Category Archives: NIST

Gamification in Practice: Proceed to the Next Level

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was going to give gamification of my Year 8 Flash unit a go. The general idea is that the students would proceed through a set of nine levels that alternated through Flash skill building tasks and more curriculum based tasks like defining Design Specifications or creating a storyboard. I was interested to see how the students would react to this approach and so far the results have been amazing.

I decided to set up nine different blog posts and password protect them. To receive the password for the next level, the students would need to complete the previous level to an acceptable degree. Each blog post contains instructions for how to complete the level’s challenge and how to show proof of completion. Here’s an example of how one of the blog posts was set up:

The First Level

When reading this post, you might think that it sounds a bit prescribed and that it doesn’t allow the students to the students to inquire and learn on their own but in practice, it has actually been quite the opposite. Each level becomes more challenging than the last by asking the student to solve more problems on their own. As students work their way through them, they begin to differentiate themselves based on their understanding of different tasks and, as you might expect, some students get through some of the tasks more quickly than others.

Increased Peer Support

Auto-Filtered Folders

When the students have completed a level, they are supposed to send me an email, which I automatically filter to the corresponding Outlook folder. I’ve told them that if they are waiting for a reply to an email, they can verbally let me know they are waiting and be patient. While they are waiting, they should be helping those around them, especially those that are at lower levels in the game. It’s now at the point where students check the help resources and then if they can’t complete the challenge, their next point of contact for help is their peers. If they’re still stuck, I can then come over and help them to get past whatever obstacle is preventing them from progressing to the next level but for the most part, the students are solving things together.

Increased Engagement

Going into this, I had a hunch that students would enjoy the unique approach, as it’s definitely different from their typical class structures, but I didn’t expect the engagement that I’ve seen so far. I have explicitly said that students do not need to do any of this work outside of class time and yet I get students sending me emails looking for passwords to the next level at all times of the day, inside or outside of school. This isn’t only for the “more fun” tasks like making things in Flash but even for tasks like making a storyboard or writing design specifications. They want to be able to set their red, incomplete levels to green, complete levels.

Students Fill in Their Successes on This Shared Google Doc

I have informally polled my two classes that are doing this unit and when I asked how many preferred this approach to work compared to the more “normal classroom” approach, it was pretty much unanimous that they preferred this. When asked if they thought it would ‘get old’ over the course of a trimester (2-3 months), most seemed to think that they would be happy to work through this learning method for extended periods of time.

Password Master

In the current incarnation, I am in charge of reviewing each piece of work and providing passwords for subsequent levels. At first, it felt like all I did was stand at my computer and review work and I was worried that I wouldn’t be available to help students but, as students began to advance to higher levels, those levels would take longer to complete and the amount of email approvals has steadied out. Indirectly, it probably forced me to let the kids figure out more on their own or through their peers and get a chance to see that that method can be (and has been) successful. (NOTE: Having prepared video and text tutorials for many of the tasks was extremely helpful for supporting those early stages as it allowed me to say things like, “Check the 4 minute mark of the video and see if that helps”). Another advantage of being in charge of giving out the passwords for subsequent levels can be in giving students a slight delay between levels which encourages them to look beyond their own work to see who they can help before they more on to the next level.

Looking Ahead

The success I’ve seen with this has encouraged me to try the game method for a full trimester of work when school resumes after summer break. I have aspirations of being more explicit so that certain levels become official assessment levels (to keep the following example more globally understandable, I will use percentages with the explicit caveat that even mentioning the idea of percentages is completely anti-MYP). For example, perhaps by the time a student has successfully completed Level 3, this is enough to show 60% understanding for Criterion A and by the time they successfully complete Level 12, they can prove an 80% understanding of Criterion D. This would make assessment simpler but it will take a lot of planning to ensure that students are in fact given challenges that give them the opportunity to effectively prove their understanding of a particular criterion to at a particular level of understanding. I think it would help to make achievement more transparent for my students (typically between 10 and 14 years old) because I can clearly set minimum achievement levels, e.g. If you want 60% (again, for example purposes only), you will need to successfully complete 8 levels.

Photo from Flickr by Darwin Bell

My next step with this is going to be looking at my unit of work and each of the criteria to break them down into small, achievable tasks that show evidence towards a certain mark band within a particular criterion. In addition to these, I can supplement the criteria-based stages with relevant but perhaps not directly related tasks like having students find recent Technology news and blogging about it or presenting it to the class to help keep the tasks fresh and varied or getting students to read other students’ work and leave them feedback about it. Since I have fairly successful units of work prepared already, it’s basically a jigsaw puzzle at this point. I just need to break it apart so that I can reassemble all the pieces into a new, hopefully more interesting and effective picture.

