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Category Archives: MOOCs

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.

 

High School MOOCs – an idea whose time has come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moodle vs Google – King Kong vs The Kraken

gc3In a previous post I compared Moodle and Edmodo. I’ve been playing around with Google Classroom and would like to make a preliminary comparison. First off I must declare my bias towards Moodle, which I have been using for many years. When Google Classroom arrived last year, with much fanfare and great expectations I felt, for the first time, that it might seriously challenge Moodle for my affections. It had so many potential advantages, after all – the weight of Google behind it for one, and the hopes that the collaborative power of Google docs could be leveraged behind a Learning Management System which could offer a serious alternative to Moodle.

I have to say that it hasn’t quite panned out that way. Although Google Classroom is clearly evolving, the same is true of Moodle, so one can only compare where they are currently, and I have to say that I am somewhat underwhelmed by Google’s offering. Moodle is often criticized for having a clumsy interface, and yet one of the most annoying features of Google Classroom is that you have to poke around Google Drive to even find it! Maybe I’m just a wee bit stupid about using Google Drive, but I find it hard to find stuff that I haven’t bookmarked. It’s almost as if the seamlessness of integrating Classroom into your Google experience is a bit too seamless. I end up using the URL to get there, as I do with Moodle, so despite the potential advantage, for me at any rate it’s honours even in terms of finding the page.

moodle1Creating a Course was easy, though: considerably easier than with Moodle, which requires the Moodle Administrator to set one up for you! However, this ease of use is balanced by a severe inability to customize the course! Moodle gives you many options, and with a bit of HTML you can tweak the page to suit your needs. Classroom lacks all this – what you see is pretty much what you get! You can choose a theme, and that’s about it really! And this goes to the nub of the difference. For those who need a quick, painless LMS, easy to use but light on power, I suspect Classroom is a God-send, but for those a little braver in their approach to technology the power of Moodle will undoubtedly prove more attractive.

Adding Announcements and assignments to Classroom was extremely easy, and again edges ahead of Moodle, although the greater number of options available in Moodle counter-balance this. One thing which annoyed me about Classroom was that one attaches resources such as files, video links and URLs to a single assignment. In Moodle one attaches resources and assignments to course segments, which appears far more logical to my mind. I teach in units, which contain resources and assignments, input and output if you wish, and each unit can be as small as a single lesson, or as large as a term’s work! Moodle is very flexible in this regard, while Classroom is not! This, to my mind is what ultimately puts Moodle out in front. It works the same way teachers think.

While Classroom has the supreme advantage of integrating well with your google account, a point I grant despite my own struggles in this regard, it does raise some issues. Our school runs a Windows environment with roaming profiles allowing students and staff to log on to any computer on campus or via the wi-fi using their device. In some instances this creates problems using Google Chrome as Internet Explorer is automatically set as the default browser over our network, something my network administrator tells me he cannot change. This means that on occasion Google accounts do not log off, or Chrome will not access the Internet. I cannot pretend to understand the whys and wherefores of this, but it does complicate matters., Having said that, our school Moodle is also offline occasionally, and so it’s pretty much honours even there too!

In summary then, on Classroom I found I could easily set up a course, invite students to join, add an assignment and make announcements, and attach resources to both. I could view student’s uploaded work and grade it, and download the grades as a csv file. The grading was somewhat clunky and awkward, however, and not that intuitive when all is said and done. What I couldn’t do, as I can in Moodle, is organise students into groups, give a single grade to a group, and enable peer assessment. I could not set up conditional loops, activating certain follow-up assignments when students failed an assignment, or activating enrichment tasks when they passed, for example.

Classroom has nowhere near the power of Moodle, but I can’t help thinking that with the weight of Google behind it, Classroom might well represent something of a slumbering Kraken, waiting to be roused from its sleep!

 

 

 

My Teacher is a Zombie – Marking by Rubric on Moodle

bczI have just finished marking a whole bunch of flash animations as part of a grade 8 computer skills examination, and the topic of the animation task just happened to involve a zombie. After assessing about a hundred of these things, I felt pretty zombie-like too! But the point I wanted to make is actually about rubrics. When I was a kid, teachers never used rubrics, or not that I was aware of anyway! The mark you got seemed fairly arbitrary for it appeared at the bottom of your essay with a circle around it and a disembodied comment such as “Good” or “Poor”. After a glass of wine, we speculated, the comment might have become more expansive, but also more illegible! Perhaps this is an unfair assessment of my teachers. There were, after all, helpful annotations in the form of underlined spelling mistakes, and red lines through phrases felt to be inappropriate or colloquial. I have to say though that I seldom understood why I had been given a particular mark, or how to go about improving my performance.

