Classroom communications and the computer

We're in the communications business. We need to get our lesson across to kids, let our administrators know how well we're doing in the classroom and help parents understand how to help their child succeed in academia. As in all other communication fields, there are 4 primary ways we get information across. Each of these is important and each can be improved by technology.

1) Electronic
This includes things like email and teacher webpages. Really, it should just be used to pass along information like homework assignments, powerpoints or weekly lesson plans.
This is NOT the place to try to inspire or motivate your students. While sites like Edmodo have some motivational items (badges, for instance), these sites are primarily for relaying content.

2) Phone
Telephones are mainly for short conversations and for the assurance that a teacher has actually made contact with an adult. While there's no way to know for sure if a note was read, the voice on the other end of the line lets you know the message was received. Most teachers keep a hand written log of their calls. There are sites, however that will provide verification that phone calls were indeed made when you said they were. My favorite is Google voice. Here, you can make calls for free strait from any computer. This is a one of a kind service in that it provides outside verification and it is searchable. You can quickly and easily bring up the number of calls you made to a student's home and the exact dates and times you did so. The fact that you can add notes allows you to keep track of what was said during each conversation.
3) Handwritten
This may be the most personal of all communications. As we move closer to electronic classrooms, this really needs to stay in place. Consider the fact that we'll put little notes in a scrapbook, but we forget about an email in two weeks time.
Right now, tablet devices like the iPad are the means by which people are adding handwriting to their electronic media. I use PDF Notes Free. It's an app that lets you bring up any PDF document on the iPad and write whatever you like. When you're done, just email the annotated PDF to whomever you like.

4) Live communication-
This is the one time people get those compliments, smiles, and handshakes they don't find elsewhere. This is also where relationship building really happens. We need to take advantage of the fact that people can see our facial expression, here our tone of voice and read our body language to get the full meaning of what we say to them. While nothing electronic can really take the place of face to face communication, there are some tools that can bring us closer when we can't meet in person.
Skype is probably the best known, but any online video chat will give you good results. These services allow you to see one another while you chat, adding a personal dimension to a tutoring session or parent conference.

Consider these methods of communication in your own professional work. I've mentioned a couple of useful tools here, but I'd love to hear what other online tools you come across to improve your own communication. If you think of something, please leave a comment.


Teachers of robots so students can learn more

As teachers we are charged with increasing the amount of knowledge in the world. We work with our students whatever their age to help them gain skills and information. Most of us, though (myself included) are in the business of spreading information rather than generating new knowledge. Now, what if you knew you could aid researchers by playing online games? What if, just by goofing around on the internet, you could add to the knowledge pool in addition to passing it on to students? Well, you can.

One such game is devoted to fixing mistakes in an index of old Finnish newspapers. These fixes increase the accuracy of text-based searches and therefore increases the amount of information available for all of us online. The site is called Digitaltalkoot. The games are set up with moles as the characters. In the game, you are to double check the computer's reading of a selection of text. You get points as you play.

Perhaps more well known are the games designed to increase scientific knowledge. These online games include Foldit and EteRNA.  Both of them deal with solving biological puzzles involving shapes. Foldit deals with proteins while EteRNA deals with RNA. You earn points by making shapes that are likely to to exist in nature. The games have worked so well, Foldit players have been able to help in AIDS research!

These are great examples of how digital systems can improve our understanding of the world. Here is proof positive that a well designed system can help the world learn new and important information from people who are just having fun!


Digital substitue teachers

Technology can improve learning on days that teachers have a substitute teacher. The teacher and the sub can both make online preparations to ensure a sick day is still a day full of learning.

Lets first consider the classroom teacher. There are any number of ways that you can prepare for a sick day. Traditionally, a teacher will have a subfolder prepared with a map, the teacher's schedule, trustworthy students and some simple lesson plans. If you know in advance, you can also have some worksheets printed off for the students to work on or an on-topic DVD to play for the class. These are all great, since you don't have to explain anything before they're able to take over your class. Plus, you don't have to worry about trouble shooting technology. However there are a few severe limitations as well. It's not dynamic for one. Unless you throw something out and re-print it, the folder will never be updated. It's also limited by size and location. You cannot put a year's worth of material in there, for example. And if it's ever lost, you'll have to make a new one.