Everything’s a Game: Gamifying My Classroom

Over the course of this school year, I’ve learned about a lot of different teaching methods and ideas about which I wasn’t previously aware. I’ve been trying some of them in my own classes (21st century skills, crowdsourced grading, increased prominence of blogging, etc.) but there has been one that has intrigued me quite a bit that I have yet to implement and that’s game based learning. Gartner, Inc. has predicted that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” Since the same principles seem to make sense in an educational setting, I’ve been toying with ideas in my mind about how to make it work within the context of my classes. I’ve had some ideas but what usually gets in the way is trying make a game that fits the MYP Technology curriculum and adequately addresses each criterion. With this in mind, I eagerly attended John Rinker‘s session on game based learning.

Rubic's Cube

photo credit: Toni Blay via photopin cc

John had taken a game based approach to learning about the history of the Neolithic revolution. To investigate the essential question ‘How does WHERE we live affect HOW we live?’, Rinker’s class undertook a range of challenges, split into levels of achievement, that blended investigation of the content with investigation and skill development in Google Earth. An advantage to game-based learning is that it can help to keep an appropriate focus on the concept of the unit of work rather than on the tools used to present it. As Rinker points out in his blog, “This project isn’t about using the tool, it’s about creating an authentic experience to demonstrate an understanding of our essential question.” This is what can really help me effectively apply game based learning to the MYP Technology Design Cycle.

As is the nature of the Design Cycle, despite the “creating” criterion  being a relatively small component of the curriculum (maybe about a fifth of the criteria), it tends to take up a lot of time with learning specific tools (in the case of most of my classes, that refers to digital tools) and applying those skills. Getting students to complete levels is an interesting way to get them to do more “dry” work like research in order to add some motivation to unlock the next level which may include learning or applying skills in a particular program. As the school year is nearing its end, I have managed to assess my Year 8s on all the required criteria at least once already so this leaves me a little more free to experiment with new ideas with my students. Typically, at this point of the trimester, my Year 8s would be starting a relatively brief ‘design and make’ project, using Flash animation software to create an eCard. As I was riding a bus recently, I jotted down an outline of how to take what is typically a pretty straightforward little unit and gamified it. I tried to alternate between Flash skills and other design cycle criteria. Here’s an outline of what I have come up with so far:

Level 1 – Animate a Bouncing Ball. Students will follow along to a video tutorial I created last year to help animate a bouncing ball.

Level 2 – Type out possible ideas for their eCard and post it to their blog.

Level 3 – Get a star to follow a particular path while continuously changing colour.


photo credit: Cross-stitch ninja via photopin cc

Level 4 – Write Design Specifications for a successful eCard and post it to their blog.

Level 5 – Make your name transform into a shape

Level 6 – Pick one idea for your eCard and draw a simple storyboard to explain the action

Level 7 – Make the eCard

Level 8 – Make your animation file available through your blog

Level 9 – Support others with their eCards

So far, these are just skeletal instructions for each level and more specific instructions and requirements will be added. I am still toying with the idea of how to distribute each level to students who have successfully completed the work. An email containing the next level’s instructions is one, simple way but I’m also considering having a password protected blog post for each level as well. Another thing to consider is a tracking sheet so that students can easily (and preferably visually) track their progress.

There are a few challenges to using this approach for student projects. One problem I’ve already alluded to earlier is that it can be difficult to present adequate/interesting challenges that still address the different bands of achievement on the curriculum rubrics. For this particular unit, I am making sure that students do address the different parts of the rubric but I think it will still be up to my professional judgment as to what level of achievement they’ve demonstrated for a given criterion. In the planning of future units of work though, I could foresee this as a great way to differentiate a unit of work. The earlier levels represent lower bands on the rubric and as the students succeed to high levels, they will begin to demonstrate evidence of criteria from the upper mark bands. Some students may not actually complete all the levels but for the more keen or capable students, this gives them the opportunity to take their work to a higher level without being held back by other students that do not progress as quickly.

Probably the biggest challenge involved in setting up a unit like this is the planning required for it to work successfully. Thankfully, for this first attempt at a game based learning unit, I already have a number of resources to build upon which makes it a more manageable task at this time of the year. Also, on the plus side, initiating such careful planning early on also means that once the unit is underway, I should, in theory, have a fair bit of time to manage the game and support students in their attempt to complete each level.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out and am certain that I will run into challenges along the way but I’m sure that things will work out on the whole and any problems that arise will simply help me to make improvements to units of work for next school year.

Crowdsourcing Makes the Grade

This was the first EARCOS conference that I have attended and, going in, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Having been to the Learning2 conferences that tend to be exploding with technology like a bottle of Pepsi at 30,000 feet, I wondered if this conference would feel a little dull and sterile in comparison. As I checked through the list of presenters, I noticed familiar names like Kim Cofino and Jeff Utecht so I knew there would at least be some useful or edutaining presentations. As I delved a little deeper, I noticed that there were a number of other presenters that had a technology focus to their topics too so, superficially, it seemed promising enough. When the first morning kicked off with Cathy Davidson and her thoughts on the evolution of technology and my mental sparks started to fly.

