What is collaboration?

June 17, 2009

It was the last of our sessions at University for ‘Maths Specialists’ this evening, and despite coming at the end of a long day I found it very inspiring. Sue Johnstone-Wilder, a secondary Maths specialist, led us through a variety of open ended problems which reminded me of the importance of inspiring children to play with numbers and follow their own lines of enquiry.

One of the problems she set us got me thinking along slightly different lines. This was a task in which we worked in a group of three, each of which was provided with a number of cards containing facts about the building of a pyramid in an alien culture. Some of this information was irrelevant, with the rest of it providing the raw data for a several stage calculation to discover how long the pyramid took to build.

I have come across problems such as this before, usually in ‘team building’ type exercises to encourage collaboration, as the answer cannot be reached without information held by everyone involved. However, the first thing we did when approaching the task was to pool the relevant information and copy it out in a central place, and then all approach the problem fairly separately.

This got me thinking about what collaboration truly is, and how task design can influence it. Although all of us needed to communicate to solve our problem, we were only really contributing specific pieces of information, and once these were in the public domain our thought processes followed their own separate tracks. One person alone could solve the problem once they had all the information. I wonder if this is truly collaboration, or if what we should be aiming for with collaborative tasks is more of a sharing of thinking and skills rather than simple scattering the facts required between members of a group.

Is a more desirable model of collaboration that of a team with different skills working together on a project? Take the example of someone designing a project, someone else constructing it, and another person costing it. All of these skills are essential to completion and each person is bringing their own specialism to the table. However, is this true collaboration or is it simply three people doing their own thing and then passing it on to another to then add to?

I don’t think I have the answers to these questions, but I thought they were interesting things to consider when looking at designing group tasks, and thinking about what we really want pupils to get out of group work. The answer to this may be different things at different times, but sometimes it is all to easy to forget to consider what these are!

With tools like Google Docs, Etherpad, and the forthcoming Google Wave, I am looking forward to encouraging collaboration using technology in my classroom next year, however there are obviously a lot of issues to take into account way beyond the obvious classroom management ones…


A visualiser on the cheap

June 15, 2009

I had been aware of visualisers for a while, but it was at the BETT show last year that I first had a play with one on the Smart technologies stand, and I knew straight away that I had to have one! The ability to show children’s work immediately on a large screen, and even highlight and annotate it on the IWB without actually writing on it seemed fantastic, and an ideal tool for encouraging children to reflect on and improve their work. They are also fantastic for sharing books and small objects with the whole class.

However, there was no way as a PGCE student I could afford the £800 odd Smart were charging, so I decided to try to find a way to get the same functionality on a shoe string budget.

I turned first to the internet haven for cheap technology- eBay. Having once bought a £2000 mixing desk for £60 on there I am ever hopeful of true bargains, and although there were lots of bang up to date visualisers at silly prices, after some scouring and waiting I was lucky enough to find an old analogue model for £30!

This wasn’t the latest model by far- no USB connections here- just an analogue video output, and the plastic casing is almost as yellow as my 20 year old Amiga… However, it did the job of displaying childrens work when plugged into a data projector.


Me being me, I was never going to be satisfied with that, so I started looking into getting an analogue video input for my computer, and again eBay came up with the goods. Somewhat skeptically, I bought an RCA video to USB dongle for £15 (search for EasyCap USB), which turned out to be perfect. It isn’t the greatest resolution in the world, but it is good enough for running through a 1024×768 data projector, and allows you to bring up any video source on your computer screen. There are a multitude of these on eBay, but if you are a Mac user be sure to get one which specifically says it is Mac compatible as not all of them are.

Once I had this hooked up all I needed to do was find some software. Smart Notebook has fantastic integration with visualisers, but it only works with their own model, so I sought out something else that would allow me to achieve the same thing. For the PC I had in school that turned out to be a program called ‘Open Video Capture‘. This is only a limited trial, but for displaying a video input full screen you don’t need to pay for the full version.

For the Mac I found a program called VideoGlide capture, which you will have to pay for to remove a watermark, but it is not too expensive, and it does a great job.

With either of these programs active displaying the video input from the visualiser ‘Smart Tools’ allow you to pick up a pen and annotate, and scribble over the live video. You can even click the camera button to capture the screen as a still to Notebook- leaving the annotations editable so you can rub out and change them.

Annotating work


Since I have started using it I have found all sorts of uses for the system beyond simply displaying childrens written work. I have used it for displaying a live science experiment so we could annotate it with arrows showing the force, to allow a child to demonstrate to the class with clarity how to use a ruler or a mirror to find a line of symmetry, and recently to analyse the information on juice cartons for my year twos to allow them to define success criteria for their own carton designs. The camera is also a high enough quality to zoom in on a photographic negative, invert it, and display the photograph contained in it. This filled my Year 2 class with wonder during a lesson about the history of cameras (most of them had never seem a film camera before).


