1:1- Using twitter to get a young class to the right resources

October 11, 2009

One of the fundamental issues in a 1:1 primary classroom is getting the children to the websites they are meant to be using as quickly and painlessly as possible. In a conventional classroom you can just hand out copies of worksheets and resources to different groups, but when working with web based tools this is much harder to organise. My class of 8 year olds find copying exact URLs very difficult, due to their still developing typing and reading skills.There is no way there are going to copy ‘http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/ks1bitesize/numeracy/numbers/index.shtml’ just to get to a quick maths game, and a google search could land them anywhere on the net.

Therefore I had to find a way to get them all on the same page (or differentiated pages) quickly before we could get anything done.

Edmodo
In the summer I thought Edmodo would be the answer to this. This service provides a private, walled, twitter like service which you can restrict to your classroom. I had visions of using this to send out links to the class, but in practice it didn’t work for the stage we are at. My class are still learning about logins and remembering passwords, and the process of having to log into something before they could find where they needed to go (and possibly log in to that service as well) took some considerable time. Edmodo also lets them communicate with the class by sending out short messages, and they soon discovered this and my own messages to links I wanted them to visit were drowned in a timeline of noisy classroom discussion!

Twitter
Therefore, I decided to have a re-think, and use something more static and more easily accessible. Basically I decided to set up a twitter account (@4oqlinks), so that I could tweet out links and they would immediately be accessible to the pupils. Now, when I want pupils to go to a certain site I just tweet out a link to it, it updates our twitter feed instantly, and pupils can be on that site in moments by visiting  www.twitter.com/4oqlinks, without needing a login. This is really powerful, as if one student finds a better source of information for what you are working on, you can just tweet it out and the whole class can access it straight away, allowing you to take the lesson in any direction very quickly and easily. This is actually faster and more straightforward than handing out resources on paper!

If you are in a 1:1 environment I would hugely recommend setting up a system like this. It gives you a really quick way to get pupils where you want them to be, and is only as difficult as registering for twitter and making a big sign with the address of your account to put on the wall for the pupils to visit. You can keep the twitter page open on your computer and send out links to your whole class in an instant: much quicker than having them try to copy them from the board!

Now to complicate it: Implementing this in a class home page
However, I was not happy about pupils accessing the twitter page directly because it just wasn’t slick enough! I also wanted to have multiple feeds on the same site, so pupils could see our class news, blog, and links for lessons all on the same page. Therefore, I decided to create a class home page with the feed from twitter as part of it.

I had already bought www.4oq.co.uk so that I could set up google docs accounts for my class, so I set up a google site as the home page for that domain, and embedded a twitter gadget to display the feed on that site, which I could also use for class news and links to regularly used tools. Unfortunately I could not find a way to get any gadgets to open the links in a new page, so users always got their page opening in an unusableframe within the site:
Picture 1
After much experimentation I decided to ditch google sites and go for a website made in Apple’s iWeb. I have always liked iWeb for very quickly putting together slick looking websites, but previous versions have always fallen down when it came to wanting to extend your page beyond a basic, static site. Thankfully in iWeb ’09 Apple have included a great widget called ‘HTML snippet’. If you drop one of these into your site you can past HTML into it to achieve anything you cannot do with the program, but can with HTML or javascript.
Picture 3

I played around with a number of third party widgets, but found all of them to be slow to load, overly flashy, and still with the same problem that links would load in a frame. I therefore decided to go back to basics, and mashed together some code to access the twitter api directly and render the feed as text. Even if you are not that technical, you can use the code below to drop into the HTML snippet box in iWeb, or into the HTML of your website to render a twitter feed as a column as it is on our home page. Just copy it in, and change the text that reads ‘YOUR_TWITTER_USERNAME’ for the username of your twitter links feed. If you are doing this in iWeb the frame will go a bit mad for a few seconds, but wait for it to settle down and it will be fine.

<style rel=”stylesheet” id=”mainStyle” type=”text/css”>
html {background-color:#FFFFFF}
body {background-color:#FFFFFF; font-family:Tahoma,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif; font-size:14px;
margin-left:1%; margin-right:1%; border:3px groove darkred; padding:15px}
h1 {text-align:right; font-size:1.5em; font-weight:bold}
h2 {text-align:left; font-size:1.1em; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline}
.buttons {margin-top:10px}
</style>
<div id=”twitter_update_list”>
</div>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://twitter.com/javascripts/blogger.js”&gt;
</script>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://twitter.com/statuses/user_timeline/YOUR_TWITTER_USERNAME.json?callback=twitterCallback2&count=10″&gt;
</script>

The only problem I have found is that you sometimes have to refresh the page a few times for the feed to render, but I have just told my class to press f5 a few times until it does. In the rare cases that it doesn’t I put a hyperlink to the twitter page right above it.

