Jan 152015
 

Google-ClassroomGoogle Classroom the latest name in a long and unceremonious history of distributed learning platforms. Many people don’t realize that digitizing and delivering curriculum by computer has been around for quite some time. When I entered the education game in 1996, I started off using a program called Pathfinder followed by PlatoNautikosWeb CTMoodleEdmodo… and now Google Classroom. There have been others, but these are the ones I have used.

Some might say this list alone is evidence that distributed learning systems don’t work but I would prefer to look at this list as the genealogy of an evolving technology. In fact WebCT, Moodle and Edmodo are still very much alive and well, and now Google Classroom has just joined the party.

So what pray tell has Google Classroom brought to this party that the others don’t? Well… Nothing really, at least from a classroom teacher/student perspective there isn’t anything special about Google Classroom. Its basic function simply allows for the teachers and students to engage in the age-old transaction of Assignment-out & Assignment-in. What Google Classroom does have over other platforms is simply this. Full and seamless integration of its suite of Google Drive applications in a secure learning space.

Certainly, “secure” is a relative term when discussing cloud technologies but as far as data security goes, I would say the Google Vault is probably the safest place for our students data. Of course there is the question of, “who is going to protect the data from Google” but that is another blog post.

With this said, I am sure there are some of you are saying to yourself, BIG FRIKIN DEAL! Google Classroom does nothing that can’t be done in the here and now. Not only that,  it doesn’t add any other functionality over the platforms that already exist… but remember, this is only the beginning.

I can only expect that there will be ever-growing functionality being added to the classroom over time and this is a large part of why schools are jumping on board. Although the other platforms are beyond where Google Classroom is today, Google has the money and the people make innovative improvements that their competitors are not capable of. IMHO

So after 4 months of using Google Classroom, what would I like to see?

Better assignment management – Currently assignment management within the classroom interface is pretty crude. All you get is a long list of the years assignments from most recent assignment on down. This can become a bit cumbersome, especially if you are a teacher that hands out daily small assignments vs a teacher who assigns a fewer larger projects.

What Google Classroom needs is:

  • A flexible system where teachers can group assignments by term and unit, so that the assignment interface is less cluttered and focuses on the unit at hand.
  • They also need to think of their discussion streams more along the lines of a threaded forum or at least make that an option within the classroom set up

More efficient marking interface – The single biggest complaint I have received from teachers about Google Classroom is about how laborious and slow marking is in the Google Doc environment. Some teachers have even resorted to printing out a class set of assignments and marking them old school. This totally defeats much of the purpose of a digital classroom in that we end up going back to paper to mediate the learning transaction.

Google engineers need to understand that teachers can have as many as 200+ students. I estimate that marking an assignment in the Google Doc ecosystem can take between 1 to 2 minutes longer than on hard copy. Those who are not in the know will say “BIG DEAL!… Suck it up you whiny teachers!”. but once you start adding the time up, it is conceivable that teachers will have to spend 200 – 400 minutes more marking a set of assignments in the Google Classroom ecosystem than they did when marking hard copy.

What Google Classroom needs is

  • A dedicated marking interface
  • Quick and easy transitions from one assignment to the next
  • The ability to mark up assignments using a tablet and stylus.
  • Make it so markup and grade can be entered in one window

Classroom design options

Give teachers some options on how the Classroom is laid out. Have the basic functional layout but allow teachers to drop in modules such as Twitter feeds, YouTube channels or a Resource Library. I am going to venture a guess that may be in the works as the classroom is already a two column design and the left column is rather bare, just waiting for something to occupy the space.

Grade Book

Embedded into the Google Classroom is a rudimentary grade system where you can give assignments mark values and drop in the numerical grade earned but to be truly useful to teachers it needs to go far beyond its current functionality.

The grade book needs to

  • Allow for different assignment types and weighting
  • Provide a view that allows teachers to see and edit all marks over the year
  • Basic analytics such as class average, missing assignments, due dates

I am sure there are dozens of other things Google engineers could consider as they improve Google Classroom but these items are what I would consider most important to teachers.

Conclusion 

Google has done a good job in launching a basic curriculum delivery system. Nothing fancy, just a simple curriculum delivery platform that is definitely not as powerful or functional as WebCT, Moodle or Edmodo. At this point, any institution that currently runs one of these other platforms, have no reason to jump on the Google Classroom bandwagon.

