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Creativity

Using Gamification to Get Buy-In From Students

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:

Buy-in

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.

Gamification works when what you offer aligns with what they want, and you all work together to achieve it.

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.

What about you? Share some of your classroom techniques that utilize game mechanics.

7 Steps to Gamification

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.

Step 1: Decide what you want to motivate your students to do.

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.

Step 2: Figure out what motivates your students.

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.

Step 3: Determine your experience points (XP).

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:

  • Attendance: 100 pts. per week
  • Preparation before class: 100 pts. per week
  • Conduct and Appearance at schools: 200 pts. per week
  • Discussion after the school visit: 100 pts.

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.

Step 4: Design the rules of the game.

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.

Step 5: Update often, give frequent feedback.

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.

Step 6: Provide opportunities to move up, improve, and be challenged.

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.

Step 7: Use the data to make instructional decisions.

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.

What am I missing? What have you learned from using gamification strategies in your class?

Strength of Weak Ties and your PLN

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.

Are You a Technology Ninja or Samurai?


ninja-samurai

I will start by stating the obvious: There is a HUGE difference between learning to use technology for yourself and using it effectively in the student learning process. Both applications of technology have specific skill sets, they inform each other, and they are both important. In the educational technology world, you might see this dichotomy through various lenses: digital media literacy, TPACK, SAMR, or some other framework you're fond of presenting at conferences.

My awareness of the massive difference between these technology applications came when I began encouraging the students in my large, 100-person education course to bring their laptops, tablets, and phones. OK, I don't have to actually encourage college students to bring their phones to class. Pry them out of their hands? That's more like it. Anyway, once I began infusing my class with activities that require technology, I realized I am not as good as teaching with it as I thought I was. Yes, I knew how to do some cool things to present information to my class, but when it came to using technology in real time with 100 students in a way that kept them active and engaged, I had a lot to learn. This is when I decided I was a pretty good Technology Ninja, but I had a long way to go until I was a Technology Samurai.

What do these two terms mean? Let me explain.

Technology Ninja

Ninja were covert agents who specialized in espionage, assassination, sabotage, and infiltration. They were skilled at disguising themselves as servants, camouflaging themselves with trees and other objects, and scaling the walls of buildings like Spider-Man. Their objective was to infiltrate enemy dwellings without being seen. In fact, there is probably a ninja in your pantry right now, scooping out your peanut butter with a Chinese Throwing Star.

As a Technology Ninja, I have gotten really good at using technology in ways that my students hardly know it's there. My most recent set of posts about Outsmarting the LMS is a good illustration of ways to be a Technology Ninja. You can embed documents and web pages, install scripts, and set up forms to make your job easier, and the people actually using these tools have no idea about the magic you have worked on the back end. They just know it works.

While these ninjutsu techniques save me a lot of time and energy in the long run, they do very little to influence the lived experience of my class meetings. Most of the work is done in the background, usually in the form of tinkering, testing, and modifying. It wasn't until I told my entire class of 100+ students that I wanted them to bring their devices to class that I realized these skills were not sufficient for me to reach the level of technology greatness I have always aspired to achieve.

Technology Samurai

When I first began thinking through these ideas, I wrote this out as SAMRi. Get it? SAMR with a lower-case i, like Apple does, only at the end of the word instead of the beginning. Because I am aiming for the R (redefinition) in SAMRand after I achieve the R in my technology integration skills/knowledge, then I will be a technology SAMRi! Uh ... yeah. Anything that needs that much explanation is not as clever as I initially thought it was. Also, SAMRi would direct a lot of traffic to my blog by people looking for Saudi Arabian folk music.

So, what is a Technology Samurai? The traditional samurai were an elite class of noble Japanese warriors, dedicated to protecting their culture, leaders, and territory. Unlike those stealth and sneaky ninjas, they were skilled at hand-to-hand combat and infantry tactics. Their weapons of choice were swords, kama, longbows, daggers, and armor. They were skilled horsemen, and they were also known to use rifles and cannons in the latter years of their existence. Samurai were also governed by a strict honor code, characterized by discipline and loyalty. In a word, they were fearless.

You know what else is fearless? Telling your class to BYOD. Unless you have thought through the details of your activity, you will have students knee deep in Pinterest or Facebook before you can say, "OK, let me just try one more thing to get this to work." Students love technology, but not in the way nerds like me think they love it. They love that technology connects them to the things they love.

So, after having done this for a semester, I have started coming up with a few essential skills that every Technology Samurai must master. These skills/tools are focused primarily on teaching in a BYOD or 1:1 environment. I will address being a Technology Samurai in the areas of digital media projects, collaboration, research, etc. in the coming weeks.

Sync your class

You must have a way to get every student in the same place and keep them there. Your class LMS page won't work. Neither will a Facebook group or Schoology or Edmodo. Why? There are too many other features to look at. Grades, assignments, forums, friends. Too many distractors. You need to keep them all in the same place at once. I recommend a tool like Apollo or Top Hat. If all of your students are on iPads, you may consider NearPod. Each of these tools has something in common: they put your content on every screen in the room at the same time. Yes, students can stray away, but not as much as you might think.

Reduce Friction

This is something that took me awhile to figure out. Personally, I do not like logging in to things. I would much rather log in once and then have the tool remember me. Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter .... they are great at this. My school's LMS? It's like Guy Pearce in Memento every time I close the browser window. Whenever possible, I try to minimize the number of times students have to log in to do class activities. Once is ideal, twice is acceptable, three times is just getting to be plain annoying.

Collect student responses

In addition to getting all of the students in one place, virtually speaking, you want to keep them engaged. A good way to do this is to involve them in activities that make them think then require a response. There are several tools that will let you do this. Apollo and Top Hat have built-in student response features. Socrative and Infuselearning provide another way for students to respond, and they do not have to set up an account to do it. They just enter the class code, and they automatically receive a prompt every time the teacher posts a question.

Deploy links

Another important tool to have in your arsenal if you are going to teach like a samurai is to be able to deploy links to the class. By deploy links, I mean send the student out from your synced content to other content (videos, web pages, forms, etc.). Apps like Apollo and Infuselearning have a built-in link tool that will send a URL to every student logged into your class page or presentation. This is really handy if you want students to spend a few minutes reading and discussing an article, blog post, video, or image. You can also send the students to an editable Google Doc, Sheet, or Presentation if you want to give them a place to discuss or share ideas.

An acceptable alternative to sending links to students is using a URL shortening tool, like bit.ly or goo.gl. Just remember to use a serif font so the students can tell the different between capital I and lower-case L. You may also want to consider if this is appropriate based on the size of the room and projection system, the age of the students, and number of times you are having them key in shortened URLs. If you have a bunch of these on the board, it may get confusing to the students.

