Category Archives: Digital Presence

Five Strategies to Avoid Digital Distraction in the Classroom

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

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

1. The Digital Traffic Light

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

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

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

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

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

2. Work First – Reward Second

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

3. Do One Thing At A Time!

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

4. Monitor Your Distraction

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

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

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

5. If All Else Fails, Go Cold Turkey!

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

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

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


Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.





EduTech Africa 2017 Day Two – Spot The Teacher!

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Trying to extract the main theme of the second day at the EduTechAfrica Conference is a bit like trying to spot the ball in one of those popular press football competitions from my youth! Mark Sham set the tone by calling on the conference to dismantle schooling entirely! He reminded us that schooling’s function is to reinforce inequality in society, and in a world where artificial intelligence threatens almost all our jobs, schooling, by stifling creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills is not just broken, but is positively dysfunctional.

Dee Moodley on the other hand talked about the importance of Presence, that almost indefinable human aspect to education, the human touch that all teachers need. Neelam Parmar stressed the need to drive change through reshaping education through experiential learning. People need to look forward to change! Meanwhile the coding and robotics people were agonizing over how to manage a coding across the curriculum agenda, and in another track the process of managing ICT integration technically and in terms of human resources was being poured over. Mark Hayter and Lora Foot reminded us that teachers need to be able to function within newly imagined learning spaces.

The mantra for the day was perhaps “the teacher is still the driver”. And yet the role of the teacher is clearly a contested space. There are many visions of the teacher at stake: the teacher as someone who needs to be converted as ICT Champion; the teacher who needs coaxing and mentoring to overcome their fear of technology; the teacher who must nurture or engage her students; the teacher who must experiment and play; the teacher who must surrender control of the classroom. The teacher who must oversee the dismantling of the schooling system itself!

What is perhaps most clear is that the role of teachers is as uncertain as the role of technology in education itself. We are at that wonderful moment, perhaps, where there are as many visions of the future as there are eyes to see, and anything is possible. What frightens me, frankly is that the rise of big data may well overtake these democratic impulses and squash them with a technocratic Taylorist vision of educational efficiency. In a world where Betsy de Vos can run the education system in America, technology may well become an authoritarian nightmare!

Perhaps the only bulwark against this might be to find the teacher in the picture and ensure that teaching and learning remains a deeply humanistic endeavour. Only by finding the teacher can we ensure that values are central to our schooling system.





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.

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