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Category Archives: Google Drive

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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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!

 

Thinking Digitally – Question Pauses & The Metacognitive Back Channel

volcanoesWhen you are reflecting on your thinking it is helpful to have some device which forces you to take a step back! Anything which puts some time between a thought, and acting on it, for example, invites an opportunity to reflect. We all know how powerful it can be to sleep on something, or how a move to a new country forces one to see one’s native land in a new light. Even just taking a few steps to the right or left can affect how you see an object. I think that the movement between the analogue and the digital world can have similar benefits for metacognition.

The classroom is often a space where teachers and students are in such a hurry to be busy, to finish a task, to complete the syllabus, that there is little time taken for reflection. And yet as BYOD policies are rolled out, the availability of a host of student owned devices in just about every classroom provides an opportunity to establish a Back Channel. A Back Channel is a medium for comment or chat running parallel to a classroom’s official channel – the routines of question and answer or discussion. Back Channels can be hosted on websites like Today’sMeet or via a twitter feed, allowing students to post, or tweet questions or comments, which will be picked up either at moments during the class, or even after the class. These can be followed up on at the next class, or even outside of the class through further online comment.

Back Channels provide powerful opportunities for students to ask questions or give feedback to the class, but they also provide a powerful opportunity to reflect on what is happening. One of the great problems with asking questions is that we seldom pause long enough for students to truly think about what we have asked. Even if we enforce a pause, a count of ten, or whatever, before accepting answers from the hands that have shot up, ten minutes is not long at all! If you ask a question and then ask students to answer on the back channel, however, the pace is slowed right down, and everyone is invited to think and answer. You can then display the answers on an Interactive White Board and discuss them in class as a basis for further discussion.

This movement between analogue and digital provides, I believe, some space for reflection, by providing an enforced pause after the question. Another way of thinking about it is to ask the question over the back channel, which students then answer in class, or to ask in class but only expect answers over the back channel as homework.

 

 

Think – Pair – Share & The Digital Classroom

To my mind the question of why, or how teachers would integrate ICTs into their classroom really boils down to whether the technology offers real affordances for common classroom routines. Can it be used effectively to help teachers explain abstract concepts, and make them more concrete? Can it be used to give voice to student’s experiences, and help them frame these ideas in more abstract ways within the academic discipline they are studying. Can it be used to help develop critical thinking skills?

One of the classic routines for developing critical thinking is the Think-Pair-Share exercise used to develop questioning skills. Students are first asked to think silently on their own about a question. This aims to ensure that no-one is let off the hook, that all students do engage with the question initially. Students are then asked to pair off and share their thoughts with a neighbour. After both students have shared their initial thoughts, these insights are shared with the whole class. A variant is to get students to report to their class on their partner’s ideas, not their own. This aims to promote listening skills, and of course collaboration.

This technique is highly effective in any classroom and requires no technology whatsoever. But once in a while I believe it is a good idea to change the way things are done. Routine is the enemy of good teaching, and adding a digital flavour to a familiar exercise is useful if only to freshen it up. The digital version of Think-Pair-Share also offers some new affordances, however, and should also be added to our armoury for what it offers.

If one is asked to write one’s ideas down, the time added to the response affords a little more reflection. While Oracy is immediate, Literacy does impose a slight pause for thought. I believe this imposed reflection is very useful. Writing something down also forces a response. Students are human, and very often will subvert a classroom exercise by not exactly staying on task. The Think-Pair-Share is particularly vulnerable to this. In the noise of a quick fire buzz group discussion the teacher cannot really monitor every pair of students, and many of the conversations do stray off topic. Getting students to jot their thoughts down means that each student is somewhat more accountable than when talk alone is used. Task compliance is a little easier to spot. To deploy technology, you can use something like Google docs, something which can work on a device, but getting students to whatsapp each other also works well. Students engage well with the idea of messaging each other and this also helps generate some excitement around the task.

When students share with the class, especially if they are sharing their partner’s ideas, they then read what the person wrote off their screens, adding their own response to that. This way of doing the Think-Pair-Share misses the affordance of summarising and reporting on another’s thoughts, but it does bring in a measure of reflection, which makes it a welcome addition to any teacher’s bag of tricks!

 
 
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