Facilitate group work

Another skill to master as a Technology Samurai is to keep students engaged in group activities with their computers. I mean, the students have lugged their computers to class and followed along up to this point, so why not do some things with computers that computers are uniquely good at doing. Maybe that involves editing the same document at the same time, or adding slides to a common presentation. You can have them pin and explain places on a map.  Annotate or draw images using the drawing quiz tool in Apollo or Infuselearning. Create a 5-picture story, or capture a 30-second explanation on Educreations. I'm not trying to exhaust the possibilities here. If you went to the trouble to have the students bring their computers to class (or went to the extreme trouble of providing a device for every student in the school), then leverage the capabilities of a computer. Don't use it like a pencil then complain that students just want to look at Pinterest.

Showcase the students

Now that you have had the students doing some activities on the computer during class, showcase their work. Display their annotations and diagrams. Flip through the presentation and let each group present their page. Show the 5-pic stories and see if the students can guess the topic. Watch the 30-second explanations. This part of the BYOD learning environment is more than the payoff. It's the point in the lesson in which you communicate to your students whether you, as the chief learner in the room, value this activity as a real learning endeavor or just a hi-tech time filler. If you truly value the work they are doing, then devote time to acknowledging, praising, critiquing, and sharing the fruits of their labor. If you blow past the showcase, don't be surprised if the students show less enthusiasm and engagement the next time around.

You should strive to be both a ninja and a samurai. A samja. A ninjurai. A SAMuRinja. Both skill sets are important for teachers these days, for different reasons. One will keep you learning, the other will help you focus on student learning. The way of the ninja and samurai is not easy. They involve risk, uncertainty, failures, faith, persistence, patience, creativity, and problem solving. There is great cost in becoming a lifelong learner, but it's not nearly as costly as settling in and ceasing to grow and develop as a teacher.

So, what are your examples of being a Technology Ninja or Samurai? I will follow up on this, and I would love to hear your ideas.

Some Bullet Points and a Picture

As a teacher, I am always making instructional decisions. More often than not, these decision manifest themselves as questions. What do I want the students to know, understand, or be able to do at the end of my lesson? Who will do most of the talking, me or the students? Where does this lesson fit in the big picture of the class? Will I use technology? Will the students use technology? In addition to asking myself these questions, I am also continually looking for ways to teach better. That includes instructional strategies and technology. In some cases, the stars align and I discover strategies in which technology allows me to teach a lesson in a completely new way. For those SAMR enthusiasts out there, this would be R, or redefinition.

One such idea I recently came up with is an activity I call Some Bullet Points and a Picture (SBPAP). Yes, I have a dry sense of humor. This activity builds on the time-tested teaching strategy of having students work in groups and put their ideas down on chart paper. I love this activity, especially for class reading activities. I will assign an article, divide the class into groups, have them read a specific section of the article, then summarize and share their section with the rest of the class. This is a great way for the students to take ownership of the article and teach it to each other. It also gives them an advance organizer for when they go back and read it again for the exam.

SBPAP is the same idea as using chart paper, but the students summarize their group discussions on separate slides in a Google Presentation. I did some minimal setting up before class by creating the presentation, making it editable for anyone with the link, and creating a separate slide for each section of the article. The students then went to the Google Presentation, found their slide, and began summarizing their section of the article. The only two rules were 1) they had to paraphrase every main point in their own words, and 2) they had to find a picture that characterized their main points. The students used the research tool to find their images so they did not have to leave Google Presentation. Overall, the students loved the activity and we had a lot of fun seeing everyone's slides get edited at once.

There are some obvious advantages to doing this activity with a Google Presentation instead of chart paper:

  • The summaries are all in one place, so I can see which groups are making progress and who is not
  • Since the students are all working on the same presentation, I can project it and have each group present their ideas
  • The research tool allows the students to search for images, videos, quotes, charts, facts without leaving the presentation
  • After the activity is over, I can export the presentation as a PDF and post it to my LMS
  • The slides give me a record of what we covered in class, especially for students who missed and want to know if we "talked about anything important"
  • I don't have to figure out what to do with the chart paper after the activity is over

SBPAP was a great way to engage the students and have them actively learn the content. I will definitely do this again, and I may even think of some other ways to modify this activity and leverage more features of Google Presentation.

What are some innovative ways you have used Google Presentation in your classes to facilitate group work or engage the students?

Outsmarting the LMS: Download Links for Google Docs

As I have stated before, embedding a Google Doc in your LMS is infinitely more efficient than yo-yoing documents up and down from the server every time you must edit the document. You paste the embed code one time, make a couple of minor modifications, and every edit from that point on is made directly to the Google Doc. It really is that simple. The main downside to this method is that students have a hard time printing the document. Remember printing? Paper? That strange material formed from mushed up trees that can tear, slice your finger and never seems to run out of battery? Yes, many students still like to use it, and unfortunately the method I described in my previous post does not lend itself to printing at all. In fact, it is quite frustrating for the students, not to mention wasteful. Basically, your browser will print the entire web page as it displays on the screen, not just the document.

So, how does an instructor address this? Well, you could always upload a PDF or Word version of the document to the LMS that students can download and print. But wait? Doesn't that put you back in the same dilemma of uploading a new version of the document every time you make a change to the Google Doc. That actually seems like DOUBLE the amount of work!

Wouldn't it be great if you could create a link for students that lets them download the most recent version of the document in a format that is easy to print? Thankfully it is possible, and I will show you how.

Step 1: Locate the Document ID

Each file hosted in Google Drive is given a unique (ungodly) ID, which can be found in the URL of the file. See the example below:

Embedding_Docs_in_eCollege_-_Google_Drive-9

Step 2: Create a download link on the document

You will need to create a link on the document that students can click to download a print-friendly version. I put the link at the top of the document because students ... well, many of them aren't fond of scrolling. Here is an example of the download link. I tend to type the text first, then I add the URL next.

Embedding_Docs_in_eCollege_-_Google_Drive-5

Step 3: Add download URL to the link

Now that you have a link for students to click, you need to add a URL that will prompt the browser to download the most recent version of the document. This URL will vary based on the type of Google file you are working with (e.g., spreadsheet, document, drawing, presentation). The code for each type of URL is below:

  • Google Document : https://docs.google.com/document/d/[FILE_ID]/export?format=[FORMAT]
    • FORMAT : docx, odt, rtf, pdf, txt, html
  • Google Presentation : https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/[FILE_ID]/export?format=[FORMAT] 
    • FORMAT : pptx, pdf, svg, png, jpg
  • Google Drawings : https://docs.google.com/drawings/d/[FILE_ID]/export?format=[FORMAT]
    • FORMAT : pdf, svg, png, jpg

You will modify the text in bold to fit your particular situation. For example, if I want students to download a PDF of my example document, the URL would be:

  • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Srfb6GX2SqTyMqioS81a-aK88EHUNIExGMap5BYxu6s/export?format=pdf

In case you are new to this, here is how you add the URL to the download link you created:

Embedding_Docs_in_eCollege_-_Google_Drive-15

 

This may seem like a lot of steps, but it is pretty easy once you have done a couple of them. As always, you only have to do this once for every document, and the link the link and document ID will stay the same. Let me know if you have any other helpful tricks for embedding Google Docs in your LMS, and happy coding!

