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Category Archives: Web 2.0 Tools

Ngram Viewer: Computational Thinking in English

I recently completed a Google online course on Computational Thinking and would like to look at one feature of CT, which I think has particular relevance for English teachers. In brief, as I understand it, CT refers to the thought processes involved in formulating problems in such a way that they can be processed using computational devices. They can be used to think about problems without any form of computation, of course, but it seems to me that one way of mixing things up, to enliven a class, is to introduce some computation into the English Class.

ngramOne tool that might be useful is Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows you to type in keywords and see them displayed in a graph reflecting their usage over the years (from Google Books). You can enter multiple keyword searches, separating them by a comma. In itself this can show you the rise and fall in the popularity of certain words, and can be used in an English class to identify difficult vocabulary from a poem. You can look at synonyms, antonyms or explore connotation and denotation with a class using Ngram Viewer, asking students to draw conclusions from the graphs generated.

I think the most useful application of this, though is where it is combined with student writing to help students think about their word choices. In itself Ngram Viewer does not really add to a piece of writing, but if you ask students to use it to help them make decisions about which word to choose, it does help focus on the act of making a decision. By forcing students to type in a list of synonyms alone, they will probably do more than they usually do in thinking about alternatives.

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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.

 

 

 

The Wu Wei of Whatsapp!

whatsappWith over 500 million whatsapp users, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous, whatsapp is a part of the fabric of the school, whether you as a teacher are using it or not! It is the single biggest social messaging platform and offers key affordances in the classroom. It is cross-platform, allowing users with different phones to message each other effortlessly.

On Whatsapp you can set up groups and subscribe users (up to 30) to each group. When you send a message to the group all members are included. It is for the mobile phone what a listserv is for email! Attachments such as pictures, audio or video can be added, and messages can be sent using phone data or over wi-fi. Within a school environment where students and teachers are hooked up to the school wi-fi, this effectively means communication can be instantaneous and free to users, an important consideration. Conversations can also extend beyond school hours, and this is a huge advantage.

It seems to me that whatsapp use in the classroom started with students forming groups based on interest or need. It was a useful way to find out what homework had been set, and pages could be photographed and sent to the group. My sons use it for this purpose, and I know that as a family it is a fantastic application for spreading information quickly to everyone. My son tells me that the other day in his Maths class, many of the boys had not brought their books for whatever reason. The relevant page was photographed and sent to the class whatsapp group. It is now fairly routine for a student to photograph the homework on the board and whatsapp it to the rest of the class! It is usually best to ask your students to set up a whatsapp group for the class, and to add you to it. This gives students a sense of ownership of the group. You can then use the group to answer student queries, and to send out information such as a reminder to bring a particular book to class. It allows for those sudden unavoidable changes in plan too, including things you forgot to mention in class. You do need to remember though that whatsapp can never be an official channel for communication. Not all students have smartphones, some may run out of data, some may lose battery, and you cannot penalize any student for failing to receive a message! This is important to note – I have heard of teachers using it as if it were an official channel and seriously disadvantaging students because of this! My advice would be to keep the class whatsapp as a student run channel, which you can use, but always as a reminder, never as the primary information channel.

Students feel free to use the channel for chat, and this more sociable reaction to classroom announcements is an invaluable tool in promoting your digital presence in the class. It’s a good platform for happy birthdays and well-wishing messages when someone is ill. I encourage students to broadcast a summary of any class for those who are absent.

I find it especially useful for extra-mural activities where do not always see your students in class during the course of any given day, and unexpected changes are de rigueur! Whatsapp is clearly very useful as a classroom management tool, but can it be used pedagogically too?

One feature of whatsapp is the ability to send a recorded audio message. If everyone in your class is signed up on a whatsapp group, you can use it as a feedback mechanism in group or even individual work. Ask students to record a quick reflective feedback on any task and message it to the group. This can then be used as material for a follow-up lesson, or allow you, as a teacher, to gain insights into students’ understanding of the task. These messages can be retrieved from the whatsapp media folder if necessary, but they are essentially ephemeral in nature.

You can also use audio or video messages, or links to these as byte-sized flipped learning content as preparation ahead of a class, or as a wrap-up to a class. I like to store this content on Moodle or other platforms, and use whatsapp simply as a reminder of the link. You can encourage students to discuss the material over whatsapp, but I feel that that serves to take over the channel too much. Part of what makes whatsapp successful is that it is an unofficial channel and is student-driven. Official class chat can be housed on a Facebook group or twitter hashtag.

Essentially I see whatsapp as a tool of inaction. It’s not so much what you do with whatsapp – it’s more about what you allow students to use it for, to support that and chip in when you can!

