Is there a way to automatically grade student responses and give them different feedback depending on whether or not they pass? Well of course there is! Keep reading ...
Is there a way to automatically grade student responses and give them different feedback depending on whether or not they pass? Well of course there is! Keep reading ...
I have spent most of this week at the annual SITE (Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education) conference in Savannah, GA. This is my first time to visit this city, and based one what I have seen so far, it's very nice.
If you have been a college instructor for any length of time, you have most certainly gotten this question from students: "Why did you take points off for _____?" This question is based on their assumption that they start at 100 rather than zero, which is where I believe they start before an assignment has been graded. If they fail to turn in an assignment, they are given the current point value, which is zero. I do not, in fact, take away all of their points as a fiery demonstration of my absolute authority in the classroom. The disparity between the way I see this issue and how my students view it comes down to a difference in understanding about how rubrics work. My students tend to think I am doing math while I read their papers (1 point off for this, 2 points off for that ...), when what I am actually doing is just reading their papers and looking for the things I told them I was going to be looking for. These "things" we will call criteria, and each criterion is explained in the rubric. The criteria are, in reality, my standards for what I expect on each assignment. I understand that some students will meet the standard, and others will fall (either a little or a lot) short of it because they still learning. When they fall short, I give them feedback for what to work on so they can meet the standard. Say it slowly ... l e a r n i n g. For example, when I write in the rubric that in order to get a 4, "All references to other sources are properly cited using APA (6th ed.) format", that is actually what I am expecting. I will not give a 4 for something that did not match the description for a 4. This is one of my standards for excellent (4-level) work. Their work may be close, but it' s not quite there, hence, the 3 instead of a 4. I didn't take off points as a punishment; they just didn't quite get there this time.
This gets complicated when I have to take that feedback and turn it into a grade. My hope is that the feedback take precedent over the grade, but I have been in this profession long enough to know that students want a grade. Most of them want to know the market value of their work, and I want to be as thoughtful, accurate, and consistent as possible when giving them both the feedback and the grade. So, how does one go about this?
My solution was to create a self-grading rubric that does all of the math in background so I can focus on the feedback. My tool of choice? Google Forms and Sheets, of course. These two go together like Jenny and Forrest. Here is how it works:
Keep in mind, this is for you, not the students. I provide the students a detailed analytic rubric for the assignment, then I turn that into something usable for myself. Below is an example:
You can also add fields to give the students pre-written feedback. I know some people disagree with this, but when you grade 30 of these bad boys and find yourself giving the same feedback on every (freaking) paper, something has to give. Below are some examples of canned feedback I give students. I included an "other" field so I can write in specific comments for students that may not apply to any other paper. And trust me, I use this field liberally.
Since I am converting the rubric feedback into a grade, I know that some criteria are more valuable than others. I would rather see students supporting their claims with high-quality evidence than putting the comma in the right place. Both are important, but not equally important.
In order to weight a score, you have to multiply it by the percentage that the criterion bears on the overall grade. For example, if Quality of Writing is worth 20% of the overall score, I would multiply this criterion by .2. Here is what it looks like in the example:
Basically, what the spreadsheet is doing is converting your score of 4 into a percentage of 5, which is the highest score possible. The spreadsheet then adds all of the converted scores and multiplies them by 20 (which is 100 divided by 5, the highest possible score). The resulting grade is below, I used colored squares in an attempt to show which cells correspond to each other.
I also checked the appropriate canned feedback and added in my own comments. You will notice below that using the checkboxes puts commas in between each comment. You can get rid of those by using the Find and Replace tool.
This is the magic ingredient that helps this rubric keep you very productive. You will need to find the copyDown add-on for Google Sheets and install it.
Once you have all your formulas in Row 2 of your spreadsheet, copyDown will detect those formulas and apply them to every subsequent row that is submitted through your form. In other words, the values you enter will be automatically calculated without any effort on your part. This is what makes the rubric a self-grading rubric. Yes, it's that simple.
I use FormMule to send the feedback to the students, but you can do whatever you want. I guess this depends on how many students you have and how much time you have. You could copy and paste the feedback into Word and e-mail it to the students, or you could use the comments tool in your CMS. For me, FormMule is the way to go.
The main drawback to doing it this way is that I cannot put my feedback in the form of comments within the paper, which can be helpful. I will have to find a way to do this, but for now I am using this system.
I have been a huge fan of Google Forms for quite a few years. I have used it for everything from collecting survey data, to getting feedback on a course, to polling students during a class. For me, it has become a necessity in the way I teach my classes. A couple of years ago, I began giving my students short, specific assessments over the assigned readings each week. Students would read an assigned article or chapter, complete some questions pertaining to the reading through a Google Form, and I would give their response a score. This system has worked well for me, but one complaint I have heard from students is that they do not have access to their responses once they hit Submit. My solution (which is really just a work-around) was for them to write their answers in Word first, then copy and paste them into the form field. I would admit to the students this was not ideal, but it was the only option. With a class of 100 students, I did not want to have to send the students their responses one by one. This constraint of Google Forms made it seem a little clunky for what I was doing.
