The iPad – What it should and shouldn’t be for Education

This blog originally started as a reflection journal as I begun a pilot program for using iPads at my school. My early posts ( check January and February posts ) were discussions of the pros and cons of iPads. As the year has gone by and I have more time to research, read other iPad articles and experiment more with apps and with the students using them more frequently, I’ve had time to reflect on what iPads are offering schools. I’m not going to debate what model of iPad program to commit to – 1:1 or shared. I’m simply going to concentrate on what I think schools should consider before committing to iPads at all.

What you should use iPads for in schools

Multimedia content creation
I am so sick of the tech press misrepresenting the iPad purely as a content consumption device and complaining that it is not for content creation. I think they confuse content creation with publishing their articles with a traditional keyboard. On the contrary, the main reason schools should invest in iPads IS Content Creation. I’m not talking about Word or PowerPoint documents. That’s 20th century publishing that was meant for office workers and businessmen in the first place, not school kids.

What the iPad offers to children is the ability to capture, develop and publish their learning in the creative, engaging, multimedia way they experience the world. Traditional keyboard/writing based computing held back younger students and limited older ones. Now they can take pictures, record their voices (VoiceThread,GarageBand), create videos and slideshows(iMovie, SonicPics), annotate diagrams (Skitch), explain and record their learning in screencasts (Explain Everything, Doceri, Showme), use animated puppets to tell stories (Sock Puppets, Toontastic), create comic strips or whole comic books ( Comic Life, Strip Designer) combine text,freehand drawing and pictures in mind maps (Popplet, iMindmap) and publish interactive, multimedia books that others can read on their iPads (BookCreator,Creative Book Builder). All from the one device without having to connect any other tech up with wires and search for the files. The iPad is the ultimate one stop shop for student content creation that goes well beyond what they were capable of achieving easily just a couple of years ago. The beauty of all these apps is that they are multipurpose apps. They can be used in all curriculum areas and their uses are only limited by your or your student imagination. A Word Document could only do so much. Multimedia apps can allow for so much more scope for learning.

Portable, anywhere, interactive collaborative learning
The beauty of the iPad is its portability and use anywhere capability. Desktops anchor you to a desk and isolate you from a group. Laptops are still too cumbersome to carry around and the built in cameras and microphones are too restrictive. The iPad frees you up to use it anywhere any time. On a field trip/excursion? Take the iPad along with you and do all your work live and instantly. Take pictures and record a commentary for an instant report. Record footage of your physical activity in PE classes and play back for instant feedback on your performance, in slow motion with iMotion HD. Create a documentary on the spot with the video camera and iMovie. With wifi available, report live from an event with FaceTime or Skype. The physical makeup of the iPad makes for a more social sharing environment that isn’t as easy or effective in a lab of desktops or the one way screens of laptops. The tactile nature of the touchscreen brings students together and the multimedia capabilities can be shared by a group.

Social, interactive Reading the “digital literacy way”
One of the best activities on an iPad is reading, but not in the traditional sense. If you just want to read, get a book from the library – it’s cheaper. Reading on a iPad is a much richer experience and can enhance the educational experience in schools. Reading in iBooks allows you to highlight passages and record annotated notes which are then stored and organized in a dedicated bookmarked section and look up definitions without flicking through a dictionary. Using PDF annotation apps you can do limitless note taking without running out of space on the page.

While you can do the same on a traditional computing device, the use of social bookmarking tools and curation website bookmarklets make collaborative reading a far easier proposition, simply because of the book like experience sitting with an iPad gives you. Having students sitting in a group using Diigo’s shared annotation tools allows for both real conversation and tech based note sharing that can be referred to later. It also allows for collaboration with students outside the group which widens the community of learners you can work with. Individually, finding sites to share with others and then posting them on Scoop-it, Diigo, Edmodo, sharing via Twitter or other social media sites via bookmarklets, share buttons or through apps like Zite and Flipboard just seems more natural on a touchscreen tablet rather than on a mouse driven computer.

Other

Check out my other posts on Writing, Maths and Literacy ( in the Categories section on the right) for my other uses for iPads – I don’t want to repeat myself too much. Suffice to say, the iPad has the potential to change the way we learn and teach if we take the time to research and investigate what others are doing. I have curated a wealth of resources for you to use on my Scoopit page linked at the top of my blog page as well as in my Diigo Bookmarks under the iPad tag also accessible above.

The iPad, however, is not perfect by any means and does have limitations to consider. There are some things it can’t do at all and many things that are best done on other devices. Read on for what they shouldn’t be used for in schools.

What you shouldn’t use iPads for in schools

This list is more about poor decision making about getting iPads rather than the iPad’s lack of ability to manage the task. It’s also more applicable to a school setting ( i use my iPad for a lot of things completely un-school related, which shouldn’t be a factor for getting them for school) and why you are choosing iPads over other computing options. If it can’t do the task as effectively as a “computer”, if it isn’t going to be an improvement and make a profound change to how you use tech in education, if it isn’t going to be any different to what you are already doing with desktop or laptop computers, then consider whether the iPad is really what you want.

Traditional word processing
Don’t get me wrong. I use my iPad for about 90% of the word processing I do. Most of this blog has been published using my iPad. Having said that, if you’re going to jump on the bandwagon and buy iPads and then complain about not having Microsoft Office on it, or that Pages messes up the formatting of the Word Document you just imported or you don’t like the touchscreen keyboard for typing, you haven’t thought about why you want iPads. If all your students do with tech at school is publish stories and reports in Word, then you will find your iPads being underutilized.

Replacing books just for reading or lightening the load in your students’ backpacks.
Personally, I read a lot on my iPad. But, as I outlined in the “What you should use iPads for in Schools” section of this post, I don’t just read with my iPad. Once again, it is a wasted opportunity for changing the way you foster learning in your school if your main reason for buying iPads is to replace books/textbooks with ebooks and PDF scans of textbooks. This does not enhance learning. This does not change the way you teach. Just reading books on an iPad makes no difference to education. It may be advertised to consumers as a great e-reader, and as a way of carrying around a truckload of books to read on a vacation it’s great, but if schools are going to invest vast amounts of money on iPads only to fill them up with ebook versions of novels or PDF copies of chapters from their Maths text books so our children can prop them up on a table while they complete Exercise 7A of the Quadratic Equations Chapter in their exercise books, we’ve missed the point.

If you have invested a lot of time, effort and money in Web 2.0 tools or educational management systems.
While there is much press about the demise of Flash support for mobile devices ( Android included ) and the rise of HTML5 sites, the vast majority of educational sites on the Internet are Flash or Java based. While many are free, educational versions of these sites usually cost a fair investment to use with large numbers of children. iPads don’t support these tools well. Yes, there are workaround solution in the form of dedicated iPad browsers like Puffin and Photon that use server based connections to provide useable Flash experience on iPads, but they are serviceable at best and inadequate or unusable at worst. While I have no experience of it, Moodle is widely used in schools as well and does not play well with iPads. Interactive whiteboard software like Promethean’s Activinspire doesn’t have an iPad version so you can’t create or edit flip charts on iPads with their software. So if your school has invested heavily in Web 2.0 tool licenses, Moodle like systems or have spent the last 5 years training you to make interactive whiteboard flip charts, consider the wisdom of moving to an iPad only set up.

Are you a Google Apps for Education school?
This is open for debate as I have visited schools that are 1:1 iPad schools who use Google Apps. From my experience, the user experience is not good enough. Maybe for word processing it’s functional but the Google spreadsheet experience is woefully inadequate on the iPad. If you have made a big investment in Google Apps, I’d stick with netbooks/laptops.

Website design/blog management
Web site building tools on the web like Weebly or Wix are useable and most of the publishing work of blogs can be done on an iPad. However,if you have an ICT course that is heavily involved in website building or you need to edit graphic elements or widget components of blogs, iPads don’t handle the task completely and you’ll need to stick with traditional computing.

Dedicated specialist software compatibility
Without listing them, there is obviously a huge range of software for specific purposes that aren’t supported and are unlikely to ever be supported on the iPad. While it may seem bleeding obvious, schools need to take this into account before dedicating their entire budget to a 1:1 iPad program.

Final thoughts
I started the year thinking the iPad was the one stop solution. I’ve come to believe now that a multi device option is preferable. 1:1 iPads would be great in an ideal world but the financial reality for school with substantial investments in other tech already doesn’t make it practical for a complete change. My school already has a lot of laptops and desktops in use. They are used for many valid purposes such as those listed above. It’s not reasonable to think we would replace all our resources with just iPads when there are good things already being done with them. So we are going down the horses for courses route. More iPads are likely to be purchased next year and used for all he great multimedia purposes outlined. Web tools, research, Flash and Java Ed sites, word processing, blogging, compatibility issues will continue to be addressed with our computers. I’m starting to think it’s the best of both worlds.