 

Thinking Skills & The DigiTeacher

There is a commonly held view that teaching Thinking Skills and Technology go hand in hand. Somehow the use of digital media will transform educational practice and the critical thinking skills we so desperately need in the twenty-first century will fall into place. I would like to believe this is so, and indeed I do believe that digital technologies do offer key affordances for developing critical thinking, but I fear there is nothing automatic in this process. The argument advanced by the Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow programme was that the introduction of computers would lead to greater student-centered learning practices and hence gains in encouraging thinking skills, but this has not really panned out as planned.

Very often the use of technology has simply reinforced the ways teachers were teaching, and left little changed. Interactive Whiteboards have replaced chalk-boards, but the way they are deployed in the classroom left pretty much the same. The ready availability of information in the form of the Internet was going to change education from a process of learning facts, to learning skills. Again, this is clearly true, but how far have we come in implementing this approach? Not very far!

IMG_9743I think that teachers who encourage thinking generally do so independently of any move to introduce technology. And yet technology is clearly here to stay. Despite what I said previously, the ubiquitous presence of information available more or less anytime, more or less anywhere has made a difference to education. Technological innovations such as Interactive Whiteboards are nothing like the old chalkboard even where the pedagogy is largely the same. Even the case of an Instructivist teacher, putting up a YouTube video instead of text represents a difference of some order. The fact that a teacher can ask a question to which nobody knows the answer and can have students use their mobile phones to Google the answer is significant. It is not trivial.

The moment you introduce a computer into the classroom, the teacher, even if a dyed-in-the-wool instructivist, will be sidelined to some extent, no matter what the nature of the task set. I get the sense, not of a full-blown revolution in progress, but of one of those evolutionary changes that ends up changing everything once some perspective has been gained by the virtue of hindsight! What teachers are doing is quietly getting on with the business of experimenting with technology, finding out what works and what doesn’t work, and slowly but surely altering their practice to incorporate those elements of new technologies they find useful.

The same is true for the explicit teaching of thinking skills. Whether using De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Heyrle’s Thinking Maps, Thinker’s Keys, Visible Thinking, CoRT, Habits Of Mind, and many other programmes, teachers all over the world are making concerted efforts to shift from content-based teaching to Thinking-based teaching. Again, trial & error and slow incorporation into existing teaching practices is the order of the day! As a teacher who has been grappling with both these movements, I have often puzzled over the connections. Can digital technologies really enhance Thinking? Or put another way, can we teach kids to think better by using technology?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, or a one-size-fits-all solution: it’s not about the technology, it’s not even about the pedagogy. It’s really about individual teaching moments in different contexts, and what it means to the participants. I think the question teachers need to ask when evaluating any piece of technology or application is whether it will help their students think more like a mathematician, scientist, historian, or writer, or whatever subject you are teaching. There are undoubtedly so many instances where the answer is yes that we can begin to discern some common features around why it is that technology can indeed address the urgent imperative to  foster better thinking skills.

One key feature is that of Authenticity. Technology offers opportunities for real world collaboration, publication and engagement which makes tasks authentic, or rather, more authentic. Thinking is context based, and the more real, the more relevant a problem is perceived to be, the better the thinking is likely to be. As an English teacher I know that many students do well on discrete, grammar type questions, but can’t use that language knowledge when composing their own writing. Many students can solve discrete Mathematical problems, but can’t use these Maths skills to solve real world problems. Students need to learn how to think like a writer, for example, in real-world contexts. Authentic publication offers an exciting route.

I have just managed to get a class signed up on WordPress, and given them an opportunity to publish their Flash fiction online on the class magazine. They get real views, and real comments from the general public. Suddenly spelling seems to matter to them, and they began to agonise over writing decisions!  Not something you see in a for-the-teacher’s-eyes-only exercises!

The Internet also offers opportunities for students to grapple with real world problems and engage directly in their community. For example, when teaching IT skills I like to get my students to design an eSafety campaign for the junior school, producing posters and a video. I believe that by producing a product which will actually be used within the wider community of the school, students are more focused in their thinking.

The second key feature is Metacognition. Making thinking visible, and making students aware of their thinking helps them to self-monitor. I believe that technology has key affordances for metacognition in a number of ways. Technology stands at a remove from reality. It is quite clearly not the real world, and yet it can be used to mediate or model the real world. In doing so it encourages one to think about the real world and how one is interacting with it. An interactive Flash animation which allows a student to play with electrical circuits and see the results of decisions, for example, enables students to do things easily which would be hard to set up in the real world, and also encourages students to form and test hypotheses very rapidly. One of the best examples of this sort of thing is the bridge-building software which allows students to design bridges, and then test them with various loads. Games are good at this sort of thing.

