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.

Sep 132012
 

Well I was thrown a curve ball this year. My iPad cohort has morphed into a hodgepodge of new and old technology. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the numbers to run a straight iPad cohort so I am getting kids carrying everything from the latest and greatest in Apple and PC products to pencil and paper.

Now being one to complain (a lot), I am tempted to go on for a couple thousand words lamenting about how hard done by I am but I know I would not garner much sympathy from many of my colleagues. So I won’t! Instead I will look at this mishmash, as a little slice of reality, a true reflection of what the average secondary class looks like and carry on.

This year I will be able to write about realty, rather than an iPadian utopia.

For example, tomorrow I am going to have the kids write a journal response to the statement Highschool Should End at Grade 10 and instead of taking work in via a common app or digital format, I will be taking work in on Paper – Evernote – Google docs – Keynote – Microsoft Word and a holy host of others, because that is the reality of the modern classroom.

What I have also come to realize or perhaps resign myself to, is that with BYOD, a Personal Digital Device is just that a Personal Device. It is unrealistic to expect that everyone will be carrying one on any give day, never mind everyone carrying the same device. What I have also come to believe is that for BYOD to work, it is up to the student to make it work. The teacher can set the expectations around use and digital formats in which work needs to be done and after that, it is up to the student.

If the teacher takes on the role of the “director of the device” the classroom simply becomes a Twenty First Century version of the teacher centered classroom. If the purpose of BYOD is to help students become more independent learners, then the device needs to fit the learner, even if that device is a pencil and a piece of paper.

It is a brave new adventure in iPads In The Cla… I mean, iPads, Laptops & Paper – n – Pencil In The Classroom. Let’er fly and see where we land.

Wish Me Luck!

Aug 262012
 

To start off, I will get straight to the punch and provide many of you with the answer to the single most frequently asked question about Content Management Systems for Education. NO YOU CANNOT UPLOAD FILES FROM YOUR IPAD TO EDMODO!

In the past 3 weeks 80% of all all keyword searches that point to my blog are asking this single question. What this suggests to me is that there are a large number of teachers looking for a Content Management System or CMS for their classroom this coming year. So a new blog post was born.

Over the years I have dabbled in many CMS’s but for any number of reasons, I have always moved on in search of something better. I have even tried to create my own classroom CMS but didn’t have the skills to create a site that could do everything I wanted it to do. To date the single most powerful Education CMS I have ever used, was Moodle and I would still be using it today were it not for the fact I had to host it on my nickle.

Last year I gave Edmodo a whirl and without a doubt it is no Moodle but it is trying and I quite liked it. Its interface is easy to use and there isn’t much of a learning curve in getting up and running. It seems to have been designed with the Luddite in mind or at least with an understanding of where the average Luddite is coming from

The other thing about Edmodo is that they are constantly improving their platform, adding new features and improving functionality but the single biggest problem with Edmodo is… yes you guessed it! YOU CANNOT UPLOAD FILES FROM YOUR IPAD TO EDMODO and I have my doubts that you ever will unless Edmodo sells its soul to the Devil or Apple, whichever comes first.

If you are hell bent on using edmodo and are running an iPad class, the Edmodo App is wonderful and I have no complaints. The way I get around the file upload issue is to have the kids post their work on a blog or in a google doc and have them submit the web link to their work. As long as I have that link, I can evaluate it. It is a wee bit of a pain but it works in a pinch and once you have the kids set up to do that, it is easy. Another option is to have the kids move the file they were working on with their iPad, onto a computer and then they can upload the document to Edmodo.

Some other nifty things you can do with Edmodo include marking and annotating students work online, provide parents with access to their child’s “learning environment”, create work groups, create discussion threads… and there are more features being added on a regular basis. Oh and it is FREE!

In my humble opinion, Moodle is still KING of the education CMS’s but the problem is that it requires some expertise, time, a host and a myriad of other things, which the average teacher off the street does not have at hand or have the time to acquire. If your school district will host a moodle site or already does, giddy up!