Outsmarting the LMS: Creating Drag and Drop Folders

Update! Since posting this several months ago, Google has disabled embedding a Google Site. It's nice to know my Technology Ninja skills are being noticed (which is the exact opposite of what a ninja actually wants to do). I will leave this tutorial in case Google decides to start playing nice again.

Software developers must have a really distorted view of how professors use their time. Maybe they think we teach a few times per week and spend the rest of our time playing golf or drinking coffee while we complain about students. Maybe they think we enjoy spending hours each semester staring at progress bars while our files upload. Who knows. What I do know is that over the last 10+ years in higher education, I have developed a love/hate relationship with every LMS I have been forced to use. I love them because it is the best way to communicate with my students. When they want to know something, this is where they look first. I can post grades quickly, give feedback on their work, and create a safe place to share information.

I also hate the LMS because most of them are outdated, not very attractive (though that is not really such a big deal), and require redundant work from semester to semester. My goal the last few years has been to outsmart the LMS and find ways to work efficiently despite its limitations. I will spread these ideas out over several posts, which may take me several weeks to work through. The first topic I would like to address is creating drag-n-drop folders for documents and other media.

Step One: Creating Folders in Google Drive

The first step is to download and install the Google Drive desktop app. This is a pretty easy step, and the program runs unnoticeably on your computer. Once you have this installed, it will sync your Google Drive from the cloud to your computer. Anything you create from the computer (folders, files, etc.) will also be instantly synced to the cloud. I like to stay organized, so I created folders for each class, and then created folders within each class folder for the different things I would be sharing with students. This includes assigned readings, PPT files, assignment descriptions, etc. I already had some of my files ready for the new semester, so I copied them into the appropriate folders.

Step Two: Embed Folders into Google Sites

This is the step that might be a deal breaker for some people. As you may know, you can share a Google Drive folder with anyone with the link, which is a pretty handy feature when you want to share a bunch of stuff that might exceed the e-mail attachment limit. Unfortunately, Google has blocked the folder view in Drive from being embedded using the iframe tag in HTML. If you do this, you will be met with a blank box in the middle of your webpage. The only way to embed dynamic content from a Google Drive folder is to embed it in a Google Sites page. Sites has a widget for embedding an entire folder. So, for every folder you want to share with students, you will have to create a webpage for that folder. In order to keep myself organized, I structured the Google Site exactly like the folders in Google Drive. For example, I created a page for each class, then I made a page under that page for each folder I want to share. This took some time, but I should only have to do this once. I can always make more pages and folders, but the basic structure is there.

Step Three: Embed the Google Sites Pages

The final step is pretty straight forward. You do not need to know a lot of HTML to embed the Google Sites pages into your LMS. My institution uses Pearson LearningStudio, which allows me to directly edit the HTML. First, I created a tab, or Unit as they call it, for each folder. I then used the following code to embed the webpage on that tab:

<iframe src="http://www.somepage.com" width="100%" height="1000"></iframe>

You may need to adjust the settings of your Google Sites page so the embedded folder will stand out, but that is an easy fix. It should look something like this:

Crit_Investgatn_Teach_Learning_040__Alexander_

The beauty of this system is two-fold. First, any time I want to add or delete files from a folder, I just do it from the Google Drive folder on my computer and the changes are immediately synced anywhere the folder is embedded. I can also edit files and the changes are immediately synced. Second, this code is preserved anytime I copy a course to a new semester. So, I only have to do this once and all of my content follows.

What hacks have you come up with to make the LMS easier to deal with? I would love to hear your ideas.

All In: The New LMS

Today I attended a presentation sponsored by Apple about the changing role of mobile technologies in higher education, particularly colleges of education. This is of particular importance to my college right now because we are beginning to talk a lot about how and why to use different types of technology in our courses. Many faculty have been using technology for many years in their courses, but we are starting to see a shift in the role of technology in terms of how students access and use information. The presentation today, given by John Landis, Ph.D., was very much in line with the conversations I have been having with some of my colleagues over the past few months.

I will be honest, Dr. Landis' presentation was impressive. He is a great storyteller and is current on the trends and predictions sweeping through both K-12 and higher education. He understands that technology has traditionally been used to help teachers do what they've always done more efficiently or faster. He knows that students these days can get the same content traditionally transmitted from the instructor on any device, anywhere, at any time. And it's usually a lot more interesting. None of this was new to me, but it was still delivered in a fresh and relevant way. Landis presented a blend of theories, examples, and demos, primarily from his MacBook and iPad Mini, and the technology worked like a champ. He mirrored his iPad display using an Apple TV, and could switch pretty quickly to his MacBook Air to demo other programs. As a pretty heavy tech user, I was impressed that he was able to change speeds in so many different ways without so much as a hiccup.

What this presentation made very clear to me, however, was something I have been mulling over for quite some time. It is this idea that in order to fully leverage the benefits of one device, you must fully employ all of the devices in that particular ecosystem. In this way, Apple is actually becoming a device-based LMS. Just like Blackboard or Moodle have a suite of tools under the hood, Apple has an array of powerful tools that can really change the way teachers and students approach learning. The catch, however, is that one must buy in to the whole ecosystem in order to really see these benefits. For example:

  • I can create a customized, multimedia iBook on my MacBook for free, but it only really handles Mac-based media (.mov, Keynote, Pages, etc.).
  • Only my students with an iPad can download the multimedia version of the book and get the full benefit. Students running Mavericks can also read the book on their Mac, but students with Android or Windows devices are left behind.
  • I can mirror my iPad to my MacBook using AirServer, but it's not stable and does not work over my schools WiFi. If I want to really mirror my iPad, I need an Apple TV.
  • I can sync content across devices with a variety of tools, but the only way to sync ALL of my content is with iCloud, which is only for Mac.

The point is, each tool Dr. Landis showed us does amazing things. I want to try everything he showed us (except for the stuff I am already doing ... I want to keep doing it). But the only way to leverage the capabilities of each tool is to use it as part of the Apple Ecosystem (a term he used repeatedly). Apples are meant to work with other Apples, and there is really no motivation to make them work with Android (Google) or Windows. My workarounds, as I have found, are much more complex than the typical tech-using teacher is willing to mess with. I have found a way to teach from my iPad without using AirServer, which is a pretty awful replacement for an Apple TV. I use Google Docs to host and share course files, which works pretty well most of the time, but it's not as slick as content aggregated in an iBook. I have founds ways to do the things I want to do, but it's always a little more work when I am doing this across devices and outside "the ecosystem."

