Throwing it out there

The two of us – Chris Fox and Kristin Rowe, Team History in Grade 8 with “Ancient Civilizations” – have enjoyed the early days of our new course. We have had lots of space to dream, and we’ve been throwing around big ideas and grand visions regarding flipped classrooms, reverse instruction, the mastery learning approach, vodcasting, and computational thinking, etc, and what we could do in an ideal world/school/classroom.

But the dream is about to end, because we have to nail it down to reality! At this point, we have identified our year-long IT/IL project as the best opportunity to stretch ourselves regarding IT integration. So far, we have been working in collaboration with our middle school librarian to dip into database research and note-taking with NoodleTools alongside our daily classroom instruction, for which the textbook provides a foundation. The recurring themes holding our civilization study and research together are the five common Essential Questions (EQs). So the question is, besides picking up valuable research habits along the way, what is the final product for which they are doing all this research?

First, let’s consider the path we have started down, and what else we hope to encounter on this road. Students have been steered towards school-subscription databases like  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online as well as an appropriately titled  Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook for information and note-taking.  We will continue to broaden the resources to which we point the students; for example, we are want students to become Google power-users with advanced searching capabilities, and we want students to develop a more critical approach regarding website evaluation as we set them loose beyond the school database boundary.

We are encouraging students to practice titling their notecards with the five thematic EQs and “tagging” their notecards to allow for later comparison of aspects of civilization, and we know we want to include this higher-level thinking – a more in-depth comparative study – as a key descriptor of the final project.

But perhaps we don’t need to narrow it down much further than this:

  1. We want a comparative project around the EQ themes.
  2. We want student choice to allow them to pick up whatever ideas have intrigued them through the year.

And perhaps the rest should be a matter of student choice. One of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  as key to 21st century computational thinking is the idea that students should have exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals. If we narrow it down too far, we are taking away the opportunity for students to work through the chaos of choice to good decision-making around the most appropriate means for the most effective end. And if we want students to be able to follow their passions and for their passion to come through in their final products, then they need plenty of choice regarding final presentation of their learning.

Thus, our task would be to clearly define the options and support them with a framework for the process of planning and preparing a final project of their own design.

As we continue to brainstorm how students could present their research products, we really want to give student options regarding what tools they can use.  Of course, we have the standard GoogleApps or Inspiration 9.0 resources, but we are interested in exposing the students to a wide variety.  In our research, we are pleasantly surprised to find so many great sites about web 2.0 tools.  One of our favorite sites is Web 2.0: Cool Tools for Schools. It provides a plethora of options, each with a unique twist on its special features.  For example, one program that is new to us is ClipGenerator. Students can create their own cool video clips, add music and images, plus their own photos, and finish with a professional film cut and animation.  What a great way to hook the audience with the research topic.

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The Simple Show describes applications for the tool and “how to” work with it:

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We are shooting for a new way to present research, using collaboration and creativity.  It would be easy to simply have students complete a traditional two or three page research paper with cover page and Works Cited, but we want to arm the students with tools in order to be truly successful as they move to Upper School and prepare for what lies ahead –  the resources and opportunities are endless.  So, we are excited for the first time to throw this challenge out there to the students and see how it goes!

Beyond Management of the Machine

Management of the 1:1 lap top situation in my classroom is not a big deal for me anymore, I’m relieved to say. Don’t get me wrong – it is certainly on my mind. All the time, in fact! I do have to plan out my lessons, thinking in terms of grouping together the computer work, so students aren’t powering up and down through a 45 minutes lesson, which would lose me valuable time.  I use DyKnow Monitor and students know I may be watching them. It’s a wonderful deterrent, despite the lag I sometimes experience. And probably my most frequent management strategy is directing the students to “put your lap top to sleep” or simply “turn the lap top around to face me” so that it doesn’t pose a distraction as I’m giving instructions or presenting a mini-lesson.

