Category Archives: Google Classroom

School Management Systems – Looking For Nessie

The other day I blogged about School Management Systems, and why we love to hate them. Today I would like to look at the change management side of transferring from one system to another. Any change is threatening to staff: there is a double threat of increased workload, or of redundancy! This can lead to resistance. A new SMS can therefore loom large in the imagination as a shadowy threat that might or might not exist, a Loch Ness Monster of a thing! On the one hand it is seductive, but a vague sense of menace is never far from the mind.

But of course Nessie does not exist, and like a bad dream disappears as your gaze dispels the shadows! From the ra-ra-ra of the sales pitch, eventually comes the training. I must say that I have really enjoyed the training with Engage. I don’t usually plug proprietary products, but I will make this exception because it is germane to the discussion that follows. What sold me on the platform was its combination of ease of use and sense of enormous potential. This is an unusual combination. If you’ve read my thoughts on Moodle, a powerful Learning Management System often lambasted for being hard for teachers to learn, you will know that I believe that ultimately it is the power under the hood that gives a platform its traction. My hope for Moodle is that once teachers have got used to the idea of an LMS like Google Classroom, which is easy to use, but lacks functionality, they will slowly graduate to Moodle! With Engage I don’t believe this is a problem as it combines a very user-friendly interface with huge functionality.

Educational Technology and change are hot topics,but the relationship is often assumed to be unproblematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. By educational technology I mean hardware such as computers, tablets, paper, books and school buildings as well as software such as Moodle, PowerPoint or Excel. But I also mean processes. Crop Rotation is a technology, and pedagogy itself can be seen as educational technology.

A useful way of looking at how educational technology impacts upon process and decision-making, is to see them as either relatively hard or soft. Hard here means that it strongly determines the form processes take, while Soft indicates that processes are relatively weakly determined. For example the size of a school building strongly determines what kinds of activities can be conducted inside it. If a school hall can seat a hundred, but there are five hundred children in the school, full school assemblies are not able to be held in the Hall, but would have to be held on the Field, which can accommodate many more. Things like school buildings are not easy to change. Sometimes people try to do so by adding temporary partitions and the like, but generally speaking buildings, once erected tend to make other activities conform to them rather than the other way round.

Human beings, on the other hand, are far more adaptable. We probably owe the existence of our species to this. We are able to make changes quickly and effectively. When there is a time-table clash, for example, teachers are even able to be in two places at the same time, as anyone who has ever taught one class, and looked after a colleague’s next door, can attest. Pedagogy is thus a soft technology. Teachers will often change teaching method in mid sentence if they see that an approach is not working.

School Management Systems are relatively hard technologies in that they often determine a work-flow process or what decisions are possible. For example on a web-based form a required field might block an online application if the applicant cannot supply a value. The more flexible, therefore, the better. It is not ideal that decisions are driven by factors other than ensuring optimum efficiency. The core business of any school is education, and all activities should be subservient to that. Since logically pedagogy is the technology with the greatest effect on learning, all technologies within a school should be softer than pedagogy,

This is seldom the case. A Constructivist teacher timetabled to teach in a lecture theatre will find it hard to conduct student-centred lessons, and is much more likely to revert to Instructivist methodologies in response. This is one of the great contradictions of schooling over which even administrators have little control. Making sure that you are using the softest, ie. the most flexible School Management System is therefore crucial.

The quest for a soft SMS may well be chimerical, but should be undertaken nonetheless.

What sold me on Engage was thus a sense that it was far more flexible in its features than other SMSs, certainly than the one we are currently using, and that it has the power to conform to best educational practices rather than determine them. Much like Nessie this is a mythical beast many hope to find, and is well worth the quest!


School Management Systems – A Necessary Evil?