Cathy’s keynote presentation began with an outline of the different information ages. Moving from speech to writing to printing and onward to the recent evolution into things like mass sharing of information (internet). As she points out, we’ve reached a point where students cannot remember a time when there was no internet. They don’t remember the joy (!?) of listening to their dial up modem connect to the internet so that you could open a webpage before going to make your breakfast, wash some dishes, feed the cat, take the dog for a walk, iron your shirt for work, and finish a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle before returning to see if it had loaded yet.

The idea of sharing thoughts with anyone, anywhere, anytime, seems like an intrinsic right that these students have never lived without. If they want to know how something works in another part of the world, there are millions of webpages full of text and video and other content to help explain it but, better yet, there are also millions of people that are just as free to express their knowledge and opinions. These people, once days’, if not weeks’ journeys away, are now available for interaction instantly. That is an amazing power that most of our students probably take for granted. All of these insights, and many others that I haven’t mentioned here, were enough for me to convince me to check out some of her other presentations/workshops.

I actually took away a number of ideas from Cathy’s presentations but the one that excited me most had to do with crowdsourcing grading. I love teaching. I love challenging my students to push themselves and to continually improve what they are capable of accomplishing. I love thinking ahead and planning lessons and assignments that will give students that opportunity. I love seeing the end results of their learning. What I don’t love is marking students’ work. I don’t imagine many teachers do. The thought of sitting down and reading through 20 students’ assignments and assigning each a numeric level of performance is, for me, by far the least inspiring part of teaching. I do it because it’s prescribed by curriculum but I can’t just give a number and leave it at that. To actually add some kind of meaning to the numeric value, I always make sure to include feedback with the level awarded. Marking a whole class, to be blunt, sucks. My displeasure with marking seven classes’ worth of assignments cannot be politely described so I will leave you to fill in the colourful language here at your own discretion. This is why crowdsourcing of grading piqued my interest.

photo credit: krischall via photopin cc

Essentially, in Cathy’s course, “This Is Your Brain on the Internet,” she had students sign a contract with targeted marks and she prescribed corresponding expectations for students based on their expectations. For example, if a student wanted an ‘A,’ they would need to complete all of the assignments to a satisfactory standard. If they wanted a ‘B,’ they would need to do, say, five of seven assignments to a satisfactory standard. The definition of satisfactory standard needed to be clearly explained to each student because, in the end, they were the people assessing the work. And, as it turned out, this was a successful strategy for Cathy’s course.

This course was a university course with mature thinkers that should be able to handle the requirements of peer assessment from both an assessing and a being assessed point of view but I wondered if it could translate to a middle years classroom; so this week, since returning from the conference, I’ve jumped head first into this idea. I have explicitly gone through the rubrics for assignments for six different classes in years 7, 8, and 9. As a practice exercise, I gave the students work from previous classes to assess against the rubrics to see how well they would do and I had some very interesting results.

The first thing that stands out is that the students are probably more harsh as markers than I am. The marks that they gave were generally either the same or slightly less than marks I had awarded to the students previously. I think one thing that may help to explain this has to do with the fact that students were assessing Evaluating assignments (from MYP Technology) without having read or seen the preceding assignments upon which the students were reflecting. I, on the other hand, had seen and assessed the project all the way through so sometimes I could infer more from having an understanding from the preceding assignments.

Another thing that I noticed which should be more surprising than it is, was that the Year 7s were probably better assessors than the year 8s and 9s. There does truly seem to be a bit of a trend that as students leave the PYP program, where they’re constantly inquiring and thinking critically, and proceed through the MYP program, despite intuition to the contrary, the students seem to lose their critical thinking and inquiry skills. Perhaps lose them is an overstatement but they seem to ignore them, preferring instead to be told how/what to do their work. (This, of course, is based purely on personal observations and has absolutely no scientific merit).

photo credit: marfis75 via photopin cc

On that note though, I could see that a lot of students were initially challenged to accurately interpret a rubric so the crowdsourcing of marking, while it certainly has the advantage of lessening my marking load, also has the added advantage of helping the students to better understand what exactly they are being assessed on by carefully considering the criteria before jumping into the assignment. As another added bonus, when I informally polled the classes about how many of them would take more care in with their work (including the presentation of it on their blogs) because their peers would be looking at it and over two thirds said they would be more concerned about the quality of their work.

