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Create a self-grading weighted rubric with Google Forms

If you have been a college instructor for any length of time, you have most certainly gotten this question from students: "Why did you take points off for _____?" This question is based on their assumption that they start at 100 rather than zero, which is where I believe they start before an assignment has been graded. If they fail to turn in an assignment, they are given the current point value, which is zero. I do not, in fact, take away all of their points as a fiery demonstration of my absolute authority in the classroom. The disparity between the way I see this issue and how my students view it comes down to a difference in understanding about how rubrics work. My students tend to think I am doing math while I read their papers (1 point off for this, 2 points off for that ...), when what I am actually doing is just reading their papers and looking for the things I told them I was going to be looking for. These "things" we will call criteria, and each criterion is explained in the rubric. The criteria are, in reality, my standards for what I expect on each assignment. I understand that some students will meet the standard, and others will fall (either a little or a lot) short of it because they still learning. When they fall short, I give them feedback for what to work on so they can meet the standard. Say it slowly ... l  e  a  r  n  i  n  g. For example, when I write in the rubric that in order to get a 4, "All references to other sources are properly cited using APA (6th ed.) format", that is actually what I am expecting. I will not give a 4 for something that did not match the description for a 4. This is one of my standards for excellent (4-level) work. Their work may be close, but it' s not quite there, hence, the 3 instead of a 4. I didn't take off points as a punishment; they just didn't quite get there this time. 

This gets complicated when I have to take that feedback and turn it into a grade. My hope is that the feedback take precedent over the grade, but I have been in this profession long enough to know that students want a grade. Most of them want to know the market value of their work, and I want to be as thoughtful, accurate, and consistent as possible when giving them both the feedback and the grade. So, how does one go about this?

My solution was to create a self-grading rubric that does all of the math in background so I can focus on the feedback. My tool of choice? Google Forms and Sheets, of course. These two go together like Jenny and Forrest. Here is how it works:

Step one: Create a rubric using Forms

Keep in mind, this is for you, not the students. I provide the students a detailed analytic rubric for the assignment, then I turn that into something usable for myself. Below is an example:

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.23.58 PM

You can also add fields to give the students pre-written feedback. I know some people disagree with this, but when you grade 30 of these bad boys and find yourself giving the same feedback on every (freaking) paper, something has to give. Below are some examples of canned feedback I give students. I included an "other" field so I can write in specific comments for students that may not apply to any other paper. And trust me, I use this field liberally.

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Step two: Format the spreadsheet to automatically convert and calculate scores

Since I am converting the rubric feedback into a grade, I know that some criteria are more valuable than others. I would rather see students supporting their claims with high-quality evidence than putting the comma in the right place. Both are important, but not equally important.

In order to weight a score, you have to multiply it by the percentage that the criterion bears on the overall grade. For example, if Quality of Writing is worth 20% of the overall score, I would multiply this criterion by .2. Here is what it looks like in the example:

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Basically, what the spreadsheet is doing is converting your score of 4 into a percentage of 5, which is the highest score possible. The spreadsheet then adds all of the converted scores and multiplies them by 20 (which is 100 divided by 5, the highest possible score). The resulting grade is below, I used colored squares in an attempt to show which cells correspond to each other.

Weighted Averages

 

I also checked the appropriate canned feedback and added in my own comments. You will notice below that using the checkboxes puts commas in between each comment. You can get rid of those by using the Find and Replace tool.

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Step three: Use copyDown add-on to apply formulas to new entries

This is the magic ingredient that helps this rubric keep you very productive. You will need to find the copyDown add-on for Google Sheets and install it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 2.28.26 PM

Once you have all your formulas in Row 2 of your spreadsheet, copyDown will detect those formulas and apply them to every subsequent row that is submitted through your form. In other words, the values you enter will be automatically calculated without any effort on your part. This is what makes the rubric a self-grading rubric. Yes, it's that simple.

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Step four: Send feedback to students

I use FormMule to send the feedback to the students, but you can do whatever you want. I guess this depends on how many students you have and how much time you have. You could copy and paste the feedback into Word and e-mail it to the students, or you could use the comments tool in your CMS. For me, FormMule is the way to go.

The main drawback to doing it this way is that I cannot put my feedback in the form of comments within the paper, which can be helpful. I will have to find a way to do this, but for now I am using this system.

What techniques do you use for calculating student grades on assignments and giving them the feedback quickly?

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.

Gamification: A semester in the trenches

My reasons for wanting to use gamification strategies in my large Intro to Education course were obvious: student accountability, timely and continuous feedback, and better motivation to do otherwise rudimentary activities. I learned pretty quickly that implementing gamification strategies was more difficult than I initially thought. First, I had to figure out the instructional design aspects of gamification. How many points are different experiences worth? What do I count and what do I leave out? Second, I had to figure out how to keep track of all of this and communicate it back to the students. As I have written about before, I used Google Sheets to do this.

Overall, I would say I am pleased with how my first attempt at gamification turned out. Was it perfect? No way. Did the students like it? Mostly, but I'm sure I will hear from those who didn't on my course evaluations. Did these strategies help me reach my course goals? Absolutely! Class attendance was the best it has ever been in the 3 years I've taught the course. I regularly had over 90% of the students completing the weekly readings every week. That is unbelievable! I actually had students competing to complete extra credit so they could move to the top of the leaderboard. I did not see that one coming. Even though the course outcomes associated with these gamification strategies were successful, I learned a lot about how to do it better next semester. I will discuss these lessons in more detail.

More Competition

One of my goals in using gamification strategies in my class was to increase engagement and not give students a laundry list of things to do every week. Well, the way I structured the points, it turned out to be just what I was trying to avoid. Every week the students had to complete a module (video and/or reading + short quiz) before class on Monday. Then they went to schools on Wednesday, and there were points associated with that. On Friday, they participated in small group discussion, which had even more points. Everything was recorded on a big spreadsheet, and students were ranked on a leaderboard. What I discovered was that most of the students completed all of the requirements each week. Basically, there was no way to really move UP the leaderboard. Students could only move DOWN if they failed to complete a requirement. Believe it or not, that is not very competitive, and therefore, isn't all that much fun.