A great digital alternative would be to make a class website. Today, there plenty of free website services. The great advantage here, is that you can update the site on the fly. You just need to tape a sign on your desk to tell your sub to go to your website and follow the directions. Here is an example. You'll notice that there are still a few documents that you'll have to have as a hard copy simply because of privacy issues.

Another great option is to have an Edmodo account. Edmodo is a way to safely stay in contact with students online. It also allows you to put class content online so that only authorized people can access it. For your sub, make up a fake name (Sub Teacher, for example), and give them access to class materials for the day. You'll also easily be able to stay in contact with your sub.

Now consider the experience from the sub's point of view. Occasionally, the lesson plans are lost or missing, which puts you in the awkward position of maintaining order with nothing for the students to do. Wouldn't it be great to have a few on-topic games on hand to play? Take a look at this list of interactive games. The links here are really designed to work with interactive white boards, but the vast majority of them work fine with just a computer and a projector.

You might not have access to a computer or projector, though. As long as you can get online (if you have a smartphone, for example), there is still help available. Check out this PDF. Its a list of closure activities that you can use to keep the students busy and learning at the same time. This is especially useful for when the plans that you are left don't provide enough for the kids to do. I recommend downloading it to your device so you have it handy as a resource.

Substitute teaching can run into a lot of snags, but hopefully these tips will help ensure a smooth and productive day.


Digital reading and 'riting in education

Reading and writing used to be much simpler. We would get some sort of sharp stick (a pen or pencil) and scratch at paper until the marks we made could be interpreted by someone else. Well, our writing has evolved somewhat and along with it, so has our reading. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the home of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic... academia.

Lets start by looking at our writing tools. Lets start off with PDF's. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, PDF's are files that can't (of themselves) be modified. Admittedly, this is kind of a strange place to start. After all, they're designed to be immutable. The funny thing is, that unchanging nature lets us write in a special way. On my iPad, I have an app called PDF notes free. With it, I can highlight, jot down notes, or add doodles. I can't call this idea new, really. I mean, students draw in the margins of books all the time. In my case, though, I can erase everything whenever I want.

Interactive whiteboards (IWB's) like Promethean and Smartboard are also great ways to work with PDF's. Most worksheets come in PDF form these days and can easily be imported and used on an IWB. If your favorite handout doesn't have a digital copy, you can make one by scanning the sheet and saving it as a PDF. You could either use a scanner or the scan function on your copier. That PDF can then be imported and projected onto the IWB so that students can write on or highlight the important parts of the worksheet. The process of working on a handout becomes far more participatory this way.

Digital tools are great, but has anyone really tried to make a better pen? Yes, as a matter of fact. Livescribe is an extraordinary tool that looks and writes like a regular pen, but records information like no other divice out there. Whatever you write with the pen is recorded along with the audio it picks up. Later you can relive your note-taking and watch as your words and drawings apear in time with the teacher's lecture. This adds two new dimensions to traditional note taking. Audio is one of them of course, and can help you keep up with fast talkers. The other (and less obvious) dimension is time. When you see when items are added you can put them in context.

 Reading, too has changed dramatically. Consider the flood of electronic textbooks that have come out in the last year or so:
Chegg Etextbooks
Amazon's Kindle Fire books
Pearson success net
Glenco online additions
...or just Google eTextbooks to see a huge list pop up.

Students don't have haul 40 pounds of books around. Okay, so in theory they wouldn't have to if they all had iPads, Kindle Fire, Nook tablet or the Acer Iconia. Really, any tablet would do. Lets just pretend that school districts had all the political and financial capital to make that happen. With all of this digital material, kids no longer have to worry about forgetting to bring their book to class since it's always on the device. More importantly, these textbooks interact with the students as well as the outside world. Students can watch film clips. End of chapter reviews can be interactive games. And updates can happen overnight. Textbooks are notorious for getting out of date but if they are electronic, scientists can update the material as it becomes available.

