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Category Archives: Moodle

School Management Systems – Looking For Nessie

The other day I blogged about School Management Systems, and why we love to hate them. Today I would like to look at the change management side of transferring from one system to another. Any change is threatening to staff: there is a double threat of increased workload, or of redundancy! This can lead to resistance. A new SMS can therefore loom large in the imagination as a shadowy threat that might or might not exist, a Loch Ness Monster of a thing! On the one hand it is seductive, but a vague sense of menace is never far from the mind.

But of course Nessie does not exist, and like a bad dream disappears as your gaze dispels the shadows! From the ra-ra-ra of the sales pitch, eventually comes the training. I must say that I have really enjoyed the training with Engage. I don’t usually plug proprietary products, but I will make this exception because it is germane to the discussion that follows. What sold me on the platform was its combination of ease of use and sense of enormous potential. This is an unusual combination. If you’ve read my thoughts on Moodle, a powerful Learning Management System often lambasted for being hard for teachers to learn, you will know that I believe that ultimately it is the power under the hood that gives a platform its traction. My hope for Moodle is that once teachers have got used to the idea of an LMS like Google Classroom, which is easy to use, but lacks functionality, they will slowly graduate to Moodle! With Engage I don’t believe this is a problem as it combines a very user-friendly interface with huge functionality.

Educational Technology and change are hot topics,but the relationship is often assumed to be unproblematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. By educational technology I mean hardware such as computers, tablets, paper, books and school buildings as well as software such as Moodle, PowerPoint or Excel. But I also mean processes. Crop Rotation is a technology, and pedagogy itself can be seen as educational technology.

A useful way of looking at how educational technology impacts upon process and decision-making, is to see them as either relatively hard or soft. Hard here means that it strongly determines the form processes take, while Soft indicates that processes are relatively weakly determined. For example the size of a school building strongly determines what kinds of activities can be conducted inside it. If a school hall can seat a hundred, but there are five hundred children in the school, full school assemblies are not able to be held in the Hall, but would have to be held on the Field, which can accommodate many more. Things like school buildings are not easy to change. Sometimes people try to do so by adding temporary partitions and the like, but generally speaking buildings, once erected tend to make other activities conform to them rather than the other way round.

Human beings, on the other hand, are far more adaptable. We probably owe the existence of our species to this. We are able to make changes quickly and effectively. When there is a time-table clash, for example, teachers are even able to be in two places at the same time, as anyone who has ever taught one class, and looked after a colleague’s next door, can attest. Pedagogy is thus a soft technology. Teachers will often change teaching method in mid sentence if they see that an approach is not working.

School Management Systems are relatively hard technologies in that they often determine a work-flow process or what decisions are possible. For example on a web-based form a required field might block an online application if the applicant cannot supply a value. The more flexible, therefore, the better. It is not ideal that decisions are driven by factors other than ensuring optimum efficiency. The core business of any school is education, and all activities should be subservient to that. Since logically pedagogy is the technology with the greatest effect on learning, all technologies within a school should be softer than pedagogy,

This is seldom the case. A Constructivist teacher timetabled to teach in a lecture theatre will find it hard to conduct student-centred lessons, and is much more likely to revert to Instructivist methodologies in response. This is one of the great contradictions of schooling over which even administrators have little control. Making sure that you are using the softest, ie. the most flexible School Management System is therefore crucial.

The quest for a soft SMS may well be chimerical, but should be undertaken nonetheless.

What sold me on Engage was thus a sense that it was far more flexible in its features than other SMSs, certainly than the one we are currently using, and that it has the power to conform to best educational practices rather than determine them. Much like Nessie this is a mythical beast many hope to find, and is well worth the quest!

 

School Management Systems – A Necessary Evil?

Nobody loves their School Management System. It can never do everything you need it to do, and over time the things that get in the way of being more efficient somehow seem to get larger, and what you liked about the system begins to shrink in comparison. You begin to curse its name whenever a report prints with a sudden and random font face change, when not all the names in a class list pop up on your screen, or when random students are added to the netball team for no apparent reason!

img_20160927_115307So it was with some trepidation that I set out to attend a one day user group conference for our new School Management System, Engage. There’s nothing I like less than product sell presentations, so the prospect of a whole day of ra-ra-ra filled me with dread.

By School Management System (SMS) I do not mean a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Google Classroom, although some SMSs include an LMS component. An LMS deals with classroom management, facilitating the storage of learning materials, assignment submission and online grading, discussion and feedback. School Management Systems, on the other hand deal with school management, attendance, administration, fees, asset control, reporting and so on. Not everyone makes this distinction, but I think it is important to differentiate between the two functions, even when they come in the same package.