One (almost) clever Year 8 student was quick to mention, “If you just got the other Year 8 class to mark our work and we marked theirs, you wouldn’t have to do any marking at all.” We’ll see how this round of crowdsourced marking goes (due a few weeks from now, after Thailand’s New year holiday break) but, fingers crossed, that Year 8s student’s quip actually becomes a more regular reality – for the benefit of all involved.


With my Year 7s this year, I’ve been working on a unit about presentation. I admit that the initial inspiration for the unit came from Garr ReynoldsPresentation Zen and, in it’s first iteration, I actually named the unit Presentation Zen. Because my classes rotate on a trimester basis, I get the chance to tweak my units a couple of times a year and from looking at not just what my Year 7s could/couldn’t do but also what students in upper years needed to do to be successful, I tried to help the Year 7s build some foundation skills for their secondary years. As such, the unit has evolved from focusing primarily on traditional presentation  (slideshow, speaking in front of the class, etc.) to maintaining that aspect but also adding the idea of presentation of written work, especially in a digital realm such as a blog. With this broadened focus came a renaming of the unit to Presentation Matters which, while it may not have that cool “Z” sound in it, seems to capture the heart of the unit a little better.

The students have done a range of things leading up to their presentations like learning better digital search techniques; taking research and putting that information into their own words in the form of a script; building visual support based on the information they want to communicate (i.e. their script) rather than fitting a script to images; and, all the while, gradually improving the presentation of their blog posts as well. Sometimes, as a teacher, you think up the ideas for the units and, on paper (well, digital paper), you think that things look pretty good and you hope that the learning and understanding that you expect will actually transpire. When I had the students start the trimester with a quickly thrown together presentation in their first lesson, I was impressed by the quality of the work and was beginning to doubt whether the kids would actually have much new learning.


A Student's Presentation on My Dim Whiteboard

This week, the students have finally gotten to the point where they are presenting in front of their classes. Personally, I thought that the presentations were, in general, quite good but I wondered how much of that came from learning this year versus things they had learned prior to Year 7. Then, after one student had finished her presentation, I heard what I would like to consider a bit of validation that the unit of work has actually been useful. After the presentation finished, a girl in the audience said, “Mr. Jesse, these presentations are so good. I’ve watched seven presentations in a row and I’m not bored at all. In Year 6, I would have been asleep by now.” And with that, we carried on with more presentations. Looking forward to seeing some of the students’ reflections that come out of this to see what parts made a difference and what parts need less emphasis next time.


Relaunch Creation Has Begun

After following the MYP Design Cycle through Investigation of their topic; Design of their ideas for solving their problem; and Plan of action for how they’ll go about making their solution, my year 10 class have finally started creating their final Relaunch solutions. I’m actually pretty excited to see some of the things that my students have designed as they’ve come up with a range of ideas from stop motion to phone apps to a typography video.

Stop Motion

Stop Motion in Process

It was great to watch a student using Adobe Encore for the first time (I too have never used it) and he was having trouble getting Photoshop to open the menu file to edit it. We worked together to walk through some forums online and established that Photoshop wasn’t the default program for opening that type of file so he changed the association and that solved his problem.

One of my favourite quotes I overheard from today was, “Earlier this lesson, I was behind plan but now I’m all caught up.” I love when the students really start to “get it” and understand the big picture of the whole project. The students have almost six more weeks until the final creations are due so it’ll be interesting to watch them evolve.


Dock Your Fear of Change, Love or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love 1:1

For my COETAIL course, I have been asked to reflect on the use of laptops in my classroom. I know that I’m lucky to be at a school that has a 1:1 laptop program (each student has their own laptop to use in class and at home) and a great IT support department that deals with problems efficiently and effectively. I also know that there are a lot of teachers out there that can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a classroom in which every student had their own laptop. However, as an ICT teacher, I’ve never really had to teach classes that didn’t have computers. Though this is the first school that I’ve worked at that has had a 1:1 program, I’ve always had a computer lab as my classroom. So for me, I find it hard to imagine my students not having access to computers.

For those that might just be entering a 1:1 environment or for those still not at ease with managing this in their classrooms, I will try to talk about a few of the challenges I’ve had and strategies that I’ve used with students having laptops in the classroom.

Probably my biggest annoyance of a 1:1 program is that most modern laptops are not designed to keep their charge through a full day of tetherless working. This means that there are typically cords running around the classroom so, strangely enough, I tend to manage more safety issues than you would likely think necessary in a regular classroom. It’s not a huge problem but I recommend you have an adequate number of power points available to prevent the number of taut cords around the room just waiting to trip students (or teachers).

A challenge that most teachers face with a 1:1 program is maintaining students’ attention when those glowing screens are just so enticing for students to looks at. Why should they listen to their teacher when they have access to the whole world right at their fingertips? I have a few different ways that I deal with this. Firstly, make sure that you give clear instructions. If you don’t want the students to have their screens active, tell them so.

