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Category Archives: Cloud Computing

The Great Onlining – Reflections after Day 10

At the end of the first full week of teaching online it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on what has been a whirl-wind ten days or so! About two weeks ago we met as a staff and were told to prepare ourselves for the possibility of teaching online during any possible closure of the schools because of the corona-virus pandemic. Over the weekend it became obvious that schools would in fact be closing, and in the event we had just two days to prepare ourselves. Now I am an IT teacher and was kept very busy trying to help staff learn new skills, very rapidly. My school was using Microsoft Teams, but not all teachers had set up classrooms yet, so that was the first task. My colleague, who teaches IT to Matric bore the brunt of this first onslaught because Teams is her responsibility, but very quickly we had teachers finding out how to record video lessons, set up assignments in Teams, use Flipgrid or EdPuzzle, record meetings in Teams, use Zoom … the list of demands was endless. I’m not sure I remember much of those two days, except the feeling of exhaustion. It was almost a relief when the school closed. I realized then I hadn’t thought much about my own classes!

I have been using Teams in my normal teaching as a place where students could find resources, download files, submit assignments and watch videos of lesson content. I have found it useful to record short five minutes videos of the work that I cover in class so that students can review it at their leisure, or catch up on missed work if they are absent. When teaching coding I like to start each lesson, or punctuate a lesson with a “live coding” session where we go over possible approaches to a problem, and I can introduce programming concepts such as variables, loops, or functions. So, as luck would have it, I had very few videos to prepare from scratch. I am currently teaching mobile app design on the MIT App Inventor platform with my grade 9s and web design using HTML & CSS with my grade 8s.

I was worried about how it would go, because so much of my time in the classroom is spent walking around helping students, and I knew that many of my students do struggle with managing digital work. It seems to me that the law of thirds operates here. About a third of students are very capable following digital instructions and using my video flipped content to work independently. About a third cope quite well, but they do need to hear instructions and ask questions about what they are doing face to face, although they are happy enough with whole class instruction. The last third needs individual instruction to be able to cope.

I knew that about a third of my students would cope well – bandwidth and data willing! I also knew that another third would probably be able to get buy with a lot of hand-holding! What really concerned me was that group that needs one-on-one help even face-to-face.

I was also concerned about how much work to expect students to be able to do. The school had decided to follow the normal timetable to keep a sense of routine. I knew that this might become problematic so I left instructions on Teams and sent out an email for the week, setting out expectations. I told students I would be online during timetabled lessons to answer questions and hold check-in meetings, but all the instruction had been posted in videos, and they could do the work at any time they found convenient. Very much a Flipped Classroom model.

So, with some trepidation, on the first morning I logged on at 7:30 am and within a few moments a few students joined the meeting in Teams and asked a few questions. Half an hour later a handful of the girls had finished the assignment ( a short tutorial on mobile app design using a bit of block-coding). By the end of the hour more students had submitted the assignment, but many had submitted work that had been due before the close of school. I had answered a handful of queries, mainly procedural, and marked all the work submitted. I don’t even know if more than a third had actually logged onto Teams that first morning. Over the next few days I got more submissions of the work asynchronously and more queries on Teams or via email. I had started to get into the second third, the ones who need hand-holding! A week later the missing third does not even appear to have logged onto Teams.

I know that in many cases families are not able to support the levels of data required, and there are probably many private tales of squabbling over the family laptop or desperate attempts to top up data caps. Or even families without adequate devices or connectivity. I also know that my colleagues have been piling work on the students. We have had anxious letters from parents telling us this. I know that their computer skills work will be one of the first to be sacrificed to Maths or English homework, but I am really concerned that the missing third is truly missing during this period. It is the same group of students who need constant individual attention in class, who are simply not able to get that attention online.

As teachers we desperately need to examine what is pedagogically different about online teaching and learning. We cannot just expect to port our normal methodologies online and carry on as if nothing has changed.

So my big take-away from the first 10 days is that now most teachers are fairly comfortable with the technology necessary for teaching online, that we need to start zeroing in on the pedagogy, and in particular the problem of how to teach inclusively when the technology itself is necessarily something of a barrier.

Lower Technological Barriers to Inclusion

There is not an awful lot we can do about the problem of lack of technology access in many households. We have supplied dongles with data to our bursary students, but I know of even very well-off families struggling for a variety of reasons. But we can make sure that we set the technological barriers as low as possible. As an IT teacher this is difficult for me, but I have made sure that they don’t need specific software downloads, that we use only browser-based platforms. Many staff are using as much paper-based work as possible. Some staff are using email rather than flashy video-lessons, and I’m sure students are extremely grateful for that. Just because a platform has bells and whistles, doesn’t mean you have to use them!

Establish your Digital Presence

However, I believe that central to the success of any online pedagogy is the question of online presence. Being able to talk to the teacher, check-in and ask a question, have queries answered on the spot, is all crucial to students. But, unlike a classroom, where a teacher can be present even for students who are zoning out, what do you do about students who do not log on to the platform, or who ignore emails? In a sense there is not much to do beyond contacting those students directly and trying to draw them then, much as one does in class. But if they are ignoring emails? Some teachers have set up whatsapp groups for their classes, and this might be the best way of ensuring digital presence by using a platform used by the students more widely than official school platforms. No doubt Tik-Tok would do the trick!

Create Back Channels

Apart from trying to lower the technological barriers to inclusion and promoting your digital presence – being there for students, I think one of the most crucial differences between offline and online teaching is the absence of social cohesion online. I think it is important to try to promote social cohesion and collaboration. If students feel isolated and alone, they may simply give up. Many will be communicating with each other in back-channels, but some will not be, and establishing back channels for your class is vital. I tried to do this by having check-in meetings during my allotted timetable slots, during which students could log on at the same time and see and talk to each other. That was my plan, but so few have logged in at the same time that this has not really worked. I know other teachers have had better success with this sort of thing. Coding is fairly individualistic, but I do plan to try to establish a share ideas check-in to try to get students talking to each other about the work!

As the week draws to a close, I have to say online teaching is really exhausting!

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

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.

 
 
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