My take-away message is that Apple, Google, and Windows really are trying to create a system, and already have, where users must be "all in" in order to reap the benefits of their technology. More than ever, their tools only really play well with their own family members, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a balanced digital life across platforms. With the exception of a few apps like Evernote or Google Drive, content on your device stays on your device.

I have no idea which ecosystem TCU will join, but I think they will eventually need to decide. These companies, which control the market, are leaving us very little choice otherwise.

Lecturecasting with a Bamboo

I recently got a question from a teacher about recording mathematics explanations using a Bamboo from Wacom. I have never used a Bamboo before, but I know people who have and I've seen other tablets like it, so I knew what this teacher was asking. When using a Bamboo, you project your computer on the screen using a digital projector, and the tablet is essentially a big mouse pad that lets you draw or write with a stylus. I have used similar tools before, and there is no projection on the tablet itself. You can just see your marking on the computer or projector.

Since the computer is the "brains" for the Bamboo, rather than an app on an iPad or other tablet, Bamboo users must use a program that runs on their computer. To my knowledge, the are not many computer programs that function as a whiteboard AND let you record your explanation. One would have to use a whiteboard app concurrently with screencasting software. This may become more trouble than it's worth, in my opinion. There is, however, a web tool called Educreations that works as a whiteboard that records pen strokes on a virtual whiteboard. The developers really push the iPad app, but there is a web component to it as well. I have used it with my students, and it works pretty well when there is no iPad available.

Using this tool, the teacer would project the browser page using the computer, and the Bamboo would be the writing tool. I wanted to walk myself through the process and recorded a demo, seen below (Note: I am not using a Bamboo; rather, I am remotely accessing the screen from my computer on my iPad using SplashTop. The iPad is acting like a Bamboo ... complicated, I know.)

The teacher to whom I was explaining this process bought his own Bamboo and teaches in a school devoid of many technological tools other schools have access to. My goal was to point him to something free that offered most of the things he wanted to do. Conceptually, this teacher understands the value of digitally recording complex explanations to students. He can go back and revisit old problems without having to rewrite them on the board, and since the entire explanation is recorded the students can watch it later when they are working independently. I tip my hat to teachers like this who catch a vision and seek out information to make it happen given the resources they have access to. iPads and other tablets are slick, trendy, and honesty, quite powerful, but they are not the only way to implement innovative teaching strategies with technology. No matter what the tool, there is no replacement for persistence and creativity.

iPad Mini-Projects in a Lecture Course

When my college got a cart with 20 iPads, I began brimming with ideas. I had been teaching in a computer lab for about 7 years, and there were many ideas I had always wanted to try on tablets and mobile devices.

Computer labs can be a challenging place to teach, and I must admit I am still not completely comfortable having to remind students repeatedly to stop looking at Facebook or Zappos. There are many activities you can do in a technology-enriched classroom, but it takes some time and careful planning to teach the students how to carefully move media from a camera to a computer to the cloud to a different computer and back to the cloud. Some of my students never become quite comfortable with storing and retrieving their data from multiple devices, even though the technology is advanced enough nowadays to make the process seamless.

An environment which is even harder to teach in than a computer lab is a large lecture hall. Until last fall, the largest class I had ever taught was about 30 students. This all changed when I began teaching the course for my college intended to orient early-career students to the big, wide world of education. This class is primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores, and they are a mix of education majors and folks from other programs seeking an elective. The class meets for two hours, three days per week. I typically facilitate lecture/discussion on Monday, Wednesday is spent in schools observing teachers and students, and Friday is a lab with more discussion, presentations, and other activities. Needless to say, this class is its own planet with quite a bit of gravitational pull.

Teaching this class presented many challenges, but the most immediate to me as professor on record was to make the Monday lecture/discussion not so brutal. Here are a few facts you may or may not know about college students :

  1. Their primary objective is to earn a high grade. This is particularly true at a private university.
  2. This objective tends to keep the students' focus on points, scores, and averages.
  3. This tends to divert their attention away from learning for the purpose of mastery.
  4. Class time, therefore, is seen as something required to help them meet their objective.

This becomes challenging because anything the students perceive will not be on a test or included in a paper becomes unnecessary, in their opinion. So for me, the goal has been to make the Monday class meetings something the students want to do rather than have to do.

One method I have used is mini-projects with the class iPad cart. I didn't want to burn the students out with these projects, but I had a few ideas I had used on a smaller scale. I was ready to try them on a larger scale with more students. My iPad mini-projects this semester included:

  1. Short Public Service Announcement videos about risky behaviors many students try in school. The students got into groups of 3-4 and made a short PSA about the risky behavior they were given (e.g., drugs, alcohol, delinquency, pregnancy, STDs, and cheating. They had to include at least two statistics we discussed in class, and the video had to include everyone in the group. They uploaded the videos to a common Google Drive account, and I made the videos available for each student to view.
  2. Group wiki about the hard decisions school districts must make about funding and cutting programs. Each group played School Budget Hold'Em, then reflected about their decisions on a wiki. The iPads turned out to be not so great at editing a wiki, but thankfully many of the students bring their laptops to class.
  3. Thank You video to participating school. The students in this class, in addition to hearing me pontificate each week about the mysteries of education, observed in local schools for an hour each week. I put them in groups and had them record short thank you messages, which I edited into one video. I then sent the final video the schools, which I assume they enjoyed but I don't really know for sure.
  4. 5 Picture Charades about the various philosophies of education. They worked in teams and tried to portray a different philosophy of education (traditional, progressive, existential, and critical) in 5 pictures. All I have to say is, students can be very creative when they want to.
  5. Flipped lesson outlining the lesson sequence using Educreations. The students were given relatively easy topics, such as long division, simple machines, branches of government, and subject/predicate, and instructed to create a short lesson for students. One of the requirements was to label each section of the lesson (activate background knowledge, state objectives, explain the concept or skill, guided practice, independent practice), which I think was one of the key parts of this project. The students thought the main take-away was learning how hard it is to explain things succinctly and accurately. I still find that challenging with my own children.

I learned a lot about using iPads with a large class in a lecture hall setting. There were a lot of challenges and mistakes, but not as many as I would have predicted. As technology usually goes, my hiccups came in places I didn't predict. I think the students received this projects pretty openly, and their products were very good for the most part. The other challenge was finding time to watch and read their creations. 20, 2 minute PSA videos can take a lot of time to get through, especially when you add in transition and loading time. I will have to think of a way to do this better. These activities definitely stretched me and increased my own skill set, and I am eager to try it again in the fall.

Guest Blogging in the U.S.A.

The following post is something I wrote as a guest blogger on Wes Fryer's popular blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativity. My contribution will be posted on June 21.

