Category Archives: Digital Presence

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.


The Curate’s Egg: A Blended Approach to ICT Integration

ICT integration is a bit like the proverbial curate’s egg: good and bad in parts. I believe that is is absolutely vital to remember that when you start using ICTs in your lessons, not every bite is going to nourish, there will be many sour moments along the way.

When it works, it can deliver spectacular gains and generate a great deal of excitement. When it doesn’t, frustration and anger follows in its wake. You organize a fantastic lesson in which students are going to use their devices to follow a trail of QR codes to find the answers to a question, and suddenly there’s no wi-fi … you’ve found the perfect YouTube video to use for a listening comprehension, and suddenly the Internet goes down!

A teacher, taking their first timorous steps in ICT integration, faced with this experience, sometimes does not make another attempt. Even tech-savvy teachers can get totally frustrated. But that’s not what I’m talking about, although it is a very real problem.

The blended classroom is a classroom in which both face to face, and online instruction is used. Blended pedagogies, in the same way, deploy both digital and analogue technologies. Students may watch a video, and then write a response on paper, or act out a scene in class, and then maintain a reflective blog online. I like to use the metaphor of the curate’s egg to think about both the good and bad moments that are inevitable in any use of ICTs, and to think about the necessity for a blended approach. If I remember that all lesson units should have both a digital and an analogue part, I am more likely to strike a balance, and avoid over-reliance on either.

I believe that this balance is necessary because knowledge, and how we access knowledge has changed radically. Google has transformed the amount of facts and figures we have at our finger tips, and the speed with which we can find things out. This is a vital part of a twenty-first century world. And yet the ability to find something is not knowledge. Knowledge is about the way things are organised: how we relate one idea to another, the meaning and significance we attach to raw facts. This requires deep, and reflective reading, rather than rapid fire assimilation and synthesising of facts. To understand something you need to follow a sustained train of thought and reflect on the logical connections between ideas, and how they relate to everything else you know about the world. And yet you also need to be able to assimilate information rapidly, given the plethora of information available these days. Knowing how to use Search Engines effectively is vitally important to allow one to scan the horizon for salient facts, but so is reading the page, reading deeply for the narrative.

Combining digital and analogue reading, and by reading I mean understanding, is very much a curate’s egg. What’s good for one purpose may be bad for another purpose. This creates a massive conundrum for teachers, and highlights the perilous situation we find ourselves in. Ignoring digital media is clearly wrong, but so is racing to adoption before thinking it through. The safest approach is to ensure that we use both, and try to establish a balance.


Driven To Distraction: ICTs in the Classroom

When I first started teaching there were no iPads, mobile phones or laptops in the classroom to distract students’ thoughts away from the matter at hand, but make no mistake there was still plenty to distract. Instead of surreptitiously texting each other, students would pass notes, which would snake their way across the class from hand to hand under the desks, or glide in paper aeroplane format gracefully over heads while my back was turned. I know this happened because I have intercepted quite a few in my time, and because I was a student too.

I haven’t seen any notes passed in quite a while, but I know that students in my class don’t always use their devices to take notes, or work on the task at hand. Any teacher who tells you that students are never distracted in their classroom is seriously delusional. Electronic devices are particularly prone to distraction because they form such a part of the fabric of our lives. Just as bad habits gained watching television at home has made talking in the movie theatres so annoyingly prevalent, so our capacity to multi-task with our devices has made classroom distraction emerge from the surreptitious art it used to be and blossom into full-blown addiction.

In the old days when you caught a student passing a note they were apologetic. They knew they were doing wrong and accepted your admonition to get back to work with easy grace. These days students seem genuinely puzzled and sometimes indignant that you are insisting they stay on task! “I was just checking my emails!” To be fair, they still see games play as something the teacher has a right to interrupt!

