Fear of Google Docs

This fall we will be rolling out Google Apps for Edcuation district-wide. With the snap of a finger, all 12,000 students and staff will have access to Google’s cloud services. OK, so it’s more than the snap of a finger, but with the skillful work of our dedicated IT technicians and developers, it will appear to be a snap for the users, as it should be.

Some of our ELA teachers are planning their writing curriculum for next year, and want to convert to digital journals, RTLs, and more. They are very excited that with Google Docs students can create and collaborate on writing pieces from any computer and share them with each other and the teacher. As they were talking, one teacher said the following (this is a paraphrase):

My fear of using Google Docs is that the students will not be able to handwrite well enough for the assessment at the end of the year.

Ow. Yikes. This is not a case of a technology-fearing teacher (she is totally together w/respect to students & technology). This is a case of the reality of the dichotomy between what we should be doing and what we have to do. At the end of the day (year), students must handwrite essays in those ridiculous, arcane, blue books that have haunted education for a century. These great teachers did not see this issue as a deal-breaker at all, and simply came up with a game plan to have students do enough hand written practice along the way to make sure they are OK for the exam. It’s a shame they even have to consider this issue.

I know that the writing process for me is completely different when I word process compared to handwrite. I could not be a blogger if I had to hand write and scan in my entries. I think totally differently when I type as compared to write. This, combined with the fact that I’m an immigrant to this type of writing, makes me wonder just how bad it is for our natives who type and text all day, and then for a few hours a year are forced to handwrite the things that judge them the most on their progress!

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for assessment (if it is in fact possible that assessment is a useful thing). When I took my certification exams for the School Building Leader and School District Leader recently, they were completely computer-based. New York State contracts with Pearson to administer the exams at Pearson testing centers. I was able to sit in a secure, comfortable environment with a good functioning computer and type to my heart’s content (it had better be a secure, comfortable environment with a good functioning computer since each test costs $400…). I remebmer taking a pilot version of the exam which was hand written and it was not a good expereince. The good news about the exams is not only that they are computer-based, but that the essays are human-scored. That is a win-win in my book.

What is the fix for this? Simple – if we have to give assessments, then we have to provide an environment where the students can take them on a computer. Perhaps New York State will have to begin investing in laptops so every student in the state who normally takes a paper exam can do the same thing on a computer. That is a lot of computers, but at the same time, the increased benefit to student success and savings in paper is well worth it.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial Images:
Pens on Parade by Abizern
fast fingers by KatieKrueger

MUVEs Finally Make Sense in Education

Multi-User Virtual Enrionments (MUVEs) have been around for a number of years. Second Life is by far the most well known. For at least a couple of years I have had a Second Life avatar (Coffee Roffo), and participated in a number of different events “in world”. As hard as I have tried, I have never seen where the effort involved was worth the results. Most of the educational events have been live presentations where a group assembles virtually, and listens to/watches a presentation. Woo-hoo. I have found other virtual meeting spaces such as Elluminate, WebEx, or even good old Skype to be more productive for synchronous meetings/presentations.

Along comes another virutal world environment, River City, a research project from Harvard. In this world, students are given the task to go back in time to determine why the people in the town of River City are sick, and what can be done about it. It is a great scenario in which participants have to use detective skills and lots of science application to figure out what happened. Students in our school participated and enjoyed the experience. The limitation with River City is that once the scenario is done, there is no more to do in the world.

This year we had a 6th grade class participate in another virtual world research project, Quest Atlantis (QA), from Indiana University. QA is a virtual world project in which there are multiple learning opportunities in multiple content areas. For the pilot, this class participated in a mission called Spacenik, where the goal was to determine how to deal with an asteroid that might be on a collision course with Earth. The task involved processing a lot of complex data, making judgements, and recommending to NASA a course of action. I worked the entire scenario as if I were a student, and it was hard. There was a lot of reading, analyzing, and writing to do. In addition to content-specific tasks (missions and quests), there is a whole virtual environment where students can earn credits that represent good character traits, get “jobs” to help other world members, and more.

