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Category Archives: Edmodo

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.

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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!

 

In Search Of The Holy Grail – How do ICTs foster Critical Thinking?

DSC00161The Holy Grail of ICT integration in the classroom is that almost mythical quest for the application of ICTs to foster critical thinking. The assumption that the introduction of ICTs would somehow magically transform teaching practice, leading to more learner-centred, problem-based, cognitively rich classrooms has not borne fruit. I am not saying that ICTs have not had an impact, or that they have not been used properly. There are many excellent examples of good practice, and yet the effective use of ICTs to uniquely engender critical thinking is far rarer. Critical thinking is extremely hard to define, and happens far less frequently than we would like to think in any case. Kahneman’s notion of fast and slow thinking: system 1 thinking which is based on intuition and emotion rather than system 2 thinking which is more deliberate and logical, illuminates the problem. Most of our thinking is rooted in fast, quick reliance on assumptions and pre-digested opinions rather than consciously working through an argument and examining evidence.

In the classroom much of what passes for critical thinking is actually firmly rooted in the rehearsal of handed-down opinions and prejudices. I would contend that the prime characteristic of critical thinking is that student’s assumptions are questioned, the reasons for believing something are examined, and that arguments are unpacked and critiqued. I’m not convinced that this happens as often as we would wish, and sometimes it is not happening even when we think it is.

Actually this is very rare in life as well. Most of us live inside a universe of comfortably held views which are seldom questioned, and outside of which we seldom step. The problem is not really that ICTs have been ineffective. The problem is that we just don’t think enough! We never have.

Can ICTs be used within a classroom to change any of this?

I would argue that just as the Holy Grail is chimerical, so is the search for any single tool or application that will uniquely foster critical thinking. Just as a piece of paper and a pencil can be used to write meaningless doggerel or a thought-provoking essay, the tools themselves are not guarantees of any result. You can use Skype, for example to talk to your granny or to Stephen Hawking, and the likelihood of any serious critical thinking emerging is based more on the content than the tool. And yet tools do have affordances, properties which enable certain types of interactions. Because Skype enables communication, it can certainly enable critical thinking. Because Google docs enables synchronous collaborative writing, the likelihood of greater reflection in the writing process is increased. Tools may not guarantee any result, but they are not neutral, as is often claimed. ICTs do have a role to play in transforming our classrooms into thinking spaces.And yet no single tool can be claimed as the holy grail of critical thinking!

The greatest exemplar of critical thinking that we have is probably the Socratic method, a pedagogical methodology in which the teacher challenges a student through dialogue, to question their own thought and develop more rigorous and robust arguments. The teacher will help the student expose weaknesses and contradictions in their thought, highlight contrary evidence and scaffold the process by probing and questioning, as well as modelling thinking. The key feature of the Socratic method is dialogue, that the student develops their ideas under the mentorship of a teacher who teases out the student’s thought, and offers input from a more experienced standpoint. Dialogue is essentially the bringing together of interactivity, of communication, with collaboration, the joint development of an argument or idea.

Socrates had the luxury of a one-on-one engagement with his students, and was free from the need to pursue an imposed syllabus or common core standards, or to produce a battery of continuous assessments. He didn’t even have to coach soccer to the Lower Vs! I’m not saying that the Socratic method cannot work in a whole class situation, but it’s application is constrained, and often truncated by the annoying ringing of bells or the intervention of another student. Our schools are simply not set up for prolonged interrogation of thought. Our schools are predicated on system 1 thinking, the acquisition and memorization of second-hand ideas presented in bite-sized chunks called lessons.

Some have argued that a key affordance of ICTs is that they might enable greater personalization of learning, that students could progress on their own individually tailored learning paths. This idea, while seductive, is tantalizingly out of reach currently. The Personalisation by Pieces approach offers insight into some of the ways it might work – through skills ladders and peer mentorship, and we should be vigorously trying to find ways to make this work. But for a classroom teacher in 2015, it appears as far away as it was when the idea first came out. Students are kept so busy in any given school day that the kinds of solutions teachers can apply such as using technology to add remediation and enrichment tasks are difficult to apply in the face of a relentless syllabus. Unless the entire system swings over to a personalised approach, individual teachers’ hands are tied.