As we look down the road however, I fully expect that Google will begin to introduce more innovative features which will make the Google Classroom the go to platform for running a digital classroom. We can only hope Google recruits a couple teachers to help them figure out the way these features should work.

Dec 232014
 

What on earth is a Digital Integration Support Teacher or DIST?

As new as this title may sound, the position has been around for quite some time. Most the time it has been done by a self-appointed techno-geek teacher, helping out when they could outside of our regular teaching duties. Over the years, I seem to have fallen into the role of head geek in my school. Although this role has been great for my wine cellar, the degree to which I could help teacher(s) was limited to a “can you do me a favour” kinda thing.

As our school moved toward a greater reliance on digital tools for teaching, this role started to require far more attention than just being a spare time, off the side of my desk kinda thing. Late last school year, it was decided that it was necessary to formally allocate time for an in-house “edtech specialist”

The tipping point was that, in the 2014/15 school year, our school was to begin the process of becoming a BYOD school and employing google classroom to facilitate curriculum delivery. If this was going to have any hope of being a success, staff would need more support. As a result our school has funded three 80 minute blocks, split between two teachers for the sole purpose of providing pedagogically sound tech support.

With this 240 minutes, we serve the technology needs of 1300+ students, 90 teachers and 70 support staff. When I interviewed for the position I referred to it as boots on the ground classroom support and so far it seems to be working for teachers, if not for my wine cellar.
Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 4.52.11 PMWhen we started this little adventure, I figured it might be useful if I tracked our tech related staff contacts over the year just to get an idea of what we were spending the most time on. In the first 4 months we have begun to paint an interesting picture of what teachers need in the way of frontline tech support.

Google Classroom – 21.2%

At 21.2% Google Classroom just narrowly edges out Workflow, BCESIS and Tech Issues for the most attention needed. This percentage should have been higher but the roll-out of Google Classroom took a bit longer than expected so it lagged behind other tech needs over the term.

So far the Google Classroom support has revolved around the nuts and bolts of creating a digital classroom. Time has been spent on helping teachers set up their Google Classroom, making use student passwords were Google compliant and showing students how to navigate the Google Classroom. Hopefully next term, we can begin to focus on helping teachers develop their digital curriculum for the Google Classroom.

Work Flow 19.7%

Work Flow is a significant issue for teachers in the digital world. Emails, calendar syncing, document sharing, posting digital assignments, collecting digital assignments… There is a lot to get your head around in the digital classroom and regardless of how simple we tell people it is, let’s be honest. We have not made things simpler by introducing technology into the classroom. To this date I have yet to see any Teacher >> Student >> Teacher transaction that is as simple as having a student write their answers on a piece of paper, then handing that piece of paper to the teacher.

The other thing we did a fair bit of, was helping teachers migrate the work they had created on a personal Google Drive, onto their new School District Google account. This work represented hundreds of hours spent by teachers creating digital content for their classes and that transfer was of the utmost importance to them if they were going to use Google Classroom.

BCESIS 19.7%

This category is only relevant to teachers in British Columbia but for those who don’t teach in BC. BCESIS is our long beleaguered student management system that does not play nice with Java. Especially Java on Mac computers. This term, I spent an inordinate amount of time making BCESIS work on Macbook computers. Needless to say, I hope the new student management system that is being rolled out in the next year, works better than BCESIS.

Tech Issues 19.7%

These tech issues usually revolved making people’s hardware play nicely with other hardware. Projection and printer issues topped the list but I also dealt with password issues, viruses, device set up and software installs. Things that were quick and easy to fix without bothering the district tech department.

Resource Consult 10.6%

This is what I was hoping to spend more time on with teachers this term but I think it will come in time.

What the resource consult would involve is sitting down with a teacher and exploring ways to integrate digital tools and media into their teaching. The DIST would sit down with the classroom teacher and go over what they would like to do or try in their class using a digital resource(s). Then the DIST would suggest what resources or tools would accomplish the teachers objective and then help plan how the teacher would implement it into their class.

This may simply involve a “Here try this!” or it might involve sitting down and helping plan a lesson, a unit, a delivery strategy or any other kind of support the teacher might need. This would Include working with the teacher in their class when they first introduce the new digital strategy, resource or lesson.

Google Drive 6.1%

Since Google Classroom is built on Google Drive, once an institution has signed up for Google Apps for Education, everyone on staff has access to Google Drive. What is happening now is that we are now helping non teaching staff move their work lives from storage on the local network, over to Google Drive. This includes Admin, counselling, learning assistants and whoever else has use for the Drive.