With Quest Atlantis, suddenly MUVEs make sense. What sets Quest Atlantis apart from the other MUVEs I’ve seen is that is provides multiple true learning scenarios. If Second Life is the whole world, then Quest Atlantis is the school. It is a virtual learning world, and not just a virtual world. It is a focused, high-level place where students are challenged to do some great things.

Quest Atlantis is still an active research project, so it is not open to the general public. If projects like this are the future of MUVEs, then there are some great opportunities to come.

Touch This – Tactile Learning and Technology

A few weeks back when the iPad became available for pre-order, I investigated and decided not to order since my current OS does not support it. Getting the iPad would send me into that unforgiving and expensive upgrade loop where I would have to get a new OS, and hence a new computer, etc. just to support the device. Not that I did not want an iPad – having an iPod Touch, I know how different a device it is, and the thought of the new form factor in the iPad hits home with me.

Fast forward to this weekend – watching the early reviews and wondering, I took an innocent trip to the local Apple Store “just to check it out,” and yes, I came home with an iPad. A brief conversation and help from an Apple Store employee allowed me to activate the iPad in the store, so I can use it to do whatever I want wirelessly with no immediate need to upgrade my home computer. The only thing I cannot do is sync to my computer to download pics, videos, etc. but I can access all important data via the web, and can download all the apps I need via my iTunes account.

So, what is the game changer in this device compared to any other? Simple – just as with the iPhone and iPod Touch – it’s the tactile interface. You use a third sense – touch – to interact with information, knowledge, and learning. We all know that media helps learning – audio and visual stimulus are key components. However, when you add the kinesthetic mode as well, that opens up a whole new layer of input to the mind. When I can spin the world with my finger in Google Earth, zoom into a video about the Haiti earthquake, and physically drag layers of seismic images, it is a very different learning experience.

My initial reaction to the iPad and the tactile input has made me reflect on why I have always felt the Smart Board brand interactive whiteboard is a key technology tool. You can argue until you are blue in the face about which brand of interactive whiteboard provides the best bang for the buck. There are also very valid arguments about how an interactive whiteboard used poorly is an expensive overhead in the front of the room. Despite this, at the end of the day, the Smart Board allows you to take your finger and literally interact with the world. That being said, the Smart brand suddenly has a huge challenge ahead as there are millions of people who now expect multi-touch surfaces, something the Smart Board has not been able to provide.

So what is it about the iPad that makes such a difference? The size and form factor. This may be just my personal preference, but it just feels right. It can be tucked in a sleeve and hidden, taken out for research, used to watch media, and a host of other uses that support learning and productivity. The iPad is certainly not the first tablet on the market. I’ve thought for many years that the tablet could really help the classroom, but nothing so far in this category has made any difference. I think that the iPad will, at the very least, push this category of learning tool very far ahead.

Whether or not it is the iPad, the Smart Board, or some other device, what I think is fundamental is tactile interaction with technology so learning is literally an extension of your hand. The more senses involved in learning, the better. It will be a while before the iPad will give off smell or taste, but we’re moving in the right direction :-).

If you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy a new computer…

Creative Commons image courtesy of Maddy Lou on Flickr.

Teaching and Connecting with Students

For our staff development day on Friday March 19th, I had the opportunity to present to the faculty alongside Mr. Jachlewski, our Assistant Principal, on the topic of teaching and connecting with students. The idea for the topic (and the day overall) was generated by Mrs. Keipper, our Principal, after viewing the video Did You Know 4.0 about the social media revolution underway. Mr. Jachlewski put together the framework and bulk of the topics. I added many of the technology aspects and compiled the data presented.