Keyboards Can Be Like Crack

Photo from Flickr - Some rights reserved by Jenser (Clasix-Design)

It’s gotten to the point for me that as I’m giving the instructions, some students will finish the instruction for me. “Everybody, let’s take a break. Close your screens…” I say, with the students then taking over, “right down to the keys.” It seems childish but if there is even a centimetre of space between the screen and the keyboard, I’ll see students slowly pry open their laptops without realizing it, like a junkie looking for a fix. Once you’ve got their screens off, say what you need to say then shut up. Despite my opinions to the contrary, I do not spew forth with endlessly entertaining things to say. Laptops or not, say what you need to say and then either let the students do the talking or get them back to their work. This leads me to another point about laptop management: organization and resources.

I find it essential to have all relevant information available in one central location. In my case, our school’s portal (Microsoft Sharepoint) is the hub that binds all the information for my courses together. Whether the content is hosted on the portal, as a Google Doc, or some other external website, my students know that they can get to all the information from that main wiki page. Also, just as you would in a classroom sans laptops, having expected outcomes for the lesson can help keep your students on track. For example, if students know that they need to have two designs for their project finished by the end of the lesson, then they’re less likely to be off task with other websites or Skype, etc. until they’ve completed the goal. This isn’t 100% effective but, be honest with yourself, when you’re doing your own work, do you completely ignore email or Facebook or Twitter? Yes, there are programs, like DyKnow, that can block access to sites like these but personally, I think it’s best to teach students how to deal with these distraction effectively rather than trying to pretend like they don’t even exist.

Dog Ate My Homework

Don't Accept That Digital Dogs Ate Their Digital Homework (Photo from Flickr - Some rights reserved by zoomar)

Another challenge with laptop use, and the subsequent increased dependence on digitally produced assignments, is the range of different excuses that have replaced, “The dog ate my homework.” This may be tough for some teachers to do but it’s OK to have a zero tolerance policy with students about losing their work or not being able to find their file. Every program has a save option that, if not automatic, can easily be used in less than two seconds. And every file can be backed up. Get your students using cloud storage solutions like Dropbox or Google Docs. I remind my students at the end of every lesson to back up their work; especially when deadlines are fast approaching. Expect students to take care of their digital work just as you’d expect them to take care of their tangible (paper, etc.) work.

Finally, some teachers may be threatened by the fact that their students have access to a whole world of information and could, at any time, prove the teacher wrong. If you consider a student showing enough initiative, inquisitiveness and ability to prove you wrong, then it’s time for you to choose another career because you obviously don’t understand the point of being a teacher. There could be no greater experience in a classroom than having students use their inquiry skills to seek out information and challenge an opinion rather than simply regurgitating facts.

I’m sure that this doesn’t even cover a fraction of the questions and concerns teachers might have about managing a 1:1 laptop program in their classroom but hopefully it helps you understand that its not as unmanageable as it may seem. When it comes down to it, having laptops in the classroom doesn’t really change classroom management strategies. If a teacher already has difficulty with classroom management, then the presence of laptops in the classroom may magnify any holes that previously existed but if a teacher is well planned and has a good relationship with their students then laptops can take learning outside of the classroom and open it up to the rest of the world.


Not So Easy to Flip Your Mid(dle Years Classes)

Flipped Classroom Overview

Click Image to Enlarge

If there’s one thing I can credit the COETAIL program for, it’s for getting me to think and reflect on my teaching and my thoughts about different teaching styles and techniques. A lot of those reflections have appeared in previous blog posts and have seemed appropriate and organic with what was going on with my teaching at the time. As I work through the fourth course of the COETAIL program, we’ve been asked to more specifically target the subjects of our blog posts based on an assigned weekly subject. Typically, these writing prompts have been helpful but this has actually been a bit challenging for me with the week three requirement of blogging about the flipped classroom. I have my opinions about the flipped classroom (if you’re not up to date on what a flipped classroom is, check here for an infographic overview) but I feel like I’ve already blogged about a flipped classroom in the past and I haven’t really had anything new to say about it lately. Then, just the other day, I was looking through the results of an end of trimester survey I had gotten my Year 9s to fill out and just like that, I had something to write about.

The students had worked through a unit that involved using Scratch to make an interactive quiz about social media. As a test to see how responsible my Year 9s could be about their own learning (and because we had lost a couple of lessons from the floods late last year), I decided that after one lesson of explaining some of the basics of Scratch, I would leave it to them to follow the well produced tutorials on the Learn Scratch website. I gave them a list of all the available lessons on that site, indexed by name and number and recommended ones that would be useful. Most lessons would take, on average, 2-5 minutes to work through. Students had about two months before they needed to use the skills so, had they even done one lesson per night, they should have had more than enough time to get through them. Every lesson, I would remind them that the online tutorials needed to be completed by the time they started in Scratch but, I wish I could say it was entirely unexpected, by the time they needed to know those skills, there were very few students who had been responsible enough to have gone through the tutorials on their own.