These days, the emphasis is on using rubrics to try to help students understand the criteria by which they have been assessed, and there is no doubt that a well-designed rubric can lay bare where marks were gained and lost. There is, though, still something awfully mechanical and routine about the whole assessment process. Anyone who has ever had a sizeable number of scripts to mark will know that catatonic, zombiesque state that marking induces. The petty nit-picking, or the cavalier acceptance of partially correct responses, the moments of self-doubt and angst over whether to deduct marks for spelling or not! Even intelligent human beings can be reduced to mind-numbing pedantry when faced with the challenge of assessing a pile of scripts that need to be finished before Monday 8am!

One hears stories about teachers who deliberately lose scripts rather than mark them, or the legendary stair method – throw the scripts down the stairs. the ones at the top get an A, the next step a B, and so on! Go into any staff-room during exam time and listen to the hysteria build after days of being forced to sit in front of piles of marking, armed only with a red pen and the promise of caffeine and nicotine at predetermined moments of the day, rewards for each batch of twenty, or every half-hour crossed off the boredom of the day! Some teachers mark a whole script at a time, while others tackle questions or batches of questions in sequence. If it gets too much you can count the scripts remaining. Some mark in solitary isolation, others in groups calling out particularly juicy answers to each other as they draw a red line through the page!

I’ve drawn a pretty gloomy picture about what is probably every teacher’s least favourite part of the job – the part that is least rewarding, and perhaps the least affirming both for student and teacher. Even loving, caring individuals become like zombies when marking!

rubricOne aspect of marking online is the magnificent affordance offered by rubrics. The screenshot shows my rubric for assessing the zombie flash animations which have haunted the last few hours of my life! The rubric module on Moodle allows you to set up a rubric, which you can then use for delivering feedback and assessment. After opening the file to be assessed, you simply click on the relevant box in the rubric, and attach relevant comments for each question, and a comment at the end. You can attach a feedback file if you wish. The one assessed here was perfect, except for one error, which has been noted. At the end I attached a positive comment and the software automatically adds up the marks and appends them to the grade-book which can be downloaded as a spreadsheet at the end!

Using a rubric in this way minimises a great deal of the pain, and possibility of error associated with adding up manually, or transferring to a grade-book, leaving more time for helpful comments! Rubrics can be saved as templates, and re-used, edited, or tweaked over the years. As soon as you have marked an assignment the feedback, rubric and mark becomes available to the student on their Moodle page together with any memo or exemplar you upload. I often make a screen-cast video of myself doing the exam, talking through sticking points and why something has been assessed in the way that it has. I post this on the Moodle page so that students can check their work against the exam questions. I find this works very well, and makes the task of handing back exam papers less fraught!

I do worry though that using the rubric module has made the process so slick, that I am running the risk of just going through the motions. Using an electronic rubric frees up the time to prepare a memo video, and to write out longer comments, but it is in many ways as zombiesque a process! Electronic or otherwise, … tick … tick … tick! Click … click … click!

 

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2014 in Assessment, Graphic Software, MOOCs, Moodle

 

Holiday Projects – Learn To Code As A Family!

With the holidays fast approaching, I am filled with just a little dread. Not only will my wife trot out the DIY jobs jar, but, as a father of teenage boys I know that after a few mornings sleeping in, a few days of playing the new computer game, will come that moment when the inevitable question gets asked, “What can I do now?”

But these holidays I am forearmed with an answer. Learning to code is all the rage: for good reason. Firstly – it is good mental discipline – the logical reasoning, attention to detail, the need to plan and move from the generality of pseudo-code to the specific syntax of whatever language you are using. I think learning to code teaches you a certain kind of mental precision that children used to get from having to learn Latin.

Secondly – I believe that it is a digital citizenship skill, something we all need to know for a future where being able to tweak your machine, modify your applications will not be seen as something geeky, but something as necessary as breathing. We are fast headed for a technological future where we will be interfacing with machines not as isolated events during a busy day, but on a constant basis. That future has two possible paths, one in which all the coding of those machines is managed by corporations, and we have little say in how we experience our environment, apart from choosing from a list of alternate “templates”, and another in which we are able to tweak the code ourselves, and can deliver more personalized outcomes. I believe it is imperative that we try our darndest to be ready for the second alternative – and that means learning to code.