The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer.

-Bertrand Russell

The first time I remember “creating” something for a school assignment was in 3rd grade. Up until this point, what I remember about school involved completing worksheets at my desk, reading from various texts in front of the whole class, and being placed in groups based on my ability in math and reading. This all changed in Mr. Beaver’s class, my 3rd grade teacher.

Mr. Beaver involved his students in various activities and challenges, most of which required us to build something with materials we found at home. He would come into class one day and toss out some ambiguous statement as if it were a hook with a worm: “My daughter bought a kite this weekend, and it works pretty well. I wonder if she could have built a kite out of supplies she found at home. Nah, probably not. That’s too hard for someone her age.” This was just enough for a few of us to go home and try to prove him wrong. During the school year, we had several projects that involved creating things: electromagnets, dioramas, kites, maps. For a kid who liked making stuff anyway, it was a fun year in school.

This experience probably planted the seed in my mind that projects are a fun and engaging way to learn. As a teacher, I tried to implement several different projects throughout the year, and now I spend a fair amount of time helping other teachers design and implement student projects in their classrooms.

Most of the work I have done in recent years has centered around digital media: teachers helping students combine images, audio, video and/or text to express their learning through such products as digital stories, documentaries, podcasts, virtual museums and comics. More recently, however, I have been involved in projects that cross over from digital media to physical media, otherwise known as digital fabrication or desktop engineering.

The focus of this initiative, under the direction of Glen Bull at the University of Virginia, is to teach students to apply math, science, engineering and technology skills and concepts to real-world problems. Students create digital models of objects such as electrical circuits, windmills, and gears, print and cut them using special equipment, then construct the components into a physical object. This short video describes the process of digital fabrication.

The concept of creating virtual 3D representations of objects before creating the physical object is not new. Many of the things we use everyday - cars, homes, buildings, city plans, electronics, and aircraft - were first designed and tested in a virtual environment before the physical object was ever built. Similar to storyboarding in movies and game design, virtual models help designers test and troubleshoot their products without making potentially costly mistakes that waste resources. As teachers, we want our students to be problem solvers and identify areas for improvement early in a process rather than later.

An integral part of this initiative has been training teachers - both in-service and preservice - how to integrate engineering and fabrication activities into their existing curriculum. Our research has confirmed a line of previous studies that many in-service and preservice teachers, especially at the elementary level, lack confidence when it comes to teaching math and science. This can be a barrier when it comes to encouraging teachers to create engineering design projects for their students. In response to this problem, we have been replicating engineering design projects being done with 4-5 grade students in Virginia with preservice teachers in North Texas.

If you are interested in reading examples about digital fabrication in a teacher education course, I have provided a few for you here:

The University of Virginia also has a wealth of resources on this topic, which can be accessed for free on the Make to Learn website. Most of these activities do not require a Silhouette cutting machine and have been successfully implemented in some classrooms with nothing more than scissors. I have also found some excellent activities at robives.com, but I have yet to try any of them with students or teachers.

My hope is that sharing some of the work being done in the area of desktop engineering with a larger audience will generate some interest in doing this type of work in the classroom. This initiative is in its infancy, yet it has already attracted quite a bit of attention and buy-in from several school districts, universities and the National Science Foundation. The need for our students to be creators, thinkers and innovators has never been greater, and there seems to be no better way to foster these qualities than to engage students in activities that require creativity, thinking and innovation. Students already have a reputation for being massive consumers of digital media and other technological innovations, and they are one of the largest groups to create and share digital content. Now, with the emergence of desktop engineering we have the resources at our fingertips to help them discover the relationship between virtual and physical media and further explore what it means to play with media.

Saving the world one student at a time

When I arrived at UNT, one of the projects already underway in the research center where I work was MSOSW (Middle Schoolers Out to Save the World). The focus of this project is to increase middle school students' interest in science, technology, engineering and math through a problem-based unit focused on energy conservation. The students participating in this project, which included schools from Texas, Louisiana, Maine and Vermont, use Watts Up? devices to measure the amount of vampire energy used by the electronic devices in their homes. This project involves a lot of in-depth learning about energy consumption, carbon emissions, measurement units for energy and power, energy costs, carbon footprint, stand-by power and product design. In addition to these concepts, the students are required to do a lot of math for conversions, and they must use a spreadsheet. Because I see such value in these types of projects, I wanted my pre-service teachers to experience firsthand what it looks like to complete a problem-based unit from beginning to end. I observed this unit being taught last year at Good Shepherd Episcopal School, but I had never actually planned and taught it myself. Let me tell you, the planning was much more time intensive than I had assumed, and I ended up staying up late one night to get all of the materials ready.

The first thing I did was put my students into groups of 2. I normally let them pick their own partners, but they have gotten, how shall we say, comfortable this semester, and I wanted to break them out of their apathetic little comfort zone. The next thing I did was set up a Google Presentation for each group. I wanted them to see how this tool worked, so I created one for each group and set them up so anyone could edit. The next thing I did was lay out the project on Glogster. I was never really happy with how this turned out, but you can see it here. The process of setting up this glog (their term, not mine) required me to go find all of the resources I wanted them to have for the project. This included a carbon footprint calculator, a vampire energy calculator, a graph maker, a couple of videos and a spreadsheet for entering some data. As the pre-service teachers went through this project, I had them report their information in the Google Presentation along the way. I also brought a few Watts Up? devices to the lab and hooked them up to a monitor, a CPU tower, the printer and the document projector. I wanted them to do the math required to calculate how much energy the lab uses in a 24 hour period. Overall, they did a really nice job and completed the whole activity, even though it was not for a grade (I will grade it in the future, I think).

Here are a few lessons learned from this tech-rich problem-based unit:

  1. Pre-service teachers actually like this kind of work. I have to say, this was hard and the students really struggled with some of the math and science concepts. But they stuck with it and took the topic seriously. I would even go so far as to say they learned something about energy conservation from doing this. I also hope they learned something about using this teaching strategy with students
  2. Glogster is kind of cool, but it has been extremely unstable and unreliable lately. On several occasions I have logged on and gotten some sort of "We will be down for the next 36 hours, but we are adding some really awesome new features!" Well, when I go to retrieve my work from a Web tool and it is not there, I'm done with that tool. That is a total deal breaker for me. So, Glogster, I am sure your new design is really awesome, but you let me down on several occasions and I'm done. I will also not be pointing my students to this tool because it let many of them down too.
  3. When you set up a Google Presentation to be edited by anyone with the link, it will not let you import images. The students made a graph that was exported as a JPEG, and I wanted them to import it into a slide. Google Presentation wouldn't let them do it, so we found a very bothersome work-around. If we pasted the image in a PPT slide, we could copy and paste the graph into the Google Presentation (but only if we use CTRL-V, not the mouse). I don't know if this was a bug in the new re-design of Google Presentation, or if they have this feature disabled for when anonymous users are editing a document. Either way, it was annoying and slowed the process down temporarily. In a K-12 classroom, this could mean the difference between a project going well and the whole thing crumbling in your hands. I do have to own this one, though, because I never tried to edit a presentation or insert an image as an anonymous user. I should have done this beforehand, but I just took for granted that it would work.
  4. Google Spreadsheet worked like a champ, and I will definitely use it in the future for activities like this. I have used this tool for years, but I had never seen multiple people entering in data at once. The students also thought this was really cool.
  5. The Vampire Energy Calculator is very cool, and I think this is what really brought the project home for the students. Even the act of physically dragging electronics into different rooms made this more like a simulation than a calculator. It's a very well-designed tool.

