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Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. Bubbl.us

Bubbl.us is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument.

Bubbl.us allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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!

 

Flipping with MoveNote For Micro-Learning

movenoteIncreasingly teachers need to be able to rapidly post content online for students to review or revise. Video is usually fairly cross-compatible, but creating a video can be a daunting task for any teacher. MoveNote is now available as a Google add-on, and that simplifies things a great deal. If you have a web camera installed, creating video content for the flipped classroom becomes ludicrously easy.

Many teachers already have content on PowerPoint, or you can quickly put a PowerPoint together on the topic you want to present. You launch the app, or access the website, and enable the web camera. You can then add slides, or a single image. When you click record, you can talk into the web camera and advance slides in the app. When you’ve finished it saves as a video format, which you can download and store on your LMS.

The format of visual and talking head is an easy way of replicating the in-class “lecture”, and can be used to create very short chunks of byte-sized micro-learning. I really think that a limit of 60 seconds should be set. 60 seconds to explain an idea or concept. These micro-learning moments allow students to quickly access ideas they need when they need them. These quick videos can be downloaded as mp4s or viewed in a web browser, making them very versatile. If you don’t have a web camera, you can upload a video you have filmed separately.

The talking head can be replaced simply with audio, but I believe personalizing the videos really helps make them more accessible for students. The content can be … literally anything!

 

 

 

 

Digital Vygotsky: Using ICTs to bridge the proximal zone of development

jsroa45d7i971imncps4srh8q3984448.jpg-final.jpg-finalOn of the most influential ideas about learning to emerge in the last century was Lev Vygotsky’s observation that all learning is first social, and then individual. Unfortunately he used the rather cumbersome term proximal zone of development to describe this gap between what someone knows or can do with the help of others, and what they can do on their own. ICTs offer a number of affordances for helping to bridge the proximal zone of development, and as such are formidable learning tools in their own right, but they also point to how ICTs can be used as cognitive tools to enhance social thinking.

ICTs are communication devices par excellence. They allow people who have never met to share ideas and passions, whether via email listervs, forums or Google hangouts, for example. They enable communities with shared interests to share ideas and collaborate on projects. These communities of practice are often very nurturing places where beginners are mentored and helped, and in turn, as they gain experience, can assist others. When I was learning to program in php, for example, I sought out an online forum where I could post problems I was having with the code I was writing. Perfect strangers took the time to make suggestions, to point out errors in my code, and to help me learn. In return I tried to answer queries from those with less experience than I had. The Internet gave me access to mentorship that would not have been available otherwise. I note that my son, who composes music, uses Sound Cloud in a similar way. While he was preparing for his matric exams he also used Google docs to create and share study notes with his class mates.

I would like to look at two ways in which these ideas could be harnessed for the classroom.

Personalisation By Pieces is a programme developed by Dan Buckley, which uses peer assessment to encourage mentorship and assessment. In essence the system works on a student being assisted and assessed by a more experienced peer – one who has already been credited with a skill. Once they themselves have been accredited, they too can help those below them on the skills ladder. Some Learning Management Systems, such as Moodle, have peer assessment modules which might be used to facilitate this process, but Google docs could probably be used just as effectively. The teacher would be required to create a skills ladder, a list of sequential skills leading to mastery. Students would need to submit documentary proof that they have mastered a level. Peers who are a level or two above would be responsible for accrediting this proof, and for creating criteria for this assessment.

classnotesSocial Media also offers fertile grounds for social learning strategies by creating forums for communities of practice to flourish within the school. Students tend to use Whatsapp for this kind of thing, but teachers could encourage a more formal collaboration by sharing a Google doc or wiki on a particular topic and requiring students to contribute to its maintenance. All these measures help students move from social collaboration towards personal mastery. I suspect that it works best though when it is informal and student directed, but if carefully scaffolded you can bring a majority of students on board. They make a pleasant change from individual worksheets, and I find students appreciate the idea that by collaborating on a set of notes on a Shakespeare play, for example, they are saving themselves effort, and benefiting from the combined effort.

I believe that once we start to explore the idea of using social learning in the classroom through ICTs we will begin to unleash much of the hidden power of learning that often lies dormant in our schools.

 

The Digital Jigsaw Method: Critical Thinking with ICTs

sonjaIt is always a considerable pleasure to be able to watch great teachers in action. I recently observed a very successful lesson which combined Google docs with the Jigsaw Method. The teacher was Dr Sonja Vandeleur, who teaches technology at my school. The lesson was with grade 8s and was focused on different forms of energy. The Jigsaw Method is commonly used to reinforce collaborative and critical thinking. Students meet first in expert groups, each group researching and discussing a specific topic within a wider theme. Each member of the expert group then reports back to a home group where experts from each group bring back what they have learned to share with their peers.

This has the benefit of requiring each expert to “teach” their peers, which in itself has a number of benefits. The lesson I observed also incorporated Google docs as the platform chosen to share the fruits of the research into different forms of energy. The big question was which form of energy would suit South Africa best. I did not observe the lesson in which students met in their expert groups to research their chosen source of energy (wind, solar, coal, nuclear, hydro-electric, etc), but I saw the follow-up session which began with the expert groups meeting to compile their report on Google docs. Individuals had each looked at different aspects and they quickly shared and copied summaries of the findings into a single document. This process was somewhat chaotic, as might be expected. Not everyone had been able to access the Google doc for whatever reason, and some had to send their findings to others via email to post to the document. The group I observed appeared to get their act together in the nick of time to be able to report back to their home groups.

I then observed one of the home group’s discussions. Students began largely by reading out from their different Google docs, but some had included useful images or videos which were viewed by the group on each expert’s iPad or laptop. Despite some somewhat stilted report backs, the discussion quite quickly became lively and spirited. Genuine questions were asked of the experts, and some free-wheeling examination of what solution would suit local conditions best was engaged in.

Google docs formed a very effective way for students to collaborate on putting together a report on their research, and also for sharing with their peers in the home group. Theoretically, by widening the document sharing, each student in the class ends up with access to all the documents created, in effect forming a digital textbook created by the class. I can’t say that the process wasn’t messy, and noisy! Not all the students had managed to share, either because they had not completed the work, or because they had technical problems. But I think there was far greater engagement than there would have been reading a paper-based textbook, and more was learned.

The marrying of the Jigsaw Method with Google docs is an inspired choice of ICT integration, and I am convinced that it should become part of every teacher’s toolbox!

 
 
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