It worries me that we seem to be producing a generation of consumers rather than producers. When I was young, computers came more or less assembled with nothing on them. You pretty much had to learn to program to be able to get them to do anything. Even to get the programs that were on them to work you had to learn to type in DOS commands! These days computers come with everything on them, and you don’t need to learn a stitch of code to work them. We need to get back to that spirit of showing your machine who’s in charge!

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly, coding is fun. learning should always be fun, but especially during the holidays! It can also be an opportunity to experience learning together as a family. We don’t do enough of that. The natural order of things is that adults know more than kids, hopefully anyway! So learning tends to be about stuff your kids need to know, but you already know. Even if it’s stuff you’ve forgotten, like Algebra, it is never really a situation where the playing field is level. Coding, however, for most families will probably be a learning project the whole family can take on where all of you start as beginners.

So – here’s the challenge! Set up a challenge at the beginning of the holidays, a family project to code your own game for computer or mobile, learning to code as you go! This may sound like an impossible task, but actually the resources online are incredible, and make the task relatively painless. You can scale the ambition as you go. In many cases the tutorials and guidance is so good you can have a game going in 10 minutes! The rest is all about wanting to design your own game.

Here are some sites you can use (mostly free):

This list is not exhaustive, but represents some of the most popular sites.

 

Using VideoPad to Create Flipped Content

vpad2I like to get students to use VideoPad to create their own movies, but it is also a perfect tool for creating flipped content. One powerful way of presenting content is to use a slide of a diagram and to add your own talking head video in one corner. You can then create the whole package into a movie and post it on your Moodle, Edmodo or YouTube Channel page to help explain or revise a concept.

Here’s how.

Step One: You can create your slides in PowerPoint, but save them in a picture format such as jpeg or gif. They then save as separate image files.

vpad3Step Two: Use the Add Media button to add your slides to the media list, Click on the first slide and adjust the duration in seconds. You can always edit this later. Click on the green down arrow to add to your storyboard. Repeat this step for each slide, or video footage you will be using in your presentation.

Step Three: To record your own head talking you will need a web-camera set up. Take the slider to the position in your storyboard (video track) where you wish to start, and click the plus button on the little overlay track between the video and audio tracks. You will have the option of overlaying text or video. Click on video, and click on the record button. Your web camera will spring to life and you can record your spiel. Click OK when you have finished.

vpad4Step Four: A tiny little square will overlay on your slide. You will then need to adjust the size and position in the Selected Clip preview window. If you have made errors in your recording you can edit the footage at this stage before adding it. You can even use the opacity slider to turn yourself into a ghostly transparent image.

vpad5Step Five: Here comes the tricky bit. VieoPad does not enable the sound-track from your recording in overlay mode! Ouch, and what a pity. There is a workaround, though. What you recorded should be sitting in your videos folder, or in your media list inside VideoPad, of course. click it to get in the preview window and add to your video track. You should see the audio from the video in the audio track. Right click on it and select unlink sound clip. You can now move that sound clip and align it perfectly with your video overlay and you can delete the video part from the video track. Phew. Pretty hard that bit, but once you get the hang of it, annoying … but you can’t argue with free!

Step Six: Save your movie. It will then be available in a wmv or avi format (in the free version of the software) or in other formats if you pay for the software.

I would keep all movies very short. It is better to have a few short clips explaining one or two points that your students can use, than a long lecture that is of little use to anybody.

 

 

 

 

Making Class Videos

bvideopadOne of the best free video-editing tools available is VideoPad. In the version I have you can add video files in pretty much any format, add audio files and stills to your movie, choose from a range of effects such as rotate and speed, add voice-over tracks, transition effects such as cross-fade, text overlays which can be static or scrolling, and even add another video using chroma key (green screen) or as an inset in the screen. The free version only allows you to save footage in wmv or avi format, but packs an enormous amount of power – making it my favourite choice of software for student movies – and my own! The current free download does not look quite the same as the version I downloaded a few years ago now, but still looks good!

The VideoPad site has thorough tutorials on how to use the software, so teaching students how to use it should not be a big problem.

I believe that student videos have multiple uses from filming literary works to recreating history or making report-backs on research tasks. I like to post student videos on Moodle and get students to assess each other’s work using the Choice module. This ensures that students watch each other’s work and reflect in some way on it.

I find that the ability to edit footage leads students to be more adventurous and creative than is usual for report-back type activities. By adding music and images to footage they have filmed, students can express ideas that cannot be expressed in words alone, and the recognition they get from their peers for these surprising “ooo” moments is priceless. My own kids love making videos and spend hours longer on this type of homework than any other.

 
 
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