So, that is my first attempt at teaching the MSOSW unit, but it will not be my last. I already have some ideas for how to make it better next time, and I hope this is serves as a catalyst for some students to begin envisioning this type of instruction in their own classrooms.

Digital Fabrication, take two

Yesterday I was asked to cover a class for one of my colleagues, so I planned another round of digital fabrication activities for his students. I had done the same thing last week with another colleague's class, using the materials I developed last year. The first attempt last week did not go nearly as well as I remembered the activities going last year, so I was motivated to rethink how I was presenting the content, as well as the activity I was having them do. The "old" activity was challenge that involved designing a container for tootsie rolls that would maximize the surface area:volume ratio. The concept was good, and the students approached it with enthusiasm. However, it turns out that their math abilities were a pretty major roadblock to getting anything substantive out of the activity. After the box was built and they stuffed it with tootsie rolls, the learning was basically over. This issue has roots in several factors that are true of most preservice teachers.

  1. Preservice teachers' pedagogical knowledge has more to do with their worldview than their aptitude or attitude. Since most of them were taught from a traditional approach, the chasm between problem-based design activities and the lecture-test-essay model they are used to is a quantum leap. The problem is not that they are resistant to new pedagogical approaches; they simply have very little, if anything, to which to anchor them.
  2. Before preservice teachers can understand something as a teacher, they need to take a step back and experience it as a student. Activities, therefore, need to be authentic and replicate, as much as possible, the way it might be done in a classroom.
  3. Based on the previous two observations, if the instructor wants preservice teachers to abstract pedagogical principles from an authentic activity, he or she is going to have to lead them there. You can't expect inexperienced teachers coming from a traditional paradigm to naturally make connections between the activity they just did and broader educational ideas. It's like giving someone from a remote tribe in the Amazon rainforest a debit card and expecting him to naturally gravitate to an ATM and get some cash. The notion that there is "money" in a "bank" that can be "accessed" remotely just does not mesh with the way he thinks the world works.
  4. Finally, authentic activities must be accessible. That is, they can not be too hard nor too easy. If the activity is too easy, the preservice teachers think it is fluff and busy work; if it's too hard, they can't envision themselves teaching that way. Either extreme will likely reinforce the worldview you are trying to change.

To improve on the previous activity, with these observations in mind, I designed the following challenge:

  1. I started by describing the mentality of many students today, which is that every task they are given in school has a right answer, and their goal as students is to get the right answer the first time. Many teachers reinforce this mentality by how they conduct their classes. At present, the world works much differently than classrooms do. In the world, we encounter problems to which we must develop solutions. These problems are typically ...
    • Ill-defined: the cause of the problem may not be readily apparent
    • Ill-structured: because we don't know the cause, we don't know where to start exploring solutions
    • Complex: there are many factors involved, each of which influences the other, and we don't know how changing one factor influences the other factors
  2. I then tell them the story of William, a 14-year old boy from Malawi who had to drop out of school because is family was literally starving to death. They could no longer pay for his education, so he used the library to try to educate himself. From reading physics and "green" energy books, he got the idea of improving his family's way of life by building a windmill and generating electricity for his home. Using the images and diagrams from a book on wind energy (he was not able to read English very well at the time), he built his own windmill from old car, tractor and bicycle parts and provided electricity for his home. Soon, people from all over came to his house to charge their cell phones. Not long after this, he built another windmill to pump water to irrigate his family's crops.
  3. I transition to the next point by telling the students that William solved his problem by using the resources available to him to create a solution to his problem. This took several attempts, and you can see how he improved his design from the first windmill to the second. In the same way, teachers need to provide opportunities for their students to solve problems using their available resources. Since there is no single right answer, students must be evaluated using different criteria.
  4. I then talked about a new set of resources that students have access to. We talk for a minute about how everything they use now was first designed in a virtual 3D environment before it became a physical object we can use. I took a minute to show them ModelMaker, a simple tool for creating 3D shapes from 2D cut-outs.
  5. I then explained the challenge, which was create a windmill that was able to lift a bucket of tootsie rolls. They would construct their windmill using card stock, a pencil and masking tape, and they would design their bucket using ModelMaker. The group able to lift the most tootsie rolls would win the  challenge, the prize for which was getting to eat as many tootsie rolls as they wanted. :-)

Here are some pictures of the activity ...

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Get Adobe Flash player

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In summary, this activity was a vast improvement over the previous activity. The preservice teachers were able to see for themselves how their design choices affected the way their windmill functioned. Some groups created a "cute" windmill that would not spin, while others created an aesthetically bland windmill that performed wonderfully. Some groups put more focus on the size of their container than they did on the design of their windmill, and one group created a wonderful windmill but their bucket too small. Had the bucket been bigger, they were convinced it could have carried the most tootsie rolls. For some of them, the fact that they created a machine that actually worked was very rewarding in itself. I will do some follow up with my own students to document their reactions, but my impression was that this was effective and worthwhile. And in the spirit of engineering and the design process, there was room for improvement.

The 15-minute Experiment

One tool I have used with students for several years is a wiki. I have personally used wikis for group work, class websites and digital portfolios. However, I have had a hard time coming up with a good activities for my students that really demonstrate the affordances of a wiki (group editing, version history, comments and discussion, etc.) beyond the ability to just create a web page. In fact, my experiences were always similar to Melissa Cole, who had a lot of great ideas for using a wiki in her class but struggled to get buy-in from her class. I have had the same problem in the past, where I would set up a semester-long collaborative project for students to build a collective knowledge base. These projects always started out strong before interest fizzled after a few weeks. One interesting piece from Cole's article was the brief taxonomy of wiki usage, taken from Tonkin (2005):

  1. Single-user. This allows individual students to write and edit their own thoughts and is useful for revision and monitoring changes in understanding over time.
  2. Lab book. This enables students to peer review notes kept online by adding, for example, commentary or annotations to existing lecture notes or seminar discussions.
  3. Collaborative writing. This can be used by a team for joint research such as a group project, essay or presentation.
  4. Creating a topical knowledge repository for a module cohort. Through collaborative entries students create course content that supplements and extends delivered material.