Both are vital in the 21st Century school.There are still teachers who use paper grade books or hand-write their lesson plans, but increasingly one of the great benefits of using technology is to free teachers from some of the drudge of recreating learning materials. I remember when cyclostyled worksheets were the order of the day. Each year they had to be re-created. A computer allows materials that work to be edited rather than endlessly re-typed, allowing energy to go into creating new materials. Technology has also allowed text only resources to become more multi-media and interactive. One of the huge advantages of a good LMS is the ability to store these resources online within learning plans that can be edited and good to go in a much shorter time.

Similarly the advent of the SMS has revolutionized school administration. This is not something that I think about very often. As a teacher I have a very hazy notion of what goes on inside the school office. I know they answer phones a lot, and send messages out about how so-and-so will be late because their puppy died, and provide us with class lists and newsletters and stuff. But teachers are either in their classrooms teaching or whinging in the staff room, and seldom question the amount of school administration that supports work at the chalk-face.

This year I was asked to give up some of my classroom duties to become the systems administrator for our new SMS. I have suddenly had to learn a great deal about school admin as a whole, and hence the conference. Perhaps the most important factor to consider is the level of support that the SMS provider offers. Support tickets that go unanswered are the last thing you want, and a good Help Desk is worth any number of features. The main reason we decided to switch SMS was in fact the lack of support. This is not to say that the features offered by an SMS are not important. Of course it is. Much of the Engage User Conference dealt in fact with new features, some specifically developed for South Africa.

For many schools different software packages have been cobbled together to do different tasks. A School Management System really needs to be a one stop shop, integrating different features within the school. A prime requirement is to find a system which can replace different applications as seamlessly as possible. However, it also needs to be user-friendly so that even the most Luddite teacher can use it. It should be secure, and meet privacy requirements. This is a tall order, and might explain why levels of satisfaction with an SMS often fall after the honeymoon starts to wear off.

Engage manages to be both a user-friendly and a feature rich package which includes Accounts, Fees, Administration and Learning Management Systems. In presentations which whip through everything any software has to offer I have to admit to a certain inattention. It is all a bit bewildering. At this Conference we have a software developer from the UK skyping us on the big screen walking us through using the gradebook. What strikes me the most is the necessity of great flexibility to suit every school’s way of doing things. Schools are such wonderfully idiosyncratic places! In discussions over lunch we talk about the timetabling module. Each school has a different set of criteria. I feel for the software developers, having to try to satisfy so many different needs.

I am crucially aware of what awaits me trying to sell the changes to my staff, who are used to doing things on other systems. I have a feeling I will have my work cut out for me.

 

Lite Beer: Google Classroom Revisited

google classroomI have previously declared myself an avid Moodler, and this has not changed. However, most of the teachers in my school have swung over to Google Classroom, many from Edmodo, and so I have decided to give it a second look.

I now run my English classes off a Google Classroom platform, so I’ve been able to have a good hard look at it. Other teachers tell me they have chosen to move to Classroom because it is easier to use, and looks good. They do, however, then complain about lack of functionality. I have to say that I find Classroom neither pretty, nor particularly easy to use. In terms of functionality it is light years behind platforms like Moodle. My opinions regarding its strengths and weaknesses have not really altered.

So what has changed? I have to say that ultimately the only thing is that most teachers at my school have now adopted Classroom and so it has become the nearly universal platform. Having a single platform in a school is a great benefit, especially for students who do not have to access multiple platforms. Assignments are reasonably easy to create, although teachers have struggled with aspects such as creating copies of Google docs for each student. You need to be careful not to save the assignment and add the document later, which is not very intuitive. Being able to create copies of a single document is, nevertheless a great function, and perhaps Classroom’s single greatest strength, its ability to seamlessly link to Google Drive and the collaborative power that brings! The ability to email groups of students who have not completed an assignment, for example, is also a key benefit. Beyond this, though, the lack of ability to create rubrics, to assign students to groups within a class, the lack of plugins and modules allowing for peer assessment, or ability to add html elements such as twitter feeds for back channels renders Classroom somewhat emasculated. The design is stilted and grading assignments tricky if the connection slows. Were it not for its ubiquity, I would certainly not be using it!

Like a lite beer, Classroom seems like a watered down version of the real stuff! And yet it is winning hands down. Is it simply that it has the backing of Google? Or is it that its uncluttered functionality better suits teachers who are not focused on the technology but need a handy tool they don’t have to think too much about? I suspect that both of these reasons apply. As a dyed-in-the-wool Moodler my hope is that Classroom will get teachers used to the advantages of using a LMS, but will either acquire necessary functionality or will ultimately drive teachers towards proper platforms like Moodle. What Moodle needs to do is ensure that it improves its look and feel, become more intuitive and user-friendly, while retaining the ability to get under the hood and customise as need be.

 

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.

