacher to make lengthy comments: the margins expand, if you like. You can also edit a comment, without making unsightly additions to a comment. This alone makes using Google documents preferable to analogue feedback.

But the most useful feature is undoubtedly that documents can be shared between peers allowing for collaborative writing, and feedback by peers, as well as teachers. This allows students to comment on each other’s work, and simultaneously receive feedback from the teacher both during the writing process, and after a final draft.

By contrast, Google documents is very poor at traditional grading. It’s not easy to go through a worksheet submitted on Classroom, for example, and tick correct responses, and mark incorrect responses – tallying the ticks at the end. To my mind this is a good thing! We teachers reach too readily for this type of grading, and do not use genuine feedback and formative assessment often enough. If Google makes it hard for us to do it, maybe it will discourage us!

 

Do Androids Dream of an LMS?

androidThe three major LMS platforms teachers are using at our school are Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms. These days it is increasingly essential to be able to monitor your Learning Management System 24 hours a day. All three of these platforms have mobile apps. But how do they stack up? I have an android device so I used that, but I assume other platforms will have similar apps. Do you really need a mobile app for your LMS though?

In reality I am so frequently at my computer, both at work and at home, that I use that to access my teaching platforms all the time. When I am away from school, or from home, my view is that I am not working, and don’t have to access my LMS at all! After all, is anything that one uses an LMS for so vital it cannot wait a few hours? In terms of normal operations, probably not! However, I do find it useful to monitor what is happening, or to access resources saved on my LMS if I need to. On days when assignments are due I often get frantic messages from students about the status of their submission, and a quick check is helpful.

I can well see that being able to access the LMS on a phone or tablet might be extremely useful in some situation, or for some teachers. One does not. of course expect full functionality from an app, but I think it is fair to assume that at minimum, a teacher should be able to receive notifications and reply to messages, be able to view classes, students and assignments, add new assignments and mark assignments that have been submitted. Students would expect to be able to view resources and assignments, and submit their assignments online if possible.edmodo mobile

Edmodo Mobile

The rating on Google Play is 4.1. The number of reviews indicates that a great many users are satisfied with the app, and that it clearly serves a purpose.

I have to say that the reservations I have about it are mostly due to my feeling that Edmodo itself lacks some of the features I absolutely require. But this is not a fair issue to raise when looking at the effectiveness of the app itself. I could do pretty much everything that I normally do on the web, on my phone. I was able to create new assignments, grade work submitted by students and receive notifications and alerts as normal.

The app interface is attractive, clean and easy to use. Were I an Edmodo fan I would definitely use this app all the time. And I think I could, at a pinch, pretty much use nothing but my phone to run my Edmodo classes should I wish. The app then gets a five-star rating from me!

*****

moodle mobileMoodle Moblie

The rating on Google Play is 3.1. It has been reviewed very few times, however, which probably reflects the fact that Moodle fans will find less use for this app.

Moodle’s great strength is its versatility and power, virtues which do not translate well into scaled down apps. While I could do pretty much everything I usually do on computer using Edmodo, the difference between the computer-based and app-based interfaces on Moodle is huge! I could view courses, and course content, something students would find very useful indeed. I could access student profiles and assignments, and download and view their submissions, but I could not find a place to submit a grade. This is a huge pity, and detracts from the app considerably.

I was able to upload content to Moodle, but I could not find a way to create or add to assignments. This again, is a serious limitation. In essence it means that a Moodle enthusiast has no real need to use the app, probably why its rating is relatively low.

The look and feel of the app is clean and attractive, and it is easy to use, but ultimately, I’m not sure I’d ever really use it except in an emergency, and I’d have to go back and access the platform via computer later anyway. I’d give the app a rating of a poor three stars.

***classroom mobile

Classroom Mobile

The rating on Google Play is 4, and this reflects the easy way in which the mobile interface reflects the functionality of the platform.

I can instantly see why this is the case. You can pretty much do everything on the mobile app that you can on a pc. I was able to view and create assignments, view content, add courses and content, and grade student submissions. The interface is clean, attractive and relatively easy to use. As with Edmodo, I felt that I could use my phone to run the LMS should a computer not be available. A five star rating is thus appropriate.

*****

Summary

Overall I felt that all three apps were useful, and well designed. The Moodle app was the only one which featured severely scaled back functionality, both compared to the platform itself and to what one might want to do with the app. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I feel that it is not really that imperative to upload content or grade student submissions via a phone: the area where Moodle lacked functionality. Personally I would normally only ever want to view content or check for messages or notifications. As such the Moodle app does a good job. But I do recognise that man others may want this functionality and in this case the Moodle app does suffer by comparison.

Do Androids dream of an LMS? Hell, yes!

 

Dvolver Movie Maker

dvolver

I have just come across Dvolver, which is a website where you, or your students can make free short movies using templates, and typing in text narratives for the actors to speak. I was able to make a short movie in under two minutes. The templates and character avatars are somewhat limited, but because you can type in your own dialogue, the tool is very powerful nonetheless.