Why did the survey remind me of this? Well, in the open comments section which asked for suggestions for improving the course, there were a number of students who mentioned that they wished that I had taught them Scratch more explicitly and not just assigned the tutorials. Though it can be quite complicated if you need it to be, Scratch is generally a fairly easy program to work with. When it came time to create their quizzes, within half a lesson, I had taught the students enough skills to allow them to create their interactive quizzes. Not surprisingly though, the students who had worked their way through the tutorials tended to include more advanced features (like effective scorekeeping, for example) and were able to solve more problems on their own. So I have some personal evidence to support that this flipped approach can work.

Learn more about this project
(Note: You may need to zoom in your browser to see the full content of this quiz)

So what does this mean with regards to my thoughts on the flipped classroom approach? Well, a lot of the literature being written about the flipped classroom – like this article about flipping Stanford classrooms –  tends to be in reference to university or upper level classes (A-Level, IB Diploma, etc.). At that level, most  many students have started to take a more active role in selecting courses of interest to them which, I think, makes it easier for them to get interested in learning more outside of the traditional classroom. In the middle school years, students are more than capable of learning from a video tutorial but it’s a matter of motivation and desire.

Kids Should Still Be Kids

Kids Should Still Be Kids Some rights reserved by Hamed Saber

Many students still seem to struggle with planning, foresight, and seeing the bigger picture when it comes to a project. It seems that no matter how many reminders I gave them, for most of them, there was still a disconnect between learning the skills and having to apply the skills a few weeks later. So far, in my experience with using video tutorials and other student guided learning at a middle year level, these seem to work well for reinforcing things that I have already taught in the classroom. If students forget how to do something but know they’ve been taught it before, they seem more willing to follow a video tutorial than if it is a completely new concept or skill.

In conclusion, while I think that the flipped classroom is a good idea for upper years, I’m skeptical that it could be successfully integrated into most younger, middle year classrooms. And why should it? Sadly, I know that some students spend hours and hours working on assignments for my classes, as students either struggle with the material or set unrealistic goals for the given timeframe of their project but ultimately, I don’t want my students taking too much of their non-school time to do these things. These kids are only 10-14 years old. They’ll have plenty of time to work too much. For now, they need to enjoy being kids and I’m happy to try to to do my part to help them do just that!

Making My Job Redundant: Using Technology to Work Smart, Not Hard

Since starting the COETAIL program, I’ve been converted to being a big supporter of Creative Commons (CC) as a licensing method (see: ‘Why Wait!?‘ and ‘Free to Take? Free to Give!‘). As such, I’ve taken the time with my classes to talk about what it means, how to find images, how to properly credit images and assuring them that it is, in fact, Creative Commons and not Creative Comments. As with anything in teaching (or, perhaps more accurately, in learning), concepts are easier to understand when they’re part of a tangible experience. For my Year 7s, they are doing some Presentation Zen styled presenting using CC images and my Year 8s are using image editing software as part of their unit which means that it is easy to teach about CC in context of their units.

CC Logo

CC Logo from

The challenge I’ve encountered is that explaining all of this takes a fair bit of time and I know that some of my lessons when teaching about this have been a bit directive and lacking in activities to keep the kids interested.  Granted, I’m lucky that most of the students I teach are pretty attentive and eager to learn so these lessons still go reasonably well but despite this, I still don’t get that feeling of complete satisfaction that I’ve taught what is not only a useful lesson but also a fun lesson for the students. The other problem with using CC images is that even though it’s fairly simple, the fact is that it is a new concept for most students and it takes practice to get used to it. Inevitably, I regularly end up having to repeat the steps of how to reference a CC image or remind the students what each of the different licenses mean.

So I decided that a bit of hard work up front would actually end up being less work in the long run and I did a screen recording about how to find CC images; what all the licenses mean; how to insert images into a WordPress blog; how to insert images into Powerpoint; and finally how to credit them in either of those media. What I had was about an eight minute video which taught everything that used to take me four or five times as long to teach at the front of the class. At first, I thought, ‘Great! I can post this to Screencast and I’ve just cut my lessons down by at least a quarter!’ But then I started thinking beyond that initial instruction lesson and I thought about students that just wanted to be reminded of the licenses or who only wanted to know how to credit an image in their blog. Did I really want them to have to filter through an eight minute video to find the information they needed? More importantly, would their attention spans allow them to bother scanning through an eight minute video? I decided the video wasn’t good enough to actually solve the problem of me having to repeat the same thing over and over again.