And the result:
Picture 2

Now I just have to tell my class to ‘Go to 4oq.co.uk’, and I can get them anywhere on the internet in seconds.

Hopefully this is useful to some of you in getting children to the right page as quickly as possible so the learning can begin!

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1:1: Starting Google Docs

October 4, 2009

Last week, with our wifi internet now working more reliably, I introduced my class to google docs.

I had originally wanted to set up google apps for education across our school domain, but as this is something we have to apply for, and possibly negotiate with the local authority about, I took the plunge and installed the free version across the domain I bought for our class website. This was a fairly straightforward process, and anyone who is technically capable of buying a domain and setting up a website should find it easy, and there are plenty of tutorials around.

Once this was done I logged in and set up a user name for every child in my class. I was going to do this for the whole of year 4, but the standard edition of google apps only allows for 50 users. Therefore, I am going to trial it and possibly set up another domain for the other class at a later date. Google make it easy to set up usernames, as you can make a spreadsheet of all the pupils names, desired usernames and passwords, and upload it as a csv file. Instructions and a video here.

I put a link to our google docs on our class website, so the pupils can just click through, log in and have access to their documents from anywhere.Picture 3

First Session

In this session I had planned to get the class to log in to google docs, and complete some straightforward history work to get them used to using it.I began by introducing google docs to them and explaining they would all be given their own account. Having seen me using google docs for most of my work, including shared writing with the class on the board, some of them recognised it and were excited to have the chance to use something I obviously relied on.

As it happened, getting them all in was more difficult than I had imagined. The first problem we had was that they are not used to the exact nature of usernames, and despite me impressing upon them exactly how their usernames were formed, and the need for lowercase and no spaces, lots of them didn’t grasp this at first.

The next was passwords. Using the csv file I had set all their passwords to ‘password’, and in the google control panel I had specified that they must change their password at first login. The difficulties here were that many of them took ages to decide on a password, and then had great difficulty completing both the ‘password’ and ‘confirm’ boxes so they actually matched! In hindsight I think it would have been better to have had a previous lesson in which we discussed how to think of a password, and then collected their chosen passwords in a more low tech way (paper). I could then have input these passwords in the control panel, and much time and frustration would have been saved during the lesson.

This issue was further compounded by the need to complete two ‘captcha‘ tests. Probably shortsighted of me, but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult an 8 year old reader with limited typing skills would find these!Picture 4

Eventually we got there, but with not enough time to attempt the work I had planned, so I asked them to write a short passage about anything they were interested in, and showed them how to ‘hand it in’ using the ‘sharing’ tab to share it with me. I showed them how to do this once, in a hurried way, before they went to assembly, but 21 out of the 28 present managed to share it straight away. The class are very good at following procedures on the computer!I was also able to see in realtime who had managed to hand in my work by opening our docs page on my iPhone, and quickly address any issues with those who had not.

What I found interesting was that I explained this process in terms of ‘handing in’ the work, but noticed that two of the girls had immediately decided to share their writing with each other. Looking at what they had written this was not a mistake, as they had both completed ‘My best friend’ passages about each other.Picture 5

That whole process took us most of an afternoon (partly due to the ongoing battle with wifi connectivity), but I think it was worth it to get them set up with such a powerful tool. For some reason a couple of our laptops are refusing to load the google docs page, but I am hoping a reinstall of firefox will solve that. Any ideas as to why this is happening would be much appreciated.

Second session

The following day I decided to do a session on the history work I had previously planned. I set up a google doc with some instructions, and a number of facts I had copied from websites about Henry VIII. We are working on interpreting internet sources, and not just copying text they do not understand, so to see how they would get on with docs I just asked them to write these passages out in their own words, choosing the facts they thought were most important.

To get this out to them I shared the document so it could be viewed (but not edited) by anyone on the domain. I then tweeted out a link to it on our ‘4oqlinks’ twitter account, which is then fed to our class homepage (my normal method of distributing links). Picture 2

I then showed the class how to click on the link to go to the doc, and save their own copy of the file to work on. Again they were proficient at this, the only problem I found was the confusion between the ‘file’ menu in firefox, and the one in docs itself. Picture 6Using this method I could easily distribute differentiated work, just by tweeting different links with the name of the table group I want to access that work.

The class then completed the work, and again shared it with me. We had a few accidents where they managed to highlight and delete the examples and questions in the doc, but with a bit more experience I think they will be proficient enough for this not to happen.