Your movie renders and you are emailed a link to the completed movie, including code for embedding the movie on a Moodle page website or blog.

The website does not require passwords or logins, making it perfect for rapid deployment in the classroom. How many lessons have been derailed by forgotten passwords, I wonder? I am always on the lookout for new ways in which students can make report backs from group discussions, and it strikes me that this kind of short movie would be perfect. The embedded report backs can be posted on a Moodle page or blog and viewed out of class in preparation for follow-up classes. To my mind this kind of movie-making application makes perfect sense in your Flipped Classroom armoury!

dvolver2

To create a movie, you select a scene, then select a plot, characters and type in the dialogue you want to use. Finally you can add a background music track if you wish. The most restrictive aspect is the paucity of plot scenarios: there are only four – rendezvous, pick-up, chase and soliloquy. Happily the choice of avatars as actors is more extensive.

There is no learning curve at all and it can be used with even the most techno-phobic or youngest of students. The simplicity is a plus-point and restriction is good for creativity, and good for speed! Sadly you cannot produce a video format file to insert into larger projects, but as a quick to use tool, Dvolver it is great!

 

Sound Clouds for Collaborative Learning

soundcloudI first became aware of soundcloud.com when my son started posting music that he’d composed on the site. An email popped up one day telling me that my son was following me! I’d quite forgotten ever setting up an account! I was suddenly introduced to a whole world where musicians, and aspiring musicians were posting their music, commenting and collaborating, being mentored by more experienced users and generally engaging in the most amazing learning experiences. Wow! And I thought all he did was play computer games all day!

I had originally signed up for soundcloud with the idea of posting podcasts of learning material, but had never got round to it. Probably a good thing too. Who’d want to listen to my voice droning on about Shakespeare’s use of the pentameter? Not that there aren’t some uses for that sort of thing, but compared with the collaborative learning potential I saw in what my budding 16 year old musician was up to, teacher podcasts are really small beer!

Would it not be the perfect platform for storytelling, or creative radio broadcasts, asynchronous debates, poetry slams or project feedbacks? The English teacher in me sees thousands of possibilities, but the whole point behind what what was so valuable in the soundcloud community I witnessed through my son’s eyes, is that it is not regulated or imposed. I very much suspect that any attempt by a teacher to recreate this ethos would instantly kill it! In many ways this is the dilemma of the classroom. And yet technology offers the promise of providing ways in which many of the barriers presented by structure can be broken down. The challenge is to realise this promise.

As an experiment in setting up a soundcloud community I have challenged my students to a poetry slam on soundcloud.

 

Creating in the Cloud

I have just come across a site, http://www.aviary.com which gives you and your students access to a range of some pretty exciting creative tools: both for visual and sound editing and creation. The site also allows you to register a class account (absolutely free), with student accounts, and allows you to manage projects.

What appeals is both the ease of use – my eleven year old son was quickly creating sound and image files – and the power of the applications. Its price (ie. free) is pretty attractive too! I am lucky in that the school where I teach has an Adobe CS3 license for all its computers. When I arrived at the school, every computer had PhotoShop loaded, but the students were not really able to use it. I quickly added it to the Computer Skills syllabus, and now teach PhotoShop, Flash and Dreamweaver from Grade 8 to 10. I have not really tackled audio creation programmes like Audacity yet, but many of the students use Garage  Band, and it is hard to see how anyone can consider themselves computer literate, or indeed literate, these days without a passing knowledge of both graphics and audio programs. I would never want to replace the sheer power of a package such as PhotoShop. I have used The Gimp, which is a freely available open source alternative, and I don’t want to give the impression that I would want to detract from both these offerings in any way. However, I found the applications on Aviary quite powerful, and very easy to use.

Computing in the Cloud has its advantages and disadvantages, and personally I am old-fashioned enough to prefer software that I have purchased or downloaded, sitting on my machine, but then again I preferred DOS to Windows, and well, the list goes on! The advantages of The Cloud are not lost on me either, though, and especially when it comes to graphics and audio packages, which tend to be very pricey, the access it offers to students who would otherwise not have access to similar software is huge.

Why is graphics software, especially, so important? Traditionally Education has focused on text-based study. The image of a scholar is of one whose nose is buried in a book, and learning is measured by reading. Students have not been called upon to learn visually, or to express their ideas visually. Exams are taken in written form, and diagrams kept to a minimum. And yet, how does the expression go? A picture is worth a thousand words? Our culture is somewhat ambivalent about the importance of visual input, and it would be fair to say that graphic representation in newspapers, text-books, and so on has been on the rise throughout the twentieth century. Indeed it is hard to imagine any form of message going out without a visual component. This being the case, it is equally hard to imagine that anyone could be considered literate without an understanding, at the very least, of visual literacy, and at best, a mastery of visual editing and creation. The same can be said for musical and audio editing and creation.

A picture comes into my head of the accomplished nineteenth century lady, whose sketching and mastery of the piano-forte recommended her socially. But that is precisely it! If you can’t PhotoShop out the zits on your Facebook profile pic, or post a halfway decent YouTube video, do you belong in the 21st Century?

 

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