I don't think this list is exhaustive, but it got me to thinking. How could I show my students the power of collective knowledge without giving them a project that would drag on forever, while harnessing knowledge each student currently possessed?

Well, I came up with the following idea:

Imagine you were each asked to speak to a group of students new to UNT about tips for being successful in their first semester. In other words, what do you wish you had known as an incoming student? Chances are you could come up with several good tips. But what would happen if three or four of you collaborated on the same talk? You would probably be able to come up with an even better list of suggestions for incoming students. What you will do in the next 15 minutes is collectively tap into your knowledge and experience and provide incoming students with a knowledge base that might be helpful to their transition to UNT (assuming they take your advice).

The result was this wiki, which I created using WikiSpaces. The end result is not totally impressive, and you can see that some of the students took this opportunity to be kind of silly (which I can relate to ... I was always that kid in the class). But what was interesting was the reaction from many of the students when we debriefed about this activity. For most of them, they got it. They were able to see in a  short amount of time that many people can collectively put their heads together and create something useful (e.g., Wikipedia, though that experiment has taken many years to create).

On the technical side, there was quite a lot of work I had to do beforehand to make this experiment truly 15 minutes. Here is the rundown:

  1. Set up the wiki
  2. I took advantage of the free teacher upgrade, which allowed me to add users in bulk. This takes about a day to do, since wikispaces wants to verify your .edu or k12 e-mail address.
  3. Created a CSV file with a username and password for each of my students.
  4. Uploaded the file and created the student accounts.
  5. Distributed the usernames and passwords to my class (via Moodle)

I demonstrated this process to the class as well, in case they wanted to try it themselves. I think this is an activity I will include in the future, and I may even have my students edit or add to the existing entries in addition to creating their own. I may have to find a new topic before long if this one becomes saturated, but I think there are still several topics that haven't been addressed.

So, how do you use wikis in your teaching?

Inspiration is for amateurs

This time of year, when there so much to do, I find it hard to get motivated to do some of the things (e.g., grading) that I don't want to do. This morning as I was driving to work, I was reminded of an interview I once saw with Chuck Close, a professional artist. He has these words for anyone who is emerging with their profession:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

This is a popular quotation, and for good reason. If I treat motivation (inspiration) like it is something that I must have before I can do anything meaningful or productive, I will end up wasting a lot of time. I have experienced this first hand recently with my writing, where I have been much more systematic about chipping away at manuscripts than I have in the past. There have actually been studies about this, and they show that writers who set aside smaller chunks of time each day for writing actually get more done that writers who set aside larger chunks on a couple of days or who set aside a whole day. This seems counter-intuitive, but having squandered many  a "writing day," I guess it wouldn't hurt to try it. After I get this figured out, the question will shift to, how do I get my students to adopt this philosophy?

Implementing Digital Fabrication

As I mentioned in my last post, there are a lot of aspects of digital fabrication that I really like. Students being able to design, create, evaluate, re-design and re-create objects that they conceptualized on the computer. Students being able to physically hold something they designed in a virtual environment. There are many elements of this kind of teaching that represent many of the hopes people have had for infusing technology into teaching and learning: direct application, real-world importance, creativity, etc. Until recently, most of my experience designing and fabricating objects had been done in my office on my one machine that is connected to my computer. There was no waiting for other people, no transferring files from one computer to another, no having to think about how and where to save files so I could resume my work at a later time. In the back of my mind I knew that the experience I had fabricating objects would be much different than the whole-class experience my students would have, and there were several technical aspects of this process I had not anticipated until I released it into the wild with my students.

I had some ground rules for myself when deciding how to introduce this activity:

  1. I wanted to give the class 1-2 authentic tasks to do. I did not just want to just have the students using the software for the sake of using the software. That has never turned out favorably for me.
  2. I wanted them to be able to finish in one week. That means one class meeting for one section and two for another.
  3. I wanted them to have fun and like what they are doing. This all gets back to my belief (and that of many other people) that one way to change attitudes toward technology is to provide people with engaging, meaningful and yes, fun activities that include technology. People, teachers in particular, tend to abandon technology because they have had bad experiences with it.

So, I set out to design an activity that met these criteria. I had the students complete these activities and submit their work when they were done. The first activity was used to introduce the software (no printing or cutting involved), and the second activity was for application. Overall, my students were very gracious and rolled with the punches. They seemed to like the second activity more than the first (Really!?!), and though I have no data to support my claims, I truly believe they understand digital fabrication more than they did after reading an article and watching a video. Here are my reflections (both technical, pedagogical and philosophical) from the experience.

  1. You have to print from the same computer you will use to cut the shape.  If you print from a computer that does not have a Silhouette connected to it, the software will put the wrong orienting marks on the paper and it will be useless for cutting ... unless you want to cut it by hand.
  2. The trial version of the software does not let you save your work. You must have a licensed version to save a project on one computer and open it on another.
  3. The printing and cutting step of this process is a bottleneck. I have 24 students in each class. They worked in groups of 3, and I brought 2 fabricators to the lab.  Under ideal conditions, everything went pretty smoothly. As soon as there was a hitch, and there were a couple, the line got a little backed up.
  4. The more fabricators you have, the better. However, the trade-off is that the more fabricators you have, the noisier your classroom will be.
  5. I received a couple different versions of this comment, "I have a hard time envisioning myself doing this activity with my class." It's hard to situate an activity within an instructional context AND create obvious connections to other instructional contexts. When you give preservice teachers a task, they tend to focus on the task. A seasoned teacher may do a better job of seeing those connections because she will have more applied experience than a novice teacher. In other words, I could have done a better job of facilitating what Salomon and Perkins call high-road transfer. I think requires some application and reflection, which we didn't really do.
  6. Related to the previous observation, there needs to be more emphasis on creativity in teacher education programs. Rather than being a thing a person either has or doesn't have, I think of creativity more like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to grow and stay healthy. The older I have gotten, the more purposeful I have become in my creative pursuits. As for my role in the creative development of my students, I think the best way to do this is for them to create a digital fabrication activity in their preferred content area. It's one thing to be able to do my activity. It's an entirely different level of creativity to be able to create a learning activity for a group of children. I may do this at some point.

Overall, I would say this was a good activity for my first attempt at a new concept and new technology. I have a completely different vision for how this will look the next time I do it, which is evidence of learning on my part.

Teaching virtual design in a physical world

I first became familiar with the term "digital fabrication" when I was finishing up my dissertation at the University of Virginia. My advisor, Glen Bull, came into my office one day and asked me to watch a demo with a machine he had recently found. I watched with fascination as he created a 3-D model on the computer, printed it as a 2-D net, cut it out in seconds on the CraftROBO machine and folded it into an exact replica of the model on the screen. This was amazing on several fronts:

  • It took a matter of minutes to do what would have taken me a whole math lesson (or more) to do with my 4th grade students
  • The fold lines were clean and perforated. The physical object actually looked like the model on the screen. For students who have been spoon fed high-quality media since birth, that makes a difference.
  • The design was separate from the actual object, which means I could go back to the computer model and make alterations/corrections, then print another one.