Some schools, or teachers, of course simply ban devices from the classroom, confiscating cell phones when they surface. Others have policies which stress the need to turn them off when they are not being used, or at least to switch off the screen. These are all very sensible, of course, but when so many use tablets for note-taking, even this policy is hard to implement at times. I agree that there should be switched off moments during any lesson, and I uphold this approach in my own classroom, but there are those messy grey areas, those moments when some students are using devices productively for sanctioned work, and others are clearly just getting distracted. The other day I was moving from group to group as my students were working on producing a news report from the trial of Shylock: part of our study of The Merchant Of Venice. Some were editing footage they’d shot in the previous period on their iPads, Others were trying to find the script they’d written on Google docs and now couldn’t find.

One student was playing a game.”The others are editing, sir,” she said innocently.

“Aren’t you part of the group?” I asked reproachfully. She shrugged, and reluctantly closed her iPad and slid across a vacant seat to rejoin the group. If I hadn’t checked I might have fondly thought she was searching for a graphic to use, or downloading some music for the soundtrack. I wanted to use the moment to help her combat her distraction, though. “What game was it?” I asked. I didn’t know the game, but I persisted. “What level are you on?”

She became quite animated, and told me she was close to the end of the game. I can sympathize with that. So close to completing the final level and to have to work on some silly project. I almost wanted to tell her to go back to her game, and apologize for interrupting! Compared to the epic win, any question about Portia’s mercy, or lack thereof pales into insignificance.

It struck me that blanket bans on devices, or strictly enforced switch-offs, while clearly necessary at times, are not very helpful in teaching students to manage their distraction. This sounds odd, but we live in a world where multi-tasking is seen as a virtue, and the value of focus is in peril. If we want to help students focus when we need them to, we need to go beyond simply imposing periods of digital silence, we also need to help them manage the ability to set distraction aside when they need to. If we don’t, they will never learn this skill. I don’t think this can be done when devices are forcibly switched off: the device needs to be on, and you need to be managing your impulse to play with it. We need to be engaging in discussions with students about device addiction, and stepping in and helping them get back on focus when they slip. We should be gently, but firmly, vigilant about distraction and steer our students towards greater ability to set a device aside when appropriate, and leaving it switched on, still stay focused on the activity of the moment.

To this end, I would like to suggest a slightly different policy towards device distraction: a three-phase approach, much like a traffic light. Student devices are then in one of three phases: The phase gives a guideline as to whether devices should be switched off completely, available for use, but with screens off, or are on and in use. The phase also determines what sanctions are in place for infractions.

traffic lightRed: All student devices are switched off. Maximum focus is required on a task which does not require devices in any way. Any digital distraction is policed by the teacher and there are sanctions for infractions. Devices may be confiscated for the duration of the lesson, for example.

Amber: Devices are on, but with screens switched off. they may be used if necessary for note-taking, checking a fact, or making calculations if necessary. Distraction is still policed by the teacher, who tells students when they may or may not use devices, but no punitive action is taken, and the focus is on students managing their own need to use a device. The teacher assists by identifying when use is appropriate or not, and advises when the screen should be switched off, but devices will not be confiscated.

Green: Devices are integral to the task at hand and students are encouraged to use them freely. Self-management is essential and any off-task behaviour is flagged, but not policed. Ask students to report on and reflect on how well they managed to stay focused and avoid distraction. Students are being encouraged to manage their own behaviour. In group work, the group may become jointly responsible with the individual. If the teacher spots off-task behaviour they may ask the individual or group to remember to report it in their reflection.

The desire is to have a system which both makes plain whether devices may or may not be used, and to encourage self-management.


Why should I Remember it, if I can Google it?

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I remembered the quote, of course, but had to Google who said it. It was Alphonse Karr, the nineteenth century French critic, journalist and novelist. That just about sums up my relationship with Google. As one who was born before the Internet, I tend to rely on my memory, but I use Google to double-check, and find out the bits I don’t know, or have forgotten. My sons, digital natives, born in the Internet Age, seem to have a different approach entirely. When my eldest came home and announced that he had to learn a list of a thousand words for his Latin exam, I was horrified that his teacher could have given them such a list just before the exams and expected them to learn it virtually overnight! Then I found out he’d been given the list eighteen months previously!

latinWhy hadn’t he bothered to learn the words when they were given to him? Well, it appears that you can use Google translate to meet all your Latin vocabulary needs, so there’s no pressure  to memorize long lists to do your homework! His marks had always been good so he never felt the need to commit the words to memory

And then I found out that in his Physics exam they are given the formulae, given the periodic table, given everything that back in my day we had to learn off by heart!