There were minimal opportunities for students to do extra and move up the leaderboard, but they were in fact so minimal that it hardly made a difference. This didn't keep the students from trying to get more points here and there, which was my first clue that there needs to be more competition. Some ideas I am playing with include:

  • Using Kahoot for discussion questions
  • Students voting for "best" responses to questions
  • Competitions between discussion groups (attendance, challenges, completion rate, etc.)
  • Challenges during class

I do not want to overdo this, but I think a little more competition would make this aspect of the class a lot more fun.

Reboot

Another flaw in my approach this semester was that the "game" lasted all semester. I gave the students monthly feedback in the form of a points sheet, which led many of them to just see it as a big assignment. I would venture to guess that they viewed this experiment as a big ole' laundry list because I treated it like one. In the end, there was no way for students who had gotten behind early in the semester to make corrections and do better the next time around. Students could recognize the impact of their choices on their point total and start to do better, but it did not erase early mistakes. This goes against the nature of most competitive endeavors, where players can overcome early mistakes later in the competition and keep themselves in the game.

I am thinking about splitting the game up into three smaller games this spring, and starting the points and leaderboard over each time. This will allow students who get off to a bad start to do better the next time. I can still keep track of completed assignments and attendance for the purposes of grading, but I will link other incentives to the leaderboard. What are the incentives? I have no idea, but I have a few weeks to think about it.

Better Feedback

Another issue I ran into this semester was getting feedback to the students on a weekly basis. I did pretty well at first, then some of my TAs got behind on entering scores and I went a few weeks without sending updates to the class. Once everything was updated and I got around to sending the updates, some of the students were like, "Whoa! How did I lose all these points?! I thought I was doing OK!" And I was like, "How can you not know if you missed class or an assignment?!" And they were like, "Hey man, we're too busy to remember all that!" And I was like ... OK, you get the point.

This observation has less to do with the game itself and more to do with giving more timely, detailed feedback. Some of the students felt like they were in the dark all semester and did not know they had missed 6, 7, or 8 classes until the end of the semester. I was never the kind of student to miss class, but I can see how it might be easy to lose track over such a long period of time.

I have a plan for keeping the spreadsheet updated better, but it is not really worth writing about here. Needless to say, I think weekly updates will help quell some of the panicky e-mails at the end of the semester.

What am I missing?

I am pretty sure my second attempt at gamification will go much better than the first, and I'm looking forward to putting some of these ideas into practice. For those of you who have been doing this for awhile, what are your suggestions? Am I missing something obvious? Am I making assumptions with potentially disastrous consequences? I would love to hear from the true game masters!

Schoolification

Pac-Man (1980), will go on show at MoMA in New York in 2013 I have been thinking about gamification a lot lately. I teach a really big class full of energetic undergraduates, and I want to make the class better. It is already pretty darn good, but there is always room for improvement. One way to do this is to add game elements to some of the more mundane aspects of the course.

As an aspiring Teaching and Learning scholar, I dug into the literature on gamification and game-based learning (and trust me, there is A LOT of it!) to investigate possible frameworks and suggestions for a successful implementation of game-based learning. One framework that has been really helpful for me as I plan some game-based elements into my course was proposed by Bunchball, a corporate gamification company. As stated in one of their white papers, there are 6 elements that serve as the building blocks to all successful games. Coincidentally, these game elements interact with game dynamics that are associated with basic human desires that tend to motivate and engage people within a gaming experience.

[table id=1 /]

When I look at this table, I see many similarities and natural applications to education. The way the education system is currently structured, there is already a pretty heavy dose of competition, achievement, reward, and status. There is also some possibility for self-expression and altruism, depending on the way a course is set up. So, I understand that education and gamification go hand-in-hand quite naturally.

So what happens when an instructor takes activities that students might naturally enjoy and make them just another assignment? I call this "schoolification," which is when a teacher deflates student interest in an activity or project by assigning points, a grade, or any other requirement that students might otherwise resist.

The first time I encountered schoolification, before I even had a name for it, was in a conference presentation where a professor described his use of Facebook in his classes. Each student in the class had to join his group on FB, they were required to comment on his posts, and they would "lose points" if they didn't do either of those things. My first thought was, wow, that's a great way to make students hate Facebook. Take something they like, make them use it in a way they don't want, then hold their grade over their head of they don't do it.

If the instructor is not careful, I think the same thing can happen with blogs, digital stories, flipped lessons, and cooperative learning (or any other activity for that matter). Students have to be held accountable for their professionalism, but how do we do this without schoolifying activities they might otherwise enjoy? This is a challenge I would like to learn more about.

How do you hold students accountable for their participation in class activities without schoolifying those activities that are intended to be engaging and fun.

Gradenomics

It's that time of year again, when I spend a lot of time reflecting on the semester and academic year. I have already posted once about this, and I have at least two more ideas incubating in my mind. The idea that came to me today as I graded final exams, calculated final averages, and entered final grades into "the system" is that universities - or perhaps my university - put a lot of emphasis on finals. This led me to consider whether or not there TOO much emphasis on final exams. As it is now, we set aside an entire week, shuffle the schedule, and give each professor 2.5 hours to administer the exam. Yet, I have not given a comprehensive final since my 2nd year of teaching higher education. Is this really worthy of its own week?

My first college teaching assignment was as a Master's student, and I taught public speaking. It was a massive faculty-directed, TA-taught course where they basically told us what to do. We had some freedom to teach any way we wanted, but we had to give the same assignments and grade using the same rubric. If our overall GPA was too high, we got a personal note from the course director telling us to grade harder. We also had to give a comprehensive final, which seemed totally ridiculous for a public speaking class.

Since those days, I have jockeyed between giving a final project (portfolio, paper, etc.) and giving the last test during the final time slot. My current university is adamant about professors doing something during finals week, so I have been using that time to give the last exam. I have also used this time to have students present their final projects, but it just seems contrived to me and seems to always fall a little flat. Some of the more adventurous faculty have the students bring food and they have a party.

