Study Group Teachers’ Conference

Today, I am delivering a presentation at the Study Group Teachers’ Conference in Brighton.

The title of my session is: Getting interactive: Moodle in the Secondary classroom

Abstract: What is Moodle for? And how can it enrich your students’ learning experiences? This workshop will aim to set out a practical and pedagogically sound consideration of the role that Moodle can play in helping to support learning inside and outside the classroom. The belief? That Moodle should be a tool to garner interaction and not simply host resources.

Here are the slides that accompany the presentation:

Since I submitted the abstract, the presentation has evolved. As such, it begins with an explanation of how I use Moodle, building up to a consideration of when to use a VLE and when a VLE is not the best tool for the job. It culminates with a reflections on the work I have been doing with Google Docs & AFL.

You can find out more information about the conference on their Moodle Site. Enter as ‘Guest’.

Google Docs in the Classroom – A Discussion

To help clarify my thoughts while writing my School-based Enquiry, I decided it would be helpful to discuss the use of Google Docs in the classroom with a fellow teacher. Oliver Quinlan has been using Google Docs in much the same way as I have and he kindly agreed to be interviewed over Skype. The interview quickly turned into more of a discussion and we ended up talking for 35 minutes. I have broken up the recording into four parts for manageable listening however should you wish to download and listen to a single file, follow this link.

In the discussion we cover everything from collaboration, assessment, live marking, setting up, Google Apps, Moodle, wikis, forums and Google+.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Related posts:

Beware Walled Gardens – Part 2

Wheel

This post is the second in a four two part series, you can read part one here. Having set out a case for social networks in place of VLEs in part one, one of my other criticisms of learning platforms is that many of the tools they come pre-loaded with are simply not up to scratch when compared to the myriad of tools freely available on the World Wide Web.

Collaboration (and a healthy dose of assessment for learning)

Google Docs does collaboration effortlessly and in genuine ‘real time’. This makes it far more powerful than its competitors.  I spent more than two years wrestling with the wiki module in Moodle before I made the move to Google Docs. I have never looked back since. The fact is that real time collaboration is far more meaningful for students. They feel empowered by the fact that they can make instant changes instead of having to wait in turn. This has been my main criticism of Moodle, many of the tools lack the instancy that I and my students have come to expect, particularly when it is available in other tools on the Web. I can’t speak to what Diipo will offer in this area but as an avid Google Docs user I can’t see it making me want to switch.

What’s more, as I have already chronicled on this blog, Google Docs offers excellent opportunities for assessment for learning. I use it on almost a weekly basis to develop my students’ peer and self-asasessment skills. I also try to assess as much work as possible using it at the formative stages. My students really enjoy using it.

Oliver Quinlan has also blogged about his use of Google Docs for collaborative assessment. In his concluding comments he discusses the notion of students developing their own workflows. This is an interesting concept, which I insert here, because I have had similar experiences. The wiki module in Moodle is quite cumbersome and in actuality rather than promoting collaboration, inhibits it. Google Docs offers multiple ways for students to collaborate, discuss and edit their work including a simple back channel. My students have thrived using Google Docs and I have found myself rethinking the way I plan these sorts of activities, trying to allow them to tread their own path.

As for security, there is little to be concerned about here. Documents are private by default and can be shared and unshared at the author’s discretion. One of the first things that I discuss with my students is the benefits and potential hazards of sharing information with others, particularly publicly. The benefits of sharing documents though are clear and I can’t think of one collaborative tool offered within a VLE that could generate or reproduce the level of creativity displayed in this video:

A range of apps with infinite possibilities

There are a whole bunch of other useful Google tools that your students can harness via the World Wide Web that won’t be found inside Diipo or Moodle. Lets start with the cornerstone of the web: Search. While some will argue that as the teacher I should curate resources for my students, which I could link to from within the VLE, I would rather teach them to make better use of Google’s excellent search engine. Rather than me trying to write about it, hop on over to Ian Addison’s blog and let him show you some of the hidden tools that can make Google search a highly valuable experience for learners.

Another tool that Google offers is Maps. For this one I’ll let Tom Barrett’s blog do the talking. He made excellent use of it during all that snow we experienced last year.

Nearly all Google apps (Scholar, Books, Earth, YouTube) offer valuable learning opportunities but none are tied down within a learning platform. They are free and available online. The only thing that will stop you using them is your imagination and possibly your schools internet service provider (you might have to get them unblocked). Every Google app I have used with my students has worked well, I can’t say the same for some of the tools I have tried in Moodle.

If you want to get more out of using Google apps with your students you should definitely check out Richard Byrne’s guides and tutorials on his blog. Or check out the excellent range of teaching ideas for Google Search, Docs, Forms, Maps and Earth from Tom Barrett’s Interesting Ways series.

It’s not all about Google though, there are many other apps out there that are worth using with your students. One I use a lot is Lino it. Lino allows you to add sticky notes to a canvas. It is great for starters, plenaries, homework. I can begin a discussion with it in one lesson and then re-use it for homework the next. The principal of mind-mapping or generating ideas could be done in a forum on Moodle I guess but it can’t be re-ordered afterwards, it can be reused in half as many ways. I have written about Lino in more detail here.

In a recent Moodle training session I delivered I used Lino to get feedback at the end. The 16 teachers who attended were more wowed by Lino than they had been by everything we had covered in Moodle. I wonder if its because it took them less than two minutes to figure it out. Shouldn’t VLEs be that easy?

Another fantastic tool is Voicethread. It allows you and your students to comment on text, audio and video, giving you something that can be referred back to later and, like Google Docs, is fantastic for formative assessment. Check out what David Mitchell and his Year 6 class have been doing with it at Heathfields.

Is a learning platform necessary?

I can already see that one of the responses levied at me will be: “Having a VLE doesn’t mean you can’t make use of these tools, you can link to them or embed them within it.” However, the notion of adding or embedding links within a VLE makes me ask: Is the VLE necessary at all? If I’m going to go outside of the VLE to find tools that I actually want to use and believe that my students will enjoy, can’t I curate those on a well managed website or a blog. Why do I need to invest in VLE to do that?

And in the current climate, with funding in education being the way it is, would I not be better off encouraging staff to take a pick n’ mix approach to IT based tools rather than buying into a heavy duty content management system that needs to be paid for (there are servers that need to be maintained after all) and having to employ someone to look after it? When that person is let go because the school can’t afford to pay them anymore, who is going to help fix broken VLE pages or modules? If Google Docs has a problem there are a whole team at Google who will sort it out and it won’t cost the school a penny.

Natalie Laferty responding to part 1 of this series on Twitter yesterday shared this post with me. Two students, at the University of Pennsylvania, created their own learning platform in response to their dislike of Blackboard, describing it as: “overloaded with features and dreadfully designed, making simple tasks difficult”. Perhaps, that is part of the problem; VLEs are suffering from ‘feature bloat’. If they were stripped back they might have more of a purpose.


In part three: blogging, file sharing and the importance of the hyperlink.

Image by James & Vilija on Flickr.

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”:

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!