What does endlessly fascinate me, however, is all the amazing things we can do with the lap tops – teachers, students, ordinary people in all walks of life  – to simply our personal organization. Here are a few of the tools I have been exploring recently.

Thanks to our IT Director, I have migrated from a simple “snipping” tool to the more advanced Snagit. This is the king in the world of free tools that our school has included in the teachers’ lap top image. Snagit is an easy screen capture software that comes bundled with Camtasia Studio Pro so teachers can create screencasts, training documents, etc.

Compared to our other clunky Windows-associated Snipping Tool, this simple screen grab tool has an impressive list of image editing and annotating features. We can simply copy, save, convert, or edit images, but what I really like about it is that it keeps a history of all things “snagged” in the past for easy  recall. They fan out at the bottom very nicely! It’s window, pictured above, looks a little daunting, and might turn some people off at this point. But it shouldn’t send anyone back to the Snipping Tool. It’s easy to add callout boxes, to send via email with a simple cut and paste, but then there are extra dashing features like the addition of a page curl using the image bar. Students don’t have Snagit yet. That’s the only snag :) right now.

Then there’s Dropbox. This kind of cloud-based file back-up is certainly the wave of the future. Our IT department is seriously threatening to shut down our mainshare access at the end of this year, because it is too costly, so they have been investigating alternatives to offer us during this weaning stage. And this option seems pretty cool to me. Simply, files that we used to save on the mainshare, or on our lap top D-drives, will be accessible anyplace anytime. We can leave the machine behind. We can walk out of the building. No little flash stick thumb drive thingy to lose. Usually tragically! No bulky external drive to lug about.

It is a tri-platform tool. All the basic file types – OneNote, Word, Excel, simple images, etc – can be accessed at home by using a web-based portal or a synchronized computer at home. As long as there is an internet connection. I can simply log into www.dropbox.com and I can get my files instantly. Of course, I can retrieve photos and documents on my iPhone too.

And it’s so easy to use. After installing a Dropbox folder on my computer, files that I save into the folder are automatically saved in the cloud. (For those of us in Asia, that cloud is actually hovering around Singapore, apparently!) It has a very handy “show deleted files” button so you can check back over what you have done – wittingly or unwittingly. You can set it up to sync one way only, to avoid any headaches. And here’s a biggie: the Dropbox people will recover file errors they have made. Now, it is a tool that has been available for some seven years already, so this very powerful, flexible tool seems like a pretty sure thing. The bad news is, for reasons I can’t fathom, it is currently only available for 14-year-olds and up, so that pretty much nixes it for the middle school. It would be perfectly lovely to share a folder with students and thus do so anywhere, anytime. But, for now at least, I will have to continue to rely on the OLC and GApps for file-sharing with students.

Anyway, the first 2G is free. Then there is bonus memory available for inviting friends to join – up to a maximum of 8G. The IT-Director tells me that the school is working on a handsome deal for teachers (because we are being pushed off the mainshare) so we should wait before purchasing for ourselves. But in the meantime I see Dropbox as the long-awaited back-up option for my personal files and photos. Yay!

The funkiest untapped tool I learned about was Evernote. This kind of combines the features of Snagit and Dropbox, allowing the user to capture anything and access it anywhere. The best way to describe it may be as a clipboard for all my thoughts. I can capture a note of simple text, an audio note, an inknote, stuff that I have copy-pasted (e.g. clipping a website – a full page or part of a page, with an annotation option). And I don’t need to worry about pressing “save.” (With my huge reliance on OneNote presently for shared planning and teaming, I have rolled back into bad habits regarding that “save” button!) Everything goes into the cloud, syncing whenever I am online. The list of snippets just goes on growing, a repository of multi-formatted notes whenever I need them.

