Lessons from #sologlobalchat

I became interested in structured observed learning outcomes (SOLO) late last year when I was contemplating how to approach learning design in the midst of implementing the new NSW syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. I want to lead my team in using this opportunity to do something that will shift the way our students learn. I don’t want to take the shortcut of cutting and pasting existing units of work and making it fit to the new syllabus.

I have always known about SOLO from my work with the Essential Secondary Science Assessment and the National Assessment Program for Science Literacy, but until last year I didn’t make the shift from using SOLO to assess student learning to using SOLO to design learning. So when I began exploring using the hashtag #SOLO on Twitter, I found quite a few teachers in New Zealand and the UK who are much ahead of me in their SOLO journey. From there I met Andy Knill. I have never met Andy in real life, nor have I even spoken to him via Skype or anything. My only interactions with Andy are from tweets and sharing ideas on a Google Document. But from using only Twitter and a Google Document, we organised the tweetup, #sologlobalchat where educators from Australia, New Zealand and the UK shared and learnt from each other in everything related to SOLO from what is SOLO to how can we drive authentic change on a whole school level. Click here for an archive of #sologlobalchat.

Helping Andy co-host #sologlobalchat (Yes, Andy did do most of the work. Hat tip to Andy) has made me realise 2 things:

(1)    Teachers are a generous and dedicated bunch of people – #sologlobalchat was held at 11am on a Saturday in the UK, 8pm on the Australian east coast and 10pm in New Zealand. I was tweeting from an iPad on a Saturday night. Andy was tweeting from a mobile device in his car and it was bed time in New Zealand.  I don’t think there are many professions that will be holding a virtual meeting in such circumstances. Also, not many of us knew who each other was until we got onto #sologlobalchat. Yet we were ready to hand over our ideas and resources to almost complete strangers. This is one of the best things I love about teaching and teachers. We are happy to share anything at anytime to anyone because it makes learning better for our students.

(2)    Learning anywhere anytime – The massive increase in technology in our lives have always been discussed in the context of student learning. How can we flip learning for students? How can students use mobile phones to learn? How can learning be transformed in a 1:1 device program? However, the impact of technology isn’t just limited to students. Technology has also transformed the way teachers learn and collaborate. #sologlobalchat used technology to connect teachers from 3 countries in different timezones to synchronously share their expertise with each other. Professional learning for teachers is now breaking through the walls of schools. Teachers are no longer having conversations with teachers in their own staffroom or school only; we now also have conversations across the globe. Sharing of resources is no longer confined to photocopying a sheet and placing it on someone’s desk; resources are now uploaded online for anyone to download.

All teachers can greatly benefit from using online professional learning networks to improve their practice. And teachers are a generous bunch. We will share anything with anyone because we want to improve all students’ learning. So if you are not part of an online professional learning network (PLN), join one. If you haven’t participated in a Twitter chat or Tweetmeet, just lurk around one and have a look if it’s for you. If you are doing all of these things, tap on the shoulder of a teacher who haven’t yet discovered this and show them how the benefits of an online PLN. The more teachers we have collaborating and sharing online, the better the learning will be for our students.

Note – #sologlobalchat now has an Edmodo to share. Click here to submit a request to join the group.

Andy Knill has also compiled a list of teachers who participated in sologlobalchat

You don’t create groups on Edmodo. You create learning communities.

You don’t create groups on Edmodo, you create learning communities

I have been using Edmodo as an online learning tool for a little over 1.5 years now. Back at the beginning, I viewed Edmodo as an easy way to post content for my students online, for students to submit their work online and for me to send my students urgent important messages outside of school hours. The way I used it was very one way – teacher to student. The first Edmodo group I set up was for a Year 11 Physics class. When I analyse that page, almost every single post was made by me. Most of these posts have no replies. There were a small number of posts made by students, which were questions directed at me as a teacher and I answered them. This group wasn’t a learning community. It was just a website that had information posted by me.

This year I have been using Edmodo with my Year 7 Integrated Curriculum class, which I teach for English, Maths, Science, Geography and History. Our Edmodo group page looks very different to the year 11 page. Firstly there are heaps of posts, probably 5 times as many posts as the Year 11 Physics group. And most importantly, a significant number of those posts are made by students.