Nevertheless this does open up the question of the centrality of infrastructure and architecture. Perhaps we should look at the role of ICT infrastructure and the types of classroom interactions that can be supported through this architecture. Perhaps the unique contribution ICTs can make to thinking lies not in individual properties, but in the aggregation of their affordances. Put another way, perhaps it is the ability to bring together communication and collaborative tools which uniquely affords critical thinking in the classroom? Stevan Harnad’s notion of a fourth cognitive revolution brought about by the bringing together of the immediacy and interactivity of oracy with the reflective power of literacy in the nearly synchronous world enabled by the Internet is an idea which is pregnant with possibility. The unique enabling of communication and collaboration through a networked society is a powerful notion which has inspired many classroom interventions. But the mere addition of near simultaneous communication and collaborative tools does not guarantee critical thinking. And most classrooms are not routinely connected in this way. If it is to happen it must be through the provision of an adequate architecture.

A Learning Management System is a must for any teacher seriously engaged in integrating digital tools within their classroom. Digital tools mean digital output, and imply the need for some interface for pulling it all together. That interface is effectively your LMS. Teachers who simply ask students to email them their digital assignments and then record assessments on a spreadsheet are using Outlook and Excel as their LMS. Those who use Moodle, Edmodo or Google Classroom will have custom-built tools to achieve classroom routines such as instruction, assessment, feedback or discussion. Most LMSes are pretty good at hosting digital SCORMs, podcasts or videos to supplement instruction, and of enabling assessment of digitally submitted assignments using rubrics or online annotation. Feedback is also a common-place function, but discussion is currently a weakness in most LMSes. Chat and forum modules are usually built-in, but do not generally commonly foster genuine discussion.

Much the same could be said of classroom discussions as well.How much of it is on topic? How much of it is insightful rather than trivial? The problem is not with the tools – it’s with how we use them. The average classroom already enables communication and collaboration. Put the chairs in a circle and students can discuss and collaborate. What is lacking though is the ability to delay and reflect. Immediate synchronous discussion has huge power, but students quickly move on to the next task, and seldom revisit a discussion, and lack the means to do so because oral discussion is ephemeral. An LMS which is able to record and store discussion for future reflection would go a long way towards enabling critical thinking.

I would like to argue then, that a necessary first step in creating a situation where ICTs can meaningfully foster critical thinking, is to focus on how we can bring together communication and collaboration. A focus on individual tools and applications is fine, but it needs to go beyond that to look at infrastructural issues. None of the major LMSes truly achieves this key affordance effortlessly and fluently. I would argue that the infrastructure really requires a space which allows students to effortlessly upload recordings of face to face discussions for future reference, to discuss in writing collaboratively and to edit and update files at any time. Currently all the major LMSes view the assignment space as a single upload without any linked discussion space. Google docs offer the ability to mutually edit, to comment and to chat! But then Google Classroom does not incorporate this feature in the assignment module. And You cannot set up groups. Moodle allows groups, even peer assessment, but does not allow for mutual editing and commenting on a document. Edmodo allows for groups, but similarly misses out on any collaborative features.

It may not bring the Grail Quest any closer, but for me the sine qua non of any LMS needs to be the enabling of a space where students can work in flexible groups, able to edit, comment and chat about any kind of file or files they are working on, seamlessly and synchronously or asynchronously.

 

 

 

Platform Agnosticism

One of the hardest decisions a teacher needs to make these days is which digital platform to use. For some, school districts or the school itself may have forced a decision by selecting a particular Learning Management System. For others, given a free choice, the choice itself may present a bit of a nightmare. I think I have an account on just about every digital platform known to man, and I have dabbled in most of them at some stage or the other.

moodleAt my school the choice has largely come down to three platforms: Edmodo, Moodle and Google. Each of these has some very strong features, and some weaknesses and the school itself upholds a policy of platform agnosticism. My personal preference is for Moodle because it is so strong at managing the whole process of electronic submission and grading, and has peer assessment modules and badges and can generally handle just about any educational function you might wish for. Its affordance value is thus very high. However, it has a fairly steep learning curve, and this can be problematic. Many of our teachers have gone for Edmodo, and I can see the benefits of this in terms of ease of use, although for me the platform is seriously light on features. Google has recently burst onto the scene at our school, and is garnering some support. Students seem to enjoy using any of these platforms, but clearly with different teachers using different platforms, there is a need for a school portal allowing students to link to different class resources from a single entry point. This also helps brand the school’s e-learning, and if done intelligently can deliver a seamless experience for students and parents

I don’t see any benefit in forcing teachers to use any particular platform. Teachers really need to use whatever platform they are comfortable with. Different subject disciplines have different needs and technology offers different affordances in different contexts. The only logical approach then is to encourage a variety of platforms, and run a strong portal.