A third feature is Engagement, although this is often over-stated. Students will spend hours of concentrated effort on a game, for example, but quickly tire of class-based pen and paper exercises. You can create neat, professional looking results using technology, which pen and paper tasks just cannot compete with. Getting students to offer feedback on their discussions by creating a vine, or recording their feedback on a webcam to embed on a PowerPoint is simply so much more fun than standing up and repeating what other groups are saying! An essay typed, or delivered using a Prezi or VoiceThread is much more engaging to create than a hand-written paper. Drill-and-kill practice is sometimes unavoidable, but can be less painful on computer.

How does engagement stimulate thinking? I asked a question in class an hour ago and saw two different responses in a range of my students. Some eyes were dead! It was half-term, the last period of the day and I was probing students about validity and truth in logic! I could see a lack of engagement in many eyes. Some eyes, however, were shining bright. This was new stuff – unlike anything normally studied in school, and it was clearly engaging a percentage of the class. When the lights are on thinking is going on!  When they’re off, they’re well and truly off! Engagement is a sine qua non for thinking.

Digital media also engage by  allowing for Inclusivity, another key feature. Face to face a teacher can often only hear from a fraction of the class at any one time. Even in a no hands up classroom, many students park off and wait for the bright ones to answer the question. Digital technologies, such as polling, twitter feeds and back-channels can help involve more students more of the time.

And finally, Precision. Thinking is nothing if not rigorous, and yet humans are extremely tolerant of imprecision. We get tired and accept second best for the sake of moving on. Yeah, that’s close enough! Computers, on the other hand, take some drudgery away, produce slick-looking results and therefore make space for transferring the attention to the content and to accuracy. The ability to edit a second draft, and move towards a final draft with minimum effort enhances this striving for perfection, and I think this is very good for developing thinking skills.

core competenciesThe devil, however, is always in the detail. I believe that teachers need to ask themselves how they intend to use technology to teach students to think better in the subject discipline they are teaching.

I have altered the popular TPACK model to integrate Thinking Skills in a previous blog, Since writing that piece, I have become increasingly convinced that we need to consistently ask ourselves not only what we are teaching (Content Knowledge), and how we are teaching it (Pedagogical Knowledge), but also how we will do that using technology (Technological Knowledge) to enhance thinking skills (Thinking Skills Knowledge).

For example, as an English teacher I might design a lesson which aims at teaching students to use Thinking maps in order to analyse a character in a novel in order to produce a blog post which describes the plot of that novel from the point of view of that character. In this case the thinking skills and digital skills operate in parallel with each other rather than work in tandem. I could equally well design a lesson in which students use Skype to collaborate with other students at another school in another country to  produce a fictitious TV panel discussion between characters in a novel. This uses the digital media directly to facilitate and enable collaborative thinking.

Just as we need to think about how we teach particular content using technology, we need to think about how we teach thinking skills in that subject using technology.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Using Smartphones & Twitter to Support Learning

DSC01905One of the most powerful tools afforded by modern smartphones is the ability to take a picture and upload it onto twitter to share, almost instantaneously. This functionality, the backbone of social media, is also very useful in the classroom. That picture can become available within moments, either displayed on a screen in the classroom, or on everyone else’s phones using a hashtag. This is an excellent way of sharing information quickly and having it available for discussion.

We started the year with our grade 8s by holding a workshop on Thinking Skills. One of the exercises revolved around getting the girls to find objects around the school that filled them with “wonderment and awe” and photograph it with their cameras and use a twitter hashtag to post it in a form where they could show an entire grade packed into the school hall what they had found. This combination of sharing something you have photographed and talking about it represents a very powerful pedagogical tool, bringing together observation and reflection.

twitMany students use the camera on their phones to capture their homework, or notes on the board. They can do the same to share something they have written in their books. I find twitter the best for sharing because most students have twitter accounts and access it on their phones. Getting students to create images like the one on the left is a great way to spark debate, and is very engaging. By getting students to write or draw something, and then share it, rather than calling an individual to the board to do so, ensures that everyone attempts the question or task, and allows you to select responses to discuss that address interesting teaching points.

One can also get students to create six second videos “vines” as feedback responses. Having only six seconds to play with forces students to summarise their responses into a single sentence or idea. Allowing groups to record a short piece of feedback and then post to twitter also means that you do not have to go through the often laborious, and frequently pointless process of listening to every group’s feedback on a task. You can pick out any interesting points raised for a follow-up session. I often hear it said that twitter is useless for education because it allows only a limited number of characters – but in fact that’s all you need to summarise your main point. The reflection and agreeing on a main point is where the learning happens. Twitter does allow the class to access aspects of an individual or a group’s thinking to fuel further discussion, and as such, is an invaluable tool in the classroom.

 

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.

 
 
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