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Category Archives: Personalization

Integrating Thinking & IT

There is a common assumption that IT somehow leads to better thinking. The assumption behind this is that IT promotes more independent thinking, more self-directed learning and greater opportunity for promoting critical thinking. I am not saying that this is not the case, but I do think that it is only the case if we as teachers consciously and deliberately find ways of making it so.

edtechdigest.com

Sans obstacles, gliding ahead with personalized learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Maurice de Hond

CREDIT Steve Jobs School NetherlandsTwo points stood out at the recent ASU/GSV edtech summit in San Diego: there were three times more visitors than two years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the number of new businesses and products in the field of edtech has now grown strong. The majority of those companies and products focus on personalizing education, responding to the level and possibilities of the pupil.

So long as your students are organized into age-based groups as has always been done, the best technology will deliver little return with respect to a personalized approach. It’s like trying to ice skate on grass.

I’ve been active in this field since 2012, like Max Ventilla of AltSchool. I got involved because I have a young child who started using an iPhone and iPad at a very early age. However, when…

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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.

 

In Search Of The Holy Grail – How do ICTs foster Critical Thinking?

DSC00161The Holy Grail of ICT integration in the classroom is that almost mythical quest for the application of ICTs to foster critical thinking. The assumption that the introduction of ICTs would somehow magically transform teaching practice, leading to more learner-centred, problem-based, cognitively rich classrooms has not borne fruit. I am not saying that ICTs have not had an impact, or that they have not been used properly. There are many excellent examples of good practice, and yet the effective use of ICTs to uniquely engender critical thinking is far rarer. Critical thinking is extremely hard to define, and happens far less frequently than we would like to think in any case. Kahneman’s notion of fast and slow thinking: system 1 thinking which is based on intuition and emotion rather than system 2 thinking which is more deliberate and logical, illuminates the problem. Most of our thinking is rooted in fast, quick reliance on assumptions and pre-digested opinions rather than consciously working through an argument and examining evidence.

In the classroom much of what passes for critical thinking is actually firmly rooted in the rehearsal of handed-down opinions and prejudices. I would contend that the prime characteristic of critical thinking is that student’s assumptions are questioned, the reasons for believing something are examined, and that arguments are unpacked and critiqued. I’m not convinced that this happens as often as we would wish, and sometimes it is not happening even when we think it is.

Actually this is very rare in life as well. Most of us live inside a universe of comfortably held views which are seldom questioned, and outside of which we seldom step. The problem is not really that ICTs have been ineffective. The problem is that we just don’t think enough! We never have.

Can ICTs be used within a classroom to change any of this?

I would argue that just as the Holy Grail is chimerical, so is the search for any single tool or application that will uniquely foster critical thinking. Just as a piece of paper and a pencil can be used to write meaningless doggerel or a thought-provoking essay, the tools themselves are not guarantees of any result. You can use Skype, for example to talk to your granny or to Stephen Hawking, and the likelihood of any serious critical thinking emerging is based more on the content than the tool. And yet tools do have affordances, properties which enable certain types of interactions. Because Skype enables communication, it can certainly enable critical thinking. Because Google docs enables synchronous collaborative writing, the likelihood of greater reflection in the writing process is increased. Tools may not guarantee any result, but they are not neutral, as is often claimed. ICTs do have a role to play in transforming our classrooms into thinking spaces.And yet no single tool can be claimed as the holy grail of critical thinking!

The greatest exemplar of critical thinking that we have is probably the Socratic method, a pedagogical methodology in which the teacher challenges a student through dialogue, to question their own thought and develop more rigorous and robust arguments. The teacher will help the student expose weaknesses and contradictions in their thought, highlight contrary evidence and scaffold the process by probing and questioning, as well as modelling thinking. The key feature of the Socratic method is dialogue, that the student develops their ideas under the mentorship of a teacher who teases out the student’s thought, and offers input from a more experienced standpoint. Dialogue is essentially the bringing together of interactivity, of communication, with collaboration, the joint development of an argument or idea.