But what do you think? Have I under or oversold the iPad? Are there compelling reasons for iPads in education I’ve left out ? Are there other reasons for not committing to them? Share your thoughts. This is far from an exhaustive post. Join the conversation.

Maths Extension – engagement with nrich and Edmodo

Earlier in the year I wrote a post titled “Maths Extension/Enrichment with Edmodo“, outlining my plans for an enrichment/extension program for high achievers in Maths at school. It took longer than anticipated to get started but from the start of Term 3 (July), I met with 5 Grade 6 students, 8 Grade 5 students and a couple of very bright Grade 4 boys on a weekly basis for an hour. ( Another teacher does the same with Grade 3 and 4 students ).While we can argue that research suggests mixed ability groupings are more beneficial ( for the rest of the week, these children work in that environment), I am in no doubt that the program has been a resounding success and a great sense of engagement and enjoyment has been felt by all involved, including the Maths teacher!

Whether it is enrichment, extension or a mix of both, which was a point of contention with some readers back in the original post, I am not sure. Regardless, some great mathematical thinking is taking place every week between an enthusiastic, engaged group of students.

The weekly lesson itself takes no time to plan. I simply upload a problem to the MEP (Math Extension Program) Edmodo group at the start of the week so the students can check in for some preparation time before we meet. Don’t get me wrong, I know exactly what I want out of the lesson when I select the problem and I send a post lesson report to the classroom teachers outlining what we did. The beauty of what we do, though, is that we don’t know what will result from the lesson until it is over. There is no chalk and talk, no pre-task explanation of what to do, no expectations that we have to solve it at the end of the hour. What you will see is a group of mathematicians sitting around together, sharing strategies, discoveries, questions verbally, through demonstrations on the whiteboard or via iPads or by posting on Edmodo.

What has improved throughout the term has been their problem solving skills, collaborative discussions, use of technology aids to organise and simplify the process ( Numbers on the iPad  has been a real winner, using formulas to test and monitor conjectures, as has Explain Everything to record ideas and share via the whiteboard) and most importantly, their ability to articulate their thinking and learning, both their successes and failures ( something they haven’t experienced much beforehand).

A great example of the whole process is our last learning experience, which lasted over two weeks. Most of our problems have come from the well established Maths Enrichment website, nrich. ( another worthwhile site is New Zealand Maths ). The beauty of nrich is the incentive to have your solutions published on their website, giving bragging rights to those who succeed, either partially or fully ( more on that later) Our last problem before the holiday was Summing Consecutive Numbers. The problem is presented via an introductory video that explained the nature of the  task. Each student had their own iPad ( its only a small group – we could have used the laptops) so watched it independently. After a two minute debrief to make sure everyone understood the task, we went straight into solving the problem. Beforehand, though, we made a pact that we would publish our solution on nrich, which always had to be posted by the 21st of each month, which just happened to be the last day of Term 3 ( we had previously missed deadlines or solved old problems, so this was our first chance.)

What was great about this particular problem was that the task itself was simple to start with – just adding numbers – but discovering and proving patterns and formulas was a real challenge that need real arguing and collaboration. During the first hour, the students were so focused on discovering patterns. Every idea they had, no matter how small, was posted on Edmodo. This proved to be an important step as the following week we were able to refer back to all of our discoveries. LEt me interject here and state that I was an active part of this as well. Before the lesson started, I was none the wiser about the solutions so I became an authentic learner with my group, making conjectures and testing theories side by side with them. (I talked about the importance of being a learning role model in a previous post). Some children used Numbers spreadsheets to arrrange the numbers into common sets as we investigated, others jsut used pen and paper while others used Explain Everything to brainstorm every idea they had. At the end of the sessions, we had over 60 posts on Edmodo and had made some amazing progress and they continued on over the weekend and into the following week determined to meet our deadline.

The following week, we met with all of our discoveries articulated on Edmodo and we were ready to write our Proof of the Summing of Consecutive Numbers. The final result was exceptional and is published below for your viewing pleasure.
Consecutive Numbers Proof
I showed their classroom teachers and my fellow MEP teacher and they were blown away by the depth of articulation and understanding in the submission. I merely guided them through the process of writing the proof but it is all their work (some sentence structures needed some modelling). To a person, they all requested a copy to put in their blogs and digital portfolios and now wait excitedly for the news it is posted on nrich’s website next month. Regardless, I am going to showcase their effort at the School Assembly, much to their satisfaction of being recognised for being mathematicians.

Being such a successful and rewarding experience, I then started thinking – should this just be the domain of the MEP group? Why can’t the other students in their grade follow the same process? It’s not as if they don’t do problem solving based tasks. This task in particular could have been entered into by ALL the students at different levels and the MEP students could have worked with the others to extend their thinking. The more I work with my group, the more I realise this model of collaborative problem solving should be done more at school. Sure, some of the less able students would not have arrived at the sophistication of thinking these high achievers attained but they could have contriubted to the adding and would have discovered some of the lower level patterns.

I think we have to stop thinking that not all students can enter into these tasks. Nrich is full of problems for all ability levels. Its my new goal to attack at school. I still think these MEP students deserve their time together to work with like minds. But I also think everyone deserves the experience they are getting. It’s what a differentiated curriculum is all about.

Digital Media and Learning – what’s missing in our curriculum documents

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Credit goes to John Elfrank-Dana for posting an article on Schoolbook titled “Wanted:New Standards that Embrace Technology” that has inspired me to reflect a little deeper on my understanding of this topic.

It seems that many countries are in the midst of new curriculum documents being introduced. In the time between the last and the latest, personalised learning and student-directed learning have been positioned at the forefront of contemporary teaching and learning. What has also accelerated over that time is technology possibilities in schools. I use the word possibilities deliberately here because, while everyone seems comfortable with the theories and pedagogies behind personalised/student centred learning ( even if it hasn’t quite come to fruition just yet), in many schools great numbers of leaders and teachers are still behind the 8 ball on what can be achieved with technology in their classrooms. Sadly, our new curricula, still appears to be as well.

Elfrank-Dana, in the post credited above, laments that the USA’s new Common Core standards hasn’t addressed the impact of new media. Likewise, in my country Australia, our new National Curriculum, which comes into effect in 2013, is also struggling to show a deep understanding of digital technology and its role in learning. Yes, it often includes the phrase ‘with digital technologies’ and ‘media texts’ in many of its content descriptions but to me they stand as add ons to the more specific literacy or numeracy skill they are referenced with. We are yet to have a National Curriculum for Technology and are still stuck with state level documents that were written “pre-Google”(let alone have any relevance to the Web 2.0/social media of 2012 and beyond).

So it is left up to individual schools to push the boundaries of digital learning until our curriculum writers catch up with the pace of change. If we are going to be true arbiters of change in schools, we need to be aware of the skills that aren’t listed in our curriculum but are vital for developing learners who can cope with the fast changing world they are growing up in. That’s why I was grateful to find in the article above the white paper on Digital Media and Learning by Henry Jenkins et al from MIT, titled “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” (downloadable as a PDF if you want to read the whole 72 pages!)

This part of its summary really caught my attention:

A central goal of this report is to shift the focus of the conversation about the digital divide from questions of technological access to those of opportunities to participate and to develop the cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement. Schools as institutions have been slow to react to the emergence of this new participatory culture; the greatest opportunity for change is currently found in afterschool programs and informal learning communities. Schools and afterschool programs must devote more attention to fostering what we call the new media literacies: a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need in the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking.These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.

The new skills include:
Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

Fostering such social skills and cultural competencies requires a more systemic approach to media education in the United States. Everyone involved in preparing young people to go out into the world has contributions to make in helping students acquire the skills they need to become full participants in our society. Schools, afterschool programs, and parents have distinctive roles to play as they do what they can in their own spaces to encourage and nurture these skills.

While the skills listed above rarely reference digital media specifically, it is clear that all of these skills are both developed and needed in using digital media for learning. While it is true that many of these skills have been and can be developed with traditional media and teaching practices, it is clear to me that they haven’t been in may cases and need to be addressed for all of us to succeed in what the Jenkins refers to as today’s Participatory Culture, one that is awash with digital technologies.

So how do we address each of these skills with digital learning as the focus? I’m going to give that a try.