I went through the Year 7 Edmodo page and categorised all posts made in August 2012 and here are the stats:

  • There were 71 posts during this month
  • 46 out of 71 posts were by me
  • 25 out of 71 posts were by students
  • 62 out of these 71 posts involved a discussion
    • This means that these 62 posts had more than one reply comment. These reply comments included students commenting on each other’s work, answering each other’s questions or holding a discussion that was of interest to them
Students sharing and commenting on each other's work on Edmodo

Students sharing and commenting on each other’s work on Edmodo

Students sharing and commenting on each other's work on Edmodo

Students sharing and commenting on each other’s work on Edmodo

For me this year, Edmodo has transformed from a free alternative to a learning management system to a tool for enhancing a learning community. It is an online space that allows my students to learn from each other beyond the four walls of the classroom and beyond 9am to 3pm. The Year 7 Edmodo group is a much more dynamic and successful learning community than my previous Year 11 group. Why?

Just do a search in Google for creating a successful online learning community and most sites will give you very similar tips.

  • An online community is like a traditional community, built on shared qualities, characteristics and purpose.
  • A successful online learning community must create value for its members. The online community must be worthwhile for its members to visit regularly.
  • Individuals must be supported and empowered to share their knowledge, information and user-created content. A successful learning community must have a majority of members sharing ideas and content that is of value to that community.

So how did I ensure the above three features of the Year 7 Edmodo group this year?

Shared qualities, characteristics and purpose

Year 7s knew from the start of the year that the group was for them to share their learning. While they also post their homework on there too, one of the first things I did was to have them share a summary of a news item of their interest (most reported on NRL pre-season news) and reply to another student’s post with something they have learnt from that student’s posts. Questions asked by students were answered very quickly by me, which assured students that Edmodo was a worthy tool for communication. This set up a sense of shared purpose for the Edmodo group very early on.

Creating value

One of the ways of creating value in an online community is to allow users to personalise the space. For my Year 11 physics group, I gave them the Edmodo group code and went from there. I didn’t spend time to let them set up their profiles and change their profile pictures. For Year 7s we spent an hour setting up their Edmodo accounts, filling out their Edmodo profiles and choosing an avatar that most represented them. This was done in the second lesson of the school year. So straight away Year 7s was given an opportunity to value Edmodo; this opportunity was not given to Year 11s.

Support and empowerment

Year 7s often post things up that are not 100% related to our school work. Posts like personal art projects they have done, their successes in weekend sport, their views of internet censorship and the death of Niel Armstrong. I actually don’t know why my Year 7s feel empowered to share things they have created or news they think are worthy for their classmates to know on Edmodo. This started very early on in Term 1. Perhaps because their early activities on Edmodo was all to do with sharing their personal interest projects and news. Perhaps in our face to face classes we emphasise on sharing our learninh artefacts. Whatever the impetus is, I hope it stays there because it is one of the strongest driving forces of our learning community.

Note that the above features of successful online learning communities are all related to how people relate and interact with each other and how they emotionally connect with the online space. How come this is rarely discussed in professional dialogue associated with such online tools? I think teachers often do misjustice to educational social networking tools like Edmodo when we promote it to other teachers in professional learning or in conversation when all we talk about are how Edmodo allows students to complete self-marking quizzes. These are all excellent tools for learning but rarely are our conversations and professional learning about the dynamics of human relationships in such online environments. Yet it is these intricate dynamics of human relationships and interactions that would make or break an online learning community. Unless these are made explicit for teachers about to make the online learning journey, we are almost setting them up for failure. It doesn’t matter whether teachers are using Edmodo, Moodle or any other online learning community tool, we must talk about human relationships and interactions.

Can you see the thousands of dollars?

My year 7 has had laptops now for a few weeks. The class received 12 laptops, which is a costly investment. A colleague once wisely said if that much money was spent you should be able to walk into a classroom/school and notice a difference. You should be able to visibly see that investment’s impact on student learning. So I asked myself exactly that question – Is the learning different in my classroom now? Is the learning better in my classroom now?

I’d like to say yes, and here’s my evidence:
-Students now use their laptops in small groups to demonstrate their understanding, often with higher order thinking skills. Today we explored the properties of magnets. Instead of doing the prac activity from the textbook and writing a prac report, students made a photo story to explain to other year 7s the magnetic properties they have discovered. This took 2 hours. Minimal editing was involved as I wanted the students to focus on the explanation of science, not on fancy video transitions.