Socrates had the luxury of a one-on-one engagement with his students, and was free from the need to pursue an imposed syllabus or common core standards, or to produce a battery of continuous assessments. He didn’t even have to coach soccer to the Lower Vs! I’m not saying that the Socratic method cannot work in a whole class situation, but it’s application is constrained, and often truncated by the annoying ringing of bells or the intervention of another student. Our schools are simply not set up for prolonged interrogation of thought. Our schools are predicated on system 1 thinking, the acquisition and memorization of second-hand ideas presented in bite-sized chunks called lessons.

Some have argued that a key affordance of ICTs is that they might enable greater personalization of learning, that students could progress on their own individually tailored learning paths. This idea, while seductive, is tantalizingly out of reach currently. The Personalisation by Pieces approach offers insight into some of the ways it might work – through skills ladders and peer mentorship, and we should be vigorously trying to find ways to make this work. But for a classroom teacher in 2015, it appears as far away as it was when the idea first came out. Students are kept so busy in any given school day that the kinds of solutions teachers can apply such as using technology to add remediation and enrichment tasks are difficult to apply in the face of a relentless syllabus. Unless the entire system swings over to a personalised approach, individual teachers’ hands are tied.

Nevertheless this does open up the question of the centrality of infrastructure and architecture. Perhaps we should look at the role of ICT infrastructure and the types of classroom interactions that can be supported through this architecture. Perhaps the unique contribution ICTs can make to thinking lies not in individual properties, but in the aggregation of their affordances. Put another way, perhaps it is the ability to bring together communication and collaborative tools which uniquely affords critical thinking in the classroom? Stevan Harnad’s notion of a fourth cognitive revolution brought about by the bringing together of the immediacy and interactivity of oracy with the reflective power of literacy in the nearly synchronous world enabled by the Internet is an idea which is pregnant with possibility. The unique enabling of communication and collaboration through a networked society is a powerful notion which has inspired many classroom interventions. But the mere addition of near simultaneous communication and collaborative tools does not guarantee critical thinking. And most classrooms are not routinely connected in this way. If it is to happen it must be through the provision of an adequate architecture.

A Learning Management System is a must for any teacher seriously engaged in integrating digital tools within their classroom. Digital tools mean digital output, and imply the need for some interface for pulling it all together. That interface is effectively your LMS. Teachers who simply ask students to email them their digital assignments and then record assessments on a spreadsheet are using Outlook and Excel as their LMS. Those who use Moodle, Edmodo or Google Classroom will have custom-built tools to achieve classroom routines such as instruction, assessment, feedback or discussion. Most LMSes are pretty good at hosting digital SCORMs, podcasts or videos to supplement instruction, and of enabling assessment of digitally submitted assignments using rubrics or online annotation. Feedback is also a common-place function, but discussion is currently a weakness in most LMSes. Chat and forum modules are usually built-in, but do not generally commonly foster genuine discussion.

Much the same could be said of classroom discussions as well.How much of it is on topic? How much of it is insightful rather than trivial? The problem is not with the tools – it’s with how we use them. The average classroom already enables communication and collaboration. Put the chairs in a circle and students can discuss and collaborate. What is lacking though is the ability to delay and reflect. Immediate synchronous discussion has huge power, but students quickly move on to the next task, and seldom revisit a discussion, and lack the means to do so because oral discussion is ephemeral. An LMS which is able to record and store discussion for future reflection would go a long way towards enabling critical thinking.

I would like to argue then, that a necessary first step in creating a situation where ICTs can meaningfully foster critical thinking, is to focus on how we can bring together communication and collaboration. A focus on individual tools and applications is fine, but it needs to go beyond that to look at infrastructural issues. None of the major LMSes truly achieves this key affordance effortlessly and fluently. I would argue that the infrastructure really requires a space which allows students to effortlessly upload recordings of face to face discussions for future reference, to discuss in writing collaboratively and to edit and update files at any time. Currently all the major LMSes view the assignment space as a single upload without any linked discussion space. Google docs offer the ability to mutually edit, to comment and to chat! But then Google Classroom does not incorporate this feature in the assignment module. And You cannot set up groups. Moodle allows groups, even peer assessment, but does not allow for mutual editing and commenting on a document. Edmodo allows for groups, but similarly misses out on any collaborative features.