Website (The rest)

Bringing up the backend of this list is the lowly old website. As teachers become more digitally savvy, many begin to play with the idea of setting up a web space to call their own. Although it sits at the bottom of my tech contacts in my school, it is a topic I answer questions about quite frequently via my twitter account. For the most part, I direct most teachers toward Weebly or Google Sites as they are simple and less time-consuming. Those who are serious about their web presence (especially blogging) I tend to recommend WordPress.

So what do teachers want from there tech?

This term has been interesting but one thing has become abundantly clear. Teachers need and want help with technology in their classroom and we have left teachers to their own means for far too long. What has also become clear is that their needs are not all that complex.

A retired teacher friend of mine use to say to me “The overhead projector is the perfect piece of classroom technology”

  • Instant on, no waiting for it to “boot up”.
  • Not dependant unreliable networks
  • Easy to fix. No waiting for the tech department to come to your rescue.

Although we have come a long way since the glory days of the overhead projector, in many ways his sentiments still ring true. Teachers want technology that is fast, reliable and easy to troubleshoot when it isn’t working properly. Unfortunately, the simple days of the overhead projector have all but disappeared and as such, so have teachers expectations of their classroom technology.

2014 Top 6 Teacher Techspectations

  1. Projection – Teachers are dependant on projection, just like the days of the simple overhead projector and the nasty old chalkboard before that. If a teacher does not have projection, they are instantly hamstrung.
  2. Internet that works – So much of the supplementary material that teachers use for instruction is on the net, when it is down, an entire lesson can be destroyed.
  3. Reliable WiFi – As we move toward BYOD and students’ access to assignments and resources are dependant on WiFi, a reliable WiFi system becomes a necessity. When it doesn’t work, neither do the students.
  4. Assignment transactions – Teachers want a simple means of distributing digital assignments and collecting those assignments.
  5. Marking Digital Assignments – Being able to distribute and collect assignments digitally is all well and dandy, but if you want to REALLY make a teacher happy… Make it easy to mark those assignments in the digital environment.
  6. Marks & Attendance – The one necessary evil in the bunch, there is nothing more annoying to a teacher when the software they are expected to take attendance on and complete report cards on, does not work. If this were a day-to-day issue it would top the list of digital pet peeves.

Merry Christmas all!

Aug 242012
 

With only a few glorious sunny days left in summer and the start of a new school year looming large, I figured I should get up to date on the wild and woolly education scene in British Columbia. My go to source for what is “hip and happanin” in education is the Vancouver Sun’s very own @jsteffenhagen. Janet seems to keep people interested in education regardless of political leanings and always fosters some heated discussion that riles up left-wing nut-bars like me.

You would think after returning from a two month-long, Five Star summer vacation in such exotic climes as Prince George, Vernon and South Surrey, there would be something new and exciting being discussed in the press. it would seem however, that the @bcedplan is still the topic du jour.

This week, the Ministry has released a new BC Ed Plan document which “is a summary of the comments people made on the @bcedplan site”. (@mikesher) and I have to say, that it is a really pretty document. It is also pretty light weight and lacks in any sort of functional detail or “plan”

As it seems to be turning out, the BCEdplan isn’t really a plan as of yet. It is more of a mish-mash of theory, ideas and opinion, not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. I just feel I was sold a bill of goods. The BCEdplan was presented as the document that would guide us to a Twenty First Century education system but it is far from being that document.

In reality, we have a long way to go before we reinvent our education system and it will take time, effort and useful dialog, which I think the Ministry is trying to do. The problem is that, from the outside looking in, no one can figure out what is going on?

As a contentious naysayer, I am just trying to do my part in ensuring we reinvent responsibly. The following is a page out of the new “what you’ve said” annotated with the first things that came to my mind as I read Theme 4: Digital Technologies in Schools. As you will see, there are far more questions than answers, therefore much work needs to be done.

Oct 222011
 

Ok it is official. If this iPad thing doesn’t kill me, I will be ready to do a marathon by the time June comes around. At first I thought it was just me and my lousy lesson planning (still a strong possibility) but I think it might just be the nature of the beast. Having a classroom full of kids working on iPads is a high energy, high mileage endeavour. This past week felt like I was running summer day camps for 8 – 12 year olds again or herding cats.