That is, until I found out about formMule. The add-on for Google Sheets has been a major time-saver for me, and it has been great for the students as well. In short, I have been able to use formMule to send students a copy of their responses immediately after they submit them to me. The responses are not automatically graded, but the students at least get immediate feedback about whether or not their answers made it into the spreadsheet.
Disclaimer: I am going to assume a person already knows how to create a Google Form, which sends responses to a Google Sheet. This tutorial will not include an explanation about how to set up either of those tools.
This is really the easy part. If you have already installed add-ons, then this process is already familiar to you. One nice feature of the add-ons is that once you install it on one sheet, it will be available for all sheets you have created.
If you want to send your students a copy of the answers they just submitted, you must have an address to send them to. This may seem like a simple thing, but you must make sure you have a field in your form for the students to input their e-mail address.
Once the form is created (including an e-mail field), you must setup the FormMule add-on so it e-mails students their answers immediately. I want to emphasize, FormMule is an add-on for Google Sheets, not Forms. Once you create a form, Drive creates a corresponding Sheet where the data is entered every time someone completes your form. The spreadsheet will be in the same place as your form, so just go back into Drive and open it up. Once you have opened your spread sheet and installed FormMule, this process is pretty simple and straight forward. Here are the steps to complete this process:
1. Choose your data source, which should be the worksheet labeled Form Responses 1.
2. Setup the form trigger to send a message as soon as the form is submitted. You can also setup FormMule to send the responses at a later time, which is what they call a Time Trigger.
3. Decide how many different templates you want to send students, and the establish conditions for each template. For example, if you are giving a multiple choice quiz you can use formulas to automatically grade the responses and send students either a certificate of completion for passing or a notification that they will have to retake the quiz. My recommendation, especially if you are new to FormMule, is to start simple by sending students a copy of what they just submitted to you. Once you feel more comfortable with this process, you can branch out and try sending different messages based on specific criteria.
4. Now you can create the message students will receive when they submit their responses. Because this is essentially a mail merge, you can integrate data from the spreadsheet into your customized response. To do this, you simply click on a merge tag and it will be added to your message. There is no text editor built into the template builder, so you will need to use good ole' HTML if you want to add any design features to your message. Below is an example of confirmation message I have created for my students.
For me, this is the fun part. Once you have everything setup, you need to submit a couple of responses to make sure A) the confirmation message is actually sending, and B) the message looks like you want. I have to admit, I still get a little giddy when a message is automatically sent and it looks just right. Once everything looks just like you want, you are ready to go.
Feedback from my students has been they appreciate getting a confirmation message rather than feeling like their answers are being sent somewhere into the abyss. My next post will show you how to automatically score student multiple choice items, which is a pretty handy tool for giving immediate feedback.
This weekend I had the opportunity to co-present in a couple of sessions at the Texas Council for the Social Studies (TCSS) annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas. I was in two different sessions, one on Friday and one on Saturday. Details and resources from each session are below.
This session was organized by Dan Krutka at Texas Woman's University, and also included Michelle Bauml from TCU and Katie Payne from UT Austin. We discussed resources and organizations in which social studies teachers can use to get ideas for their teaching. We shared some resources, then we opened up the discussion for others in attendance to share the resources they use for their teaching. The latter part of the session was excellent, and I could barely keep up as I scrambled to take notes. You can view our slides and group document below. The document is open for anyone to contribute, so please feel free to add resources you find helpful (if in fact you teach social studies).
Michelle Bauml and I also presented a session on using images in social studies instruction. We knew there would be a wide variety of participants with differing levels of technology skills, so we wanted to present activities that range from no technology needed to those that require somewhat advanced technology skills. This session included several hands on activities and many examples. You can view the slides and session resources below.
I recently contributed to a panel for the K12 Online Conference 2015 about the changing role of technology in teacher preparation. The project was led by Wes Fryer, and other panelists included Cyndi Danner-Kuhn and Dean Mantz. The K12 Online Conference is completely free, completely online, and completely full of excellent presentations about innovative practices in classrooms across the country. This is my second time to be involved in a presentation, and it is a great experience.
Besides the convenience of being able to learn and collaborate without the burden of travel, this conference has an amazing reach. As of this morning, our panel discussion had 22 views on YouTube, and it was only posted today! I usually do not get 22 people in any of my conference presentations, so it is remarkable to think more and more people will get to engage with our ideas over time.
You can see our presentation description on the K2 Online Conference website, and I have also embedded the panel discussion below.
