Blog Aesthetics & Improved Functionality

blank book

I had planned to blog about my use of Google Docs this past week. With it being half term, I certainly had the time to do so, but instead, I ended up using much of my time improving the design and functionality of my blog.

Here is a summary of the changes that I have made.

Design
One of the key things that I wished to change was the appearance of the blog, particularly the home page. I wanted it to be more minimal, have less information, with limited colour. Ultimately I wish to just show the 10 most recent blog post titles but for now I have set the blog to simply show the most recent post. I also changed the colour of the “visited links” as they were too light.

I created two new static pages. The first of which was a contact page including a self made form utilising the site:EmailMeForm. The other a dedicated page for the #movemeon book which I contributed to. This allowed me to remove a badge advertising the book from the blog’s sidebar as well as some text and hyperlinks.

To further improve the look of the blog across all of the pages I made further changes to the sidebar. I began by removing my Twitter stream and some unnecessary text.  I then considered changing the subscription and follow links from plain text to attractive “minimal” buttons.  Using my Twitter PLN I found some links to different button sets. After settling on a set which I found here, I created two mock ups and tweeted them out asking people to vote for either the set on the left or the right.

blog buttons choice

The set on the left received the most votes and that was my preference as well so I decided to go with it and went about adding the buttons to my blog (more about this process below). I also moved the buttons up to the top of the sidebar to increase their visibility. (I’m still mulling over the final row at the bottom which would include my Google Reader shared items, a link to call me on Skype and a link to my school Media Studies blog.

Finally, I edited my About page, updating sections with some of the projects I have been involved with this year.

Functionality
In making some of the aesthetic changes mentioned above I was also able to make some improvements to the functionality of my blog.

Changing the subscription and follow links from plain text to buttons meant that I had to learn more about HTML. (I already had some limited knowledge.) I learned how to add the buttons, hosting them in picasa and then linking to them. I wanted them to open in a new window/tab so I researched the code needed to make that happen and I also learned how to make text appear when the cursor hovers over them. I am very pleased with the finished functionality and hope that their placement at the top of the sidebar will help to increase my web presence.

Having learned how to make web links open in a new window/tab I set about editing all of my blog posts from May to do the same. Sticking with HTML I also added some code to my blog’s template to display related posts titles at the bottom of each post.  This should hopefully keep visitors on my blog for longer reducing my bounce rate. I then also removed the Sharethis widget (and related functionality) and replaced it with a TweetMeme retweet button. (See the bottom of this post.)

Finally, I made two significant changes to improve the subscription feed and data that I can get about my blog’s site traffic. I began by signing up with Google FeedBurner and syncing my old blog feed. I implemented a variety of additions (“FeedFlare”) to improve the promotion of my blog including syncing my Delicious bookmarks into my blog’s feed and making a wide variety of options for sharing my posts available to subscribers. I also set up subscription by email which I had seen on several blogs by people that I respected so felt it would be wise to offer my readers something similar. The final piece of code that I added to my blog was that of my Google Analytics account. It has already provided me with far more interesting information about my blog than the simple visit counter sitting at the bottom of my sidebar (which I may remove very soon).

So, no post about Google Docs but a lot of blog activity none the less. I am happy with the way the blog is looking and for now will give the tweaking a rest. I am not done though. Once the summer holidays begin I think that I will return to this process and do the following:

  • Add code to my blog so that only the blog post titles are displayed on the home page, archive page and label pages.
  • Display both the archive and labels in the sidebar as either a drop-down menu or expandable widget.
  • Add a blog roll of blogs I enjoy reading – also to be a drop-down menu or expandable widget.

I am always happy to know what people think so please comment below or tweet me @jamesmichie.

Image courtesy Štěpán Prokop on Flickr.

Connecting With Parents Online (Part Three)

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Moving Forwards

After the success of last night’s online meeting with parents, my line manager, Greg (@greghodgson) asked me to consider how we (CCC) should move forward with this process. He asked me two questions: 1. How do we push this out across all departments? 2. How do we convince a majority of parents to access it?

Below is my initial response to these questions:

1. How do we push this out across all departments?

So far only English, Media Studies, Maths and Science have delivered online meetings with parents. To get more departments involved I think we need to make the value of the meetings as clear as possible. They offer improved (mass) communication with parents. The parents feel more informed and they really like that they did not have to come all the way to school. Students benefit from improved support from home.

A simple and engaging document that explains the methodology and pedagogy behind the meetings needs to be made available. It is imperative that we market the meetings in the right way therefore I would include quotes from parents giving positive feedback. This could be handed out in either a staff meeting or in a CPD session.  Alongside the document we must capture their interest by allowing them to view a meeting – either a recording or ideally to join in with a live event to get a realistic understanding of how they work.

(We could perhaps be more direct; making it a requirement for all departments to complete at least one online meeting with parents during the next academic year. However, I feel that the quality of the meetings would suffer if this is forced upon departments/teachers.)

2. How do we convince a majority of parents to access it?

The number of parents joining the meetings has been encouraging but moderate. We would like a majority to attend. I personally feel that we need to get better at utilising parent power. (A satisfied customer is the strongest advocate you can have.) We need to get a few of the parents who have attended the meetings to make contact with other parents and share their experiences. Also, we could get the PTA involved in helping to promote them.

We need one brand (maybe a postcard) that can be used for all meetings of this kind that can be quickly and easily produced. I know e-mail works but I do wonder how many parents either did not read the e-mail or read it and forgot about it.  Some times paper still is the best way. We also need to get parents past the fear of it being online (and we need to get teachers past this fear to). Accessing email, clicking on links is daunting for some parents and teachers.

One good question leads to another:

As usual when asked a series of questions I always come back with many more. Here are a few:

  • Is this the solution to improving all parental contact?
  • Could parents evenings be done this way?  What would the implications be if they were?
  • Are these meetings for mass communication only, leaving 1-2-1 communication to remain in the domain of parents evenings, telephone conversations and email?
  • Should tutors be making use of it to introduce themselves to parents at the start of the year?
  • Is Adobe Connect the best solution for us / for the parents? What about Skype or other web based communication systems?

Food for thought! If you have any questions or thoughts about what we have been doing please email me or tweet me.

You can read my previous two posts on Adobe Connect and online parents meetings here and here.

Image courtesy of yago1.com on Flickr.

Connecting With Parents Online (Part Two)

After the success of our previous online meetings with parents, I decided that the format would be a good way to help the parents of Year 10 GCSE Media Studies students understand what their exam entails and how they should be revising for it.

The Year 10 cohort are the first group studying the new OCR GCSE Media Studies syllabus and it was decided that we would enter the students for the exam in Year 10. This will allow them to focus on coursework (controlled assessment) in Year 11. The coursework element is now worth 60%.

While I can’t show the recording of the presentation due to privacy concerns, below is the PowerPoint that I used. I tried to adopt the Lessig method of presentation, although at times I didn’t manage to be as succinct as I would have liked.

[iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/present/embed?id=ddtck3wr_179ddzzwqjp” frameborder=”0″ width=”410″ height=”342″]

And here is a screen grab of the meeting room. I stick to a standard layout allowing the PowerPoint to be the dominant feature on screen. There is a chat box in the bottom left which was used by the parents to ask questions after I had finished speaking. Above that is a pod which tells me who is participating in the meeting (I have blacked out the names) and in the top left is the Video feed.

connect room

Feedback was once again resoundingly positive, with all of the parents who attended the meeting praising us for our innovative approach to keeping them informed. What’s more they echoed the sentiments put across during the previous run of online meetings that it was lovely to be able to receive the information in the comfort of their own homes.

I believe that this form of parent/teacher interaction is highly sustainable and can only see that we will continue to develop its use during the next school year.

The access to and ease of use offered by Adobe Connect (via BucksGfL) has been integral to its success as there is no sign up required by the parents. They only need the link which we send out by email and/or postcards. A link is also placed on the front of the school website.

online meeting web banner

Like truly effective ICT use, we wish to ensure that this is as easy for parents as possible – we don’t want them to be turned away at the door!

Should you like to know more about the online meetings or our use of Adobe Connect please contact me by email or via Twitter.

Flip Cameras & Post-it Notes

flip ultra hd and post it notes

A fellow Media Studies teacher contacted me about a week ago to ask permission to use one of my student’s coursework pieces on his blog. I agreed and being curious had a scour of his blog to see how a fellow blogger was making use of his own class blog. While scrolling through the posts I came across an activity he had completed with his A2 students. To help them prepare for their upcoming exam, he got them to make videos using Post-it Notes explaining the skills they had developed in post production during their coursework. I immediately saw an opportunity to use the same tools to help my Y10 GCSE Media Studies students to prepare for their exam which is coming up on the 25th June.

First of all I had to assemble the tools. As this was a quick project, I decided, it would be a perfect opportunity to use the Flip HD Ultra Cameras that I had bought earlier in the year for activities such as this. I made sure that every group also got a tripod, fine liner, pack of highlighters and of course Post-it Notes.

When the class entered the room I had one of the A-Level student’s videos playing. After my students had settled I stopped the video and explained that we would be doing something similar today to help them with their exam preparation. Most of them had clocked the collection of camera and tripods as they had walked in so there was a sense of anticipation in the air.

I explained what the task was and what the expected learning outcomes should be. I then demonstrated how to use the equipment and made 10 seconds of video myself in a slightly Dylanesque way holding up and throwing away Post-it Notes one by one as I narrated direct into the camera. The students got a laugh out of seeing me on camera while also seeing how easy the equipment was to use. Next, I reminded them of a few key points and what their deadlines were. After that, I put them into groups and let them loose. I spent the rest of the lesson supporting them answering any questions they had and dealing with any technical difficulties. (Note – You will need more space than your classroom allows, I had planned ahead and new that one or two other rooms nearby would be free for the second half of the double lesson.)

Task: Explain what you need to know to be able to succeed in your GCSE Textual Analysis paper (Section A) on June 25th.

The lesson was a double and it broke down (neatly) as follows:

L1 – After the introduction and demonstration the students spent the majority of this lesson creating the Post-it Notes and scripts to be used in their videos. There are 3 questions in that part of the paper: Q1 focuses on Genre; Q2 focuses on Textual Analysis; and Q3 focuses on Representation.

L2 – During the second half of the double the students created their videos; uploaded them, making any necessary edits; and then exported a copy to be uploaded to VLE.

They had a great time and all of the students were proud of what they had achieved. More importantly the results were great with some students demonstrating an excellent understanding of what they need to do in their exam. Some of the videos are a little out of focus and one group learned an important lesson about shot distance but all in all I (like them) was very satisfied with the activity and its outcomes.

Here are two examples of the results:

And as ever, should you have any questions you can email me or tweet me!

“Fin ur txt msgs 4 hmwk; due 14.05.”

iPhone OK

I have spent the last five weeks with my Year 11 top set English class immersed in revision. They planned their revision timetable themselves deciding what they thought their weaknesses were and which parts of the syllabus they were not as confident about. Since then we have steadily worked on each area and this past week’s focus was Cluster 1 from the Poetry from Different Cultures section of the AQA Anthology.

In an attempt to challenge the class and mix things up a bit I decided to get them to do an activity where by they compared two poems over four paragraphs – explaining the ways in which they are connected. However the catch would be that they could only use 160 characters per paragraph; the same length as a text message! When asked: “…if that included spaces?” The answer of course was: “Yes.” The students then set to work with the usual aplomb that I have become accustomed to.

I felt that using the restrictive rules of text message lengths would focus, challenge and improve my students’ ability to revise effectively. They had to think very carefully about what they wanted to say which was then reinforcing their learning. Also, it meant that they were “reducing” – a concept that I spend a lot of time drilling into my students during this time of the year. It is my beleif that effective revision works best if you can reduce the amount you need to read over time – turning a whole folder of notes into A3  posters; then into A4 sheets; then words and phrases on flash cards. Eventually, just individual words and symbols become enough for a student to remember quotes and complex ideas.

The activity also challenged them to communicate concisely – something top set English students don’t seem to be able to do very well. It was great fun and the students really enjoyed but they found it very difficult. Some even suggesting that I had taught them too well and that they did not know enough text language as they hardly ever use it. This I found hard to beieve but more and more came forward saying that they write their messages as fully as possible – some even said that when friends used text language or spelt things wrong they get really aggravated.  So, perhaps there is hope? Civilisation will not come to an end yet!

I, on the other hand, had made a classic school boy error! I had presumed too much…thinking that my students being 15/16 years old would all be expert texters.  I see them everyday with their mobile phones literally glued to their hands and ears. I assumed they held within their brilliant young minds an encyclopaedic knowledge of text language and therefore this activity would be a breeze for them. What occurred in the classroom was quite the contrary. They were flummoxed, some so used to being able to do the work that they looked completely dismayed. Conclusion: Not all teenagers like to text!

We did not give up though! Eventually the students and I started to see results, that was, after I demonstrated my own skill at using text language or should I say “txt lang”. What I was really showing them was “tweet language” as I don’t really use my mobile phone but I tweet – a lot! Having become quite effective at truncating my sentences to fit the 140 character limit it became apparent that I was the expert and demonstrated a variety of ways to reduce the length of words.

The students began to get the hang of it and some of the results were very effective and students started texting each other their messages about their poems. This is what I had hoped for! They were sharing ideas and knowledge with each other that was concise, useful and they could take it away with them. Perhaps when they are looking through their texts they will look at them and revise when they were least expecting to? Several of the students did not manage to complete all 4 text messages so they asked to finish them for homework to which I said of course they could and wrote the following on the board:

“Fin ur txt msgs 4 hmwk; due 14.05.”

As well as revising poetry and having fun doing it my class also learned an important lesson about context. As they tried to abbreviate, reduce and find the best ways of communicating their ideas in the text message format they realised that should their texts be read out of the context of the room in which they were sitting they would probably not make much sense at all. For example within the context of our classroom the students would probably figure out that:

“L+NC r sim. bcuz both exp. imp. of whit cult on blk cult”

…was a shortened version of:

“Limbo and Nothings Changed are similar because they both explore the impact of white culture on black culture”

It would be very unlikely that someone reading the text outside of our classroom would understand it. This was not the intended learning outcome of the lesson but a useful by product none the less!

If I had been in a computer room I think I would have done this with Twitter as I would have had a record of all of the messages which could have then been reused. Although, adding a hash tag would have made the activity even more challenging! This activity was a great success, my class told their friends about it and I was soon asked by some of my colleagues about it.

Mobile phones and Twitter have a place in my classroom (along with many websites, apps and other technological devices). Their place is to enhance the learning of my students. Embracing a 21st century education through the use of technology is not always easy but I would encourage you to go for it. The results may not always be spectacular but they will be useful and like anything new, need to be tested, refined and improved upon.  I will certainly do this activity again but I have already thought of several ways to make it better… As usual, should you have any questions please mail me or tweet me!

Image courtesy of mastrobiggo on Flickr.