Actually, Evernote sounds like an organizational nightmare, but the snippets can be filed away into sections, much like OneNote. You can Twitter, Facebook, email, or link the snippets. So it’s like a pumped up StickyNotes (which I have loved, but also loathed because the notes/reminders are then trapped on my desktop). It’s bigger and better than Diigo and Delicious because the user can gather together a greater range of …stuff. Again, 2G is free. The school is investigating an academic version with far greater gig. And, again, its use as a tool for middle schoolers is limited by the 13-years-old-only caveat. Doh! But, in the meantime, I’ll be investigating it for personal use.

Until now, this post has largely ignored my students, because they are just too darn young to be able to use these tools for another  year or so. Therefore, I thought I’d better drop in another tid-bit that is ALL about the students: Hoot.me

This is a cute little concept, one of a number of tools that seeks to blend socializing and studying. It aims to harness the power of Facebook as an online socializing tool – where millions of students are hanging out anyway – and turn its purpose towards study and support. Basically, Hoot.me is an application that turns the social networking site into “study mode.”

While the user remains “inside” Facebook, he or she is moved away from the wall and newsfeed. With a more atypical Facebook prompt, “What are you working on?” students can join live study sessions on that topic, complete with group video-conferencing and/or smart chat. (Smart chart allows students to type in mathematical formulas). Study sessions are saved and archived so students can search for answers in previous sessions. And these study sessions could, conceivably, be used as” virtual office hours” by teachers who are prepared to give help outside of school campus time. (Making this a more attractive option, teachers don’t have to “friend” students to be able to invite them to participate in a study group, and the sessions can be private and therefore not show up in the news feed.)

So, that’s my wrap-up of recent discoveries to enhance lap top use in and beyond the classroom. I am so glad to have that first freaked-out year of 1:1 lap top use under my belt. Yet, even in that first year, once we had the school-wide routines down – the Technology Use Policy (TUP) firmed up; the file-naming protocols sorted; file saving, storage, and sharing figured out; and my own classroom rituals defined – I have been able, for the most part, to move beyond management to enhancement of teaching and learning. Enhancement and exploration of tools, such as these, to make it that much more fun to be doing this teaching gig!

In case you wondered, a real human wrote this blog…

Okay, so I stole that line from a New York Times article by Steve Lohr that caught my attention recently with this title: “In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column.” But plagiarism as the dirtiest deed in academia took on a whole new dimension as I read the following lead:

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … . ”

Nothing remarkable in these words, you might think. It’s just a news brief published about the third quarter status of a Wisconsin-U.N.L.V. football game earlier this month. Except that it was churned out within 60 seconds of the siren … composed by a computer.

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Now, GoogleTranslate blows my mind, but this is more like artificial intelligence at work, it seems to me. An Illinois company,  Narrative Science, has been experimenting with software that is smart enough to write sports articles and other such data-based news writing, and smarter again to write like a human being – not in some kind of formulaic, fill-in-the-blank style that has typified efforts like this computer-authored work in the past. The computers may not have reached the level of an advanced human wordsmith, but they certainly manage the lingo of your typical local sports journalist with ease.

I shouldn’t be shocked, I suppose. Just as computers are getting better and better at understanding human language as we input it, they are getting better and better at generating it themselves. It has taken considerable time, money and effort investment from people like Narrative Science’s founders,  Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, who are both professors of journalism and computer science as well, and also co-directors of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University. But the results speak for themselves – literally!

What are the broader implications, though? What does this mean for journalism – already a beleaguered occupation. If the software’s advanced data mining can make sense of housing and real estate statistics, as well as quarterly financial results of local public companies, such that it can then generate automatic summary articles… Well, this kind of journalistic slog-work could certainly be passed off to a robot writer. But what happens to the flesh-and-blood people whose job has thus been replaced? And who else – what other occupation that we might have thought could only be handled by humans – is in the firing line? When it comes to education, where online  courses and universities (like University of the People or the Khan Academy) are sprouting up everywhere, this begs a couple of questions: Is this a good thing? And, what do we need teachers for anymore?