This weekend I presented on gamification at the 2015 Teaching Professor Technology Conference in New Orleans. This is my second Magna conference, and it was fantastic. I met some wonderful people and learned some excellent strategies for using tech in my teaching. Below are my presentation materials.
I look forward to participating with this community of learners again in the future!
Here are some other resources I have written on using gamification in your classroom:
One of the main responsibilities I have in my profession is to keep inquiry, knowledge, and skills moving forward. My particular slice of inquiry, knowledge, and skills that I am committed to moving forward is the use of technology in higher ed teaching and learning. One channel for doing this academic and professional development conferences. I had the opportunity to speak at one such conference this week in Boston. The conference is Campus Technology Summer Conference 2015. I gave a talk about using technology effectively in large lecture classes where students bring their own devices (bring your own device, or BYOD). Here are the slides to my presentation, and here is a recording of the presentation (slide capture only). Overall, it was a good conference, and I made some great contacts. I look forward to returning to CT Summer Conference in the future.
I think a lot about gamification. Not because I consider myself an expert, or even particularly good at it. I am obsessed with this concept because I think it actually works. This morning as I drove to work, I was thinking about why a person would want to spend time and energy learning about, developing, implementing, and improving gamification techniques in the classroom. After some thought, and skimming a few blog posts later in the day, I think I know what attracts me to gamification:
This is an essential piece of the teaching puzzle that hardly ever gets mentioned. We talk about learning activities, aligning learning objectives with assessment, making thinking visible, timely and targeted feedback, and differentiation (all of which are undeniably important), but rarely do I hear people in my profession talk about strategies for gaining buy-in from the students. Maybe we use other terms to express the same concept: engagement, motivation, fun. But to me, what I am really trying to achieve with my students is buy-in. Yes, I ultimately want them to learn, learn how to learn, and learn to love learning, but what influences my day to day experience more than anything else is buy-in.
Here's an example. When I was a school teacher, I learned quickly that what I called "classroom management" was less about me controlling the students than it was about students choosing to cooperate with me. Once I figured this out, I no longer exerted my control over students, and spent more time creating an environment where students were motivated to cooperate with the expectations I had set. Early on, I used The Book, where students would write their name if they got in trouble. As in, "Johnny, I told you to stop talking. Go write your name in The Book." Or, "Suzy, you are supposed to write in your journal as soon as you hand in your homework. Go write your name in The Book." If multiple infractions occurred, students would put check marks next to their name. One check mark meant missing 5 minutes of recess (which really just delayed my bathroom break by 5 minutes). Two check marks meant a whole recess, and so on.
I hated this technique because it placed too much emphasis on the behaviors I was trying to eradicate. I noticed bad behavior, and then I called attention to bad behavior, then I virtually rewarded it by letting the student stop working long enough to walk to the front of the classroom to write in The Book (which for some students might as well have been called The Big Badass Book of Awesome Badassses). This was not the kind of buy-in I was looking for. Some students were actually motivated to do the wrong thing as a way to build their classroom mojo.
When I finally was able to see this, I knew I had to add some dimensions to my classroom management that took the focus off bad behavior. What if, I thought, I put effort into catching the students doing the right thing? Would this make a difference, or did being bad just feel too doggone good? I had to find out.
So, I added two things to my classroom management repertoire that absolutely changed everything. First, I started passing out Aggie Bucks (because I went to Utah State and we're the Aggies, and I shamelessly promote my school at every opportunity). If students came in quietly in the morning, handed in their homework, and wrote their assignments in their planner, they got an Aggie Buck. If they worked quietly on their Do Now activity, they got another one. There were about 3-4 times throughout the day where students would get Aggie Bucks for doing what they were supposed to do without being reminded. They could spend their Aggie Bucks in the classroom store before or after school on things like pencil sharpeners, books, erasers, and throwing knives. I just wanted to see if you were still reading.
From this point on, I don't remember having to threaten or warn students about The Book. I would just skip over kids who had not done their morning procedures and give an Aggie Buck to the student who had. The student would eventually self-correct so he could get his Aggie Buck. It was like magic, and suddenly I had children in my classroom willing to cooperate with me.
The other thing I started using was the Pizza Board. No, I did not start giving my students pizza parties. I had a cardboard fraction board that looked like a pizza. There were 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and whole pieces. Anytime I caught the class being good, like when they got a compliment from another teacher for being quiet in the hall or letting someone go first at the drinking fountain, I would give them a pizza slice. If they got two, they had to exchange it for an equivalent fraction. I only had two rules: they couldn't barter for a pizza slice, and I did not take them away once they were earned. That would be like taking away another teacher's compliment. How dare I?!? If the class earned the whole pizza, they would get to do a fun activity on Friday for about 15-20 minutes (which, according to the students, was ALL DAY).