Our goals for the presentation were to:

  • Raise awareness about social media
  • Cause faculty to reflect on their teaching
  • Cause faculty to reflect on the future

We spent some time talking about what it means to be a teacher, what it means to be a student, how to engage students, and what the world of the student is like outside of school. We then spent a little time looking at what it means to be connected, what a student of connectivism looks like, and the role of the teacher in connectivism. Next we looked ahead and considered the implications of using the computer that most students have – the mobile phone – as a tool in the classroom. We ended by talking about the “why” – why does this matter? Here is the presentation file we used:

We raised lots of questions, and did not intend to provide answers. We are in the midst of a technology revolution, and need to consider what to do. There are pros and cons to social media and its place in the classroom. For example, students are used to multi-tasking on numerous activities when at home and connected to their computer and cell phone. In school, it is much more necessary to stay focused on one topic at a time. Does this mean the school is out-of-touch with how students learn or is school the only place left where they learn this skill? Where does social media fit into the picture? Many schools are trying to leverage the impact by using sites like Ning to have school-centered social networks. Does this promote learning or promote socializing?

This discussion fits right into where we are at with our Technology Committee. We have come to the end of a 5-year plan that focused on placing hardware tools in teachers’ hands. We are in a good place – computer labs, mobile labs, projectors, interactive whiteboards, clickers, etc. The next logical place to go in hardware is some form of 1-to-1 computer initiative for students, but there is no indication if/how/when that might happen. So where do we go for our vision for technology for the next 5 years?

What are your thoughts, arguments, comments or other reactions to these topics?

In a simple two-word question, What’s next?

Why are organizing and brainstorming tools hard to integrate?

The research is pretty clear. Organizing and brainstorming tools provide students with support to structure their thoughts and learning. I’m thinking specifically about Inspiration software since that is something we have had for years. It continues to be one of the most useful and least used tools we have. I count myself number one in non-use. Anytime I’m beginning a project for myself or for use with a class, I do not break out Inspiration and organize my thoughts. I use a word processor or other format to put things together. For some of the research projects students do, we have included Inspiration as part of the organizing process, and then converted to a word processing document. When the time ogre rears its ugly head, Inspiration is the first thing to get tossed out of the project.

Why is this?

Organizing is a top issue with students crafting their writing. Inspiration is the perfect tool to assist with this. Is it because Inspiration is a separate program that is not the final product? Are the benefits not worth the time to learn it? Jamie McKenzie always publishes his writing with diagrams that show his thinking and it is very informative. Should we have students produce writing that includes diagramming to enhance their work? Tools like Inspiration are perfect to help promote the Better Answers writing process we use.

So, where am I at with this? Let’s see… (click & drag the diagram around)

Well, that pretty much clears up my thinking…organizing and brainstorming tools take time, but the benefits definitely outweigh the challenges. The key is finding the right tool to facilitate the process, be it Inspiration or Bubbl.us (used above) or something else. Clear and thoughtful communication is difficult – tools such as these can really help.

The Research Process: Simple Wikipedia

February begins a big push for research projects at school. 6th grade students learn about the Middle Ages, while 5th graders are researching a famous person.

With all the great new tools for research and inquiry, I sometimes long for the days of index cards, an encyclopedia, and a few books. (not really…don’t worry)

When a student sits down to research, they literally have the world at their fingertips to learn from. Google alone will deliver far more than a ten year old could process in a lifetime. Organizing and brainstorming tools like Inspiration and text editors like Microsoft Word are invaluable.

The fact is that kids still need to read, process and organize information. It does not matter if they have index cards and books or a word processor and the web. If they cannot interpret what they read into their own ideas, it does not matter how pretty the product is. Sometimes I wonder if all the new technology tools mask this underlying need.

Wikipedia is an awesome tool when used well. One of the issues of this collaborative tool is that the language can be far above the readability for a young student. Enter a sister project of Wikipedia, aptly named Simple Wikipedia. The goal of Simple Wikipeda is to present the same content as Wikipedia, with simpler words. Not simpler concepts necessarily but simpler words. It is also geared for English Language Learners.

It is easy to see if there is a Simple Wikipedia article on a topic. Do a search at Wikipedia, and after finding an article, change the “en” part of the web address to “simple” to see the Simple Wikipedia version of the same article. You could of course just do a search at Simple Wikipedia. Simple Wikipedia has a much smaller but growing list of articles.

As an example, check out the article on Frank Lloyd Wright at Wikipedia and then Simple Wikipedia.