Of course, the inventors of this journalistic artificial intelligence tell us that there is no cause for alarm. The companies who have expressed interest in the technology so far say they are not looking to replace anybody; rather, they are looking at this software to publish information that simply hasn’t been published before – that nobody got around to reporting. If that’s the case, then this writing software, purely expository in nature, would be a step towards greater democratization of the news, making more local news (like youth sports) more accessible. This is GOOD news!

The same goes for the greater reach of quality education that online programs now offer. There are a lot of people who can now access the sort of education that would earlier have been unheard of for their socio-economic or geographical situation. And then there’s the “Flipped Classroom” approach to teaching. The salient point there is that teachers are still very much needed to facilitate the personalization of education, the hands-on activities, and the in-class peer-to-peer collaboration that is also vital to the social constructivist’ s way of thinking about learning. It’s just homework that has been enhanced!

Still, towards the end of the article about robot writers, Mr. Hammond could not help but push the envelope:

“In five years,” he says, “a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”

 

New Technology > New Teaching Tools > New Teaching Partnerships

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This Groen Brothers commercial spoof of a cellphone with multiple fanciful functions is a good laugh. But it’s also a sobering reminder that the things we laugh about now will be the ordinary, everyday, un-eyebrow-raising facts of our students’ future. Our kids have been born into rapid change. New tools come and go fast. Marc Prensky made a bold statement when I saw him present at a conference a few months ago: he said YouTube will be obsolete by 2015. That’s a staggering prediction for those of us who were NOT born into this over-drive of technological evolution.

As teachers, we have to get prepared for and plan for continuous change. Show reverence for the past, but don’t live in it. This involves a shift: VERBS vs NOUNS.

We think about  tools like PowerPoint, Outlook, etc, but nouns change. In their lifetimes, our kids will see technology become one trillion times more powerful. Consider the 1960s mainframe compared to today’s iPhone. And then compared to the nanomachines being researched and developed today – machines so small and so sensitive we really could control them with our brains … Wasn’t this just science fiction until, well, yesterday?

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That’s why educators need to think in terms of verbs (skills), because they tend to stay the same, (e.g. communicating, collaborating, creating, etc).

Nevertheless, digital tools are required, not optional. Prensky dismissed his much-cited terminology, announcing that “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” are OLD. We are  ALL moving to something new. And we all require digital tools to live and work. (Now, perhaps, we are all “h.sapiens digital”!)


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In fact, says Prensky, wisdom requires digital tools – because our brains don’t do everything well, e.g. we forget data; we can’t unhook thoughts and emotions, etc. (Thus, a central problem for the future of education is: What do we keep in our heads, and what do we delegate to machines? Another issue is that technology is becoming more disposable.) Nevertheless, the importance of technology cannot be understated.

The conference, where Prensky was keynoting, was called “iGeneration: How the Digital Age is Altering Student Brains, Learning & Teaching.” Before he presented, I had heard a whole lot of neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators  getting very excited about the new things we are learning about the human brain, now that we have MRI technology and other medical/scientific advances, and the impact this should have on education. Now we know, for example, that multitaskers aren’t really what they say they are – they are, at the brain level, task-switchers…

But Prensky say: SO WHAT? This sort of talk is confusing levels of granularity: how we learn vs how we learn in the classroom. Educators need to be about the Right mix and the Right Motivation. Especially during this “perfect storm” of change – change in the type of students we see these days, change in technology. And both of these driving change in education.

 

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Educators come in at the point that technology needs to be integrated with the learning/teaching. For example, assessment. Prensky asked: Would you disallow your doctor to use his stethoscope in an examination? So why don’t we have open-phone tests? Teachers need to start evaluating students with their tools, even as we keep the verbs in mind.