My point is, there is a certain amount of hype associated with finals that I am starting to think is unnecessary. Whereas my students typically cram for the first two exams, they spend days and days studying for the last exam. And what is the payoff? Actually, the course average was lower than the second exam even though the exams were about at the same level of difficulty. I have exams weighted so that each test accounts for about 13% of the final grade. I did this a few semesters ago because I wanted the exams to mean something. Before I weighted the exam scores, a student could do poorly on exams and still eek out a decent grade by getting some of the "sit-and-get" grades, such as attendance or participation. Basically, taking the exam counted the same toward the course average as showing up to lecture and surfing Pinterest for an hour. So, what does this mean in terms of the last exam's impact on the overall grade? Here are some points to consider (remember, this is based on a scale where each exam contributes 13%, or 39% total, toward the overall grade):

  • 35 out of 53 students got a score on the final within 2 percentage points of their current average. Mathematically, this had absolutely no impact on the final grade. For example, if a student was sitting at 91.21% and got a 93% on the final, the overall average was raised to 91.55% (I'm making these numbers up, of course, but they are pretty accurate to what I observed). Unless a student was a fraction of a percentage point from the next grade, this had no impact. It was just damage control.
  • If a student scored 10 percentage points higher or lower on the final than the overall average, it meant a difference of 1 percentage point either way. In fact, this held true for every 10 percentage point differential. For example, getting a 75% on the test would lower the average from 85 to 84. That also means that getting a 100% on the test would only raise the average from a 85 to 87 (and that is a generous estimate). This is the difference between a B and B+, which is hardly the Hail Mary the students think it is.
  •  9 out of 53 students went down one grade based on their final exam score, and each of them was 1 point or less from the borderline. That is, they went from a B+ to a B, but they started at  87.1% not 89.9%.
  • Only one student went UP a grade based on the final exam score, and the starting average was already less than a percentage point from the cutoff.

Are you confused yet?

I am not advocating students completely blowing off a final because it won't make a difference in the long run. Students should always give their best effort no matter what. I also know that students spend just about as much time eating junk food and complaining about their professors during "dead days" as they do studying. I am just wondering if we should put so much emphasis on that one week when it's really the students' body of work throughout the semester that compiles their course average.

I am curious to know how others handle finals, and if they have more (or less) of an impact in your courses than what I have described? How are finals handled in other disciplines? Should they be more high-stakes, or are they just hype?

Dealing with Disappointment

I have been teaching for nearly 20 years, and I have seen just about everything. Throughout the many life changes I have experienced in that time, teaching, oddly enough, has been one of the constants in my life. Early in my career I would stay late at school and come home to an empty apartment. Soon enough, I was finding ways to have lunch with my wife over our short lunch breaks. Then I was rushing home after teaching so I could spend time with my babies. Now I have to be creative in order to balance my teaching with things like baseball, gymnastics, theater classes, church, committees, writing, and staying connected to family. During all this time, students have come and gone from my classes, hopefully taking something with them that will help in their life journey.

Teaching requires a lot of creativity and problem solving because no matter what is happening in your life, you have to try to do your best for the students. In my career I have had to deal with crazy parents, over-scheduled meetings which force me to plan my lessons late into the night, hectic travel schedules for the sports I coached, sleepless nights, unexpected family crises, unpredictable weather, and disruptions to the school day. All in all, I would say I have done a pretty good job of paddling and finding the current. There is, however, one aspect of teaching with which I have not dealt very well.

Disappointment.

Maybe it's because I expect myself to be perfect. Or amazing. Or brilliant. Perhaps I spend too much time comparing myself to my peers and wanting to be the big fish in the pond. I already know I put too much stock in my course evaluations and Rate My Professor and any other metric I can find to evaluate my worth as a teacher, so maybe that feeds my disappointment. It could be that my expectations are too high, and while I perceive the response to a good class to be a standing ovation, my students are just anxious to meet their friends for lunch. No matter what the cause - and it's probably a complex mix of those factors I already listed, along with some I haven't identified - disappointment has always been a tough pill to swallow.

For the better part of this semester, I have been dealing with disappointment: in myself, in my students, in the fact that I didn't foresee some of the problems with one of the classes I have been teaching. Since the third week of the semester, things took a downward turn and despite my attempts to make the class better it has not been enough to make it a positive experience for anyone involved. Like I said, very disappointing.

It would be easy to wrap myself in self-pity, curl up in bed, close my eyes, and just wait for the semester to end. Trust me, I have considered that many times, and perhaps in small ways I have done some of that. However, as the self-reflective navel-gazer that I am, the ultimate question is this: What do I plan on doing about it? Other than venting to a few colleagues, which I have done more than I care to admit, I can't help but abstract some lessons from my disappointing semester.

Disappointment reminds me that I care.

If teaching and teaching future teachers about teaching was not a big deal to me, this would be easy to shrug off. Blame the students and move on. But this does matter to me and I understand the importance of what I am doing. No one is guaranteed that living out their passions or purpose or calling will be without setbacks. The setbacks actually remind us how closely our calling, purpose, and passion are woven in with our very being.

Disappointment reveals areas to get better.

Do you know which of my classes have historically gone the worst for me? Those which follow a class which has gone really well. If I think I have reached superstar status, where is the incentive to do things better, to be self-reflective, or try new ideas? There is no such thing as cruise control in teaching, and just because a certain approach or teaching style worked with one class does not mean it will work the next time. As long as I am teaching, there will be aspects of my practice that need to be revised, refined, or removed. It's hard to see those things when I am blinded by my own awesomeness.

Disappointment reinforces what is constant.