-Laptops are used to differentiate learning. Year 7s have been learning about area of composite shapes and expressing area and perimeter through algebraic expressions. Students had to self assess whether they needed more practice in composite shapes or were ready to move onto algebra. Students who selected to refine their skills in composite shapes worked on a self-marking quiz on the laptops while the rest had small group instruction on algebra.

These are just 2 activities where laptops have enhanced learning. When you walk into my classroom, you can see, hear and feel those thousands of dollars making an impact.

Are your thousands of dollars of investments visibly making a difference?

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Saying goodbye to the computer room

On Friday I said goodbye to the computer room. The computer room that I have been hogging for at least 4 hours a week since the start of the year. I have spent so much effort making sure I made books as advanced as possible for that computer room so that my Year 7 integrated curriculum class can use it. I felt guilty every time I did that. My students needed to use it, but I also felt as though I was removing a shared resource from other students and teachers. Having taught in a 1:1 learning environment for the past 3 years, teaching only Year 7s this year, where they were not entitled to their own laptops as part of the Digital Education Revolution, really killed me. I was so used to designing learning using collaborative spaces like Edmodo that it felt like all that was taken away from me in the first two terms this year.

However on Friday August 3, my Year 7s received a class set of laptops as part of our school’s middle years strategy and our connected learning strategy. Year 7s received 12 Lenovo Thinkpads, which makes the official laptop to student ratio in my class 1:2.5. The real ratio is 1:2 as some students bring their own devices.

For some people I have talked to, they found it strange that I’m so excited about getting 12 laptops when a computer room offers 20 computers. I would rather have 12 laptops in the classroom than 20 desktop computers that are bolted in a room because:

  • For my Year 7 integrated curriculum class, we used computers mainly for project based learning. So far we have made infographics, science videos and built Parthenons in Minecraft just to name a few. For these projects, students are required to do a mixture of activities that require technology and activities do not require technology. A lot of the times, some students are on computers and other students are working in another area as they are discussing their project or that part of their project does not require a computer. My students will choose the tools that best fit their learning needs at a particular time. Laptops in the classroom do this so much better than computer rooms.

  • Computer rooms are often restrictive learning spaces. They are often built where the only thing you can do is go on computers for the entire lesson. We have 4 computer rooms at the school and I only ever booked one computer room. That’s because this particular room allowed students to spill out into an adjacent area with couches where they can have discussions about their learning rather than being squashed in front of a computer for hours at a time.

  • Having laptops in the classroom allows more flexibility in learning design. Laptops allow the learning to drive the need for technology, not the other way around. When laptops are in the classroom you can use them for lengthy periods of time or in short bursts, depending on the learning need. When computers are fixed in computer rooms, you need to make sure that the whole lesson requires the use of computers so that you’re not wasting the computer room as a resource. You don’t want to book into a computer room if the learning only requires students to be using computers for 15 minutes out of a 60 minute lesson.
  • Laptops in the classroom allows anytime, anywhere learning. If there is a need, my Year 7s can jump on a laptop to go online, to watch an animation that explains a concept, etc. My Year 7s can take their laptops anywhere in the school. They can use it to connect their data loggers to measure features of the environment and they can enter data into a spreadsheet when we are using an outdoor space. If they need to go to a quiet space to record audio, they can take their laptops to that quiet space rather than trying to do so in a computer room with 29 other students. Laptops not only allow learning to drive the need for technology, but it also allows learning to drive the need for a particular style of learning space.

Finally I really hate the concept of computer rooms. To me it’s like going into a calculator room to use a calculator, or a pen room to use a pen. Technology is part of our daily lives now that we shouldn’t have to move to a specialised space to use it. Unless you are doing some hard core 3D animation that requires a high end computer, there should be no need to move to a computer room.

So on Friday my Year 7s and I waved goodbye to the computer room. I have been waiting for that moment for the whole year.

Working, sharing & collaborating as 21C teachers

When we talk about student learning in the 21st century, we often talk about learning (and sharing that learning) anytime, anywhere. Social media and online collaborative spaces have allowed all of us to connect and collaborate 24/7 on our desktop computers, laptops and mobile devices. This shouldn’t just be student learning. It should also be how teachers work.