 

Flash Feedbacks – ICTs For English Teachers

English teachers have usually found that ICTs are a good fit for creative self-expression. There are numerous multi-media authoring tools for computers or tablet devices which can be used to allow students to create multi-modal presentations of one kind or another. But it is not so easy to see how to use them when unpacking a work of literature or working on language accuracy. There are, of course, numerous drill and practice type sites online where students can fill in the missing word, or select the correct form of the verb, or answer multiple choice questions on comprehension texts, but I’m not going to consider those at this time. For the most part they are kiss of death, not too bad for the occasional exercise if you want to ring the changes, but hardly anything to get wildly excited about!

When it comes to teaching literature, however, there is very little substitute for guiding a close reading of the text and for discussion. Some of this happens in a whole class context, some of it in groups. But the essence of grappling with a text lies in the throwing out of ideas and seeing where they lead. ICTs can certainly be used in this process. Some of the discussion can happen before, and after the class on an electronic forum. Students can express their ideas about the themes or characterization of a novel in blogs or in wikis, but the heart of any literary study is in the face to face discussion in the classroom while doing a close reading. I have not yet found any digital advantage over reading a text with a class and interrogating particular words. What does this word suggest about the protagonist? What other possible meanings does this word have? It’s this process of worrying away at a text, like a dog worrying away at a bone, that produces understanding – often unexpected understandings. English teachers need to model this process, making their thinking visible to students, helping scaffold it for students, guiding their thoughts as they wrestle with a text. This process of coming to grips with a text has always formed the basis of my literature classes, interspersed with activities and exercises which aim at deepening or consolidating what students have learned from a close reading. I have tried different methods, but always come back to this as the only really effective way of engaging with a text with a class.

Snapshot - 1ICTs are no real use in this. However, I do see some use in terms of either recording discussions so they can be viewed later, or recording quick summaries of points made for later storage and retrieval. Note-taking during a discussion is not easy, although I encourage students to use the Cornell Note Taking Strategy. I have previously used quick Flash Feedback sessions at the end of a lesson, or activity, where students use their devices to record (audio or video) a quick summary of what their group decided or found. These can be shared on a LMS platform, and can form the basis for further discussion in class, or in a forum.

These Flash Feedbacks could easily be integrated into classroom discussion as well by pausing every now and then and recording a student summarising a point or points made. These recordings, posted on the LMS, can then be used as the basis for answering a question or any other activity. They form a digital record of a discussion and might help tease out some of the more interesting points made, which might otherwise have been forgotten.

Quite apart from providing some kind of record of a discussion, it also serves to help students bring together the thoughts and threads of the discussion and creates opportunities for building knowledge so that the ideas emerging from the discussion can be ordered and re-shaped into an argument about the meaning of the text.

 

Copyright & The Teacher

creative_commons_logo1I am no expert on copyright law. I’m just a teacher who regularly creates his own learning materials and worries about breaching copyright. Since we get most of what we use off the Internet these days, I’m assuming that copyright law is vastly confusing because it must take international law into account. It’s so confusing, I’m not even going to try to understand it. I’m way too busy anyway! I know that after 50-75 years copyright expires, although publishers can hold further claim on a work for a lot longer before a work enters the public domain.

I also know that teachers and students have some protection for breach of copyright if they are only using something in class for purely academic purposes, but that this definition of fair use is much narrower than we conveniently believe. If I display an image I have taken off Google images on a poster in the classroom, I am effectively publishing it and am in breach of copyright. When is a worksheet merely being used in class, and when am I publishing it? These are not easy questions to find an answer to, and it is safe to assume that if you are asking the question, you are probably in breach!

The safest option is to make sure that you use only Creative Commons licensed images and text which explicitly permits distribution. Increasingly there are databases of creative commons images available, but if you cannot find what you want, you can email the owner of the website and request permission. I have never been refused use of an image when I asked nicely! People are overwhelmingly nice about this sort of thing!

UntitledMoodle has an excellent feature which allows a student submitting an assignment to set the Creative Commons Licence for their work. This helps create awareness about copyright. I am of the opinion that just as no-one ever sued my grandmother when she cut out pictures from National Geopgraphic to use in her project on volcanoes, students are very unlikely to be questioned when they use Google images – which they do, unthinkingly. However, as teachers we have a duty to make them aware of copyright infringement. It would be nice if every LMS had a little check-box students had to click on to attest that they had not infringed copyright or plagiarised, but in the absence of this they should indicate this, perhaps on a little form signed and attached to their projects. They could then tick whether they had used creative commons images, copyright and royalty free images, or had obtained permission to use an image.

I am not enough of an optimist to believe that this will eliminate all copyright infringement from the classroom, but I believe it will create an awareness around the issue which is not there at present. And that is a start!

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2015 in Copyright, Moodle

 

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.

 
 
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