What I am not sure about however, is whether Moodle is iPad friendly or not. I have not tired myself but I have gotten a number of mixed reports on its functionality on an iPad. If you are running an iPad classroom next year, you might want to research other possibilities. If your kids have laptops or work in a computer lab, Moodle’s power and functionality is unparalleled.

I was asked to Beta Test Go Class last year but I unfortunately never got around to it. I did play with it a bit and from what I saw, it looks to be a slick little iPad friendly interface. Like Edmodo, Go class is designed with the average non tech geek teacher in mind. Getting things up and running looks to be fairly quick and easy.

What I like about Go Class is that it structures individual lesson planning into three tabs ShowExplain Ask. On the student end, the final product is clean and straight forward to use. You can even assign time limits on the task, see who has completed their work and provide formative assessment from your instructor dashboard. Just remember that Go Class is still in Beta stage but I think it is worth taking a look at.

UPDATE! Stop the presses! I have just been informed that there is a new Education CMS in town called Schoology. My first look was brief but it looks like it might be a winner in its own right. Right off the bat what I notice with Schoology is their App center and within that App center is Blackboard Collaborate, which is the industry standard for presenting content to people who are not sitting right in front of you. The integration of this App alone is a HUGE Plus, especially for those who are running a 100% online course or even a blended class.

In addition to Blackboard, Schoology has a reminder app to send kids reminders about due dates and tests via text messaging. They have a Turnitin.com app and selection of other interesting apps I have never hear of. Along with all the cool apps, Schoology has all the functionality of Edmodo and Go Class. It may be worth some serious consideration for those who are looking for a Classroom CMS.

These four are the only iPad friendly CMS’s for education that I am aware of but there may be some others which have slipped past my radar so be sure to keep your eyes open for others and share what you find.

The other thing educators have been doing to accommodate iPad use in the classroom is building individual lessons or activities around individual apps such as Evernote or Edublog. To be honest I have not used either in class but there are lots of teachers who do and both have an active community of educators who are more than happy to help you out.

Edublog actually operates on the WordPress CMS. For those of you who are not familiar with WordPress, it is the best blogging platform out there, even my blog runs on it. Edublogs has taken their site one epic step further than mine however and added a plugin called BuddyPress. This allows teachers to manage users within a class or a school.

I have seen this particular platform used very successfully in elementary environments including my own children’s school. Teachers use Edu Blogs to get kids discussing topics online, providing links to resources and information and giving kids a safe and secure place to write online. To get all the features, you would need to run a full-blown Edublog site and would need a subscription. It is not necessarily affordable for an individual teacher but there is a fee schedule for schools. Pricing

To get a better idea of what you can do with an Edublog site check out Ten Ways To Use Edublogs To Teach

Evernote has been the darling of the APP world almost right out of the gate. I have used if for personal note taking but I have not used it for my classes. I have read about others who have done it very successfully and Wandering Academic did a great post on how Evernote can be used in the classroom.

What I like about using notebooks, is that kids have a far greater responsibility for what it is they do or do not do. In many ways it is not that much different then a paper notebook. With an all in one CMS, a teacher can keep constant tabs on what a student has or has not been doing but not so much with an app like Evernote.

Like Edublogs, you will need a subscription if you are going to run your class with it. A premium subscription is only $45 a year but they also do site licences and group pricing to help manage the cost.

So there it is, my two bits worth on Education CMS’s. There is just so many products out there, it is impossible to have tried or even know about them all. If you know of a product that you like or would like me to investigate for you, let me know.

One final and important note. There are some significant concerns in many countries about privacy laws and the protection of student identities and personal information. Before you start using any app where a students personal information is being stored outside of your school network, make sure you have the support of your administration and an appropriate use policy is in place. Make sure parents are aware of this policy and that they are ok with their children online. In some cases, you may simply not want to use an app because you do not have control over the information.

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