Even though I have to adapt every class based on the unique dynamics created by the students and circumstances, there are some elements of instructional practice that should never be compromised. High (yet reasonable) expectations. Timely feedback. Positive teacher to student relationships. Close monitoring of student engagement. Consistency. Fairness. Preparation. These make up the foundation of a healthy, vibrant class. I may be stuck with a class full of disengaged, apathetic, know-it-all students (speaking in general terms, of course ... not any particular class), but that should not change those core elements of effective teaching. If anything, the tougher the students, the more I should lean into those aspects of teaching that have been proven over time. Don't play off your students' responses because chances are they stayed up too late, woke up minutes before class, and put off their assignment until the last minute. As a baseline, my teaching must be one of the constants in their lives.

Honestly, I am thankful things did not go as well as I had hoped this semester (in one class at least ... the others went great). I have a lot to learn, a lot to improve, and a long way to go. Adversity causes everyone to either wilt or get stronger, and I choose the latter. The day I think otherwise about my teaching is probably a sign it's time to choose a new career. Thank you, disappointment, for the not-so-gentle reminder.

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.

One to Many: Using Ustream for an online study session

I try to be responsive to my students each semester and make adjustments to my courses that let them know I value their opinion. There are some things I don't change, such as assignments or due dates, but there are other areas in which I can be responsive. One such area is providing the students with resources that will help them be successful on the exams. After the first exam, some students were freaking out about the sheer amount of information I was expecting them to remember. In order to focus their efforts, I began sending out learning objectives after class. I think this helped, but some of them still felt overwhelmed.

This is when I decided to hold an online study session. I had been playing around with Google Hangouts, and I thought this would be a great tool to facilitate a study session. However, after some testing and investigating I realized this was not the best tool for what I was trying to do. Google Hangouts only allows 10 people to join, and I have over 100 students. There is also a 2-minute lag in the Live Broadcast between what I am saying in real-time and when the audience actually hears it. This may work well for some types of broadcasts, such as a live event or a performance, but this does not work very well for a question and answer session.

After some exploring, I found out about Ustream. This tool is very much like Google Live Hangouts, in that someone can set up a broadcast and allow viewers to watch through a Web browser. I set up a channel for my class, which I sent out to the students the day of the study session. Presenters can either broadcast from the browser, using the iOS app, or download Ustream Producer and broadcast from their desktop. The browser and mobile app use the camera on your device, and you can only show your face. The Producer program lets you also share your desktop, which is what I used to share documents and slides from the class.

Once I had everything set up, I started broadcasting and recording the review session. The hardest part of this session was speaking to an empty room. Ustream is different than Google Hangouts or Skype in that only allows one-way communication. This caused some awkwardness because I did not get any feedback from the audience. I kept checking to see if the presentation was still recording, which made it even more awkward. The students sent me their questions using TodaysMeet, which is a simple, impromptu chat room. There is no sign-in required, and the room can be saved indefinitely. The recorded presentation is embedded below:

Video streaming by Ustream

The feedback from the students was quite positive about this review session, and the whole process was quite easy. This took about an hour of my time in the evening, and this is something I an easily incorporate into my class each semester. I hope to find more creative ways to host study sessions, but this was a good place to start.

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.

It's not you, it's me

For several years, I have asked students to fill out a Student Information Survey at the beginning of the semester. I adapted the same survey from semester to semester, but it essentially consisted of the same questions. Sometimes it was worth a grade, other times not. Sometimes I made the fields required, sometimes not. Since I have typically taught tech-integration courses for the past several years, most of my questions were technical in nature. I wanted to know such things as their current tech setup (type of computer/OS, access to other devices, etc.), experience with current tech trends (social, mobile, Cloud, gaming, etc.), the intensity of their love/hate relationship with tech, and how their teachers in the past have used it. I also asked a a couple of questions about how they learned best and about any teaching experience they had. Overall, this Student Information Survey was not very exciting, but it helped me establish a baseline for what I was dealing with. Now that I do not teach tech integration classes anymore, I have found my current survey needs to be updated as well. For one thing, I have started calling it a "questionnaire," which may just be a semantic issue, but it seems to capture what I am actually doing. The most notable change, however, is the questions themselves. Instead of getting descriptive data, I want the students to be introspective about themselves as learners. Based on a few studies I have read lately, I have learned that student evaluations of their professors are based more on their self-concepts as learners than on the efficacy and characteristics of the professor. For example, one study I looked at used a hierarchical regression analysis to investigate the relationship between students' academic self-efficacy and professor characteristics. The result of this study showed that students with high academic self-efficacy tended to give high ratings to professors with characteristics such as content expertise, professionalism, and disagreeableness (i.e., argues, challenges, steps on toes). On the other hand, students with low academic self-efficacy tended to give high ratings to such professor characteristics as compassion, helpfulness, and student-centeredness (though I personally find that trait to be problematic). The Social Exchange Theory is alive and well in the classroom.

In essence, the college classroom is no different than life in general: People evaluate others based on how they feel about themselves.

In response to this belief about my students, I want them to think a little more deeply about themselves as learners and unpack some of the jargon they tend to throw around. One example of psycho-babble jargon students tend to use is "engaged." For example, when I ask the question, "When do you learn best?" they will often respond by saying, "When I am engaged in my learning." My first response is, "Well, yeah, that's kind of how learning works. It's not a passive process." But I have really started to think more deeply about what students mean by "engaged." I always assumed engagement was a trait of the learner, as in, I am listening, taking notes, asking questions, participating in the discussion: I am in engaged.  Based on my experience in one class last semester, however, I suspect many students have a completely different vision for what "engaged" means. I now believe they see this as a trait of the instructor, as in, you are doing things in class that I deem worthy of my attention. The professor is engaging the students. It all comes down to locus of control. In a perfect world, both of these conceptualizations of "engaged" are true, and the professor is carefully thinking about how to present ideas in an organized and compelling way, while using strategies to draw the students into the process. At the same time, the students buy into this and are internally motivated to participate. Both parties fully understand their role in the process and take it seriously. Of course, I have no idea if any of this actually true, or if I just obsessed about it way too much and displaced a lot of my own insecurities onto the students.

