Thursday, May 16, 2013

Learning Management Tools

We're going to be getting a laptop program next year (yay!) in Grade 7 and 8, and as the technology coordinator part of my role will be to ensure that the laptops are used effectively in the classroom.

I've been doing a bunch of work on looking at the various learning management tools, and I've settled on Edmodo.  Some reasons:

A number of the tools are either extremely complex, or emphasize a number of things that we don't need.  For example, we don't need the ability to create and grade quizzes on my tool, first because I'm not confident that the results will be reasonable, but secondly because I and my colleagues utilize Socrative on a regular basis.

In addition, the courses don't have to be planned in the same level of detail that some of the more advanced (Blackboard, Moodle) systems allow. We utilize Google Docs to share files and much prefer that interface.  The calendaring system on Edmodo is just fine for our students to use and allows for easily sharing information between the various subject teachers.

Thirdly, while the level of integration may work for some, we've developed a number of very nice tools that we use for various projects.  Google Docs accomplishes much of the writing and analysis, Socrative allows for student response, YouTube channels for sharing videos, etc.  All this is distributed by links which can be easily sent out over Edmodo.

Finally, free is nice - at a small school with a limited budget, the advantages of a free system that doesn't require server support is huge.

The other systems have their uses, but for us, now, it's just going to be nice to be able to track assignments and have a centralized gradebook and discussion forum.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Class Parties

Class parties are important - even in an incredibly fast paced Calculus 12 class :)

My lovely Grade 12's have convinced me that rather than continue the absolutely riveting discussion on implicit differentiation we started, for our last class before Christmas we're going to play Sporcle, and I promised to make muffins.

My creations...

Thus, it should be an entertaining time before the holidays.

On a more serious note, I do think that there needs to be mental health breaks once in a while - I can do exactly 3 report cards before my head explodes and I need to spend some time distracting myself!  I tend to let students take some breaks in class as well, assuming they've been giving the work an honest effort.

The nice thing about Sporcle is that it tends to require at least a little bit of mental capacity or recall ability, if only for inane trivia or Disney characters.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, November 2, 2012

1:1 Physics - Computers and Labs

I love having access to these iMacs for labs - it makes entering and maintaing data across a class very, very easy.

In a recent lab we looked at the basics of gravity, frequency and period by swinging a pendulum.  Students created their pendulum apparatus and then entered their data into a Google spreadsheet I had created.  I love the effect - there were 6 groups simultaneously entering data into the spreadsheet which quickly populated a graph I had created.  It didn't take them long to see the major physical concepts that the lab was looking for simply because the data was so quickly generated.

To have 6 groups do 3 tests each, every student got 18 data points in the it takes them to do 3.  Thus, through the simple act of having the ability to enter the data in real time, students were making connections (and changes) to their pendulums based on the data.

Then it got even better because they were able to pick a new variable and construct the graph THEMSELVES which was immediately available to everyone.  More testing later and within a lab they had created and tested a second hypothesis all because they could see the data trend.

Is this possible without the computers?  Of course - every group could record the data and later enter it, but I don't believe that would have the same effect as seeing the data being created while they work.

I'd love to try something like this on a much larger scale - a Tweet out, for example, to enter some basic data into a spreadsheet and watch as the data just pours into the models students had already created.  Something to think about...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Managing Devices

I'm using a lot of devices in the classroom and I've developed a few tips and tricks for managing them.  Probably the biggest thing that I've discovered is that students really do want to be able to use these devices for learning.  They're genuinely interested in showing you, the teacher, that they can indeed be "trusted" with this device.

It certainly makes it easier, but there are still some management (or, more aptly, digital citizenship) techniques I employ.

To begin, we talk about appropriate use - what does it mean to use this device appropriately?  I point out that appropriate use depends on the situation; using a phone with friends is more appropriate than using it when a teacher or fellow student is talking.

We also discuss why they might use it - I think we give students too much credit for knowing how to integrate these into the classroom.

It's usually a good conversation that takes about 20 minutes.

After that, I try and build in places for students to use devices - I'll say "take a picture of 2 right angled triangles" or "record a video of the lab".  This models some good use of the devices.  Throughout I ensure that the students are indeed using them for the correct task.

Inevitably, someone doesn't use it appropriately.  If it's a first or second time, we'll have a chat - what they were doing, when they should have been doing that, etc.  Nothing is set in stone - yes, you can text your mother if it's really important - I use my phone in staff meetings to send important messages as well.  No, you can't play dots in class instead of working, you don't get that privilege yet.

After a couple warnings, they'll lose the device for the day - this is simply because I'm pretty confident they wont NEED these devices later.  When everyone else is using them as well, I'll have to figure something else out!