We are a tool for educating kids, and we need to change to a 21st century tool too. Before, we taught our subjects. Now we need to teach our students. Changes in technology and education don’t need to be intimidating if we look to partner with students going forward. We should share the work: Students do what they do well (use technology, find content, create) + Teachers do what they do well (ask questions, add quality and rigor, put it into

To put this another way: Technology’s role is to support the partnering pedagogy, i.e. students teaching themselves with teachers as coach/guide. This was the Presnky Apostasy  in essence: Don’t waste time learning to create with new tools (unless you want to) because the students can do that (and they want to do it).

Another stress-reducing corollary of this position is: Teachers should never use the technology for the students. This brought past PD with Tom Daccord to mind because he was a big advocate for Smartboards. But he was an even bigger advocate for the fact that teachers shouldn’t use them – kids should.

This relates to my previous blog post on Paul Gee’s list of important learning principles, a critical one being student motivation. What is it that best motivates today’s kids to learn?  Their passion (which is all sorts of things). Learning comes from passion, not (external) discipline.

 

And kids are passionate about technology. They want to get real. And they want to be connected. So, as I plan my new Social Studies curriculum for next year in Grade 8, I guess I’d better keep it real by having them read tweets from Libya (or whatever the real-time equivalent is of the standard and benchmark I am focusing on), even if I still can’t quite get a handle on Twitter myself.

…Or the next new thing.

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Who is using who here?

Social media tools give us more scope than ever to do what comes naturally: to rewrite our lives to reflect what we truly wish they did.

Which international school educator hasn’t written home to less adventurous friends and family ensconced in middle class suburbia about their new adopted country and omitted to mention … oh, let’s see … the frightful disregard for pedestrians on the roads. Or the neglected, burping sewer system that has to be dodged on the way to work. Or the choking levels of dust pollution courtesy of Gobi desert land degradation. Or the dodgy electrical work behind the sink in the bathroom that the local landlord swears will be dry and safe. Or the fact that even a school on the other side of the world can have the same cast of unsavory characters and political strife and report-writing stresses that any school back home offers up.

Of course, we put our best face forward when we are conscious that our words and pictures will be enshrined for posterity. So, does the invention of Facebook and Twitter change any of that?

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Some people think it does. In the drive to post interesting status updates and profile photos, there are those who stretch the truth beyond an adverb or three in order to dress up the public story of their lives. People, it seems, are doing certain things specifically for the purpose of sharing them on social networking sites. Or, more precisely, so as to manipulate the way they will be perceived online.

Some examples from student reader comments to a New York Times article: “I Tweet, Therefore I Am”

“Sometimes people make their updates angry or depressed so people can be afraid or pity them. ”

” …my friends and I took pictures because we needed a new default profile photo. Without Facebook or Twitter, we wouldn’t have to go through all the trouble of getting a new default; we would just take pictures for memories. Now we take pictures for others to see us the way we want them to see us.”

“Instead of spending time with people to get to know them better, we check their Facebook or Twitter and judge them by what they post.”

“The blend of technology and two other characteristics of our era – communication and the need for individualism – is what makes these sites so popular. “

Teachers know that it is a basic rite of passage for young people to explore their identity. Like parents, we are often left to clean up the resulting mess! But society has changed so this ritual has changed also. These days it doesn’t matter so much where you come from or what your parents do or where you are right now. Anyone can recreate themselves and express themselves using social networking tools. Everyone can find out who they are, interact with others, and make an impact on the world with this technology. But now we also do it because others are watching.

(That’s a deliberate pronoun choice there: “we.” I am deliberately not singling out students now because Facebook has proven to have great appeal across the generations. This is not necessarily a trait distinguishing them from us.)

Any social networking site user can go to great lengths to cultivate and manage their online identity. They can choose how they want to be judged. But now the advent of this technology has significantly changed behavior. As one student commented: “We find ourselves ‘performing’ for others.” It’s not just words any more, but actions that serve our basic desire to re-write personal histories. So, does this extra step mean social media is shaping the consumer as much as the consumer seeks to shape their self-expression? When your life is an act to replay on the stage of Facebook, how significant is this? Is it just the business of life as usual transferred to a new venue – or has the new venue changed the quality of the performance? And do we head backstage much anymore?