It may not bring the Grail Quest any closer, but for me the sine qua non of any LMS needs to be the enabling of a space where students can work in flexible groups, able to edit, comment and chat about any kind of file or files they are working on, seamlessly and synchronously or asynchronously.

 

 

 

Flipping Your Feedback!

memoThe Flipped Classroom is a model of classroom management which is gaining traction. Much of the focus has been on transforming instructional input – using “lecture” style videos, podcasts or documents which are posted online and viewed ahead of class so that classroom activities can be freed up to embrace more intensive and personalised interventions safe in the knowledge that the content has been explained.

A somewhat neglected aspect of any classroom routine has been the feedback part of the loop. Sometimes it is extremely useful to go over a test or assignment in class, unpacking the questions carefully. Sometimes, however, it is not necessary to do so. Where answers are either right or wrong, it is probably best to post a memo online rather than waste time in class poring over it.

I would argue, however, that online feedback can also be beneficial where more intensive analysis of an assignment is needed. Just as the ability to stop, rewind and replay a video “lecture” is valuable, so too with feedback. In my computer skills classes, for example I make a memo video using videopad and debut screencasting software to go over any test. I post this on my Moodle page and make access to it dependent upon completing the test. In other words it is available only after the student’s work has been assessed. This system seems to work well. As soon as a student’s test or assignment has been assessed on Moodle, the memo document or video for feedback discussion becomes visible to them. Feedback is thus as instantaneous as possible. It does not mean that student responses will not also be discussed in class, but it does mean I do not have to go over the assignment in detail, I can highlight key areas of concern, safe in the knowledge that students can access a complete break-down online.

In my English classes I usually hand out the printed memo when handing back assignments. This memo discusses not only model answers, but approaches to answering that type of question. For open-ended assignments I prefer to use student feedback in the form of questions and discussion after a presentation.

Flipping Feedback is not something I would do all the time, but it does add a useful string to my bow. It also adds variety, which as we know, is the spice of life!

 

 

 

Using ICTs to Unpack and Repack Ideas: Part II

IMG_9705In Part I, I discussed how ICTs offer key affordances for unpacking ideas and abstract concepts, making them accessible to students. In this post I will look at that other major routine in every classroom, the re-packaging of concrete experiences and ideas into the organised expression of abstract thought. If unpacking is largely about reading of texts or experiences, re-packing is about writing. More particularly it is about learning how to express oneself in genres, in academic language, in empowering new discourses. By writing, of course, I mean thinking as well. Students studying Science or History are essentially learning how to think like a Scientist or an Historian, how to use the ideas and vocabulary of those disciplines to construct meaning.

ICTs can be very important tools in managing and scaffolding this process. Too often teachers simply set a writing task, and without any scaffolding expect students to produce results. Writing is then graded, and those who fall short receive little additional support beyond a few comments or indications where they went wrong. One of the reasons for this resides in the very labour intensive nature of assessing writing. It takes a long time for a teacher to read every piece of writing a student produces, more time to think about what help a student needs to improve, to keep track of progress and to make pertinent and useful interventions. Assisting a single student is time-consuming, a class of 30 is a nightmare! And if your teaching load includes five such classes … impossible to do justice to! This is true if you are an English teacher or a History teacher, or any discipline that involves lengthy essay-writing.

Learning is a social process, and as Vygotsky pointed out, we learn first to do things assisted by others, and then on our own. I think this is especially so with writing, which is by nature directed at a social audience. ICTs offer exciting applications both in terms of multi-media authoring tools, publishing opportunities.and in terms of connecting writers and encouraging writing.

To my mind, then, the key affordances that ICTs offer revolve around the ability to enhance multimedia authoring, and to foster communication during the writing and thinking about your writing stages.