When I stepped into the role of Head Teacher Science two years ago, I wanted to initiate a structure and process to allow my faculty to collaborate more effectively. One of these ways is to be able to collaborate anytime, anywhere. I wanted to start with the way we accessed and modified our teaching and learning programs. Instead of having these programs trapped on the school network, this year our faculty uploaded them on a wiki via Wikispaces (I was inspired by how Ben Jones, benpaddlejones, set up an online space for the Integrated Curriculum team through a wiki). The obvious advantage is the anywhere anytime access. We can now access our programs on our mobile phones when we’re waiting for a bus if we wanted to. Having the programs on a wiki also allows resources such as worksheets and online videos to be linked in the online document. Instead teachers trying to find a worksheet in a folder in the staffroom, teachers can now click on the worksheet name in Wikispaces, download the worksheet as a Microsoft Word document and modify it to suit their class’ needs. The main benefit of this has been collaboration. Teachers who are leading programs for a particular year group gather the feedback from other teachers and change the program as we teach it. This has now transformed our programs from a relatively static document to a living document that constantly revises itself.

a screenshot of our faculty's wiki

We have a resources page on our faculty wiki where teachers upload websites, videos, worksheets and other resources to share with the faculty. Previously, teachers would photocopy the resource and place it on everyone’s desks. Sadly the worksheet sometimes get lost or filed incorrectly. If you wanted to modify it, you’d have to ask for the electronic version to be emailed to you. Even if the resource was emailed originally, the email can easily become lost in a mass of other emails. We are finding that uploading resources onto a wiki helps keep everything in one place. Sharing has definitely become easier. When things become easier, it gets done more often. 🙂

We also communicate via the wiki. A lot of our intra-faculty communication and faculty organisation are now done through the wiki rather than email. Not only has this decreased our need to constantly delete emails to keep our email storage space in check, but it has kept messages more organised because they are stored in one space. This has also reduced the need to trawl through emails to find, for example, an important message sent two weeks ago.

So this is our faculty’s journey so far in using an online collaborative space to enhance how our processes. My next goal for the faculty will be to use the discussion function to further enhance communication and collaboration.

Using Google Apps to work smarter

Our school has a strong digital culture both in teaching and learning and in whole school processes. For example roll marking and many administration processes are electronic. Using technology in such day-to-day practices allow teachers to be comfortable and familiar with technology, which transcends into the classroom.

I was recently given the opportunity to move some of the school’s administration processes online. These administration processes include the applications for staff to attend professional learning and applications for excursions and variations to routine.

Prior to this, we were using interactive pdf forms for these applications. All forms were placed in a pdf portfolio in a shared drive at school. Teachers had to complete the relevant form, save the form from the portfolio and attach it to an email and send it to the designated staff member who processes the application. These processes were a critical part of the school’s journey in creating a digital culture. It allowed the school to move from paper-based processes to electronic processes. However the pdf forms had several issues, including:

  • Staff saving the whole pdf portfolio instead of just the relevant form.
  • Only one member of staff being able to access the forms’ information. This staff member would then have to pass on the information to other staff members that required this information, such as the person responsible for organising casual teachers to cover classes.
  • The forms taking up storage space in emails
  • The lack of a system to track which forms had been processed, especially in times when multiple people processed the forms

Basically we wanted a system where there were simple forms that staff can fill out and click submit (without the need to save or email). We wanted a system where multiple organisers can access the same information and track progress in processing the information.

I was lucky enough to be trusted with the responsibility in exploring a tool to do this. I decided to use Google Documents and Google Sites. I made forms via Google Documents for applications for staff professional learning and applications for excursions and variations to routine. With these forms, staff only have to fill in the relevant information and click on Submit. Designated staff members with administration access will see the forms’ responses in a spreadsheet. The main advantage is that there can multiple designated staff members working on the same document (eg. the person in charge of placing events on the school calendar and the person in charge of casual relief can work collaboratively on the same spreadsheet to track who has done what. The spreadsheet can also be downloaded as an Excel file to be backed up if required.

screenshot of online form

Screenshot of online form for application for professional learning made in Google Documents

 

screenshot of spreadsheet in google

screenshot of spreadsheet in google with responses from online forms

The next step is to find a space to hold all the forms. I decided to set up a staff intranet via Google Sites. I was also able to merge the school’s calendar and link in the school’s previously set up technology blog into the intranet. So now there is one online space for all administration processes that can be accessed at school, home and anywhere else with internet access. It can also be accessed by mobile devices.

intranet screenshot

screenshot of the staff intranet on google sitesscreenshot of a page in the staff intranet where all school admin forms are placed

Hopefully this will continue our school’s journey in creating and maintaining a digital culture. In the end, it’s about streamlining processes, centralising resources and working smarter.

The best part is Google Documents and Google Sites are free!