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Category Archives: Mobile Apps

The Great Onlining – Reflections after Day 10

At the end of the first full week of teaching online it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on what has been a whirl-wind ten days or so! About two weeks ago we met as a staff and were told to prepare ourselves for the possibility of teaching online during any possible closure of the schools because of the corona-virus pandemic. Over the weekend it became obvious that schools would in fact be closing, and in the event we had just two days to prepare ourselves. Now I am an IT teacher and was kept very busy trying to help staff learn new skills, very rapidly. My school was using Microsoft Teams, but not all teachers had set up classrooms yet, so that was the first task. My colleague, who teaches IT to Matric bore the brunt of this first onslaught because Teams is her responsibility, but very quickly we had teachers finding out how to record video lessons, set up assignments in Teams, use Flipgrid or EdPuzzle, record meetings in Teams, use Zoom … the list of demands was endless. I’m not sure I remember much of those two days, except the feeling of exhaustion. It was almost a relief when the school closed. I realized then I hadn’t thought much about my own classes!

I have been using Teams in my normal teaching as a place where students could find resources, download files, submit assignments and watch videos of lesson content. I have found it useful to record short five minutes videos of the work that I cover in class so that students can review it at their leisure, or catch up on missed work if they are absent. When teaching coding I like to start each lesson, or punctuate a lesson with a “live coding” session where we go over possible approaches to a problem, and I can introduce programming concepts such as variables, loops, or functions. So, as luck would have it, I had very few videos to prepare from scratch. I am currently teaching mobile app design on the MIT App Inventor platform with my grade 9s and web design using HTML & CSS with my grade 8s.

I was worried about how it would go, because so much of my time in the classroom is spent walking around helping students, and I knew that many of my students do struggle with managing digital work. It seems to me that the law of thirds operates here. About a third of students are very capable following digital instructions and using my video flipped content to work independently. About a third cope quite well, but they do need to hear instructions and ask questions about what they are doing face to face, although they are happy enough with whole class instruction. The last third needs individual instruction to be able to cope.

I knew that about a third of my students would cope well – bandwidth and data willing! I also knew that another third would probably be able to get buy with a lot of hand-holding! What really concerned me was that group that needs one-on-one help even face-to-face.

I was also concerned about how much work to expect students to be able to do. The school had decided to follow the normal timetable to keep a sense of routine. I knew that this might become problematic so I left instructions on Teams and sent out an email for the week, setting out expectations. I told students I would be online during timetabled lessons to answer questions and hold check-in meetings, but all the instruction had been posted in videos, and they could do the work at any time they found convenient. Very much a Flipped Classroom model.

So, with some trepidation, on the first morning I logged on at 7:30 am and within a few moments a few students joined the meeting in Teams and asked a few questions. Half an hour later a handful of the girls had finished the assignment ( a short tutorial on mobile app design using a bit of block-coding). By the end of the hour more students had submitted the assignment, but many had submitted work that had been due before the close of school. I had answered a handful of queries, mainly procedural, and marked all the work submitted. I don’t even know if more than a third had actually logged onto Teams that first morning. Over the next few days I got more submissions of the work asynchronously and more queries on Teams or via email. I had started to get into the second third, the ones who need hand-holding! A week later the missing third does not even appear to have logged onto Teams.

I know that in many cases families are not able to support the levels of data required, and there are probably many private tales of squabbling over the family laptop or desperate attempts to top up data caps. Or even families without adequate devices or connectivity. I also know that my colleagues have been piling work on the students. We have had anxious letters from parents telling us this. I know that their computer skills work will be one of the first to be sacrificed to Maths or English homework, but I am really concerned that the missing third is truly missing during this period. It is the same group of students who need constant individual attention in class, who are simply not able to get that attention online.

As teachers we desperately need to examine what is pedagogically different about online teaching and learning. We cannot just expect to port our normal methodologies online and carry on as if nothing has changed.

So my big take-away from the first 10 days is that now most teachers are fairly comfortable with the technology necessary for teaching online, that we need to start zeroing in on the pedagogy, and in particular the problem of how to teach inclusively when the technology itself is necessarily something of a barrier.