Nobody loves their School Management System. It can never do everything you need it to do, and over time the things that get in the way of being more efficient somehow seem to get larger, and what you liked about the system begins to shrink in comparison. You begin to curse its name whenever a report prints with a sudden and random font face change, when not all the names in a class list pop up on your screen, or when random students are added to the netball team for no apparent reason!

img_20160927_115307So it was with some trepidation that I set out to attend a one day user group conference for our new School Management System, Engage. There’s nothing I like less than product sell presentations, so the prospect of a whole day of ra-ra-ra filled me with dread.

By School Management System (SMS) I do not mean a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Google Classroom, although some SMSs include an LMS component. An LMS deals with classroom management, facilitating the storage of learning materials, assignment submission and online grading, discussion and feedback. School Management Systems, on the other hand deal with school management, attendance, administration, fees, asset control, reporting and so on. Not everyone makes this distinction, but I think it is important to differentiate between the two functions, even when they come in the same package.

Both are vital in the 21st Century school.There are still teachers who use paper grade books or hand-write their lesson plans, but increasingly one of the great benefits of using technology is to free teachers from some of the drudge of recreating learning materials. I remember when cyclostyled worksheets were the order of the day. Each year they had to be re-created. A computer allows materials that work to be edited rather than endlessly re-typed, allowing energy to go into creating new materials. Technology has also allowed text only resources to become more multi-media and interactive. One of the huge advantages of a good LMS is the ability to store these resources online within learning plans that can be edited and good to go in a much shorter time.

Similarly the advent of the SMS has revolutionized school administration. This is not something that I think about very often. As a teacher I have a very hazy notion of what goes on inside the school office. I know they answer phones a lot, and send messages out about how so-and-so will be late because their puppy died, and provide us with class lists and newsletters and stuff. But teachers are either in their classrooms teaching or whinging in the staff room, and seldom question the amount of school administration that supports work at the chalk-face.

This year I was asked to give up some of my classroom duties to become the systems administrator for our new SMS. I have suddenly had to learn a great deal about school admin as a whole, and hence the conference. Perhaps the most important factor to consider is the level of support that the SMS provider offers. Support tickets that go unanswered are the last thing you want, and a good Help Desk is worth any number of features. The main reason we decided to switch SMS was in fact the lack of support. This is not to say that the features offered by an SMS are not important. Of course it is. Much of the Engage User Conference dealt in fact with new features, some specifically developed for South Africa.

For many schools different software packages have been cobbled together to do different tasks. A School Management System really needs to be a one stop shop, integrating different features within the school. A prime requirement is to find a system which can replace different applications as seamlessly as possible. However, it also needs to be user-friendly so that even the most Luddite teacher can use it. It should be secure, and meet privacy requirements. This is a tall order, and might explain why levels of satisfaction with an SMS often fall after the honeymoon starts to wear off.

Engage manages to be both a user-friendly and a feature rich package which includes Accounts, Fees, Administration and Learning Management Systems. In presentations which whip through everything any software has to offer I have to admit to a certain inattention. It is all a bit bewildering. At this Conference we have a software developer from the UK skyping us on the big screen walking us through using the gradebook. What strikes me the most is the necessity of great flexibility to suit every school’s way of doing things. Schools are such wonderfully idiosyncratic places! In discussions over lunch we talk about the timetabling module. Each school has a different set of criteria. I feel for the software developers, having to try to satisfy so many different needs.

I am crucially aware of what awaits me trying to sell the changes to my staff, who are used to doing things on other systems. I have a feeling I will have my work cut out for me.


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.


Page vs Screen: Technology in the Classroom isn’t Hobson’s Choice!

CiPQ5hgWEAAm-2RIt seems to me that in any class I teach there are three distinct groups of students: one consisting of enthusiastic adopters of digital technologies; a second group of those comfortable enough with the technology, but rather less gung-ho about it; and finally a group which struggles with anything to do with a device, and is all at sea. I gave my grade 8 English class a writing task the other day, and told them they could submit digitally, or on paper. A large group reached immediately for their devices, but some put their tablets to one side, and took out pen and paper. Likewise, when it comes to reading, most of my students have a textbook, but a few use eBooks downloaded on their kindles.