Play — the fact a 2 year old can master the basics on a iPad quicker than her mother suggests that students already have the Play skill down pat. It also suggests that our students can learn a lot through play, which can be undermined by the “chalk and talk, drill and test” pedagogies still prevalent in many (certainly not all) classroom environments. We need to let children learn through playing more, something that is hard to do with just words on paper or a whiteboard or from a teacher’s mouth. Digital media offers the opportunities to explore preferred media sources. It also allows students to work at their own pace and level by choosing their entry and exit points to a learning task delivered through digital media, rather than sitting through 10 minutes of teacher lecture about content they already know. It also teaches them to think about possible solutions and strategies rather than always calling on the teacher instantly. On the creation side, being able to use digital tools allows the student to explore the possibilities of the software, restart quickly if the original idea didn’t work, try out the vast array of tools available and do it all independently IF we give them the opportunity to play with it (instead of giving then a narrow focused teacher tutorial based on our ideas).

Performance — As teachers, we ask students to connect with opposing points of view , people in history and characters in stories. Traditional drama and role play has an impact here but digital media offers the students opportunities to role play independently. Setting up Facebook type profiles of historical figures or novel characters allows them to use their communication model of choice to explore relationships and share each other’s interpretations. Twitter can be used in a similar way to have dynamic, realtime comversations as adopted characters. Adopting avatars to communicate provides introverted students the ability to communicate their ideas behind closed doors yet still get to perform. Using a web tool like Xtranormal lets them create and view re-enactments or conversations in an attention grabbing format that exceeds listening to a shared reading in a traditional model.

Simulation — Once the domain of the highly trained tech geek only, now children can use a myriad of web, tablet and computer based software to make sense of their world. From simple programming tools like Scratch, 3D modelling with Google Sketchup to Animation packages like iStopmotion and data crunching software to create real time graphs of statistics, students are no longer restricted to interpreting visual representations of information but also showing their understanding of it through creating simulations in a form they respond to – visual.

Appropriation — There is so much content on the Internet today that Google alone cannot sort it out for you. A big part of participatory culture now is curation tools. People all over the web are taking responsibility for collecting relevant websites under topics of their choosing and sharing them with the world. Tools like Scoopit, Pearltrees, Pinterest and Diigo can be searched as alternatives to search engines as the curating has been done for you. It’s not a easy skill though as many just grab any site they find and don’t sort through what is worth keeping. This has to be taught. This is a great way for collecting media content for class research as well and an alternative to boring, wordy bibliographies.

Stories can be told by pulling content from your social media feeds through tools like Storify. Emerging web tools like Meograph lets you publish compelling stories by combining video, audio, images, maps and text, creating multimodal texts that appeal to this generation and replicate the multimodal style of non text references we work with today.

Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details. An important skill in today’s busy environment, students need to develop skills in handling multiple tasks. Digital learning used well allows us to keep track of all of our work, giving us the ability to move in and out of different work spaces online or stored on our personal hardware choice. Organised digital media makes it easy to locate multiple sources, if we’ve worked on our appropriation skills.

Distributed Cognition — for me, this is the result of mastering all of the other skills in the list.

Collective Intelligence — Social bookmarking tools like Diigo, collaborative tools like Googledocs, sites like Edmodo and blogs where students and teachers can interact with each other purposefully will develop the idea that we work and learn best when sharing with each other, the antithesis of standardized competitive testing and comparison.

Judgment — Probably the most important one on the list. When I was a child, I had two newspapers, a couple of channels we watched the news on and Encyclopedia Britannica. We didn’t have to make many decisions about whether the information was accurate or not. Fast forward to today and our students are confronted with 59 million results for a Google Search, limitless cable news channels of varying bias, opinion based blogs, millions of YouTube videos and a combination of gossip and factual news coming from Twitter and Facebook feeds. If there is one thing we do with our students in time at school it is to teach them how to sort fact from fiction. Explain that just because the site appears first on Google doesn’t mean it’s the best. Tell them the difference between .org, .com, .gov and .edu. Show them the importance of checking the references on Wikipedia. This should be the number one skill in any curriculum for today’s schools.

Transmedia Navigation — I think I covered this in appropriation but suffice to say that most of the media today is awash with varied media types. Students need to learn how to disseminate.

Networking — The important skill needed to work with collective intelligence. In a global world, networking is vital and we can’t lock kids away in their classrooms and hope they learn how later on. This leads on to the final skill…………

Negotiation — up there with Judgement in importance, this is reflected in the message of the cartoon at the start of this post. We can’t network if we can’t cooperate with others and treat them with respect. We can’t network if we don’t know how to accept but still argue with different viewpoints. And we can’t expect cyber bullying to stop if we don’t educate our children how to responsibly use social media. As parents we need to be in control and as teachers we need to embrace digital learning at school so we can give them opportunities to use digital media for useful purposes instead of just writing garbage on Facebook or Twitter about a kid or celebrity they don’t like. This has to be part of our curriculum, not blocked by decade old laws like COPPA and SIPA.

So when you open up your new curriculum in the new year, follow what’s in there. It covers important skills we all need. But don’t be slaves to it. There’s a lot more we need to do to create the learners we want for the challenges of 21st century life.

Edmodo vs Blogging

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When introducing transformative teaching practices involving technology, you have to be careful not to overload the senses of the tech novices on your staff. What took über geeks like me a couple of hours to master can take a life time for others. This year at my school we’ve begun to dip our toes into the waters of online communication (some staff are already swimming while others are still sitting on the edge thinking they’ll drown without support). We’ve introduced both Edmodo and blogging to varying degrees this year. Grade 6 embraced Edmodo from the start and used it in many ways, following in the footsteps of a trial program I began with some of the current teachers last year. Grade 5 came to the party a bit later and are working towards good practices with support from current teachers who were part of the trial last year. Grade 3 and 4 have recently jumped on board and are currently in the experimental stage, with some of the more tech savvy trying out more advanced features.

The Grade 6s have taken to blogging this term, although more as private digital portfolios rather than true blogging with a global audience. However, class blogs have started to surface ( still limited to class member only access) and this has started to blur the lines between Edmodo and the class blogs. Our ICT Leader recently attended a network meeting and other leaders there questioned the purpose of Edmodo if they were already blogging ( until they actually investigated Edmodo – few actually knew of its existence). The point for me though is how to make a convincing argument for both Edmodo and blogging being transformative teaching and learning tools that we should be embracing. The purpose of this post then is as a reflection tool for me to consider the purposes of both platforms before selling them to the staff. It’s also a cry out for you, the reader, to share your experiences of both Edmodo and blogging. Do you use both or tend to focus on one?

In a nutshell, I see Edmodo as an all encompassing classroom management/teaching and learning/collaboration system. Blogging, on the other hand, while it can be used for all the purposes just mentioned, is a tool for writing, publishing and sharing your body of work, be it major writing tasks or quick reflections on life or school work. While it aims to share and craves feedback, blogging is a personal tool. Edmodo, however, it more group oriented. Because of the differentiation between the two, I think they should both be part of classroom practice.

EDMODO
Groups – My favorite feature of Edmodo and a big difference between itself and blogging. I’ve written a few posts on how I’ve used groups to organize my lessons with different small groups. In a contemporary open learning environment in which children are grouped by needs and interests, I appreciate the convenience and ease of creating groups for different subjects or smaller groups within that group so that specific groups of children can collaborate and discuss.It takes no time to set the groups up and they can be altered at any time. These groups are then linked to other features listed later. It’s simply a feature blogging doesn’t offer (as far as I can tell – correct me if I’m wrong)

Collaborative Discussion – the simplicity of the Edmodo discussion wins me over compared to blogging. Simply add a note explaining the topic of the discussion, which can include images, videos, embedded links to other web tools, links to other sites, click Add and the discussion begins. All it takes is to hit the Reply button and the discussion is in full swing. The one feature I would like Edmodo to add is the ability to reply to a specific comment like you can in blogs. It can be a bit cumbersome having to write a reply to someone who wrote something 10 comments back.

Assignments and Gradebook – I love this feature because it becomes a class management system. While I appreciate the ability to comment on a student’s blog, for assessment purposes you would prefer to communicate directly and privately with the student. Using the assignment feature, children can send their work directly to you for feedback and assessment. The feedback is only seen by you and the student and the child can resubmit their work as a response to your feedback. Each assignment is linked to a student’s Gradebook where a teach can store grades ( of your choosing) and comments.

File Sharing – as I mentioned in the Collaborative Discussion section, sharing files is very easy with Edmodo. While you can do this effectively in blogs through widgets and links, the Facebook like nature of Edmodo makes sharing a link to another site quickly more timely than blogs. Of course, it can get a little messy when the posts come in thick and fast and they get lost at the bottom of the page or move to the Previous page section, a feature shared with blogs and other social network sites……which leads us to the solution to this problem>>>>>

Folders and Tags – Tagging is an easy way to group posts around the same topic so you can access then from your tag list later on when they disappear of the front page of posts. Folders can also be set up to store specific posts on a common topic. Both tags and folders can be shared, although only the creator can add to them.