Multi-Media Authoring

We live in an increasingly multi-media rich society, and text is no longer the only way in which students can express their ideas. There are exciting possibilities available in terms of video, sound, animation, graphic and presentation software which can be used in the classroom as an alternative to the written word. All of these tools allow expression of thought multi-modally, but to a certain extent they also help students organise their thoughts. For example, even a simple PowerPoint presentation directs the author towards the use of keywords rather than extended answers, and, if used skillfully can help students become aware of the bones of their argument, and the importance of knowing what your argument is. A PowerPoint can then be used as a first step in constructing a History essay, if followed up by a full-blown essay.

Just as a Flash animation can be useful in Science in visually demonstrating a process or idea, so getting students to create animations to illustrate processes or ideas can be very useful. Flash is a wonderful tool or this, but animations in PowerPoint can work just as well to show an electrical circuit or chemical bonds, for example.

Presentation applications, such as PowerPoint, Prezi or Voicethread are all useful too when it comes to English literature studies. Poetry works through imagery, and students can use presentations to explore the imagery of a poem, themes, or characterization using images they find on the Internet. I find that this helps them visualize the way in which the meaning of the poem is built upon layers of images. In a presentation the class discussion will focus on the extent to which the images chosen are appropriate to the poem at hand.

Videos are another fantastic way of allowing students to explore a topic. The process of editing the video down to a specified length can be used to help students select ideas or inclusion. This is an important part of the development of any argument. I also find that video encourages students to develop single ideas. In writing essays, students tend to struggle with tying generalisation to specific examples, quotes or anecdotes that develop and contextualize that idea. On video, the graphic format almost forces this to happen, so that if you foreground this process it can help them develop an awareness that any argument consists of both a general idea and highly contextualised supporting evidence or development of the concept.

The genre of the literary essay requires students to make statements about theme, characterization and so on, and support these statements with evidence from the text. Many students struggle with this in essay format, but are able to create a short video in which they find scenes from a set-work to illustrate a theme. You can then ask them to write an essay using the scenes they included in their video.

You will gather from what I have said above that my main focus is on how to use digital tools to support traditional essay writing rather than in replacing it. I honestly do not believe there is a substitute for the academic essay in building and displaying rigour of thought. PowerPoints, animations, comic strips, and videos can all be used to help develop and attain these skills, however, and a considerable part of our responsibility as teachers in the 21st Century is finding out how to do this!

Meta-Writing

When teaching writing, I have always used writing circles to encourage students to share their writing, talk about it and help each other learn to edit their work. Paper-based writing is difficult to discuss, unless multiple copies are photocopied ahead of time. Even with a visualizer, discussion of any student text can be awkward. Writing posted to a blog, or shared online, however, is much easier to manage, and a record of interchanges is preserved, making it the perfect platform for a meta-cognitive approach to writing. Using fan fiction sites can also encourage creative writing beyond the classroom walls, and is very motivating for students.

Using presentations as the basis for classroom discussion also helps build awareness of the choices made during the writing process. Students can be asked to identify the thesis statement of any presentation, or supporting evidence for any statement. Gradually students can be guided towards thinking of writing as a strategic process: what points are being made, how they are ordered and what use of examples, facts, quotes or anecdotes are made to develop and support the argument, rather than thinking about individual word choices.

Collaborative writing tasks are also very useful. Google Docs, for example, allow students to comment and collaborate on a report in real-time, and for the teacher to make editing suggestions while the report is being written! This ability to intervene even before a report has been presented in first draft is crucial in scaffolding writing tasks, and students find it very motivating as well. To be able to get feedback before turning in a report or essay is a huge advance on the traditional draft, feedback, final draft routine. It is also physically easier as students can invite you to their google doc to receive feedback, and you can comment while they are writing. In terms of the flipped classroom, I think this functionality provides a really concrete way of allowing for extended contact time and support outside of classroom hours.

