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Category Archives: Virtual Learning Environments

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!

 

 

 

 

A First Look at Microsoft Teams for Education

I have to declare my bias up-front. My favourite Learning Management System is Moodle. I love the functionality of Moodle. However, most of the teachers in my school have gone for Google Classroom and I have gone along with that. What Google Classroom lacks in functionality it makes up for in simplicity. I am currently testing Microsoft’s answer, Teams for Education, which our Network Admins are punting, and I have to say I am somewhat torn. This may seem trivial, but my first reservation lies with the name of the platform, Teams. Had it been called Microsoft Classroom, for example, one would have had a sense that the platform was custom-built for educational purposes, rather than being a business tool adapted for use in the educational sphere. My fear was that it would prove a poorly adapted tool at that. A first glance at the interface did not inspire confidence either. Nothing about its look and feel suggests either ease of use or educational functionality. And yet persistence is rewarded by a sense of hidden power, something generally lacking in Google’s offering.

It is surprisingly easy to create a new Team (Class) or collaborative space. Let’s say you are creating a space for a class. You can add other teachers and students to the classroom easily by clicking on a button to add members. You can change settings and permissions in the general channel, and add other channels for different topics or purposes. Each channel comes with a OneNote Notebook which allows for the insertion of multimedia content, and gives each student their own notebook space. The power of OneNote is truly awesome and alone makes Teams a serious contender in the educational space.

You can also add other apps to the channel such as Quizlet or Flipgrid and any kind of file can be shared. This seamless integration of multimedia content and educational apps immediately catapults it ahead of Google Classroom’s functionality and puts it within spitting distance of Moodle! Assignments can be added and graded online too. Markbooks can be downloaded in CSV format.

Now, I have to say that I have not to date set up a real classroom for a real class with real content and assignments. Only once you do this will you get a sense as a teacher of how the platform meets your needs, and the extent to which students find it easy to use. But first impressions are somewhat promising. Teams for Education clearly has functionality, but it is also somewhat clunky and anti-intuitive. I will have to reserve final judgement until I have been able to use it as a platform in the wild!

 

 

 

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.

 

Digital Classrooms 2016

EdTech Digest

Why 2016 is the year digital classrooms become the dominant paradigm and what infrastructure steps schools should take to be a part of it.

GUEST COLUMN | by Daniel Rivera

CREDIT Aruba digital classroomFor some years, K-12 educators and experts have discussed the coming of “the digital classroom” with many schools deploying various types of technologies in an effort to turn the vision into reality. Although 90 percent of teachers now report technology is having a positive effect on student participation, most classrooms still look the same as they did 50 years ago. But, in 2016, that’s about to change.

Although 90 percent of teachers now report technology is having a positive effect on student participation, most classrooms still look the same as they did 50 years ago. But, in 2016, that’s about to change.

Historically, the classroom has reflected the business world. For example, the one-room schoolhouse for our agrarian society gave…

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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!

 

 

 

The Multi-Layered Classroom

DSC01927When you are using ICTs in your classroom, the classroom automatically acquires a few extra layers. There is of course the physical layer with the teacher and students, the desks and tables, pens, paper, books and scissors. This layer is the most important layer, and sometimes it gets forgotten in the rush to adopt digital practices. Computers cannot replace teachers, at least not until they pass a great deal more than just the Turing Test! But increasingly other layers are added to this.

The second layer consists of the World Wide Web, which is now accessible via smartphones if the classroom has WiFi, and even if it has not, if the students have data bundles. Gone are the days when you needed to ask students to look something up after the class. Now you just say, “Can someone look that up!” This layer adds almost instant access to information of all kinds and is a complete game changer as the focus moves from learning content to learning what to do with all that content.

A third layer consists of your Learning Management System, which is being deployed by an increasing number of teachers. In my school Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms are all used. Using an Interactive Whiteboard, or through students’ devices this layer is increasingly accessible to all students at all times. Both Moodle and Edmodo have apps for smartphones, and with iPads or laptops work can be accessed readily off the LMS. This allows for paperless submission of work from within the classroom, and for discussions and content to be available at all times. The interesting thing about the LMS layer is that it extends the physical classroom into virtual time as well as virtual space, leaving the classroom open 24/7.

A fourth layer is the Communication layer. When I was a student most classrooms had intercoms and lessons would be interrupted for announcements. These days many teachers send notifications via email or whatsapp groups! This layer runs like a vein through the life of the school. Being able to email parents straight away when there is a problem also extends the classroom into the home. I just received a whatsapp from my son at school when he got locked in a music room when the handle came off in his hand on the inside! My wife telephoned the Music Department secretary and he was liberated from his sound-proofed cell! This anecdote illustrates quite well how vital this layer can be!

The fifth layer is the back channel.While many students raise their hands in class, many do not, and yet still have questions or comments they would like to make.Back channels from useful ways of including these in the cut and thrust of classroom discussion. For example I use twitter to encourage students to ask questions or post interesting links, answer questions or polls before, during, or after a lesson. The twitter feed is available on my Moodle page, and if this is up on the Interactive White Board, using a hashtag these tweeted responses become available to the whole class effortlessly.

There is also, I believe, a sixth layer, an ill-defined entity, which will become increasingly important as time goes by, and that is the virtual reality layer, or games layer. There are some times when students are playing an educational game, or using Second Life for a pedagogical purpose where the classroom itself may host a virtual classroom environment, where students may interact with each other and the teacher via their avatars. This may sound all a bit Science Fiction, and little of the software exists currently outside of environments like Second Life, but gamification, even at a low tech level, involves the creation of a virtual games world where students and teachers role play.

What fascinates me is the ways in which these layers increasingly interconnect, through QR codes, augmented reality, in class research tasks or back channels. One of the core skills of a 21st Century teacher will surely be the ability to integrate the layers within the classroom seamlessly and meaningfully. It is going to need to become one of the core criteria in teacher pre-service and in-service education.

 

 
 
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