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Category Archives: Virtual Learning Environments

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

edtechdigest.com

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.

 

 

ICTs & The Jigsaw Exercise

Jigsaw exercises are a staple ingredient in any constructivist pedagogy. They are exercises designed to foster collaboration. The basic exercise is as follows. Imagine a group which is researching, say, their city. In each group one student is responsible for looking at sanitation, another at transport, a third at entertainment, and so forth. Each student, in other words becomes an expert in a particular aspect of the overall topic. This pattern is mirrored in other groups, and at a certain stage students go out of their own groups to meet in expert groups: all the sanitation people will meet and discuss their findings, for example. The expert will then report back to their own group armed with a much greater understanding of their own sub-topic.

IMG_9717There are many variations of course, but that is the basic idea. It is a commonplace remark that ICTs can help promote collaborative learning, and I believe that’s true, but you very seldom find any discussion of exactly how to go about it. What tools can you use, and how do you go about using them?

I believe there are three crucial moments in any jigsaw exercise routine where ICTs can really help out. In a hybrid situation I would certainly make sure that I did not do all of these stages digitally. You will want the bulk of the discussion process to be face-to-face. However, devices can be used at any stage even when students are talking to each other in the same room. If you are using a Flipped Classroom model, you will need to decide which stage or stages of the task will be done in the classroom, and which outside the classroom.

The Research Stage

Most jigsaw exercises inherently involve an information gathering stage, although sometimes this is telescoped into a pre-provided information pack in which different students or different groups receive different information. One excellent idea is to use QR codes strategically posted around a classroom highlighting different information. This mirrors the “could all Group As meet in that corner” instruction! Or you can give each student a different printed QR code on a sheet of paper.

UntitledFirstly there are enormous possibilities for using technology during the research, information-gathering stage. I like the mix of technology and old fashioned pen and paper – for example using the Cornell note taking strategy, captured on pre-printed note-taking sheets (each sheet with the relevant QR code on it – if appropriate). These can be used while researching off an iPad or laptop. There seems to be some research suggesting that pen and paper summarising skills are more effective than any form of digital note-taking, and when it comes to reading and writing I am always more inclined to be more conservative in approach. Reading and writing is just too important cognitively to mess with! One thing I like to do is get students to tweet search terms that have been useful, or the links to useful websites they have found, using the class hashtag. If you are using QR codes, you can get students to create and share QR codes as well!

It is useful, I think, for research to be done in the expert group, and for students to work in the same space, but using devices to scour the Internet for information.

An alternative idea is to use your Moodle, Google Classroom or Edmodo platform to post different input materials, such as video or document files for each group – as Flipped Learning , before you come to class homework. This material can be used to guide the subsequent research process.

The Collaborative Discussion Stage

Secondly at the collaborative discussion stage (expert or general group)  you can use a range of tools to facilitate the move from research to discussion itself and in to the creation and publication of any report-back or product. You can use a platform to allow the experts to share research and discuss their discoveries, or for the expert to feed their specialist knowledge back into the group. I would not do both as too much of the same thing destroys the freshness of the task, and one reason for using ICTs is to vary the type of task students are doing.

If you are flipping your classroom, this part can be done outside of classroom contact time, and be the homework component of the task.

Pinterest, for example allows users to set up a board with a list of collaborators who are also allowed to pin items to the board. Comments and links can be posted, allowing for ways in which the experts can share the information they find. If you want the expert collaboration to be more formal, you will probably want to set up a dedicated forum for them to talk to each other. If you want more general discussion a dedicated forum for high school students is available at Collaborize Classroom for free. You can set up different discussion topics for each group, and then allow the experts to use the forum to share research and ideas. Alternatively you can use Google Groups to set up either an online forum or email based listserv. You can create many groups each with their own discussion topics.

The Presentation (Product) Stage

Finally, at the reporting stage when the general group produces their final product or report back, you can use Google Docs so that students can collaborate on putting together a shared document, or any software designed to allow for presentation or publishing, PowerPoint, Prezi, Voicethread or movie-making software are all good options.

An excellent strategy is to ensure that the final product requires a summary of the research process and not just a re-hashing of it. If students have been collecting data on Pinterest you can get them to use Google Docs to produce a report, because the information is in a different form, and therefore requires synthesis and discussion, but if they have been collaborating on Google Docs during the research phase, the final product should be something different, again so that discussion is necessary to convert the information into a usable form.

One good idea is to turn words into numerical data. If you are getting students to research the lives of historical or literary figures, the final product can be a spreadsheet of data collected on their average age, etc. If you are getting students to collect numerical data, then a written report will guarantee that the information needs to be synthesised.

 

 

 

Platform Agnosticism

One of the hardest decisions a teacher needs to make these days is which digital platform to use. For some, school districts or the school itself may have forced a decision by selecting a particular Learning Management System. For others, given a free choice, the choice itself may present a bit of a nightmare. I think I have an account on just about every digital platform known to man, and I have dabbled in most of them at some stage or the other.

moodleAt my school the choice has largely come down to three platforms: Edmodo, Moodle and Google. Each of these has some very strong features, and some weaknesses and the school itself upholds a policy of platform agnosticism. My personal preference is for Moodle because it is so strong at managing the whole process of electronic submission and grading, and has peer assessment modules and badges and can generally handle just about any educational function you might wish for. Its affordance value is thus very high. However, it has a fairly steep learning curve, and this can be problematic. Many of our teachers have gone for Edmodo, and I can see the benefits of this in terms of ease of use, although for me the platform is seriously light on features. Google has recently burst onto the scene at our school, and is garnering some support. Students seem to enjoy using any of these platforms, but clearly with different teachers using different platforms, there is a need for a school portal allowing students to link to different class resources from a single entry point. This also helps brand the school’s e-learning, and if done intelligently can deliver a seamless experience for students and parents

I don’t see any benefit in forcing teachers to use any particular platform. Teachers really need to use whatever platform they are comfortable with. Different subject disciplines have different needs and technology offers different affordances in different contexts. The only logical approach then is to encourage a variety of platforms, and run a strong portal.

 
 
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