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 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.


Some tools and tricks I swear by

August 2, 2009

People are often asking what tools and apps I am  using, and I usually struggle to remember. Therefore, I thought I would create a run down of a selection of tools that are essential to me. Rather than a simple list I have tried to add some value by way of some tips and tricks I have discovered to get more out of these tools…

Dropbox

This is a killer application/web service for synchronizing files, a real lifesaver if you use multiple computers/laptops. You sign up for an account, install a small service program and it creates a folder on your computer the contents of which are uploaded to their server and instantly synchronized to any other computer you have set up with that account. You can also access them from anywhere using a web browser, which also works great on the iPhone (an app is also on the way).

It makes problems knowing which computer has the latest version of a file a thing of the past, and the fact you can access all the files online or offline is really useful. You can also share folders with others which was a lifesaver for sharing hard to track down reading on my PGCE course.

Get it here, or if you want a little extra free storage than the stock 2GB  you can sign up using my affiliate link.

Trick > Sync Apps Preferences and Data

If your on a Mac you can also use it to keep applications synced. Most apps store their data in your Home library folder (eg Address Book is in /Users/[User_Name]/Library/Application Support/AddressBook/ ). If you move this folder to your dropbox, then create a symbolic link to this moved folder in it’s original location on all the computers then you can keep the app synced across all your machines.

For example to sync your address book, move the /Users/[User_Name]/Library/Application Support/AddressBook/ folder to /Users/[User_Name]/Dropbox/AddressBook/ .

Then open a terminal and type:

‘cd ~/Library/Application\ Support/’

and then ‘ln -s ~/Dropbox/AddressBook AddressBook’.

This creates a shortcut where Address Book is looking for it’s files which points to the folder in your dropbox. On your other machines delete the original AddressBook folder, and repeat the terminal commands. Address Book files are now synced across all your machines.

Google Reader

I watch an awful lots of blogs, and the only way I have found to keep track of them all is using Google reader. Instead of visiting each of the sites you want to keep track of to see if there are new posts, Google Reader aggregates all of them into one place, showing you when they have new articles and posts. All you need to do is Sign up to Google Reader, then find the link to the ‘RSS feed’ on the sites you want to follow. If you click on this link and choose to open it with Google Reader then it will be imported and you will never have to check the site for updates again!

Trick > Share items to Twitter.

Every article on Google Reader has a ‘Share’ button at the bottom. when you click this the article is published to your own personal ‘Shared’ page, so you can share interesting articles. This page is available at http://www.google.com/reader/shared/%5BYourUserName%5D/

However, this page also has it’s own Atom (Similar to RSS) feed. If you sign up to a service like Twitterfeed, you can get any RSS or Atom feed automatically tweeted and shared with all your followers. Just copy the link to the Atom feed, and paste it into this service. Now whenever I click the shared button on an article I am reading it is automatically tweeted- a much more useful way of sharing than your public shared page. Note there is a delay on this, it checks feeds every half hour.

Calendars

I am a big fan of iCal on the Mac, and the calendar on my iPhone is constantly in use to keep me organised. I also like to be able to access my calendar on a large screen wherever I am, so I also use Google Calendar. I use a variety of methods to keep all of these different solutions in sync.

Firstly I use Spanning Sync installed on all my Macs which synchronizes my iCal calendars to Google Calendar. This is an inexpensive and powerful program which is linked to your Google account so you can install it on as many Macs as you want. I then use Google Calendar Sync to keep these calendars synchronized with my iPhone. This might take a bit of setting up, but it is far cheaper than a MobileMe account from Apple, and Google Calendar is way better than their online application.

Google Docs & Gears

Google Docs is (are?) brilliant. Not only is it a complete office suite for free, it makes your documents available from any computer with a web browser. The collaboration features are also amazing, and put an end to having email chains with multiple copies of files with different revisions having to be collated. Everyone can simply work on the same Google Doc, and all the revisions are kept track of in one place.

However, it does present a problem if you use a laptop which is not always online, as you have to access your office suite through the net. Step in Google Gears, which is an extension for your web browser which allows it to synchronize your Google Docs so that you can work on them even without an internet connection. Just install Gears, log in to Docs, select ‘offline’ from the top right and it will guide you through the quick set up.  It can even allow you to read and send your GMail when you are offline.

Trick > New Docs Offline

One thing that does annoy me is that Gears won’t let you create a new document when you are offline, only edit existing ones. A trick I picked up (I can’t remember where from!) to get around this is to create lots of blank documents when you are online. Name them ‘Blank Doc 1, 2’ etc. Then when you are offline and want to start a new document, simply open one of these blank documents and get started.

I hope these tricks and examples are useful to some people, and I am always looking for more tricks like these so let me know if you have any to share..


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…