This is, I believe, exactly what it should be. The introduction of technology in the classroom should never amount to an all or nothing affair. The research on the effects of reading and writing on page and screen is by no means conclusive, and with something as important as reading and writing, I believe we should be very cautious about any change. On the other hand so much reading and writing is done on devices these days, we would be ill-advised to ignore it. My common sense, unscientific intuition is that both page and screen form important modalities for literacy practices, and that we need to cultivate good habits in both.

I try to give my students opportunities throughout the year to read and write on page and screen. This has some obvious advantages. When my students are writing in Google docs I can view and comment in real-time, as the writing is happening. This allows me to engage with the process of writing in ways which are more constrained on paper. But I do worry that writing on paper may well be developing other skill sets, such as fore-planning, which screen writing might be eroding. So I make sure that we do writing on paper as well. And sometimes I give them a choice. I have to admit that this is all hope and pray for the best – I have no idea what I am doing. But I do hope that by mixing things up sufficiently, hit and miss tactics will result in more hits than misses.

The time has come to start developing a comprehensive notion of what it means to read or write on the screen, and how to teach good habits towards hypertextual reading and screen writing. here are some initial thoughts:

  • Reading Hypertext is about scanning for information and synthesising ideas from hyperlinked sources, so students need to be given tasks which call for them to browse rapidly to find relevant information, and need to have these skills scaffolded. How do you evaluate what is relevant and valid? How do you go about assessing what it is you need to find: what is your question? How do you go about assessing where to find this?
  • Reading the page is more about following a narrative or train of thought and understanding how the argument is structured. This can be practised through more searching “comprehension” style exercises.
  • Screen Writing is less about setting out your thoughts before you begin writing, planning the structure of your argument; it does afford a more exploratory style. You need a more recursive writing strategy in which you interrogate what you have written to reveal the argument that is emerging from the words. These habits can be practised.
  • Page Writing, because the ability to edit is constrained, needs more thorough planning, and a sense of the structure of your narrative or argument before you begin writing, or recursive drafting.

At the moment very little work is being done in developing ways of teaching and assessing these different modalities. I suspect language teachers are largely winging it, as I am, but we do need to start addressing these issues before we lose a generation to bad page and screen habits!


High School MOOCs – an idea whose time has come?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were widely predicted to disrupt tertiary education, even to replace Universities. This has not really happened, for many of the same reasons that ICTs have not disrupted classrooms to any great extent. But this is not to say that MOOCs have failed. Despite the high drop-out rate, and concerns that only those who already have tertiary education are really benefiting, it cannot be denied that many people are getting a huge amount of value from MOOCs. I have taken several MOOCs on different platforms. Some have delivered great content in engaging and innovative ways, others have been more pedestrian in approach, but still gave great content, and so, were of value. Some were not for me, and I dropped out as soon as I realized it wasn’t offering what I was looking for.

While it seems certain that MOOCs will never replace Universities, what about High schools? On the face of it MOOCs look more appropriate at tertiary level. Students of high school age still need teachers to mediate content and scaffold learning far more actively than at tertiary level. While online delivery of lectures is hardly very different to lecture-hall fare, classroom teaching is far more interactive, and more difficult to reproduce online. This is not to say, however, that MOOCs could not be devised which are more suitable for high school students, and while they are extremely unlikely to disrupt high school, I believe they will increasingly start to fill a niche purpose. Here’s why!

The first argument for introducing MOOCs at High School level is that it would help students prepare for life long learning. MOOCs can be intimidating places unless you are confident that you can overcome the isolation of online platforms, and it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to prepare students for using online solutions to further their education.