Lower Technological Barriers to Inclusion

There is not an awful lot we can do about the problem of lack of technology access in many households. We have supplied dongles with data to our bursary students, but I know of even very well-off families struggling for a variety of reasons. But we can make sure that we set the technological barriers as low as possible. As an IT teacher this is difficult for me, but I have made sure that they don’t need specific software downloads, that we use only browser-based platforms. Many staff are using as much paper-based work as possible. Some staff are using email rather than flashy video-lessons, and I’m sure students are extremely grateful for that. Just because a platform has bells and whistles, doesn’t mean you have to use them!

Establish your Digital Presence

However, I believe that central to the success of any online pedagogy is the question of online presence. Being able to talk to the teacher, check-in and ask a question, have queries answered on the spot, is all crucial to students. But, unlike a classroom, where a teacher can be present even for students who are zoning out, what do you do about students who do not log on to the platform, or who ignore emails? In a sense there is not much to do beyond contacting those students directly and trying to draw them then, much as one does in class. But if they are ignoring emails? Some teachers have set up whatsapp groups for their classes, and this might be the best way of ensuring digital presence by using a platform used by the students more widely than official school platforms. No doubt Tik-Tok would do the trick!

Create Back Channels

Apart from trying to lower the technological barriers to inclusion and promoting your digital presence – being there for students, I think one of the most crucial differences between offline and online teaching is the absence of social cohesion online. I think it is important to try to promote social cohesion and collaboration. If students feel isolated and alone, they may simply give up. Many will be communicating with each other in back-channels, but some will not be, and establishing back channels for your class is vital. I tried to do this by having check-in meetings during my allotted timetable slots, during which students could log on at the same time and see and talk to each other. That was my plan, but so few have logged in at the same time that this has not really worked. I know other teachers have had better success with this sort of thing. Coding is fairly individualistic, but I do plan to try to establish a share ideas check-in to try to get students talking to each other about the work!

As the week draws to a close, I have to say online teaching is really exhausting!

 

 

 

 

Hack Your Life!

tdLearning to Code is all the rage right now, but how to implement a coding for all programme is not as easy as it sounds. There are a number of decisions which need to be taken. The first decision is around whether it will be merely open to all, or compulsory for all. At my school we expose all the students to a little bit of coding in their computer skills classes, in the form of some Scratch and some JavaScript. I also do a Game Design unit using Flash, with a little bit of Action Script. It works in that everyone can meet the requirements, but not all students embrace coding enthusiastically, so there might be a great deal to say for going the extra-curricular route, or maybe both.

I suspect that both is the right answer for most contexts. Everyone needs to be exposed to some coding, but I’m not convinced everyone can handle a full-on programme. the second decision is what programming language to use.

I started teaching some coding back in the late 1990s, with some Logo, and then quickly moved to JavaScript. The big advantage of JavaScript is that you do not need a compiler. All you need is a browser and a web editor. Currently I get my grade 9s to use JavaScript to create a quiz which will tell the user if they are right or wrong, and tally a score. When they create Flash games, I teach them to use AS3 to create drag and drops, and how to use tutorials to learn more skills. However, with many new interfaces for creating mobile apps appearing, my gut feeling is that this is the way to go, and I am probably going this route this year. MIT has a platform for creating apps, but there are so many popping up, I haven’t been able to research them all.

Here’s the introductory video for the MIT App platform to give you an idea of how it works.

The third decision is around how to build enthusiasm. Some students will enter into it with gusto and there is so much available online that they will be able to teach themselves. But getting the social aspect to work is vital to any programme having staying power. If you can meet face to face that is the best option, but in many schools the normal sporting and extra-curricular programme is so full, finding a mutually agreeable time is well-nigh impossible. I have tried running a virtual club, but the buy-in is limited. Special programmes which run for a limited period of time, such as a Hackathon or Hack Off may work better if you can find a niche in the calendar. I have been trying to shoe-horn some coding time into whole school programmes such as Cross-curricular tasks, or end of year programmes when teachers are marking exams and willing to sacrifice curriculum time, but for some reason staff meetings tend to resist the idea as soon as you mention coding, or even worse, hacking. For students the word hacking has a much more positive valency, however.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is, to all three questions, but I do sense that this year the zeitgeist is different. The idea that everyone should code is so out there, I think it may just take hold!