One way of looking at teaching is to note the delicate balance between helping students acquire dominant discourses and academic language (voices of power), while developing their own understandings and expressiveness (the power of voice). Digital tools offer exciting new ways of managing and achieving these purposes.

 

The Poetry Slam & Digitally Reflective Practices

DSC01388We live in an increasingly reflective society. Some would say it is merely narcissism, but I believe that the key affordance of digital technologies is that they allow us to capture moments in time, moments of spontaneity, and then reflect on them. The implications of this for education are enormous. Stephan Harnad has theorized that this confluence of the immediacy of oracy with the reflective power of literacy constitutes a Fourth Cognitive Revolution. While this may be too sweeping a claim to call right off the bat, I believe it is important for teachers to start exploring how to use digital technologies to open up this immediate-reflective, oracy-literacy space.

At the end of last term I finished off with a poetry slam with my grade 10 Academy English class. The Academy is an after-school initiative by Roedean, where girls from inner-city schools in the area attend Maths, Science and English classes. I teach English and I try t try to supplement what they are doing in their own schools with a programme designed to promote digital and communicative skills generally. With the poetry slam each girl had twenty minutes to compose a poem on one of three given themes. They could compose on paper, or on computer, but if on paper had to scan their poem for digital upload. Most of the girls chose to compose on computer, although some used a combination of writing down ideas on paper and then typing their poem out.

At the end of twenty minutes we went outside to the cultural courtyard, and each girl performed her poem, to loud clapping, ululations and great support. The girls then voted on the winning performance. In the meantime, of course they had already uploaded their poems, in Word, or scanned, onto their Moodle page. I took plenty of pictures of the poetry readings, and put together a composite of pictures and poems (where permission had been granted) on the class Facebook page.

DSC01399When the girls return to school after the holidays they will have an opportunity to read the poems, and leave comments on the Facebook page. While the space of a few weeks between the performance and the reflection is not ideal, I think some distance is also helpful. In any event I needed some time to put the poems and pictures together. It is my hope that the students will be able to use the time reading the poems to reflect on what it meant for them as audience, and how it impacted on their sense of identity.

I chose to use Facebook because I don’t want the reflection to be seen as an academic exercise. I just want the students to be able to read a few of the poems (laboriously cut and pasted), and relive the photos. I was hoping that some of the girls would be checking out the Facebook page over their holidays, but no-one has to date!

 

 

Differentiated Tasks and Flipping Foward

poetryprojectOne benefit offered by technology is the ability to offer students differentiated tasks, and to administer this relatively painlessly! You can do this on Moodle by setting conditional statements, which release particular assignments to students based on performance on other assignments, and this can be very handy, but a bit of a nightmare to set up! It also smacks of almost dictatorial teacher power!

Another approach is to allow students to choose what types of assignment they want to do – within reason, of course. In the example on the right, students can choose from any three poems on the list, and any three assignments. The only rule is that they cannot present on the same poem, or the same assignment type. They therefore need to present three assignments (on three different poems and three different assignment types).

Assignment types can vary from traditional essays, blog entries from the point of view of a protagonist, to prezis, slide-shows, videos, voicethreads, posters, quizzes and the like, I use a generic rubric which assesses the content, the structure of the assignment – how ideas are organised, and the presentation – how the technology is used. You can also get students to submit their own rubric, which forces students to think about what they are doing in a slightly different way. You can also do peer assessments (Moodle has a workshop module for this).

The great strength of this way of working is that it gives students some control over how they study the content, and how they show evidence of their learning. I think this is not only more engaging and motivating, but it also delivers a wider variety of assignments which can be used for further learning and Flipping Forward. By this I mean that the posters, slide-shows, prezis, films and so on that students produce can be used as the basis for follow-up activities, such as an in-class discussion based on the materials created. Having digital submissions really helps as everything can be stored on the LMS where it is readily accessible for Flipped Classroom purposes.

I find that students get quite excited by the idea that content they create will become the content for future lessons. They seem to take more care, and certainly turn in work of a high quality.

 

 
 
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