With 24/7 access to Google, it seems that memory is dead!

Except that it isn’t! To use Google at all you need something inside your own head, something to guide your searches, and to assess the validity of what comes out at the other end! To evaluate any search engine query implies a scaffold of knowledge upon which you can hang the new knowledge. While the Internet presents an enormous potential for expanding, and holding our knowledge, it cannot replace knowledge itself. It cannot replace the thought processes and thinking that went into creating it, or the thinking that goes into recreating it in our own heads.

This puts me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s notion of Fast and Slow Thinking. He characterises two types of thought – System 1 thought, which is fast, subconscious, stereotypical thought. We reach conclusions based on recognised patterns and deeply ingrained metaphorical categories. System 2 thought, on the other hand is slow, effortful, consciously arrived at: logically thought out thought. It is far less frequent than system 1! With the same inputs, the conclusions reached by these two types of thought may be entirely different.

Both these types of thought are necessary, or at least unavoidable. Sometimes we need to act quickly, and reach conclusions rapidly. We cannot always retire to a barrel like Diogenes to think things out thoroughly. The main purpose of a sound education, framed this way, is to create deeply ingrained habits of thought which will render our fast thinking more efficacious and sound. If we are used to thinking issues through, our initial intuitions should be more thoughtful. Hopefully. If we have spent time learning how to think things through logically and thoroughly, our basic instincts should be more sound.

I have a suspicion that our relationship to memory needs a similar division into what we have committed to memory,and what we have available to us stored in our network! We cannot possibly remember everything! We have at our fingertips an almost instantly available resource allowing us to find out just about anything, anywhere, any time. This may include facts and information that we have not previously processed in our minds. We need this type of information often to make quick decisions about whether to sell our shares in South American zinc, or to determine what snake has just bitten us, and what action to take. A quick Google search revealed that indeed researchers talk about two types of memory. Memory which is external, stored on paper, in group knowledge or, increasingly on computers or networks is called transactive memory.

We also need, however, a wide range of information committed to memory which allows us to assess and evaluate other information. I have a feeling that anyone who tries to use Google translate, for example, to read Cicero in Latin will come completely awry unless they already have a large number of Latin words in their memory already. According to research (Sparrow, et al, 2011), we apparently remember far less when we know we will be able to Google the answer when we need to. We are growing more dependent upon remembering where we can find the information that we need, than in actually remembering the information. We are in short, becoming symbiotic with our machines.

This is a somewhat disturbing thought, but the growing importance of transactive memory indicates the increasing degree to which our cognition is social. It is easy, though, to draw the conclusion from this that we do not need to memorize anything anymore. I suspect it simply means we will have to remember more, so that all that extra information we can access, makes sense!


Betsy Sparrow, et al. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Science 333, 776 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745


Plan B From Outer Space

When you teach using technology, you always need a Plan B in case the technology doesn’t work! Sometimes that can feel like being on the set of a very bad B movie! More and more teachers are designing lessons which not only use technology, they actually depend on the technology. In Ed Wood’s classic movie, Plan 9 From Outer Space, celebrated as perhaps the worst movie ever made, the star Bela Lugosi died. Far from being phased by this, the director used a double, his face permanently covered by a cape. The show must go on!

In the classroom too, the show must go on, so what do you do when your lesson depends on technology, and the technology isn’t working? Murphy’s Law ensures that this happens often! In fact a rider to Murphy’s Law states that the likelihood of the technology going wrong is in direct proportion to its importance! In other words if the technology is going to fail, it will fail when you’ve invited all the parents, the principal and the school board to come and watch your lesson!