 

 

 

Driven To Distraction: ICTs in the Classroom

When I first started teaching there were no iPads, mobile phones or laptops in the classroom to distract students’ thoughts away from the matter at hand, but make no mistake there was still plenty to distract. Instead of surreptitiously texting each other, students would pass notes, which would snake their way across the class from hand to hand under the desks, or glide in paper aeroplane format gracefully over heads while my back was turned. I know this happened because I have intercepted quite a few in my time, and because I was a student too.

I haven’t seen any notes passed in quite a while, but I know that students in my class don’t always use their devices to take notes, or work on the task at hand. Any teacher who tells you that students are never distracted in their classroom is seriously delusional. Electronic devices are particularly prone to distraction because they form such a part of the fabric of our lives. Just as bad habits gained watching television at home has made talking in the movie theatres so annoyingly prevalent, so our capacity to multi-task with our devices has made classroom distraction emerge from the surreptitious art it used to be and blossom into full-blown addiction.

In the old days when you caught a student passing a note they were apologetic. They knew they were doing wrong and accepted your admonition to get back to work with easy grace. These days students seem genuinely puzzled and sometimes indignant that you are insisting they stay on task! “I was just checking my emails!” To be fair, they still see games play as something the teacher has a right to interrupt!

Some schools, or teachers, of course simply ban devices from the classroom, confiscating cell phones when they surface. Others have policies which stress the need to turn them off when they are not being used, or at least to switch off the screen. These are all very sensible, of course, but when so many use tablets for note-taking, even this policy is hard to implement at times. I agree that there should be switched off moments during any lesson, and I uphold this approach in my own classroom, but there are those messy grey areas, those moments when some students are using devices productively for sanctioned work, and others are clearly just getting distracted. The other day I was moving from group to group as my students were working on producing a news report from the trial of Shylock: part of our study of The Merchant Of Venice. Some were editing footage they’d shot in the previous period on their iPads, Others were trying to find the script they’d written on Google docs and now couldn’t find.

One student was playing a game.”The others are editing, sir,” she said innocently.

“Aren’t you part of the group?” I asked reproachfully. She shrugged, and reluctantly closed her iPad and slid across a vacant seat to rejoin the group. If I hadn’t checked I might have fondly thought she was searching for a graphic to use, or downloading some music for the soundtrack. I wanted to use the moment to help her combat her distraction, though. “What game was it?” I asked. I didn’t know the game, but I persisted. “What level are you on?”

She became quite animated, and told me she was close to the end of the game. I can sympathize with that. So close to completing the final level and to have to work on some silly project. I almost wanted to tell her to go back to her game, and apologize for interrupting! Compared to the epic win, any question about Portia’s mercy, or lack thereof pales into insignificance.

It struck me that blanket bans on devices, or strictly enforced switch-offs, while clearly necessary at times, are not very helpful in teaching students to manage their distraction. This sounds odd, but we live in a world where multi-tasking is seen as a virtue, and the value of focus is in peril. If we want to help students focus when we need them to, we need to go beyond simply imposing periods of digital silence, we also need to help them manage the ability to set distraction aside when they need to. If we don’t, they will never learn this skill. I don’t think this can be done when devices are forcibly switched off: the device needs to be on, and you need to be managing your impulse to play with it. We need to be engaging in discussions with students about device addiction, and stepping in and helping them get back on focus when they slip. We should be gently, but firmly, vigilant about distraction and steer our students towards greater ability to set a device aside when appropriate, and leaving it switched on, still stay focused on the activity of the moment.

To this end, I would like to suggest a slightly different policy towards device distraction: a three-phase approach, much like a traffic light. Student devices are then in one of three phases: The phase gives a guideline as to whether devices should be switched off completely, available for use, but with screens off, or are on and in use. The phase also determines what sanctions are in place for infractions.

traffic lightRed: All student devices are switched off. Maximum focus is required on a task which does not require devices in any way. Any digital distraction is policed by the teacher and there are sanctions for infractions. Devices may be confiscated for the duration of the lesson, for example.

Amber: Devices are on, but with screens switched off. they may be used if necessary for note-taking, checking a fact, or making calculations if necessary. Distraction is still policed by the teacher, who tells students when they may or may not use devices, but no punitive action is taken, and the focus is on students managing their own need to use a device. The teacher assists by identifying when use is appropriate or not, and advises when the screen should be switched off, but devices will not be confiscated.