Force Diagram



Analysing fruit juices


Mirrors for symmetry

VideoGlide also allows recording of video and stop motion filming from the visualiser- so who know what we will end up doing with that… If you are using it on a Mac I highly recommend setting up application assignments for your spaces so you can flip between full screen video and notebook (as described here).

All in all I have found it to be a great tool for encouraging pupil reflection, and genuinely enhancing their learning many ways. For a total cost of around £70 and a bit of tinkering I have been able to achieve most of the functionality of a new model costing many times the price. It’s always easy to lust after expensive new technology, but sometimes a bit of tinkering can get the same results for much less, so I thought I would share my experiences with this as it may be useful for others lusting after a visualiser as I was!

Is engagement enough?

June 4, 2009

Earlier this week we had a presentation in my placement school from an ICT company trying to sell us a visualiser. Now I love visualisers, so much so that I bought my own from eBay to use on my PGCE placements! Mine is only an old analogue model, but by running it through the computer I can instantly display and annotate children’s work, allowing for some real extension of their learning by allowing them to assess and critique work clearly and immediately. We have e.ven used it to capture a live science experiment and annotate the forces involved  onto the video, bringing the abstract science concepts into context in a very immediate way.

Force Diagram

The presentation concluded with a demonstration of student response systems. Now although this was an ‘extra’, the staff were incredibly enthusiastic about using these for a game of ‘who wants to be a millionaire’, and this ended up making a far bigger impression.

Personally I am not a fan of such systems. To my mind they are a very expensive way to get pupil feedback, in a way that is really quite unnecessary, certainly at primary level. Of course, they allow people to produce impressive graphs of student responses instantly, and if the children respond like our staff did they are certainly engaging. However, I really question whether they actually enhance the learning going on, or rather are an expensive way of reproducing the age old method of ‘hands up’.

Having recently been discussing with colleagues the possibility of a paperless classroom, my thoughts were met with surprise. “Surely,” said a colleague, “this is fun, why wouldn’t you want these?”. Fun and engagement may be a necessity  in primary schools, and I.C.T. may often provide it, but when faced with a decision between something merely fun, and something which allows us to take the learning to a different level, I know which one I would choose.

The other problem I have with such systems is that by their very nature they promote multiple choice, closed questions, which have been shown to merely test recall and not provide the cognitive challenge required for the most important learning to take place (Alexander, Towards Dialogic Teaching, 2004). Whilst this kind of questioning undoubtedly has it’s place in moderation, I cannot help but feel a classroom which has just invested significant money in such a technology is going to be driven by a great deal of closed questioning.

Ultimately that leads to a question regarding educational technology- is the engagement, or ‘wow’ factor enough to justify the investment (both in money and time)? My answer would be ‘No’; when there are so many technologies with the potential to both engage and take children’s learning even further, why spend large amounts of time and money on merely providing a bit of excitement?

EDIT:  For more on how these issues are being dealt with in schools you can read Ofsted’s report: Beyond Engagement . (Thanks to @tricias for finding the link for me)

Time for reflection

June 3, 2009

This evening I attended an extra University session for those of us interested in becoming ‘Maths Specialists’.

We ended the session by reflecting on what it was that we believed the William report to mean by ‘deep subject knowledge’ (Williams Report). Whilst our conclusions were fairly vague, a very valuable part of the discussion was based on the usefulness of having time to reflect.

During this hectic time of our final placement it is so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of what we are doing rather than looking at the bigger picture. This evening was particularly useful, merely because it required us to set aside two hours to simply reflect on what we are doing, and the underlying issues. It also reminded me of the usefulness of verbalising this reflection with a group,when dealing with such cognitively challenging issues it really does help to develop and challenge your ideas in conversation with others.

Whilst there is a strong focus on straightforward tactics to encourage reflection and assessment for learning by children, I do wonder whether these short self evaluative tasks are really enough to allow children to truly engage with their own ideas of themselves and their work. This has made me think that such reflection time could be a hugely useful tool for children to really challenge their own learning, and something I will be working to develop with my own class. However, simply reviewing what they have done may not enough for this to be as truly useful as I think it could be, and I am keen to find ways for children to really engage and discuss what they have achieved and take it forward.

It strikes me that setting aside sufficient time for this to take place is a good first step. However, it is undoubtedly easy to talk about and much harder to achieve! So, I am looking for some practical ways to encourage true reflection with my pupils…