Polls and Quizzes – while more advanced polls and quizzes can be created by dedicated web tools and embedded on blogs, the polls and quizzes on Edmodo can be created much more quickly, albeit only by the teacher. Quizzes can be multiple choice, written answer or fill in the blank and can be useful in collecting data for a range of subjects.

Calendar – the Edmodo calendar is a effective way to help your students manage their time. Teachers can add daily events to the calendar and all assignments are automatically added as well. You can post events for specific groups as well so only those who need to see the event do. It adds or the class management capabilities of Edmodo that is simpler to use than blog calendars. I would like student’s to be able to add events, though.

Library/Backpack – for teachers it’s called Library; for students it’s the Backpack. Either way, it offers a easy to use file uploading and storing system, handy, when you do work at home or school and want to continue it at the other location. Better than emailing or USB data stick.

Extrinsic motivation through Badges – Not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like to use stickers or awards, Edmodo has its own reward system called badges. You can create your own (but it’s a lot easier to just grab badges already created by other Edmodo teachers – I’ve collected 190 of them from my connections) and to encourage or acknowledge student effort or work, you can simply select their name in your class list, select a badge and award it to the students. There’s a badge made for just about anything and many come with a comment. Used wisely, it’s a good way to collate a whole bunch of comments for your student reports without doing any more work than giving that badge toa student.

BLOGGING
I’ve written a few blogposts about the benefits of blogging that you can read here if you haven’t seen them. Here’s what I think differentiates blogging from a system like Edmodo.

Open/Closed Collaborative Discussion – Blogging can certainly allow for collaborative discussion and provides you with a level of control over who takes part on the conversation. If you have a public blog, anyone can take part in the conversation. If you have more rigid privacy settings, you can restrict who participates. For me, though, Edmodo is the better option for instant, collaborative discussion and feedback. With most school blogging wanting some level of moderation of comments, there is the time consuming and inconvenient need to approve every comment before it is seen by others. Edmodo, on the other hand, allows for instant posting and replying because of its secure, closed environment. Yes, popular blogging platforms allow for the set up of dedicated forums but to go through the process of setting up that, it makes more sense to put a link to Edmodo on your blog and use that as your forum.

Collaborative Assignments – This is where blogs exceed Edmodo in the collaboration area. While you can share resources, have debates, and contribute to each others work collaboratively on Edmodo, blogging allows for full scale project collaboration. Individual or class blogs can give access to other users to publish work together. Users can either create their own posts or have permission to edit other users’ posts. Images, embedded web tools , videos, comments can all contribute to a shared project between two users, a whole class or even multiple classes – in your own school or worldwide. Yes you can create groups in Edmodo for different classes to share work in but it’s not as wide ranging as blogging collaboratively.

Publishing and sharing work – it goes without saying that blogging is about sharing your ideas, interests, passions and work of any nature with others. Edmodo is great for sharing a link to your blog, but the work all takes place on your blog, in all the ways I’ve outlined in the other categories in this section of this blogpost.

Tags and Categories – Edmodo and Blogging are very similar in this area. Tags are a great way for creating access to specific posts by using keywords related to posts. Categories allow you to group posts under subject areas. Blogging categories offer more flexibility than Edmodo folders in that you can file a single post under multiple categories.

Audience – One of the benefits of Edmodo is that it is a secure, teacher controlled environment restricted to teacher control and a clearly defined set of users. This is also a drawback if you are looking for a wider, open audience. Blogging gives you both options. If you are looking for purpose for writing well, audience is important. Yes, you can keep your blog private or control who views it, but you can open it up to the whole world to share in your journey and provide you with feedback and incentive. Student bloggers get the opportunity to decide on their audience access and the level of communication they have with them. They don’t get this choice with Edmodo, which his heavy on teacher control.

As a portfolio – While Edmodo has its backpack/library for no fuss, easy to access file uploading and storing, it works more as a filing system. Blogging offers more of a publishing/presentation tool feel to storing your work. It can act as an adequate word processing/publishing option with decent formatting tools, weblinks and ability to add images. It allows you to embed web tools for instant viewing of linked work, whereas Edmodo, while offering embedding, requires you to click on the embedded link to view the file ( albeit within Edmodo). Stored files on Edmodo are private ( unless shared in folders or individually posted to specific groups) whereas on a blog you can open it up for anyone ( or a limited few ) to view and comment on.

I think the feature sets I’ve outlined for both platforms show a clear difference in usage but also shows how beneficial they can both be. Nevertheless, I’d like to hear from other users of Edmodo and blogging. Have I missed something that you think is important to either? Do you have uses of either that eliminates the need to use both. Please join the conversation.

Digital Portfolios – is Blogging a good option?

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

A couple of things happened last term. My school finally took the plunge and allowed the Grade 6 students to replace their file books with digital portfolios as a means to collate their work to share with their parents at home and during parent/teacher interviews. The other thing was that a small group of teachers dipped their toe into class blogging. By the end of the term, we ended up with two problems – How do we create the best Digital Portfolio and Do we want to really blog?

Let me explain.

During my ‘Techie Brekkies” before school, I introduced blogging to a group of interested teachers. They had lots of questions and not all were answered but we ended the couple of sessions with setting up blogs, but apart from one grade level who used their blog for Camp updates and reflection, not much happened after the meetings. Then I introduced Edmodo and it seemed to be a more useful and easier to set up option. Edmodo now has full adoption across all Grade 5/6s as a collaboration/work sharing/assessment and class organisation tool. It was seen as more relevant than having a class blog at this stage in the development of the teachers involved. ( Note: the whole “Techie Brekkie” thing went into hiatus during report writing season and so there was no follow up to blogging session. We’ll pick it up again next term).

In terms of the Digital portfolios, there was a push for them last year in the 5/6 area but because they were just an add on to the  school wide  file book/work sample policy, they were not fully embraced by teacher or student. In 2012, however, change came about and the Grade 6 students moved from paper based file book to digital portfolio. They adopted Powerpoint as the platform ( not my personal choice nor my decision to make) and then last term decided they would  export them over to Sliderocket so that they could be accessed via the internet at home. It was soon apparent, though, that this was a fail as a workflow as the export experience didn’t upload attached files or links. This was compounded by SlideRocket’s sudden policy change which locked the children out of accounts ( hence my recent posts about Web 2.0 for the Under 13s).

When this happened, I started thinking of alternatives. The teachers initially decided to stick with PowerPoint but start a new portfolio ( the originals quickly became bloated, growing to unmanageable sizes that took forever to load over wireless networks – need to invest in video compression software!) I started thinking of blogging.  From reading about blogging over the last year, however, from the likes of Kathleen Morris, Linda Yollis and Langwitches Blog ( who seem to respected in the field of class blogging) and reflecting myself earlier in the year in this post (and here as well),  my quandary is that I may be blurring the lines between blogging and digital portfolios. Am I rushing the students and teachers into blogging by attaching the importance of the official digital portfolio to it without going through the process of preparing them for blogging as outlined by the aforementioned “experts”?

Nevertheless, today, I am pushing ahead with a “Pros and Cons” list to help me decide what the best choice might be from my point of view. Obviously, I would like feedback from you, my readers, on what you think is the best option. It’s a work in progress and would like to hear suggestions from you for both the pros and cons. 