Part of the issue is that, I haven’t standardized much of what we do in class. Certainly my lesson is the same for everyone but when I turn the kids loose to do work on their iPads, that lesson can be interacted with in 30 different ways. This of course is the beauty of the iPad, everyone’s experience with the curriculum is different but it can also be head spinning .

You now have 30 different possibilities in the hands of your students, not that all of these possibilities need your attention, it certainly generates a lot of questions.

As we move along with this project, I am sure we will find ways routinise our classroom activities in a way which make it easier for a teacher to answer the multitude of questions that crop up during a class. With that said, I also think that regardless of what we do to standardize the iPad classroom, it will remain a busier learning environment than a “traditional” learning space.

With all this said, in an effort to make things a little easier for everyone, I am trying to implement the following.

  1. Try to keep activities tied to a single app, 2 at the most.
      • Multi tasking on the iPad is cumbersome at best so keep it simple until kids become proficient with their device.
  2. Try to ensure every student uses the same app so their experience with the content or activity, will be consistent.
      • If you are using a classroom set of iPad’s, set them up all the same so the kids are experiencing the same thing.
  3. If possible, demo any activity you are doing using an iPad rather than a computer.
      • Although you would think students could differentiate between one device to another, some have some difficulties with the difference between the two. Keep your demos as close to what they will see on their own device as possible.
  4. Scale Activities.
      • Just like a Physical Education class you have to build lessons that match skill levels and move from the bottom up
      • One of the errors I made right out of the gate is that I assumed the kids would be proficient at using the iPad… Boy was I wrong.
  5. Screencasts
      • Creating Screencasts to which kids can refer at any time. This has been working well in my my regular classes so far and once I can start screen casting my iPad it will be fantastic teaching tool in the iPad classroom.

As iPad use becomes more popular and its use more ubiquitous. I am sure there will be an app or two, that will help teachers and students be more efficient with their class time. It is only a matter of time. In the mean time we will muddle along break new ground with what we have at our disposal.

Something I would like to see is LanSchool improving their iOS product to include some of the same features that their wired network product has. Specifically, the Send & Collect feature, ScreenFeed and Screen Blanking. These three tools would go a long way in creating a learning environment that was a little more unified and a little less freestyle. I will coin the term for this type of App right now. From this point forward, they will be called Unified Learning Environment Apps or ULEA’s

Until then, I am looking forward to my 4 hr marathon completion time this spring.

Oct 152011
 

Nothing to report here… Just some fragmented thoughts and whatever’s. A bit of a schizophrenic week actually but that has been my element these past 15 years of teaching.

The iPad group didn’t move the earth or cure cancer but we did have some progress with assignment submission using WordPress blogs.  It was a bit messy to start but I think we have turned the corner on our work submission woes. Outside of that, there was nothing exciting to report from the iPad front.

What did happen which was of note is that I had a wee bit of a revelation.

This “Ah Ha!” actually originated with my “regular” kids, specificaly my classes with a significant number of ESL kids who seem to always be lost in my class. Try as I may, it is very difficult to help these kids keep up with the curriculum and I would (on occasion) lose sleep, thinking about how to deliver content in a manner which would allow them to absorb the information at their own pace.

It was only this week, that I came to consider the possibility of screencasting as the answer to my problem. A visual snapshot of the critical elements of my lessons,which  a student  can refer to at any time. I make the screencasts available through YouTube and my students can use them complete an assignment at there own pace. It was a stroke of delayed genius! Admittedly the videos I have produce so far are rather crude but I think they will become far more polished and useful as time goes by.

Now this, in and of itself, is not all that special. Teachers have been screencasting lessons for a number of years now. What is more important however, is that I started to think about how I can do this with the iPad kids. As intuitive as the iPad and all the apps my be, sometimes people still need instruction. The complexity gets ramped up when you are using more than one application at at the same time so being able to capture a video on how to use these apps would be great.

Currently there is no way to create a screencast of an iPad and considering the restrictive nature of Apple products, being able to do this would be significant. We had all hoped that iOS5 would provide us with this functionality and it has come close but it stops short of allowing a teacher to capture lessons and spin them into an instructional video. With that said… I think I may have stumbled upon a screencasting solution for the ipad. It won’t be simple but if it works, I will be able to create 720p screen casts of my lessons using the iPad and post them to YouTube.

Unfortunately, I will have to drop a couple hundred bucks to see if my idea works… but if it does? It will open the door for some serious advancements in the use of the iPad as an instructional tool. Stay tuned to see if my idea works.

Look Out Future Shop… Here I come!