The weekend

One of the great advantages of google docs, as well as the easy sharing and collaboration, is the fact the class can access their documents from anywhere. I did not expect this to happen so soon, but on Saturday morning I received notifications that three members of my class had logged in and completed some completely undirected work on what they knew about Henry VIII (our current history topic). I was really pleased with this, as it shows this tool is allowing us to achieve our aim of inspiring children to take responsibility for their own learning, and follow their own interests in their school work.

In conclusion I am very pleased with what we have achieved in just two afternoons of using google docs. I can’t wait to get the children used to using this as one of their regular tools, and especially the potential for collaboration it affords. I really think it is going to be a useful tool in achieving our school aim of a negotiated curriculum.

Just waiting for google wave to be activated on our domain….



1:1 Primary: The first few weeks

September 26, 2009

I had every intention of blogging on our 1:1 computer project every week, with specifics of what we had done each day. However, time has run away with me for these first weeks of term and I now find myself three weeks in and starting to think in a more reflective way about what we have experienced so far.

My overall feeling of the first few weeks is that it has been a positive experience, but one that has possibly had more learning curves for myself than for the pupils. We have had some great successes, a couple of mini disasters of lessons, and quite a  few niggly problems that need to be ironed out. Most of the issues could have been expected, a few of the technical ones were not predicted, but overall we have done some good work, and are starting to adjust to meaningfully use 30 netbooks as part of our classroom environment.

Successes

I decided to begin our work with the laptops on the first day of term by having a class discussion about the use of them, and how we should look after them. The children in our school have access to a lot of technology, so I took care to explain just how unusual it was for 8 year olds to be working with 1:1 laptops, and that we were really experimenting for something that people in other schools may decide to pick up. Suitably impressed with the responsibility that entailed, the children devised some guidelines for looking after the laptops. I was impressed with the thought they put into this, and they brought up issues which I had not considered, such as how to safeguard against pets damaging the laptops.

We then handed out the laptops and I allowed the children to explore what they could do with them, giving them free reign to use anything they could find on them. As our internet connections had not been set up this was predominantly the built in games, but I really think giving this time to explore and play with the ‘new toys’ was beneficial. I could have expected umpteen technical problems and user difficulties at this point, but in fact the only difficulty I had to help with was “Mr Quinlan I am stuck… I just can’t jump over this high wall to complete the level!”.

Their computer skills have on the whole impressed me, although I have found it important to spot those who are not confident and give them extra support. A couple of the class who do not use computers at home obviously felt overwhelmed and a little scared by the laptops, but with some encouragement they seem to be warming to them.

The next activity we looked at was tutpup – a competitive maths game. As many of the children had been drawn to the games on the machines I thought this would be a good way to channel this enthusiasm to more educational pursuits, and they have been really engaged by it. The game is based on basic maths drills, but it allows you to play against children from across the world, and if you set up a class league for the children to join they can compete against each other.

The first proper lesson we used the laptops for was our introductory history lesson on the Tudors. I began by setting up a wall using wallwisher, and asking the children to come up with questions that they would like to ask about the tudors. We then got out the laptops and the children used a selection of website I had collected to find some answers to these questions. Many children strayed from my links and began to search using google, and as a result came up with some interesting facts that I had not considered discussing. Some of the children found it difficult to multitask on the computers and switch between researching information and inputting it, but on the whole it was a successful first lesson. The wall we created can be found here.

Another  success was using the laptops for a PE lesson on Tudor dance. Having had a couple of fairly standard lessons looking at dance steps, my colleague decided to give each group a laptop and have them independently analyse a youtube video of a dance and try to emulate it. I also gave this a go in our lesson, and aside from a few problems with wifi reception in the school hall it worked quite well, and fulfilled the evaluation objectives for PE far more comprehensively than simply peer evaluating a few dances at the end of the lesson would have.

The laptops have been used for independent research on a number of occasions and, despite the huge possibility for them to go of task when using them, they have so far been very motivated to complete the tasks they have been set. We have been working on encouraging their independent skills, and they have thought of some great possibilities for using the laptops in spare time once they have finished tasks in other lessons. Lots of my pupils are now starting to access the resources we are using at home, with several of them spending lots of their free time on tutpup, and some updating facts on our tudors wall once they have gone home.

Challenges

Unfortunately the first few weeks have not been without significant technical problems. From the start many of out laptops were not charging, and this was narrowed down to a buggy version of the BIOS, which then had to be upgraded on all of the machines. This was then followed by a problem with the wifi access, with many of the machines forgetting the wifi key and being kicked off the network. It has taken some time to get all of these sorted, and I am still waiting to test wifi access of my class set at the moment. This has meant that we have not really had a whole class set of laptops yet, which has hampered some of the activities I had planned to do, although hopefully it should be sorted very soon.

I would urge anyone who is looking at implementing such a project as ours to look very carefully at the machines they are planning to buy and research the possible issues through support forums before taking the plunge. I am pretty sure that the issues we are seeing are largely due to the Acer version of Linpus Linux that is installed on the machines, which I am not very impressed with. However, it does start up very fast which is something that is very useful at our current stage of experience. I think eventually we might look at installing Ubuntu on the machines, but for now we are sticking with Linpus for speed and simplicity, at least for the end users if not for those fielding the technical issues.

For me the biggest challenges have been the over enthusiasm of both myself and the pupils for these new toys! They are obviously a great novelty to the children, and this has lead to some class management issues in my class, with it being difficult to gain and maintain children’s attention during and after laptop based lessons. I have had to implement fairly hardline rules about listening when asked to when the laptops are around, and although I hate to do it I have had to have several children working on paper, and once stop the whole class from using the computers. Hopefully soon the novelty will wear of somewhat and these issues will become easier, something which is especially likely once they have been allowed to take the computers home as planned.

My over enthusiasm for the possibilities of the technology has also caused a couple of lessons to go rather wrong. With so many possibilities it is easy to forget I am working with 8 year olds who sometimes need very clear step by step instructions to be able to achieve the ideas I have in mind. One such lesson was our introduction to Edmodo, which I had planned to use to manage the digital aspects of our classroom. This turned out to be rather complicated for the stage we were at, and I decided to revert to using a more static ‘class homepage‘ to distribute links and content. I would very much like to get the children involved in something with more two way communication, but I feel we need to start simple for the moment and build up to that when both myself and they are more experienced in working in this way.

So far this homepage has had the added benefit of being open to our pupils’ parents, several of whom have shown a great interest in keeping up with what we are doing through the twitter feeds and rss to our class blog.

So, the first few weeks have not been without significant challenges, but overall I think we have taken some good steps towards starting to adapt to using 1:1 computers. I really think it is once the machines become less of a novelty and more a core part of the way pupils participate in the classroom that they will really come into their own. In the next week I hope to introduce the class to google docs, at which point we will be able to start looking at using them more in our literacy work and for collaboration.

I feel like this post has turned into a bit of a ramble, but I hope it has been of some interest. In future I might try to post a bit more regularly and specifically on how we are using the netbooks. However, being 3 weeks into my NQT year I am facing many other challenges, so blogging time is a bit squeezed at the moment!


1:1 Primary: Starting thoughts

August 24, 2009

As I have mentioned before on this blog I am fortunate enough to be involved in the introduction of a 1:1 computing environment at next term. As of September every child in years 3 and 4 (Ages 7-9) of our two form entry school will have their own netbook. These will not only be available in school, but also for the pupils to take home, one of the ideas being that they will facilitate an environment of 24 hour personalised learning, where pupils can access the resources they use in school at home and choose to extend their learning in their ‘free time’. They are also being introduced alongside a timetable hour of ‘independence time’ every morning, where children will be encouraged to follow their own interest through independent project work.

Whilst this is very exciting, there will be many challenges, and it is apparent that in order for our pupils to gain the most benefit from a 1:1 environment we will need to explore new ways of thinking about our pedagogy and their learning. I will be blogging about our experience both to allow others to learn from them, and to invite comment from those who are further down the line in implementing this kind of learning environment. Below I have laid out the challenges I have considered so far, and would welcome any suggestions of things I may not have thought about yet.

Managing Digital resources

Given the strong ethos of ICT use in our school I am expecting my new class to be fairly computer literate for their age, however I can see that it may take some time to get every child in the class to the same webpage or document to work on. Simply displaying addresses on the board for them to input is likely to waste an inordinate amount of time across the year, and I first considered a twitter account as a means for me to broadcast links to them all. However,given some of the content on recent spam followers of my own account I am reluctant to use twitter in this way (although as a broadcast channel for parents and the wider world I still have plans).

Luckily I found Edmodo, and I am very keen to use this not only for broadcasting links, but for setting and submitting tasks, and for general communication across the class. Edmodo is billed as ‘twitter for educators’, although I think it is actually much more than that. It allows children to in a class and receive (and send) short messages, calendar events, and assignments. The assignments feature is particularly good, as work can also be returned either as a file upload or a link, and marked online by the teacher, with an option to send marks and comments back to the pupil. A combination of this and Google Docs could allow us to set, submit and mark work paperlessly, and I intend to use Edmodo as a central pillar of our digital classroom.

Physical classroom management

Not the first issue I considered, but this is the first issue friends mention when I tell them about our project- just how we are going to manage having thirty laptops in the room. The most pressing of these issues to my mind is that of charging. The netbooks we are receiving should have around 3 hours battery life, which I can see not being enough for a full day’s work without charging. The first aspect of this will be to make sure pupils get into the routine of leaving their netbooks on charge over night. Hopefully the novelty of using the machines, along with encouragement from teachers to cement this as routine will keep the pupils keen to do this at the start. The challenge may be maintaining this routine later on. Likewise once the novelty has worn off, the issue of netbooks or power adaptors being left at home may become a problem. We are lucky enough to have two iMacs in our classroom, however I am wary of the idea of those who have forgotten their netbooks being allowed to use these (possibly more attractive) machines, and am currently thinking we may have to be quite hard line about pupils who leave their machines at home.

The other aspect of charging is the organization of putting 29 machines on charge in a classroom in terms of physical space to put them in and electrical sockets, especially as they will likely need a charge over lunch. As I have only spent a brief amount of time in our room so far I am waiting until I go in later this week to think through this one, although I would be very interested to hear of other people’s solutions to such use of space.

Managing pupil’s attention

Many teacher friends have voiced concern to me about the possibly distractions of every child having constant access to the Internet in class. I have to say I do not see this as any more of a problem than pupils having constant access to their voices! I am sure there will be off task activity, but I hope that this will not be as disruptive as my colleagues imagine, as it will not be like the novelty of marching the whole class of to an ICT suite for a limited time.

The other aspect of this is a characteristic of modern working environments, which our pupils will have to learn to manage- modern technology makes distraction and procrastination very easy and commonplace. I am sure they will get distracted by the Internet, as I certainly do! However this may be the opportunity for some valuable lessons regarding motivation, focus, and time management.

Sharing work

During my PGCE year I discovered the wonderful world of visualisers, and the potential they bring for sharing and critiquing pupil’s work before the ink is dry (and many other things…). However, when pupils are working digitally such sharing of work could easily become cumbersome. Although we will be largely using web based tools accessible from any computer, the process of a child coming up to the class computer, logging out and logging to a tool then finding the file they have been working on is far more cumbersome than simply putting their book under a visualiser.

Having worked with servers in my previous life as a technician I was aware of screen sharing tools such as VNC, and I wondered if these would be useable to send a child’s screen to the computer with the projector in a more efficient way. I am sure this solution would work, but I also came across iTalc, a free classroom management suite based on VNC. The main use of this software seems to be to allow a teacher to monitor the screens of all of their students to check they are on task. However, it also allows any connected computers to broadcast their screens to the main classroom computer, or to all of the other machines in the room. I can see this being very useful for sharing work in a straightforward way, I only hope it is straightforward to set up and our wireless network can handle the volume of traffic it produces.

Keyboard skills vs. handwriting

Although I expect our pupils to be fairly computer literate, if we do go down the road of them completing most of their work digitally they will need to be able to type with a fair degree of speed and accuracy. This will necessitate some time spent working explicitly on keyboard skills, much as is spent on handwriting in order for them to be able to effectively and efficiently work on their laptops.

Personally, I am someone who hardly ever writes. I keep notes on my iPhone (even shopping lists), and I sms/email people instead of writing them notes. Since I have been like this my handwriting has noticeably suffered, and I do not think this is something we can allow to happen with the children we are teaching, so I think handwritten work still has an important role. I recently attended a lecture in which Dr Jane Medwell presented research that suggested that handwriting is innately linked to the development of composition skills in young children Whilst it could be argued that keyboard skills could link to composition in exactly the same way I think we need to tread carefully in this area so as not to end up disadvantaging children when they do not have technology to hand (as might be the case when they get to secondary school).

Knowing how much is enough

Ultimately I believe our aim is to have technology on hand, and give children the skills so that they can choose to use it when they think it is most fit for their purpose, rather than producing two year groups full of pupils who use technology for the sake of it. This is something we will have to think carefully about when setting tasks, and recognise that seeing something on a screen is no substitute for real, practical experience. Personally, I think this might be more of a problem for me given my obsession with all things digital, and I’m sure my colleagues will make sure we don’t drift too far into the digital world!

All of these thoughts are merely ideas at the moment, as I do not start at Robin Hood until September, and I am sure some of them will take time to implement. I will continue to blog on how they pan out, probably in a more focused way, but I hope this general introduction to our project and my thinking at its outset is of interest, and I welcome comments and further ideas.