PROS FOR BLOGGING AS DIGITAL PORTFOLIO

  • “Anywhere, any time access” to their work for composing, editing, publishing and sharing with their parents. One of my problems with the whole twice a year file book access is that parents aren’t kept informed on the progress or quality of their children’s work. With the blog as portfolio option, the child’s work is more transparent and because the parents can see the work during all stages of the year, children may be more motivated to work at the standard Mum and Dad expects of them.
  • A bigger audience for greater purpose and motivation. Opening up their work to a wider audience puts the responsibility of quality back on to the students. It should also motivate them to publish quality work as well since it is being viewed by others.
  • Feedback and collaboration. Through moderated comments, parents, friends and the wider world audience can provide feedback, encouragement, praise and advice. With access controls, individuals can be invited to collaborate on posts under the supervision of the teacher to ensure collaboration goes smoothly. Shared posts can be linked to each others’ blogs so that the work can be shown to both students’ parents and audiences.
  • Controlled environment and ease of communication between teacher and student. With student blogs linked to a teacher blog, teachers and students can control the level of privacy and access to their work. Students can save their work as unpublished drafts and teachers can review their work before they go further. Students and teachers together can make decisions about which posts go public and which remain private. This gives a student control over what he/she wants to publish to a wider audience while still being able to show their parents all their work.
  • Wide range of publishing options available through uploading, hyperlinks and embedding published work from other web tools. One of the time wasting tasks I have seen through the PowerPoint Digital Portfolio option is organising file storage, folder structures, hyperlinking to files, linking to work published with software not available at home and the resulting broken links when all of these tasks are completed effectively. An online version with links controlled by the blogging platform and a central storage area coupled with the ease of linking and embedding to work that exists on the internet, not in random folders spread across the school network is a more user friendly option. Having the online option may also encourage students to try out more web tools for composing and publishing their work. It may move them away from just typing words out in Microsoft Word and onto Prezis, comic strips, slideshows and audio presentations that can easily be embedded in their portfolio blog.
  • Purposeful blogging. I’ve checked out a lot of student blogs in my research for setting up blogging at school. While there are some outstanding examples from very talented student writers, there are also a lot of blogs out there that don’t meet the standards and guidelines outlined by the blogging experts above. Like a lot of technology, many teachers never progress their students past the experimental stage and we are left reading unedited “my Favourite……” posts by the truckload. Using the blog as a digital portfolio gives a consistent purpose to what is being posted and students won’t spend time wondering what to write next.
  • Part of whole school program, not an added extra. A digital portfolio blog would include work from all areas of the curriculum and would encourage publishing of work in the Arts, Sport, Mathematics and other subjects besides Literacy which can dominate a blog as the “writing subject”. Hopefully, this would encourage the use of technology for reflecting upon and showcasing learning in the non text based subjects.
  • Consistent, purposeful reflection across all curriculum areas. By using the blog as a digital portfolio, students will have an accessible place to store their reflections on learning side by side with the actual work they are reflecting upon.
  • Easy to use publishing and organisational platform. Thoughtful tags to identify each post, organised in Portfolio categories ( subject areas ), pasting the embed code or link from work done on another web tool – and we’re done. A simple to organise workflow that allows easy access to all files with a simple click on a link.
  • Home/School Link. On top of the connection between school and home available to the parents through the blog option, the maintenance of the blog becomes purposeful homework in all curriculum areas.
  • Teacher Accountability/future direction. Access to student work is soon to become part of our Educational landscape in my system. I can already access individual files of my own children’s work, albeit work that is uploaded and commented on by their teachers in their own time. Having the blog as a digital portfolio easily accessible by parents places some onus on teachers to be consistent and up to date with their assessment and feedback, which helps with teachers planning for children’s learning and improvement.

CONS OF BLOGGING AS DIGITAL PORTFOLIO

  • Rushed process without preparing for the responsibility of online publishing. This is not a problem with blogging itself. Rather it’s more a problem with moving straight into using it as a Digital Portfolio platform without having already having experience in blogging. When we adopted Edmodo, there were plenty of teething problems with getting the students to use it appropriately ( that is now ironed out). Morris, Yollis and Langwitches all emphasise the need to for a gradual release of responsibility and training in posting and commenting. Having said that, as a Digital portfolio, the work that is published on the blog will be controlled in some way.
  • Maintaining feedback. There is a danger that teachers will find it too difficult to maintain the same level of feedback and commenting over the duration of the year, considering the public nature of the blogging platform.
  • Negative feedback. How students react to possible feedback of a critical nature is something to consider. Does the digital portfolio component of the blog remain separate from other posts through privacy settings?
  • Separation of Teacher/Student/Parent Comments during the composing process and once published. How do we manage the situation of comments from teachers at the composing/editing stage being misunderstood by parents? Does the student want their classmates’ comments being seen by parents or vice versa? Should the teacher comments be privately viewed?
  • Making a blog “all work and no play”. When you look at successful blogs, they’re about building relationships with audiences, being free to publish posts of your own choice, having fun with the layout, plug ins etc. By making it the Digital Portfolio, you run the risk of sucking the joy and freedom out of blogging and making it all about school work.
  • Access/Connection issues. 90 students simultaneously trying to blog at school can play havoc with the wifi. We run the risk of making the students’ work inaccessible during high traffic periods. Not all students have easy and regular access to the internet at home.
  • Quality control/Teacher accountability. Keeping track of 30 student blogs is no easy task. If students have publishing rights, unchecked work might slip through to public viewing and cause concern for teacher responsibility. Teachers who aren’t confident with technology may find the blogging platform difficult to manage.
  • The linear blogging structure. While tags and categories can make linking to individual post simple, the scrolling, back dated, linear structure of a blog is not always the best way of presenting a large body of work.

I personally think my pros outweigh my cons, although their are some definite issues to address. But I’m a prolific blogger and a confident user of web tools. That doesn’t make it the best choice for everyone. I know there are alternatives but I haven’t experimented with them as much as blogging. As I said earlier, I would really like some feedback from others who have used Digital Portfolios with their students. Do you use blogs or something completely different? What have been your issues and challenges? Please leave a comment and join the conversation. I’d really appreciate it.

The iPad as a research tool

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog lately reflecting on Big Education ideas. During that time, my little buddy the iPad has felt a little neglected and unloved. So I thought I’d get back to talking about everybody’s “favourite little tablet that could”. Today, I want to explore the possibilities the iPad has as a tool for researching information. As I’ve said many times, what I describe here can be done on laptops but the purpose of this post is to show how the iPad can be used for all tasks if you have decided to use iPads as your main computer. Having said that, there are some iPad specific functions and apps that for me offer a superior experience.

One criticism of the iPad is that it has the “one app open at a time” limitation. This can make it less that ideal for research. The desktop interface of regular computers allows you to have a webpage open alongside your word processing program. However this is now possible with a couple of integrated browser apps. PaperHelper is a split screen browser app that allows you to simultaneously view web pages and take notes at the same time. The app has a note taking screen side by side with a browser ( you can select which side of screen depending on your preference ) and provides tools for transferring website addresses to the notes page with a sale click. The browser has 5 favorites buttons that you can customize to link to preferred websites that you are using during our research for quick access over multiple sessions. You can use it in both landscape and portrait, depending on your preference. While it makes the browser screen a little small compared to normal iPad usage, it still provides you a window bigger than an iPhone screen and you can of course zoom in easily. I find it quite useful when wanting to copy and paste notes from Internet articles. The app also allows you to open and save your notes in word processing apps like Pages or just save the text to Dropbox or other file saving apps.

WikiNodes is a different way of browsing and collecting information from Wikipedia. Instead of presenting Wikipedia in its standard web page format, a specific topic is expanded out into key sections via a concept map type interface. Every time you select a ‘node’ it expands out into more connected topics. Each node map gives you the specific sections within a Wikipedia article as well as related topics. It is a nice visual way if laying out the information that suits today’s visual learner and the way it generates related topics can helpc students expand their ideas. You have the option to view the article within the node or view full screen via Wikipedia.

A welcome extra feature is how WikiNodes allows the user to save, store and organize information from the Wikipedia article. You can store written or audio notes about each topic you are exploring, set tags and labels to organize notes, share your information via Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote or email and view all your notes linked to a topic via a presentation the app creates for you.

Notability, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is a versatile note taking app that I think has some useful features for research. If your research involves listening to lectures or presentations to gather information, Notability enables you to take written notes while simultaneously audio recording the speaker. You can also take photos directly from the app while the recording is continuing. The beauty of the note taking and recording combination is that the app automatically links the written notes to the recording so you can go directly to what was said when you wrote a specific note. I think this would be useful during practical experiments in the classroom as the students could record their thoughts while taking photos of their experiment stages. They could then work back through their written and audio notes for revision. For children who struggle taking notes, having the audio available means they can write less then review the audio for what they missed. Alternatively, the teacher or more able student could share their notes with children who are unable to take notes due to learning difficulties.

An additional feature of Notability is the ability to browse the Internet within its own browser. Users can then save a web clip of the site they were reading within their notes that take them directly back to review the information. This is more efficient than copying and pasting web links or bookmarking sites outside of your note taking file as yoou have it readily available within our note taking area and it gives a visual reminder of the website as well in the form of a miniature screenshot of the website.

Often research involves using specific articles that are given to us to read. If you can download or convert them to an editable PDF file then you can use a range of PDF annotation apps on the iPad to make notes directly on the file. My app of choice is GoodReader, which I have used since I’ve had my iPhone and then upgraded to the iPad version. I’ve always found it easy to use so haven’t sought alternatives. GoodReader enables the user to highlight, write text notes, underline or strikeout words and phrases and draw a range of basic shapes directly on the article text. You can save the annotated file for later use and transfer it to virtually any cloud service like Dropbox, Box and GoogleDocs as well as WebDAV servers and email accounts. Notability can be used in the same way but it’s more of a freehand annotation experience, whereas GoodReader annotates accurately. Reading and annotating is also great in iBooks as well, with the added feature of all annotations being saved in a single space for easy access and reading.

