The drive to be social with technology

November 22, 2009

I have been using Google docs with my class for some weeks now, and I have been really astounded at how proficiently my class of 8 year olds have been using this tool.

As I have described previously, rather than wowing the children with the collaborative features of google docs from the offset (as Tom Barrett opts to do), I decided to being our work in quite a traditional way.

As we are all new to the routines of having 30 netbooks in a class I began by conceptualizing google docs to the class as the digital equivalent of what they are used to on paper. I created templates in my own docs account, which were really digital worksheets, and shared these with the class in the manner I would hand out paper worksheets. When they had finished working on them I described the sharing process using the concept of ‘handing work in’ to me.

However, despite this presentation of the tools several of the girls decided to share their work with others in the class, which was not something I had even told them was possible, let alone showed them how to do. This is something that really didn’t fit with the way I had conceptualized the tool in my presentation of it, and therefore displays a big leap in thinking and confidence with technology. It also shows a drive to share and be social even in the context of individual work which I find very interesting.

Since then quite a number of the class have started using Google Docs sharing like email to send each other messages and conduct conversations. I have not yet enabled email on our domain yet, but their drive to be social with the tools they have has found a way round that very quickly. Despite the fact that Google Docs has only every been presented as a work tool in class, this use of it is much more personal, and is something they did not feel the need to ask my permission to do. I am sure that if I had introduced Google Docs in such a way to a class of adults they would not have so spontaneously started to use it this way.This could be seen as evidence that they do not have the awareness to separate the  work and personal spheres of their lives yet, but to me it shows them taking ownership of the tool and using it for their own means, something which I think is quite important for children to become truly engaged with web based learning.

Interestingly they have also decided to copy me in on many of their conversations, something they must make a conscious choice to do given the way sharing is set up. Whether they have done this seeking praise for their use of the tools, or because they see me as a mediator to their classroom discourse I am not sure, but I am glad they feel we have an open enough atmosphere that this communication would not be seen as subversive.

Whether or not you subscribe to Prensky, this is a definite display of flexible and social thinking from children who have been immersed in technology all their lives. I find the drive to use these technologies in a social way fascinating, and perhaps I was wrong to shy away from such uses in my class’ first experience of a tool which is designed around collaboration. Hopefully this social aspect is something we can tap into to enhance learning, and this is something I am very interested in following up for my MA action research.

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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: 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.