Here's the point: Both of these strategies, which rely on game mechanics, were able achieve buy-in from the students.
I faithfully made copies of Aggie Bucks and looked for opportunities to catch the students being good, and the students fervently tried to get caught being good. It wasn't rocket science, but it worked. It was a two-way street, and neither me nor the students could slack off if this system was going to work.
I don't have a crystal ball, so I do not know what each person reading this post is trying to accomplish with gamification strategies in the classroom. Maybe the students are motivated to move up to higher levels. Perhaps they are motivated to earn paper money so they can buy things. My students are willing to demonstrate professional behavior in order to stay on top of the class leaderboard. This is how I get buy-in from my students. I am offering what they want, which is status, bragging rights, and ultimately, a good grade. I have structured it in such a way that they earn it through good actions rather than losing it through mistakes.
I encourage you to try using game mechanics as part of your teaching and classroom mechanics. It's not magic, but with some persistence it can be a lot of fun. You have to be committed in order for it to work. Remember, frequent reinforcement is how you show the students you have bought into your own program, which fosters trust and buy-in from them.
This past year I decided to use some gamification strategies with one of my classes. I had been exposed to this idea through several articles and conference presentations, and I knew it was something that would help my teaching. After getting a handle on the course design and technical issues associated with gamification strategies, I started to see the benefits for me and my students.
Over the last couple of months, I have been thinking a lot about how to share my experience with gamification with others who might want to learn. After some thought, and a lot of trial and error, I have narrowed my approach to gamification down to 7 steps. These steps are not meant to be a formula because your goals and outcomes may be different than mine. These are just steps to consider as you plan your own gamification strategies.
This may seem obvious, but it is important that you are not just using gamification strategies for their own sake. If you want to get buy-in from your students, you must know ahead of time what you want to accomplish. What is it you want to increase or enhance with gamification strategies?
In my case, I wanted to hold the students more accountable on their professional behavior. I started keeping track of class attendance, preparation before the class meetings, professional behavior in the schools they were visiting, and active participation in discussions. I had found over time that some students were able to do these things without any sort of external motivator, while others seemed to have no sense of professional behavior. Since these are all pretty simple things to keep track of, it seemed like an obvious target for gamification strategies.
Next, you have to find out what motivates your students. Some people use experience points (XP) and levels, while others use badges and accomplishments. You have to know the students you are working with and find out what they are willing to work for.
In my case, what my students are willing to work for is a high grade. Other components of my class (exams, writing assignments, etc.) are pretty tough and leave some of the students discouraged. Others excel in these areas and want to stay at the top of the heap. This may seem obvious, but a high grade is quite motivating for students at a highly selective private university. Go figure. So, the students' performance on the professionalism "game" is converted to a grade, which is then calculated into the overall score. These students know that if they do everything they are supposed to, it translates into a high professionalism grade, which can boost their overall average. Before I used to keep track of everything, students just assumed they would get their full participation grade (which they usually did) because there was no way to really quantify it. Now that I can quantify it, students can see their progress and don't seem to argue with me about it.
After you have spent some time thinking about (and observing) what motivates your students, you need to determine your XP. I gave my XP the following values:
I know this seems pretty simple, but my goal is to keep it simple so I can stay on top of this game and give the students timely feedback. If I create something so complex that it takes hours each week to manage, there is more likelihood I will get behind and the game will lose its effectiveness.
Now that you have your XP, you need to decide how you will keep track of the points and how the students can check their progress. Rules are really important because they give the game parameters. I tend to lean toward consistency and repetition, and it just so happens my students like the predictability of the game. They know exactly what I am keeping track of, and they know what happens if they do not complete one of the requirements. I can't give points for a class they didn't attend or an observation they missed, and they seem to accept this.
I decided to have my TA's enter the points every Monday while I was teaching. They really don't do anything in the lecture hall while I am teaching anyway, so it made sense to keep them busy with updating points. I know, not everyone has a TA, so you may want to keep your game simple until you can come up with a plan that works for you.
I rank the students using a leaderboard. I use Google Sheets, and I have written about how to do this before. My approach thus far has been to rank the students using the leaderboard, and to let their innate competitiveness compel them to do things that will help them move up. Some students are content knowing they are doing everything they need to do without doing the extra things to move up. Others want to be at the top and will work tirelessly to stay there. I am fine with either case, as long as they students are being responsible and, ultimately, professional.
I have been surprised how often the students check the leaderboard. Even though this ultimately only determines 10% of their overall grade, some of them take it REALLY seriously. When there are opportunities to get extra points, they really get after it. I would be willing to bet if I asked the class their current rank, they would know exactly where they are.