Automatic news curating apps like Zite and Flipboard are great ways to have quality articles delivered straight to your iPad without any searching. Zite in particular is very useful in finding news reports, web sites and blog posts that are tailored to your interests. Simply enter your specific topic and it is likely to be a category contained within Zite. Examples include Urban Planning, Climate Change, Tennis, learning, Australian History, Drawing, and so on. The suggested articles are refreshed throughout the day and can be shared with others through a large range of social media sites and bookmarking tools. Flipboard can be set up as a magazine style RSS feed reader, allowing the user to read and share any collection of news articles or blogs. It can be customised to create direct links to specific blogs or newspapers and have all the most current article fed to a single icon that is linked to that site.

Both of these apps offer possible solutions to the aimless Google searching that happens in classes around the world because they filter out a lot of the useless links you get in Google and other search engines. Zite can also be used to automatically search for related articles or other entries by the same website or author.

Both Instapaper and Diigo are available online from any internet enabled device but they also have dedicated IPad apps or bookmarklets. As bookmarklets, Instapaper and Diigo allow students to save websites for later study. Instapaper’s added bonus is that it saves sites for reading when no Internet connection is available which is useful when students may not have wifi access but want to continue their research.The app allows users to create folders to store related articles together to enable easy retrieval.

Diigo’s strength is its social bookmarking capabilities. Students can share bookmarks in a common group as well as annotate and highlight pages straight in the website they are reading collaboratively with others. every time the Diigo iPad bookmarklet is activated, the highlights and annotated note reappear, regardless of what iPad or any other Diigo linked Internet device you are using. This kind of shared note taking allows students to collaborate in real time on any any research task involving reading information online. Diigo has an iOS app that can be used to quickly access your tagged links, although it lacks the ability to search via tags. I prefer to use the Diigo link within the bookmarklet.

Another useful bookmarklet that can help sort and store research information links to Scoop-it, an excellent magazine style website curation tool. Once you create a free Scoop it account, you can use the bookmarklet to quickly add sites to your Scoop it page. One of the benefits of using other users’ Scoop-its is that they have done a lot of the searching for you, saving you the hassle of trawling through countless Google search pages to find something useful. Scoop it has a search feature that can lead you to curated pages on the topic you choose and you are likely to find useful references on someone’s page. Pearltrees and Pinterest are other curation sites that offer similar opportunities but I am yet to explore them as options.

Tools 4 Schools is a relatively unknown app that is a collection of graphic organizers that allow for focused note taking for specific purposes. It’s useful for students who need some scaffolding in organizing their thoughts during research. Completed organizers can be emailed to others to share notes collated on them.

20120512-203332.jpgThe App Store is of course flooded with a huge range of reference apps that relate to specific topics. The beauty of this source is the price of the apps when you compare them to reference books providing similar depth of information. Also,the interactive multimedia nature of these apps make them an easier to follow option for many of today’s learners. There are too many to list here but here is a good link to another website that mention some of the better apps.

There are other great options for research on the iPad but that’s enough from me today. If there are other options out there, I would love to hear from others. Join the conversation.

Parents – making them part of the solution

We spend every day of our working life talking to our colleagues at school about the challenges of the students in our care – and rightly so. The students in our classes are given feedback daily on their learning – that’s part of teaching. But how many times do we talk to the parents of the students beyond biannual parent/teacher meetings? Education is changing before our eyes. It’s a challenge for us and we experience it first hand every working day of our lives. I think we forget sometimes that the changes we are implementing are so foreign to the parents in our community there is no wonder why they have so many questions.

So how do we react? How often do we proactively seek to communicate with the parents of our schools? If you surveyed a group of teachers, I think that situation in the cartoon above is probably the most common interaction we have with our parents. Does this really build the supportive collaborative relationship we area trying to encourage our students to develop with others as 21st Century Learners? As we revolutionize the education system we have to make sure we modify the parent/school relationship as well.

The more parents have hands on experiences with school, the more they become accepting of the changes we are trying to initiate in education. As someone who has gone away on school camps with parent helpers, I have seen first hand the appreciation parents develop for our work as they observe and ‘live’ what our job entails. Why don’t we replicate this “parent helper” experience more often in a classroom setting? These are just my initial thoughts and ideas for what we could do at schools. It’s a bit of a ‘What If?’ list that I invite others to contribute to.

1. What if we organize regular, timetabled, informal chats in the staff room for interested parents (limited numbers to keep it simple) before or after school to just share what’s going on in the classroom, the latest initiative your school is starting or a strategy or two you are developing that week?
Keep it to 15 minutes, just sitting around the table ( compulsory coffee in hand ), with no expectations to always be there but give parents an opportunity to hear some positive messages from the school and build a positive community relationship between parent and staff. I don’t want to cut into teacher downtime here but i don’t think 15 minutes once a month would kill us.

2. What if we create a blog that is open to parents, students and staff? 
Schools could share information about new initiatives taking place at school, post links to websites that explain what teachers are doing in the contemporary classroom, give access to websites that can help parents support their children in their learning. Of course this could happen through your typical school website but instead of static, rarely updated website, a blog would allow for two way communication and content contributions from everyone in the community, including student work to showcase the best of what the school can achieve. It would also allow for moderated discussions through comments and discussion boards so that parents could provide positive feedback to the student and ask reasonable questions directed to staff about the work being done.

3. What if we open up some of our staff PD to interested parents?
Most of us teachers are learning new ways of teaching these days. What if we did this learning alongside parents so that they could talk to us in real time about how their children are being taught today. Parents could then be informed participants in the traditional parent car park talks after school and let other parents in on the secrets of the school. It could be a part of a staff meeting, a student free day, a before school “techie brekkie”‘ or an off site conference with attendance open to anyone. It would mean less confusion about homework, less contradiction over “times tables” and more open communication between school and parent about teaching methods. Like everything else I am pondering here, it would have to be carefully thought through so there is no extra commitment for teachers and parents don’t overstep the mark on what is expected of them.

4. What if we bit the bullet and went for full Parent access with Edmodo?
For those who don’t know, Edmodo has a parent account that allows for access to their own child’s work on Edmodo and also allows for communication between child, parent and teacher. Not everyone uses this option ( we certainly aren’t yet ) but planned and implemented properly, this would provide an effective way for parents to track work and check in with their child’s teacher via an easy online service without any additional set up or planning.

5. (Staying old school without tech) What if we just made far better use of the old fashioned student diary?
If the student had the diary beside them all day every day, we could write comments about the work at the same time we record comments in our assessment records. I would be. Nice change for parents to read about the successes of the day rather than the usual reminders about school uniform and late homework issues. Of course, if the student was in a 1:1 iPad or laptop school, their diary could be in electronic form and the process could be far more streamlined.

6. What if digital portfolios or file books were accessible all year?
Too often in schools we keep all the work that children do throughout the year in folders, files, computer programs etc and don’t release them until the end of the year/semester/term for the parent teacher interviews. We stress over the the layout, the organisation of the work, how many stickers they have on their work, how attractive the published pieces are and so on. Why don’t we make it accessible to parents all year?

Digital or paper based, send it home every week, finished or not. This would make the parents aware of the progress their children are making on tasks and projects and also make the children more accountable for their work, knowing Mum and Dad are going to see it all the time. Parents would get used to seeing the real work their child does, not the artificial perfectly published work for display purposes only. It could place the need for unnecessary homework preparation – sharing the work done in class would allows for revision of work without having extra work to prepare or complete. Parents would know exactly what their child is doing before the formal interview and can be more active in dealing with issues before it’s too late. I would prefer it digital and easily accessible from school and home. Digital portfolios are more engaging, easier to maintain and build on and allows for online interaction between student, parent and teacher.

7. What if we have have more open days or evenings so parents can see their children in action with their teachers? Have an occasional late start/late finish day to accommodate the working parent and let the parents see first hand how their child is learning.

8. What if we have regular online surveys created for specific information we want to get fromparents? With all the online do-it-yourself survey tools available these days, this is a simple task and could be a way for parents to feedback to the school in a non threatening way.

In today’s always connected tech driven world, there is really no reason for parents to be out of the loop. School should be a 3 way partnership. We need to embrace relationships with parents to ensure the best possible results for our students. If we don’t communicate with each other we can’t expect miracles. All of these ideas would need to be carefully thought through and the expectations of parents need to be controlled but I think we need to be finding ways to share what’s happening at school and what we are doing with the children more effectively. It will never be 100% access either way but we can make a go of it.