This is why I am asking new questions. I want to know how my students evaluate themselves as learners, how they describe "engaged learning," and how they know if they have learned something or not. I am also including a question that asks them to rate themselves at multi-tasking. This item alone will probably explain 90% of the variance in test scores. In case you have never read my reflections on teaching college students, I believe multi-tasking is a horse apple dipped in a cow pie and sprinkled with bird droppings.

My purpose in asking these questions is two-fold. First, I want my students to honestly think about themselves as learners. I am not expecting light bulbs or fireworks, but I do want to push this issue to the forefront. Second, I want to know their (mis)conceptions about learning and teaching so I can address it. Once I know what they think about these important concepts, I can show them research that either confirms or refutes their beliefs. More importantly, it gives me the opportunity to make the class not just informational, but also transformational. Any time a person has the chance to reflect and say, "I used to think ..., but now I know ..." it opens the door to personal growth. Isn't that what all teachers hope to engender in their classrooms?

So, what strategies or activities do you use to learn about your students? How do you use that information? Is it valuable? Take a minute to let me know what you think.

I used to hate Twitter until I started loving it

I opened my Twitter account in late 2007, about a year after the company started. I wrote my first tweet in early January 2008. I must have gotten inspired and posted another one 3 months later, after the twins were born. Then silence. In that time, the company and its brand grew like crazy. Celebrities were battling to see who could get the most followers. Athletes were displaying their intelligence for all the world to behold. People were losing their jobs over ill-advised tweets. One reporter even used it to tattle on the President for saying, "jackass." And all this time, I refused to use it. It wasn't just refusal, but a complete loss for any real reason to use it other than feeding my ego and trying to look hip. I will just come out and say it, "I hated Twitter," and I refused to use it.

Yet, I still managed to get 31 followers. This is approximately 1 million less than Ashton Kutcher, but it still feels like a lot. I actually know most of the people who follow me, and I wonder if they are disappointed that I don't post more. Probably not. To date, I follow no one on Twitter. I have no idea how clever Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, or Ellen DeGeneres are because I don't read their tweets. I assume they are just as clever in 140 characters as they are in 1 hour on television.

Fast forward to Spring 2013. I am teaching several classes at a wonderful private university in Fort Worth. I have many students and many, many papers to grade. I am constantly getting e-mails, and I constantly have information I need to e-mail my students. Our learning management system has an announcement tool and mass e-mail function, but they don't work great. Some of the students don't check eCollege very often, and my mass e-mails to the class many times end up in the Spam folder. The announcement tool is clunky, and it takes about 10 clicks and a login to post something, and that is just for one class. Yet, several of my students suggest, quite honestly, that they would like to get more frequent updates about events and assignments, especially when items were posted to the grade book.

Clearly, I needed to do something different. Enter Twitter. It hit me one day that I could just as easily post something to Twitter and embed a widget on the home page of my course eCollege shell. Now I can post announcements from my phone, iPad, or MacBook, and they immediately go to the feed on my homepage. No logging in. No saving. No e-mailing students to announce a new announcement. The students can actually follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my Tweets. I will confess this is probably the one area of technology where I can honesty say they know more than me. Whatever they do, they can get my announcements and updates in a format that works for them. If they prefer to check eCollege, that works. If they like to get updates via e-mail, they can get that. If they want push notifications on their phone, foggedaboudit. Services like Twitter take the content and let users decide what they want to do with it and how they choose to receive it. Since the process is so easy, I'm much more likely to post class announcements than if I know I need a 5-10 minute block. The 140 character limit forces me to be concise. No more wordy, rambling announcements with 20 updates and 10 links. The announcements are short, simple and easy to remember. I can also include links to other documents or resources.

So, I do not consider myself a "tweeter," but I have found a use for this tool 5 years after creating my account. I am eager to see how this works when I start using it from the onset of the semester. I don't think it will lead to better learning or more student engagement, but it will keep me connected to the class in a way that makes sense to them. And if there is less complaining, I'm in.

Clicker concept vs. Clicker hardware

The first time I saw a demo with clickers, I was hooked. I was a doc student at the University of Virginia, and the Curry School of Education had a class set of  30 clickers and a receiver that professors could check out and use with their classes. A colleague and I checked out the clickers to use with a class of preservice teachers. We spent about two hours setting them up and testing them, and everything seemed to be on track for an exciting romp of student engagement and deep learning. (sarcasm). Honestly, we just wanted to see how they worked and look cool in front of the students. The short story is this activity totally flopped. The student accounts did not work and only about one-fourth of the clickers would register with the receiver. We spent a little time doing the awkward technology dance, then we bailed on the idea and proceeded with our activity sans clickers.

I have had this same experience in a dozen or so classes, workshops, meetings, and conference presentations. Thankfully, none of these have been at my expense, other than the annoying time lapse created by people insisting something will work if they bang on it long enough. In my own teaching, I had all but abandoned the use of clickers simply because they never seemed to work properly. Rather, I would use strategies that I knew were more stable, such as Google Forms. I could create a short form, send it to the students (via e-mail or a bit.ly address) and get instant feedback from my students. The interface was pretty simple, and assuming I didn't ask my students questions requiring a long, wordy response, I could take a quick pulse from the class in a matter of minutes.

Most of my classes have met in computer labs, so access to a browser has never been a problem. However, I had to rethink how to implement this strategy when I was in a traditional classroom. I tried having students send responses from these forms using their phones a couple of times, but the forms did not render very well on the small screen. This was also before smartphones had the kind of saturation they do now. About half my students had smartphones, and some of them were a little sensitive about using data for school activities (though no one seems to hesitate when it comes to sending and receiving texts during class). Go figure.

Once I started teaching a large lecture-type class at TCU, I knew I had to start thinking again about ways to engage the class. I found it very difficult to encourage discussion among a hundred students, and the "think, pair, share" technique was wearing thin because their mini-discussion never went anywhere. Very few of the students actually wanted to share their conversation with everyone else, and those that did were my usual suspects who did all the talking. I began researching ways to facilitate clickery-type activities in my large class without making the students buy actual clickers (at a $100 a pop) or bring their laptops (and all the wifi connectivity issues that come along with that).