This was probably the most important lesson I learned from using gamification strategies in my class this semester. The first time I did this, I kept track of the 4 main areas mentioned previously, but there was really no way to move up or improve on early mistakes. The more I thought about it, I couldn't imagine a more demotivating situation. Imagine playing a sport where there was no way to make up for a mistake made in the first quarter. Or a race where you couldn't recover from a bad start. This is essentially how I had this component of my course set up. I calculated the entire semester together, which minimized the value of individual accomplishments. Yes, students could recover if they missed something early in the semester, but that also meant they could skip some things toward the end and it wouldn't really matter.
The first thing I did was made sure there were opportunities for students to move up the leaderboard. I did this in the form of classroom competitions, challenges, and bonus points. Some of the students liked the aspect of competition this added to the class. I also split the professionalism score into three rounds. So, a student could do poorly in the first round, but fix the problem and do better in the next two rounds. While this had little impact on the overall grade the student received, it did help more students get back on the right path. For example, when all of the XP were calculated into one, massive score, students who started off poorly rarely started doing better. I honestly think they believe they had blown it, so there was no reason to try to do better. Conversely, when I split Professionalism into 3 rounds, I was able to say, "OK, on Monday we are starting from scratch. No matter how you did in the first round, you can start over." I noticed that several students who did poorly in the first round actually corrected their mistakes and did well during the next two rounds. There is more value in the possibility of a fresh start than I had previously believed. Even though the students were still accountable for their early mistakes, they were more likely to get on the right track if they knew they would get a fresh start. By the way, I think this is true in life, not just in gamification.
As a teacher, the most valuable lesson I have learned from collecting data on my students from the gamification strategies is to use that data to make instructional decisions. In some cases, it was clear from the weekly reading assignments that the class was not understanding the course material. When I am able to see from the student responses that many of them did not correctly comprehend the reading assignment, I can address that in class. I can also see patterns in student attendance (especially on Fridays) that I might not have otherwise noticed, which provides me with an opportunity to talk about this with the students. When students miss class or fail to complete a reading assignment, I can automatically send them a follow-up e-mail telling them I noticed they were gone (even if I didn't) and restate the attendance or assignment policy. When students have perfect attendance or complete all of their weekly readings for a round, I can send them a certificate of achievement. I learned from my days as an elementary school teacher that students respond much better when you catch them being good than when you remind them they just screwed up. Accountability is a good thing, but I think it should be balanced with positive news. Finally, I have learned how important it is to have detailed records for each student. Occasionally, students will contact me at the end of the term (or later) and want to know why they got this or that grade in my class. Having a detailed, quantitative report of their performance for the entire semester has come in handy in several instances.
This guest post is written by TeacherJ. She is a blogger and edtech enthusiast, and in this post she explores the similarities and differences between gamification and game-based learning. Watch out for her blog!
The increase in ownership and usage of mobile devices by students led to a change in the way educators deliver their learning materials and handle their classes. Research from McGraw-Hill Education and Hanover revealed that smartphones and tablets usage in 2014 skyrocketed among college students, where more than 80% were said to be using mobile technology to study. The number has jumped by 40% in total since 2013.
The trend in mobile learning (mLearning) has led to two kinds of eLearning methods: Gamification and Game-based education. You may have come across these two processes before, but you may be unsure of which is the better method to apply to your class. This article will detail you everything you need about Gamification and Game-based Learning.
Before we dwell on the effective nature of the two learning methods, we will define the difference between Gamification and Game-based Learning.
Gamification: This process applies game-like features to your usual lessons, by including rules and mechanics from certain games to encourage behavioral patterns in your students. The use of a leaderboard is one of the most common gamification styles applied by many educators and even businesses today. Enterprises use the process to boost customer interaction and increase employee participation. It is expected that 50% of institutions will gamify their processes this year, as reported by Gartner back in 2011. Apart from using a leaderboard, educators can apply gamification by turning achievements into rewards such as badges, progress bars, or through a point system.
Game-based Learning: This is a learning procedure whereby participants play games to learn and understand their subject and topics better. Many educational apps for students apply game-based learning, especially for younger students who require a more interactive approach to education. One of its known benefits is its ability to enhance learners’ problem solving skills. For the younger students it has been proven to enhance their cognitive skills.
Although gamification and game-based learning are different from one another, the two have common variables in terms of usage and their platforms. The two learning processes are very relevant due to the increasing adoption of mobile devices by students and educational institutions. The numbers presented by McGraw-Hill Education is expected to grow in the future, as more portable devices such as wearables, are set to revolutionize the classroom environment. However, the supply-side complexity becomes a common problem for many as there are various devices running different operating systems, making it difficult to create a learning process that fits all mobile users. Today, we have smartphones that have curved, large 5.1-inch screens such as the Galaxy S6 Edge which O2 says runs the latest Android 5.02 Lollipop OS, while there are handsets with smaller 4-inch screens running older Android OS.
