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Category Archives: Google Classroom

Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Scoboco at https://www.flickr.com/photos/62159569@N08/10546981384. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.

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A First Look at Microsoft Teams for Education

I have to declare my bias up-front. My favourite Learning Management System is Moodle. I love the functionality of Moodle. However, most of the teachers in my school have gone for Google Classroom and I have gone along with that. What Google Classroom lacks in functionality it makes up for in simplicity. I am currently testing Microsoft’s answer, Teams for Education, which our Network Admins are punting, and I have to say I am somewhat torn. This may seem trivial, but my first reservation lies with the name of the platform, Teams. Had it been called Microsoft Classroom, for example, one would have had a sense that the platform was custom-built for educational purposes, rather than being a business tool adapted for use in the educational sphere. My fear was that it would prove a poorly adapted tool at that. A first glance at the interface did not inspire confidence either. Nothing about its look and feel suggests either ease of use or educational functionality. And yet persistence is rewarded by a sense of hidden power, something generally lacking in Google’s offering.

It is surprisingly easy to create a new Team (Class) or collaborative space. Let’s say you are creating a space for a class. You can add other teachers and students to the classroom easily by clicking on a button to add members. You can change settings and permissions in the general channel, and add other channels for different topics or purposes. Each channel comes with a OneNote Notebook which allows for the insertion of multimedia content, and gives each student their own notebook space. The power of OneNote is truly awesome and alone makes Teams a serious contender in the educational space.

You can also add other apps to the channel such as Quizlet or Flipgrid and any kind of file can be shared. This seamless integration of multimedia content and educational apps immediately catapults it ahead of Google Classroom’s functionality and puts it within spitting distance of Moodle! Assignments can be added and graded online too. Markbooks can be downloaded in CSV format.

Now, I have to say that I have not to date set up a real classroom for a real class with real content and assignments. Only once you do this will you get a sense as a teacher of how the platform meets your needs, and the extent to which students find it easy to use. But first impressions are somewhat promising. Teams for Education clearly has functionality, but it is also somewhat clunky and anti-intuitive. I will have to reserve final judgement until I have been able to use it as a platform in the wild!

 

 

 

The Möbius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom!

One of my teaching hats is as a teacher of computer skills, which can be very dry. Students do need to learn how to use word-processors and spreadsheets, databases and photo editors, web editors and animation applications, but a solid diet of skills can become something of a tick list! A few years ago I decided to gamify the computer skills syllabus, not so much with the classic gamification triad of points, badges and leaderboards (PBL), but with a strategy designed to maximise a games narrative. Something more like a role play game or alternate reality game. I believe that what games narratives do well in education is establish a motivating reason to put in work.

So I invented a framing story about a fictional Professor of astrophysics who has uncovered a bug in the Mathematics of time (The Möbius Effect) which she believes originates in a kind of computer virus placed in the fabric of space-time by some vast super-intelligence! This bug threatens the end of life as we know it! The Professor is being ignored by the White House, labelled a cook-ball conspiracy theorist, and urgently needs help to save the Multi-verse! This help is offered in the form of the production of various kinds of digital documents from Flyers and Newsletters to spreadsheets which can calculate the gravity on different planets or convert Celsius to Fahrenheit or databases to search for planets capable of supporting life! Any kind of digital document can be worked into the game format from fixing the professor’s citations and bibliography to evaluating fake websites or creating a website or Flash animation.

It also involves the cracking of coded messages and solving riddles and puzzles, which seems to add just the right note of motivation to submit work. I had one student ask me the other day if this was a game! “I’m confused,” she said!

The game had to satisfy the demand for assessment and syllabus completion, however. So I decided to use the points and badges part of PBL. Marks are there, but hidden behind Level Completion. Each level in the game translates into points, ie. marks! Completion is also rewarded with a badge. So completion of 50% of the levels results in a grade of 50%, full completion means 100%, and so on.

Students are able to work at their own pace and some quickly finish levels and can work on riddles or codes, which they unlock as a reward for completion. Others take longer but still complete far more work than previously. I use Google Classroom as a platform, and each Task is set up as an assignment. This allows me to easily record all progress and attach any scaffolding materials such as videos showing how to do this or that (the sort of things I demonstrate in class).

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I think this kind of gamification could be used for any kind of classroom with some modification. To my mind what makes the game engaging is to treat it as an Alternate Reality Game and to step in and add clues or puzzles if the pace is slowing, and drop clues if it is proving too difficult. Embedding clues in music videos can be fun too!

 

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!

 
 
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