After a lot of searching around and trying different apps, I settled on Socrative. Socrative is an app that works on multiple platforms (i.e., browser, iPhone and Android app, tablet), and it can be controlled by the teacher from either a computer or mobile device. Teachers can send out general questions (Multiple Choice, True/False, Short Answer), or they can create quizzes ahead of time and send those to students. Responses from preformed quizzes can be aggregated into a spreadsheet and sent to the teacher for later analysis. There is a separate app for teachers and students, and there are separate URLs for both if anyone is using a browser.

The best feature of this app, in my opinion, is the ability to create quizzes in a spreadsheet and upload them to the teacher account. I have found the spreadsheet to be much easier to use than the web interface because of how easy it is to copy and paste items, as well as move things around. Here is an example of a quiz created using the template, and you can download it from Socrative here. Once students have completed a preformed quiz, you are given the results in a spreadsheet. Below are two examples of what these reports look like. Correct answers are highlighted in green and incorrect in red. You can also see if a student did not respond. Students have to enter their name before they start the quiz, but I deleted them in these examples.

Running a close second to the spreadsheet-import feature is that results are updated in real time on the teacher app or account. I could display the teacher screen and see the results change as students sent in their responses. I still have not found a way to show both the questions and the results at the same time, but this hasn't been a deal breaker for me.

Quizzes can take the form of traditional MC or TF, short answer, Space Race or short answer. My college students had a strange euphoric response to the Space Race activities, which I cannot fully explain. Actually, the response from the students was very positive. They all added the app to their phones, and I would put SOCRATIVE at the top of the page that included a question. Without fail, when  SOCRATIVE popped up on the screen, the class instinctively grabbed their phones and waited for the question. They even memorized my room number, which was helpful for those times I became the absent-minded professor and couldn't remember it.

A final perk of this tool is that it runs through the Cloud rather than relying on infrared sensors to send and receive signals. As long as both the student and teacher devices are connected to the Internet, the tools works. To date, I have used this tool about 100 times and never had issues with data being received. I have had a few instances of students getting a weak signal on their phones, but those instances have been isolated and infrequent.

On my mid-semester questionnaire, several students mentioned this tool specifically and remarked that they liked seeing the results from these short discussion questions show up immediately on the screen. Turns out, students like seeing how their ideas or opinions compare with everyone else. They also like using their own phones or computers to do this without having to purchase an clicker. Pedagogically, I would typically have the students discuss the questions in pairs or groups of three and make them converge on an answer. I tried to make the responses such that students had to choose between all seemingly good options. I like to think the discussion was the best part of the activity and the technology just facilitated it.

So, how do you facilitate class discussion? Do you use clickers or apps to do this? What are you techniques?

Let's Make a Deal

This post is prompted by a Facebook post from a former colleague:

Students used to ask me if they could earn extra credit after grades were posted. Now they just ask if I will bump up their grade. Why do they ask that?

The very first semester I taught a college course, one of my students came to me with what I thought was a strange request. She admitted to me that she had not done as well in the class as she normally did, she had a lot "going on" that semester and wanted to know if I could possibly give her some extra credit to help raise her grade to a B. I thought about it, then responded to her that to give extra credit to one student meant I needed to give the same opportunity to all students. Because I was a graduate instructor for this class, my overall GPA was closely monitored. If the class average was too close to a B+, it was assumed my class wasn't very rigorous and I wasn't expecting much out of my students. I responded to my student and told her that I would not be giving post-hoc extra credit to any of the students. Consequently, in subsequent semesters, I would give all students the chance to earn extra credit by attending various speaking engagements on campus: guest lectures, convocation, etc. They would attend, sign in, write an analysis of the speaker, and get some extra points. This seemed fair at the time.

The next class I taught was a summer class at a community college, and it was not a public speaking class. So, the extra credit assignment did not really fit the subject matter. Besides, the class was offered in a quiet little town in the Rockies, and there weren't that many opportunities to hear people give speeches, unless of course, I wanted them to attend church or a school board meeting. The former is risky in a public education setting, and the latter is just plain torture. So, rather than offer extra credit, I added "participation" points into the course total. Students who came to class, participated and turned their assignments in on time received all of their points. This seemed like a cool thing to do, until I realized it was inflating my grades quite a bit and students who did rather low-quality work were still making a decent grade in my class.

This brings me to my current philosophy on extra credit, which is that I don't give it. I also don't give participation points. Students are given assignments, quizzes and in-class activities, and their final grade reflects how they did on those assignments. Ever since I decided to simplify my life and eliminate extra credit and participation points, I have noticed most of my students step up to the challenge do do pretty good work. I still get the occasional plea for extra credit, or more likely, asking if I will take a late assignment for partial credit. I always let them do this as long as it is before grades have been posted. Usually, the partial credit does keep them from failing, but their overall grade is not stellar. I never give extra credit, either corporate or individual.

So, this gets me to the FB post that prompted all of this. A new twist on this phenomenon of students asking for extra credit is for them to come right out and ask for a boost to their grade. Like my colleague, I have had at least a half dozen of these requests in the past few years. They have ranged from ...

I really, really want to make the Dean's List this semester. Is there any way you could bump me up to an A?

to ...

I'm in the "People's lives depend on my competence" Program, and I will get kicked out if I fail your class. Is there any way you could give me a D? A C would be better.

to ...

Is there any way you can bump my grade up to a B? I'm less than a point away!

This last request was actually the most recent (over the weekend), and it was obvious the student had neither read the syllabus nor totalled his points for the course. Yes, he was less than one percentage point away, but 7 actual points from a B. I looked at his scores again very carefully to make sure I didn't make an error in my calculations. Nope, Excel proved trustworthy once again. Then I looked at his scores on the papers, which can be a little more subjective. No, he did fine on those. I then looked at his exam scores. Ouch! Someone had not been doing his reading, and when I saw that 18% on the final, I knew his final grade would stand.