What other what ifs can you think of? Am I expecting too much of teachers and parents for this to really happen? Let me know what you think. Join the conversation.

The power of Social Networking in Grade 6 with Edmodo

I had a big week in class last week. As I’ve said earlier, my role this year in the 5/6 level has led to me being, among other things, a support teacher in a variety of curriculum areas. The week just past saw me taking workshops and lessons across Reading, Writing and Inquiry. I had a similar role last year but always felt like I wasn’t accepted by the students as their ‘teacher’ because I wasn’t always around due to my other responsibilities. It was only late last year after I attended a Tech Conference and was introduced to the potential of Edmodo that I was able to make a real and lasting connection with the Grade 6 students in a real way. After the conference, I was asked to take a Literature Circle group by the Grade 6 teachers and I quickly saw Edmodo as a vehicle I could use to work with them outside of physical contact time. It worked really well as a test case. This year, with that experience behind, I decided to go full steam ahead with every workshop and lesson group I plan.

At the moment I am involved with the Grade 6 students in a Ballad Poetry workshop ( I wrote about that last week), an Inquiry workshop investigating the issue of Urban Sprawl and a Reading Comprehension group with both Grade 5 and 6 students. ( I haven’t signed the Grade 5 students up with Edmodo yet).

Each of the Grade 6 groups are connected to each other and myself through an Edmodo small group within the main Grade 6 group. I decided to use small groups so that it is easy just to switch groups of children in and out of focus groups rather than give them codes every couple of weeks to join new groups. It has also allowed the other Grade 6 teachers to create and manage their own groups easily while also having access to their students who are working for me.

What I have found already is how engaged the students immediately became the moment they were given the opportunity to use a social networking environment. Children who never open their mouths in discussions were suddenly asking and responding to multiple questions from teacher and student alike. Students who rarely express opinions were involved in debates, linking to websites and Youtube videos to back up their opinions. Individuals who in the past have found it difficult to submit any work on time were uploading multiple revisions of assignments after getting timely feedback. This is just a snapshot of the response I, and the other teachers who quickly jumped on board over the course of the week when they saw the initial response from my groups, received during the week. I want to go into a bit more detail about each group interaction now.

URBAN SPRAWL INQUIRY

I began this inquiry workshop with a shared text outlining the basic premise of Urban Sprawl. What I did differently from the past was I allowed the children to sit with laptops beside them as we read the text. They were allowed to use Edmodo to post reactions, new learning and questions that arose from the content of the text. I had worked with many in this group last year in a variety of settings and some rarely provided any feedback or made any meaningful contributions. It was these very students who became key contributors to the conversation here. The freedom to use Technology and their natural environment of social networking/chatting opened up channels of communication that traditional chalk and talk or rotating brainstorm sheets didn’t engage them in.

One student’s question led to multiple responses from others that deepened the inquiry beyond my initial goals. Questions about the content enabled the group to post new concepts to investigate within the broader topic. As a result, within 3 sessions, I have teams of children investigating issues of traffic and transport, access to facilities like education and hospital services and the pros and cons of megacities, all without me suggesting any of it. I strongly believe based on past experiences without technology that this would not have happened without my encouragement if we had just read the text.

The engagement was evident when they posted their own links to Youtube videos of local politicians talking about Urban Sprawl issues, Annotated Google Maps showing distances from outlying suburbs to city hospitals, and links to maps of train networks as they discussed online the inequalities of train travel for some outer suburbs. I’m away with the Grade 5s on Camp next week but I know that I leave this group with a shared understanding of the issues to discuss with other class members without me being there. HAving said that, as an ubergeek teacher, I have also said I will be checking in via my iPhone or iPad from camp to see what they are doing and would be available to support them online if necessary.

BALLAD POETRY GROUP

I spoke at length in my last post about this so this is more of an update of how these sessions have progressed. All students have taken the opportunity to post attempts on Edmodo. Admittedly, there has not been much interaction between the students in this case but they have appreciated the timely feedback to their questions ands attempts from me. As a result, some (but not all) students have posted drafts of verses for me to feedback on and then responded with edited posts. Each student has uploaded their ballad plans for me to have access to, enabling me to provide advice directly to them. The fact that using Edmodo means submitting digital texts means they are more willing to edit their work instead of rewriting entire texts each time if done via pen and paper.

On Friday, we collaboratively drafted a rubric to support them in their writing but I took it away to polish it up and structure in more detail. There was too much of a delay for some who wanted access to it straight away ( One girl posted a request for it at 7 am Saturday morning) and so one of the students took it upon herself to post a link to an online study guide about Ballads which was quickly appreciated by others through replies. Again, while I’m away on Camp, I promised them I would continue to check in and provide feedback to them, something I couldn’t have done in the past.

THE READING COMPREHENSION GROUP

I had two aims for this group. One was for instant responses and shared feedback on comprehension questions in an open forum. The other was to encourage independent editing and revising of work through the Assignments feature of Edmodo.

We started this group work with a shared reading of a newspaper article, using 3 Level Guide statements to encourage conversation on the article. The children were asked to justify the accuracy of the statements by providing evidence in the text. By having the article linked to our Edmodo group, the children had quick access to the article for cross referencing and were able to copy/paste quotes to back up their arguments. By posting their responses online, we could challenge each others opinions instantly, either through verbal feedback with our online conversation on the iWB or through posting replies either during the group session at school, or as often occurred, continuing the discussion online at home. This challenged the children to question their responses and also to provide further explanation rather than the quick responses we often get through one off replies in standardised tests or one session tasks. The inclusion of social networking tools gives that extra think time and the opportunity to add to your opinions after hearing what others have to say. This helps to develop a deeper level of thinking than we get from one chance only tasks.

As a follow up task, I set them an assignment to submit by the end of the week. I made it clear that I wanted them to submit their drafts online through Edmodo’s Assignments section and that I would respond quickly with feedback and expected a second ( or third) edited response. The students responded positively to this and all but one of the 15 students gave me at least a second revision, responding effectively to the feedback in both structure and additional detail. I’m a strong believer that word processing tools should be used at all stages of the writing process as it encourages students to make revisions if they don’t have to do complete rewrites of handwritten texts. My role as the teacher was to give timely feedback so that they saw the worth of early submission and multiple revisions. All the students who participated fully produced a final copy at the expected level.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Part of adjusting to the concept of 21st Century Learning or Contemporary Learning  (whatever you choose to call it) is playing to the strengths of your students. Social Networking is ingrained in their way of being so it use seems like a no brainer that we utilise that in our teaching. The increased engagement I have seen in just one week of using Edmodo with this years’ Grade 6s for the first time makes me even more convinced of its merit. If it gets more than just that usual 20% who contribute to every lesson involved then it has already made a difference. From what I have seen in this short time frame, along with last year’s experiment, it does a lot more than that.

I’d like to hear from other teachers of your personal experiences of using this type of social networking in classrooms, both successes and challenges ( it wasn’t perfect -one child did manage to post a picture of a mouse on a mouse during the Urban Sprawl lesson!!). Join the conversation.

Writing Ballad Poems through ICT tools

After a lot of administrative work last term, I’m finally back regularly doing what I like best – teaching. In my role ( one of many ) as a Lead Teacher supporting the 5/6 Team, I get to teach small groups of students in workshop environments in areas of need and/or choice. This term, the Grade 6 students are beginning their writing workshops by focusing on different narrative forms. As a songwriter, I’ve written many songs in the Ballad style, telling stories through song. This was a natural fit for me to take on a Narrative Workshop based around Ballad Poetry. Combining my talents in writing and ICT, I have decided to heavily incorporate Web tools to teach this unit. Here’s a rundown of how I plan to do it.

My main tool for delivering this unit of work will be Edmodo. I’ve created a subgroup within the main Grade 6 Edmodo group specifically for Ballad
Poetry. Before the lessons even begin next week, I have posted links to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, a YouTube video of the Ballad of Paul Bunyan for an American ballad example, a site showcasing all the ballads of Robin Hood as an introduction to how traditional ballads as story telling originated and a link to a website that has a published version of ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle”, ensuring the students are also exposed to our native Australian ballads. During the next 3 weeks of the unit, I will be encouraging the students to post their own search results of ballads so that they can be exposed to a wide range of the ballad poem form. I think exposure to examples are important in any writing unit, especially in a form they are not accustomed to.

A final link I have provided on the Edmodo page is a excerpt from the Simpsons’ episode, “Bart the Daredevil”, in which Homer goes hurtling down a slope on a skateboard and over Springfield Gorge, with disastrous results as always. When I read and chose Mulga Bill’s Bicycle as an example ballad, my mind immediately flashed to this episode as it related beautifully to the experience of Mulga Bill crashing his bicycle in similar circumstances. I felt that the students would need a contemporary link to this century old poem, and despite the objections of some in educational circles to the Simpsons, I get great engagement from my students whenever I use the cartoon as a crossover into other literature and thematic discussions.