Both learning methods appear to be highly effective for students, especially since it makes the usual boring classroom into an interactive and fun environment. As technology in the classroom changes, educators and their processes will have to evolve, too. The important matter that we have to take note here is that the two-game inspired processes aim to promote mastery of academic content. Educators will have to ensure that they apply the 3 E’s in mLearning (Engaging, Effective, and Easy) to make the most of their eLearning sessions.
Intuitively, the benefits of connecting with educators with similar goals and interests makes sense. I don't have the solution to every problem I might encounter as a teacher, but I probably know people who, collectively, do. If I want to try a new kind of student project or learning activity, I can probably find someone who has already done it and learn from their experience. According to Bandura, Vygotsky, and Dewey, the social element of learning is an integral part of the process. As humans who are perpetually learning, growing, and becoming, our social networks are invaluable.
Despite their value, not all social connections are the same, nor are they all capable of performing the same role in our lives. According to Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University, social connections (or as he calls them, ties) vary in strength and utility in our lives. He proposes that the more time, proximity, intimacy, emotional intensity, and reciprocal services people share, the stronger their ties to each other. Conversely, acquaintances with whom we share few of those resources would be considered weak ties.
Granovetter's argument is that the strong ties in our lives provide us with few innovative and creative ideas because there is more likelihood those people in our close-knit networks think and act like we do. The worse case scenario is groupthink, but more often the result of strong networks is maintenance of the status quo. I have personally seen this in schools, where teachers seem to be locked into their way of doing things. New teachers are quickly assimilated into their school's way of thinking and doing things, despite what they learned in their teacher preparation program. Schools all have their strengths and unique culture, but they do not always embrace innovative ideas.
This is especially true when you consider the typical model for professional development. I remember these experiences as a teacher, when we would all gather for a day of "learning." Someone who knew nothing about my school, my students, or my professional goals, would come in and try to change my teaching practice in 8 hours. While the ideas we were hearing may have been new, the support system for implementing and reflecting on these ideas consisted of a strong network characterized by a well established culture, expectations, and norms. In essence, any innovation that may have occured as a result of the professional development left when the speaker exited the building, and we quickly defaulted back to our usual way of doing things. Typically, the best part of the day was lunch.
According to Granovetter, strong ties are not the best source of new ideas and opportunities. We know our own ideas pretty well, but we may be oblivious to what is going on around us. Just as my strong network has strengths and solutions to certain issues, other strong networks have different strengths and solutions to other issues. Unless the two strong networks create channels to bridge their ideas through acquintances, they will spin in isolation without ever getting anywhere. Granovetter calls these acquaintances weak ties, and his hypothesis is that they are an essential piece in diffusing innovative ideas and new opportunities across organizations.
This is where a PLN comes in. Teachers who are connected use social media tools, conferences, and other social opportunities as a way to connect to the ideas and opportunities they might not otherwise learn about if they only associate with their strong ties. In turn, I share my ideas and opportunities with those whom I am only loosely connected through my PLN. The result is, as Granovetter explains, a crucial bridge to other densely knit social groups. In this regard, a PLN is like connecting galaxies or remote islands that otherwise might not even know of each other's existence.
My main point is this: developing and maintaining a PLN goes beyond getting teachers to embrace digital social tools like blogs and Twitter. The tools in this case are mere conduits for something much deeper, bigger, and more important. The digital social tools are that crucial bridge to ideas being considered and implemented in other galaxies, ideas and opportunities you may never otherwise consider or find out about. This is something sociologists have been pondering for decades, and the underlying principles are as relevant now as they were when Granovetter began writing about this in 1973. The more time and space people share, the more they think alike and adopt similar behavioral patterns. While this may provide a certain level of security and comfort for some people, it is not ideal for growing and learning. We need weak ties to other strong networks if we wish to stay fresh and creative. This is why teachers should build, engage, and share within a PLN. This is why weak ties area actually quite strong.
If you would like to read Granovetter's article on this, you can access it here. He has written extensively on this topic, but this particular article is my favorite.
This semester I created a project in which my students built and participated in a personal learning network (PLN). This is something I have done in the past several years, and I have learned a lot about particular digital tools, teaching strategies, and overall wisdom from other people in the same profession.
When something is rewarding, it's easy to assume others will immediately see the same value in an activity as I do. I mean, they signed up for my class, so they must have some interest in using digital tools to communicate and collaborate, right? Well, not exactly. The aspect of a PLN that I neglected to consider is that many of the connections I have made took years to become meaningful. That is, my personal cycle of reading/seeing ideas, trying them, reflecting, trying them again, more reflection, etc., has been a process that started a long time ago, even before I had what I would call a PLN. I became aware of two very important facts regarding a PLN:
Being the adventurous type, I forged ahead knowing the results may be less than convincing. My first step was to make some suggestions for the students about which sources they include in their PLN. Building the network is the hardest part, and I knew most of them did not know how to get started. Based on my own experience, I suggested the following sources, along with their possible affordances and drawbacks.