My motto has always been "I won't do something for students they aren't willing to do for themselves." My other motto is "A student's grade should be based on his effort, not mine." OK, both of my mottoes -- which I don't go around reciting, by the way -- have some holes in them, but you get the point. There is a growing attitude among some college students that they are flipping the bill for college and it's the professor's obligation to smooth the road out along the way. Any hint of frustration or micro-failure (as opposed to macro-failure, such as failing out of school) along the way means the professor isn't doing his or her job. I guess I see it differently.

Imagine you bought a house. The bank lends you the money for that house, but once you take possession it is completely your responsibility. If you live there for 4 years, make some improvements, keep it clean and stay caught up on general maintenance, there is a good chance you will be able to get a return on the investment. If you live there 4 years, have keggers every weekend, punch holes in the walls, let the lawn die and allow the place to get grungy, it isn't because the bank sold you a bad house. The bank also didn't fail to do their job. The truth is, maintaining and improving a house is hard work, and it never really ends as long as you own the home. This is kind of how I see a college education. The student is making an investment, but what he or she does with that investment is completely up to the student. It should involve some frustration and micro-failures along the way, as well as an understanding that some subjects just can't be made easier. (A great explanation of the role of criticism and frustration in the creative, and learning, process can be found in Jonah Lehrer's book, Imagine.) They're hard because they're hard. Which reminds me, if you found college Calculus easy, I hate you. But you're also my hero.

This is where I will end this. I have spent the last decade or so trimming the fluff out of my courses and helping my students understand that things which are hard are hard for a reason, and it's not because I suck at my job. I promise my classes that I will come to every single class meeting fully prepared with well thought-out activities, examples and food for discussion. I take my job seriously. I also expect them to show up fully prepared with well thought-out questions (and challenges) to the material I make them consume, and that they take their jobs seriously. For each assignment, they start at "0" and work their way up, so there is never any need to ask why I "took points off." I will explain every single point (or lack of) in my comments. If they come to every class meeting prepared and do every project to the best of their ability, they won't fail. I will answer every question they have, no matter how stupid they think it sounds. If they are good stewards of the "credits" they have sitting in front of them as they plan and complete their assignments, there won't be any need to ask for extra credit at the end of the term. B, or C for that matter, is not a failing grade. And no, I will not bump you up a grade, no matter how much you think you deserve it. That devalues the work done by your classmates who actually earned that same grade without any special treatment.

So, what are your stories about bizarre (audacious, narcissistic, self-indulgent, etc.) student requests? How do you handle the issue of extra credit or participation grades? I would love to broaden my perspective on this issue.

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.

When do preservice teachers become professionals?

This semester, while I consider it a success in almost every way, was very challenging in terms of dealing with students. I have been teaching at this level for 12 years, and there is very little I haven't encountered to this point. I have seen everything from students getting put in jail to deaths in the family to a student in my class passing away in the middle of the semester. Each of these circumstances, and everything in between, is very sad and a burden to deal with. I dealt with the same thing when teaching elementary school, so I know that this was part of the deal when I signed on.

It is not uncommon for me to get a message from a student during the semester that this or that issue is going on and they will either need to a) drop the course past the deadline, and need my permission, b) won't be able to turn in an assignment on time or c) will need to miss one or two classes.  I actually had a student this semester go to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, and her mother e-mailed me TWICE from the hospital waiting room to tell me her daughter would miss two weeks of class. Remarkably, she only missed one week and was back on track in a matter of days! So, I get it that life happens.

Well, there was a whole lot of life happening this semester. A whole lot. Some of the circumstances were real, and I was able to work with those students. But many of the circumstances were very vague and handled inappropriately, and in many instances, could have been avoided. I won't go into detail about some of the more entertaining excuses I got, but needless to say, dinnertime chatter between my wife and I was very colorful this semester.

What really gets to me about these many, many life issues is that I had no idea they were occurring until several weeks after the student had stopped coming to class. From my vantage point, here is what typically happened:

  • Student misses class
  • Class involves activities that are either for a grade or necessary for completing an assignment
  • More weeks pass
  • I e-mail student to see if he or she intends to complete the class
  • Student e-mails me and says they have not been in class because of "family issues" and wants me to "help them get caught up"

Please forgive me if you think I am being unreasonable for being suspicious when this particular scenario plays out about 4-5 times with different students in two different sections.  One time? Sure, I will probably take the bait. But when it happens repeatedly, I start to detect an odor. Here is what I think is happening from the student's vantage point:

  • Student misses class
  • Student finds out from a classmate that the missed class session involved activities that were either graded or necessary to complete an assignment
  • Student intends to contact me and let me know why he or she missed class
  • Student proceeds to miss more class
  • Student takes a reflective look back at the last few weeks and analyzes which, if any, events in his or her life could legitimately be called a "family issue" that needed intense and unwavering focus, to the extent that all forms of electronic communication were simply not possible until this very moment
  • Student contacts the professor and vaguely states that he or she has been dealing with "family issues," and wonders if there is any way to make up the activity, either through a special appointment (which he or she is totally willing to do based on my schedule, as long as it is on Tuesday between 1-3 or Friday after noon but before 5) or extra credit (which I will have to create, chase down and grade based on criteria I will need to, you guessed it, design)

This all comes down to Fundamental Attribution Error. Everyone, not just college students, has a tendency to justify and explain their own circumstances in a way that is favorable toward themselves. That is human nature, but what about professional behavior? I mean, assume these excuses were coming from teachers with students showing up in their classrooms everyday. Would this same approach to handling life's circumstances stand up? Even in the worst cases, a professional would have to let someone know what was going on so the school could arrange to provide supervision (a substitute teacher) for the students. I mean, I had a teaching partner give birth over lunch break and she called from the L&D room to let us know she wouldn't be back to teach that afternoon! So, is it unreasonable to expect college students to handle their affairs, especially when it comes to their professional training as educators, as professionals?