Perhaps one of the most interesting changes in reading is the newspaper. News used to be delivered to the reader in one format. If you were interested, great. If not, you were out of luck. Zite has changed all that. This is an app that works with most tablet and smartphone devices. It brings the news to you based on the categories you select. Then it does something amazing. Based on what you say is good (thumbs up) or bad (thumbs down), it will seek out and find blogs and news stories you probably want to read.

How about that? Finally, there is a piece of software that helps you discover and learn exactly what you are interested in. This is the ultimate in differentiated instruction.

Reading and writing have come a long way. It's fascinating to see how they are still evolving!


Digital Common Formative assessments

Teachers around the U.S. are struggling with just how to create common formative assessments. Of course, it's a lot more complicated than just coming up with a little quiz or thinking up an exit ticket at the end of class. A lot of the work deals with meetings within our department. We get together to discuss the scope and sequence of what we teach. Then we have to generate the actual assessment.

Once the assessment is deployed, of course it has to be analysed. We once again have to get together with our department to figure out how our students are doing compared to the students of Mr. Smith down the hall, for example. If my students didn't do as well, I need to figure out what Mr. Smith does better so that my students learn more.

Typically this kind of work leads to improved education. Its extremely valuable. You've got to admit, though- this is a whole lot of work.

Technology can make common formative assessment far easier and often more productive. Let's start by looking at the creation. To make any assessment common requires collaboration on a single file and there are some great online tools to make that happen.

Google docs: This tool provides teachers a way to work on the same document at the same time online. When a group works together on a single document, everyone can see what everyone else is typing, teachers can ask questions of each other or make comments in a side bar as the assessment is being created. On the other hand, if everyone just wants to work on the document when they have time, that's fine as well. 

Edmodo: This is a safe, secure social network for teachers and students. Individuals in a  department can post questions as status updates. Other teachers can then make comments on those questions or suggest modifications. These conversations would be restricted to the department. No one else in the world would be allowed to see these interactions without explicit permission.

Skydrive: For those of you who work in an exclusively Microsoft world, this is your best bet. Much like Google, Skydrive is a way of working on Word, Excel and Powerpoint projects collaboratively.  Your team may want Skydrive instead because formating does not carry over well. While Google docs is probably the best and most reliable cloud storage to date, converting documents to their format can be a real pain.

Now that you've all decided on the nature of the assessment, its time to present it to the students. There are several digital tools that can help you with that.

Clicker technology (eInstruction and Promethean)- This is probably one of the fastest and most useful tools available for conducting formative assessments. There are a two main reasons. First, students usually enjoy it. You don't have to worry about them just putting in an answer because the reward for getting the right answer is "winning". Students who are all voting simultaneously get to be part of the group that got it right whereas those who do self paced tests get to win at what is in many ways a video game. Second, the data is stored immediately and can be analysed in useful ways.

Online quizzes: (Edmodo, Openclass, others)- There are numerous free sites which allow teachers to create sophisticated quizzes for students to take online. The advantage here is that students can use any internet ready device. The big disadvantage is that these devices are often more difficult to come by (you have to check out the laptops or the iPods for example).

Soapbox: This is a great site for gaging the engagement of a class or giving quick quizes. Since there is no way to tie results to any one student, however, it serves as more of a "quick and dirty" digital assessment of a whole class. Soapbox works best if the students are already using laptops for your lesson.

When the data is collected, it's time to get the department together again to go over results. Instead of forcing everyone to gather in the same place at the same time, you could go back to the collaboration tools I mentioned above. These tools make it easy for teachers to add comments next to each question in the assessment noting the percentage of students who got the question right. They could also mention useful strategies for teaching that concept.

If you still want some face to face interaction but your having a hard time getting everyone together in the same place, consider Google Plus. This social network allows you to hold video conferences at the same time you work on a Google doc. So you can see and speak to one another while writing on the same document.

Common formative assessments hold so much power to improve learning. The digital tools I've mentioned here can make the creation, deployment and analysis of those assessments far easier than ever before.