Update 

Well the good news is that I can do it! The bad news is that I am going to have to wait until I can get my hands on a little piece of technology that will allow me to send the image from the iPad to the capture device.

 

Sep 172011
 

Well, we are two weeks in and I have already come to an opinion about Edmodo, digital learning’s promising new upstart. I have to say, there is a lot to like about it and as a result teachers are flocking to this content management system to manage their classrooms and their curriculum.

Before I go any further, let me share bit of my background and what I am judging Edmodo to. Although I hesitate to call myself an expert, I have been in the distributed learning game for my whole 15(ish) year career. I cut my teeth on the Pathfinder learning system which morphed in to the failed Nautikos Learning system. I have used Plato, Web CT, dabbled in Share Point for Education and I even built my own online classroom before deciding to run Moodle as my content management system. For the past three school years, I ran a Moodle site for my online classrooms but unfortunately I had to abandon it because it became to costly to self host on a private server. When I stumbled upon Edmodo this summer, I was very hopeful that I had found an affordable solution for my online classroom needs.

Right out of the box there are eight things which Edmodo’s developers have done well.

  • Assignment distribution and submission is quick and easy
  • Similar appearance & function to Facebook allows kids to figure out classroom quickly.
  • It is is completely free so there is no out of pocket expense for teachers.
  • Easy to create classes
  • Simple to use grading system
  • Decent calendar but I wish you could sync it to google calander
  • There is an excellent networking function where teachers network with colleagues.
  • There is a mobile app for those teachers and students on the go.

Edmodo definitely has the basics in place but for a Distributed Learning System to really be useful, you need a few more functions or applications before you can truly create an effective online classroom environment. I find the following items to be crucial in running a digital classroom and they will have to be implemented by Edmodo before they can hope to become the go to online education solution.

Threaded Discussion – This is Old School Social Networking but it still serves an important purpose in an online classroom. Where things like twitter and instant messaging serve to share ideas quickly and in the moment. A threaded forum provides a place where students can share ideas over a day a week or even a semester. It gives students to time to think about what they have read and formulate a calculated response. This is especially important for students who are not quick of the mark with their thoughts, ESL or simply not good writers and need time to read through and edit what they post. This function is imperative in any online classroom environment.

Blog Module – I have been using blogs for years and I have ex students who are still posting in the same blog I had them create ten years ago. It is a great way to get kids to put down thoughts after a class discussion, presentation, video or other. I have used student blogs in parent teacher interviews as evidence of learning and when I need a kid to pull up their socks. A blog function is invaluable to any classroom virtual or bums in seats.

Instant Messaging – Now this is not a MUST HAVE but it is useful in a number of situations. Kids can discuss assignments, ideas they have, or simply socialize. They also find it handy at 11pm when they are doing their homework and can contact me instantly for help.

Mass Email Function – This function is a HUGE help in managing students. I currently use a third party vendor called constant contact for emailing students and parents about assignments due, special announcements or any other issues that warrant a mass email. This may be a bit of a long shot for Edmodo to put into place but it would be handy.

Testing Module – As much as I hate to say it, a testing module would be good to have. I know that the word “test” is the new baddy in the 4 letter word world but on occasion it is necessary to give the kids a test. It keeps them honest and heck, lets be honest. It is kinda fun seeing the panic in their eyes once or twice a term.

Web based Text Input – In my opinion this is another must have for kids to be able to submit things like question answers and minor assignments using a java based text box. It is a much easier way to submit answers then uploading a document file every time they complete their work. This is especially important for those who are using an ipad, since you cannot search to and find files for uploading on your ipad. The iPad situation is turning into a HUGE pain in the backside for the kids and I.

Now there is about another half dozen items I would like to see Edmodo implement but I am a realist. I can’t have everything but what we have here is a start. It is by no means a perfect online learning environment but it isn’t all that bad either. Edmodo has many advantages, especially for individual teacher the most significant of which are that it is simple, effective and FREE. Considering Edmodo is backed by Union Square Ventures, the same company which backed Twitter, LinkedIn, Formspring and Zynga, I can only assume that there is more to come for Edmodo. In the end only time will tell if we have a winner on our hands but I look forward to whatever comes down the line and I will be there to praise it or pan it.

Pie in the Sky Wish List

  • Wiki Space
  • White board for real time instruction
  • Ability to add twitter feeds
  • Collaborative space
  • Google Docs integration in lieu of collaborative space