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.

Learning with mobile phones

This sign is the type of sign that many schools have in relation to mobile phone use by students at school.

a sign showing mobile phones are banned

While mobile phones can cause distraction to students’ learning, they can also be a powerful learning tool, and I’m not talking about using educational apps or educational apps. Mobile phones can be an extremely powerful tool for students to demonstrate higher order thinking skills, which a colleague and I presented at the NSW Secondary Principal’s Council conference.

Mobile phones are a high quality camera

A lot of students now have a smart phone (iPhone, Android, Windows phone). These are also high quality cameras for still photos and video cameras. Never in the history of education can a teacher walk into a classroom and have almost a 1:1 ratio of high quality cameras at students’ fingertips to create learning artefacts.

As an example, my Year 7s were learning about magnetic forces last week. Typically such a lesson will involve a practical activity with bar magnets, followed by some comprehension questions. Instead of getting my year 7s to answer textbook-style questions to show that they understood magnetic forces (which they did for homework), they made a photostory to show what they have learnt. They had to take photos of their experiment and insert captions to show the properties of magnetic fields. They used their mobile phones to capture the photos and used Windows Live Movie Maker to create the photostory.

This teacher-led explanation, the practical activity and the creation of the photostory was completed in under 2 hours.The photostory isn’t intended to be a high end production. The photostory acts as a quick creation for students to show their understanding. One of the photostories is shown below. Minimal editing was involved and the photostory was used as a stimulus for a class discussion on magnetic forces.

What will your students do with their mobile phones?

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.