 

Branding and The Flipped Classroom

flippedLast week the school where I work held a meeting about Flipping the Classroom. Many teachers in the school have been quietly flipping for some time, in different ways, and to my mind one of the most interesting questions which arises once the flipping goes institution-wide, is the whole question of branding.

With some teachers using Moodle, some using Edmodo, and some using our Sharepoint intranet, any attempt by the school as a whole to bring some order to the scene is going to be a messy business. So the first concern, then, is should there be some order? Does the Flipped Classroom need the branding of the school, or should it remain an anarchic sea of different platforms and individualism?

Now I am an Anarchist at heart! I believe, passionately, that teachers teach best when they are doing something they believe in. I prefer the functionality and power of Moodle, but I would be the last one to want to get those who swear by Edmodo, or any other platform to change! But there’s another part of me that thinks that some sort of order in the chaos is not only necessary, but desirable. Anarchism as a political philosophy only works when one argues for organic, grass-roots, bottom-up order to replace repressive, top-down order. Real Anarchists are not Nihilists!

I believe there are at least five solid reasons for creating a portal for the school’s flipped content, and indeed for the school’s e-learning efforts generally. Please note that I am arguing for a single portal, not a single platform. Content can be hosted on myriad platforms: Google Drive, YouTube, Moodle, Edmodo or WordPress and still be accessed from a single point.

Firstly, and from the point of view of the students – and teaching is nothing if not a service industry – there is a solid case to be made for a single portal to access whatever it is that teachers are doing: a place to go so they don’t have to remember the URL for Mr X’s class blog, or for Mrs Y’s Edmodo class. The worst case scenario would be students uncertain of where to access the content they need. I have experienced this with my own sons trying to remember where the class blog is to be found, and having to search past emails to find the link. If only one teacher is online it is easier for kids, but when everyone is in on the act, it must be a nightmare. A single portal would alleviate this confusion.

Secondly, it gives parents an opportunity to gain some understanding of the school’s e-learning initiatives, a place to track their own children’s progress, perhaps, and sign on as mentors, or as parent accounts on platforms that have these functionalities. I know that as a parent I would really value this. It would certainly influence my impression of professionalism in the school, and influence my choice of school in the first place.

So, thirdly, from the point of view of the school, branding the e-learning is an important aspect of marketing the school, and schools are also businesses, whether we like to see them that way or not. For the last few years I have been quietly branding the school Moodle platform in my capacity as the Moodle administrator. This has included using the school logos, branding the site as Roedean Online, using the same format for my own flipped content,  and using twitter hashtags to feed content into course pages. I would be more than happy to use Moodle as a single portal (with links to Edmodo sites, class blogs and so on), but there is a significant core of resistance to Moodle amongst teachers, and so it would seem impolitic to impose that brand. I did, nevertheless set up a Flipped Classroom Course on Moodle in the Staff Training section, as my attempt to advertise and champion Moodle as a platform. If the forum didn’t win teachers over, surely the “flipped teacher’ badges would! It is merely an impression, but I feel that branding Moodle as the School Online helped win students and some teachers over. But I’ve climbed on my hobby-horse and I digress …

A fourth reason for having a single portal revolves around collegiate collaboration. In many schools teachers are somewhat isolated in their classrooms, with little contact with what other teachers are doing in theirs. This leads to a sense of isolation and as a considerable stumbling-block towards greater collaboration. This is exacerbated in cyberspace in some ways, and a single portal might help bring greater awareness and, if accounts allow guest access, a chance to share and collaborate more.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, shared portals could span not only classrooms, but schools as well. Several schools could work together, pooling expertise to share their online content. My vision of the MOOC in the High School is precisely this, of portals sharing Flipped Content, forums for collaboration and discussion beyond the walls of the individual school or even school district.

Are there any reasons not to have a single portal? If by portal you mean platform, then I would have to say yes, absolutely. Single platforms would kill all initiatives dead in their tracks. But as a portal linking to whatever platforms teachers are using or accessing, it can only be a good thing!

 
 
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