Green: Devices are integral to the task at hand and students are encouraged to use them freely. Self-management is essential and any off-task behaviour is flagged, but not policed. Ask students to report on and reflect on how well they managed to stay focused and avoid distraction. Students are being encouraged to manage their own behaviour. In group work, the group may become jointly responsible with the individual. If the teacher spots off-task behaviour they may ask the individual or group to remember to report it in their reflection.

The desire is to have a system which both makes plain whether devices may or may not be used, and to encourage self-management.

 

Do Androids Dream of an LMS?

androidThe three major LMS platforms teachers are using at our school are Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms. These days it is increasingly essential to be able to monitor your Learning Management System 24 hours a day. All three of these platforms have mobile apps. But how do they stack up? I have an android device so I used that, but I assume other platforms will have similar apps. Do you really need a mobile app for your LMS though?

In reality I am so frequently at my computer, both at work and at home, that I use that to access my teaching platforms all the time. When I am away from school, or from home, my view is that I am not working, and don’t have to access my LMS at all! After all, is anything that one uses an LMS for so vital it cannot wait a few hours? In terms of normal operations, probably not! However, I do find it useful to monitor what is happening, or to access resources saved on my LMS if I need to. On days when assignments are due I often get frantic messages from students about the status of their submission, and a quick check is helpful.

I can well see that being able to access the LMS on a phone or tablet might be extremely useful in some situation, or for some teachers. One does not. of course expect full functionality from an app, but I think it is fair to assume that at minimum, a teacher should be able to receive notifications and reply to messages, be able to view classes, students and assignments, add new assignments and mark assignments that have been submitted. Students would expect to be able to view resources and assignments, and submit their assignments online if possible.edmodo mobile

Edmodo Mobile

The rating on Google Play is 4.1. The number of reviews indicates that a great many users are satisfied with the app, and that it clearly serves a purpose.

I have to say that the reservations I have about it are mostly due to my feeling that Edmodo itself lacks some of the features I absolutely require. But this is not a fair issue to raise when looking at the effectiveness of the app itself. I could do pretty much everything that I normally do on the web, on my phone. I was able to create new assignments, grade work submitted by students and receive notifications and alerts as normal.

The app interface is attractive, clean and easy to use. Were I an Edmodo fan I would definitely use this app all the time. And I think I could, at a pinch, pretty much use nothing but my phone to run my Edmodo classes should I wish. The app then gets a five-star rating from me!

*****

moodle mobileMoodle Moblie

The rating on Google Play is 3.1. It has been reviewed very few times, however, which probably reflects the fact that Moodle fans will find less use for this app.

Moodle’s great strength is its versatility and power, virtues which do not translate well into scaled down apps. While I could do pretty much everything I usually do on computer using Edmodo, the difference between the computer-based and app-based interfaces on Moodle is huge! I could view courses, and course content, something students would find very useful indeed. I could access student profiles and assignments, and download and view their submissions, but I could not find a place to submit a grade. This is a huge pity, and detracts from the app considerably.

I was able to upload content to Moodle, but I could not find a way to create or add to assignments. This again, is a serious limitation. In essence it means that a Moodle enthusiast has no real need to use the app, probably why its rating is relatively low.

The look and feel of the app is clean and attractive, and it is easy to use, but ultimately, I’m not sure I’d ever really use it except in an emergency, and I’d have to go back and access the platform via computer later anyway. I’d give the app a rating of a poor three stars.

***classroom mobile

Classroom Mobile

The rating on Google Play is 4, and this reflects the easy way in which the mobile interface reflects the functionality of the platform.

I can instantly see why this is the case. You can pretty much do everything on the mobile app that you can on a pc. I was able to view and create assignments, view content, add courses and content, and grade student submissions. The interface is clean, attractive and relatively easy to use. As with Edmodo, I felt that I could use my phone to run the LMS should a computer not be available. A five star rating is thus appropriate.

*****

Summary

Overall I felt that all three apps were useful, and well designed. The Moodle app was the only one which featured severely scaled back functionality, both compared to the platform itself and to what one might want to do with the app. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I feel that it is not really that imperative to upload content or grade student submissions via a phone: the area where Moodle lacked functionality. Personally I would normally only ever want to view content or check for messages or notifications. As such the Moodle app does a good job. But I do recognise that man others may want this functionality and in this case the Moodle app does suffer by comparison.

Do Androids dream of an LMS? Hell, yes!

 
 
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