The glib answer is that you always need a plan B, and that’s easy to say, but less easy to hold to. Sometimes you can forge ahead with a less than ideal, but still workable alternative in place. I’ve emailed files to students when my Moodle is down, or Google Classroom isn’t responding. Sometimes you can simply present material in another way, whip out your flash drive which has a copy of the file on it, or quickly print hard copies for the class!

But sometimes you have to abandon the lesson altogether. It’s a good idea to have some low tech, fun lessons planned for when technology isn’t your friend, so you can say, “This isn’t working – put it away, and let’s do this instead!” If you have a box in the corner of your classroom with some of these lessons in it, you can even get your class to pick one at random. This helps mitigate the sense of let down that failing technology always leaves in its wake, and gives the class a sense of shared misfortune overcome.


The Wu Wei of Whatsapp!

whatsappWith over 500 million whatsapp users, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous, whatsapp is a part of the fabric of the school, whether you as a teacher are using it or not! It is the single biggest social messaging platform and offers key affordances in the classroom. It is cross-platform, allowing users with different phones to message each other effortlessly.

On Whatsapp you can set up groups and subscribe users (up to 30) to each group. When you send a message to the group all members are included. It is for the mobile phone what a listserv is for email! Attachments such as pictures, audio or video can be added, and messages can be sent using phone data or over wi-fi. Within a school environment where students and teachers are hooked up to the school wi-fi, this effectively means communication can be instantaneous and free to users, an important consideration. Conversations can also extend beyond school hours, and this is a huge advantage.

It seems to me that whatsapp use in the classroom started with students forming groups based on interest or need. It was a useful way to find out what homework had been set, and pages could be photographed and sent to the group. My sons use it for this purpose, and I know that as a family it is a fantastic application for spreading information quickly to everyone. My son tells me that the other day in his Maths class, many of the boys had not brought their books for whatever reason. The relevant page was photographed and sent to the class whatsapp group. It is now fairly routine for a student to photograph the homework on the board and whatsapp it to the rest of the class! It is usually best to ask your students to set up a whatsapp group for the class, and to add you to it. This gives students a sense of ownership of the group. You can then use the group to answer student queries, and to send out information such as a reminder to bring a particular book to class. It allows for those sudden unavoidable changes in plan too, including things you forgot to mention in class. You do need to remember though that whatsapp can never be an official channel for communication. Not all students have smartphones, some may run out of data, some may lose battery, and you cannot penalize any student for failing to receive a message! This is important to note – I have heard of teachers using it as if it were an official channel and seriously disadvantaging students because of this! My advice would be to keep the class whatsapp as a student run channel, which you can use, but always as a reminder, never as the primary information channel.

Students feel free to use the channel for chat, and this more sociable reaction to classroom announcements is an invaluable tool in promoting your digital presence in the class. It’s a good platform for happy birthdays and well-wishing messages when someone is ill. I encourage students to broadcast a summary of any class for those who are absent.

I find it especially useful for extra-mural activities where do not always see your students in class during the course of any given day, and unexpected changes are de rigueur! Whatsapp is clearly very useful as a classroom management tool, but can it be used pedagogically too?

One feature of whatsapp is the ability to send a recorded audio message. If everyone in your class is signed up on a whatsapp group, you can use it as a feedback mechanism in group or even individual work. Ask students to record a quick reflective feedback on any task and message it to the group. This can then be used as material for a follow-up lesson, or allow you, as a teacher, to gain insights into students’ understanding of the task. These messages can be retrieved from the whatsapp media folder if necessary, but they are essentially ephemeral in nature.

You can also use audio or video messages, or links to these as byte-sized flipped learning content as preparation ahead of a class, or as a wrap-up to a class. I like to store this content on Moodle or other platforms, and use whatsapp simply as a reminder of the link. You can encourage students to discuss the material over whatsapp, but I feel that that serves to take over the channel too much. Part of what makes whatsapp successful is that it is an unofficial channel and is student-driven. Official class chat can be housed on a Facebook group or twitter hashtag.

Essentially I see whatsapp as a tool of inaction. It’s not so much what you do with whatsapp – it’s more about what you allow students to use it for, to support that and chip in when you can!

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