Simple Wikipedia is one way to help tame the flood of information available to students today.


CSIRAC (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer), Australia’s First Computer (1949)
Creative Commons image from the Wikimedia Commons

Online Learning is Big Business

I recently attended a presentation by online learning vendors who have been awarded a contract by our local BOCES. They offer online courses for students who need to make up missed or failed classes (credit recovery) or want to get ahead or take a low-enrollment class (credit accrual). The vendors offered to us through this contract are Apex, Aventa, Florida Virtual Schools and Pearson NovaNET.

The three things I came away from these presentations with are:rsscar

  1. Online learning is big business (as evidenced by the reps who flew/drove in from all over the country)
  2. Online learning is an inevitable, rich, plausible model for delivering instruction (note the order I put those in)
  3. Online learning is most effective when there is human interaction with real people along the way (read: teachers are still the most important part of learning)

IMHO, based solely on the presentations I saw (and not too much additional research on my part yet), the programs I like the most are the ones where students have access to teachers/experts as they experience the online course. Some of the products appear to have more of a support system for this while others seem more stand-alone. All of the reps talked about how human guidance was important (although not all the products had that guidance built-in).

It goes back to the basics of teaching and learning – anyone can be an expert in a content area. It is people who go beyond the knowledge and use their passion to connect with students who are successful in helping students achieve. All of these online systems offer the content in some rich-media, sequenced, accountable fashion. I think the ones that will be most successful for student learning are the ones that include the most important part of the learning process – people.

Image courtesy of Shira Golding on Flickr

The Writing Process

Clear, articulate, concise writing is important for our students. The mind of a middle schooler may often be anything but clear, articulate and concise 🙂 (and that is OK). What strategies can we use to help students acquire and integrate learning of the writing process?

Better Answers is a writing program we are working on here at Heim. It is a structured writing response model that builds on the strategy of cues, questions and advance organizers. The “Better Answer Sandwich” graphic sums it up best (click to enlarge):


Using this organizer, students are directed through the writing process using specific, direct organizational ideas. The program has been used in lower grades in the past, and is now being rolled out across the school.

How might technology support this process?  One way is with a new web resource we are piloting, the Glencoe Online Essay Grader. Teachers can assign essay topics to students, and students complete the essay online. In my first looks at the resource, there are tools that can be provided to students to formulate answers very much like the sandwich model. Additional supports (if desired) for students in this environment are sentence structure advice, spell and grammar check, and sentence diagramming.

Other technology resources to support the writing process include:

  1. Create a template in a word processing document that includes the steps of the Better Answers process. Students download and complete an essay using the steps as a framework.
  2. Use brainstorming and organizing software (such as Inspiration) to have students graphically complete the steps of the process, and then convert the graphic diagram to a word processing document.

Better writing is always a goal, and there are many technology tools to support it.

Worksheets and the Internet

Content Tech
Ideas for Technology Use in the Classroom

Using a worksheet to research information on the Internet and fill in the blanks is a popular activity. In its most worksheetfundamental state, this is a form of the strategy cues, questions, and advance organizers. Students use questions on the worksheet to (hopefully) guide them through a website and acquire the necessary information.

When a worksheet is fill-in-the-blank, it tends to be a regurgitation of information found on the web. How might the strategy be more beneficial to the students in order for them to be not only exposed to the information, but begin to acquire, integrate and personalize the knowledge?

A word processing document set up as a KWL chart is one option. Since the students will be using the Internet for the research, using the computer to create the document is easy. Begin with a brief warm-up where students type what they know about the topic. After some sharing, move on to having them type what they want to know. Through the use of questioning, direct students to note any other information they should want to know if they did not come up with the questions on their own. During the investigation process, students look for the information based on their own inquiry, making the process more meaningful. At the end of the lesson, students indicate on the word processing document what they have learned. The entire document can be submitted or posted electronically with ease.

Worksheets structured to use the technology available can help to increase the acquisition of knowledge in many ways. Other thoughts/ideas most welcome!

Image courtesy of christopherl on Flickr