Secondly, there are areas of the syllabus that may not be able to be effectively covered in the classroom for whatever reason. We all know that most syllabi are far too long and teachers struggle to complete all the content necessary to prepare students for high stakes examinations! Being able to take some aspects off-site and online, and maintain a guided approach to the content, could be vital to being able to complete a programme in preparation for an examination. For example, my colleagues and I are really struggling right now to get through The Merchant Of Venice with our grade 8s. Our Head Of Department insists that we cover every word, and I would like to ensure that I can help students unpack the major speeches in some detail, and do exercises in class to explore their own understanding of the play. This balancing of the need for instruction and meaning making activities, combined with long syllabi and shrinking contact time means that I am always chasing my tail. All it takes is one day lost to a Biology field trip, or school photographs, and I’m sunk!

Using the Flipped Classroom model, I could certainly record some videos in which I unpack the meaning of the major speeches, giving more time in class for discussion, and activities designed to encourage students to make the material their own. Many teachers are already doing this. If you use apps like Zaption, you can insert quiz questions into the video to ensure that students are watching it and understanding it. Videos might lack the affordance of live questioning, but they can be paused and re-played at will, and questions can be asked and answered online, or in class the next day. You can also use Open Educational Resources to add extra context. At this stage you are not just flipping your classroom, you are creating a MOOC. Platforms such as Moodle or Google Classroom will allow you to post videos and allow students to submit assignments online. Moodle even allows for peer assessment.

A third reason for developing a MOOC is that it can be used for extension or remedial programmes. Some students might need further explanation, and this could be delivered via online videos or readings. While it might cover similar material to that covered in class, it allows students who miss class, or are falling behind to review content. It also allows those who are moving ahead to be able to tackle extra questions or concerns. While moving remediation offline might seem counter-intuitive, the reality is that in the frantic day-to-day of the classroom, vital one to one interventions sometimes slip through the cracks, and careful explanation available 24/7 online forms a useful safety net.

A fourth rationale is that it allows teachers to play to their strengths and compensate for lacunae in their knowledge. If a department works together to create materials for a MOOC, it is likely to be far more valuable for all their students. Even where team teaching is not possible, it allows for students in any class to be exposed to different perspectives and approaches. The extension of this idea would be for teachers from different schools to collaborate on creating content which could be shared for all their students. This content could be made available nationally and internationally to under-resourced schools, and help to compensate for skills shortages. I believe this would make a powerful contribution to education generally.

And lastly, the use of collaborative platforms would add value to traditional aUntitledapproaches. Google docs, for example, allows for students to engage in collaborative authoring of documents such as study notes or assignments. Such documents, attached to the MOOC, would allow for students to use the MOOC platform to explore the ideas being raised and discussed in class. While this might be confined to a single class, extending to the whole grade, or neighbouring schools, considerably adds to the value being co-authored.

While high school children require more scaffolding than tertiary level students, I believe that setting up your own MOOCs, by sharing them with other faculty, and schools presents a powerful model for transforming student learning. It is indeed an idea whose time, I think, has come.


Flash Feedbacks – ICTs For English Teachers

English teachers have usually found that ICTs are a good fit for creative self-expression. There are numerous multi-media authoring tools for computers or tablet devices which can be used to allow students to create multi-modal presentations of one kind or another. But it is not so easy to see how to use them when unpacking a work of literature or working on language accuracy. There are, of course, numerous drill and practice type sites online where students can fill in the missing word, or select the correct form of the verb, or answer multiple choice questions on comprehension texts, but I’m not going to consider those at this time. For the most part they are kiss of death, not too bad for the occasional exercise if you want to ring the changes, but hardly anything to get wildly excited about!

When it comes to teaching literature, however, there is very little substitute for guiding a close reading of the text and for discussion. Some of this happens in a whole class context, some of it in groups. But the essence of grappling with a text lies in the throwing out of ideas and seeing where they lead. ICTs can certainly be used in this process. Some of the discussion can happen before, and after the class on an electronic forum. Students can express their ideas about the themes or characterization of a novel in blogs or in wikis, but the heart of any literary study is in the face to face discussion in the classroom while doing a close reading. I have not yet found any digital advantage over reading a text with a class and interrogating particular words. What does this word suggest about the protagonist? What other possible meanings does this word have? It’s this process of worrying away at a text, like a dog worrying away at a bone, that produces understanding – often unexpected understandings. English teachers need to model this process, making their thinking visible to students, helping scaffold it for students, guiding their thoughts as they wrestle with a text. This process of coming to grips with a text has always formed the basis of my literature classes, interspersed with activities and exercises which aim at deepening or consolidating what students have learned from a close reading. I have tried different methods, but always come back to this as the only really effective way of engaging with a text with a class.