I took some digital scissors and cut the video into three smaller, more digestible episodes: one focused on how to find the right image and understand the licenses associated with them; another video about adding and crediting in a WordPress blog; and another video about adding and crediting in PowerPoint (I’m sure most Keynote users could find some value in that too). To help to better explain the licenses, I whipped up a quick FLash animation to focus on the four licenses the students would likely encounter and added that to the first video.

As my video tutorial had now become a short series of interrelated videos, I decided that Screencast might not be the best avenue for distributing these and I decided instead to post to YouTube so that I could take advantage of their easy annotating feature to make sure all the videos were effectively linked to each other. I began by posting the video about finding images and understanding licenses (shown below) and adding links at the end to either the WordPress video or the PowerPoint video so that it suited my students regardless of whether they were making a presentation or writing a blog.

YouTube Preview Image

I used this first video in class a couple of days ago with my Year 7s. Not only did it take much less time but when I saw that class again today and reviewed the information from last lesson with them, they even seemed to retain the information better. It also came in handy when students were asking how to insert and credit the images in their presentations that I could just get them to follow the link to the video for adding and crediting images to PowerPoint from the class page on our school network. This freed up my time to sit and focus on helping the students who were struggling a little bit with understanding the assignment while those that understood but had simple, clarification questions could easily find their answers through the video. I haven’t field tested the video for inserting and crediting in WordPress but I’m guessing it will yield similar results.

There are definitely some things about the tutorials that, given more time, I would change or improve. Some of the timings are perhaps a little rushed but that’s solved easily enough by just rewinding and watching it over. The voice over is far from being up to a Lee Lefever standard as I wish I had had more time to rehearse and record a more solid soundtrack but the ultimate goals – of cutting down teaching time and giving my students a resource that they could return to when needing clarification – have been met so I’m generally happy with the results so far.

Please feel free to use any of these videos with your students (or staff!) and if you notice any glaring errors, please let me know so that I can get them fixed! Happy sharing!

So You Think You Can Tweet?

Today with my Year 9s, we took a look at Twitter and what makes you want to follow a Twitter link or not. As an example, we looked at the @mashable account as the content was relevant to our Social Media unit and Pete Cashmore and his team are generally quite effective at promoting their articles through Twitter. Typically, ignoring the endless parade of retweets, any given Mashable article is likely to be tweeted at least twice through the official Mashable Twitter account. This is where I started with my students.

Mashable Tweet 1

Mashable Tweet 1

We looked at two tweets from November 18th. The first tweet was a pretty straightforward, factual approach to reporting the 25 most commonly used passwords whereas the second tweet took a more emotive approach to promoting the same article. When I polled one class of Year 9s about which link they think would be more enticing to follow, they were split almost 50/50 as to which one they would follow. Interestingly enough, the second class (of the two Year 9 classes I teach) was almost unanimously more intrigued by the second approach which listed some of the top 25 most common passwords right in the body of the tweet.

Mashable Tweet 2

Mashable Tweet 2

After some discussion about why Mashable might tweet the same article in different ways, the main conclusion that the classes reached had to do with different people having different interests and therefore Mashable was trying to appeal to many different kinds of people. With a little prompting, about where Mashable’s 2.5 million followers are located, some clever students realized that Mashable also has a global reach and therefore would send tweets to increase the chances of people in different time zones being exposed to the tweet/article.

The students’ next challenge was something that, going into the activity, a lot of them didn’t think was actually challenging. Split into four groups of four, each group was assigned a recent Mashable article to read. Once they had read it, each student needed to condense the content of the article into 120 highly interesting characters (140 character Twitter limit minus room for a link to the article) that would encourage a reader to follow the link which would be part of the tweet. Once each person had created their tweet, we posted them anonymously on the front screen and, using Kwik Surveys (worth a look if you’re looking for free, online surveys with more features than Survey Monkey), we had the class rank the tweets in order of how likely they would be to follow a link associated with the given tweet.

As you might expect, there were some discrepancies in the quality of the tweets. Some students struggled to understand the character limit (one student submitted a lengthy 265 character tweet). Some students perhaps didn’t fully read the article or understand the full meaning of the article and therefore were a little off the mark with their tweet’s description of the article. Overall, though, the tweets were reasonably well done.

In one Mashable articleSarah Kessler writes about Facebook’s recently revealed user-tracking secrets. The article describes such Facebook practices as how they install cookies on users’ computers; how they keep tracking data for 90 days; and what browsing behaviours it logs. Here, unedited, were the four proposed tweets from this group of students:

  1. Facebook keeps logs that record your past 90 days of activity
  2. Facebook revels their secrets on user- tracking.
  3. How Facebook tracks its 800 million users!!
  4. Facebook tracks users by installing cookies on computer.