A hodge-podge of life events, shared videos and articles, and pictures from people who I may or may not have known in person at some point. The things they post sometimes make me want to respond, then I'm like "I haven't seen that person in 20 years! And even then I hardly knew him." There are professional groups and pages on Facebook, but I find they get buried by all of the random things people share. The few professional pages I have "liked" do not seem to be updated very often, and I end up just being distracted by cat videos.
Twitter is like candy. It seems fulfilling at first. I read quotes and re-tweets and people's random (very concise) thoughts, and it almost seems like I am learning something for a second. And then it's gone, but I still want more. So I keep scrolling. I have found some excellent resources that consistently link to good articles and posts, which has caused my attitude about Twitter to improve in the last couple of years. Some people who I follow tend to share too much, and there does not seem to be a good way to filter. The stuff I am looking for gets buried by the people who share too much.
This social network tool has always been a mystery to me. I would say about three-fourths of my LinkedIn contacts are people I know, with the remaining quarter being people I have never seen in my life. Occasionally I will get a notification that one of my "contacts" recently joined LinkedIn, yet I have no idea who this person is. Other times, I get contact requests from people in my geographic area who are clearly just trying to, well, network. I usually add the person if there seems to be some common interest, whether it is our city or field of expertise. Then there is this strange thing called Skills and Endorsements. I understand the premise behind this feature (people are willing to vouch for my skill set), but I always chuckle when I get an e-mail telling that so-and-so has endorsed me for a skill in which so-and-so knows absolutely nothing about. You mean this guy I have never met just endorsed my skills in curriculum development? He must know something I don't!
In terms of using LinkedIn as part of your PLN, they do have many Groups you can join. Some of them are centered around an organization (alumni of a particular college or another professional organization), while others are based on interests (e.g., designing innovative higher ed. learning spaces). If you want to stay caught up with the discussions, you can opt to receive updates and digests via e-mail. If you want to participate, you have to go to the website. The groups have a discussion board/forum look and feel, which is not my preference. Of all the social networks in my PLN, this is the one I refer to the least.
My first thought was, Why do I need another place to waste my time. How in the world is this going to be different from Facebook? Well, Google+ has surprised me. I have found some very active and interesting communities, and I honestly say I find something of interest every time I scroll through my feed. I have also become pretty active in my sharing within these communities. I have made some good connections, gotten good feedback, and found the experience to be enriching. (Not all of my students felt this way about Google+, but I did not consider that when giving them a grade ... ha ha.)
I still like to follow several blogs, but I have found that sound bytes from Twitter, Google+, and Facebook have squeezed them out a little. I used to follow blogs through Google Reader, which disappeared, and now I use Feedly. I do not really make time to check in that often, but I still log in about once a month. I end up marking whole sections "as read" because I know I will never read most of the stuff. I will skim the headlines and make sure I am not missing something really good.
Here is the list of my PLN that I share with students to get them started. I have also started to dabble with Reddit and Scoop.it, but I have not used them enough to speak to their suitability to this project.
Of the many ways ITC has changed (and is changing) education, none seem more obvious than e-mail and learning management systems. It seems students these days expect ubiquitous, continuous access to course content and their teachers. How do I know this? Well, for one, I commonly get e-mails from students in the middle of the night. I am no longer surprised when I wake up in the morning to e-mails from students, most of them sent well past midnight. I do not think they expect an immediate response, but it reveals a student's mindset when you see he has sent a message in the middle of the night the instant he had a question about an assignment or grade. Second, my students are quick to let me know if they cannot access a course document or cannot see their grade. If the gradebook in my LMS were a section of the Oregon Trail, it would look like this.
The course syllabus? It probably looks more like this.
I am digressing. Anyway, teachers these days must anticipate the "right here, right now," mindset of many students and parents. Over time, report cards were augmented by weekly take-home folders, then daily homework planners, and now the LMS has crept into K-12 schools. Some schools have adopted an LMS that every teacher is expected to use. This was the case at the private school where I worked a few years back. Teachers at this school were expected to post grades, assignment details, worksheets, and other announcements each week. In other cases, a teacher may choose, independent of the rest of the school, to use an LMS in this way with students and parents.