My plan is to begin the unit reading Mulga Bill’s Bicycle and break the poem down into a sequential series of events. I’ll then present the clip of Homer’s disastrous skateboarding experience and do the same breakdown of events. Using the stanzas in the Paterson poem as a guide, we will co-write a ballad of Homer Simpson’s Skateboard. Here I will introduce the students to another Web Tool I like using for quick and easy collaboration – WallWisher. I’ve embedded the shared Wallwisher Pinboard into a post on Edmodo already. The students will review the Simpsons clip while working collaboratively on building the ballad in WallWisher through post-it notes of individual stanzas of rhyming verse. As they experiment, we’ll be able to see everyone’s attempts on our interactive whiteboard. As each stanza appears, we’ll be able to arrange them into a sequential order to tell the story.

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This way, I’ll be able to emphasise the idea of freely writing parts of poems that flow easily from your imagination instead of being stuck on a particular part and not progressing. By using the post-it notes on WallWisher, we will be able to manipulate individual verses and insert new ideas that fit when they arise. By having the board embedded in Edmodo, we will be able to continue this collaboration beyond the classroom lesson time for homework during the week or during independent writing time.

Once the students start drafting their own poems, we will use Edmodo as a collaborative platform for supporting each others’ writing. Children will be encouraged to post their drafts for others to comment on, allowing them to get assistance from myself or classmates if they get stuck for ideas, rhyming words, rhythm and structure. Once their drafts are ready, I will ask them to submit the writing through the Assignment feature of Edmodo. This will allow me to annotate their work with my suggestions and note, but not correct, grammatical/spelling issues ( correcting doesn’t teach them to edit independently).

We’ve identified that this cohort of students is reluctant or lack skills in editing their writing. I want to address this by allowing them to draft, edit and get teacher feedback through ICT. It means they don’t have to rewrite texts completely, instead just making changes where necessary. I’m hoping this will encourage them to make several revisions to their text, rather than the draft/correct/publish cycle we have perpetuated too much as teachers. Edmodo’s Assignments allows for several revisions to be submitted with the ability for teachers to feedback on each new attempt.

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Early on in the unit, we will be co-creating a rubric that will guide the students in composing their ballads. This will be posted to Edmodo so they can constantly refer to it as they are drafting and be aware of expectations as well as the structures and features to include in their ballads.

Finally, I’m going to spend a short time near the end of each lesson ( one hour duration ) presenting publishing options. I’ll be encouraging but not requiring the students to consider multimedia tools to present their ballads. By the time the unit is over, I would have already seen and assessed their ballads through the Assignments submissions process and as a result they will already have a written option available. I want to encourage the idea that publishing is not just for the purpose of handing up work for the teacher to assess. We should celebrate the creation of the ballad through a movie version, a multimedia slideshow, a comic strip, a blog post for others to see and comment on, or maybe turn it into a song Mr G style!

I’m looking forward to how this process will pan out. If it goes to plan, I hope that other teachers will try out the lesson structure and the use of Edmodo to encourage better editing of written work by students. I’ll return to this post at unit’s end to reflect on how it went. In the meantime, I would love to hear from other teachers about how you have used Edmodo or similar Web Tools to track writing progress.

Tailor Made ICT PD for Staff

Sometimes we need support getting to ICT heaven!

In an earlier post on Teacher Technology PD, I mentioned 5 key ingredients to support the important development of Educational Technology in schools.

  1. PLTs dedicated to Technology integration into our teaching practices
  2. A constant focus on Technology throughout lesson and unit planning
  3. A restructuring of the role of ICT Leaders/teachers in schools
  4. A greater focus on Technology in Teacher Training programs
  5. A commitment to Technology Professional Development courses on an equal footing with Literacy and Numeracy Projects.
Obviously, I have no influence over the last two points, which are system wide initiatives. It is the first three that we can make a difference at individual school, and possibly, district level. In another post, I reflected on my dreams for this year in ICT at school.
  • Collaborative, ‘always on’ staff communication. In short, I dream of school system wide adoption of Edmodo, GoogleDocs, Dropbox and Diigo.
  • We have the hardware, let’s ALL use it. In short, PD has to be regular, consistent, continuous, collaborative, hands on and purposeful (linked to teaching and learning practice)
  • Student-led ICT development and  improvement. In short, establish an energising, active and supportive Student ICT Leadership team dedicated to the ongoing adoption and growth of ICT in our school
At the time, I thought they were great ideas that were unlikely to be implemented but we’ve made some real progress at the leadership level since then and I am really excited about the upcoming term at school. A commitment to ICT PD  for 2012 has been made and several initiatives are on track.

 

As part of our Contemporary Teaching and Learning Project, each Grade Level has taken on a project to trial and implement new learning and teaching techniques. A couple of teams have chosen ICT as a focus. This means a number of PLT sessions and extra planning time will be dedicated to planning for ICT at the classroom level. One team has chosen Web 2.0 tools and have already had a session with the ICT team to discuss their options.

 

What was exciting was that in that initial session, we quickly moved into a discussion about how the ICT can be used to improve learning. We discussed possible uses within the Grade Curriculum and finished the session with a clear plan for what we wanted to do. This is what I meant when I said staff meetings couldn’t meet the needs of individuals or specific teams, The level of professional educational discussion we had would never happen at a whole school meeting. Within this PLT environment, individuals were able to open address their strengths and weaknesses, set goals for themselves ( within the group were early adopters willing to try anything and self professed technophobes who had a great desire to improve and use ICT effectively but didn’t know how to start.). By the end of the session, they had a chance to explore some tools we had discussed could address the educational outcomes we had developed and are ready to go next term.

 

Encouragingly, ICT has also found a place in the PLT timetable. Teachers also communicated in the survey mentioned below a desire for sections of Curriculum Planning/PLTs to be dedicated to ICT integration with input from ICT team members who can attend for short amounts of time. This will require communication of planning focus so ICT team members can come prepared to contribute effectively.

 

Outside of the PLT/Planning, we agreed upon the need for further training in specific Web Tools, ICT usage and iPads/iPod Touches/Interactive Whiteboards. Again, we identified that there was a need for more than the occasional staff meeting or relying on teachers to train themselves. With less involvement in actual classroom teaching this year, I offered to take on a role in developing targeted PD for the teachers. I wanted it to address their needs so I sent out an online survey to identify what the teachers wanted. I also linked the survey to a page that outlined what each PD area would involve. From the survey, I was able to identify key areas the staff were interested in. The main areas were Blogging, iPad/iPod Touch, Assessment, Edmodo, Web 2. 0 tools and Special Needs and ICT. A majority of staff were willing to commit to at least fortnightly sessions and many to weekly. I’m now in the process of sorting through the survey data to plan the sessions, ensuring I cover everyone’s needs and time commitments. I have also started to develop a separate blog ( not live yet but will link later) that will provide information about each session, tutorials from the Web and a space for staff to ask questions and provide feedback. It’ going to be a lot of work but I’m excited, especially that some staff members have also offered to lead some sessions themselves.

 

On top of that, I’m also genuinely excited that Leadership is making a commitment to take on ICT more proactively. We will be including sessions in our meetings to develop awareness of the tools as well as attending the PD sessions with the staff. It was recognised that as leaders of curriculum areas, we need to have sufficient knowledge of how ICT can have an impact in our expert areas. We have made an initial commitment to forming a group on Edmodo and exploring how that can enhance our communication as a Leadership team.

 

Finally, the ICT leader and I have finally met with the Grade 6 Student ICT Leadership Team. It was an interesting beginning. They started out rather cautiously and predictably talked about having competitions for ICT products as their main goals. They seemed very unsure what their purpose was because it was the first time we had formed an ICT team and previous Student Leadership groups had been more involved in organising events than making real change. Gradually though, we managed to get them talking about their desire to learn new ICT tools and wanting to teach others. They started identifying purposes rather than tools, which was a great step to take in the space of a single meeting. Suddenly promoting the school, collaborating, creating content, blogging, website development and the like started springing from their minds. We also got a good commitment from the vast majority of the team to give up some of their lunchtimes to achieve these aims. It’s early days but I think there is great potential in this group for real change led by the students.

 

So what started as a pipe dream at the start of the year has become a reality. Hopefully we can maintain the commitment throughout the year and notice a real change by year’s end. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from others how they have taken on the responsibility of building capacity in their schools. Join the conversation.