As a form of catharsis, I wrote came up with the following list of professional behaviors that I think preservice teachers should be expected to demonstrate:

Professionals …

(Meetings) Are not late for meetings Come prepared for meetings Are actively engaged during meetings Don’t make appointments that conflict with meetings Let people know beforehand if they have to miss a meeting, and why

(Projects) Meet their deadlines Are proactive Don’t make excuses when deadlines are missed

(Group Work) Do their own work Do their part

This list is not exhaustive, but I am trying to get some traction on the set of behaviors I should expect from my preservice teachers. These are behaviors that will be expected of them during field experiences, student teaching and in the workplace, so why is this not the case for their classes? Perhaps I am being unreasonable and this blog post will cause an uproar. I actually would welcome that. If I am in some way off base, I would like to know so I can determine the correct way to respond and interact with students when it comes to their personal affairs.

So, let me hear from you. How do you deal with these kinds of circumstances with students? What are your expectation for professional behavior in your classes?

Research and Evidence

From early on in my doctoral studies, I gravitated toward research that had practical implications. I am not suggesting that survey research is not practical, but for the most part it really didn't interest me that much. I was far more interested in studies that measured things that matter to teachers and students: time on task, engagement with the instruction, student artifacts and learning. As a teacher, these were the things that interested me. I had to be sensitive to each student as an individual and the different factors that directly influenced their lives, but I felt more compelled to make my classroom as exciting as possible than I did to try to change their lives at home or their attitudes toward school. This is just where I chose to put my time and energy. So, when I see research that is really creative, unique or practical, I am suddenly interested. There are two such studies that I find fascinating. The first is a study about the influence of success or failure on perception. This could have easily been done with a research instrument (survey, questionnaire, etc.), but these researchers chose to measure the influence of success or failure (in this case, kicking field goals) by having participants adjust a miniature goal post to the size they thought was to scale after they had just attempted 10 field goals. People who kicked too low routinely adjusted the mini goal post too high; people who kicked wide right or left would judge the distance between the goal posts to be more narrow than they really are. Even more surprising, the more field goals a person made, the wider they adjusted the goal posts. It's fascinating to think that people standing side-by-side, based on their success at kicking field goals, were actually not looking at the same object. I really like this study because it accurately reflects how people might actually perceive objects or experiences with which they have had past success or failure. I used to notice something similar with my students in regard to reading ability. Those who struggled with reading were more likely to perceive words with a lot of letters as harder. I found them skipping past or mumbling long words, even if the words weren't really that hard to read (e.g., doorstop). I have no formal data, just my own experience, to back this up, but based on the findings of the field goal study it makes sense that this phenomenon would apply to other areas of life.

The second study, if one can call it that, is based on a series of VW commercials. The premise is that people will be more likely to do otherwise mundane or bothersome activities if they are made to be fun. You need to watch the videos to see what I am talking about. What I find interesting is the way they measure the influence of "fun" on the desired behavior: the number of people using a recycling  bin, number of people using the stairs and the weight of the trash in a garbage can. Each of these outcomes measure exactly what the fun was meant to increase. No surveys or other validated instruments; just an increase in the thing that is meant to be increased.

Of course, student outcomes aren't as tidy as the number of people to use the stairs instead of the escalator in a 24-hour period. Concepts such as "understanding," "effort," and "engagement" are really hard to define, thus, are hard to measure. But there are some things that teachers would like see more of from their students that can be measured: time on task, attention to detail, and higher-order thinking. These two studies have breathed a little life into my interest in student outcomes and classroom-based research. They are innovative, creative and, at least to the people who are interested in perception or increasing civic-minded behavior, relevant. Research should be, if nothing else, relevant.

I can still hear the words of two of my professors ...

Professor A: By the time you leave my class, I want you all to be from Missouri. Why Missouri? Because it's the Show-Me State, and if you make claims based on your research, you need to show me. Your data should show me something.

Professor B: If something exists, then it exists in some amount and can, therefore, be measured.

I didn't realize this at the time, but these have become words to live by.

A book by any other name ...

I just read an interesting post by David Warlick, where he discusses the general misconception by adults that "kids love computers." He was responding to someone who suggested picture books be put on iPhones because "kids love computers." This seems like a logical hook to get kids interested in something they might otherwise avoid. When I was teaching 3rd and 4th grade I used to make that very claim. Students who seemed to have no pulse would suddenly become animated when they heard me talk about going to the computer lab. This was before interactive whiteboards, so I can only imagine their response had I started moving things around the board with my finger. However, I don't think their enthusiasm was directed at the computer, but rather at what the computer represented. One finding from my dissertations was that students in general seem to like using computers in school. However, they like using the computer in different ways and for different reasons. Some students liked the tool they were using -- a web-based storyboard maker. Some students liked the activity -- visual discovery - - and reported they would have liked it just as much without computers. Some students liked visual discovery better with the storyboard tool, and some students thought the whole assignment -- the tech and the activity -- were not that interesting.

David Warlick's says this about kids and technology:

First of all, kids do not love computers any more than I loved my baseball bat, shoulder pads, or box of legos.  They were merely the apparatus of the play that I engaged in.  Computers are no different, except that they are NEW to my generation and in almost every respect more compelling than any Louisville Slugger (JU’s Thinking Stick notwithstanding).  Our children do not go to their mobile phone because it is their “tech of choice.”  They go there because it is where their friends are.

I found this to be very insightful, and it reminded me of this quotation by Esther Dyson:

The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect.

People are drawn to technology because of what it will let them do, as well as what it represents. My mother and her friends have become heavy users of Facebook, not because they love Web 2.0 or social networking software. They love it because they can reconnect and keep up with the people they otherwise might lose touch with. Applications like FB give you a sense that people aren't that far away, a comforting feeling in an age when people seem to constantly move around and get farther apart.

So, while computers and other technology may be a hook to get student attention initially, we can't expect that initial fascination to be sustained over time. Unless these students associate the technology with things they find enjoyable, challenging or rewarding, we run the risk of giving them one more thing to roll their eyes at. It's more than an object of fascination; it's a conduit.