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A Glimpse into the Future

I did the simplest thing in class yesterday. It was genius – by which I mean that I had just experienced one of those “A-ha!” moments, when, for a moment, I saw with great clarity exactly how a tech tool could enhance my teaching…with ease!

I wanted to introduce our next novel study to the class: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. We read this novel primarily to explore its themes and what the author wants to teach us through those themes about the state of our society. As both a Grade 8 English and Social Studies teacher, I wanted to make a connection to our current study of Ancient Greece. Socrates was the obvious dot to which I wanted to connect Bradbury because Socrates advocated critical self-reflection and the rigorous questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions. Two of his most famous quotes indicate the goals of his philosophic introspection: “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

As serendipitous as it was that I was concurrently introducing Socrates and Bradbury, I did not want to take up a lot of class time with this point. So, how could I make the connection brief, yet engage students in the exercise (rather than just standing up front and telling them point blank, and then having many of them miss it or instantly forget it).

At this juncture, my mind alighted upon one of Tom Daccord‘s little gems, as shared with Social Studies teachers at a recent middle/high school workshop. Fusing this with the “million dollar job” activity from Jeff Utecht’s August 28 Course 1 intro day, I had the makings of a cool little exercise.

First, I told students to use the window of class time they had once they were finished and had submitted their Ancient Greece section quiz, to find out more about Socrates. I encouraged them to go to any online reference tool they liked to use to do a 5 minute skim-read with the purpose of identifying Socrates’ main philosophy. Then students were to summarize his main teaching point in a single sentence – it could be a quote from the reference site, or one of Socrates’ own, or a sentence composed by the student. While they were at this, I took the next step:

By filling in the blue form boxes at TodaysMeet - a matter of a few seconds – I had created almost instantly a simple space on the web for a synchronous conversation at www.todaysmeet.com/socrates. I projected the webpage with this simple URL, and students joined me, also in a matter of moments.

I told students to cut and paste their sentence into this chat. Once individuals had finished this step, I told them to watch as more sentences were added, and review those already submitted, with the goal of looking for trends – what ideas came up most? In this way, every student was engaged with the task, and every student reported to the class. And it all took at most 10 minutes.

Finally, I scrolled through the transcript of the chat and elicited from students the words and phrases they could see were repeated most often. The rationale was that any one individual might have misunderstood what she/he had read or been simply a bit off the mark in describing Socrates’ critical ideas, but that probably overall the classroom crowd would have correctly identified the key ideas, so we could boil down the chat input to those basically cross-referenced points.

Sure enough, key words like “question” were repeated, and one or both of the quotes I had hoped they would stumble across, stood out from the list of sentences. In a matter of collaborative moments, I believe the students had gained a clearer picture of what Socrates stood for through a process of social meaning-making enabled by a Web 2.0 tool. And, also, by me. Connectivism on multiple levels.

With the connection iterated, and an essential understanding for the novel study deeply etched along my students’ neural pathways, now they could all turn their attention to reading and self-reflection with Bradbury. It had all been so very simple, student-centered, self-differentiating, publicly accountable, high interest, and easily replicable.

Erik J and Chris F will be sharing details in their blogs about the joint Course 1 Project that we undertook to enhance our Grade 8 English curriculum with a GoogleSite-based discussion and file-sharing, with a VoiceThread activity thrown in. Putting this project together took quite some consultation but we are satisfied that the tech tools we’ve added will certainly enhance our Literature Circle discussions of Fahrenheit 451. I’m sure our efforts will reap rewards for the students in terms of personalizing and internalizing the author’s thematic lessons through collaboration.

But my favorite result of this process so far was that light-bulb moment for me in the classroom, when I saw that it doesn’t all have to be blood, sweat and tears. Technology tools offer instant gratification for old digital immigrants like me too!