Cookies: Too Technical for the Average Person (Photo from Flickr by Sifu Renka)

When polled, 75% of students in this class selected option three as the tweet that would most interest them to follow the link to the article. When we discussed what made that tweet more intriguing, some of the key points that came from the students were that it used a fact; it quoted a large number that added to the amazingness of the information; and the exclamation marks added a sense of urgency as if you needed to see how Facebook is tracking you by following the link to this article. Tweet four was the least successful and when asked why students thought that was, most of them didn’t understand the concept of a cookie (mental note: fix that) so the technical terminology got in the way of the communication.

As we looked at the other articles (Demi/Ashton’s divorceAnnoying Orange TV showsmartphone dating etiquette), the students started to realize that there is, in fact, a skill to composing a concise, interesting and informative tweet. Some key advice that the students decided upon was as follows:

1. Know your audience

  • If you want followers that are not just your friends, you should try to keep your tweets ‘professional’
  • Carefully consider how grammar, spelling and slang will affect how people perceive the message being tweeted
  • Use language that is suitable for your followers

2. Know the content

  • Sometimes the most interesting part of the article is in the middle or at the end; make sure to read the whole article to make sure you understand it
  • Make sure your tweet effectively reflects the article; you don’t want to disappoint someone when they follow the link expecting something else because you will lose their trust to follow future links
  • Make it clear what the article’s about but don’t give away the whole story in the tweet (‘leave them wanting more’)

As the class wound down and we debriefed and reviewed what had been learned during the lesson, I gave an informal exit poll about writing tweets. Despite their attitude at the start of the class, most of the students agreed that writing a tweet is easy but writing an interesting, informative tweet that attracts a reader’s attention is quite a challenging skill. Communicating clearly and effectively is a challenge for anyone and Twitter is a great proving ground for cutting to the core of the information.

Flipped PD: Walking the Talk

So it’s been a pretty busy month or so for me and professional development. I’ve been doing regular PD through my COETAIL course; a couple of weeks ago, my school did some useful curriculum mapping; and last month, I got to attend Learning 2.011, which I had attended the previous year as well. When I left that conference, my mind was swimming with new ideas and outlooks to bring back and implement in my teaching. It quite literally took a few days before the buzz wore off but I still remained keen to make changes in my teaching to incorporate those new ideas. I spent much of the next few weeks making changes to the units I teach to reflect these new ideas. As this past weekend approached, I was looking forward to my MYP Technology workshop in Hong Kong so that I could take all of the ideas I’d been putting together and hopefully hash them out with more thought into effective curriculum documentation and maybe hear some ideas from other Technology teachers.

If you hadn’t guessed by the previous paragraph, I teach MYP; a program which is often described by outsiders as wishy-washy. While there are certainly things that could be improved, personally, I feel that it’s a fairly progressive program that focuses on getting kids to question and inquire in order to approach and solve problems. It tends to emphasize student initiated learning and encourages risk-taking in learning. Regardless of content or factual information, these are universal skills that serve students well throughout their lives, regardless of what they choose to do and where they chose to do it. So when I got to the workshop and the session trainer began reading off an MYP-provided PowerPoint slideshow, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d somehow gone to the wrong conference. How could an organization which is responsible for a progressive thinking program offer such dull, dry training methods?

As the three day course progressed, despite some efforts by our trainer, Matt Plummer, to make things a little more interesting, the mandated, stagnant approach of the workshop seemed to kill the whole purpose of getting together in person with professional peers. Here we had a classroom full of interesting and interested Technology teachers but the chances to learn and share with each other seemed few and far between. Just when things seemed to be picking up and ideas started to flow, it seemed as though we needed to get back to reading words off a PowerPoint slideshow.

It would have been a more useful for the slideshow to have been a document that participants could read before attending the workshop which would then allow the workshop participants and leader to use their face-to-face time to collaborate, share, and explore new ideas and <GASP!> actually DO something. Like the flipped classroom idea, why not initiate a kind of flipped professional development model where some research and reading is done before the workshop and then, once people have traveled their hundreds or thousands of miles to interact with other teachers, they can actually ‘unpack‘ (a word, we did notice, that the TOK course of the IB Diploma seems to love) the content and delve deeper through sharing of experiences.

[NOTE: From the time I began writing this to the time I finished and published it, I have come across an article about flipped PD by David Truss, that is far more informative than this post. It really does a fine a job of summarizing how I feel about my 'good' PD of late. I recommend you read it.]

I know that I am lucky to work in an international school and, after this weekend, I feel even more lucky about working at NIST. Our school’s focus over the next couple of years is “Walking the Talk.” Overall, I think that my school does quite a good job of walking the talk (or, if you prefer a simplification, leading by example). It’s about time that the MYP start doing the same. If they want to truly encourage an inquiry based teaching system that teaches students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, then it needs to take a like-minded approach in its training of its teachers. Time to ‘walk the talk,’ MYP.