That final point is, in my opinion, significant. Let me explain this by making a comparison to the writing process. For children, the act of writing something by hand is laborious. It's labor-intensive to me, and I've been doing it for 35 years. So, when children write something on paper, they want that to be the first and final copy of that particular piece of writing. It's not that they don't like proofreading, editing and revising, but every change they make means another word, sentence, paragraph or page they will have to rewrite. Writing, in addition to being cognitively demanding, is physically demanding on a child's fine-motor skills. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell is right, that the best people in a certain field aren't always the most naturally gifted, but those in the right place at the right time with the opportunity to perfect their skills. Maybe the best writers in school are those that don't get burned out from the physical act of writing.

The same is true when students are creating things in the classroom. I used to have my students cut out nets from graph paper and fold those shapes into 3-dimensional objects. After spending more than one math lesson to do this,  we could finally get to the learning. This is not considered efficient in the business or medical world, yet in education we just kind of shrug it off and learn to deal with it. And what happened if a student's shape was not exactly symmetrical or was missing a side? Well, they got to be the kid with the lopsided shape. What if I wanted to demonstrate how changing the dimensions of the shape could conserve volume but change surface area? I guess I could have the students cut out a new shape, but there goes another 15-20 minutes. The fact that the media students used to design the object also became the object used to teach the concept was problematic.

This is not as much of a problem when the students design their model on the computer because they can manipulate it without having to physically create another shape. And for all those Piaget and Montessori fans out there, the end result is still a physical object that students can touch and compare. Students learn the basic foundations of rapid prototyping and iterative design, two principals and practices that pretty much define research and development. This is a far cry from the current model of "one and done" projects in schools today.

Below is  a video created by the folks in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia who are starting to explore how digital fabrication can be applied in schools to enhance student learning.

I will follow up in a couple of days and explain how I took this concept and turned it into a learning activity for my preservice teachers.

Students and informal learning

I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to contribute to an ISTE book, Teaching with Digital Video, an effort put together by Glen Bull and Lynn Bell. One of the chapters I helped write discussed student-created video in informal learning environments. The premise of this chapter is that rich, deep learning can (and do) take place in settings other than school and without a teacher's direction. I was able to provide a few examples of such learning in the chapter.

Along these lines, I have been working with a News Media club at a private K-8 school, and one of the things the students wanted to learn was how to edit video and use a green screen. The school just happened to have recently invested in a green screen and video editing software, so the conditions were perfect for trying out the new equipment.

Because this is a club, rather than a core class, combined with the fact that the students are all new to video editing, I decided to start with something small and simple, which in this case was Charades. I told the students which scenario to act out, and we filmed them performing in front of the green screen. After each student had a chance to participate (twice!), we went to the computer lab and did some simple editing. You can click on the link below to see the result of our efforts, a simple 1-minute video:

The thing that excites me about this experience is not the technology, but the students' response to the activity. I had students stopping me in the hall later that day asking me when we were going to use the green screen again. I could tell their ideas and creativity were flowing. Green screen is cool, but students who are excited about being creative and taking ownership of their own learning is even cooler.

It's the pedagogy, teacher.

This was a phrase that got tossed into our conversations from time to time in grad school. It's a silly play on the famous phrase from the 1992 Presidential election. When you spend the majority of your time talking and working with other Instructional Technology doc students, it's easy to get sucked into the technology black hole of creating and tweaking new technology tools for teachers and students. There is definitely a time and place for new innovations, but sometimes the most appropriate solution to an educational problem lies in an innovative use of an existing tool. Almost every one of our conversations came down to this point: It's not the tool so much as what you (the teacher and/or students) do with the tool. Along these lines, the concept of repurposing resonates with me. Anyway, I read a post today by Dan Meyer that reminded me once again that technology is really only as good as the teacher who is using it. I won't recap the entire post, but the conversation just goes to show that a teacher can find ways to make a very long video of water being poured into a tank engaging to the students. This also reminds me of the Clark and Kozma debate, though the conversation highlighted on Meyer's blog is much less about the technology and more about how teachers use media and their students' responses to it.

The take-away message for me? Don't underestimate the art of creative and innovative teaching.

The Powerlessness of Some Stories

I am still thinking about stories, memory and learning. As I wrote earlier, with a quick scan down the list of former students I can recall the digital story each one of them created for my class. I have had former students tell me the same thing. They can remember the stories created by their classmates, recalling some of the most amazing details. When I read the names of my students, I could hear their voices, see the images in my head, remember the anecdotes they shared, and in some cases, associate the music they included as part of their projects. This made me think of another project I was involved in while I was teaching these undergraduate classes. I spent the better part of two years of my life working with teachers and helping they and their students create short historical documentaries by mashing up archival material and user-generated content. The movies ranged from the Harlem Renaissance to the Great Migration, to the causes and effects of the Civil War. I worked with about a half-dozen teachers and approximately 150 students. I didn't spend as much time in those classrooms as I did with my preservice teachers, but I did spend enough time with them that when I scan the list of students from each class I can place a face with the name. Over the  course of 3 very intense projects, I helped them make about 150 movies, give or take a few students who missed too much school or didn't use their time wisely.

Oddly, I could remember very little about the movies they created, even though they shared many similarities with the movies created by the preservice teachers. In contrast, I helped over 200 preservice teachers create digital stories over a 4-year span and I can remember every single story. As another contrast, the quality and form of the movies was quite different. This is not meant to be a knock on 6th graders, but undergraduates at the University of Virginia knew a little more about storytelling and expression than the 12-13 year olds I was working with. Here are some of the notable differences in their projects:

6th Graders Preservice Teachers
Chose images from a pool hand-picked by teacher Took or found their own images
Most of the stories used the same images Every story was completely unique
Narrative was an expository essay Narrative was a story
Most of the narratives covered the exact same main points (convergent coverage of the topic) Narratives were totally unique (divergent coverage of the topic)
Stories did not have music Stories had music
Stories reflected what the teacher told them they had to remember Stories reflected personal learning

I know this is probably not a complete list, but this is what I was able to come up with after viewing a few of each type of story. Honestly, the 6th grade movies all sounded and looked the same. Yes, the topics were covered in different order, there was slight variation on the images used and the narrative was worded differently, but for the most part they were identical. Kind of like Kevin Costner movies.

This is an interesting topic to me, and I plan on covering it more in the future. I am leaving tomorrow for SITE, and I hope to have some good conversations about digital storytelling and other tech-related teaching strategies.