Snapshot - 1ICTs are no real use in this. However, I do see some use in terms of either recording discussions so they can be viewed later, or recording quick summaries of points made for later storage and retrieval. Note-taking during a discussion is not easy, although I encourage students to use the Cornell Note Taking Strategy. I have previously used quick Flash Feedback sessions at the end of a lesson, or activity, where students use their devices to record (audio or video) a quick summary of what their group decided or found. These can be shared on a LMS platform, and can form the basis for further discussion in class, or in a forum.

These Flash Feedbacks could easily be integrated into classroom discussion as well by pausing every now and then and recording a student summarising a point or points made. These recordings, posted on the LMS, can then be used as the basis for answering a question or any other activity. They form a digital record of a discussion and might help tease out some of the more interesting points made, which might otherwise have been forgotten.

Quite apart from providing some kind of record of a discussion, it also serves to help students bring together the thoughts and threads of the discussion and creates opportunities for building knowledge so that the ideas emerging from the discussion can be ordered and re-shaped into an argument about the meaning of the text.


Which LMS?

As the year trundles, or rather hurtles towards its end I find myself with an agonizing decision to make. Do I stick with my current Learning Management System, Moodle, or join those in my school, who have turned to Google Classroom? This is not something I have thought about since adopting Moodle – it seems a life-time ago now. I am a happy Moodle user, indeed an enthusiast. It is not that Moodle has dropped off in performance, in fact quite the opposite, it has been improving substantially! Is it that I have become smitten with Google Classroom? No, not at all. Google Classroom can’t set a candle to my Moodle!

So why am I considering writing a Dear John letter to my beloved LMS?

The school where I teach is currently rolling out a new IT policy, which has greatly upped the ante, and meant that the vast majority of staff have adopted Google Classroom as their platform of choice. Although Moodle, Classroom and Edmodo all have their adherents, both the older platforms have lost significant support to the new-comer! All our devices are now synched to Google drive so the weight of institutional support for a Google environment has meant that Edmodo and Moodle users have found themselves rapidly depleted in numbers.

I ran one of my classes on Classroom this year to see if I could live with it, and found that although the platform has none of the raw power of Moodle, or none of the appeal of Edmodo, it is easy enough to use, and is improving with time and exposure. What at first I found very counter-intuitive has become tolerable enough to consider moving in together! I’ve gotten used to the hairs in the sink, or the lipstick on the tea-cups, so to speak.

I had a long think about it this week, while invigilating exams, drew up a mental list of pros and cons. My list looked something like this:

Moodle Google Classroom
Pros Cons Pros Cons
Can do just about anything. Like Mary Poppins it is practically perfect in every way!

No, seriously, it is custom made for classroom management and handles these things very well indeed!

Can do groups, sub-groups, peer assessment, online quizzes – everything!

Assessment using rubrics

As fewer staff are using it, it is less familiar to students and harder for them to use

It takes up local server space

Integrates well with Google Drive which is very useful for online collaboration tasks

Easy to mark written work using comments

Integrates with your email well

Can’t do groups

Doesn’t notify you of new submissions or re-submissions o you have to check everything to see if new works has been submitted

So, after reflecting on this for the length of an excruciating invigilation session, it seemed to me that for my computer skills classes I simply could not give up Moodle as it gave me the ability to assess using rubrics, and to create groups and peer assessment effortlessly. For my English class, however, the affordance of easily linking to Google docs for collaborative writing was irresistible, and despite all Moodle’s benefits, I actually preferred Google Classroom.

Looks like I will end up being unexpectedly promiscuous next year!



%d bloggers like this: