Beware Walled Gardens – Part 1

Walled Garden

This post is the first of a four two part series, initially prompted by the release of Diipo, a new Web2.0 learning platform. In writing it though, it has come to more accurately represent my current thinking about Virtual Learning Environments in a broader sense. I currently use Moodle in my own teaching practice but have, more and more, looked beyond it’s walls to find tools that do a better job.

The trouble with VLEs

Diipo’s about page explains that it brings together social networking, blogging, online collaboration, file sharing, as well as the kitchen sink. It also boasts a secure environment allaying (the usual) fears about privacy and safeguarding. The combination of tools wrapped up inside a secure environment may provide convenience as well as reassurance, but at the same time, a walled garden is created. The wall separates the learner from the real world and often puts their learning inside of a silo, where it can be difficult to get information both in and out of. Moreover, as Colin Maxwell argues: “they’re (VLEs) closed environments, and only teachers and registered students can access them – but education happens everywhere and shouldn’t have these boundaries.” I couldn’t agree more having already argued that education needs to be given back to the people (en mass) not locked away.

This is not to say that all VLEs are bad. They have their place and some are used really well; you only have to look at the Open University to find evidence of this. Their VLE is accessed by a significant number of learners from around the globe, logging on, choosing to get their education online rather than from within the confines of traditional institutions.

However, many VLEs become nothing more than web based content management systems. They offer little in the way of effective learning and can turn learners off as much as they could potentially engage them. Doug Belshaw, interviewed at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference, suggested that learners do not necessarily want to have another place to put things… and went on to ask the question: should we not go to where the learners already are?

While Diipo, Moodle and other learning platforms offer a variety of learning solutions in one neat package it is my contention that the same is offered openly on the web in more relevant and manageable applications.

Social networking

In case you haven’t noticed Facebook and Twitter do social networking really well. All of my students use Facebook and quite a number of them use Twitter. Why would I choose to engage them in a social network that has zero credibility when they are already participating in the two most powerful and engaging online communities that exist? Privacy? Safe guarding? The fact is that Facebook and Twitter are part of young people’s lives. They spend a significant amount of time using them and so do many adults, including their parents. By blocking Facebook and Twitter in schools (as is done with many other aspects of the World Wide Web) we simply reinforce the message that schools are for learning and that anything you learn outside of the classroom (physical or virtual) is not as valid. Well, we surely don’t believe that, do we?.

Learning is changing; where and when learning happens is shifting. It’s time that more of us (educators/learners) begin to address this shift and consider ways to plan for what Dean Groom has coined “downtime-learning“. A number of schools and universities are effectively doing this, using Facebook and Twitter to keep students and parents informed about events, key dates and setting homework. Some, have gone further creating study groups and completing assessments online. Just take a look at Nottingham Trent University’s Facebook page to get a flavour of its potential and both Yale’s and Johns Hopkin’s Twitter streams are goldmines of useful information, available to not just their own students but anyone who chooses to follow them.

By following some straightforward rules Facebook and Twitter can be used by both teachers and students without putting either party in jeopardy. There is no need to be ignorant when there is plenty of guidance available about how to harness the power of social networking safely.

Embracing social networking as a useful and valid learning tool can remove many of the earlier mentioned barriers, and open learners up to a broader spectrum of thought. The truth is that  many of your students already discuss their homework with each other while they are on Facebook. Mine do, all the time. What else could they be discussing/doing while they are logged in? I actively encourage my A-Level Media students to put their finished films on Facebook as it will be the quickest and most effective way of generating the feedback they need to complete their evaluations. I’m not logged in, I’m not chatting with them online, but I am saying to them Facebook is good, it has value, harness its power.

A global classroom

Facebook (600 million users) and Twitter (200 million) represent a significant portion of the world. And the world is the biggest classroom there is. As we prepare young people to be successful within a global community should we not teach them within that community rather than shutting them off from it for seven hours each day? When they leave my class they go online (via 3G) and when they go home they log on. I can’t control this, nor can their parents to some extent. What I can do however is teach them to be responsible and safe when they are there; helping them to use the World Wide Web to improve their learning, to improve their lives.

Diipo, Moodle, Blackboard do little more than put walls around learning keeping the selected few in and the rest of the world out. They reinforce the traditional notion of teacher directed learning, of school based education. If schools do kill creativity, as argued by Ken Robinson, do VLEs contribute to this? Should we be defining when and where learning takes place? Learning can (and should) happen wherever the learner is. Perhaps, it’s time we went to them rather than the other way around?

Coming up in part two: collaboration, assessment and why Google’s myriad of apps is a better deal than Diipo, Moodle or Blackboard.

Image: Guimo on Flickr

Google Docs In The Classroom – Part 4: What’s Next?

This is the fourth and final instalment about my experiences of using Google docs in the classroom. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

Part 4: What’s Next? (or chipping away at the Google docs iceberg)

This final chapter is a little (cough) belated and some of the ideas and approaches to using Google docs that I will be discussing are already in place.

Growing the use of Google docs

As I have blogged in a previous post I was given a spot at my schools beginning of year conference to discuss the importance of assessment for learning. This gave me the opportunity to begin to share the work that I had already done in developing the use of Google docs in both the English and Media Studies classroom. As with any presentation that I have delivered it began with some time spent reflecting on the pedagogy behind using it in the classroom.

Before employing Google docs to support my students preparation for their exams I felt that I was an expert when it came to AfL and that it was an intrinsic part of my classroom practice but using Google docs as a tool has redefined my use of AfL with my students. Some may argue that the way that I have used Google docs (see part 3) is nothing more than an augmentation of an already tried and tested pedagogical approach. To some extent this is true but I want to take a broader view of the task by considering the differences between the standard (non connected) classroom and the ICT room (connected to the Internet) with Google docs open and ready to be used.

In the traditional classroom AfL exercises between student and student or student and teacher can actually be limited by 1. time and 2. willing.

Redrafting work in books takes considerably more time than simply editing an existing (Google) doc. I believe that this can actually inhibit learning for some students as they may not be willing to put the time and effort into it. I am not suggesting that we should be encouraging students to shy away from work but I feel that ten years into the 21st Century having student re-write text in books over and over again is exceptionally antiquated. Google docs redefines this process as the technology allows the students to focus on the mistakes that they have made, working to correct them and not making them re-write sections of text that were well written surrounding the mistake.

This was the message that I conveyed in my presentation and firmly believe that effective AfL is as dependent on the methodology as well as the pedagogy. Google docs can transform the method making the pedagogy behind AfL even more valid.

I followed up the conference presentation by presenting in more detail to the English department. This included, inviting a student to stay back after school, helping to deliver a live demonstration of Google docs. In another room they sat and edited a Google doc with me. In the document they explained why they enjoyed using it so much and what they felt it offered. Several members of the department were impressed with the tool and its potential and have begun using Google docs with their Sixth Form classes.

I am going to deliver a similar presentation as part of the school CPD programme hopefully to a cross section of staff from different departments. To prepare for this I have been investigating via Twitter and the web different ways of using Google docs. There is such a plethora of material out there to draw from. Here’s just the tip of the iceberg:

As I continue to ‘grow’ the use of Google docs in school I have begun using the following video to demonstrate how Google docs works; sending it out via email and showing it to people who have a few minutes to spare. Created by Douglas Greig it offers a clear and systematic guide demonstrating “how to use Google docs to collaborate”:

[Update]: Unfortunately, the video is no longer available.

Future potential

As well as exporting the use of Google docs across the school I plan to continue to develop my own use of Google docs. I see a significant amount of potential for Google docs in both the English and Media Studies classrooms. Some uses are obvious and will naturally build upon the practices that I have already put in place. Along with assessment, Google docs offers the opportunity to teach students real life editing skills including proofing each others work; as well as making editorial decisions about fellow students work. I am looking into an opportunity for students to write separate pieces that will make up a class newspaper or magazine. After the initial writing the students will take on the roles of editors and proof readers editing each others work before it is pieced together.  It also fits in neatly with my wish to run and publish a school magazine; an idea I have been toying with for some time but have not yet realised.

Many friends on Twitter have been raving about Google forms and spreadsheets for some time now and I believe that this is a feature of Google docs that I have neglected. This is probably due to a prejudice on my part, seeing both document types as the realm of the Mathematician rather than the English/Media teacher. This is clearly, not the case and based on a lot of the material I have come across online I can see opportunities to: produce quizzes; gain feedback; and to produce documents where students could track their own progress. For example, in the English department we currently get students to track their progress in selected skills during each unit. This could work very effectively in Media Studies, where we work 100% online, as a Google form. With the ability to share access to the document I can also have a clear picture of where my students strengths and weaknesses are.  The possibilities are endless really and thus, exemplifies the fact that I am still very much in my infancy when it comes to using Google docs.

The majority of my focus in using Google docs has quite naturally centered around classroom practice, using it with students. I believe that there is an opportunity to expand the use of Google docs amongst staff in school to support planning both at the department and whole school level. Schemes of work, resources, improvement plans and even letters could be efficiently and effectively produced in Google docs alleviating the need for multiple copies of the same document being emailed/printed/re-emailed between staff members. This will perhaps be the hardest sell but like my use of Google docs so far, I will begin small and then export the use of it when I have more evidence in place.

Final reflections

I have only just begun to chip away at the iceberg that is Google docs. However, I will say from the little that I have chipped away, using Google docs with my students has been ground breaking. Why? After all, the principles of sharing resources, collaborating and accessing material from home are not new. All can be achieved through other platforms. Moodle for example, does them all.

What I think Google docs brings to the table is a system that is both fit for purpose but also evolving at the same time. Moreover, it is not dependent on a specific browser or operating system and requires almost no extra knowledge to be able to use it. As a teacher if you know how to access your Facebook account and upload a picture from your digital camera then Google docs is a doddle. Wiki’s can be over-complicated, are not real time; a forum can be too open; and Moodle as a platform needs Internet Explorer or Firefox to allow editing to function correctly. Google docs is easy to sign up to, works just as you would expect (if you use Word, Excel and/or PowerPoint) and works on any web browser. It’s a truly inclusive tool! And it’s free!

#edjournal: available to read online – NOW!

Volume 1, Issue 1 of #edjournal is available to read online – now!

Nick worked really hard to finish editing the articles and I have completed the design of web and PDF versions of the journal.

I am in the process of adding the ability for readers to comment on the site. The PDF/EPUB and Kindle versions will be available in early January; I am just working through some of the formatting issues that are thrown up by the differing eReaders that are on the market.

Nick and I hope that you enjoy reading the articles in the journal and would value any and all feedback. We would like to thank everyone who has contributed articles thus far. The first issue features the following articles:

  • The Changing Shape of Mathematics Education – Andy Kemp
  • What is the role of ICT teachers in 21st Century Teaching and Learning? – Andrea Pellicia
  • Looking in the Mirror: Reflective Learning – Peter Richardson
  • Implementing New Technological Tools in Schools – Jan Webb
  • The Boy in the Nazi Jumper: Literacy and Knowledge Creation in the History Classroom – Nicholas Dennis
  • Going on Safari: Games Based Learning in Action – Dawn Hallybone

Issue two is well underway and has a mobile/handheld learning theme. Should you wish to contribute to a future edition of the journal please add your name, article title and a brief outline explaining what the article is about to this Google doc: Articles for #edjournal. The deadline for issue 3 is the 25th February 2011.

Click here to read Nick’s thoughts on issue one and to see what’s coming up in issue two.

I hope you enjoy reading the first issue.

Happy Holidays!

Image courtesy Nicolas Hoizey on Flickr

4D Books, Cover Work and a Retweet – QR Codes in Education

Continuing the narrative on QR codes David Mitchell, this past week, took to stage at #tmbpool3 demonstrating how he has used QR codes to connect the myriad of online content produced by his students to the work they produce in their books. Using a beautifully designed Prezi and actual students books he showed how he was addressing the problem of evidencing where work and assessment is happening for parents, Ofsted, and more importantly for the students and themselves as educators. The post, titled: ‘Introducing 4D Books – Linking analogue to digital‘ is well worth the read.

In controast to David I have been taking a more gradual approach to QR codes. I have simply begun to include them in a variety of places over the last couple of week. I have added some to the VLE providing links to blogs or useful websites for Media and English students. I have added some to my lesson presentations such as on homework slides and I also left a link to my cover work, via a short url and QR code, on my classroom door while I was out of school on Friday. See below.

I have not actively engaged the students as a whole class in using them yet but simply encouraged students who  have a QR capable phone to download a free app and scan the code to see what happens. The response has been positive and by the end of two weeks some students scan the code on the homework slide rather than copy all the info down into their diary. I am going to continue with this approach while I am in the process of developing a whole class activity for my Media Studies class (more on this in the near future).

Finally, David Hopkins retweeted a link to a page on the blog: ‘Web2 tools for in the classroom’ about QR codes. On the page there are a variety of links to useful posts and a clear explanation of what QR codes are, with some useful ideas on how they can be used in education. I certainly like the idea of students including QR codes in their assignments to send me the teacher to a useful resource.

Want to know more about QR codes in education? The read my most read post ever!

If you have been using QR codes or have ideas please comment below or share via Twitter with the hash tag: #qrcode

School-based Enquiry: Google docs & AfL

I attended my third MA session this evening; the first session of Module 2: Assessment for Learning. Unlike Module 1: School-based Enquiry, this module centres around reading and secondary research. After receiving my ‘Module Reader’ it prompted me to knuckle down this evening and try to finish refining the focus of my School-based Enquiry.

While I have had a clear idea of what I wanted to focus on it has been quite difficult to put it concisely into words. I feel that I am close and hope that writing this post will help me to add further clarity.

It is my intention to investigate the impact Google docs can have on assessment for learning. I wish to build upon and refine practices that I put in place last year. With careful thought given to the pedagogy, I believe that Google docs can transform assessment for learning, making it more efficient and effective for students; increasing the rate of progress that they make.

One of the keys to this is the ability to re-use a piece of students writing multiple times  – conducting self, peer, and teacher based assessment; each time allowing the student to develop and improve their work. This continual input combined with the ability to re-edit without ‘recreating’ the writing, each time, puts greater emphasis on the learning than on the assessment. This is arguably the most important feature of AfL; too often neglected in favour of grades and target setting with little consideration given to what the student should do with that information. The response can be instant rather than: “Here is your target, think about that next time we do assessment”. I am saying: “Here is how you have done, now edit your document, correcting, adding, deleting, changing etc…”

Using Google docs in this way removes the dreaded ‘red pen’; removes the finality of assessed work on paper; and in my own experience – removes the urge to stick a grade on the work. The process is more that of author, working through a draft, editing and refining their work. The feedback from peers and teacher take on equal status, acting as the voice of the editor with the student able to acknowledge the criticisms and act upon them focussing on learning and improvement.

Have you used Google docs to support assessment for learning? If you have, I would love to hear about how you used it and what the outcomes were. Please respond to this post or send me an @reply on Twitter using the following hash tag: #mainedu.