In terms of laptops, my general rule of thumb is that if more than one student is interested in a screen, I should probably pop over and see what's up.  It's general, and stereotypical, but 9 times out of 10 I have to redirect something.

Another good tip is to remember what they're supposed to be doing with a device.  If everyone is supposed to be writing a paragraph to respond to a science journal prompt, the use of a mouse should be few and far between - anything more than a few clicks and we may have an issue.

Finally, we all need a mental health break.  Depending on the student, I'll give them 5 minutes of Facebook time, or Dots, or whatever - I myself lose my head after about 3 report cards and need to take a brain break!

I'm pleased with the results - students are learning how to use the devices appropriately, which should hopefully carry over into other classrooms and their everyday lives.

Photo Credit: DanielZanetti (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Challenge With Group Work

Ahhh group work - the bane of my existence, yet I can't seem to stop using it.

I see the advantages of group work as follows:

1.  Tasks can be larger.  Students are able to be given something that would be challenging for them to complete on their own but very possible with help.

2.  Tasks can be more complex.  Students are able to collaborate and share ideas, thus allowing a stronger student to "carry" a weaker one (more on that in a sec...)

3.  It models what we all do.  It's rare that I work on a project on my own anymore.  I think it's rare that anyone really works on a project on their own - the world is too complex to have to focus entirely on your own work.

The issue arises in that all students are expected to demonstrate everything, which in a science class, means they have only a short period of time on a specific topic.  I only spend so long the human body and I need to ensure that everyone has a deep understanding of all the various pieces.

Thus, group work becomes challenging because attempting to structure it so that everyone understands everything is completely contrary to why we get into a group in the first place!

As an engineer, I know the value of group work.  What schools don't consider, however, is that that in the "real world" (used loosely) groups are formed of DIFFERENT types of people who bring DIFFERENT skills to the table.  So, while I may be the computer and technology expert, I have no earthly idea how to make the final product look decent in a display, hence my excellent artistic colleague.

Furthermore, it's expected that some people will do more than others in their assigned area, or even in general.  There is always a point person and they will very much be doing more than the others in terms of actual work or organization.  In a classroom setting, that causes....problems.  Students expect that every group member will contribute the same amount, and furthermore, that they can completely abdicate responsibility for their group members work.

It therefore makes it not only challenging to complete group work, but to assess it.  How do I honestly say that one person understood less simply because their group member didn't complete the work to a high standard?  But if that's the case, I didn't make an authentic group project!

While I use group work because I think it's important that students work together to solve a problem, I still question how to make it "fair" for all (or teach them what fair really means), assess the various learning outcomes, and keep everyone sane!

Photo Credit to Budzlife -

Thursday, October 4, 2012

1:1 Physics - The Power of Google

The 1:1 experiment is testing my abilities to come up with good, useful questions.  It's also allowing me to make some fantastic connections to everything...

The students have gotten into the habit of using the computers to answer the "quick" questions I'd usually throw out - "Who can remember the acceleration due to gravity" or "Do the conversion between kilometers and decameters".  The danger of course is that these are things they will have to know on a test, so while the computers have certainly made the class go faster, I have warned them about the possibilities of them not actually learning this material.

The larger picture, as I keep coming back to, is - do I care that they "learn" the conversion?  Yes, if you read back in posts, I really do care - I think that knowledge is important and memorizing, working with and regurgitating information has it's place in education.  Thus, while the computers have helped, we'll see what ends up happening.

On another Google note - I'm loving the ability to have them turn in their assignments without email.  Having it just appear in my Google Drive is excellent and really saves me having to wade through masses of email.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I've fallen in love with Socrative.  It's a great tool, especially in a 1:1 environment.  Essentially, it replaces the clickers that schools used to (still?) spend a ton of money on.

I create my class - and I can name my room anything I like (go to Profile->Change Room Number and you can type words too).  It's great, my students know how to find me, and no login is required.

Students log into my room and I can fire questions anytime I like - I tend to make them up as I go, or I build them into my slides.  It's very quick - press a button, they get a multiple choice or true/false prompt, and off we go.

It's not supposed to be for summative assessment - I can make strong arguments against multiple choice (or tests in general) as an assessment tool.  What it is excellent for is the ability to quickly assess where my learners are - "did they get it?".

"The crest of the wave is a), b), c), d)".  Bam - 20 seconds and I know if they understood the diagram I just put up :)

The challenge comes in deciding what number is okay to move on - in my class of 11 Physics students, for example, anything less than 9 right and I'll go back.  But what about those two who didn't get it, and I moved on?  I struggle with how to best support them - I try and go back after the lecture portion, during an activity or homework time, but don't always remember the exact issues they had.

Thus, while I love the tool, I'm going to have to figure out how to not leave anyone behind.