This past week in my class, we explored various options available to teachers who want to use an LMS for managing learners and organizing content for their class. Before we looked at any platforms, we discussed the features one would expect to see in a LMS, and we listed them on a shared Google Doc, which the students filled out as they explored. Here are the results of our exploration.
|Upload course materials||✓||✓||✓|
|Upload materials in a variety of media (e.g., post a video for students to watch)||✓||✓|
|Dashboard with upcoming assignments||✓||✓||✓|
|Submit using a variety of tools||✓||✓||✓|
|Quiz tool||✓||It may be there, but we couldn't find it||✓|
|Embed content from other sources||✓||Only from pre-selected sources|
|Features of this tool that may be particularly appealing.||Links to Google Drive, Archives class data, calendar linked to assignments for multiple classes.||Teacher can annotate papers, messaging feature, flashcards||Interfaces with Apollo (the BYOD presentation tool). Quizzes can be tracked in realtime using a simple dashboard.|
There are some obvious omissions on this list: Schoology and Google Classroom. This is mainly because we only had 2 hours and 40 minutes, so I had to make some choices about what to analyze. We already had someone demonstrating Edmodo, and I felt like Schoology was similar enough to skip past it. Some of the students actually mentioned it as we discussed Edmodo, and they were able to identify the similarities and differences themselves. I would have LOVED to show the class Google Classroom. I would love to see Classroom for myself, for crying out loud! Yes, most of their tools and features are available and free to everyone, but there are some that are not. This is especially true of GAFE, where if you are not in the club, you are WAY out of the club. So, this class exercise was not exhaustive, but I believe it gave the students an in-depth look at different ways to design an interface, features to include and leave out, and how easy different tools are to use.
As a teacher, professor, or instructor at any level, one of the keys to survival is knowing how to continually learn and grow. Personal learning is one of the characteristics of teaching effectiveness. It is easy to get stuck in a rut in any profession, but teaching is especially vulnerable to this tendency because teachers are continually having to adapt to new students, new materials, new mandates, and new approaches to learning. It's surprisingly easy to just find a comfortable middle ground and float along, usually at the students' expense.
One of the most rewarding endeavors I have ever pursued as an instructor is connecting with other educators in my PLN (personal learning network). Learning from other instructors, most of whom I will never meet in person, has expanded my knowledge, skills, and understanding of the teaching and learning process in amazing ways.
Over the past several years, I have participated in communities of practice with other educators around the world. Some of them live in my city, others live on the other side of the planet. I have used a variety of digital tools to create my PLN, all of which have contributed to my professional growth in some way.
Over time I have created a list of blogs by like-minded educators who have a similar goal: design and implement innovative teaching strategies to increase student learning, engagement, and motivation. I use tools such as Feedly and Flipboard to aggregate blogs so I only have to look in one place to see updates and new content. Most of these blogs are focused on educational technology and classroom teaching, but just because I use technology to stay up to date does not mean I am only learning about technology. I have learned strategies for facilitating discussion, embracing diversity, addressing cheating, and many other teaching topics.
In addition to following a collection of blogs, I also participate in different communities. These communities are hosted on social networking sites, and they are pretty easy to follow. For example, I am currently in about 15 Google+ communities, and I can get updates on new posts by scrolling through my news feed. I also follow about 30 different educators and innovators through Twitter, and it is pretty easy to scroll through updates to see their latest ideas and discoveries. Finally, I have joined a few different LinkedIn groups, and I get a weekly digest of anything that has been happening there. The point is, I do not have to spend a lot of effort staying updated on what is going on in these different communities, and when I do get updates I almost always learn something new.
The final way that I have gotten involved in my PLN is to actually participate and be a contributor. This blog has become my channel for processing, sharing, and reflecting on my own teaching ideas. Most of my posts would just sit isolated in cyberspace if I did not share them with my communities. By not only learning from others in my PLN, but also sharing my own experiences, I have become an active participant in this global experiment known as the World Wide Web. It's one thing to try other people's ideas, but it is downright exciting to find out other people are learning from me and trying MY ideas with their students.
This semester in my graduate-level technology class, I decided to do something new. I created a semester-long project where my students would build, engage, and participate in their own PLN. The first phase required them to join various communities of interest and follow different folks on blogs and Twitter. I gave them some suggestions, but I know some of the students have already branched off into their own interests. The second phase was for them to share what they were learning within a private Google+ community that we all joined. This way we could share what we were learning in a safe, secure place. The last phase, which is still underway, will be for the students to share what they are learning within the communities they have joined. This may mean sharing items they find, writing and sharing their own blog posts, or participating in discussions online. Since this project is currently underway, I can't really measure whether or not it is going well. It's going better than I anticipated, but I will not know the extent of everyone's participation until a few more weeks have passed. It took me a few years to become fully immersed in my PLN, so I can't expect a full conversion from my students before we've even reached midterm. But I'm committed to see this through. I cannot understate the value of my experience learning from and engaging with other innovative teachers. It has been transformative and deeply rewarding, even though some of those other educators have no idea I am learning from them. I would be remiss not to provide the same opportunity to my students.